Friday, 30 November 2007

Daily life in Antequera

We've now been here for almost two months, and have spent the last month or so (since my mother left after a three-week visit) getting to grips with living in this town. The way of life here is very much to our liking; the weather, the culture, and the general 'vibe' are relaxed, attractive, kindly and very alluring.

And yes, it's different to home. For a start this town is very 'churched'. Apparently one of the first places to despatch the Moors back over the Straits of Gibralter to Africa, Antequera responded by building churches a plenty to reinforce the point. We have around 24 I think, plus seven convents. This leads into the next famed activity - Antequeran sweets (or dulces). The nuns have made them for centuries as a way of earning money, and now the town is littered with shops selling mollettes, bienmesabe, and all kinds of delicious and ultimately fattening goodies.

A local panaderia with a window full of turron, mantecadas and other things on the top of the food pyramid.

Cuesta Real has a church (and a bar) at each end. San Juan is first off the mark with its church bells, which start chiming at 8am and then half-hourly till midnight. Shortly afterwards, though not in sync, is Santa Maria at the top of the hill. It's particularly noisy on Sundays, and I'm just wondering how Easter (or Semana Santa, literally 'holy week') in this part of the world will be - the event is apparently huge here.

Looking down the hill to San Juan's - one of our bell ringing neighbourhood churches. The silver car is parked outside our place.

There has already been one procession, honouring Nuestra Senora del Rosario, where a statue from one of the churches is paraded around the streets (no mean feat given the hills and cobblestones), accompanied by a band and the congregation. All very picturesque, colourful, and again, quite unlike you'll see in Wellington.

The faithful carrying around this beautiful statue one Sunday morning.

There are many things the Spanish do very well - I like the way the roundabouts are planted with olive trees, and the public gardens and streets have rows of orange trees, currently in full fruit. We get home-delivered bread from a local baker every day or two, potatoes and newspapers come direct and our empty gas bottles (which we rely on for cooking and heating the water) are picked up and replaced with full ones by a man who drives around the streets looking for bright orange bottles left on front door steps. On a more mundane note, collecting the rubbish is an art form. There are two bins across the road from our house, one for recycling and the other for general rubbish. The service is brilliant; they are emptied every evening, at midnight! It means that rubbish is easy to dispose of and never gets manky in the bin outside the back door, but the midnight collection - a noisy affair, which takes place just outside our bedroom window - took a bit to get used to. We have decided that if we just do things two hours later than we would have at home, we will be just about right. So that's breakfast at 10, lunch at 3, and dinner at 9; we're still on the early side for most things, but it's a start.

Orange trees line the main street of town, sadly the fruit seems to be ruined by bird poo, rather than eaten.

There are a few chicas in the street who find it amusing to chat with us. My offer to give free English lessons at the local community centre has yet to be formalised, but in the meantime they gather on the wall across the road most evenings for a few words. I'm sure I'll learn a lot from them if nothing else.

Our daily routines are slowly coming together. Not having a car means most days we go into the town (a few minutes walk from the house) to buy groceries and have coffee. Mercadona has become our favourite supermarket, and Cafe del Centro one of our favourite cafes.

Mercadona, on Antequera's main street, Infante Don Fernando, stocks a good range of beers and other life staples, and also has nifty trolley/baskets on wheels.

Max expertly ordering a couple of cafe con leches, in Cafe del Centro, one of Antequera's oldest cafes which not only boasts 34 varieties of hot chocolate, but also free wifi.

We have Spanish classes three evenings a week - on Mondays Paco teaches us at the immigrants centre, and on Wednesday and Thursdays it's down to the Red Cross where Belen & Jose Antonio take turns with us. We are joined in these classes by people from France, Brazil, Romania, Morocco and Sao Tome and Principe. An international group indeed - and on Friday morning we go to the Evangelical Church where Paco takes us again, together with some other English-speakers who are church attendees. Along with our own studies, and some help from a great internet site called (a tip for those of you contemplating a visit), and of course our deep immersion, we are both making progress. But it is not easy - some days I understand nearly everything, and others almost nothing. Even our teachers don't always agree about how to pronounce things, and there's the speed, the dropping off of endings and colloquialisms to cope with too. Not for the first time, I find myself admiring greatly anyone who can converse easily and effectively in more than one language. These classes are all free, part of the local council's eforts to integrate migrants into the community (on the premise I suspect that we are all here legally!).

We have taken to going to Casa Diego to watch the European football; even though we're in the heart of Andalucia, Sevilla is not the team of choice. Real Madrid has a strong following here, and Barcelona would be the next favoured team. The bar is small, homely and family-run, and also very reasonably priced! We stumbled upon it when we were staying at the Reyes, and Diego is so kind we have made it one of our regulars. It's a great place to drop into for a glass of wine and a bowl of olives after Spanish class, and the tapas are really good there too. Diego is very encouraging of our efforts to speak the language, talking slowly and loudly for us, much to the amusement of his other more authentic locals.

Diego, Senora Diego, and Dani, their son - the place is lovely, but everything is done at a very Spanish pace so it's best not to be in a hurry.

Thursday nights we head to Manolo Bar. It's been around since 1950 and on Thursdays they have live music, or, disconcertingly, stand up comedy, which we haven't dared go to. Things hot up around 11pm, so to fill in some time between Spanish class (for Max) and yoga class (for me) we usually go to Diego's for tapas. Yoga classes are relatively new, another activity organised by the very busy Antequera council. It's amazing how similar they are to classes at home - the same sorts of people, the same sorts of asanas, except that our venue is a dance hall which means there are a large number of mirrors, something I'm not used to. Maria is also a bit of a worry - she comes to class with her text book, which she studies and reads out bits of to us. I've learned lots of body parts going to these classes, and after a couple of weeks am starting to chat to a few people which is nice. Meditating has never been my strong point, and it's even more challenging with Maria murmuring soothing mantras to us, which I of course am furiously trying to translate while 'thinking of nothing', yeah right!

We don't know Manolo's barman/owner's name, but his brother runs the Cafe del Centro, and last time we were there he shouted our coffees, so we like him a lot. Again, his wife works in the kitchen, you can just see her in the background, and another brother works alongside him in the bar.

There are lots of small family-run businesses here in town, the likes of which have long since disappeared in cities at home. We use a small electrical shop to buy batteries, bulbs and various cables, a small computer shop where the owner insists on taking turns to speak to us in English or Spanish so we can all learn, and the town is full of little haberdashery, stationery, textile and furnishing shops, not to mention jewellers, bakeries, cafes and bars. The small business model is alive and well here in Antequera.

