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You will take tea, of course?

– Mr. Hweiti, with an irresistible offer

When you visit Siwa (as I hope you will), Mahdi Hweiti is the man to see.
 
A calm, smiling 40-something, Mr. Hweiti holds daily court in the Siwa Tourist Information Bureau, a simple beige two-story building, kitty corner to Siwa’s women’s hospital and police station. Amidst a daily swirl of tired, dusty tourists, he smoothly arranges tours and military permits to visit outlying oases, coordinates travellers trying to team up to reduce safari costs, and generally gives advice on what to see and do in this corner of Egypt that he so obviously knows and loves.
 
It’s easy to simply stick you head in his office and quickly bum some information from the man. But if you have time, it’s far more enjoyable to sit with Mr. Hweiti on his second floor balcony overlooking the town and have a civilized conversation.
 
We have time.
 
Since we first met Mr. Hweiti a few days ago, when he helped arrange our trip to the Qara oasis, it’s become our habit to drop by and say hello whenever we can. Today being a rest day, we stopped by first thing in the morning with a box of dates as a little thank you. He is just seeing off a German couple when we walk up the stairs to his office. His handsome dark face and eyes light up as he politely accepts the dates (the trees in his garden probably produce fruit ten times the quality, but he would never say so) and he beckons to the chairs on the balcony.  
 
“You will take tea, of course?”
 
***
 
“I was just speaking to the German people about Rommel,” he says quietly as he pours the pot of strong black tea flavoured with fresh sprigs of mint into three small glasses. 
 
I’ve read that the legendary Desert Fox made a tour of Siwa during his dash towards Cairo and I’m eager for details about what Siwa was like during Axis occupation.
 
“But it was the Italians who took Siwa,” he says leaning back in his chair, adjusting slightly to catch optimal sun. Mr. Hweiti, like most men in Siwa, is wearing a wool sweater, despite temperatures in the high twenties. Meanwhile, Janine and I already have a good sweat going in the shade. “They came from Libya, saw the lights of Siwa and thought it was the Allies. So they bombed us.”
 
“They killed 102 Siwans. Everyone who was not killed ran to the Mountain of the Dead and hid in the tombs.”
 
He says this with a quiet dignity as if he had been there. We ask what happened when the Italians realized their error.
 
“They came into Siwa and tried to apologize to the Siwans. But there were so many killed. More than one hundred,” he repeats. “We could not forget. And we could not trust the Italians. So people stayed in the Mountain for 2 years until the Allies came.”
 
We’ve toured those ancient tombs burrowed into the Mountain of the Dead and we can’t imagine living in one for a day let alone several hundred. Mr. Hweiti looks out over the hospital towards the honeycombed hill. “It was terrible. My mother tells me that if a woman had a baby, she left it outside of the Mountain to die. And when they left, they stole things from the tombs. Frescoes.”
 
Mr. Hweiti sighs. This story does not seem so old.
 
 
***
 
Siwa’s version of the morning rush is picking up in a racket of engines and donkey braying as Mr. Hweiti pours a fresh pot of tea. I’m thinking about how quiet this town was reputed to be back before tourism picked up back in the 80’s and I ask him whether he feels the tourists are a double edged sword, bringing money into the community but also changing old ways.
 
He sits up a little higher and immediately corrects me. “Ah, but it is not the tourists who brought the changes!”  According to Mr. Hweiti’s theory, the culprit is far more familiar.
 
“Before 1993, there were no televisions in Siwa. Then we received television. And people begin to see a new way of life in the soap operas like ‘Falcon Crest’ and the other shows. At first only a few people have televisions. But then a man comes home at night and his children are not there. Where are they? They are at the neighbor’s house, watching the television. So, what is it to sell some of his land to a foreigner to get a television for his children? Soon, everyone has a television. And people don’t want to wear silver at their weddings anymore, they want to wear gold, like on the television shows. And they don’t care for a donkey if they can get a motor bike. The young men, they want to go to Alexandria and Cairo for school and when they come home they want to speak Arabic, not Siwan, to show they are educated.”
 
There is no judgment in this explanation. Just a simple statement of how life has worked out around here. “And so things change. But,” he adds stoically, “this is the way of things.”
 
We lean back in our chairs and sip the last of our tea. This dilemma is over our heads. You can delay an airport or cut down on the number of buses to this remote corner of the world.
 
But how in the hell do you stop Falcon Crest?
 
***
 
Mr. Hweiti looks down the street at two veiled women making their way towards the downtown square. “So many things change in Siwa,” he muses, pointing out the differences between the two women’s veils. One is a traditional checkered Siwan knit, interwoven with bright orange and blue threaded patterns. The other is simple and black, made of new light materials imported, most likely, from Mersa Matrouh. “Some changes are good, some bad, some I don’t know.” Many are pushed on Siwa by other Egyptians, some more successfully than others.
 
There is a tradition in Siwan culture that when a husband dies, his wife goes into seclusion for 40 days. When she emerges from her home, the first person she sets her eye on has something bad happen to him. “So, when a widow comes out of her home on that day, every man in Siwa would stay inside,” Mr. Hweiti explains. “Then comes a learned man from Cairo. He tells the Siwans this tradition is nonsense and superstition and so on. He tells everyone this.” He looks at us with a sly smile. “Then comes the day when a widow leaves her home for the first time. The man from Cairo waits in front of her door for her to come out. To prove he is right! The widow comes out and looks at the man and he returns to the house where he is staying with a big smile.”
 
“There is a telegram waiting there for him there,” Mr. Hweiti pauses for dramatic effect. “His father has died that very morning! The man goes back to Cairo that same day.”
 
“He says the Siwans can keep their superstitions!” 
 
***
 
A couple from Taiwan has just arrived looking for Mr. Hweiti’s help. We feel like we’ve imposed on his time enough as it is and say our goodbyes.
 
Just before we go out the door of the office, he calls us back with a note of excitement in his voice. This couple, like us, is interested in travelling down to the next oasis of Baharaya. Perhaps, he suggests, we can share the costs of the drive?
 
A few minutes later, we’ve made friends with Jin and Hsu from Taipei, a lovely married couple in their retirement years. Together we make plans to hire a guide and truck to drive us the 420 rough kilometers to the next stop on our Great Western Desert Circuit. Jin and Hsu have also met another couple who are interested in doing the drive as well. Suddenly, a very expensive trip has just been reduced to a third of the cost.
 
It seems that Mr. Hweiti’s gifts today aren’t limited to a few good stories.
 
 
Jason
 

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No new blogs have been posted due to technical satellite difficulties and the incredibly slow internet connections in their current location. Please know, (especially family), that J&J are doing great, have been enjoying their desert journey and continue to experience sand in places never to be shared with the likes of us! They have hundreds of fantastic photos to share but are waiting for a location with a strong enough internet connection to be able to download for you to see them. So keep checking back, we are all hoping it won’t be long before we have contact with them.

Yours,
Suzanne, SIS
Mission Control
Ottawa

It’s a long story…

– Our guide Mohammed for why we have been assigned a military escort.

I bought a headscarf especially for this occasion.

Our dusty 4×4 trundled into Gara (or Qara) Oasis after 3 hours of bouncing across the Sahara Desert on a barely visible track. In the back of the truck sat a stoic and mirror-sunglassed army dude, who is apparently a mandatory escort in addition to the permits already obtained for desert travel in Egypt.

Okay, just go with the flow and don’t make any sudden moves.

Much different from the graceful dunes of the Great Sand Sea south of Siwa, northwest of Siwa we met with an endless wind and sun-scoured

landscape, flat and featureless sand and gravel, with a few stunning badlands-like valleys to break the monotony.

We loved every minute.

When we spied the palm trees of Gara at last, we could feel the isolation; we knew that we had stumbled onto somewhere secret. Only a tiny handful of visitors come here every year, and our arrival caused quite a stir.

The tiny village of 400 souls has had a constant population for as long as can be remembered, with a legend that when someone dies, a new baby is born to keep the balance. There are no telephones here, no televisions either. The only vehicle in town (besides the ubiquitous donkey carts) is a single military truck. The newest building in town is a school, where 99 students and 5 teachers spend their days.

In each place we have visited, laughing children have always been the vanguard. Eager to say hello and ask you your name, they make you feel welcome before you step past the outskirts on your way into town.

Gara was no exception.

The stir began with a whirlwind of children running down the road to greet us. Without further ado, they took our hands and in their irresistable current, guided us up the hill to Shali-like ruins at the edge of town, picking up more children as we went. The ruins were amazing. In a much better state of preservation than those in Siwa (less damage from rain, I imagine), they rise high above the town on a limestone outcrop, offering a truly spectcular view from thei crumbling walls and towers.

After a picnic lunch in the shade by a cool spring, we followed an eager child who guided us to the Sheik’s house to pay our respects. The town’s leader is now 84 years old and was sadly in too poor a state of health to meet with us. We had the pleasure of meeting his son.

Before we stepped out of the truck, a young teen came out of the Sheik’s house carrying a large tattered red hardcover book ceremoniously over his head. Only a handful of pages were filled with notes from visitors of every language from the past several years. We added our own message to this wonderful record. As the men gathered to drink tea, the whirlwind reached fever pitch outside, and leaving Jason with the men, I was whisked away by the children to meet the women.

Hand in hand with we raced up the hill to a house. By the time we reached the house I was in such a crush of children that we were all

tripping over each other and in fits of laughter.

