Upon arriving from Sinai, our shared-taxi dropped us in the middle of Cairo and we quickly found a cheap hotel in a decrepit building with no working lift and an unpredictable water supply. The next day we began taking care of business; I had to arrange a Sudanese visa, which took many weeks, and Jenny had to arrange a plane ticket back to Hong Kong, which took a week by itself. When all our business processes were underway, we went out to see the sights. First on the list were the Old Kingdom pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. These are possibly the most famous monuments in the world, and attracted hordes of crowds. It was officially forbidden to climb the pyramids but many people seemed to do it anyway, by hiring a guide who would bribe the right people, then ascending at night to see the sunrise. We weren’t interested, however. Also at Giza sat the City of the Dead, an ancient cemetery which also serves as a home for very poor living people.
Moving forward in time, we toured old Cairo (dating from Roman times) and wandered the Khan-al-Khalili. This was more interesting despite carrying much the same things we had seen sold in markets in Syria and Jordan. The National Museum was well worth the afternoon we passed there, and despite being dirty and crowded Cairo was quite an interesting city to wander around. In many ways it was surprisingly modern. Syria and Jordan left memories of old ruins, even in the major cities. Cairo actually had more ruins but the city left an image of concrete fixed in my mind. Concrete ramps and elevated highways and oversized hotels seemed to be everywhere.
After a week or two we got tired of seeing Cairo and decided to venture south to Luxor. Our first impressions of the town were wholly negative. At the train station touts degenerated into a feeding frenzy while trying to sell us rooms. When we did find a room the hotel owner kept looking for ways to add charges to our bill, and on our sole trip to the market a merchant tried a transparent and annoying sleight-of-hand trick; Jenny negotiated a price for some trinket and handed over money, expecting a fair amount of change. Then he told her “no, I meant British pounds” (as opposed to Egyptian pounds). This, naturally, made her quite angry and that seems to have been the intent: when she complained and demanded her money back the merchant angrily slapped a banknote into her hand and she started to stomp off. This would have ended badly had I not waded in at that point and opened her fist to show her that instead of returning her money, he had returned some small note close enough to being worthless. She then got her cash back along with a sheepish grin and an unconvincing apology from the market shark.
The country around Luxor is carpeted with ancient ruins; the temples of Luxor and Karnak, the Valley of Kings (and lesser valleys of queens and nobles), and an endless supply of lesser temples and monuments built in a timespan of over a thousand years. We could easily have spent weeks there seeing them all. The scale of them was their most impressive feature. The ancient Egyptians had built using columns of stone perhaps ten to fifteen metres high, then gone on to carve reliefs on seemingly every exposed surface. Despite the attractions, the heat and annoying con men made us want to limit our time there, so after a few days we left again and went back to Cairo.
Early in our stay in Egypt, terrorists attacked a tourist bus in Cairo and murdered many of the passengers. These attacks had been a regular feature of the news then and caused us some minor concern, but we had decided to go to Egypt anyway. There was a fairly clear pattern to the attacks; they attacked prominent package tour groups and guests at expensive hotels. We kept a low profile and avoided both those things, so estimated we weren’t in much danger. A bigger problem with the terrorists was that they had largely succeeded at their goal of killing the tourist industry. This explained the ravenous hunger of the business people we had met in Luxor (and gave us some small idea of the trouble they must have been making for average Egyptians). A few years later six gunmen murdered fifty-eight tourists and four Egyptians at the temple of Hatshepsut. A rumour then had it that some of the Egyptian victims had died trying to protect the tourists. I found it a curious and inspiring thought that if true, these same people an hour earlier had most likely been trying hard to overcharge those tourists they died protecting.
Jenny went home, and Christmas came and New Year’s and finally I got my Sudanese visa. The way it arrived was almost ridiculous. I went to check on it and the official told me “Oh, maybe next week” again. He had told me this two or three weeks in a row. I asked “How long will I have to wait?” and his eyes lit up. “Wait? You are waiting?” The next day, I collected my visa. Do most people not care how long their visas take? Do they do something other than wait? Are there no tourists or business people, so that the only people who apply are government or UN aid workers happy to sit on their bottoms doing nothing?
I booked a ferry ticket from Aswan to Wadi Halfa and left. The first class train to Aswan cost six US dollars. Aswan was a dry little desert town, well- developed for tourism and resembling a beach resort in some ways. There I met a couple of brilliantly crazy Polish students attempting to make it to Eritrea and back within three weeks, for a short holiday. This seemed somewhere between unrealistic and impossible to me, but they insisted they could do it.
