Egypt Part I

The Egypt travelogue is here. Sort of. I think it is going to be a fairly long one, so I have decided to try something different. Rather than taking weeks to write a huge entry that you will have to set aside a whole evening to read, I am going to serialise it in little chunks. Today’s episode finds us leaving the cool familiarity of London in Autumn on a journey to the ancient lands of the Pharaohs and the cradle of civilisation.

Kathryn’s boss is a frequent flyer. His job is what frequent flyer miles were made for. While some of us scrape together a pitiful collection of points on credit cards and the odd intercontinental haul to cash in on, say, a £10 gift voucher from Marks and Spencer, it is not unusual for him to be on opposite sides of the globe every other week. This kind of relentless travel allows one to gather a simply staggering quantity of air miles; more than one could possibly shake a stick at let alone use up. This fact, combined with the fact that Kathryn’s boss is a top bloke, saw us boarding a giant Boeing 747 with a big Union Jack on the tail, bound for Egypt.

I had been looking forward to this for a long time. Kathryn had been lucky enough to be upgraded to Club on a previous flight, but the delights of the Upper Deck were to be a new experience for me. We climbed the stairs and entered the exclusive Club World cabin. The fact that the door to the cockpit was open and we could see all the flight controls just added to the coolness. The seats are arranged in two rows on either side of the cabin. They are like cocoons, supplying all the body’s needs (except waste disposal) for the duration of the flight. They are massive and convert into full beds at a touch of a button. A little video screen swings out to watch the extra channels you get in Club. The service was great and the food was delicious. It was unfortunate the flight wasn’t longer.

We landed in Cairo late in the evening and made our way past the people buying visa stamps. Unlike most visitors to Egypt, we had obtained our visas before we left, as this email I received from Kathryn relates…

‘It was a bit stressful in the embassy – the man behind the counter just barked ‘passport’ then ‘money’ then ‘goodbye’ this morning when I dropped them off, and this afternoon when I collected them didn’t bark at all! But he did bark very loudly at a woman who didn’t have 1 clear page in her passport – she had half a page clear, and you have to have 1 full page clear for the Egyptian visa… She was pleading with him to take pity and he barked ‘Enjoy your visit to Egypt Madam, you won’t be going!’ It was a bit tense with everyone else in the queue wondering if he would bark at them too!’

Why are embassies so invariably awful? They only open from 10am to 12pm, so you are forced to queue from 7am outside. Then when you get through the door there is only one surly clerk stamping passports. And there is always some dodgy looking character in front of you, who obviously has forgotten his passport or his last name is Bin Laden or something and takes forever to deal with. It is as if they don’t want you to visit their country.

Back in Cairo, we had been met before customs by our driver (we assumed) who checked our passports and directed us to the queue for customs. He said he would meet us by the baggage carousel as he had other travellers to deal with. He said his name was Mohamed, which I didn’t think would really help if we couldn’t find him again.

We were met at the baggage carousel by another Egyptian who knew my name, so we went with him even though it was not Mohamed. In the parking lot we were passed off to another man with a car and eventually rolled out of the airport, stopping on the way to write our names on a list handed through the window of the car by a policeman. This was an introduction to the work practises in Egypt. There always seems to be too many people doing the job that could probably be done by one or two people. But then, Cairo is the biggest city in Africa and one of the most populous cities on earth, so they don’t exactly have a labour shortage.

Arriving at the Sheraton Gezira we wandered past the metal detector to the reception to check in. The security situation in Egypt is a strange one. They are obviously in a slightly hotter, conflict-wise, region than say, Milton Keynes; they share borders with Libya and Syria, and they don’t exactly get on with Israel. But their attitude to it is strange one. It is over the top in a really half-arsed way. For a start there are men with guns everywhere. And not just handguns, but AK-47s. And not only guns, but big steel shields they can take cover behind. But none of them look like they could really handle a fight, or for that matter be bothered firing back. Not that I was the one to put that theory to the test, but they had that slightly uncoordinated look that baddies had in the old Bond films. 007 would merely have to step up behind them and clunk their heads together like a pair of coconuts. And there were metal detectors everywhere, but they were so arbitrarily enforced that I wasn’t sure what the point of them was.

Our room at the Sheraton was on the eighth floor and had a nice view of the river. I think all the rooms had some kind of view of the river though because the hotel is on a big island in the middle of the Nile.

The next day we hit Cairo town. We wandered up the road leading from the hotel, past the gazes of the bored soldiers in the watchtowers of the army barracks, to a major intersection. It was here we had our first contact with that favourite Egyptian pastime of getting money out of dumb foreigners. An Egyptian man was sitting by the side of the road and as soon as he spotted us he leaped up to introduce himself . I can’t remember what he said his name was, but I could tell it was going to cost me money one way or anther when he started walking with us over the bridge. The conversation was of a surreal cyclical nature with him repeating that he was learning English and offering welcomes alternating with me giving hopefully discouraging one-word responses. I kept glancing at Kathryn while trying to think of a way shake this guy off.

I figured the easiest way was to ask where the Egyptian Museum was, as we were planning to go there anyway. He then proceeded to lead us in a direction I was sure was quite a bit South of where we should be going. I wasn’t too worried at this stage, but that started to change when he took us to his shop. He led us into a little air-conditioned room with papyrus and perfume bottles on the walls. We were his only guests apart from his colleague (accomplice?) standing by the door. He offered us tea, which only made me more suspicious, and I started to size up the guy by the door, and tried to take comfort in the knowledge that there were armed policemen only a few metres outside the door.

I somehow managed to convince our guide that I really didn’t want to buy anything and just wanted to get to the Museum. He seemed a bit disappointed by this but reluctantly agreed. We followed him through some quiet streets and a minute later he was pointing out the pink, neoclassical edifice of the Egyptian museum. I knew this was our chance. I fished out a £E10 note (the smallest I had) and gave it to him. He left immediately.

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