Images of Al Qasr

Some places in the world are so imbued with a sense of history that you seem to have walked backwards to have arrived there. The old caravan town of Al Qasr in Egypt’s Western Desert is one of them. Just a short journey from the fly-blown town of Mut (which lives up to its uninspiring name) in Dakhla Oasis, is this creaky time warp of mud-brick bordered by immense sand dunes. Thought to be the oldest town in the oasis, Al Qasr first rose to prominence in the 12th Century and became one of the most important centres of the Western Desert under Ottoman rule. Most of its remaining, though crumbling, architecture of covered alleyways, decorated brickwork and intricately inscribed acacia beam lintels dates from this period.

Visit during the early afternoon when the narrow high-walled lanes here provide some relief from the scorching desert heat.

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On the ‘dangers’ of female travel

This could just be a story about countries deemed dangerous for women to travel to. But it’s more than that. This is a story about our perception of danger and how we’re told time and time again that the unfamiliar and the foreign are more dangerous to us than what is on our own doorstep.

A couple of months back, British tabloid the Daily Mail ran a story in their travel section titled ‘Sex attacks, muggings, and harassment: World’s most dangerous holiday destinations for women (and some of them may surprise you)’. The top ten list declared India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya to be the most dangerous countries for female travellers.

We’ll get back to that shortly.  First I want to tell you about a strange encounter I had in Medellin, Colombia in 2001.

After a hard couple of days travelling, I was lounging around at the backpacker hostel for the afternoon when the film ‘A Cry in the Dark’ about the famous Australian dingo-baby-stealing case came on the television (you know, the one with Meryl Streep doing that Australian accent). With nothing else planned, I sat down with the hostel staff to watch it. As the film credits rolled at the end, one of the hostel staff shook their head and quite seriously announced they would never visit Australia. ‘Dingoes steal babies! The police are bad and try to pin crimes on you! And you go to jail!’

So sitting in Medellin, once known as the most violent city on earth, and still tainted with an insalubrious reputation for gang crime during 2001, a local was telling me they would be too scared to holiday in the land of kangaroos and beach barbeques. It was pretty funny.

More seriously though, this is the type of knee-jerk reaction which the Daily Mail attempts to feed on when it splashes a story about female travel safety across its pages. They’re playing on our basic instinct of safety in familiarity and the fear of what is foreign. Note the countries they chose for the list. There’s not a so-called ‘western’ country among them. They’re all in the developing world: Africa, Asia and Latin America. There’s nothing surprising about the list – despite the article title saying so – because it’s the same tired naming and shaming that has been done copious times before to these countries by the travel media.

Despite not considering myself particularly brave, I’ve travelled extensively through nine of the countries above (just South Africa to go) and lived in both Egypt and Turkey for several years. I’d be the first to admit that travelling as a woman is not a walk in the park. It can be frustrating, angering and simply fucking exhausting at certain times. But how are the Daily Mail qualifying the countries above as the world’s most dangerous destinations for women travellers?

If you read the article you’ll see that each country on the list gets a short paragraph of scary statistics on dangers in country. Number one on the list is India which the Daily Mail qualifies for its winning position by stating that ‘gang rapes of local women and tourists have reached worrying levels in parts of the country with reports suggesting that a sexual assault is reported every twenty minutes.’

I don’t want to downplay India’s dismal statistics on sexual harassment and rape. Anyone who has seen Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh knows that India has a long path to walk in changing ingrained male attitudes towards women. But I wondered how some other countries, which definitely didn’t make the Daily Mail’s list, would fare if I gave them the same treatment.

So using the Daily Mail’s style this is what happens when we apply it to Great Britain:

Millions of female tourists holiday in Great Britain every year but rapes and sexual assaults of women in the country are at a sky-high level with an October 2014 report issued by the Office of National Statistics stating that 22,106 incidences of rape had been reported to police that year by June. An official crime analysis estimates that one in five women over the age of 16 has been a victim of sexual assault in England and Wales.

Drink-spiking with date-rape drugs ketamine, Rohypnol and GHB has become a serious issue at clubs and bars in recent years with a 2014 survey suggesting that one in ten Brits may have been the victim of drink-spiking. Women visiting the capital London should be particularly vigilant about their personal safety, especially while taking transport home at night. Using unlicensed minicabs is particularly dangerous; more than 10 sexual assaults are reported every month in the capital.

And now let’s apply the same treatment to the USA.

Street harassment for women continues to be a serious problem for women in the USA, particularly in large cities such as New York, as shown in the video ‘10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman‘. Rape and gender-based violence is a major issue with the latest figures from the FBI’s crime report stating a staggering 79,770 rapes reported in 2013 – which works out on average to one rape, every six minutes.

Due to lax gun control laws, there is a high incidence of gunpoint robberies and other gun crime throughout the country. Female travellers should remain vigilant at all times, particularly if using public transport and walking at night.

And now let’s stop here for a minute and consider that whopping 79,770 rape statistic because I know my jaw dropped to the ground when I read it for the first time.

Let’s make one thing clear. I’m not saying that India; Brazil; Turkey; Thailand; Egypt; Colombia; South Africa; Morocco; Mexico; and Kenya don’t have a problem with gender-based violence. I’m saying that in reality, gender-based violence is a world-wide issue, not confined to the countries above.

The Daily Mail (and plenty of other media outlets) are simply using people’s fear of the unknown when they select which countries make their grade of ‘most dangerous’ for women travellers. Otherwise why would a country like Spain – where in the popular package tourist resort of Magaluf a series of highly publicised gang-rapes and sexual assaults on tourists have taken place in recent years – not make the list? Because Spain is European and familiar, and just like us.

Over the past 20 years of my travelling life I’ve been called by various people brave, bonkers, fearless, idiotic and stupidly reckless just because of the places I’ve chosen to travel to. Yet, gender-based violence and harassment is as much a problem for women in the western world from Melbourne to Madrid and London to Los Angeles. So should we all just cower at home instead? Fuck that.

Travelling as a female is always going to have certain extra risk factors that male travellers simply don’t need to contend with or worry about but you know what, they’re the same risks and dangers women face everywhere simply by stepping out of their house. So, spare us the scaremongering. The question female travellers should be asking is not ‘which countries should I avoid to be safe’, but instead ‘why the fuck in 2015 am I still more likely than a man to be a victim of violence anywhere’.

On our traveller perception of a place & finding alternate stories

It was mango season in Egypt. The stall-holders of Souq al-Tawfiqiyya swatted flies away from the fruit piles with colourful feather whisks while spraying jets of water onto the fruit so that the mangoes’ blush-tinged skin glistened slickly. The heat within the narrow street market was nearly unbearable despite it nearing dusk. The fecund tang of over ripe produce hung in the still air. Cairo’s summer temperatures cocooned the entire city like a blanket, smothering us into a fug of indolence and idle loitering. We shopped in slow motion; picking mangoes up, smelling them, putting them down lazily, and waddling to the next stall to feel and prod again. Even the haggling was a half-hearted show, me and the vendor sighing as we carried out the pricing-battle to keep up the appearance of caring.

We were all waiting for the dark when the ripple effect of the Nile’s cooling breeze, like some ancient form of natural Prozac, would lift us out of apathy and restore us to our senses making us sigh in relief that another day in the furnace was finished with. Then the stall-holders at Souq al-Tawfiqiyya would smile at you when you picked up their fruit rather than frown and the thin alleyway, lit up by fairy lights, would thrum with a crowd of people pushing and shoving their way through while trying to manoeuvre past motorbikes and donkeys and carts. Now it was fairly quiet and easy to navigate. As long as you didn’t mind cranky vendors and the slightly off-putting smell, it was the easiest time to come here.

“There are no women here at all,” Louisa said.
I turned around just as she raised a camera to her face and snapped a couple of photos of women buying mangoes.
“What?”
“There are no women on this street.” She checked her last shots back on the digital viewfinder and then raised her camera again. “It’s absolutely bizarre.”
The camera whirred and clicked.
“It’s an entire city without any bloody women.”
I walked the few paces back to her and yanked her camera down from her face. Then I started pointing out women.
“Look there are two there, one in the bright orange floral headscarf and the taller lady beside her with the brown headscarf. You just took a photo of them. Here, a lady has just walked in front of us. She’s practically just barged into you because we’re standing still – the one in the black abbeya. There’s another one just there, with all the plastic shopping bags. Here,” I pointed. “And here, and here, and here.”
“Oh,” she said. “I must have only been looking at the fruit sellers. Well there aren’t any female fruit sellers are there?”
“No Louisa.” I said. “Market work is typically a man’s job in the Arab world.”
She shrugged and took another photo.

I gathered my tour group together and continued the walk through the souq. Later, we’d go back to the hotel swinging a bag of perfectly ripe mangoes and when we sliced them open we’d suck out the sunshine-yellow flesh, peeling it straight off the skin so that our hands were sticky fly-traps and delicate strings of mango fibre hung from our chins. That’s what Louisa would remember from the walk through Souq al-Tawfiqiyya on the first day of her three week tour of the Middle East. I’d remember her words though.

“There are no women here at all.”

And I would wonder how the hell we all became so blind.

The second time I arrived in the Middle East it was to live. I’d been hired as a tour leader for an adventure travel company with a job based in Cairo. At the interview the tour company were vague about what destinations needed new leaders. Initially I applied hoping for India. Nobody was more surprised than me when they rung me up to ask if I’d be interested in the Middle East and I said yes. Returning to Egypt had never been the plan.

The first time I departed Egypt it was by Nuweiba’s tortuously slow ferry. The crossing took five rolling and pitching hours across the Red Sea to Aqaba in Jordan and when I went to use the toilet someone had left a shit on the floor and on top of the toilet seat. At the time I thought it was a fitting final full stop to a nation I was glad to see the back of.

I had found Egypt unfathomable. It threw contradictions at you dart-speed and I had spent much of my initial 2004 journey there ducking for cover from my own muddled perceptions. Within my first five minutes in Egypt, on the Amsaad border crossing from Libya, I had found myself in the middle of a rock-throwing fight between the Egyptian border officials and a bunch of cross-border smugglers who were trying to jump the fence. In the packed immigration shed a fight broke out between two men standing directly in front of me and I had to be pulled out of the way to safety. In Luxor a man trailed behind me as I walked down the street alternating a hopeful hissing sales pitch of ‘sex’ and ‘hash’ with every step. In Aswan a child threw a rock at me. Everywhere I went I was besieged by perfume and papyrus sellers. By the time I got to Dahab in the Sinai, I was exhausted. I sat back on the cushions beside the Red Sea and talked to other travellers, drinking bottles of vodka labelled ‘Finlandia – Product of Cairo’. We were told drinking the local spirits would make us blind but it only ever succeeded in inducing hammering headaches.

One evening a bunch of us had gone dancing and the waiters from the beach-side restaurant we spent most of our time in turned up at the bar as well. They barged onto the dance floor; shimmying up behind us and rubbing their stiff penises up against our backs. Shoving them away didn’t help. They just came back and did it again so that in the end we just gave up trying to dance. One of the guys who worked at the beach camp where we were all staying told a girl to come up to the roof terrace to look at the stars. When they got up there he dropped his pants and told her to give him a blow job. When she ran back down stairs and told us what had happened, all we could think to do was laugh because hey, we said to each other, that was just what happened in Egypt.

Six weeks later, on my first day in Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people were blown up by a terrorist bomb along Beirut’s corniche. That same day I wandered down to the street where it had happened. My shoes crunched on thousands of fragments of broken glass underfoot. Up above hotel curtains flapped freely out of window frames. A crowd had gathered around the small cordoned off section which the police were guarding and a group of young guys wearing skin-tight jeans and bandannas tied around their heads revved past waving the yellow Hezbollah flag. Flicking through the satellite channels on the television that night in the hostel I found that there were twenty channels of porn and at least as many channels devoted to religious readings of the Qur’an. I travelled down to Tyre and took a taxi to Al-Khiam Prison which would later be bombed by the Israelis during 2006’s July War. When I visited Hezbollah were operating it as a macabre museum, with tours led by ex-prisoners who showed you around the tiny cells and explained the torture methods that had been dished out by Israel’s proxy army the SLA when Israel had occupied this chunk of Lebanon. When the tour finished they asked you to make a donation to Hezbollah and then took you to their souvenir shop where you could purchase Hezbollah key rings and miniature Hezbollah flags.

The Middle East, I had decided right there and then, was too confusing. You had to peel back onion layers of history just to attempt to fathom a single answer, and then, when you thought you understood, something would happen that would turn it all upside down again. After a particularly hard day I crashed out in front of the hostel television to watch the international news. There was a report about a woman’s refuge centre in Egypt. The centre was battling to stay open due to a lack of women using it. This wasn’t because Egypt lacked battered wives, the reporter explained, but because the cultural shame of airing your marriage problems in public in Egypt meant that women were unlikely to use it. To highlight the problem the journalist interviewed one of the women staying there whose father had berated her for seeking shelter at the refuge. “Why are you bringing shame on the family by coming here?” He had asked. “I beat your mother every night and you don’t see her running away.”

I’d had enough. On a cold March morning with snow lightly dusting the palm trees of Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul I flew out of the region and washed my hands of the Middle East. It wasn’t a place I expected to ever see again.

But then I came back. And as I settled into life there I began to feel the region had something to teach me. Lessons that took more time than a nomadic romp around its edges could ever unfurl. A couple of years ago it could have easily been me making Louisa’s throwaway remark about not seeing any women in the souq when in fact she was surrounded by them.

We all arrive in the Middle East with a particular concept of what it is already ingrained in our minds. After all, we’ve been fed the same story over and over again until it has become the only story. Blinded by our own perceptions, we choose not to seek out any alternative narrative to our own.

The second time I arrived in Cairo, I had a feeling that I had come full circle. This mark on the map had drawn a line around me for some reason and I was caught within its curvature. The ancient Egyptians had understood the power of circles. Long before they began worshipping the great sun god Ra they had deified the tiny scarab beetle which scuttled along the desert sands. Observing these little black beetles, as they laid their larva into dung and then industriously rolled the balls across the ground, the Egyptians saw that the dung balls were circular like the sun and also like the sun they would bring forth life when the scarab beetle larva sprung forth from them. They named Kephri as god of the scarab beetle and imagined the sun too was slowly being pushed by a beetle across the sky bringing light and darkness in a circular cycle of death and rebirth. Later the cult of Ra assimilated itself into the older legends but the god Kephri lived on as the dawn incarnation of Ra merging with this new impostor. Scarab beetle effigies were placed in tombs as a reminder to the dead that only half their journey had been fulfilled and they had yet to journey full circle to resurrection in the afterlife.

On that second arrival I got a taxi from the airport and drove into the centre. Above, the sky was a sludgy smear of low hanging grey glowering over the city. The springs in the back seat of the car had long ago given up hope and when I sat down I sunk into the seat and failed to rise back up again. Pieces of sponge fought to be set free from the fake leather upholstery, rising up out of the ripped fabric in little yellow geysers of foam.

The front dashboard was covered with a candy-pink fake fur rug and had been decorated with glittering talismans to ward off accidents, or at least provide a disco atmosphere in the event of one. Stickers portraying seductive eyes, laden with kohl, stared down at me from the windscreen. Christmas tinsel snaked across the pink fur. Multiple bands of amber and cherry-red plastic prayer beads were wrapped around the gear stick. Both wing mirrors had been smashed in some previous road altercation but Ahmed the taxi driver had made up for that by installing an oversized rear view mirror which stretched three quarters of the way across the windshield. Hanging down from this, was a collection of silvery baubles and a miniature Qur’an.

Ahmed caught my eye in the mirror as I stared at it and waggled his eyebrows.
“Welcome to Egypt” He grinned. “What kind of music do you like? I like western music.”
“Really? Who do you like?”
“I like Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Ahmed you can’t like both Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Why not?” He turned around and the car veered lazily off to the left. The car behind that had been trying to overtake us swerved to miss us and the driver beeped his horn. Ahmed beeped back and waved him on with a dismissive flick of his thin wrist. “You don’t like Eminem and Celine Dion?” He scrabbled around the dashboard to retrieve a homemade mix tape. “My favourite songs are Stan and My Heart Will Go On,” he announced. “Very beautiful.”

The mix tape crackled into life. We wound down the windows – Ahmed had to pass the communal window winder back to me as they had all fallen off the doors – and he pumped up the volume so it blared out onto the street as we sped down the highway. He kept one hand on the steering wheel and waved his other out the window in time to the music in between drags on a cigarette. The entire car shook as we picked up more speed and Ahmed turned the volume up to maximum so we could hear it over the rattling drone of the engine. We passed a highway sign pointing the way to ‘Dwon Twon’.

A maverick seat spring dug into my thigh as I leant near the window and breathed in the sharp, acrid smell peculiar to Cairo. It’s the petrol-tinged perfume of a city where two million cars fight for space on the roads every day; the exhaust fumes mixing with the desert sand which scrapes against your skin. When I swallowed I tasted metal.

I didn’t know it then but it was the start of a love affair with the Middle East and with Egypt; a tempestuous one at times, but a love affair all the same. Surviving the first summer – the summer of mangoes and of Louisa’s comment – was the real turning point. Time seemed to stagnate in Egypt in summer. You could hear resignation in the shudders of the air conditioning units as they groaned and wheezed their way through another day when the temperatures hit 40 degrees and their water overload dripped down on you as you walked down the street. Traffic ground to a halt downtown amid a symphony of car horns. In Cairo, people looked to the past as a way of coping with the city infrastructure’s slow but steady decline into chaos.

“We were once a great nation,” my friend Aisha summed up for me as she sucked on a shisha pipe. “And now we sell papyrus to the tourists.”
She blew the smoke out through her nose and it rose in curling plumes up into the night.
“Oh well. At least we have the pyramids.”

In the evenings that summer I’d walk down the streets near my flat in Zamalek, scuffing up the scattered petal confetti from the Jacaranda trees across the dingy asphalt. A petal drift clogged the potholes and piled up at the curbs. One morning, not long after I had first moved into the flat an abandoned toilet appeared on the corner of my street. It sat there all through summer, slowly gathering a layer of dirt and grime. Enterprising passers-by began using the bowl as a make-shift rubbish bin.

What’s Egypt like to live in? A friend wrote and asked me. It’s hot, I replied. There’s a toilet bowl sitting in my street. If I lean over my balcony on tip-toe I can see the Nile.

When the light began to fade I’d stand out on the flat’s balcony and listen to the local mosque’s microphone click on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin began the song of faith. I’d gather my washing in, dried stiffly in the crisp sun and breathe in the Cairo freshly laundered smell of diesel, desert, and faint whiff of laundry powder. Afterwards, I’d sit out there on the creaky chair as the neighbouring buildings became silhouettes under the eerie yellow tinge of the street lamps and wonder if I’d ever understand this country.

Five years later when I finally left Cairo a friend would muse that people who were attracted to the Middle East were attracted in some way to conflict. But I couldn’t agree with that analogy. Because the Middle East wasn’t just the conflict and chaos that clogged up the news channels to me any more. And it wasn’t the macho world where women were kept cowed at home that Louisa had assumed. It was a place, just like any other, full of different stories and the wonder of every day surprises. Egypt was an unfathomable mystery with an ancient stillness that resonated at the most unlikely moments and I would never completely unravel it. And that was ok because life didn’t run on straight linear lines here. It bent and wobbled. It curved. Like a circle.

And I’d remember when Ahmed the taxi driver had dropped me off in downtown Cairo at the end of the first day of my second arrival in Egypt. It had started to rain; a steady drizzle which turned the sidewalk dust to oozing mud. Egyptians ran between shops with newspapers held high over their heads to protect them from getting wet and tried to avoid the growing litany of puddles which were slowly filling the pavement potholes. He retrieved my pack from the boot and handed it to me. I paid him and said goodbye but just as I was starting to walk away he yelled for me to stop. When I turned around he was scrabbling around amid the pink furry dashboard.

“Here!” He said with a smile and put a little stone into my palm. “Ahlan wa Sahlan. Ahlan wa Sahlan Misr.”
Hello and welcome to Egypt.

When I opened my palm I saw a tiny blue stone scarab beetle.

Life on Mars, in Egypt

I have just come back from Mars. Or, at least, a place so unearthly that it is what I imagine snapshots from a holiday jaunt to Mars – or Uranus, or Jupiter – would look like. Black pitted landscapes of rippling rock. Mineral-rich conical mountains in shimmering oranges and emerald greens. Chalk pinnacles that rise out of the sand in shapes that seem to have fallen straight out of a surrealist painting. It’s a thoroughly alien environment supplanted firmly on earth. This is Egypt’s Western Desert.

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Inside the camel market

It ain’t for the squeamish. Birqash camel market, just outside of Cairo, stinks. The stench of animals swelters stagnantly in the heat until it rubs off on you. This isn’t a tourist attraction although a few intrepid travellers always make it out here – and the market organisers enterprisingly make foreigners buy a ticket to enter. But it is a side of Cairo far removed from pyramids and King Tut’s treasure.

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On why I don’t have a bucket list

In 2008 I led a one-off tour that started in Cairo and then stretched west across North Africa, meandering all the way to Casablanca in Morocco. Back on a minibus, after an exhausting wait on Egypt’s Sallum border post into Libya, I overheard my elderly tour passenger crow to her husband, “number 66 and another one off the bucket list.”

“Hey Jess,” her husband shouted. “This is our 66th country. How many countries have you been to?”

Here’s a secret.

I don’t have a bucket list.

There. I’ve said it. I have committed the sin of the modern day traveller. I don’t have a top 50 things to do before I die or even a top 20 places to see before I turn 40. When I was 20 I didn’t have a top 100 destinations to tick off a list before I turned 30 either. And when I did turn 30 I wasn’t exactly sure how many countries or bucket-listy places I’d actually been to.

Not long after that tour finished, a friend got me to write down all the countries I’d visited to see who came out on top. After presenting him with the list he pointed out that despite the fact we were living in Cairo and my job had me constantly travelling across the Middle East and North Africa I had managed to forget to write down every single North African and Middle Eastern country, including the one I lived in. I guess I wasn’t made for tick box tourism.

The way my passenger couple had gloated that they’d now been to 66 countries when we’d only been in number 66 for a total of five minutes sums up the bucket list problem to me. It reduces the very act of travelling to a simple list of must-sees and must-dos that we can later brag about. Of course I want to see a country’s most famed monuments and attractions (and you can read more about my attitude towards the travel-snobs who avoid the major sites here) but it always seems to me that it’s the things in between all those must-sees that provide the best and most memorable travel experiences.

In 2004 I went to Libya for the first time (sans passengers) and yes, the grand Roman ruins of Leptis Magna blew me away and I thought the winding lanes of the Sahara Caravan city of Ghadarmes was one of the most enchanting place I’d ever seen but they are not the things that first spring to mind when someone asks me about Libya.

Instead I usually tell them about the shopkeeper in Khoms (the town beside the ruined Roman city) who was so gobsmacked at seeing an independent traveller that he wouldn’t let me pay for my groceries. Or I tell them about the oil engineer in Tobruq who bumped into me on the street and took the day off work to give me a private tour of the WWII cemeteries. His tour culminated in a tea drinking session with Tobruq’s Minister for Tourism who earnestly asked me how they could attract more travellers to town and then, jangling a set of keys before me, opened up Rommel’s operation bunker just for me. I tell them about being held in the Ghadarmes police station for hours because they knew I wasn’t supposed to be here (independent travel was illegal in Libya at this time) but they didn’t know what to do with me (they decided ignoring the issue was the best option and let me go). And I tell them about bizarre bus trips, about hitching rides in dodgy minibuses with even dodgier drivers, and getting lost everywhere because the guidebook maps were so out of date none of them made sense. Mostly though the things I remember from that trip are the people and you can’t put people on a bucket list.

It’s not that I think bucket lists are wrong. Just sometimes they seem to narrow our perspective so we don’t see the bigger picture. If we’re so busy concentrating on ticking off the next country or getting to the next star attraction we tend to miss what’s going on right in front of our noses and it’s sometimes these things that end up being the most amazingly memorable parts to a trip.

On that same Cairo to Casablanca trip in 2008 we were held up for four hours on the Tunisia/Algeria border. By the time everyone was stamped through the Tunisian side the group were a bedraggled and tired mess who just wanted to get to a hotel with a clean-ish toilet. We entered the no-man’s land between Tunisia and Algeria (my passengers’ no 68) under one of those tour group black clouds that threaten to turn into a tour leader nightmare of in-group bickering. The no-man’s land between the frontier posts stretched on in a desolate plain of dirty desert sand for four kilometres up to the shack that served as Algeria’s immigration building. I had no idea about transport here and guessed we were going to have to walk. And then, out of the desert nothingness in the distance a plume of sand rose in the air. We watched and waited as the sound of the thrumping engine got closer until Muhammad pulled up beside us in his car and threw open the passenger door which then theatrically fell off the car body completely to land in the sand beside our feet.

I squeezed people and luggage into the car. Muhammad threw open the bonnet and fixed something with a rubber band. He pushed me into the passenger seat and handed me the door to hang on to. We broke down three times on the short trip between the border posts making what should have been a five minute drive into a half hour circus which starred a hammer, a piece of rope and a copious number of rubber bands (which I began to have a whole new respect for afterwards). In a cloud of dust we arrived in front of Algerian immigration. As we climbed out, the car gave an audible sigh and something exploded in the engine. We entered Algeria laughing hysterically all signs of grumpiness gone.

You can’t put Muhammad and his border transport on a bucket list. It’s just one of those odd moments that can occur on a journey and make you love travelling even more. While bucket lists would have us condense travel to a simple series of tick box sights, it’s moments like these that remind us that travel is more than a wish list of things we must see. It’s also about the bonkers shit that happens along the way. So much of modern life is buried under lists with career goals and five year plans and achievements we should aim for. Let’s not spoil our travel time the same way.

On the fact that we’re all more similar than we first think

The weather had turned up to Cairo-boil. A sweet and sticky fug of heat settled across the city like a blanket. It was so hot it hurt to breathe. I dreamt of air conditioning at night as I listened to the ancient, wobbling ceiling fan wheezing and shuddering through its circular rhythm to try and whip up a breeze.

On the street, sweaty and frizz-hindered, I looked like a straw-haired scarecrow compared to the Cairo girls. Me in my loosest cotton tops and baggiest pants with forehead damp from sweat while the Cairo girls were all turned out in shiny patent heels and carefully applied eye makeup that never seemed to run.

No matter what the thermometer said, the lycra top ruled the street-fashion of Cairo. A glance around any busy road proved it was the favoured female clothing option. This body-hugging, long-sleeved and clingy top seemed a completely impractical choice for summer in the city to me.

“Aren’t you hot?” I asked Aisha.

“Yes, too hot!”

“Well why don’t you wear something less tight?” I fanned myself with the reference book I was supposed to be using to teach her English. It was too hot to work.

“I love fashion. I adore it.” She said.

I taught her the word ‘shopaholic’ and she rolled it around her mouth with glee. Then she grabbed my hands and clicked her tongue at my unvarnished nails. I’d never be Cairo-cool.

The trouble was to be fashionable in Cairo and still manage to obey the Islamic tenets of modest dress, the stiflingly hot skin-tight lycra top had become an essential wardrobe staple. It is high-necked and long-sleeved which meant that any of the spaghetti-strapped, scooped-backed tops of Western fashion could be layered over it easily. But I couldn’t even imagine how mummifying it would feel to have body hugging lycra next to my skin when the temperature roared to over 40 degrees.

