06th June 2009

I am sitting in a beach bar in Dahab at four in the afternoon demolishing a seafood buffet with an audience of two optimistic cats. I have half of bulimia down pat.

My time in Egypt is almost over. It has been eventful. My companion for virtually the entire stay in Egypt was a laconic Frenchman with the decidedly un-French name of Jonathan Brady. Having travelled by myself for 3 months, it was strange to have someone else in the car. He was great company - relaxed and positive, with a fantastic photographic eye. He also took his pastings on the chessboard like a man.

Some Numbers
32 - Total number of days
9 – Nights sleeping on the ground
4 – Nights on boats
3 – Nights on the roof of the car
24 - Temples visited
2 - Mountains climbed
3 - Dives

Egypt has a long and fascinating history. Its strategic location has made it the object of numerous conquests - by the Ptolemies, Romans, Greeks, Fatimids, Arabs, Mamluks, Ottomans, and Napoleon. The most recent conquerors, the British, withdrew in 1954.

What most people associate with Egypt is the the Pharaonic civilisation that lasted for an astonishing 3000 years until the arrival of Alexander. You may be interested to know that the word Egypt is a corruption of the ancient Egyptian name Hikuptah, meaning "Home of the soul of Ptah". Or you may not.

As usual, I traipsed round every historic site in the book. My favourites:

  • The temple at Philae, with its enchanting island setting.
  • Medinet Habu. I found it more impressive than Karnak, which is a bit of a mess.

  • The temple of Horus at Edfu. Very well preserved with stunning reliefs. Most of the reliefs are of a pharaoh with a raised mace about to crush the skull of a conquered enemy. Another favourite is a pharaoh driving a chariot over a group of bound captives.
  • Dashur. The pyramids are almost the same size as those at Giza. There are no tourists and you can climb down a shaft into the heart of the Red pyramid.
  • The tomb of Ramses VI. Ten times more impressive than Tutankhamnun’s. Makes you wonder what must have been in the greatest tombs before the grave robbers got to them.

    In Defense of the Great Satan
    Sartre said that Hell is other people. I would say that Hell is certain other people. One of these people is Rodrigo, a Bolivian who I was forced to spend a day with in Alexandria.

    Quite apart from raping my ears with bad reggae, Rodrigo forced on me his theory that swine flu in Mexico is a CIA conspiracy to quell a resurgent South America, which he claimed is rallying to the banner of ranting arch-cretin Hugo Chavez.

    God's foot. I left my friends, my family, my culture, people who listen to me and proper comedy – for this? Some things are almost beyond satire. Every single person you meet travelling is perched on the edge of their seat, ready to give you their version of the "all Americans are idiots" speech. This is starting to get on my nerves. They are wrong and worse, unoriginal.

    As the fortunate owner of two passports, I have chosen to travel the Middle East as a representative of Austria, land of singing nuns and edelweiss. This means I can defend the yanks from a notionally neutral standpoint.

    It's fine to have a go at individual Americans like Bush, although attacking a target that easy is simply redundant. When the stupid fish jumps right into the barrel, you don’t have to shoot it.

    Their record is by no means perfect, but when it comes to large-scale corruption, torture, imprisonment of political opponents and suppression of religious freedoms the Americans are way down the list of offenders. The only reason we hear about Guantanemo is that freedom of the press actually exists in America.

    “America is the most racist and anti-gay country on earth” he bellows. Oh really? Why don't you have a go at cottaging in Tehran for a couple of weeks and see how you get on.

    The irony of a South American attacking the United States for human rights abuses was lost on Rodrigo. The fact is that when you think of America it brings to mind an image of wealth and power, whether you like it or not. Latin America conjures up the image of an unshaven army colonel in aviators attaching a car battery to a student’s testicles.

    My only reward was the guppy-faced outrage of a nitwit whose worthless secular idols are mocked. I did my best to placate him - “I say, steady on Rodrigo, there’s a good chap. It’s only Mexico, after all. Life goes on”.

    I loved Cairo. The city is full of life. The streets clamour with the sound of car horns, barking dogs, crying children and the shouts of street vendors; the call to prayer echoes across the rooftops from the minarets and the smells of food, spices and rotting garbage waft down the tiny alleyways.

