Yesterday’s little incident was soon forgotten and we were now making our way pell-mell towards the Suez canal – possibly the most famous canal in the world. You know the Statue of Liberty? It was originally intended to stand at the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez canal – TRUE!
I mooched around the ship, making mischief and chatting with the Cook, the Chief and the Boson. I was summoned up to see the captain at one point, and I thought oo-eck, am I in trouble for yesterday’s little misunderstanding? But all was groovy – he just wanted to let me know there would be an emergency drill later today and what to do when the alarm sounds.
The drill was really cool – my job was to head up to the bridge (and not take the lift). Oh yes – I may have failed to mention that the MV Turquoise (being brand spanking new – only one year old) had a lift inside, just like the Starship Enterprise. But the best thing, the BEST thing about this lift is that, unlike your boring old Otis/Schindler contraption, it actually had an emergency escape hatch on the ceiling JUST LIKE IN DIE HARD! I always thought emergency escape hatches were urban legends and, like phone numbers that begin 555 or cars without rear-view mirrors, was just Hollywood pulling our legs. But I guess there are no lift engineers available in the middle of the ocean, so you just have to make your own way out of the trapped lift scenario.
But I digress.
After dutiful reporting to the bridge, Captain Elbishbishi (looking more like Tim Curry than ever) suggested I head down to the muster point and check out what the guys were doing. So down I went (using the outside staircase) and found the men having a lesson in what to do in a medical emergency. If I had known what they were up to, I would have offered to play the injured sailor, but I was content to just stand and watch as we raced down to the engine room and the guys had to work out how to stretcher up a unconscious engineer out of the din of below-decks.
That part was fun – what wasn’t fun was when it was explained how the emergency fire suppression system worked – by flooding the engine room with toxic levels of nitrogen, which would kill any fire, but also had the nasty side-effect of making the air unbreathable within about 30 seconds. Not much time to get the hell out of there!
That night I sat with the Chief and we watched Filipino Big Brother followed by The Philippines Have Talent on DVD. I’ve never laughed so much in my life, although I have to say, the girls in the Big Brother house were hotter than anything our British version have ever coughed up – and that included the ladyboy.
Egypt. Ground Zero. My first backpacking adventure was in Egypt ten years ago, an adventure which introduced me to the joys of backpacking, the love of deserts and the open road and a certain Miss Amanda Newland. This is my favourite country on Earth (after Great Britain, of course rah rah rah) and it’s where I was happy to sit and watch the millennium tick over from 1999 to 2000 with Mary and Paul at the Jean Michel Jarre gig at the pyramids. Yeah, Jean Michel Jarre. The penguin guy.
A more perfect spot to be reunited with my erstwhile lover I could not imagine. The KFC by the Sphinx for sunset. Nice.
But logistics, ah, logistics… the MV Turquoise did, to be fair, arrive in Suez before sunset. But then I had to wait – we were not coming into port, the Suez officials and the shipping agents came out to us on a pilot boat. Within mobile phone coverage, I was able to knock back my ETA at the Pyramids from 5pm to 8pm. But in the event, that was I little optimistic. By 8pm I was still on the ship. By 9pm I was really beginning to panic. I texted Mand and told her to hang tight in Cairo until I gave the signal – I didn’t want her hanging about in Giza at night on her own waiting for buggerlugs here.
By 10pm I was free. Kinda. Having said my heartfelt thanks to the chief and the bosun, I clambered aboard the pilot ship with the shipping agent and we were heading to port.. We were joined by Naser the cook and a bunch of guys from the ship who were planning to have a few hours of R&R. Hopping off the pilot boat onto dry land was sheer joy and although the border formalities seemed to take an eternity (even though I was the only person there) I could feel it in the air – nothing could stop me now.
Matt the cameraman, having flown to Egypt from Djibouti, was waiting for me in a taxi outside the port. The driver(s) didn’t speak a word of English, which made explaining the urgency of the situation very difficult, although they really should have guessed by my frantic gesticulating. By now it was 10:30pm and the Pyramids were over 100 kilometres away.
I’m not really supposed to take a private taxi more than 50km, but this was an emergency… rules be damned. I was in country number 133 and my girlfriend was waiting.
As I said, the urgency of the situation was completely lost on the Chuckle Brothers who were driving us – they seemed more keen on taking us on a tour of Suez, stopping to pick up some bits and bobs on the way. By the time we were on the freeway it was already approaching 11pm. I watched out of the window as the milestones (well kilometre signs) clocked down to 50km. At this point I rang Mandy and told her to it was time.
Mand had arrived in Egypt from Oz on the 29th and gone to the grotty resort town of Hurghada, the logic of which was that if I didn’t make it she could still hang out with Lorna, the sassy chick behind many of my shipping forays, who happened to be holidaying there for the New Year. She had made her way up to Cairo earlier today and had been waiting for me as my ETA got pushed back and back.
