A Travellerspoint blog

Day 229 – Inside the Libyan Embassy

8th May 2012

sunny 36 °C

It was visa day. We had one thing on our minds and that was Libya. We set off early and reached the embassy just after nine. We asked for Mustafa at the entrance and the Scouse accent was somehow interpreted as ‘Mr Mohammed.’ Fortunately, Mr Mohammed existed. And moreover, he was far enough up the Libyan bureaucratic ladder as to garner respect from the guardians at the gate but not so far up as to ignore the minions trying to gain entrance to his country. Mr Mohammed, or Mohammed as his mum calls him, was a nice guy. First we were taken to his office were we stated our case. Immediately realising that this was a decision to be taken by those above him he took us next door and up a rung on that perilous ladder. But even at that height, the air wasn’t heady enough to allow such decisions. We’d have to enter the inner sanctum. We needed to go higher and so Mohammed escorted us back down stairs and around the back of the first building to a far grander building. We climbed the marble stairs onto the veranda and entered through towering double doors. Ahead lay a double staircase that peeled off to its left and right, adorned with a carpet that had seen better days and whose brass rails were no longer intact. At the top of the stairs the oxygen was thin. We were high enough for authority to be given, we were high enough to be suffering from vertigo. There is a quality that comes with places of power that leaves the visitor somehow feeling worried and guilty, the same feeling as when a police officer walks towards you, or being stood outside the head-masters office or waiting for exam results. We’d spent two days trying to get in and fifteen minutes after walking through the doors we were breathing the refined air of the empowered heights; before us lay five huge double doors. ‘Pick a door and choose your fate. Destiny is waiting and what will you be going home with tonight?’ It was a weird ‘Blind Date’. But thankfully we didn’t have to choose. Mohammed did; and he chose door number four. A knock and no answer, there was no one in; our hearts sank a little and the guilt lifted, oh well not to worry, can we go home now. Mohammed’s second choice was door number five; a knock, a wait, no answer. He looked nervously to door number three, the door in the centre of the five. It somehow appeared taller and grander than all of the others, as if in their sat a deity or perhaps even the colonel, with a bandage around his head. We were mere mortals and no one wanted to knock on door number three.

But then door number five creaked open and from behind an Arabic chap appeared a small lady in high heels. Those heels gave her height and the sharp suit and exacting make up all stood to empower a woman in what, in reality, was a man’s world. Her name was Hannah, her English was impeccable and she invited us through door number four and into her office. We discussed our plight and re-iterated that we needed no more than seven days to traverse her home land and that we’d be very grateful if she could allow us that. Our papers, including passports and our ‘letter from the embassy’ were handed over and she excused herself. She had to speak to God in room number three.

A short while passed as Mr Mohammed explained the process and Madam Hannah returned. She explained that in principal there would be no problems in granting us a seven day transit visa, but, we would have to return on Sunday as, Inshallah (God Willing,) they had some border troubles to sort out before we’d be safe to pass through. This seemed positive to us. What great news, she hadn’t said no, which would have been very easy, and she’d invited us back to see her. Even better they’d have gotten rid of the bad guys by the time we arrived. Rose tints in place we bade her and Mohammed farewell, wondering what the ‘border issues’ might be.

The list of things to do in Cairo, involved a trip to the Opera House. The Main Hall in fact, but there was a dress code. Given the fact that most of our clothes were variations on the theme ‘homeless person’ and that a smart jacket and tie hadn’t been high on my list for ‘overlanding couture’ we went second hand shopping in the street market. Laura had devised her outfit, and she owned all the items already, she was grand. Based on what we’d seen available I was aiming for American Ivy Leaguer come corner shop purveyor and therefore needed chinos, a jacket and a tie. Within an hour we’d found all three and all three had cost us a total of seven English pounds and fifty pence. I had bought a stripy tie for fifty pee, I’d had a choice of blue and yellow stripes or sky blue, I went for the school boy look. We found a pair of Tommy Hilfiger chinos that had cost three quid, (designer kecks in Cairo! We just had to work out how to get the biro stains off,) and the piece de resistance and the single best item of clothing that I will probably ever own, a velvet (mock I presume) jacket, two sizes too small, with sleeves that end above the wrists and lapels whose points reach almost to the shoulders, the garment’s ‘Made In...’ label informed that it had arrived in Egypt straight from the cat walks of nineteen seventies West Germany. There would be more than one diva at the Cairo Opera House.

That was the following evening sorted, but we had other ideas for the afternoon ahead and on our way we were befriended by a chap who first took us to find good, and cheap, falafels and then took us to his friend’s perfume store where we took peppermint tea whilst he tried to sell us some fragrances. First he smeared yes, smeared Laura’s arm in Lotus Blossom, a pleasant scent but one that disappeared after ten seconds. I received something that smelt like Brut for Men only after a heavy day in the city and which our man insisted would ‘make me like a horse’ as he coarsely bolted his clenched fist and fore arm upright. I refrained from telling him that at least I now smelt like one. We skirted the issue of fragrances as our arms were smeared some more with Cleopatra’s Derriere and Rameses’ Tootsies and we deftly avoided telling the chap that they all smelt like a tarts handbag. Eventually we managed to leave.

Our afternoon had been designed for something a little more modern in our pursuit of culture. We watched an American film about superheroes, shown in 3D at the local cinema whilst eating McDonalds apple pies and drinking strawberry milkshakes.

Posted by ibeamish 09:54 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Day 228 – Burkas and Belly Dancers

7th May 2012

sunny 35 °C

A taxi to the metro and the metro into town, we were already getting the hang of a city whose streets were filled with sedated drivers aiming for the speed of sound whilst embracing that sacred embodiment of sound, the horn. The British embassy would help; if they didn’t, who could? But once again we were idiots for thinking it. The British are a defunct empire run by high level business and bureaucracy that leaves those minions on the ground, the faces at the front, powerless to do anything of their own free will for fear of compromising the system or aiding terrorism.

We surrendered our phones and memory devices to gain entry to a building only to be told that they could/would not write a letter to say that we did not require visas to enter Tunisia. The minion wasn’t even allowed to stamp the Foreign Office website pages that we’d printed off in order to aid our argument. Our calculated pleading however stepped down its demands each time until all we were asking for was something with a telephone number on that we could hand to the Libyans to call the British. Such a small token from a couple who looked so tired, so innocent and forlorn; the chap must have felt that he had to offer us something. It was a meagre and final request and one that had come after we’d discreetly noticed the stack of official paper that lay next to his desk. He reached over and plucked one leaf of headed ‘British Embassy, Cairo’ A4 paper and passed it through; we had what we’d come for. If they wouldn’t write us a letter, the bloody citizens would write it themselves.

More coffee and sweet, sweet, rich, dark, moist and sweet, oh so sweet, chocolate cake and we headed back; via Tahrir Square to the Tunisian Embassy for another argument with a security guard who’d got his opening times mixed up. Tunisia were not going to be of any use. But we had eight pages of A4 with the visa requirements for British Nationals in Tunisia highlighted and a sheet of A4 officially headed stating that these documents were accurate and to call the British Embassy immediately if further confirmation was required.

Our plans were not yet desperate, but the Libyan hurdle had certainly slowed us down. For seven months we’d been talking about Libya, knowing it was uncertain, knowing it was potentially unsafe and knowing in reality that we would only know if it was a viable option when we reached Cairo. But we were in Cairo, and we had reached that fork in the road. There is something extremely pleasant about intentionally ignoring the danger ahead by focusing on your desired outcome; somewhere two kilometres or twenty minutes after that danger has passed. With every tick of the clock we began to question our decision to travel through the country, we increasingly wondered about safety, using phrases like ‘they won’t issue the visa unless it’s safe’ and ‘the rebels like the British, we freed them,’ in an effort to placate our growing concern. The difficulty of obtaining a visa was providing a pleasant distraction from what would come after its acquisition. We knew some bikers had come through already, they’d had no problems, why would we?

But there’s been gunfire and revolts in Benghazi; there was still regular gunfire, celebratory they say, in many of the main cities and Sirte was still a dangerous place to be. The foreign office website told us to avoid all but essential travel to some parts and to avoid completely everywhere else. But how many times had we read those little foreign office signs, red for bad, orange for fairly bad and green for head right in. We’d been in Nairobi when a few grenades turned it from yellow to orange. We’d narrowly missed shoot outs over a few cattle in Kenya’s north and had been in Sudan when the army had retaken their border town of Heglig, but never ever, have we really been in any danger, surely the foreign office have to err on the side of caution. Libya was a country trying to get back to normal and we stepped back inside the entrance to its Cairo embassy, an entrance we had still to pass, and once again we asked for Sabri. Thirty minutes later we had no Sabri, but, in his place, we had a Mustafa. And, Mr. Mustafa looked far more helpful than our ‘disavowed Syrian defector’ that had insisted on an unnecessary Tunisian visa. We explained our situation and gave Mustafa our passports our British letter and our Foreign Office print outs. He excused himself and told us he would return shortly. He did, and much to our delight, suggested that a visa would be possible, but, since it was late (one-thirty, embassy time) we would be better returning the following morning and using the other entrance. He promised that he would be nearby to assist us.

