Posts Tagged With: Egypt

HURGHADA’S RED SEA

AGA while back, while travelling through the desert of Egypt, I stopped in a vibrant little sea-side town, Hurghada, hosted by Mondi, the man to show the things you need to see. Including this snorkeling excursion to the reefs of the Red Sea, now live at Africa Geographic.

Thanks for the awesome experience, Mondi!

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THE PYRAMIDS OF EGYPT

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“Would headphones work?” I asked Mohamed, Cairo host.

I was about to head out to see the wonder of the ancient world, the great pyramids of Egypt, in Giza, a city that is part of many that make up Cairo.

“They might,” he answered. “But you’ll still get harassed. And because tourism is low, the harassments are quite aggressive now.”

 

I did some online research about the level of harassment at the pyramids by guys trying to get you to ride a horse, a camel, both, a caleche (horse ‘n’ buggy) with a camel tied onto the back. Whatever combo they could come up with.

So my counter-harrassment weapon of choice? A pair of headphones and doing the unthinkable as an open-minded traveller – ignore everyone.

The pyramids were a short microbus (minivan) ride across the Nile. I was dropped under a bridge and told to walk towards Haram street (‘Haram’ means ‘pyramid’). The signal to get a ride to the pyramids was an upside-down victory sign  creating a triangular shape between the index and middle finger. That way, you get the right ride.

I signaled a passing microbus who stopped and picked me up.

And then dropped me two meters later.

“Last stop,” said the driver.

“I just got on,” I said. “I could’ve walked.”

“Come, I’ll show you,” a young local offered to help.

“You’re an asshole,” I said blatantly to the driver as I hopped off. “A fuckin’ asshole.”

The kid lead me to the main street where he flagged down a VW Combie which acts as the minivan bus services in Giza.

Sweetness.

I thanked the kid even though I was on my guard in case of dodgy activity. But he walked off to his destination, just happy to help out a foreigner. I was still pissed at the other driver as the Combie drove along Haram street but when I caught a glimpse of The Great Pyramid of Giza the anger washed away. I was let off at the entrance to the complex where I plugged headphones into my ears.

I don’t have a player of sorts to plug into and I don’t usually wear headphones unless I’m watching something on my laptop before I go to bed. So I just shoved the jack into my pocket and pretended to be deaf to the world.

As soon as I stepped off the Combie I was approached. I could hear the, “Excuse me, sir, which country? Camel ride? Do you know how much? Horse ride? Do you have a sister I can marry? Ticket to see the pyramids?”

One guy got a little cocky and tried to grab my arm.I whipped around and detached him from me and without speaking wagged my finger in his face to indicate that he should avoid doing that for the safety of his immediate future.

I ignored everyone, acting the right prick, pointing at my headphones. Surprisingly, it worked and the harrassers let me be.

Not before reaching screaming levels and then cursing in Arabic.

I suppressed my grins.

I was happy that there won’t many tourists aside the local ones. It made for easier photos without anyone in the frame doing the ol’ ‘finger atop the pyramid’ shot which takes up half an hour as I witnessed a Korean couple taking about a hundred shots.

I walked around upbeat, focusing on the 4,000 year-old energy of a civilisation so advanced that it still boggles minds as to how they built this structures.img_2055

The Great Pyramid – the Pyramid of Khufu – a Pharaoh in the third dynasty, took 23 years to complete and weighs in at 6.5 million tons. It’s said to be built from 2.5 million blocks. The blocks were precisely fit to a margin of error of only 58 mm. It was regarded the tallest structure in the world for 3,800 years (until the spire of the Lincoln Cathedral was completed in 1311 in Lincoln, England), standing at 481 feet.

img_2070-bwNext to it is the Pyramid of Khafre, tomb to Pharaoh Khafre of the fourth dynasty. It’s also the only pyramid where the top is still covered by the casing stones. The other structures had there’s stripped off to build roads, bridges and mosques somewhere in the 15th century.

The smallest structure, the Pyramid of Menkaure, was the first in line to be demolished by the hands of al-Malek al-Aziz Othman ben Yusuf (1171-1198), Egypt’s second Sultan at the end of the 12th century.

 

He ordered for the pyramids to be taken apart and it took workers eight months to wedge out a small vertical gash img_2073before the idea was given up due to costs that were higher than building the actual structures.

Looking up I couldn’t help but wonder how? How the hell did they even come up with the idea of a pyramid let alone position them astronomically aligned with Orion’s Belt, according to Robert Bauval’s theory from 1983 (published in 1989 in Discussions in Egyptology, Volume XIII).

And then came the Sphinx. I was a bit disappointed. It looks so much bigger in photos and documentaries. What I saw appeared to be the house-sphinx version.

Where’s the real one? I asked myself, ignoring the hawkers trying to get me to ride a camel that had a look on its face that said, ‘Shoot me. Please, just shoot me’ (if you ever find yourself at the pyramids, make sure the animal you ride is well-treated).

img_2082The sphinx is a mythological creature that acts as the guardian of the gateway to the after world. In Greek mythology it is a woman with lion haunches and wings with the head of a human. The most famous is the one featured in the story of Oedipus.

The Egyptian sphinx is regarded usually as male, although Queen Hatshepsut had one made with her face. The sphinxes of Egypt are benevolent as opposed to Greek’s malevolent. The one in Giza, Abu al-Haul (Father of the Dread) is thought to have had the face of Pharaoh Khafra but that has long disintegrated.