    "The Tale of the Jewish Physician" from the 1001 Arabian Nights, has this description: "He who hath not seen Cairo hath not seen the world: her soil is gold, her Nile is a marvel; her women are like the black-eyed hoors of Paradise; her houses are palaces; and her air is soft, more odorous than aloes-wood, rejoicing the heart. And how can Cairo be otherwise when she is the Mother of the World?"

    For me, the highlight is Islamic Cairo - one of the wonders of the world and unjustly neglected by tourists. Not all of the mosques are officially open to the public but my beard seems to be making it easier for me to get in. I have developed a real liking for Islamic architecture, especially the Andalusian style favoured by the Hispanic Moors, with its calm inner courtyards and beautiful tilework.

    The calls to prayer from the city's many minarets are wonderfully atmospheric. The sound of 15 or 20 mosques all going off at once makes for a haunting chorus in the early evening. There was a great moment of human comedy one afternoon. The Imam starts the call to prayer, then suddenly stops, taps the microphone and mutters an approximation of "Is this thing on?". Not realising that he is still being broadcast across town, he launches into a profanity-laced rant aimed at the guy who was supposed to fix the broadcast system, his family, and a number of other local notables. People in the coffee shop were literally falling down on the ground laughing until someone at the mosque finally put a stop to the disaster.

    Best Moments

  • Seeing the whirling dervishes. Touristy, but I really enjoyed it.

  • Walking along the corniche in Alexandria. The crumbling facades of the colonial buildings give the city an air of faded glory. Arabs just don't get the concept of maintenance. They build something, then they run it down until it’s totally knackered, then they build a new one.

  • Two days exploring Islamic Cairo.

  • A day at the beach in Mersa Matruh. Great weather, a beautiful beach and a pretty companion.

  • Driving round the western desert without a guide. We got stuck in sand, got lost, broke down and ran out of fuel, all within 10 hours. Weirdly, we had a great time. It was reminiscent of expeditions with my father, who was also a fan of heading out with minimal survival skills, no knowledge of the territory and the wrong equipment.

  • The first glimpse of the Giza pyramids between two skyscrapers.

  • Visiting Cavafy's house. Constantine Cavafy was an excellent Greek poet who lived above a brothel in Alexandria. "Where could I live better?" he said, "Below, the brothel caters to the flesh and over there is the church which forgives sin". Indeed.

  • The felucca cruise from Aswan to Kom-Ombo. Three blissful days drifting down the nile, watching sunsets and sleeping on deck

  • Learning to freedive in Dahab.

  • Camping out in the dunes near Farafra. We polished off a bottle of vodka and had a lightpainting competition with our torches. Photos not suitable for minors.

  • Drinking tea under an ancient olive tree near Rosetta, which I was told is 2500 years old. The thought that Alexander might have sat in the shade of this exact same tree really appealed to me.

  • Swimming at the Magic Spring in the desert near Dakhla Oasis.

  • Spending the night at the top of mount Sinai. We were the only ones there for the stunning sunset. Worth all 3750 steps to get there.

    Worst moments
  • Seeing this huge desert spider creep up on me at our camp near Kharga. Having slept quite happily on the ground for months, this encounter resulted in Jo sleeping in the car and me cowering on the roof.

  • The day you break a rib is the day that people who never playfully punch you in the stomach start playfully punching you in the stomach.

  • Driving in the desert near El Alemein. "Look at the pretty cairns", says I to a local I had picked up, pointing at the piles of stones by the side of the road. "Rocks show where are landmines", comes the reply. Ah. There are apparently still around 17 million mines in the northern desert, which kill and maim Beduins to this day.

  • Discovering that dancing is on my list of can't-do activities (the rib). Clubbers, your long nightmare is over.

  • Pressed white shirt, red pasta sauce - we meet again, old foe. In a perfect world, all meals would come in a KFC bucket and utensils would be forbidden.

