Holiday in Ruins

BY PAT BASSON

I always wondered how Phileas Fogg could click his fingers, tell Passepartout to pack a bag and, sommer so, catch the train for Dover and so begin his great adventure around the world, not knowing exactly where he was going or what was in store for him. My recent trip to Egypt also had an air of surprise about it. Around each corner a new adventure waited—even as I arrived at Cairo Airport, where, after collecting my bags, I scanned the boards for someone holding one with my name on it. There were many boards, but none with my name on it. In fact, there was only one board with a Western name on it, that of a Mr. Christy.

These storeys-high carvings at Abu Simbel had to be cut up and relocated when the Aswan Dam was constructed

These storeys-high carvings at Abu Simbel had to be cut up and relocated when the Aswan Dam was constructed

Well, I thought, perhaps my shuttle is stuck somewhere in traffic. I’ll wait. In fact, I’ll go to the bathroom in the meantime and freshen up.

I come out of the bathroom and most of the people with boards have gone. But the guy with Mr. Christy’s name is still there. Printed on his board is also the name, if I recall it correctly, of an associate company of my booking agent. I approach him and ask him if it is.

“Yes,” he says. “What’s your name?” I tell him. He turns over his board and looks at a list of names clipped to the back of it. My name isn’t there though. I show him my list of contacts in Egypt. One of the contacts, Mohammed Hussein, happens to be him. Well, what a happy coincidence! Mohammed says, “You can come with me. We can go now.”

I grab my bags and follow him. Halfway across the airport concourse I stop. “Wait a minute,” I say. “What about Mr. Christy? What if he arrives and there is no one to meet him?”
“Mr. Christy left last week for Johannesburg,” he replies…

There are more mosques in Cairo than churches in Rome. This is one of the more than 3000

There are more mosques in Cairo than churches in Rome. This is one of the more than 3000

Well, that’s how it began. That day and the second day I spend in and around Cairo without incident. I visit the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx, and at the Cairo Museum am amazed by the collection of stuff that came out of Tutankhamen’s tomb: gold coffins, ceremonial collars, necklaces, armbands, headpieces, sandals, spears, chariots, household furniture—stuff you can’t believe is more than three and a half thousand years old. 

Then on the third day I am supposed to visit ‘Old Cairo and the Citadel’, but no one turns up to fetch me. No problem. My hotel happens to be very close to Giza and I go back there on my own. In fact, I enjoy it even more without a guide because I am able to walk around, look and wonder at the pyramids and ruins without listening to a canned presentation and, even more irritating, being hauled off on an obligatory visit to a blatant tourist trap such as a perfume or papyrus shop.

The pyramids look impressive in pictures, and they are, of course, characteristic of Egypt and the desert, but you have to be there to really get an idea of how big they really are. You have to stand in front of them to be overwhelmed by their immensity. You need to touch the stones to sense how much work went into them, and the years, people and lives they cost. It keeps you quiet.

As can be seen at the top of one of these Giza pyramids, the structures were originally smooth, covered with limestone that, in a less respectful era, was removed to build nearby houses

As can be seen at the top of one of these Giza pyramids, the structures were originally smooth, covered with limestone that, in a less respectful era, was removed to build nearby houses

On Monday the Cairo leg of my visit comes to an end and Mohammed collects me and takes me to the airport to fly south to Aswan. There are ancient temples and the Valley of the Kings to visit, and one does this from the comfort of a riverboat, sailing leisurely from Aswan to Luxor. I’m in a happy mood, so I don’t even bother to tell Mohammed that no one came to fetch me the previous day. On my arrival at Aswan Airport, however, there is no one to meet me, again. Using a stranger’s cellphone, I call Mohammed in Cairo. Yes, he says, sorry, but the person who was supposed to fetch me had an accident, could I please catch a taxi to my boat? A company representative will reimburse me for the taxi fare.

Three enjoyable days of visiting temples and tombs pass. All gob-smacking stuff. At the end of it—no one comes forward in the meantime with my Aswan taxi fare—I am transferred by car on a three-hour trip through the desert to Hurgada, a holiday resort on the Red Sea. We no sooner arrive at the hotel than the driver hands me his cellphone. On the line is the MD of the touring company. He says he has arranged for my stay to be on a full board basis, not on a B & B basis anymore—dinner, lunch and breakfast will be included and a free bar. I interpret his gesture as a type of apology, so I don’t bother to ask about the taxi fare. I thank him, say goodbye and check in at reception. After the desk clerk takes down my details he clips a coloured plastic band around my wrist.