The women rescued me and guided me to the back of the house to a concrete room, maybe 12×12′ that was choc-a-block with women and children.

In Siwa, the few women you see outside the home are fully hidden behind headscarves and veils. It’s difficult to speak with them, since mostly it is the men who interact with outsiders. So, I have been missing this half of the picture.

At last, here they were! Mothers, daughters, grandmothers, babies and even to my great delight, a brand new bride.

In full celebration, the women were like a garden of brilliantly coloured blossoms, with dark bronze (almost black) skin and scarves and shawls every bright colour of the rainbow.

Somewhere in the back of the room behind the crush, drums were being played and everyone was singing. I was hauled to the back corner where I was introduced to a grinning bride and her friends. Sitting on the floor next to them I craned my neck around to see I was surrounded by a solid wall of smiling and laughing faces. Children and adults strained to see who the visitor was, tugging playfully on my headscarf and clothes.

With their very scant English and my extremely scant Arabic, we talked about what women all over the world talk about…husbands and babies!

The energy in that room was profound. To the outsider, Muslim women seem to seek invisibility. But at last I was witnessing the Great Sisterhood. Old faces and young, children and babies, joyfulness and singing and laughter. I felt that I had finally discovered what all my instincts told me was there.

The bride and her friends brought me into her bedroom, which was rich with fabrics and furnishings, in stark contrast to the bare gathering room with only its mats and cushoins.

We shared some treats, before I was caught up again by the children.

Before I knew what was happening, we were racing down the hill to the Sheik’s house.

Sitting and drinking tea with the men and asking about the wedding I felt very lucky. Western women, if you take the proper precautions to be modest and respectful, are extremely fortunate to be able to cross the otherwise insurmountable gender barrier. For Jason to visit the women was not permitted. Even for me to take photos of the adult women was forbidden since men are not allowed to see even photographs of an un-veiled woman.

However, sitting among the quiet conversation of the men was a stark contrast to the energy and exuberance of the Sisterhood. I took matters into my own hands and dove back into the whirlwind of children and let them carry me back up the hill to see the women once more.

Not skipping a beat, the women wrapped me in their energy once again and looking at my white hands, asked “henna?” “Aywa! Shokran!” I replied enthusiastically. Yes, thank you!

Many of the women had their hands and feet beautifully decorated with henna patterns, a kind of temporary herbal tattoo, as part of the wedding celebrations. A few minutes to mix the henna, and I was kneeling in a dirt courtyard, two people gripping each hand, applying the green paste in patterns with expert hands. Around me was still the wonderful impenetrable wall of smiling faces. Meeting eyes with as many of them as I could, I would have given anything to express to them how I was feeling and how grateful I was for their energy and warmth.

All too soon it was time to go.

Jason laughed as he saw me come down towards the Jeep with my henna’d hands outstretched. Most of the women hung back, but the children crowded around to bid us farewell.

As we drove reluctantly out of the Oasis, the sun was setting in front of us, and the full moon rising behind. A day that went by too quickly, but will be a part of me for a very long time to come.

Janine

Live from our satellite phone in Egypt!

“Gwaawp!”

– Janine

Maryanne has been traveling for almost a year now, so she is smart.

We met our new friend, also from Canada, on the bus to Siwa and have been bumping into her around town ever since. Watching her from the corner of our eyes, we’ve learned a bunch. For one thing, she’s a cool negotiator. Example – when Maryanne steps off the bus in a new town where she has no hotel reservation, she uses the swarming touts to her advantage, naming the maximum price she’ll pay for a room and seeing who bites. She’s learned bunches about travelling on the cheap, all of which she’s been happy to pass on to us whenever we’ve asked. We like her style so much that we’ve turned her name into a verb. “Let’s Maryanne lunch tomorrow and just have some fruit rather than go to a restaurant.”

I guess we’ve kind of made her our guru. So when Maryanne suggested we rent some bikes and paddle out to the great salt lake west of town called Birket Siwa, we quickly agreed.

After Janine and I had spent the morning making arrangements for our upcoming safari to the oasis of El-Qara (more on that tomorrow), we met up with Maryanne in the palm-treed courtyard of our hotel. Soon we were peddling towards the lake on 1-speed bikes coloured yellow, pink and blue, respectively.

Friday being the Muslim day of rest, the streets were filled with men strolling arm in arm and playing children, along with the usual cast of donkey carrettas, safari jeeps and chickens. A week-long Siwan wedding is also in full swing, and a group of men were assembled in the town square, chopping huge palm logs into burnable chunks for the fires that are sure to blaze long into the night.

It didn’t take long to leave the town behind. And after half an hour and

one stop to ask directions from two fishermen who had just finished afternoon prayers on the beach, we found a small island connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway that Maryanne had scouted a few evenings previously. We made our way through the palm trees to a narrow shoreline at the front of the island and admired its unhindered view of the entire lake. To the north, great flat-topped mountains choked the skyline, chalky shades of white and light rose in colour. To the south, where the shore of Birket Siwa ended, the dunes of the Great Sand Sea began.

Birket Siwa’s salinity is at about the same level of the Dead Sea. In plain terms, it’s pretty damn salty. Our island showed the effects of this environment. Every exposed surface of the beach was encrusted with a salty rime and the palm trees nearest the shore were gradually succumbing to thirst, their great leaves falling to the ground to be covered in a white casing that I can only liken to frozen snow.

I had to swim. The only problem was that as I walked10, 20 and then 50 meters away from shore, I was still barely past my knees. Each step released a cloud of salt from the lake bottom. Oh well, it would have to be a sit-and-soak. And without further ado, as is my custom, I did a shallow head-first dive into the water.

With my mouth wide open.

The view of the moutains, desert and waters of Birket Siwa from lake-level really is spectacular. But I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn’t spent the next 20 minutes compulsively spitting and licking the roof of my mouth. Still, it was a good soak. The high salt content of the water makes for incredible boyancy and, after regaining some sensation of dampness in my mouth, I was able to simply put my hands behind my head and bob, almost fully on top of the water, admiring land, sea and sky for what seemed like forever.

Or at least until a big bead of salt water ran down my forehead into my eye.

On the shore, having passed on a swim of their own (fools!), Janine and Maryanne shared pomengranates and travel stories. As the sun made for the horizon, I joined them, already feeling a thin papery crust begin to form on my skin. Together, we sat in silence as the day ended, the sun slipping below the dunes in a deep yellow flush, leaving the sky a dull apricot in its wake.

Our only other adventure came just as we were leaving our island, when a pedal fell off Janine’s bike. Dismounting to fix it, she caught her foot in the brake cable and fell flat on her arse, emitting en route to the ground, her trademark “Gwaawp!” sound. The “Gwaawp” is actually a handy little call, since I usually take the lead when Janine and I are hiking or biking. It lets me know (a) Janine has taken a spill and I should stop walking/peddling, and (b) the spill is not serious, as the “Gwaawp” is mostly sounded out of surprise and anger at whatever caused the fall, not pain.

A full moon reflected in Birket Siwa’s serene waters as we biked back to town. A chorus of calls to evening prayer, rising simultaneously from dozens of mosques throughout the oasis, was the only accompaniement to the sound of our tires hissing on the asphalt and sand.

Live from our satellite phone in Egypt!

“Dune-licious…that’s a crappy title.”

Janine trying to write the blog

Putting your faith, and sometimes your life in the hands of others is a part of the travel experience.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t still do the “tuck and pray” when things get a little crazy.

Our 4×4 stood silent on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Three other tourists sat with us in the car, eager to dive in.

Phssssssssst!……..Phssssssst! Our driver was letting air out of the tires. We looked at each other in concern.

Our concern lessened slightly when we realized that flat tires on the silky white sand of the Sahara Desert are necessary to gain enough speed to fly up the face of a 200-foot dune based on momentum alone. Horray!

What fun!

I left my fingernail imprints permanently in the dashboard of the Toyota

4×4 Land Cruiser on the way down. Empty space floated menacingly in front of the hood ornament. We started to tip forward, and still the slope in front of us was worringly absent from our line of sight.

“Mama Mia!” exclaimed our driver beside me and he threw the truck into gear and hit the gas for all he was worth.

I cast the briefest glance at the driver – he’s joking, right? Can’t tell. Shit. My fingernails sunk a little deeper into the dashboard.

We careened wildly down the dune at an impossible angle, half sliding, my heart in my throat as if we had just plunged down a rollercoaster.

That was just the first taste. Fear morphed grudgingly into glee by the time we pulled up to Bir Wahed, a magical hot spring in the middle of an ocean of soaring white dunes.

Palm trees and tall grasses swayed in the warm breeze as the late afternoon sun turned the pristine white sand a buttery yellow.

Soaking in the bath-warm water, I would have given anything to freeze time. But at the sun descended to the horizon, we wanted front row seats for the show.

The 4×4 pulled up to the base of an idyllic white dune, rising 50 feet

with a gracefully curving top edge carved by the wind. We climbed to

the summit and had just made a nice pair of bum prints when the sky caught fire and the show began.

This one was for the history books. Sunset in the Great Sand Sea.

When the sky had dimmed to indigo and apricot, we climbed reluctantly down and drove to our final stop, campfire and dinner next to another spring. The lights of Siwa glimmered in the distance. The almost-full moon turned the sand to pure silver outside of the glow of the torches.