In fact, it’s yet to be proven if the Great Sphinx of Egypt is associated with Khafra. But what is known is that it’s the largest monolith statue in the world standing at 20 meters height and 73 meters in length (19 meters wide), it’s still not known what its creators called it. In the New Kingdom, it was called Hor-em-akhet, which means ‘Horus of the Horizon’. The word ‘Sphinx’ is Greek and was given to the statue in Giza 2,000 years after its construction.img_2083

As I posed Animal in front of it with the pyramids behind for a photo, a police officer said that I couldn’t take the shot with my mascot.

“Why not?” I frowned.

“No photo,” he said. “I take camera.”

I scoffed and, as I usually do when it comes to people with a power trip because of uniform, I turned my back on him, took my photo, thanked him and walked off as he tried to ponder whether it was really worth chasing his belly after me in this heat to play to his ego which just took a beating.

img_2078I walked out and wondered how the government allowed the city of Cairo and Giza to be built right up to this most historical of places of the ancient world. I mean, there’s a golf links at the bottom of the complex.

A golf links!

It might explain how the Sphinx lost its face.

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CAIRO NIGHTS

img_2027“Today is Shaman Neshim,” Hadeel, my local guide in Cairo, explained why there were so many people on the street after we walked out of the Filfila (chilly) restaurant.

“What’s that?” I asked, zigging left and pirouetting right before gracefully swan-diving over a crowd.

“It’s the national holiday of the beginning of spring,” she explained.

The holiday is celebrated nationwide. It’s basically one big street party spread over many streets. And in a city like Cairo, there are plenty to choose from.

The meaning of Shaman Neshim is ‘harvest season’, known as Shemu, meaning, ‘A day of creation’. The Ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish (fesih), lettuce, and onions to their deities on this day.

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To start our evening escapades, we hit the revolution-made-famous Tahrir (Liberation) Square, where back in 2011 protestors demanded (and got) the ousting of then president, Husseni Mubarak who had ruled the country (which has been under military rule since Gamal Nasser’s revolution in 1952) for almost 30 years.

“The downtown area of Cairo is considered bohemian, where activists, artists and intellectuals would meet at coffee shops like Denda Sou Cafia,” Hadeel guided us through the busy streets. “And it’s walking distance to the Al Hussein mosque.”

The mosque, built in 1154, is considered one of the holiest Islamic sites in Egypt as it holds the oldest complete manuscript of the Quran. Today’s structure stands on a 19th century reconstruction with some Gothic implements.

Pushing our way through the throng of people, vendors and stall holders, each trying to entice us with invitations of, “Come into my shop,”or the ever popular, “Looking is free.”

img_2036Although the noise was at level, ‘This is a bit much’, I was glad to have come out on one of the busiest nights of the year (when there isn’t a revolution happening) and felt how every movement flooded my paining body, walking at a turtle’s pace.

The world blurred around me. Kids stopping me for photos, motorbikes and cars beeping and horning people out of the way, whistles being blown from the very strong police presence.

“Bit noisy,” I managed to yell to Hadeel above the throng. She grinned and nodded.

We came upon the crowded Sharm Weiss square before we found a table in the famous El Fishaway restaurant, a hub-bub of the who’s who of Egypt’s literary giants, poets, musicians and actors.

 

Well, until the government came and jailed the lot of them.

We had lemon-mint juice which came with our sugar and some mint tea while being constantly approached by hawkers selling packets of tissue, henna art done on your hand engulfed in the shisha (waterpipe) smoke while traditional musicians looked for opportune guests to play for.

As I watched the loudness of the crowdness, I couldn’t help but grin. Not sure why. Probably the delusionary affects of running a fever. Finishing our drinks I was then shipped home via taxi to sweat out whatever was in me.

I was hoping to catch the pyramids the next day and I needed to be mentally prepared as my research had brought up a lot of ‘Beware!’ stories regarding scams targeted at foreigners.

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CAIRO ON ARRIVAL

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“Take a microbus to Ramses then take another microbus towards Helwan,” Mohammed explained over the phone. “Tell the driver you need to get off at the First Engineers  building.”

My host, graciously volunteered through Sherif, a good friend of the Gypsy Queen’s,  who I had yet to met, lived somewhere in Cairo. I had no idea where and also no idea how  big Cairo was.

The night bus ride from Hurghada to Egypt’s capital was an uneventful seven hours through what I assume to be desert landscape. I managed sleep until the sun rise which I caught through the crack of a good eye. The other eye submitted and it too opened up and I was fully awake to watch the desert take on the day. A couple of hours later, Cairo appeared on the horizon.

 

And how could it not? It took up the entire horizon. In fact, Cairo should be its own planet. It’s the biggest city I’ve ever been to. It diminishes Bangkok to suburb status. A concrete jungle of overpasses and high-rises, Cairo is a collective of cities like Giza, the 6th of October City and Nasr City to name but three.

The bus-ticket, earned by playing two nights at the awesome and friendly Jolly Café in Hurghada, passed the revolutionary Trahir Square where 2011’s revolt helped spark revolutions across the Arab world (just like the one in 1952 lead by Nasser) was quiet in the early morning hours.

We pulled into the GoBus station somewhere nearby and from here I followed Mohammed’s – and anyone who could speak English that I came across – instructions. I took a microbus –a mini-van (known as matatu in East Africa) – to Ramses. From there I hopped on another microbus under a huge overpass.

The driver charged me for a 3-row seat because of my bags.

