Egypt?! What Was I THINKING?!
I was less than sanguine about returning to Dahab.
Sure, I love Dahab. And as a quiet, beautiful, cost-effective place in which to work with minimal distraction, it would be my top pick in the Middle East.
That doesn’t mean I was happy about it.
Because, even before the recent flawlessly-timed coup, I was more than aware of the risks of Egypt’s, umm, vibrant political scene going, as we say in Britain, tits-up.
My mother had suggested Madaba in Jordan, but, at the risk of committing blogger blasphemy, Jordan lacks the insanity of Egypt and the sophistication – yeah, insanity too – of Lebanon.
Y’know. It’s a nice country, and all, but, outside of Petra, it’s rather short on charisma, and the notion of paying Western European prices to stay somewhere so fundamentally provincial . . .
Well, Dahab it was.
Further, after spending eight hours of my last day in Beirut waiting for a camera lens which didn’t show, experiencing the worst Old-Fashioned of my life as my farewell drink in Beirut, and then signally failing to go to sleep early, I was….
Well, in an unusually bad mood for a 3.30am wakeup. Which is, for the record, rather earlier than I’d been going to bed in Beirut.
Plus, after a week or so slutting around wearing what I liked, I wasn’t best pleased at having to don my long-sleeved loose cardi and my scarf, either. I packed both into my carry-on with a feeling of intense distaste.
Cairo airport didn’t improve my mood. In fact, if you find anyone whose mood has ever been improved by Cairo airport, I recommend you get their medication checked.
Not least because there was a large part of me which could quite happily have spent a week longer in Beirut, hanging with cherubs, drinking cocktails and perhaps making it out to the ruins at Baalbek, while generally behaving like a one-woman Club 18-30 holiday.
Whereas instead I was being a responsible adult and heading into a shitstorm of deadlines and creative projects.
Although, unlike Beirut, Cairo does at least have smoking sections.
I eyed the surging, panicking queues at the transit point with an expression of deep distaste.
They were being managed in a very Egyptian fashion.
Which is to say there was one overwhelmed man whose job it was to fail to answer questions, and three guys standing near him, whose job was to point you to him.
By the time I had bought my visa, my mood would be best described as baleful. I hate airports at the best of times, and, after averaging under four hours sleep a night for the last few days, this was not the best of times.
At Sharm, my baggage failing to appear, I endeavoured to leave the building for a cigarette.
“No bags?” says the guy on the door.
“I’m waiting for my bags,” I say.
“No bags, no leave, no come back in,” he says.
WHAT?! Seriously, WTF?! This is Egypt?! One of the nice things about Egypt is you can smoke absolutely bloody anywhere, pretty much.
“OK,” I say. “I want to smoke. Where can I smoke?”
Now, on arrival in Beirut, I’d met a nice Iraqi who had taken me to an illegal smoking place well known to all frequent flyers through Beirut. “No smoking,” he says.
The only fucking smoke-free airport in Egypt, and they have lost my bag and are refusing to allow me to leave without it.
Fucking Egypt, I think. I KNEW I should have stayed in Lebanon.
Half an hour after landing, there are five of us standing hopefully by the carousel, which trundles round and round, entirely empty. “I think they’ve lost our bags,” I say to a British guy.
“I hope not,” he says.
“Well, they haven’t come through, have they?” I say.
I go and ask my enemy at the door. There are, in fact, three chaps standing at the door. None of them, of course, can assist.
“Wait,” says my enemy.
Nicotine withdrawal courses through my system. I bite back a response along the lines of, “I HAVE BEEN WAITING. That’s how I know they’re lost.”
Time passes. The carousel continues to roll, empty, with five international fliers standing forlornly by it.
I endeavour to find somewhere or someone to storm off to to make a scene to or at.
There is an assistance desk, which is unmanned, but has a phone by it. I pick up the phone and explain that our bags are lost.
“Five minutes,” says a disembodied voice at the other end.
Time passes. Yet again.
I chat desultorily to the British guy.
