Sunday, May 3, 2009

Black-eyed angels swam with me

From the port of Aqaba in Jordan you can see the Israeli port of Eilat and the Egyptian port of Taba, and if you just turn your gave slightly to the south a small Saudi town also comes into view, all clustered at the end of the cul-de-sac that is the Gulf of Aqaba. The ferry across this 15km gap and down the Egyptian gulf coast to the port of Nuweiba costs a whopping $70, as most travellers passing through have no alternative, the problems caused by 'soiling' your passport with Israeli stamps (or even unaccompanied Jordanian exit stamps) too numerous to mention.

Along with our Belgian friends Marc and Nadia we took pride in being the first four people off of the ferry and through the maze of immigration procedures. Half an hour later we were lazing on the beach at Tarabin, just a few kilometres north of the port. It is a very small, secluded village with a fine, white-sand beach. We stayed in a resort with simple beach huts and a good restaurant. Other new arrivals gasped "it's just like India" and, in fact, it was. We snorkelled a bit and kept looking out for the 6ft turtle that kept coming to swim with us but for the most part we just lazed around, slow-roasting in the sun. It was our first proper beach since we left the Philippines in 2007 and during the year we spent in Iceland we often dreamed of this moment.

Eventually we managed to tear ourselves away and head south to the more developed backpacker resort of Dahab. If Tarabin reminded of India then Dahabs claim to be 'the Koh Samui of the Middle East' is also acceptable, even down to the fact that both have outgrown their backpacker beginnings and moved upmarket, as testified by the legions of rich Russians at Dahab. There is no real beach as the coral reef comes right into the shore but this means the snorkelling is great and the reefs are inhabited by schools and schools of fish. Throughout our stay in Tarabin and Dahab there was an underlying sense of unease at the fact that whilst the legions of sun-worshippers sit scantily clad they are gazing out across the gulf to the coast of Saudi Arabia, not 20 miles away but worlds apart in terms of culture and behaviour.

We had to wait around in Dahab to be joined by our friend Stepan who was flying on for a week from Dubai, where he lives and works for Emirates Airlines. As soon as he arrived we picked up the pace a bit, took a final couple of snorkelling trips, to the famous Eel Garden and Blue Hole sites and headed inland to Mt Sinai. For those who don't know, this is the mountain where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments from God. For some reason the only way to get there is to go at midnight and climb through the night to be on the summit for sunrise. There were hundreds of people taking part, groups of Greek tourists in high heels with duty free bags, some rich Indians on camels, tour groups of all ages and nationalities from the resorts of Sharm-el-Sheik, recognising each other by their matching caps. On the top for sunrise Stepan fell asleep, everyone jostled for position, wanting the best photograph, a group of Koreans held an impromptu mass and the pious monks from the monastery below prayed on the edge of a precipice, as they probably do every morning. The monastery of St Katherine lies at the base of the mountain. Everyone had descended by 7:30am but the monastery inexplicably didn't open until 9am. By this time everyone had queued outside so Monika, Stepan and I slunk off for coffee instead.

It was a difficult journey to get from Mt Sinai to the Suez canal, made more difficult by the discovery that my backpack had split at the seams whilst waiting for me in the bus at the monastery. We got there eventually passing under the Suez Canal tunnel. It is remarkably similar to the Dartford tunnel inside, the only difference is at the entrance and exit to the tunnel, the M25 being replaced by sandy embankments guarded by heavy machine guns, all pointed at our bus as it passed through! The town of Suez, which sits on the southern mouth of the canal is quiet and peaceful and belays a faded colonial charm. We sat in a cafe munching cream buns and chocolate eclairs as we waited for the supertankers to float by, appearing out of the desert as if a mirage. Sadly we did not see any huge ships, at least not up close, we had seen them float by from our hotel window, several streets away. We were defeated by a secret timetable and the global effects of the credit crunch.

So we left for Cairo. A fantastic city, the old cliche 'a mix of old and new' but here it is really true. The colonial era buildings crumble between the glass skyscrapers, the warren of Khan al-Khalili winds it way through the 'Islamic' part of ton until it peters out and merges into downtown, and 10km to the south the scrappy suburb of Giza heaves and bulges until it comes to a shuddering stop, a stones throw from the Sphinx and the Pyramids. The people reflect these juxtapositions too. Wizened old women outwit the young market traders and fashion conscious young Cairenes share sheesha pipes with toothless old men in the tea houses and cafes. We headed for the Nile at sunset, anticipating a scene of great beauty, we found a flotilla of boats plying up and down, extremely loud music booming out and drapes of neon lights flashing so violently as if to set off an outbreak of epileptic fits. These boats were packed with Egyptians, seemingly immune to the lights and noise pollution, dancing the night away. They say the Nile is the source of life and on this evidence it's probably true.

