19 October, 2006

Caring Cairo 6563miles

The 'Desert Road' to Cairo was very straight and very, very mind-numbing. So grateful for that iPod and I thoroughly recommend the Rolling Stones for crossing deserts. Eventually the road filtered into the main Alexandria to Cairo motorway and became more 'interesting'. I had heard about driving here and was not unreasonably nervous as a result. Nobody seemed to realise what the lines in the road were for. To be fair though, sometimes there were no lines in the road at all. The tops of the two larger pyramids appeared as the sun lowered, and I headed for El Maadi, where I knew I had contacts.

Lorenz, although I'd never met him, had contributed to previous postings. A good friend of a good friend's brother, he and his wife Hilary, had kindly expressed a willingness to accommodate me. It was too late to bother them that night so I found a strange hotel where the waiter was so 'attentive' I honestly thought he was going to cut up my food for me and feed it to me like I was a bairn. I think it was when I sat back, folded my arms and opened my mouth expectantly, that he realised he may have gone too far. I think we should all help each other and am never ungrateful for assistance in anything. However, there is a tendency in some here to assume that you've just arrived from some distant, as yet uncharted galaxy and know absolutely nothing. This can grate a wee bit. "I know that's the fork! Yes, we have remote controls in Scotland! Really? A 'bed' you call it? For lying on? No, in Scotland we use deer skins and bits of moss gathered together in 'mats' to keep the wind out of our caves! Then we huddle together and grunt at one another until sleep comes out of sheer exhaustion!" Sarcasm can only go so far without hitting its intended mark before you realise to your horror that you're wasting your breath.

The next evening Lorenz and Hilary were away out so I (with more invaluable help from Top Travel Consultant Paula in London) moved over to the Canadian Hostel in the centre of town who, naturally, insisted I park in the foyer for safety. I haven't given much consideration to hostels in the past, but this was a clean, efficient and inexpensive place to stay. It was five minutes' walk to the Sudanese Embassy (15minutes on the bike! Another story!) and was quiet and very comfortable. It also had internet access.

Next day I toddled down to the Embassy as advised at 8am for it opening. I had variously heard that you couldn't get a Sudanese visa outside of Cairo, and then that you might get one in 24 hours, maybe a week, a month or never with lots of promises along the way. Some joking and daftness with the armed guards (fixed bayonets!? but sheathed) ensured they'd look after the bike while I was inside. I sat down and waited. The place was full of those whom I assumed, because of dress or skin colour, to be locals or Sudanese. A smallish lassie came in looking gey peely-wally to be wearing all that black. Maybe she was a European Muslim, or in old-fashioned mourning dress. Two blokes came in, one really tall, the other with a t-shirt saying something about a motorbike challenge from the Cotswolds to Cape Town. Nothing happened until 10.30, just as I'd introduced myself to them. Then everything went a bit funny. Some people appeared behind the desks and lots of quite desperate shouting and pushing started. Papers were waved around and the heads behind the desks shook a lot. The two English bikers 'had a man' to sort things out and his knowledge was gratefully received by me. They actually had visas but they hadn't been produced by the Sudanese Embassy in London until after they had left home! The wee lassie in black piped up in her New Zealand accent that she'd been waiting seven days for her visa, her mistake had been to say that she was a volunteer. The Sudanese don't have a visa for volunteers. She got sooked into the queue for a while and then disappeared completely. She must have been refused. It wasn't looking good.

We three bikers handed over papers and lots of American dollars and were told to return later. The English at 2pm, me at 1pm. Little made much sense. I decided to try and get in with these two, who were riding to Cape Town for charity, having received support from none other than Ewen MacGregor himself! The route on their t-shirt was similar to mine, and I thought there could be safety in numbers, at least through Sudan and Ethiopia. We arranged to meet back there at 2pm.

I arrived early to find the Kiwi girl back and an Italian who had been shouting previously at the officials. Rachel, the Kiwi, had had to go back to her Consulate to get yet further paperwork detailing her intentions in Sudan. She only wanted to go and Teach English as a Foreign Language in Khartoum for $100US per month. I wished I had that sort of grit. She had recently invented a 'husband' to help things out. Very useful for single ladies dealing with officialdom here. The Italian (he never told us his name) wanted to get to the Yemen. I wondered about the wisdom of being seen talking and joking with this belligerent gent. I saw the English guys' passports lying in a drawer. Their visas were ready. No sign of mine! Then my name was called! Ha - success, and after only three hours! I felt quite guilty getting mine after Rachel had been waiting seven days, just to get to do something far more useful than me! So I tried not to rejoice overly. While I waited for the other two to return, she explained that she'd been in Egypt for six weeks and the 'get up' meant she got far less hassle from the overly-attentive local males. Then the Italian's name was called and then Rachel's and we were all congratulations and smiles and relief. Rachel had a book, 'Africa on A Shoestring' which I decided I'd better buy and the Italian wanted to photocopy. When they arrived I arranged to meet the two English guys (both called Nick) at their digs - the Cairo Rugby Club, no less - that night and we three headed off to the bookshop.

