Sunday, February 12, 2012

We Visit Egypt

It’s tricky leaving a very cold place for a week’s holiday in a supposedly very warm one. You don’t want to freeze while waiting for the bus to the train station, or while awaiting connecting trains, but you also hardly want to land in Egypt weighed down by the gigantic hooded winter coat you bought during your brief self-banishment to Wisconsin. You wear a hooded sweatshirt, resolve to think warm thoughts, and hope for the best.

The first train takes you through a panoply of wondrous places with names like Pluckley and Headcorn and Wye. When the soothing recorded voice on the intercom advises, “Our next stop will be Wye,” it is quite impossible not to think, “Well, why not?” When you arrive in Tonbridge, though, there to await the train to Redhill, there to await the train to Gatwick Airport, you are too cold for further self-amusement. But wait; they turn out, 100 metres down the platform, to have a heated waiting room, in which perhaps 20 Brits are doing what they do best, at least while in transit — pretending not to notice each other’s presence.
At last you arrive at Gatwick, in whose vicinity you will spend the night because you’d never have made it from easternmost Kent in time for tomorrow morning’s early-ish flight, and decide to abandon the second person, from this point onward, for the first.

We fly to Sharm El-Sheikh on easyJet, one of the UK’s two principal budget carriers. We have bought a big bagful of delicacies from Marks & Spencer at the airport because not serving an onboard meal is one of the ways in which easyJet can afford to fly us from the UK to Egypt for a pittance. Because they save further money by not having reserved seating, we are lucky, to get aisle seats in the same row. Once aloft, I listen to Fresh Air podcasts and curse iTunes, by which I remain hopelessly baffled, as I search in vain on my iPad for the Bill Maher shows I had thought myself to have downloaded onto it, but apparently have not. Instead, I watch Final Cut Pro X tutorials. I am a very nervous flyer — even though it has occurred to me that it would in many ways be much preferable to die in a plane crash than from cancer — but there is wonderfully little turbulence.

We land safely in Sharm, the elegance of whose airport surprises me; I’d expected Third World squalor, as in Kuching, Malaysia. A local called Aqmad herds us onto a comfortable coach for our ride to the hotel, en route to which he regales us with his views on polygamy, as practiced even as we speak by Egypt’s Bedouins, and tells us to tip in paper money because the locals dislike coins. Because I have only £20 notes, the locals will have to grin and bear one-pound coins.

We arrive at the hotel, and how delighted I am by its luxuriousness, and by the warmth of the Egyptians who get us all signed up, and who attach bright green plastic bands to our wrists, and by the complimentary glass of orange juice an Omar Sharif doppelganger brings us on a tray. We are taken by golf cart (the resort, comprising multiple dormitories and as many swimming pools as there are lakes in Minnesota, is roughly the size of Rhode Island) to our room, which is huge and swanky, albeit with a window through which one can see easily into the bathroom. We head eagerly for the dining room, using directions supplied by a couple of young men from Moscow, and I am there delighted anew. The hot foods look no more appetising than they did in Tunisia in 2007, but what a gorgeous array of cold salads, and tahini, and hummus! For dessert, I get myself a whole honeydew melon that would cost £3 back in easternmost Kent. It is the sweetest honeydew melon I have ever tasted.

I take a long walk each morning while Spousie snoozes, but there is little to see outside our compound. There are the tawdry souvenir shops, and the Bedouin teenagers hawking camel rides in front of them, and the desperate taxi drivers. Behind the souvenir shops there is only desolation, either great expanses of sand, empty but for trash or the occasional uncompleted edifice. I buy myself a long-sleeved T-shirt from the proprietor of a little shop (actually, a glorified stall) called Jamaica T-shirts. He claims to be Bob Marley. I wasn’t born yesterday, and, moreover, have always regarded Marley as significantly inferior to Jimmy Cliff.

I go alone (Spousie is afraid of being abducted by masked Bedouin gunmen, as two American women were in the area in the past 24 hours) to the actual town of Sharm El-Sheikh, the Old Market. I hope not to be kidnapped (what a prize a Jewish American would be!), and to see the locals living their real lives — buying provisions for their dinners, for instance. I am sorely disappointed. Several shops sell spices, but otherwise it’s all tourist crapola. As I wander around, a couple of shopkeepers try to coax me into their shops. I finally allow one to do so, and quickly regret it, as he makes an extravagant display of disgust after failing to sell me anything. I’d have bought a fez, except my head seems to be larger than the average Egyptian’s, as it is larger than the average American’s.

