Security – Egyptian Style

1 06 2009

Hatshepsut

The town was deserted.

We wound our way through the silent pre-dawn streets, the only movement coming from the occasional stray dog and the swirl of sand on asphalt. The streets were softly illuminated by yellow lights, but the businesses, offices, homes, sidestreets and alleyways were pitchblack and as abandoned as the set of an “End of the World” movie.

We turned a corner and found a police roadblock beyond which sat a long line of motorcoaches parked three deep on a flood-lit street. A heavily-armed officer waved us forward, pulled back a spiked barrier and ushered us beside the other vehicles. A shortwhile later, with an armoured car at the front, a truck filled with paramilitary police at the back, and a few outriders racing up and down the side, our convoy headed off into the dark desert beyond the city limits.

No, it wasn’t Baghdad, it was Hurghada, Egypt…a country that takes its tourism security very seriously.

The first sign of Egypt’s intense security came on arrival at our budget hotel when we navigated a metal detector just to enter the hot and fetid foyer. As we presented our bags, the genial guard waved us through without so much as a glance. Clearly, foreign tourists weren’t of much concern. Over the coming weeks, such measures – and more guns than you would find at an NRA garage sale – became the norm.

In November 1997, a group of terrorists attacked tourists gathered at the Temple of Hatshepsut near the Valley of the Kings. By the time the assault had ended, 63 people had died. Although Egypt had tight security before, the attack catapulted their security to some of the tightest in the world.

Large hotels are surrounded by tank traps and armoured cars topped with heavy machine-guns. Police sit in concrete pill boxes and cautiously wave vehicles towards their checkpoints. All hotels – even budget properties that lack computers or televisions – have their own guards and airport-style metal detectors. Tourist sites have police in abundance as well as less conspicuous plain clothes guards.

But it is when travelling away from the cities that the security measures become particularly evident.

We were heading from Hurghada into the Sinai and onto Dahab on the Red Sea. Although a considerable distance, our 3am start was due to the convoy’s timetable not any desire to beat rush hour! All tourist travel between major centres is made in heavily guarded convoys, whether from Hurghada to Cairo, Aswan to Abu Simbel or elsewhere.

With lights flashing, our convoy set off into Hurghada’s desolate streets before venturing into the Sahara. At each town we passed, the local police were out in force with their cars and heavy weaponry – or in some smaller instances, their donkeys and old carbine rifles – and blocked off all intersections as our parade raced through. In remote areas, isolated police stations resembled Beau Geste forts with gun towers, sand-bags and machine gun nests. Although the security was impressive, it was hard to know whether these efforts did a better job of protecting us…or simply drawing more attention.

After several hours, the main convoy turned for Cairo while we headed for the Suez Canal and Sinai beyond. We watched them race away along the desert highway while we continued alone into the neighbouring hills of the supposedly secure peninsula.

As is usually the case, our visit ended without incident and the only indication of any potential trouble was the intense security itself. Given its location and history, Egypt will likely never be as safe as Bermuda, but for those with even a hint of adventure-lust coursing through their veins, there’s no denying that the odd convoy or occasional tank trap adds a certain Indiana Jones spice.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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A Chip Off The Old Block

19 05 2009

Stonehenge mwIt was recently reported that two U.S. tourists have returned a small piece of Rome’s Colosseum that they chipped off 25 years ago. The fragment of stone, small enough to fit into a pocket, arrived in Italy in a package from California and was accompanied by an apology that explained they “…should have done this sooner.” The couple said that every time they looked at their little souvenir they felt guilty and realised that if every visitor chipped off a piece of the Colosseum as they had done, there would be nothing left.

I was reminded of visiting the pyramids and crouching down beside the great structures to tie my bootlaces. The shade of the massive limestone blocks provided a wonderful respite from the blazing sun and as I pulled my laces taut, I realised I was kneeling on a treasure-trove of tiny fragments of the ancient monuments that were far superior souvenirs to the mass-produced papyrus sold around the corner. It would have been easy to casually pick up a particularly appetising fragment and slip it inside my boot for transport home –until I noticed the heavily-armed Tourism and Antiquities Police officer standing a few feet away smoking a cigarette.

