After an interrupted night’s sleep (I foolishly slept under the plug socket that everybody wanted to use to charge their mobiles) we crossed the Tropic of Cancer and came into port in Aswan. It would be a good four hours before they would let us off the boat, as the bureaucratic nightmare that is involved in letting a large group of people over an international border in Africa kicked into slow mode.
While we were waiting, we got chatting to a young couple from Liechtenstein, who had been travelling all over Africa and the traumas they had crossing borders with passports for a country that few people have ever heard of. The night before, Barcelona Marc and I had befriended a couple of Egyptian guys, Rumor and Shabi – and once again, I was bowled over by the hospitality of people when they ain’t looking to sell you something. False hospitality syndrome is something Egypt suffers from greatly and I guess it’s one of the reasons people look at me funny when I tell them that Egypt is the bee’s knees. But after we (finally!) disembarked Rumor and Shabi treated Marc and I to some excellent kushari and sorted me out with a cheap ‘local’ ticket up to Alexandria on the overnight train (it was less than US$10, much cheaper than my journey down here).
After thanking them profusely, Marc and I left to grab a coffee on the banks of the Nile. Aswan is a beautiful little town and, I don’t want to sound too flowery about this, but it’s where I fell for my girlfriend Mandy. As I said in my earlier blogs, Mand and I met in Egypt, but for the first couple of days we were always in a bigger group and she seemed attached at the hip to her (admittedly rather fetching) sister Tam. But when we were in Aswan, we finally had a moment alone with each other walking through Lord Kitchener’s Island, a botanic garden in the middle of the Nile.
I should stress at this point that Mandy had utterly no interest in me at all. Aside from me being a ginger specky-four-eyes, she thought my idea of shipping all the people I deem cool to another planet where morons and uggos would not admitted was somehow elitist. It would be years later before I wore down her defences enough for her to let me kiss her, but I still look back on that walk through the botanic garden with affection, especially as it shoehorns neatly into our Will n’ Lyra complex. If you don’t know what that means, you really should read the same books that I do.
Anyway, Marc knew the guys in a local hotel that had links with Siwa Oasis. They gave me the number of a guy in Siwa called Mana and said that hopping over to Libya should be no problem – so long as we didn’t get caught. Libyan border guards are not known for their sense of humour.
Later that evening, I clambered aboard the train back up North. I’ve got to say that the public transport in Egypt is awesome – better than England, in fact (although that’s not too difficult). Generally speaking, you can go anywhere in the country at any time you fancy, really cheaply; none of this buses-don’t-run-at-night lark that happens in East Africa and none of the extortionate prices that they charge in the UK. British transport chiefs seem to think that our public transport equates to our ‘public’ schools, i.e. they’re just for the richest 1% of the country and no-one else.
Anyway, the train was pleasant enough, I had a ton of legroom and after typing up a bit of bloggage, I fell asleep in my chair.
After me waxing lyrical about the Egyptian transport system yesterday, our train arrived in Alexandria three hours late (typical!), meaning that I was too late to get today’s bus to Siwa, so I had to wait until 10pm and get the night bus. But Alex ain’t such a bad place to be stuck-in for a few hours. Apart from the crime against architecture that is the new library, the city is much more pleasant than Cairo and has a wonderful coffee-house tradition.
Maybe those tolerant Christian-types who burnt down the original library (and, in one swift move destroyed more irreplaceable literature and historical information than in a crazed Chinese Cultural Revolutionist’s wet dream) could come back and go to town on this one. Although they might have to invest in an X-Wing, the damn thing looks like the Death Star.
After a pleasant stroll along the prom, I fancied downing a nice cold Carlsberg like John Mills and Anthony Quinn, but Carlsberg is obviously rarer here now than it was in the war. In the end, I opted for a cappuccino in one of the many coffee shops… not exactly an Ice Cold lager, and it wouldn’t have kept me going in the blazing heat of the Qattara Depression, but it was better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper.
If you don’t know what I’m on about, you really should watch the same films that I do.
I tried to meet up with Marc’s friend Sofia, but she was in Cairo for the weekend, so I had to make my own fun, which meant spending the evening abusing my coffee house’s free wi-fi and annoying my friends on Skype before boarding the night-bus towards Siwa – and my second attempt to crack open Libya LIKE A NUT.
This time last year, I had visited every country in South America. This year, I’ve been to one new country, Sudan. Pathetic! Well, I was soon to make amends… within a few hours, I would hopefully be hot-footing it into Libya and I’d be able to tick country number 135 off my list.
I arrived in Siwa at about 6am and headed straight over to the Yousef hostel to meet Mana, the guy that the guys in Aswan put me onto. He offered me a room so that I could get a couple of hours shut-eye, and after my less-than-marvellous night’s sleep on the coach over here, I was all too happy to say yes. It wasn’t until after I had got up and had a shower that he told me that the room was gratis. What a legend! I tried to give him ten Egyptian pounds, but he wouldn’t take it.
