Just a simple strip of cloth

I could only see his eyes but I knew Muhammad was smiling. The crinkled creases at the corners of his eyes gave him away. He’d just finished telling me the legend behind the origins of the cheche – the six-metre long turban that Muhammad, like the majority of Tuareg men, wore wrapped mummy-style around his head. The story tells of an Arab raiding party who attacked a Tuareg village where the men had all left to go hunting. Believing they’d struck an easy target, crowing about an easy victory even before they advanced, the Arabs were dumbfounded when the Tuareg women fought back. Unprepared for a full scale battle the Arabs were forced to abandon their raid and flee. Afterwards, licking their wounds, they began to tell a tale about the warrior women of the Tuareg whose men covered their faces in shame at their women’s strength.

“If this story is true”, Muhammad said. “Who do you think should be ashamed? We Tuareg would have been proud to have such fierce women”.

Surrounded by a rippling sea of sand dunes, I breathed in the hot dust whipped up from the 4WD’s wheels. Faced with the harsh reality of the Tuareg’s homeland it’s easy to see the more prosaic reasons why the cheche became part of their traditional costume. My mouth felt like I’d been chewing gravel. My eyes stung from grit. Sweat dripped down my forehead from the congealed mass of my fringe. ‘Eating dust’ is not a catchphrase here. It’s the reality of day-to-day existence in Algeria’s southern Sahara. The cheche provides one of the most effective tools of escaping the worst of what this environment throws at you.

This is Tuareg territory. In the desert outpost of Djanet, where the sugar cube buildings slouched under the glaring sun, they glided down the dusty main drag with the slow, sinuous strides which only those born in hot climates ever master. They wore shiny emperor robes of emerald green, ruby red and Picasso blue, and sat under shop veranda shades drinking endless cups of tea. A proudly independent desert people, the Tuareg once controlled the caravans through the vast depths of the Sahara; trading in ivory, salt and slaves. This profitable business collapsed in the 20th century as the slave trade died out and the advent of the vehicle forged its way into modern life. Still capitalising on their reputation as gurus of the desert lands, the Tuareg trade in tourism these days.

Muhammad and I were following one of the Tuareg’s ancient trading routes, heading for the barren Hoggar Mountain Range. From Djanet we had veered off the bitumen and into the never-never of sand. In a beat-up jalopy of a 4WD, festooned with clinking jerry-cans, supply boxes and the mandatory guerba (a traditional water carrier made out of goat-hide), all swinging off the car frame like a survivalist’s fantasy Christmas tree, we sped across the Erg Admar’s endless yellow waves. In the distance where the land was supposed to meet the sky the horizon blurred into a silvery shimmer. When we stopped the soft soles of my feet were scorched by the griddle-hot ground. Except for our own chatter the only sound was that of the wind swooping over the crests of the dunes, re-sculpting them grain by grain.

Following the trail of an oed (a dried-up river bed), we drove west to a plateau speckled with sparse scrub. Among this pitiful landscape of dirt and dust the tiny Tuareg settlement of Tadent eked out a living as herders and trinket-touts. The air was thick with the smell of dung and campfire smoke. A skinny goat, tethered to a tree, bleated out a sad whine as I got out of the car. Village women approached me silently in flowing puffed-sleeved rainbow gowns of lipstick-pink and lime green flowers looking like bright, sparkly peacocks strutting through a tawny beige world. This was the last settlement stop for miles. Afterwards we veered off the oed and began the traverse higher into the Tassili du Hoggar.

A Dali-esque scene of bizarre mushroom shaped rocks and giant’s marbles lay scattered across a plain of orange sand. It was a stone forest, seeded by volcanic eruption and moulded by millennia of wind. We stopped at the age-old traveller resting places of Youfihakit and Tintaraben. Here, on the overhanging rock outcrops, ancient artists had used the stone walls as their canvases and their graffiti revealed a Sahara which seemed unimaginable now. Elephants, giraffes and ostriches were etched into the rock. A wonderfully detailed anteater glowered down from one huge wall. Muhammad pointed to one engraving showing stick figures chasing a herd of cows. “These pictures are thought to be from 4500 BC”, he said. I marvelled at the age of this art and tried to imagine this arid land as the savannah it was when these artists began to scrape their drawings into the stone.

By the end of the second day my lips were splitting from the constant sand shower and my skin prickled with heat-rash. It was definitely time to try the cheche out for myself. We set up camp surrounded by a landscape plucked from a child’s nightmare. A Grimm’s Brother’s rock formation loomed above us on the cliff while church spire pinnacles cast monstrous shadows on the sand. Muhammad decided to make taguella for dinner. This simple bread made from millet flour, water and salt is the Tuareg’s main sustenance during desert travel. He placed the dough into the campfire ashes and then covered it with sand and hot embers. After twenty minutes he scraped the sand away for the dough to be turned over. Another twenty minutes and the bread was removed, the sand shaken off. It was dense and chewy and tasted of wood-smoke. A treat for me but if Muhammad was travelling in the desert by himself he’d eat little else. After dinner he teased me about my water consumption. I was glugging down a solid three litres every day. “One tea in the morning and maybe a cup of water when we get to camp at night”, Muhammad told me was all he drank.

The 4WD groaned and choked as we wound our way upwards along the narrow ridge into the Hoggar Mountains. In the distance, jagged canine-teeth peaks pierced the sky. We spluttered to a stop near the summit of Assekrem and I climbed the rough-cut steps to the top. In 1904, on this barren summit, the French priest Charles de Foucauld abandoned the world to live in hermitic solitude spending ten years studying Tuareg culture and their language Tamershak. The church he built and made his home is more a shack than a place of worship. A bitterly cold wind howled through the gaps in the window frames and tugged on my clothes.

I sat on a boulder and watched the sun throw a dusky-pink blanket over the craggy mountain tops, holding my jacket tight around me as the wind whipped across the stones. Muhammad came and sat next to me and grinned. We both had our cheches wrapped tightly around our heads. “Now you look like a Tuareg”. He said. But I knew that the soles of my feet were too pale and softly puffy and my blue eyes too weak and watery. Unlike me, the Tuareg have long adjusted to the desert. Their thirst and hunger sated by only a few cups of water and a bit of bread as they travel. Their foot soles thickened to not feel the burning heat of the sand and their clothing cocooning them from the worst of the sun and dust.

As it dipped, the sun set the surrounding peaks aglow and spread fingers of blood-red streaks across the sky. I could see the dark beauty in this landscape; shaped by violent upheaval in the belly of the earth and then carved out by the soft murmurings of the wind. As we walked down from the summit a slither of a crescent moon rose up from behind the peaks and the stars began to stud the darkening sky. This was a primeval land, I thought, where you would never belong fully, where you were constantly challenged by nature itself. I watched Muhammad spring down the steps despite the oncoming dark.  Unless you were Tuareg of course; they had learnt the hard lessons of moulding their life around, rather than against, the desert. I rearranged my cheche closer across my face so it covered my nose against the chill. The simplicity of this strip of fabric summed up the Tuareg’s clever adaptation to the take-no-prisoners toughness of the Sahara. How they became masters of this brutal terrain.

