I returned to Sofia yesterday after the longest traveling trip I have had in a long time. Last summer I was in the UK for just over two weeks, and a few summers ago I was in Prague for over a month, but both of those involved workshops, so I was not fully a tourist in either trip, I didn’t move around as much as I did here, and I certainly wasn’t shepherded around on a group tour. This was also my first time being on a guided tour, but overall it was a good experience and certainly worthwhile on a first jaunt through Egypt; something that struck everyone in our party was how restricted and restrictive Egypt was, partly for tourists’ safety and partly (we think) to keep Egyptian culture sheltered from foreigners and to keep tourism revenues contained.
It’s hard to boil down and process 17 days’ worth of travel through some of the oldest lands in human civilization. While my cat was happy to see me and it was a relief to drink tap water, walk through the market and down the street to the grocery store without being harassed either about my appearance or to buy something, and not have to baksheesh anybody for things that are in their job description to begin with, I’m stuck sitting here, procrastinating from starting my school work because I feel I should write something about this amazing trip (also because if I don’t do it now, I’ll never have time in the hellish 3 weeks at work that are about to descend on me), and yet I don’t know where to start. We were frequently shuttled around so much and were so exhausted at day’s end that I wasn’t able to make many notes during the actual trip. I have 755 photos on my camera, but it’s hard to share them or think about them in a way that doesn’t reduce them to, “…and here is yet another temple with some sculptures and hieroglyphics.”
There are, of course, the token photos, but I don’t want to share those yet (partly because sifting through those 755 photos is going to be a pain in the ass). Instead, because this trip was so unusual (for me anyway) in the quantity of face-to-face interaction with other people, I want to write about the Top 5 People we met on this trip. Between the five of them, I think you get a pretty good sense of the flavor of our trip and of this intriguing land and people. Unfortunately, I only have pictures of a couple of them, but will add the others once I get them from one of my traveling partners who took most of them.
#1 – Kiril Petrov is Bulgarian, not Egyptian, but without him, we would never have gotten to Egypt – or at least, we would have gotten there with an altered itinerary and a lot more frustration. The Sofia airport was closed and flights were canceled the last couple of days before Christmas due to heavy fog, confounding a lot of people’s travel plans, including ours. We were scheduled to depart on a short flight from Sofia to Istanbul on the morning of 23 December; we would then spend most of the day in Istanbul before boarding our 7 pm flight to Cairo. However, our flight was as ill-fated as many others; it was “delayed” for nearly 13 hours, from a scheduled 8 am departure time to an 8:40 pm departure, which would of course mean that we would miss our Cairo flight. The two flights were also separate bookings and reservations, so it was questionable what we’d be able to do if we missed the Cairo flight.
It was 7 am. The next bus to Istanbul left at 9 am, which was questionable as far as making our flight; we figured that driving a private car, a 9 am departure time would probably work, but a bus is invariably slower and also doesn’t stop directly at the airport. We went to inquire about renting a car, but none of the rental companies were open yet. Purely by chance, an employee from one car agency popped into the booth on an errand (changing money or getting paperwork or some such), and agreed to help us. It turned out that nobody would rent us a car to Istanbul (there being the small problem of getting the car back to Sofia), but they would rent us a car and a driver to get us there for 300 euros. After some snafus and delays getting it all set up (most of which probably consisted of finding and rousing a driver at the last minute to go to Istanbul), we departed around 9 am from Sofia, in thick fog, with our driver, Kiril.
Kiril, it turned out, is not “just” a driver; he is also a trained percussionist who performs with the New Symphony Orchestra in Sofia, as well as the Bobby Valchev jazz trio. He started doing some driving as a side job to earn some extra money for the baby he is expecting next year. He is also an unfailingly polite and patient gentleman, even when we ended up stuck in no-man’s land at the Turkish border crossing for almost two hours. (Turkey, it seems, challenges even Bulgaria for nonsensical bureaucracy, gross incompetence and inefficiency, and severe unhelpfulness by all people who are supposed to be in charge. We encountered this phenomenon again at the Sabiha Gokcen airport yesterday: I have never in my life – even for other international flights – arrived at the airport a dutiful 2 hours in advance of my flight and barely made it onto the plane.) He deposited us at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul just after 5 pm, then did an about-face and drove 6+ hours back to Sofia that night while we flew to Cairo. He also emailed us a week later to wish us a happy new year and hoped that we were enjoying our Egypt trip!