In an open dining room roofed with palm leaves and lit with candles, we sat down to a simple but delicious meal cooked by our Siwan hosts.

Sorry to see the evening end, we set off for the lights of town, discovering along the way that careening down sand dunes by moonlight is even twice as fun.

Janine

Live from our satellite phone in Egypt!

“Eee aw!”

– Ali Baba (untranslatable)

Ali Baba cost his owner Mouhammed 1000 pounds. Considering that a year’s tuition at university in Alexandria costs 2000, avoiding compulsory military service 5000 and getting married 10,000, that’s not cheap.

But at the end of the day, and we may be biased by the wonderful time Ali Baba showed us, we think he’s worth it.

***

After the most peaceful night’s sleep had in a week, we emerged from the palm treed courtyard of our hotel a full half hour later for the start of our Siwa tour than we had arranged with Mohammed the night before.

Even so, our 20 year old driver sat on his cart, smiling patiently. His donkey, Ali Baba, didn’t seem too concerned either, nosing nonchalantly through a pile of palm leaves and litter on the side of the dusty road.

Within a few moments, we were bouncing down the morning streets of Siwa in the little 3 x 4 , two-wheeled, covered wagon. Painted in parts blue, white and orange, its ceiling and interior were decorated with plastic flowers and strands of tinsel garland. Flicking his dusty grey ears to ward off the flies, Ali Baba trotted steadily to the light tapping on his rump of a two foot long stick, wielded lightly by Mohammed, who sat on a small ledge off the front of the cart.

The sun already growing hot as we approached the Mountain of the Dead, a high chalky hill overlooking the north end of town. It’s several square hectares are literally honeycombed with tombs from the late Egyptian and Greek era of he oasis’ long history. Many of the tombs are now just sand and wind-filled husks, but several contain fragments of beautiful funerary frescoes. For a little baksheesh, the site attendant unlocked these special areas for us and we enjoyed the paintings, which included such interesting scenes as bearded greeks worshipping Egyptian gods, a nile crocodile and lastly the Gods riding the solar boat, carrying the sun across the heavens.

Before leaving, we climbed to the very peak of the mountain, from where the entire oasis was visible. To the west, the large salt lake of Birket Siwa stretched off towards Libya, its shoreline littered with sculpted table-top mountains. The Great Sand Sea heaved in the south, and directly below us rolled a beige and green carpet of palm trees and earthen houses.

“Okay,” said Janine very matter of factly, surveying the scene calmly.

“I’m going to be taking an obscene amount of pictures today.”

***

There are a few ways to get Ali Baba to shake a leg. One is obviously a harder tap with the stick. But Muhammed doesn’t use this option much, instead preferring to lean forward from his bench and just give his donkey a good hard shove in the arse. Twice is usually enough to get the message across. But the best way to coax a little more speed from our ride is to show him another donkey. Ali Baba doesn’t like to look slow in front of his colleagues and the appearance of a few other donkey-hauled carettas puts a spring in his step for the last few minutes of the trot to our next stop, the temple of the famous Siwan Oracle, medium of the God Amun, fortune teller of kings, destroyer of impious armies.

At first, I’m a little annoyed at having to pay the same amount to get into this site as the Mountain of the Dead. The temple itself is rather small and the restoration job on it wasn’t that elegant. But there’s something about standing where the great have stood. Even in the now bare and roofless main chamber, it’s not hard to imagine Alexander the Great striding up to the Oracle’s dais and demanding to know whether he really was the son of Zeus.

***

“You will swim at Cleopatra’s?” Muhammed asks. Ali Baba snorts noisily as he clip clops towards the spring-fed pool known as Cleopatra’s Bath.

I’m not sure. For one thing, I don’t have trunks with me. I’d have to swim in my quick-dry pants. Not such a big deal. But there’s also the fact that due to local squeamishness about women’s attire, Janine probably won’t feel comfortable jumping in with me. Finally, there’s the more general fear of combining the word “Africa” with the phrase “fresh-water swimming”. I have this image of all fresh water pools on this continent teeming with nasty bacteria and things that swim up your bum and lay eggs and then you die.

We round the corner and see Cleopatra’s pool. Perfectly circular, a low stone and mortar wall lines its edge. A landing and stairs lead down and into warm, clear azure waters, disturbed only by tiny columns of bubbles rising from the spring’s bottom, 7 meters below.

Make yourself comfortable Ali Baba. I’m going for a dip.

***

I’m still dripping like a happy Labrador Retriever when we pull up in front of Siwa’s famous Shali ruins, 45 minutes later. Built of kharsif, a mud that dries cement hard but melts during downpours, Shali’s ruined towers, walls and battlements still dominate the skyline, looking, in their decayed state, like a partially dissolved sugar cube. Inhabited for centuries, it’s now mostly abandoned but remains a key tourist draw.

We can’t seem to take enough pictures of these ruins. Because they literally melt, instead of falling apart into rubble like most antiquities, they create an unending variety of interesting shapes and contours. The whole place is like a giant snowfort giving way to the first warm days of spring (try explaining that analogy to a local Siwan). You can almost sense it changing shape before you.

After we’ve clicked and gawked our fill, it’s time for everyone, including Ali Baba, to eat. We agree with Mouhammed to meet up again at

4 p.m. in order to ride out and watch the sunset over Birket Siwa.

***

I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of beautiful sunsets on our travels through Canada. An extraordinary multi-coloured display at Tsusiat Falls on Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail, two amazing cloud-and-light shows off the northeast coast of Lake Superior and a violet velvet sky number at Gros Morne, Newfoundland that really blew my mind; just to mention a few. Tonight’s sunset goes in the top 10 as much for setting and people as pure solar pyrotechnics.

At his lakeside cafe, Omran seats us on two palm wood recliners and brings us a pot of ultra-strong Siwan black tea, boiled over his camp fire further back from the beach. Our host drinks and chats with us about Siwan history, Canadian snow and local politics as the sun drops behind the far shore. The reds and purples it would usually turn the sky are mostly washed out by the brilliant 3/4 moon, already sharply

gleaming directly above our heads. We ask Omran how Siwans feel about the growing numbers of tourists coming to their town and he says that locals like the tourists and the money they bring. At present, the long road trip keeps the numbers at a manageable level. “Hopefully, there will never be an airport here.” We nod at his wisdom, suddenly feeling a little jealous of what we’ve found here.

We know that somewhere out there in silvery twilight, Ali Baba is getting anxious to go home. But before we can leave, Omran insists that we join him at the camp fire for one more pot of tea. Muhammed joins us beneath the palm trees as Omran adjusts the burning olive branch logs to make room for the tin tea pot.

After a few minutes boiling, Omran pours the hissing hot brew into four clear cups the size of shooter-glasses (this is the Siwan way) and passes them politely to us. Even though its about 5 times more bitter and 3 times stronger than what we’re used to, we’re starting to enjoy

Siwan tea. Which is a good thing, because as soon as we’re finished that pot, Omrar announces that it was too bitter and he’s going to put on another one. While it’s brewing, he tells us stories about some of the lesser travelled oases in the area and fires our imaginations with stories of Qara, a town of only 300 people, 150 km from Siwa. There, the village supposedly still turns out en-masse to greet rarely-arriving foreigners and customs are as they used to be in Siwa 50 years ago.

He may be trying to sell us a trip, but given the setting and Omran’s obvious and genuine admiration for the destination, he’s doing a hell of a job.

***

Trotting back to Siwa in the moonlight, we’re drunk on some combination of the perfection of the day we’ve just had, the beauty of the night sky above us, or the possibilities for future desert travel in the days ahead. Ali Baba knows we’re headed home and needs no coaxing to hit his full trot.

For this last service, I’m particularly grateful. Because like most drunks, whether it’s on booze, or in my case, an obscene amount of tea, I’ve really got to pee.

Jason

Live from our satellite phone in Egypt!

 Desert Outside Siwa Oasis

“We’re definitely not in Cairo anymore.”

– Janine

It takes two buses to reach to reach the Siwa oasis, 50 km from the Egypt-Libya border. They’re both interesting.

The first bus, from Cairo to the Mediterranean coastal town of Mersa Matrouh, is everything you think you hope a 6 hour coach ride will be. A wide, new, mostly-empty, air-conditioned coach that has a bathroom, departs on time and, after some jerky progress through the clogged Cairo core, makes rapid progress north towards the sea. The swirling chaos of Cairo’s streets is soon refreshingly replaced by the clean, white and green surface of flat desert and scrub. Blink in Cairo and you’ve missed a dozen visual images. Sleep on this ride for an hour and you wake up pretty much where you left off, until you hit the plains of El Alamein, where the Allies put a stop to Nazis dreams of controlling the Suez and the Persian Gulf oil supplies. And even this is just a blip of town site and war memorials before the desert sweeps back in.

At Mersa, everything changes. Stepping off the bus into a cool Mediterranean drizzle, we are swarmed by taxi drivers looking to drive us the remaining 4 hours to Siwa. “Taxi to Siwa my friend?” asks one.

“Taxi to Siwa only 100 pounds!” shouts another, practically crawling into the bus’s baggage compartment with me as I retrieve our backpacks.

We brush these guys off. Why on earth would we want to pay 100 pounds for a taxi when we can jump in a bus for 12 pounds each?

We start to rethink our flippancy when we board our next bus.

