Egypt: Cairo and Western Desert
Cairo airport 02h00 - Terminal 2. The brochure says: "After the completion of the Terminal 1 we will speed up the completion of Terminal 2".
There is speed and then there is Egyptian speed which according to the Lonely Planet means "Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?"
You hear the term In-Shah-Allah (God willing) everywhere. E.g. "OK driver, so we see you tomorrow to pick us up at 09h00? Yes sir, In-Shah-Allah. Which basically means if it happens it happens… hopefully.
According to the other Arab nations they call the Egyptian affinity for siesta "Egyptian PT". This is true except for their driving. From Hong Kong to Greece we have experienced crazy drivers, suicidal drivers, blind bend passing up mountain passes and a variety of near misses, but in Egypt all of this is done at SPEED. Speed limits are posted but ignored. Road rules are not even a suggestion. Red lights are run, pedestrians don't walk, they run! More on speed in the desert later.
We knew that Ramadan would be in full swing by the time we arrived in Egypt. This means that from sunrise to sundown nothing passes over the lips of our Egyptian friends. It's hot - about 33 - 35 in the North and 40 - 45 in the South. Thank god it's autumn as summer must be quite hot, eh? So we got a very unique first glance at Cairo/Egypt. Everything is basically shut and everywhere people are trying to cope with the challenge of fasting in this heat. Then sundown approaches and everyone waits for the radio announcement or right time to break their fast. Foreigners are invited to these mini-feasts, but as the weeks of Ramadan goes on most people find that they cannot eat as much as before as their stomachs have "shrunk" and they only eat a little.
Our guesthouse owner is a connected man and presents us with a 20 day all inclusive tour complete with Desert Safari, Luxury Train, 5 Star Cruise on the Nile and Scuba diving in the Red Sea for USD 1200 for both of us. We do the math and figure out we can't come close to this if we do it on our own, so we sign on the dotted line and hand over the cash… It's almost too good to be true as we talk to other people at the various points and hear what they are paying (so far so good!).
Oh, and the pyramids and a private driver is included as well… then again when petrol is only USD 0.3 per liter it brings down the cost of travel enormously (EUR 2.00 per liter in Greece).
The Pyramids are great to look at from a distance and unrealistically large from up close, especially if you take into consideration that they built this before the wheel was invented and without any pulley and winch systems. We climbed up and up and up into the Great Pyramid's tomb. Access is very restricted and you are only allowed to climb up and then back down. Inside is the tomb - stripped bare by grave robbers -built with pink granite brought from Aswan in the South (about 900km from Giza) - they still don't know how the stone made it that far (never mind how the whole thing was built!).
In the 1800s Napoleon had unrestricted access to this pyramid and went inside. According to his aides he was visibly shaken when he got back out but refused to discuss what he saw inside. On his deathbed, his trusted servant demanded that Napoleon tell him about it. His reply was "why bother as no-one will believe me anyway".
So, did the aliens build it? Do the modern day Egyptians have a greater understanding of the secrets of our world than any of the other great civilizations we have encountered moving from East to West as we have done? Don't know, but it seems that the Egyptians of today are very different to their ancient ancestors. For one, they are now strictly Muslim (after the Ottoman invasions) and seem to not be that interested in their ancient heritage or in discussing similarities and discrepancies with foreigners. Understandably the Egypt of the Pharaohs was a boisterous place with enormously powerful people worshipping Sun-gods and creating and entertaining all kinds of weird and wonderful things that spiraled out of control a bit. We asked a few people the following question: If Ramses II (renowned as the greatest Pharaoh of all time) came back to Egypt today and saw his people and what they have accomplished in the 2500 years since he left this world, what would he say? Same as in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, this seems to be a question the Egyptians don't really ponder as they also seem to be a different people from the ones that built these enormous places of world renown.
Enough academic thinking, it was time to get some sand under our feet. I say "desert", you think…?
Fast forward a 5 hour bus ride through desert (seems you need to go through a desert to get to THE desert) and a4 hour 4X4 ride and we're in the Sahara with our Bedouin guide speeding happily down massive sand dunes and then stopping in the White Desert for dinner and star gazing. We've been to the Namib desert and the Skeleton Coast in Namibia in 2001 - awesome experiences and highly recommended - but this was something special. We had two Koreans in the Landcruiser with us and it was their first time in any desert. The photos are better than my words. What I will say though is that I felt like I was in Africa for the first time, and it felt good. Our Bedouin (desert people) guide was a magician with a gasburner and grill and conjured up a three course meal from scratch while setting up camp and making us tea. As good Saffas skilled in the art and etiquette of camping we tried to help, only to mess up his system so we stayed away and sat by the fire. Counting shooting stars while being served Bedouin whiskey (strong, sweet mint tea) in little cups off a wood burning fire in the middle of everywhere and close to nothing is simply magical. Germarie had a vivid dream of Margeaux (8.5 months pregnant at that moment) in the desert that night and asked me if I thought the baby was early? When we reached mobile range again the SMS from Hadley came through saying baby Kamryn was born and all was well. That morning we tried to meditate sitting in the quiet of the Sahara desert. After 20 minutes we gave up - it was too quiet making every movement of clothing or body sound like rolling thunder. We understood a little bit about why hermits choose the desert - if you can find inner silence here, then you are closer to your version of God than most people.
