An almost blog from an almost journalist

Dec. 29, 2006
Friday morning, Dahab, Egypt:

A speedwalker’s version for those who suspect they might have Attention Deficit Disorder.

Wander out of Bishibishi resort. Wander back in when I realize I don’t know what town I’m in. Wander around until I get breakfast. Learn we arrived in Dahab, Egypt, sometime around midnight and ended up in an expensive resort.

Decide to walk to see downtown Dahab. Stop when I see the Red Sea for the first time. Cry, can’t stop crying. Tell Inge to go away, I need to look at the water and cry. Can’t see out of contact lenses.

Walk downtown anyway. See mountains for the first time in the light. Want to cry but decide it’s not a good idea since it’s my last pair of lenses.

Lose Inge, learn later she got caught up with horsemen and talked them into letting her ride bareback – she’s converted them all to natural horsemanship.

Spend afternoon wandering listlessly around the town, avoiding eye contact with strange tourists and men. Wistfully look at mountains, want to go climbing rather than be stuck in resort.

10:00 p.m.: eat fabulous dinner seated on cushions around open fire in ‘Funny Mummy’ restaurant.

Halfway through eating my apple moussaka, I realize we need money for the desert trek tomorrow. Suspect they won’t take us camel riding in the desert for free.

11:00 p.m.: run to bank machine with Inge’s credit cards and mine. Machine not working. Run to another. Get distracted by tea & spice shop, discuss merits of Egyptian mint versus English.

Sit and have tea with owner. Run back to machine. Machine working, cards now not. Get directions from policeman to another machine…. but…

The building where machine had been located has apparently been moved.

See another bank really, really, really far away. Trot rather quickly so it looks like I’m out for a midnight jog. In the unlit part of town. All alone. And without my headcovering.

Bank machine is guarded by three security guys. They joke in Arabic (I’m assuming) and laugh rather jollily as I try four different cards, none of which are working.

Decline to leave non-working cards with security men. Jog back down the road, pleased at least to be getting some exercise.

Spy a fourth machine and cozy up to it. Success!

We have Egyptian pounds with which to pay our desert experience the next day.

Dec 30, Saturday: Depart Bishibishi. Drive to Bedouin family home.

Camels parked in front of house, goats grazing on dirt. Sit down with aged grandmother around fire.

Drink cups of the strongest, sweetest black tea I’ve ever had. Bedouin tea strength is measured by the matching brownness of teeth, and sweetness is measured by amounts of teeth left.

Duck behind a stone single-room house to empty my body of liquids as tea is making quick work of them. Hope and pray the little girls who ran to meet us in the car are presently otherwise distracted.

Mother of house comes out with assortment of head scarves. I’m uncertain if she’s giving or selling them to me.

Decline at first. Then I realize they probably wear scarves for a reason in desert and reconsider.

Buy black and blue striped one, clumsily put it on, get laughed at for inability to properly wrap head and get shown how to do it.

Warily approach beasts kneeling nearby; I assume I’m supposed to mount one.

Have heard stories of their spitting abilities, try to avoid head, but difficult as it turns to look at me when I approach. Cover head with convenient scarf.

Rise to the occasion and mount camel. Oh my! Riding camel is like nothing I’ve ever ridden, remarkably comfortable. Head scarf intact, we ride to Double Canyons to hike.

Hany, our guide, makes the best feta-cucumber salad in the world.

The Bedouin guide makes traditional bread by mixing flour, water and salt together, kneading briefly, flattening dough on rock and then burying it in fire.

The result? A hard pizza-like shell with baked-on ashes for flavour, which he rubs off by scraping on a rock.

I want to stay in the desert forever. Cry at the thought of civilization.

Make camp, and chat by fire with Hany as stars come out. Observe profound silence.

Profound silence, but not dead silence. There is nothing but you, the shrubs, rocks, sand dunes and God.