Even if I hadn’t spotted the machine-gun glistening in the sun and the nicotine-stained finger idly caressing the trigger, I am pleased to say that I actually wouldn’t have slipped away with a morsel of ancient Egypt. Partly out of respect for the site and future visitors, and partly out of fear for being caught with my illicit souvenir at the airport and spending 20 years in a Cairo prison. But I can appreciate the temptation and understand the Colosseum tourists’ actions – except for the bit about actually carving off a chunk: that goes beyond souvenir-collecting and headlong into sheer vandalism.

I imagine that Rome and Egypt aren’t the only places that have this problem. In fact, every famous site in the world likely has similar difficulties. It is likely only perimeter ropes, security and pangs of conscience that have prevented Stonehenge from being whittled down to a ring of miniscule stone-teeth over the years. There was a similar dilemma in Israel with the mountain-top fortress of Masada. I once read that the problem of visitors collecting rocks and pebbles from this ancient site became so great that the authorities began trucking in a load of gravel every week to top-up the ground on which the visitors walked. This not only helped preserve the site – and stopped Masada being turned from a mountain into a molehill – but also means that there are likely thousands of tourists around the world who treasure shards of rock from some anonymous southern Israeli quarry!

 

Photograph and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





A to Z of Adventure Travel: L is for Luxor

3 04 2009

 tomb-of-tutankhamun-mw

“With a sign that big, I can’t understand why it was so hard for Howard Carter to find it!”

 

Although the Pyramids may get the headlines, no trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to Luxor.

 

Located in Upper Egypt, Luxor (or Thebes, as it was once known) straddles the Nile and is the starting (or finishing) point for most Nile cruises and home to the fabled Valley of the Kings.

 

Starting on the East Bank, visitors to the Valley of the Kings must first cross the wide expanse of the Nile. Although there is a bridge a few kilometres upstream from the city centre, most visitors prefer a trip through time and instead opt for the ferries that regularly cross the river. Once on the West Bank, transportation to the tombs of the pharaohs range from buses to taxis – although yet again, for the more adventurous there is only one option: a donkey! Dodging traffic and racing along the busy roads before winding in amongst the spartan hills and into the valley itself is a great start to what will undoubtedly be an unforgettable day.

 

While the treasures of the Pharaohs have long since been moved to museums around the world, it is the tombs that concealed that wealth and which were intended to be the Pharaohs’ final resting places that can be visited in the Valley of the Kings. Each tomb has its own entry fee and not all are open on any given day, but it is well worth visiting as many as time and budget permits. Photography is generally not permitted inside the tombs but postcards and books are widely available in the visitor centre and in town.

 

While the Valley of the Kings may not be the hottest place on earth, it certainly feels like it after a day of exploring. The relentless sun bounces mercilessly off the neighbouring hills broiling ill-prepared visitors below. With very little shade available, if not properly equipped with hat, sunscreen and plenty of water, visitors can soon fall victim to a climatically-controlled Curse of the Mummy.

 

While still on the West Bank, don’t miss the Valley of the Queens, the spectacular temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the Worker’s Village and the Colossi of Memnon. With a sharp eye, you may even spot the house that archeologist Howard Carter lived in while searching for King Tut’s treasure.

 

Back on the East Bank, the Temple of Karnak is as grand as anything anywhere else in the country with its vast size, huge monuments and pristine colours while the Luxor Museum is home to treasures that would form pride of place in any institution in the world yet often go overlooked here.

 

Although it may be the Pyramids of Giza or the treasures of King Tutankhamun and Cairo’s National Museum that lure you to Egypt, it may well be Luxor that makes the greatest impression.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Pipe Dreams

23 02 2009

 shisha

At age 4, I had a nasty accident with a candy cigarette when the sharp red end poked me in the eye. It was not only sufficient for me to give up the filthy habit forever, but the trauma also ensured that in my teen years when under daunting peer pressure I was never so much as tempted to try a genuine cigarette, a fine Havana cigar or even a smoldering Meerschaum pipe. But my aversion to inhaled substances didn’t last forever and in Turkey I proved that I can indeed resist everything except temptation.

