A Cruise, but no Death on the Nile

After four weeks of packing and moving and after a long day’s flight and hair-raising (if you have it) taxi ride, we felt the need for a little bit of R&R, in this case, rest and relaxation. So, the day after arrival we decided to spend doing nothing, mostly beside the swimming pool.

Now if you know anything about Wilma and Paul you will know that they are not people who are likely to be idle. Well, I say that; this is certainly true of Wilma, but if idleness were to be an Olympic sport Paul would be likely to be selected for team GB!

By the afternoon, however, we were tired of idling and were ready to get into gear and to do something. Somebody suggested a cruise on the Nile. We were told that there will be a relaxing meal, some Egyptian entertainment, and a beautiful time in the warmth of the evening observing Cairo from a cruise ship.

Now, we’ve got to admit that this put us in mind of film based on an Agatha Christie novel, starring, Peter Ustinov or David Suchet. Death on the Nile is certainly not something that we wanted, but the idea of being served a posh meal, on linen tablecloths, on a cruise ship slipping silently down the Nile, did have its appeal.

After an hour-long journey by taxi, in which we enjoyed/endured the same excitement and terror as the previous night, we found our boat and hurriedly went abroad. I had said to Wilma that this really was the celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary: exotic and romantic.

As most of us know, expectations and reality often do not coincide, in fact they often collide. This night was one of those non-coinciding and definitively colliding type of nights! As we entered, any idea of a 1930s, Art Deco dining room immediately disappeared from our imaginations.

What we encountered was something more like greasy café buffet canteen on water! The long tables—the linen table cloths were nowhere to be seen—were crushed together in something like a scene out of Shawshank Redemption. A crowd of people, mainly of oriental descent, were queueing waiting for the buffet to be served to them. Rather than appearing like they had just dressed for dinner, they looked more like they had spent the day being ushered round tourist spots too quickly and being harried by groups of hawkers with greater persistence than the average sand fly.

We were ushered to the front of the queue—an encouraging sign—and given a table a table right beside the buffet salad bar. The queue passed right beside us further reducing the exotic and romantic feel. Being gallant, I joined the queue and Wilma, dressed in her beautiful summer dress, looking lovely, but rather forlorn and disappointed sat quietly and waited for me to reach her so that she could join the queue. The food, as it turned out, was rather good. This table placement actually turned out to be a blessing as nobody else could actually get to the table next to us due to the adjacent queue. Once everybody was served we were left in ‘peace’.

Our illusions of a "Poirotesque" soirée were further damaged by the live music. Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't remember in the film Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot joining in enthusiastically in a hearty rendition of "if you're happy and you know it clap your hands!" I am also slightly vague in my memory of the singer in the dining room of Poirot’s Nile Cruiser, launching in to a version of "My Way" or “What a Wonderful World”! I was more than ready to finish my meal and clamber upstairs to the outside part of the boat to enjoy the warmth of the night and the peace of the Nile.

This turned out to be the most relaxing and peaceful part of the evening. We were ensconced on the port side of the boat and were able to see bright lights of the restaurants and bars lining the Nile. Neon was the preferred chemical alongside the river. Whether they were boats, hoarding or even mosques, neon was it!

Many of the hoardings were modern adverts for every kind of gadget; mostly gadgets average Egyptians could never afford. One especially caught our eye. This was an enormous advert for a Chinese mobile phone company. The two people photographed in the ad, were clearly rich, European in dress, light-skinned, and Western. Their mobile phones seemed to transform them into the persons that we all want to be. Happiness was a simple mobile phone purchase away. This advert sold happiness in wealth, European clothes and goods and Western values.

I was wrenched from my reverie by the boisterous sounds of a tinny species of pop-music. This came from, what one could only describe a series of neon lights on water! Every now and then, one of these slightly crazy-looking, noisy boats went past. Some seem to be inhabited by very few people, some inhabited by too many. There was one where a group of young men were running up and down and doing acrobatics to “la Vida Loca”, using the crossbars of the boat covering as parallel bars. Others seem to have been hired by families who are celebrating either a wedding, or some other family gathering such as a birthday. The unifying factors were colourful, flashing, brash lights, enthusiastic activity and ear-splitting noise. These mobile discos seemed to be competing with each other to give the most intense experience.

My reflections on the evening revolve around expectations and reality. For Wilma and me, we thought we would get a European style, private experience, cruising along the Nile in silence. The experience we had, however, was something altogether more Arabic. It was loud, communal, and wholly different from anything that Europe would have to offer. Our Eurocentric understanding of reality is constantly questioned by encounters with the ‘cultural other’ that we do not understand, perhaps we do not like, but is perfectly valid in its context. For the average Egyptian, happiness is being sold to them in shiny, Western clothes and mobile phones. The reality, as we, and they know, is something quite different.