On the way into the American University bookshop the guard, who kept my passport, gestured at Rachel. "Is this yours?" He asked gruffly. I hoped it was more a poor command of English but he looked pretty stern so I acknowledged 'ownership' and 'this' was permitted entry. Weird! After buying a copy, I gave it to the Italian who went off to photocopy it, saying he'd be along for a coffee soon. Rachel and I had a bite to eat during which she told me she'd been travelling for eight years!! She certainly had a passport to rival Phileas Fogg's! She has a blogsite as well, which may be obtained upon application. But be warned, this is a well-travelled, ex-Burlesque dancing, ex-Edinburgh Ghost tour-leading, pierced, tattooed, 5'2" lapsed witch who also worked behind the bar at the Holyrood Tavern in Edinburgh before a hair-dyeing attempt went wrong and she had to shave her hied! And her spelling's very poor! You could NOT make this stuff up. She needs a lift to Khartoum, Sudan, where I'm going. She's wee, she travels light - all in; 80kg. The bike can take the extra weight. Where did I put that armour polish?

The Italian never re-appeared and I began to think very, very badly of him. After we'd eaten we looked. But not there. Not anywhere! I returned to the bookshop and bought yet another book, cursing my stupidity and naivete in trusting this stranger. Muttering madly to myself I wandered back to the bike alone, having exchanged details with Rachel for the next day when I'd know after consulting the Nicks when we'd leave. The bike was still there under fully-armed guard who gestured towards a solitary figure sitting opposite it. The Italian!! Guilt and sorrow rushed through me as we shook hands and laughed that he hadn't seen us in the cafe and had looked in another three before coming to wait here. I gave him a lift back to the shop, where we got the money back for one of the books, and then to his Hostel. We were even.

I rode back down to Maadi (aptly named for the driving!) through crazy but not aggressive traffic to find Lorenz and Hilary's house. Lorenz's directions were spot on and I found it with very little trouble. I told them about the adventures of the day and we laughed. Lorenz insisted we phone Rachel and get her down. They've a very comfortable two bedroom 'granny' flat on the top of their very comfortable house. He took the number from me and phoned her Hostel. "Can she ride? Because we could take the horses up to the Pyramids tomorrow morning," said Hilary. She said she could ride but had already paid for her digs so thanked L & H but would meet us in the morning in front of the Sphinx.

L & H have two highly active sons who love nothing better than water and splashing. Their home was as welcoming as any I've been in. I was made to feel, and immediately felt, quite at home. A fair feat guys and one for which words of gratitude fail. Lorenz has had bikes but is presently limited to four wheels. The traffic is insane and it would only be a matter of time before disaster struck if you rode in it each day.

Lorenz - co-incidentally a member - and I went to the Rugby Club and it was decided to leave on the following day, the Tuesday, via the Red Sea road because there's less traffic, and to get to the fabled ferry to Sudan. Latest information is that it goes on Saturday, needs 24hrs check in time and tickets are like hen's teeth anywhere, but may be available in Cairo - maybe.

The riding in the morning really was awesome. Galloping across the desert and right up to these ancient Pyramids with Hilary and her pals was incredible. Blazing sun, as you might expect, but good horses and a patient hack-leader. Rachel and myself made a reasonable impression by not holding anyone up. Others were getting more advice from the leader, Hassiem. We were out for an hour and a half, then we went to look for ferry tickets.

Tune in next time for Nick, Nick, Mick and Rachel's incredible journey into the sand!


At 20/10/2006, 09:43, Blogger Karen said...


You're a tonic.

Love Karenx

At 21/10/2006, 11:42, Anonymous mo said...

cannae wait for the next installment. Does Rachel know Mark from the Holyrood Tavern, transvestite,long grey hair, young wife named Claire. She seems like a smashing lassie, brunette by any chance when it grows back of course. ;-)

At 22/10/2006, 20:50, Anonymous Roy said...

Ah the ability of the personal music player to soothe the motorcyclists head on long boring roads is a great thing, so it is. There's apparently some brilliant untapped musicians in the African continent so if you get a chance to attend any jams then record them on your wee machine, and we can all appreciate...


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