Adventures abroad: Egypt

Sorry for the delay! I’ve been procrastinating the hell out of this for reasons I still don’t understand, but I’m finally making a start. Posts first, photos next (hopefully). These posts have been a long time coming, and I’ve decided to split them in half to make them more digestible. I really should have just posted these in three or four day chunks so they didn’t build up to one big megapost, but lacking that, you get a condensed (but far too long) summary of the holiday. If you don’t feel like reading a novel, you’re welcome to read the leading sentences of each paragraph for a general picture. Anyway, here’s Part 1 of my adventures.

When I look back on my experiences in Egypt I get a mixed group of feelings. There’s a knot of tension in my stomach from the dangers I faced. There’s a sense of great peace that came with being alone in the wilderness, or indeed, with God. There is a sense of awe at the resilience of the Egyptian people in a time of strife, and also of irritation at their dependence on tourism for income (and what this dependence can lead to when tourism dries up due to, say, revolution and mass shootings). I’ve talked at length with my brother about whether my experiences were better than they were worse, and I have to say yes, they certainly were. It is concerning that I even need to consider the answer, but as I’ve confirmed with my brother many times, it was certainly an enriching life experience.

My first night in Egypt was awful. I know I’m choosing to see the bad sides of what happened, it’s all about perspective and attitude and all that, but it was really difficult for me to see the good side of things. Flying there took 21 hours (I think), and I was awake for the majority of a 31 hour day. The travelling wasn’t as exhausting as I thought it might be, but when we arrived, the airport was very quiet. I later associated this with the recent-ish revolutions and protests, but I was just grateful to touch down an hour before dinner with the tour group. However, the airport staff had other plans. They didn’t speak much English, or if they did, they deigned not to until we displayed our complete incomprehension of Arabic and body language. They took our passports without saying why and asked us to sit down and wait. We waited for fifteen minutes, watching the six of them drink tea and chat with one another. There were no other passengers. When we inquired we were told they were checking something. Eugene guessed they’d not seen the new visas Melbourne uses before, having only been instated a few weeks previously.

Nervously, we decided to make the most of our idle time before dinner by changing our US$ to Egyptian Pounds at one of the three currency exchange stations next to the waiting area. I went to the one that looked most reputable- the Bank of Egypt or something to that extent. The guy was eating a sandwich when I arrived and told me to go next doors. It was a little bothersome but understandable, so I went to his neighbour. The man in this exchange booth was sitting at the far end of the room facing me, seemingly staring at his desk out of sheer boredom. He ignored me, until I called out to him, whereupon he advised me to go next doors, next doors. I did so, somewhat more irked. The third teller was sitting at his desk playing Angry Birds. When I called out, he glanced up and told me to go next doors. I explained that’s what the guy next doors said, and he repeated that I try next doors, next doors. So I went and sat back down with my brother, terrified that nobody in Egypt would like me, that perhaps Asians had offended the Egyptian people in the past, that no one would speak English to us and that they would keep our passports and we would be stuck there forever.

Fortunately, that is about when they deemed to return our passports to us and wave us through without another glance.  I was later told that this happens to everyone, not just tourists. It did not set a good first impression of the country. Our next step was trying to find a taxi to get to dinner- we couldn’t contact the tour group and we were running late. There were a few men waiting inside the airport saying they were the taxi service, and cautiously we gave them the address and negotiated a price (almost no taxies have fares or metres). The drive was terrifying. Five cars occupied three lanes at any one time. Hardly anyone used headlights at night due to the abundance of street lights. Pedestrians strolled across the road in between cars without glancing sideways to see if they were about to be hit (and indeed, climbed onto moving buses). Barely anyone indicated as they changed lanes (which they did frequently). Honking the horn was a way of saying “Hello!”, “Get out of the way!”, “Hurry up!”, “I’m here, occupying this space!”, “I am turning now”, and “I have a horn!”. We came within inches of other cars, every single one of which was dented or broken in some way. I was a little concerned we’d die. This turned out to be one of the best drives (in one of the most functional cars, with door handles and window cranks and rear view mirrors and working speedometers and all those ‘luxury’ things you don’t really need to make the car go) of the trip.

It took about a day to get used to Egypt. The tour we were on was composed of three people: my brother Eugene, myself, and a 50-year-old mother from Canberra. Mr Hany, our tourguide was kind, helpfully, funny and informative. Tourism was very low due to the political climate and its portrayal in the media, though I honestly think there was no danger from the police or military. I always felt safe with Hany- as my brother pointed out, all the bad things that happened to me were when Hany wasn’t there.

