Down the rabbit-hole….

There is a reason why tourists travel with tour companies and there reasons why I don’t plan to be a tourist. Don’t know exactly what they are yet but I suspect I am on the road to find out. The names in the story have been changed to protect me.

So here I am in Egypt, Alexandria to be more precise. I flew in last night from Frankfurt on Egypt Air… the was some clue to how things run here in that the plane was late landing at Frankfurt so we left about an hour behind schedule. The flight itself was uneventful; had 3 seats to myself at the back of the plane, which was great except the strong artificial lemon smell that wafted continually from the toilets…. could have been worse.

They played in flight movie “The Queen” which I hadn’t had a chance to see it at the movies. The oddest thing though was I am sure the word ‘God’ and maybe a few other words were deleted from the dialogue. At first I just thought it was a glitch in the system but really I think it was on purpose! Mmm taking things a bit far I think.

Flew across the Nile delta at night looking down on spiders’ webs of lights spanning across black holes which I assumed were fields or occasionally the long serpentine river flow. Cairo lights up underneath, sparkling with thousands of lights, even twinkling glass pyramids that make me think of Las Vegas (not that I have ever been there.) Cairo is huge and the scale increases as you descend to land on the outskirts of the great city. I think about 20 million – I can’t comprehend that scale yet.

It was a short bus ride across the tarmac to the arrivals area to be ushered through the doors by men. I make this distinction because it is always men I have first seen in middle eastern countries. They look at me. I look back, not defiant just standing ground. I queue up for the passport control but I am fairly sure they will want me to have a visa. There are no signs indicating where to get it, so I when I get to the front of the queue the officer looks through my passport and says something in English through the gap in the glass but I don’t comprehend. This is not because I am blonde, but because of his accent.

He repeats “ Is it first time in Egypt.”
“Yes”
“If you come back again, I marry you”
Well what a threat! Great, first five minutes in the country and I was already being married off! Not “Will you marry me? No ‘Please’. Just “I will marry you” Ha ha, like fuck!
Anyway, sure enough I had to go to the ‘Bank – Banque’ and pay 15E to get two stamps. Like postage stamps and stick them in my passport.
“Anywhere?” I ask.
“Yes, anywhere” Pity I had to put them in my passport, could have thought of more amusing places to put them.

So I put them in my passport and went to join the queue again. At this point I realised there were 2 baggage claim sections on opposite sides of the area. With some scrutiny (and squinting) I could see the word Frankfurt on the small TV screen. I was queuing on the correct side. I chose a different queue this time in case the officer thought I had taken a quick flight was back for a second time and wanted to marry on the spot. This time the officer took my passport and the Arrival slip. He kept the arrival slip and passed my passport to another guy sitting at the next window directly behind him. This second officer was rather offhand with the Scottish guy in front of me. I said to the Scottish guy “Mmm, different countries, different customs.” He laughed.

When I got to the second window the officer glanced up then opened the door wider so he could stare at me. I stared back. He stared back and took ages doing nothing with my passport so he could stare longer. I stared longer and eventually he gave me my passport, stamps and all. Legal in Egypt. Another officer, I think police this time in white uniform, checked my passport again and I could finally go to pick up my baggage. By this time the rest of the passengers had practically gone, only those that had needed visas remained. The belt had stopped moving and I located my bag in a dark corner just before the hole where it would have exited back into no-man’s land.

Next queue – Customs. I chose the “Nothing to Declare” line but I could see that didn’t mean a great deal. There were numerous staff and alleviate the boredom they were picking out people at random to go through their bags.
“Oh great!” I thought “Why did I bring my bright green vibrator with me? (Well you know how it is – a woman alone has to stay safe) but how am I going to keep a straight face if they decide to check my bags.” The goddesses looked after me as all the benches were already displaying other hapless passengers’ personal items and I was spared.

Out through the final doors and into the male melee. Hakim has said he would send someone with a notice with my name so I had to scan all the notices as I walked the gauntlet. No such sign to be seen so I just kept walking into the foyer when this face I recognised jumps in front of me. Ok, so far so good. It was by then 9.30 at night, 2 hours later than my original arrival time. I was excited to be in Egypt, running on adrenalin and ‘fight flight syndrome’ of being in a strange place with strangers all around speaking a foreign language and mostly men. The evening was pleasant temperature wise and varying degrees of chaos, car wise.

Can’t remember the driver’s name so I’ll call him Sam. Hakim had driven from Alexandria with Sam to collect me and we were to drive back immediately back to Alexandria. We joined the arterial stream of traffic and like a smokers veins these too are running a bit choked and slow. There are no lines on the road and people drive everywhere. The one saving grace is the opposing traffic is at least separated by a low concrete median strip. I was sitting in the back and like a fatalist I about to jump trusting the strength of the bungy, I resigned myself to the skills of Sam.