 

I had always been fascinated by photographs of men savouring a shisha pipe. There was something so singularly exotic about such an image that even if the photos were taken that morning and the men were sporting Hugo Boss suits or a Jay-Z t-shirt, it still resonated with thoughts of mysterious lands, crowded casbahs, dates and camels and certainly had more romantic allure than a pack of Marlboros and a Bic lighter.

 

The shisha is a water pipe used to smoke tobacco, fruit… or other substances of a less corner-store variety. You often see men smoking the shisha in small bars or narrow bustling sidewalk cafes. Some sit alone and stare vacantly with glossy eyes (usually a sign that they don’t have strawberries in their pipe) or while chatting with friends or reading the newspaper. Sometimes each person has their own pipe, other times they share one, passing around the hose.

 

I had seen them everywhere in Egypt but never tried one, but when an opportunity arose in Istanbul, I thought I’d give it a whirl…or a suck, as the case may be. A group of friends were sitting on cushions on the floor surrounding a hookah pipe, as they’re known in Turkey. The water bubbled and the hose was passed around the group. They laughed and chatted convivially and motioned me to an empty cushion.

 

At the base of the pipe were clean disposable mouthpieces. The hose was passed to me and I clipped one on. Unlike Bill Clinton, I inhaled. I heard the water bubble into life and felt a nice fresh apple flavour circulate around my mouth. I exhaled through my nostrils and took another drag. Fortunately, this pipe had been prepared with amateurs in mind and was appropriately mild otherwise my virginal lungs would likely have had me sprawled on the floor coughing and spluttering. Despite that, I found the experience quite intoxicating and took another deep drag. Common courtesy made me reluctantly pass the hose onto the person on my left, but I longed for its return.

 

Soon enough, the hose was back and I sucked on it like a pro, visions of opium dens dancing in my head. With eyes closed I pictured myself as the decadent colonial sporting a flowing cotton gown, sprawled luxuriantly across a sea of fluffy silk cushions, propped on one elegant elbow. A fan wallah tirelessly worked to keep the beading perspiration from my tanned brow. I could see shafts of sunlight streaming through the latticework shutters and illuminating the blue smoke that drifted towards the wooden-beamed ceiling. The hustle and bustle of the street outside barely penetrated the sanctum as I drifted in and out of consciousness. The hunched and fawning proprietor made his way towards me: “Sir…Sir…” he called….

 

“Hey dude,” the guy on my left said while kicking out at my foot. “Can I please have the pipe back now?”

 

Post and photo (of shisha…or possibly just a small Egyptian perfume bottle, hair band, sticky tape and tin foil!) by: Simon Vaughan





A to Z of Adventure Travel: E is for Egypt

12 02 2009

philaetemple

                     “Needs a bit of work, but has potential…”              (Philae, Egypt)

 

I always like to save the best for last. Whether it’s a box of Smarties or the biggest and heaviest Christmas present, half the fun is working your way up to your favourite. So, when my two week tour of Egypt started with the pyramids I thought it would be all downhill from there. I could not have been more wrong and not only did each site surpass the previous one, but the entire country exceeded my already very high expectations!

 

Egypt seems to offer more history than the rest of the world combined. After a few days, a temple merely dating back a thousand years feels as modern as Frank Gehry’s latest creation and the vivid colours painted on a ceiling look fresher than a Cairo bus shelter.

 

Cairo is an enormous, bustling city that sprawls around the lower Nile. Apart from the glorious if somewhat faded Egyptian Museum and its awe-inspiring King Tutankhamun room, and the equally magnificent pyramids of Giza, Cairo offers wonderful markets and enough restaurants to sate a pharaoh. There are dinner cruises on the Nile, casinos and 5-star hotels – or hostels at barely $1 a night. Not only is Cairo the starting point for any Egyptian adventure, but it is also a great destination in its own right.

 

A short flight or sleeper-train ride south lies Aswan. Flanked by the rolling sands of the Sahara and the palm-fringed great expanse of the Nile, Aswan has the feel of an elegant frontier town. The Old Cataract Hotel is the setting for Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” and a great spot for afternoon tea (when it reopens from its current renovations!), while further up river sits the tranquil site of Philae. Aswan can be the base to explore Nubian villages, to see the great Aswan High Dam or to head further south towards the Sudanese border and the truly incredible Abu Simbel on the shores of Lake Nasser. Day trips are offered by bus (leaving in the very early hours for a lengthy trek across the Sahara, returning late afternoon) or by air.

