Greetings from the dehydration capital of the world.
Here in Egypt even drinking many liters of bottled water daily, my throat gets so dry that when I try to swallow my epiglottis sticks together... a slightly scary sensation and the occasion for many more big swigs of H2O. Dust and sand are everywhere and the slightest breeze sends it airborne and into my eyes (contact lenses are problematic here). People constantly are sweeping and washing sidewalks and shop isles trying to keep stuff clean. It is a hopeless effort, but they do try. The effect is that the city always seems dirty. Even in the middle of the city where everything is paved one sees piles of dust and sand with people sweeping more into them.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. The Cairo story starts where my last postcard from Rhodes leaves off. In that missive you may recall that I expected to leave on the once a week Friday ferry to Cyprus. With a whole day to kill Friday until the evening departure, I hung around the hotel until about 18:00 and then leisurely walked the couple kilometers to the terminal arriving about 19:00... about an hour and a half before the scheduled departure time. To my utter surprise and consternation the boat had already left by the time I got there. In response to my frantic questions I learned that gusty winds had made it necessary for the boat to leave early and that if I had read the (VERY) fine print on the jacket of my ticket, I would have seen instructions in paragraph 5 for passengers to arrive a full THREE hours early! Further in paragraph 3, subsection (a) it clearly states the ferry company has the right to change schedules at any time they think it necessary. So. What to do now? Back to the travel agent for a refund and information about alternatives (no other ferries!) and then back to the hotel for at least one more night until I can figure out what the universe might next have in store for me. After much cogitation I decided the only rational thing to do under the circumstances involved taking to the air, my least preferable way of getting around.
Fortunately, Olympic Airways had several flights everyday from Rhodes to Athens, but only one daily flight from Athens to Cairo. That flight didn't leave until 00:30 with an ungodly arrival time of 02:30 in Cairo. On reaching Athens I had about eight hours to kill and decided to go into the city and try to find a cafeteria discovered on my prior visit some ten years earlier. I found it and marched in with my backpack to a less than enthusiastic welcome by the staff. None of the wonderful people who so delighted me during my prior visits a decade ago could be found and the shiny new young faces treated me like one of the bums hanging around outside of the shop. Can't blame them, I guess. I deliberately shed all accoutrements of affluence when I travel and must look a sight to most casual observers. Why, I don't even wear a watch, the most basic signal that a person is somebody.
The flight departed on time and I arrived at the Cairo airport in the dead of night, 02:30AM. Not unexpectedly, all civilized forms of transportation were inoperative. Of course, there were the anxious taxi drivers ready to fleece the unprepared. Clearly, many other passengers had realized their situation and had simply found some uncomfortable place to sleep away the four or five hours until ordinary transportation would become available (and the hotels would accept new guests without charging them the full day's rate for a few desperate hours of sleep before dawn).
Airports are lethargic places during the early hours of the morning. There are, naturally, many people still on duty or waiting around to jump on the odd straggling tourist even during this calm part of the day. But, after the frenetic activity immediately following the arrival of a new plane, most of the touts and attendants crawl back into their coveted cubbyholes to sleep as best they can until again spurred into action by the arrival of another plane bearing prospects for their various services; there were several planes.
Finally the dawn did come and with it a quickening of activity around the area in the parking lot where the public buses pick up passengers. I grabbed the first one and noticed only three other people needed transportation at 06:30 in the morning. One of the guys on the bus spoke a little English and offered to point out a couple hotels near the bus termination point. The very conveniently located one I selected seemed adequate, until I took a closer look at the bathroom. There I discovered the toilet seat contained mementoes from (several) prior occupants. I spent most of that first day out hotel shopping and found a couple others that seemed like better values and cleaner. Hotels in the middle of Cairo are expensive and all but the five star houses do not accept credit cards. I did eventually find a comfortable room and turned my attention to finding embassies where I would try to get visas for my continued journey south into the heart of Africa.
A visa for Ethiopia turned out to be a no brainer; $70 and a single photo and I had my passport stamped in about four hours. When I returned to pick up the visa the head of the consulate invited me in for a chat. Slightly wary, I imagined rubber hoses and security interrogations. But, it turned out the guy simply found my plans interesting and wanted to assist me, something he did for none of the other visa applicants as I waited. Hmm...
