"Do for yourself, or do without." - Gaylord Perry
Travelling alone has taught me many things. The most important skill has certainly been self-reliance. When I'm faced with a problem no one else will be there to tell me how to deal with the situations, I need to figure it out myself. Knowing that, I always need to trust me own jugement, self-doubt simply isn't an option. The second part of my time in the Middle East re-taught me this lesson many times over.
Hello Lebanon! I was safely deposited back in Beirut by my 20min flight from Larnaca, Cyprus, and all too quickly brought back into the backpacking world. "You've got a girl!" announced the hostel worker jokingly as he showed me into my dorm room. The room was full of about 5 guys all perched on the bunk beds chatting about the days travel adventures. I was back on the road again. Lebanon was a shock to my senses. I was better equipped to handle the glitz and glamour of Beirut after 2 weeks in Cyprus, but outside the capital things were very different. Tripoli in the north was an industrial mess of a city. Development was patchy with some areas looking like they would fit in better 200 years ago. The souq in particular turned my stomach; rancid odours, animals running wild and blood all over the cobblestones from the dead livestock hanging on meat hooks. This got a little overwhelming in the dark claustrophobic maze of the souq. After that I began to get nervous about my upcoming travels to Africa. If I couldn't handle this, what was I going to do in a developing country?
From Beirut the road led to Amman, Jordan, via Damascus, thankfully without any further border hassles. Amman exemplified the Middle East for me. There were well-off areas, but the heart of the city was poorer and much more interesting. Winding streets, blaring car horns and a healthy dose of pollution. I discovered 2 great local spots to eat close to my ho0stel, and both served things local style. They only served one dish each, you just sat down and they brought food over to you. Amman has a bustling market street instead of a traditional souq, but it was always packed with people selling everything under the sun including a section for livestock and birds (conveniently located next to the camel tack shop). All I could see in both directions was a sea of people, more specifically and sea of men. The sheer numbers of people surrounding me was intimidating. On the upside, everyone was so preoccupied with their own business that they didn't even bother to notice me. What a treat!
I made a trip up to the very conservative/rural north of the country to visit a friend I had met in Istanbul, then travelled with through Turkey and into Syria. Chris is working on an archaeological dig in Pella, an ancient site only a few kilometers from the Syrian and Israeli borders. It was amazing to see first hand the unique mix of ancient history and modern social/political tensions in the region. At the dig site I was like a kid in a candy shop, having for many years dreamed of growing up to become an archaeologist. I couldn't ask enough questions, and the more I asked, the more I realized that, minus some of the glamour, archeology WAS everything I had imagined. The best part of the day was getting to see a familiar face ... even if I took the "scenic route" to get there.
Next stop on the well travelled tourist path was Petra in the south of Jordan. It's an ancient Bedouin-turned-Roman trading complex cut into massive rock faces in the desert. The 2 days I spent hiking were punctuated by frequent water/photo breaks. I was amazed at how these old, hobbling Bedouin women selling jewelry could make it up the staircases faster than me, and with much more grace! Petra was more of a spectacular national park with ridges and canyons, the ruins were just bonus. By the time I was ready to leave my hamstrings and shins felt like they had been well-exercised.
Moving on from Petra I went directly to Aqaba, then caught the ferry to Nuweiba, Egypt so I could avoid the land crossing that would take me through Israel. Thank you political tensions for making me take the long route. Dahab was my first stop in Egypt, although I'm not sure if it really counts. On the Sinai peninsula, the beach town was very relaxed, and I spent my days laying on rooftop terraces or strolling along the beach. As an added bonus I got to scrub off the layer of dirt and grime that had been building up since Petra and my trip to the, disgustingly salty, Dead Sea.
From Sinai I headed west to the port of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. And so began a series of very exhausting night transports(this particular one was a 14h bus ride). Alexandria was fairly laid back for "continental Egypt." The architecture was amazing with a mixture of British colonial influences and Mediterranean flavour. This was a quick and uneventful stop before heading into the heart of it all, Cairo, for another 2 day layover on the way south.
I had been warned about Cairo, and it certainly surpassed all expectations! A chaotic jumble of desert air, pollution, and 18 million people, most of whom are living on less than $3 a day. But Cairo could never be categorized by only one label and it's broken up into various different sections each with its own characteristics. The island in the centre of the city, Zamalek, boasts its fancy apartments inhabited by wealthy ex-pats, European style cafes, and park-lined streets. Downtown is chaotic and the main university hub where hole-in-the-wall Kosharias (local mainstay: rice, pasta, fried onions, lentils, tomato sauce and whatever else was left over from last night's dinner), sit next to McDonald's and Pizza Hut. Surrounding the Islamic quarter it's a maze of crumbling mud-brick houses and tin roofs that can been seen for miles. Because of the international tourism industry all the touts and con-men became more aggressive than anything I had seen up to this point. The imported stereotypes of Western and European women have serious consequences for unsuspecting tourists. Many women on tours simply aren't warned that Egypt is a Muslim country and that they should dress more conservatively than they would at home. The media, tourists "letting it all hang out," and the growing sex-tourism industry all help to perpetuate the image that Western women (especially solo women) should be objectified. I had a few minor problems with this.