At 11:35pm, I actually thought that we were going to make it – we had passed Cairo airport and since there would be little traffic at this time of night, we should be laughing. Well, we should have been. Instead I was fuming at the fact the morons who were driving us decided that now would be a GREAT time to take a twenty-minute detour in order to get some fuel, thus saving themselves a few cents and saving me the indignity of actually hitting the pyramids on time.
Hurriedly texting my Twitter account with a blow-by-blow account of the whole howling adventure, the humour of the situation (i.e. that our drivers didn’t actually know where the pyramids were) was lost on me for a while. At 11:55pm, we were pulled up at the side of the road getting directions from a random punter. There are only two roads to the pyramids – one, the imaginatively titled ‘Pyramids Road’ which runs to the north of the complex and the other, which runs to the south-east – near the Sphinx (and the KFC).. This shouldn’t be rocket science. We wanty visit Sphinxy.
Mand rang. She was already there and had been waiting in the dark for nearly half an hour. Her taxi driver (bless him) had stayed behind to make sure she was all right. I put him on to my taxi driver and he explained the situation. With new-found fervour, our driver headed the right way (for a change). But by now it was too late. It was midnight.
But soon the KFC reared into view. It didn’t look the same as I remembered from all those years ago – loads of buildings had been put up around it. But there was Mandy – I could see her! She ran towards the taxi.. Matt ordered me to WAIT! This was the money shot he didn’t want to miss.
Frantic, Matt attempted to escape – unfortunately his door was locked. “LET ME OUT!”, he screamed at our slack-jawed lollygagger of a driver – CLICK CLUNK out he got, and then it was my turn… I took a deep breath and stepped out of the taxi and WHAM into the loving arms of my Amanda, that hot chick from Oz that I hadn’t seen for a year. There in the shadow of those ancient giants – the place we first met ten years ago – we hugged and hugged and hugged.
It was six minutes past midnight. Happy New Year.
Here’s the video of countries 89 to 133:
To see the whole thing, look out for ‘Graham’s World’ on Nat Geo Adventure!!
I guess now is a good time to look back over what was the year that was, the highs and lows of life on the road. If you can’t be bothered reading my blogs for the whole year (and who could blame you?) here’s 2009: An Earth Odyssey in a nutshell…
Ah, January – the whizzbangshebang through South America… for the first two weeks I was on target and on schedule. But then The Caribbean reared it’s ugly head and well and truly stuffed me up for the next couple of months.
Countries Visited: 19
Running Total: 19
February was a difficult month – just getting from St Vincent to Mexico required all my skill and dexterity, of which I have neither, which is probably why it took me a month, not the week I expected it to.
Countries Visited: 10
Running Total: 29
It’s crazy to think that I spent the first few days of March visiting every country in Central America, and then spent pretty much the rest of the month trying to get to one – Cuba.. Made a HUGE mistake in trying to get there from Key West, should have gone from Cancun in Mexico, would have saved a s— load of time.
Countries Visited: 6
Running Total: 35
A fond month of 2009 as I wrapped up warm in Halifax, Nova Scotia before taking a phenomenally fast trip across the Atlantic Ocean to meet up with my friends and family in Liverpool. Managed to get all the way to Greece before the month was out. Nice!
Countries Visited: 28
Running Total: 63
The start of my downfall. Within just a few days I had polished off Europe and attempted to take a huge bite out of North Africa, a bite which ended up as a pathetic little nibble. The month ended in start-as-you-mean-to-go-on style with me being knocked back from Mauritania and failing to find any sensible way of getting to Cape Verde.
Countries Visited: 25
Running Total: 88
The month from hell. It kicked off with six days in a Cape Verde jail cell and went downhill from there as I found myself trapped in the worst place in the world.
Countries Visited: 1
Running Total: 89
Desperate to leave the damned island of Cape Verde, I was eventually rescued by a lovely chap in a sail boat who managed to deliver me safe and sound (despite Poseidon’s protestations) to Dakar in Senegal. Before the month was out I had managed to wing it all the way to Cote D’Ivoire.
Countries Visited: 7
Running Total: 96
A good month on the road through West Africa, interrupted by a unexpected sojourn in Libreville waiting (once again) for a cargo boat that just refused to leave.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 107
I hadn’t been illegally detained for three months now, so the powers that be organised a surprise incarceration upon my arrival in the capital of Congo.. After I finally escaped I was bogged down attempting to renew my Angolan visa, but once I made it to Namibia, I was FLYING. Well, not really flying… I’m not allowed to.
Countries Visited: 6
Running Total: 113
Possibly the most enjoyable month of travel, as I thundered pell-mell throughout Southern and Eastern Africa, fell in love with Madagascar and reached Mauritius in record-fast time.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 124
A silly and depressing month spent attempting to return to Africa from Mauritius and failing at every turn. The fact I missed out on visiting Seychelles particularly stung. Not a single new country to add my tally for the whole stinkin’ month.