I got to the Sudan consulate on a Friday only to learn that in Muslim countries our Saturday and Sunday weekend is pushed back one day and Friday is the start of their weekend. Instructed to return on the next workday Sunday, I left to become a tourist for a while. Once again I walked the Egyptian Museum and trudged over to the pyramids for another few hours of trying to outwit the aggressive touts and their ugly camels.
Sudan is taking more time than quick Ethiopia and they needed four photos plus a delay of a full week to process my application. So, I am off toward Libya where I am told no one enters without a visa. We will see. As I travel on serendipity, it doesn't really matter. There are some interesting coastal towns along the way and I may just plunk myself down in one of them until the visa is ready.
BTW, I just read in an English language Egyptian newspaper that a Saudi Arabian mufti has banned the children's game, Pokemon in his country. Seems he thinks it is too much like gambling which is prohibited by the Koran, and some of the cards contain Jewish symbols - six pointed stars!
That's it for this postcard. I still have a couple albums of pictures taken in Turkey and may someday get around to preparing them for sharing. Next postcard in a few days, If I still have access to this fast and cheap Internet connection.
Fred L Bellomy 1 April 2001
Marsa Matrouh: Have no idea what
these are. They look Iraqi or Arabian, don't they? They sit in a square
by themselves near the giant crab sculpture.
Marsa Matrouh: Have no idea what
these are. They look Iraqi or Arabian, don't they? They sit in a square
by themselves near the giant crab sculpture.
2 April 2001
Greetings from Marsa Matrouh.
ONE NIGHT IN ALEXANDRIA on my way toward Libya. After various inquiries I decided to forgo the pleasures of an adventure in Libya and stopped in the first interesting town I came across.
Marsa Matrouh Egypt is a mostly Muslim town boasting a beach walk featuring tiles engraved with the Star of David! No kidding. There must be a story behind this anomaly, but I've yet to discover it. I've got several pictures documenting the phenomenon in the album linked to this postcard.
Marsa Matrouh is a small tourist town located a few hundred kilometers west of Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea coast. It is both like and unlike Santa Barbara. Except for the one first class hotel (where I take most of my meals and can use a credit card), the town is simple and very dusty. My own lodging is in the Riviera Beach Chalet right next to the first class Beau Site hotel complex. I got the one "VIP" suite, actually an efficiency apartment. Most of the units go for about $6.50 per night. Mine costs four times as much and is first class, king size bed and all. At $25 per night, it is one of my memorable travel bargains. My unit sits right on the sand. Inside everything is marble tile, spit and polish. Only the linen betrays the establishment's limited budgets for amenities - they even provided a bath size bar of soap. The staff attend to my needs like a place with multiple hundred dollar rates in the U.S. I'll hate to leave.
The sea is glorious in its greens and blues. The balmy skies host scatterings of clouds, which contrast with the brilliant blues behind them. People generally are friendly. Even the street touts are not that overbearing. The muezzins don't shout their calls to prayer; some don't even use electronic amplification!
Buying anything is always a problem. There are plenty of stores, but nothing you would be inclined to call a super market or shopping center. With a little persistence most common needs can be found somewhere in the five block square downtown area.
Finding a place to eat with comfortable hygiene is another matter. People on the street commonly handle food and personal cleanliness doesn't seem to be a high priority for very many of the people I've watched closely. Food is sometimes served on dishes that obviously have not been thoroughly washed. A quick water rinsing between customers is the norm for street food. So! More than one of my meals has consisted of several chocolate bars, a package of cookies and a bottle of Pepsi. When you ask for Dr. Pepper everyone thinks you have a medical problem! Right now I'd give almost anything for an ice-cold can of my favorite soft drink.
I still find it curious that in a country, which uses Arabic writing, they seldom use Arabic numerals. When they do, it is a challenge to correctly count. I've almost got my decoder ring figured out for the Arabic number symbols used here. Language will continue to be a problem as I move further south. My French and German are rudimentary... some say my English is not that good either.
Anyone who has watched one of the National Geographic specials on Africa will recall segments dealing with the peculiar habits of the Dung Beetle. Well, the little critters are all over the place up here in North Africa as well. Further south we know they have a habit of rolling large balls of elephant dung great distances and burying it with their eggs. Here, these beetles do the same thing with doggy dung.