When people ask me what my favourite country other than my home is, some have been a bit perplexed when I’ve said Egypt. I guess those people don’t know Egypt like I know Egypt. Maybe they’ve only seen the annoying parts of Egypt – the touts, the taxi-drivers and the rip-off merchants. Maybe they’re just looking at the polluted urban sprawl of Cairo, or the dictator that has been in power since 1981. Maybe they mistake genuine hospitality for the rogues and carpet-baggers who lure you into their perfume factory under false pretences. Maybe they actually give the baksheesh (backhanders) to every Tom, Dick and Hamza that asks for it.
But if you can see beyond that at all the magical things Egypt has to offer, it truly is an awesome place. I love it.
I asked about getting a ride over the border, but from the word go, it wasn’t looking very good. Mana didn’t know anyone who would take me and suggested that I asked around the town. So I did, and the word that I received back was not good. There had been a recent clampdown by the Libyan authorities to try to stem the flow of hashish into the Colonel’s personal fiefdom, these guys had guns and, well, it wasn’t worth the risk. My trip to Siwa had been a wasted one, but it wasn’t entirely a fruitless expedition because Siwa was just wonderful. I liked it even more than chips. Relaxed, friendly, hospitable… it has all the best qualities of Egypt and none of the worst.
The only thing that was a bit weird was that you hardly see any women here – those you do see are invariably covered up. There are a couple of reasons for this, one is your usual Bedouin traditions, another is that Siwa was the last oasis in Egypt to get a paved road going to it. But the main reason is this… Siwa is the San Francisco of Egypt. Oh yes people, before they made it illegal in the 1950s (the bores!), this was where your crafty butchers, flashboys and chromatically adept types hung out. Well, they still do, they just don’t hold love parades. It would be a little risky.
Anyway, after exhausting all possibilities for a quick border-hop, I jumped on the 3pm bus back to Alex. Bah! My second attempt to crack fortress Libya had failed… but don’t forget – I’ve still got to backtrack all the way to Tunisia in order to visit Algeria, so I’ll have at least one more crack at it.
I got into Alex at around 11pm and I toyed with the idea of staying the night but instead opted to press on in a minibus to Cairo and kip at Kendra’s place. When I say she’s a nighthawk, I mean, this girl just does not sleep, so I didn’t feel to guilty about rucking up at three in the morning. She acted like it was three in the afternoon – we even ordered twenty-four hour pizza. Try doing that in Liverpool, ya loooosers!
I was planning to be at the Jordanian Embassy first thing in the morning, but you know what I’m like by now and after going to sleep around 5am, I had no real intentions of being up with the lark. I got there about 11am-ish only to discover that you can’t get a multiple-entry visa from the embassy. Why I need a multiple-entry visa is a story for another day, but it was a bit of a blow for the smooth running of The Odyssey.
So then I headed over towards The Pyramids. I was supposed to go last week, but laziness and procrastination got the better of me. There would be tickets on sale at 1pm to go inside the Great Pyramid, something that has always been a dream of mine. Whenever I’ve been to the Pyramids in the past, the Great Pyramid has always been closed for one reason or another. Along with seeing a shuttle launch and attending a full-moon party, it has been something I wanted to not miss out on this time around.
The journey there was a bit of a nightmare. I took the glorious Metro across town to Giza station, but the taxi that I took from the station was driven by a fool. He drove me to the wrong entrance to the complex (because he wanted to drop me off at his friend’s stable and also buy a ‘ticket’ somewhere I know you can’t) and by the time we got there, it was already past 1pm. If I missed out on my one and only chance to get inside that damn pile of rocks because of a bloomin’ corrupt taxi driver, I’d be spitting blood for a week.
But it was okay – although I had to trek all the way up the Giza plateau to the proper entrance in order to buy a ticket, I got one. I GOT ONE!!
Utterly made up, I made my way into the last great wonder of the world, the tallest building in the world for four thousand years, the resting place of the 4th dynasty king Cheops and the riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped inside an enigma that has focussed the great minds since antiquity – The Great Pyramid of Giza.
I get a lot of flack for not hanging around places long enough to experience them, but what people who don’t know me don’t get, is that I’ve already been to a ton of places and fully experienced them before The Odyssey began – from the Taj Mahal to Machu Picchu to Angkor Watt to Petra to the Parthenon, I’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt. Even ones that are sadly no longer with us, New York’s twin towers and the Sari Club in Bali to name but two. But if there was one place I always kinda had my eye on for hanging around, it’s Egypt. I know I’ve been here before, I know that things haven’t changed much in the last ten years, but there’s something magical about this place – a link to the distant past that cannot be replicated anywhere in the world.
