Monday, December 27, 2004

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Egypt: Near Death on the Nile

Prices in Egypt are almost always flexible. Ask the price of a hotel room three times before signing in and on the third time it magically drops. One of the fun games in Egypt is to compare what you paid for something with other tourists. Sometimes you find you paid double for a day tour what the guy in the next seat paid - and sometimes half. Almost everything has to be haggled over - taxi rides, chocolate bars, river trips, bananas, falafels, souvenirs, and bribes to guards so that you can climb pyramids while they turn a blind eye.

I love Egypt and hate Egypt at the same time. Usually the hate part is a bit stronger than the love part. The best things get spoilt by enthusiastic touts trying to separate me from my money for things I don't want, like visits to the "Papyrus Museum" (read: tacky souvenir shop). Walking along the Nile at sunset in Aswan, a town in southern Egypt should be a sublimely perfect experience. The rich colours - the dark blue of the Nile, the lush green vegetation on the opposite shore, the yellow dunes and hills behind that, the cloudless light blue sky, and the white sails of the feluccas (canvas-sailed boats) as they silently glide across the river contrast sharply with each other. Ruining this, however, are the touts with their incessant questioning: "Welcome to Egypt, my friend. Where are you from? Where are you going? Take a felucca ride? Good price for you. Why not?" and so it goes on, one tout starting up as soon as I shake off the previous one.

I finally did book a two night felucca trip sailing down the Nile. I teamed up with a French Canadian guy, and we interrogated several felucca captains to find the best price and boat. We eventually found a captain we both liked, and extracted a promise from him that he would indeed be our captain, that our boat would be the "Prince of Love", that our fellow passengers were all girls from Sweden and England and that we would depart at 10am the next morning.

The next morning...we turned up at the departure point at 10am to find the boat had changed, our captain was replaced with a guy in his teens with an even younger assistant captain, the passengers were all male and mostly Australian and we didn't leave until 1:30pm. Then we sailed for half an hour to the police checkpoint on the river at the northern edge of town and and waited until 4:30pm until someone described only as the "big, fat man" could sign our police registration forms allowing us to continue down the river. Luckily someone had a deck of cards handy.

When we did get going it was superb. The boat zig-zagged into the wind down the river for several hours until we moored for the night. We slept on the deck, surrounded by canvas walls put up for the night. By lifting the canvas I could stick my head out and gaze at the billions of stars in the clear sky. At dawn the next day we set sail again, doing nothing but taking it easy all day.

That night we moored alongside another felucca, went ashore, and had a campfire. The crew from both feluccas were Nubians and they tried to teach us some Nubian songs before singing atonal versions of Bob Marley standards. Time passed, all the passengers headed to bed, and we left the crew at the campfire to polish off their bottle of vodka. I should add at this stage that they also smoked a lot of marijuana that day during the sailing.

I got up early the next morning to watch the sunrise while everybody else slept. The assistant captain soon staggered up, clearly nursing a killer hangover, and tried to set us sailing for the day. I helped him pull in the gangplank and as we started to drift down the river he climbed up the rigging to unfurl the sails. I could see he was in no state for it, and scared he might fall I chose to turn away and watch the river. My reverie was disturbed by two noises: a "whoosh" followed quickly by a "thwack". The poor kid had done exactly what I had predicted and fallen onto the deck. He had smashed up his face, teeth broken and sticking through his bottom lip, and wasn't moving too well.

Showing how good I am in an emergency, I stared helplessly for a while before yelling, "What do I do? What do I do?" One of the passengers had some ambulance experience so he got up, barked orders, and did all that first-aid stuff you learn in school but don't remember when you need it.

The boat was freely drifting down the Nile at this stage, right in the path of oncoming cruise ships. The captain got up, looked around, and strangely, started cooking breakfast, leaving us, the passengers to pray that the ships would avoid us. He wouldn't put us to shore, and acted like nothing had happened, certainly not this his colleague might never walk again. After cooking breakfast he then did the unfurling himself and took us to our intended final destination, a couple of hours downstream. When we jumped ashore immediately and fetched help, he complained that we had made a lot of trouble for him.

There is a police convoy system in southern Egypt, which means that tourists have to travel by road between towns in a convoy of vehicles with a police escort at certain times. Official-looking people told us that we had to leave on the convoy, so we left our poor Nubian friend behind. I am curious to know his fate, but I probably never will.

Egypt: Three Countries in One

I started my Egyptian journey into the southern tourist drawcard towns. Life seems pretty basic there, there's not much sign of moneyed people, and I think every women I saw wore some sort of headscarf or veil.

