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.


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


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.


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.


This story was previously published in Perceptive Travel

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