Countries Visited: 0
Running Total: 124
After a slow beginning in stuck in Comoros, December leapt into action when I had just two weeks to get from Dar-es-Salaam to Cairo via Rwanda and Somalia and, against all odds, I pulled it off. I also made it to Cairo.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 133
Welcome, friends, to our newest, shiniest decade in years. And, might I say, good riddance to the old one, the rotten turnip that it was.
The decade in which being clever was a bigger faux pas than turning up at a Jewish wedding decked out in full Nazi regalia. The decade in which people BRAGGED, yes, BRAGGED about how stupid they were – and, what’s even worse, made a skip load of money doing it. The decade in which it was deemed sensible to believe in anything as long as one other nutter on the internet agreed with you. At the first point in human history when all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the ages are available to everyone, everywhere at the touch of a button – a great leap forward in a world where knowledge is supposed to be power – we find ourselves mired in crap from the stone age about mystical vibrations, ghosts and magic. You might find this current trend towards conspiracy theories and woo! slightly incongruous, but there it is… baffling and utterly, utterly frustrating. It makes me want to puke.
Was it the worst decade ever? Nah, nowhere near as dark as the 1910s or the 1940s, but yeah it was pretty bad. It started with a damp fart as the poor old Queen lit a torch with ‘British Gas’ emblazoned all over it and it went downhill from there. From September 11th to the Boxing Day Tsunami to the Credit Crunch, the last ten years have been several shades of awful. Russell Brand, Pete Doherty, Amy Whitehouse (amongst others) did their level best to make me want to vomit up my own legs in disgust.
Big Brother proved that all you needed to do to make a fortune was to have no discernible talent and the X-Factor showed us just how little discernible talent many people have. The decade that gave us Heat magazine, ‘showbiz’ news shoehorning itself into real current affairs programming and a manic obsession with celebrity bordering on chasing them through the park wearing night-vision goggles. The decade that allowed a bumpkin like George W. Bush run the most powerful nation on Earth (and run it into the ground!). The decade that saw our human rights curtailed because of terrorists whose M.O. is… to curtail human rights. And the decade in which we lost Douglas Adams, John Peel, Tony Wilson, Richard Harris and Arthur C. Clarke. Humph.
Musically, after a slow start (Travis and Stereophonics, urgh) we had a high in the mid-noughties with the likes of Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, Futureheads, Sigur Ros, Bloc Party, We Are Scientists and Guillemots rucking up and showing the kids how to have fun. Although while it’s not illegal to tout gig tickets, the chances of your average 14-year old being able to afford to see his or her favourite band is slim to none. Thanks a lot, eBay.
Cinematically, the noughties were dreadful. Apart from a few bright shiny stars (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy for one) all we had to chose from were a procession of terrible Star Wars films, painfully bad Matrix films, naff Harry Potter clones and a disgraceful number of comic-book adaptations. No Pulp Fiction, no Shawshank, no Being John Malkovich, no Fight Club… Quentin Tarantino disappointed us all with his lackluster Kill Bill movies and his utterly cack Death Proof before finishing off the decade with the meh-fest that was Inglorious Basterds. Martin Scorscese finally won an Oscar, not for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but for a mediocre adaptation of Infernal Affairs that could have been shot by Tony Scott whilst recovering from a particularly rampant hangover.
Indeed, the sheer cacophony of cack that was spewed forth by the likes of Brett ‘I’ll do it!’ Ratner, Michael ‘Boom!’ Bay and McG (his name alone makes me want to punch him) was an insult to the English-speaking world. The Coens finally fumbled the ball with Intolerable Cruelty and the desperately pointless remake of the Ladykillers (although No Country was a cracking return to form) and Harrison ‘can do no wrong’ Ford didn’t have a single quality film in ten years. And in possibly the low point in the decade, the job of adapting the first part of His Dark Materials was given to the guy who co-directed American Pie. I kid you not.
But there was a redeeming feature of the noughties (and it certainly wasn’t its moniker) – American television. Wow. Like, seriously, wow. Let me just prostrate myself on the altar of America’s golden age of the goggle box: E.R., Friends and Buffy laid the groundwork, but it was the likes of Lost, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire, House, 24, Deadwood, Mad Men, Weeds, Carnivale, Heroes, Curb Your Enthusiasm, My Name Is Earl, Family Guy, Futurama, Prison Break and Battlestar Galactica that smacked the ball out of the stadium.
If you didn’t sob rivers in the closing scenes of Six Feet Under, scream at the telly as Tony Soprano blinked out of our lives, lose control of your lower jaw when the island disappeared in Lost or squirt beer out of your nose when Peter Griffin ended up sleeping with Bill Clinton you should go see a doctor – I think you might well be dead.
