It’s hard for me to believe that our “Cairo to Cape Town” Africa overland trip is more than half way over. By this time, I thought I’d be pricing out plane tickets home from Nairobi to bail out. No way. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I absolutely LOVE Africa. It’s been one travel high after another; and one of the highlights of my thirty years. It actually makes me sad that the end of our trip is on the horizon. I hate to admit it, but I’m glad I listened to Bryan when I suggested a shorter Africa trip and he insisted we need a minimum of four months here.
As you probably guessed, internet has not been good in Africa. The other day we drove through Arusha, Tanzania and our driver Steve informed us that an internet café had “the best internet connection he’s had in Africa.” A few of us purchased some internet time and were eager to catch up with the world’s happenings. Ha. After 15 frustrating minutes, I still couldn’t even read one email. So I’ve decided not to worry about the internet. I didn’t come all the way to Africa to sit in front of a 1995 computer screen at an internet café and stress myself out while waiting for emails to download. I’m here to see Africa and not worry about blogging, checking email or Facebook. Occasionally, we want to let you all know that we are alive and well, but that’s about as much as I’m going to expect from the African internet connections we have at our disposal.
There’s no way I can cover the amazing things we’ve seen and experienced in Africa over the last two and half months. But I will try to catch you up on some of the highlights starting with Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt – Honestly, this has been everyone in our group’s least favorite country thus far (largely due to Cairo’s chaos and the harassment we received from salespeople). But there were a lot of things we enjoyed about Egypt and it’s definitely a worthwhile stop.
The ancient pyramids, temples (especially Abu Simbel), and tombs are must-sees. How amazing to envision the tens of thousands of dedicated workers moving and carving the enormous stones over 4,000 years ago. I remember learning in school that the pyramids were built by slaves but they were actually constructed by highly trained workers. Work on the pyramids began as soon as a king came to power and continued until he died – so the longer a king lived, the more elaborate and larger his pyramid and underground tombs were. The 4,500 year old still hieroglyphics in many of the tombs are still so bright and detailed that they look as if they were just painted. We didn’t just visit the iconic Giza Pyramids with the Sphinx, but also Saqqara and Dahshur Pyramids that provide examples of different pyramid architectural styles and colors (such as the Step Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid, and the Red Pyramid).
Tensions were especially high in Cairo at the end of November because of the current protests over President Mubarak’s new declaration of his powers. We tried our best to stay away from Tahrir Square while still seeing the city’s sights. One outing a day was about all we could handle without getting too overwhelmed, losing “Travelin’ Bob” (Bryan’s Dad), or getting hit by a car. But we made the most of our 12 days in Cairo. We arrived over a week and half before our overland trip departure to work on securing our Sudanese Visas (which is extremely difficult for Americans). During our first morning in Egypt, we were immediately told “NO Visa” by the Sudanese Embassy solely because of our U.S. passport. We went to Plan B and used some connections (and a big chunk of change) to line up our Visas.
We found ourselves in Cairo for the Thanksgiving holiday. Being away from home for the holidays is usually difficult for me but this year wasn’t bad. We had Bob to celebrate with and we found an Ex-Patriot’s Club that served a Thanksgiving Dinner. The Cairo Ex-Pat’s club is an association of people from various nationalities (currently 82 different countries) that reside in Cairo. They kindly invited us for a delicious and memorable holiday meal and made us feel at home. Sarah from Texas gave me a gorgeous bracelet to remember the occasion. The next day, another ex-Pat named Bev (originally from England) took us on a tour of the Christian Quarter in Cairo. The quarter is home to many Coptic Christian churches including St. Sergius Church. St. Sergius is built over the cellar where Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus rested when they fled to Egypt to escape from King Herod (he wanted to kill all of the infants in the area). Another cool section of Cairo that Bryan discovered was the Islamic district where you can see artisans hand making crafts such as inlaid work, furniture, and instruments.
Despite our great experiences, Cairo was by far the craziest and most chaotic city we’ve seen. The traffic made Virginia’s I-95 rush hour look like a breeze. Cairo streets are just a free-for-all. Everyone honks continuously (supposedly there’s some type of code to the honks). Several cars squeeze into a few lanes of traffic and all vie for the same spot. Drivers just randomly stop in the middle of the road to do whatever they need to do (pick up passengers, cigarettes, whatever), causing even more of a back-up. To make matters worse, when night comes Egyptian drivers don’t turn on their headlights. We asked several locals why they don’t use their headlights and no one seems to have a definitive reason why.
Probably in a large part due to all of this traffic, Cairo is so polluted that it rests under a thick cloud of black smog. The first morning I woke up in Cairo, I thought it was a storm cloud. But it never cleared. The things I read about your snot running black are no exaggeration. Living in Cairo for an extended time cannot be good for your health.
For the females on our trip, the lewdness of some of the Egyptian men was another negative aspect of Egypt. Although I walked with Bryan and was covered from my chin to my toes in pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a scarf, the men jeered at me and made comments about my butt. Bryan received several offers to trade me in for camels (“Oh, lucky man! How many camels?”). I’m sure there are many days when he wished he had accepted the trade. 🙂 While we were at the Sudanese Embassy in Aswan, I ran down the street to make copies of our passports and was harassed and groped by a preteen boy. Disgusting. The harassment isn’t just for the women though. Probably largely because of the decrease in tourism in Egypt, salesmen are extremely desperate and relentless for business. They will go to any length to get your attention. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a ridiculous line like “Welcome to Alaska” or “I’ll pay you to look in my shop” I could continue travelling and not working for years to come. It’s pretty unfortunate that so many people have to make a living like this.
