Monday, 31 October 2011

The ferry to Sudan

The only way to enter Sudan (when did it stop being The Sudan?) from the North is by ship through Lake Nasser (why? Your guess is as good as mine). Some ship. I am confident that the degree of overcrowding will exceed your wildest imagination. Ditto the absence of:
- any vestige of health and safety compliance
- maintenance
- adherence to any principles of seamanship I have ever seen (we docked head-on to the pier. and had to be pulled alongside to the great amusement of everybody except those itching (literally) to get off the boat.
I could go on and, if you buy me beer sometime I probably will.

To call it a rustbucket would be gilding the lily. Every square inch of deck or companionway was covered with humanity, freight or luggage - usually several layers deep. Even the woefully inadequate number of lifeaboats were colonised by those passengers agile enough to clamber in and set up a temporary home. Even with the overcrowding, it would probably have been better to sleep on deck than in our "first-class" cabins. No sheets, just a filthy pillow, and a blanket stiff with dust. On a scale of 0 to 5, Marek rated them minus 2, with the additional obversation that they were "fucking bullshit". The worst accommodation was below decks, from whence an acrid aroma of massed humanity assaulted the nostrils of anyone bold enough to breathe in. The first class toilets were always packed with jostling but good-natured people who seemed to think the presence of Westerners waiting for a trap was highly amusing. Nonetheless it was not a place to linger - especially in view of the two inches of filthy water swilling around the floor, upon which an interesting variety of beetles appeared to be swimming for their lives. Or maybe just for fun. To move around the outside companionways in search of a breath of cool air required climbing over tottering piles of cardboard boxes, plastic bags and items which in an earlier life might once have been suitcases - all stacked high above the guardrails. Even employing the mountaineering strategy of 3 points of contact at all times would not have prevented a man-overboard emergency if any of the piles had shifted.

Enough - I think you get the picture. 300 miles, 18 hours under way. 4 hours to embark. 3 hours clearing on-board immigration before we were allowed to disembark and submit to the Kafkaesque customs procedures. "We had a woman here yesterday. I say 'where you from?' she say 'I am Finnish' I say 'if you finish, you can go' " How we laughed - the first three times. You may think I am exaggerating, but we all ended up with facial rictuses from excessive smiling. Particularly at the scruffy characters with automatic weapons. No doubt they were there to protect us, but it's best not to take chances.

Then 48 hours in Wadi Halfa (don't ask) waiting for the freighter, which was supposed to be there before us, to arrive with our truck. There used to be a town at Wadi Halfa - it was submerged when the lake was created. The replacement settlement is a joy to behold. Dirt roads, piles of detritus, packs of feral dogs (those that weren't lying dead in various stages of decomposition), and concrete hovels - in one of which we stayed for 2 dollars a night. It was not good value. Imagine a Venzuelan prison - there would be a riot if the prisoners were accommodated as we were. Filthy (there goes that word again - any synonyms you can come up with would be very helpful), dirt floors, palm frond roofs - grey and full of dust. Mangy cats limping in and out of our cells, scratching and coughing, water outside in an oil drum. What about the rest rooms you ask. Ha! I reply. The first thing I noticed was the absence of complimentary toiletries, the second was the smell, and then I had to close my eyes. Quick, somebody give me a synonym.

Marek considers that the conventional hotel rating system does not adequately express the subtle nuances of Sudanese hotels. He proposes the following gradings: total shit, major shit, regular shit, shit, shit+1, shit+2. And for the facilities: totally fucked up, majorly fucked up, regularly fucked up, fucked up, fucked up +1, fucked up +2. He says he has borrowed certain principles from the Standard and Poor' s grading system for financial risk, but with greater accuracy.

But the people are lovely. the Nubas (different from Nubians apparently) are as black as you could imagine, tall, slim and lithe, with fine features, noble countenances and a dignified bearing. When they say "Welcome" they do not mean"Come and look at my shop full of sucker bait" - they mean "Welcome". I danced with a barber (scissors still in hand) , chatted with people whose English was all Arabic to me, and had sociable stroll back into town with the driver of an 18-wheeler, whose acquaintance I made as we simultaneously arose from adjoining depressions in the desert doing up our belts. You would not want to expose delicate parts of your anatomy in the fly-blown cockroach-ridden hotel "toilet".