Of course the Pyramids are impressive, they are the last remaining of the 'Seven Wonders of the World'. However the sun beating down overcomes any feeling of spiritual awakening and the constant whine of the touts selling camel and donkey rides ensure you quickly snap out of any transcendental experience. From the Pyramids we headed for Coptic Cairo, the home of the old Christian community, the missing link between the Pharoahs and the coming of Islam. And to Islamic Cairo, the trading heart of the city. The Khan al-Khalili and the surrounding souqs pack the streets, the smell of mint and cumin, halal butchers and donkey shit, and on every corner a fine example of perfect Islamic architecture.

Our only negative experience in Cairo was the application for Sudanese visas, and the only negative aspect of that was the despicable behaviour of the pompous Czech consul. Unfortunately we dragged Stepan around these embassies with us as we made our application.

After Stepan had returned to Dubai we had one day left to explore the Egyptian Museum, which is probably the most famous museum in the world. Opened in 1902 it is a like an exhibit in itself, with antique display cases and yellowing name tags. The museum holds over 120,000 pieces although not all are on display at the same time. Apparently if you spent one minute at each exhibit on display it would take you more than nine months to see all the exhibits! According to the Lonely Planet it is impossible to see it all in one go, it requires at least two days. We spent about three hours there and visited every room and paid extra to see the Mummies. It is incredible, like the worlds biggest and most valuable junk shop, everything crammed on top of each other - massive statues, intricately designed sarcophagi and tombs, the jewels of Tutankhamun and then the chilling sight of the mummies. their faces frozen for thousands of years, flaps of skin and clumps of hair still cling on to the shrivelled corpse, it made me feel a little bit nauseous. The trouble with the whole museum it is just too overwhelming. I could not get past the question 'How?'. How did they build structures as the Pyramids or the Temple of Karnak so exactly and perfectly without the aid of any technology? How did they excavate the caves of the Valley of the Kings, which they used for the royal tombs? How did they create all these statues, sculptures and paintings, using perspectives that in the 18th century artists were still struggling with? Before I could start to distinguish between Amunhoteb and Nefertiti or Tutankhamun and Tuthmosis I was stuck. The lack of any proper information did not help and made the whole experience feel like wandering around some fantasy gallery rather than an important historical museum. I left feeling quite stupid.

I must admit, from our experience in Egypt from Tarabin to Cairo it grew on me at such a pace as to become somewhere I would love to return to again and again. In fact it has had a similar effect on me as the Indian subcontinent has had. We did not get a chance to really explore Cairo fully and we never made it to Alexandria and the Mediterranean coast. The only aspect that was not as impressive as other countries is the food. Whilst felafel and shwarma are available they are much inferior to those in neighbouring countries. A nice Egyptian breakfast is shakshouka, poached eggs cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and green peppers. Egypts favourite dish seems to be Koshary, their version of bubble-and-squeak, a mix of rice, noodles, pasta, lentils, fried onion and chickpeas, topped with garlic vinegar and chili sauce. Whilst nice, any meal that resembles yesterdays left-overs should not be the national dish!

Egypt is football mad and FIFA regards the Egyptian leagues as one of the 20 most competitive in the world. I have spent the last couple of weeks watching crunch matches from the Egyptian league as well as matches from the African version of the Champions League, the Egyptian league champions up against their Nigerian counterparts. They were 2-0 down last night but battled back to 2-2, it was almost worth them changing the channel from the match in which Barcelona beat Real Madrid 6-2. It seems fitting that I am writing this on the day that Norwich City have been relegated to the third tier of the English football league for the first time in over 5 years.

We took an overnight bus down to Luxor to explore more ancient Pharonic sights. The driver insisted on driving without lights for almost the whole duration of the 700km journey, only flashing them on when overtaking some slower vehicle. This is a crazy trait of Egyptian drivers, none of them use their headlights, ever, at night crossing the road becomes perilous as you cannot see the cars hurtling towards you!