It was promising news but, without an actual visa the celebratory gunfire could wait. The most important thing was that they hadn’t said no. We suppressed our excitement and decided it was time to have a little bit of fun. All this work and no play had been tough and so we headed for the National Museum and spent an afternoon perusing hundreds of tombs and thousands of ancient artefacts including mummified rams, horses, birds, crocodiles and humans. Mummification was the way into the afterlife and if that was where you were going and you had the money then why not take your faithful friends? Naturally dogs, cats, sacred rams and birds topped the list but they’d even found the remains of a mummified elephant! We saw the incredible treasures of Tutankamun, the boy king, dead at 19, who had so much gold, it was, quite frankly, a bit ridiculous. His arms were covered in heavy gold bracelets, but that wasn’t enough, so they wrapped this gold in his first mummy outfit and then recovered his arms with gold bracelets on top of the other gold bracelets. He had an eleven kilogram solid gold head dress placed atop his head and shoulders; if you nicked it, melted it down and sold it to Argos for their 24 carat range it’d fetch well over half a million US and that was just his hat. Naturally all that goldsmithery was priceless and it was wholly spectacular. On his feet he wore solid gold sandals, over his fingers and toes he had solid gold finger and toe covers, necklaces, daggers, all the optional extras, in gold. His body was then placed in a gold sarcophagus, which was then placed in a second and then third gold sarcophagi. Only then was he placed in the stone sarcophagus and his treasure rooms around him filled with golden chariots, spare jewellery and anything else golden that he might need in the afterlife. His tomb was the epitome of success for any archaeologist with an inkling toward Harrison Ford-like qualities. Unearthing a truly priceless tomb was Howard Carter’s cause celebre; his career’s defining moment. The treasures were stunning and surely far more of a highlight than the three thousand year old corpses in the (additional fee) ‘Mummy Room.’ The National Museum at Cairo has but one real problem, it just has too much stuff. It’s like the spoilt kid that gets all he wants for Christmas, three years down the line his room isn’t big enough, the museum building struggled to contain it all. But it didn’t matter, the museum was fantastic, it was truly world class.

We wondered what they did with all the spare artefacts, priceless anywhere else, but abundant here. We laughed as a heavy looking wooden crate was carried awkwardly through the exhibit by two old men, wearing ‘janitor’ costumes and a slap stick look of the Marx brothers about them, escorted by two armed guards who were dressed head to toe in white but for their black jack boots, leather belt and berets. The sticker on the crate stated FROM; Belgium and TO; Cairo. That will be Egypt reclaiming all of its stolen antiquities then.

Filled with all the culture of an afternoon at a great museum we were clamouring for more. We hadn’t seen the pyramids properly yet, but they could wait, we had also set a date for a visit to the Cairo Opera House, but that too could wait. All these delights were on hold, because we had booked a dinner cruise. But not just any dinner cruise, our golden bedecked, touristic monstrosity was home to a lady, a lady who belly danced while the discerning sea farers nibbled on their koftas and tahina. The boat somehow managed to pull off the look of golden palace. It’s rich and intentionally ‘over the top decoration’ somehow stood its own as we wandered past seven foot canine monoliths prefabricated from fibreglass and sprayed gold. We had pre-dinner nibbles and drinks sat in a cafe on the banks of the Nile and we watched our vessel being readied. Somers was excited for more than just the belly dancer; she had prepared herself for an entire evening of people watching; she would not be disappointed.

We were the first on board and had a table for two in front, but not immediately so, of the stage. Samer, our campsite Airbus pilot, had told us that he’d taken his wife here on their anniversary. We were expectant. The room filled gradually and the buffet was served; a few western businessmen and their Egyptian colleague, several families, an English couple on holiday who were already videoing the occasion, a Russian lady, whose denim dress appeared intentionally designed not to fit, like a maternity dress on someone who is actually just overweight. The dress entered long before she did accompanied by her lover/fiancé/husband/escort and a number of burka clad ladies with their jacketed gentlemen alongside; oh what fun the latter were to watch.

There is something divinely comical about a lady who has chosen to strictly adhere to a religion that insists she must be concealed from head to toe and who is attempting to ‘stick to the rules’ whilst eating in a public place. We tried desperately to see how the food got from the plate to her mouth but were entirely unsuccessful and, anyway, were soon distracted by the excessively large breasts that appeared on stage as the band kicked up and our dancer shook far more than just her belly. Our dancer was no superstar but she was keen and her fake, ‘I’ve got something up my bottom,’ smile come grimace rarely left her face. Far more interesting was the couple we’d been watching earlier. The husband, surely aware of what he was doing when he booked a dinner cruise that included belly dancing as entertainment, had been instructed to turn away from the stage to face out across the Nile onto the far bank far away from the temptations that were shaking bilaterally behind him. He wasn’t allowed to watch and we giggled like children as he positioned himself so that he could sneakily watch the action in the windows’ reflection whilst his wife continued to defy physics and beam her food up from her plate, through the muslin guard and into her mouth.

After the belly dancer came a man in a huge orange skirt, in his hands he held four woven baskets. He began spinning the moment he arrived on stage and he continued spinning for the next ten minutes, throwing the spinning skirt above his head and holding the baskets in a variety of ‘exciting and dangerous’ ways, we watched, in mild appreciation and a degree of apathetic wonder, noting that our couple had permitted each other to watch this section.

The second act had our belly dancer back, in a slightly less revealing outfit, and she was dragging the Americans on stage to ‘shake their thang’, and touring the room having photos taken with willing guests. Though photographed, we didn’t make a purchase and, disappointingly, the real entertainment, our couple, had retired to the upper deck to avoid any further embarrassment.

We hailed a cab to take us back to the campsite whilst trying to work out what our couple had been thinking when they booked a dinner that would require an illusion to eat and a show that they weren’t allowed to watch. Our own expectations of a beautifully curvaceous lady dressed in silk and trimmed with gold, a lady who could mesmerise us with the shake of her belly and bewilder us with a smouldering look from behind her silken face mask, had been truly dashed. Our overly made up, slightly dysrythmic and slightly too overweight belly dancer hadn’t exactly entranced us, but we had certainly been entertained. We imagined that she was probably somewhere on the metro using a large coke to wash down a kebab as we raced through the Cairo night like cops in an eighties show.

Posted by ibeamish 09:53 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Day 227 – "Cairo Baby!" (Embassies Galore)

6th May 2012

sunny 37 °C

‘Cairo Baby!’ we intermittently exclaimed to one another, we had arrived in the city of endless nights, the largest city in Northern Africa and a city that brimmed with an indefatigable energy. Our Cape to Cairo mission was complete. Though that mission had been a major accomplishment it still remained part of a larger objective. We wanted to traverse Africa from bottom to top. We’d been to Cape Aghulas, on Africa’s southernmost tip; the northern most tip was in Tunisia; the land of carpets, souks and Star Wars film sets. In our way stood Libya; the infamous home of Colonel Muamar Gadaffi, the theatrical podium for a European and American staged tragedy and the desert landscape now ruled by an interim government and various rebel sects who controlled its borders. We needed to cross it in order to see North Africa and find our way home.

It was our first day in the city, and so we indulged ourselves in a taxi. The Cairenes, in one morning, stole the hard fought ‘Africa’s Worst Drivers’ accolade with consummate ease. They didn’t just win, they were an education to any who strive to undertake, cut in, break speed limits and defy one way systems at eighty kilometres per hour. In fact any given road and any given side of that road was a drivable lane, it really didn’t matter which direction you were heading in as long as you had a horn. Not one car was without the injuries of battle that take place on the streets every day. A taxi driver can eat a kebab, ask where we’re going, beep his horn and swerve in and out of traffic with inches to spare all whilst using his mobile phone. The view through the windscreen was exactly the same as the one on a computer screen when you’re racing Bugatti’s and Aston Martin’s through city-scapes at a hundred kilometres an hour on your Playstation. Exhilarating and petrifying at once, our hearts as well as our bodies were racing; and all we wanted was to get into town.