So many experiences are coming at me so quickly that I can't really keep up with recording them. Here are some snippets of things that happened, and weirder things which went through my head:
- Laurenz, a square-jawed Dutchman motor cycling from Holland to Cape Town alone. We first crossed paths with him in Luxor and have shadowed each other every day and every night since. There is only one road South and the frequent army roadblocks provide many opportunties for socialising with other road users.
- Chris and his friend, elderly Englishmen motoring from Dulwich to Cape Town in two 40 year old MGs. Badly bitten by a dog in Egypt and years out of date with his rabies immunisation. Rather then hold up his companion, he is now injecting himself daily, and very painfully, as he goes along.
- The used tissue I found next to my face when I woke up on the Aswan to Wadi Halfa ferry.
- The necessity of improvising with an empty plastic bottle when the first-class toilets on the boat threatened to fall below the Marek rating of "total shit".
- the jostling and shoving on the boat which would have resulted in a punch-up back home, conducted without rancour or complaint, and in which we had to give as good as we got
- Dirt poor Sudanese almost begging me to share their food.
- Burqas: (Apparently that's not strictly the right name, but you know what I mean - those all-covering black things). It is slowly dawning on me that they are an expression of female empowerment, dignity and sexuality. You may need some help in figuring that one out. I'm working on an explanation. If more interesting things stop happening I will give you the benefit of my analysis. There is something strangely tantalising about a pair of smiling eyes, a quiet "welcome' and a robe which clearly says : "There's nothing here for you, chummy, so don't even think about it". Yup, there goes another pre-conception.
- Necrotising Fasciitis: I haven't got it. It was almost a disappointment to be told by Andy, an Australian pharmacist on the truck, that the exotic and colourful thing on my leg is nothing more than staphylococcal infection. For just over the equivalent of one pound, he procured me a sledge-hammer of a remedy, available over the counter here and nowhere else. It works.
- Total shit or not, I am having the time of my life. Do you remember the first time you went abroad, maybe in your teens, and how new emotions and experiences came at you thick and fast? All these spirit-numbing years later it's happening again.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Aswan and my Sudanese visa

Aswan: I was here 15 years ago and we have both changed. Possibly for the better in my case, but I'm not so sure about Aswan. My horizons may have expanded, because it doesn't seem so exotic anymore. The river front could be any mediterranean corniche, and there has been a lot of cleaning up and new building. But in true Egyptian style the modern buildings already look in need of maintenance, and the expensive new paving is starting to deteriorate.

And what have the hell have they done to the Old Cataract Hotel? It used to have a special atmosphere, tired colonial grandeur and a sense of history. Now it is undoubtedly luxurious, a haven of birdsong, the scent of flowers, and carefully tended grounds away from the awful traffic. But it has become a western chain hotel, little different from so many others and definitely not Egypt. It could be anywhere in the world. The clientele seems to be long on gold Rolexes and multiple facelifts. Not people you would like to meet at a dinner party or join for a pink gin as the sun sets over the desert hills - and looking just like the backdrop to a school nativity play. Something unique has been lost to grubby commerce.

A G&T there cost me more than my average nightly "hotel" cost. Apparently in Sudan the accommodation is going to get very much cheaper - with all that might entail.

I had a few beers with the driver/organisers. I don't know what formal educational qualifications they have, but these kids are bursting with confidence, emotional intelligence and sophisticated quick-fire repartee. And they have seen more of the world in their young lives than most people could contemplate in a long lifetime. I can think of very few better people to spend an evening with. I suggested we might try taking a few cans into Sudan, but apparently that very felony recently cost some European travellers 3 days in prison, and they were lucky it was nothing worse. Something like that could turn this trip into a seriously major adventure, but I can't help wondering how I might get on with potential new friends amongst my cellmates. Even though I am already sick of Fanta and won't touch Coca Cola on principle, I think I'll stick to the rules.

