Summer is here and so are the grockles (Devon for tourists). The Quay is teeming, and you have no desire to sit on the Cathedral green (which we all know was the site of a mass grave for plague victims). And so with a hot-blooded sense of adventure you make your way over the hill and, fighting through the eager crowds, catch a glimpse of the infamous Heavitree Arch.
Yet Heavitree is no stranger to fame. To mark her diamond jubilee, the Queen was offered a cutting from the oldest tree in Exeter (a 5oo year old yew tree still standing in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels Church, Heavitree). Whether she accepted it or not is another matter. And to top it all, the Heavitree Yew was then named as one of the 50 most important trees in the country.
So what about the Heavitree Arch?
Well, it was designed by Michael Fairfax, the man responsible for the mirrory construction in the town centre (as well as sixty bollards in Exmouth). Along with Ralph Hoyte, a self-declared live-art, spatial and GPS poet who is credited with idea-initiating and then co-creating the world’s first audio-play for located media in an intelligent environment. Love poets and their way with words.
The verse on the Arch is that of Richard Hooker (16th century Anglican priest) and speaks of humanity and nature living harmoniously together.
However, the Heavitree Arch was riddled with controversy from its inception. This 2008 installation, which was originally said to have cost £70,000, in fact cost £172,000. Although to be fair it does light up nice and shiny at night time.
Soon after the plan for the Arch was revealed, a mural of a white elephant (indicating something useless) along with the words ‘coming soon’ appeared on the shop wall designated to be the backdrop. This was shortly joined by the painting of a red-faced bureaucrat with his fingers in his ears (said to be mirrored on Exeter Council members).
A particularly grieved local resident took to Youtube and amateur elephant animation to voice his disapproval (flushing the Arch down the sound effect of a toilet). Nevertheless the Arch went up and the mural remained until eventually being painted over later the same year.
If you are feeling hard done by after hiking all the way out to Heavitree to see the Arch you have heard so much about, don’t worry for the party continues across the road. Here we pick up the tale on the pavement with words from locals about growing up in Heavitree:
‘Everything was what we had you see’, so it starts and then winds its way up a central oak tree before finishing with: ‘Goal! Cliff Bastin scores six for Ladysmith then up the Horse & Jockey for a glass from the Heavitree Brewery’.
If you are struggling to take this all in, why not pop into the adjacent public toilets to get some head space. Reminisce about the good old days when Cliff Bastin would bring home the trophies.
Who ever said Exeter isn’t packed full of fun things to see.
We had a week to spend in Egypt. We chose Cairo because that’s where the bus stopped and so it seemed the obvious choice. For accommodation we stayed in the top floor of an old and wooden downtown hostel, a stones throw from Tahrir Square. Complete with complimentary doorless lift, rubble strewn rooftops, mosquito swarms and a dishevelled christmas tree. Downtown Cairo is also known as the car mechanic district for reasons that become obvious when you begin tripping over spanners and tyres whilst looking for a cafe. Of such cafes they are numerous and gloriously cheap. Whether reclining by the Nile or beneath thick, green trees beside a mechanics workshop you will find great spots to pass time. One such venue was the Townhouse Gallery, a place to watch the artsy fartsy youth of Cairo come and go. Set to the backdrop of a massive and derelict, colonial-style townhouse is this cafe come gallery come bookshop. We forwent an exhibition on Post-Internet Imagery of the Desert (?), and instead delighted in finding a table strewn with fresh and colourful Egyptian comics to accompany fresh juice and shisha.
Just like in Amman, there are endless bookstalls lining the main roads with the usual copies of Mein Kampf on show. Not to mention translations of Orwell’s 1984 taking a satirical pride of place amongst Egyptian novels and other works. And this only a month after a student was arrested at Cairo University for carrying a copy. It makes for a tasty and believable story but is debated: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/10/egyptian-student-arrested-1984-orwell
My first impression was a city of traffic jams, dirty streets and a wide, rubbish-lined river. What is to be expected then. But in terms of the people, we were collectively shocked to see so many young couples holding hands, sitting by the Nile whispering sweet nothings and kissing openly in parks. No doubt there are more conservative areas but you would be hard pushed to see the same behaviour anywhere in Amman, no matter how much you scoured the shadowy side-streets.
We had only a short time to soak up the cairene smog, and so spent most of it walking between koshari restaurants and shisha cafes, playing cards amongst the click-clack of domino games and attempting to be understood by anyone who would listen. If we happened to stumble across a museum, park or an example of religious architecture of historical and cultural significance then so be it.
