Sunday, 29 August 2010

Cairo: dust, horns, pedestrian peril

The next morning after our Sinai experience, we were up at 5am again to catch the six hour bus to Cairo. Apart from a serious argument that involved everyone on the bus except us, it was fairly uneventful.

Too difficult for us to meet Sudan's demands for a VISA (letters, more VISAs, money, photos, forms) in time to catch the ferry, we suddenly have over a week to rest in Cairo. Though initially disappointing, we arrived totally drained from desert strandings, bus journeys and mountain hikes, and actually the prospect of a stationary week sounded delicious! Desperate to relax I asked a local what to do to relax in Cairo. "Relax?" he asked incredulously. "No relax in Cairo! Cairo stress city!" Unabashed I asked another Egyptian. "Relax?" came his reply. "Stay in your hotel room."

I have decided not to ask anyone else, because I am finding out for myself. I am learning our initial impression was typical of this heaving city - the largest in Africa and the Arab world. A thousands horns blast into the air, lanes upon lanes of cars (including our taxi) jolt violently and dart between one another, blast blast, people amble carefree among speeding buses, blast, a donkey here, a running teenager there, jolt jolt, blast, it is stickily hot, dust and dirt fly everywhere, jolt jolt. Out of the taxi and onto the street - even harder to navigate, more jolts - and horn blasts replaced with cries from street sellers, children, old men, anyone.

We arrived at our hotel of choice - the Berlin hotel. The entrance and frighteningly bolt of a lift was filthy. But everything is dirty is Cairo. A grey dust cakes everything in a thick film of dirt - the streets, almost every building, the walls, the floor, my feet. Our room was surprising clean (apart from the slightly grey looking shower), and we collapsed exhausted, hungry and strained on the bed. At this point meat re-entered my life. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find veggie food, and I was finding about three hundred other aspects of daily life challenging. I thought it would be good to ease up on the food side and remove that stress - and it has been a real relief! Nick, amazingly and so graciously, continues to fight the veggie fight, even through lowpoints such as waiters saying 'yes we have veggie... green salad?'

The Berlin hotel lasted a night and only a night. About the only time we were seperated Nick went out to use the Internet while I rested. I began to feel a bit fearful and thought lying on a bed alone was not helping my heart! I needed to get up and engage with the world. As I left, however, the receptionist dude (who had appeared about 80 years old and very sweet) took my hand and told me he loved me! Although this maybe sounds comical, actually I was alone in a weird hotel up five floors and he had known Nick was out - so I felt really uncomfortable. Also women and men in this culture show NO affection: they even sit in different carriages in the tube. The superfast lift served me very well as I zoomed out of the hotel, and I went to Internet cafe to find Nicholas. En route I hurried across a green mat on the pavement - it turned out to be a holy place and a praying Muslim shouted and chased me off! I found the Internet cafe. It was closed. I was now stuck in Cairo without a clue where Nick was. An Egyptian man approcahed me to help and by now I was fed up with Egyptian men but he turned out to be a persistent and actually a very helpful Egyptian man who said he would show me the nearest Internet joint. I accepted. This happened to be his best friend's travel agents: a little shop with leaflets and one computer with a man behind it. He booted his best friend off the computer, and I sat down, manning the travel agents. His best friend didn't seem to mind chilling and made me some sweet tea. I tracked Nick down on Skype (in another internet cafe he'd found) - and we arranged to meet. Phew! And we met - not without me getting lost one more time, after telling another Egyptian man 'No help thanks, I know where I'm going!' and humbly having to retrace my steps and ask him for his aid.

And so we left the Berlin hotel that day. We gave the receptionist a hard time - Nick trying to call the manager, me telling him he better not do that again to a travelling girl. He apologised profusely, his hands shaking. We left feeling that weird mixture of anger but so much grace - knowing he is not in a good place. We dumped our bags at Hotel Luna Bella which was a world away from the Berlin. A dirty entrance and fast lift were it's only similaritites. It was spotless and had pretty rooms with hat stands and decorative mirrors. The reception wore glasses and mainly spoke to Nick: we liked him a lot! We plan to stay here for the next few days.