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This story was first published in the January 2013 issue of Perceptive Travel.

Before; images of Syria

“When we cross the border can you guarantee my safety?” The American said.

I rolled my eyes. “What do you mean?”

“When we get to Syria. Am I going to be safe?”

“Why wouldn’t you be safe?”

“I’m an American. Don’t they want to kill me?”

“The only thing they’ll fucking kill you with is kindness.” I said.

I fanned myself with my passport. We were stuck in a queue on Jordan’s Ramtha border. Tendrils of sweat raced their way down my back.

At the time I just wished he’d shut up and sit down while I did my job and got the group’s passports exit-stamped. Now I just wish the clocks could be turned back. That I could have those same annoying border conversations again and show people the Syria I know.

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A week on from that conversation, that same American had performed a hip hop dance for a bunch of very amused (and bemused) kids in the back streets of Damascus, been stunned by Palmyra’s columned ruins marching across the eastern desert, walked on top of the ramparts at Krak des Chevaliers, and been convinced by me to have a traditional barber shop shave in an Aleppo old city alleyway.

He came back to the hotel, slick with oil and reeking of the barber shop’s cheap cologne.

“He didn’t kill me!” He said. “And I told him I was American and everything. All he wanted to do was make me drink too much tea.”

Shopping for guns in Addis Ababa

I knew I was lost when I found myself surrounded by dozens of newly made coffins. They were piled against the walls: adult size, child size, baby size and all smelling of freshly sawn timber. Addis Ababa’s merkato is a huge sprawling city within a city; a market so vast that no one seems to be sure where it exactly begins or ends and I had been wandering around it for hours. I’d heard from a local that you could buy absolutely anything here and so for fun I thought I’d go shopping – for a Kalashnikov.

Finding what you want is a mammoth task in a market commonly thought to be the largest in Africa. There is street after street of endless – well – stuff. I found the street where old cardboard boxes come to die, the street where used ‘US AID’ containers and cans are resold as kitchen sieves and pans. There’s a timber street, tupperware street, belt street, tyre street and of course the coffin street where I finally realised I had no idea where I was. Wafts of spice and incense, leather and sawn wood mingled in the air as I watched an old man methodically sand a timber panel to fit on to a tiny coffin.

If there’s one place in the world where you could buy a gun along with your weekly groceries it would be here in the merkato. Its winding crowded alleyways are home to thousands of stalls selling everything from the mediocre, to the strange, to the downright bizarre. And in a nation which spent much of the last half of the 20th Century wracked by civil war, under the vice-like grip of a bloody dictatorship, a Kalashnikov stall doesn’t seem that weird. The trouble is finding it among the mishmash of the market roads.

The incoherent jumble of the market is a mirror of the city itself. From its humble beginnings as a tented settlement at the start of last century, Addis has grown and sprawled outwards in every direction becoming a massive shambles of a city. The main inner-city districts are connected by the uphill thoroughfare of Churchill Avenue where, at its southern base, the shoe-shine boys listlessly lounge awaiting customers. Earlier that day a long walk to the top of Churchill Avenue had brought me to Piazza; once the prestigious centre of Italian Addis Ababa and now a bustling hub which pulsates with the beat of a hundred sound systems all competing for prominence.

From a pavement table I had watched a gleaming NGO 4-wheel-drive sound its horn impatiently as a young boy herded a flock of goats across the street. I’d skirted the afro-headed hipsters selling fake-name sunglasses on the pavement, and hopped aboard one of the minibuses that buzz around the city’s spaghetti bowl of streets. That’s what had deposited me in the effervescent soul of the capital, the merkato, where all Addis’ inhabitants come to shop, to trade, to sell. Locals seem to know instinctively where everything is in this vast hive of commerce, but I’m not a local and the warren of alleyways had me beat.

I had asked every local I met for directions. Been pointed down side streets, drawn maps in the dust and taken by my wrist to the end of alleyways by helpful shopkeepers amused by this faranji attempting to search out the Kalashnikov stall. In a litter-strewn lane a man who looked like he’d walked out of a 1940s gangster movie – all sharp pinstripes and shiny pointed shoes – had given me vague directions that sent me deeper into the market’s depths. Outside a shack, held together with string and hope, a prune-faced grandmother had told me to turn left. I wandered around yet another corner and found myself caught up in a curtain of polka-dot patterned ties. The shopkeeper grinned as I clumsily untangled myself from his display. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly when I asked him directions so I continued to weave my way into the belly of the market; this maze of skinny streets and dead ends that seemed to go on forever.

Ethiopia remains one of the cheapest countries in the world in which to buy a Kalashnikov. It was the weapon of choice for the rebel-forces during the long and painful civil war that plunged the nation into chaos from the late 1970s to 1991. Today life continues to be cheap in Ethiopia and a Kalashnikov can sell for as little as £20. With on-going outbreaks of inter-tribal violence and a high incidence of banditry in rural regions of the country the popularity of this weapon continues unabated – if you can find one of course.

The old man finished sanding down the coffin and wiped his brow with a dirty rag. I wandered through an alley crammed with gaudy plastic flowers and wreaths where a tiny wrinkled Amhara woman, with an intricate cross tattooed on her forehead, smiled up at me as she added some dazzling pink carnations to a display. Old ladies bargained for bright plastic bowls as I passed by while a young man sorted through piles of rip-off football premiership t-shirts. Music blared from a beaten-up tape-player that perched precariously on a wall. I was hot, tired and thirsty and I still hadn’t found my gun.

I turned down yet another corner and found myself amid the mayhem of the main road. A minibus screeched to a halt in front of me and the driver beckoned me into his already crammed van. I paused, longingly looking back at the maze of streets. I’d found the fruit street, the herb street, the spice street and the tie street but the Kalashnikov street had evaded me completely. I sighed and squeezed myself into the mass of sweaty bodies already in the bus. It’s probably a blessing I never found it. I can’t imagine how I’d have explained that purchase to Customs.

Unearthing Beirut

Walking in Beirut? This is a city where kamikaze drivers rule the roost and the so-called traffic police are more worried about checking out their own getup (think Erik Estrada-circa-CHiPs) than protecting pedestrians. Once you manage to actually get across the road navigation is still a nightmare due to entire blocks of the centre being cordoned off behind developer’s boards as the city’s facelift continues unabated. The soundtrack to a daytime stroll here is supplied by a crescendo of car horns and the staccato beat of construction drills. Who would ever think of running a walking tour – in Beirut – seriously?

I met Ronnie Chatah on a late Saturday afternoon, in the west Beirut suburb of Hamra, when the worst of the day’s sticky heat had been shrugged off the streets. “The Lebanese,” he cheerfully admitted, “don’t walk. This city though can be walked. Traffic is just a recent issue.” Never one to give up a chance to go where danger beckons I said a prayer to the gods of road safety everywhere and pulled on my sturdy walking sandals. Come on Beiruti taxi drivers. Knock me over if you dare.