It’s best days were obviously back in the 80’s. No a.c., unless you count the closed vent in the roof. It’s packed, and with the exception of two black veiled ladies, it’s mostly grim looking headwrapped men and few soldiers, casually spitting seed shells on the floor. There are no seats left together.

None of this phases our conductor (a separate guy does the driving), who barrels down the aisle shouting and shuffling around men at the back of the bus to make room for me and Janine. I can really feel the love of the foreigners over this. So as I take my seat I make eye contact with as many men as possible and give my best “is ‘salaam alaaykum.”

A low murmured response goes through the back seats, “wa’ alaaykum is salaam.”

Phew.

More Siwa-bound passengers board the bus and this causes another flurry of activity from the conductor, as men heading for oil fields only 45 minutes down the road are now kicked out of their seats and reduced to standing or sitting in the aisles. One grabs a spare seat cushion, plunks it on the floor beside my seat and leans against my leg contentedly, reading aloud from his Koran as we pull away from the terminal.

“Well, this should be interesting!” I try to say cheerfully as we swallow our immodium (there’s no bathroom on this bus and we’d rather be stogged than sorry).

It’s not so bad. Once the oil field guys hop out, the bus feels fairly normal. Any spots of green are quickly erased from existence as we head south, the desert becoming as flat and dull white as the winter prairie.

Just flatter. I’ve never seen a horizon so singularly 180 degrees.

Little changes for two hours until, about 20 km outside of Siwa, the desert begins to rear up into mounds, buttes and hills. The road makes a sudden descent through a neighborhood of these features just as the sun sets and then we are here – Siwa Oasis. An island of water and palm trees and mud brick dwellings amidst a dry ocean.

***

“I am named Mohammed. The donkey is named Ali Baba,” grins Mohammed over his shoulder.

So much for Siwans being cold.

As we trot down the street in our young driver’s mule drawn taxi, we’re starting to think that we may need to make a few adjustments to our “Cairo state of mind”. One thing that should make that task easier is that we’ll be able to hear ourselves think in this town of 25,000 (though it feels smaller).

In contrast to Cairo, where sleeping in a hotel with a street-facing window is like trying to catch 40 winks in Time Square, Siwa is a sleepy village. There’s more donkey traffic than motor traffic. So horns are mostly replaced with brays – far more pleasant to the ear. We’re staying in a quiet little bungalow room facing a palm-filled courtyard where, so far, the loudest thing we’ve heard was a rooster bugling his last post for the night.

The people here seem genuinely helpful. Sure, they’re usually trying to sell us something, but they are actually trying to make it a win-win proposition. One safari operator even suggested that we team up with a Swedish couple he is taking across the desert by Jeep to the next oasis in a couple of days so that we can spread out the trip costs more evenly; even though this means no additional money for him.

The food is excellent, and at Abdou’s open air restaurant, the waiters give you free lessons in the Siwa language between courses. While the people dress conservatively (foreign women are asked to not appear in public without their legs and arms fully covered) we received many warm “hello”s and “welcome”s as we walked the streets this evening.

Best of all, you can breathe here.

There’s a lot to do in Siwa and we are in no rush to move on (did I mention it’s also cheap?). Tomorrow, we make a circuit of some of the main sites with Mohammed and Ali Baba. Then we’re going to spend a day exploring the ruins of Shali and the ancient temple of the Amun Oracle (she was supposed to be the best in the business – Alexander the Great inaugurated Siwan tourism by making a special trip out here to get her opinion). Then we’ll head out on an overnight safari to the Great Sand Sea, before hiring a jeep to make the long trip south to Bahariya Oasis.

Live from our satellite phone in Egypt!

“The Amazing Race sucks.”

Jason

Immodium? Check. Pepto Bismal tablets? Check. Handwipes, sanitizer, rehydration salts and extra toilet paper? Check, check, check and check.

Okay, let’s do some tourism!

With a small medicine cabinet’s worth of over the counter

pharmaceuticals in our bellies and backpacks we got back out on the streets of Cairo today.

Our destination, the old Christian quarter of town. Also known as Old Cairo. Also known as Babylon in Egypt, named by the ancient Babylonian labourers who helped build the old city walls.

In contrast to the lived-in, gritty feel of Islamic Cairo, the enclave housing the ancient churches, Roman fortifications and the Coptic Museum has a relatively sanitized feel. You can tell that the authorities have “touristed” up the place. Notwithstanding, this is a worthwhile trip.

Within a the space of one modern city block, we passed through the first synagogue in Egypt (supposedly built on the site where Baby Moses was found amongst the bullrushes by the princess of Egypt), looked down into the hiding place of the Holy Family during their flight from king Herod, and saw the chains used in the bondage of St. George and the instruments of torture used to martyr St. Barbara. The small Coptic churches are full of atmosphere, iconography and symbology. My favourite of the latter being the use of twelve pillars, representing the disciples of Jesus, to support the pulpit. One pillar is coloured black to represent Judas. Another is coloured grey to represent Doubting Thomas.

I don’t want to know what colour my pillar would be. My charitable guess is somewhere along the beige to murky spectrum. Perhaps sepia.

Another highight was the Coptic Museum, where Janine went toe to toe with the security staff who wanted her to check her camera before entry.

Those poor buggers didn’t realize what they were signing up for.

It was classic bargaining. First, she reacts with outrage (anchoring high). “Where’s the sign that says no cameras?” she asks the perplexed looking security man, who after some hesitation, repeats in rough english that no cameras are allowed in the museum.

Janine presses the attack. “Money back for tickets then!” she says, gesturing to me to get the tickets out. Apparently, we’re leaving.

The security man gets his supervisor. Supervisor repeats the no cameras line but Janine holds firm with her “no sign, money back” defence. He hesitates. And in a heartbeat Janine switches tactics. “I won’t take any pictures.” she says, making a baseball umpire’s “safe” sign with her hands. Supervisor hesitates again.

Then, I kid you not, Janine smiles sweetly and blesses herself.

And the camera is in.

We don’t take any pictures in the museum (assuming that we would be justly and summarily executed if discovered) and it’s too bad. Because the Coptic Museum, newly renovated, is a first class facility. From the beautiful inlay and detail work on its wooden ceilings and railings, to the well-conceived chronological and thematic lay out of the exhibit rooms, to the tranquility of its many white-walled courtyards (not to mention the amazing artworks themselves – but you kind of expect that in this neck of the woods). It puts the Antiquities Museum to shame but also gives hope for what the new Antiquities Museum will look like when it finally opens in (sigh) 2015.

Camera conflicts aside, the day’s real adventure was saved for the evening, when we decided to try and purchase tickets for our bus trip to the Siwa desert oasis, which lies near the Libyan border. To do this, we had to travel from Babylon to what our guidebook called the Turgoman Garage, where buses for the oasis depart daily.

This didn’t sound too tough, except for that the Turgoman Garage fell just out of range of the maps covering downtown Cairo in our guidebook.

This too might not be so bad if Cairo was into putting up bilingual street signs on a regular basis.

But Cairo’s not into that. And I can kind of see it’s point. I mean, if it had to put up street signs, next you’d have people asking it to enforce traffic signals, then you’d get all kinds of motor safety laws being used and pretty soon you wouldn’t even be taking your life in your hands to cross the streets! And that, my friends, would be the death of the Cairo we know and love.

Out of the subway, then realize you’re on the wrong side of the boulevard and go back down into the subway. Get out your map again. Wave off the tout who approaches you. Maybe we were on the right side of the boulevard the first time? Let’s cross. That was not pleasant. Wait. Are we still on the same boulevard? Where’s Shahan Street? Here it is! Wait, on the subway’s map it says Shanan Street. Let’s ask a cop! He doesn’t speak english. Let’s ask this nice young man. He’d like to help but he’s never heard of Turgoman Garage.

As night falls we are literally wandering the darkening Cairo streets with a compass and our guide book. I remember a friend telling me once that Janine and I would have been good contestants for the show The Amazing Race. I’ve never seen that show before, but as we walk down one last lane before admitting defeat, I’m pretty sure that I would hate it.

We see a facility called “Cairo Gateway”. It’s a bus terminal. It’s not called Turgoman but at least we might get some information there. At the metal detectors, we ask the security guard if he knows where we can get bus tickets to Siwa.

“Right over there.” he says pointing to a kiosk. Apparently, this is where all the long haul buses leave from now.

I want to give him a hug. But, being a stranger in a strange, heavily armed land, I settle for a warm shoulder pat and my most sincere “shukran”.

***

So, assuming we’re able to get up in time to catch our bus tomorrow morning at 7 a.m., it’s farewell for now to Cairo. We’ll be back to do better justice to the Islamic quarter and the Dashur pyramid field. But like all nascent relationships, Cairo and I need a break from each other for a couple of weeks or one of us is going to die. But don’t worry – I’m sure that when get back together, the make-up sex will be great.

For now, we’re off to the small, lush oases amidst Egypt’s great sand sea.

I wonder if we should get a better map for that?

Jason

Live from our satellite phone in Egypt!

“I think we’d better get up. It’s noon.”

In the interests of journalistic integrity and for those of you who’ve been commenting that the blog posts have been a little long lately, I’ll keep this short and truthful.

