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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Combing the desert 20.XII.2008 14:15
I've been in Egypt for about 10 days now, and I've been spending time in four very different places. The first was Dahab, an incredibly laid back little town on the Red Sea coast. Ten years ago, it was a hippie backpackers' paradise, and though there are now enough Russian package tourists that the Egyptians all speak the language, it's still mostly independent travellers, which is very nice. I don't have much to report from there because I spent a full four days doing pretty much fuck all - I essentially treated it as a holiday from travelling, and I think when that's the kind of holiday you take your life is going pretty well. I spent the few days hanging out with a couple of girls I'd met in Amma. Actually, it was kind of weird: in Iran, I had been travelling with an Aussie and a Kiwi, and here I was doing it again, having traded James and Ben for Jessi and Bex. Even their ages were about the same, and, roughly, the outlines of what they were doing; it was pretty random. Anyway, we pretty much spent four days playing cards and dice with half-remembered rules from childhood, eating Western food and smoking the occasional sheesha. It was great.

From there, I moved on to Cairo, Egypt's sprawling capital - so large it's actually divided among three different provinces. I arrived in the middle of Eid al-Adha, so the bustling city I vaguely remembered from my childhood trip wasn't there; the streets were near empty and the windows were shuttered. That all changed on the last night of Eid though, when the corniche along the Nile essentially transformed into a giant party, with multi-coloured boats blaring Arab pop sailing up and down, and wall-to-wall pedestrians in a celebratory mood. Glad that my road-crossing skills from Tehran had carried over, I took a nice long walk with my friend Glynn (actually Glen, but you know the Kiwi accent) through Islamic Cairo, which contains some spectacular buildings - its the only city I've been to in the Arab world whose mosques rival Iran's in beauty. I imagine Cairo is the kind of city you grow to love if you spend a few months here - after you get into a rhythm of your own hangouts, sheesha bars, koshary places and friends.

On the subject of koshary, I'd just like to say that it is the greatest thing in the history of the world. For 3 pounds - rougly 60 cents - you get a big bowl of what seems like leftovers: a couple random types of pasta, some onions, some lentils, some other random stuff I've yet to identify, all mixed with a delicious spicy sauce. I don't know how good it sounds, but it's actually amazing, and I've been eating it almost constantly since I arrived in Cairo. I know the phrase 'greatest anything ever' gets trotted out pretty casually these days, but mmmmm, koshary.

Actually, there's nowhere Cairo reminds me of so much as Poland. Egypt has a long history of socialism, from its rough alignment with the Soviet Union during the cold war to its over-centralised economy that's currently in tatters, and it shows. The main square, Midan Tahrir, is dominated by the Mogamma, a brutalist masterpiece in which Stalin himself would have been proud to have an office, serving as the hive of the Egyptian bureaucratic establishment with an appearance and a character that would be far from out of place in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Many of Egypt's suburban buildings are built with the same aesthetic themes of 'concrete' and 'rectangles,' but it's more than that - something about the way offices and companies advertise, the way the homogeneous suburbs sort of seep out in the country side, the way nothing seems to work as efficiently as it could easily do, all remind me of Poland in the 1990s. If it weren't for the signs in Arabic, I think I'd occasionally wonder if I wasn't in Łódź.

After Cairo, I took a quick day trip to Alexandria - or 'Alex', as it's universally called - and it has a very different vibe. Some cities can be described in one word, and for Alex, that word is 'colonial.' The corniche is lined with houses and mansions that look exactly like you'd expect a European outpost in Africa in the 1930's to look; my hotel had one of those wonderful old-time elevators that made me feel like I should be wearing a fedora and going up to a meeting with the cultural attache of the British Embassy to discuss our meddling in Egyptian affairs. Alexandria's an interesting place, but it's sort of like a faux-Beirut, all trendy espresso cafes (with, admittedly, great coffee), and no real hostels to speak of. They've also built a new Bibliotheca Alexandrina to serve as an heir to the one which was destroyed in ancient times, but although the architecture contains some interesting flourishes, such as symbols from every known alphabet on the exterior walls, it hardly looks like a worthy successor. So it goes.

After Alex, I took a bus along the coast to Matruh, and from their, 300km south, through the complete nothingness of the desert, to the oasis of Siwa. This is one of the most isolated places left in Egypt, and it truly is beautiful - even though the tourists have discovered it, it still feels like I think an oasis should. The pace is incredibly slow, and even though absolutely everything's in walking distance, there are still taxis everywhere - blue donkey carts with 'Taxi 4x4' written on the side. Climb up one of the mountains, though, and you'll see just how isolated the place is: the palm trees end suddenly, and after that it's just the lone and level sands that claimed the legacy of Ozymandias. There is a story that the Persian emperor Cambyses lost an army sent to destroy Siwa after its famous oracle dared predict his ruin, and though only a wall of its temple remain, the signs of isolation are everywhere. Siwa was only connected by an asphalt road in the 1980s, and the locals still largely speak a Berber dialect called Siwi rather than Arabic, though they speak the latter as well, for economic reasons. If anyone comes to Egypt, I do recommend taking the effort to get out here, though the overnight bus is admittely brutal.

I'm back in Cairo now, staying here for a few days while I get my subsequent visas sorted, for Sudan and Ethiopia. I went back to the Giza plateau, which did not disappoint at all, and we climbed into one of the pyramids as well as visiting some of the smaller structures on the outskirts of the site. I haven't tackled the Egyptian Museum yet, but that will be in the next few days, as well as a trip to Saqqara and Dashhur, after which my trail starts southward closer to the Sahara. Until then, I'll try to update more often. Oh, and Merry Christmas, everyone!

Siwa Oasis, Egypt Eg

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