And yes, credit where credit is due – I personally have one thing to thank the noughties for: Ten years ago, I would have had difficulty entering the following countries: Colombia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Congo, DR Congo, Angola, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and East Timor. But although war is by no means over, many individual wars are. I can now travel though nearly every country on the planet in complete safety, although I have to admit Eritrea is giving me a bit of a headache.
I don’t think anyone is going to look back on the opening decade of the 21st century as a glorious age, from Bush stealing the presidency in Florida to our scientifically illiterate representatives stealing our futures in Copenhagen, but that is the past. Obama is now president of the US, Gordon Brown will be out on his ear come May and Big Brother has been axed. The future’s bright my friends – welcome to 2010.
After a lazy morning and a delightful lunch I wrapped up my television contract with some hilariously terrible taglines (I had real trouble saying them with a straight face) outside Cairo coach station. Mand and I said our goodbyes to Matt the cameraman and soon we were on our way to Hurghada. In typically Egyptian fashion, they handed out food on the coach (as they do on many coaches from DR Congo to El Salvador) but unlike every other coach I have ever taken, failed to inform us that we would have to pay for the food once we arrived at our destination. Ha!
It was a bit late to visit Lorna when we got to Hurghada, so we elected to check into our hotel (urgh, I hate hotels, but they sometimes have their uses), grab a bite to eat and settle down for an early night. The weird thing was that it really didn’t feel like a year since I last saw the Mandster – it felt as if I saw her last week. Last year did not fly by for me by any means, but I guess it was such a surreal experience that my brain has decided it was all a fanciful dream and twisted my temporal perception accordingly. I don’t want to have another year of this though, I better get this nonsense finished quick smart – but first I’m going to have a week off. Odyssey Two starts Sunday January 10th 2010.
To say that our hotel in Hurghada was a bit lousy would probably do insult to lousy hotels. My general dislike for large-scale tourist hotels was not helped by the unhelpful staff, the twin room we were lumbered with or the remarkably bad breakfasts they doled out, much in the manner of an African prison… and I should know! But we made the most of it, fighting our way through the throng of German and Russian holiday makers and out into the bright light of Hurghada.
I was in Hurghada about ten years ago, and I found it a dusty, unfinished mess of litter and concrete and I’m sorry to say nothing has changed. One of the first Red Sea holiday destinations, insensitive planning and an unbridled frenzy of concrete tat means that of all Egypts cities, it is possibly the most unattractive. Plus it’s got no groovy pyramids, temples, obelisks or statues to check out. If you like your Scuba diving, then it’s a haven, but otherwise it’s a great place to haul up in your hotel room, build a little fort and watch 24 on your laptop.
The reason we’re here is because that most marvellous lady, Lorna Brookes, is holidaying here a little down the coast. Aside from wishing to thank her for all her help this year (many of my shipping jaunts would have been impossible without her persistence) she also had a bunch of stuff from the UK that I would need to continue on this stupid mission – a new leather jacket (thanks Mum!) to replace the one the police stole off me in Cape Verde, a shiny new Lonely Planet for the Middle East and a brand new stock of Doxycycline pills to ward off any malarious plagues of mozzies.
So we grabbed a taxi and headed up to Lorna’s resort. Blimey – it was like Fort Knox. We were told to wait at the gate for a car to come and pick us up and once in reception they did their best to get us to leave as soon as possible. I can see why – it was an all-expenses-paid type of place with a private beach and free drinks. They wouldn’t want riff-raff like the Hughes/Newland duo turning up and cadging a bunch of whiskeys without permission. Luckily for us, Lorna was there to turn a threat into an opportunity (something she is marvellously equipped to do. She explained to the staff the nature of my quest, they had words with the manager and before long we were given free passes to indulge in a spot of lunch and enjoy a couple of drinks on the house.
Yey for Lorna!
The hotel complex was actually quite attractive – they had done their best to ape the Arabian-Nights style of architecture in a way that, while not authentic, wasn’t particularly offensive either. Lorna was staying with a mate of hers from London, Shelly, who was a hoot, and we took turns babysitting Lorna’s baby daughter Matilda, who had a habit of zooming off in any direction she was facing, much in the manner of a turbo-charged Big Trax.
We spent the afternoon chilling out on the beach and taking full advantage of the free booze. That evening Mand and I chucked some Egyptian pounds at the staff so we could stay for din-dins and after musing over just how far we have come we scuttled back to our dowdy hotel (after a few more drinks in the Peanuts Bar) and, for the first time in this whole daffy adventure, I felt as if I was on holiday.
So Mand and I had a few days kicking around Hurghada. Our hotel had been pre-booked up until the Tuesday night, so we thought we might as well make the most of it. We didn’t do much (there ain’t much to do!) but we managed to keep ourselves occupied. God it’s nice to be back in the arms of the one I love.
