First term over, exams finished and results in it’s finally time to get out of Amman and clear the air. Where better than the deliciously filthy and sprawling metropolis of Cairo.
We arrived early to catch our Jett bus which would take us all the way via overnight ferry to Egypt’s capital. After waving goodbye to Yacine, who had come to see us off, we stowed our bags, clambered on board and found our seats, eager to get away. A bag of bread and a heap of apples on our laps to sustain us throughout the trip.
A few minutes passed before I was gestured off the bus by an important looking man (his long coat fitted and his moustache seemed waxed).
‘You can’t come with us I’m sorry’.
After a silence during which I blinked furiously at him I asked: ‘why?’
‘Because of problems in Sinai we can’t take British citizens through that area’.
I attempted some more incredulous protesting as well as a ‘why didn’t you tell us before when we bought the tickets with our British passports?’. But I could see he was firm on this so I went to inform Jessie and Duncan that we had to pack up and leave. The prospect of either forgoing Cairo and our connecting flight to Israel or paying for a last minute plane ticket was not too appetising.
Then, just as we were hauling off our bags we were all called over again:
‘You can stay on but only if you take separate transport on arrival at Nowabea (the ferry port in Egypt), and don’t go through northern Sinai’.
We agreed and thanked him, realising that this was more for our own security than anything else. After getting the drivers assurance to help us find some form of transport on the other side, and feeling somewhat relieved we re-boarded the bus.
The four-hour trip down to Aqaba (ferry-port and seaside resort in the southern tip of Jordan) was interspersed with the correct amount of breaks to satisfy the nicotine habits of the passengers.
On arriving in Aqaba we were told that would be a three hour wait before getting on the ferry. Firstly though we were obliged to lovingly hand over the 10 dinar ‘leaving Jordan tax’ before receiving our exit stamps.
We passed the time reading and trying to get comfy on a line of dull-grey, discarded plastic seats. In a fit of excitement Jessie decided to test us all on vocab. Duncan and I hastily returned to our books.
It eventually came time for us to go and find our bus group again. Then as we were getting up a be-suited man told us to get a move on. Our suspicions aroused we hurried outside to find our bus had already gone.
Looking up in bewilderment at the aforementioned man, he gestured for us to walk towards a line of lorries. Doing our best to fit in we crossed the loading area strewn with trucks and came to two ferries and a uniformed man.
‘Where are you going?’ He challenged.
‘Nowabea,’ so he gestured vaguely to his right and with nothing better to do, we followed his direction onto the ship.
We found some seats amongst the staring, male crowd. It was us and a gaggle of Japanese backpackers amongst a sea of Jordanians, Iraqis and Egyptians. The interior colour scheme was a rainbow of beige.
All of a sudden the immigration counter opened which caused the ship to shake violently as about a hundred men hurried to be the first in line. An official bellowed at them to form an orderly queue, so they did, sheepishly. We remained in our seats until the queue had died down and then handed in our passports. They were taken and promised to be returned on arrival. So I put my hope in the system and went and treated myself to a coffee which tasted of stale popcorn.
We nodded off as the ferry eventually departed at around midnight, waking up to the announcement of our arrival five hours later.
A customs officer greeted us and the Japanese, his new flock of foreigners and shepherded us onto dry land. A lost, forlorn and metallic-looking pyramid appeared as we emerged from the cargo hold. A glorious first glance at Egypt. That is before we rounded the corner and saw the flags, sandbags and small army of soldiers guarding the entrance.
Standing in the customs office, we were reunited with our passports and told to pay for the visas in US dollars. When we produced Egyptian money the official seemed incredulous and looked to the man behind us in what appeared to be panic.
Luckily the man behind us was Palestinian and helped us out. Acting as an intermediary both with the unfamiliar Egyptian dialect (Palestinian arabic is very close to Jordanian) and with the money (he carried Egyptian guineas), we acquired our visas.
Then there was the slight problem of Duncan’s passport. He showed us the photo and pointed at me then gave a quizzical look as if asking me to explain why I didn’t look like a 17 year old Duncan. I corrected him on his error, so he turned to Duncan and looked even more confused but eventually conceded the fact. Eventually, still unconvinced but with visas granted we wondered off to find our taxi driver.
