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Shadow Lines

It is January 2002 and I am standing by the side of a dusty, sterile road with my hand outstretched. I am tired, thirsty and covered in a thin layer of dust and grime. Two and a half hours ago an Egyptian military jeep dropped me at here and I have been standing baking under an African sun ever since. I am waiting for someone to show me some kindness. As I stand and hum through my full repertoire of Steely Dan songs I don’t realise that my life is about to change by one hundred and eighty degrees, and after today nothing can ever be the same. But for now, I have the more immediate concern of getting to Dahab before the sun cooks me to a crisp.

My day began under canvas in the middle of Wadi Rum and hasn’t looked like improving since that most auspicious of starts. I took a gleaming new catamaran over from the promised land of Jordan and stepped into the searing heat of Africa. For some inexplicable reason, which had something to do with a party of French tourists and a PLO sponsored gun boat being found a la Maria Celeste in the Red Sea, we were kept in the tin shed of a customs hall at Aqueba for half the day. The customs officials wandered amongst the half a dozen or so tourists and scrounged cigarettes whilst I sat on my rucksack and slowly broiled. Once they found out I was English – though with my three week beard and Yassar Arafat style scarf on it was hard to be really sure – they took turns in shoouting, ‘Michael Owen’ and ‘ David Beckham’ at me. By the time they finally let us out the compound, and had assembled the nastiest, smelliest bunch of criminally inclined taxi divers this side of Lagos, I was already in a foul mood and in no mood for the fully pitched battle which comes with trying to get anywhere near a taxi in Egypt so I walked towards the edge of the docks and hitched a ride with a bunch of junivile military recruits who didn’t really look old enough to shave let alone be toting M16 machine guns. They dropped me at this junction and told me, with luck, another patrol should be along sometime and that, with even more luck, I should make Dahab by dinner time. In the meantime there is nothing to do but stand at the side of the road and dream of ice cold beer and a shower.

From my diary:

The landscape down here was rugged and cruel looking. The horizon was broken by a series of jagged spikes which could have been the gateway to Mordor. The cobalt blue sky was totally free from clouds and emphasised the cruelness of the land.

Eventually a small cloud of dust comes into hazy view. As it comes closer the haze melds itself into an old ford pickup truck which comes to a grinding stop in front of me. The driver points to the back, which is full of boxes of Jordanian oranges and as I jump in and pull my scarf closer to my mouth he guns the engine and pulls away leaving clouds of dust devils dancing in the sun.

Quite unexpectedly we pull to a halt at the side of the road where another car has apparently broken down. The driver jumped out and after a long and heated discussion grudgingly passed the other driver an empty plastic bottle. I imagine the conversation to be:

Driver 1: Oh, Ahmed, this old piece of shit giving you trouble again. Driver 2: Yeah Mustaffa, I think it’s the same as last week Driver 1: Oh well, here is my plastic bottle, give it a few taps with this and I will pick it up next time I am smuggling citrus fruit from Jordan. I would love to stay and help but I just picked this scruffy English man up from the side of the road and I have to drive him to the middle of the desert and leave him there. Driver 2: That will test his Lawrence of Arabia spirit..

I feel almost overwhelmed with freedom and cheekily set about filling my pockets with oranges and by the time we reach the outskirts of Dahab I have the juice of half a dozen oranges running down my chin. As the driver drops me at the lights he winks at me – perhaps he can see how my life is about to change

From my dairy:

Dahab is, at first, a bit of a shock. At first I hated the town as it was so blatently touristy and there were lots of scantily dressed foreigners running around with henna tats and nose rings (and that was just the guys – the women were shocking). But after a few drinks and a walk around the streets Dahab soon began to work its charm on me.

I find the hotel that Middle East travel-guru (and all round father figure Dr Travel) has recommended me and dump my bags on the stupidly ostentatious bed. Five minutes later, with half of the Sinal desert removed from under my nails, I am sitting on the edge of the Red Sea dangling my feet in the warm waters sipping a well-earned ice-cold beer. For an Islamic country the beer in surprisingly good. The second one tastes ever better and washes the last traces of grit from my mouth. My rumbling stomach reminds me it is time for some food and head off with a lightness of step which always comes from a hard day and a few beers in search of some fish which I am told is a bit of a speciality here in Sinai.

