Sunday, September 26, 2004

Egyptian drivers

We have been in Egypt a month now and have witnessed a lot of the locals driving around from various viewpoints. We've been pedestrians engaged in a high-stakes game of Frogger and taxi passengers steeling ourselves for the negotiation phase of the journey. We've cycled and tried mainly to stay out of the way and ridden on buses (mini, micro & normal) and wondered exactly what, if any, is the maximum capacity of such a vehicle.

For all our travelling, this is what we have discovered.

1) The horn has many uses but the most common are :-
- telling someone who may not see you that you are coming their way
- telling someone who has seen you that you're not stopping
- asking someone who's in your way to move over
- expressing your joy at being able to move freely
- expressing your frustration at not being able to move at all
- advising the person in front that there is a gap in the wall of traffic
- saying 'hello'
- saying 'goodbye'

2) Crossing the road is safe as long as you have your wits about you or when you use a little old lady as a shield.

3) The inside lane on a muli-lane road is reserved for stationary traffic, donkeys & carts, pedestrians, street sweepers and anything out of the ordinary.

4) Headights after dark, when on out of town roads, are used in an intricate ritual which can be difficult to understand at first. Do not be confused or alarmed when the driver turns off his lights as another car approaches, this just enables him to make his vehicle more noticable when he turns them back on. The intermittent flashing that follows this initial greeting seems to be a way of communicating about road conditions and the location of RADAR traps.
The other side of the desert

(See the galleries for our Western Oases pics.)

The road from Cairo took us, via the bus, across to the most northern Western Oasis town of Bahariya. I was recovering from a cold (not paint-fume induced sniffles as first thought) and Vic was just at the start of the same ailment. We spent a couple of days straightening the kinks from our mudguards - courtesy of the luggage loader on the bus - as well as buying the water and scouring a conservative Muslim town for alcohol to burn in our stove.

When the day finally dawned for our 180km ride across the Black and White deserts it found us in high spirits and confident mood which even the blazing sun couldn't evaporate. Yet... The Baharia - Farafra road is a fairly busy one with commercial vehicles making up the bulk of the early traffic and safari tours taking over towards lunchtime. Whatever the vehicle, they all gave us a toot and a wave. One guy in a pick-up truck even stopped, 3-point turned and gave us a big handful of dates! It was great feeling that people were looking out for us and keen to know what we were doing.

The breeze was at our backs and our legs felt no ill effects from drag racing the locals on our way home the night before! The Black Desert is so named for the dark dusting which is sprinkled over the more conventional yellow-coloured sand, making the hills look like slightly singed caramel desserts.

Onward we rode and had 40 kms under our belts before our first attempt at a lunch stop. In the comfort of the hotel we'd decided to put the tent up at 12ish and snooze until the day got cooler but the constant breeze, lack of suitable tent pegs and general wind-catching properties of a huge sheet of nylon made it impossible. From my vantage point on the crest of a tiny bank I proclaimed that I could see trees in the distance. (Being still within the confines of the oasis this wasn't as deranged as it may sound.) Victoria was skeptical but humoured me. In what goes down as a rare triumph for yours truly the trees and, incredibly, a couple of buildings duly arrived not 5kms down the road. We had stumbled on Baharia's ambulance station, which must be pretty busy looking after camels with twisted ankles but little else. The trees and shade were soon honoured with two napping cyclists.

Our afternoon session took us rather gallingly past a cafeteria which could have sold us some of the water we had dragged this far. But never mind. With 50-odd kilometers on the clock and sundown approaching it was time to find and out of the way spot for the night. The plan was see a secluded nook, haul the bikes into and lay low until it got dark. We were probably being a bit overcautious but didn't necessarily want to advertise where we were sleeping to any passers-by. As if by magic, a cluster of trees and small dunes approached only 30 metres from the road. The clear road. Like a flash we were pushing the bikes across the soft sand, sand which really didn't make it easy for us. As if by magic the traffic started up again and we could tell from the toots we'd been spotted. We pondered what to do but the decision was made for us when one pick-up truck stopped up the road. Time to move on. As we passed him he asked if we were going to sleep there and I made the universal "dodgy tum" sign. He offered to take us to a hotel but we declined and kept moving.