We go on excursions. We ride quad bikes in the desert, and I think I must be the stupidest person on earth for having imagined I’d be able to do so without discomfort in spite of my hard contacts lenses. By the time we’ve gone a kilometre, I am blinded by the grit in my distance eye (the other is corrected for reading), and by the dust of those ahead. One of our Sherpas keeps pulling up alongside me and exhorting me to close the gap between ourselves and the bike just ahead. Easier said than done when blind, bruv! When finally we stop, I curse myself for not having had the sense to bring along my contact lens case and some wetting solution. I literally spend 10 minutes trying to blink the grit away.

We go star-gazing. We are collected by Aqmad, from the evening of our arrival, in a huge coach. He reminds us of his views on polygamy. From the moment we emerge from the hotel, a local with an ancient huge video camera is braying at us to do this and that, to give him the thumbs-up, for instance; it is customary on these things for them to try to sell you a video of the experience. Little imagining that the missus will prove to want one, I studiously ignore the guy.

We ride camels. Mine is led by an adorable Bedouin tyke named Ahmad, who is enormously solicitous until the moment when, after dismounting, I slip a 10-(Egyptian)-pound note into his little hand. We ascend a slope and observe the sunset. We are treated to dinner, and then invited to buy trinkets. We dance around the old campfire, though no one refers to it as such, and then traipse back into the desert to look at stars through digital telescopes. I am sorely disappointed by the near-barrenness of the heavens, but the missus is delighted by the photo of the moon our Sherpa takes through his digital telescope.

We had hoped to sign up for the overnight excursion to Cairo, passing the pyramids en route, but the Sherpa advises it has been temporarily withdrawn in the wake of the 73 deaths at the football match in Port Said 24 hours before. We content ourselves with a snorkelling excursion on which I see too few fish, and ingest far too much salt water; there seems to be something amiss either with the snorkel I bought myself on Amazon, or with the person using it.

We are home in time for me to enjoy the water slides. I go on the two straight ones, and then on the spiral, whose entrance one can’t see from the pool. Two-thirds of the way down, time stands still as I collide with a little boy of around 10 who apparently imagined it would be fun to traverse the slide backward. I marvel at the horror and embarrassment on his little face. I am able to bellow at him, “How could you be so stupid?” in full before we hit the water. As he staggers away whimpering apologies, holding his head, snivelling, I realise my left hand hurts like the devil; it will remain swollen for the next five days. Even as I write this I am unable to make a fist. What’s the matter with kids today?

We stuff ourselves at dinner, as every night, and then, much later (because someone somewhere decided that discos weren’t discos unless they opened at bedtime), after having imbibed much complimentary (we are on the all-inclusive plan) alcohol, to dance. My body craves a workout, and we dance up a small storm. I have no way of knowing whether it’s admiration or amusement that makes the mouths of the gay Russkis with whom we share the dance floor drop open, but I do know they’re gaping.
Speaking of the Russkis and Ukrainians, who together make up around 90 percent of our resort’s clientele, at every meal they pile their plates high with food, most of which they then proceed to abandon, although none seems old enough to have survived the siege of St. Petersburg. We witness instances of stomach-turning Russki rudeness and high-handedness to our Egyptian waiters and busboys, as sweet a bunch as you’ll find anywhere. Little wonder the Egyptians are said to detest them.

On our penultimate day in south Sinai, the weather goes south. Insistent cool breezes blow, and the sky turns a despairing white. Unable to enjoy the sunshine, we experience intense boredom. Between meals, we lounge in our gigantic room and watch BBC World Service, and see the same news items — about the bombardment of Homs, about the Santorum primary victories, about the cold in central and eastern Europe — over and over and over again. We read, though we don’t very much like the books we’ve brought along. We watch a couple of old movies, with Arabic subtitles that we are quite unable to read, but don’t need to, as we are native English speakers, albeit with a zany accent, in one case.

Collecting us at the hotel, Aqmad reminds us of his views on polygamy. Married himself, he in short believes that one wife is trouble enough for any man. Ta-da-DUM! We fly home. The cold in London isn’t exactly homicidal, but vengefully bitter, and here I am with only my hooded sweatshirt over the long-sleeved souvenir T-shirt I bought from not-Bob Marley.


  1. I loved reading this. I've never been to Egypt. Curtis

    1. I suspect the experience wasn't hugely different, Curtis, from those one might have in Mexico or the Caribbean, except for the Russkis.

  2. You require your own broadcast travel show a la Bourdain. It's a different world today, after all.

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