Max has joined one of the local cycle clubs, and now spends hours a week out on his road bike, training for the Tour de France etape which he'll be riding next July. We found the club as they put up notices around town about a talk a couple of Friday nights ago - the talk, to be given by a doctor on the topic of "Cycling and sex: myth and reality" attracted a large crowd of middle aged cyclistas (all men), and me - acting as translator for Max. It was really quite odd, I was trying to be a grown up and not giggle, but it was hard, specially as I was having to repeat what I was listening to for Max's benefit. The doctor went on for at least 20 minutes about psychological problems, the importance of physical and mental wellbeing, benefits of having a good relationship, etc, etc, before finally getting to the point, which was "will sitting on a cycle wearing tight lycra shorts for hours a week mean I may have problems with impotency??" Finally someone stood up, hand on crotch, and asked the question on everyone's mind. Not quite sure whether the answer was "si" or "no", it didn't seem that straightforward.
Afterwards, it was explained to us that there are younger members of the club, but they hadn't turned up to the talk as this stuff didn't apply to them...We'll see if he was just pulling my leg as we are off to the end of season prizegiving this Saturday. In a typically relaxed Spanish way, you can only buy tickets on Thursday or Friday for a function on Saturday. How they know how many will turn up and how they will have time to arrange catering I don't know. Max reckons the same people go every year, and we will probably throw them out terribly. I'm looking forward to it as it will be our first formal function, for quite a while really!

Monday, 26 November 2007

The first few weeks in Spain

Somehow or other, we quickly shook off the trials and tribulations of Africa on the Egyptair flight to Madrid. Easy to do among the crowd of Spanish holidaymakers returning home after their fortnight´s break. As arranged, Max´s brother Brian met us at the airport and drove us to their apartment in the township of Majadahonda, less than 20km from downtown Madrid. It was great to catch up with the family and we spent the weekend enjoying the company of our nephews, and sister-in-law Sally. Brian and the boys raced various options in the Majadahonda fiesta miles, Brian getting third place and a sparkling new trophy to add to the family collection. If we hadn´t realised living in Spain was going to mean a different kind of life, we did after these events. Brian´s race was run at a more or less reasonable 7pm on Saturday evening. Reece, who is 8, got to run around 8pm and Aidan who is only 6 had to wait till 8.30pm for his event. Somehow I can´t see harrier races at such times being a hit in NZ. But it was a lovely evening, and nice to enjoy a tapas supper outside afterwards. Sunday lunchtime we rejoined the festivities, and sampled paella and a bottle of local wine in the town square while taking turns to queue with the boys at various jumping castles. A very gentle and pleasant introduction to our new home.

Monday morning we were up early and off on the local train to Madrid´s rail hub Atocha and then to Antequera - our Andalucian town of choice. We arrived incident free and on time round noon, and taxied into town and into the pension we´d booked online. They met us with "estamos completo", but no matter, they´d rebooked us across the road at the Hotel Castilla - all fine with us. The Castilla was a nice place and very friendly. But better than that Antequera, even at first glance, seemed to meet all our requirements. Firstly, it was gorgeous. Lovely buildings, squares,, fountains, statues, churches and even a castle on the hill. Secondly, there were lots of eating and drinking options. Thirdly, we saw a few joggers and cyclists out and about in the nearby olive-clad country lanes. Fourthly, the shopping looked really really good (this could be because I´ve been away from shops for a bit too long...). And finally there were lots of real estate agents. We strolled into Carlos´office to see what he had available. There were a couple of likely options and we arranged to meet him again at 11am the next morning. Meanwhile, we popped into another agency we´d found online - run by a family originally from Woolangong! In spite of that, we checked out the flat upstairs they were trying to let. It was interesting to see, and in a brilliant location, but not really a very good set up and a bit dark and dingy - in a classic European kind of way you understand.

Near the Plaza San Sebastian, with a view of the castle on the hill, and a nearby fountain (there are lots of these here).

Typical Antequeran streets - narrow, steep, with old folks and scooters (we have plenty of both here).

One of the town's 20+ churches.

The Plaza Castille, with town gate and bullring in the background.

A view of the Anjelote, a windvane on the spire of San Sebastian - apparently with a vial containing the bones of Santa Euphemia (one of Antequera's several saints) somewhere on him.

A church that's been converted into a museum (we can spare a couple) - the Roman baths are just beneath El Colegio, and it's recently hosted a baroque exhibition, which is now touring the province.

On Tuesday morning Carlos took us out to the ´burbs of Antequera to a four storey but small-roomed townhouse, unfurnished - which over here translates as no light fittings, no stove, no hot water heating and no kitchen benches. A bit too bare for our liking. He then took us to meet an English couple who had registered their house just after we´d been in to see him yesterday. It was perfect, well better than that really. I mean, I´d hoped to get two bedrooms so we could easily host guests (and secretly I´d hoped to have either Diego Ponce or Bastardos as an address - two of Antequera´s better named streets), but I never thought that I´d end up with two kitchens, one being a full ´summer´ kitchen outdoors, and a ¨Royal¨street. The house is fully furnished too as it´s been a holiday home, and has three bedrooms, two small living rooms and a large one, three bathrooms, a lovely courtyard garden and a garage also. And it´s quite affordable too - only 500€ a month. They are leaving TVs, DVD players, furniture, kitchen equipment, linen and lamps and the outdoor furniture for us. Lucky, lucky, lucky. We had hoped to sign the contract on Wednesday, but they need a couple of days to do the inventory, so we agreed to sign it on Monday, when we are back in town.

Our home for the next few months, Cuesta Real 38, complete with Spanish-style electric wiring across the front, redeemed by the castle reflected in the window.

A couple of shots of the back garden, or patio.

We decided to check out a little bit of Spain, and made our way to Cadiz on Thursday, a lovely old town on the Atlantic coast, and just a couple of bus rides away from Antequera. It´s a lot bigger than Antequera and we enjoyed a couple of days wandering the city streets, swimming in the bay and learning a little of the history of this town which has Roman and Moorish roots and the usual stunning array of charming squares, narrow picturesque streets and churches whenever you turn around.

We found a good bookshop on our first day here (something that so far we haven´t discovered in Antequera), and also picked up a programme for Cadiz´s film festival. I´ve been hearing from those of you in Wellington about this year´s festival there, but here we caught Jonathon Demme´s production of Neil Young´s ´Heart of Gold´. The organisers were only charging 2€ a ticket, and had optimistically laid out a few hundred plastic chairs for the outdoor screening. At least half of them were filled with latter day hippies and film buffs by 9.30 and we really enjoyed the movie for around an hour before the thunder and lightning storm that had been theatrically rolling around turned into a downpour. There was room for us all to shelter under an awning and continue watching till the end, but I felt a bit sorry for the follow up act. Felix Slim (who Max christened Happy Skinny) was a local blues guitarist who could really play but whose singing was a kind of whiney half Spanish half English. Robbed of the atmospheric outdoors by the rain, he struggled a little in the bland indoor venue and after a few minutes we quietly left and wandered back to our pension slipping and sliding on wet cobblestones.