“I can put them on the roof,” I said, pointing at the roof rack.

He refused, seeing the opportunity to cash up a bit.

I then piled my packs on top of me. “No problem, see?” I pointed thorough the packs at the easily accessible and empty seats beside me.

He still refused.

Sonofabitch.

Grumbling, I hopped on and we drove – right past the GoBus station where I had entered Cairo.

Sigh.

For at least an hour we rode through the empty, concrete streets. As it was Friday, the Muslim holy day, everything was shut down and empty before I was told by the only guy on the bus who spoke English that I needed to get off  and ask around for the address.

Finding myself on the banks of the Nile, the longest river in the world that I had been following from Sudan, I crossed the highway like Frogger and asked to use phones and get directions. Finally, I made it to the building where a groggy-eyed Ahmed, Mohammed’s housemate, opened the door for me and returned to his room.

I set my packs down and piled up some cushions on the living room floor and promptly fell asleep. I awoke in surprise when the house-cat jumped on my chest and began to use it as a claw-sharpening post.

“Jesus!” I delicately removed the feline and wagged my finger at her.

I’m not a cat person. Sure, I’m into my lions, tigers, leopards and other apex predators. But house-cats? Just not my thing.

I resumed sleep and awoke in time to greet Ahmed. “I see you in the night,” he said and he headed out the door.

It was stifling hot outside and noisy. Traffic had picked up and with traffic comes that melodic tunes of horns blaring. I took a walk outside to try and call Hadeel, another local volunteer that Sherif had found to show me around this planet-sized city.

My aim was to stay for two days, see the pyramids, play for a ticket to Dahab in Sinai and head off to absorb the Red Sea and its bounties before reaching Taba. But Hadeel’s phone was off for the majority of the day so I ended up chatting with the building’s security guard who invited me to a lunch of falafel.

I returned home to escape the heat and lounged about, getting clawed on occasion by the cat. Which, turns out, was a mama cat with five kittens stashed in the darkest corners of the apartment. I fell asleep and awoke the next morning as mama cat pounced on her new hairy claw-sharpening post – me.

As the apartment was empty (Mohammed was away on a business trip) I headed out to try and get Hadeel on a phone but it was still turned off. So I got some falafel which I took home to eat while fending off mama cat.

After a catnap I finally managed to get Hadeel and we arranged to meet the next day somewhere in the city.

“I’ll send you the details on Facebook,” she offered.

Ahmed returned, said, “Hello,” and disappeared into his room.  And then something moved inside of me and I knew it wasn’t the good movement say, of a bubble of gas that needs to be released. This was something else. Something that had me going for the next 24 hours. The bathroom and I became well acquainted. I blame the falafel. And mama cat. Why the cat? Cause I can.

I was feeling a touch better the next day when Mohammed arrived.

“Where have you been sleeping?” he asked.

“Right here,” I wallowed on the cushions. My body ached like I was getting the flu.

“It’s a three-bedroom apartment,” he looked confused. “You have your own room. The cat’s room.”

The cat’s room. Oh this will be fun. Use me as a clawing post? How’d ya like to be roomless? “Oh,” I scratched my head. “Well, I wasn’t aware.”

Ahmed the ghost wasn’t exactly communicative. I was shown my new dwellings. Some kittens were relocated from the bed and I moved my packs into the room.

“There’s an air-conditioner too,” he pointed to the heat-destroying machine on the wall.

Mohammed was heading to the same area I was to meet Hadeel with another friend – and Ahmed – so I got a ride into town even though my body-ached and I felt that I was running a fever.

I sure hope it wasn’t malaria. For the two years I’ve spent in Africa, everybody around me had been taken down by one of Africa’s biggest killers (not died. As in, gettin’ hit by malaria and then taking two weeks to recover). And I was quite chuffed not to have succumbed to the mosquito-injecting parasite.

Until now.

I think.

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JOLLY CAFE

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© Abdallah Sayed, 2016

Jolly Café sits on Hurghada’s most famous stרeet, Sheraton, so named as it was the first hotel to be built in the specifically-built resort town on Egypt’s Red Sea coast line.

It has  outdoor seating as well as plush indoor seating and carters to every need. They don’t serve alcohol but you don’t need to booze it up when they provide a great vibe, whether it’s through the nightly live music with a traditional Egyptian singer, the occasional belly-dancer and the once-in-awhile performance by yours truly.

The guys that run the place are incredibly friendly and just give off the nice-guy vibe. Almost everyone who comes to Jolly’s knows them and goes out of their way to greet them – the regulars and the newcomers.

The crowds are mainly locals and once in awhile you’ll get a few foreigners. They offer shisha pipes to smoke (water pipes), a Playstation area to kick your friend’s ass at football, serve the best milkshakes in town and great dishes like charcoal chicken on a bed of fresh dill – Egyptian style – with a side of rice. The pizza is also highly recommended as are the freshly squeezed juices.

The outdoor stage has lights and a mixer with the street right behind the performer to seduce potential patrons.

I played two nights in a row and left with new friendships and a feeling of an extended family.

 

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HURGHADA

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“Welcome to Hurghada,” Mondi, my host, greeted me.

“Shukran,” I grinned, shaking his hand.

It’d been awhile since I’ve been in water. Due to multiple ear infections throughout 2015 I was beached as. Sure, I was working on Musafir in Kilifi Creek, kayaking around, paddling up Mida Creek and occasionally sayin’, “G’day,” to the Indian Ocean.