Sightseeing has never played a big role in Beirut’s tourism promotion – a not surprising fact when you consider that most buildings regarded as ‘sights’ have been obliterated by years of war. Instead Beirut markets itself well as the partying playground of the Middle East; a place of bohemian cafes and ultra-cool nightlife. Modern, stylish and oh so up-to-the-minute, this is the Arab world at its most cosmopolitan and vibrant. Behind Beirut’s jazzed-up new high-rises and shiny glass office buildings though, there lies another whole side of the city that most tourists miss. “It’s so easy to walk by Martyr’s Square and the Holiday Inn and not know their stories,” said Ronnie. Even local tourists seem to misplace their memory.

This wilful amnesia, aided by the shiny veneer busily being slapped across their city’s ancient contours, is letting the Lebanese sweep away their capital’s cobwebs with a demolition ball. No one could blame them for wanting to. There are more skeletons hiding in the closet here than most. Street after street of bullet-scarred facades are a prominent reminder of the brutality of the civil war which ripped apart this city for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990. But as more and more of these buildings fall victim to property developers is the soul of Beirut being squandered along the way?

“Beirut is disappearing. Buildings that have served as landmarks, whole neighbourhoods have been bulldozed away,” Ronnie said as we stopped on the district’s main drag, Rue Hamra. I caught the scent of perfume and over-zealous hair-gel application from the promenading youngsters passing by. During the civil war, when this was the centre of Muslim Beirut, I’d have been as likely to encounter off-duty PLO fighters as strolling shoppers. Hidden away behind a row of new shop fronts is an abandoned cinema which stayed open throughout the war. This was where Yasser Arafat used to watch the latest Hollywood offerings in between skirmishes. The last movie to be played there, fittingly ‘Rambo 3’, (the ‘Rambo’ franchise being a particular favourite of the warring factions at the time, Ronnie told me) is still displayed in the disbanded projector wheel outside.

We threaded our way through Hamra, heading through the old Armenian district of Kantari, to reach the beginning of the infamous Green Line (the no-man’s land which marked the territorial split of the city during the war). On these back streets deserted mansions slumped and withered in a slow, genteel rot.  Most were abandoned when their owners fled the fighting. The few that have been fixed-up look like ornate architectural preening birds of paradise – fine examples of the grand Neo-Ottoman style which once dominated the city. The gutted frame of the old Holiday Inn building presides over the skyline here despite now nestling between modern steel towers. Opened in 1974, it was one of the first buildings to be taken over by the militias with its rooms soon stripped of their opulent fittings and the glamorous guests replaced with gun-toting guerrillas. Like most Beirutis Ronnie remains ambivalent about this battle scarred relic’s future but recognises the role it serves as a sad reminder of the city’s past. “Fascinating buildings like the Holiday Inn are going to disappear soon and once it goes there’s a chunk of history that will go with it,” he said.

Crossing the Green Line during the war would have entailed some fancy footwork to dodge sniper fire. The guns may be gone but the hurtling traffic on Rue Abdel Kader still requires a need for speed and agility. When Ronnie first designed this tour establishing a pedestrian-friendly route was his first hurdle. He admitted they haven’t been completely successful and the tour still criss-crosses a couple of main streets. Still, it’s all part of the Beirut experience and I stepped out onto the road determined not to look like a foolish tourist. Amid the speed and swerve of the cars, the fug of petrol-haze, and the extra annoyance of several curb crawling taxis which decided to try and offer me a ride, I managed, somehow, to make it to the other side without an ambulance having to be called and found myself in the construction ghost town of Wadi Abu Jamil which marks the western tip of the old Downtown.

 The central city is surely Beirut’s weirdest district. Completely levelled after becoming the front line during the war, much of the city makeover has been concentrated here. The redevelopment was the brainchild of the late Rafiq Hariri, twice prime minister of Lebanon, who was murdered on 14 February 2005. Although the real-estate company, Solidere (which was created solely to carry out this work) has been steadily mixing concrete and ploughing dollars into the project for 17 years, much of the old Downtown still has a film-set quality. As if the stage has been set up but the actors have yet to arrive. A lot of this seems due to most of the rebuilding being commercial rather than residential in the government’s hope that Beirut will become the next Dubai; a wish which has yet to be granted. I passed endless shells of empty, sparkling buildings, the padding of my feet echoing off the pristine pavement.

The buildings in Wadi Abu Jamil (the old Jewish quarter) have been finished for five years, Ronnie told me. But because speculative investors keep trading, and property prices keep going up, the buildings remain vacant as there’s no need to rent. The only other people we met were bored looking policemen stationed here due to the presidential palace being down the road. An unexpected sight is the perfectly restored Maghen Abraham synagogue. Beirut once boasted 17 synagogues and a vibrant Jewish community. The city’s Jews upped sticks and left during the war (most heading to Montreal and Geneva rather than Israel) and not long after, the synagogue became yet another architectural victim of the conflict. In 1982 PLO arms dealers in the city used it as an ammunition store believing that Israel wouldn’t dare target it. They did, destroying it completely. When the owners agreed to sell their empty properties to Solidere one of the conditions placed on the sale was that the synagogue be rebuilt. Now it stands as a lonely and unused reminder of one of the city’s many lost communities. 

The streets radiating out from Place d’Etoile, the core of old downtown Beirut, have benefited from painstaking stone-by-stone restoration work. Yes it’s impressive but as we wandered through, it felt more like a historic theme-park than a lived-in city. I took a quick peek into the Solidere office where a scale map of the ambitious master-plan for the city is on display. The entire project isn’t set to be finished for another 30 years. Just beyond, Ronnie showed me the memorial to the journalist Samir Kassir. Assassinated in 2005 (it wasn’t a good year for public figures in Lebanon), Kassir was known for his long running war of words with Solidere; accusing them of the reckless erasing of Beirut’s history. ‘Beirut, outward in its wealth,’ Kassir once said, ‘the city that is also outward in its ruins.’ Ronnie told me that Kassir’s writings played a large role in inspiring him to begin these walks. “In Lebanon there’s a lot of conspiracy fetish and myth. Samir Kassir was one of the few journalists who tried to search out the truth. He opened up debates and questioned our collective amnesia and was an inspirational figure when it comes to Beirut’s past.” 

The groan and clang of construction cranes in a nearby boarded up development area greeted my arrival at Martyr’s Square. Once the beating heart of Beirut it is little more than a sprawling, neglected patch of gravel today. Marooned within this wasteland is the city’s most famous landmark. Pockmarked from sniper bullets, the Liberty Statue is now dwarfed by the colossal new Muhammad Al-Aminne Mosque across the road.  Although little more than an ad hoc car-park (the square’s rejuvenation is part of the last stage of Solidere’s plan) its importance as the symbolic meeting point of their city in the hearts and minds of Beirutis is safe. It was here, on the 14th of March 2005, that over one million Lebanese (about one third of the population) chose to converge to demonstrate over Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and demand full Syrian withdrawal from their nation.

 Dusk was beginning to fall. The slowly fading light an apt companion as we crossed into the spooky dereliction of what was known as ‘deep trench’ or ‘sniper’s alley’ during the war. At the heart of the city’s brutal urban warfare, this ill-fated Bachoura street block formed a frontline where only a couple of metres separated the various Christian militias from the Muslim factions. The yellow light of a street lamp exposed the raw wounds of the buildings around me. Scabs of brickwork oozed plaster, scarred walls revealed glimpses of blackened innards. The whole place dripped a horror movie creepiness which set the hairs on the back of my neck on end.