It’s almost deafening. Your ears strain to hear a sound, a bird chirp, a coyote howl, a cricket chirping or cellphone going off, but there is nothing.

Colder and colder, we wonder if we’ll make it through the night. I bury warmed rocks in sand, hoping it will heat my camel blanket.

Sunday, Dec. 31 From desert silence to monastery to chaos of Cairo

Arriving back at the Bedouin family’s home we were greeted by the entire family sitting around fire and drinking hot, super-sweet black tea, just as we’d left them the morning before.

Desert safaris and the Bedouin experience is a booming business, but it’s one of the only livelihoods these people have left. That, and growing weed.

Although rich in land, being the oldest inhabitants in Sinai and descended from Saudi Arabian desert nomads, they are sometimes extremely wealthy but choose to live very simply.

The family who took care of us and loaned us their son for a guide had about 20 goats milling about and six or seven camels, one of which can go for about 5,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly 1,000 USD).

They have no electricity, only a generator to charge their cellphones.

We drive like mad to St. Catherine’s monastery, a town with the highest percent of oxygen in the world. We are warned not to stay too long up at the 2730m peak. Hey, I’m from B.C. and she’s from Switzerland, do we not know mountains?

Sum up? Climb Mt. Sinai. Freeze. Start to cry, decide it’s not a good idea. Meet troop of stalwart Germans who are determined to spend the night at the top. Hah! Not a chance. We eat Mars bars together then leave them to walk back down the now-dark path to waiting taxi.

The Moon is bright, thank God. We’re an hour late for driver but he’s still there and a mad, mad drive to Cairo becomes our first introduction to the crazy Egyptian style of ‘driving’.

It’s so cold: six hours of not feeling my nose or ever being warm, and I don’t hear anything from Inge in the front seat, I assume the worst but I’m too tired to look.

At the edge of Cairo, we get a new taxi. Him: no English, us: no Arabic. Trouble. Midnight finds us introducing the New Year on a random bridge, stuck in traffic. Eight lanes of cars are crushing themselves into six.

Arrive at the only hotel the driver can find: the Intercontinental. There are movie stars from Lebanon and it doesn’t seem likely we’ll be getting a room the place is so packed. Throw money around. Taxi driver agitated. Men with guns push our taxi down driveway before I can get my change. Oh well.

Kind manager at hotel gets us another taxi. Drive another hour, three times up and down same street looking for the only hotel with a bed for tonight. Pass out while Ingela eats dinner at 3:00 a.m.

Jan 1, 2007, Cairo, Egypt:

Leave hotel Europa after an excellent, restorative breakfast of fig jam, croissants, bean “fool”, feta cheese and vegetables. Get a taxi organized for the day to take us around the city, wherever we want to go, for 250 Egyptian pounds ($50).

It’s a pretty good deal we reason, since to store bags and take different taxis, with drivers who possibly don’t speak English and could drive us where we don’t want to go, would be a pain. We’re into keeping it fast and simple, even if it costs more money.

Our driver, who is naturally named Mohamed, is very nice. He said we’d have a good day because we’re with him. True to his word, he brings us to two of Ingela’s most ardent desires: pyramids and horses.

He brought us to his friend, also named Mohamed, who owns about 30 horses and runs his family business, the Karnak perfumes Museum.

We mount, Ingela on Mohamed’s favourite horse and I on a gentle white one called Lily, and ride out through a throng of horses, camels, cars, carts, donkeys, busses.

Garbage and dung are everywhere, the streets and alleys are littered with rubbish, but it’s not too much of a stinking mess.

Young Egyptian men gallop past, shouting and waving sticks wildly, smacking their horses on the withers, rump or wherever gets the best reaction.

We ride past rows of horses tied up, some covered in mud and filth, one white one who can barely stand because his foreleg is so banged up from the rocks in the desert.

