© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved

 

Egypt

We had started our trip in England and had traveled through increasingly different cultures culminating in the emerging nations of East Africa. We thought that we had been immunized to culture shock.

The Airport

It was nineteen seventy two, five years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel occupied the Sinai just across the Red Sea and Cairo was still on a war footing. Anti aircraft guns bristled around the airport. From the window we could see machine gun nests, sandbagged entrances, and armed soldiers everywhere. It was all very unsettling.

Cash Problems Again

We had arrived without visas and discovered that we were required to change  a minimum of 5 Egyptian pounds ($11 CAD) per person per day for the duration of the visa. This was 3 times what we had been spending and it exhausted our cash. We had no choice, but there was a bright side. In an attempt to undermine the black market in currency, the Egyptian government offered a special tourist exchange rate comparable to the current black market rate. We now had 9 times more daily purchasing power than we had averaged on the trip.  The dark side was that  could not take Egyptian currency out of the country. Unless we could get some foreign currency on the black market, we would land in London with absolutely no money. There was nothing that we could do about the situation, so we decided to make the best of it and enjoy a taste of a more luxurious travel. After clearing customs we asked about a luggage check where we could store our precious Makonde carvings. Security required that a guard accompany us to left luggage. The guard was armed with a machine gun. It was slung over his shoulder, hung with the barrel pointing forward and the guard rested his hand on the stock. As we walked, he would poke Barbara with the barrel. When she protested, he would simply laugh. We were pretty unnerved, he was after all carrying a loaded machine gun. I was at a loss as to what to do. Since his harassment did not escalate we ignored it, and when we returned from left luggage he left us feeling even more unsettled.

Cairo

Having learned our lesson in Nairobi, we took the airport bus to a hotel. With our sudden cash windfall, we could afford a much nicer class of hotel than we had become accustomed to expect. The hotel was fairly modern, well equipped, and air-conditioned. Even so, we did not enjoy it as much as we might have because we had not yet shaken our economy class mentality. Cairo was a sombre looking city. From the window of our hotel, I was first struck by the lack of colour. The city presented an almost uniform dusty grayish-brown. The buildings were clustered into large warrens of stone or concrete structures, nearly uniform in height, and separated by narrow alleyways. These warrens were separated by broad avenues and streets, again devoid of colour. There were no large brightly lit signs, no brightly coloured window boxes or flowered boulevards, no bright awnings or umbrellas shading street side cafes, not even brightly clothed people on the streets. Even the trees which sometimes lined a boulevard were a dull grayish-green.

The Streets of Cairo

The streets and alleys were dusty, strewn with litter, and jammed with smoke belching motorbikes, cars, trucks, and buses. The air reeked of exhaust fumes. Our initial impression that there were no signs was wrong. There were signs above nearly every shop, but they were flat against the face of the building and bore simple Arabic script in tones of black, blue, red, or green. Some of the building entrances were still sandbagged against possible bomb blasts. There was a permanent background din of blasting horns, unmuffled motors, and shouting voices. The buses were almost unbelievable. The overcrowding in East Africa was nothing compared to this. During rush hour, people hung on the outside of the bus dangling from open windows, feet perched precariously on thin molding at the base of the bus, or they perched precariously on the back bumper, finger tips grasping the moulding around the back windows.