Our first day took us to the pyramids, sphinx and Egyptian Museum. We were driving through Cairo, oggling at the women riding donkeys, the men on their camels, the carts drawn by donkeys pulling hundreds of kilos (my heart breaks to remember one in particular pulling a broken down car, stumbling every few steps from the strain of it as the owners grinned at us) and carriages drawn by horses fitting right along side the cars. Rubbish littered every curb and dung was being swept off the road regularly. We later saw Cairo at 6am before anyone was awake and it was spotless. Its 18 million population transformed it quickly. There were thousands of unfinished buildings without ceilings or walls, yet sporting satellite TV’s and running water. Apparently it’s common practice not to finish building a house so you don’t need to pay tax for it. And amid all this urban sprawl, the pyramids peaked alongside the sky scrapers, just a casual backdrop of the city. When arrived, they were stunning to behold. My brother and I explored the Third pyramid, open for tourists for 100EGP (~$16) and took many epic photos, but it saddened me greatly to see the bottle caps and cigarette butts littering the ground around them. I think at night the men that hang around/work there just sit around (and on) them drinking and littering. We even saw a few names carved into the stones at the base. People have actually graffitied one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. We also had a very short but exciting camel ride. I like to think I was a natural, but in truth, having enough skill to stay on without having someone lead you, and being trusted enough to steer your camel away from oncoming buses (which I did successfully) is hardly skillful. Still, Snowpea and I raced Ali Baba and Eugene and creamed them. T’was awesome.

The Sphinx wasn’t as impressive as I had been expecting. Apparently he (I always think of him as a her because of the headdress) was carved from one block of stone, but I don’t see how when he’s clearly made of many bricks. Maybe they cut up one big stone to make the many bricks. I discovered the reason the nose of the Sphinx is missing was because it was chiseled off by a Muslim man a few decades ago who was protesting that the old gods had no power compared to Allah. The Sphinx originally faced the rising sun, the sentinel of the Tombs of the Pharoahs of old, the riddler, the omnipotent guardian who gave homage to Ra. Now it faces construction work a few hundred meters away as people toil to prevent underwater damage to the area. A few hundred meters beyond are shops and apartments and ordinary urban sprawl. It’s a little sad that the massive population of Cairo is spilling almost onto the paws of the mighty homunculus.

The Egyptian Museum was rich in treasures, particularly from the tomb of the child king Tutankhamun. They were all very ancient, some of which were incredibly interesting, but much of which was just famed for its age. The mummies, in particular, were horrifying. Human beings with teeth and hair and fingernails, desiccated and wrapped in linen millenia ago. Interesting, but still horrifying. One of the Ramses’ had hair and linen samples sold on ebay until the Government cottoned on and had them brought them back to the museum.

We caught an overnight sleeper train (a truly wonderful experience for me, with surprisingly comforting rocking motions) to the city of Aswan. There we visited the island temple of Philae, dedicated to the goddess Isis. Ancient Egypt flooded every year- this was a huge part of their lives, and often destroyed homes and livelihoods. It was a recent-ish decision to build a dam to stop the flooding, but this would cause the water to rise in parts of the river and lower in others. The original Philae was on one of the islands now submerged by the lake. The World Heritage team from UNESCO moved the temple, brick by brick, to its new location on a higher island. It was the quietest, most beautiful ancient temple I’ve ever seen.

Eugene and I got pretty intensely sick around this time. I woke up around 12:30am with stabbing pains in my stomach, but we were due to leave at 4am to visit the temple of Abu Simbel, so we didn’t wake our tourguide. He scolded us for this, because when Eugene managed to stumble to a nearby pharmacy, the medication we took was not as helpful as the medication Hany recommended. It was a tender couple of days where we barely left the room, Eugene sleeping and I playing Zelda on the 3DS. Finding food was particularly challenging: nothing was open until 1pm, and the shops that did open were essentially delicatessens. Nervously wandering down largely deserted alleys, desperately hungry, I ended up overpaying a street-side vendor for some falafel. At that point I stopped using tap water to brush my teeth after Shihan’s recommendation, and I stayed mostly well for the rest of the trip.

