My friend Heidi has accused me of romanticizing places. When I told her about my time in Uganda I forgot to mention the heat, the tsetse flies, the incessant horns, the dust that penetrates everything and the foam mattresses that make you feel like you’ve wet the bed because you sweat so much when sleeping on foam in Africa when it’s 140 degrees out and in.
Keeping this in mind, I was keenly aware of all the things I might normally dismiss when we landed in Egypt. It would be impossible for me to romanticize Cairo though because much of it looks like a landfill site. The Nile is a floating dumpster and a large part of the city smells like piss, diapers, diesel and a big fart.
And the horns. Oh my god. Attempting to cross a street was like a never-ending game of human Frogger. Kind locals actually offered themselves as traffic shields, to help us cross the Indy 500 of downtown. At night the thrill was upgraded by drivers who chose not to use their headlights. This saves gas you know.
Upon reaching the ‘safety’ (I use the term loosely) of the sidewalk, there was a greater challenge in navigating the potholes the size of meteorite strikes. Men huffed on sheesha pipes with skeletal cats at their ankles, ancient air conditioners leaked something from the decrepit apartments above Tahir Square. Tanks sat at the crosswalks with cops in full riot gear ready to quell any Mubarek uprisings.
We walked to the Egyptian Museum, conveniently located beside the bombed out Nile Hotel. Our blood pressure was catastrophically high, and in less than an hour, we had learned to not make eye contact with anyone but each other. Everyone was selling something. “You don’t know what you are looking for yet, but I have it,” one yelled out. “What country are you from? Hey, hey! Look at me in the face. American? Dutch? German?” We’d be trailed until we gave an answer or until they had named every country in the world.
“Ahh, Canada Dry. Never die. Make my wife cry.”
We spent three weeks in Egypt on what we like to call “The 2011 Prohibition Tour.” I scoffed when my boss Sara said it was impossible to find a beer in Egypt. This is what I get for being a know-it-all. When we did find one, in the Bahareya Oasis, the restaurant owner told us it was 15 Egyptian pounds ($3 US). After we drank it, he insisted he told us 50 Egyptian pounds ($10 US) and held his ground.
Oh yes, we were taken for a ride. A few times, as we were told to expect. Like the cab driver who drove us in a 15 minute circle only to drop us off directly across the road from where we had started. Demanding more money than negotiated, of course.
In Luxor, touts (vendors) followed us into the tombs begging for baksheesh (tips) to guide us around. Kids skinned our heels, trailing so closely, nearly tripping us as they unfolded an accordion of Valley of the Kings postcards. Men swarmed us with scarves, insisting theirs was better than the others. “Real Egyptian cotton.” And if you actually touched an item for sale, you would quickly find it in your hands. The tout would refuse to take it back. “How much you pay? How much you pay?” We didn’t even want the carving, or snow globe or camel hair blanket, but it was in my hands. I had to threaten to drop the item before they would consider taking it back.
It was a test of patience, resilience and sanitation. By day three Kim and I were shitting our pants at a regular interval. I’ve seen a lot of squat toilets in my time, but there were a few on the way to Siwa Oasis that actually gave me E.coli just by looking in the door. And, I use the term ‘door’ loosely.
Before we left Canada, Kim and I had nearly earned a PhD with our steadfast research on Egypt. We laughed at a Luxor hotel listed on booking.com that offered a free prize if you stayed the week. We quickly learned why.
From our studies we knew not to flag down an ambulance, if, god forbid, need be, as they have no life saving equipment or paramedics on board. And not to bother using the overloaded phone lines to call an ambulance, just hail a cab. (Kim admitted that prior to Egypt, she had never felt the need to carry copies of a medical insurance policy in her pocket anywhere else in the world).