 

But I couldn’t go underwater, my comfort zone. My happy place, if you will. When I finally found the doctor that realised what I had been telling the previous seven – that I had a perforated hole in my ear drum – I was finally given the right treatment.

Two weeks later I was kayaking and rafting the white (brown) waters of the Tana River in Kenya, without issue. Then the deserts of Ethiopia and Sudan took me away from the salt waters of the ocean until I found myself in Hurghada, Egypt.

“This town is young,” explained Mondi, leading us to the marina. “It was built specifically for the intention of tourism.”

“A resort town,” I said.

“Yes. It’s only 40-years-old.”img_1955

It’s been awhile since I’ve visited a marina and Hurghada’s is impressive. Large motorised yachts and a few sailing ones docked by the boardwalk dotted with side-by-side cafes and restaurants.

I’m not really into motorised yachts. Ever since I sailed across the Indian Ocean I’ve risen in love with being propelled by the wind. Perhaps it relates to my flatulent abilities. Either way, there’s no better way to cross the water then by sailing.

Hurghada is the name of a palm tree said to have been visible from a distance and used as a navigational point and resting area for the fishermen when they returned from their trips. The tree is long gone, in its place, the marina. At the far end of it, sits the port of Hurghada where giant ferries take passengers to Saudi Arabia. Behind it, stood a majestic mosque.

“Is called the Mina mosque,” explained Mondi. “Mina means ‘port’.”

img_1967I’ve never been inside a mosque. I usually refrain from entering places of worship. Being a devout believer in science, The Universe, Karma and the inarguable laws of nature, I feel that I might tarnish a house of prayer. But it is an impressive building and Mondi took me in.

We removed our shoes and headed into the main hall, empty of worshipers. I looked up and around, impressed by the high dome ceilings and was pointed out the Quran inscriptions on the panels of the walls and ceilings. img_1969

There was a lot of ‘Only one true god’ in the pamphlets that were in a range of languages but I steered clear of the propaganda. I had enjoyed what I had experienced so far of the Muslim world and didn’t need any fuel for fires I was keeping at bay within me.

Later that night we passed by Jolly Café, on Sheraton street. “The most famous street in Hurghada,” Mondi claimed.

At Jolly Café I bartered with Abdullah and Ahmed, the manager\owners for food and, my latest thing, a bus ticket. I was travelling in the wrong time of year. It was way too hot to stand by the side of the road and so I’d come up with a new strategy. As I was staying with Mondi, I didn’t need bed. Just food and a bus ticket to Cario.

“Can you play us something now?” Ahmed asked.

I auditioned with my standard crowd-pleaser, Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash and was accepted to play that night for three hours. There was no microphone so I strummed out instrumentals until the traditional Egyptian singer who sings nightly came by with one.

But I was knackered and for the next day I had bartered a snorkel trip and needed some rest.

I couldn’t wait to go – as the mafia says – swim with the fishes.

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LUXOR

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“Hello my friend, want to see the temples?” said a smiling bald-headed man.

It was early morning and I had barely stepped out of the hotel when I was approached. I figured, Why not? It’ll be hot and with my current knee issue I’d be limited to walking long distances.

“Yallah, take me.”

Hama (which means ‘Dove’ as opposed to the Turkish baths that I thought he was named for) walked us to the ferry which cost a whole Egyptian pound ($0.10 USD) and we headed over to the West Bank.

“West is the best,” he grinned, throwing lines that he probably uses a million times on foreigners.

This guy had a good vibe about him and he did shoo away any one who thought of trying to hassle me. We chugged across the Nile and hopped in his car. First stop was a breakfast of falafel, my latest addiction.

And here in Egypt they do it well.

“We’ll go to the Valley of the Kings,” he said, “and the Memnon monuments.”

“Cool,” I said. “You’re the guide.”

“And hot chicken soup.”

Huh? “Hot chicken soup?”

He grinned mischievously. “It’s the famous Hatshepsut temple.”

Ah. “Ah.”

Luxor means ‘The Palaces’ and on this site the ancient city of Thebes was located. The amount of archaeology here is staggering and there are tons of shops where alabaster (quartz) is handcrafted into vases and other statues.

The Valley of the Kings runs along the smooth, asphalt road. Being penniless I didn’t go in so we U-turned and went to see some hot chicken soup… I mean, Hatshepsut’s temple, carved into the rock of the mountain-side. Hatshepsut was the fifth ruler of the 18th Dynasty. Being the daughter of Thutmose I and Queen Ahmose, she married her half-brother, Thutmose II, who already spawned a son, Thutmose III, by a minor wife.

When her husband died in 1479 B.C. his son was appointed heir. But the kid was just a kid so Hatshepsut was appointed regent and together they ruled until 1473 when she declared herself pharaoh.

That’s right. A female pharaoh.

The ancient Egyptians were quite progressive. They didn’t oppress women for the simple fact that they worshiped nature and not some never-proven-to-exist deity that reckons women need to be covered and shut down whenever they want to speak their minds.

And this is thousands of years ago (yet, we claim to be ‘evolved’). Ancient civilizations had some powerful female leaders. Queen Sheba, Cleopatra, Joan de Arc. What the hell happened to us?

Oh right, praying to invisibility.

Hatshepsut would dress in mens attire and administer affairs of the nation with the full support of the high priest of Amun, Hapuseneb. When she built her temple at Deir el Bahari in Thebes, she decided to be the daughter of Amun. She disappeared in 1458 B.C. when Thutmose III, wishing to reclaim the throne, led a revolt. He had her shrines and statues mutilated.