After overcoming the language barrier we found our way to the Libyan Embassy. In our heads an orchestra was playing in a minor key and the drums were building to a terrifying crescendo. This was the Libyan Embassy, for our entire lives we’ve been taught that Libyans are dangerous, they blow up planes, they support terrorism, they’re wild cards run by a dictator vilified, quite rightly, by ‘the west.’ But in their defence, they have nice Roman and Greek ruins and a rather convenient road that we’d like to use. The conductor brought the orchestra to a dramatic finale and we stepped up to the counter. “We’d like a transit visa please.” Oh how easy it would have been for him to fold through a whole handful of shiny stickers and hand two over. But this was a bureaucracy; our ideal world was not the same as the one we lived in. Naturally we were at the wrong ‘window in the wall on the street’ and we were instructed to walk around the corner and make the noise ‘sabri’ at whoever confronted us. Around that corner we did indeed find another window in a wall, but this time with an adjoining door. The door was ajar and we stepped through with a crowd of ten of fifteen others. Once in we were confronted by a guard come registrar who stood in the second doorway; he was the human barrier facing a room only two metres square and crammed with people just itching to get permission slips for their holidays. We asked for a ‘sabri’ and were told to wait at another window. We did wait and after a while we had the opportunity to ask another man for a ‘sabri.’ This new guy had a face you wouldn’t miss. He had that masculine, handsome face of an Arabic secret agent, slick dark hair, a suit that hung impeccably from his shoulders and a four inch scar that ran down his right cheek and silently declared, ‘I understand pain.’ He was at once polite, friendly and entirely in control and he introduced himself, ‘Good morning, I’m Sabri, how can I be of assistance.’ His English was excellent, as would be expected from any secret agent. We glossed over the fact we’d told him that we needed a Sabri and he explained that a transit visa could only begin to be processed if we had a Tunisian visa to prove we could leave Libya. We countered that British nationals do not require a visa for Tunisia and he apologised but stated coldly and firmly that they were the rules. We were fools. A Libyan visa had never had the slightest chance of being easy.

Fortunately, Laura had spotted the Tunisian Embassy on the way into town. We stopped for a coffee and a cake and then, fortified, renewed and full of sugar, we made for the next impenetrable ivory tower. Next to that tower was a door with a queue that led to another imperceptibly small hole in a wall, at the end of which, there intermittently appeared a bureaucrat in their natural environment. We spent a while obtaining forms, filling them in, attaching photos and chatting to people in the queue and slowly, without ever getting to speak to an official, realised that applying for a visa when we didn’t need one would not work. With that in mind we found a way in to the main office, (followed an official looking guy through a security door,) and there we politely coerced a man into assisting us. Tunisia would not issue a visa to a British Nationals. Tunisia would not write a letter on behalf of British Nationals. Tunisia would only offer to receive a phone call from the Libyan Embassy in order to state that British Nationals do not require a visa for entry. We couldn’t really argue, they were happy for us to enter they just didn’t want to go another mile. Empty handed, we left the embassy and returned to Libya.

“You need to give me something.” Sabri said. “A letter from your embassy and a letter from Tunisia will help.” Bewildered, we about turned and set march for the British Embassy, it was one thirty and all embassies close by two, they obviously have hectic ‘late lunch’ schedules and all important golf games and drinks parties to attend. We stopped back at Tunisia along the way, they were closed. We had a small disagreement with the stubborn security official when he wouldn’t tell us their opening hours and then we continued to the British Embassy; British citizens in need of help in a city with such strong connections to the Empire of old, surely there we’d find a friend? They were closed; they reopened at nine o’clock tomorrow. We thanked our lucky stars that we didn’t need them to stop our execution or negotiate a prolonged prison sentence. Great Britain has bigger things in mind than its citizens. We would return the following day.

We retired to our camp opting for the metro at just one Egyptian pound per fare, flat rate. Superb. We needed to reformulate our plans.

Posted by ibeamish 09:52 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Day 226 – Nice Egyptians

5th May 2012

sunny 37 °C

The morning came quickly as we slept soundly in our secluded desert camp. Boiled eggs and the previous day’s bread filled our bellies and after three hours driving we arrived in Cairo. The drive had been easy; we stopped for tea half way and we were beyond delighted when the chap who owned the cafe waved us away when we tried to pay. Once again we’d been judging the nation based on the people who earned a living from interacting with tourists. The first time we had left those places completely and we were gifted with a minor but, to us, huge act of generosity. The drive had indeed been very easy, until we reached Cairo; where we found that the drivers were fine competitors for those we’d seen in Nairobi. If in doubt, beep; that will solve nothing. Everyone beeps, the white lines mean nothing and not a single car in Cairo is without a scuff on each of its four corners.

We found the only campsite in Cairo, The Salma Camp, run by a gentleman and a scholar named Samer who was also an airbus A320 pilot, out of work because there aren’t enough planes to fly. The campsite has ‘views of the pyramids’ in that we could see the tip of one of them. .This was a pleasant surprise as it hadn’t been a selling point.

More pressing than the astounding feats of architecture and forty five centuries worth of history was the fact that it was FA Cup Final day and I needed a television with the game on. Samer suggested a cafe nearby that served great juice, (no beer then?) and we made it a date. In the meantime, Kurt showed us how to make pizza in a sauce pan and we ate bloody amazing pizza before Samer and I drove out to watch Liverpool lose.

Posted by ibeamish 09:50 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Day 225 – The Valley of the Kings

4th May 2012

sunny 38 °C

From Rezeiky Camp we wanted to head west. Our first stop was the Valley of The Kings, the final resting place of over fifty well heeled, or sandaled, individuals, many of whom were kings including a series of Rameses’ and the legendary Tutankhamun. The valley itself was a parched rut in a baked land, of moderate beauty in itself, the tombs it holds are exquisite. On the cusp of the Twentieth century it was the place in which tombs filled with riches and treasure were being uncovered. Tutankamun wasn’t discovered until 1922 but the archaeological digging continues to this day. The tombs are essentially long tunnels dug into the rock, leading to a series of chambers; for worship, for treasure and the final resting place. Their walls and ceilings were elaborately adorned with carvings and writing warding off looters and ensuring safe passage of the king into the afterlife. The vivid colours that decorate the walls were sometimes as vivid in the twentieth century as they were four thousand years ago. In their vivid descriptions they have, in a way, stood true and brought their residents back to life, at least in the eyes of the visitors. The valley and its white sand with the sun high over head created the feeling of being an ant under a child’s magnifying glass. The bright light was reflecting from the ground and even with sunglasses, our eyes watered incessantly. Touts in their hundreds hounded us offering us object after object for ridiculously low amounts of ‘pounds’ only to reveal after a series of rejections that they were talking British pounds not Egyptian. It didn’t really matter, who in their right mind wants a mini Tutankhamun in their home?

We climbed to the top to see the valley from above and then decided it was time to be on our way. Our destination was Cairo but our route was to travel a 1400 kilometre round trip via the oases of the Western Desert. Out on the road we passed our first police post we had been a little worried that we’d be turned back but, thankfully we were given the green light. Forty kilometres later however we met a substantial stumbling block; another police stop who would not allow us past. They insisted that there were bandits in the desert and that instead of the two hundred kilometres ahead of us, we would have to travel five hundred to get to the same town on a huge detour. It was ridiculous especially since Egyptian vehicles were being allowed through in both directions. After half an hour of polite requests, pleading, anger and frustration we’d convinced the big boss to phone a bigger boss, who, he motioned, had substantial epaulettes, and that the big big boss had said no. We had no choice; we turned tail and set our sights on Cairo. We’d bush camp in the desert at dark and reach Cairo the following day.

Dejected, the four of us turned the two vehicles around and after a few hours of eating up the road we pulled off the tar and onto the powdery dust of the desert finding a sheltered spot littered with amethysts. We ate dinner and drank beer, wine and ouzo again.

Posted by ibeamish 09:49 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Day 223 – 224 – Luxor

2nd- 3rd May 2012

sunny 40 °C

During our time in Aswan we’d become good friends with the Swiss and the Germans, but Falco and Ana had a very tight schedule and would be racing for Alexandria to rid themselves of the car before boarding a flight for Germany on Saturday. Much of the last five days had been spent lazily eating and drinking with Kurt and Susanna and we’d decided that we would travel in convoy, first to Luxor and then in a loop through the Western Desert to see the desert oases.

Redvers had actually arrived on Monday 30th April, but since the following day, Tuesday, would be a bank holiday no one had thought about unloading him, it was Wednesday afternoon by the time Kamal had helped us clear him and we were sat back inside Redvers and heading north for Luxor.

We spent four hours and over 100 speed bumps driving between Aswan and Luxor. Tired from a day spent releasing the cars and driving we enjoyed a feast laid on at the Rezeiky campsite and we drank beers, wine and a bottle of ouzo all in the name of adventure.