    Culinary Highlights
  • Koshari – The Egyptian national dish, a combination of rice, macaroni, spaghetti, lentils, chickpeas, caramelised onions and tomato sauce. I ate it almost every day. It varies from sublime to inedible.
  • Fish at Abashan. Alexandria has the best fish restaurant in Egypt and possibly the world. You go into the main hall with a basket, and you fill it from vats with contain whatever was caught that day. My standard combination was a quarter kilo of deep fried calamari, a quarter kilo of grilled prawns and a whole baked seabass. Total cost – four pounds.
  • Curry in Dahab. An Indian expat has opened a curry-house called Nirvana. The cottage cheese curry is a dream.
  • Fresh juices. In every town there are juice shops which will put together any combination you like. Fabulous. My recommendation – prune juice.

    El Alemein
    I really enjoyed the little-visited museum at El Alemein. It was interesting to read about a war fought in such a spirit of respect and good sportsmanship. Both sides always ensured that losing forces had enough water and medical supplies. "War without hate", Rommel called it.

    My favourite exhibits were these mock-ups of a German and an English soldier. It gives you some idea of how Egyptians see the two countries:

    Here we have the German Afrika Corps soldier, grinning and looking like a male model at an S&M party.

    And this is the plucky British squaddie, shovelling food into his mouth like an escaped mental patient.

    The first thing you notice is that Egypt is a poor nation. It is also the most populous country in Africa with 80 million people. This rapidly-growing population continues to overtax its scarce resources.

    Like much of the Muslim world, the country has experienced a popular religious resurgence in the past decade, the most visible manifestation of which is the adoption of Islamic dress by virtually all Egyptian women. Egypt plays a pivotal role in the Arab world's cultural and political development. Trends in Egypt are a barometer of the latest ideas in Islamic thought and culture and the country is thus constantly under the world's diplomatic microscope.

    Another North African country, another democratic dictatorship. Egypt has a rigid super-presidential system in which all power resides with Hosni Mubarak. He has been governing through uninterrupted emergency law since 1981.

    Torture and intimidation are trademarks of the Mubarak regime. Egyptian police routinely round up ‘suspects’ and subject them to beatings. Prisoners who die in prison are judged to have died from natural causes by government-employed medical examiners.

    Corruption is also endemic in Egyptian society. Egyptian politics is essentially an unseeminly jostling and elbowing match to see who gets the next turn at the trough that is public service. The major problem is that nobody with connections is ever made to pay for their crimes, leading to institutionalised corruption. Now that I think about it, "corruption" suggests that there is something, a legitimate system, that gets corrupted. In Egypt, corruption is the system.

    In the meantime, the poor unfortunates at the bottom of the rickety social ladder get royally screwed, like when a property developer decides that a slum area would be a nice spot for a hotel and arranges an ‘Italian barbecue’ to clear space for it.

    Relations with the west
    Egypt receives $2.2bn of US foreign aid per year and is the third-largest recipient of such funds. Egypt could not survive withut this money and the government is effectively an American dependency. However, the man in the street identifies more with Ahmadinejad than Mubarak and there is a strong feeling that the Moslem brotherhood would win any free elections.

    This puts Mubarak in a very tricky spot. He has to keep the Americans happy, while placating the vast majority of Egyptians and his Arab neighbours who oppose American foreign policy in the Middle East. It is remarkable in a way that he has managed to keep things going all these years. He allows the Muslim Brotherhood some freedom, while suppressing the secular democratic opposition. This creates the illusion of openness, pushes the Islamists into cooperating with the state and offers leverage against the US.

    US foreign policy is nominally trying to achieve two mutually exclusive goals: democracy and stability. Thus we have a charade in which the Americans talk about change but in fact far prefer this autocratic, incompetent and hopelessly corrupt regime to a true democracy.

    There is the distinct possibility of a succession crisis when Mubarak (now aged eighty) departs the scene. Meanwhile, the threat of an Islamist revolution lurks in the background. Egypt icould well be the next domino to fall.

    News & the UK
    I have access to an internet connection with decent bandwidth for the first time in months, and I have been using the opportunity to catch up on news that I’ve missed. Jade Goody? Susan Boyle? Christ, the news sucks. Apart from the usual focus on preening non-entities, it seems that being ugly is now some kind of ironic road to celebrity.

    Most depressing of all was the story that following the Champions League final, a Nigerian Manchester United fan in Lagos went on a rampage and killed 4 Nigerian Barcelona fans. This puts my contempt for nationalists in context. The notion that some people are better simply because of the bit of ground they were born on is pathetic enough, but the idea of a Nigerian Man-U fan murdering Nigerian Barcelona fans – give me strength.

