When we tried to get a visa for Sudan in Cairo it all sounded very doubtful but this is Egypt and the is always a way. We have a ‘fixer’ who ‘knows people’ and we have dollars so our already expired Egyptian visas and carnet are no longer a big problem. We hope to have all necessary paperwork by Sunday. That gives us a few days to get our supplies, maintain the vehicle and meet some more lovely Egyptian people. I have already flushed and sterilised our fresh water tank & replaced the rear brake pads (the old ones were so thin they looked like cigarette papers). We should be in good order now to take on a whole new raft of experiences in a new country. Whilst walking through Aswan we were besieged by a large group of boys all shouting “Hello… Hello” one lad of about 10 or 11 walked next to me and said “you give me money a few pounds?” I replied “no, no pounds”. He tried again “Dollars or Euro money” I said “I will not give you any money”. “Why no money” “Because it would be bad for you ” “Why bad” “Because it would teach you that money comes easy and that is not true. If you want money you must get a job and earn it. That is how I get my money” He laughed, delighted at our game and said “who your name?” I responded “Mike” “Me Aziz” he said smiling “& I love Mike – high five” We high-fived and he trotted off perfectly happy with our exchange. Meanwhile Sally was ‘rescued’ by a shopkeeper who told the rest of the group to stop bothering the tourists. Another interaction and no harm done. Later as we got out of the car by our hotel an old woman came up to Sally begging. Sally turned out her pockets and gave the woman the few pounds she had. The woman, mistaking us for American millionaires started demanding more in dollars. I firmly made it clear that we were leaving and the woman was not invited. A land of contrasts indeed.
21/12/2016 Cairo International Airport
The Kids arrived safe and tired in the late afternoon. We had made hotel reservations well away from Cairo based on the planned arrival at 2am so we had to hustle through Cairo traffic (think ‘Death Race 2000’) to reach our destination El Gouna on the Red Sea coast.
20/12/2016 Cairo International Airport
Our kids were due to arrive on an Alitalia flight into Cairo. We were there ready to meet them and were very excited as we hadn’t seen them for a couple of months. We fought our way to the arrivals car park but were not allowed into the hall as there is tight security in place. We watched all the passengers leaving and meeting their friends and family but not our kids. After 1/2 an hour we had seen the last passengers exit and we were both getting worried. “Dont worry” I said brightly. They are probably just having trouble finding the visa desk, then I quietly worried to myself. After 1 hour we were frantic. We knew their UK flight had been delayed but the last message we had from them said they were expected to make the connecting flight in Rome. Because we were not allowed into the Hall we had no Wi-Fi to make contact and find out what had happened. Sally managed to sneak past 1 layer of security and get to the arrivals hall but was stopped by the next security guard who wanted to know “Where are you going madame?” Sally pretended to be a really worried mother(!) and said “I am trying to find my children” the security guard responded gently with “There is nobody here now madame”. Sally returned distraught. As it was now 4 am and we had checked out of our hotel at 1 am we returned wearily to the hotel and successfully argued that although we checked out 3 hours ago we had technically paid up until midday so could we have our room back please? We managed to get a short lived connection to the flaky Wi-Fi and discovered a message from Charli telling us they were stuck in Rome airport and nobody was telling them what was happening. Then another later sying the airline had transferred them to a hotel in Rome. At least knowing they were safe in Rome we crashed into bed and sank gratefully into the matress – just in time for the 5 am Muezzin call to prayer, and accompanying dogs – ouch!
We have been in Egypt now for several weeks and the overiding impression is one of welcome. Once we got away from the touts around the airport at Cairo the ordinary Egyptians have been friendly and interested. Army. Police & locals all take the trouble to say “welcome to Egypt”. People often step in to offer assistance if we are looking lost or having trouble converting prices. Many Egyptians can speak English – some very proficiently and all of them like a chance to practice it. We are always asked where we are from and when we say UK/Britain they always welcome us to their country. In one town we were dicing with the usual traffic when a delivery truck pulled alongside. They asked us where we were from, then expressed admiration at how we were coping with having the steering wheel on the wrong side. They caught up again moments later and passed chocolate bars through our window saying “welcome to our country, good fortune”!
I am trying to imagine the response an Egyptian would get in Cardiff(or any British City) rush hour traffic?!
It is a 300km drive from Marsa Matrouh to Siwa. Along that journey we entered several dust storms where there is a mixture of sand, dust, wind and rain which often obscured visibility down to as little as 10 metres. There was a hurricane feeling about the storms where you knew it would not take too much more wind in order to make you stop and sit out a houlie with the car lifting beneath you.
We drove constantly drinking tea from the plugin kettle and snacking on food bought in Marsa as we went. The only thing that stopped us were 3 military checkpoints where passports were checked and “welcomes” were said. At the final checkpoint we were detained for ages as the vehicle was thoroughly searched. We guess that Cobar arouses suspicion because being a fully offroad vehicle the military are rightly curious as to its whereabouts and destination. As the three soldiers checked through our boxes and bags, worrying about what the rooftent was storing, the corporal in his mirrored sunglasses looked worried and perplexed at our UK vehicle with Egyptian plates and a driver that had an Egyptian licence and insurance with in date carnet. He got on the phone to check us our further and although not really happy, he finally allowed us to progress into the town of Siwa.
You dont really need signposts in the desert. You follow the only road in sight for five hours and you know when you have arrived at the Oasis because the scenery changes from this:
We headed to the Palm Springs Hotel which is a budget hotel with a lovely sitting area full of date palm furniture under the cooling date palms. If you are seeing a pattern here, you are right, Siwa used to be an oasis that relied entirely on its date palms for wood, food, fencing and oil fuel. Siwa is famed for having the best dates in the world – you learn something every day, don’t you? As with many places on the low-cost end, the rooms are relatively cleanly but the bathrooms are often rather scary with gurgling toilets and scummy-looking tiling.
We walked out into the busy town full of bechaks, bikes, highly decorated trucks and donkey carts. We meandered towards the 13th century Shali Fortress which is built of salt bricks broken from the local salt lakes then mixed with rock and covered with the rich red clay that finds its way into every corner hereabouts. Shali Fortress is the central focus for the town and was once four or five stories high and housed all the inhabitants of Siwa. People in the past did not want visitors to the Fortress where they lived, but after a huge downpour in 1926 which destroyed much of the settlement, people began to move into other areas of the oasis. We looked out from the top of the path on the Fortress to the oasis and mesa-filled desert surrounding us as the sun set bringing a rich, deep light to the organic shapes all around.
Afterwards we feasted at Abdu’s restaurant in the Central Market Square on chicken curry with fresh chilli in a glistening red transparent sauce and a beef tagine that came with a “tourli” of vegetables (eaten by Mike) and salad (which could not be eaten by Mike). We treated ourselves to a date pancake and hot chocolates and felt thoroughly spoiled.
Arriving back at the Palm Springs Hotel, we met up with Mohammed who promised to return the following day with a 4×4 and camping gear and take us our to Bir Wahed Lake and hot springs for swimming, admiring the stars and having a Berber feast.