Tom, our group leader/driver, came on ahead to Aswan 5 days ago so that our Sudanes visas would be ready when we arrived here. They weren't. This is now our third day in Aswan, the working day is coming to an end and Tom is still at the consulate. The only way to enter Sudan from Egypt is by means of an ancient ferry boat for 300 miles through Lake Nasser. It runs once a week, and leaves tomorrow morning (allegedly). Without visas we will not be getting on, and there is no Plan B.

The one possible saving grace is that it seems the boat is always delayed for several hours - so we may have one last chance to get the visas tomorrow. I wonder if the process could be accelerated with a bit of baksheesh?

I really need to move on from Aswan. The heat is exhausting and although it is only going to get worse as we move south I am told the night on the boat will be very cold. Sublime or ridiculous? There is little left to do here except to find somewhere to drink too much - not a great idea before a 24 hour boat trip. What's more it is not unknown for the voyage to exceed 50 hours. If the visas arrive I am looking forward to seeing this boat. Apparently it is a sight to behold. We have booked "first class" cabins. My hopes are not high.

In Aswan, I have sailed a felucca (under strict supervision), swum in the Nile, and seen some more ruins. I am about ruined out. At the last one, I stayed on the bus - then came home and had a long siesta.

Oh, 3 little things:
- a street vendor offered me a crumpled copy of a local newspaper in English at a ludicrous price. He could see I wanted it, and so my haggling didn't get me far. He pocketed the money, handed me the paper and began to walk away. Suddenly he turned back, pulled one of the notes from his pocket, kissed his fingers, pointed to the sky, gave it back to me and turned away. Again he stopped and came back, took my paper, pointed to the creases and gave me a better copy.
- I asked the hotel receptionist if I could get fresh fruit juice anywhere. Apparently not. Later she knocked on my door having collected a mango from her mother's garden and liquidised it for me.. Nice people.
- the standard hustler's opening gambit is "Hello my freend. Where you from?" Although my head-down ignoring skills are now well-developed, sometimes when I have time to kill I answer "Iceland". They don't skip a beat and go straight into their sales pitch. My next line is "We don't have any money in Iceland. Can I pay with fish?" It usually ends up with a good-natured chat about Mubarak, Gadaffi and Wayne Rooney (whoever he is), my money still in my pocket, and lots of back-slapping. Even the hustlers are nice people. I like to think they might say the same about people from Iceland.

A process which started 4 months ago has just concluded. Tom has got my Sudanese visa.

Onwards and downwards.


BTW: there may now be a bit of a hiatus. I don't know what internet access there will be in Sudan.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Second oasis and Luxor

A camel ride at sunset. Let's try to be positive. They have beautiful eyelashes. Mine seemed to have a problem with the steering though. You are probably imagining a tourist cliché but it didn't feel like it. These weren't seaside donkeys. We were riding somewhere in the middle of a large breeding herd (flock? gaggle? concatenation?) of jostling females, males, babies (cubs? calves?) being driven to their night quarters by genuine camel herders (so herd it must be) in an honest to God oasis in the flaming Sahara. Tell me that's not authentic.

Down went the sun and out came the stars. I refer you to my previous description.

Off to the shops with Amir and his battered Toyota 4x4, in search of overpriced beer. He kept the heating full on - presumably for my comfort. We had to greet every passer-by. Some got a toot or a perfunctory wave, others apparently merited a screeching halt followed by manly chest-to-chest contact.

Another dawn. I refer you to my previous description.

There's something I neglected to tell you about the second hotel in Cairo. For all its shortcomings the location was fan-bloody-tastic. Right on the corner of Tahrir Square where history is still being made. One of my many taxi drivers (any distance for two quid) told me he spent 18 days and nights in the square during the revolution. He got a bullet in his leg from a sniper in a nearby office block. Before that he saw an amoured car crush three young people right in front of him. Like ripe fruit. He cries sometimes and months later still can't sleep properly. I believed him. Like ripe fruit.

Back to the desert. Over 300 miles. Lunch at another oasis was a packet of lemon-flavoured crisps (best before October 2008), a melted chocolate biscuit, a packet of Mentos and some actually very nice guava juice.

