POST CAIRO EXTENSION - DESERTS & DIVING

Despite the loss of their travelling partners, Matt and Shannon were determined to keep on keepin' on.  Truth be told, they considered the possibility of joining Mike and Cathy on the journey back to Johannesburg more than once.  As interesting and historical as Egypt is, it is also exhausting.  Not only had Matt and Shannon already had their fill of Egyptian relics, but they were also starting to have enough of the Egyptian people.

The Egyptians bill themselves as a friendly bunch and are constantly making reference to the world-famous "Egyptian hospitality".  During the last week however, we had come to realize that, somewhere along the lines, Egyptian hospitality had devolved into little more than a sophisticated marketing ploy.  The streets of Egyptian cities are overrun with touts, each using variations of the same passive-aggressive tactics.  The onslaught is overwhelming to the point, first of humour, then of frustration.  Within only a few hours on the street we all knew the script by heart:

"Hello, where are you from...American?"  asketh the tout.

"No," we would correct full of Canadian pride "Canadians"

"Ah, Canada Dry.  Never Die!"

We never actually determined where this little poem came from but it was obviously the standard opening to be used when soliciting Canadians.  Perhaps it was part of an old Canada Dry advertisement campaign that was particularly well received by the Egyptian populace, or maybe just a rhyme that worked once and had since been universally adopted.  Regardless of its origins, it had now been universally adopted by every Egyptian tout from Aswan to Cairo.

Having successfully filled the Canada Dry rhyme requirement, the tout would continue with the non-sales sales pitch by offering assistance.

"Where are you going?" he'd ask

"Nowhere, just out for a walk"

"Well, there is nothing in that direction, just offices and apartments.  Come, I'll show you where you should go.  Don't worry, I'm not selling anything.  I'll show you, just out of friendship".

For those that are planning to go to Egypt in the near future, take note here.  If there is one underlying truth in Egypt, it is that anyone who approaches you in the street, regardless of the pretence, is selling something - especially if he specifically uses the phrases "not selling" or "out of friendship".  If you follow your new "friend" you will no doubt stumble across his shop where he will invite you in for some of the aforementioned "Egyptian Hospitality".  This hospitality may or may not consist of a welcome drink but will definitely involve a sales pitch for papyrus paintings, Egyptian perfume, alabaster carvings or all of the above.

If you have reached the tout's shop, then it is probably already too late.  Your polite refusal to enter will be met with a very hurt look suggesting that you have done serious damage by refusing their hospitality (what will they do with all that unsipped tea?).  If you stick to your guns, they will simply say "It is OK.  If you are not shopping now, no pressure.  But come in and I will give you my business card, in case you feel like doing business later".  Of course, there is no business card and you will exit several minutes later without card but with either an unwanted papyrus painting (probably painted on banana leaf instead of the real papyrus) or a burgeoning headache.

The promise of another week of such encounters did not excite either Matt or Shannon but the lure of the desert and the Red Sea was enough to buoy their spirits - plus they still needed to head to Cairo to cash in Mike and Cathy's original flights home.

Thus a few hours after Mike and Cathy departed for the Luxor airport, Matt and Shannon headed to the train station to catch the overnight train home.  If Luxor was benefiting from the tourist boom inspired by its majestic temples, it was not evident in its train station.  The platforms were littered with rubbish and dirt.  To reach the train we had to take dimly lit and unfinished tunnels under tracks where men worked calf-deep in puddles of water, either to finish the tunnel or to keep the water at a level that allowed passengers to pass.

After enjoying the relative comfort of the sleeping train to Aswan, neither Matt nor Shannon were looking forward to regressing to the overnight sitting train.  However, our spirits were lifted when we found our first-class seats to be wide and relatively comfortable.  Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the trip.  Originally, Matt had suggested that sleeping in the sitting train would be the same as sleeping on an international flight.  What Matt didn't know was that there were three distinct differences between night flights and night trains.  Firstly, night flights are considerate enough to turn off the cabin lights during the sleeping hours.  Not so on the train, so at 3am it was still as bright as a Summer's day within the train.  Secondly, on night flights, the cabin crew uses the sleeping hours to get a little rest or to take care of things in the galley.  On night trains, the conductors use the time to peddle food and assorted items, so every 15 minutes you are awakened by another Egyptian tout (of sorts).  But the biggest difference, and the one most impairing to sleep, has to be cell phone policy.  Cell phones appear to be the preferred form of entertainment on Egyptian overnight trains, and our cabin was filled with loud talking Egyptians taking and making calls throughout the night.  Who they were calling at 4am, we're not sure, but most likely other overnight train passengers intent on disturbing would-be sleepers on their trains as well.  Those who weren't popular enough to be making calls, spent the time trying different ring tones, searching for the loudest and most disturbing jingles available.  Needless to say, we arrived in Cairo exhausted and irritable.  Luckily, there were no touts on the street at 5am.  Lucky for the touts, that is.

