Cairo to Luxor. The worst train trip ever!

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!

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Walk like an Egyptian – tourist

I’ve been in Egypt for a week now. Two of my best mates from Australia have joined me on this part of my journey. We have been staying in a hotel that not only is five minutes walk from Tahrir square and the Egyptian museum, but is also on the fifteenth floor of a high rise and subsequently looks out over Cairo and the Nile. I remember which building my hotel is by the broken windows out the front. The elevator, with its blinding light bulb dangling through a gaping hole in its ceiling barely lurches its way up to the thirteenth floor. Exiting the elevator I am often met by a large and unfriendly pack of wild cats that seem to inhabit the stairwells.

Daytime Cairo is smoggy, loud, smelly, dirty, crumbling and well past its prime. However nighttime Cairo is an entirely different beast as under moonlight it still may still be smoggy and loud, but the dirt, dust and decrepit nature of the city is well hidden. Watching the sun set through the city smog and night slowly descend on Cairo from the comfort of my hotel balcony is actually quite beautiful.

Egypt has just been through a revolution. A revolution that started in Cairo. More specifically it started in Tahrir square, around 500 metres from my hotel. Tahrir square still has a constant flow of locals filling it. Some are relaxing under trees on the rare expanse of green grass, some are selling revolution t-shirts and tacky souvenirs while others, waving Egyptian flags, continue to occupy the square until such time as their demands are met. After midday pray last Friday Tahrir square and another square nearby were both overflowing with demonstrators. One of my mates wasn’t very keen to see the demonstrations up close so instead we viewed it from the comfort of our hotel balcony and television. Having already witnessed mass demonstrations in Lebanon and Syria I wasn’t too fussed with sitting this one out.

The major benefit of visiting Egypt during this period of instability is the length of queues and the size of crowds at all the national monuments and museums. They are tiny, if not non-existent. On our first day in Cairo we visited the great pyramids of Giza on horseback and the stepped pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. When our tour guide unexpectedly set our horses off into a canter I barely managed to not only stay on my horse but to also hold onto my camera and camera bag as we sped through the empty expanse of golden sand with nothing but the pyramids blocking our view of the desert landscape.

The following day I stood alone, staring into the death mask of Tutankhamun. There was no jostling or lining up, nor any restriction on the time I could spend examining the fine detail of this archaeological wonder – my nose pressed against its glass case.

The bazaars and streets as opposed to the tourist sites are packed with people, local people. I’ve been in cities with populations a lot larger than Cairo but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a place so jammed with humanity before. The genuinely friendly greetings and handshakes we received as we wandered through the crowded bazaars made us all feel welcome and had me smiling from ear to ear. Sadly it’s very clear how big a problem the lack of tourism is having on the Egyptian people and my heart goes out to them.

On Saturday after finally relenting and purchasing one of the myriad of package tours our hotel kept trying to sell us we headed off to explore the white and black deserts. Arriving at the Bahariya Oasis we were instantly surrounded by a gang of starved tour touts. Luckily as we had pre-booked we managed to evade them easily. A Korean couple weren’t quite as lucky and soon disappeared under the relentless crush of desperate salesmen. Moments later a frantic Korean emerged wildly kicking and screaming. At this point we offered some help and they ended up joining us. Our own tour operator was blatantly lying to them, which set the tone for a very disappointing yet still amazing trip into the desert. Our tour was changed on the fly due to the two Koreans joining us as they were only spending one night with us rather than two. This then meant that we headed out into the desert quite late on Saturday afternoon. With no useable seat belts in the car our driver drove at breakneck speed in order to make our destination before sunset. My friend made the valid point that at the speeds we were travelling seat belts would be irrelevant anyway. This was cold comfort. It was when our driver started facebooking on his phone while simultaneously testing his rally driving skills and skidding around the chalk monoliths rising out of the white desert that we took the time to inform him of our intention to survive this trip. He was not impressed with having to reduce his speed and put away his phone.

The white desert with its stunning chalk statues is eerie and beautiful. Whereas the piles of human defecation stretching to the horizon and the toilet paper tumbleweeds managed only to be eerie. We missed the full moon by two nights, regardless I had forgotten just how bright a moonlit night could be and in the desert with no ambient light pollution to hinder my night vision I could see for kilometres. Wandering the desert and gazing at the stars that night was a serene, amazing and unforgettable experience.