I have marveled at the precision with which both drivers and pedestrians share the same space on the congested streets. I've seen only one collision (a taxi and bicycle) and no one got hurt - miraculously. People walk out into thick fast moving traffic dodging in and out between closely packed streams of cars, busses and trucks and no one hardly ever gets hit. As a passenger in an occasional taxi I've watched this phenomenon with admiration as the driver swerves this way and that to fill up every new opening in traffic all the while just missing people sprinkled among the fast moving vehicles. Everyone times their movements "just right" to avoid being hit or hitting someone themselves. Amazing. For myself, I have sometimes waited five minutes before an opening in the traffic appeared which I considered wide enough for a safe crossing.
Marsa Matrouh could claim the title of the windy city, if Chicago hadn't already grabbed it. The big difference is that here each gust stirs up a new cloud of dust out of the sand which quickly redeposits itself in the same place that just minutes before some poor guy had industriously swept clean.
I have had little trouble getting my PenCam pictures processed since learning the ins and outs of using the several software packages needed. The one exception is with systems using Windows NT. For some reason the USB ports have never been active on such machines. In one case the operator had set things up for duel booting and he just switched over to Windows98 and everything progressed normally after that. In two other instances I had to give up after trying everything I could think of. What I have learned is that WinNT operates differently from Win2000 with which I am familiar, having used it on my own system back home. I previously had been under the impression that they were basically both the same system. Not so.
The police presence throughout Egypt is ubiquitous and heavy. In the tourist areas one is seldom out of sight of at least one cop. Most of the police officers seem to be armed with automatic weapons or shotguns! A few I've had occasion to approach have even spoken passable English. All I have encountered have been polite, helpful and friendly.
Fortunately, there is little or no Malaria in North Africa. It is a good thing as there are plenty of mosquitoes! So, this is a training ground for my more urgent requirements further south where one bite could mean a lifetime of aggravation. The pharmacies with which I've checked so far have not had the malarial prophylactic drug (Doxycycline) I expect to be using, but I'm sure that will change when I get to places where the threat is real and imminent. I have purposely deferred getting the medication on the advice of other African travelers who point out that African medical professionals are experts in dealing with treatment and prevention and better equipped to know what will be most effective for each region in which I will be spending time.
I've seen quite a few people reading their little pocket Korans just like one sees a few Christian people reading their little pocket New Testaments in the U.S.
It is hard to go anywhere that the scent of incense or perfume doesn't permeate the air. As I am not that fond of the smells, I could do without it. Fortunately, there are so many other more pleasant unfamiliar smells, sometimes overpowering, that the perfume gets lost in the crowd. Even the smells of donkey dung, taken is small doses can be delightful.
It is amazing how many things super glue will fix while one is traveling... and amazing how many things need fixing once you have that tiny tube with you. Surprisingly, it is perfect for fixing rips in the Nylon from which my bag is made.
I'm beginning to think I might be better off with something that actually looks like a camera. People always stop to stare at the foreigner raising his candy bar wrapper to his eye like a camera and then quickly stuffing the "candy" part back into the wrapper and the whole thing back into his pocket. Some not only stop to stare, but actually start to follow me, presumably to witness the weird behavior should it occur again soon. No kidding, I've been stalked for blocks by guys (always guys) who's curiosity have gotten the best of them.
Once again I have managed to process the pictures taken with my PenCam while I am still in the place where I took them.
That's it for now. I'll be heading south towards Luxor, Aswan and then on into the Sudan in the next couple weeks. I'll postcard you all when I'm next able. BTW, I love hearing back from people who get these missives, especially folks from whom I haven't heard anything at all for a long while.
Fred L Bellomy (the guy with shiny skin.) 8 April 2001
8 April 2001
Hello from frustration-land,
After leaving Matrouh it was back to Cairo for a few days and another futile attempt to pick up my Sudan visa, which was supposed to be ready. Wow! What a hassle that turned out to be. They kept me waiting in a dusty "reception" area outside for eight hours while three or four dozen other applicants jostled to be heard by the one overworked clerk. At the end of the day someone came out and asked if I wanted back my passport, indicating finally that no approval for a tourist visa had come through. Of course they knew that all along, but things are dicey between the US and Sudan and I guess I have the privilege of being the rare "representative" of my country on whom they can demonstrate their displeasure with American arrogance. I did get a telephone number and Mr. Seleman suggested I call back in a couple days, adding that the last time an American had applied for a visa through the Cairo Embassy it had taken a month for approval. (cont.)
Peaceful is work right now,
Fred L Bellomy 10 April 2001