Chaos, horns, mopeds with families of 6 wedged together like Tetris pieces zigzagging between carts and vendors selling chickpeas and lima beans in paper cones. Another man is selling murky tea in glasses on a tray that appear from an alley. McDelivery (yes, McDonald’s delivers there) motorbikes roaring between halted traffic. Someone rides by on a PeeWee Herman style bicycle with not only a door balanced on top of his head, but fifty pitas on top of the door. Men roast pale cobs of corn over charcoal embers, fanning the coals with homemade fans that are actually entire chicken wings. A group of city workers chop fallen branches with axes. Belly dancing on a 27 inch flat screen TV attracts a crowd that pays no attention to pedestrians trying to get by. We are hounded to buy small packets of Kleenex, cigars (which we do), remote controls, knock-off white Nike tube socks and DVDs. Somewhere, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” blares out of a restaurant. In fact, it’s the only restaurant we can find and we eat shawarma that tastes mysteriously like deep fried egg rolls served with pickled turnip, rice crackers and stale peanuts. And beer. Praise the lord. We eat there twice while we are in Cairo, listening to Celine Dion on repeat.
After being groped by a group of women crossing a bridge from the Cairo Tower (Kim gets grabbed in the stomach, I get pinched in the cheek), we can’t wait to get out of Dodge. But, the bus out of Dodge goes from point A to point A and a half, A and three-quarters, and then, miraculously, point B. The 7:15pm bus eventually leaves at 10:30ish and arrives at our destination almost 5 hours later than indicated.
Our overnight bus, which we take only because the train is no longer in service (any bus, train and plane info in the Lonely Planet is quickly disregarded after this point), is epic. One bus turns into four due to breakdowns and other unknown reasons. The air conditioning system is so efficient on the bus that we can actually see our breath. There is ice on our seats. And, an Egyptian James Bond movie is blaring in Arabic.
We soon learn that our most reliable modes of transport will be donkeys and a hot air balloon. We also learn that we may die in a taxi. Or on a bus from hypothermia.
And then we arrive in the Siwa Oasis. Some 600km from the racket that is Cairo, we are instantly blissed out. Our accommodations at the Al-Babenshal are suitable for William and Kate. The hotel is attached to the Shali fortress with traditional wooden shuttered windows and exposed palm-log supports. The light fixtures are carved from salt blocks and give the room, our respite, a buttery glow. Now, this is romantic!
We eat camel under the stars (with slight guilt, but, when in Rome…), and it tastes like beef, not chicken. The fortress and a near-full moon suspend us in dream. Are we actually in Egypt, in the middle of the Great Sand Sea desert eating camel? Is that Gadhafi at the other table? We are close to Libya.
Despite the jet lag and hum of Cairo still percolating in our veins, we know we have found the most idyllic place on Earth. We are instantly charmed by Mohammed and his donkey Ali Baba. With Ali, we are taken to a secret lake to watch the sunset. Kim is immediately alarmed when she steps into the lake and exclaims, “my feet are burning!” I think she has stepped in something poisonous, but follow in behind her and we realize that Mohammed has taken us to a hot spring. The water is nearly 90 degrees. The sky is on fire with the setting sun as Mohammed prepares us mint tea and fresh figs. Ali hee-haws occasionally, just to remind us that it is getting dark, you know.
That night we eat under the stars again (one can never bore of this ambience), bodies spent from all the miles and satiated from the hot spring. We discover the best barbeque chicken we’ve ever had, grilled over coals in an old oil barrel. (And you wonder why we are routinely shitting our pants. But, p.s., we are sometimes selective about what we eat. For example, Kim smartly says no to a place I suggest that serves stuffed pigeon. For some reason she thinks that a sawdust floor and bed sheets for walls at a restaurant might be a good indicator to PASS).
The desert heat is searing by 7:30am. You could fry eggs and bacon on your own skin, if need be. If bacon could be found in Egypt. We spend most of our days looking like we’ve had accidents, our shorts sticking to us like Saran Wrap, donkey dust in our hair. But, the vistas–Mohammed takes us to the salt flats to watch the sunrise and the whole moment is so surreal. I feel like I’ve lost my hearing because it’s so quiet.
The salt lake stretches into sand in one direction, and is lost in the verdant blur of palms and olive trees in the opposite glance. We are also in a blur from Mohammed’s moonshine. Made from fermented figs it’s like drinking toilet bowl cleaner. But we do so, politely. It pairs well with peanuts for breakfast. And then we let Mohammed bury us in sand up to our necks because I read about it being therapeutic for arthritis sufferers. Not that I have arthritis, but I want to experience it all. From oil barrel chicken to stuffed pigeon.