The ferry, an overcrowded and aging iron hulk, went overnight to Wadi Halfa. The three of us camped on the top deck, chatting with numerous keen and friendly Sudanese. The shore went by silently and the sky was crystal-clear. The ride was very peaceful and relaxing. Arrival was not. If you fly to Khartoum you may get the feeling it sits at the end of the universe, but that’s not true. Wadi Halfa is the end of the universe and looks the part. The town is nothing more than a brown pile of mud-brick houses with a few cinderblocks for variety, practically no place to eat and nothing to do. It had a couple cheap hotels, noteworthy only in being segregated into men’s and women’s areas (with no visible boundary between them). A small hill provided dramatic views of the rugged landscape.
An American reporter joined us there. She had managed to get into Sudan despite having gone to Israel on the same passport, a noteworthy feat. We booked four seats on a bus which was really a truck with seats, to Khartoum. We didn’t want to wait for the train, because it might not have arrived for weeks. The Polish guys wanted to know when the bus would go and a local man replied "It will go when it is full." They wanted to know when that would be and a communication problem immediately developed. The Sudanese man tried in his best broken English to explain that there simply was no schedule and we would wait six months if it took that long for the bus to fill. “Ah, is no when, is no how long ...” The Poles couldn’t adapt to this lack of scheduling and, more amazing, still thought they could get to Eritrea and back to Egypt in three weeks.
The bus actually departed a day and a half after we booked seats. Estimating how long it would take to reach Khartoum I worked out I would need about four litres of water for myself, then took nine instead figuring some fool would make the ride without bringing enough water for himself. I was right. The Poles also had nine litres of water each but left almost all of this in their packs, which were tied to the roof and buried under mountains of gear. (When we finally arrived in Khartoum they found their bottles smashed and their packs soaking).
This bus ride was more demanding than the ride to Hanoi months earlier, but I was prepared and didn’t mind it as much. We had only been able to get seats in the back, behind the rear wheels, so we bounced up and down all the way across the desert, following the east side of the Nile through Akasha, Abri, Delgo and Kerma until we finally came to Dongola. After crossing we followed the west bank south to Debba then set off across the desert straight to Omdurman. After five or six hours riding, I tuned out my surroundings and concentrated on hanging from the overhead bar. I found I could almost sleep in this position. Whenever the bus stopped I staggered off and fell asleep properly in the first patch of shade I could find. The scenery was an unending desert vista, with the occasional glimpse of greenery and mudbrick houses. Outside Dongola the surreal sight of a modern service station greeted us, complete with a large sign but surrounded by sand. They had petrol, fortunately, so we didn’t have to wait.
As we rode our health deteriorated steadily. At one point I got an extra-long nap while the driver slept off a hangover. I needed it: in Egypt I had had a small cold, and since I foolishly forgot to bring a dust mask or bandanna it got worse all the way south as I inhaled sand. It didn’t help my health any that I regularly bashed my head on projecting bits of metal as we bounced over bumps. The Poles developed symptoms of some intestinal disorder. They had been drinking well water in addition to my water and thought they were safe because they took half a Flagyl tablet a day. The American woman held up quite well for the first 40 hours or so, then spontaneously cracked and began chanting no more no more no more” until she ran out of energy.
My supplies and energy also deteriorated as we rode on across the sand. Finally, while digging ourselves out of a sand lake one night somebody noticed a glow on the horizon and shouted “Look, Khartoum!” This produced a cheer. We made it into town just after sunrise and retrieved our baggage. The Poles went on their way to stay with new-found friends while I wandered off to look for the hostel (collecting new friends of my own as I searched). Eventually I found the hostel and settled in. Like the hotel in Wadi Halfa, it too was divided into men’s and women’s sections. The larger men’s floor had a large crowd of students staying there while they studied at a Madrassa, and a few people visiting from various areas of southern Sudan. The crowd of foreigners passing through was never less than interesting. A couple South Africans in a Landrover appeared one day. They had driven up all the way from Durban with considerable trouble but now were almost at the end of their trip, with only the relatively easy Sahara crossing left. Two acquaintances from Cairo, a couple, showed up going south. She had been ill with hepatitis but a week later was smoking steadily and a few weeks later was unwisely guzzling beer again. An Australian named Greg passed through, headed for Capetown as I was, and a Dutch man appeared on his way to Eritrea, Yemen and he hoped through Oman and on to Iran. All of our little knot of foreigners going south had a big problem here. The Eritrean Embassy had stopped issuing visas except to residents of Sudan, and we could not convince them to let us in. I elected to fly on to Addis Ababa with everyone else heading south, except for Greg, who arranged an Ethiopian visa with a fake plane ticket, then crossed the mountains on foot.