The next day we travelled back to the Bahayira Oasis. Our afternoon was spent waiting around for our oasis tour. We spent our waiting time productively by cleaning the dust out of our rooms. Our bed sheets were caked in layers of dust and no one except us pesky tourists seemed to be concerned about this. Eventually our tour started and we were given an ‘English’ guide who’s English consisted of being able to point at the significant tourist locations and say their name. Later, while trying to have a shower I was electrocuted a few times and eventually gave up the attempt to clean myself. During the night I awoke to something buzzing near my face. I groggily slapped my face and then turned on a light to discover my hand and face were both smudged with blood. The remainder of the night was spent trying to ward off mosquitoes. In the morning I had over ten mosquitoes bites on my left hand alone. I declared jihad on the bloated buzzing bastards in my room and spent the next hour running around screaming profanities and plastering the walls with the blood of my enemies, which just happened to be my blood.

The bus back to Cairo was supposed to drop us at Tahrir square, or so we had been told when we purchased the tour. Instead it dropped us on the edge of the city and we had to make our way back to our hotel. Once back at our hotel some vocal complaining got us an unexpected yet very welcome free final night of accommodation.

Our last few days have been spent further exploring the city, sitting in local cafes drinking copious amounts of shai and coffee while playing backgammon, searching for cheap and tasty falafel and working on our tans. Today is our last day in Cairo, but I know I will be back. Tonight we board an overnight train to Luxor. So far I’m loving Egypt.

A word about the weather

The direction of my trip was based on climate.  As spring spread its warmth northwards, I too would follow.  In theory, and with historical statistics on my side, this plan should have worked flawlessly.

I started in Mediterranean Lebanon.  Average temperatures for the week I was arriving should have been in the low 20’s with peaks up into the high 20’s.  The day I arrived scraped in at 12 degrees as ominous dark clouds moved in and smothered the sky.  Exploring the city over the next week I often found myself wishing that I’d packed more warm clothes while awkwardly diving for cover as tropical storms bombarded the city with torrential rain for fifteen-minute intervals – horizontally!  When it didn’t rain it hailed, leaving a white winter carpet on the ground for a few minutes.  Locals and tourists kept telling me how wonderful the weather had been before I arrived.

I moved on to Syria, where having checked the weather I mentioned to fellow travellers that rain was predicated for a few days.  I was laughed at.  Well, it rained a lot while I was at Apamea, then at most of the other major sites around Hama.  The highlight though was the minivan trip back out of the desert from Palymra.  With my bag tied securely to the roof I could only watch helplessly as dust storms assailed our vehicle, all the time wishing I’d put the rain cover for my bag on to protect it – from dust, not rain. But of course minutes later a storm front moved in and pummelled us with water for half an hour. Sitting in the far back of the crowded and smoky minivan I toyed with the idea of trying to get the driver to stop, then of hustling everyone out of the van so I could squeeze out, before struggling through the rain to climb on top of the van to get my bag down, retrieve the rain cover and put it on, sling my bag back up and then shove my way back into the van.  Instead I decided that trying to stay calm and quiet was my best course of action.

Next stop Turkey, where the wonderfully inclement weather persisted throughout my stay.  I had been expecting this to an extent as Turkey can be wet in spring, but I think the extended duration and the severity of the winter weather surprised everyone.

As the greek Islands were so close and the weather there had been particularly good, I decided a quick side trip was needed to help thaw myself out.  The weather the day before I arrived and after I left was perfect.  The week I was there, well, lets just say it was especially wet and bloody cold.  Freek and I decided to test our luck and hired an ATV to explore Mykonos Island, hoping the weather would hold out for us.  Naturally, it held out until we were on the most exposed piece of the island and then it let loose with all its fury.  With nowhere to stop for cover I tried to drive through the rain until I couldn’t actually see where I was going. Eventually a ruined shack provided some inadequate cover.  When the rain abated we jumped back on the bike only to have it dump again within minutes.  Our next hideout was at the airport.  We returned the bike within two hours of hiring it.  I had been wearing every piece of warm clothing that I’d packed and it was all completely soaked through.  Without any place to dry my clothes, and no spares to change into I was forced to spend the rest of the day wandering around sopping wet, chaffing and cold.