Egypt’s revolution and its subsequent lack of foreign currency meant that there were fuel shortages. However, Baraka, our ever helpful hotel manager was quick to help, finding out when the fuel would arrive. The next morning, after breakfast, he immediately had us, jerry cans in hand, jumping the kilometre long queue outside of the petrol station. The price was an absurd twelve English pence for one litre. Our hundred litre tank was filled for twelve pounds. We couldn’t help but smile.

We visited the temples of Luxor and Karnak which were actually breathtaking. Huge columns of stone towering above us gave a very real feeling of our being stood upon once hallowed ground. We were starting to understand the power and wealth and intelligence of the pharaohs that had commissioned such astounding structures. If only it weren’t for the fifteen million other scantily clad and ridiculously sun burned tourists. And without wanting to sound old, and even worse, prudish, the surprisingly short shorts that were sported by the female contingent whilst on holiday in a predominantly Muslim and very conservative country, seemed shorter than either of us had ever seen. How much arse must be hanging out before a pair of ‘hot pants’ become canvas bikini bottoms? And furthermore, if women are going to wear such hit or miss items, can they please not just look objectively at themselves in a full length mirror before they leave their room?

That afternoon we stocked up on beers and wine for the desert and drank freshly pressed orange juice in downtown Luxor before returning to Rezeiky to repair the once more unwindable window on Redvers and enjoy yet another feast prepared by our hosts who were only too glad to have their first tourists in four weeks. At the end of the evening, Baraka asked would we like to see his shop, which he added had been closed for months. As the lock clicked and the door creaked open, the interior of the shop appeared like a tomb, opened for the first time. A thick layer of dust covered the small golden statues of Tutankhamun and Nefertiti, embroidered garments hung from an old rail and eventually we all made ‘pity’ purchases of items we didn’t really need or want.

Posted by ibeamish 09:49 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Day 218 -222 – Egyptian Men; Sleazeballs and Thieves

27th April – 1st May 2012

sunny 39 °C

The ensuing five days were spent on and around the Nile. In Aswan the water was clean enough to drink, the views were splendid and the Egyptian men foul. Kamal, a veritable peacock amongst pigeons, had been sure to leave us with a few guideline prices but it did little to stem the wild attempts at overcharging we were faced with.

Over the following five days we waited for Redvers to arrive from Sudan. We hired feluccas to sail us up and down the Nile, we visited the Nubian museum, we spent an afternoon reading on Kitcheners Island, a botanical garden, we even took an overnight felucca ride that was cut short when a sand storm blew in and left us prematurely moored, drinking cold beers and colder gin and tonics, on the banks of the Nile waiting for it blow through.

We visited the Temple of Philae where we paid for our tickets only to walk through the door and be confronted by twenty or so young men who controlled the boats that could take us to the island on which the Temple had been rebuilt. Our entrance ticket price was 60 Egyptian Pounds each and these guys wanted 100 each for a five minute boat ride. (For a local it should cost 20 EGP per person.) The first guy was furiously dismissed by us and angrily went back to sit in his boat. Making friends should never begin with telling a man that he is ‘... a fucking thief who belongs in prison... ‘ and so Somers and I, the latter lightened by the loss of his patience stood in silence on a concrete jetty, now the centre of hushed mocking and derisive looks, whilst the surrounding men looked on at the irate Englishman and his fiancé. Eventually one guy came over to offer a different price. We told him the most we’d pay was 60 there and back and that he would have to wait for us whilst we wandered the island. After five minutes, he reluctantly agreed suggesting that we could give tips at the end. We told him that the possibility of tips was remote since he’d tried to con us on our first interaction. His smile became weighted as his face turned to scorn.

Another ’top destination’ was the Aswan High Dam which had to be the most over-guarded, over-rated and unimpressive water based structure in all of the world. We’ve seen weirs on the Thames that are more impressive. Firstly it’s not particularly high, not by modern standards anyway, and secondly whatever height it does have is completely stolen by the ‘architecture’ that is just a vast amount of rock and sand piled around an underground wall so that although the structure is fifty metres high its top is only forty metres across and its base is almost a kilometre in cross section. That means that in cross section it looks like a very flat triangle. If James Bond tried to abseil down it he’d look like a bloody electrician laying cable as he walked out five hundred metres across a barely declining slope. Built with all the verve and sense of occasion expected from the Communists of the USSR, the dam resembled a demolished high rise with a road built across its rubble piled top; even with plenty of tanks and boy soldiers with crap guns stationed all the way around it we felt cheated. The lake, Nasser, behind it was impressive, as was the energy and water the structure supplies, but the only really exciting thing about such a drab pile of rock was that if it ever bursts, every thieving Egyptian between Aswan and Alexandria will be washed into the Mediterranean. (I lied, the other exciting thing that stems from the first exciting thing is that surrounding the dam are missile installations waiting for Dr No or Mr Blomfeld or anyone else to declare that they are going to test out their new weapon only for Jimmy Bond, sparky, to rock up, probably in a taxi, and walk down the dam wall to save the day. [The last term was an expletive not a description.])

Sadly the most vivid memory of the Egyptians in Aswan would remain as a bunch of overcharging thieves. A thousand percent mark up was not extraordinary and when questioned, a thousand more excuses were on hand in defence. Tourism is back on the up in Egypt but it still remains at less than a third of what it was. The people were desperate to make a living but their desperation came at the cost of decency and morality. Never shy we frequently berated those overcharging and even received apologies from some of the shop owners, but it didn’t stop them.

Aswan was also about to receive another accolade, that of the sleaziest men. Its probably unfair to blame just the men though, since Aswan is the gigolo capital of Egypt. ‘Bored with your man, need something exotic? Then come visit the pyramids and find your very own pharaoh and he can show you how to praise the Gods with his towering obelisk.’ Sex tourism is big business, it’s only slightly weird when it is women that are seeking the fun. Whether its innate or learned, mostly the former I suspect, men were not shy to stare at Laura, salivating like Neanderthals at a piece of meat as they looked her up and down, even dressed conservatively she attracted stares and more over the occasional groping. We could only imagine what it would be like for a single female in Aswan. Con merchants attempted to lighten our pockets and everyone expected baksheesh, a tip for a service. ‘Is the museum this way?’ ‘Yes. Baksheesh?’ ‘No thanks.’

The men of Aswan had done little to endear us. In fact every encounter became a soul drowning affair that normally involved an irate “KHALAS!” (Enough!) being issued from my lips whilst stood square on to these small minded, two dimensional sleazy desperadoes. How about that for stereotyping an entire ‘profession’ of tourism related con-men?

Posted by ibeamish 09:48 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Day 216 – Brown Teeth and Cigarettes

25th April 2012

sunny 39 °C

The ferry would depart at around five o’clock in the afternoon and we intended to be on board. Redvers however would be waiting for the vehicle barge which arrived on Friday, Holy Day. With that in mind it was time to spruce him up, fix his locks and get the window winding again, that way he’d feel a bit more cheery and we’d feel a little bit happier when we left him at the harbour. Fixing him up and clearing him out was how we spent our morning.

We filled his tank to the brim with cheap black market funded fuel and drove to the port. Mazir our fixer extraordinaire was nothing short of heroic. He was a gentleman and also a man who was clearly very adept at his job. He shuffled us through the hassles of Arabic immigration forms whilst clearing Redvers through customs and cracking jokes. The immigration hall was a jungle yet we somehow slipped through without too much of a fuss.

At the dock we fought our way around brown cardboard boxes stacked six feet high. Their sides bulged with a cargo likely more precious to its owners than anyone else. And then there were the boxes owners. Brown teeth like burnt out villages were bordered by leather, weather beaten, lips that smiled past cigarettes; more ash than tobacco hanging precariously from their filters. An occasional mucous warbled hack broke the hubbub and we weaved through the crowd to join the mass attempting to board the ferry. As we crossed the threshold our passports and boarding cards were taken and thrown into a cardboard box that lay battered and skew on the floor. We stared at each other in mock fear as Mazir led us on a truncated and convoluted ferry expedition that involved passing through a set of toilets before we found ourselves on the top deck and once more under a ferocious sun. We teamed up with a German couple, Falco and Ana and a Swiss couple, Kurt and Susanna where we created a European enclave amongst the cigarettes, the cargo and the thunderous phone conversations.

After four splendid hours sat on the deck desperately trying to avoid the sun, the ferry finally departed. The first class cabins were filled with more cargo than people, first class status being achieved by offering a.) a door, b.) a foam mattress and c.) an air conditioning unit. Other than those three items they were fairly pokey and a little grubby. Up top, in the cheap seats, the European enclave began a subdued war with everyone that insisted on trampling over our feet to smoke cigarettes ahead of us and shake their still burning tobacco on to us.

