Thursday, 26 August 2010

Same Shit, Different City

Fitness fanatics! Take heed of my words!

Do away with your stomach crunches, your sit ups, your planks!

If you really want to work your lower abdomen then I recommend sitting on an overnight bus from Dahab to Cairo with a case of the shits.

My god. You will never clench like it again.

The shifting-in-seat, the utter churning fear that you might let slip a little ‘parp’ that could splatter everywhere - including over the neighbourly young French guy you’d been pleasantly conversing with in an odd mixture of Arabic, French and English.

I’d managed not to shit myself as we pulled into Cairo - just - but I was off that bus, grabbing for my suitcase, running for the nearest door to the main building as fast as my limpy legs would carry me.

‘Feyn il-twalet?! Minfadlak?’
‘No inglizi.’ I was in too much of a desperate clench-and-trot to point out that I’d spoken in some vague (albeit poorly-pronounced) form of Arabic, not English.
‘Feyn… il- aahhhh- twalet? Please?! Toilet??’

I was directed ‘that way’.

God bless that ancient and noble art of point and nod.

I found the toilet. Correction, I found the toilets. Shit, which one was the Ladies’?! Of all the damn Arabic phrases to learn by sight that was probably one of the more vital.

There was a bloke washing his feet in a sink visible from the entrance to one of the two rooms.

His presence, of course, shouldn’t be taken with any real sense of authority on the matter, but I knew this was going to be a venture which required some privacy.

My stomach churned, and throwing caution to the wind, I dashed into the adjacent set of toilets and looked for the nearest open door.

To my utter horror, I saw no toilet. Or, no Western toilet.

Rather, a dirty pit into which I was about unload the sloppy contents of my bowels.

This, I thought, required me to leave my dignity at the door, and take the alcohol gel in hand.

I rammed my suitcase against the door in place of a lock.

Imagine if you will - but you needn’t - a 20-something girl, squatting over a large pit that was once white, but now was covered in a thick layer of…various substances. Only she’s not squatting, so much as bent down hitching her trousers away from the floor, clutching at the walls for support.

Someone walked in, shuffling around, as the most hideous noise escaped my person. I will not pretend it was oral.

Finally, it was over.

Sweating, I left the toilet. For now, it was over and I started to calculate its rough half life as I was rubbing alcohol gel into my hands looking for the taxi rank.

I got into the first taxi that had the squashiest, most comfy looking seats.

‘Al’an faan da… funduk Bella Luna?’ And to my great surprise he understood me, driving off to my hotel with the chaotic speed of any good Cairene driver.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Blood-stained Beach

‘Swimming pool or the sea?’
‘The sea. Yes.’
‘Okay, okay, I’ll take your key and see you later’.

I handed my room key to Ahmed - the hotel receptionist with whom I had a bet on that we would have matching skin tones by the time I left the Sinai.

Like every late afternoon in Dahab, it was warm and I was sticky from the layers and lashings of suncream I had applied during the course of the day.

Despite wearing SPF40, and remaining in the shade over a long lunch, I still had developed pink forearms, which I’d only noticed as the sun had fallen behind the rooftop terrace of the hotel.

I lay in the seawater, welcoming the cool waves as they washed over me. It had been a windy day, and the seabed had been thrown up into the shallow waters, making it impossible to see the floor beneath the water.

I stood up, stepped forward, trying to hold my balance and as I took another step I fell through an invisible gap in the dead coral to the sandy bed below.

I felt a sharp tear.

I leapt to shore and as I fell to the gravelly sands I saw my foot, red.

Staggering to the beachside hut, I cried out; blood was trailing behind me, great droplets congealing in the sand.

Ahmed came running over as I clutched for the trunks of palm trees that made up the bones of the hut. Within seconds, I was surrounded by hotel staff. Shouting instructions, Ahmed held up my foot, another was drenching it with bottled water, and another had run to call the doctor.