Kim is buried first. We have walked at least two miles into the dunes, there is not a soul or a tumbleweed around. We’ve lost sight of Ali Baba who patiently waits for us. Mohammed threatens to leave us once I lay down and am buried to my neck. He walks on both of us, packing the fine sand into instant cement.
Already familiar with self-talk from cab rides in Cairo, I convince myself that if Kim, who has asthma, does not have a panic attack and doesn’t hyperventilate, then, surely I’m okay too.
We lie buried for 20 minutes, and the sand feels much like Sumo wrestler squatting on my chest. Mohammed walks across us again, and it feels fantastic, despite the feeling of being encased in cement.
Unburied from our “sand saunas” we walk back to our faithful donkey as the sun falls into the dunes. We find another hot spring and chug hot hibiscus tea before we puff on a sheesha pipe under a tangerine sky that gives way to night.
We think this will be the most beautiful place we visit, but, as we travel further south, we become accustomed to each day surpassing the sheer wonder of the last.
Another 620km leg by 4×4 takes us into the heart of the White Desert. It has often been described as a Salvador Dali painting because it is so fantasy-like. The spires appear to be made out of lemon meringue fluff. For 280 square kilometres, the bone white sculptures spin out of the sand in formations that are easily recognized as falcons, cobras and camels. Here, it is as quiet as a tomb. The stillness is almost disturbing. But, before we are too disturbed, we blame it on the transition from 9 hours of Kenny Rogers on repeat. (Our only reprieve the following day, which is a Friday, is that Muslims can only listen to religious music until 1:00pm. So, Kenny gives way to the Karan).
As our driver, Ahmed, prepares a chicken that was just plucked hours ago (and travelled in the 450 degree heat of our 4×4 sans cooler and ice), I have a meltdown from the heat and dehydration. Believing we were on water rations (as we were sharing our one litre bottle of water with the young honeymooning couple that was travelling with us to Luxor —after they sucked back two bottles on their own–only to find out Ahmed had 6 more litres in the back) I was beyond thirsty. My veins were sticking together like taffy. We finally stopped in the middle of the White Desert to set up camp under the stars. This part was romantic too, except I thought I was going to die and was also deflecting the amorous advances of our driver who insisted on giving me private Arabic lessons later (barf). Instead, because I was near death, he gave me a traditional lemon head massage. As Kim babysat, Ahmed covered my face and head in lemon juice and pulp. It did revive me, I was able to drink the Egyptian wine we found in Farafra Oasis that tasted only remotely like cough syrup. And then, for the next 48 hours, I was able to drive across the desert with hair matted like a feral cat from the lemon.
(*Please note: no private Arabic lesson was had. I was confident with the words I had already memorized. Falafel and shawarma).
Now, to the untrained eye, this probably reads like Kim and I are having a disaster vacation. On the contrary, we are having the time of our lives (once we find beer again, and once I wash the lemon pulp and E.coli out of my hair).
At night we wonder out loud about our friends and family. Who could endure such a trip? Yes, seeing the pyramids while riding on the back of a camel paints such a lovely little postcard. But, there’s the sucker punch heat, the hassle, the bartering, the shits and the flies. The garbage. The hard boiled eggs for breakfast, 17 days in a row. No ice cubes, no toilet paper, no toilet seats for that matter. We decide we don’t know anyone that could cope with the bombardment of such extremes. Not to mention the lack of bacon and beer in the country. And the flat tire in the desert. Or waking up with a scarab beetle in your bra. And my skinned tailbone from sweating too much on the camel saddle. And Kim running out of hairspray in a land of headscarves. Yes! I’m talking about extremes!
After passing through nine military checkpoints (that we didn’t tell our parents about until right now), we see only four vehicles in 670km. Blown tire carcasses dot the ‘roadway’ that is a sketchy track through the dunes most of the time. Wedding Devils (sand tornadoes) whirl across the expanse.
We pass by a crashed helicopter, stripped of most of its metal. We listen to Kenny’s “Lady” for the 16th time. Our kidneys have turned into raisins despite drinking 3-4 litres of water. We’ve long shit out the just-plucked chicken but are still anxious as Kim and I decide to do a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Luxor.