Another glorious sunset gave way to a clear night sky whose moonlight twinkled on the water beneath. We were treated to a night time view of the illuminated Egyptian temple at Abu Simbel perched on the edge of the lake. Had the temple remained in its original position it would be an aquatic palace by now. But, when the Aswan High Dam was conceived it was soon realised that the flooding that would create Lake Nasser would submerge many of the temples and antiquities that stood on the Nile’s banks. Abu Simbel was one of the lucky structures that was taken apart ten tonne piece by ten tonne piece and relocated to higher, and drier, ground. It was no small undertaking at US$40 million in the 1960’s but it was definitely worth it, as a revenue creating scheme if nothing else. It has to be wondered though, what was the greater achievement, building it in the first place or relocating it three thousand years later?

The boat was stopped later in the evening as an Egyptian police boat pulled alongside and the officers boarded to stamp our passports into Egypt. Their office was tiny with one door as both entrance and exit. The queue wasn’t so much of a queue as a crush and inside the office passports were coming from over our heads, past our legs and through the small cabin window.

Up to it had grown very dark, the night had grown cold and we poor second class citizens huddled into our sleeping bags as the crisp wind turned the star blanketed night cold.

Posted by ibeamish 09:45 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Day 215 –A Policeman’s Breakfast

24th April 2012

sunny 40 °C

Day break revealed a very different scene to the one we’d envisioned in the dark of the night. Our campsite was besides a field where men were bagging onions and donkeys and Toyota's began another days work under the Sudanese sun.

We’d need ruthless efficiency to get through the day. Somers was feeling a little better and we made beeline for the nearby Kawa Temple. Tutankhamun built a temple there in the 14th century BC and the temple was eventually and literally deserted in the 4th century when the Kushite Knigdom collapsed. The British have since excavated the site and the British Museum is now home to one of the granite sphinxes found there.

We spent a while beside the river before setting off for site number two, the temples of Defuffa, the seat of the first independent Kingdom of The Kush at around 1750 years BC. Some of the building have been dated to as far back as 2400BC making it the oldest urban settlement in sub Saharan Africa. At it entrance was a police station and there we met the officers of Kerma. We paid the entrance fee and after our visit were invited by the cops to have breakfast with them. We sat under the shade of a lean to and drank from the huge pottery urns that kept the water very cold. The officer insisted I have a go on his motorbike and then I absolutely failed as a man when I put the key into the petrol cap rather than the ignition. As images of Dennis Hopper and Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ flashed through my mind I singularly failed to start the engine and ended with the chief of police suggesting I would be dangerous if I ever got it started. The food saved the day and, quite embarrassed, I gave the keys back to the officer and handed back my automatic machine gun to a second chap. The police were very accommodating. We shared a huge bowl of delicious fuul and bread and we brought to the table a tin of guava halves. A gesture that was as selfish as it was generous; quite why we had guava halves in our car I’ll never fully understand.

We had one more visit to squeeze in before reaching our destination and we stopped at the village of Wawa to find a man with a boat that get us across the Nile to the Temple of Soleb. It took a little while and a lot of questions but we did find just the man and it wasn’t his first time shipping foreigners back and forth.

The mini Nile cruise led us to the temple built by Amenhotep III in the 14th century BC in dedication to Amun and Nebmatre. It was quite a sight to behold sat on the edge of both the Nile with its green fringes and the desert whose sand disappeared into the distance. Several of its columns were still standing and again, two granite lions that once called Soleb home, have found their way across deserts and seas to the British Museum.

We crossed back and again had to politely decline the offers of tea and accommodation. The mission to Wadi recommenced with a renewed verve. We made it that evening, Mazir found us and took us for coffee and we met Sheldon, Mike, Ben and three cars of ‘fresh meat’ heading south on a Cairo to Cape Town trip. There was no room at the Kilopatra Hotel which was fine as we preferred to camp. There was a large walled enclosure which protected us nicely. It was only once we were inside the perimeter that we realised that its edges appeared to be an open air toilet. There was no smell and we found a turd-less spot. Seven months in Africa and we no longer cared that our standards had plumbed new depths. We cooked and ate a kilo of steak bought near Defuffa earlier that day went into town to watch WWE wrestling on a large screen whilst we went ‘crazy’ knocking back lemonades and fizzy orange.

Posted by ibeamish 08:38 Archived in Sudan Comments (1)

Day 214 – Two Deserts In One Day

23rd April 2012

sunny 40 °C

Our decision to follow the co-ordinates and go for a starlit dune drive had paid dividends. Unzipping the tent door revealed a pyramid filled vista bathed in the early morning sun. Through the mesh of the tent we could see two chaps on camel back approaching. We stepped outside of our tent and onto the ‘veranda’ and looked out across a small valley. On the opposite side, maybe five hundred metres away, lay twenty or so pyramids. The diamond studded night sky, so pleasing just hours before was disappearing as these magnificent structures appeared to be lit up by the Gods themselves. We’d camped on river beds and banks, on mountains and game reserves, in deserts and forests but this was a special location. Shrouded in a feeling of satisfaction we climbed down the ladder to see what exactly the two chaps with camels wanted.

It was fairly obvious what they wanted and we knew the question before it was asked. Of course we wanted a camel ride; who wouldn’t? But naturally we didn’t want a ride at their first price of twenty pounds per person. That became ten and finally we settled on five. We mounted our steeds and began a photographic journey to the pyramids of Meroe. For a while the camels had more attention than the pyramids, but 5 pounds it seemed didn’t buy us a return journey and, novelty over, we dismounted and took a few pictures with our cameleteers Abdul and Ahmed (pronounced Ack-med) and then ventured off to have a closer look at the tombs.

The pyramids were different to the classic image of the huge structures at Giza in Egypt. Here they were smaller and perhaps up to eighteen or twenty metres high. They had a steeper angle to their sides making them appear more pointed and their number, around twenty or more gave them a visual completeness. Their stance in the morning glow was sublime; we wandered among them our minds turning to the lives of the Kings and Queens that had been buried beneath.

Sheldon had been four or five days ahead of us and his updates had kept us abreast of any potential troubles that lay ahead. He and Mike had been arrested as suspected spies in Atbara for taking photos of the main road. We’d decided we’d circumvent that town choosing to take the road that appeared to bypass it on our maps. Our grand plan unravelled at the first turn and we drove straight into town. With our cameras firmly packed away we had no problems and we stopped to fill up on diesel. At twenty five American cents a litre filling up was fantastic this despite that the fuel quality is pretty awful; we were driving level tar roads at a low altitude and suddenly our fuel consumption had soared.

We were stopped on leaving the town after crossing the now combined Niles. The police officers wanted whatever we didn’t have and that was something we would never fathom. The policeman took our passports and made a long phone call looking very serious. We weren’t too concerned and eventually our officer returned passports in hand and bade us a safe journey. We’d crossed th Nile again and would be driving across the Bayuda Desert to a town called Jebel Barkal.

The desert was, unsurprisingly, hot and dry and seemingly endless. Yellow sand and rocks and dust, there were no dunes, just rock and dirt. Jebel Barkal was a town perched on the banks of the life giving river. Jebel Barkal was a date town; grown on the palms that are irrigated and fed by the water and silt of the river. Harvest time was October, it was April, no dates for us then.

What Jebel Barkal did have was more pyramids as well as a Temple to the God Amun and one to the sky goddess and wife of Amun, Mut. Jebel Barkal means Holy Mountain and quite conveniently provided great views of what remained of the structures.

Laura was having the time of her life. In forty degree heat, drinking incessantly but unable to quench a thirst whilst the sun bore down in its suffocating embrace, she was struggling to shake the bug that was sapping her energy and making her feel so wonderful. I left her with a cold flannel on her neck, a bottle of water and a view of the temple and went for a quick trip to the summit. As the Nile wound itself tortuously through a field of green the pyramids sat proudly below the Holy Mountain of Jebel Barkal.

Back down with Somers we took a quick trip to see some even older pyramids at Nuri before heading off to see if we could find some fresh juice to restore a wilting Somers. Stopping in town I ran over to a shop to ask if they knew anyone that sold juice. The answer came slowly. First we exchanged names and countries of origin, then we discussed the football both in England and Spain and then we had a surprisingly drawn out conversation about a new metal detector he’d bought from the US that was going to turn him into a millionaire. Then, and only then, did he inform me that although he had no juice he knew a man who did. He left his shop and walked me down the road to another shop where there was no juice, but there was sprite. He asked how many did I need and I told him one for me and one for my wife (it’s easier to be married.) Then he reached into his pocket and bought them for me. He insisted on paying and my protestations were cut short in the knowledge that it was his pleasure. The Sudanese are an extraordinary people.