After a few more days in Antequera, this time at the somewhat more budget-oriented Hostal Reyes, and with a signed 10 month lease in our hands, we headed back to the coast thinking to enjoy it while the weather is so good. Malaga was our destination this time, and in spite of its dreadful reputation, we had a good time. Have to admit that we spent quite a bit of time shopping. Our Africa travel clothes are looking a little worn, and our shipped goods won´t be with us till next week so we have splashed out on a couple of new outfits each and, wonder of wonders, some new underwear. We feel a million Euros now!

So it was back to Antequera, and into Cuesta Real. It's going to be lovely living here, and you'll see why when you see the pics of the house. We moved in on 2 October, and on the fourth my mother and sister arrived. Unfortunately our shipped goods weren't released from Customs until about October 15, and weren't delivered to us until the 22nd, after going astray for a few days. In the meantime though, we visited Ronda, Granada and Cordoba with Mum - saw all the sights including our first flamenco show. I took Mum back to London, and spent a few days there before arriving back here at the end of October. Finally it felt like we were settling in, after months of constantly being on the move.

The living room - we get BBC and ITV plus a few news channels on the tele, and have yet to work out how to get the local Spanish channels. We have been given the name of a neighbour, Pepe Huertes, who apparently can help.

The office, relocated hub of O'Kane enterprises, and working well now we have broadband, a printer/scanner and the laptop all humming.

The view from the upstairs terrace - olive groves, ponies and the countryside.

Andalucia feels like 'real' Spain, full of flamenco, football and bullfighting - hence the fridge theme. Incidentally, the fridge is full of jamon Iberico, cheese made with a mixture of cow, sheep and goat milk, and Cruzcampo beer.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Last days in Africa

Our return to Cairo marked our final stint in Africa. We only had a few days left and planned to get to Suez and Alexandria, and finally to the pyramids and Sphinx of Giza.

We headed off to Cairo´s spectacular new bus station Turgoman early in the morning and got tickets on the 9.30 bus to Suez. We thought. Turned out that our tickets were for the bus that left at 8.30, and we had been the victim of someone with English not quite as good as they thought. By the time the confusion had been sorted out and we had reluctantly paid an extra 2 Egyptian pounds each to have our tickets revalidated for a later journey, we´d missed the 9.30 and ended up on the 10am bus. Just as well we´d benefited from the end of daylight saving in Egypt and had gained an extra hour. Suez isn´t that far, and we were in the port area at lunchtime, looking for somewhere to eat with a view of the canal. The Red Sea Hotel fitted the bill, but then we learned that the canal closed between 2 and 4pm so the ships could change direction - the canal is one-way. We spent a couple of hours eating very indifferent and expensive food, and admiring an empty waterway. Still, we can say we´ve seen it, and there were some ships on the horizon.

Back to the bus depot, with the idea of buying tickets for the 5.00pm service to Alexandria. Again, no. All sold out. It was getting close to Ramadan and Egyptians, and indeed people all over the Arab world, were starting to make their way home for the holidays. If you had ever thought it was difficult to buy All Black test tickets, you haven´t been in a bus queue in Egypt at Ramadan trying to buy a ticket to Cairo. There was a service at 5.30 and the tickets went on sale about 4.45. I stood in the women´s queue, unashamedly holding my ground, and watched in amazement as a fight broke out in the men´s queue. The bus guy left the safety of his office and started pulling people off each other and managed to instill some order into proceedings. I and all the other women got tickets, but I could´t be sure about the men - there were a lot of them. We got back to Turgoman about 7.30, and bought tickets for the 8.30pm service to Alexandria, this time being pedantically careful to check departure times and gate numbers. Eventually the Tourist Police got so tired of us that they personally escorted us to the bus when it arrived. It was late when we got into the port town, but we´d all got some sleep on the way, and were keen to head out and check out the Corniche on the shores of the Mediterranean. We booked into the Union Hotel on the waterfront and went walking. It was warm and pleasant, cafes were open and people were drinking coffee and enjoying the night air. We bought ice creams and wandered back to the hotel, pleased to finally be here. Alexandria was the most cosmopolitan city in Egypt at the time of the revolution in 1952, and as a consequence suffered quite badly. But it has retained its European air, and is now famous for the diving, the new library, and the scores of atmospheric cafes frequented by tourists and locals alike.

The next morning we checked out the diving - we were keen to use our new skills but the options that Dive Alexandria presented were expensive and not compelling enough to have us fork out more than $100US each. There was nothing for it but to go for coffee - the cafe next door was a gem. Shady, with lots of greenery, good coffee and service and the most sparkling loos I´d seen in a long while. We dragged ourselves away eventually and strolled along the waterfront, past the rather manky looking local beach and lots of fishing boats to Fort Quaisbey. The Fort had a great spot on the edge of the promontory, but these days houses a sort of diaorama aquarium - fine if plaster renditions of underwater scenes are your thing. After our walk, it was obviously time to eat again, and we were looking forward to a good seafood lunch. The Fish Market overlooked the waterfront and we selected crabs and sea bass from the ice display which we ate with many bowls of salads and dips, and even a chilled bottle of rose. It was a long walk back to Delices, our cafe of choice, for afternoon coffee and cake, and we decided that a horse and carriage ride to the eagerly anticipated Biblioteca Alexandrina was in order. I had been looking forward to seeing the Library and it didn´t disappoint. The building is fantastic and the work they are doing to scan and make freely available their ancient manuscripts, as well as the digital archive of the internet and a cutting edge print on demand system for the library´s publications were equally impressive. We decided we´d had enough of buses for a while and got tickets for the train back to Cairo, arriving in time for us to head to the Windsor for a well earned cold beer and a late supper.

It had been a bit of a whirlwind couple of days, and it was almost hard to believe that our six months was nearly over, but there was still something important to see - the pyramids and the Sphinx. We had, for some reason, avoided making the trip to Giza until now, but it could be put off no longer. After some minor fuss connected with retrieving our plane tickets for Madrid from one of the city´s DHL depots, we headed out to the site in a taxi. It was mid-morning, hot and dusty and the great pyramid poked out from behind a sand hill as we trudged up the hill, past the entrance gate, the dozen or so tour buses and the many horse and camel drivers, to get close to it. It was big - huge granite and limestone cubes (though there is some discussion that some of the upper blocks are actually ¨concrete¨) piled into that well known shape. The three remaining pyramids at Giza are fabulous and photogenic, but my favourite was the Sphinx. Mysterious, curious and other-worldly, it sat guard secure on its giant haunches and with its large paws extending out towards...Pizza Hut! Not quite the same as the reconstruction in my guidebook which had it overlooking the Nile, but that´s contemporary Cairo for you! After some debate, we hired horses and went for a short ride into the dunes so we could look back at the pyramids, and incidentally the city of Cairo. It was fun to do, and luckily my horse was terribly tame and mostly plodded along a well worn track and, on balance, I believe it was a better choice than a camel or a donkey.