I was shaking. Ahmed lifted me gently into the seats, further away from the sand and water, where I lay back. Tears fell down my cheeks.

It hurt, but I was more upset that on my first day alone, I had seemingly proven that I couldn’t cope with ‘Travelling’. I struggled with Tourism and The Third World Way of Life. I struggled with the appropriate response to utterly dire poverty I had encountered behind the glass windows of an air-conditioned minibus in Middle Egypt. And now I was struggling to keep a steady footing in the shallows of the Red Sea.

The young doctor appeared a short while later.

I was grateful for the privacy I had been afforded whilst we awaited his arrival, but now I felt disgusted with myself. How stupid could I be?! It’s a coral reef, dead or not, I should not have been paddling about without my boots. Now a doctor was missing out on celebrating breaking the Ramadan fast with his family because I was too much of a blundering tosser.

My dressing, now soaked with a ghastly mixture of blood and betadine (antiseptic favoured in tropical climates), was removed. ‘Yes. It is deep. You will need stitches.’

Ahmed lifted me again, and I was carried to my room. I lay on the bed, shuddering, as they cleared off the day’s accumulated sunbathing accoutrements that had been carelessly dumped earlier in the afternoon.

In the calm of my room, I felt a stabbing pain in my lower abdomen, and it took me a moment to realise that it was my screaming bladder. I limped, wincing, to the bathroom.

With two men in your room, and walls that rival paper on soundproofing, it was a long, awkward, piss.

Empty-bladdered, I lay back, wrapped only in my beach towel, and the doctor opened his briefcase. I heard the clunk of the catch, feeling a sense of foreboding.

I screamed, cried and sobbed between strained gasps as he injected me with the local anaesthetic at 5 points around the gash in my heel. Ahmed grasped my shoulder, whilst I clenched his free hand.

The doctor looked up, and assured me he would not start stitching until my heel was numb.

5 minutes had passed whilst I was breathing deeply, still sobbing, unable to coherently compose a sentence, nor think with any real clarity.

Recovering myself slightly, the doctor tested the feeling in my heel. I could still feel substantial discomfort as he pressed on the tip of the tear with his latexed hand.

He began to stitch. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I screamed and shrieked at the searing pain of the needle, and the tug as it was tied off.

4 stitches, and it was over. He dressed and bandaged my heel and ankle.

(Swollen and stitched, taken 2 days later)

I couldn’t help but lie motionless, a blubbering mess of sweat, salt water and tears on my face and chest. Regaining some vague sense of composure, the doctor began to calmly explain how to care for the wound. He left, leaving my bedside table loaded with dressings, betadine, painkillers, antibiotics, and a receipt.

It’s been 3 days and I am still limping.

The stitches will come out when I briefly return to Cairo on Thursday and I must wait until then for a verdict on whether I can snorkel once more when I return to Dahab on Monday.

I have promised myself that I will follow Doctor’s Orders.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Mermaids & Coral Reefs

Bamboo chairs, I feel, should be an essential furnishing to any space in which one wishes to write or think.

I am sat in such a chair, on the Dahab shore of the Red Sea. The salty water is lapping up against the red sands as the sun retreats below the horizon, the call to worship is sounded and the Ramadan fast is broken for the day.

It is warm and a warmer breeze is lifting strands of my freshly washed hair.

Though perhaps I should call them the ‘remaining strands’.

Today, I washed my hair for the first time in 12 days.

Before you mock, it’s quite an achievement. My personal best, until 30 minutes ago, was 5 days.

I feel I should point out it was my intention to push back my hair-maintenance boundaries, rather than my usual case of incurable laziness.

I had been sadly informed that the water in Cairo didn’t make for an overly Herbal-Essence-Mermaid-esque hair-washing experience. And honestly, what is the point of a shower if you don’t come out shimmering, tossing your wet hair, surprised that seabirds aren’t singing praises of your newfound cleanliness?

I digress.

With my hair plaited into military-approved, tight and uniformed french plaits (Kim’s handiwork - not mine), I resolved almost immediately to keep them in place before arriving, 12 days later, at the Red Sea.