We ride out accompanied by Ahmed on a beautiful brown mare and our guide, another man named Mohamed, who wears snazzy aviator glasses and a white baseball cap.It’s strange to see after seeing every man in the desert with a head covering, no one wore a baseball cap.

We chat as we ride, and Mohamed tells me how he loves the horses and doesn’t care about money, just that his horses are well treated and he has good relationships with them.

He’s a gentle kind man, who has never married.

The pyramids seem shrouded in smog from a distance, but as we get closer you can see the ancient structures in all their crumbling majesty.

There are three big ones, Cheops, Chalifa and – I forget the other – a few smaller ones at the base.

Inge is taking pictures like mad: every camel we see, including those carrying tourist police, and every horse galloping by is fair game.

She makes us pose, turning our horses this way and that, and I take some pics of her against the pyramids.

Our taxi driver said it would be about 200 pounds for the horse ride, but Mohamed asks double that.

I pull out all our money from Inge’s rucksack, show him that in fact we only have 400 pounds left.

I ask 300, he says ‘OK,’ then I say, 200 plus some American dollars, so I end up giving him $10!

He says it’s OK, since it’s us and we were a gift to him.

At the end of the ride, Mohamed came out to the desert to meet us, mounted on his splendid Arabian decked out in a leopard print saddle!

He showed us a few moves, had the horse dance sideways in that high-stepping trot that I forgot the name of, then let Inge mount his horse and they galloped off down the hill.

I talked to Mohamed the owner for a few minutes, finding out his family are Bedouin from Libya, the desert in Beneraz.

His grandfather came over with about half the family and started the perfume business 125 years ago.

Back when his grandfather came over, he said, the area beside the pyramids was surrounded by water that came up from the sand,.

Half the family is still there, the family el Shaer is famous.

After the ride in the desert, we realized we had forgotten to get a look at the Sphinx, called, in the local dialect, “Sphincus”.

So walking out there, Inge again took a million pictures of a yellow coffee shop with camels and horses “parked” outside, and any animal she saw that moved, while I was distracted by a charming little boy playing in a dusty pit in front of the viewing area.

He said his name was Mohamed and every time I looked away or walked in another direction, would yell out, “Hello! Hello!” to me to get my attention.

He performed the most crazy antics, somersaulting through the dirt, doing headstands and then faceplants in the dust, turning up with the widest, most charming grin and sparkling eyes every time. He was the brightest spot in that grim viewing spot.

Back in the car our driver, Mohamed, told us that we would be getting a switch in drivers as he had some business at home to attend to.

It was a bit of a shame, because he spoke excellent English and Abdu, his replacement, not so much. So we found ourselves in a bit of an interesting position that night when he dropped us off in the “Ancient City,” but more on that later.

The next stop was a cruise in a “small boat” up the Nile to the delta. At this point in our trip, we began to realize there was a significant, almost Mafia-type network going on.

And, at the end of the day, we understood at least in part, why. Sitting over tea with all the taxi drivers in Mohamed’s company, they told us they had to work together because they make very little for their many hours of work.

But back to the Nile. On the island with the honey family, I found myself nearly pledged to be married to yet another Egyptian, this one about twice as old as her.

We had gotten used to being told we had beautiful eyes (which we do, our blue eyes are terribly attractive with a scarf wrapped around our hair) and being asked to marry the men we came into contact with.

Night time trek through the Old City back alleys

The final adventure of the night was a little bit sad. We had hoped to walk around in the Ancient City, with its old walls and alleyways, in the moonlight as we had done Christmas Eve in Jerusalem.

But our driver didn’t seem to know what we wanted and dropped us off at a kid’s centre and market near the most non-stop traffic roundabout you can imagine.

Crates and piles of oranges, dates, nuts, spices and candy crowded the sidewalk and kids dashed back and forth in the traffic to the square set up for their amusement.

The chief attractions were pony and donkey rides, a rope trampoline and the swings, but when yours truly came on the scene, two tall, blue-eyed, turban-wrapped Westerners in jeans, we became the main draw for about 30 kids milling around.