I always thought I would descend into Cheops’ tomb, but you actually go up to it (good pop quiz question there methinks) along a series of low ceilinged slopes. Once inside, others might begrudge the E£100 entry price (about 15 quid) because it’s just a room. But when you’re in there it’s just so much more, it is a haven of solace in which the greatest kings the world has ever seen would continue their adventures towards the afterlife.
Because of the plethora of tombs and pyramids and catacombs in Egypt, I guess it’s only natural that you might think that the Egyptians were obsessed with death. Nothing could be further from the truth – they were obsessed with life. Death scared the bejesus out of them and they went to great lengths to try and survive it. And when I say great lengths, they don’t come much greater than the Great Pyramid. Over one million massive blocks, over 100,000 labourers and over 20 years to build the damn thing… all so one guy can have a nice easy transition into the afterlife.
Once in the tomb chamber, I monkeyed about (as I have a habit of doing), getting a photo of me in the sarcophagus, jumping out and going RAH! at hapless tourists, sticking my hand into a hole in the wall and pretending it was stuck. Ahahahaha GOD I’M FUNNY.
I then thought I’d have a nice sit down and quietly drink my water. At this point, there was only one other guy in the tomb room and he sat down too. It was all nice and quiet and calm.
After a few minutes some noisy tourists rolled in. But upon seeing me and the American guy sitting quietly against the wall, they assumed that that’s what you’re supposed to do inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, so they sat down too.
This is only natural – whenever you’re put into a situation that you’ve never experienced before (like entering a the tomb chamber of the Great Pyramid), your best bet is to copy what others are doing. But then more tourists came in, looked about, and sat down too. Before too long there were over FIFTY people in the chamber, all sitting quietly – some praying, some meditating, some daydreaming – all in complete silence. I was giggling. Derren Brown would be proud.
I sat with interest to see what would happen when a bunch of rather loud Japanese tourists entered the (now full of sitting people) chamber. Lacking the social etiquette that their civilisation is usually famed for, they made a complete racket (one would be tempted to wear shoes in their home just to see how they’d like it) and my cult of quiet sitters grew annoyed. Shhhhhh! Fired a French lady sitting with her back against Cheops’ empty sarcophagus. Shhhhhh! Shot an American man by the entrance. Before long the Shhhh’s drowned out the Japanese tourists enthusiasm and they quietly (and respectfully) left the chamber. My cult of quiet sitters had successfully won it’s first tribal conflict.
I was proud of how far we had come in just half an hour of not saying anything. But it was now time for me to do what all good messiahs should do and I made a timely exit… always leave them wanting more, that’s what I say.
Crikey, could you imagine if I had resumed my earlier shenanigans and jumped into the sarcophagus again? They probably would have eaten me.
Upon exiting the Pyramid, I was seriously made up. Not only had I achieved another of my hidden goals of The Odyssey, I had also had a moment in there that I’d never forget – although by now, I’m sure my cult would have fractured into various denominations, each convinced a different seated posture is the orthodox one.
I spent an hour or so ambling around the Pyramid complex (I could never get bored of these things) and passed by ol’ Sphinxy on the way out and answered her riddle (the answer is me with a hangover). I grabbed a bite to eat in the fabled KFC and jumped a taxi back towards Heliopolis to see what Kendra had planned for the evening.
As things came to pass, Kendra had no plans so we ended up staying in and watching vids. Yes I should really leave tonight, but I can’t be bothered. I’d much rather put my feet up, upload some tapes to my laptop and watch The Wrestler. What’s one more day? I’ll leave for Jordan tomorrow.
To say I was being incredibly lazy today would be an understatement. Not being interested in doing, well, anything much. There was a bus that left at 10pm that would take me all the way to Amman in Jordan (via Nuiweba and Aqaba), so Kendra and I conspired to go get the ticket and go for some drinks before we had to leave. Well, that was the plan…
In the event, (not that you’d know, because it wasn’t covered in the news at all) Egypt was suffering from its worst flash flooding in decades. A dozen or so people had been killed by collapsing buildings and a British guy had died down in Aswan when his yacht capsized on the Nile. So the roads were closed and we weren’t going anywhere.
How bloomin’ Biblical.
So Kendra and I slinked off to the Stella bar in downtown Cairo. You know what they say, if you can’t get what you want, you’re best off getting hammered. Or something like that.