Sharm domestic arrivals is not a place where one would choose to spend any time. It’s a bloody great barn of a place with some overpriced money-changers, a carousel, a desk selling hotels, another desk touting Mercedes taxis, and, frankly, not that much else.
“I think the bags are here,” says an Egyptian guy.
“WHERE?” I say.
He points through a glass door, to another empty arrivals hall, another barn of a place, with a carousel trundling round and round and six guys standing there doing absolutely nothing.
“Great!” I say.
I think I can see my battered Thai fake backpack travelling round the carousel.
I pick up the phone. “Could you open the door, please?”
The Egyptian asks in Arabic whether they could open the door.
In a dumb show like something last seen on Covent Garden piazza, the guy mimes that he does not have the key. Nor do any of his other six friends have the key.
Then they disappear. All seven of them. Presumably to look for a key. All seven of them, looking for one key, in one place.
“Five minutes,” says the Egyptian guy.
Now, I hate flying at the best of times. It’s environmentally destructive and it involves too much time in airports, but, although Middle Eastern citizens can still take buses through Syria, Syria’s a no-go for Westerners at this time, so I’m stuck with the sodding flight.
“That’s an Egyptian five minutes, right?” I say.
He looks a little offended.
I mentally brace myself for the next step in the Egyptian airport sequence, the one I call “fighting with a baying mob of taxi drivers while holding on to my bag for dear life”, and wonder whether we’ve been here long enough that my Egyptian travel blogger friend, who offered me a lift provided it was after noon, will actually be awake.
I said not to bother, because the flight got in at 9, but it’s 10.30 now, and my backpack is on the other side of a locked door.
It’s not an Egyptian five minutes, in fact. It’s an Indonesian five minutes, read, about twenty-five minutes, before me and my pack are reunited.
Fucking Egypt, I think.
Fucking, fucking Egypt.
Egypt, dear reader, is like China. One alternates between awed wonder, utter befuddlement, a brief, elusory sense that one understands the place and the people, that one “gets” Egypt, a weird, conflicted affection, and utter, utter rage. And yet one keeps coming back.
Well, like China but with added sexual harassment.
Stepping out of the airport is like opening an oven door: a blast of dry, dry desert heat, with added sand.
My guidebook says the fare to the bus station should be about 30 Egyptian pounds. According to the sign, it is 120 Egyptian pounds. Fuck that for a game of soldiers, I think.
In Egypt, lest you think I’m being irrational, one can hire an entire taxi with a driver for an entire day for 150 Egyptian pounds.
I am NOT paying 80% of that for a 10k ride to the bus stop, but unfortunately I’ve neglected to find a buddy to split the cab, and, also, I am too tired, too old, too lazy, and, let’s face it, insufficiently poor to walk out of the airport to the main road and flag a service taxi or a minibus.
The taxi drivers rush at me like something out of 28 Days Later, howling. Here we go, I think.
“How much to the bus station?” I ask the fastest runner.
“No problem!” he says, grabbing at my bag. This is taxi driver speak for “Don’t worry, pretty, stupid lady, I will extort you later.”
“No,” I say, pulling my bag back from him. “HOW MUCH?”
Then, as the tug of war continues, I unleash my rubbish Arabic, which at least demonstrates I’ve been to Egypt before. “HOW MANY? BUS STATION, HOW MANY?”
“120,” he says. “Dahab, 250. No buses.”
Bugger. He’s gone with the fare on the sign, leaving me no room to manoeuvre. I pause.
Then, in a stroke of genius, “Servees!” I say, meaning he can pick up others.
“No servees,” he says.
“My friend,” I say. “In Luxor, in Cairo, in any city in Egypt I can hire a taxi for one full day for 150 Egyptian. I cannot pay 120 to go to the bus station.”
“That book is old,” he says, pointing at my guidebook. “The bus station has moved.”
“I’m sure it has,” I say. “But the bus station hasn’t moved 100 kilometres from the airport, has it?”
“120,” he says.
“No,” I say.
Another guy comes up from the back. “OK,” he says. “What’s your best price?”
“70,” I say.
This is two to three times a reasonable tourist fare for the journey, so, obviously, he’s good with that.
“Come!” he says.