One of my insect bites is doing something very strange. Over the last two days, instead of healing, it has got bigger harder and redder. One of the truck passengers, a nurse, has recommended (don't be alarmed, this is a joke) a precautionary amputation before gangrene sets in. I am half expecting that at some point a little ugly head will pop out. Funny the things that entertain you on a long journey.

Approaching Luxor the landscape changed suddenly, immediately, almost shockingly. There was a clear sharp demarcation between the barren gritty desert, almost too bright to look at, and lush plantations of - well, green stuff. Next a run-down hotel which clearly once had pretensions of grandeur, and another modest room shared with Marek and Pierre. You get used to it. At least we are all lean, fit and - old.

Luxor. Great place for ruins. But my lasting impression will be of Europeans burnt pink, singlets, tiny shorts, bored expressions, socks with sandals. It only takes a few days in the desert to appreciate how we might look to elegantly-robed Arabs.

I'm not going to tell you about the historic sites and antiquities. You can get better and more authorative descriptions than I could give merely by googling them. And you already know that they are absolutely gob-smacking. But here are some random impressions of Luxor:
- A flash of expensive stilletoes underneath a burqa. A glimpse of mascara through the eye-slit.
- A chat with a caleche driver who told me (and judging by the number of them lining every street I am inclined to believe him) that he had not had a paying customer for 8 days. The tourists are missing and so the revolution may not have been an unqualified success for the people.
- A vicious-looking armoured car in desert camouflage. From a sort of porthole a smiling face, a protruding hand and the cry: "Welcome to Egypt my freend".
- An eye-opening caleche ride through the districts where real local people live, and through an ants' nest of cluttered narrow street markets where few tourists venture - and none on foot. Apart from concrete and electricity nothing seemed to have changed much for a thousand years. This was the real thing and we muscled through the crowds with our wheels scraping stalls on both sides. All the womens' clothing stalls were festooned with extremely saucy outfits - extremely saucy. It gave me an insight into what might go on beneath some of those burqas. Repressed? Don't you believe it.
- Dinner with Pierre and Marek at a cheap table in the elegant private dining room of a restaurant.

Walking along a street after dinner, I met Abdullah, a caleche driver of my recent acquaintance. He convinced me to go drinking with him. There goes another pre-conception.

Naturally this was a commercial venture for Abdi. In one place I was the only customer without a turban. My new friend told me that a djellabah makes you irresistible to Arab women - especially if you are not wearing jockeys underneath. And some other stuff.

I have a confused recollection of going home at 2.30, at a canter, standing up at the reins and shouting with elation and fear, and Abdi prostrate in the back with his eyes closed. I think the horse was doing the steering. Apparently she is Abdi's sister.

I don't know how much it cost me, but it was one of those rock and roll nights you never forget. I left Abdi kissing the horse. It looked like she was kissing him back. Some sister.

Overland to Aswan by the desert road. At some point we ran out of tarmac. It roused me from my hangover long enough to remove the window handle from my ear and turn over. I have been drinking a lot of water.

Wild camping in the Sahara

Another long journey through the searing Sahara on Sunday. This time there was every good reason to look out of the truck window. We shook rattled and rolled through an alien landscape of wind-scoured rocks bigger than houses and eroded into extraordinary unearthly shapes.

As I gazed, my mind strayed to the poor sods going, at that very moment, to their factory-offices by Tube in the steadily increasing gloom and dampness of the English autumn. With the same to look forward to tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. And the high spot in life's petty pace is the weekend trip to Tesco.

I also thought guiltily of my (business) partner Robert working away on behalf of us both. He is doing some modelling - financial not fashion. Meanwhile I am scratching insect bites in interesting parts - of the globe not my anatomy.

The sun hammers down, the heat radiates back up from the sand, and a puddle of pee evaporates within a minute.

That night we camped out in the desert. We've all seen the night sky before, but here it is like a static stellar fireworks display. I couldn't identify a single constellation or even one of the unfeasibly bright planets, but just like an opera in an unfamiliar language it didn't spoil the show.