After declining an invitation for accommodation I wished a new found friend farewell and returned to find a Somers that was improving as the heat of the day subsided. It was about then that we had a rethink on our Sudan trip. It was Monday, the ferry from Wadi Halfa to Aswan left every Wednesday. We’d been making spectacular time and were left with a decision. If we drove hard and were quick at the various tourist sites we could make Wadi in two days. If we took our time we’d be left with three or four days hanging around in the heat waiting for a ferry. The heat was killing us, it wasn’t a difficult decision. We had cold water and we were drinking so much that our bellies were distended with the stuff but we just couldn’t quench the thirst. Rehydration sachets made up for the lost salt as our bodies leaked water as fast as it went in.

We called our fixer, Mazir, to see if there was space for us on the ferry. He said there was, but, shock horror, there was no first class available. We knew what we had to do. We’d already crossed one desert and with our new plan we’d be halfway across a second by nightfall. One half of the Nubian Desert stood between us and the Nile side town of Dongola. From there it was a day’s drive to Wadi.

A pristine tar road made for excellent driving and just after dark we pulled off the road outside of Dongola and found a spot to pitch the tent and spend the night.

Posted by ibeamish 08:37 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

Day 213 – Temples and Starlit Camps

22nd April 2012

Mazir was a man we’d never met. His job title was fixer and he lived in Wadi Halfa a town at the southern end of Lake Nasser in Northern most Sudan not far from the border with Egypt. He would have to be a nice guy because we knew we’d be leaving on a ferry three days before Redvers. Mazir would be given our car keys and in it our lives; he’d better be a bloody nice man. We called him, arranged tickets for the ferry for ourselves and a spot on ‘the barge’ for Redvers and revelled in our luxury for five more minutes before it was time to go.

Our dinner invites beckoned and we’d set aside an afternoon of visiting hosts for coffees but alas our phone calls made no gains, with our moral high ground intact but our afternoons coffee prospects diminished we stopped by Ozone for one last lunch before attempting to procure some more Sudanese Pounds from our friendly dealer. He had no money, we had enough to survive on for the next week and so we turned tail and set sail for our first culture stop; the temples of the Lion and Amun at Naqa.

We turned off the tar road and for thirty kilometres we raced across the desert. The road was inconsistent in both surface and existence but eventually with the unwavering support of the sat nav we pulled up outside the Lion Temple. Amidst the desert we had found ancient temples dating back to the third century BC. They had been built by the Nubians during the Meroitic Period in the 1st Century AD and subsequently excavated by Europeans in the twentieth century. They were stunning. The carving and inscriptions that adorned their walls were as clearly visible to us as they had been when they were first carved, the Gods with their Rams and Lions heads and even a snake emerging from a lotus with the head of a lion, adorned the walls. We were awestruck. The second temple had two lines each of six huge stone rams sat on plinths leading up to it. In the warm glow of the late sun the temples appeared magical.

We left at dusk, aiming to drive to our next destination, the Pyramids at Meroe to camp and observe the pyramids at daybreak. Our journey led us back to the tar and north for another eighty kilometres. We once more pulled off the main road and following a set of co-ordinates we’d received earlier in our trip we drove over dunes and deep sand to find a little spot in the desert and beneath the stars where we could change the shocks by torchlight and call it a day. Our camp was more than a bush garage, it was heaven. Beneath a canopy of diamonds set in deep, deep blue silk we sat. The dunes surrounded us, the heavens looked down upon us and somewhere nearby the pyramids watched over us.

Posted by ibeamish 01:58 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

Day 212 – The Sudanese Are The Nicest Nation On The Planet

21st April 2012

The artificial darkness of the heavily woven curtains combined with the perfectly cooled room extended our slumber almost indefinitely. Sadly we had a few tasks to undertake including the procurement of a sim-card and some new shock absorbers. The holiday was fast becoming a monologue in the pursuit of shock absorption devices throughout Africa.

We visited the parts dealer and rejoiced in the thrills of our black market money. Three new shocks cost us sixty federal dollars. The Sudanese parts dealer had no intentions other than the honest intent of providing us with what we desired, his prices were honest to start with and we brokenly discussed the merits and disadvantages of the different brands he stocked. The Sudanese are a brutally and unfalteringly honest, unremittingly helpful and kind nation.

With shocks and sim sorted we went for a mouth watering lunch at a cafe called Ozone before it was back to the hotel and, complaining about the relentless heat, we jumped into the swimming pool and then into the sauna. As complete hypocrites we retired to our room and ordered room service.

After dinner, Somers decided that a hot bath would be both beneficial and curative in aiding her digestion and easing her ailments. But, shock horror, only luke warm water emerged from her marble bath tub’s tap. Almost in complete disgust that such a felony be allowed to happen in that great bastion of sensibility I telephoned reception who concernedly told us they would send an engineer immediately. As the phone receiver was replaced a knock on the door signalled the engineer’s arrival. He walked into the bathroom. He looked at the tap. He scratched his head; and then he swung its shiny polished handle to its other extremity. I looked on as hot steaming water gushed forth from that luxurious appendage and could only apologise as I saw him out before turning to Somers and silently shaking my head. Five minutes in a fancy hotel and we’d already changed.

Posted by ibeamish 01:57 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

Day 211 - The Dancing Dervishes

20th April 2012

sunny

We were making exceptional time. The previous evening we’d pulled up in the dark outside of a small village 180km’s from Khartoum. The night had been awful. Hot winds had hounded us. The tent walls had performed a night-long round of applause as the dust and heat found every opportunity to clog our airways.

However, for the first time on our entire journey we were amazed when we woke and spotted a man walking across the field. He didn’t stop or deviate to investigate these strange white folk from afar, he didn’t come to see if we had food or money or clothes for him, he just carried on about his business.

Khartoum was a mini Dubai; a haven for all things modern in the middle of a desert country. But for all it looked to offer, it was Friday in a Muslim worlds and it was very quiet. Running short on ideas we but knowing we wanted luxury, we stopped by the Blue Nile Sailing Club thinking we might find someone who could lend a hand or at least give us some ideas.

The Blue Nile Sailing Club was a place that offered camping in the Heart of Khartoum. It was also home to one of Kitchener’s gun boats now ‘moored,’ or rather beached, and used as offices. We sat in an empty open seating area and started to read our guidebook. There was no-one around. And then a tall bespectacled man in his late fifties and wearing a long pristine white jelbab appeared and joined us. He ordered coffee and tea for us and began to talk. He was a Sudanese air accident investigator who was also secretary of the Sailing Club. He added that they had a race that morning and they were short on crew members, we’d be in the race.

As we sat drinking, a motley drew of would be sailors appeared. Russians, Brits, Dutch and of course Sudanese appeared and formed nine or ten crews of two. Another round of coffees ensued before we met our skippers, Mohammed would take Laura and Bart would be saddled with me. There was a gusting breeze as we opened the jib and raised the main sail. I was getting a crash course in sailing as the minute gongs were being turned leading up to the start of the race.

As the klaxon sounded Bart and I were still taxiing to the start; forgive the lack of sailing parlance. Somers had made a better start but for my race at least that would be the closest I ever got to the remaining boats. The course took us two bridges up the Blue Nile, back to the start, back up to the first bridge and then back to the start which doubled as the finish. No sooner had we started than the wind dropped. It was to be a slow motion race for Nile supremacy. As Bart and I sauntered upstream, we waved at the other crews already returning, discussing working life in Sudan as well as money changing and where to eat. Somers was mid pack and seemed to be deep in conversation with her skipper.

Surreal doesn’t begin to describe the affair. By the time I had finished the other boats had moored, packed their sails away and nearly finished lunch. A small ovation received the ‘better-luck-next-timers’ and I found Somers getting stuck into Ful (beans) and Injera, with bread, a lamb dish and a ginormous water melon. There had been a huge brunch spread laid out for the sailors and spectators all traditional Sudanese fare.

With an unexpected box ticked on our ‘life experiences’ list we’d spoken to a Dutch guy named Dawa who agreed to show us where his money changer hung out. A ten minute drive across town led us to a corner chop supermarket on an estate in Khartoum. We knew the owner was doing business as we watched men walk out holding fistfuls of notes. As I walked in I giggled at the row of NGO vehicles parked surreptitiously outside and smiled even more broadly when I saw their owners pretending to look at tinned anchovies whilst waiting to ‘do a deal.’ I waited, in line, and eventually got 5.75 to the dollar. That was more than double our money. Nice work if you can get it.