#2 – Ahmed 1 (we ended up working with 3 tour employees named Ahmed, so we started referring to them by order of acquaintance) was our main tour guide and Egyptologist. Other than being extremely knowledgeable and also speaking his English with a strange Scottish-like brogue that we didn’t hear from any other Egyptians, he was intriguing to me for his open comments about modern Egyptian culture, including sex and psychology, without prompting and without really needing anyone to respond; it was like he was practicing the ideas, trying them on as he tried to work them out in his own head. An impromptu astronomy lesson from my co-worker on the felucca…
…turned into him showing us an excerpt of the film “Zeitgeist” on Youtube on his cell phone, telling us that he had watched this clip over and over again, trying to figure out how exactly it reached its conclusions about religion. The youngest of nine children from a village near Aswan in Upper Egypt and the only one unmarried (he spoke at length once about the difficulties and conflicts surrounding marriage in modern Egypt), he seemed to harbor a hidden complexity beneath the surface. He himself said, in one of his tangential musings, that Egyptians are a melancholy people, that they may appear to be laughing from a distance, but when you get close, you can’t tell if they are laughing or crying.
I’m sure he was not unique in this, but he was a tour guide who had never himself been a traveler elsewhere. To me, he seemed like a microcosm of a vibe I picked up overall from Egypt and what seemed to keep its cities (at least to me) from ever transcending the tourist label and becoming “great” in their own right (contrast Cairo and Istanbul, for example): despite its long and fascinating culture and history and its intelligent, capable, friendly and warm citizens imbued with personality and vigor, Egypt is in some ways stuck in a rut that it cannot get out of. Ahmed may be quite good at what he does and earn a very decent salary by Egyptian standards, but his ideas may never find a fair audience and he may very well never leave the country because, in his own words, “Egyptians don’t travel.”
#3 – Crossing the street in Egypt, particularly in Cairo, is like a game of Frogger on crack. “Close your eyes and pray to Allah – that is the only way,” an elderly gentleman advised two of us as we tried to pick our moment to traverse Mirit Barha. It was our second tour of duty in Cairo, a completely free day sans Ahmed 1, and one of my co-workers and I were wandering the city, starting from one major area that we had already visited on our tour – the Egyptian Museum (officially, “the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities”) – but the realities of navigating Cairo on our own were already proving a bit beyond us.
The gentleman led the way, at one point firmly taking my arm as I lost courage in front of an oncoming taxi, across the street, and then introduced himself as Dr. Sherif Zaky, director of the Animal Mummies Room at the Egyptian Museum, which we had visited on our second day in Egypt. Delightedly, we told Sherif how amazed we had been by the mummified fish and crocodiles in the room, as well as the dog that still had hair, and he – gratified I think by our knowledge of the room – chatted with us a bit on the sidewalk. My co-worker asked if he had any suggestions for a lunch place nearby, as we were both famished, and he led the way to a local restaurant, then came inside and had coffee with us while we ate.
The Egyptian Museum must be the worst great museum in the world. Its collection is staggering – and presented with hideous carelessness. Sarcophogi and coffins are shelved behind glass in tall cabinets like the spare china, rendering visitors unable to view any inscriptions or artwork on the lids; few of the rooms are guarded and visitors can end up touching sculptures and carvings thousands of years old (cool for them, admittedly, but not so great on the restoration/preservation side of things); very few items are labeled or described at all, and the ancient woven sandals in one display case were marked by handwritten numbers on what looked suspiciously like a torn-up index card; and everywhere the lights are so dim that you strain your eyes to make out any detail at all. My eyes actually hurt from squinting in the Animal Mummies Room – Sherif’s work of the last twelve years, a field he deliberately chose so as to be different from other Egyptologists (he says there are about 20 animal mummy specialists world-wide). He was gracious and charming to converse with, and seemed pleased to find two teachers genuinely interested in his occupation. But, like with Ahmed 1, the Egyptian grind always loomed: why strive to be different and labor in an obscure field (but totally cool – I mean, it was a mummified fish!) when even diligent and interested visitors can barely see it?