Fearing another fitful night, I went to my tent at 9.00pm - and slept like an overfed tomcat. To someone who usually lives with the unending roar of the Great West Road, the silence was almost tangible.

By morning the air was tinglingly fresh and so I waited for the sun to climb a little in the rose-pink sky before trying out my camping shower. This clever gadget is filled with water then hauled up over the branch of a handy tree. I looked around. Hmm. Sand, yes. Sky, yes. What else? Nothing. Plenty of it. The lone and level sands stretched far away.

Carefully away from the sight of the ladies - whom I would not wish to offend nor disappoint - I held the device above my head first with my left hand then with my right. And it worked. Sort of.

What I had not reckoned with was that some of the ladies had business of their own in the morning desert, which required them also to withdraw some distance from our camp. They politely averted their eyes as they passed me, thus missing something which I am unqualified to evaluate.

Later, approaching another oasis, somebody I took to be a camel breeder had devised an amusing sign to make the nature of his enterprise clear to the illiterate and perhaps foreigners. I don't want to go into details, but it seemed to me that the uppermost camel was smiling. Repressed society? There goes another pre-conception.

Another night, another oasis. More hot springs but no little boys, and no officious beardies.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

First oasis

On Saturday night we camped at an oasis in the Sahara. Amongst other things there were hot springs and palm trees, but nobody looking quite like Rudolph Valentino.

Earlier in the day I realised, after the first 10 miles of our journey into the desert, that there was little profit in looking at the scenery any longer unless one had a particular liking for sand. The few people we saw along the way greeted us smilingly with the now-familiar cry of "welcome to Egypt my freend". One little boy had a novel way of demonstrating his goodwill by (in the colourful words of our driver) jiggling his junker at us.

Arriving at the oasis (less Rudolpn Valentino and more Clint Eastwood; like a dusty one-street cowboy town with concrete "houses" and rusty Toyota pick-ups) I took a restorative dip in a hot spring. Empty when I arrived, it was suddenly packed with little boys mobbing me excitedly with incomprehensible questions - but to my surprise not one request for money. Another pre-conception confounded.

They all asked me to take their photos, but at the last second they lost their nerve and hid their faces with their hands. One, with a few words of English, explained that he was going to get set up for email and insisted that I write to him when I got home. I don't think he really understood that has probably already been taken.

When Michelle, a young blonde Canadian woman, joined us they became goggle-eyed and speechless. And evidently torn between furtive curiosity and the terror of eternal damnation. At first they withdrew,
wriggling with
embarrassment (and no doubt other emotions), to the far end of the pool, from where they slipped away one by one - presumably in fear of an adult catching them.

Next a bearded and hatted elder arrived and stridently ordered Michelle out - on what authority I do not know. As she pointed out later, there are few places in the world where a middle-aged gentleman (her exact words were "an old man" but we'll draw a veil or seven over that) sharing a hot tub, albeit a natural one, with a lot of little brown boys is considered acceptable, but where a woman in a swimsuit is not.

On the way back to my tent, three of the boys caught up with me, and I returned home in style on their donkey with a growing entourage and feeling a little like Jesus Christ on Palm Sunday.

The experience was slightly marred when I went to offer them a small tip. With an empty feeling in both my head and stomach, I realised that all my money for the entire journey was safely locked in the hotel safe 200 miles behind me in Cairo.

There are few places in this dodgy world where I would trust a friend of a friend of someone I had never before met to collect the equivalent of 6 month's wages from a backpackers' hostel 200 miles away in a teeming city and deliver it to me in the middle of nowhere. But these are seriously devout people, and I have rarely felt so safe from even petty crime. Of course, there were predictable and escalating demands for baksheesh from everybody involved, but that's all normal and part of the experience. In total it cost me less than a taxi from Heathrow to the West End.

The money arrived on time, correct to the penny and another guilty half-acknowledged pre-conception was confounded.

My first night in a tent was an interesting experience. But there was an element of childish fun, and it took me straight back to the legendary 1970 Bath festival (the UK's first major open-air rock event) - but without the mud and without quite so much hair.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Last day in Cairo

Once I was acclimatised to my new accommodation, I felt a sense of empowerment. Whatever becomes of my increasingly precarious finances, there is nowhere in the world where I am too spoilt to find an affordable bed for a night.