    It seems the G20 protests were a monumental let-down. I didn't pay my licence fee for 10 years so that I can watch news coverage of peaceful protests. I want the streets submerged in rivers of hippy blood.

    I was hoping that perhaps Brown had taken to wearing a patch over his glass eye and declared war on Belgium. No such luck. He plows on, digging an ever-deeper hole for himself and the rest of us. Think of the economy as the aging porn star, Brown as the fluffer, quantitative easing as the condom with a hole in it and the British people as the soiled mattress.

    I am wondering when mass migration to Africa will start.

    Egypt has a reputation as the worst country on earth for hassle. It is true that they use aggressive tactics like grabbing your arm or physically blocking your path in the street, but I found it generally OK.

    They also constantly try to scam and overcharge you. It is important to bear in mind that they don’t see this as stealing. They feel that it's fine because what is alot of money to them is only a small amount to you. In practice, this means is that every single purchase – even a box of matches - has to be negotiated. It gets tiring.

    Their approach to doing business with tourists is captured in the superb ambiguity of this sign in a shop window: "Why go elsewhere to be cheated when you can come here?".

    For the benefit of other travellers, I could list the numerous scams that were tried on me, but by far the easiest rule is this - only buy from women or from devout moslems, who are easily recognised by the bruise on their foreheads. They will virtually never overcharge you.

    As in Tunisia, there are hordes of tourists in the country, but they all converge on Luxor and Aswan. You don't need to go far off the beaten track to meet untouristified Egyptians. They are an excitable bunch - quick to anger and quick to laugh. They also tend to be tremendously friendly, generous and welcoming.

    Everyone is called either Mohamed or one of the many derivatives – Mohammad, Hamid, Hamed, Ahmed or Mahmoud. In Alexandria, I tried shouting 'Hamed' on a crowded train platform just to see the resulting carnage.

    Most charming of all were the farmers in the Western Oases, who we regularly needed to pull us out of soft sand or help us when we were lost. They invariably refused money. Sadly, their way of life is doomed. The oases are rapidly being destroyed by water depletion as the authorities pipe more and more to the cities. Their future is being pumped out, redistributed and forgotten. It boils down to Egypt’s core problem – too many people. As the water-table falls, these farmers will gradually be forced to migrate to Cairo, where they can join us as doped-up slaves of greed in the global economy.

    The sheer number of police on the streets in Egypt is amazing. This is partly because the government wants a visible presence and partly an excercise in offering valueless 'jobs for the boys'. On every street corner you see a policeman leaning against a bollard waving a baton listlessly at the oblivious traffic, with the indifferent expression of a man who knows full well that he's just going through the motions. A rough guide to the police of North Africa:

  • Algeria - they smile but point the gun straight at you.
  • Tunisia - the friendliest, best dressed and most lightly armed.
  • Libya - full of pompous authority but stupefyingly incompetent.
  • Egypt - underpaid, undermotivated and totally ignored by everyone.

    I no longer make the mistake of engaging the police at checkpoints in conversation. They are bored stiff and will latch onto any excuse to search the car or 'interview' you. The key is just to nod and smile. Whatever you do don't speak, even if they ask questions. Just keep smiling and nodding like a congenital idiot. They will eventually wave you through.

    Learning to freedive in Dahab was incredible. I think this will become a real passion of mine. I prefer it to scuba, where your vision is obscured by the bubbles that rise up around you, your ears are full of the sound of your breathing and your mind is distracted by the constant need to check your air and dive computer. Freediving is wonderfully serene. You are focused only on slowing down your mind and your heartbeat. After 3 days training, I can hold my breath for 4 minutes (without moving) and have been down to nearly 20 metres. To put this in perspective, the world record for static apnea is 10 minutes, and the depth record is 140 metres.

    Watch this video – truly amazing.

    Most freedivers wear a wetsuit and fins - this guy freedives in a pair of speedos. I have actually scuba-dived the blue hole but only went to 30 metres.

    Gender Issues
    I am now used to the tactile nature of male social congress among Arabs. If you ask for directions, the guy will often grab your hand and lead you down the street like a small child. It used to make me bristle, but it isn’t meant to be rude and now it just makes me laugh.