A brief run down of our stumblings then. At al-Azhar mosque (more than 1000 years old) I was given a spontaneous tour by Hassan, a student at the university who had just finished for the day and saw an opportunity to talk to me about football, Islam and Christianity. Unfortunately he picked the wrong person to converse with on matters of Man United and religion, but I blagged my way as we pushed through the streets of the immense Khan al-Khilli market. Eventually I perked up when he told me, in a hushed voice his pride of being in Tahrir square in 2011. “the revolution is still happening, we must all be patient.” he said. We perused the antiquities museum. The interior is strewn with statues still standing on the crates they were presumably transported in. The spread is very much to the tune of ‘if it doesn’t fit then just shove it a corner’, apart from Tutankhamun whose golden headress is a surprise to those who had assumed that all the shiny bits were already in the British Museum. I particularly enjoyed the small room dedicated to mummified animals. A preserved Nile trout was a personal favourite resplendent with that timeless, vacant expression specific to long-dead fish. On another day we completely failed to find the Coptic area of Cairo despite the insistence of a handful of taxi drivers that if we just followed such and such a street and payed them double the normal fair then we would get there. We did find some churches, however, and saw the gaggle of pilgrims lining up to ritually shackle themselves in irons and pray on behalf of st.George.
On a nearby street stood a particularly savvy Egyptian cafe owner. He had realised that following tourists up and down streets whilst blurting the menu at them in something nearing English was both time and energy insufficient. Instead he stood holding a piece of cardboard emblazoned simply with the word ‘beer’ and smiled confidently. Whilst crossing a bridge Duncan and I were warned of an ongoing protest and were instead steered expertly to a nearby papyrus shop. What proceeded was what I can only describe as many cups of tea and friendly conversation culminating in the personal loss of a fair chunk of money. Still, I had a bundle of personalised roles of papyrus to show for it, the recipients had better appreciate them.
Yes I was pre-warned of the swarms of ‘government certified’ papyrus sellers in Cairo, but being the ripping-off type I have learned to embrace my fate. I thought I had mastered it in Morocco then was ripped off in Jordan. I finally felt confident in Amman but then I came to Cairo.
And of course we visited the Pyramids in Giza. An experience I only enjoyed in retrospect whilst looking at my photos later that evening. We arrived by taxi, were whisked onto horses and then taken to some camels who would be our transport for the afternoon. Our guide, Samir had only two things going for him: he knew how to ride a camel, and was located at Giza. Aside from that he was useless with information (apart from the heights and the names of the pyramids, which he took great pride in repeating). I was fortunate enough to sit in prime position on camel number one squeezed in worryingly behind Samir. We bumbled along on our camels who seemed to be fuelled by squelching farts and an intense hatred for each other and their riders. It came to mind that Camels have far too many knees to be considered a comfortable ride.
We stopped for the occasional photo like the hilariously artistic ‘try and put your elbow on the pyramid tip’ shot. At one such stop off some Malaysian tourists passed a bulging spliff to Samir. He took a long drag of what smelled like fairly potent hasish and almost fell off the camel. His next move was to take us on a lolloping gallop towards a cemetery. We felt it symbolic but clung on anyway.
Our two hour tour came to an abrupt halt when it materialised that the second hour was to be an accompanied visit to the adjacent museum. We summoned up the shallow depths of our arabic and told him to jog on. He didn’t like this and demanded a tip. The obvious solution would have been to walk away, but an infuriated (and high) Egyptian does not go gently into that good night.
We huddled and came up with 50 Egyptian pounds (about 5 British pounds) and presented it in determined hands. He subsequently refused and stated confidently that each photo he had taken was worth at least 40 Egyptian pounds. So there was only one thing for it (after many heartfelt raised voices on all sides), the plant and run, to cries of (shorta! shorta! – police! police!). We called his bluff and went to sit in a collective huff by the Sphinx, feeling as if our own noses and just been punched off. We ended our trip mostly looking forward to escaping the craziness of Cairo, a place where its said that even superheros struggle to live. (http://www.citylab.com/crime/2014/12/even-spider-man-finds-cairo-exhausting/383648/). Of course living outside the centre would have presented a different view of life here. Like spending a week in the West End of London might leave you with the impression that all of London is obsessed with miserable French people.
I hope to come back and spend more time exploring this city, as despite the annoying encounters with the usual tourist traps, I was beginning to feel the beauty of Cairo. With the recent turbulent past and uncertain future for the Egyptian people that appears to be following a 1984 plot line, hopefully the vibrancy that we (however briefly) saw continues to inspire and revolutionise. Anyhow, onwards to Israel and Palestine for some serious festive and biblical tourism.
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.