Our last night in Cairo, our last night in Africa, was a bit odd because of Ramadan. The streets were quiet, only cafes with locals watching football seemed to be open, but we did find a Chinese restaurant only it wasn´t serving alcohol because of the season. No matter, we happily ate our spring rolls and chicken and cashew nuts and headed back to the venerable Windsor Hotel for a farewell gin and tonic. The ancient bartender greeted us warmly and we toasted the end of the adventure...for now.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

A bonus jaunt to Jordan

Waking up in Jordan's only seaside town (they don't seem to count the Dead Sea as the beach) we couldn't help feeling a long, long way from Africa. The roads were paved, the electricity sound, the English good, and the shops full of goods. It wasn't Western by any means, but it also was definitely not African.

But it was still warm. We drank coffee and fresh juice for breakfast, and then went wandering. Over breakfast we had the bright idea of avoiding the ferry trip back to Egypt, and instead checking out the cost of flights from Amman to Cairo. It took a couple of hours to visit the Royal Jordanian office, and to get a good internet fare, but we did it, securing ourselves a couple of extra days in this very attractive country.

So, a change of plan - our first stop here was now to be Wadi Rum, the desert oasis famous for its associations with Lawrence of Arabia. After a good fish lunch (we thought we should take advantage of our coastal location), we checked the minibus station. Sure enough, there was a bus departing "when you get back, no hurry". We translated this as meaning the bus would depart sometime in the next two or three hours, but no, once we'd got back with our packs they closed the doors and we were off. Remarkable. And the price was only 2JD each (about $4NZ). It was about to get better though. The bus conductor came down for a chat and told us about his brother's tour company - he said they could do an afternoon 4WD tour of the desert, an overnight camp under the stars with dinner and breakfast for 25JD each, and they'd get us back to the bus station to catch the 8.30 bus to Petra the next morning. Sounded good to us and was to prove a bargain too. We spent a while at the conductor's house, meeting his son, wife and father and enjoying mint tea while they got themselves organised for us. Bedouin hospitality is rightly famed - we were to drink many more cups of mint tea during our time in Jordan.

The afternoon 4WD tour was fun, passing Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the spring named for him. As you can imagine, in the desert springs are pretty important, and this one emerged from halfway up a fantastic rock formation, but these days is rather unromantically piped and feeds a channel that stock drink from. We were shown some ancient engravings in a gorge and then did a bit of rock climbing to a "bridge", all good fun. The real star of the show though was the landscape. The desert here is anything but blank endless sand; there are small bushes, it's sandy alright but broken up with the most amazing rocks. In fact the area is known as a rock climbers´"Mecca".

Dinner under the stars was accompanied by the Bedouin boys singing in harmony, all very atmospheric. Not for the first time on this trip did I feel a little culturally empty. One local was left to spend the night with us, while the others left in their 4WD for the comforts of town. Aoudi was nursing a broken heart and confided in us the details of the recent break up with his Swiss girlfriend. I felt a bit sorry for him; as far as he was concerned he´d done all the right things - built a house in the village and bought a flat in Aqaba, said lots of sweet nothings, and made visits to Switzerland. ¨Women,¨ he sighed and broke into yet another tuneful lament.

The next morning we were delivered to the resthouse at Wadi Rum village for the 8.30 connection to Petra, and were there by lunchtime. Petra, or more correctly the village of Wadi Musa, was a bit bigger than I´d thought, and prettily tumbled down the hillsides. The nearby ancient Nabatean city of Petra, one of the seven wonders of the modern world as determined in a decidedly unscientific and somewhat controversial poll, is really magnificent. There are lots of Bedouin stalls and shops at the foot of the Treasury, and we got chatting to a local who turned out to be the nephew of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealand woman who married into the Bedouin about 30 years ago, and has lived in Petra ever since. When they found out where I was from they insisted on ringing her so we could speak. Another insight into the way Bedouin tribes operate - it was unthinkable to them that Marguerite and I wouldn´t necessarily need or want to chat. I spoke with her, and she said she was never sure who was most embarrassed at such times, her or the tourists forced to speak with her by her enthusiastic relatives. She´s written a book about her life, which I dutifully bought. We spent a long day on our feet (no donkey, horse or carriage riding for us), climbed up to the Monastery in the hot midday sun which gave us the opportunity to admire it for at least two hours from the shade of a cafe. We enjoyed the rock hewn buildings, tombs and caves and also the natural scenery - fantastic gorges, valleys and mountainsides. After eating a late lunch/early dinner near the site, we caught a cab back up the hill to Valentina´s and Mohammed our taxi driver sold us on the idea of him taking us to Amman the next day, stopping at the Dead Sea for a swim en route. It appealed - inexpensive and easy.

Before 7.30 the next morning we were safely stowed in Mohammed´s taxi, and being driven along the King´s Road - the old spice caravan route that ran along the ridges of the mountains where it was cooler, from present day Saudi and Yemen, to Egypt. It was pretty here, with great views out across the desert. Our first stop was to Shobak, a Crusader castle still being excavated and restored and therefore without an entrance fee. Next, while getting a potted history of the life of Mohammed (the prophet, not the taxi driver) we were taken to a spot where we could admire the Dana Nature Reserve. As we reached the southern end of the Dead Sea, the rock pillar that was Lot´s wife was pointed out, as was the experimental oil drilling operation that an Australian company had started. Across the narrow band of water Mohammed pointed out the West Bank, and the minarets and mosques of Jerusalem. The oldest continuously inhabited town in the world, Jericho, was also visible. There had been lots of police checkpoints on today´s journey, more than normal apparently, and we were later to discover that Tony Blair had been visiting Amman. It´s one thing to see places on a map, but quite another to be driving in what appeared to be a progressive and moderate nation, and to realise just how close to international trouble spots we were.

The Dead Sea was good fun - we bobbed about as you do, and coated ourselves in the dark, mineral-laden mud. There was a nice restaurant where we had lunch, and we were delivered to the outskirts of Amman in the middle of the afternoon in good spirits. Mohammed put us into a local taxi, and headed back to Wadi Musa, and we made our way to the recommended Palace Hotel, a very well run operation with nice rooms and nice staff. Later that night we ended up in a smart restaurant in a smart part of town a taxi ride away from the Union and the old downtown. Amman was shaping up as a modern, sophisticated and easy city. We spent the next day touring the Roman ruins, doing some shopping and then went to Wild Jordan, a modern shop cum cafe where we had the best lunch we´d eaten in ages while enjoying the view overlooking the old town. More self indulgence was to follow as Sara and I visited Al Pasha, a Turkish bath, for a steam, scrub, soak and massage, before heading out to the airport for our flight back to Cairo. Even the airport was a dream, we checked in electronically, enjoyed coffee before the flight and a trouble free return journey.