Khartoum had a nice adventurous feeling to it, due mainly to the people I met. It also had a glorious history, and looking around one could imagine General Gordon on the street (they had markers showing where his fortifications had been). Foreign diplomats and aid workers crowded the better restaurants. A few of these people made a good impression; when I saw Oxfam volunteers they were packed into small mud-covered vehicles, obviously returning from a day doing some real work somewhere. However, too many of these foreign “benefactors” lived high off the hog, lone fat men driving shiny white jeeps to and from their air-conditioned mansions. Save the Children had at least three large walled estates, representing different national branches. Behind the shiny white jeeps drove locals in cars pockmarked by bullet scars, and they drove past an endless supply of street children and war wounded. This scene did nothing to raise my opinion of the aid industry, and much to lower it. My impressions of the Sudanese were almost wholly positive, despite obvious signs of the inequalities and ethnic tension there. I still remember them as some of the most friendly and hospitable people I have met anywhere.
By the time I left Khartoum, my bad cold had turned to bronchitis and so when I landed in Ethiopia I had no energy to do anything and quickly flew on again to Nairobi, which was cheaper and healthier. In my brief stay in Addis I still managed to get chased by one of Mengistu’s thugs, who shouted that I was an American soldier. My brief impression of Ethiopia was that, while undoubtedly scenic and historic, it could be a lot of hassle.
I liked Nairobi immediately. In 1994 there was a big foreign crowd there, comprising reporters and volunteer doctors and small businessmen. I lazed in town for a couple weeks until my bronchitis had gone away, then headed out to climb Mount Kenya. It had been a very dry year so I didn’t take a raincoat and this ruined my efforts: on my second day going up the mountain I woke up to find it raining. My partners elected to carry on but I thought I had better wait. This was wise, as the weather turned out to be a record rain/snow fall and within a couple days all the people who had headed up the slopes returned defeated. Back in Nairobi again I settled down to reading and chatting and recruiting somebody to share the cost of a safari vehicle.
Eventually three Germans appeared and we teamed up for a week-long safari. Nairobi sits in hill country, green and tree-covered, but we quickly descended from there into dry scrubby plains, then carried on to the Serengeti itself at Masai Mara National Park. We spent a couple days there happily snapping photos of all sorts of animals; elephants, giraffes, lions, zebras, rhinos, cheetahs, warthogs, jackals, hyenas, buffalo, ostriches, and endless many species of antelope and bird life. Small multicoloured lizards abounded, too. The hippos didn’t co-operate much, preferring to stay hidden in deep pools of water, but the lions put on an impressive show, sprawling on their backs like oversized house cats, climbing trees and rough-housing with their cubs. Some of the other safari vehicles there put on an equally impressive show, but in a negative way. They would hound the animals, driving in close in their low-budget minivans while their camera-toting passengers leaned out open roofs to snap photos. Micato Safaris seemed particularly bad for this. That sort of chase couldn’t have been too rewarding for the tourists and surely did the animals little good.
Outside the Mara, the wildlife changed somewhat. We noticed large dirt towers by the roadside, built by termites or ants. Monkeys and baboons began to appear in large numbers. These were particularly common at Lake Nakuru, a relatively small park in which the WWFN had invested large amounts of money to create a rhino sanctuary surrounded by an electric fence. After Nakuru we made a quick tour of a couple local lakes, and ended at Lake Baringo. The main sight here was the huge pink field of flamingoes who descended on the lakes to feed, changing from one lake to another as their levels rose and declined (and with them the amount of food). Finally we pressed on to Nyahururu, where we enjoyed swinging on a vine at Thomson’s Falls.