From the Airport to the Hotel


Giza Pyramids

So, we arrived for our stay in Egypt; two locations and three purposes. The locations were Giza and Anaphora. The first two purposes were R&R and R: Rest and Relaxation, in Giza, and Retreat in Anaphora—the third purpose was T. No, not a “drink with jam and bread” but Teach, also in Anaphora.

When you go to a place for the first time, it is both exciting and terrifying. The experience of visiting a new place, especially a new city is just that. Wilma and I have been many new places in the world. We have generally got lost within a day or so: exciting and terrifying!

Well, when we arrived in Cairo, we were immediately lost because we could not find out planned taxi. After half and hour of phoning and looking we found Mohammed outside. Apparently, taxi drivers are not allowed into the airport, which questions Francis Bacon’s assertion about mountains and prophets: the mountain will certainly have to move, because Mohammed can’t!

The journey from airport to hotel would take an hour and a half of excitement and terror. This is not that we haven’t travelled in wild traffic before—Buenos Aires, Cochabamba, Lima, Kuala Lumper, Taipai, Addis Ababa and Casablanca just to name a few—but it’s that you forget how exciting and terrifying it is!

As Wilma pointed out, the city council were wise in not wasting money on painting lines on the road; they were surplus to requirement! Where there would be 3 lanes in the UK, Cairo boasts “six-lane highways.” The mention of lanes, however, is misleading because the cars do not proceed in a straight line or lane, for that matter. Where drivers perceive a gap of approximately 5 cm in the lane in front of them to the left or right, they seem to feel the need or divine call to accelerate into it. This is accompanied by the braking, accelerating and swerving of several other vehicles avoiding collision. Added to this are numbers of pedestrians crossing between the cars, judging how to cross with frighteningly pin-point accuracy. And this is just the thing…it works! Wilma’s comment to Mohammed that he is a good driver didn’t seem to reach the required level of admiration.

Apart from the aforementioned, a couple of observations on the journey are worthy of mention. Firstly, the traditional and the modern in harmony. So many commentators (especially Right-Wing Western ones) assert that traditional Islamic ways are not compatible with modern life. Two incidents call this into question, Firstly, the ubiquitous nature of the smart phone. Everybody has one. And everybody is always looking at them. I observed, in rather an alarmed fashion, the driver of a “combi,” with at least 15 passengers, texting, honking, swerving and shouting at the same time: who says men can’t multi-task! Apart from the horn, a smartphone is an essential accompaniment for any self-respecting car, bus, lorry or motorcycle driver in Cairo.

A second example is one which, I wish, I could have photographed. I observed a woman, in a traditional, if rather tightly-wound headscarf, walking through Cairo Airport chatting way on her smartphone. Nothing unusual there, you say. True, but the smartphone was firmly wedged into her headscarf, which allowed her to carry two suitcases at the same time! Gadgets4Us could have not invented a better mechanism! The traditional and the modern were seen to be in perfect harmony; and without any mass-produced plastic thing.

Another observation is one that will not surprise anybody who has travelled in the majority world, or anywhere else, come to think of it. I mean the sickening and widening gap between the rich and the poor. On our journey we were often distracted from what was on the side of the road by the almost Waltz-like nature of the vehicle procession in front of us. After several minutes of hyperventilation, the impression of imminent death receded, and we started to observe the shops and businesses, mainly on our right. There were the typical array of plastic containers, shoes and food outlets. There were, however, also many posh boutiques. As we were speeding along, I noticed a Gucci handbag shop and a sharply-dressed woman, with her newly purchased bag, emerging from it—the shop not the bag. I am surprised she didn’t break her neck, falling down the steps as she was wearing, the most vertiginous heals I had ever seen and, to make it worse, sunglasses. And all at 11.30pm to boot!

At that moment we braked so hard the fear of imminent transferral to glory returned. The reason for the braking was not another motorcyclist cutting us up, but a speed bump in the middle of the highway! Incidentally, some of the motorcyclists appear to by escapees from Cirque du Soleil, given what they have balanced on their vehicles! This little braking incident, however, drew my attention to a few people on the left-hand side of our road, one in particular. She was almost bent-double, dressed in, what can only be described, as sepulchral rags. She must have been over seventy, but here she was, taking advantage of the traffic, slowing for the speed bumps, to beg a few Egyptian Pounds, or more likely shillings. What was a woman of such and age doing this at 11.30pm on a Thursday night? She should be at home surrounded and being fed by her children and grand-children, watching the Egyptian version of CBB or something, not on a busy highway begging.

The contrast between the two women could not have been more marked. One rich beyond the poor’s wildest dreams. The other poor beyond the rich’s darkest nightmares.

What came back to me as I write this is Señor Hontar, at the end of the film, The Mission. He said, that we must accept this reality because, “the world is thus.” Is he right or was Cardinal Altamirano nearer the mark when he replied, “No, Señor Hontar, thus have we made the world, thus have I made it.”

The airport to the hotel was a revealing journey, not only about Cairo, but reality.