After using the day to catch up on sleep, and making only a few journeys out into the tout-filled streets to refund Mike and Cathy's tickets, we finalized plans for our last days in Egypt.  The next morning we would wake early and head out for two days in the Western (Sahara) Desert.  From there we would drive through the night (using a professional driver) and awake in the coastal town of Dahab for a couple of relaxing days on the Red Sea.

The next morning we were up early and on the road to the Western Desert.  It was a 4 hour drive from Cairo on a straight, flat and relatively empty road.  Our guide was Luli, a friendly, twenty-something Bedouin and our driver was Sama, a thirty-something native of Cairo who was also friendly, but in a way that gave Shannon the creeps.

We stopped only once at a roadside rest stop patronized by oil transport drivers and the occasional tourists.  Sama was in desperate need of a cigarette and some tea so we went inside.  Luli went to the counter and returned with a large sheesha pipe.  Sheesha is big in Egypt, so you can always find a few locals partaking in the water pipes at cafes or restaurants.  After some coaxing, Matt took a couple of puffs from Luli's pipe just to say he had done it.  Later, he wished he hadn't when he found out that it was a communal pipe and that the mouthpiece wasn't changed after every use, as he had thought.  Luli's assurances that Egyptians were a healthy people, wasn't overly reassuring either.  Thus, Matt's chronic sheesha addiction was ended after only two thin puffs.

After another couple of hours on the road, we stopped at Luli's desert oasis camp, which was actually a very nice place complete with immaculate bathrooms and comfortable rooms.  We wouldn't be partaking in the rooms however as our accommodation that night was to be a tent in the middle of the White Desert.  Thus, after a quick lunch, we exchanged our road car for a 4x4, Sama for a new driver, and headed out into the desert.

Our new driver's name was Abdullah.  Abdullah seemed to be in a hurry, because we took off like a bat out of hell into the desert and didn't slow down until we reached the next sight.  Why he was going so fast we don't know, as Abdullah didn't speak a word of English, and Luli never volunteered an answer.  Our first stop was Black Mountain, in what Luli called the Black Desert.  This stretch of Desert, Luli explained, was created by volcanic activity many centuries ago, however instead of erupting from a large central volcano, the ash and rock spewed forth from various smaller locals and thus littered the desert with small mountains covered with black sand.  Black Mountain was one of these mountains (conveniently, the one closest to the road) and took only 5 minutes to summit.  To be honest, we were not expecting much from the climb and as such we were very impressed when we reached the top and were greeted with an amazing view dotted by little black mountains.  It was well worth the climb and was a good omen for the rest of the trip.

After Black Mountain, Abdullah blazed another trail (mostly on tarred road) to Crystal Mountain, which was significantly less enjoyable than Black Mountain.  We were greeted by a large sign imploring us not to remove any crystals from the mountain or the surrounding area, and we could see why.  Crystal Mountain had obviously been picked over by numerous tourists before us.  Given the large, multi-lingual warning we were surprised when Luli began picking up big pieces of crystal rock and instructing us to bring them home as souvenirs - perhaps the sign needs to be a little bigger.  It soon became evident that the best conservation strategy for Shannon was to accept the rocks from Luli, only to return them once he wandered off, thus leaving them to be enjoyed (and collected) by the next batch of desert tourists.

It had been a long but enjoyable day, when we finally pulled into the White Desert to set up camp.  The setting sun made for an amazing backdrop in what would turn out to be the most enjoyable section of the Western Desert.  The White Desert consists of miles of sand interrupted by large, oddly-shaped towers of white rock that gives it an other-worldly feel.  As Abdullah and Luli made camp, we wandered around marvelling at the large rocks and the shadows they cast across the desert.  As night set, we returned to find a very nice Bedouin-style camp laid out for us, and an excellent meal of roast chicken and rice cooking over the open fire.  All in all, it was one of the most enjoyable days we had spent in Egypt to date.

