Cairo is a city of more than twenty million souls, as I leave the airport all of them seem to have jobs as taxi drivers and every single one of them wants my business.
Welcome to the fiery cauldron that is Egypt in July.
I decide to give Cairo & Alexandria a miss, mega cities in 40 degrees are not my favourite places and so instead I head four hundred miles south along the Nile to Luxor where The Valley of the Kings & the Temple of Karnak have always been places I’ve wanted to see.
I book an Hotel right next to the Nile, its a big foreign tourist kind of joint, that should cost an arm and a leg but in fact is remarkably cheap.
I hear American accents and spot many a tubby ageing Yank in plaid shorts and baseball caps hanging about in reception accompanied by equally portly wives wilting in the heat. But the reality is that tourism in Egypt is a fraction of what it once was. The Arab Spring came and went and in its place left behind an unstable society unsure of itself and where it was heading. When I book in the Hotel staff tell me that for my own security I should not venture out of the Hotel unaccompanied, only with recognised guides. This I figure is going to be one of two things, the Hotel saying it to ensure that they earn as much money as possible by raking off a percentage of any guests activities, the other possibility, that maybe it genuinely might be dangerous, or perhaps a bit of both.
I take a Hotel guide for a trip to Karnac, an ancient Temple complex famous for its backdrop in a dozen movies, the one I remember most strongly from an old Bond Movie, The Spy who loved me. There’s something about actually going to the places that you’ve known about for years but never seen that is just great. My tour guide is a bit of a lazy bum. We arrive at the entrance to the Temple and get as far as the cafe just inside the entrance.
I think announces Mostafa that its best if I wait for you here, then you can walk about at your own pleasure, take as long as you like. Mostafa heads to a table where he seems to have friends and joins them. I head off into the blistering sun for my sight-seeing.
Next it’s off to the Valley of the Kings, a paddle steamer ride across the Nile in an ancient boat that must be a hundred years old. The cost of the ride is one penny.
At the Valley of the Kings Mostafa once again, caring chap that he is decides it’s best if he waits in the shade at the cafe so that I may “ take your pleasure”.
I love the trip, wandering through the tombs of Ancient Egypt, the blistering sun above, then stepping into cool corridors hewn out of the rock face that dive downwards into the past, the temperature falling with each metre.
After Valley of the Kings Mostafa takes me for lunch at a place he knows, me thinks he gets a fat commission, but that his exhaustions that morning has taken its toll and he also needs food as he shares the meal with me. I have trouble keeping up with his capacity for consumption, but as I am paying the bill I am determined to get my monies worth so match him mouthful for mouthful.
We are sitting up on a roof terrace under an awning that keeps off the sun. Below is a quiet street with the occasional pedestrian or car, then all of a sudden a car races down the road, overtakes another and then screeches to a halt in front of it, out jump three men all carrying what look like machine guns, there are no uniforms in sight.
The men with the guns grab two people from the rear of the second car and they are bundled into the first. In a moment they race off to the sound of screeching tyres and the smoke of burning rubber.
The driver of the second car is left standing in the street, he scratches his head and just stands there in a bemused kind of way.
Whats that all about Mostafa I ask, ah, he shrugs his shoulders, that’s nothing, just Egypt my friend. Moustafa goes back to his lunch as though nothing has happened.
Back at the hotel I head to the pool which is right next to the Nile. I am the only person using it. It feels somewhat surreal to be in this amazing location and to be the only person there. Half an hour or so later a chap wanders by carrying a pile of towels, later he heads back in the other direction & I say hello and engage him in conversation. I notice ink blue tattoos on his arm, the kind that were not done in a salon, the largest is a coptic cross.
Are there interesting places to see in Luxor I ask him, I was hoping to find a guide I tell him, but the ones from the Hotel aren’t very good………
He looks left and right as if somebody might be eavesdropping and then whispers to me. I can show you, but if the Hotel find out I am sacked. We agree that I am to meet him at six p.m. that day, five hundred metres down along the road from the Hotel entrance, that I am to tell nobody.
The intrigue sounds just too good to miss and the Tattoo of a Crucifix gives me a little bit of confidence that I am not going to be taken for ransom by extremists.
At the appointed hour I leave the Hotel and walk down the street, I keep checking I am not being followed. Five hundred metres along the road a beaten up old fiat is parked up, the engine is running. Get in says Danyal, he is still whispering which I think is a bit over the top. We head off along the boulevards of Luxor then peel off to more minor roads, which in turn deteriorate into earth compacted streets and alleyways. He parks and takes me by foot through a market, not the kind that many tourists get to see, there are butchers stalls with rows of goat heads and swarming flies, tea stalls, junk stalls. I am the only westerner and I decide that now finally I am a real traveller.
We have a spot of early dinner at a street cafe, the menu of course is in Arabic and Danyals translation skills aren’t quite up to the job. The owner recognising the problem goes off and returns ten minutes later with an ancient menu in Arabic & French, this is of slightly more help, but not much. There are six different dishes that contain Le pigeon.
Why all the pigeon I ask Danyal.
Hamama says Danyal he nods and smiles, the pigeon Egyptian Viagara he announces.
Not feeling the need for viagara and with the memories of pox ridden and deformed London pigeons I settle instead for meze and bread and meat.
Later Danyal and I head off to a Coptic Monastery on the outskirts of the City.
We halt at large iron gates, are inspected by a guard and then ushered through.
The head of the monastery comes to meet us, a big hairy beard accompanied by a smaller body enclosed in a black cloak that absorbs all visible light. When he learns I am English he waxes lyrical about his great friend the Bishop of Liverpool and asks me if I know him. To let him down gently I say not personally but I know of him. Yes, he says such a lovely man.
After my sojourn in Luxor I fly to the Red Sea, I’ve booked a PADI diving course, I’ve always wanted to learn to dive. On my second open water dive we are down at 25 metres when suddenly everything goes dark, I look upwards and there above me is the most enormous Manta Ray, its wingspan is so huge that it blocks out the light, I stay there awestruck as it glides past, it makes me think of some alien spaceship in a sc-fi movie. Then the water around me turns cloudy, and I can hardly see my hands in front of my face. When we are back on the boat the instructor says he’s worked for twenty years as a diving teacher, and he’s never seen such a large Ray, it must have had a span of seven metres he says. And the water, what happened why did it go cloudy I ask him.
That was the ray he tells me, it was taking a shit on you.
The day I qualify and pick up my PADI certificate I head back to my hotel and celebrate with beer in the afternoon sunshine. Maybe I drink a bit too much beer, or maybe its some byproduct of all the diving but sitting down on a stool my legs begin to tremble, my seat feels like its made of rubber, the sensation travels up my body and into my beer drinking arm, which sloshes the contents of my glass all over me and the surrounding area.
I head to my room to sleep it off, when I wake I watch the BBC News and find that there’s been an earthquake in the area. So that’s what an earthquake feels like. Within a year I will experience another, but for now there’s a plane to catch & its time to head back to London and the place I think of as home.