Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Geometrical Wonders

If one were to play word association 99% of the time "Egypt" would be followed by "pyramids". For many people the pyramids are Egypt. The iconic monuments to eternal life loom large, not just physically, but, as the only World Wonder left standing, in the minds of every tourist they are the sine qua non of a visit to the country. And so, being unable to escape the forces of expectation and tradition, off I went still accompanied by Chris (who I suspect to be somewhat of a masochist as he hasn't fled my company at the first available opportunity, not that I'm complaining though as he is fun to be around). We took a public bus and when we reached the terminus I thought we had been duped as we were still, seemingly, in the centre of town. But then I saw it: off to the side, about a kilometre distant and intermittently looming through the foggy haze - the Great Pyramid of Cheops. I had romantic images of the Gizan pyramids being half-lost in the desert, but the crushing reality of urban sprawl soon put paid to them. Ah well, at least due to their position on an elevated plateau they escape the worst of the dense smog that perennially blankets Cairo.

With our tickets in hand (my fake student card bought in Bangkok almost two years ago still paying dividends) we prepared ourselves mentally for the throngs of tourists and pushy touts. Luckily the latter left us alone because of our scruffy, hirsute appearance and the abundance of easier prey. I thought I would be pretty blase about seeing the pyramids, having seen a great many old and crumbling monuments on my trip, but reflecting upon their age, size and the precision of the masonry (when looking at the burial chambers and what is left of the outer limestone cladding, which has been progressively looted over the centuries, it's work that modern-day masons would be proud of) I was just left speechless. For those of you who have been following my travels closely here is a comparative list: the Pyramids are 4000 years older than Machu Picchu and Hampi, 3700 years older than Angkor Wat, 2700 years older than Palmyra, 2300 years older than the Terracotta Army, and 2000 years older than Persepolis. The only place I've been to that rivals the Pyramids in seniority is Moenjodaro, and frankly it hasn't aged half as gracefully as the Pyramids.

The three pyramids at Giza are far from being the only ones out there. Stretching over 30km south along the west bank of the Nile all the way down to the ancient capital of Memphis (of which there is sadly very little remaining) is a vast, almost unbroken, necropolis that contains hundreds of low mastabas, underground tombs and pyramids, the greatest concentration of which are at Dahshur and Saqqara. These are arguably more interesting than the Great Pyramids because they show the evolution in pyramid design and some tombs are ornately decorated with hieroglyphs and colourful paintings of daily life in ancient Egypt (whereas the insides of the Great Pyramids are unimaginatively bare). At the pyramids at Saqqara, along with the oldest stone structure in the world, one can also find the oldest piece of tourist graffiti, dating to around 1200B.C. But really, there is nothing I can say that could enhance, or make a dent in, the idée fixe that the pyramids have become. So I will just leave you with a few words of wisdom given to me by a wizened trinket seller hawking plastic kitsch at inflated prices in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, who described the pyramids as "very big; very old."

Monday, February 26, 2007

Things To Do In Cairo When You're Dead

Cairo is the undisputed cultural capital of the Arab world. It is the most populous Arab country by far. It is where the vast majority of Arabic films and pop music are produced. And it is home to the Al Azhar mosque and university, not only the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, but also the most respected authority on questions of Islamic law and Sunni thought. Apparently there are some old, triangular-shaped buildings close by but I haven't yet found the time to go and check them out because there is so much to see and do in the city itself.

As befits a city of 11 million people, and probably the most densely populated city in the world, Cairo is busy. Very busy. It is such a change from the lethargy of Djibouti to constantly hear honking horns, and every attempt at crossing the street requires a quick prayer to Allah to ensure you come out the other side in one piece. My hotel is on the 4th floor of a building smack in the centre of downtown (the elevator doesn't look like it has worked in decades) right above a colourful fruit-and-veg market (cool) and a popular local mosque with particularly loud megaphones (not so cool). If you can survive the roads long enough to get around, the city is a fascinating treasure trove of architectural gems. The relatively modern Downtown area is full of grand Art-Deco apartment buildings that, despite needing more than just a lick of paint, form a surprisingly pleasant urban centre. Further south along the river is the area known as Old Cairo, built on the site of the original Greek settlement of Babylon and now the centre of the city's Christian, Coptic community who form Egypt's largest minority. Christianity has an old and venerable tradition in Egypt proven amply by the age of the churches and their impressive collection of saintly relics (there isn't a church worth its salt that doesn't have at least a holy finger to show off). Wander a couple of miles east of Downtown and you come across Islamic Cairo, the medieval heart of the city with its packed souqs, monumental mosques and narrow alleys. My favourite part of the city is slightly further east yet of Islamic Cairo, just outside the old city walls. Stretching out for almost 5km from north to south is the vast medieval necropolis dating back to the time of the Mamluk sultans. The graves range from simple stone markers through house-sized crypts all the way to spectacular funerary complexes containing mosques, madrassas and accommodation rooms for visitors. Graveyards are often fascinating places in their own right, whether you are interested in the macabre or not, but what makes this one special is the fact that many of the mausolea have now been taken over by poor Cairenes who live side by side with their more illustrious, dead, ancestors. Children use tombs for goalposts and hide behind gravestones when playing hide-and-seek. Truly the oddest cohabitation of the living and the dead that I have ever seen and a refreshing scene of tolerance and respect between the communities.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Cul De Sac