We sailed down the Nile to the small village of Nubia, where we stayed in a cheap (but expansive) mudbrick house. I really enjoyed training in the sand courtyard for the first time in days. I also attracted a curious little girl who kept inching closer and closer until she was standing only a few feet away from me as I performed kata and xing (forms). I was worried I’d pivot for a strike and she’d be standing right behind me. She turned out to be the niece of our host, who was an English teacher at a local school, and it was a great pleasure talking to her about her life and helping her with the cooking (using our fingers as cutting boards- it was safer than it sounds).

As well as staying in the village, we sailed to the bank of the Sahara Desert and climbed the sand dunes. Eugene and I were barefoot, picking our way over the sharp rocks (I wanna say slate?) and climbing the cliffs. It was terrifying, awe-inspiring and epic. I wandered further and further away to immerse myself in the isolation of the desert, to gaze upon the expanse of sand and to know a little of infinity. There was so little wind the footsteps lasted for weeks. There were so few signs of civilisation, apart from the occasional stack of rocks (I wonder why people pile rocks up wherever they go? Do they intend to come back some day and go ‘Hey! See that stack up the back, fourth from the right? That was mine from 2011, son!’?) [EDIT: It seems these piles are called cairns, and normally used for navigating, they’re probably just used by tourists to mark their existence in the world], I snuck off for a cheeky sand angel or two, and to do taiji and yoga as the sun set across the dunes. When I finished, I knelt in seiza and prayed. It was a great time for me. Unfortunately I had wandered so far I wasn’t sure how to get back, and I was beginning to get quite thirsty. I eventually followed the sound of music to a village, and after exploring it thoroughly (the tourists there were Italian, and possibly Ukranian), I panicked a little when I realised it was not the one that our boat had docked at. I climbed back up the dunes and followed the coast further, and very happily found the village I was looking for. I’d been gone an hour and a half and Eugene had just gone looking for me. I’d been lost barefoot in the Sahara, but not in much real danger- that was pretty cool.

We spent the next day sailing, from dawn til dusk. There were no toilets on the felucca- it was a simple boat with a foam base, low canvas roof and cushions- so I did my absolute best to limit how often I used the bathroom on the bank of the Nile. I was expecting to read Game of Thrones all day, but I actually spent more time playing Uno, which was incomprehensibly hilarious. Eugene also took the opportunity to ask Hany if he knew any spells from the Book of the Dead. Unfortunately, he did, and he called upon Anubis, the god of mummification, to lend him his strength. I have a tremendous phobia of the supernatural, so I ran to the other end of the boat and hung off it, declaring myself independent of whatever cursed enchanting they were doing. I’ve seen what sort of stuff happens when you ask Anubis for favours! You end up becoming a half-scorpion for millenia until Brendan Fraser stabs you through the chest! Fortunately for me, Hany’s spell had no noticable effect. At least, I hope it didn’t. Eugene later purchased an English version of the Book, and though some of them were malevolent (how to bring the dead into the world of the living), the majority of them were benign and helpful to dead kings.

We also visited the Edfu Temple. I don’t remember much about the temple itself, just the experience I had there. As my brother and I were walking around the inside of the temple, a man kept offering to show us around. We were used to such people- literally hundreds of them were around tourist sites, advertising mass produced knick-knacks from China, offering to show you around, begging for tips etc. But he insisted he didn’t want money, and followed us around to point out carvings of a Pharoah kissing his wife, and of a heiroglyphic phallus. It was kinda of funny, but he kept standing right next to me, leading me by the arm to the next object of interest. Every time he touched me and I withdrew he would say “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” with this big friendly smile. I was understandably suspicious when he put his arm around my shoulders, but I had my hands over my camera, wallet and phone so I wasn’t sure what he was up to. Then I felt something inappropriately hard press into my back, and I have no memories of the next few minutes other than calling out to Eugene “We’re leaving, RIGHT NOW” and being on the bus washing myself with antibacterial gel. I guess I went into shock and got the hell out of there. Eugene tells me that as soon as I walked away he immediately walked over to the next group of tourists and started chatting to them. God it was awful. I know it wasn’t like I was sexually assaulted, but it was still depraved, and my heart genuinely goes out to any friends of mine who have received unwanted sexual attention.