Slightly shellshocked from our difficult days in the desert and now all Cairo was flying at us - add to that concotion my nasty cold and unwanted runniness - we sought rest and comfort. We found it at the Cairo Hilton. Cool, airy and wonderfully comfy, everyone was so gentle and helpful and I began to feel life flowing back into me! We spent the afternoon having yummy Italian food and lazing on a sofa reading, me ordering a hot lemon with sugar (I imagine about the only place in Cairo I could!) to ease my cold... I also found a copy of 25 Beautiful Homes magazine - which in London I might avoid for how it makes me want to live a decadent life - but in Cairo with only a backpack en route to Africa, it only brings colour and creativity!

I woke up in our new hotel yesterday and was musing on beauty... It brings so much joy and life to me: pinks and turqouises, patterns and peonies, golden evening sunlight and worn wood. Sometimes on our trip my eyes are flooded with beauty - and sometimes I miss it, in plain hotels, dusty roads and metal buses. And so I hunger for it and felt God honouring my desire for it, saying it was from His heart of beauty and creativity. As I thought all these things silently in my heart, Nick popped out and came back with a beautiful bouquet of pink, yellow and red roses! A birthday treat, as we hadn't been near any flowers earlier in the week! What a treat and a gift I think from my smiling God... Seeing this display of love (well done Nick!) the hotel manager upgraded us to their best room - spacious with two balconies! - for no extra cost. What a blessing.

And so in among the high stress of Cairo there is also delight and fun. We had a gorgeous Indian dinner last night to celebrate my birthday with lots of laughter... we got sent out of a cafe for being too affectionate (we have been SO restrained so far but had a momentary lapse) and as we left I smashed the glass by accident, I have never seen a sadder waiter about a glass... and we are learning to carve our relaxing spaces in our quiet times and in restful hotels! Still, Cairo has been difficult for us. It is hard to cross ANY road, and in a taxi it is joltjoltjolt, when I am not near Nick within seconds a man will shout or approach me, and it feels like at night the city is in a permanent state of riot. Actually everyone is celebrating Ramadan's end of day feast, but what we see is thousands of people cramming the pavements and traffic at standstill. What we hear from our hotel room is blast blast and screams (really - I don't know why, but a yell / cry / scream / laugh mixture fills our ears as we try our best to sleep... pray for Nick, particularly to sleep, as he isn't easily.)

So a delicious blessing to have a stationery week. We just need to know how in a chaotic whirl of a city, we remain stationery inside and out. I think we are learning.

From sunrise to sunset: Cate's birthday

On the morning of the 25th of August, my birthday, we woke at 5am to watch the sunrise. Apparently Egypt don't do the whole hour ahead thing like the rest of the world does. So by accident we woke at 4am to watch a dark sky. At 5am, a slow purple haze appeared above the sea. Gently red infiltrated the purple, the pink, then yellow light. As this light fell on the waves, two giant crabs scuttled past us and were swept quite suddenly into the sea. One of us was a bit scared by the crabs. I won't say who, but he is known to call cockroaches crickets.

We ate some bread and our driver came to collect us in his pick-up. He sped us to the nearby town to catch the bus - our plan was to go to Mount Sinai, where God appeared to Moses and gave him the law. It was exhilirating, speeding through the air as the sun ascended, a red, burning ball above the sea. We got off at the local town Nuweiba. After an hour - a thoroughly enjoyable hour as we watched a stray camel amble down the road, seemingly unafraid of violently fast buses, chomping innocently on a tree - our bus arrived. Exhuasted after a rough night, I snoozed for what seemed like half an hour. Suddenly the driver was ushering us off the bus. We had hoped to get off at Dahab, and catch our connecting bus to Mount Sinai. This dude recommended we get off at this random junction, as it would save time. On the map it certainly seemed to save us two hours travel time. We disembarked.