I've been beaten. Every time I felt I had overcome an obstacle preventing me from leaving the country another one appeared to replace it. After three weeks in the least interesting and most expensive country I have visited I had exhausted all my other options and so I finally had to give in and fly out. Though even that wasn't without its difficulties as I was forced to purchase a return ticket when booking my flight to Cairo (allegedly due to a diplomatic spat between the two countries) which made a huge hole in my finances, hopefully one that I'll be able to partially patch up by getting a refund on half of the ticket.

I'm gutted that my African adventure (although Egypt is in Africa I consider it as part of the Levant, at least from a cultural perspective) had to suffer such an ignominious end. It has certainly been the most testing period of my trip, at least from a psychological point of view and on a couple of occasions I even considered packing it all in. But in the end I always come around and realise that my problems are really very small in the grand scheme of things and that I can easily stop them whenever I want by just getting on a plane, an option that people living in repressive countries don't have. It seems to me that the main reason for my failure was the paranoia of autocratic regimes: as soon as someone behaves in an unexpected fashion they're suspected of being subversives to be stopped at all costs. Therefore arriving by boat and not plane, sleeping on the street and not the Sheraton, and wanting to travel by train and not plane are all reasons to suspect me to be an Al Qaeda operative. It seems that advances in technology may have made people's lives slightly easier, but it has mostly helped Big Brothers keep a tighter rein on their people.

Sorry for this slightly depressing post. Things will hopefully get cheerier from now on as I take on pyramids, sphinxes and mummies for your reading pleasure.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


The War on Terror. A nice idea in theory perhaps, but on closer inspection it just doesn't make the grade. For a start if one were to think about it carefully the name itself doesn't make any sense. Terrorism is the use (or threatened use) of violence against non-combatants for political purposes, which is basically another definition of modern warfare (although war doesn't target civilians, the way war is waged nowadays they bear the full brunt of its effects). And so I have become one of the latest casualties in this contradictory war (for those of you who are reading this back home don't worry about me, I'm OK, I'm just giving in to my penchant for self-pity and melodrama).

The Horn of Africa is one of the places where this so-called war is being played out, which at least partly explains my earlier problems with the Ethiopians and the police. I am sure it is also the reason I am having difficulty getting into Eritrea (my guidebook says it's possible to get a visa in a day, but it's been over a week now and I've been told that it would take at least one more) and I'm hearing rumours that Sudan is posing problems for overland travellers. This has cut the number of options open to me down to one: taking a boat north to Egypt. So for the past week I've been doing the rounds of the ports here in Djibouti with Chris (a Canadian traveller who is also trying to get out of the country) trying to see if there's anything going our way, and if so whether they'll take us. Private yachts seem loath take hitchers and so we've been concentrating our efforts on cargo ships.

The cargo port is a fascinating place with ships and sailors from all corners of the globe: Ethiopia, Korea, America, Panama, Syria, India and China are all represented. Initially I felt like a trespasser who didn't belong, lurking around the ships and asking where they were heading and when, but soon I began to enjoy clambering aboard and carrying out my investigations. The range of responses from the different nationalities just served to remind me how topsy turvy this world is. When inquiring at the American ship we were deluged by an avalanche of no's before we even had the chance to ask a single question. Most ships would turn us away with a polite negative - "sorry, we're not allowed to take passengers" or "we're going in the other direction" - but it was the Arabs, who lately seem to have all been tarred by the terrorist brush (so much so that I can't even wear my keffiyeh in Djibouti without getting taunts of "Al Qaeda"), who invariably welcomed us aboard and offered us tea and cigarettes even if they weren't going where we wanted. One friendly captain who took the time to speak with us explained that in the past hitching a ride was no problem, but that during this past year there has been a security clampdown in the Red Sea. There are constant patrols and checks at sea and visas are no longer issued on arrival at ports, so shipping agents are very reluctant to take passengers for fear of getting into trouble with the authorities and running up delays. Not good news for us travellers.