Inge, with her intrepid camera ways, used her professional Nikon to snap photos of the donkeys in traffic and the rag-boned horses shuttered in with blinders. She managed to attract swarms of the little ones while she was taking those pictures.

All piped up with the few English words they knew: “What’s your name? Where you from? How old you are? Money, money!”

We couldn’t escape, so we walked along trailing children like the Pied Piper of Cairo.

Men kept coming up to us, concerned about the kids and shooing them away, but we couldn’t let our little gang leave and hugged them.

A few times, turning down an alley, one of the more responsible of the boys would shake his head violently and try to turn us away, concerned for our safety.

“Drogas.. get killed,” was all he managed to say, then “Danger.” He was the sweetest boy, but kept shooing away a half-blind boy, calling him “stupid” and getting angry when he caught the boys hands straying.

Somewhat relieved to be away from the young gang, we were nevertheless still aliens in the domino-playing, shisha-smoking, all-male gang populating the wooden chairs in the shop.

We sank down and tried to order two Turkish coffees from the waiter, who seemed to be confused by our order. Coming to our rescue, Samah, a recently-married English teacher with his lawyer friend, Mohamed, translated our order to the waiter and then said it was on them.

Talking for a bit, they were astonished that we’d left our luggage with the taxi, trusted him to come back again, and wandered off on our own in the dangerous part of the Ancient City.

On the way to the bus station, Abdu stopped off at his taxi station and we had to have tea with all the drivers, including Mohamed who set up the tour and Mohamed our first driver.

Finally piling into the Corolla for the final ride to the station, we were joined by #1 and a great big, jolly man, Nasir. Mohamed #2 couldn’t resist saying something in Arabic to Abdu and said, “460” in English just one last time. I looked at Inge to see if she would blow but she only opened her eyes wide and then teased him, saying he had to learn to trust.

On the way to the station, Man #1 proposed to Inge, then to me, saying it was very difficult to get enough money together to marry someone. He was almost crying out for help, saying we didn’t understand how hard it was to earn money in Egypt.

Night: Bus breaks down. Twice. Pick up double the number of passengers legally allowed to carry. Feet freezing. Journey takes eight hours instead of five. Arrive Taba border crossing at 6:00 a.m.

Saturday, Jan 6 at 6:00 a.m.

Driving through Nazareth, we saw more than the usual amount of Christmas lights but not much more to mark the place where Jesus grew up. It’s still a small town, maybe a little bigger than in his day.

Finally we approached Tiberius by the Sea of Galilee, our destination. High up on the hill were the sea view hotels, looking down into the valley.

We passed a sign saying “Sea level” before dropping steeply, maybe 300m, down to the main part of the town.

Inge said it looked like her hometown of Bern, Switzerland, but we could tell in the morning light the next day that it wasn’t quite that clean.

The most amazing part of the trip was the YMCA hotel we found on the road out of Tiberias, heading north around the lake.

Having stopped in at the charmless Holiday Inn and been discouraged by its typical lack of ambiance and the proliferation of elderly travelers, not to mention the elevator jazz playing loudly in the restaurant, we were delighted to find this place.

Inside the locked gates was a beautiful terraced garden with carefully trimmed palm trees leading down to their private beach.

The office and small dining room had pretty walls of richly hand-painted mosaic designs, giving it a Middle Eastern flavour.

A placard at the entrance proclaimed it a place of peace, where no politics or disagreements could enter.

The manager, Eddy, was a kind, friendly man, who, when I told him we were looking for a place for around $40, said we could stay there for $50 for the two of us, almost half the usual price. We hauled our luggage into a room big enough for a family of four, which even had satellite TV!

I could have stood in that garden for hours, listening to the waves crash – the sea was more active than usual because of the full moon – watching the water toss in the glistening light.

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