Aching, tired and blinking in the dazzling sunlight of the morning, we clambered out of the overnight bus into a taxi and within minutes swept up in a cloud of dust at The Coral Coast Hotel.

It was not long before I was in my bikini and marching (the whole 10 yards from hotel to beach) towards the water.

Unfortunately, there was no Baywatch-style running headfirst into the sea, but rather 5 minutes standing ankle deep in the water gingerly avoiding seaweed - a lifelong pet hate, and difficult, given I was on the edge of a coral reef - undoing the plaits that had served me so well for so long.

Having my hair up - almost along the same train of thought as dreadlocks - had made for much easier personal hygiene travelling through the deserts of Middle Egypt, but now it was time for some serious scalp rinsing.

The struggle - too long to be remotely poetic - did give me time to realise that it was the red hills of Saudi Arabia providing the backdrop to this beautiful view across the water. Then a majestic, voluminous barnet, redolent of the 90s, was released and wafted gently in the sea breeze.

Fannying about for a further few minutes, trying to locate an un-seaweeded patch of seabed on which to stand, finally, wonderfully, I bellyflopped in.

Cool water spread across my scalp and, for a while, I just lay on my back enjoying pretending to be a mermaid as my hair unfurled in the water. It was just fabulous.

But then I felt something move past my foot, and I hopped it out of the shallow waters with little grace and wobbly bits bouncing everywhere. Smooth.

On shore I regained some composure, and a towel, and returned to my hotel for a shower as a horrible thought dawned on me. If you’re meant to shed 100 hairs a day, and it’d been firmly held up for 12 days, how much hair was going to come out in the shower?

Well, I’ll show you.

Yes, I had liberated my own miniature coral reef into the shower.

Very un-Herbal-Essence-Mermaid-esque.

I will not deny that I texted my hairdresser in a minor panic asking for advice. I’m paraphrasing, but she promptly replied: ‘Rinse it, condition it, and stop being a twat.’

So. Yes. My hair is free, clean and sitting on my shoulders. However, the time I’ve spent bashing this out, it’s been getting in my face & tangling up like a bastard.

I should imagine they’ll be back in plaits by the morning, smothered in lashings of conditioner.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Sex, Sex and Sex cont.

Disclaimer: After a delightful crash course over dinner in ‘Akhenaten: a History’ at the hotel, I’ve probably not done Zuzi nor Kim a credit to my poor memory. So don’t quote me on names, dates or places…!


The hills of the ancient site of Amarna (Pharaoh Akhenaten’s hastily built city, over 3000 years old) are dotted with tombs embedded into the rock face. In the next tomb along the short row were yet more wrestling scenes.

After my little
faux pas in the tomb before, I was determined not to make any silly statements like that again.

On closer inspection, some of the reliefs and paintings were splattered with graffiti!

The graffiti had been painted on by Coptic monks; they had the privileged access but, more importantly, they were among the few in the community who were literate.

These monks used the sites long after it had been abandoned by Akhenaten's descendants, either as dwelling or worship spaces.

I continued to examine the new wrestling scenes, consoling myself that they definitely had the makings of an epic, energetic shag-a-thon.

And then, I saw it.

Before me, splendidly, was a wrestler, legs parted, and apparently stationary. There was a long red vertical line, starting at his waist. Flanking the red line at his waist were 2 red splodges.

The Coptic monks, those cheeky bastard scamps, had endowed the fellow with a magnificent member - the tip of which passed his knees.*

It is excellent and revealing moments like this that I craved throughout my academic career as a Classicist. These pious, literate monks had a very real and silly sense of humour, drawing a cock and balls over artwork that was, even at their time, a thousand years old.

As much as all the grand statues and stately decorations that have survived and are displayed for us in glass cases in museums, this is the stuff that proves to me that these people, 2200 years ago, had really lived.**

However, I think it’s more telling my Philistine ways that I met this overlay of ancient craftsmanship with a delighted, tittering giggle.