With money on our minds and bursting out of our pockets (it came in bricks of cash) we found ourselves a place to stay that included pristine cleanliness, air-conditioning, swimming pools, fresh fruit delivered hourly and a concierge service in its list of basic requirements. We’d finally succumbed and found five star luxury in the heart of Khartoum.

We weren’t completely splurging as Dawa had told us that they had a special weekend rate. We stepped from the car park into a marble and granite lined lobby, air conditioning chilled the sweat that covered us and we suddenly realised that wearing ripped and dirty shirts, with flip-flopped feet so dirty that we looked like street urchins, made us stand out a little. We marched to the desk like we owned the place, through our bags on the brass luggage trolley and then on asking for a room had to remind our receptionist that they had a weekend rate was significantly lower than the $300 a night he was suggesting. Furthermore our newly acquired Sudanese pounds were not welcome. Foreigners must spend foreign currency we were told and so we handed over a few dollars more as our dust riddled bags and our dustier selves were escorted through the marble and granite foyer, across the plush carpets and upstairs to our feather and cotton lined, pleasantly chilled nest. How easy we found it to slip from the dusty tent to the five star room.

Friday afternoons however were special in Khartoum, or rather, in Omdurman. Sheik Hamid Al Nil was a 19th century Sufi leader whose tomb lies in Omdurman. Every Friday afternoon the Dervishes dance and worship in front of the tomb; a spectacle of immense marvel. We arrived an hour early and within ten minutes we were sat drinking coffee and hibiscus tea, the latter in Somers’ hand, with a new found friend named Abdul. He insisted that it was his duty to pay for our drinks and escorted us on an impromptu tour of the tomb before talking us through the dancing.

The dancing dervishes were a sight to behold. They were stunning to watch, a delight in fact. As we watched for over two hours we were repeatedly greeted and questioned as to our time in Africa, in Sudan and in Khartoum. We were offered places to stay, dinner and had a couple of coffees all as a direct result of a hospitality and national pride that the nations of the world would do well to acknowledge. We drank coffee with a man named Mohammed whose degree and masters was in English and was planning a trip to South Africa to study the Zulu language. After a sensational evening we chose to retire to our new found accommodation.

It was dark by the time we left the Hamid Al Nil tomb but the streets had come alive. Whilst many seem to shirk the persecuting hours at the height of the suns power it seemed they were now making up for lost time. Bazaars, stalls, shops and cafes were all doing boisterous business. But something more was going on. There were an unprecedented number of Sudan flags flying, youngsters were running in groups along the streets, flags billowing in a startling show of patriotism for a normal Friday evening. Redvers was being slapped in joy as we crawled our way through crowds that congested a road system whose floutable rules were bent beyond recognition. Laura was still having a time of it. Hot and cold, weak and heady, the night air was still thick and warm and the crowds were tingeing a sweaty fight home with claustrophobia. Since businesses seemed busier than ever we’d decided that now was an ideal time to find a pharmacy with a malaria test kit for Laura. Lucky on our third attempt we found a pharmacist who spoke excellent English and suggested that rather than wasting our money on an ineffective kit, Laura could visit the lab over the road for a blood test and malaria screen, all for ten Sudanese pounds (US$2.) A needle whose freshly broken packet lay before her, broke her skin and Laura smeared her fresh blood onto a slide; twenty minutes later, the lab technician told Laura that she was negative for malaria. I explained to her that she was a hypochondriac, and with her ‘Negative Test Result’ in her hand she was feeling better.

Laura was also told that the excitement on the streets was in celebration that the Sudanese had just reclaimed the border and oil town of Heglig from their newly formed South Sudanese neighbours. The passion and patriotism was scary and it would seem that these new states will have to resolve their oil differences quickly if they are to avert a protracted conflict. Our car was slapped and inspected as we sluggishly fought our way through streets overwhelmed with people. A twenty minute drive took nearly two hours as we inched our way home, feigning cheers and excitement in what our Sudanese ‘friends’ had achieved. Eventually after a long, hot and humid drive home we arrived at the hotel. We’d never been unsafe, but it had been bloody hard driving.

As we lay down on our triple bed beneath a feather duvet, our heads cradled in feather pillows whilst the air conditioning silently cooled the deep pile carpet and the wide screen television sat in quiet expectation we revelled in the sanctuary of a world a thousand miles from the one we’d just spent two hours crawling through on our hands and knees.

Posted by ibeamish 11:19 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

Day 210–The ‘Missing Link’ Works For Ethiopia Border Service

19th April 2012

sunny

A morning coffee reinvigorated our senses as we posted our cards home and complained to yet another cafe owner about his frank racism and the need for a more philanthropic attitude to cafe ownership in Ethiopia. We had his Habesha menu and we had his English menu and no two prices were the same. He swore the Amharic prices were old, we told him he was a racist thief and he had zero chance of us paying what he asked. He’d need to call the police first. Our bill should have been 24 Birr; he wanted 84. He conceded to a degree eventually, and we paid 39 reiterating that he was a scumbag.

The word on the street was that the money changers of Sudan were offering unbeatable rates of 6 Sudanese Pounds to the US Dollar. The bank rate was 2.7. We’d been offered 4.5 by a guy in Gonder, but the bugger kept disappearing and, in the end, we left with our fistful of US dollars untouched.

The British had been to Sudan twice before the arrival of this latest convoy of, well, one battered Defender and a couple of ill equipped vets. Back in the early 1880’s we puppeteered Egypt who, in turn ran Sudan. When things went awry and the Mahdist Regime took Khartoum we sent Charles Gordon to restore some order. He ended up stuck in Khartoum holding out whilst a relief expedition came to rescue him. The relief expedition turned up late; Gordon was dead.

The second entrance was ten years later. Amidst the ‘Scramble for Africa’ Britain wanted the Nile from top to bottom, from beginning to end, source to sea. Since both the Belgians and the French had started to snoop around, it was time to make a real entrance. General Kitchener was sent to do the dirty work and he did it well. The British army first ‘recruited’ the locals to build a desert railway and eventually, with a resupply chain in place they came upon the Mahdist army outside Omdurman in 1898. The British guns prevailed as the angel of death caressed 10,000 Sudanese bodies on the battle field. Sudanese control was restored to the Egyptians. We were in charge again. Gordon’s son blew up the Mahdis tomb, and apparently Kitchener requested the Mahdi’s skull for an inkstand. Ah to be British.

The third entry to Sudan was made by General Sir Redvers Buller (deceased – now a Land Rover Defender) and involved none of the great swagger of the previous invasions. At the border we were rushed to customs before they stopped for a long lunch. In the process we were first led to a Swiss couple, encamped at the border, waiting patiently for their orders to advance; typical of the Swiss to be waiting for an invite. They’d been travelling for three years, and when they’d entered Ethiopia they hadn’t listed one of their cameras on the customs form. The money grabbing Ethiopians were now detaining them whilst they waited for clearance for the item, or until duties were paid. They’d been at the border for three days.

We’d been anal gits at the border, we’d listed everything. We entered the office, met the man who would rifle through our electrics bags looking for anything he could confiscate. He was extremely keen and I took to slapping his wrist every time he manhandled my delicate equipment. A short conversation with regards to Joseph followed. “What is he?” “A hippo.” “What is he made of?” “Wood.” “Is he hollow?” “No.” “Does he have anything inside him.” “Yes.” “What?” “Wood.” “I don’t understand.” “Well don’t worry. Customs liked him. Would you like to see the engine number?” Of all the problems we foresaw with Joe, turning border officials into blithering idiots was not one. But with customs finished we’d only dealt with one of the two idiots we’d need to in order to escape.

For some reason immigration was coming after customs. Had I been exporting anything I’d have had to pay for its export before I’d been granted permission to enter the other country. A country ensuring it’s paid for before we even know that we can leave? That’ll be Ethiopia.

Across the dusty road and a few doors up was immigration. Staffed by men who prioritise lunch and phone calls ahead of the humans sat before them. My Neanderthal was all but banging the screen in confusion but soon acquiesced when his phone rang and he forgot about processing my exit. Laura was having more success, but her guy was so efficient he was done in minutes. However, he didn’t have an all important stamp. The first thing you’re taught at border school is that you need a stamp. The second is that an obstructive nature is essential. The stamp was in my guy’s desk and after half an hour of phone calls my large browed dim wit discovered he had lost the key to his own desk. A full ten minutes was spent watching him try to pull the drawer open only to find that it was definitely locked. Thirty seconds later he’d check it was still definitely locked before shrugging at us like we’d just have to live in his office until our visas ran out and they could charge us some more.