And here he was, the unflinchingly gloomy Mohammed, who was to take us part of our way to the town of Dahab. As we drove out of Nowabea the sun was just rising and casting a red glow on the jagged mountain ridges that line this beautiful coast.
We got to Dahab just as the bus station was opening up. This was announced by a sleepy-eyed man spitting heavily onto the front steps as he begrudgingly unlocked the doors. We had an hour and a half to wait before the Cairo bus at nine. So we purchased our tickets and then sat in dazed contemplation at the appearance of a European woman strolling around in a mini-skirt. We all tutted like good Jordanians.
Now we come to the longest part of the trip. By this point my eyes were bloodshot from reading, and ears buzzing from prolonged exposure to my iPod. So the remainder of the journey passed as a drawn out battle between me and the guy in front who insisted on reclining his chair, but unfortunately for him I was equally insistent on not letting him do so. Although this sacrificed any comfort I might have enjoyed, I left with my head held high.
Apart from the bright blue coast, distant high mountains and burning red sunset, the most remarkable feature at this point was the onslaught of checkpoints. Around ten in total where an official would come on board and check everyone’s passport in turn. Just enough stops to keep you from falling into a comfortably deep sleep. Jessie would receive a loving nudge from me every time we stopped, ‘quick find your passport!’ Followed by flurried pocket patting and floor scouring until it appeared wedged as a book mark in the place it had last been left.
Duncan eagerly reminds me of his pride in being mistaken for an Egyptian at one of these checkpoints. Not to mention once whilst stretching his legs during a toilet stop a man randomly complimented him on his gait, ‘you walk like an Egyptian my friend’. To which Duncan replied by thrusting his arms back and forth in a 2D pharaonic-type motion as he made his way back to the bus. The man stood motionless more that little bewildered.
Duncan also wishes me to point out his sublime reading prowess. He only went and started his book and finished it before we even arrived at our destination. He chose a Michael Connelly lawyer-based thriller, that according to the helpfully emblazoned description on the cover is 100% Connelly. I, on the other hand, was slowly making my way through the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Set in First World War Cairo it focuses on the comings and goings of a middle-class family through the medium of long descriptions and paternal injustice. It is far from 100% Connelly. But being Noble Prize-winning literature I am damned if I am not going to at least try and enjoy it.
Ten hours later, 7pm and the end of the road was finally in sight. Cairo introduced herself with the red lights of a traffic jam and with the warm blast of car horns. On arrival we grabbed an old and battered-looking taxi to take us to our Hostel in downtown, which we found located on the fifth floor of an old dusty building complete with a rickety lift (with optional extra of a closing door).
We dumped our stuff in our expansive room, showered then dashed off to eat. On the recommendation of Omar (the owner), we chose the famous Tahrir Restaurant (tahrir = freedom) just round the corner for our first taste of the hearty Egyptian dish Koshary (a mix of pasta, lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce, dried onions and rice).
After queueing up the spiral staircase we took our seats and ordered three large bowls. Add the spicy sauce at your peril, as Jessie was to discover eventually having to scrape her taste buds from the bottom of her dish.
Having eaten our fill in freedom restaurant we thought a stroll down to freedom square would follow nicely. After about five minutes we arrived in Tahrir Square, synonymous with the demonstrations that would lead to the revolution in January 2011.
We exchanged ‘it’s not as big as we expected’ looks and crossed the road to the grassy central reservation. Groups of friends and couples were sat on rugs here and there, laughing and chatting.
We took photos with a man who gave us a quick run down of the revolutionary events and doused is with Egyptian flags for photo opportunities.
We shared our first impressions of Cairo at the Colonial French style Café Riche with refreshing drinks and small nibbles. Amidst the Parisian clientele I noticed an imposing man sitting at the back, a host of food and drink in front of him. He was picking at it greedily whilst chewing on a thick cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth.
A young cameraman and woman were interviewing him about Egyptian literature. My ears pricked up as he mentioned Naguib Mahfouz and other Egyptian writers from the 20th century. But my eyes were drooping and my ears quickly lost their attention as sleep beckoned.
We paid up and dragged ourselves back to our beds and the comfort of lying stretched out under a warm blanket.
All in all it took us thirty hours to get from Amman to Cairo, we saved money, saw some great scenery but next time I’ll get the plane.