Somewhere around Nyahururu, I had a small disagreement with the Germans about where to go. They wanted to visit our driver’s local village but I wasn’t interested. We finally decided to go anyway and they had a fun day kicking a football around with the people there. I wasn’t feeling sociable and caught up on a book. I felt somewhat bad about not being more outgoing, that perhaps I was being arrogant again or colonial or some such. My mind was focused on safaris and wildlife and scenery at that point, not on the local people, and the Germans were very friendly and wanted to get to know the people there better. However, the scene changed radically at the end of our safari. A couple days previous, our driver had got us stuck in mud twice at Lake Baringo - despite our pleas not to drive to the lake shore - and it had cost us a fair bit of money to pay a crowd of people to tow the landrover out. When we went to settle the bill for the Landrover, a big argument developed about the cost of towing us from the lake shore and whether we should pay the driver for a last tank of gas (since we had paid to fill it at the beginning). Suddenly instead of being friends, the Germans were saying that the driver wanted to cheat us and we should stomp off on our own. This struck me as being shocking hypocrisy. I had always seen our relationship with the driver as pure business (which is partly why I didn’t feel comfortable visiting his village), but it looked to me as if they had acted friendly without any more than superficial friendship developing - and they were willing to sacrifice that for a bit of money. This was one telling example of a general problem I’ve seen while travelling in many places. We want to be friendly and meet people but the reality is that there are huge cultural divides and in many of these countries we are simply not equal to local people, no matter how much we might pretend otherwise. When there is trouble we have money and power to help ourselves that they don’t. I have found I tend naturally to get along well with better-educated people in these places, and might spend evenings talking with them, and go places with them in the daytime whenever I can conquer my instinctive shyness. With many others I might share a common interest or a laugh at some simple thing that happens, but I don’t have much hope that I will really understand them much better because of my brief visit to their country, and this is doubly true when I meet people who work in the local tourist industry. Thus, I don’t spend much effort to make friends. This is clearly dissatisfying and must say something about me because a few other people really do seem to manage to make true friends in these places. Nevertheless, I prefer this to the sort of hypocrisy or blindness the Germans showed with our driver, and which I see far too often in far too many tourists.
Back in Nairobi a third time I began making plans for a loop around Lake Victoria but grew less and less energetic till one of the volunteer doctors there diagnosed giardia. While I waited for the cure for that to take effect, I heard on the news that the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi had been shot down at Kigali Airport. Within days that led to the now-infamous massacre and civil war in Rwanda, and to a frantic call from my mother in Canada, to whom I had mentioned that I’d been thinking of visiting Rwanda. In fact, I didn’t go anywhere after that. The giardia went away but my enthusiasm didn’t return. The thought of one more bus ride seemed like agony, especially considering the high risk of getting robbed during the bus trip. Nairobi was so famous for crime that people later took to calling it Nairobbery. I wasn’t in the estimated 10-20% of backpackers who got mugged, but I still didn’t relish walking with a full load through a crowded bus stand.
So, I sat enjoying soft city life and made my plans to leave. In the time before my flight I met Greg again, who I had last seen in Khartoum. Since that time he had crossed Ethiopia and Kenya by land, hitch-hiking through the mountains. I saw other people on their way to various fascinating activities and had by no means given up on Africa, but the time was right to work for a bit, save money and change my mode of travel, so I flew back to Asia.
From Africa I landed in Bangkok first, for a little holiday after my long trip. Within four hours there somebody stole my wallet, which I had carefully protected for three months in Kenya. I sat in Bangkok anyway and watched movies for a couple weeks, then went to Penang and from Penang on to Singapore and finally back to Hong Kong.
I hadn’t planned to stay in Hong Kong. Really I had wanted to move on to Taiwan, teach English for a while and learn Chinese. However, while I sat in Hong Kong, visiting Jenny and lining up options, a local school offered me a year’s contract teaching high-school level English for adults. I quickly worked out that, as I only wanted to work for one year, this was a better deal than Taiwan, and so I stayed.
English teaching at its lowest level was “freetalk,” where a native speaker would come and talk about anything students wanted to discuss. A step up were private lessons, where students would meet one-on-one with teachers of varying quality and qualifications, and work on specific problems. Then there were regular schools with experienced teachers and at the very top were the specialists with experience and TOEFL qualifications who could earn an amazing amount of money. Pay in the business ranged from $5 US per hour to $10,000 US per month.
Most of my students were housewives and secretaries. Many studied English to get a better job, and many because they wanted to emigrate to Canada or Australia or any other respectable country that would admit them. This phenomenon was widely misunderstood in the west. These people were mainly very happy in Hong Kong. What they really wanted was not to live somewhere else, where they would need to learn a new language, would make less money, would pay more taxes and would have a more difficult life. What they wanted was the ability to leave in case things went bad after Hong Kong rejoined China in 1997.
For most of that year I lived in Chungking Mansions. The room I had thought would be ideal turned out to be a bedbug ranch. I moved rooms again, to one which was much closer to ideal, and stayed happy there for several months despite developing a hernia at Christmas time and despite frequent raids by the Immigration Department. Finally, one of my roommates got a good job and moved out. In his place a depraved swine moved in, and the depraved swine invited one of his even worse friends, and finally the two of them chased me out into a private room the size of a closet for my last few months. When I left I was ready for a month of open space and went back to Canada for a holiday.
© 1997-2004 Stephen Bougerolle - all rights reserved