The staff were sweetly eager to please and did all they reasonably could to keep the place (2 floors in a decaying office block) tidy and clean. A small pile of laundry was washed, dried, ironed and back to me within 4 hours for about £1.50. And why is it that the cheapest flop houses provide free wi-fi, whilst western-type hotels charge you an Egyptian's day's wages for access?

I went riding again, and as I returned to the stables Karim invited me onto the roof of the building just as the sound-and-light show began at the Pyramids. I had a free and private ringside seat away from the crowd, with no modern buildings in sight to spoil the view, and no commercialisation to spoil the illusion of having discovered all this majesty by myself. Nothing but the Pyramids, the desert and the sky.

On the way home I passed an open-sided mosque where evening prayers were in full swing, floodlit and lavishly decorated with fabric hangings - looking like a Hollywood representation of a desert tent. Just a fleeting image from a taxi, and perhaps of little interest to anyone but me, but there it is.

The taxi ride became more entertaining when the driver imparted with panic in his voice that he was nearly out of gas. I took this to be the American word for petrol, but this was in fact a gas-powered vehicle. There followed a considerable detour (with the meter conscientously switched off) to refuel. I have had this experience before. On that occasion everbody had to leave the vehicle and go inside during the process; that wasn't in the rule-bound UK or even Germany, but in Argentina. In Egypt no such nonsense applies: the gas was pumped in through a leaking and hissing coupling, and I sat with my hand on the door handle ready to jump. At least the driver had put out his cigarette.

Next the electrics failed and we nonchalantly continued our headlong rush, without lights, into the worst and most undisciplined traffic imaginable.

But the adventure wasn't over yet. The engine stalled. The driver, quite unperturbed, hopped out and bump-started the car - with traffic careering around us, horns blaring. For a moment, as the engine fired and the driver jumped for the door, he appeared to stumble and I fleetingly thought the evening was about to get even more interesting. Where else can you get such excitement for 4 quid.

Badly needing a drink I set off for the beer hall. I had to take a circuitous route to avoid the doorway from which another new friend, Ali, dispenses tourist information free of charge and without obligation. This poor chap's sister is postponing her wedding on a daily basis because she hasn't got enough money for the party. If she is anywhere near as old as her brother, this unfortunate state of affairs could have been going on for several decades.

Once seated with a beer, I was joined by two young mediterranean-looking chappies and their companion, a taciturn old black man. In badly broken English the two young men told me a lot of stuff about England, Manchester United, the Queen (Gawd bless her) and the weather - none of which I had previously known. All the while the black man stared mutely and impassively straight ahead.

Finally the inconsequential prattling ground to a halt, perhaps because their vocabularies were exhausted, or perhaps because their heads were now completely empty. Slowly and with great dignity, the old black man turned towards me and said: "How do you see the future of the European Single Currency, in the light of the Greek debt crisis?". Over the next 30 minutes he demonstrated an encyclopaedic knowledge of global current affairs, communicated in perfect educated English.

As I took my leave he had one final question: "Is there any truth in the stereotype of the Irish people - that they are unusually disposed towards drinking and fighting?" I replied that whilst I would not like to generalise, it did seem to apply, to some small extent, to my dear wife. He smiled and nodded gravely.

It was partly to challenge my ill-informed pre-conceptions that I set out to see Africa.

Friday, 14 October 2011

More Cairo

Oh joy, Somebody has told me about a bar. In fact it is more of a beer hall, with as much atmosphere as a public convenience, but it was open for business and that was the main thing. Whilst looking for it I asked a Mento vendor for directions. He went into a sort of hysterical convulsion, savouring the name repeatedly through tears of glee. A bit of an overreaction I thought. Later as I indulged my shameful habit, someone started furtively cleaning my shoes. I tipped him (in his evident opinion, though not in mine) rather handsomely.