 

Egypt can be navigated by land or air, but perhaps the most romantic method is by water: the Nile. There are many cruise boats operating between Aswan and Luxor. Some offer all the facilities of a 5-star hotel including swimming pools and gourmet food while others are better suited to the budget-conscious. For the truly intrepid, try living on the deck of a traditional felucca, sailing by day zig-zagging from bank-to-bank and sleeping moored to the shore at night. Feluccas offer no luxuries – or even facilities! – but provide a lifetime of memories.

 

Edfu and Luxor keep the excitement levels high with Kom Ombo and the Temple of Karnak. An early start by boat across the Nile and then by taxi, bus or even donkey for those so inclined, takes travellers to the Valley of the Kings – home to King Tut’s tomb and those of the other pharoahs. Although the treasure now sits in museums, the thrill of visiting the tombs first re-opened by Howard Carter and his team almost a century ago is every bit as exciting as seeing the glittering gold and jewels.

 

If the desert calls you to escape the beaten path, head west to the wilderness that surrounds Siwa Oasis. Siwa town is a maze of tunnel-like alleys and sun-dried brick houses, completely untouched by time and by tourist masses. Return via the Mediterranean coast and the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria which may no longer have a lighthouse, but does have European feel with North African flavour.

 

Across the Suez Canal sits the Sinai: a rugged chunk of desert that screams out to adventure-seekers. Whether trekking with the Bedouin and sleeping in oases, or climbing Mount Sinai at dusk or dawn, the Sinai is an adventure paradise. Once you’re ready to clean the sand from your ears, head to the Red Sea for snorkelling, scuba diving, swimming…or just relaxing on a carpet of cushions with a sheesha pipe and some dates.

 

Egypt can be as economical or expensive as you wish, as adventurous or luxurious. The food will tempt and please, the history will marvel and awe, the desert will challenge and the coastline will refresh and rejuvenate. Egypt is truly one of the world’s great destinations.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Food For Thought

18 11 2008

“What a large table!”                                   (near Aswan, Egypt)

Some of my greatest travel memories involve food. Not that I am a gourmet or even a gourmand, it’s just that a taste of local cuisine so often provides you with the best taste of the culture and life. Although we all enjoy the familiarity of comfort food from time to time when away from home, it’s when we abandon that safety that we have our best experiences.

 

In Egypt we joined a small group for a visit to a local Nubian village for a traditional dinner one evening.

 

Our small motorboat cruised up the Nile away from the bright lights of Aswan. Dogs barked as we passed small villages and young children ran to the bank to wave and shout. The stifling heat of the day was quickly dissipating and the light breeze from the water was a welcome reprieve, especially as we had all forsaken our baggy and dusty cotton sightseeing clothes for slightly-more presentable attire. After a while we stopped on the shore, climbed out and made our way up a sandy bank.

 

No sooner had we crested the top than the village came into sight. Although almost dark, much of the town was gathered around the edges of a large open area to watch a hotly contested football match. The shouts and excitement of the game were immediately lost upon entering the labyrinth of narrow alleyways that dissected the town. We wound our way along the sandy paths and through the white-washed buildings, illuminated only by the soft light from open doorways and shuttered windows. Our small group slipped through practically unseen, easing past the shadows of the villagers along the narrow alleys. The smell of cooking and the muffled sound of laughs and conversation filled the air.

 

We finally stepped into a small dimly lit courtyard surrounded by high walls, climbed a series of steps in the corner and reached a whitewashed rooftop. The sky was a black-blue and splashed with a million stars. The relief from the heat of the village was instantaneous and we quickly realised that the rooftops formed a second village full of activity and flickering light. We crossed the roof and climbed a few more steps, ducking beneath a low archway. On this second roof we came across a little old lady bundled beneath blankets in a well-worn metal-framed bed. Feeling awkward and intrusive, we averted our eyes and attempted to speed through unnoticed…but she smiled warmly as we passed.

 

“It’s cooler on the roof, so they wheel out granny’s bed every evening to help her sleep.” our guide explained.