Rumbles of ricocheting gunfire may have been blasting over the centre during the war but the residents of East and West Beirut never stopped partying. The music at the clubs was just turned up a bit louder to tune out the noise. We crossed a road and arrived in East Beirut’s Monot district; a world-apart from the gloom and tattered dying buildings not more than a few steps away. This is the Beirut of the tourist brochures, known for its cafe culture and nightlife scene. Ronnie’s walk delves below this superficial modern surface to unearth the stories beneath. “It’s about bringing the city to life, making people laugh and taking them on a roller coaster of emotions,” he said. Despite the traffic, the constant construction, and the bland high-rise facade, you can walk in Beirut. And you might just find a hidden narrative to this city which lies beyond the bottom of your cappuccino cup.

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If you’re going to Beirut don’t miss Ronnie Chatah’s Walk Beirut tour. Tours are four hours long and cost US$20 per person.

Not the one in the bible

Haman Peter gripped his tattered green bible in his hand.

“You know Jessica,” he said eying up my cigarette, “addiction is wrong.”

He brought the bible down with a slap onto the metal bar in front of my seat.

“You must (slap). Give this smoking up (slap) Jessica. The Lord does not want you to smoke (slap). I Haman Peter know this is true (slap). That is Haman Peter me. Not the one in the bible (slap).”

I nodded as I lurched to the left, smacking my head against the window frame as the bus pitched over a particularly large and muddy pothole.

“Haman is a man in the old testament book of Esther,” he told me. “Haman he was hung by Queen Esther. But Jessica (slap), I am not that Haman. I am me (slap).”

He balanced remarkably straight as he loomed over my seat and thumped his chest for emphasis.

“I am P.C.A.” He announced, “Pentecostal Church of Africa.”

The bus juddered and shook, and the pile of boxes and luggage in the aisle shifted dubiously to a position ready to avalanche on top of me. Haman Peter raised his eyebrows and thrust the dog-eared bible towards me.

Haman Peter’s sudden confession of Christian devotion didn’t surprise me. In Kenya, I’d already found out, religion was a serious business.  My first morning in Nairobi had smelt like fried chicken and exhaust fumes and sounded like the pounding bass of Benga but despite this the capital’s backbone still seemed stuffed in a straight-laced corset. I had picked my way along the pitted pavement of River Road – past the ragtag touts hollering their sales pitch over pirate CDs and cardboard boxes of cast-off clothing – to sprawl on the saggy bed of the cheap hostel and flick through the local newspaper.

The entertainment section stopped me in my tracks. Nation FM’s early morning segment promised ‘inspirational soul food’ to start my day. In the evening Radio Waimini gave its listeners a double helping of Vatican Radio while Family FM headed up the major competition with a line up that included Family Prayer Circle, Through the Bible and the ominously titled Music You CAN Believe in. It all sounded depressingly staid though the cinema schedule cheered me up somewhat.

Down on Jogoo Road, Eastlands Cinema was running a six-movies-for-one-ticket promotion on both of their screens. Screen Two’s billing was a heavy going thwack over the head with a bible featuring ‘Jesus Christ Movie’, ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘Samson and Delilah’ but curiously on Screen One the schedule was a flesh marathon advertised as ‘Strickly [sic] Adults Only’. Enigmatic names such as ‘Touch of Love’, ‘Honey Moons’ and ‘Hot Dreams’ loomed off the page.

I wondered what happened when someone accidentally walked into the wrong screen at the movies. Think of the shock of sitting down with your popcorn, expecting  a robed-up Charlton Heston on Mt Sinai, and finding yourself facing some up-front action with ‘Hot Dreams’ instead. Or making the opposite mistake – probably just as traumatising for the would-be voyeur.  Did anyone ever move between screens on purpose for a dose of porn and prayer?  Watching a bit of ‘Touch of Love’ and then jumping over to Screen Two for some old prophet action in ‘The Ten Commandments’ would be sort of like an instant confession. Bless me father for I have sinned.  It’s been five minutes since my last masturbation.

I travelled north from Nairobi to Nyahururu. It was a scrappy mountain town of low-rise concrete slab buildings where the two paved roads were busier with bicycles than cars. Just down the road, among the wooden shacks of the tourist bazaar beside Thompson Falls, I met Peggy at her stall, surrounded by a Lilliput animal zoo. She introduced herself as belonging to the A.I.C (the Africa Inland Church).

“What religion are you?” She asked.

I mumbled my stock answer about not really going to church and she frowned for a minute thinking this over while dusting a wooden giraffe.

“Lots of people in New Zealand don’t go to church.” I tried to explain, attempting to hoist the blame for my lack of religion onto my upbringing.

“No churches in New Zealand?” She put her duster down and stared wide-eyed.

“No, lots of churches just some people don’t go to them.”

“People in New Zealand no go church but still good people?”

“Well, some good and some bad.” I shrugged.

Peggy sighed and smiled. “Kenyan people all go to church but still do bad things.”

I looked up at the wall behind her where an election poster for Mwai Kibaki was tacked to the wood.

I’d arrived in Kenya in late January 2008 while the country was still being rocked by a series of violent protests and bloody massacres. Mwai Kibaki had just been re-elected president in a largely contested election result. Tourists scarpered from the safari lodges of the interior and luxury resorts of the coast as scenes of massed demonstrations in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park and machete-wielding madmen careening between slum shacks dominated headline news. On January 1st a church had been deliberately set on fire in the northern region of Eldoret. Twenty nine people who’d taken shelter from attack inside the church died. Fifty four were injured. Protests were still ongoing when I arrived. Supporters of the opposition leader Raila Odinga said that he had won the election, and that the ensuing bloodshed had been masterminded by the government. Kibaki supporters claimed that Odinga had stoked the violence. The only other people who’d been staying at my cheap hotel in Nairobi were a Japanese couple who seemed to spend their entire time cooking instant noodles on the terrace over a camp stove.

Peggy pulled a couple of photos out of the drawer and showed me her children. She made a face.

“No husband. Only boyfriend. And only boyfriend to make baby and then boyfriend run.” She tucked the photos back in the drawer. “Can you find me a New Zealand boyfriend?” We both laughed.

“Ok Peggy. What kind of boyfriend do you want?”

She screwed up her face and tapped a finger to her cheek.

“He has to be about 36. He must like big girls.” She looked at me and grinned. “I think white men no like big girls. They like skinny, skinny like you.”

As I was walking up the grassy slope away from the tourist bazaar I heard Peggy call out to me. I turned around and saw her standing in the doorway of her shop, her hand on her forehead shielding her eyes from the sun.

“Jess,” she yelled. “Most important. He must be kind.”