We had diarrhea today and basically did nothing. Our guide book (right once again) tells us that pretty much every visitor to Egypt gets the runs at some point. Its advice is to gradually acclimate yourself to Egyptian food, sticking for the first few days with blandish, hot vegetable and rice dishes. So, in retrospect, the consequences of our ordering a spicy, meat and olive filled baked Egyptian pancake should have been foreseen. Instead, like Icaurus, we grew too bold, based on our early successes with falafels, shwarmas and kebobs, and flew too close to the poop sun.The result was a day spent in our hotel, sleeping, groaning and making trips to the little pharoah’s room.

Besides that, today’s only other development was a change in our living arrangements. Our booking at the King Tut Hostel expired today and so we switched over to the quaint Pensioni Roma. Located in a 1930’s era building, with hardwood floors and pre-air conditioning era 20 foot ceilings, it’s a charming throw back to old Cairo. The staff are friendly and speak great english and our room even has a nice balcony overlooking the street (though how much we’ll like that come bed time remains to be seen).

We’re already feeling better than we did at the start of the day, so tomorrow we plan to head out once again and explore the ancient Coptic Christian quarter of the city. Among other things, it contains Ancient Roman architecture, a high quality museum and a church built on a site where Mary and Joseph supposedly rested with Baby Jesus during their flight from King Herod.

Hopefully, they stuck with rice and veggies on that trip.

Jason

Live from our satellite phone in Egypt!

Giza View 

Giza’s Million Dollar View

La shukran!

Me and Janine, 70-80 times today

The pyramids are the world’s oldest tourist trap. Four and a half millennia of drawing them in (everyone from Alexander the Great to Caesar to Napoleon) and milking them for everything they’ve got.

Good thing they’re worth the hassle.

The first hurdle is getting there. The famous Giza Pyramids (including the Great Pyramid of Khufu / Cheops) butt right up next to Cairo. But it’s still about a 40 minute drive to get there and since we didn’t feel quite brave enough to take on the Cairo public transportation system, that meant a cab.

That meant negotiating with a cabbie. Thanks to our guidebook we knew what the going rate was for locals to get to Giza (about 15 Egyptian pounds) and were able to haggle for a respectable tourist rate of 20 pounds.

Hop into the cab and hold onto something (seatbelts are non-existent in this town). In seconds, we’re whipping down the streets towards the Nile, dodging pedestrians, overloaded flatbeds and donkey carts; Arabic hip hop blaring out of the tape deck. 

We’re not even at Giza when we’re hit by our first scam artist. At a stop light a man walks up to the cab window and identifies himself as a hospital worker just heading home. He asks if he can share our cab as far as Giza and then continue on by himself, as he’s having a hard time hailing his own ride.

How can you say no to a guy who works at the hospital? Confirming with our driver that we won’t pay one extra cent for sharing the cab as far as Giza, we wave him in.

We’re suckers and he’s a tout.

At the infamous “back entrance” of Giza, he gets our cab to pull over. Here’s the way into the pyramids he says. Oh and he’s getting out here too! Turns out his home is right here and not further on past the site at all! Of course, we know that this entrance is “camel ride alley”, packed wall to wall with guys who swarm you with trinkets and offers to ride their camels around the pyramids, all at exorbitant prices. So we tell him no thanks, have a good day, and, in so many words, get the f**k out while we drive on to the real entrance.

You’ve almost got to be on top of the pyramids to see them through Cairo’s incredible smog. They say that breathing the air here is equivalent to smoking thirty cigarettes a day and we believe it. Today was the worst yet – it was hard to see the opposite bank of the Nile. But once you perceive them pyramids through the fog, you can’t help but feel your heart leap, and only partly from smog-induced asthma. They’re massive. Overwhelming. Napoleon’s engineers once calculated that if you took all the stone from them you could build a wall ten feet high and a foot thick all around France, which could have been a big help to them in WWII.

Once inside the Giza compound, you absolutely require two things – a good supply of water and a command of the Arabic phrase “la shukran”, meaning, “no thank you”. You will be saying this a lot as you are assailed by a variety of tourist touts – from the guys approaching you on camel back to offer rides, to the kids selling tin pyramids and plastic busts of King Tut (who wasn’t even buried in a pyramid) to the guy offering to pose with/whip/kiss his camel for your money. La shukran, la shukran, la shukran (though we did let the last guy kiss his camel before we said la shukran).

We were approached about 30 times on our stroll from Khufu’s Great Pyramid, past his cunning son Khafre’s slighly smaller version (but built on a hill top to make it appear larger than his dad’s), to the more diminuitive tomb of his grandson, Menkaure. Once you get used to saying no thanks and not breaking your stride, the touts mostly become colourful background music and don’t take away much from your ability to enjoy the experience.

Our one concession to Canadian manners is telling the touts where we’re from (almost always their first question). Their reaction is always the same.

Canada is not known far and wide for its peacekeepers, its clear lakes and streams, its politeness, or even its beer.

Canada is known for its ginger ale.

“Canada Dry!” every Egyptian exclaims upon hearing our nationality. Every Egyptian.

Giza is crowded at almost every vantage point and on a hot desert day, your fellow travellers can start to bug you almost as much as the sand, sweat and touts. But we found one little oasis that made the whole day worth while. On a rise just half a kilometer past Menkaure’s pyramid, where the desert begins to take back Giza from Cairo’s urban clutches, there is a perfect view of all three of the main pyramids, perfectly aligned one behind the other and three of the lesser pyramids. Nothing but sand, stone and blue sky.

We drop our packs, sit down and enjoy the view. Only a handful of other travellers have made it out here and they’re quietly savouring the panoram too. A cool breeze takes away the perspiration and you suddenly know that you’ve found one of those places that you’ll revisit in your memory time and again for the rest of your life.

I personally like to save return trips for my stints in the dentist’s chair.

After the plateau, Giza’s other wonders seemed almost anti-climactic. Even the noble Sphinx and the 180 meter tunnel crawl up to the dark middle chamber of Khufu’s giant pyramid seemed to pale in comparison to that magnificent and serene view of these man-made mountains.

Maybe for this reason, we decided to break with our original plan and leave the Giza complex at 2 p.m., making a run for the next famous site at Saqqara, where the very first pyramids was constructed. To get there would require some serious haggling though. But having warmed up with our cab ride out to Giza and after dealing with touts all day, we were as ready as we could be to bargain. We approached one driver – he was already hired. The next one points us to his neighbour, and suddenly cabbies start appearing almost out of the sand. “Where too? ”

“Saqqara, then wait for us until the site closes at 5 p.m. and then back to downtown Cairo!” (we want to sound confident and non-chalant at the same time.

“How much do you want to pay?”

“35 pounds.” (which we know is outrageous)

“OUTRAGEOUS!” they all shout, throwing hands in the air, rolling eyes in disbelief, etc.

We shrug.

“150 pounds, minimum!”

“Outrageous!” we exclaim. “We might do 40 but that’s pushing it.”

“Do you even know how far Saqqara is?!” they say incredulously. “120 and that is the best rate you’ll find anywhere from here to Cairo!”

“Of course we know how far Saqqara is! (we don’t). But look, we’ll either pay 50 to one of you or try our luck outside the Giza gates.” (I don’t want to try my luck outside the Giza gates. It looks scary outside the Giza gates).

They call our bluff.

We start walking to the gates.

One driver chases after us. We dance one last time and finally agree on 75 pounds. It’s a good rate. The drive to Saqqara alone takes 40 minutes. Our driver is pretty nice, stopping only once en route (a brief pull over during a traffic jam to grab sharwma from a street vendor – you should have heard the horns going on that one) and waits for a full hour and a half in the Saqqara parking lot until we’re done touring that amazing site.

The stepped pyramid of King Sozer glows gold against the setting sun as we are finally ushered out Saqqara by the machine gun-toting guards at the close of the day. In addition to the building that one art historian called the “birthplace of architecture”, we savour views of the incredible Dashur pyramids on the horizon – the Bent Pyramid, the Collapsed Pyramid, the Red Pyramid. Egypt’s deserts are stuffed to the brim with more unexplored wonders, though up close views of them will have to wait for another day.

Our cabbie only tries to scam us once on the way home. He tries to get us to go into a carpet shop. “Sorry,” we smile “we’re hungry and just want to go home. La shukran!”

When we finally get back to our hotel, our cabbie renegs on the 75 pound deal. Waving our 75 pounds in our face and demanding 150 “for the traffic!”.

Two days ago, his shouting and posturing might have intimidated us. But we’ve had our crash course in Basic Cairo Bargaining and Tout Avoidance 101 and we think we may even have passed the damn thing.

Hopping out into the Cairo night, we wave happily to the still-shouting driver and trot off towards our new favourite falafel joint.

“Shukran!”

 “Canada? Eh! Eh!”

– Local Cairene giving us his best Bob and Doug Mackenzie impression.

Oh jetlag.

At 4:30 a.m. I woke up and stayed awake for an hour and fifteen minutes.

I don’t know why. I only know that for an hour and fifteen minutes I tossed, turned, counted sheep, thought about the Price is Right (my favourite trick for catching some Z’s) and replayed the images from our first day in Cairo over and over again in my head. Nothing worked. Then, just as I was about to get up and start getting dressed for our early morning trip to the pyramids at Giza, I fell back to sleep and stayed that way until 10 a.m.

Oh, jetlag.

