Egypt

Published on November 9th, 2011 | by Simon

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Albania via Greece to Cairo

 
 
 

As I write this, with the green fields of the Nile Valley flashing by the train window, it is extremely hard to conceive that just one week ago I was taking a similarly long trip in what now seems a different world. The only similarity is that I am the only foreigner in this full first class carriage, and I was the only foreigner on the bus. In one of those flashes of inspiration that turn out to be not so inspirational after all, I looked at the map and decided that catching a bus from Tirana in Albania to Athens would be more enjoyable than flying – about the distance from Sydney to Melbourne. I do enough flying as it is and the opportunity to see more of Albania was a real temptation. All my research suggested a ride of 8-10 hours which, given the distance, seemed achievable. I should have seen the warning signs when none of the agents in Tirana’s main King Zog Boulevard quoted the same departure time, price or duration. I picked what seemed the most reliable and was told to get the bus outside a cafe round the corner at 11am. This was later than I wanted to leave but the previous bus was at 5am and based on my experience with the 11am, I would never have found it without help. It duly arrived and all went well until I realised we had taken a huge circuitous route to travel the first 80km and to stop for lunch, all of which ate up 3 hours. It did seem that my hope for a short journey was not to be fulfilled. Little did I know that there are two routes – the one down the west coast is flat and quicker. This one crossed the Albanian mountains right to the border with Macedonia and then took the east coast of Greece down to Athens. Suffice to say, this became an 18 hour bus ride, not helped by a 2 hour border crossing where about 10 of the passengers were refused entry to Greece. My foresight to book the hotel room for an early arrival paid off though.

I loved Athens. It was European enough to have good places to eat and hang out, but a little bit down at heal enough to be interesting – and with very very few tourists. Of course the Greeks never wanted to be down at heal or to run up a huge debt to banks that they now can’t pay, but their government organised for them to do both without really telling them what was in store. So they are at least partially justified in being angry now they have to “live on a Bulgarian salary in a city that costs as much as Paris” as one woman on TV put it. So they turn to tradition and demonstrate. And the news media which likes a good riot puts this out to the world, and tourists stay away for fear they will be teargassed. Sure I saw riot police, but they were more comatose than the Evzones (the ceremonial guards with the weird costumes – kilt, funny hat, and pompom slippers). I understand all the hype about the Acropolis, but truthfully, I enjoyed the Agora and temple of Hephaestus below rather more.

 

And as for the fish and meat markets – well I am unashamedly a market junkie and when you can eat there too, it’s just great. A real experience of local life.

Autumn was arriving in Athens and so, given my hatred of cold weather unless accompanied by jolly holidays, I had decided to keep moving south, which meant Egypt. The trip to Cairo was very easy (Olympic still feeds you on their flights – oh and silly fact, Greek Railways are so badly loss making that it has been calculated it would be cheaper to just close the railways entirely and give every passenger the taxi fare home instead of having them travel by rail). The cab driver on the way to Cairo city said there was no traffic because it was Eid. Well this was news to me and I feared everything would be dead – and indeed the business area was, but not the evenings… Eid is a little like Thanksgiving. In this case you give thanks that God spared Abraham’s son Ishmael from a sacrifice God had put to Abraham as a test of faith (no Isaac was the other one and God spared him too). And instead of slaughtering turkeys, you sacrifice your best livestock animal, eat a third, give a third to relatives, and a third to the poor. And you don’t go get it at a price per pound from your local Safeway – which led to me encountering a still dying cow outside a house near the Pyramids in Giza, and a major trail of blood from the first floor of the hotel building I am in, all the way down the stairs to the door. Not to mention the woman by the Giza house busily dunking metres of intestine in an old oil drum full of bloody water. It’s nearly 40 years since I was last in Egypt, but some things have changed very little. The Pyramids, on the other hand, have been coralled in an attempt to stop tourists trampling them into dust. Even so you can still walk away from the controls and get up close with the smallest of the three (which I have to say I climbed back when I was young – no climbing allowed now though).

Cairo isn’t only about ancient Egypt. It is also the largest city in the moslem world, and has been important for so long that if you go to the old part of town, you are transported back in time some five centuries or more to be surrounded by mosques and madrasahs with businesses conducted out of little open-fronted shops. I just loved that area of town – the more so for the fact that Eid festivities had definitely dampened the aggressive selling techniques of the stall holders. I picked a local felafel stand and got my lunch…

And now I come to the part I simply cannot adequately describe. Every one of the last three evenings have been like a monster street party. I have not seen anything like it in all my years of travel. Thousands of people crammed onto the streets downtown in a completely holiday atmosphere.

Every restaurant full to bursting. Guys letting off extremely loud and bright handheld fireworks which would break every safety regulation I know. Cafes and sheesha parlours with tables and chairs out in the alleys and streets leaving barely any room for cars or pedestrians. And every sheesha place with it’s own small brazier for the hot coals, ferried around still glowing in large ladles by the attendants. People dressed in their best clothes – a huge mix of styles from the total black female coverage to the use of headscarf and dress as a brightly coloured fashion statement; and the guys in everything from suits, to jeans, to gallibayahswith turbans. All to the accompaniment of deafening local music. Exactly and precisely like Arabian Nights. Priceless.

 

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