Not easy keeping it in the family.

From there we cruised around to an alabaster shop that Hama’s friend, Ahmed, owned. I liked this guy cause he didn’t push to sell me anything. Simply said, “Welcome, my friend,” and explained the delicacies of creating a piece from alabaster.

“Looks like quartz,” I noted.

“Yes, it is quartz,” he said. “There are three colours: white, brown and green. Each piece is hand-made and takes 10-15 days. With a machine it takes 10-15 minutes.”

Talk about your time saver. But then it kills off the tradition.

“First, we shape the piece we are working on. Then we wrap it in linen and bury it so we can carve a hole into it to img_1884make the vase. Using a limestone rock we then smooth the sides and finally, we have a finished product.”

He held up an example to the sunlight.

“That’s pretty cool,” I said, impressed by the workmanship.

“The rocks are brought in from about 60 kilometers away in the desert. There are no roads so transport is by donkeys and camels.”

I never thought donkeys to be desert animals but since visiting Ethiopia I’ve come to respect these jack-asses a lot more.

img_1894He showed me around the store, the different pieces and the glow-in-the-dark ones.

Yeah, he began to talk about, “Good price,”s but he wasn’t pushy and I respected him for that and for not giving me the stink eye when I didn’t purchase anything. My souvenirs consist of memories, photos and my writings about what I’ve been through. Trinkets just aren’t my thing.img_1896

 

Especially as I have nowhere to put them.

We shook hands and then Hama drove us to the giant Colossi of Memnon, two huge statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned during the 18th Dynasty, sitting proud (they’re sitting statues) for the past 3,400 years. They’re 18 meters high and weigh around 720 tons.

The Colossi stand guard at the entrance to Amenhotep’s memorial temple, built during the pharaoh’s lifetime, regarded as the largest temple in its day. Amenhotep was worshiped as a god-on-earth both before and after his death.

Way back in 27 BCE, a huge earthquake shattered the statues, cracking one from the waist up, deforming the other (faces aren’t on it). Since that shaky day, people have claimed that the statues sing, usually an hour or two before sunrise.

Quite quickly this became a known wonder and word spread as far as Rome. Its emperors would come to visit and marvel at this phenomenon. Some attribute the sounds to the amount of tourists at the time, others think it’s the evaporation of the dew through the rocks. It’s said to bring good luck and fortune if you hear it. I didn’t. But if this sound did exist, it’s more likely to just be the wind blowing through the cracks, creating some sort of whistling song effect.

But I’m no scientist.

I was impressed by the sheer size of them but couldn’t help think why the need to build something so big of yourself? What’s wrong with a six-foot carving?

I ignored the stall holder trying to sell me a map of Egypt and paused to chat with some police who said they were musicians and complained at the lack of tourists. Indeed, the revolution has caused quite the downfall in tourism and the country has been hit hard economically.

The fact that it’s now under military rule probably doesn’t help either.

But it is safe.

Later that evening, after resting at Oasis Hotel, I took a walk to the mosque built on a church that was built on the remains of the peristyle court of Amenhotep III when I was courted by a young kid to take a ride on his horse ‘n’ buggy, locally known as caleche.

These guys are relentless. But the kid was asking for just five pounds ($0.50 USD) to, “Feed my horse.” He offered to take me to some market and then Karnak. I wasn’t interested in the market but I went along with it.

“To Karnak is 20 pounds,” the kid turned from the front.

“Woah, buddy,” I sighed, knowing this would happen. “You said five pounds for the market, the temple and Karnak. You said the word, Karnak.”

“It’s four kilometres,” he begged.

“Then don’t mislead your clients,” I schooled him. I handed him the five pounds and walked off to see the Luxor Temple – Karnak.

img_1931Of course, I arrived and it was closed in preparation for the light and sound show presented hourly in four different languages. I walked back to the hotel, getting hassled by a calache driver who went from 20 pounds down to five to try and convince me to hop on.

“I’ve got legs,” I said. “I’ll walk.”

I hit the hotel and packed my stuff for the morning’s trip to Hurghada, the seaside resort town on the Red Sea.img_1938

 

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A DESERT OASIS

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© Oasis Hotel

The Oasis Hotel might not be the most luxurious place to put your head down but it’s friendly and really, when you’re in foreign lands, all you need is a shower and a place to sleep. You should be out and about (as the Canadians say).

Oasis is located in the heart of Luxor, walking distance from the Nile with Amenhotep’s peristyle court on its banks. The streets outside are lined with restaurants and it has a roof-top terrace.

They can provide bookings for tours and have a small restaurant. And almost everyone speaks English in Luxor.

Really, it’s a hostel with a few floors to climb but the communal showers are clean as are the rooms that have wifi and a powerful fan to cool off the heat.

It’s the oasis in the desert that every traveller needs to stop by if they want that true Egyptian-styled hospitality in Luxor.

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HITCH HIKING IN EGYPT – PART I

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“Not possible,” the soldier said.

I set my bags down at the gate and faced the Egyptian soldier. “Nothing is impossible.”

“Where is your bus?”

I looked around for the cameras. Nope. This was real. “I don’t do buses.”

 

The two truck drivers that were at the gate were also scratching their heads. Again, I went through the long process of trying to explain how I travel and why. As soon as I said, “Car,” the soldier asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” he pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

Sigh. “Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. Can you please let me in?”