I returned to Turkey disheartened.  In Istanbul I saw the sun about twice, in six days.  Only once did I get lost while wandering the streets, during which time it rained.

On to Belgrade. I researched the weather before leaving Turkey and was pleasantly surprised and excited to see that it was 25 degrees and sunny.  By the time I got there is was 14 degrees and raining.

Finally, in Sarajevo the sun came out and hit the 20’s, bringing the city to life and prompting me to get my bare legs out for all to see.  The following day looked to be just as promising and so I packed up all my gear, checked out of the hostel, put my luggage in storage and went exploring the city wearing only shorts and a long sleeve t-shirt.  Within the hour a big storm front moved in and the temperature had again plummeted by 10-15 degrees.  I spent the day wandering around with my sister, both of us shivering, our luggage unable to be accessed until 6pm that evening.

So it came as no surprise then that it was snowing as we passed through the Serbia Kosovo border this morning, nor that when arriving in Skopje the high temperature for the day was a balmy 9 degrees.  Of course, two days previous they had been enjoying 23 degrees and endless sun.

On Thursday I will be in Cairo.  Meteorologists are starting to predict an unprecedented cold change coming through the day before.  Be warned, Simon is arriving!

Best laid plans – The Balkans

I spent my final euro on ensuring that my luggage had a place in the cargo hold of the bus.  My wallet now contained only a few Turkish lira and a useless bank card.  Checking the time I lamented that had my original plan come to fruition I’d have been arriving into Belgrade within the hour, in the comfort of a sleeper train.  Instead I was on a local bus with my knees uncomfortably crammed up against the back of the seat in front of me and I only had a vague idea of how and when I would eventually get to my destination.  In my backpack were the stale remains of a loaf of bread; this was to be my gourmet dinner.  I intended to savour every chewy, dry bite.  Feeling sorry for me at the last pit stop my Serbian comrades had bought me a coffee.

The Istanbul to Belgrade overnight train seemed like a great idea at the time.  A leisurely 22hr sleeper train that would give me the opportunity to see some beautiful countryside, read, write, meet people and chill.  The three-bunk cabin was more spacious and better appointed than I was expecting and as the train pulled out of the station I couldn’t help a giddy grin from spreading across my face, nor deny the childish sense of excitement that I felt.  There is something about a train journey through foreign lands that a plane trip can never capture.  Before I knew it the rocking of the carriage and the constant white noise had lulled me to sleep.

Although I didn’t realise it things started to go wrong when our expected 2am border crossing happened closer to 4am.  I successfully stumbled through border control in full zombie mode.  Back on the train and a few hours later I awoke to the news that all the available toilets were broken.  As the train had another twelve hours until it reached Belgrade I was understandably a little concerned.   My sphincter instinctively tightened up an extra notch.  A short while later I was informed that I would miss the Sofia to Belgrade connection by a few hours.  It was 2pm when the train sluggishly dragged itself into the Sofia station.

The next train to Belgrade was at 8pm and would require me to purchase another sleeper berth.  Its arrival time in Belgrade was given loosely as sometime the following morning.  A bunch of friendly Serbs who were in the same situation kindly invited me to join them in their attempts to find a faster alternative.  Together we bordered a local bus that would take us to Nis.  From Nis the plan was to catch a final bus to Belgrade and arrive around 10pm.  It would end up costing a little more but would mean not spending another night on a sleeper train.  Our first bus took us a third of the expected distance.  My Serb buddies argued with the driver for a while before taking me out for beer – which they again paid for.  We had an hour and a half until the next expected connection.

Beers finished we boarded our next bus.  It pulled into the Nis station just as our Belgrade connection was about to leave.  A mad scramble was made for our final bus that included my new Serb family paying for my privilege to urinate.  At some point I dozed off only to be woken sometime after midnight when we arrived in to Belgrade.  As we said our goodbye my newly adopted Serb sister demanded that I take her last tin of tuna.  She was concerned that I was going to starve.  A heated argument ended with me still refusing.  My advice, if a Serb ever offers you a tin of tuna, just take it!

One train, three buses and 28hrs later I had finally made it to Belgrade and my hostel.  My wallet was empty but my heart was glad.  A few times along the journey I was asked why I was smiling so much.  Well, to put it simply, I was having a great time!