In between our frequent visits to the port there hasn't been much to do except laze about, shoot the breeze and play silly games. And so I've begun adopting the local custom of taking a siesta and doing nothing at all between midday and 4 o'clock (although I've drawn the line at chewing qat). Not that you can get anything done during this time even if you wanted to as the whole country grinds to a halt and starts chewing qat. If only I could be so insouciant but I'm getting rather fed up and just want to get out of here as soon as I can.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I hate bureaucracy. Unfortunately it is an inescapable part of our modern lives. When it works it is an essential way of maintaining accountability, oversight and a degree of responsibility. When it doesn't you begin to feel like you're being crushed between the cogs of a huge, impersonal, unstoppable machine (I always picture Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times). There are different forms of bureaucratic annoyance and, after having encountered them often during my trip, I have come to develop a three-tiered classification of the different types.

The first is Paper Bureaucracy, where the amount of time and effort needed to accomplish a task (like buying a train ticket) is disproportionate to the desired result. This form of bureaucracy usually involves being shunted from one office to another and filling out repetitive forms in triplicate. This type of bureaucracy is the least offensive and, as long as you tick all the right boxes, you eventually reach your goal. The second form is By The Rulebook bureaucracy where an individual (invariably very low down the pecking order) has been given instructions which they will not deviate from one iota. These people's minds are impervious to reason and logic and the rules will not be bent no matter how ridiculous they may be. If you are lucky and persistent enough it is sometimes possible to wear them down or at least get to talk to a superior who is able to grant some leeway. It is the last form of bureaucracy, which I call Little Emperor Bureaucracy, that is the most pernicious and difficult to deal with. In this form people who occupy a bottleneck position in the system (and again, these people can be, and often are, near the bottom of the pile hierarchically) seem to gain an inflated view of their own importance. They often administer their own form of arbitrary justice and follow protocol according to their whim with no rhyme or reason. And because they are the gatekeepers to your advancement you are obliged to jump through their hoops (which can include baksheesh, though thankfully I haven't come across that yet). Just pray that one of these Bonapartes doesn't take a dislike to you because then you are screwed.

That is, however, exactly what happened to me at the Ethiopian embassy here in Djibouti (because after 10 days I am still here). The first time I went to the embassy I had just been released by the police and despite rushing over I was 20 minutes late. I pleaded to be allowed in to at least talk to someone, get some information or at least get the application form. The guard at the gate stubbornly refused and after the stressful time at the police I uncharacteristically broke down and made a bit of a scene (in retrospect I believe all my subsequent problems may have stemmed from that). The next morning when I turned up bright and early I was calm and polite. The guard took my passport in and returned a few minutes later telling me I could get a visa at the border. Because I had been given the same information at the embassy in Sana'a I didn't press him too much on it. So, happy and cheerful, I booked my train ticket and packed my bag.

It turns out that 3rd class is just an empty freight carriage with a lot of people sitting on the floor. We arrived at the Ethiopian border in the middle of the night and I hopped out with my passport and $20 in hand. However, visas are not issued at the border and I was detained whilst the train carried on. In the morning there followed a bunch of repetitive conversations all along the following lines:

"Where's your visa?"
"I went to your embassy in both Djibouti and Sana'a and they told me that I could get a visa at the border."
"Why didn't you go to the embassy in Djibouti?"
"I did, and they told me that you would provide me with a visa."
"No, we don't issue visas. You should have gone to our embassy."
"But I did!"

I was told to wait (I've been doing a lot of that lately) while someone would contact their superiors in the central immigration office. At 4pm I was given the unsurprising news that I was being sent back to Djibouti. So the next day (actually I had to wait an extra day as it was the weekend) I went to the embassy to apply for a visa, again. The guard still wouldn't let me in and told me that I couldn't get a visa there. No explanations, no reasons, nothing. I was seriously annoyed and confused. Everybody I've met has told me that getting visas for Ethiopia is a simple formality and can be done in a day and here I was being totally stonewalled. So instead I got someone to collect and hand in the application form on my behalf. That proved unproblematic. But upon going to collect it the next day I found out the application had been refused because I had no residence or work permit for Djibouti, which is a load of bollocks because many foreigners have got visas here without those permits. So, for some reason I had become black-listed.