I don’t want to get too mushy about all this, but I seriously appreciate just how bloody marvellous Mandy has been all year putting up with all of this. It’s one thing disappearing off into the wild blue yonder for twelve months, but when you leave behind the one you love, it really makes the whole thing that much more of an ordeal – for both of us. When I was locked up in Cape Verde and the Congo, it wasn’t what I was going through that really hacked me off, it was that I knew Mandy would be thousands of miles away worrying her pants off.
Having just one week together seemed unfair, a trick of some capricious god teasing us with what could have been. If all had gone according to plan, I’d be home in Australia by now, putting my feet up and stuffing my face with Anzac biscuits and Arnott’s Pizza Shapes. If I had more money (or if I had played my cards right last year), Mandy could be travelling with me. But as it is, I’m skint, Mand has to work every hour god sends to pay her rent and after this week, I won’t be seeing her for a very long time – hopefully not a year though, that would be too much to do again. Fortune and glory, eh?! At least Indy could afford to have Marion tag along.
On the Tuesday, we bought coach tickets to get back to Cairo the following morning and our last evening in Hurghada was spent nattering to a girl named Rosa in the Peanuts Bar. Wednesday, bright and early, we were bussing our way back to Cairo, Mand seriously not appreciating my lethargic attitude toward bus timetables. I didn’t miss a single connection for the entire year of 2009 and I wasn’t excessively fussed about getting up mega-early just to hang around for half an hour in a bus station that looked as though it had only been half-built by half-blind lunatics before a bomb hit it.
But by the time we arrived in Cairo, we were friends again and we checked back into the wonderfully friendly Sara Inn, the place we had spent New Year after we returned from the Pyramids. After checking in, we were torn between seeing the Sufi Dancing show or going to see Sherlock Holmes. There was a French lady called Dominique who overheard our conversation and told us that she wanted to go and see the Sufi show too.
Sufi Dancing is better known as the Whirling Dervishes in the West, it’s a form of dance which involves a bunch of guys hammering the hell out of various musical instruments, getting faster and faster and more frantic every minute as your dancer spins himself around and around, multi-coloured robes flowing until he looks like a spinning top. Sufi has its roots in Islamic (or rather Arab) mysticism – so it’s kinda like what Kabbalah is to Judaism (only less of a fad for drug-addled celebrity goons). It was invented as a way of communing with god, and is therefore frowned upon in certain Arabic countries, but not in Egypt where the show is put on a few times a week for free by the government. We ended up going to see the Sufi dancing with Dominique. Sherlock would have to wait.
Dominique was hilarious. It was if she had dropped in from another planet, had only 24 hours to learn everything about the world but had unfortunately landed in the middle of a bunch of extremely stoned hippies talking what can only be described as the biggest load of crap since Otto the Giant dropped his trousers and single-arsedly suffocated an entire Welsh village.
From guardian angels to memory crystals in water to the world ending in 2012, there wasn’t a scrap of an urban legend that this woman didn’t believe and believe whole-heartedly. She had done her stint in an Indian ashram, thought astrology was more accurate than an atomic clock and could no doubt find water on the moon with a couple of metal sticks. It was kind of a shame that I didn’t have more time with her – I would have bought some tat from a junk shop, stuck it together with sellotape, made up some nonsense about laylines and reiki and pocketed five hundred quid for my troubles. There’s one born every minute, I guess…
The Sufi dancing was held at a venue near Cairo’s biggest market, so Mand and I went for a mooch before the performance. Night-time was a good time to go – the touts and hasslers were exhausted from spending the day annoying the pants off everybody who had the misfortune to walk past, so we had the run of the market at our own pace and in our own time. We found a wonderful little shop that sold hand-bound notebooks – no hard-sell, no perfume/carpet/cuppa tea – the books even had price stickers, so we didn’t even have to play the massively un-entertaining game in which you’re quoted 500 Egyptian Pounds, you get it for 100 pounds after a ton of haggling and then you go to another shop and they tell you that whatever it is, is worth 10 pounds. Fun!
We bought a journal for Dino (he should write in the entry for 1st January “Graham & Mandy meet at 00:06 at KFC by the Pyramids, thanks to me”) and then scooted off to watch the Sufi show, which I’ve got to admit was pretty damn awesome. How these guys don’t wobble off the stage like a drunken badger I’ll never know. Afterwards, Dominique, Mand and I went for a coffee in a sheesha bar – the owner trying to dupe us for a ton of cash. After an hour-and-a-half of quality entertainment for gratis, it just reminded me how frustrating my second-favourite country in the world can be – if you don’t keep your wits about you at all time, you’ll soon lose your shirt.