In readiness for a journey by lorry into the Sahara, I have moved to a different "hotel" where I am sharing a bedroom with a Frenchman and a Pole. For about £7 a night I suppose I can't really complain. They, on the other hand, probably can. A fairly predictable stomach bug means that I currently do not quite measure up to the ideal characteristics one might look for in a room-mate. We are all going together into the desert tomorrow, where we will be camping overnight before continuing our journey. I am fairly confident I will not be required to share a tent.

I have survived on a liquid diet for 48 hours, but it hasn't really cramped my style. I was riding in the desert yesterday close to the Pyramids at Giza. When I told the co-owner of the stables (Karen, a charming ex-pat English lady) of my medical condition she kindly gave me a bottle of "intestinal disinfectant" she uses on the horses. Don't worry, she also uses it on her husband and children and it is designed primarily for humans. Whether or not it can be described as horse medicine, it definitely seems to be working.

I have been doing quite a lot of riding, mostly in the desert near Giza. The horses are magnificent and very well cared for. "My" horse is part Arab, and you would have to travel a long way to meet a more willing and athletic animal. One of the team, Jimmy, comes with me to be sure I don't break my neck, and yesterday he was riding a pure bred Arab stallion. Karen told me his value is between £7,000 and £20,000. 20 minutes into our two and a half hour ride, Jimmy offered to change horses. I thought mine was good, but this was like switching from a Morris Minor to a Porsche. I was completely out of my depth and inevitably the horse decided at one point to terminate our association. As I shook the sand out of my remaining hair, a very amused Jimmy asked me whose fault it was, mine or the horse's. I declined to provide the obvious answer.

This morning I had my first encounter with African wildlife. I don't know who was more alarmed, him or me. He was a healthy-looking beast, a lustrous golden brown colour, and with his full complement of six legs. He didn't look aggressive, and I decided that sharing the bathroom with him would be marginally less unpleasant than the mess it would make if I stamped on him.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The odour of sanctity

Right, I promised some name-dropping.

Yesterday I was invited for lunch by the Archbishop Papal Nuncio (Vatican Ambassador) at his Italianate mansion overlooking the Nile. It would be little exaggeration to call it a palace. Marble staircases, grand reception rooms, white-gloved servants and immaculately groomed shady gardens.

I asked how to address him. I vaguely remembered it's Your Grace for archbishops, and Your Excellency for Ambassadors. Apparently in his case it is Michael.

He greeted me with an invitation to "Please have a G&T. It will give me an excuse to join you". A respectful flunky had already wheeled in a cocktail trolley.

Michael's hushed interactions with the staff were conducted in Italian, and for a couple of hours I was transported from dusty Cairo to a green and pleasant corner of Tuscany.

The menu was Italian, served à deux in a private dining room with (I can't see how to avoid the cliché) crisp table linen, hallmarked silver cutlery (I sneaked a furtive look), wine, but naturally neither women nor song.

One funny little detail. The English-language coffee table books in his waiting room were all turned face down. It puzzled me for a moment until I remembered that Arabic books run from back to front and right to left, so it would be natural for an Egyptian tidying the room.

That's the name-dropping out of the way. This privilege had nothing to do with me, but with my lovely wife, whose second cousin Michael is. To wrap this up: he is unassuming, saintly, academic, very good company - and he seems to have no aversion to his guests having the rare (in Cairo) pleasure of a drink or two.

I am off on Saturday for 4 days wild camping in the desert. I think my chances of survival have improved somewhat now that I am cloaked in the odour of sanctity, and have a friend with a hotline to the top man - blessed be his name.

More anon


Tuesday, 11 October 2011


Sorry for the delay in getting started. Circumstances beyond my control.

I can't post things via my iPhone as I had hoped. That's not a problem in itself, because I've found an internet cafe. The real problem is that like most old geezers I need to look at the keyboard as I type, but most of the letters are worn off. You do get two chances though, because they are duplicated in Arabic script. Sadly that's not much use to me.

Next all the instructions and tabs on this page have mysteriously changed into Arabic. Fortunately there are plenty of people around who are extremely polite and painstakingly helpful.