    Fortunately for me, it is much easier to travel in the Egypt as a man than as a woman. I met several girls who had been groped or harrassed. I even had to accompany a Canadian girl to the police station in Mersa Matruh for a "where did the bad man touch you" debrief.

    Egyptian men assume that unaccompanied western women are available and promiscuous. The general attitude seems to be: "You sleep with everyone else, why not us?". Outside of Sharm, Hurghada and Dahab it is not advisable to bathe in anything less than a wig and an overcoat.

    The flipside: There is a big sex industry in Luxor and Aswan, where young Egyptians cater to middle-aged western women. I found it decidedly odd to see a 60 year-old European woman walking hand in hand with a 19-year old Egyptian boy, having so often seen the reverse in Angeles City and Pattaya.

    Quote from something I’m reading
    "Shut up", he explained. (Ring Ladner)

    The fact that I am back in a country where begging is widespread has got me thinking about the ethics of travel. Poverty tourism has been in the spotlight in recent years, with opinion divided between 1) Those who feel that tourists being shown round slums and taking pictures of toothless beggars is crass beyond belief; and 2) Those who argue that it brings much-needed money into those communities and publicises their plight. In my experience this kind of tour appeals to the “it's dreadful, but at the same time kind of authentic and enobling, know what I mean” crowd. These are the kind of people who see a homeless man with a dog and feel sorry for the dog.

    Homelessness is far less common in Egypt than in the west because of the extended family structure and because alcoholism is so much rarer. However, begging is fairly common here, mainly because the giving of alms is one of the five pillars of Islam. It’s not easy to refuse someone who addresses you with the traditional - "O awakener of pity, O master". A good pitch. It pushes all the right buttons.

    In my humble opinion, charitable giving is just theatre. Witness Gates and Buffet. Mostly it just shows you have too much money. If you really believed in redistribution of wealth, then you would work to change the system.

    I am as suceptible to pride and guilt as the next man, but who to give to and how much is a tricky subject. One American told me he gives a dollar per missing limb. Horrifying idea. On the whole, I refuse to give money to people for giving me directions or having their photo taken. I feel this undermines natural dealings with foreigners and promotes a mercenary attitude. I also don't give money to those who ask me directly, since they presumably ask lots of tourists and are often given money. My current system is to give money to destitute-looking old people who are too shy or too proud to beg. Not perfect, but the best I've come up with.

    Some New Rules for Traveling
  • When arriving in a new town, I now spend the first day walking around without my camera. You see things very differently when you're not constantly composing pictures in your head. Also, photographing people immediately puts distance between them and you. I also leave the guidebook in the car, to avoid the distorting effect of expectations.

  • No listening to techno music in the car. It makes me drive dangerously fast.

  • I have come to the conclusion that there is no point in paying up for either food or accommodation in Arab countries. The bottom-end of the scale is surprisingly good and the top-end surprisingly bad. The food and beds are identical up to about the 3-4 star level. What you pay for is the kind of hideous interior decoration that Arabs think is upmarket - kitschy, gold-painted fittings and bad paintings. The 5 star hotels are a cut above of course, but they are exactly the same the world over.

    Yesterday I overheard two Australian students talking about what career to choose. One of them came out with the old – "What would you do if you had 100 million dollars? Because that's what you should be doing anyway". It suddenly occurred to me that, possibly for the first time ever, my answer to that question is "exactly what I'm doing now". Happy days.

    I will be spending this evening working on my taxes. Even here in Sinai, I remain under the tight-fisted cosh of the british tax authorities. I have a spare pen in case the first one breaks before it penetrates all the way to my heart.

    In a couple of days my tax payment will leave the savings account in my failing bank, whence our glorious leader will award it to failing banks. Perhaps I am too cynical. It could be that three seconds of the Iraq War or the bonus of a toilet attendant at Goldman Sachs will soon be fully covered.

    Tomorrow, I take the ferry to Aqaba in Jordan. Once again I have overstayed my visa and will be fined. It was worth it. Egypt was filthy and overcrowded but fascinating - a country with an unrivalled collection of monuments, a remarkable culture and a population of Egyptians who are by turns charming, inspiring and infuriating.

    A wind is blowing in from the east. Farewell Africa.