Thursday started with a very early morning trip to the Sudanese Embassy – I missed out Sudan and Eritrea on the way up here, so Sudan was next on my list (Eritrea will have to wait, all of its land borders are currently closed). There, I was told to come back at 10, which I did (Mandy slept in, the lazy bugger) only to find they meant the 10th of January. It was closed until Sunday. A bit annoying, but no big deal – so long as I could get a visa on Sunday – Sudanese visas can take up to six weeks in Ethiopia.
So I roused the Mandster and we headed over to the greatest/worst museum in the world – the Egyptian museum in Cairo.
It’s the greatest because it’s stuffed to the gills with more Egypticana than you could ever want. It’s the worst because, oh my god, the place is a TIP. You know the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? That’s the Egyptian museum, except the crates are open. Stuff lays about higgledy-piggledy, jumping from one dynasty to another with reckless abandon, the labels (if you’re luck enough to find one) are the same ones that were typed out 107 years ago on a typewriter when the museum first opened. Many of the artefacts haven’t moved in all that time – this museum belongs in a museum.
Hilariously, the most important artefact in the whole damn warehouse is unlabelled and if you didn’t know where to look you’d miss it – it’s in glass box number 16 and it’s looks like a small shield. On one side is Narmer, the first Pharaoh (discounting the Scorpion King, no, really, he existed) wearing the crown of Upper (Southern) Egypt and on the other side it’s Narmer again, this time wearing the crown of Lower (Northern) Egypt. It’s possibly the oldest thing in this most antique of lands – you’d think they’d make a bit more of a fanfare about it.
Not so funny was the Tutankhamen room. I get a bit ratty with how people refer to King Tut as an ‘insignificant’ king – he deserves a bit more respect than that, after all, he did bring the country back from the brink of civil war following his nutty predecessor’s pronouncement that there was only one god (fancy that!).
You know that between King Tut and Ramses II (he of Abu Simbel and plagues-of-Egypt fame) there was only about 150 years? Long enough for a cult faithful to this one-god malarkey to emerge? Long enough for it to start causing trouble and be banished into the east? Hmm…
The mind boggles.
Anyway, whether or not you fancy debating the significance of Tut as a Pharaoh, there is NO debating the HOLY MOTHER OF GOD! that is his funerary treasure. The most priceless heap of riches in the goddamn world. And the state of the room they are kept in? Dear god. Not only is the bright bleaching sunlight allowed to flop itself all over the place like an uninvited fatty, the windows out to Cairo, that most sprawling and polluted of cities, are wide open. The dust in the corners of the room sits an inch thick and the walls, which I suppose were at one time white, now resemble the colour of crème brûlée.
No climate control, no double-glazed bullet-proof glass, no attempt to stop people taking piccies with a flash (except a guard who sits idly by muttering ‘no photo’ every time one goes off). And they want the Rosetta Stone back? Are they nuts? They’d probably dump it in a bin in the darkened corner of the basement. Madness.
I once asked my brother Mike why he had never visited Egypt, interested as he is in history of the place. His reason? He had seen a programme years ago in which an Egyptian woman was attempting to ‘restore’ an ancient artefact. A small crack became a bigger crack, which became an even bigger crack and before the ordeal was over, she had pretty much destroyed the damn thing. It would have been better off had she not even bothered picking it up. I can see his point – some of the ‘restored’ pieces here are just appalling – a broken statue is better off being held together with wirework than with cement which shifts and cracks. The grubby hands of countless generations of tourists have left their mark on nearly everything that is not kept behind glass – is velvet rope selling at a premium these days?
Luckily, a new museum is being built as we speak – it’s scheduled to open in the far-flung year of 2009. Oh, hang on…
This would be Mandy’s and my last night together for another good few months, so we thought we’d spend it doing what we both like doing best – going to the cinema. With me being a Sherlock Holmes nut (well, actually just a nut, period) and the Sufi dancing taking up our previous night’s shenanigan-ing, we decided to take in the new Sherlock Holmes movie. It was bloody marvellous. If you’ve read the books you’ll know that Holmes is more Dr. House than Basil Rathbone and his brain is just one of his many facets, the others being his interest in amateur boxing, his addiction to cocaine and his love of chemical experimentation.
Watson is finally elevated from the bumbling assistant for-the-sake-of-exposition to his rightful role as Sundance to Holmes’ Butch. And although I detest Jude Law (who has an annoying habit of cropping up in films I actually quite like) the whole thing was a delight from beginning to end – especially for any old farts (such as I) who can remember watching Young Sherlock Holmes at the cinema as a child.
Only, yeah, this is Egypt, so we had a big scrum getting into the cinema (even though the seats were allocated) and people talked loudly and answered their mobiles all through the film. And the sound was awful – THX this was not – making a mockery of a stack of anti-piracy campaigns. Afterwards, we took a midnight stroll back to our hotel, Cairo being the safe-as-houses city that it is… you know, Mandy and I have been together since 2002, you would think that she would have got used to my extraordinarily good sense of direction by now, but when our hotel came into focus she was still bamboozled. Have faith, my dear, I did make it all the way from Uruguay to Egypt by myself.