The only concerning part of the day was Luli's choice of dinner conversation.  Somehow Luli turned an innocent conversation about running an Egyptian tourism outfit into a diatribe on the evils of American and Israeli foreign policy.  Turns out that Luli wasn't too fond of either Americans or Israelis, and was convinced that they were working together in a plot to rid the world of Arabs.  This was not the first time that we had heard these sentiments on our trip, and would not be the last, but Luli was arguably the most passionate representative of these views.  He believed strongly that the 2005 bombings in Sharm El Sheikh were perpetrated by a joint Israeli-American contingent bent on ruining the tourism industry in Egypt.  Perhaps more concerning was how he sympathized with suicide-bombing terrorists.  At one point, he calmly asserted that if given the opportunity, he would happily strap a bomb to himself in support of the Arab fight against Israeli occupation.  It was obviously false bravado for the sake of the Western tourists, but in the firelight it was convincing enough to gave us the chills.

The next day Abdullah picked his way at top speed through the elaborate White Desert rock towers, while a more jovial Luli rhymed off the names the locals had given them.  Most of the names were given according to other items that the rocks resembled - there was "the chicken", "the mushroom" and "the man".  While all names seemed logical enough, it was obvious that a fair bit of creative license was used.  Guess they couldn't all be called "Big white rock that really doesn't resemble anything in particular".

The highlight of the second day was to be the two desert oases we were to visit.  Matt was excited to see them.  In his mind he pictured a utopia consisting of crisp swimming holes and shady trees, where he would be fanned by giant palm fronds and fed olives and grapes by hand.  In reality, the oases consisted of scruffy vegetation and man made concrete pools of smelly, murky water.  The water was piped in from the original spring into the more accessible concrete collecting pond using pipes and, in one case, large industrial pumps.  Needless to say, Matt was quickly ready to leave, without eating even a single hand fed olive.

The previous night, Abdullah had arranged via cell phone for his wife to make us a traditional lunch that we would eat at his father's home.  Although the food wasn't the best and the house was hot and uncomfortable, we were happy to have experienced our first taste of true Egyptian hospitality and were ready to undertake the long drive to the Red Sea.

Actually, we never could have been truly ready for the drive.  It was long and nerve-wracking.  It eventually took 11 hours to reach our destination and required us to pass through the ridiculously dangerous streets of Cairo en route.

One of the reasons that we did not drive our own vehicle all the way to Egypt was because we could not get insurance that would cover us in Egypt.  After only a few minutes on the roads in Cairo we could see why.   There are many cities we have visited that claim to have some crazy and dangerous drivers - Jakarta, Nairobi, Paris, Kampala - none come close to Cairo.  In the 30 minutes it took us to circle Cairo on the Ring Road, we had more near-death experiences than on the entire three-month trip.

That said, Sama didn't seem nervous at all, and soon we were through Cairo, under the Suez Canal and - eventually - in Dahab.  Dahab is a coastal town on the Red Sea about 40 minutes drive from its more popular cousin Sharm El Sheikh.  Where Sharm is the destination of choice for the wealthy - complete with a smorgasbord of five-star resorts - Dahab is the budget option, popular with backpackers and budget travellers.  Regardless, our accommodations were nice and comfortable, though not as luxurious as Shannon would have liked.

The reason to come to Dahab if for the scuba diving, and Matt was determined to get at least a couple dives in the Red Sea before heading home.  Shannon was content with relaxing on the beach and doing a little people watching.  Unfortunately for Shannon, people watching at our resort in Dahab consisted primarily of watching old, fat European dudes in Speedos taking windsurfing lessons while their overly tanned wives plastered on another layer of coconut oil.

The scuba diving on the other hand is world-class.  Divers from all over the world flock to the Red Sea as it offers some of the best coral and most diverse sea life in the world.  Unfortunately for Matt, most of the best dives require advanced level certification as they can go as deep as 80 meters.  Matt's basic open-water certification only qualifies him to go to 18 meters if the dive shop is a stickler for the rules.  That said, the two dives Matt made were decent and well worth the $25 each as he saw crocodile fish, lion fish and several large moray eels.

Following the dives, Matt and Shannon enjoyed their last Egyptian meal - a fresh seafood feast of prawns, lobster, white snapper, and crispy calamari.  It was fantastic and a great way to end the trip - sitting on a patio overlooking the Red Sea and enjoying a couple glasses of red wine.  If only we didn't have to face the touts on the way back to the hotel.

The next morning we said goodbye to the Red Sea as we were picked up by "creepy" Sama for the long drive back to Cairo and our waiting Egypt Air flight to Johannesburg.  Our three-month African adventure had drawn to an end.  We were tired and drained, and ready for a relaxing Christmas with family, but we were also a little sad.  It had been an amazing trip, in an amazing continent and it was now over.  Guess it is time to start planning the next big trip.  How does South America 2006 sound?