This has left me with three options, neither of which is ideal. I can either go to Eritrea instead, though there nowhere near as much to see there. I could fly into Ethiopia and get the visa at the airport, but that would go against my no-fly principles, cost a lot of money ($120) and I might even be refused a visa once I get there. Or I could even try to catch a boat up to Egypt, though I would miss out on some interesting countries along the way. I am mulling over my options, but in the meantime I am exceedingly grateful to the guys at Dolphin Expeditions (Bruno, Nicolas and Vicente) who have let me crash at their place for free during all this time, and not only that, but have also fed me and generally put up with my oddities as well. Without their help, support and generosity I really would have been up a creek without a paddle. (If anyone is planning to head to Djibouti they are the ones to get in touch with to organise trips and scuba diving in the area.)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Whilst staying in a cosy little hotel in Yemen I was flicking through their guestbook when I came across the following aphorism:

A tourist forgets what he did yesterday but knows what he will do tomorrow.
A traveller remembers what he did yesterday but has no idea what he will do tomorrow.

A bit smug and self-important I admit, but not without a grain of truth. After writing my last post (at around 6pm) I had dinner, returned to my hotel to pick up my backpack, and then set off for the train station to catch the 8pm departure. As I was walking along the road to the station I noticed a tour company that was still open and I decided to pop in out of curiosity for the tours that are on offer in Djibouti and on the off chance that I might be able to fill up my bottles with water (I believe that drinking water is a basic right and since Bangladesh I've been able to go without buying any bottled water by filling up at public water fountains, from taps and from restaurants; plus the production, and discarding of, plastic bottles is harmful to the environment). It turned out they had a group going to lake Asal the next day and they even invited me in or dinner and offered me a place to stay. I quickly hurried over to the station to change my ticket.

The tour turned out to be a bit of a fiasco as the road (which also happens to be the only road to Ethiopia) was closed due to a shed load. So we had to turn back. However the next day I got together with a Canadian traveller and we managed to organise some transport out to the lake. The landscape out there is truly Martian, with lava flows, fields of reddish-black stones and barely any vegetation. The lake itself is surrounded by a large expanse of salt, the surface of which is sculpted into ridges by the wind. And it is in this inhospitable environment that some Afar tribes manage to make a living harvesting the salt and transporting it by camel caravan to Ethiopia (we were even lucky enough to see a couple of laden camels start heading off). It was also on this little excursion that I also got to see the slums along the outskirts of town in which most Djiboutians live. A real shame to see because with the money coming in from the transit of Ethiopian goods and the three foreign military bases (there's also a German one apparently), and the small population, the country ought to be quite well off, but it's the same old problem of corruption (not that large Western countries mind about that because the country is politically stable and they have their military bases there).

Monday, February 05, 2007

Welcome To Africa

The crossing from Yemen to Djibouti was pretty uneventful, if a tad boring. The sea was relatively calm which was a blessing as it allowed me to spend the voyage on deck rather than in the hold with the other paying passengers (and a multitude of non-paying, roachy ones as well) who slowly, over the course of the trip, turned that part of the boat into a miasma of vomit. Time passed slowly as the selection of on-board entertainment was meagre to say the least. I spent a lot of time just watching the seagulls glide by and talking with some of the crew and passengers.

We arrived late in Djibouti and by the time customs had been cleared it was around midnight. I had no wish to trundle around town with no map searching for a reasonable hotel (for some reason the cheapest bed in town is around $30, which is about twice my daily budget, a fact that ordinary Djiboutians don't seem to find the least bit strange) and so I found a nice, quiet, suburban road and set myself against a comfy (at least more comfy than the others) tree - cocooning myself in my sleeping bag against the swarms of mosquitoes - and decided to wait for morning so that I could take care of business. Morning, however, did not come. Instead I was roughly awoken by some policemen, bundled into a car and taken to the central police station. They obviously don't get many tourists here (everyone was asking me if I was a journalist) but the policemen on duty seemed more curious than anything and, after a few questions, let me sleep in a side room.