It was a restless night – I had to upload the last of my 2009 tapes to my computer so Mand could drop them off in Lonely Planet HQ next week. Uploading tapes to my computer is not a fun job – it means setting your alarm every hour to get up and change the tape. Mandy slept through it all, but when the 6am snooze went off, it was time to get up-up – I wanted to finally get inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.
I’ve been to the Giza Pyramids a bunch of times – but as only 150 people per morning are allowed in the big one, I’ve never made it inside. But this time would be different. If we left now, we could make it for 7am, be first in the queue for Pyramid tickets and Bob’s-Your-Uncle, Fanny’s-Your-Aunt and Who-Killed-Cousin-Monty?
I woke Mandy up, but she just went back to sleep. Sod it – the pyramids aren’t going anywhere. I’ll spend our last morning together in bed with the woman I love. Mand would be hopping the 19:15 plane home later today. Well the day went far too fast, we filmed some stuff for the new YouTube videos and grabbed a bite to eat, nothing too heavy, but by half-four it was time to get in the taxi and head off to the airport.
Cairo airport doesn’t let you into the check-in desks before you go through security, so we sat outside until the queue died down and then said our goodbyes. Would it have been better not to have seen Mandy until I finished this whole trip? No – I don’t think so, this was shore leave, a chance to live a few normal days before I clamber back on Rocinante and continue this impossible quest. It was a chance to re-fuel the batteries, take stock of just how far I’ve come and gaze fervently at how far I have still to go. A chance for me to see, if only for a few short days, what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for the difficulties of traversing The Caribbean and Africa cropping up and ruining all my grand plans.
I miss her already and it’s only been an hour since I kissed her goodbye. There’s an added vibrancy to our relationship that comes from the many partings and reunions that are the natural consequence of a long-distance relationship such as ours. That vibrancy comes from one salient fact – although we often live apart, we are never that far away. Mobile phones, the Internet and Skype have seen to that.
I returned to the Sara Hotel, watched an episode of 24 and fell asleep. So long, Amanda my love. I’ll go to the pyramids in the morning.
Again I woke up at 6am with every intention of visiting the pyramids, and again I looked to Mandy for moral support on this desire, and once again it was not forthcoming, not because she fell asleep again, but because she wasn’t there. Deeply saddened by this revelation, I fell back asleep. It was one of those days during which, I just couldn’t be bothered – not with The Odyssey, not with writing up my blog, not with those damn YouTube videos that the powers that be might just let you all watch sometime this decade.
Well, then I wasted the day away in the Sara Hotel. There I met Veronica, a girl from Canada who had toured throughout the Middle East and had a ton of wisdom to dispense about Iran – she actually made me look forward to going there. Once I sort out the bloody visa…
A few weeks ago when I put my mobile number up on the site, I received a text from a rather lovely Canadian girl named Jesse, who was living in Cairo. I had promised to drop in if I was here, and Saturday night seemed like a good a time as ever. But she had recently returned to Canada and so, put me in touch with a friend of hers from Boston who was living up in Heliopolis in the north-east of Cairo’s urban sprawl. Jesse said that she’d be up for a big night out. Her name was Kendra.
So I got in touch with our American cousin and made plans to go and grab some drinkies. I invited a German guy named Martin, who was also staying at the Sara Inn (from Konstanz – the same place as Patricia, whom I met in Halifax) to tag along and later, we were all in the Stella bar around the corner enjoying some much-needed beers.
Kendra was hilarious – your typical cynical-as-hell east coast type, as aware as anybody about Egypt’s shortcomings, but in love with the place anyway (as am I). Later on as the bar shut up for the night, we were lumbered with an impossibly drunk Russian woman who had been sitting across the room from us. All but passed out, wee’d and pukey, we felt obliged to take her back to her hotel. What a bloody moron – imagine getting that hammered out on your own in a foreign bar.
And before you say it – I’m not a girl – and even if I’m so drunk that I can’t see, I can always find my way home!
Kendra was ace – she got the mad devotchka to bed (after having to fish through the Russian woman’s wee-soaked handbag to find the room key) and then we set off for a little Odyssey around the streets of Cairo.
One of the ace things about Cairo is that it’s truly a 24-hour city – so much so that you can order KFC or McDonalds to your door, any time of the night or day. There’s always a bar open all night or a kushari joint there for your gastronomic pleasure in the wee small hours. Cairo is also a remarkably safe city – you’re more likely to get mugged on Sesame Street.