Jordan had surprised us with the ease with which we could travel and get things done. The people were friendly, helpful and generally spoke enough English to make it unnecessary for us to use our dozen or so words of Arabic. King Abdullah´s smiling face accompanied us throughout Jordan. His picture is everywhere - variously dressed in a business suit, in traditional Bedouin gear (sometimes with camel), in the national football uniform, as a soldier, or as a policeman and is, so we were told, "a very good king". He is also taking a leading role in smoothing the way for the Blair-run talks which are scheduled to take place between the Palestinians and the Israelis in a couple of months. People here are pro-Palestinian (a poster of the world´s flags in the hotel in Wadi Rum had the Israeli flag scratched out, and the Palestinian flag drawn in), but there does seem acceptance that the current situation is intolerable. Even after such a short visit, I feel like I have more insight into the history and the future of this part of the Middle East.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Sinai - sun, sea and sand

After a couple of days in busy bustling Cairo, the beach on the Sinai Peninsular beckoned. We took a taxi ride to Cairo's spanking new bus station - so new it's still being built, but it already has an airline-like departure board and computerised ticketing, most unlike Africa. The bus even left on time, and before long we were on our way - under the Suez tunnel and through the sparse Sinai desert to the Red Sea coast. For the place where God was meant to have spoken to Moses, it looked pretty godforsaken to us. There were small desert outposts, quite a few military barracks and police posts, and not really too much else. Even when we got to the coast, there were only a few settlements.

The bus took us as far as Sharm el Sheikh, a fairly upmarket resort town. We had about three hours to wait till our "connection" to Dahab arrived, so took a taxi to town and had an early dinner at an Italian cafe on the waterfront. All very pleasant and easy till it came time to get a cab back to the bus depot. Sharm is not such a big place, and who would have thought it would boast two East Delta Bus Depots. But it does. And of course we were dropped at the other one. Eventually we were ferried back to our original depot to wait, enjoying the sight of the full moon glistening on the tarmac...truly romantic according to Max!

We finally arrived in Dahab around 10pm. The taxis here are pick up trucks and Max manfully rode in the back with the bags. We'd been told about the Jasmine Hotel, and decided to check it out. Very charming spot, with friendly staff and good prices, and a waterfront restaurant complete with rugs and cushions on the floor and low tables. We dumped our bags, and settled down to toast ourselves with a cold Stella, watching the moon over the Straits of Aqaba and the lights of a Saudi Arabian town, a mere 30km or so away.

Diving is what Dahab is all about, and we couldn't resist. Max and I enrolled in an open water diving course and spent the next four days learning about buoyancy, equalising, surface intervals and doing complicated calculations using dive tables. Relaxing or what! However, on day four we passed our written exam, and successfully completed the final underwater exercises and are now fully certified open water divers. Because we'd been so distracted during our days at Dahab, we could easily have spent some more time here. It's really a lovely spot, very relaxing and pretty, and the weather is just perfect - maybe a tad hot during the middle of the day, but wonderful in the mornings and the evenings.

However, it was time to go and climb Mt Sinai. This entailed an 11pm departure from Dahab to St Catherine's monastery. Again, a lot of police checkpoints on this most popular of tourist routes. We started the climb at about 2am, and used the camel track - which would have been fine if it hadn't been for the camels! It took a couple of hours up a sandy switchback trail, and then around 750 steps, and surprisingly we actually did get a little cold towards the top. It had been so long since I'd been cold that I found myself enjoying the sensation. We hired blankets from a man near the top, and settled down for a snooze before sunrise at 6.20. I was a tiny bit cynical about this, having gotten up early once too often for disappointing sunrises, but this was pretty spectacular. The mountains were lovely and we had a great view of the sun peeking over the dusty tops. The walk down was quite a mission though, over 3000 steps to the monastery, apparently all built as a penance by St Stephen. St Catherine's is around 1600 years old, so has been here in the desert for a long, long time, usually surrounded by Muslims. These days the monastery complex is home to a couple of dozen Greek Orthodox monks, and also contains a mosque. All very unusual, but it seems the monastery has a special protected status from the surrounding Bedouin people.

The day however had just begun for us. We were transferred from our minibus to another one and dropped off at the port town of Nuweiba so we could catch the ferry to the Jordanian town of Aqaba. Buying a ticket was quite a mission, and proved to be one of the few times it was useful to be a woman in this part of the world. Women have their own (relatively short) queue, and I managed to get our tickets in about 20 minutes - some of the men had apparently been queuing for several hours. It was an expensive purchase though, around $80US each for a trip supposedly lasting around 90 minutes. We also had quite a bit of trouble finding out just when the ferry was due to leave. There were several times quoted to us ranging from 2pm to 6pm. We figured there was still time for lunch, and nipped over the road to the promisingly-named "Cofe Shop and Restaurant". Coffee proved a problem (solved by ordering Cokes) and food was also tricky, with only omlettes and felafel available. We were in no position to quibble, being tired and hungry and ate and drank thankfully, before heading back to the port just in case 2pm was correct. Eventually we left around 7.15pm, which gave us the opportunity for a couple of hours' sleep on the wooden benches in the departure lounge. The ferry itself was pretty swish though, and seemed to be run in a seamanlike manner, which is always comforting. A nice man came and exchanged our passports for small pieces of paper, which we hung onto until we disembarked in Aqaba and went through immigration. We needed a visa, but at least it was free, which made a nice change.

It had been a long day, and we were pleased to finally get out of the port building and into a taxi for the few kilometre ride into Aqaba town. Our driver was a gem, taking us to the hotel we'd asked to see, and then to another one which he, correctly, said was better. The Petra was tidy, with air conditioning, a bathroom (would have been nice if the light worked!), and a balcony. Welcome to Jordan!

Monday, 3 September 2007

Egypt - a lot of culture

Egypt loves tourists, and tourists apparently love Egypt. Even in the middle of summer. The moment we got to Aswan we were definitely in a touristy environment, the like of which we hadn't seen since the national parks of Kenya and Tanzania, some weeks ago now.

Aswan's Cleopatra Hotel wasted no time in selling us a trip back to Abu Simbel, last seen from the decks of the Sudan-Egypt ferry. It had looked great from the lake, and we were sure it would be even better from land. And it was. The only thing is that the Egyptians are very protective of their tourists (with good reason, there was a massacre at Luxor round 10 years ago, and there have been bombs on the Sinai Peninsular also, more recently), and by road in the south we must all travel in convoy. For some strange reason, this meant to visit Abu Simbel from Aswan we had to leave at 3.30am. But it was worth it. The temples are fantastic, both inside and out. Because these were our first Egyptian temples I hadn't known what to expect; the beautiful heiroglyphs, the statues, the columns, the rooms and corridors were all a marvellous surprise.