 

We finally reached our destination. It was another whitewashed rooftop, surrounded by a low wall that overlooked the town’s terraced upper tier. The floor was covered with colourful carpets and cushions with a large silver tray and tea set in the centre. We slipped off our shoes and the home’s owner greeted us warmly. He handed us each a small glass of sweet tea and gestured for us to sit on the pillows.

 

The owner’s family brought out a wide array of bowls filled with salads and cheeses, fig-leaf wrapped rolls, rice and small samosas, flat breads and sweet pastries. The guide explained what each dish was as the family looked on proudly and happily. Shyly, we each made our way forward and collected a few items expressing our thanks as we did. The food was fresh and delicious and we soon relaxed and began devouring the wonderful feast. With the help of the guide and the children’s basic English, we chatted with the family and learned about a life so removed from our own. The family host a small group of no more than a dozen travellers once a week or so. It provides them with some extra income but perhaps more importantly it gives them an opportunity to mix with people from all over the world. Their warmth and friendliness humbled those of us who shut our front door and ignore the phone every evening and barely even recognise our neighbours at home.

 

Eventually it was time to leave. We bid our farewells and played follow-the-leader past sleeping granny and back through the maze of rooftops and alleyways. The football pitch was now deserted and pitch black and we eased down the bank to our small boat for the journey back to Aswan.

 

As we neared the city we slipped past brightly illuminated Nile cruise ships and luxury hotels and caught glimpses of their fine-dining rooms. Their guests sat in abject comfort, sipping their chilled wine and eating their gourmet food. Their stomachs may have been as full as ours, but we were all confident that memories of our dinner would still be satisfying us for years to come.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Of Turkey, Stuffing, Feta and Feluccas!

13 10 2008

“Did you order a pizza?”                         (Felucca on the Nile, Egypt)

It is believed that one of the first Thanksiving celebrations in North America was made by explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578 in gratitude for having survived a long journey in search of a possible Northwest Passage. However, for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, various First Nations had long given thanks for a good harvest and bountiful crops. Today of course, Thanksgiving is synonymous with family, turkey, autumn colours, the onset of crisper temperatures…and a mighty feast.

 

Food remains integral to most significant events, family get-togethers, religious festivals or simple celebrations. Whether weddings, birthdays, holidays or marking the end of a fast, there’s nothing like a good spread of food especially when surrounded by friends and family…and sampling new foods is one of the great highlights of any travel.

 

For all the great meals I have had whether in the fine restaurants, jungles, beaches or the bush, it is sometimes the most simple that remain the most memorable. One of those was on a felucca on the Nile in Egypt.

 

We had chosen to spend several days sailing down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. The felucca is a simple wooden sailing vessel that has been used since ancient times to transport goods and people along one of the world’s great rivers. The boats are small and comforts for travellers are spartan with the deck used for reclining, sightseeing, cooking, eating and sleeping. The shade of a canvas awning, occasional breezes and a bucket of river water from the Nile are the only relief from the blistering heat of the Sahara, but the rewards far outweigh any lack of luxury.

 

The feluccas zig-zag across the width of the river to catch the breezes and along the way pass remote Egyptian villages, local fishermen and children playing along the shore. We passed abandoned quarries once excavated by the ancient Egyptians to build their temples and monuments, and rarely-visited archeological sites. At night, we tied ourselves to the bank before settling down on the deck serenaded only by the gentle lapping of water on the wooden hull and the splash of jumping fish.

 

Despite the deprivations, it was idyllic and not one of us would have exchanged our spartan existance for the buffet tables, air conditioning and swimming pools of the luxury cruise ships that churned past at night.

 

It was the food that perhaps most surprised us all. The two crew would busily prepare our meals as we sailed along surrounded by the towering dunes of the desert or the minarets of rural mosques. Amid the heat, a lunch of the freshest feta cheese, mint, tomato, cucumber slices, lemon juice and a hint of olive oil was like manna even for a rabid carnivore and not only sated our hunger but left us feeling utterly refreshed and rejuvenated.

 

After several days with only the occasional dip in the Nile to wash away the cobwebs, we arrived in Luxor. Although once more graced by comfortable beds, hot showers, flush toilets and all the food choices imaginable, all of us were grateful for our wonderful days on the Nile and the simple foods upon which we feasted.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan