I had Tuesday November 19 marked down as the likely worst travel horror day, involving as it did a 3am wake-up for a short flight from Marrakech to Casablanca, then a four-hour stopover till the five hour flight to Cairo. I’d been dreading it, but I’d prepared well as mentioned in my last blog by having an early and alcohol-free night and a goodish albeit chemically assisted sleep.
As it happens, the worst was yet to come with the mega-horror day which started at 4.45am on Wednesday November 20th and still hasn’t finished 48 hours later as I sit out a 8-hour stopover in Sydney waiting for my flight home to Hobart! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I had the good luck on the 5-hour Casablanca-Cairo flight to have a spare seat between me and this Asian boy. Is there something in the genome of Asians that gives them the marvellous boon of being able to fall asleep at will? If there is I’d gladly volunteer for a genetic experiment to have it installed in my body. This lad fell asleep before we even started taxi-ing and basically stayed that way. I climbed over him twice to go to the toilet and he didn’t stir. He only woke once during the flight, and that was when the food trolley pulled up alongside him. He ate, then promptly went back to sleep.
The view from the plane was surprisingly good; the landscapes around Cairo and the Nile an unexpected treat.
Not the familiar pyramids of Giza, judging by the nearby infrastructure and lack of a sphinx. (I’m writing this having been there and seen them.)
Along the Nile, sudden verdant green.
Cairo has a population of 22 million.
Look at that traffic! My hotel, the Mercure Sphinx, was in Giza, 32.4 km from the airport by road, according to Google maps. It took us exactly two hours to do the drive via the slightly longer but allegedly less congested ring road since it was evening peak hour. It was an unrelievedly depressing drive: woefully inadequate and frequently unrepaired highway infrastructure, constant frustrated beeping and tooting, occasional sirens of emergency vehicles (god knows how or whether they ever get through – there was no emergency lane), roadside rubbish, miles and miles of concrete residential high-rise. The only visual relief came in the form of giant neon billboards advertising apartment developments and depicting happy smiling families living in shiny modernity and convenience – in total contrast to the dusty grey concrete sprawl all around.
I suppose there was a kind of documentary fascination about this vision of epic urban planning failure, and of human adaptability in the face of it: occasionally figures could be seen ahead, leaping over bollards and barriers and weaving through stop-start traffic to cross a highway that effectively walled off one side of a suburb from another; and occasionally a few square feet of concrete on an off-ramp had been commandeered for makeshift stands selling grilled meat on skewers.
I had initially planned a longer tour of Egypt but cancelled it in response to Australian Government travel warnings that called it more dangerous than any other country in the world just about, bar Syria and Afghanistan. Worse even at the time than Hong Kong, although that may have changed. There had been a suicide bomb in the heart of Cairo in September, an attack on tourists at Giza earlier in the year and ransom kidnappings in the areas the planned tour would have taken me. Instead, BJ found me a hotel with a view of the pyramids and I imagined spending my one day in Egypt gazing at them from a nice hotel room window while working on my blog, maybe taking a workout in the hotel gym or a dip in the pool, and later a long nap to get myself in shape for the long-haul red-eye flight taking off at 11pm.
But it began to seem as if most of my short time in Egypt would be spent in this infernal traffic between the airport and Giza. I naturally spent the time worrying about the return drive and yearning for sleep, what with my chest lurgy and the hideously early start. But we got there eventually, too late for the view, and I went to bed after a nice bowl of pasta and a couple of glasses of reasonable red in the downstairs Italian restaurant at which I was the only customer. I awoke at 4.45am the following day, dammit, and by six o’clock the pyramid – singular, not plural – came into view. That’s it shrouded in the dust and smog of the traffic you can see already starting to roar just beyond the hotel wall (above).
By nine (Wednesday morning Nov 20) I’d already been awake four hours and put in a solid session at my laptop, much of it sitting over my breakfast table as the hotel wifi only worked on the ground floor – a vast open space where all the shops, restaurants, cafes, lounges and bars were and where smoking was permitted! (Egypt topped even Lebanon for Most Smoking-Backward Country.) The day had become relatively clear and sunny and I figured I’d be better off outdoors than in. I also figured I’d never live it down if having got so close to the pyramids I didn’t actually go for a proper squiz. So I overcame my sleep-deprived torpor and my fear of jihadi assassins and sallied forth for some pyramid action.
The man who met me at the airport for my hotel transfer – name of John – had tried to sign me up for a big day of sightseeing – three pyramids at least, entry to one an optional extra, the sphinx, the museum, lunch and factories – for just $US144. I was sufficiently grumpy that I point-blank refused to even think about it till I’d at least slept on it, and plus I said I don’t want to do factories (carpets, papyrus) because I don’t want to buy anything. Okay, okay, he said, and we agreed to get in touch via Whatsapp in the morning.
In the morning I couldn’t get the Whatsapp thing happening, which is a pity because instead of Honest John I fell into the clutches of the spivs at the hotel tours desk. Or perhaps that’s a bit unfair and ‘desperadoes’ might be a better term, given the parlous state of the tourism economy caused by Islamist terrorism. ‘Drive to pyramids, museum, factories – normally $90 but special price for you $55’, says the bloke who really was a bit of a spiv. I mean, I hadn’t even said a word before he made his special offer – I was just trying to do some swift mental arithmetic, knowing he was talking $US and needing to convert it to the Egyptian pounds – hereinafter to be referred to as ‘gyppos’ for short – I’d be getting from the ATM. I tried to get an idea of how much I might need altogether but he was not helpful. For one thing he didn’t want me to know how much more I’d be up for once I got to the pyramids; he brushed away my questions with ‘there are ATMs everywhere – you can always get more out’. I told him that’s what I wanted to avoid because it costs money every time I use an ATM, I’m only here one day and I don’t want to be stuck with excess gyppos, I won’t be taking out $US because I’d lose even more; but he continued to be unhelpful. In the end I figured 2000 gyppos might do the trick – about 1000 for the sightseeing and the rest for incidentals – lunch, museum, guide at the pyramids, tips, fridge magnets….
He hovered nearby while I got money from the ATM. As I handed over 1000 for the ‘tour’ he asked: how about something for me, since I got you such a good deal?’ I should have said ‘no’ outright or ‘I notice you didn’t ask me that in front of your colleagues in whose presence we just did the deal’. Instead, standing there holding a wad of notes I felt impelled to peel off a couple for him. I gave him the equivalent of about $A14. He then delivered me into the hands of the driver, the man leaning into me in the photo below.
The deal was, he was to drive me to the pyramids and to the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, said to be one of the most important antiquities museums in the world and something I really wanted to see. But as he farewelled me the spiv he shouted: ‘Tour of pyramids is extra!’ Oh Christ. Anyway, off we went to the nearby site and past the entrance where hordes of people were lined up including mobs of schoolkids. I’d wanted to ask the driver whether he could just drop me there and let me walk around at will but he spoke no English and I ended up in the hands of another bunch of desperadoes who first tried to get me on a horse – no way! – then a camel, but I opted for a ride in this horse-driven thing, with a local guide. That’ll be 1500 gyppos, 200 to be paid now, said one of the desperadoes to whom I duly shelled out.
I was ushered through ahead of the crowds but while I waited for the cart driver to come through the vehicle gate with my ticket and the rig, a local fellow suggested I pose thus (above) while he took the pic. Haha. Me touching the top of the pyramid. Then he asked for money. This happened twice but I played dumb, walked away and got away with it both times.
The cartman – name of Samy – was quite good, and spoke good English. We went up past the biggies – Cheops, Khofre and the Sphinx, to this higher spot where good panoramic shots were to be had. ‘Hop down for a photo’, said Samy. I did so, and asked him to get me in shot with a seated camel in the background. The camel man suggested I sit on the camel. ‘No thanks’, I said. But they both urged me over to the beast and sat me on it. Next thing, the cameleer made the camel stand up. I had a surge of fright and demanded to be set down, not just because of my fear of big quadripeds but because I knew this would cost me. Which it did. The cameleer demanded money. I offered about 30 gyppos. He argued with me for more! By this time however I was angry with both him and Samy: ‘I never wanted to get on the goddamn camel in the first place and $2 is plenty for taking a goddamn photo!’
Samy was beginning to catch my mood and hastened me away for a closer look at Cheops, which was pretty fabulous. I happened to snap this shot of a young desperado offering to correctly tie the scarf of this American tourist. She demurred, but he insisted. I heard her say ‘OK, but I haven’t got any money’, and inwardly thought: good on you, love!
This cavity held a boat belonging to the pharoah, a recent archaeological discovery. Below is the purpose-built museum that houses the boat.
I’m not going to recite any archaeological history here. Samy knew it all, of course, but I told him I was here for the sheer momentousness of the site and was just as interested in present day life and culture.
Which assertion I had a chance to prove as we drove back to the site entrance when I was repeatedly hailed by young schoolgirls. He was surprised, but pleased, by my willingness to engage with them.
I really should have done my homework. The thing is: entrance to the pyramids site means you get to see all the important ones, AND the sphinx, which is just….there. Should have known that. So don’t go falling for any pitch which promises the sphinx as if it were some kind of optional extra. Samy urged me down from the cart again at this point to take the sphinx photo….
…whereupon the girls swarmed around me and I didn’t discourage them. They were full of smiles and greetings, happy to take and be in photos AND, as I pointed out to Samy later, they didn’t ask for money!
This woman came from Sudan. I told her I had a Sudanese refugee family – Aziza and Saif – living two doors down from me a few years ago. (They have since moved to New Town, and when I bumped into Saif a while ago he said they now had four children. Aziza had earlier confided to me that she only wanted the two she already had. Hmm. )
I just loved the women and girls. So merry and optimistic. I wondered what their future would hold though, considering the parlous state of the Egyptian economy in which the men seem to have nearly all the jobs, at least that I could see in my short time here. This was the one place where even hotel room-cleaners were mainly men. I only saw one woman doing that work. Also, and incidentally, of all the muslim cultures visited on this trip, Egypt is where you see most women veiled, although it’s not heavy veiling.
Emboldened by the girls, a bunch of schoolboys soon got into the act. They all wanted selfies with me, and I managed to get them to take the occasional pic with MY phone! The kids did wonders for my exploited-tourist bad mood, but Samy soon hustled me away back to the entrance and the hassle of the final reckoning. As I alighted, a bloke came out to ask if I was happy with my tour. No, I said. Why not? Because everyone’s been fleecing me. How much you pay? 200 to this bloke, I said, pointing to an earlier spiv, and 1300 to go. ‘I am the boss’, said the new bloke, and promptly knocked 300 off the price I’d been quoted at the outset. ‘Okay, but I don’t have any money.’ ‘You can go to ATM. Meanwhile, sit down and I show you my wares.’ ‘I don’t want to buy anything!’ I snapped. He snapped his fingers and a lethargic girl who’d been hunched over her phone got up and filled this small bottle with some fragrant oil. Then he produced this strange objet (below) with a flourish and proclaimed: ‘These are my gifts to you!’ It was as light and brittle as an eggshell and judging by its shape less resistant to shattering. I could just imagine extracting it in smithereens from my luggage. Nevertheless I accepted with a smile and the original driver and I went on our way to find an ATM.
The first one had no money. The second one couldn’t read my card, ditto the third. The fourth declined my card and the fifth said I didn’t have enough money. Right. I’ll have to go back to the hotel, fetch my laptop from the upper floor in the outer wing, bring it down to where the wifi is, transfer some money onto my NAB Travel card and THEN extract the local cash. Back to the hotel we went. The boss fella called the driver en route to ask why the white lady hadn’t come back with the money she owed? He passed the phone to me and I explained, curtly, and that he’d just have to wait.
At the hotel I took the long hike to my room to fetch the laptop, came back downstairs and set about transferring the money. Thence to the ATM. No luck. It mistrusts that card now and won’t disgorge any cash. Back upstairs I go to fetch my normal cash card. Downstairs I go to withdraw some local cash. Finally it works! I march over to where the driver is waiting with the hotel desperadoes, hand him the 1000 gyppos and announce that I’ve spent so much time faffing about getting the money to pay for that pyramids experience that I have no time, energy or money left to go to the Museum, for by now it’s well into the afternoon and I am still in desperate need of sleep. Will he please deliver this to the boss fella? He would have to go there anyway if I was with him, and I figured he got a bonus from not having to take me to the Museum and back, which I’m sure would have taken up most of the afternoon.
The driver is unhappy and mortified. He’d assured me it’d only take half an hour each way into the city (although I was skeptical about that), and he’s keen to fulfill his part of the bargain. I feel sorry for him – he seems a decent bloke who’s only getting a slice of what the other spivs can strip from me, but I really do need time to sleep and pack and I just can’t face any more interaction with the rapacious Egyptian tourism industry.
I shook the driver’s hand with a smile and thanked him, pointedly not addressing these courtesies to the others, especially not to the bloke who’d hit me up for a backhander without actually doing anything to earn it. To be fair, he came over later on when he spotted me working on my laptop in the lobby and asked if I was happy. I was not in the mood for a florid argument so I gave an affirmative grunt and encouraged an early end to the discussion by mentioning the backhander. He left.
I had a brief lie-down in the evening but was too wound-up to sleep properly. That afternoon a few busloads of bogan western tourists arrived. Some looked like bikies; one bloke strutted about the lobby in leather and nose studs and puffing on a big stogie. There was a floor show put on especially for them by the looks – booze, cigars, belly-dancers, whistlin’ and hootin’. Thank god I’m outta here soon.
The drive back to the airport proved not too bad; indeed there were moments of pleasure and interest. John from the day before joined me at the hotel and came most of the way with us, into the city this time as he had to meet another commitment there. We set off at 8 o’clock so the traffic wasn’t as bad and ‘Cairo By Night’ was much more interesting than the ring road. John was a Coptic Christian who had lots to say about life and culture in Egypt, and moreover was able to point out the sights to me as we passed by: the Nile, the Museum, monumental buildings and bridges and best of all Tahrir Square, site of the protests that brought down the previous government of Mohammed Al Morsi that was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood but hated by most of the people. The current President Al Sisi is basically a military man but he seems to be embarked on a big program of modernisation and development, again judging by the billboards lining all the main roads. They are absolutely huge. The camera doesn’t catch that.
John also quizzed me closely about my experience and said he’d report the hotel for the blatant fleecing. I should have stuck with him on the sightseeing business, and told him so. It turns out I did manage to emit a Whatsapp message to him but it was of no use if neither of us knew about it till it was too late.
And so Tuesday of the 3am rising – Tuesday November 19 – was eclipsed in travel horror by the day that started for me at 5am on Wednesday November 20. Awake all day then a 3-hour sleepless flight to Abu Dhabi. Five hours stopover there, albeit in the business lounge because I’m back up the pointy end for the long haul home. As I walked through the cavernous deserted spaces of the airport I was assailed by the adhan – the call to prayer – one last time, and I found it downright oppressive. It was loud, it was intrusive, it was inescapable. I mentally rehearsed familiar arguments conducted with any number of folks who’d offered excuses and platitudes over the weeks: ‘You get used to it’. Not at this volume you don’t. ‘Just put ear plugs in’. At one stage I announced that I’d throttle the next person who said that. ‘OF COURSE I PUT EARPLUGS IN, YOU DOLT, AND THEY DON’T WORK!`
Call me culturally insensitive but I’m going to say it: in this context at least – an international airport – the amplification of the adhan throughout every space is an Orwellian imposition of religion on people who don’t subscribe to it. And I’ll tell Etihad so.
Finally I board the flight to Sydney. It’s now over 24 hours since I’ve slept. I get two bouts of sleep on that flight of about two hours each. But in Sydney there’s an 8-hour wait for my flight to Hobart! At least there was great wifi.
That’s it, folks! Thank you for reading. Choukrane.