Cairo was just a stop-over so I could buy my (tourist-priced) ticket on the overnight train down to Aswan in the south. There I visited my first ancient site at Abu Simbel. Despite my sleep-lacking state (we all had to wake up at 2am to catch a convoy that would take us the 4h south to the temple), I was dwarfed by the statues sitting at the temple entrance. It had been moved piece by piece from its original location which is now under water thanks to the Aswan Dam. Aswan was only a primer though for Luxor, the site of the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. First I spent a day wandering the ruins of the temple complex at Karnak (Thebes). One part is a veritable forest of columns decorated with hieroglyphics and carvings. The next day I got into efficiency mode in order to visit the Valley of the Kings, Queens, and Hatchepsut's temple ( a massive building cut into the face of a ridge) all in one day. The few tombs that I saw in the valleys had beautiful, life-sized paintings of ancient life and mythology still accented in vibrant original colours. This was a sharp contrast from the barren valley outside. I really liked all the tombs and temples, but I left feeling a little disappointed because for once I felt that TV had done these sites justice. Everything that I was seeing was like watching the program on repeat. Regardless I was glad I went to see these marvels with my own eyes.
After Luxor it was back to Cairo. I was not thrilled about this since I hadn't really liked the city the first time around, but then things got interesting. I arrived Monday morning and by Tuesday night all the images that I'm sure you're seen on TV began. There were peaceful demonstrations in the streets, with most of the action concentrated in the main square (Tahrir sq.) right outside my hostel. I went out into the very center of the demonstrations Tues. night when the kicked off in the so-called "Day of Rage." There were people chanting, and shouting slogans jumping around and climbing all over anything they could find to give themselves some extra height. It was thrilling and crazy, but let me assure you, when I walked into that thing, I had no idea it was an anti-government protest of the most dangerous kind. I had asked several people during the day what was going on, and why there was a massive riot police convoy parked on my hostel doorstep, and here is the answer I got: It's a festival today on a holiday called Police Day, that's why the shops are closed. Many people were expected to gather on the streets to celebrate, so the riot police were out to make sure nothing got out of hand. The reason I was so misled was because people on the streets were too afraid to tell me the truth for fear that one of the president's secret police could be listening, I was an informant for the government, or worse, a journalist. The people of Cairo, and all of Egypt, have been living with this kind of fear and oppression in their daily lives for the last 30 years since the current leader, Hosni Mubarak, rose to power. He has always been "re-elected" with 99% of the vote, fixed perhaps? He started growing a personality cult with massive posters of himself everywhere, giving the impression that Mubarak was always watching. He enforced his brutal rule with an army of secret police causing many people openly opposing the government to "disappear." Now, after the spark of Tunisia, the people of Egypt are taking a stand against Mubarak and his regime. The poverty-inducing wages, poor education system, and fearful oppression have driven Egyptians to desperation where they dare to oppose the weakening regime.
That first night of demonstrations things remain peaceful; for the majority of the time, but by midnight things were getting more tense as police dispersed the crowd with water canons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. This created a chaotic mob that stampeded through downtown Cairo to escape the baton bearing officers. 3 people died that night, including 1 officer. The strangest thing that someone pointed out afterwards was that through this historic demonstration, there were no media crews camped out in the square. Not a single one was anywhere to be seen; this is just one small example of the heavy-handed oppression that has gripped this country for the last 3 decades.
The next night was eerily quiet at the sites where the demonstrations had been the night before. Few cars even dared to take to the streets and the absence of blaring horns was unnerving. The protests were taking place in another location, closer to the high courts. While all looked quiet, locals urged all tourists to stay off the streets, even though we were likely the safest identifiable group, because tourists are not targets. The following daqy, Thursday, added new sparks to the rumour mill as Facebook, access to blogs, Twitter, Youtube, and even Google was blocked by the government on most browsers. The mobile phone network was also temporarily interrupted. That is the kind of power the government wields freely here, with nothing to keep it in check. People began to speculate as to what would happen the next day, Friday (the Muslim holy day), and by Thursday evening the mobile network and entire internet had been cut off for Cairo and other various cities around Egypt.