Early the next day I found out why I was brought in rather than just told to bugger off and sleep somewhere else or made to go to a hotel. Inadvertently I had managed to pick a spot just behind the American embassy. Clearly not a good place to sleep on any occasion, but even more so when the country is home to America's central command base in the region; plus the fact that neighbouring Somali is undergoing a period of intense turmoil and is accused by the American government of being a safe haven for Al Qaeda (not a popular move in Djibouti where 60% of the population is Somali); and, for good measure, add to that that I had just arrived on a dodgy boat from Yemen, a country where Al Qaeda has a lot of grassroots support (not least because it was the home of Osama Bin Laden). Oh, and I was wearing my keffiyeh which I've now become adept at tying in the traditional Arab fashion. No, I could definitely see how things could be misconstrued, the notion of travelling round the world for two years just for the hell of it was one that was completely alien to the local policemen. Why was I doing it? who was paying me? what is my mission? Unfortunately I was never really given the opportunity to sit down and thoroughly prove my case to somebody (which I could easily have done with my diary, my blog and my pictures) but instead I was continually having to repeat the same story to a merry-go-round of curious policemen. Soon this stopped and I was informed that my case, and my passport, were with Le Colonel and that I would be dealt with "soon". Morning turned to afternoon which in turn gave way to evening. I was more than a little annoyed with the lack of information, bored out of my skull and hungry as hell (luckily I had some bread and cheese left over from Yemen which I ate for breakfast as I hadn't been given any food all day). Eventually, after a bit of complaining I was given dinner and allowed to see Le Colonel - a remarkably well-travelled and well-educated man - who assured me that I would be allowed to go the next morning.

Easier said than done because the next morning carried on in much the same vein as the day before with me being continually told to await word from Le Colonel. It dawned on me that the driving force in the police station was inertia: unless the officers were told to do something they did nothing, and that included me and my now frantic pleas to see Le Colonel or at least to contact my consulate. Luckily in the afternoon I managed to persuade a police secretary to let me call my consul and within five minutes of the call I had been handed my passport and was being driven to a hotel. And although I was mad, stressed and depressed by the whole experience my consul (an amiable French lawyer) calmed me down and managed to put things in perspective for me. Then in the evening my cumulonimbus got its silver lining in the form of a man called Djema who works at the American embassy. He came not only to offer his apologies, but also to pay for my hotel (damn! I should have checked in to the Sheraton). He explained to me that the eager guard who started this whole malentendu was convinced that I was a Pakistani terrorist and informed the embassy to that effect. This apparently set in motion a whole mini security alert and the beginnings of an investigation, until the embassy was finally shown my passport. Though I suspect that when I visit the States from now on I will have the right to particularly close scrutiny.

So, apart from having an over-zealous police force, what is Djibouti like? Well, apart from being a very small country it's also a very young one, having gained its independence from France only 30 years ago (an elderly Djiboutian proudly showed me his old French carte d'identite), and so luckily for me most people speak French well. It's also a strategically important country, not just because of the American base, but also because it hosts the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion in Africa and because it provides Ethiopia's only access to the sea. As such the capital, at least, is quite clean and ordered and there are a large number of expats living and working here. The country is also where the Great Rift Valley leaves Africa and so there are incredible, otherworldly landscapes in the interior, including lake Asal, the lowest point on the continent (unfortunately my experience of Djibouti's hinterland has been limited to photographs in the tourist information office). Instead I am leaving the country as soon as I can before I commit any other offences (real or imaginary) and am catching the night train (3rd class only) to the relative cool of the Ethiopian highlands.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

One Latte Grande To Go

I have managed to work my way south to the port of Al Makha, one of the most depressingly dusty and rundown places I have been to on my trip so far, a far cry from its illustrious past. In the 16th-19th centuries Al Makha used to be the port through which Yemen's lucrative coffee trade was funnelled as well as being the obligatory southern gateway to the Ottoman-controlled Red Sea. It was from here that Coffea arabica was shipped to the whole world and the town even gave its name to mocha coffee. Since then Al Makha has been supplanted by Aden and Al Hudayda in terms of maritime importance, coffee production has spread to many other parts of the world and Yemeni farmers have switched to growing qat which is more lucrative and less dependent on the vagaries of the world market.

However it is still the closest port to Djibouti, which is where I am headed (inshallah), and numerous dhows and sambuqs ply the narrow straight between the two continents. When I went to the port immigration office this morning I was told that the incessant southerly wind, which is coating everything in town with a fine layer of sand (me included), is making the sea too choppy and that nothing would be going in the next week or so. But whilst trudging disconsolately back to town I was approached by a French-speaking Djiboutian who told me that he knew of a boat that is leaving today. So I have paid my passage and am supposed to meet the captain at the harbour at 3pm (it is now around noon). I'm curious as to how things will turn out.