There’s ongoing restoration of the ruins. Here a worker shapes a stone

There’s ongoing restoration of the ruins. Here a worker shapes a stone

“What’s this for?” I ask. It’s the type of band they put on your wrist in hospitals, so they can presumably tell who you are while you are still unconscious.
“This tag says you’re booked on a bed and breakfast basis…” he says.
“But I’m not,” I say. I tell him how I’ve just spoken to the MD of the touring company, that I’m booked on full board basis, including a free bar. “And you’ve made this band too tight anyway…”  
The clerk goes to a filing cabinet and brings out the correspondence. It’s quite clear: B & B accommodation.

“And nobody phoned, emailed or faxed to change it?” I ask him.
No, he says. He takes a pair of scissors, cuts the band on my wrist and puts on another of the same colour, but more loosely. Well, I had allowed for paying for my meals anyway… 
But I don’t count on getting a call at 11 o’clock that night, just as I am about to fall asleep. It’s a representative from the tour company. He says my flight next evening to Cairo has been cancelled—there would not be “a day of leisure at the Red Sea” anymore—and could I please be at Reception at 12.30pm when someone will fetch me and take me to the bus station in Hurgada? There, at 2pm, I will catch a luxury bus to Cairo, ticket supplied. “It’s only four hours,” he says. “You’ll enjoy the ride. And,” he adds, “at the bus station in Cairo someone will pick you up and take you to the airport in time for your flight home.” 

Fine. I wasn’t enjoying Hurgada anyway. If you’re coming from South Africa and you have the option of going to Mauritius and the Seychelles, or even Mozambique, you shouldn’t bother about going to the Red Sea. It’s right next to the desert. It’s stinking hot, and the food is what you’d expect at a resort where you walk around with a coloured tag on your wrist. Anyway, perhaps the bus trip will be like another Nile cruise, and I can watch boats and palm trees float by as we drive alongside the river… 

Next day a driver indeed fetches me and takes me to where the bus is parked—a busy street, not really a bus station—and hands me my ticket. My seat is at the back—the very back—and the bus is packed to the gunnels. I chat to the stranger next to me. He works at a resort and is on one of his many trips home. No, the ride to Cairo is never four hours, he says, always at least five, but often as much as six. “We always count on six hours,” he says.

And so it turns out: a hot and bumpy ride of nearly six hours, with the TV and sound system blaring some loud and unintelligible Egyptian comedies. What’s more, the road doesn’t even come near the Nile: for most of the trip all I see is desert. 

The Nile smells of fresh mud and newly irrigated land and there are lush green strips everywhere.

The Nile smells of fresh mud and newly irrigated land and there are lush green strips everywhere.

It’s after dark when we arrive at the Cairo bus station. Who’s here to meet me this time, I think? As it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, no one. I wait 20 minutes or so and then using a stranger’s cellphone again I call Mohammed. He sounds surprised to hear I am still at the bus station. “Hold the line,” he says. He comes back: “You were picked up?” “How could I be?” I say. “I am standing here at the Cairo bus station talking to you.” “Hold the line again,” he says. I hear animated talking in the background and then Mohammed comes back: “They picked up Mr. Christy…”

Footnote: At no time during my trip was I concerned. I had money in my pocket, a credit card in my wallet and, unlike Phileas Fogg, time on my hands. At the Cairo bus station I was all of seven hours ahead of my departure time and it took less than 20 minutes by taxi to the airport. Phileas, you’ll remember, was travelling east and crossed the International Date Line, thereby arriving a day earlier than he had calculated. Oh, oh, but I’m in Egypt. When I check in at Cairo Airport, the clerk squints and frowns as he goes from my e-ticket to his computer screen and back again. “Your plane left yesterday,” he says. “Well, early this morning. At 1.40 am. Your ticket is for Friday morning, not Saturday morning. You should have been here Thursday night.”
I show him my itinerary. How could I be “relaxing all day Friday at the Red Sea”, I say, if I am supposed to be here on Thursday night? 

Amazingly, and considering the circumstances and all that has gone wrong, he issues me with a boarding pass. Of course the ticket for my domestic flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town says Friday, not Saturday. I have to buy a new ticket in Johannesburg.

All in all, an adventure, as I said. When you travel to Egypt it’s a good idea to have Phileas Fogg’s famous ‘repose in action’, to be always in a good mood and to always keep your sense of humour.

For details about tours to Egypt that hopefully go well, try Hilton Tours on 074-169-7061 or visit www.hiltontours.co.za