Reluctantly we headed back to Cairo. Sundown happened while we were on the bus so everyone shared the food they had and we got offered the traditional fast breaking fruit of dates. Off to Alexandria the next day and the interesting day in a different desert we had as a result…
"We will be back 18h00 before the break-fast, In-Shah-Allah"- with these words from our driver, Sam, we got in his car and sped off through the Cairo pedestrians with Sam telling us how crazy the drivers were in Egypt while running a red light. Once we hit the highway he really got going and 140kmh was the lowest he was willing to drive. It's a 3 hour drive to Alexandria (home of the world famous library and our reason for going) and we were making great time, but Sam's eyes started glazing over a bit. Here I have to interject with an interesting part of Egyptian culture. They start the day late (streets are deserted until about 11h00). They have a 2 - 3 hour siesta in the afternoon. They go home and have dinner about 10h00 and then stay awake until 3am, sometimes 5 am needing to wake up around 7 or 8am to get ready for work.
So with this in mind we keep Sam awake while he gets us to Alexandria in record time and in one piece. Off to the fort and the mosque (Sam's choices) and finally the library (our choice). "Excuse me sir, where can I buy tickets for the library?""Sorry, the library closes at 14h00 for the day because it's Ramadan". It's 13h50.
"But we're from South Africa, we've come so far, please, is there any way we can just take a quick look?"
"OK, but you will need tickets" A mad dash to the ticket counter ... closed. A begging look asking someone to open it. Someone says we can go in without a ticket if we just make it out before 14h00. A mad dash to the library entrance where we tell the guy that the other guy at ticketing said we can get in without a ticket…The entrance guy looks at us sympathetically. We look pathetically at him as we hear the answer that makes sense: " No one gets into the (world-renowned-very-famous- 5000-year-old-stuff-in-it) library without a ticket" Obviously…
We took a photo outside and walked back to a sleeping Sam who we (and I'm sure he as well) hoped would get at least 2 hours of sleep before heading back to Cairo. It wasn't to be, but at least we get to have an early start back to Cairo and should make it in time for sundown. Oh, the surprises life has in store for you when you expect it least…
About one hour into the drive Sam needs to pray (15h00 prayer, one of the 5 daily prayer times). We pull off the road at a mosque and set off again 30 minutes later. Sam is refreshed (spiritually and physically) and drives like a man in a Ferrari with brand new Bridgestone tires specially made for the desert heat. Unfortunately were in an old Daewoo with 4 tires of different origin (and names like "Spyder") and pushing a car to 150kmh in 40 degree heat that shouldn't be doing 100kmh.
So it wasn't a big surprise when the people in the car next to us start pointing at our front wheel. We pull off the highway and find our front tire flat. Time to do some tire changing in the desert. Open the boot, get the spare, get the jack, get the thingy that jacks up the jack… missing. Get the thingy that loosens the wheel nuts… missing. As luck would have it there is a tire shop up ahead. The guy comes bouncing along on his bike and within minutes were on the road again and travelling along at speeds that makes the little Daewoo rattle and hum. It's roughly at this point when the back tire blows out. I've never been in a car doing 140kmh when the back tire blows. It's a very un-Hollywood experience. It's not as loud as you think it will be. It's not as scary as you think it will be and the car doesn't flip over and do body rolls.
"We'll never get to Cairo in time to break fast if this keeps happening" Sam says. "We'll never get to Cairo alive so that you can stuff your speed freak mouth with dates you stupid b******" I say.
No, I didn't. I didn't even want to. We just got out, laughed when the police pulled up and asked us if we had a spare tire. Said no thank you when a tow truck quoted us a price to tow us back to Cairo and then sat down on the side of the road in the middle of the desert while Sam went to look for a miracle. We practiced our stone throwing skills for a while. Had a conversation with an old man who walked by and asked us to come to his mosque (he in Arabic, us in Afrikaans) - maybe.
Another tire shop, another tire. Sun sets and we buy Sam some juice. I have the "I don't think this car can handle more than 80kmh and now it's dark so if we blow out another tire we're in a spot of bother" conversation with him. Cairo - 180km away and we travel at 80kmh. Speed kept him awake, sort of. Lack of speed makes him sleep. Smoke Sam smoke!!! Thank god for Egyptians and cigarettes. "Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?" he asks. I'm a 3 year clean ex-smoker. I would have smoked them for him.
We arrive back in the city and Sam switches off the lights of the car as we drive. I query about this interesting lack of light as we keep our 80kmh speed in the darkness with other cars and pedestrians about us. "I'm in the city now, why should I use my lights?" Of course, silly me. Oops, a pedestrian: Sam goes left, pedestrian does as well, Sam goes right, pedestrian does as well looking like a deer in the headlights ONLY we don't have any!!! Sam cuts left 2 meters in front of him and zips by leaving the pedestrian frozen in the middle of the road. "Crazy guy" Sam says. "Yes you are" I think to myself.
Cairo- 21h45. We're back. In-Sha-Allah indeed.