1st December 2012

Clarence of Arabia

As you may have detected from my last post, the first few days in the desert were a bit tough. Something was going to have to change - I was just standing out far too much in the oases and I wasn’t comfortable with the consequences, so I decided to hasten myself to the nearest ladies clothing emporium and go native! Suzi and I rocked up at a shop displaying all kinds of clothes for local ladies, and I tramped in. The owner of the shop (a man of course) was reassuringly friendly and though he spoke as much English as I speak Arabic, eventually understood that I was looking for something to help me blend in. At first he had pointed me towards the slightly more contemporary, colourful clothing, but I feared that these items were still a little too conspicuous, so headed over to a rail that was bending under the strain of endless vast, dour looking gowns. They were all absolutely enormous and incredibly heavy due to the number of thick layers of fabric. I tried one on, but it was about 3 sizes bigger than I’d usually wear, so I showed the shop keeper how it looked, asking “very big?” and pulling at the large expanse of fabric around my arms and waist. “no, no! Good!”, he insisted. I looked at myself in the mirror. Was this really what things had come to? The dress made me feel rather “Enya meets gothic Maid Marian”. It was tremendously hot due not only to the cut and size but also due to its being entirely constructed of man made fibres. I could see that my usual “enthusiastic” gait was going to have to be reined right in, or I’d be overwhelmed by a friction-based inferno faster than you can say “polyester”. Nevertheless, this dress was nothing if not demure, and if it was going to help deter deviants, then I had to have it - I handed over the money and made my way back to the hotel.

Later on that evening, having donned this swamping outfit and tied my headscarf, I felt a little self-conscious but accepted that it was time to try it out, so discreetly nipped out to the local shop to buy some groceries. I had been down there before so the shopkeeper knew me, but when he saw me this time, he threw up his hands in delight. “ah, you wear the galabeya! Wonderful, yes, yes!”. “Phew”, I thought, “the man in the clothes shop wasn’t having a laugh after all!”. Walking down the street, I noticed that men were looking at me in a very different, much more respectful way and my previous, hounded self magically started to disappear. I was walking taller and more assuredly with these new clothes and it felt really good. I can’t tell you whether it’s right or wrong that being so engulfed in polyester should make a girl feel more confident - whether for Muslim women, these clothes are a sign of repression or self respect - and quite honestly I don’t think it’s for me to try to philosophise my way out of that one. All I know is that I was now a lot happier and so were the locals, which can’t be a bad outcome!

Next day, after a quick goodbye Nescafé with the wonderful Abu Mohammad of Internet cafe fame, I hit the road towards Kharga oasis. It was an easy 100 mile run with no hassle at all, possibly helped by my now wearing the headscarf under my helmet to prevent my ponytail giving me away! The oasis itself is the least attractive or interesting of them all, but the only place to break the journey before the big 260 mile push next day to Luxor. I had heard that this next section of road had been the scene of an “incident” around the time of the revolution and therefore as a tourist there was a good chance I would have to ride the whole thing, or at least sections, in convoy with the tourist police. In my case however when the time came, I was lucky enough to be allowed to ride without interruption and within about 6 hours, I had finished the desert section. After a short ride along a road which seemed to serve as the local waste dump, with the stench and smoke of burning rubbish coming from both sides, I started to head north through some farming villages that course their way alongside a tributary to the nile. Here the air was much fresher with the lush vegetation of the tall sugar cane crops giving a sweeter scent to the air, a welcome relief!

Shortly I swung a right and all of a sudden I was riding across a large bridge that spanned the Nile. With a little bit of a tear in my eye, I felt real pride that i had made it this far and after a week in the desert, savoured the view of the deep, green waters and the prospect of this historic city. I couldn’t dwell on this thought for too long however, as I soon discovered that someone with a keen interest in traffic calming measures had installed a series of evil double speed bumps made up of two very steep, sharp mounds of spiky, stony concrete not even a foot apart, which was an unforgiving obstacle to anyone moving faster than a slow crawl.