He did seem to have a good feeling for the gap as we weaved in and out of trucks, cars, bikes, pedestrians (read those with death wish). Considering the speed and the darkness the latter were playing Egyptian russian roulette. With 20 million people maybe they don’t notice one or two going missing! The speed Sam drove was inversely proportionate to the number of vehicles so as the traffic thinned out heading north to Alex the gaps between didn’t. I did notice a couple of speed limit signs that read 90, 100 and I can only assumed that either Sam couldn’t read or that the signs meant miles/hr as Sam cruised along at about 140 km/hr.

Having just come from Germany where there is no speed limit on the open autobahn, this was not unusual – but here is the complete opposite in road conditions and driving attitude. In Germany the fastest cars, the Mercedes, Porsche, BMW whip along in the centre lane. If a faster car approaches in the rear view mirror the slower indicates rights and move to let the faster car through. Not in Egypt! Different countries different customs! Here the trucks hog the centre lane. There were lanes by this time – three of them, which equated to two when drivers couldn’t decide which lane they should be in so straddled two lanes. Got even trickier if two trucks straddled two lanes each. Confused? So was I! Most of the overtaking is in the outer lanes but not always the case. Guess there was always the game of “Eanie Meani Minie Mo, catch a nigger by the toe” to help decide (well, no such thing as PC here so may as well go the whole hog – oops I forgot, Muslim country!). But I digress…as for indicating?! Forget it! The indicators probably didn’t work anyway. In fact 50% of lights didn’t work – well slight exaggeration but it seemed like most cars were missing a head light or a tail light or both. Some didn’t even drive with lights at all! And we’re not talking floodlit carriage ways here!

By this time I was getting too tired to be nervous although Hakim kept asking me if I was scared and why did I look away every time we approached a narrowing gap between vehicles. Sam would toot voraciously on the horn and the gap would widen almost imperceptibly, but just enough to squeeze us through – I’m sure the car held its breath. I know I did. Formula one racing, eat your heart out.

All was going along swimmingly until the engine died. Just like that. Died. I lent Sam my torch (girl scout that I am) and he checked the fuses well a he could. I asked  “Did we still have fuel?”
“Yes” was the frowning reply. Now to someone who is not blonde that might seem a dum question. But I know from experience driving my 1965 Mini in Christchurch one day along Linwood Ave the engine died. Just like that. And having no faith in my Mini, I got out and kicked it like Mrs Basil Bean and stomped across the road to ask for help. The mechanic (obviously busy but obliging) stopped his job at hand to come to my rescue. He asked me to turn the engine over, which it did. He then asked
“Did I have fuel?” and when I looked at the gage I could see that ‘E’ was not for ‘Enough.’ I was very embarrassed and could only blame the hair bleach destroying a few too many brain cells.

Anyway, back to broken down in the dark somewhere about halfway from Cairo to Alexandria with two men, one of whom I knew a little, the other not at all. I wasn’t perturbed by them but learnt lesson one as to why tourists choose tours. Sam and Hakim were most apologetic but I said “C’est la vie” thinking of horrible French experiences I didn’t want to repeat. The car itself seemed well enough maintained, some modern Korean make. They refused to let me help push it, or even walk beside it so I got to steer it along the road. I would have been better pushing as although the hazard lights were going but we didn’t have lights on. I concentrated through the windscreen which appeared to have the sands of the Sahara sticking to it, trying not to run off into one of those black holes I had flown over .

We manoeuvred it into a park place outside a pink painted restaurant café which made me think of the movie Baghdad Café (not that I remember much of the movie- just that is was art house weird). Sam was on the phone trying to call in favours to get another car. We sat on the terrace and I was glad of my kiwiland possum merino mix poncho. Hakim ordered water for both of us and I had a Turkish coffee with a strong cardamom cinnamon flavour. I drank down to the fine grinds at the bottom but I didn’t think even caffeine was going to help my tiredness. Hakim had a ‘Nescafe’ which I presumed meant instant coffee with foamed milk.

The only goods I could see for sale were jars of honey, piles of large Arabic bread and sandwiches. Some customers walked in and I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. The guy was wearing something normal by western standards – jeans I think, but the young woman was wearing something akin to wild west standards! A shiny pink number, polyester silk maybe, fitted around the bodice and waist, long to the ground with a bustle underneath! Topped off – with a black burquah over her face! Looks like she is about to rob a bank in 1800 OK Corral.

I also had to use the toilet, which was behind swing doors (I did mention wild west) and then behind a toilet door that was about 30 cm from the ground. I had visions of restaurant guests being able to see my g-string if I dropped it to my ankles so I made sure it didn’t. Ah, no toilet paper… and no toilet paper holder. Which would indicate some other means… yes when I turned that tap on the wall behind the bowl, a jet of water sprays strategically. I have wet posterior, what now? Drip dry obviously.