The promised bus never came. The sun was beating down and we were stranded. Our only company was mountains, electric pylons and fifteen police men manning a checkpoint, grumpy with guns. In hope of our bus, we waited there for three hours. I cried. It was my birthday and I was stranded and sad. Nick was sad because I was sad. We were both really sad. I opened some of my beautiful cards... THANK you my dearest and most precious friends for these! Such a delight! Such colour and joy and words of love! These made me cry even more because I wanted to be in London drinking coffee and celebrating with loving people. Instead I had pilons and guns. (And the amazing Nick! who was seriously brilliant throughout our stranding.) One gunman became our friend and asked truck drivers to help us. We desperately held our thumbs to posh tour companies but all the westerners averted their eyes from us! The lowest point was when I asked the gunmen if I could use their longdrop. They didn't initially understand, and as I walked away I saw one look digusted and shake his hands at me with such a degree of horribleness that I told Nick when I got back. Ooh and then one of my favourite moments of the day! Nick marched up to the gunmen and gave them an impressive telling off - and as they fobbed him off with 'no problem, it's no problem', he said, undeterred by their gigantic rifles, 'It is a problem! You were rude! She's upset! And it's her birthday!' The man apologised and I was somewhat smitten with my choice of husband.

A Bedouin man (the local tribe in Sinai) stopped by and offered to take us to Sinai for a fee. We accepted gratefully, and got to stop by at his home en route - a tiny hole carved into a mountain of rock. He dropped us off once more in the middle of nowhere with guards, which was almost the final straw, but apparently this time we were extremely close to Sinai. Another Bedouin (very old with no teeth, wonderful eyes and an ancient wooden stick) offered us a lift to Sinai. We jumped in, and he too dropped us off NOT at Sinai but CLOSE to Sinai, and this time, hungry we stopped to eat. I pottered off to a local stall. By this stage I was so exhausted. I knew the stall owner would be keen for some chat. I decided to embark on a NEW TACTIC - silence. This is how it went.
Owner - 'Hello!'
Me - Silence
Owner - 'Come in!'
Me - Silence
Owner - 'Have a look!'
Me - Smile and silence
Owner - 'You are beautiful, and quiet! An angel!'
So impressed by my silence was he, that he gave me a free bracelet. When he offered to put it on for me, I said no thanks my husband would, and he started telling me how lucky my husband was. He interupted himself and started writing a postcard to my husband saying the following 'Necolas you are lucky, wife is beautiful angel, England.' He was so zealous that he didn't mind drawing on his own resources to pen his heartfelt congratulations.

We walked the final stretch, ten minutes in the desert heat, and found our monastry guesthouse, at the foot of Sinai. What an oasis in the desert: cool, clean rooms and a leafy courtyard. We had made it.

We were ready to make like Moses and, er, climb up Mount Sinai...

Or at least we were ready to sit on some camels while they did the legwork and we enjoyed the view. On the way we met a police man who insisted we go back and get a torch if we were to go up at this time - nearly 5pm. Having done that & got Cate's glasses, I showed him my super 1/2 Watt wind-up LED mini torch which he very much liked, though he did drop it. It's not up to much, but it doesn't get dark that quickly does it?

We paid for two camels and a guide with some of Cate's birthday money and we were off. This was harder work than either of us imagined as we gripped on with our legs and tried not to panic as we trusted them to follow the path and not wander off down the cliff. I noticed their feet were much more suited to the climb than say a horseshoe would be - they are kind of like lanky horses with slippers. Mine made very strange noises a lot. And also farted really really loudly on occasion. I'm not sure even now that Cate believes it was the camel. It was. Honestly.

After about an hour and half, we were ready to give up our sideways munching friends and walk the last 45 mins up to the summit. This is a much steeper bit not suitable for camels and was pretty hard going. Though we had been warned of the hoards of tourists, we had gone up the whole mountain alone. At the top we joined a few people who had also come for the sunset and found a place to sit.

The sweat and tears were to be rewarded. Mount Sinai was astounding: towering peaks as far as the eye could see, with dark shadows of valleys between. The red sun we watched rise now set amidmst this overwhelming land of mountains, of power, the earth brown peaks and black valleys illuminated by red and gold light. I was so amazed at its vastness and how small I was, that I felt almost frightened. The God who made all of this suddenly seemed so magnificent and massive, and I was so small. I knew He was God and He could do whatever He wanted. And then I remembered His love for me, and I was overwhelmed. He is so holy. I thought I could hear Him whispering 'Be holy, as I am holy'. What a call... and I have the Spirit in me, who is Holy by name, to lead me to holiness...