I should point out that that I definitely can’t say that all Egyptian people are pushy like this. Chances are that it’s mostly the people that are in the tourism industry and they go out of their way to find us. Not all the attention we received from locals was negative. It can be kind of endearing when you are surrounded by a mob of school children on a field trip who want to take pictures with you and practice their English. It’s the closest I’ll feel to being famous. 🙂
Further south, the Nubian people seem much more relaxed than those in Cairo. We visited a Nubian Village and had dinner in one of their homes. The home was large and airy with a sand floor, periwinkle blue walls, and live crocodiles in a cage. It’s a Nubian custom to keep small crocodiles in their home for good luck. When the crocodiles get bigger after a couple years, they have a party and eat them. The crocodiles really scared me, especially when we took pictures of them and they jumped up and snapped at us. I’m glad I didn’t opt for the overnight stay in a Nubian home.
We had other positive experiences in Egypt. We had a great time diving in the Red Sea outside of Safaga. The corals and huge schools of tropical fish were beautiful and vibrant, and the waters were clear and warm. Our whole group also enjoyed a relaxing two-day felucca ride down the Nile River out of Aswan. Feluccas are ancient-style sailing ships with broad sails. They are still the most popular mode of transportation along the Nile River. We all slept on the boat for 2 nights and the ship’s crew cooked all of our meals for us.
After over three weeks of ups and downs in Egypt, we were ready to board the ferry across Lake Nasser into Sudan (fingers crossed that the Americans’ Visas actually work out).
Sudan – Our trip to Sudan was quick, but extremely pleasant. The only difficult part was getting in the country, which was finally squared away when we used a recommended connection. We took an 18-hour ferry across Lake Nasser and arrived in Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Immediately, we felt a huge difference in the people after being in Egypt (once we survived the frenzy of disembarking from the ferry with the locals and their mountains of transported goods). In Sudan we could actually walk down the street peacefully, with only a smile and a cordial greeting from the locals. Although it was only a border away, the countries of Egypt and Sudan seem worlds apart. The tiny town of Wadi Halfa was not much more than some shoddily constructed buildings not far from the port. The road is closed to overlanders so the ferry is essentially the only option for travelers. All of the overland vehicles are on a separate ferry than the people. Somehow, even when the trucks’ ferry leaves a day earlier the vehicles arrive well after the people. So travelers are stuck in Wadi Halfa indefinitely, providing income for the tiny town. It all seems a bit to convenient for the locals (yes, bribery and corruption is high throughout Africa). Nonetheless, we were prepared for a lengthy time in Wadi Halfa and only ended up having to stay for a day. We drank tea all day and night from the many local tea ladies who brew their delicious concoctions (such as spicy chai and hibiscus tea) in old adhesive glue cans. If you’re wondering why our group was frequenting the tea shop and not the local bar, it’s because alcohol is forbidden in Sudan. There is a potential punishment of 40 lashes. During these 24-hours I learned to give myself a shower using a bucket and pitcher of cold water because that was all that was available in the prison . . . I mean, hotel where we stayed. My aim in the pit toilets also greatly improved.
After our truck arrived, our group made the unanimous decision to take the desert “road” through Sudan. We often regretted the decision when we were completely covered in dust (along with our belongings) in the back of the truck, or when we had to dig our truck out five times when it got stuck in the sand. All we saw throughout the day was endless sand and a few sparsely scattered mining villages. But at night as we slept under the cloudless sky in the middle of nowhere and lost track counting the shooting stars, we had no regrets for choosing the more difficult road.
I wasn’t sure how we’d be treated in Sudan, especially as Americans. It took us months and a lot of money to get into their country. Did they really want us there? It turns out we were treated extremely well, regardless of our nationality. In fact, Bryan and I both agree that the Sudanese were the most genuinely friendly and welcoming people we’ve met in our travels. They literally opened up their homes to us. Our group met some locals that were members of the Blue Nile Sailing Club where we camped in Khartoum. They invited as many of us as they could fit on their boat and gave us a tour of their capital city via the Nile River, along with some refreshments. It was slightly awkward when one of our new Sudanese friends pointed out to me the factory building along the river that the US had bombed a few years back. Our hosts were disappointed we had to leave the city the next day because they wanted to host a BBQ in our honor for our entire group. One local insisted we come to his beautiful, spacious home to enjoy a much-appreciated hot, clean shower, along with fresh-squeezed fruit juice, tea, and some television time. We were sitting in his home sipping tea and watching CNN when we first learned of the Connecticut school shooting. How ironic to be in a “dangerous” country while watching the news of a horrific shooting of innocent children and adults in a safe, upscale US suburb. Our trip through Sudan was one of the many times I’ve learned not to judge a country until I’ve visited and really experienced it. Bryan and I would have been thrilled to spend more time in Sudan. We’d like to return someday to visit Port Sudan on the Red Sea for some diving and to experience more of the genuine Sudanese warmth.
So now that I’ve caught you up on our first month or so in Africa, stay tuned for Update #2 including our holidays in Ethiopia, the wildlife and tribes of Kenya, and trekking endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Africa just gets more fascinating!