Walking home from the college I remembered my clubbing days in London. Even in mid-winter we would stand shivering in the entry queues, hugging our jackets around us to try and generate warmth because despite the sleety rain and ice-fingered wind we were wearing the most ridiculously skin-exposing, thin-fabric outfits underneath. It didn’t seem to matter what culture or religion we came from. Women will always find a way to lock ourselves in a fashion-cage.

On the joy of snail-paced travel

I have always had a knack for enjoying doing nothing. Give me a hammock, a book, and sunlight dappling through from a palm-thatched roof – or a window seat on a long train journey – and I’m perfectly happy. I came to the realisation long ago in my travelling life that I am not a person who tears down walls for something to do. Some of my happiest travel memories revolve around the simple pleasure of people watching. Sipping chai on a hotel balcony while watching the dhobi wallahs scrub clean mountains of laundry in the river below. Sitting at a pavement cafe observing the world go by. It’s when travelling creaks down a few paces to a crawl that I feel the most alive.

Because of this, it was with a large dollop of trepidation that I first became a tour leader. My style of travel had always been slow. Involving six month stints or longer upon the road. There was nothing I adored more than having the luxury of time to spend a month in one place if the mood beckoned me. Travelling on a tour had never attracted me for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the idea of someone else telling me what to do is my ultimate nightmare, but also because they just seemed…a little…quick. Blink and you miss them. Organised tours take the hassle out of your travel plans. Useful if you have one of those things called a career-path and can’t spend a longer time on the road. But how much culture and history can you absorb in a three week jaunt through the Middle East?

For over four years I travelled at lightning bolt speed; the tortoise masquerading as the hare. Employed by one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, for nine months of every year, it was my job to buzz tourists through an itinerary that covered Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey in the constricted space of 21 days. We hardly had time to catch our breath let alone sit down and smell the flowers. You can’t do the Middle East in three weeks, I’d warn my passengers at the initial group meeting. But I could get them to the major highlights.

It was a life carried out in fast speed. Every ruin or tumbling panoramic view was serenaded with the buzz and click of camera shutters. There wasn’t time to spend all afternoon sitting on a fallen Roman column, just surveying the scene. There was only time for photos. By the end of the second week fatigue would be etched over faces as the get-on-the-bus, get-off-the-bus, endless packing and repacking began to have an effect. On day 21 we’d stagger exhausted into Istanbul, backpacks on weary backs.

Finish a trip. Say goodbye to my passengers. Fly back to Cairo. A couple of days off only if I was lucky. Start another trip. I never unpacked properly because I rarely stayed anywhere longer than two nights. It was travelling on steroids. In the end it began to suck the joy of travelling out of me. My life had become a tour leader hamster wheel.

The afternoon after I resigned I went to visit Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo. Despite living in the city for four years I’d shamefully never got around to going there before. I wandered around its vast airy corridors that framed the dazzling white paving of the courtyard. I stood transfixed while gazing up at the intricate calligraphy which adorned its arches. I sat. For hours; just breathing in the atmosphere of quiet contemplation before climbing the spiral of stairs to the top of the minaret where the helter-skelter view of pigeon coops and satellite dishes which grace Cairo’s rooftops, greeted me at the top.

Having the luxury of slowing down while travelling is something of a frowned upon treat. In a world so obsessed with possessing stuff – where we graduate from needing to own ipod and plasma-screen TV, to mortgage and kids – it’s seen a little naughty to be so lavish with wasting time. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. Having seen the other side of tourism up close, slow travel is a luxury worth wanting. 

The quiet side of Cairo

In my last post I talked about Cairo’s unending din; the constant roaring soundtrack that frays nerves and results in your normal voice becoming a shout. There are peaceful corners to the city known as Umm al-Dunya (the mother of the world) though. When the traffic chaos began to wear me down I’d escape to the city’s mosques and madrassas. They were places of quiet, calm refuge where I could sit without a backdrop of car horns, pop music, and non-stop yelling.

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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.

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