#4 – In the Bedouin village of El-Milga in the St. Catherine Nature Reserve near Mt. Sinai, Sheikh Mousa’s son Saleh (not sure about spelling) proved to be a gregarious, charming, and witty host, regaling us alternately with tales of his sick camel nursed back to perfect health and a victory in an international camel race; his campaign for Parliament (complete with newspaper coverage) that was thwarted at the last minute by the sitting government; philosophical thoughts on religion and international politics; marital and relationship advice and jokes; and somewhat tuneless renditions of Backstreet Boys songs (“Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely” appearing to be his favorite). Sitting around a campfire drinking overly sweet Bedouin tea with him and a few other hikers the night before our staggering-in-more-ways-than-one hike (see below) was a unique and memorable experience from an already memorable trip.
Saleh 1 awaiting Saleh 2 (see below) in the morning at the Bedouin camp…one of my traveling partners has a better picture of him, I think.
#5 – Our Bedouin hiking guide the following day was also named Saleh, aka Bubbles from “The Wire”
Saleh 2 (in the center, with the head scarf – again, I think there’s a better picture out there which I will try to locate to replace this one):
In retrospect, I think Bubbles would have made the better guide. The following comprised some of Saleh 2’s qualifications as Worst Guide Ever:
- He arrived at camp an hour late in the morning.
- He disappeared from our group twice on the trail – once ostensibly to buy bread, the second time for unknown reasons – with instructions for us to just “go on.”
- He made someone else in the group carry all the food for lunch, which he was supposed to do.
- His English was very poor, compounded by an aggressive style (he would just kind of bark one or two words at you repeatedly until you understood), a mumbling problem, and the fact that he was continuously smoking joints during our hike.
- He stopped us for tea at noon at a Bedouin woman’s hut, where we spent far longer than necessary.
- When we reached the peak that we were planned to summit for the day to see the remains of an unfinished palace, he instructed us to summit the peak ourselves (“about 40 minutes”) and hang out in the ruins for 30 minutes while he waited for us down below (and, presumably, smoked a few more joints).
- After we had scaled the peak by ourselves and returned, we returned to the Bedouin woman’s house for lunch, where he proceeded to occupy 40 minutes needlessly fussing over a very simple cold lunch (tomatoes and cucumbers, hummus and cheese from a package, tuna fish from cans), smoothing down the tuna and cheese and arraying the tomato and cucumber slices as if for a fancy banquet, when in fact we were all star
ving, having not eaten anything for 8 hours, and cold, as the sun was on its way down at this time on a winter day.
- He squatted down in the road before we reached town again and demanded baksheesh from us, almost as if he was refusing to let us pass or take us home unless we tipped him. Luckily, we could all see town from there and he did not actually restrain or prevent anyone from walking past him (as one member of our party did without tipping, and we did after we tipped 3 Egyptian pounds [about 50 cents] between the two of us), but proceeded to yell, “Stop, stop! Slow, slow!” after us. Whether he was upset about his tips or unwilling to let us reach the camp before him, it’s unclear.
- When we gave Saleh 1 some feedback about how entirely unsuitable and unsafe Saleh 2 was as a guide, Saleh 2 proceeded to get angry and start yelling defensively, and then came back and threatened a member of our party (who hadn’t actually said anything to Saleh 1 about the quality of the guide).
Stay classy, Saleh 2.
Honorable mention: The spa girl at Dyarna Hotel in Dahab who dry-cut one of my traveling companions’ curly hair without any kind of bib or robe to catch the falling hair, then gave me a facial without using any running water at all (only a slightly moist towel at a late stage), took a cigarette break in the middle of my procedure, and came back inside to rub in my mask without washing her hands. The one thing that wasn’t entirely her fault was the water steamer, which I had to hold on my lap and which I think gave me a little electric shock at one point because it did not have an actual plug at the end but merely loose wires which the spa staff jammed into the outlet and held in place with a cell phone charger.
And there were many many more who didn’t make the cut here, but who keep this trip vibrant and alive in my memory. I have the tendency when I travel on my own not to reach out and chat with the other travelers at the hostel or talk to local shopkeepers or guides, and so I feel infinitely fortunate that I was traveling here with 3 co-workers who have more travel initiative and make travel friends more easily than I do, so that I was able to reap the benefits and remember this trip and this deeply complex land through the unique characters that populated it.