Until Friday I had been continuing my touristic duties despite the protests, and life basically went on as usual for most people in the city as well.I visited the Egyptian museum and marveled at the masses of artifacts hap-hazardly displayed throughout the beautiful building. I visited with friends who I had connected with at various spots in Egypt and enjoyed having company to share a laugh with about the circumstances of our crazy situation. I had saved my visit to the pyramids for my final day in Egypt... Friday. However this was not to be and Friday morning all semblance of normalcy disintegrated. When I left the hostel to visit friends (because I couldn't email or call them) I had difficulty getting back into the hostel because the doors were chained and bolted shut. My plans to visit the pyramids fell through because the hostel workers told me that if I left downtown, I might not get back in, since police were already starting to block off the roads, and the metro was closed. Their advice to me when I asked if I could get out later to head to the airport for my flight, was to get to the airport... NOW! I managed to drag 2 other guys from my hostel who either had flights in the next day or so, or wanted to book a flight, but I had other friends who decided to stay for fear that they might get stuck at the airport. As we hopped into the cab I wished well, and safety over the next few days, then we were gone, flying through the streets of Cairo (at very illegal speeds). We passed several thousand riot police massing in the main square with support on almost every block, armies of secret police advancing through the empty streets, and blockades of convoys and armoured vehicles across bridges and main roads. The strangest thing I saw though, were the people praying on street corners; this is something I have never seen. Every mosque was overflowing with the faithful waiting to hear what council the Imams (religious leaders) would give to the potential protesters. The city held its breath, and everyone knew that the moment when people, emerged from midday prayers could change the course of this country's history.
Safe at the airport, everyone was glued to the news as all hell broke loose in the city. We could see the situation deteriorating before our eyes.
-4 French journalists disappear and reports are broadcast from tear gas filled stairwells
-CNN camera ripped from camera man's hands and smashed in front of him
-Al-jezeera journalist (that I had been following all afternoon)arrested after the building he was hiding in was stormed by police
-1 million protesters on the streets
Police convoys are overrun by demonstrators and lit on fire
-5pm: The army has moved into the capital and there will be a curfew in place from 6pm until the next morning
-A state of emergency is declared and marshall law is now in place
-Government buildings are set ablaze
-Will this be a coup d'etat?
-Widespread looting on the streets
-Still no mobiles or internet
-7pm: No flights scheduled after 9pm will take off and the best hope is that there will be more news tomorrow.
At that point I was prepared to spend the night at the airport, something that I've never had to do before, but there's a first for everything! We all knew it was going to get worse, but the airport was blocked off, and probably the safest place in the city, it was the "Greenzone." The flights that had just landed depositing loads of unsuspecting tour groups into this mess. Everyone who arrived was also stuck at the airport because the doors were closed and no one could leave. There were many stories form people at the airport, but the most shocking was, "I called the tour company/hotel/tour leader yesterday and they said it was totally fine!" The speed at which things had deteriorated was admittedly a little shocking, but anyone could see that Egypt was not the ideal place for a 2 week holiday in the sun.
At 11 pm I got news: A handful of flights were leaving and I was on one of them! Nairobi Go! was my battle cry as I ran through the crowded airport to check-in and clear security. I wished my friends well and good luck with their own flights, By midnight I was sitting on an airplane listening to the safety demo. The chaos and riots seemed a distant memory or a figment of my imagination. I was only going to be delayed a couple of hours. The twinkling lights of Cairo far below gave no indication of the terror taking place on the streets. From the airplane window it even seemed peaceful.
When I started writing this blog post I had no idea what I would face when I returned to Cairo for the second time. Looking back now I realize that self-reliance was the perfect introduction to this post as Cairo became the biggest test yet. It's true, there was no room to doubt my judgments and I was forced to make decisions and know that they would be the right ones without any possibility of outside help. AT the Cairo Airport that self-reliance became confidence and I soon found myself thinking with unnerving clarity (probably the adrenaline) and doing everything I could to help others and keep people calm. There was no time to stop and question what I was doing, it just had to be done. For me that exemplifies independence, and I have no idea how differently I would have reacted before I left home.
Afterword: The situation hasn't settled down in Egypt, and I don't expect it to anytime soon. I was one of the lucky ones who got out that first night, but there are still many people stuck in the thick of it and depending on government evacuations. Stay safe and stay strong. I'm thinking of you.
As usual there is an accompanying Facebook album being published currently, so here is the link to see the photos, just copy and paste. I know this one is really long, but it covers a lot of ground, so koodos to everyone who sticks it out to the end and hasn't gone bug-eyed from staring at their computer screen. Thank you for all your support.