It suddenly grew dark very quickly, and I couldn't see Nick anywhere. A quick jaunt down the mountain I thought, jogging over in my little plastic flipflops. Nick was cross I had taken so long - he was worried about about the descent. I began to understand why. In the blink of an eye it was night, and we were stuck at the top of a mountain. We still had our guide who had accompanied us on the camel, and so we were reassured by his presence. The problem was he skipped like an antelope, leaping down the hills as if they were green English meadows, and we were often left quivering with our pathetic torch behind. This jaunt became an absolute marathon. A mix of ferociously uneven rocks, jolting our ankles and causing us to slip, combined with death traps around the corner, as a few wrong steps would lead to hurtling off the edge, and added to that serious exhaustion, antelope guide and hours still to go... At one point I mounted a stray camel to ease my legs, but it hurtled me back and forth so painfully I had to get down. In the end I was so tired I was speechless and my legs were shaking like jelly. We arrived like drained wretches to a wonderful three course meal at the monastry and an incredible night's sleep. Was the trek worth it? Yes. But I might not hop up there tomorrow.

Asia to Africa

We did catch the boat the next day! This time we got there early and it all went very easily, except for the second time, I left my wedding ring in the hotel, but both times I've remembered before getting too far away! So we caught the daily 1 hour ferry from Aqaba to Nuweiba, Jordan to Egypt, Asia to Africa. After paying our exit tax and getting our passport exit stamps, we got on a coach and then boarded the boat. We found that they had a policy of segregation - Egyptians in the main section & all non-Egyptians in the other section. We found this a bit odd & Cate being naturally rebellious against being told to do things that don't seem right, we headed for the other end of the ferry, and sat at a table in the Egyptian section. This didn't seem to be actually forbidden, though we did get a lot of looks - but these being a daily occurrence are becoming like water off a duck's back. (Perhaps one might note that one of the ducks is a bit more sensitive than the other duck and doesn't, say, love getting looked at a lot or disobeying policemen with guns who want you to queue barge or doing things that he's, er I mean it's been told not to do, etc.). Anyway, after a bit, about 8 children were chatting away to us (not that we could understand what they were saying much) and a little girl was showing off doing acrobatics with her dad. They liked our crossword and we got them to teach us numbers in arabic - very useful for bargaining with taxi drivers!

Eventually we walked back toward the other section, to find a closed door and a guard between us and it. He did eventually let us through and then we found we had missed out on a round of everyone give in your passports to immigration. So when we left the boat we had to hand them to a guy who put them in his trouser pocket. BYE BYE passports we said! This was the first, of I imagine many times, where we say goodbye to our passports and just have to hope that they reappear. Then we had to get another shuttle coach - in the scramble to get on one, the baggage hold door nearly fell on Cate's head and her bag ended up on the coach with us left behind. BYE BYE bag as well!

Happily, after getting the next coach, we found her bag dumped in the middle of the road. And our passports did eventually show up. We had met an Austrian couple in the ticket office and they decided to join us at our camp/hut site, which was a 20 minute shared taxi drive up the coast. It was so far along the beach that the taxi guy kept trying to give up but we did eventually find Harby's place (website here). We had a little hut just a few metres from the 10 miles of Red sea between us and Saudi Arabia. No heating or cooling or electricity, local food & supporting the Bedouin economy - it was our little eco-beach-paradise!

We had long chats with the Austrians, who were a great pair, I played backgammon with an Israeli expert and only lost by one, we swam, we chatted to the chef who was from Sudan, we enjoyed his hummous (hummous and felafel are my new best friends). They do occasionally have electricity there, but not that night. We could easily walk around by the amazing full moon which shone across the water. The paradise was only slightly marred by the almost impossibility of sleep in the crazy 40's heat. Outside the hut was slightly cooler with a sea breeze, but a massive beetle there drove me inside (Cate fared slightly better than I, partly because she was asleep outside before I saw the beetle...) I even went for a 1 in the morning swim to cool down which lasted for all of ten minutes.

And it was August 24th, the night before Cate's birthday.