In Luxor we started to experience the hassle we anticipated in Cairo. Luxor is a dirty shithole of a town which everyone would give a wide berth were it not for the location of the Temples of Karnak and Luxor and the sights on the West Bank including the Valley of the Kings, Valle of the Queens and the several funery temples. The problem is it is just so bloody hot. Half the time spent at Karnak is spent looking for some shade rather than at the ruins.

The Valley of the Kings is indistinguishable from the outside, only once you venture inside some of the tombs do they reveal their beauty. The expensive entrance ticket allows each guest to visit three tombs from a choice of 63. The choice is made simpler by the fact that most of the tombs are closed and that the tombs of Tutankhamun and Ramses VI require an extra ticket, and bearing in mind that the contents of Tutankhamuns tomb are on display in the museum in Cairo it wouldn't be a good choice anyway. We used the scientific method of selection known as 'eenie-meeny-miney-mo' and came up with Ramses IX, Siptah and Tuthmosis III. Actually thats a lie, Monika wanted Ramses IX because someone recommended it, and it turned out to be no more than a broom cupboard with some pretty hieroglyphs. I wanted Amunhoteb II but it was closed so in the end the three we picked were all spaced out so to give us regular breaks from the sun. Tuthmosis II was the most impressive, colourful paintings and hieroglyphs lined all the walls in the deep tomb, several staircases deep into the rocks.

In the midday heat we climbed out of the Valley of the Kings and down to the temple of Hatshepsut. With a design like that of an alien spaceship it seemed to answer my question of 'How?' but apart from that was unimpressive. Our taxi river took us to the temples of Ramses II (the Ramesseum) and Seti I. I had wanted to see both of these but our taxi driver said they were not worth it, and on arrival we realised he was right, and were glad we hadn't bought tickets in advance. There is one central ticket office on the West bank which sells most of the tickets for the sites. One temple that was worth visiting however was the Habu Temple of Ramses III, with more impressive statues, carvings and hieroglyphs.

On the rooftop terrace of our hotel we sat at night, chatting with the other guests. Soon enough the discussion turned to ancient Egypt and everyone started to give their opinions on the different Pharoahs, their actions during their lives and their respective temples and tombs. I couldn't help wondering if everyone really understood what they had seen or were they all just bluffing, like me?

We had been put off spending too much time in Aswan by several reports from travellers in Luxor, telling us the hassle from touts selling felucca trips on the Nile and horse-drawn caleche rides around town was much worse even than Luxor. We stayed an extra day in Luxor, relaxing by the pool of an overlanders camp before heading down to Aswan, just two days before the ferry leaves for Sudan. Both ourselves and the young British couple we came down with from Luxor found Aswan to be much more relaxed and more friendly and welcoming than Luxor. Aswan felt to us just as nice as the rest of Egypt, apart from the heat, which is becoming dangerous. By now we were pretty jaded by ancient Egypt so we shunned the opportunity to visit Philae temple or the famous Abu Simbel, instead choosing to wander about on the small Elephantine island, sitting in the Nile opposite Aswan. Home to several Nubian villages it felt like our first interaction with Africa. We were given a friendly welcome and license to wander around at our leisure, the lush green farms and forests feeling more like a tropical island in the Philippines than Lower Egypt.

Aswan does feel like the gateway to Africa. I know that geographically Egypt is part of Africa but culturally it is much more a part of the Middle East. Suddenly in Aswan the presence of so many Nubian people signalled the change and the first sign of what lies south. Many of these Nubian villagers are working as felucca captains and we have stumbled across a good way of shaking off even the most persitant of them. As soon as we tell them we are going to Sudan, where many of them were born or have family or friends, they forget about the felucca and shriek 'Sudan? You are going to Sudan? Where?' after which they repeat each town we mention in a hushed tone, with a wide smile and a glint in their eye.

Tomorrow we take the ferry down the Nile from Aswan to Wadi Halfa, Conrad would have described the journey as sailing into the heart of darkness. Our experience so far suggests it will be anything but.

1 comment:

  1. wow, i feel like i've been around whole egypt from this posting!
    you will make a great travel writer.

    we only had unplessant experience in Cairo, so I'm still muttering about that, boring but very important to me, lol.

    So you witnessed the Korean pilgririmage in mt. Sinai, haha!

    By the way, I'm Eunmi from Tarabin, Nuweiba.