“No key.”

This had to be a joke. The gate to the great land of Egypt was locked and the guy with the key was off on his tea break or sleeping in.

I had managed to go through the comedy that is the Sudanese border for the last two hours, walked past trucks with their drivers sitting and chatting in groups in the shade of their cabs. I greeted them in Arabic. They seemed confounded that I was walking. I’m guessing this doesn’t happen often. That everyone is either in a car, bus, truck, bike or bicycle.

After an hour’s wait, two cars showed up behind me packed with families and luggage. A short fella on the Egyptian side looking every bit the Egyptian in an Egyptian movie opened the gate.

“50 pound,” he said.

“No, I already got the visa,” I showed him on my passport.

The guy checked my visa and grinned up at me. “50 pound entry.”

What is this, a club? An amusement park?

“I don’t have 50 pounds,” I said.

“Yes, 50 pound,” he continued to grin.

I searched my pocket. I had 60 Sudanese pounds. “Can you change currency somewhere?”

“Yes,” he continued to grin, enjoying the torture. “In Sudan.”

Sigh. “You take dollars?”

“No. Egyptian pound only.”

The driver of the first vehicle had stepped out and I approached him, asking if he could change some money with me.

“What do you need?” he asked with a helpful smile.

“50 pounds.” I didn’t even know the exchange rate. “I’ve got 60 Sudanese to change.”

“Here,” he handed me an Egyptian 50 pound note. “Don’t worry about it.”

What?

This guy just offered to pay for my entry into Egypt? “Shukran! Shukran shadida!” I thanked him and gave the short fella the money. He gave me a ticket, tore the end of it and directed me to a window.

“30 pound.”

Huh? “Shu, 30 pound? I just gave you 50.”

“50 entry. 30 customs.”

I blinked. Egypt was my 20th country in three years and I had never come across such a system. I paid $20 USD for the visa in Addis and now I was also paying at the gate. But everyone was lining up to pay. My time was short as I had to beat the bus crowds otherwise I’d be stuck in a line from here to Cairo.

I approached the window.

“Do you take Sudanese pounds?”

“No. You can change dollars in the cafeteria.” He took my passport as collateral and I headed over.

“One dollar is eight pounds,” said the kid.

I handed him a $5 note. He seemed to struggle with the calculation. “Arbaim,” I said. 40. He handed me two 20s and I high-tailed it to the customs guy who gave me 10 pounds change.

I was then directed to the security check, my bags going through an X-ray machine, the first time since Singapore that my bags went through such scrutiny. I was body-searched and collected my packs.

“Where do I go?” I asked the bag man.

He pointed to an area across the tarmac. I headed over to a closed window. A bus had pulled up from the Sudanese side and people were pouring out, clambering around me and the window. A silver-headed Egyptian man lightly conversed with me.

“I am Mustafar,” he introduced himself. I saw him fill out a card and grabbed one “Don’t worry, you are first. Number one. Welcome in Egypt.”

I grinned. He was from Giza and told me how he had climbed the pyramids, sat on the top and read a book while observing all the tourists below. Another bus had pulled in and more people were clambering around the still-closed window.

I bumped into the gentleman with the striped purple shirt – Abubaker. “We meet again,” I grinned as he smiled back.

A line of about a hundred people had formed and I was number one, at least according to Mustafar. We waited by the window for about an hour. When it finally opened, the customs officer took his time to wipe down his desk, brush off his uniform, receive a glass of tea from a colleague, check that his stamp had the right date, stare at me and then take Mustafar’s passport.

Mustafar told the officer to take mine next to which the officer grinned. He did as requested and looked at my photo then at me. I was wearing my gamcha, a colourful Indian fabric I was using as a head wrap (it’s amazing how fabric can really block out the sun’s heat), sunglasses and a beard.

In my passport photo I have short hair and I’m clean-shaven.

He indicated for me to remove my wrap and sunnies. I did as commanded and smiled. He looked at the photo and then at me and then back at the photo before he grinned and stamped my visa. I breathed.

“Wait five minutes,” he said, taking the next passport, putting mine on top of Mustafar’s.

Five minutes? For what? I sat by the wall. Mustafar had disappeared but found me.

“Don’t worry, they give it back,” he assured me.

Sure enough, ten minutes later I was handed my passport.

“Welcome in Egypt!” Mustafar slapped my hand firmly.

I grinned, grabbed my packs, got his number and arranged to maybe visit him in Giza and headed off for the gate where four uniformed cops sat with Ray Ban knock-offs looking like they had stepped out of an Indiana Jones movie.

I handed over my passport.

“Where is your bus?”

Not a-fuckin’-gain. “I don’t do buses.” I went, for the seventh time that morning, through the long process of trying to explain how I travel and why. As soon as I said, “Car,” they asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” The cop pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

“Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. Can I please go?”

“La wen?”

“Aswan.”

I was handed back my passport and stepped through the gate. I took five steps before I was called back.

The cop spoke fast Arabic but I picked out, “Majnun,” Crazy and, “Hamsin kilo,” which I took to meaning 50 degrees. He gestured that he would arrange a ride for me and that I sit in the shade. It was better than walking through the desert in this heat.

After an hour an officer showed up and asked the cops why I was sitting there.

“He’s crazy, wanted to walk out in this heat. It’s 50 degrees. I said I’d get him a ride,” the movie star explained.

After an hour and a half a van pulled up and I was put on it. I’m not exactly sure what the cop was telling me but I’d figure it out once I hit the highway.