What was making us so impatient was the fact that Laura was feeling rough. A beaded brow from a fever was sapping her strength and the heat and border theatrics were not helping. Finally Laura’s guy noticed our pacing up and down, the tapping of our imaginary watches and my voice saying “Do you need a hand?” Not to mention Miss Somers hushed expletives. Her guy turned up with a dagger and jimmied the drawer open. Hurrah, two rubber stamps, but, oh no. We’d taken too long. The computer had timed out and reset the exit visas. We sat for another half hour whilst our challenged officer worked through his disabilities.

Down the road was Sudan. There we found an immigration office staffed by a mountain of a man who reminded us of the guy from the movie The Green Mile, we felt like we’d come across him somewhere before. He was a hero, but his government too wanted their share of our foreign currency. It had already cost us US$100 each for our miserable two week transit visas but now we needed to pay US$70 each to register as foreigners. Every other country calls the latter process ‘passport control’ but we had signs on our derrieres reading ‘insert hand and withdraw.’

The customs office was a bit more of a saga. Fifteen minutes in the first office, ten in the second. Then back to the first office before going off to the security office and then back to the first office and then back to the security office before we were able to leave. In a country rammed full of Muslims I was going to enjoy saying ‘Good God!’

We high fived our entrance to country number twelve and also celebrated that we’d just smuggled one bottle of gin, two bottles of wine and a pack of ciders into a country that was dry in at least two ways.

We hit another couple of road blocks on our way to Gedaref where our passports were taken and the details recorded. We’d lost count of police road blocks in Africa, mostly thanks to Malawi and Tanzania, but these were uncannily polite. “Do you mind... Can I... I just need to go over to my office and record your details; I’ll be back shortly...” The police were polite. As one officer took our passports the other would step in to ask where we were from, where were we going and what football team we supported.

Sudan was flat; flat, flat, flat. But for a mound here and there, it was flat; except for the road. Sudan had tarmac’d its main roads which was great news. Except for the fact that on the road we were driving it was as if the tarmac had come in one giant sized economy carpet roll which had just been laid out across every bump, stone and crease in the earth’s surface. Sudan was also oven baked, the blue sky was sky blue over our heads but its brother that guarded the horizon was grey with dirt. The dirt shroud was everywhere; the atmosphere was full of dust, and grey. Grey like the dead and unforgiving earth all around us, grey like the desiccated trees and shrubs; grey. The road side was littered with blown out tyres and the corpses of cattle and donkeys. In one afternoon’s drive we lost count of the animal bodies somewhere after one hundred.

We made the town of Gedaref, our planned first night’s location, with plenty of daylight remaining and so we put our foot down and burnt and bounced another hundred kilometres before pulling off the tarmac and driving into the grey to sleep in the bush.

Posted by ibeamish 01:32 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 209 - Ironwork and Funerals

18th April 2012

sunny

To say we woke to our alarm at 5am would be a lie. We hadn’t really slept. We had a long day in the making and it would likely get longer. It had been a freezing night and even then, as we climbed out of bed, we were shivering. My numb fingers were dead claws as I pawed at the tent trying to pack it away. The sky above us was crystal clear and a million bright twinkles helped illuminate our early morning fumblings. Crisp acidic curses broke a crisper ice riddled air. The back door lock was playing up again, we’d, or rather I’d, already broken the window once and as I cursed the lock I tried to close it without jeopardising our hard found replacement glass. Bang, thud, smash and the twinkling explosion of a thousand shards of glass all dancing around each other towards the floor as my heart broke and our itinerary had a new item; replace back window.

We taped a sack over the empty frame and Gazpacho rocked up looking awkward when he saw our new air conditioning solution. I had a scarf under my hooded sweater, hood up, and was huddled over the steering wheel as we bumped back towards town. Somers was still dressed for the slopes of Val D’Isere and was keenly looking out of the windows for the moguls. Mr Soup-soup was back on his perch, cuddling his gun. The circus was indeed on its way to town and our sack billowed out of the back window and our car, broken shock and all, um-pah-pah’d and tinkled its way back out of the mountains as the sun finally rose to ask why we were leaving so soon.

Entering Debark two hours later, we passed yet another funeral cortege with yet another undersized body on its wooden frame. We dropped Gazpacho off and dropped in at the tourism office to see if they knew where we could buy sheet metal for the window. The chap pointed us to the petrol station where another chap pointed us to what appeared to be a cafe. From the cafe a chap emerged with a drum of diesel and a metal pouring jug. Something had been lost in translation. We found the nearest piece of metal, on a neighbouring cafes fence, and frantically drew rectangles with our fingers and then pointed at the rear window.

The local metal worker wanted 500Birr for a piece of tinfoil. That wouldn’t work and it was shame as it appeared he was bullied into overcharging by the now ten or so hangers on that all wanted to profit. Ethiopians could make Jews look generous. So, leaving our metal worker we decided it was time to move on. Gonder was the destination and was a far bigger town than Debark. We’d find our metal there. But, the new ‘man in charge of the hangers-on’ had one more idea. He guided us to a hardware store that had thick sheets of steel for sale. Fantastic we thought, until we realised that, for a reason that completely evaded us, the shop owner could only apologise and reiterate that he couldn’t sell it to us; a shop that wouldn’t sell its wares. In the confusion we were led a little further along the road to what appeared to be a disused house.

Inside the shack our man looked around and eventually came up with a steel tray. It wasn’t big enough, but, amidst the noise and cries of some women in the cafe next door, he mimed that we could bash the edges down and unfold the lip and it would measure 59 centimetres. A perfect fit. The background wailing was still going on and getting a little rowdy, as our team found a lump hammer and a chisel and began panel beating the tray into a new back window. The twelve year old hanger on was a bit of a metal working prodigy as he showed the leaders easier ways of achieving their end. We emerged from the building and into the sunlight ready to begin measuring and cutting. It was only then that I looked to my left to see what the noise and crying was all about. The group of women were dressed in white, tears flowing down their cheeks and wailing like banshees, all were crouched over something that was obscured form my vision due to the low dividing fence. Two steps closer and the top line of a muslin wrapped corpse came into view. The same corpse we’d passed on the way in. I was just about to feel awful for all the noise we’d been making when the recommencement of the hammering began and I almost jumped out of my skin. It appeared that we all had things to do that morning.

With some carful measurements I drew and outline for the cut on the now flattened sheet of metal. The guy cut it fairly coarsely using what was essentially a ground anchored guillotine and then he whipped out the angle grinder. If the banging had been unnecessary for the funeral rites then the grinder was going to be a joy.

The window was fitted and then removed and re-ground a little here and then a little there before finally, fitting like a fine leather glove we thanked the team, handed over some Birr and departed for Gonder. The women still wailed; it was time for us to leave.

The road to Gonder was 100 kilomtres long. It was tarred and then it wasn’t, it was diverted and then it was restored. We reminded ourselves that some tar was better than none as we were suddenly distracted by a small boy spitting at Redvers as we passed. Things all appeared a little slow motion as we stared at him in the wing mirrors and the sudden realisation hit us. We stopped and turned, the boy had cattle, he couldn’t go far; I was going to brain him. I slipped the flip-flops off and popped the runners on and jumped out of the car sprinting across the ploughed field in pursuit of a small child. His screams of terror were joy to my ears as suddenly I realised some facts about the situation: the first was that I’d been sat in a car for the previous six months and was horrifically unfit, the second came moments later as I started wheezing, we were still at 2700 metres. The third and final nail in my already slowing coffin was that Ethiopians are born runners; I was out of my league.

Still he ran, still he squealed and still I slowed. As I reached the huts I was at a walk, hoping I appeared stately and composed rather than sweaty and screwed. I marched from bright daylight into the first pitch black hut, my initiative was lost as I was forced to say “Hello, is anyone there?” as my eyes adjusted and I saw a family staring at a crazed and sweaty Faranji. The boy must have run through the village, no one there understood English, and my mimes of stone throwing and spitting rendered only confused looks on the faces of my audience. I jogged back to the car, trying to look fit, and we sped away.

We arrived in Gonder and washed the filth from our bodies, fitted our new rear window and cleaned out seventeen kilograms of dust from the car locks. The castles of Gonder were our afternoon objective and we wandered over, acquired a guide and were shown around some very impressive castles that had been damaged first by the Italian invaders who on using them a s war rooms replastered them all and secondly by the British who decided to bomb the aforementioned Italians whilst they carried out their maintenance during the Second World War. It turned into a very relaxed afternoon, and we ate a kilo of shakla tibbs, (fried beef) a couple of cakes, a couple of freshly pressed juices, a pizza and a salad as well as having another Faranji/Habesha price discussion with our waitress. It was late when we returned but we’d need a good night’s rest, the following day we’d be entering Sudan.

Posted by ibeamish 00:43 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

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