With a slightly abbreviated day now in front of us, we put off Giza and the pyramids for another day and instead headed to Cairo’s famous Museum of Antiquities, the world’s greatest collection of masterpieces from the ancient Egyptian world.

The museum is only a 20 minute walk from our hostel. The main obstacles to getting there are the owners of the papyrus shops across the street from the museum. We are skillfully caught by one when we get to within a few hundred metres of the museum. As we look around for the entrance, a friendly voice behind us says, “You are looking for the museum? The entrance is right over there.”

Having just had a friendly encounter with a non-vendor, who gave us some good advice on crossing the streets in Cairo (walk slowly – running only makes the drivers speed up), my guard is down and I say thank you.

Stupid Canadian.

Our new friend is only too happy to help he says. After all, his daughter gave him his first grandchild last night. “Congratulations!” we say.

Then the con is on. It just so happens that the museum ticket office is closed for a half hour for lunch.

Oh no!

But no worries, it also just so happens that our new friend owns the finest papyrus shop in Cairo. Come in and look around while you wait for the ticket office to reopen!

We look across the street and watch three large tour buses in a row pull through the gates of the museum.

We think we’ll wait outside the ticket office in the sun with all those poor suckers.

5% off! No, 50% off! And if we find any better papyrus in all of Egypt, we can get all our money back! “I must be crazy!” laughs the shop owner.

Then he rolls his eyes and explains, “The birth of my daughter’s son!”

Lying through our teeth, we promise to return after our visit to the museum and jog across the street to the visitors entrance. On the way across, over the roar of another convoy of tour buses pulling up to the gate, two more shop owners call out that the museum is closed .

We immediately purchase a ticket and go right in. So much for lunch breaks, though the bored soldiers guarding entrance look like they could use a little siesta.

If you’re used to European or North American museum standards, as we have become, the Antiquities Museum is a shock. First of all, its collection of mummies, collosal statuary, tablets, funerary materials and not to mention the incredible King Tut exhibit, is about 4 times too big for the building that houses it.

Masterpieces crowd together side by side, behind and in some cases one on top of the other. A unique statue of the pregnant hippo goddess, Tuaret, sits in a simple glass case, unmarked amidst a jumble of other items. The only mention of Israel in recorded Ancient Egyptian history sits on a neglected tablet behind a collosal statue of the great pharoah, Amenophis III.

Many priceless items have no descriptions whatsoever. Others are littered with typos (apparently, “glod” was a favourite precious metal in ancient Egypt). Most statues are out in the open, and can be rubbed and touched by the public. The signs say not to, but almost no guards patrol the corridors to enforce this rule. There’s no special lighting to speak of; just sporadically working florescent lightbulbs. What encasements there are bear a strong resemblence to your highschool’s trophy display case. Security is only as fancy as the small padlock at the bottom of the cabinet. Cracks in the glass are sometimes sealed over with scotch tape.

So picture displaying a collection of the world’s most important pieces of ancient art at an old YMCA gym and you’ve got the Egyptian Antiquities Museum.

Did I mention it’s wonderful?

You enter the building’s rotunda and are immediately surrounded by four massive statues of Ramses the Great, but you barely have time to notice them before you’re tripping over the Palette of Narmer, one of the most important works in all of Egyptian history, relating the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms.

Your eyes are immediately drawn to the back of the first hall where two 30 foot tall statues of a New Kingdom pharoah and his smiling queen are seated. But you want to do this tour in chronological order, so you instead start walking down a corridor full of relics from some of the very first Kings of Egypt. These are the men who built the pyramids – Djoser, Khafre, Khufu, Menekure. Khafre’s massive black granite statue (which would have it’s own room in the Louvre) shows the pharoah smiling serenely at eternity, while behind him the Falcon-headed god, Horus, shields the monarch under his spread wings.

Past wooden statues almost four thousand years old, past the intriguing, strange and beautiful statues of the heretical king Ahkenaton and his famous wife Nefertiti (tried to start his own religion and wipe out the old one – always tough), you mount the stairs to the Tutankahmun collection. This kid only ruled for Egypt for 9 years, yet the treasures they buried with him could fill their own museum. 4 gold inlaid sarcophogi, multiple gold chariots, beds, armaments, statues of the king and the gods. And then there’s the body itself – the famous pure gold inner coffins, the famous beaten gold funerary mask, the gold daggers, 5 large gold foil necklaces of varying designs, his Majesty’s gold slippers, dozen or more gold rings, and 3 gold thrones, to name a few.

Staring at this incomprehensible wealth of unfathomable age and beauty,

you forget for a second the bad lighting, poor climate control and

underwhelming security measures. You even forget the 40 pounds you spent on two cokes and two plates of french fries at the museum cafeteria earlier.

You forget all your surroundings and just stare.

And you’re really, really glad you came.

Jason

Live from our satellite phone in Egypt!

“Metropolis of the world, garden of the universe, meeting-place of nations, ant-hill of peoples, high place of Islam, seat of power.”

– Ibn Kahldun’s description of Cairo, 1382

“Hey, that’s a donkey.”

– Jason, hearing a change in the traffic pattern outside his window, 5:20 a.m., 2007

I’m sorry, but Cairo is full right now.

Cairo has no more room left for cars. It’s streets are for the most part narrow, with a few large boulevards thrown in for good measure.

Sidewalks are for show. Literally. They are clogged with store merchandise, vendors, carts and motorcycles. On the streets, drivers make their way through the crowds of strolling people with one hand on the wheel and one hand pressed firmly down on the horn. Flow of traffic is determined by size – the largest vehicle determines which way the traffic goes. Smaller vehicles and motorbikes compensate for this disadvantage with speed and agility, weaving between people, donkey carts, vendor stalls, kalishnikov-toting policemen and triple parked cars as quickly as possible. On the boulevards, one takes the number of cars meant to drive abreast and doubles it. There seems to be no point honking your horn, but the Cairenes do it anyway. All of them. At the same time. Until the air is filled with a blaring wail of a hundred different off-key notes. Sleeping through it is roughly akin to trying to catch a nap at the warm up session of a bag pipers’ convention.

So, sorry to any new cars wanting to visit Cairo. Please come back later.

Cairo is full of people. Dressed in every fashion, from business suits

to linen robes, colourful to black and white, expensive to poor. No one sits still – unless it’s for a smoke or a game of backgammon. Yet people are friendly (perhaps there’s no choice when you live in such close proximity to one another), and the words “Welcome!” and “Hallo!”

were the most common we heard.

The streets absolutely seethe with human activity – kids deliver trays of drinks from shop to shop, where tradesmen make baskets, saddles, musical instruments, chicken coop fencing and furniture. Vendors hawk fish, fruit, bbq’d corn, live geese and pigeons, and less glamorously, dvds, socks, flip flops and knock-off sunglasses. Every cart, whether pulled by man or beast, is overfilled and brimming – whether with bales of sheepskin, carpets, sofas or column-sized bundles of pens. One bicyclist rattles down the roughly paved street with a 4 by 6 chicken coop balanced on his head. Several people walk by with bamboo racks, also balanced on their heads, piled impossibly high with fresh pita bread. Through it all, weave the cats, dogs and goats, all stray, making a living off whatever’s left over or left unattended. The only relent is at prayer time. But after this brief downbeat, the streets are twice as frenzied and you have to push even harder to make your way to the front of the line at the bakery and the take-away restaurants/street stalls.

So I’m sorry to anyone who got here after us. But you’ll have to come back later. One more body stuffed into Cairo and it could explode like a game of Perfection with all the organs still inside the patient.

Also – no more smells in Cairo please. A visitor to the medieval city once said that the whole place smelled like baked brick. Modern Cairo has added a few hundred items to that list. For the most part, they are all subsumed in the worst car pollution we’ve ever experienced – it’s like being in a full underground parking garage where every car is an idling 1970’s giant chevy. Occassionally seperable from this soupy blend are the pleasant odours of fresh fish, herbs and spices, glowing coals and roasting meat; and the less pleasant odours of unfresh fish, old garbage, and donkey poop.

All new smells are asked to take a number and wait in the order they are called. Roses, will receive special priority.

Cairo is full of holy places. The minarets rise to the sky like ripe stalks of wheat, browning in the sun. In the medieval Islamic quarter, you can throw a stone from one to the next. But when you walk beneath their grandly arched entrances to the quiet (oh so quiet!) white marbled courtyards inside; gaze at the gold and ivory arabesques extolling the virtures of Allah in a thousand artistic variations; and climb to the roof to savour a peaceful view of the domes and minarets in the setting sun, you know that God is indeed great and you wouldn’t begrudge him a couple more places like this. Especially if he’d trade them for a few million cubic tonnes of car exhaust.

Cairo is full of life. It’s dirty and noisy and crazy and it’s challenging us as much or more than we thought it would. But even after one day it’s blaring and shoving its way into our hearts.

Jason

“So, so we have an understanding?”

The KLM shift supervisor trying to placate the irate man sitting next to me.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. We are, at long last, in the heart of Cairo. We have just arrived at the King Tut Hostel after 28 hours of travel.

Being on the move for that length of time is a bizarre phenomenon.

Disturbed sleep patterns, shifting time zones and wildly changing environments conspire to make the whole experience rather surreal.

We bore wide grins as we boarded a montrous blue KLM 747 at 6 p.m. on the 13th, bound for Amsterdam. Giddiness battled with fatigue from a short sleep the night before Farewell phone calls and last minute blog updates had kept us up until 3 a.m.