I went to sleep to a drumbeat of fat African rain and when I woke up Nyahururu was blanched to beige. The road to the bus station had become a muddy swamp which sucked and slurped at my shoes. Crouched on the steps of the bus to Maralal, sheltering from the rain and sucking on a lollipop, Hillary the bus ticket seller supervised a man lying on top of a bundle of folded down cardboard boxes under the bus who seemed to be discarding most of the engine. The clanging competed with the steady rhythm of the rain. Hillary pulled the lollipop out of his mouth and wrote me a ticket.

Hillary’s friend Martin climbed on the bus wearing stained white overalls which announced that he worked for the Happy Land Sausage Factory. He wanted me to sit up front next to the driver.

“No way. Head on collision, first to die.” I said.

“God will deliver you there safely.” Martin nodded as he spoke. “I am P.C.E.A. Presbyterian Church of East Africa.”

I chose the seat behind the bus door. My faith in higher powers and sausage factory workers didn’t extend to Kenyan road statistics. The mechanic appeared in the doorway and pronounced the bus roadworthy.  Passengers appeared as if by magic and climbed on board. Hamam Peter the bus conductor was last to arrive. Hillary dragged Martin off the bus.

“Stay another night here,” he said as Hillary yanked at his arm. “We’ll show you a good time.” Martin danced in the aisle, thrusting his hips about in a style I wasn’t sure the P.C.E.A would heartily approve of.

Under Haman Peter’s watchful eye we were heading to the isolated north of the country. Now and again, in the middle of nowhere, a passenger asked to get out and Haman Peter helped them unload their sacks from the aisle and then left them standing by the side of the road in the wake of our dust. Every time this happened I scanned the surrounding countryside for signs of a settlement and saw nothing. Haman Peter told me that some of them would walk 20 or more kilometres to their villages somewhere out there in the endless savannah. It was a foreboding landscape of vast tall grass, sprinkled with the scraggly forms of acacia trees spreading their branches wide and flat against the sky. I wondered how a bunch of buttoned-up European missionaries had managed to so well and truly conquer such a wild land.

Christianity first landed in Kenya with the empire-building Portuguese in the early years of the 16th Century. Francisco d’Almeida set sail in 1505 to secure the gold mines of the Kenyan coast against the Arabs who were also trying to take command over this stretch of East Africa. Not much headway was made at first. The Portuguese residents developed a reputation for thievery and immorality which didn’t encourage local inhabitants to convert to the faith. The Dominican missionary, João dos Santos, travelled widely through East Africa between 1586 and 1597 and wasn’t impressed with the treatment dished out to locals by the Portuguese settlers. “If a chicken belonging to a Moor enters the dwelling of a Christian and the Moor asks for it, the Christian answers that the chicken entered his house because it wanted to be a Christian, and so he cannot give it back.” He wrote in his book ‘Ethiopia Oriental’.

Despite this brutish attitude, by 1599 Mombasa had its first Catholic church though conversion rates remained low. In the end it all proved a worthless endeavour. A five month siege by the Arabs in 1729 ended the Portuguese’s gradual encroachment on the Kenyan coast. The remaining survivors slunk off in two dhows (provided for them by the Arabs) to try their luck in Mozambique instead.

The Protestant missionaries of the 1800s were more determined to stick around. John Ludwig Krapf landed at Mombasa’s port in 1844 and within two years had produced the first bible New Testament in Kiswahili. Despite this linguistic achievement he failed in his hope to baptise the nation (he only managed one conversion during his first stay in the country) but the book he wrote on his return to Germany managed to single-handedly ignite interest in missionary work in Kenya ushering in an era of proactive religious zeal.

By the beginning of the 20th Century every church in Europe seemed to be getting into the act of converting the Africans and the Americans began to flock in as well. There was the Christian Missionary Society, the Church of Scotland Mission, the Roman Catholics, the United Methodist Free Churches Mission and The Gospel Missionary Society to name a few; all of them intent on gaining (in what some would say very un-Christian ways) their own slice of conversion-pie.

Of those early missions some, like the Church of Scotland Mission, would become extremely successful. Others, as Christianity began to flourish with the local population, began to splinter away from the established missionaries thus beginning Kenya’s startling, and highly confusing to the outsider, vast and acronym-loaded breadth of Christian diocese. Today in modern Kenya around 70% of the population is a member of one of approximately 200 different independent churches.

The bus shook and rattled into Maralal. The sign on the roadside as we turned into town announced AIDS. 40 MILLION STILL AWAITING TREATMENT. MARALAL TAKE CARE! We pulled up beside a roundabout which hosted a forest of more signs, wielding arrows like compass points in all directions.

“Jessica we are here,” Haman Peter announced.

We formally shook hands to say our goodbyes.

“I hope for you the best,” he said, “I say that Haman Peter me and not the one in the bible.”

And with that he slapped the book once more on the metal bar before tucking it into his pocket.

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A shorter version of this story was first published in Perceptive Travel.

On the line between tourist and local

I am slowly going deaf.  There is a tell-tale ringing in my ears and a new-found tendency to shout; definite symptoms of graduating from tourist to local.  Most foreigners only last a few days here and leave with nerves rubbed raw by the never-ending noise.  I have been in Cairo long enough to develop hearing loss.  This city is adopting me. 

My taxi has ground to a halt amid downtown’s traffic grid-lock.  Looming above this pandemonium are the architectural relics of a bygone, quieter era.  Khedive Ismail’s ornate baroque facades now slouch under the weight of years of grime.  My taxi driver lets out his frustration in the only way he knows how. He makes noise. Two million cars fight for space on Cairo’s woefully inadequate roads every day and all of their drivers have their hand firmly placed on their car’s horn.  The city’s relentless soundtrack is a cacophonous symphony of bass honks and baritone beeps that ring out from the overcrowded streets.

Up in front of us a panic-stricken police officer, cheeks flushed from blowing a piercing whistle, attempts to be heard above the racket.  It is a hopeless task.  Ambient noise levels in Cairo were recently revealed to average 85 decibels; comparable to standing 15 metres away from a freight train, and the same level that causes hearing loss with extended exposure.  We are all sinking into deafness in this city.  My driver turns up the volume of a scratchy Om Kalthoum tape to drown out the drone.

“Masnoon,” he mutters under his breath.

“Kuula masnoon,” I agree. 

Yes it is totally crazy – a perfect summation of this traffic Babel.

Outside an avalanche of rubbish slowly bakes in the sun.  With the window wound down the cab reeks of the city’s petrol-tinged perfume.  A group of shopkeepers are laying down make-shift mats of cardboard on the street corner.  They stand quietly reverent, while the traffic howls beside them.   It is nearing time to pray.

The mosque’s microphone clicks on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin begins the song of faith.  The first notes reverberate in the air and in the distance another muezzin joins in, and then another, and another.  Soon a hundred voices seem to be duelling above the streets of the city; blending together into a distorted roar that drowns out the clamour of the cars below. 

Even in prayer Cairo is deafening.

As the call to prayer reaches its dizzying crescendo I realise that the unrelenting din of this brash city no longer jangles my nerves.  Cairo broadcasts its frustrations, anger and even its faith at top volume, and I am slowly learning to survive amid the surrounding uproar. 

Traffic is still grid-locked, and my driver slams his hand onto the steering wheel in frustration.  

“You need a louder horn,” I say. 