*Alas, photography within the ancient site was strictly forbidden; it is an Egypt-wide policy that you must possess a sacred ‘Buyer’s License’ to take photos. Therefore, I cannot give you a visual.

**Another example of ancient & modern life meeting is back in Greece, in the silver mines of Laurion (south of Athens). Outside the entrance to one of the mines, some ancient worker has pressed his hands into the drying cement of a horizontal slab, and you can put your hands in the moulded hand shapes.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Sex, Sex and Sex

‘It’s a brothel!’ Nearly squealing with excitement, I began to tell Zuzi (an Egyptology graduate) how, from the scene before us, I knew it was a brothel.

We were standing in a large room that had been carved into the face of one of the hills of Minya. The wall before us was covered in reliefs and paintings of two people, scantily clad, in close contact. The images definitely, definitely, belonged to a brothel.

With the rapid expansion of Rome’s provinces towards the end of the millennium, imports of foreign luxury goods and arts came flooding into The City from all four corners of the Empire.

Exotic prostitutes and artisans arrived as slaves, those seeking work or with travelling envoys. And with them came languages foreign to Rome’s Italian tongue.

To conquer the language barrier, a visitor arriving at a cosmopolitan brothel could simply point to a series of images painted on the walls.

‘It was like a visual sexual menu; you could indicate preferences of gender, number and, ahem, the type of contact.’

Then the visitor would be led to private - and some not so private - chambers for his/her enjoyment.

‘Look! The Spread Eagle! And the 69!’

Zuzi had looked at me. She had the good grace to listen to what I had said before saying quietly, ‘Han… they’re wrestling scenes.’

It was the tomb of a local elite (a nomarch), who had ruled over this area of Middle Egypt 3500 years ago. The images were of activities and pursuits he had enjoyed whilst he breathed. They were carved and painted on the walls (with some density) so he could take them with him into the afterlife and to continue enjoying them there.

Wrestling, it seems was quite a passion of his.

A donkey’s ‘Eee-HONK’ rang out in the valley 100ft below. Yeah, cheers.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Eartha Kitts visits The Fayoum

21 years, 11 months and a few days. Today, I shit myself.

Full on, stomach-lurching, sodden-french-knickers, shit myself.

We have returned from The Fayoum, and I will not romanticise the details. Unbeknownst to me, The Fayoum (and, within, Fayoum City) is not a tourist-orientated region, in nor out of season.

So you can imagine my disgust - indicated only with a particularly arched eyebrow - when I was told that we couldn’t leave our hotel without a police escort.

Our hotel, Honey Day Hotel, was dank, fly-ridden and uncomfortable, and our Rough Guide informed us it was frequented by prostitutes - I’m not sure if there’s a direct correlation, but I wouldn’t like to presume that its clientele is influenced by the hotel’s uncommon license to sell liquor.

We spent the evening hot, bored and tired (I have resolved to buy a pack of cards in Khan El Khalili today). The food need no space for description.

Naturally I was taken aback when our 5-strong police escort was ready outside Honey Day for 6am the next morning. However, despite their heavy presence, it wasn’t peak season. They were bored.

I could understand that.

We travelled south to Wadi Rayan, through the Egyptian side of the Sahara. It made for spectacular viewing. Light beige sand stretched out, the landscape punctuated by rocks and clumps of sand.

It took a while for me to realise why I was finding it difficult to make my eyes focus on any particular point. Like on the moon, it is difficult to get depth perception; the vastness all-consuming and the colours melted into one another under the blazing heat of 7.30am.

I do not know the name of the village through which we drove, but it was a humbling experience.

Like most Egyptian roadsides, it was densely littered with remains of old plastic, and the poverty was abundant.

Old Coca-Cola signs were over many street stalls, which sold refreshments. And in front of one particularly derelict building a fight was breaking out between locals; spectators didn’t seem to take much notice of us, nor our armoured police vehicle that drove ahead.