Culture Shock

We stepped onto the street to catch a taxi and were immediately surrounded by shouting, touching, pulling, and grabbing people. They offered tours, perfumes, brass, money changing, guiding, and other services. We could not move without bumping into or being grabbed by someone. As we stepped towards a cab, ten or more hands reached to touch the door of the cab as I opened it. When we climbed, in another ten hands were thrust through the window demanding baksheesh (a tip) for opening the door. When I said no and told the driver to leave, the people on the sidewalk were belligerent, aggressive. Once away from the hotel or obvious tourist areas, the pressure faded but never disappeared. We were constantly approached  by smiling people with standard lines like “Hello friend. You speak English? I find you good bargains. Where you are from? Where you are going? What you need, I find for you?” These were invariably come-ons from faux-guides touting for perfume parlours or antique and carpet stores. We understood the role that grinding poverty and lack of job opportunities played in the constant pestering, and we realized that our mere presence as tourists indicated a level of affluence well beyond their hopes. But understanding and sympathy could not assuage the intense irritation of the constant hailing, grabbing, hassling, and confrontation. We had to get away. We decided to travel the 675 km south, up the Nile to Luxor. Luxor is a modern market town occupying the southern half of the site of the ancient and fabled city of Thebes. We got the hotel to book passage for us on the night train. All they could get were second-class tickets, but we thought, it had to be more comfortable than a third class bus ride.

On the Road Again

When we got to the train station we were relieved to have second-class tickets. The third class cars were as crowded as the local buses, and some of the trains at the station were covered with troops sitting shoulder to shoulder on the tops of the cars. Our relief was only partially justified. It turned out that our second-class tickets bought a place to sit on the floor of the corridor in the second- class car. I remember feeling let down. While I had originally tried to get third class tickets, my expectations had been raised and then dashed. I guess three and half months of traveling on the cheap and the constant hassling since my arrival in Cairo had depleted my reserves of both energy and tolerance. My disappointment was out of all proportion, and I briefly considered not going at all. With a sense more of resignation than anticipation, I boarded the train.

Hassled Again

Our fellow passengers were shadowy figures, faces only barely visible in the dimly lit corridor. As we sat on the floor, I heard Barb say, “Keep your hands to yourself!” and then the sound of a slap. A soldier riding with us was patting and grabbing at her in the near dark. We moved; he followed. I was pretty tired and disgruntled by this time and something snapped. I had finally had enough. I grabbed him and pushed him against the window. I called him spawn of camel dung and impregnater of camels. I told him that if he touched my wife again, I would throw him off the train. I don’t think he understood a word, but he got the message and moved to another car. As he left, I became acutely aware of the other passengers and worried that I may have offended or provoked his fellow soldiers. To my immense relief, I had not. In fact, the other passengers seemed embarrassed by the soldiers behaviour. As he left, they seemed to be chastising him. They apologized profusely; we were invited into one of the compartments to sit for a while, and were offered food and drink. By the time we reached Luxor, our fellow passengers had done a much to mollify me.

The Nile Valley

As day broke we were traveling through a corridor of lush green, bounded on either side by the harsh gray of the desert. It was like traveling in a time capsule transported to pre-industrial times. Motor vehicles were rare. Instead, camels and donkeys carried goods and people along the dirt tracks and embankments. Oxen, yoked to a long pole, walked an endless circle to drive a Persian wheel  lifting water from the Nile to the irrigation canals. Smaller landholders dipped shadoofs (a bucket on the end of a counter-weighted pole) into the main channel and manually lifted water to their irrigation ditch. Clusters of  mud-brick villages, sheltering in the shade of tall palm trees were inviting, but two and three story timber and mud-brick warrens baking in the sun were less inviting. Men and boys moulded a mixture of mud and straw into bricks and laid them in the sun to bake. Women and girls threshed grain by beating sheaves of wheat on sun-baked dirt threshing floors. Winnowing the grain, they tossed it into the air from flat baskets, gracefully recapturing it as the wind carried away the chaff. Men seated on a donkey, constantly switching it with a stick, their wife walking behind, carrying a basket or bundle of goods on her head, travelled we knew not where. Large lanteen rigged feluccas, their triangular sails catching the wind, glided up and down the Nile. As we approached Luxor, the valley narrowed and became but a strip of green with steep, barren valley sides rising abruptly to the desert. Arable land was so valuable that, with the exception of Luxor and the Karnack temple site, buildings were relegated to the valley sides.

 

Egypt

We had started our trip in England and had traveled through increasingly different cultures culminating in the emerging nations of East Africa. We thought that we had been immunized to culture shock.

The Airport

It was nineteen seventy two, five years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel occupied the Sinai just across the Red Sea and Cairo was still on a war footing. Anti aircraft guns bristled around the airport. From the window we could see machine gun nests, sandbagged entrances, and armed soldiers everywhere. It was all very unsettling.

Cash Problems Again

We had arrived without visas and discovered that we were required to change  a minimum of 5 Egyptian pounds ($11 CAD) per person per day for the duration of the visa. This was 3 times what we had been spending and it exhausted our cash. We had no choice, but there was a bright side. In an attempt to undermine the black market in currency, the Egyptian government offered a special tourist exchange rate comparable to the current black market rate. We now had 9 times more daily purchasing power than we had averaged on the trip.  The dark side was that  could not take Egyptian currency out of the country. Unless we could get some foreign currency on the black market, we would land in London with absolutely no money. There was nothing that we could do about the situation, so we decided to make the best of it and enjoy a taste of a more luxurious travel. After clearing customs we asked about a luggage check where we could store our precious Makonde carvings. Security required that a guard accompany us to left luggage. The guard was armed with a machine gun. It was slung over his shoulder, hung with the barrel pointing forward and the guard rested his hand on the stock. As we walked, he would poke Barbara with the barrel. When she protested, he would simply laugh. We were pretty unnerved, he was after all carrying a loaded machine gun. I was at a loss as to what to do. Since his harassment did not escalate we ignored it, and when we returned from left luggage he left us feeling even more unsettled.

Cairo

Having learned our lesson in Nairobi, we took the airport bus to a hotel. With our sudden cash windfall, we could afford a much nicer class of hotel than we had become accustomed to expect. The hotel was fairly modern, well equipped, and air-conditioned. Even so, we did not enjoy it as much as we might have because we had not yet shaken our economy class mentality. Cairo was a sombre looking city. From the window of our hotel, I was first struck by the lack of colour. The city presented an almost uniform dusty grayish-brown. The buildings were clustered into large warrens of stone or concrete structures, nearly uniform in height, and separated by narrow alleyways. These warrens were separated by broad avenues and streets, again devoid of colour. There were no large brightly lit signs, no brightly coloured window boxes or flowered boulevards, no bright awnings or umbrellas shading street side cafes, not even brightly clothed people on the streets. Even the trees which sometimes lined a boulevard were a dull grayish-green.

The Streets of Cairo

The streets and alleys were dusty, strewn with litter, and jammed with smoke belching motorbikes, cars, trucks, and buses. The air reeked of exhaust fumes. Our initial impression that there were no signs was wrong. There were signs above nearly every shop, but they were flat against the face of the building and bore simple Arabic script in tones of black, blue, red, or green. Some of the building entrances were still sandbagged against possible bomb blasts. There was a permanent background din of blasting horns, unmuffled motors, and shouting voices. The buses were almost unbelievable. The overcrowding in East Africa was nothing compared to this. During rush hour, people hung on the outside of the bus dangling from open windows, feet perched precariously on thin molding at the base of the bus, or they perched precariously on the back bumper, finger tips grasping the moulding around the back windows.

Culture Shock

We stepped onto the street to catch a taxi and were immediately surrounded by shouting, touching, pulling, and grabbing people. They offered tours, perfumes, brass, money changing, guiding, and other services. We could not move without bumping into or being grabbed by someone. As we stepped towards a cab, ten or more hands reached to touch the door of the cab as I opened it. When we climbed, in another ten hands were thrust through the window demanding baksheesh (a tip) for opening the door. When I said no and told the driver to leave, the people on the sidewalk were belligerent, aggressive. Once away from the hotel or obvious tourist areas, the pressure faded but never disappeared. We were constantly approached  by smiling people with standard lines like “Hello friend. You speak English? I find you good bargains. Where you are from? Where you are going? What you need, I find for you?” These were invariably come-ons from faux-guides touting for perfume parlours or antique and carpet stores. We understood the role that grinding poverty and lack of job opportunities played in the constant pestering, and we realized that our mere presence as tourists indicated a level of affluence well beyond their hopes. But understanding and sympathy could not assuage the intense irritation of the constant hailing, grabbing, hassling, and confrontation. We had to get away. We decided to travel the 675 km south, up the Nile to Luxor. Luxor is a modern market town occupying the southern half of the site of the ancient and fabled city of Thebes. We got the hotel to book passage for us on the night train. All they could get were second-class tickets, but we thought, it had to be more comfortable than a third class bus ride.

