For the train journey from Cairo to Luxor it was recommended that instead of paying the exorbitant tourist price for a second-class sleeper ticket it would be both cheaper and just as comfortable to pay for a first-class seated ticket. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
My two friends and I purchased our tickets together at the station and were given two seats together in one carriage and a single seat in a separate carriage. We tried to argue for three seats in the same carriage unsuccessfully. Our hostel manager assured us that we would have no problem sitting together as the train would be mostly empty due to the lack of tourists.
We arrived at the half under construction, half collapsing and completely manic Cairo station with plenty of time to spare. Our train rumbled into platform eight right on time and instantly a surge of people moved towards it, some attempting to board before it had even finished braking. An extremely friendly tourist policeman took our tickets and spent the next ten minutes showing us to our seats and negotiating with our carriage conductor for me to have the spare seat beside my friends. As jaded travellers we expected the policeman to ask for baksheesh and were pleasantly surprised when he didn’t. We quickly settled into our reasonably comfortable first class seats and waited for our journey to begin. First-class was also a very loose term and although the seats were comfortable the rest of the carriage would better be described as a worn out metal carcass dragged back from the scrap heap, painted lovingly with dust and grime and delicately scented with decay and body odour. I was scared to take my shoes off.
As the train continued to fill up I became increasingly anxious about sitting in the wrong seat. On numerous occasions while travelling through the Middle East I had been exposed to the importance of sitting in ones designated seat and the confusion and uproar caused by breaking the sacred seating rules. On cue an Egyptian man came up and indicated that I was in his seat. When we failed to reach a compromise I involved the carriage conductor who tried to reason with the man. This inflamed the situation and ended with raised voices and the conductor motioning for me to move. The Egyptian man, having asserted his dominance then sat his wife in the seat, said his goodbyes to her and left. The conductor moved me to the front of the carriage and sat me next to the carriage door. Within five minutes another argument for my seat ensued at which point I tried to explain that I was happy to take my assigned seat and spend a few peaceful hours away from my tiresome friends. Instead the conductor convinced this second man to take my spare seat in the adjacent carriage. As my current seat was jammed up against the front of the carriage wall and had a painful lack of legroom this wasn’t actually the outcome I was hoping for.
With my friends reclined in the two seats behind me I too valiantly attempted to make myself comfortable as the train slowly pulled out the station. It was around an hour into the journey that the Egyptian man who’d swapped seats with me came back to see me. He was looking a little distressed and asked if he could see my ticket and check the seat number. I had tried to swap tickets with him earlier so we would have the correct ones but he had declined. It turned out that someone else was sitting in my proper allocated seat and refused to move for him and the conductor of that carriage wouldn’t help without an original ticket being shown. Together we went to the other carriage to sort out the problem. As we entered the carriage it became embarrassingly clear from the consoling looks everyone directed towards him that this problem has been going on since we first left the station. Confronting the illegal chair occupier I became the centre of a very large and loud argument between the lady in my seat, the carriage conductor, the man who swapped seats with me and a few other Egyptians who thought it was their business. Although I didn’t understand a word it was painfully clear what was being said and that I wasn’t being discussed lovingly. The interloper, red faced and finally out of options when presently with the official seat ticket finally extricated herself from the seat. Apologising profusely for all the trouble I’d inadvertently caused I quickly slunk back to the other carriage and squeezed myself once more into my ill stolen front row seat.
Small mercies, but in a country where everyone seems to smoke everywhere it was a relief to discover that smoking was banned within the seated areas. Although sucking down a cancer stick was allowed in the spaces between the carriages, which, as it just happens, was accessible through the door next to my seat. It turned out that our fully packed carriage contained only three non-smokers. The inconspicuous white tourists. It also turned out that having everyone smoke in the carriage would almost have been preferable to the continuously use of what I like to call the Door of Doom.
With industrial earplugs and three inches of soundproofing wrapped around my head I was still jolted every time someone went for a cigarette and the Door of Doom was slammed closed. This occurred on average every five minutes. The entire bloody night. When it wasn’t people going for cigarettes it was a man with a tray selling shai. He came past every ten minutes. Again, the entire night! Seriously, who wants a frigging shai at 3am! Shai guy was always shortly followed by the food trolley man with his rickety food trolley filled with exceptionally questionable food like items. He too must have thought that sheer bloody-minded persistence throughout the sleeping hours would eventually wear down some poor desperate sod who’d pay him just so he’d piss off for a few hours. To complete this symphony of noise was the baby resting beside us on his mothers lap. This little fellow obviously didn’t like quiet time, as that’s when he always started a new burst of wailing. Oh and I’ve now seen a mother in a burqa breast feed and I must say that I was impressed with the baby’s ability to suck anything through all those layers of material, not to mention his spot on targeting skills. It was the only way I knew he was a boy. Eventually I was asked to stop staring.
Eleven sleep deprived hours later, three exhausted, dishevelled, smelly, hungry and exceptionally grumpy travellers arrived into Luxor. Local touts instantly burst into flame when we managed to focus our sleepy yet deadly gaze on them.
Next time not only will I sit in my predefined seat but I’ll pay the ridiculous tourist price for a sleeper cabin. Better yet, I’ll fly!