Next up was the famed city of Luxor. We did this as an organised minibus trip also, but left at the more satisfactory hour of 7.30. The first stop was the temple of Kom Ombo, built on a curve of the Nile, a very pretty spot indeed only slightly marred by the dozen or so tourist cruisers that were moored there. Our little minibus was filled by people who'd travelled from Aswan to Kom Ombo on a felucca. Unfortunately they were too late to visit the temple - the convoy has set times and is not at all flexible on this point. I felt a bit sorry for them, to come all this way and be unable to see something because their felucca captain had slept in seemed quite harsh.

The convoy rolled on to Edfu. This temple was really remarkable - it was huge, so many rooms and rooms off rooms, corridors, stairways and really beautiful carved granite falcons guarding the entrances.

So, to Luxor. We stayed at the Sunset Hotel - again a 3 star hotel (we were getting soft). After a quick lunch break, the tour continued. First the Karnak Temple - again incredibly impressive; lots of columns (134 I think), and a temple within a temple. Nice to have a guide at this one, who also took us around Luxor Temple. I liked this one a lot. It was a bit smaller so easier to get my head around. It was only unearthed after having a mosque built above it, which is still there, and it had also been a refuge for Christians fleeing Roman persecution, so included some faded frescoes on one wall. Alexander the Great had also built himself a temple here, demolishing some even older columns to do so. Because this temple is in the middle of the city, we got to see it in the evening, all lit up. Very picturesque, specially as it's virtually on the banks of the Nile.

That was certainly enough ruins for one day, we were in serious danger of overloading, and had to keep ourselves fresh for the next day.

Our guide came to dinner with us, and somewhat sadly took us to a sort of McPizza place. The food was OK, but hardly what we have come to Egypt for. However, in his favour, we were upstairs and had a grandstand view of a wedding. The bride emerged from the hairdressers across the road, dressed in a classic western white wedding dress, and was greeted by her groom, and a paid band of trumpeters and drummers who blocked the street for 15 minutes while they loudly played their instruments and the whole event was videoed for posterity. There were a few guests, but apprently most of them were at the reception waiting for the bride and family to arrive. It was a raucous business, and both bride and groom were looking a bit shell shocked.

The Valley of the Kings was our first stop the next morning. It was in an incredibly harsh desert, and housed tombs of many of Egypt's later pharoahs. The tombs were all built on the west bank, where the sun sets; with the east bank, where the sun rises, used for temples. We learned that the Egyptians changed from building pyramids as tombs (which were too easy for tomb robbers to find), to burying their illustrious dead in holes (where unfortunately the jackals would dig them up - which apparently led to the cult of Anubis, the jackal-headed god), to finally using underground tombs deep in the desert. Didn't really work as the tomb robbers still found most of them, with the exception of King Tutankhamen's which was discovered by Howard Carter (and I suspect some local assistance) in 1922. Howard's house was still on the hill overlooking the valley, most of the booty was in the Egyptian museum in Cairo (which has got to be better than being in some European museum) and the tomb itself cost an additional fee to see. Ah well. Our ticket gave us entry to three of the four tombs able to be visited. It seemed that a pharoah's tomb was begun as soon as he became king - meaning King Tut's was very small as he died very young, and Ramses II's was very large as he reigned for 67 years (but his tomb was closed for restoration). We did get to see the tomb of Ramses III, very impressive, and because it was enclosed (unlike the temples we'd already seen) the paint on the walls and heiroglyphs was still visible and vibrant. It must have been an incredible sight to see them new. It was really hot here, but luckily we didn't have to walk far. The site thoughtfully provided a dinky wee train for us to use to go from the car park to the tomb entrances. Kind of funny, but also handy.

There had to be a shopping stop on a tour like this, and it was at the alabaster factory. In amongst all the tat, there were some nice pieces, and I ended up buying a hand-finished vase - but forgot to ask whether it was waterproof or not.

We stopped briefly at the funeray temple of Queen Hapshupet, but didn't go in. Her stepson, who she had usurped as leader, took umbrage after her death and destroyed the insides of many of her edifices. The Valley of the Queens was the last official visit. Pretty small compared to the kings, but still very impressive. I think by this stage we were a bit templed out, and happy to get back to town and some air conditioning.

Our next destination was Africa's largest city and capital of the Arab world, Cairo. Our arrival here would signal the successful end to our Cape to Cairo overland trip so some sadness mixed in with the satisfaction of having made such a journey.

But first we had to get there. We read there was a bus at 8.30am. The bus station in Luxor is quite a way out of town, so we took a taxi. It was the most suspiciously quiet bus station I'd seen in Africa. Only a few locals lying around, and two Japanese tourists waiting to go to Hurghada - a town on the coast. We checked at the ticket window. Yes there was a bus to Cairo at 8.30, and tickets could be purchased once it arrived. We settled down to wait. Sure enough, a bus arrived, the Japanese guys leapt up, and the ticket office confirmed it was the Hurghada bus, and the Cairo one left at 7 in the evening. Back in a taxi and to the railway station. There is a weird rule in Egypt that tourists can't buy train tickets unless they are sleeping class or first class. The next Cairo train was at 9.15, and there were no first class tickets left. We decided to get on a second class carriage and buy tickets directly from the conductor. The train was on time, and very comfortable. Nice seats, air conditioning, and we bought tickets without any problems. The 10 hour trip passed very pleasantly. Our fellow travellers shared their food, and chatted as much as they could. Cairo station seemed quite orderly and we managed to get a taxi for probably only twice as much as we should have paid.

The Richmond Hotel is a real classic. In a beautiful old building, and on the fifth floor, we were told it had been a hotel for 130 years. The lift certainly felt like it was that old - a six sided wooden walled and gated affair, it slowly and reliably creaked its way up and down all day. Our room was quite lovely too - very large with a high ceiling and a balcony. No air conditioning and a shared bathroom - probably no stars at all this time! But we did get bread, jam and coffee for breakfast and the management was very friendly and helpful.

I was prepared for a crazy town, but Cairo seemed much more developed, organised and orderly than I was expecting it to be, and the lovely architecture was also a pleasant surprise. There's quite a bit of French influence apparent in Egypt, I guess from when the French & the Brits ran things together here, and Cairo is full of really quite beautiful French-influenced buildings that you can still appreciate from the street - one of which is our hotel. There's also a colonial British presence, which we ferreted out one evening at the Windsor Hotel - former home of the British Service Club in Cairo and still a quaint old bar serving good food and cold delicious beer.