Darkness was fast approaching by now and the desert flattened out. Fifteen minutes passed before we came across a couple of sandy mounds that fitted the bill. The road had been clear for ages so we set about the task of dragging the bikes to safety. Predictably, this was the signal for cars to approach from all angles but this time we made it in time. We made a quick meal of sand, corned beef, eggs and sand before tucking in under the stars. I slept with one eye and ear trained on the road for a couple of hours before finally dropping off. The next we knew we were waking up covered in a heavy dew.

Soon after we got up we realised we had problems... Perhaps fate had seen my dodgy tum mime. Maybe I'm allergic to sand. Whatever the reason, things were looking bad for us doing 2 more days in the desert. We battled on a few kilometers more before taking advantage of a rare bit of shade and settling in to wait for rescue. We didn't have long to wait. First Said and Mahar stopped to chat, give us water and breakfast but sadly not a lift as they were heading the wrong way. The next passers-by were Sophy and Suliman who were heading to Farafra and soon had us loaded in the back of their pick-up. They wouldn't hear of accepting anything for their kindness and even ended up buying us drinks a couple of nights later as we sat up till 2am chatting. (It turned out they were staying at our hotel.)

We can't say we failed as we had a fantastic day's ride and a night under the stars but it was sad that we weren't able to accomplish what we set out to. Still, our desire to cycle has been reignited after so many weeks of trains and buses. All we need now is a bit of luck and towns that are closer together!

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Off to the desert

Our last few days in Cairo have been spent sorting out the bikes and researching our water requirements for a 3 day ride through the desert. Our plan at the moment is to pop a 1.5 litre bottle in every pannier and the water bag on the back. Although the road between Bahariya and Farafra oases has no roadhouses there are plenty of passing jeep safaris who will help us out if we get short. Hopefully, it won't come to that though!

Our ride between oases takes us through the Black Desert, the White Desert and past the Crystal Mountain. I'm guessing the Emerald City will be on our route although it's not mentioned in The Lonely Planet. We are going to attempt 60kms a day and sleep behind a handy sand dune when we get tired. Watch this space in a week or so when we reach civilisation again!

Today we finally managed to visit the Egyptian Museum which is 5 minutes walk from the hostel. There's no getting away from the fact that the antiquities are amazing but the place could do with a bit better organisation. It seems almost wilfully disordered which means you need a guide to make sense of it. As is the Egyptian way much of the time the terms and conditions change somewhere between beginning and end and both parties leave feeling cheated. I must stress however that this isn't ALWAYS the case.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

A brief journey through the Egyptian parcel post system

Yesterday we popped to the post office to send a parcel of souvenirs to Australia. This is what happened...

i) we found the right building at the 3rd attempt and were told by the guy in the foyer to head up to the 2nd floor...

ii) where we saw The Man At The Packing Station. He examined the parcel for contraband and, on seeing it was just the standard tourist stuff, sent us to The Nice Lady Down The Hall...

iii) who took our details, the recipient's details and informed us there'd be a EP7 'application fee', which is payable at the office next door...

iv) which is staffed by three guys, one of whom - The Worker - took our paperwork and application fee and produced two triplicated receipts. He handed them to us and sent us to The Man At The Packing Station...

v) who showed us a patch of floor where we could box up the stuff while he checked our paperwork. (There was a short pause for noon prayers.) He then took a look at my Oz learner's licence (thankfully accepated in lieu of our passports) before sealing our parcel with official string and lead weight. He then sent us to The Weighing Man...

vi) who lives in a building round the corner. The Weighing Man ensures our papers are in order and our parcel properly addressed and weighed before taking our cash. He then hands us back our form and sends us back up to The Nice Lady Down The Hall...

vii) who takes it, swaps it for a chit and sends us back to The Weighing Man...

viii) who takes the chit, returns our exasperated "you've got to laugh" looks and confirms, to our relief, that it's over.

The Egytpian Post Office: an excellent way to get fit and meet people. (Give yourself 2 hours.)
Desert Safari

When we arrived in town we noticed that the desert safari options were many, although probably not varied, so we put off making a decision immediately. Luckily for us, as we lazed around the pool, fate was working away in the background... Tom and Nicki were planning to stay at The Desert Rose and met a man on the bus from Alex who did safaris in Siwa. Separately Hayley and Louis bumped into Ahmed and before you can say 'happy sand-realted coincidence' the trip was arranged. There were 2 more spaces in the jeep for us which was handy.