The others rush at him, yelling and baying. It almost gets physical.
He shrugs at me, “Sorry.”
I am now in such a bad temper that the remaining 50 Egyptian pounds, money I would and do routinely drop on a latte, has become a point of principal.
I storm over to a cab that’s about to pull out “Bus stop, servees!” I say, in Arabic. He opens his door. The others rush at him, baying and yelling.
He shrugs. Sorry.
As always when fighting with taxi drivers in Egypt, the scene operates on a range of levels.
There is that Mediterranean love of operatic drama, that very Egyptian pride in cunningly outsmarting the stupid, female tourist, but also, at some level, a genuine desperation: this is a poor country, the economy is tanking, and tourist numbers are a fraction of what they were.
Anywise, I have pulled myself into the right by going for a service taxi, so I am cheating.
We to and fro. “Come,” says one guy, with steroid muscles and a steroid attitude. “You are beautiful lady. I will take you!”
“How much?” I say.
“No problem,” he says, grabbing my arm, which enrages me. Then he adds some Arabic obscenities in a conversational tone. Great.
In traditional Egyptian culture, a man should not touch a woman who is not a family member ANYWHERE on her body, so grabbing someone’s upper arm is like touching her arse in other parts of the world.
Further, frankly, I’ve had enough Egyptian men address Arabic obscenities to me to recognise some of the vocabulary, if not, mercifully, the fine detail.
“No,” I say. “70, I go with you.”
He starts to yell at me. And then he tells me I am beautiful. And then he yells at me again. And then he gives me some more Arabic filth in a conversational tone.
My first driver is looking more appealing by the second. I wonder, fleetingly, if they’re working as a tag team, but I think Muscles genuinely believes a) that he’s Adonis and b) that he’s the first guy ever to have sworn at me in Arabic.
“Listen, my friend,” I say, reopening negotiations with the original guy. “I have a friend in Sharm and within half an hour he will be awake, and he can collect me.”
“He’s not here,” says my taxi driver. 15-love.
“Or, I can walk to the main road and take a micro,” I say, referring to the minibuses that trundle all major routes in Egypt and will pick you up for a few Egyptian pounds. 15-all.
“No micro,” he says. This is bullshit, and we both know it, on the other hand, I do actually want to get to Dahab and find a house rental, optimally one I can move straight into today and get on with some work, and, clearly, if I wanted a micro I’d be walking already. 30-15.
I put on my pack and make as though I’m walking to the road. 30-all.
“OK,” he says. “I make you special price! 100.” 40-30
“80,” I say. Deuce.
“90,” he says. Advantage him.
“OK,” I say. GAME!
Honour, on both sides, is satisfied, and we embark for a perfectly amicable fifteen minute ride to the bus station.
Where there are, indeed, no buses until 3pm, but I find a Bedouin driver who’s going that way anyway and will take me with his other fare – service! – for 100 Egyptian.
It is 1pm when we reach Dahab, and I’ve been up for 11 hours on three hours sleep, my eyes are conjunctivitis pink, and I have an ugly nicotine and caffeine twitch.
A tout accosts me in the street, so I get him looking for houses for me, then figure I’ll base myself at Penguin, the nice, friendly guesthouse where we stayed before and where they won’t mind me dumping my stuff and using their internet to look for a house stay and where — insha’allah — someone probably knows of a few houses going anyway.
“Hello!” says one of the guys, doing a double-take. “Welcome back! Where’s Z?”
And at that moment, as I begin to explain our crazy global life, how Z is currently in France with his Australian dad, but will be flying in all on his own to join me in a couple of weeks, I know that Dahab is going to be, well, fine.
I sit down on the low cushions, shove a passing cat out of the way, look out over the sea to the sand haze over the rosy mountains of Saudi Arabia in the distance and think, “Well! Hello Dahab! It IS good to be back.”
I polish my metaphorical halo. THERE! I could have stayed in Beirut, acting like a one-woman Benidorm hen night until it got old. And now I’m in Dahab.
I’m going to do ALL my writing jobs and I’m TOTALLY going to nail this writing project, not to mention completing my website redesign! No problem!