I sat next to a chatty early 40s Iranian man, gong back home to bring his new wife with him to Canada, where he has a successful restaurant in Kingston. His friendliness increased as he pounded back the double vodkas. (He’s a nervous flier, he tells me.) I eyed him warily as he instigated a rather embarrassing and lengthy altercation with the flight attendant over their refusal to offer him unlimited buns with his meal.

The supervisor had to be called in. At last the vodka got the best of him and he drifted off to sleep. When he awoke some time later with a headache, Jason offered to fetch some Aspirin from the flight attendant.

“The gentleman beside us has a headache,” he expained to her. “Too much bread.” The poor beleaguered woman burst into laughter and handed over the pills.

With our lights and sound systems both offline, Jason and I closed our eyes too, admitting defeat as we were reading Dutch subtitles to the latest Catherine Zeda Jones flick with no earphones.

Fourteen hours in Amsterdam left us with a decision. Go into town knowing we would hit a wall of fatigue or kill time at the airport.

Starting off on the right foot, we added “intrepid” to “traveller” and hopped on the train for Amsterdam Centraal.

We chose a stroll through the old town described in the guidebook.

Within 2 minutes we were lost. Deliberately and blissfully. We turned left because it looked like a cool street. Buildings leaned in over a narrow coblestone street wth hooks at the very top on booms. What are those for? We never found out.

Wandering through the steets, we ogled gorgeous gothic churches and less-than-gorgeous prostitutes, in one case, the two being across a narrow lane from each other.

The red light district was a surprise. The streets are quaint, the buildings have the same great character as those throughout th downtown.

The canals are just as charming as the backdrop to red light streets.

That beautifully carved door just happens to belong to a store selling mushrooms and weed.

A lovely engraved sign above a brass-handled glass door advertises “Prostitute Information”.

The store windows are the size of doors, with red velvet curtains, each containing a bored-looking prostitute in scanty clothing, perched on a wooden bar stool, smoking a cigarette. Business is slow at 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday.

No such thing as detached houses in Amsterdam. Row houses 6 stories tall line the streets. Walk-ups, I imagine. We pass a moving truck with an ingenious contraption. A platform monted on a steep ramp, kind of like a funicular, that is loaded with boxes before being zipped up the ramp to a 3rd story floor window where it is unloaded. Smart.

Bicycles are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. The streets and bridges are adorned with locked bikes, smetimes several deep. People of all ages peddle by with efficiency down the narrow streets and bridges. Cars have a much more difficult time. The logic of bike travel is undeniable. We don’t notice a single obese person on our day in Amsterdam, and no wonder!

Fading fast, we stop to get a second wind and a warm up with a cup of tea and a sandwich in a cafe by the university. It worked, but we know it won’t last.

We head for the Anne Frank house before making our way back to the airport.

The house is unremarkable. Store-rooms and offices face the street and the canal in front. But behind and hidden from the street is the annex.

Cleverly disguised behind a bookcase is a narrow staircase leading to the top 2 floors where Anne and seven other people lived in cramped fear of discovery for 2 years.

On one hand I am suprised at the amount of space, but when you picture 8 people in there, with no breaks, no fresh air, no privacy, and during the day the requirement for absolute silence, you realize the poor souls were imprisoned by the Nazis long before the betrayal of their hiding place and their journeys to Bergen Belsen and Auschwitz. Only Anne’s father survived the camps. Anne herself died one heartbreaking month before the liberation of Bergen Belsen.

A quote painted on the wall of the house sent shivers down my spine. It went something like this: “Of all the stories of persecution and suffering, her voice has endured. It is good that we cannot know all the stories of the Jews because we could not bear the weight.”

Our minds on Anne, we strolled back through the jello of fatigue to the train station, climbed aboard and sank into to a blissful nap as the train pulled out of the station.

Opening a single bleary eye 15 minutes later, the sign outside the stopped train window read (something) airport. (i.e. NOT Schlipol, which we were looking for). Still, Jason asked a boarding stranger just as the first whistle blew for impending departure. “You’re at Schlipol”, he answered with a bemused grin. “The train’s pulling out in less than 30 seconds!”

WHAT!? We flew to the door and lept off the train with great drama, if not grace, just a moment before the doors closed. Whew! Good nap, though.

2:30 p.m. at the airport with the flight for Cairo leaving at 9 p.m.

Time to hunker down. We had scouted out “comfort seats” before – 50 recliners set in pairs in a quiet-ish corner of the airport, mostly filled with dozing fellow travellers. Hazaa! There were some free.

Before long there were zzzzz’s floating above our heads.

At 6:30 p.m. we reluctantly vacated our recliners to get a bite to eat and get to the gate. On the plane, Jason pored over the guide book and phrase book praparing to launch our assault on a new continent. Less than an hour from Cairo the Nile delta and the lights of Alexandria stretched in an arc below us.

Stepping down from the plane, warmth, humidity and strangeness wrapped around us. With our bags in town, we had our first task at hand: find a way to the hotel at 3 a.m.

A gentleman held a sign “Laura Gonzales, King Tut Hostel.” Aha! That’s our hotel! Before even meeting Laura we had already invited ourselves to share her cab. Laura and Celiea were from Mexico. After intros and some initial confusion (she thought we were asking to share her room, not her cab) we piled into the tiny car (six of us, including the hotel guy and his driver) with luggage. Perched on Jason’s lap, we squished into the back seat and headed for downtown, the overstuffed car crunching over the bumps.

The adventure begins tomorrow and I can’t wait to get out there!

Janine

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Hopefully, we’ll get to shave and bathe more in Egypt than we did on the tundra.

You look so relaxed!

Everyone (projecting, we think)

We’re delighted to say that the big day is finally upon us. After five months of exploring the corners of this incredible country, and savouring each moment with family and friends, tomorrow we embark on our journey overseas. After a 14 hour layover in Amsterdam, at 2:15 a.m. Egypt time on Thursday we will be arriving bleary-eyed in Cairo, soaking in new languages, new foods, and new places for sand to reside on our person.

It has been a wild ride the last 5 months. In the innumerable wild places of Canada, we have stood in awe of a vast tundra teeming with life in the North, sprawling glaciers and lofty mountain passes in the West, jagged coastlines and crashing breakers right out of Fantasia in the East. As we leave, our hearts are still ringing with the laughter of our friends and family, the games played with children, the great parties and the savoured quiet times; the warmth and support of old friends and the new ones we’ve been lucky enough to collect on our travels.

For those of you who have been following our blog, thank you for being with us every step of the way. Your comments and emails make our day each and every time. For those of you who haven’t had a chance yet, now’s the time – it’s about to get pretty darn interesting (I hope!)

Jason and Janine

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Caribou Antlers on Aberdeen Lake

Hi Everyone,

For those of you who were following our 6 week adventure across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut by canoe this summer, we’ve consolidated all the posts relating to the Elk and Thelon River Trip on one page. You can check it out here. Just be careful of the wolf pups. They’ll kill ya.

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For those of you who were following our adventures in Newfoundland on the East Coast Trail, we’ve now put the complete story of love, betrayal and ducks in proper chronological order on its own page with pics! Enjoy it here.

I know we said we were retired, but this is ridiculous.

Janine

When we had first met Debbie and Junior Dunne a week earlier, we couldn’t conceive of taking them up on their offer.

The couple owns and manages the Alderwood Estates, a newly renovated 60 room retirement centre overlooking the south arm of Witless Bay. On the suggestion of a family friend, we had stopped into Alderwood on our way to the trailhead at the beginning of our trip to see if we could leave one of our food drops there. My previous experiences with old age homes had left me with the impression that they were all essentially utility-grade hospitals. So, when we entered Alderwood’s sunny main foyer, we were shocked. Water burbled quietly in a riverstone fountain that cascaded down one wall. Directly ahead of us, a spacious dining room looked out over a harbour that in the summer time is home to humpback whales, icebergs and hundreds of thousands of migrating sea birds. Tasteful, local artwork decorated the hallways and every panel of hardwood flooring seemed to gleam warmly.

We’d have moved in in a heartbeat.

Debbie and Junior wore the excited/tired expressions of people whose life work was two weeks away from its grand opening. But that didn’t stop them from dropping everything they were doing to give us the grand tour. They stored our food bag with care in the front entrance but looked at it with some concern. “When you come back, you should stop in for a cup of tea and something to eat,” said Junior.

“Yes, and stay the night,” added Debbie. “We’ve still got plenty of empty rooms. You’ll need a night in a bed after all that hiking.”

We thanked them for offer but confidently assured them that we wouldn’t add anymore burdens, including ourselves, to their shoulders. When we got back into the car with Uncle Jack to continue our drive to the Cappahayden trailhead, we laughed at the idea of (a) actually imposing on someone like that and (b) despite our proclamation that we are on “Temporary Early Retirement”, actually staying in a retirement home.

It’s amazing what a week on the trail can do for your attitudes about such things. After seven days of acclimatizing to the generosity and good-nature of the Southern Shore people, we had no doubts when we reached Witless Bay’s neighboring community of Mobile that Debbie and Junior’s offer was both genuine and yet another opportunity to make new friends on this hike.

In the fading mid-October light, we tramped off the trailhead in Mobile, tired and soggy. After stopping at a house for directions, we made our way to the town’s convenience store. There, as I devoured the first of two ice-cream sandwiches and chatted with the lady working the counter, Janine called Debbie, first at her work number, then, with some hesitation, at home.