The night is balmy now and the tourists are out in force. Tony Blair is on holiday just down the coast with his family and the Egyptians are basking in the glory that the British press have bought to this dry piece of northern Africa. The sea breeze cools the day and the tang of salt in the air wafts with the smells of a hundred charcoal burners to give the night the feeling of a tropical classic. It makes me feel suddenly homesick and have the overwhelming urge to call the GHG (gold haired girlfriend) back at home. I buy a phone card and wait my turn at the town’s only phone box wondering what is happening at home.

‘Hey, how are you’ ‘Fine. How’s Sinai? Are you taking care of yourself.’ ‘Yes, fine. Any news your end?’ ‘Two bits really’ ‘Good or bad..’ ‘Both’ ‘Hit me honey’ ‘Well, I need you at home as quick as you can’ ‘Why, what’s wrong’ ‘Nothing, except you are going to be a father’

Houston we have a problem

‘Oh, and KLM have cancelled your flight home. They say the only way you can get a refund or onto the next flight is by going to the Cairo office – good luck.’

Houston, we really have a problem.

The next thing I remember was staggering into a tourist shop and demanding tea and then stumbling out an hour later with an arm full of gifts. It wasn’t till much later after I had eaten and was well into my second water pipe of the evening that I was finally able to make sense of things

O.K, here is the plan: I’ll spend a few days here to get my bearings, hot foot it to Cairo, jump on a plane and be home in a few days. I should stop off on the way to at least get some advice from friends. But whom? R. perhaps. No perhaps not, he hasn’t forgiven me since I made that speech at his wedding:

Ladies and gentlemen, as you might have guessed I was a little nervous about giving this speech so I prepared a few lines (taking my notes from my jacket) and after doing those (loud sniff) I must say I feel a lot better

S. perhaps. No, perhaps not, he had never forgiven me for pebble dashing his new Beemer when he had picked me up from Heathrow wrecked with dysentery after a long and gruelling flight home from Pakistan.

Or my parents. No, they thought I was in Holland for Christmas not tramping all over the Middle East and probably wouldn’t appreciate that I had told them a little white lie once again.

Perhaps I should just get home, that’s the most sensible thing to doand I’ll just do a little sight seeing on the way

The restaurant in which I was having all these life altering thoughts was straight out of the Arabian nights. Instead of tables there were well worn divans laid out in the circular pools of light given off by giant candles and long low tables which were deeply scared with a thousand cigarette burns. It was, apart from the lack of beer, ‘terribly sorry sir, we are Muslims, but the boy will nip down to the Chinese shop for a couple of cold ones if you cross his palm with silver’, idyllic. The sound of the pounding surf, that terrible distorted Arabic music you here everywhere in the Middle East and Arabic Africa (for which, I am sure there is no known cure) and a large water pipe for me to contemplatively puff on.

Slowly as I collected my thoughts and picked the last bones of fish from my teeth it dawned on me that I was surrounded by tourists. There were big bellied Germans getting loudly drunk, a French couple moodily smoking what smelt like camel dung roll-ups, an Italian whose plunging neckline caused the waiters to shake their heads in shame (it did, however, get her better service) and an elderly British couple who were busily spreading a week old copy of the Times out on the table and pouring over it the way I read bus time tables. Tourists, I thought, yes, I remember, somewhere I have a life too, a car, a house and now a family. I hadn’t seen another foreigner for nearly a month and it took a little bit of getting used to. Most of the conversations seemed to involve obtaining various class A narcotics in industrial quantities. I paid my bill as the call to pray began to wail from the local mosque and thought: I’m stuck in Islamic coketown and I want to go home.

The next day I was up just after sunrise, and telling myself that it was the weekend and that even if I did make it to the KLM office I wouldn’t be able to resolve why they had so unreasonably cancelled my return ticket. ( I imagined somewhere someone in the KLM office had thought, ‘yeah, this guy has a KLM gold card, he travels about a hundred thousand miles a year with us. Let’s cancel his flight – that should really make his day.’) I set off for some light sight seeing.

I don’t, as a rule, do organised tours, but as time was limited and public transport options were limited I had swallowed my pride and booked on a reasonably priced day tour from Mr Aladdin’s wonderful world of cut price tours (open seven days a week except Tuesday) who said they would pick me up at 7.30am. When the land cruiser pulled up at only 8.20 (an unprecedented achievement for Egyptian time keeping and reliability) and I saw it already packed to the gills with smartly dressed tourists I thought: oh no, this will be terrible. However, when I found they were all Germans I thought the day might be redeemable after all and after I had mentioned Owen’s hatrick a few dozen times they kept to themselves and didn’t cause me further problems.