After a week or so I arrived in Cairo and felt I had arrived in a new country. Now amongst all the old, battered cars were luxury European models. Billboards advertised useless but expensive consumer goods, mobile phone company adverts abounded, and a significant portion of women went out in public with their head uncovered. Although Cairo is clearly very poor, there are people here who live another live, a live of Western levels of consumerism.

The third country is Alexandria. The French influence is palpable, with the French Riviera feel, people answering "Merci" instead of "Shokran", the patisseries, and a relaxed Mediterranean feel.

Monday, December 20, 2004

El Alamein, Egypt: Telepathic Travelling

Today I took a bus along Egypt's Mediterranean Coast to El Alamein, site of a decisive World War Two battle between Germany and the Allies. The battle has particular significance to me because my grandfather, while serving in the New Zealand army, was captured in this battle by the Germans, thus beginning three years of POW life.

El Alamein itself is barely worth mentioning. The village was small and nondescript. The Military Museum at El Alamein is pretty ordinary too. However the Commonwealth War cemetery moved me. As I walked into the most orderly and clean place I have seen in Egypt, except perhaps the Bibliotheca Alexandria, a soldier asked me what country I was from. I answered New Zealand, and he showed me to the New Zealand section. Row upon row of Kiwi graves are here. It seemed so...stupid that these young guys died in battle where the desert meets the sea in North Africa, so far away from the cities and towns where they grew up. I had the preconception that soldiers are mostly 18 or 19, but the age of each soldier was shown and they tended to be between 25 and 40 at the time they died.

The bus ride was around 100 kilometres, and once we left Alexandria almost the entire coastline was built up with holiday villages, resorts for rich Egyptians I guess. As it is now winter in Egypt, these were all completely empty and closed, together with the restaurants, fast food outlets, and shops they contain. It looked like an abandoned city.

The bus dropped me off on the side of the highway, a 10 minute walk from the museum. I realised that I had no idea how to get a bus back to Alexandria when I was finished. This bothered me somewhat during my visit. When I had finished and was walking back to the highway, I figured I would just wait by the side of the highway and try to flag down nice looking buses. If all else failed, the fact that I am a tourist with money to spend made me feel confident that someone would soon enough help me spend that money on a fare to Alexandria.

I needn't have worried. Before I even made it to the highway a mini-van driver must have sensed my thoughts and stopped on the highway when he saw me walking down the intersecting road. The ride I was worried about finding was actually there waiting for me! A quick piece of negotiation and I had a ride back for a third of the bus fare on the way there. If only all travelling was so easy.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Alexandria, Egypt: Backpacking in Style

In Alexandria I feel I can live the way rich people do in the French Riviera - but on a backpacker's budget. Waking up to a view through my French windows over the Mediterranean, I sauntered downstairs and across the road to a cafe that reminds me of the opulence of cafes in Vienna, but again with that vital price difference. For a couple of Euros I had a big and tasty breakfast with a horde of waiters and waitresses swarming around me.

Well, it is not entirely the way rich people holiday, because they probably have running water in their bathroom when they go for a shower. Now I realise why the room was so cheap and why the manager wanted me to pay in advance. This had made me suspicious so I agreed only to one day's payment. This morning after breakfast I found another hotel with equally impressive views in an equally impressive period building, but this time with the promise of hot water.

The lifts in both building were those old metal cages with wooden doors that you open manually. The lift rises within the spiralling staircase.

I am writing from the Bibliotheca Alexandria, better known as the Library at Alexandria. Naturally it is not the library from antiquity, that was pretty much wiped off the map 1500 years ago or so. This is the new version, opened in 2004, and it is amazing to see. It's not in the same league as the Pyramids and Pharaoh Tombs, but it is still impressive, inside and out. I don't have the words to do it justice, so I won't try.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Alexandria, Egypt: Islamic Internetting

Alexandria offers a respite from the hassles of the tourist spots in Egypt. There's not really much to see here, and therefore I don't have to put up with people offering me things I don't want everytime I walk down the street, which happens in Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, and Dahab.

Here is a good reason to come to Alexandria. I have a hotel room in a belle epoque building, with enormous window-doors (is that what they call a French window) opening onto a terrace from where I can gaze over the Mediterannean Sea...and for 30 Egyptian pounds (4 Euros, AUD$6).

I am writing this in an Internet cafe, where in the seat next to me is a women covered from head to toe in black, including the head covering with only a slit for the eyes. This is not too common in Egypt - most women have only a colourful scarf covering their hair, leaving their face visible, and in Cairo and Alexandria many women have no head covering at all. I can furtively glance at what the woman next to me is doing, and she seems to be writing e-mails in both English and Arabic, and gazing at many photos of war scenes, more or less as the media would show from Iraq.