The Stella was its usual colourful self – full of ex-pats, backpackers and drunken Egyptian men falling over. We fell into a rather animated conversation with a couple of old British queens, John and Nigel, and their utterly bananas French friend, Eric. You know the French guy who throws the cow at King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? That’s Eric. Loud, obnoxious and preposterous (and with Roman Polanski’s hair), he kept us entertained all night with his ludicrous pontificating “The World… there is no hope… it will end in fifteen years”, “Global warming… it is all ze fault of ze Anglo-Saxon people”, “The British they did nothing for France! Nothing!”. That final comment was enough to make even the mild mannered John snap and explain in plain English that it was the British who dug the French out of the crap TWICE when Germany gate-crashed the party. The whole thing was hilarious.
Kendra was less than impressed with his announcement that dolphins did not communicate with one another (“Do zey write poetry? No. Zey are feeshh. Feeshh have no language”) and I was on hand to constantly wind him up in a way that has been honed over many, many Sunday lunches at the Hughes household. He was so ridiculous I kind of wanted to take him with me – he’d be great for getting into fights behind the bike sheds.
Your father was a hamster and your mother smelt of elderberries, indeed.
We ended up in some hotel bar, abusing the age-old dictat that hotel bars may not close until the last customer leaves. We left at 6am, by which time Kendra and I had drunk enough to flood a small town. I recall little of our return journey to Kendra’s flat, but suffice to say, it was a damn entertaining night out. I fart in your general direction.
Dammit – I should have left Egypt on Saturday morning. Instead, here I am three days later still in Cairo. I woke up at noon and decided it was far too early and promptly went back to sleep until 3.30pm. Kendra doesn’t seem to sleep and I guess her Oirish-breeding has made her impervious to those hangover things that affect the rest of us so. I was alright until we ordered some kushari and the headache started. That was at 7pm. I REALLY ought to be going now..
I ought to be…
Maybe I’ll just fall asleep on this nice comfy couch instead. Mmm….
Come on, Graham you useless sack of ridiculousness, you’re supposed to be racing around the world! We’re up to 134 out of 200 countries… just the Middle East and we’d be up to 150… that would be three-quarters done.
GET OFF THE DAMN COUCH!!
Okay, inner monologue, okay…
I dragged my hurty head up and off the pillow and made ready to leave. There’s a bus that night at 10:30 for Nuweiba, where the ferry leaves for Aqaba in Jordan. I said my fond farewells to Kendra (you absolute LEGEND!) and jumped into a taxi. When I got to the bus station, I found out that there was a bus going directly to Amman, which would be perfect, so I bought a ticket. Once again, I had to pay in US dollars (what’s with that?) and so had to take a quick trip in a taxi to go to the all-night money changer place. Thank heavens Cairo is such a twenty-four hour city.
I don’t know when it was that we crossed the Suez Canal, but when we did, that was it – I had LEFT AFRICA! Having arrived all fresh-faced an eager last MAY, you might comprehend how utterly frustrating the last eight months have been. I thought it would take me three. Ha!
Sadly, I may be done with Africa, but Africa is not done with me… I still have Algeria, Libya and Eritrea to get to. But overland routes there are too expensive or too impossible to consider – I’ll have to attack them from the sea and this may take some time. But first… Jordan!
This morning we arrived in Nuweiba, the Egyptian border town from where the boat for Jordan departs. You see if you tried to go overland through Israel, which would be much quicker, it would mean you couldn’t visit Syria, Lebanon, Saudi, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran… do I need to go on? An Israeli stamp in your passport renders it completely useless when it comes to travelling around the Middle East, so your best bet is to take the boat.
Unfortunately for me, the ferry was very late departing and it was dark before I arrived in Jordan. Ahh, Jordan… Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea and – best of all – Petra. Petra is the rose-red city of legend, set amongst sandstone chasms were beautiful buildings were carved out of the solid rock. You would have seen a little bit of it at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the city’s treasury doubled as the temple in the Valley of the Crescent Moon.
But alas, I would not be partaking in these delights – I’ve procrastinated enough! I should be in Turkey by now!! I arrived in Amman at about 2am, too late to politely meet up with my couchsurf contact Simon, and so checked into the hostel that the Lonely Planet told me to and got my head down for the night.
Okay, Odyssey fans… this is it, the television show documenting my travels is being shown every TUESDAY at on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel, which is available in 40 countries across Asia and South America. If you can get it, great. If you can’t, you’re stuck with my YouTube videos until it gets broadcast on the BBC (fingers crossed) early next year!!
The eight episodes of season one cover the first 133 countries of The Odyssey Expedition – my journey from Uruguay to Egypt, starting on 1st January 2009 and finishing on 31st December 2009.
1. From Argentina to Guyana
2. Caribbean Castaway
3. From Cuba to Tunisia
4. Arrested In Africa
5. African Rough Road
6. Congo Chaos
7. Africa Island Hop
8. Pyramids Or Bust
As for the final 67 countries… (including Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea) Lonely Planet TV have just bagged first refusal on the second series… WATCH THIS SPACE!!!