“Aywa,” he nods in agreement.  Yes. 

I sit back in my seat and smile.  I have begun to belong.

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This post was first published as part of the World Nomad’s travel writing competition in 2009 and a much shorter version also appeared in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.

Shaman, Swami, Sadhu, Sham

The sadhu had been squatting in the shade of the courtyard archway since I woke up. It was my second morning in Orchha. I sat on the low stone wall, listening to the rumbling barks of the monkeys sheltering unseen in the trees overhead. Looming over the view, Raja Rudra Pratap’s over-decorated cake of a palace burst out of its forest wrapping. The umbrella-shaped palace domes glinted in the sun. The sadhu shuffled over to where I was sitting. His frayed lunghi, tied around a wasted frame, was the only scrap of clothing he wore. Thick, long and matted, his dreadlocks were knitted together with twigs and leaves.

Head half-cocked to the side, he perched on the wall casting darting, curiously bird-like glances in my direction. The smell of wood smoke and hay, peat and fecund earth vibrated off his skin. He drew the tiny satchel, tied around his body with a piece of twine, in front of him and brought out a crumpled beedi packet. It was empty. I offered him a cigarette. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes, just staring up at the palace.

“Where are you from then?” he said.

I turned around to stare him in the face. Trying to search out the English man buried under the dirt-encrusted surface.

“New Zealand,” I said.

“Ahh, never been there. I travelled everywhere, but everywhere was nowhere.” He sucked on the cigarette. “Have you been to South America?”

I nodded. He grinned. His teeth were smeared rusty brown from chewing betel nut.

“I went to Peru. I went to Brazil too. Wonderful. How about Mexico? Did you go?”

I nodded again.

“I went to Mexico once. Great drugs in Mexico. Fantastic parties back then. Wonderful.”

His name was Steve and he was from Wigan. He told me he’d been in India since about 1987.

“Have you ever left?”

“No.” He shook his head and laughed. “Why leave? Wonderful.” He stretched his arms out in front of him and waved his hands at the palace. The long threads of his veins bulged against his skin.

“Don’t you miss travelling to other places though?”

“I went to the underworld last year,” he said. “That wasn’t wonderful.” He drew the burnt down butt of the cigarette to his lips to suck out the last embers. “Not wonderful at all.”

Steve had slipped down the rabbit hole too far to ever come back up again. I’d noticed that India seemed to have a peculiar effect on some travellers. Before I finally got here myself, travellers I met on the road always treated it as if it were another planet, not just another country. “Indiaaaaah,” they sighed. It didn’t need any other embellishment if you’d been initiated into their private club.  “In India, anything is possible,” one guy tried to explain to me. But, I thought, wasn’t that the entire essence of why we travelled anyway.

Travelling was the un-chemically enhanced ecstasy of possibility. Like the last pill you swallowed late on Saturday night, and had given up on actually working, suddenly coming on with a fireball explosion in your brain as you waited for the night bus home from Brixton. Unlike ecstasy though, this buzz came without the downside of suddenly finding yourself sobbing over your computer for no good reason on Monday afternoon’s come-down. I tried to ask Steve about it as we sat together on the wall. “India is just…different,” he said. “It just is.”

I didn’t buy it. It wasn’t India that was different. It was the way travellers seemed to want to react to India. You could run into shaggy-haired dropouts and modern-day hoboes across the world but nothing like the flood of oddball pilgrims and seekers who seeped into India’s cracks and seemed to get stuck there. Here, it wasn’t enough for travellers just to come and see and touch and experience. They came specifically to transform; to mould themselves into better people. As if the country – the Indiaaaaah of their imagination – was itself the chrysalis from which they would be reborn.

India as a place of redemption and refuge had been hard-wired into our travelling consciousness by the hippies. Ever since The Beatles burst into Rishikesh in 1968, its lure of cheap drugs and eastern spirituality has kept up a steady flow of young western travellers into the country. They had flocked in with wide-open saucer eyes, dirty hair, and few possessions on the overland route from Europe. Many arrived on buses which stopped off in Istanbul, Kabul and Kandahar along the way. Ironically, this rag-tag army of dropouts were paving the first steps of the modern overland tourism industry, just with less organisation and way more drugs. India has never quite escaped from the perception the hippies stamped on it.

When I was in Kerala, every lost child, seeker, and hipster on Varkala beach seemed to have just strolled out of an ashram. With their Thai fisherman’s pants tied carefully at the perfect hip-line point, the younger travellers spent a lot of time trawling the cliff side shops for trinkets to decorate their newly put together bohemian-chic look. Toe rings to set off their Birkenstocks. Plastic bracelets layered over sunburnt arms. You weren’t cool in India unless you jingled as you walked. Strung-out, skinny hippies lounged in the cliff top cafes. Someone was always trying to strum Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here on their guitar. Everyone was signing up for yoga classes and Ayurvedic treatments. Snoozing on the sand during the day and flooding into the restaurants to watch pirate DVDs at night.

Swami Claude and Shaman Julie stayed at the same guesthouse as me just off Varkala cliff. Swami Claude’s room was across from mine and if I was in when he was going out I would hear the jiggling click, click, click, of the multiple strings of prayer beads looped around his neck as he walked down the hall. Over them he wore an open shirt which exposed a layer of crispy chicken tan. Women loved Swami Claude. They fell over each other to talk to him.

Every morning I’d wake up to his yoga class puffing their way through pranayama exercises. The low reverberating Om – exhale as slowly as possible, drawing out the ‘o’ as far as you can with your breath – rolled through my open window and I lay under the mosquito net listening to his soft French accent encouraging the yoga students to stretch into their pose.

When they got bored of yoga they could always sign up to Shaman Julie’s spirit guidance ritual. She was freshly pressed out of the Osho compound in Pune and before that she’d spent four months in the Peruvian Amazon guzzling Ayahuasca. The notice she’d stuck up in restaurants along the cliff face said she’d been initiated into the South American shamanistic tradition and was fully qualified to help you find your spirit animal guide. Over breakfast one morning she told me that my animal guide was probably an eagle which, I supposed, is better than having a chicken or a wombat to lead you through life but I never found out for sure because the rest of the information could only be revealed by signing up, and parting with my cash, to take part in one of the rituals.

After she left me and my toast alone, she’d sashayed through the restaurant, waving at various groups of backpackers, and then began performing a set of sun salutations between the tables. As I finished off my coffee Shaman Julie stretched her arms wide out above her head in a dramatic finish and shouted ‘Accha! Accha! Accha!” as she ran out of the restaurant and onto the cliff path.

In Varkala I ate fresh fruit on the beach, my hands sticky fly-traps of melon and mango juice becoming encrusted with sand. I read books while swinging on a hammock in the afternoon heat stupor and wandered the cliff path at dusk. It was an easy life and I knew it; a time-out from the hustle of India’s city streets where the rickshaws drove in knot loops to weave their way through the traffic weft lines, and crossing the road was a catch-me-if-you-can lesson in karma. Even the helium-voiced temple chanting seemed to blast out at a lower decibel here. I could understand how the hippies had seen India as nirvana, though they grumbled now about the tourists moving in on paradise.