Shortly after that unfortunate event, we made our way to Luxor and explored the Temple of Carnak, the largest and most impressive (but by far the busiest) of the temples I saw. I had made a silver ring with my name in heiroglyphs, which I wore proudly for about a week until I left it at a hotel and it was never seen again when I returned half an hour later to look for it. We visited Animal Care in Egypt (http://www.ace-egypt.org.uk/), a volunteer organisation who provide direly needed care to abused, abandoned and neglected animals free of charge. Their patients included horses and donkeys who’d been hit by cars, whose owners didn’t bother equipping them with iron shoes or whipped them to injury, blind cats, unwanted dogs, abandoned turtles and more. They were the light of hope in a country of disrespect and maltreatment of animals, and I strongly support their work. I have every intention of donating to them regularly if I ever get a stable source of income and urge you to consider likewise. I also tried sheesha after dinner one night, just to see what all the fuss was about. It was not as delicious as I was expecting, nor was it exciting to breathe out smoke from my mouth and nostrils. In fact, it just made me cough a little and get very, very dizzy. It was exciting, but my life is perfectly fine without such intoxicants.

Unfortunately, another bad experience met me in quick succession to the Mi Scuzi Guy. There was a marketplace at Luxor that Hany showed no interest in going into, but it was a highlight of the city and many tourists enjoyed it. It was much larger than the stalls outside the Sphinx, and they sold not only trinkets but lamps, furniture, teas etc. I made the mistake of wearing my shirt which I bought from Animal Care in Egypt, reading “mohadbi alhaiwan”- “Animal lover” in Arabic. Almost everyone in the marketplace called out to me, asking if I loved animals, or if I wouldn’t mind buying something from that man over there because he had a dog etc. I realised quickly they were all friends, all in it together, and they didn’t care which shop you entered because they’d all profit from it. Eugene had disappeared into the depths as Therese and I tried to make our way to him, but I got so much attention I stopped even glancing at stalls and stared dead ahead, ignoring the dozens of calls of desperate salesmen. When we reached the end of the street, just a few hundred meters long, Eugene was nowhere to be found. Therese was perfectly comfortable amidst all this, but I was trying to avoid panicking. When we turned around and headed back I was so stressed that when Therese stopped to chat with a merchant who was flirting with her I just left her there because I just wanted to get out and get away from all the “Mohadbi alhaiwan” yelling. That was a mistake. When I was alone the attention increased along with my vulnerability, and people I’d been able to ignore earlier became more insistent. When a man stepped out in front of me and I wouldn’t buy whatever he was selling, he refused to budge as I tried to get around him. He put one hand behind his back and told me in impeccable English that he had a knife and he would pull it out if I did not give him my money. He told me to stop talking and just do it. I told him I didn’t believe him, and he told me that I’d better, to stop talking or he’d pull it out. Seeing we’d reached a stalemate, I put my hand against the back of his forearm- the one behind his back- so that I’d feel it if he moved suddenly, or be able to stop him if he tried to move that arm in my direction. And then I walked past him, turning my back to him, and didn’t spare him a second glance. I was shaking by the time I got out of the markets.

I’ve convinced myself that I wasn’t in any real danger- I could have sensed it if he really intended to hurt me, and more importantly I could have defended myself if I had been, but I’ll never know for sure. Hany later told me a story about when he’d been in the markets with his tourgroup. One of his girls had been ripped off by a merchant and the man acknowledged it but refused to return the money. When Hany nearly called the Australian embassy, the merchant angrily gave the money back. But before Hany could reach the exit of the market strip, two men stopped him and told him that the guy had been kind, but next time he stepped foot in the markets he would not be permitted to leave unhurt. Hany bashed their heads together a few times and threw them to the ground, challenging them to do something about it now if they wanted to cause trouble. When he reported the threats to the police, the corrupt officer refused to do anything about it because he was accepting bribes from them. I don’t think I was ever really safe there. One armed person, maybe I could hope to get away with only superficial cuts. Six, eight, twenty… I’m really glad I got out all right. I do not intend to return.

On a lighter note, we also went on a day trip to Alexandria, which was my favourite place in the whole country. It was one of the 32(?) Alexandria’s conquered by Alexander the Great, and housed the Citadel (where the fabled Lighthouse used to be, another of the seven ancient wonders), the Catacombs (an amazing descent into flooded mass graves where bodies might still lie undisturbed in their sarcophagi) and the Great Library, one of the greatest treasure stores of knowledge and learning in the world until it was burned down. Now there is another Library of Alexandria, almost directly on top of the original, though it lacks the knowledge stored on scrolls and papyrus. It’s the most beautiful library I’ve ever been to, part museum, part information storehouse. Millions of books, hundreds of computers and computer-based technology, learning centers, planetariums, art exhibits, what appeared to be Sci-tech, gift shop, educational videos, lecture halls, and best of all, the students! So many people with piles of books, looking busy, actually USING library resources. It made me very happy to see. I snuck onto a computer which was already logged on to make a facebook status update (“This status update comes from the library of Alexandria- the treasure store of Greek and Egyptian knowledge in the days before Christ. I cannot express adequately how honoured I am to be in this great (if modern) hall of learning”), which is one of my special virtual souvenirs.