So we set off for a stroll along the banks of the River Nile – the lifeblood of this entire country, without which all would be nothing but desert (it hardly ever rains) and I found out that Kendra is just as much of a sad Star Wars geek as I am – yes she was one of the happy few who camped outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in LA for three weeks for the opening of The Great Disappointment, or to give it its proper title Star Wars Episode I. Yeah, the film was crap, but the experience was awesome, she said – I feel the same way (I blew my student loan flying to New York to see it).
By the time we had done a lap of downtown and stopped in a pizza place to stuff our faces, it was almost 6am. I had to get some shut-eye…I had to be at the Sudanese Embassy for nine.
Here’s what you need to do to get a visa for Sudan:
- Have two hours sleep
- Taxi to Sudanese Embassy
- Queue up at the window
- Be told to get a letter from own embassy
- Go to British Embassy
- Pay $50 for a photocopy of a letter explaining why the British Embassy will not write a letter
- Back to Sudanese Embassy
- Queue up again
- Give them letter explaining why the British Embassy will not write a letter
- Take application form
- Fill out application form
- Panic that you’ve given your Africa Lonely Planet to Mandy and consequently don’t know what to put down on the form for where you’re going to stay.
- Queue up again
- Be told that you have to photocopy the filled out application form
- Go down the road and get application form photocopied
- Queue up again
- Be given slip to take to Window 2
- Queue up again, this time at Window 2
- Be told that you can’t pay in Egyptian pounds – must be in US dollars
- Go find a bank
- Queue up in the bank
- Change your Egyptian pounds into US dollars
- Back to Sudanese Embassy
- Queue up again at Window 2
- Hand over the extortionate $105 visa fee
- Be given receipt
- Queue up again at Window 1
- Hand over passport, application form, photocopy of application form, 4 photocopies of passport and 4 photographs, letter from British Embassy explaining why they will not write a letter and receipt for payment
- Be told to come back tomorrow
- Say you need it today
- Hold your breath
- Be told to come back at 3pm
- Breathe a sigh of relief.
That was my morning, but there was still much stuff to do. You see, I needed my visa today because the only way to get into Sudan from Egypt is on the ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan to Wadi Halfa and the ferry only goes once a week – and it leaves on Monday, which is tomorrow. I needed to get the night-train to Aswan, so I headed over to Ramses train station and MORE BUREAUCRACY!
- So I go to the Information Desk
- Walk all the way to the far platform of the station
- Queue up in the wrong queue
- Queue up in the right queue
- Be told that the train is fully booked
- Asked for a ticket for the train which leaves from Giza station instead
- Be told can only buy that ticket from Giza station
- Head back to the information desk
- They suggest I take the expensive sleeper train
- I visit the sleeper train office
- That will be $60 please
- Attempt to pay with Egyptian pounds
- No, you have to pay in dollars
- Walk half an hour to the nearest bank in the blazing noontime sun
- Queue up in bank
- Change more Egyptian pounds into US dollars
- Back to station
- Be told that the sleeper train is now sold out
- Threaten to kill everyone in the room with a staple gun
- Be told that they have one ticket left
- Buy ticket
The whole process took about two hours.
Then I (foolishly) took a cab back to the Sudanese Embassy (I should have taken the subway). We got caught in traffic more jammed than Bob Marley jamming in a jar of jam. I got back to the Sudanese embassy at 3.10pm, worried that I was ten minutes late. An hour and a half later, they gave me my passport back. I was glad I rushed.
So… back to the Sara Inn to pick up my bags and to eat some kushari. Said my goodbyes and headed off to the station for my train. Despite all the hoops that I had to jump through, today went rather well, I thought. The train was less hilarious than I thought it would be, there was no booze and the fresh-faced young Kontiki tour groups were happy to crash out at 11pm, what with kids these days? Bunch of wusses.
I shared a cabin with a guy from New York named John, who (let’s not beat around the bush here) was Forrest Gump – how anyone let him go to Egypt on his own is beyond me. Perhaps his mum was in the next room. I mean, he was a nice enough guy, but give an Egyptian an inch and they’ll take a mile – this time tomorrow, I’d be surprised if he had any money left. I did my best to answer his questions about whether the train conductors were nice in the UK (the answer is no), whether they had trains in Australia and why the Giza touts were so mean.
Our train conductor, Aladdin, not being one to miss a trick (yes, they did the old ‘would you like a cup of tea with your dinner?’ lark without telling you it wasn’t complimentary) offered me a different cabin for a few Egyptian pounds, but I turned the offer down – John was harmless; I got the impression they don’t quite understand mental illness in Egypt. Then again, the way people with mental illnesses are treated in the US (and the UK for that matter) is still pretty damn awful. Funny that, isn’t it? If somebody has a dodgy heart or breaks their arm, they get sympathy and all the help they need, if someone’s brain isn’t functioning at 100%, we tend to shun them lest they turn around in the night and go postal on our asses.
With nowt much else to do, I clambered up onto my bunk bed, tied my GPS logger to my leg and fell asleep.