Old-timers bemoaned the march of concrete which had gobbled up their old haunts of Goa and parts of Kerala. The pot-bellied package tourists, and their two week resort vacations, which had nothing to do with the Real India. They seemed unable to accept that they were the ones who’d set the tone for what was to come. When the hippies descended in a free-love swarm upon India they hadn’t cared about what the Indians thought about their open drug use and free-for-all attitude. They’d simply strolled in flaunting their bell-bottomed hedonism in India’s face.

Everyone I met seemed intent on searching for something. There was a pervading virus-like belief that India would cure all our ills with its plethora of religions and pantheon of gods. We shopped for spirituality with a greedy enthusiasm which confused most Indians. Just like the good consumers we’d been taught to be in the west. We had managed to turn it into a competitive sport. A spirituality Olympics where the gold medals were won by those who managed to memorise the most mantras, visit the most gurus, and perfect a no-wobble headstand. But the Indians themselves were shuffled onto the periphery of the India story; footnotes in their own country. They were the waiters, and hotel-boys, and souvenir touts; the crazy rickshaw driver who nearly killed you in Agra, the companions in your 2nd-class sleeper train carriage, and the people who lived in the dusty place outside of your ashram. We came to dredge India of its wisdom but ignored the Indians themselves.

Steve wasn’t a great talker. We sat on the wall in silence while I pondered the underworld that he’d been travelling to. He had hung up his backpack and found the trailhead onto the overgrown path of the inner-journey which so many travellers here seemed to be seeking. He cleared his throat, as I said goodbye and got up to go.

“Are you going to Khujaraho after here?” He asked.

“Yes maybe in a few days.”

“Not today? I’m trying to find someone to share a car.”

“Sorry, I’m going by bus from Jhansi anyway.”

“By bus? There are some French people who might be taking a car today. Maybe I’ll go see if I can tag along.” He slid off the wall and straightened himself up.

“How do you have money to afford to hire a driver?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m not going to pay. Maybe the French people will let me ride for free. Wonderful. The bus is awful. If you change your mind and decide to take a car let me know.”

“And I’d have to pay?”

“Sure. Wonderful.”

Steve pulled his pouch across his shoulders and walked across the courtyard out to the road on a mission to find the French people. If even wandering ascetics weren’t above wanting a comfortable seat on the road to enlightenment, what chance did the rest of us have?

On the purpose of tourism: from the front line of the industry

One of my favourite places for leading tours was always Damascus. With the slumping architecture bearing down upon us amid the labyrinth alleyways, I would begin my group’s introduction to the Old City by taking the winding path that leads to the Shi’a pilgrimage site of Saida Ruqqiyeh Mosque. Invariably, as we threaded our way through the medieval streets, we’d become caught up in the great tide of Iranian pilgrims who were all heading that way as well.

For many in my group it was an uncomfortable situation where we would end up separated from each other; thrown to the mercy of the crowd as it surged forwards, and backwards, and to either side in relentless waves of people. When we finally washed up at the end of the street outside the mosque my group would be sweating, slightly frazzled and usually all looking a bit dazed after this very Damascene version of crowd surfing.

What they didn’t know was that I could have avoided the crowds quite easily by taking another route but had deliberately guided them into the chaos. I didn’t want my clients just to see pretty monuments and nice museums. I didn’t want to keep them swaddled from reality in cotton wool but rather I wanted them to be able to get in there and smell the sweat of the crowds; to become part of a place, if only for an instant.

Cheaper, faster, now…

Like most people who’ve worked on the front line of tourism as a tour leader or guide, I have developed a healthy disrespect for the industry’s marketing jargon. For years there has been a very obvious disconnect between the tourism industry’s love affair with hyperbole and how it actually operates on the ground. The fluffy throwaway phrases in the glossy brochures offering clients ‘once in a lifetime adventures’, ‘off the beaten track experiences’ and the ubiquitous ‘responsible travel’ become hard to swallow when every year you see the trips get cheaper, more ‘extras’ squeezed out, and the itineraries grow ever more homogenized in the quest for competitive pricing.

The industry has been feeding the same line of ‘cheaper, faster, now’, for so long that we seem to have bred a style of tick-list tourism where clients demand more but pay less and see everything but experience nothing. On returning home a tourist may be able to reel off an impressively long list of sights they saw but did they stick around long enough to be able to describe to you the uncomfortable sensation of the layer of gritty sand that sandpapered their sun-parched skin in the desert. They can walk through an ancient, bustling souq but are so busy documenting their visit so that they can remember it later – their camera permanently glued to their face – that they fail to see the stall-vendor in the corner beckoning to them to come drink syrupy tea. Is this the style of tourism we want to be involved in? And more importantly, is this what clients want? I seriously don’t believe so.

As those involved at the top of the tourism tree become more and more focussed on pricing and marketing it’s now more important than ever for those down at the roots of the industry to realise the role we can each play in promoting a different ideal; an approach that, for me, is the true purpose of tourism. Seeking connections between people, places and cultures so that the tourist is no longer just a spectator peeping through the window into an exotic ‘other’ land but part of that world, if only for a minute, themselves.

By their very nature of packing in as much as possible in the least amount of time, it is difficult to do little more than scratch the surface of a destination on a tour. But a good guide or leader can make all the difference in helping to lift the lid off a place and allow tourists to travel not just further but deeper.

We need to foster a sense of inclusion where it’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve overheard guides tell their clients to not talk to anyone in markets and at sights and on the street. If you dive into the market and are comfortable chatting to the vendors, your clients will feel that they can do this too. If you just walk through simply giving a spiel on the history along the way and ignoring everyone, that’s the way your passengers will act as well. For our groups we are the benchmark for how to behave and by using this responsibility wisely we can inspire our clients to go out and make local connections themselves.

Hello Iran…

There was this one time trapped amid the flow of pilgrims in Damascus, when a car insanely tried to navigate down the road and caused the crowd to suddenly tip madly to the side. An elderly Iranian woman, shielding her face from view by clutching the corner of her black shroud in her teeth, lost her footing and grabbed the wrist of one of my female clients in an attempt to regain her balance. This then caused my client to stumble and she in turn reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the tiny Iranian lady in front of her until it looked like it could turn into a domino effect of tourists and pilgrims tumbling endlessly down the street.

I heaved them all onto the narrow ledge of a shop front where I’d managed to shelter the rest of my group until the car to blame for all this chaos finished manoeuvring through the street. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’. No strange line drawn by different clothing or eye colour, religion or politics. We were simply some people who’d all nearly ended up face-down on the ground.

When the car finally managed to grumble past the Iranian ladies patted my client’s hand to say thank you. Then some young men pushed towards us through the crowd. The ladies waved excitedly back and beckoned them over and suddenly we were all waving madly into their video camera and shouting ‘Hello Iran!’ with the Iranian ladies beside us grinning broadly. We were no longer observers. Just fellow actors in this crazy carnival called the world.

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The above article was first published as part of the ‘Tourism: What’s The Point?’ debate on the Conscious Tourism Blog.