We are able to keep it together in the balloon, but, as with most of the trip, there has to be a delay, or an obstacle to overcome. It’s our theme. This time it comes in the form of getting locked in our hotel when we try to tiptoe out to meet a taxi driver at 4:30am. The condensed story is that we narrowly get out in time after physically shaking the hotel manager awake in his bed, briefs and all. The expanded story is that we are locked out of the hotel after we return from our dreamy hot air balloon ride at 6:30 am. Which led to finding another nearby hotel that was open and partaking in a very bizarre garden tour with a guy who stacked live turtles for us and had a big hard-on the entire time. He made us what we can only call “cofftea,” a hybrid of coffee and tea. We still don’t know to this day what we were drinking. What we know for sure is that a man with turtles and a teapot before 7a.m. is just weird and will be avoided in the future.
And, while we’re on the weird theme, fast forward to Alexandria. Kim and I decide to go all out and spend a dollar to go see the city aquarium. We step in and see that it only has six tanks, half of them empty, but, why not? We are approached by an Egyptian man who holds out a camera and points to his family with a mad grin. I say, “Sure, I can take your picture.” But, instead of passing me the camera, I am suddenly holding his child in my arms. He motions for Kim to lean in to the picture too. And then another family swoops in and we are photographed with another baby girl. What this all means, we never find out, but, it was worth the price of admission.
What was also worth the price of admission was our hotel room in Alexandria. Kim said it best when she described Egypt as looking like it had been completely furnished by a Goodwill store. Our room, a far cry from the spoils of our Al-Babenshal in Siwa, had a Garfield shower curtain, a massive framed rug hook of a cartoon boy fishing, a taxidermied rabbit wearing clothes in the breakfast area and an Endoscopy and Surgery on the floor below our hotel. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
The vibration felt in this room (on the 6th floor) from the 1940s tram below was laughable. We might as well have been sleeping on the tracks. Kim wondered if my o.b. tampons might serve better purpose—stuffed in our ears.
To boot, this hotel was ‘better’ than the Triomphe across the road which was like walking through a haunted house. It was in complete shambles. I said to Kim, pale-faced (even with my tan—it faded with fear), “If we have to stay here, I will have to walk right out to the balcony and jump. This is the kind of place you kill yourself in.” Worse yet, it had a SHARED BATHROOM. My god, the tub looked like it had been hauled out of landfill site the day before. We’ll leave it at that.
But first, let’s revisit the bliss and awe that we found in Siwa and the jaw-dropping (and pant-dropping) landscape of the White Desert. After nearly getting in a punching match with the touts in Luxor selling “Egyptian Ferrari rides” (aka horse-drawn carriage rides) and felucca rides (aka being towed down the Nile with all the garbage), we decide to get ourselves to the Red Sea, asap.
Hello, Hurghada. We hire another private taxi with a guy from France because the bus to Hurghada was cancelled for the day. There was possibly one that night at 8pm, but, for sure the next day at 1. We were willing to pay ten times the amount to get to the sea already. Our driver drove like we were part of the OJ Simpson highway chase scene. I asked if we could drink beer in the back and we later laughed about it all. No other driving rules were observed in Egypt, so, surely drinking in the back was fine.
We wanted to weep when we finally made it to Hurghada (another 400+ km logged with the Karan, not Kenny this time). We really wanted to weep when the hotel we planned on staying at was fully booked. And, then, weep harder when we jumped in another cab to find another hotel that was also sold out. We scanned booking.com until our eyes were bleeding and sprung for the Pyramisa Blue Lagoon Resort. Yes. All-inclusive. Booze, beach, bikini. Maybe a shower that wasn’t in the same square meter as the toilet.
Kim and I felt like we had been away at college. Like we were coming back to the comforts of home: free booze, mom’s home cooking, free laundry and fresh sheets. Well, mom’s home cooking at Pyramisa is a bit lousy and the free laundry costs us 15 Euros because our “shorts” are deemed to be “trousers” by the housekeeper’s standards, and trousers are 5 Euros a piece to be laundered. Kim is okay with this. Our clothes are nearly disposable after days in the desert. Did I mention my lemon pulp hair? Well, my clothes are also covered in lemon pulp, camel hair and donkey dust. We smell like dumpsters now.