It is both odd and entertaining to see a woman in a burka peering fixedly at a computer screen, then angrily berating the hapless attendant for her own lack of IT skills. Even in this increasingly homogenised 21st century world, there are still marked cultural differences to be found, and I thank God for them.

There are really only three things you need to know about Cairo:
- it's dirty
- it's hot, and
- you can't get a beer

To be fair, you can. But only if you are not sensitive to the pitying looks of the locals. They can't hide their sympathy with your affliction - and are clearly thanking Allah that they have been spared from it. They will direct you to a Western chain hotel - but that's not in the spirit of this trip and, frankly, cheating.

I arrived here on Sunday night, shortly after a bloody riot in the main square. Nobody has been able to tell me what it was all about, so you probably know more about it than I. Venturing out of my cheap hotel (which I should say is simple, clean and run by delightful people) in search of dinner, I got cut off by a second demonstration which, though boisterous, appeared to be good-natured and pro-government (if indeed there is a government). But I couldn't get back to my hotel for a couple of hours, until the police moved the demonstrators on - firing off some blanks to get everybody's attention. A young man explained the auditory differences between blanks, tracer, and live rounds. Most enlightening, and if you buy me a drink some time I might share with you my utter boredom.

The upshot was that I dined, late, on a packet of Mentoes and a Cornetto. My questioning gesture signifying "Where do I put the wrapper?" was met with a mystified stare, and an arthritic finger pointing vaguely at the gutter.

On Monday night, for the want of anything more productive to do, I went to one of the tourist hotspots. The details are neither interesing nor important. Please note: I didn't "do" it, I visited it.

Almost immediately I was scooped up by Alex. A lovely boy, with nothing on his mind but the altruistic desire to help a visitor to his city and to practice his English. I didn't really need company, or to be introduced to his many friends in the retail business who were apparently willing to offer me very good prices for things I neither needed nor wanted.

But I figured: what the hell, I'm going to get hustled whatever I do so I might as well choose my own hustler and let him show me around. I could sense that he was faintly disappointed with my lack of acquisitiveness, but he kept up an entertaining and improbable patter and fended off other would-be guides.

At the end of the evening, he sorrowfully showed me a picture of a 4-year old child taken at least 25 years ago. "This is my daughter." "Very pretty. How old is she?" "Two."

It was all rather touchingly transparent so I got my bid in first. Proffering a couple of small notes, I said: "Thank you for all your help Alex. I know you won't accept money for yourself, but please take this for your little girl." He seemed to find that acceptable, so for the price of a beer (which I didn't get) I had the company of an engaging young man, and a painless visit to an interesting part of town - without the need to be rude to anybody. Worth every piastre.
He wanted to send me more pictures of his daughter, but unfortunately I think I misspelt my email address.
There aren't many tourists in town, so the pickings are slim, and the hustlers are having to work overtime.

Some normal stuff has happened since I got here, fairly mundane, but I'll set them down for the record:, e.g:

- I was passed by a convoy of 12 large prison lorries, packed to the roof with malefactors or, more likely, peaceful protesters caught up in the aggro caused by a minority of armed troublemakers. Apparently there are people paid by Mubarak loyalists to do just that.
- an interesting metro journey. Quite how I managed to take three different trains, in both directions on the same track and passing my point of origin twice, will have to remain one of those mysteries of the dark continent. All this on a line which only went east-west or west-east. No branches, no changes required, just a bamboozled foreigner who fortunately had time on his hands.
- having explored the line in both directions, one of them twice, I found myself the only man in my carriage and the focus of dozens of horrified female eyes (two per female). One of them (females not eyes) hesitantly approached me and politely explained from behind her veil: "Lady carriage." Funny old world.

Enough already. This was supposed to be pithy. From now on I'll try to stick to the highlights. Next time I've got a great bit of name-dropping to do. If it's good enough for Paul Theroux, it's venial enough for me.

Mind how you go,


Monday, 3 October 2011

Let's talk about the weather

It is very hot here. Wild native creatures are staggering in the heat and carrion birds are circling above me with a greedy glint in their eyes. If it's like that here, I wonder what it will be like in Africa. I'm leaving Chiswick on Sunday.