Some of the children waved and smiled. Many didn’t.

I was very quiet as we bumped and ground our through these streets, as large eyes stared at our air-conditioned minibus.

We stopped at several Ptolemaic temples and tombs throughout the trip, and it was at one of these sites where I saw guns, in real life, for the first time. The guides, or the guards, of the sites all carried them.

The man-made lakes and waterfalls Wadi Rayan were lush and surrounded by plenty of young boys and men wading around, enjoying the coolness of the water. Several cried out for me to take their photographs as they jumped off the waterfalls.

Many children wanted their photographs taken.

The women did not come into the water. They remained fully dressed, many in burkas, in the shade - well away from the water.

But finally, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant, and it was all I could to do to stagger from our table in the midday heat to the toilet.

Our bodyguard-a-day, who never left our side and carried a gun stuffed into his belt, had not tried to stifle his laugh when he realised what was going on.

In short, I have spent the last few days between toilets and air-conditioned spaces, assured that it’s merely a case of the bacteria in my stomach ‘adjusting’.

I would proffer that anything (flora or otherwise) that was once in my stomach is now in one of the toilets in the Egyptian Sahara - probably one of the three without running water, and piss all over the floor.

My father, I think, has the final word on the matter. On his return from India many years ago, he announced to my dear mother, ‘Happiness is a dry fart’.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Safe Arrival

Getting off the plane in Cairo airport was like being swept up with relief and a brown carpet. It was 1.30am and the thick heat takes you by surprise. I think, having been here nearly 24 hours now, you realise that you only know heat like it if you’re in it.

Our driver was confident that my suitcase (black, non-descript - useful at luggage reclaim) would be quite safe sitting unstrapped to the car’s roof rack.

A foreigner to this cosmopolitan city would be forgiven, I think, for being alarmed at the constant HONK blurting from cars and vans without prejudice or any apparent recipient. I can only presume that the Egyptian drivers follow a similar transport code to the Indians. There’s no right of way, no lanes and certainly the HONK is, in fact, an information system: ‘I am behind/in front/next to you.’

The smells as we tore around corners and across the intricate roadways of Cairo burned my nose; I smelt something like home-cooked pizza and then hot candle wax.

(Despite my loose allocation of the scents, I endeavour not to find the Western Equivalent of everything I encounter. This would, I feel, render me detracting so much from this adventure.)

Arriving in the flat at 3am, I take a moment to sit alone on the balcony. There’s a hue sitting over the brightly-coloured city, littered with lights and cars that stream the streets steadily but haphazardly. This roadway paradox, I have found, exists at all times of the day.

The heat has left me with little appetite for anything but cold water and freedom to walk the streets in a vest top and shorts. However, both are in short supply, so you enjoy moments walking the sheltered alleys of Khan El Khahili - the main tourist market. The air is thick with sheesha from the cafes that call out for your custom.

I have resolved to learn some basic Arabic. Things like, ‘no I don’t want it,’ and ‘no thank you’ are used with more frequency than ‘how much?’ and ‘thank you!’ ‘Left, right and straight ahead,’ are also highly useful with your taxi drivers - if you know where you’re going.

So you can imagine my gratitude when Kim took charge of directing our cab to the Ministry of Interior in Tahir (to extend our visas before Ramadan begins on Wednesday and the Administration grinds to a halt for a month) from our flat on the 16th floor in Zumalek.

The zone is, I am told, quite posh since it’s teeming with ex-pats. The flat looks directly onto the Nile from the bedrooms and the living/dining room, and I think it’ll take some time before I stop enjoying looking out onto its murky waters.

The mornings are hot and humid, as you would expect, and that hue from the night is still there, like someone’s come along and blurred out the distant edges of your viewpoint with vaseline.

I need to go. I’m tired and we’re travelling to the Fayoum tomorrow - though I think we’re all grateful that our minibus won’t pick us up until 3pm local time…!!