After driving through the outskirts of Nuweiba (which are even less savoury than the rest of Nuweiba – which really says a lot) we turned off the main road, the driver, who was hardly a poster-child for sobriety, suddenly found the animal in him and we went manically fishtailing across the scorched landscape. I imagined the headline from my local paper:

Local Boy dies dusty death in Sinai shocker

Which would be followed:

Teutonic torture for timid tourist in transit tragedy

But we eventually arrived at the entrance to the White Canyon with only a few bruised buttocks for our troubles.

From my diary:

The walk down the canyon itself didn’t really belay the immense beauty we were about to enter. The walk down the canyon was rather easy and the winding path took us down to a shaded area of pure white sand. I stood basking in the cool beauty of the place whilst my fellow tourists kicked their heels and failed to find the tranquillity moving. I scampered off ahead and imagined I was Indiana Jones scrambling though the smooth gulleys.

The other tourists ambled along swinging their cameras and chatting away about the visit of the British Prime Minister (he was slumming it along the coast), how many drugs they had done since being there and some girl who had, apparently, slept with half the beach camp in the last two weeks (I hoped there wasn’t any connection between Mr Blair and this – though if I am honest, and if she was really polite, I wouldn’t kick his missus out of bed for farting – if you know what I mean) whilst I wandered ahead lost in my thoughts. I must have been thinking harder than I realised because I was soon along way ahead of the group. To allow them time to catch up I sat on a rock and kicked off my shoes and let my thoughts wander along the lines that every new father must at some time have gone down:

I don’t know anything about babies The GHG doesn’t know anything about babies I am never going to have a good night’s sleep again

Then more positively:

Hey, I can take the little one away backpacking I can read all those great books, like Kim and Shogen to the little one I can instil my love of scratchy old Ella records in someone else..

And then the strangest thing happened.

Out of one of the small side channels came a wizened old man who was probably a teenager when Moses and his boys last passed through. He smiled a toothless grin at me and took from his pack a battered kettle and a pile of firewood and then proceeded to make tea. Once this process was complete he offered me a cup of sweet tea and sat back on this heels rocking quietly to himself. I drank the tea and passed him back the cup which he refilled and crouched sipping contemplatively. Ten minutes later the rest of the group turned up and a rapid exchange of Arabic took place between my mysterious tea man and the guide, which I imagined went like;

Tea Man: Hey Ally, I just don’t get it. I traipse all the way down here to make the tea, three hours it takes me, and at my age too, and the git can’t even be bothered to make small talk with me. I don’t know what the world is coming to Guide: Next time we swop, you get the socks and sandal wearers and I spit into the tea.

Next stop was a picture post card perfect oasis – well, picture post card perfect if that picture post card included half a tonne of discarded litter, countless naked grubby little brats running around trying to piss all over shocked tourists and three old hags washing out their knickers by the local well – where were encouraged to support the local community by digging deep in our pockets and swoping our hard earned green backs for some plastic tat made in Korea. I declined this kind offer and tried to shoot some sureptious day-to-day life shots. I eventually gave up after a caught a sticky two year old with his hand in my pocket and a glint in his eye. I scolded him gently and hoped that I could at least raise my child to know better (or at least be a better pick pocket) and headed back to the landy for some more thrilling off road adventures.

From my diary:

Driving through more desert on our way to the coloured canyon, which I am told is going to be amazing. Bouncing around as Muhammad the mad motorist does his best to wreck the transmission is a liberating feeling and I am soaring high on the feeling of belonging to this crazy experience. I feel like punching the air and yelling ‘I am going to be a father’ into the wind.

We stopped at the top of the Canyon and gazed down in awe at the incredible vista below us. Well, at least I did, the others were too busy adjusting their shades, trying to look cool and rolling dubious looking smokes. The Canyon stretched far below us and disappeared into the distant heat haze. Although smaller than the grand canyon it was far more impressive and far more emotive. I was itching to follow the narrow goat track down to the bottom and immerse myself in its magic. From my diary:

We follow the guide down to the bottom of the canyon. I find this a little worrying as he has sent that lithe little German girl on ahead and is actually following her bottom as it wiggles down the path. I keep having to remind myself to keep my mouth closed (not because of her ass – though its nice and pert – but because it is so beautiful here). I relaise that my internal soundtrack of Steely Dan tunes is, for once, quiet. We follow the narrow water worn gulleys and channels which weave through the canyon. Sometimes the channels are no winder than my shoulders and I have to turn side ways to squeeze through leaving streaks from the multicolour rocks in strategically bad places on my person. I imagined that even Lara Croft could have as much fun with her clothes on as I was having skipping through the tight channels and scrambling over well worn boulders