We also took a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Tombs, the Valley of the Queens, and a little of the Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Kings in particular was very cool- we got to visit three tombs of our choosing, and I spent a long time climbing the stairs into the dark pits and admiring the walls covered in coloured paintings and heiroglyphs. They were chapters from the Book of the Dead, inscribed in the tombs to bring the Pharoahs anything they needed in the afterlife. And what’s more amazing is that not all the tombs have been found yet, despite all our technology- they were still excavating the day we were there, and will likely continue for decades or centuries. The ancient Egyptian people just picked a spot in what was originally a massive valley of sand, had their slaves tunnel until they were satisfied with the depth and length, and then create a tomb. After the Pharoah was mummified and buried, the tomb would be sealed by rock and sand and blend perfectly into the valley once more. No one knew where all the tombs were, so it wasn’t uncommon to be digging a tunnel and accidentally break into someone else’s tomb. Some of the Pharoahs respected this, but others appreciated that the work had been done for them, removed the body, redecorated, and moved into the other guy’s tomb. Unfortunately there were many men just hanging around the tombs selling postcards and junk, and many inside them trying to show tourists around for money. It was only recently that these junk-sellers were forced out of the tombs by the military after one of them sexually harassed a woman, but the wanna-be tour guides were still frequent. As a neighbouring tourgroup reported, one of such men didn’t deem to head back up to use the bathroom and simply urinated in a corner of the tomb while tourists walked around him in disgust.

Thereafter we drove to Mount Sinai, the mountain where it is written in the Bible of the Jews and Christians, as well as the Muslim Quran, that the prophet Moses spoke to God in the form of the Burning Bush and later received the Ten Commandments. There were three ways up the mountain: camel, the path, or the 3750 Steps of Repentance. Obviously, I took the steps. It was disappointingly easy/short, though still enough to work up a sweat. When we reached the plateau of 3000 steps, a man approached Eugene and told him to meet him in the toilets. Nervously he went, and was given a handful of bright red berries for his troubles. Concerned about their safety, we consulted Mr Moosa, our mountain guide, who confirmed they were safe and called “Sinai berries”. Their brightness caused us to call them “Cyanide berries”, but we ate them anyway, and we seemed to have survived. We stayed at the summit until sunset as we admired the amazing mountain ranges. I spent some time by myself just praying on this holy mountain, contemplating God’s work. At dusk we climbed back down in the darkness.

From there we travelled to the coastal village of Nuweiba, where goats ran freely in the streets, bleating and eating the wealth of paper-based rubbish that littered the roads. We stayed in a beach resort there, and though simple, it was tremendously peaceful. I did not think I could be so quiet and enjoy such pleasure. Modern life seems so unnecessarily complex and busy compared to the leisurely decisions like whether to go kayaking or reading a book. I played beach volleyball, enjoyed many a card game, read, trained, kayaked, and even went scuba diving in the Red Sea. Despite his inherent phobia of deep water, Eugene enjoyed it so much that he started taking lessons when he got back to Perth and now holds his diving license. I found it to be less enjoyable because I couldn’t equalise the pressure in my ears, no matter what I tried. I spent about 80% of the dive concentrating on how to make it hurt less as tears of pain clouded my vision, but what little I did see was amazing: eels, coral shaped like brain, bright blue fish who were completely comfortable swimming right around me, a sense of weightlessness, seeing the sun on the surface above me, feeling the bubbles brush my face and crashing into the sea bed and kicking off it again. I’m a terrible swimmer, but the guide held my hand and pulled me forwards so all I really had to do was look around and remember to breathe. It was really wonderful to see a fraction of a whole new world that humankind had barely touched in millennia.

After that, it was the long drive back to Cairo, and then onwards to London. Stay tuned (but not too tuned- who knows how long I’ll procrastinate for this next post) for more adventures. Peace everybody! <3

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One thought on “Adventures abroad: Egypt

  1. a wonderful (if extensive) post. I wish you didn’t get so much pain when trying to swim baby <3 I think I've already commented at some point on everything else you've talked about here….
    I love you <3

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