Hurghada is yet another extreme. Called the “New Russia” in the guide books, we agree. We are the only two in a resort of a thousand Russians, that aren’t Russian. Lonely Planet says that they come to Hurghada for the sun, booze and prostitutes. Just like us.
The sea is a warm bathtub and that indigo blue colour that makes every Northerner swoon in the dead of bitter winter. We float, we drink. We eat “pizza” stuffed with spaghetti noodles and egg. There are several dishes involving chopped wieners. And something that tastes like wet snot. Is this tea or coffee? We’re never sure. And what the hell is this that tastes like carrotloupe? We decide to eat less and drink more but my gin and tonic tastes exactly like Kim’s rum and Coke. We survive. We’re still shitting our pants, but much more casually now. And, we have the music of our homeland. The resort pumps out Celine AND Shania Twain. And, on the night stage, Bryan Adams.
We write postcards home that can’t even begin to highlight our trials and tribulations across the desert. And yet, the adventure continues as we fly to the Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea for the last of our days.
Alexandria is a shit hole. At least there are coffee shops that serve identifiable Turkish coffee. It’s merely Cairo, but on the sea. Ramshackle, abandoned and more shabby than shabby chic. This place needs mops, mortar, bleach and bulldozers.
We eat more hard boiled eggs for breakfast and find refuge in the China Moon, a posh rooftop terrace above an even swankier hotel that is playing “The 12 Days of Christmas” in the lobby. They serve Pad Thai and a red curry that brings us much happiness after the all-inclusive slop. We eat there two nights in a row and even search out genuine moussaka at the Greek Club overlooking the Corniche. We feel a bit pretentious, but, the falafel is way better in Toronto.
Standouts? The Bibliotheque Alexandria, home to the largest collection of books in the world and a special library for the blind. There is more security at the library here than at the airport in Cairo. On the flip side, we enter the tombs at Kom el Dikka and could have lined our pockets with human and horse bones. A giddy old man just shy of a full set of teeth pulls us around the tombs with a hilarious Arabic—charades rendition of the donkey who discovered Kom el Dikka. Apparently, the donkey fell into the chasm where bodies were lowered some 30 meters below. Some of the tombs were actually submerged. Prize racehorses were buried alongside the wealthy, as a thank you for their contribution to their good fortune.
And our good fortune was having an entire day to spend on the Mediterranean, away from the crowds. Our obligatory sight-seeing had come to a close. We found a Drinkies (one of two liquor stores in Egypt) and bought Stella for the beach. Locals had raved about El Montazana beach; Kim suggested it would be the perfect place to spend my birthday.
(Intermission as I laugh my head off).
El Montazana. I spent my birthday with 15,000 of my closest Muslim friends. We couldn’t even see the shoreline. Plastic chairs and frumpy, faded umbrellas clogged the view. Locals lined up along the water’s edge as though a parade was about to go by. One could not fit a towel between the chairs and the water. Kim said it best: “they’re sitting so close they look like a canister of Pringle chips.” (I know! She should be writing the blog!)
I went in the sea despite the flotilla of trash. We drank our hot beers and shook our heads, recounting all the miles and places we’d been. To round out the birthday, this is when Kim suggested we go to that place that had grilled pigeon, for dinner. And this is when we saw the bed sheets for walls, and the proximity to the dumpsters and we opted for another night of Pad Thai and curry at China Moon. My only regret? That I didn’t try the basketballs or chicken thieves that were on the menu at the Excelsior in Cairo. The basketballs were only 5 Egyptian pounds.
And, after one last hair-raising ride into Cairo with yet another Ahmed, we stepped inside the airport, eager for the sanitation and security of Canada. And the non-honkiness.
Would we go back?
Only to the Siwa Oasis.
But this is the greater purpose of travel. To feel it all. The intensity, the extremes, all the forces that can break you. The flat tires, the dehydration, the diarrhea, the delayed flights, the missed buses and the sunrises and sunsets that shake you back to that place where you are reminded of how lucky you are to be able to see it at all. We are living our dreams out loud. We rode on camels to see the pyramids. We were actually inside King Tut’s tomb. We found beer in the oasis! We swam in the Red AND Mediterranean Sea. We did not die crossing the road in Cairo.
“All you’ve got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over. So go!” ~ Lonely Planet