By the time we had climbed out the canyon, and I realised, with some glee, that having a pert little German bottom was absolutely no indication of physical fitness, I was famished and was pleased to see that lunch was being laid out in a tatty looking shack which hung precariously over the edge of the canyon. Lunch was a simple affair of tuna sandwiches, fresh tomatoes and stale potato chips. Simple food yet brilliant. I thought of all the fun I could have in the future will little Blazdell and the problems my life style might lead to, such as geography classes:

Today children we are going to study Africa. Who knows anything about Africa? Yes little Blazdell, what do you know. Well my mum worked there for a while, digging elephant shit out of ditches and my dad spent some time in a Malawian gaol. Oh I see Teacher, what is elephant shit?

And then

Today we will learn about Brazil.. Yes, little Blazdell. My mum and dad lived there as well, he went to the Amazon, Rio and all the bad places in between. He even learned to speak Portuguese

The rest of the class groan audibly

But, as fun as this was, it wasn’t getting me any closer to home and that was beginning to way heavy on my mind. I decided to have one last night in Dahab and hot foot it as soon as the sun rose the next day to Cairo and the KLM office. It seemed like a good plan.

Once back in town I got our driver to drop me on the main street and spent a pleasant few hours trying to buy a bus ticket to Cairo. At the time this sounded like the most romantic thing in the known universe – ‘Yeah, I’d like a single to Cairo please my good man. Have my luggage sent on ahead and my best linen jacket pressed and ready for dinner with the Major’ but now the thought of Egyptian busses, Egyptian travel agents, or if I am brutally honest, anything Egyptian, just brings me out in a nasty rash and I have to go and lay in a dark room for a few hours and think calming thoughts. However, they say you live and learn and anyone trying to achieve anything as silly as trying to buy onward travel in Egypt really still has a lot to learn.

In the first shop I had to wake up the pile of sleeping rags which was blocking the doorway, and later turned out to be the owner, only to find out that all busses to Cairo were sold out for the next millennia. The next shop tried to sell me a ticket for twenty five times the going rate which offended both my wallet and sense of fairplay and the third shop just laughed at me. I called the GHG and told her I was struggling;

Just pull your finger out man and get home – or the baby will be driving your car to the airport to pick you up.

I went back to the first shop.

Listen, I am about to be a daddy. I need to get to Cairo because KLM have cancelled my flight home. My girlfriend is climbing the walls, I am going mad with worry and I really need some one to show pity on me for once. Oh, sir, why didn’t you say. That will be twenty dollars. But is says 2 dollars on the ticket… Sir, it’s not my babyor I would hope it isn’t anyway. I’ll take it, you bloody crook And sir, surely you want some of our brilliant made in Taiwan Egyptian style post-modern scarabs for the new born No, absolutely no

Such was my state of mind that by the time I had my ticket I had bought enough scarabs to remake the Mummy twice over and still have some left over. When I moved house a few weeks later the removal guy asked if I was an Egyptologist and as quick as a flash the GHG replied, ‘no a sucker’.

I spent my final night in Dahab sitting smoking Sheshas in an open-air café. I don’t normally smoke but there is something deeply calming about sitting under a starry sky nursing a large water pipe and a cup of gritty Egyptian coffee whilst the whiled the night away playing noisy games of backgammon. As the full moon rose slowly over the town I took my diary from my bag and wrote:

I am going home now. My time on the road has come to an end. Tomorrow, In shallah I shall be in Cairo and then the next day I shall sleep again in my own bed. Undoubtedly my life is about to change but the memories of my travels will never leave me. I hope one day that my child has the opportunities that I have had and realises that we pass this way but once

After a few minutes of quite contemplation:

Actually, after all the stress and nightmares I must have given my folks over the years I hope that s(he) never picks up a guide book

And with that I hitched to the bus station and set off for a new beginning.

Postscript Of course things didn’t go to plan and it took much longer than expected to get home. The bus trip turned into an epic nightmare of gargantum proportions, KLM refused to acknowledge my existence and I almost got arrested at Cairo airport. But these tales I shall save for another day.

About the Author Philip has travelled extensively over 6 continents and currently putting the finishing touches to his first book. He has contributed to numerous books, magazines and online travel journals and continues to travel widely. When not camped out at Heathrow waiting for his luggage or lost in Copenhagen he can be found in propping up the bar at his local in Cambridge

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