Ahmed of Siwa Safaris picked us up at 11ish and we were soon heading towards the edge of town to a point where the road neatly cuts a lake in two. The left side is fresh water and the right salt, complete with a solid ice-white crust. Pretty amazing to look at really.

From here we visited a ruined village, heard a shaggy dog story about tomb raiders before having a look at a 5 metre deep natural spring. The cool clear water seeps up through the porous rocks here forming a beautiful natural pool. We all looked at it longingly but this one's not for swimming in. Thankfully we only had to wait a few minutes longer before we were putting our cozzies on and diving in an even better natural pool. The water is cool without being cold and is constantly flowing up from underground. Our schedule had us here for 4 or more hours and we all spent as much time as we could swimming, diving in and, somewhat childishly, taking it in turns to fetch a specific rock form the bottom.

This took up most of a brilliantly laid back afternoon, along with lunch and a quick dip in a nearby salt lake, which is a very odd experience. The water is shallow, warm as on bath night and home to a billion salty needles. We hobbled out to a deep enough spot and, being ultra-careful not to get any water in our eyes, laid back and bobbed like corks. It's a great novelty which wears off about the first time you run aground and get a bum full of salt spikes. It's also a bit hard on mozzie bites and grazes!

After the salt we needed one last dip in the pool before visiting a Bedouin mud village which was occupied as recently as 100 years ago. The mud bricks are baked hard in the sun but are not as happy in the rain. Each downpour causes major damage although the last big rain was in 1984. Our safari so far had been around the outskirts of town but with sunset approaching we headed towards The Great Sand Sea. Ahmed certainly knows what he's doing which was highlighted when a rival jeepster went flying past us only to get thoroughly bogged 5 minutes later. Anyone seen the latest Ray Mears?

The desert sunset was very pretty as seen from our spot on the top of a dune and, as most had a contemplative moment, I took the chance to jump off the top and get sand up my shirt. Our camp for the night was a couple of thick balnkets sheltered from the wind by the jeep and a windbreak and it was here that we ate the hearty veggie stew and couscous which was the best grub we'd had since getting to Egypt. And from someone who's dined at KFC Alexandria that's pretty high praise.

With full tums and a ceiling of stars it was an early night for all. The breeze soon died down but the air stayed beautifully cool and Vic and I slept so soundly we didn't even notice the visitors who investigated camp as we slumbered. Tiny mouse footprints came from miles of empty sand to have a sniff at our campsite. One track came within a couple of centimetres of my blanket before my feet scared him off.

In the morning we woke naturally to see the sunrise before tucking into bread, cheese, jam and lashings of tea. No-one was in any sort of hurry so we headed back sometime in the middle of the morning after a good chat and a hair-raising dune descent or two.

All in all it was a fantastic trip with the emphasis on relaxing as much as sightseeing.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Mega Gallery Update!!

We have slaved round the clock to get our Egypt galleries up to date. And here they are...

Siwa Town
Siwa Safari

Also, the more observant of you will notice the main gallery page looks slightly different. Don't worry, the other galleries are still there if you need your weekly fix of Boro at Cardiff.
Siwan Desert Rose

After the general malaise that had affected us in Alexandria, it was with a spring in our step that we stepped onto our bus to Siwa. We had heard and read many things about Siwa - a place geographically isolated from the rest of Egypt until a road was built in the 1980s, where they speak a different language and where Alexander the Great made a pilgrimage to see the Oracle to confirm that yes, he was the son of Zeus and therefore a god and could rule Egypt.

The journey of 9 hours seemed to pass quite effortlessly with a couple of stops along the way at resthouses in the middle of nowhere as well as people being dropped off at places where there was nothing but desert as far as the eye can see on all the points of the compass.

Another question raised was the piles of rocks in straight lines heading to the horizon on both sides of the road and about five metres apart. What do they mean? Are they borders or symbols of land division or something else entirely?