On the Road Again

When we got to the train station we were relieved to have second-class tickets. The third class cars were as crowded as the local buses, and some of the trains at the station were covered with troops sitting shoulder to shoulder on the tops of the cars. Our relief was only partially justified. It turned out that our second-class tickets bought a place to sit on the floor of the corridor in the second- class car. I remember feeling let down. While I had originally tried to get third class tickets, my expectations had been raised and then dashed. I guess three and half months of traveling on the cheap and the constant hassling since my arrival in Cairo had depleted my reserves of both energy and tolerance. My disappointment was out of all proportion, and I briefly considered not going at all. With a sense more of resignation than anticipation, I boarded the train.

Hassled Again

Our fellow passengers were shadowy figures, faces only barely visible in the dimly lit corridor. As we sat on the floor, I heard Barb say, “Keep your hands to yourself!” and then the sound of a slap. A soldier riding with us was patting and grabbing at her in the near dark. We moved; he followed. I was pretty tired and disgruntled by this time and something snapped. I had finally had enough. I grabbed him and pushed him against the window. I called him spawn of camel dung and impregnater of camels. I told him that if he touched my wife again, I would throw him off the train. I don’t think he understood a word, but he got the message and moved to another car. As he left, I became acutely aware of the other passengers and worried that I may have offended or provoked his fellow soldiers. To my immense relief, I had not. In fact, the other passengers seemed embarrassed by the soldiers behaviour. As he left, they seemed to be chastising him. They apologized profusely; we were invited into one of the compartments to sit for a while, and were offered food and drink. By the time we reached Luxor, our fellow passengers had done a much to mollify me.

The Nile Valley

As day broke we were traveling through a corridor of lush green, bounded on either side by the harsh gray of the desert. It was like traveling in a time capsule transported to pre- industrial times. Motor vehicles were rare. Instead, camels and donkeys carried goods and people along the dirt tracks and embankments. Oxen, yoked to a long pole, walked an endless circle to drive a Persian wheel  lifting water from the Nile to the irrigation canals. Smaller landholders dipped shadoofs (a bucket on the end of a counter- weighted pole) into the main channel and manually lifted water to their irrigation ditch. Clusters of  mud-brick villages, sheltering in the shade of tall palm trees were inviting, but two and three story timber and mud-brick warrens baking in the sun were less inviting. Men and boys moulded a mixture of mud and straw into bricks and laid them in the sun to bake. Women and girls threshed grain by beating sheaves of wheat on sun-baked dirt threshing floors. Winnowing the grain, they tossed it into the air from flat baskets, gracefully recapturing it as the wind carried away the chaff. Men seated on a donkey, constantly switching it with a stick, their wife walking behind, carrying a basket or bundle of goods on her head, travelled we knew not where. Large lanteen rigged feluccas, their triangular sails catching the wind, glided up and down the Nile. As we approached Luxor, the valley narrowed and became but a strip of green with steep, barren valley sides rising abruptly to the desert. Arable land was so valuable that, with the exception of Luxor and the Karnack temple site, buildings were relegated to the valley sides.
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
Cairo from our hotel room. Bus terminal and train station. The train felt like time capsule taking us back in time. The ancient shadoof used to lift water for irrigation. Multi story mudbrick villages along the Nile.