We caught them right at dinner.

Janine’s hesitant inquiries about whether the offer of a room was still on the table were greeted by Debbie with an enthusiastic yes. They’d been expecting us. “Our room” was ready and there was freshly made stew in the kitchen. Debbie could tell where we were in Mobile from her call display and, with an order to stay where we were till she got where we were to, she hung up the phone and drove out to get us.

What a difference an hour makes. Sixty minutes after exchanging hugs with Debbie in the store parking lot (Debbie hugs you like she’s known you for years), we sat in the Alderwood dining room; freshly showered with our filthy hiking clothes spinning contentedly in housekeeping’s washing machines. As we dipped giant pieces of homemade buttered bread into steaming bowls of irish stew, our soaked camping gear lay drying in the spacious double room with large ensuite that Debbie and Junior had set aside for us. When we could eat no more, we ate more. Then, dessert – a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies baked by the residents earlier that day.

Finally, at one point Janine and I made eye contact with each other and burst into laughter.

“I know we said we were retired, but this is ridiculous.”

I agreed. Either someone up there was smiling down on me, or I was seriously going to pay for this somewhere down the road.

***

“Ow.”

After a hearty breakfast with Debbie and the residents at Alderwood (at least two of whom thought we were the latest couple to move in), we had set out in bright sunshine for the next community on the ECT, Bay Bulls. In the span of just one evening and a morning, we’d grown so close to Debbie and Junior that they felt like old friends. And as we exchanged hugs and handshakes, we promised them that we’d drive back to Witless Bay for Alderwood’s grand opening next week.

Laughing and sharing stories from the night before, we walked the scenic 7 km to Bay Bulls along a section of the trail called Mickeleens Path in just under 2 hours. A ride around Bay Bulls’ lengthy harbour was granted courtesy of Clothilda, a beaming woman who responded to my offer to pay her for the ride with a booming “Not a friggin’ ting!”. An hour and a half later, we stood on a high headland in front of the Bay Bulls lighthouse after a rolling hike past the colourful local landmarks of Bread and Cheese Hill and a fat, 40 foot tall sea stack known as The Pulpit. The simple white lighthouse stood like an ivory spike marking the end of the Bay. And while it contrasted against a blue sky and sea for now, a fast-moving front of grey cloud roiled towards us in the distance. We decided to take a snack break and enjoy the view while we had it and before we were forced to break out the gore-tex. Anyway, I’d been developing a pain in my right knee since the first hour of the hike today. A rest couldn’t hurt that either. We plunked down near the ruins of the lightkeeper’s house and broke out the chocolate and trail mix.

As soon as I got up, 20 minutes later , I knew something wasn’t right. Even just bending my right leg to put on rainpants in the increasingly poor weather was sending little knives of pain down the back of my leg. As we set out for the ruins of the abandoned fishing village of Freshwater, a scenic collection of stone foundations and walkways near a natural waterslide running down to the sea, I was having trouble putting downward weight on it all.

By the time we reached Freshwater, a kilometer later, I was walking like Terry Fox – just with less courage and more whining.

We sat on the little bridge over the swift flowing Freshwater river and discussed our options. The next stretch of trail – 30 km to the town of Petty Harbour – was one of the best for scenery on the whole ECT. Sea stacks and arches stretching hundreds of feet from the water, bald eagles by the truckload nesting in the spruce trees, a rushing geyser called The Spout caused by the ocean tides pushing a river back up through the tiny hole through which it drains into the Atlantic. But it was also one of the most remote sections on the whole East Coast Trail – no easy ways out if we got half way through and changed our minds.

Not the best place to blow out a knee.

The hail was easing off and it looked like the sun could break through again. After such a restful night at Alderwood, we were excited to finish the trail and walk into St. John’s. Two or three more nights could do it. But we couldn’t help but think too of all the trekking we had in front us – desert hiking in the Sinai, gorilla trekking in Uganda, climbing Kilimanjaro. One torn up knee could take away all of that.

Maybe someone had been trying to tell us something with the Alderwood sojourn. Maybe it was time to retire.

***

“What are you doin’?” asked Wayne, leaning out his window with a drink in his hand.

We were retreating. In my case, literally limping back into Bay Bulls, looking for a phone from which to call my Uncle Jack, who I would beg to make the 40 minute drive from his house out to Bay Bulls to pick us up.

Wayne soaked in this explanation along with another sip of his drink. Then he blinked and said, “Sure you can come in and use my phone. And I got a buddy here who’s goin’ to St. John’s in a few minutes. He can probably drive you in.”

Perhaps feeling that further explanation was necessary, Wayne continued with a wink, “I’d drive ye myself. But I’m on the rum.”

***

An hour later, we’re standing on the door of my mother’s town house in Mount Pearl, waving good bye to Chris, a sea captain just back in town from a stint laying telecom cabling on the ocean floor off the Orkney Islands. As Chris’s jeep pulls away, he gives a final tap on his horn to us and flicks on his headlights in the growing darkness.

We stand for a minute on mom’s porch, perhaps a little shocked that our hike is actually over. We’re disappointed at the sudden ending. But we know it’s the right choice. It’s been an amazing adventure, and thanks to the people we’ve met along the way, it’s also been a bowl of chicken soup for the soul. A reminder that most people are nice, that most people help others and that most people will give you a lift, drop you off some fish and chips or feed you chocolate chip cookies made by senior citizens.

That last stretch of East Coast Trail isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s nice to have something to look forward to for our next trip. But for now, it’s time to get in out of the cold, light mom’s fireplace and start rummaging through her liquor cabinet.

We knock on the door.

Mom’s not home.

We don’t have a key.

Maybe our East Coast Trail adventure isn’t over after all.

While I continue to stare at the door with an expression of intense stupidity, Janine barely misses a beat. Snapping on her gloves and balaclava, she roots through her backpack until she comes out with our campstove and a pack of matches.

“Cup of tea?”

Yis. C’mon!

Keith, getting back in his truck

A little sun, a little blue sky, a little calm on the ocean, and Flamber Head moves quickly from intimidating to inspiring.

It may be overdoing it to say we were spooked by the landmark’s moodiness the previous night. But as we left camp late the morning after that first encounter, we felt a need to walk out on the peninsula again, if not for better photographs then only to ensure we parted Flamber with pleasant memories. The weather did its part. After a night of periodic rains, the emerging sun was a blessing on our soggy clothes and gear. And in the yellow light, with the ocean blue now, not a matted green-grey, it was easier to picture dayhikers picnicking and watching whales from Flamber Head then to imagine freighters and mariners being smashed to bloody and metallic pieces beneath the watch of its imposing granite sea stack.

Rounding Cape Neddick, where a hawk warned us to enjoy the view but not to get too close to its eyrie, we walked into the remains of the abandoned village of La Manche. Though the community in this snug, deep cove was destroyed by a tidal wave in 1966, La Manche remains one of the prettiest points of interest on the trail. Amongst the slate foundations of the little homes that once housed more than 50 people , we enjoyed a restful lunch beside a reconstructed foot bridge that spans the narrowest part of the cove where the tumbling La Manche river falls into the sea. I’ve often seen 2 or 3 seals here, feeding on the befuddled trout that are tossed into the cove by the river.

A half hour’s walk past La Manche, we reached the quadret of villages known as Bauline East. The clouds and cold weather returned just as we passed a small cafe. We interpreted this as a sign from God that we were to have a cup of tea and enjoy the cafe’s superb view of the islands making up the famous Witless Bay Seabird Ecological Reserve. In the summer time, more than 250,000 Puffins mate, nest and poop here (in foggy weather, they say you can smell the islands before you can see them). Our favourite island is named “Pee Pee”, shaped like a quarter chicken with the drumstick portion called “The Leg” and the thigh portion called “The Arse”.

It hadn’t been a terribly hard day so far, in terms of distance. But the late, damp start had made it feel otherwise and we were reluctant to leave the cafe and get back on the road. Things were made a little easier when Janine charmed Keith, who had just pulled into his driveway after dropping off his son at a friend’s house a couple of communities away, into getting back in his truck and giving us a ride through Bauline to the trail head at Tors Cove. On the way, he told us about his and his brother’s bird- and whale-watching business and the growing number of foreigners buying up property on this scenic stretch of shore. Some of the newcomers are less open to having people cross their newly purchased land for hiking and berry picking and this is a strange thing for the lifelong residents to understand.  Still, Keith drives us as far down to the trail as he dares, and waves off our offer of some money for his trouble with a friendly curse and a threat to never give someone a ride again if we give him any cash.

***

The 5 km walk from Tors Cove to Mobile is one of the easiest on the loop, with the trail closely following the low coastline alongside cobblestone beaches and rolling seaside meadows, pleasant even in the fading warmth and light of a mid-October evening. The next community of Witless Bay is only 2 km away by road but another 7 by the trail. As we walk from the trailhead towards highway 10, we know we won’t make it before dark.  And unlike the Rockies, with its smooth, firmly packed trails, the ECT is no place to be walking after dark.

Before this trip started, we would never have dreamed of doing what we’re about to do. But a week among the people of the Southern Shore has stretched the boundaries of our sense of propriety and lowered our shame standards.

Time to call the Retirement Home.

(to be continued…)

Jason

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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