And boy, did we hit it.

The speedometer on Raus’s van showed 140 K’s an hour. Luckily, the roads were smooth. But the road abruptly ended on the banks of the Nile River. Unlike in Sudan, the Nile here had absolutely no greenery around it. It was simply desert and then water.

Strange, I thought.

A barge came to dock. We drove on and I was greeted by Zakaria.

“My cousin in Aswan has hotel. He can help you,” he said after I explained how I barter. I took his cousin’s number.

“What’s his name?”

“Mohammed.”

Of course it is.

img_1780The barge began to leave the sand bank and we were already a hundred metres out when we reversed back. A bus and truck had arrived.

Ah, I looked at the truck, there’s my hitch. The bus rolled on and its passengers emptied. Mustafar and Abubaker among them. We conversed and I explained my travels and philosophy. He was quite taken by it and then Raus came up to me and said something in Arabic.

My new friend translated for me. “He said he will get you on the bus. No payment.”

I tapped my chest to show my gratitude and shook his hand. “Shukran!”

Then Zakaria demanded I bring the guitar out. He took me up to the captain’s bridge to play for him and Ahmed and Captain Zibodi while they took photos and shot video. I came back down and waited for the men to finish their prayers and played some tunes. Cameras were whipped out and I was videoed from all angles.

I even got a man on crutches to dance. The vibe on the boat was amazing. So much positive energy it was incredible. Everybody seemed to be chattering about me in Arabic. A kid even gave me an ivory carved necklace piece.

Not that I do ivory. I wasn’t sure how to take it but I couldn’t refuse. I’ll have to give it to someone on my travels.

Who just hands over ivory like that?

Finally the driver and conductor were approached by the crowd and I was given a seat on the bus.

I couldn’t believe it. The way the day had started and how everything turned out once I switched my focus to positivity. We reached the port town of Abu Simbel where the temple of Ramses II is located and rolled off the barge. As we pulled out some soldiers came on board and a shouting match happened between them and a couple seated just before the back door. I looked out the window so as not to draw attention to myself.

They grabbed the woman which got the man up and the driver and conductor had to intervene. The soldiers seemed extremely pissed off. A bit of tension was left in the air when they debarked from the bus and we drove into the town and stopped for lunch.

“Twice a year the sun comes in at just the right angle,” Yasser, a local restaurant manager was telling me about the Ramses temple. “We have a big festival here twice a year. People from all over the world come for it.”

It was a UNESCO heritage site on the banks of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake. Created when the Egyptians built a dam back in 1954, the world had united in coming together, thousands of archaeologists, architects, engineers and labourers had worked day and night, from 1959 to 1980, to move and relocate 22 monuments between Aswan and Khartoum to save them from the rising waters created by the high dam.

“Twice a year, on October 22 and February 22 the sun comes in and lights the temple at a very precise angle,” Yasser continued to explain.

It used to be on the 21st of each month but after they moved the monuments it had changed.

As we conversed Abubaker joined us. “We’d like you to join us for lunch,” he pointed at a table covered with fried tilapia (fish from the Nile), rice and salad.

“I’d be honoured,” I said gratefully. “What happened back there on the bus?”

“They said the woman took photos of the military post,” he explained.

One way to piss off soldiers in a country that is ruled by the military is to do just that.

After lunch, I chatted a bit more with Yasser before we got back on the road. “You must come and see the temple,” he said.

“I gotta leave something for next time,” I waved.

The ride to Aswan took about three hours. I was seated in the middle of the back bench and could see the entire bus. It was like a school camp trip. Everybody was singing, clapping, laughing. A Sudanese comedy program was on and I enjoyed the slapstick of it.

Towards our approach to Aswan, Abubaker came and sat with me. We talked about how Western values had become materialistic, how capitalism was disconnecting us.

“I used to live in the UK but life there is so stressful,” he said. “I came back to Sudan to be more free.”

Now that’s saying something.

“In the West people are lead to believe that they need to consume more stuff,” I pointed out my observations of the last three years. “That they need a big house, a fancy car and high walls to protect themselves. No one knows who their neighbours are. In Sudan I noticed that the doors are always open.”

We talked for almost an hour about the obvious truth. “Only a handful of people control the world,” I said. “We are 7.4 billion. We need to start a revolution, take back the power so we can live freely.”

We arrived at the bus terminal in Aswan where I called Mohammed, Zakaria’s cousin.

“I’ll come get you in my car,” he said.

I waited with Abubaker and the man with the crutches who I had gotten to dance and air-guitar on his support and his family. He suffered from a kidney issue and had come to Egypt for medical treatment.

“I will take a holiday in Alexandria for a month,” he grinned.

He was such a joyful bubble of life and contagious about it. He had his whole family with him, three kids, the wife, the wife’s sister. We were taking photos while talking about the Sufi as he was from Omdurman, where I had been staying.

“You know, it’s amazing,” I said. “I never thought of Islam as a happy religion. The West always portrays it as such a closed off, evil thing but everybody is so open, so welcoming. Although, I’ve been to Indonesia and Malaysia and they were a bit more closed off.”

“We have a saying here,” the crutched man said, “Bin hibele haya – I love life.” He was grinning. “We are African Muslims. Africans love to laugh, to sing, to be happy. We love life.”

He wasn’t wrong. I’d been in Africa over two years now and I’d never come across a happier people. Peaceful, respectful, open, warm and welcoming. Africa is amazing and I’ll be sad to leave it in 19 days.