We had prebooked our hotel and on arrival were greeted by several Siwan boys of about 10 (all with perfect English) who wanted to take us to our destinations. All guessed that I was Australian, so either they're a good judge of accent or a lot of us Aussies make the journey. Mahmood was the first boy to talk to me so we chose him to take us. We went round the corner in his donkey cart before being deposited with his older brother (maybe Dad?) and they took us out to our hotel in their 4wd. On the way we were offered a Desert Safari as well as taxi service whenever required. Although persistent, there was no real pressure and it made a nice change from the "Hello, where you from?" hassle of Cairo.

After being dropped off by Mahmood at the Desert Rose, we were greeted by a group of German holidaymakers who were occupying the pool. We soon joined them and the last couple of days travel and stresses were eased away by the cool underground spring fed water. We were to spend a lot of time in the pool before we left.

The Desert Rose is a totally appropriate name for the hotel. However, the one problem for us being the connotation with the rubbish Sting song of the same name which we thankfully only know the chorus of.

After relaxing in the pool, we were soon greeted by Ali, the caretaker and shown around. As the sun set, we watched from the roof terrace and chatted to an Aussie couple from Bendigo, Louis and Hayley. The four of us chatted for quite a while before hunger pains and the mosquitos drove us to the kitchen where Louis and Hayley shared their provisions with us (our hunger had returned after an enforced fast before the bus journey).

There is no electricity at the Desert Rose, but the lanterns and candles only add to the atmosphere as people sit around reading, chatting and playing backgammon (Banz 2 - Vic 1) around the central courtyard.

Our stay in Siwa followed a pattern of a lot of relaxing, chilling and resting apart from our Desert Safari which we'll write about seperately. Although not every site was ticked off, our stay gave us a definite taster for more and when I go back I would most definitely stay at the Desert Rose again
Ice Cold in Alex

After general embassy disappointment and the realisation that we can't just chill out in Cairo for too long, we caught the train to Alexandria. The train takes you through the Egyptian Delta and it was interesting to watch the city give way to farmland before again giving way to the suburbs or Alexandria.

The oven-door heat of Cairo was replaced with the sea breeze of Alexandria. We had got off the train one stop early and so after a bit of working out where we were, we jumped on the tram and headed to our hotel. Our first choice, the Hotel Union was full and so we took our chances with the Hotel Crillon. To put it mildly it was dirty and creepy, but budget options in Alexandria are limited - prices start at around 50 - 80 Egyptian Pounds (roughly 5 - 8 British Pounds/12 - 20 Aussie Dollars) for budget accommodation before jumping to $100US a night. We didn't get to try the breakfast that was included without choice as a bad case of Ramses Revenge had overtaken us both (we both prefer the Chessington Ride). Our first night was spent lying in bed, listening to the call to prayer and realising that we were a long way from home.

We managed to get out of the hotel about 1pm and shoved some comfort food down our throats from McDonald's (I was craving a milkshake for some reason) before taking on the services of a man with a horse and cart to take us to two of Alexandria's main sites, both with links to its former glory. Our first stop was its new library which looks impressive from the outside though we didn't venture inside as you require a ticket, and they were only for sale a few blocks back. After wandering around there, our man calmly took our horse and cart through three lanes of traffic on either side of the road and headed off to Fort Qaitby, which is built on the former site of the the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The ride was interesting as we got to see beach life Egyptian style. The beaches were packed and the few women that we saw swimming were still wearing full dress (trousers or skirt, long-sleeved shirt and headscarf). I decided to hold off on swimming until we got to Siwa.

The area around Fort Qaitby had a definite promenade feel to it and we were quite happy to wander about as men fished on the rocks nearby and kids dared each other to jump from the highest ones into the sea. As the Lighthouse was completely destroyed in a couple of earthquakes in 1303 and 1329 there is not a lot to see, but it was definitely worth the journey to soak up the atmosphere.

Our man was waiting for us and promptly took us back to the downtown area. When we arrived we paid him the agreed fee plus a small tip. He took them both and with the money in each hand gestured that the main fee was for him and the tip for his horse. It was very sweet and is something we need to remember when we're being hassled by our next papyrus or perfume seller.

We were too late to see two of the other sites in Alexandria which we had wanted. The Catacombs and Pompey's Pillar will just have to wait until next time we're in Alexandria when hopefully there will be more options for budget accommodation available to us there.