Washed my hands, nothing to dry them with… but they did think of that because as I walked back into the restaurant the waiter came forward with a box of tissues. I presumed they weren’t for my nose and dried my hands. The waste paper basket was placed next to the line of shisha pipes lined up against the wall.

It is about this point that like a things go from bad to downright strange and Baghdad Café looks positively normal. Help arrives in the form of a verbose Egyptian driving a red (well I think it was red but it was covered in about half a ton of Sahara)1962 Ford Meteor. The Korean car was hitched to the back by twine doubled over a few times and Hakim and I got into the Meteor. I think by this time, even Hakim is finding the situation unbelievable and says he wants to kill someone, probably the newly acquired verbose Meteor driver.  “Not a good idea” I advise but then I don’t understand Arabic, Inchallah.

I couldn’t quite understand why the radio aerial was rigged in place diagonally across the inside of the windscreen with two rubber suction cups but came to the conclusion maybe it was to make sure the large cracks in the left corner didn’t take over the whole screen. It appears the Meteor also had an electrical fault that overheated the system when the lights were on so at one point the Meteor engine dies too. We stop on the side of the road to let the system cool for a few minutes before proceeding further down the highway with no lights. This perturbs no one but me and I can see other on coming cars driving without lights. Obviously what you can’t see won’t hurt you in Egypt.

After about 5km we perform a precarious u-turn and deliver both vehicles to a workshop on the side of the road. I note there are three roller doors into this workshop and not one of them is wide enough to accommodate a vehicle. I thereby conclude either it doesn’t rain often here or the building was built when horse carriages were very narrow. By now it is about 1am and we are waiting for another car so that we can continue the hour plus journey to Alex – as it is affectionately known in Egypt. We wait until some more men deliver a white Japanese car. Gear is transferred and we acquire an extra passenger in the form of the loquacious Meteor driver who will keep Sam company once he has delivered Hakim and me to our rented flat.

We drive through Tanta city looking for a place for to change some money to pay my share of the car. The water I so badly needed to stave off the dehydration from travel and flying has made it’s way through my system. The joys of travel reduced to the most basic of needs. Hakim looks aghast that I ask to go to the toilet again. We stop at a petrol station but he explains that if I choose to go to the toilet there I will not like the state of it. Visions of a long drop squat toilet I nearly walked into in Chamonix sprang to mind. On that occasion I chose a bush outside but there were no bushes here so I decided I would cross my legs until Alex.

Driving through these streets in the dark shadows of the middle of the night I almost asked “When was the war?” There were piles of rubble everywhere, buildings in various states of construction or destruction but I couldn’t discern which. People were still out and about, fruit stalls even, meat hanging out along the pavement totally uncovered – looked like goat or sheep. Shades of Delicatessen… Hakim informed me you can walk around these streets any time of day or night with no fear of being hassled. Mmm, really?

We eventually find “A-hole-in-the-wall” which duly spits out Egyptian Pound and I contribute 350 towards the journey. I guess if the car had not broken down that would have seemed fair for a 3 half hour taxi ride from airport to accommodation. However next time I might try a bus… So we continued … I talked to Hakim about Germany trying to break it gently that it was indeed the antithesis to this chaos I had experienced. No, German people were not in the least aggressive, and in fact there was hardly an obvious police presence. I had only seen the occasional police car and that was mostly to do with traffic and Andreas knew that they came to turn the music down at a 4 storey student party but that was about the limit of it. I had just finished saying this when Sam slowed the car down to a one lane section.

“What’s happening?”
“Police check point”
“Check point? What are they looking for?”
“Oh, just controlling who is driving, etc” I considered the amount of vehicles I had seen with lights missing, the seemingly chaotic driving skills and thought the police would have had a field day. Hakim said that I needn’t worry about getting my passport out but I suspect I already know more about Egyptian men than he did and that the thought of seeing a blonde foreigner sitting in the back of a car full of Egyptian men would be too much for an Egyptian Police Officer to ignore. Sure enough, I had to produce it, no real fuss. The two officers stared in the back with questions written over their faces but maybe the thought of conversing in English made them think again so they returned the ID cards along with my passport and we continued on.

“What’s happening?”
“Another Police check point”
“Oh, he’ll want my passport again”
“No” said Hakim. He was wrong and this time he also wanted to take the ID’s and passport to check the computer. Hakim and Sam both jumped out of the car and it seemed like argued with the officer while I cowered in the back thinking “OMG! They’ll get us arrested!” To my astonishment the Policeman changed his mind and let us drive on. I guess it was a male ego thing – went right over my blonde head.

Was too tired to notice much else and slept late when I eventually got to Alex….

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