Jewel Off The Nile

11 09 2008

“I’m sorry, but do you have a room with a better view?”  (The Mena House, Cairo)

I am more than happy to call a tent my home, to share a dorm room with eleven flatulent souls, to sleep on a dirt floor surrounded by unseen nimble-footed scurriers or to squat in a budget hotel so budget that water comes in a large bucket…but only when the end justifies the sleeps. If the only way to veer from the beaten track is to forgo the flat panel television, the Parisian toiletries and the lush bathrobe, then sign me up! Besides, there’s a sense of achievement and a strengthening of character that comes from filtering the brown tap water before you clean your teeth, of keeping an eye on a herd of elephants in your shaving mirror or covering yourself in wet towels to try to sleep in the broiling heat of an equatorial no-star hotel room.


Of course, adventure travel and the absence of ceiling geckos, one-eyed night watchmen armed with bows and arrows and mosquito-netted bunk beds are not mutually exclusive. In fact, sometimes the very essence of an adventure is not the hardship you endure but the exotic luxury you savour in the most unlikely of places.


As I have grown older, my lust for adventure travel hasn’t diminished in the slightest but my creaking bones do need a little pampering from time to time. When I travel now, I like to splurge on a nice hotel for my first night before moving on to more modest abodes. Nice doesn’t necessarily mean expensive or well known. Instead, I seek a refuge with history, character and perhaps a telephone in the bathroom, a brass toilet plunger and a 12,000 finger massage bed.


In Cairo, the Mena House fit the bill perfectly…except for the telephone, plunger and vibrating bed. Once a sumptuous private home, the Mena House is unique in that the pyramids are quite literally in its back garden. Although it has a modern wing with all the amenities you would expect, the original building oozes opulence and past privilege and is rich with enough Egyptian, Ottoman and colonial grandeur to transport you to a bygone era. In fact, I was wishing I’d packed my jodhpurs…if I actually knew what they were.


It was all so gentrified and evocative that I felt compelled to stroll everywhere slowly with my hands clasped behind my back, nodding reverentially to anyone I passed, and to order only gin and tonic in the bar. A pre-dinner wander through the immaculately manicured lawns of the Churchill Garden had me gazing awestruck at the pyramids which loomed over the flowering hedges. It was only the mosquitoes biting my ankles that brought me back down to earth.


After a blissful sleep, I pulled back the curtains to a magnificent view of the wonders of ancient Egypt bathed in morning light. It seemed heresy to turn on the television so instead I took my breakfast onto the balcony and breathlessly drank in the view as I quaffed my croissants.


All too soon, my indulgence was over. I dragged my dusty backpack down to reception, checked-out, and quietly whispered the name of my budget hotel to the doorman so that he could hail a taxi. He feigned ignorance of its location, but I saw his nose twitch as he passed on my request to the driver. I clambered in and he closed the door with disdain, then wiped his now-soiled white gloves on his trousers.


For the amount that my one night where Churchill, Conan Doyle and Waugh had stayed cost me, I could have spent a week in my rustic new accommodation with a front door that didn’t close properly and a view of an alley between two office buildings. I dropped my bag on the rickety bed, cranked on the deafening air conditioning and headed to the bathroom….to find a telephone and a tarnished brass toilet plunger.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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