The final cultural outing for now was a visit to the Egyptian Museum. I had heard great things about this place from friends and from Paul Theroux. It was a bit more shambolic and less well catalogued than I'd expected, but still a wonderful place to wander around for a few hours. Highlights for me were, of course, the fabulous treasures from King Tut's tomb, and the many mummies and sarcophogi. But it was very, very hot. Next time, I'll visit late in the day when there are fewer people and it's cooler. The Nile Hilton over the road beckoned afterwards.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Sudanese exit strategy

We had always planned to take the train which connects with the Wadi Halfa ferry as our way from Khartoum to Egypt. We had managed to buy ferry tickets earlier in the week, but were told to come back Saturday at 8am to buy the train tickets. So we did. Yassir Yaseen, the station master, was in his office busy with...well not sure what. We ascertained that Khartoum has around one train a day, mostly freight trains, but he assured us that his job was very important. He also advised that we couldn't buy the train ticket till after 1pm, as they hadn't yet sorted out the wagon numbers. But then he bought us coffee and read our Sudanese guidebook with interest, pointing out other train lines and destinations to us, so what could we do? He had shown us to the ticket office though, and assured us that our names were on a reservations list. Nothing for it but to take a minibus back over the Nile to town, and return in a few hours...

So we did, and sure enough got tickets on our third visit without any problem at all. We even managed to elicit a departure time from the ticket seller - something we'd had trouble with with Yaseen, as he routinely got his am's and pm's mixed up. We need to be at the station at 7am on Monday morning. The train trip is 36 hours, and it connects with the ferry, which is fortunate as apparently the train's frequently late. We have a sleeping compartment, and are anticipating a pleasant journey.

While it's nice to have the logistics organised, it's also a little sad. Our extended trip is definitely coming to an end, and we have lost the feeling of open-endedness and freedom that we once had. I'm also a little bit sad to be leaving Sudan without having seen more of it - though we have had the chance to get to know our Khartoum neighbourhood well. There are so many things I like about Sudanese society - like the communal water idea. I've mentioned how hot it is. Everyone needs to drink. The locals drink the local water. Everywhere are large earthenware containers, usually kept in the shade, filled with water with a tin mug on the side. The water slowly evaporates, keeping the contents cool, and also hydrating the atmosphere. It's a lovely classic answer to the perennial problem of thirst. There's also the more modern option of blokes on the side of the street with large plastic containers of water and a couple of mugs. But I guess that's "progress". Kids also walk around carrying water and clanking mugs together to attract attention, but I have noticed lots of people, specially drivers, have their own mugs in their vehicles, and nip out for a cup of water whenever they see a communal source.

Water sellers down the street from the Al Nakheel (our hotel)...

and the more authentic, and equally common, source.

Souq-el-Arabe is brimful of markets, mostly shoes and perfume it seems, but lots of other stuff too. Max easily managed to replace his dodgy Ethiopian sunglasses with what I suspect is a dodgy Sudanese pair. I have been tempted to buy some furry slippers for somebody, I'm just not sure who. The street sellers make the neighbourhood alive, and it's interesting to see them arrange their fez-like hats, cellphones, books, etc, with real care and attention - and then a little sad to see them sit in the hot sun all day waiting for customers to show interest.

Beads and hats for sale, and cellphones being sold from the back of a truck

The men of Sudan are much more visible than the women, though we do see plenty of them around the streets of the city, and I've noticed a lot in the grounds of the University. Still, it's the men who have grabbed my attention by praying publicly in the streets - sometimes alone and sometimes in large groups. Every now and then we'll come across someone, on a small carpet or mat, quietly murmuring to themselves and facing Mecca. One day we came back to the hotel, and the entire street frontage was filled with a few dozen praying and chanting men, but we haven't seen it again. And, to my amazement, the men here squat to pee. It might be because they haven't traditionally worn trousers, but even those that do wear them still squat. Fascinating!

Being a capital city, there are lots of banks and foreign exchange facilities, but we have been very loyal to our local grocer, who unfailingly has cash at hand for our transactions, is speedy and gives us the standard rate of two Sudanese pounds for a US dollar. And he's open on Fridays.

There aren't too many English bookshops in town, but we eventually found the New Bookshop, run by a Greek-Sudanese family. The owners' parents had emigrated from Greece in the 1930s. We were looking for a North Africa Michelin map to replace one we'd lost, and asked him if he had them. Yes, he did, but they were kept behind the counter. Apparently the Sudanese government doesn't like the Egypt-Sudan boundary on this map, and he's been raided before by the police for selling publications the government doesn't approve of, and is now a bit more circumspect. Interesting to hear - also interesting to wonder about the Greek-Sudan connection - the Greek Embassy is huge, and the oldest hotel in town is called the Acropole.

** ** *** ** **

But all this is now behind us. As advised, we were dutifully at Khartoum North railway station at 7am. The train arrived around 8 and left at 8.45, so no surprises there. Embarkation was surprisingly straightforward. Our compartment was easily found, and while simple, was perfectly OK. We made ourselves comfortable for the 36 hour journey, much more comfortable than the poor sods on the roof anyway!

Khartoum North railway station, 8.30 on Monday mornings, before the weekly departure of the train to Wadi Halfa, connecting with the weekly ferry to Aswan, Egypt.

It's a nice train, really it is.

Until Atbara, the train line pretty much followed the Nile - still partially flooded after all the rain.

We stopped at Shendi station where we bought felafel sandwiches and a large bag of dates for the trip. While the train was pretty slow, it was steady, and we got to Atbara (about 300km away) about 7.30pm. We had expected to meet up with Sara here. We first met Sara at the Sudanese Embassy in Addis, getting her visa, and then again in Khartoum. She had been out to Port Sudan, and expected to connect with the train at Atbara, for the leg to Wadi Halfa. Her 14 day visa, like ours, only had a few days left. We found Sara in the dining car, and brought her back to our compartment, where she spent the night on the floor. Better than it sounds, we have our camping mats with us still, and sleeping bags too, so I'm sure she was really quite comfy - better than a wooden bench, or the floor, in third class anyway.

The next day the train went mostly through desert. Really bleak, harsh and very, very hot. The hot sandy wind blew all day and our floor and benches were covered in fine dust, as were we. Our expensive compartment didn't run to air conditioning - though we did meet a fellow passenger who told us wistfully he'd last travelled on this train in 1966 when it did have A/C, and he was able to drink a cold beer too. It was a bit of a torment to hear this. Sharia law was introduced into Sudan in 1983, and that's when alcohol was banned, and Islamic dress and behaviour codes were introduced. We'd seen a picture book that had been published in 1978. Khartoum had very few cars, nice tidy roads, and women in Western dress, walking about without their heads covered. Not every woman in the city wears a headscarf, but probably about 95% do. We had heard about some horror journeys on this train, but I have to say our experience was better than expected. We arrived before time in the re-housed town of Wadi Halfa (an early victim of the flooding required to build the Aswan dam), found our way via an overloaded tuk-tuk to the El Nile Hotel, and then to a bed - not a room, just a bed. But a bed outdoors in this climate is just fine.

The hotel had more Westerners staying than we'd seen in a while. All a bit of a shock to the three of us after our weeks in north Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. An overland truck and four 4WDs were heading north, and a few travellers had got off the ferry from Egypt and were heading south. Nice to hang out with some new people and hear some new stories.