Notes from a revolution

Sunset while standing on 6th of October Bridge, I watched disco-lit pleasure boats cruise upon the darkening Nile while tinny Arabic pop music rose up from the river. I strolled down Talaat Harb Street.  The smell of freshly fried taamiya and charcoaled meat floated over Orabi Square. I sat down at a table and watched the men on the corner lay out their mats to pray.

“Welcome to Egypt,” the waiter said as I sipped iced hibiscus juice and the Muezzin began the call to prayer.

“Welcome to Egypt.” A man with a battered suitcase of fake Rolexes said as he approached my table to try to make a sale.

“Welcome to Egypt.” A couple of kids running past me yelled. “Welcome to Egypt. Welcome to Egypt.”

As I walked home a thousand shisha pipes scented the air with apple-perfume. Five more passersby welcomed me to Egypt. I rolled my eyes and sighed.

I woke up. Dazed, I sat up in my hammock and stared out at the sea. Tiny rippling waves lapped on the shore. I walked over to my friend’s hut to watch his TV. We sat silently as the powder-pink puff of the Egyptian Museum came into view. Pitched battles of sticks and stones and camels from the Pyramids charged across the nightmare screen. The reporter was standing on 6th of October Bridge. A friend in Cairo rang us crying. I mooched across the beach, shoulders slouched. One of the staff was raking the sand, erasing the remaining footprints of the last tourists to leave.

Marooned upon a stretch of white sand at my friend’s remote beach camp on the Red Sea I watched as a bland square in Cairo’s downtown became headline news. Tahrir Square’s traffic – all belching and burping out diesel and din – was nowhere to be seen. Our internet disappeared. Phone calls to friends in Cairo wouldn’t work. The sun loungers on the beach emptied as the tourists fled. Soon it was just me left. I drank the camp dry of diet coke and finished the last of the muesli.

“Now you eat like an Egyptian,” my friend said and I swapped to lemon juice and fuul.

When the phone rang it was Radio New Zealand requesting an interview.

“What’s happening? What have you seen?” The reporter asked.

“I don’t think I can help you out,” I said. “I’m in the Sinai and there’s nothing happening here.”

“Nothing at all?”

I looked out at the beach.  A fisherman’s boat bobbed lazily on the sea.

“Still no sniper-fire or tanks invading the beach yet,” I replied.

Bedouin women, cloaked in their embroidered niqabs, sacks of jewellery and scarves carried upon their heads, gave up their daily patrol along the beach. I tried to ration my cigarettes. We began to run out of fresh vegetables and my friend fretted about finishing the last of the generator’s diesel fuel. Banks had shut. ATMs had bled dry. Transport to and from Cairo had been cut off. The mural of Mubarak outside the newspaper building on Ramses Street invaded my dreams.

“You see that man in the aviator shades, the one that looks like a mafia boss? Well that’s our president.” My friend Muhammad would tell tourists.

I thought of Cairo at midnight when the city streets shrugged off their blanket of heat and the hint of a cool breeze brought everyone outside. Crowds of girls with hijabs pinned and tied in mysteriously intricate ways, fabric floating after them like peacock tails, as they walked arms-linked down the street. Families gathering together on street corners, eating tubs of koshary. I would lie in bed and be rocked to sleep by Cairo’s lullaby; somebody yelling and somebody laughing; screeching tyres and smashing glass; the dull thud of a car crash; the sound of children kicking a football against a nearby wall; and then the horns, always the horns.

Moonlight stretched its fingers through the bamboo roof of my hut and threw shadows across the web of the mosquito net. The light from my alarm clock told me it was 2am. I got up, turned on my torch, and padded across the cold sand to the bathroom. Somewhere on the beach a dog was barking. A truck rumbled across the highway, headlights briefly flashing down the road. Beyond it, the craggy silhouettes of the Sinai Mountains rose up like mythical beasts preparing to attack. The sea shimmered as the waves rolled in. I sat on the beach and had a cigarette. In the morning I watched the blackened beaux-arts facades of downtown reduced to a backdrop on the television screen. The internet came back on. I replied madly to worried friends and relatives; trying to explain my geographic isolation from Cairo.

I’m miles away in the Sinai.

The worst thing that could happen to me is if I run out of cigarettes.

Yes don’t worry I’m safe.

Mubarak was going to go. No he wasn’t. The military may stage a coup. Or they won’t. There was the Day of Rage, the Million Man March, the Day of Departure, when nobody actually left. I tried to guess what would happen next and failed. Lost within the pundits’ commentaries offering up conflicting opinion and hype, I watched desperate protesters breaking up the dusty pavement for ammunition on the TV screen. Tahrir Square had never been part of the Cairo I loved. More eyesore than attraction, its petrol-haze stench hung low near the ground and my eyes stung whenever I was nearby. I lay in my hammock and remembered the swelling despair of navigating the labyrinth underpass between its roads to arrive, sweat trickling down my back, into the blinding sunlight in front of the Mugamma building’s slab of Stalinist-chic and swallow metallic-tinged gulps of encrusted air. Hawkers flogging kitchen pans and plastic cups; one man selling popcorn; everybody rushing in and out the doors of the Mugamma with papers to be signed and stamped; engulfed whole into the building’s gloom.

The bamboo huts lay empty, the sea un-swum in and the snorkelling gear unused. My friend sent his staff on holiday one by one.  I went to Nuweiba to try and find money. Flocks of goats scuffled along the stone-pitted roadside between drooping palm trees and spindly acacias with their Christmas tree decorations of discarded plastic bags. In the manicured gardens of the Nuweiba Hilton where I finally found an open bank a lone camel, busily chewing on a wilting bush, was the only guest. The Cairo-bound bus began running again. It was time to head back.

Tahrir Square. A tide of people enveloped the roads; taken over by tanks and tents, men, women, young, old, wide-eyed and weary-eyed. Toddlers slung up onto shoulders and flags flown high. A boy sat with his grandmother on the pavement draped in black, red and white. A group of men lent against a tank reading newspapers and smoking cigarettes. One man had climbed to the top of a lamp post and was waving a huge Egyptian flag in the air. There was music blasted from loudspeakers, there were prayers. In the background the Mugamma building glowered down upon us. Posters were tacked across fences. The facade of KFC had become an exhibition space for revolutionary art. A man offered me a cup of free tea from his trestle table on a street corner. A fruit vendor had decorated his cart with flags and was selling revolutionary bananas. I fought against the sea of people still swarming into the square and walked out down a car-less Talaat Harb Street. A man approached me as I took a photo of the traffic-free road.

“It’s amazing isn’t it,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the silent street or the revolution or both. I nodded in agreement.

One more street block up, a five minute stroll from Tahrir, a street vendor sat on a pavement corner surrounded by plastic dolls dressed in pink and purple sparkly dresses and shaggy toy cats with flashing green eyes. He wound up the dolls so that they circled jerkily around on their little stands accompanied by scratchy music from a child’s nursery rhyme. A group of young men – faces red, white and black – marched down the road with voices raised high in a chant. The vendor looked up and watched them as they headed towards the square. He took out a duster and began brushing the desert dirt off a doll’s dress.

“Welcome to Egypt,” he said as I passed by.

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This story was previously published in Perceptive Travel

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