That night, I feasted on a delicious slow-cooked camel stew on the roof-top terrace restaurant of the fantastic Nefertiti hotel and decided that next morning, I would indulge in a bit of tourism and take the sunrise
hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings. Suffice to say, it was spectacular and wonderfully peaceful up there in the sky - I can definitely recommend it. Once we landed, we took a boat back to the East Bank but could not dock directly onto the bank as there were 7 large Nile Cruise boats in the way, so we simply boarded the furthest one and walked straight through all 7 of them! 2 years ago these boats would have been full of tourists, but since the revolution many have been scared away, leaving these beautiful ghost-ships lying empty like a series of small-scale Titanics.

After a spot of breakfast and an unavoidable refuel with some black market petrol (all petrol stations were empty, very common here), I headed back towards the desert road, this time intending to take the southern route towards Aswan. At the start of the desert road, the tourist police pulled me over. Usually one of them gets out a primary school exercise book and dutifully jots down my name, nationality and number plate, but this time they decided that I should be escorted 15km down the road as far as the Aswan road turning. I thanked them though wasn’t quite sure why they wanted to come with me - I’d ridden 1000km through the depths of the desert on my own without chaperone, perhaps they were bored or just knew something I didn’t. In any case after lots of questions from them about the bike (purely out of intrigue rather than any official business), I set off towards Aswan and arrived there 3 hours later. The ride had been easy going apart from one particularly rocky section still under construction, where a truck chucked up so much dust that all of a sudden I couldn’t see past the wind screen - the air turned a thick, impermeable clay colour in every direction for a good few minutes and I was totally engulfed!

It was exciting to arrive into Aswan - not only did this mark the completion of my ride through Egypt (as here I await the mandatory ferry to Wadi Halfa in Sudan), but also this city was a clear marker of change as to how far south I’d come. Not only was the temperature heating up, but faces were really starting to change, with darker skins and more of a Sudanese influence was taking hold. Much of the population of Aswan is made up of the ancient Nubian people, many of whom live on the car-less Elephantine Island, a race very proud of their history and culture, where a strong sense of family and community is key. I saw the difference at once when I had ridden into town and stopped a taxi to lead me to the hotel. “how much?”, I asked the taxi driver, rubbing my fingers together in the universal sign. He looked at me a little strangely and shook his head, returned to his car and duly led the way. On arrival, he pulled in, pointed the hotel and was about to drive away, when I stopped to thank him and almost had to force a small note into his hand! He accepted eventually with a modest little smile, waved and drove off, leaving me to wonder whether I had just corrupted one of the good guys or just done the right thing!

Next morning I was up early to meet my fixer who was due to help with all the bureaucracy to do with the boat to Wadi Halfa, Sudan, when a fellow guest, a western-looking woman, greeted me in our hotel reception. We got talking about what each other was doing in Egypt and how we had found it as a single woman on the loose. “well”, she said, with a hint of a southern drawl, “yesterday I got so crazy with all the bother here that I went to the tourist police office and I said to them “I would like to report a crime that I have not yet committed, because pretty soon I’m going to kill someone here if they keep up with all this hassling!”. I had to laugh - anyone who has been to Egypt knows exactly where this woman is coming from! Unfortunately I was hurried along by my fixer before I heard how the tourist police had responded, I’m sure it would have been a great story.

Later on that day I decided to go for a stroll through the local souq and invest in some loose, long sleeved cotton tops, as by now I am back in my western clothes (tourists are far more common in Aswan) but the one shirt I packed has proved a little insufficient! Though every shop keeper called out to me as I walked past their shop with a “hello!”, “where are you from” or a “come to my shop, no hassle!!”, it was all done with good cheer and the atmosphere was fun and jovial, so I enjoyed my stroll and browsed the clothes. One shop keeper did manage to catch my attention when I heard a voice exactly like John Prescott inviting me to “come ‘ere and ‘ave a look at these statues, proper nice”. Really, it could have been Mr Prescott himself, but as I did a double take and turned around, surprise surprise it was just another local who had clearly picked up his English from a solid education courtesy of Hull FM!

After my shopping I was soon very hungry and spotted a stand in the market where a man was selling freshly made flatbreads packed with fried aubergines, the best falafel I have ever tasted (deep fried before my eyes), salad and his secret dressing! I couldn’t resist (especially after he passed me a piping hot falafel sample, in a league of its own!), so ordered one and got chatting to the man. His English was excellent and after he had asked me how I would like my wrap, said “one other thing! How now brown cow!” and burst out laughing! I asked where he had picked up this phrase and he explained that he had previously worked a lot in the tourist trade, but since the revolution work had dried up so he had turned making these falafel wraps with his grandfather’s secret recipe. I told him it was the best I had tasted in Egypt and would be back another day for more. “Inshallah!” he called to me warmly, and threw a few more bright green balls of falafel mixture into the frying pan. It seems like so many people throughout Egypt are seriously struggling for work given how the revolution has affected tourism (which I hear only recently accounted for 20% of gdp) and its hard to imagine that situation picking up any time soon with these latest protests. It was great to see someone finding another path though with the other skills that they had - and by the looks of things, having fun at the same time.

Yesterday morning kicked off with a rather aggressive 2.30am wake up call ready for a minibus to the ancient temples of Abu Simbel, 300km away. (the road is in the militarised zone so not a feasible solo trip). This was a slightly hellish start to the day, not improved by being wedged into said packed minibus as our dreadful driver relentlessly pumped the accelerator out of boredom to nauseating effect for the next 4 hours at high speeds ibefore his final show stopper - failing to spot one of those evil foot high speed bumps until the very last moment…as a biker (and being near the front of the vehicle), I could anticipate exactly what was about to happen and managed to adopt the brace position just in the nick of time. My fellow passengers at the rear of the vehicle were however less fortunate as the bang and jolt that was experienced at the front of the vehicle was magnified into a huge buckaroo style 4 foot leap into the air for those on the backseat with many whacking their heads on the minibus roof and every man on board letting out a synchronised “ooh!” - the universal noise of “I felt that!!”. (astonishingly enough, on the return leg of the journey, our driver had the cheek to ask for a tip! The one I wanted to give was something along the lines of “get some driving lessons”, but I sensed that wasn’t what he was after).

In any case, once we had arrived at Abu Simbel, things improved significantly - the temples themselves really were stunning and well worth the trauma of getting there. I tagged along with a group of Brazilians and was having a chat with a particularly entertaining chap called Marcus, when from no-where I heard my name being called! I looked around and there was the Dutch couple that I had met at the hotel in Dakhla - we had had a jovial chat at the time as we realised that we were both intending to get the boat to Sudan on the same date, and then parted ways. In any case they came dashing over now at Abu Simbel and said “ah Claire, we knew it was you when we heard your laugh from the other side of the temple!”. I’m afraid to say that this prompted yet another round of my rather distinctive laughter, but not for long as I soon learnt that they had not been able to secure a spot for their car on the weekly vehicle ferry that was due to depart on Saturday (today) and would have to wait another week. They really were disappointed and I felt for them.

In my case however the Gods of Motorcycling had decided to look favourably on me and Suzi was granted a space on the barge as planned (being of a rather more slender physique than a Landcruiser also helped our chances!). Today I loaded her onto the very African vehicle barge, wedged between the rather ramshackle bridge and a car, and fingers crossed I’ll see her again on Tuesday, when we’re both due to arrive into Wadi Halfa (my boat is a little quicker and departs on Monday). I’m so thankful and chuffed that I’ve made it this far (celebrating the small victories is the way forward I think) and having had a rather more uplifting couple of days, I can now look back on the events of the oasis and realise how much I learnt from it and also look forwards and just take whatever comes next with an open mind. Sudan, here we come!