I had started the day ready to throw my bags down. And now, reflecting on the last 14 hours, I couldn’t stop grinning.

“Welcome in Egypt,” echoed Mustafar’s voice.

Indeed, welcome in Egypt.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Egypt, Hitch Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART VI – THE FINALE

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“Inshallah we help you,” Assad kept repeating in the morning when I arrived early to what was now a bus-filled, people-crowded terminal.

Mohammed was nowhere in sight and my predictions of his unwantingness to help turned out to be right. When Mazin appeared I asked him to translate to Assad that if he can’t assist with a ticket, could I please get a lift to the border.

But the kid struggled to understand the word ‘border’ and in the end I thanked him, grabbed my packs and stormed off into the desert.

I was pissed off. My packs were heavy, I was drenched in sweat and there wasn’t a single car on the road. I asked directions for the border not knowing how far it was and began to hike. I stopped for some water stored and cooled in clay pots and continued on. I must have hiked 4 Ks in sweltering heat before the police pick-up picked me up.

“Mas’ir?” I asked. Egypt?

“Tfa’del,” grinned the officer. Please.

I hopped in the tray thankful for the wind that dried my shirt within five minutes. The ride was almost an hour through the desert.

Jesus, they really know how to put a border out in the middle of nowhere.

The Goustol border crossing between Sudan and Egypt was one of the most complex borders I’ve ever crossed. Every border I’d been through I’d get stamped out of one country, stamped into the next and off I went. A matter of half an hour.

But here?

Oh here is where the fun begins.

“Salam al-yekum,” I cheerfully greeted an officer. “Where do I get stamped?”

He directed me to a window. I placed my gear down and whipped out my passport. Sudan is the first country out of the 19 I’ve been too in the last three years that I’ve had to walk around with my passport on me at all times. It’s quite annoying but I’d grown accustomed to it after 11 days in the desert nation.

At the window I greeted the officers in the caravan office and waved my passport. The officer pointed to the next window.

At the window was a photocopy machine. A voice behind me spoke up. “Where are you going?”

I turned around to the tall Sudanese in a striped purple shirt. “Mas’ir.”

“Go through there,” he pointed at the door in perfect English. “You are not Sudanese. You don’t have to pay an exit fee.”

An exit fee? Mo was right. I mean, I wouldn’t have to pay an exit fee but the locals did.

I was directed into a large hall packed with people and luggage strewn all over the tiled floors, Arabic thrown around at every volume. It was as though chaos was leaning against the wall, watching it’s handy work unfold.

I was taken to a counter where I filled out an exit card. The tall striped purple shirt gentlemen appeared again, like some guardian angel. He translated some of the Arabic the customs folk were throwing at me. I was then directed to another counter where another card was filled out for me and my passport was finally stamped. I then headed to the door when an officer blocked my way.

“Where you go?”

“Mas’ir.” I think it’s pretty obvious if I was heading in that direction.

“Where is your bus ticket?”

Bus ticket? “I don’t do buses.”

As I began the long process of trying to explain how I travel, the officer simply blinked with a blank look on his face. As soon as I said, “Car,” he asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” The officer, with raised eyebrows, pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

Sure. “Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

Sigh. “Nothing is impossible. Can I please get to Egypt?”

“Go over there. Check luggage.”

I looked over where a hundred people where shoving their luggage forcefully onto the counter where one, single, sunglass-wearing customs official walked up and down, grinning like Pablo Escobar, feeling bags and placing little blue stickers on them.

I turned to the officer that was seated on the beach. According to his shoulders, he seemed to have some sort of rank. “One guy?” I said. “Wahad?”

He shrugged.

I shook my head in disbelief. This had to be some sort of movie. I moved in, trying to be polite when a guy cut in front of me.

Sonofa –

Seeing how all pleasantries went out the window I followed suit and shoved his bags aside. “There’s a line, habibi,” I said without smiling and pushed in. Everyone who had luggage on the counter had their bags open. I’ll be an elephant’s testicle if I’m about to unpack my gear. I opened my small pack. The officer came by and felt up my guitar case.

“Oud?”

“Guitar.”

He touched my large pack. “Clothes,” I indicated my T-shirt.

He almost touched my small pack (watch it) before placing the tiny blue stickers on each bag. Breathing a sigh of relief I then headed for the door.

“Go there,” an officer pointed to a small office. “Search.”

“I was just searched.”

He touched his pants pockets. “Search.”

Ah, body search. I headed over and was searched with the lightest of touches on my pockets. I could smuggle an elephant across this border if this was the level of security. I got a tiny blue sticker on my passport and finally – I think – made it to the door.

“Thank you visit Sudan,” said the officer at the door I had tried to go through three times.

I grinned.

I stepped into the baking sun and saw a couple of buses parked and as I looked around a bit lost, the same officer from the first window came to me.

“Where is your bus ticket?”

Blink.

Did we not just go through this? I repeated my mime. He called over another officer.

“Bus ticket?”

Was this some sort of Just For Gags special?

I repeated the mime and even though he didn’t seem too convinced he made a few calls to get an officer to unlock the gate for me.

“Shukran,” I said. “Sudan kiff tam’am.” Sudan is great.

I was sad to leave this desert land. Yes, it was unbearably hot and I had almost broken down this morning but my good friend, The Universe, as usual, had crossed my path with the right people.

Even if they struggled to understand my concept.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Sudan | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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