The final phase was almost upon us. The ferry trip to Aswan. We had our ticket, but still had to negotiate the maze of Sudanese bureaucracy one more time to arrange exit visas and pay departure tax. And then an agent appeared at the hotel, organised by the overland truck guys who had the additional task of paperwork for their vehicle. He offered to take our passports and ferry tickets and $20US each and do it for us. We thought about this for at least a moment, before accepting. OK, so we don't know the intricacies of exiting Sudan personally, but after Khartoum we were all a bit gun shy. Far better to have a leisurely breakfast and then relax, than run about in the hot sun not knowing where and what to do, nor what anything should cost

All was sorted early in the afternoon, and a bus even provided to get us all to the port, two or three km away. The ship was in and so were we, really quite quickly. Again our little cabin was perfectly fine, though without frills and the first class bathrooms were a bit marginal - I could only wonder what life was like on the second and third class decks. There was room for Sara to bunk in with us again, but we spent most of the voyage in the dining room or on deck. Dinner was included in our ticket and about 8.30 we motored past the wonderful temples at Abu Simbel, removed at great cost by UNESCO from the Aswan floodwaters and lit up specially for us (or perhaps the nightly sound and light show??). Anyway, they looked great from the water.

Embarkation may have been straightforward, but disembarkation was anything but. The Egyptian immigration guys took over the dining room, and got men and women to queue separately (Europeans were treated as a third group, we had to wait). We retreated to our cabin, propped open the door and provided a chair for old ladies to sit on, and water for those feeling faint. It was a long hot wait in the narrow corridors for everyone else, and we felt pretty sorry for them. Soon though we were to feel pretty sorry for ourselves - told to get our passports stamped, and take our luggage downstairs where we would be let through. But no, not till Mohammed arrived. So we sat downstairs near the exit door, which was guarded by the immigration police, and waited in the stuffy heat for half an hour. The process for the locals seemed to be the official with the loudest voice would should out a name, and a passenger would push himself through the crowd, luggage and all, and get stamped out. Not sure how many people were on board, but several hundred, and I couldn't bear to think that each passenger would be called by name and individually released to Aswan port. Thankfully Mohammed turned up before too long and saved us from having to watch it any longer.

Entering Aswan, as seen from our ferry cabin porthole.
Sara, Max and I were hanging out for a beer and a swim. The Cleopatra Hotel had been recommended by Bruno who we'd all met in Khartoum. We eventually got a cab there, and booked in. A tad less than twenty US dollars each got us a three star room (which felt at least like a five star one after the last few days), and use of a swimming pool. We raced up there, it was baking hot, and jumped in. As we arrived, the guy working in the bar left. And never came back. Ah well, that beer could wait an hour or so. We checked downstairs, no beer. We had a bite to eat at a small local place round the corner, no beer. We walked along the Nile and put our heads into the fancy looking Isis Hotel. Beer. We ordered three local Stellas, and downed some fresh mango juice while we waited. It should have been a beautiful moment, the sun dropping down over the Nile, a balmy evening, good company, cold beer - but no the beer was pretty much room temperature. And I didn't even like it. Perhaps I've lost the taste for it after all this time! A bit of a low key welcome to Egypt...

The whirling Dervishes

I had read about the whirling Dervishes, but wasn't really sure what we would be in for when we went to view the weekly ritual at the old city of Omdurman. The event takes place around the cemetery and tomb of Ahmed-al-Nil, and is watched by locals, by fellow, non-performing Sufis, and by tourists (not that there are that many of us). Sufism is a branch of Islam that uses chanting, ritual, rhythm, and "whirling" to bring its adherents closer to God. There are numerous Sufi sects, differentiated at Omdurman's Friday afternoon sessions by their costumes. I'm no expert, but the overall effect of this event seemed to be general good humour, a bit of vigorous exercise and a strong sense of camaraderie.

We, rather painfully, got the hotel to write in Arabic the name of the tomb for us so we could show the bus drivers and find the right bus. They seemed to have no idea what we were talking about, in spite of our very best Arabic, but eventually, after a bit of twirling in the hotel foyer, they seemed to twig. Anyway, we did manage to get a bus - always a good thing in this town as they're about 10 percent of the price of a taxi. We left around 4.30, expecting things to start happening around 6, but were so efficient that we were at the cemetery before 5. Still, a few people were about, and there were tea ladies everywhere so we sat down, accompanied by a local with the rather unlikely name of Maurice, who told us a little bit about the ceremony, what we would see and where we should go. I was soon snaffled by a couple of young girls, who took me to the back of the tomb where the women were preparing food, so I could meet their grandmother. She wasn't that pleased to see me really, so I left and headed back to the main outdoor area in front of the tomb where the warm up was happening. Three older guys in white robes were banging rhythmically on drums, and moving round in a circle. Other men would jump into the circle and pretend to threaten them with sticks and they would mock fight. It all looked rather pantomine-like, but the crowd was really into it, clapping and laughing. There was a lot of laughter actually, which I hadn't expected. I had thought this would be a serious, if slightly cosmic, religious ceremony.

Some of the crowd, and the warm-up act for the Dervishes.

There were quite a few local people watching who took the opportunity to speak to the inevitable tourists. Max chatted with a guy who'd written a Master's thesis on Sufism, and I spoke to a couple of younger guys who were basically tour touts, but knew their stuff. The crowd was probably round a thousand when the main event started, as we'd been told, an hour before sunset. It went for round 90 minutes, with waves of frenzied chanting, clapping and drumming. Some of the Sufis who were allowed inside the large circle merely walked around, nodding and swaying, but some really did twirl and whirl, seemingly oblivious to all else around them. There were a couple of "administrators" who kept the crowd motivated to chant and clap. The crowd played a big part in generating the atmosphere that allowed the devout in the centre to abandon themselves. It was at times a strange phenomenon to witness, and also at times familiar - I could have been at a rock concert. There were some modern accessories - loudspeakers, microphones and more than a few cell phones - along with the more traditional sticks, braziers with incense, whips and instruments (and maybe some magic, I was quietly told), to help things along. The event was colourful and exotic, and it finished with a nice touch when we were invited to join others to eat freshly cooked lentils (courtesy of the ladies out the back). No women were overtly involved in the ritual, either as adherents or in the crowd generally, so I think their role was supportive shall we say!

The crowd surrounding the whirling ones kick off their shoes, clap and chant Allah's name faster and faster in unison, providing an hypnotic effect.
Among the adherents were many who looked and dressed unlike most Sudanese men, who are generally short haired, clean shaven, and tidy in white robes and turbans. They stood apart with dreadlocks, beards and a range of colourful clothing. Breathing in the smoke from the brazier is supposed to mean you will come back to Omdurman - and so I guess I shall!