10.3.13

Hitchhiker's Guide

What a whirlwind of a week. I suppose you've all heard me say this enough times that it should seem evident, and yet here I am saying it again: nothing ever goes the way I have planned.
Sunday night we decided to take a last-minute trip to visit students in a small village in Upper Egypt called Dhasa. We purchased our train tickets, and were sitting around hanging out a few hours before we were supposed to leave, only to get a call with the following information:
There was an train accident in a village just before Dhasa, the village it happened in is protesting the train (train station? train conductor? I don't know), therefore all trains are stopped and have no guarantee of moving in the near future.
Awesome.
So, we decided to cancel our tickets and try again the following night.
Monday night. Round two!
We had purchased night train tickets, so our train was supposed to leave at 11:15pm. The ride runs on ten hours, so we figured it was best to try and do it at a time when we might get some sleep. We got all our things packed up for our adventure, and crowded into a microbus for the ride. We got to our platform at about 9:30, and walked around the neighboring area to kill time until our departure. Upon our arrival back at the station, we were stopped by a security guard who asked what train we were on. We showed him our tickets. "Well, the protests from yesterday stopped returning trains. So your train never even left Upper Egypt earlier, and won't be arriving until tomorrow." Down for the count.
We left the train station and wandered around, trying to find a microbus that might be willing to venture the late night drive, but decided nearing 1am it was probably too late and unsafe. We had to take the metro to get back home, and didn't arrive on campus till near 3am. Time to promptly crash and prepare for a third attempt the next day.
Tuesday night. Round three!
By Tuesday afternoon (when we woke up, after having been awake until the wee hours of the morn), about half the group had dropped out of the adventure. After two failed nights, and no guarantees on our third night being a success, we were (rightfully) cynical about the idea. We spent the day throwing around ideas, and by evening decided that Sara, Jordan, Phil, and myself would take our bags and go to the train station with hopes of there being tickets available. Unlike our previous attempts, we didn't have the tickets purchased in advance. We had wasted a lot of money travelling to and from the station as well as on tickets the past few nights and didn't want to deal with it again.
We got to the station at the same time as the past few nights, and went to stand in line to buy tickets. Now, to be clear, there are almost no English-speakers at the station, and it does not cater to foreigners. Sara knows the most Arabic, and I have gathered a decent bit of the language, so between the two of us we can make our way around pretty well. We stood in line at the ticket kiosk, only to be shuffled between lines for a few minutes when they thought we needed someone who spoke English. We made it clear we could purchase the tickets in Arabic, which expedited the process a bit. One problem with the only Arabic speakers in the group being female is that we don't get much respect from the Egyptians. Women are never supposed to make the first move in this culture, so the fact that Sara and I lead out our group and are at the front asking the questions is culturally unacceptable. Prior to this point, I had never experienced any seriously negative effects of this. I suppose there is a first for everything.
Tuesday night was the first time I experienced blatant discrimination towards my nationality/gender.
After being shuffled between lines for nearing an hour, we finally reached the front of the one we needed to purchase our tickets. We were trying to buy second class tickets, which sell for about 60 EGP. First class tickets cost 170 EGP, which when taken into our 270 EGP monthly paycheck, was pretty much out of the question. Especially since each of these was only a one-way ticket. 60 EGP is only about $5 USD, and 170 is only about $20 USD. Not expensive at all, by American standards. Which is exactly what the ticket-man thought was well.
After explaining to him in Arabic that we wanted second class tickets, he very rudely said in Arabic "No! For Egyptians only. You must buy first class." We told him we live in Egypt, we aren't rich Americans, and that we only make 270EGP which isn't enough for two roundtrip tickets in first class. He repeated angrily "Egyptians only" and then said that he wouldn't talk to us any longer.
We were so frustrated. After two failed nights of trying to visit students in mourning, we finally mange to find tickets, but a rude man is refusing to sell them to us because he thinks we are rich tourists? Unacceptable.
Sara, who is better versed in Arabic than I am, took the lead at this point. She told him that we have ridden the second class train before, and had purchased those tickets the previous two nights. He said that we were lying and that we had not. Then made a motion over his ears that he would not listen to us any longer, and put one of the EGP bills over his mouth to cover his speech.
Oh we were angry! Sara especially. To be rebuked for so little! It was so frustrating. By this point, it was nearing 11pm and we needed to buy tickets of some sort soon.
Then I had a great idea - find an Egyptian who seems friendly, and get them to purchase the tickets for us. We found a man who fit the bill, and approached him. I think I spoke more Arabic than he spoke English, so he didn't really understand what we wanted. At that point we called an Egyptian student to translate for us over the phone. The man, once having talked to our student, understood what we wanted and was incredibly happy to try and help.
He went up to the ticket counter while we tried to hide nonchalantly behind a pillar so as to not seem obviously involved. After a few minutes of conversation, he came back and tried to tell us in broken English that the second class tickets were sold out. He said that we could still purchase some more on the first class car, but that they would cost the 170 EGP we feared. We thanked him for his time, at which point he introduced himself and told us he was learning English. He took out his English grammar book he had been studying when we approached him, and talked to him about coming to our night classes at the school to study from us. Sara and Jordan teach an English class for adults, Muslims or Christians, four nights a week, and he seemed possibly interested. We thanked him again and he left.
Then we stood and contemplated our options.
As day number three in a row trying to get there, it was incredibly frustrating to not be able to make it to Dhasa. Besides the fact that we wanted to go, there were students there who would be incredibly disappointed to hear AGAIN that we wouldn't be making it. We didn't want to take a microbus, but decided that whatever money we have could best be spent helping the students/seeing what Egypt has to offer, so we decided to just suck it up and pay for the first class tickets.
Just as we went to find the other ticket sellers, our friend who helped us showed up again, with four cans of soda in hand, and a big grin on his face.
You know, it was so refreshing after dealing with such a bitter person, to have such a kind, generous guy come to help us. He clearly didn't have much money, and it would have cost him a lot (in perspective) of money to purchase just the sodas for us. He wanted to help us with the other tickets, so he took us over to talk to the other ticket man to help us buy them.  At which point we found out that the last train with first class seats had left an hour before.
Our little helper seemed so genuinely disappointed for us. He had followed us around, helping us for nearly an hour. We felt bad for monopolizing his time like that, but he was just pleased to have met us. I'm glad there are good people in the world like that.
So there we were.
What to do next?
It was almost midnight on Tuesday night. A safe night. So we did the next best thing.
Went to Tahrir Square.
Now, don't get your panties in a bunch just yet.
First off, there has been almost no activity there for weeks. When we went, we saw maybe six people the entire time. It was totally quiet, totally empty. Also, it really is in the center of a hub of things to do. We ended up going to pizza and buying tourist-y t-shirts haha. But we did see one thing that served as a reminder  of what has happened there: a burnt-out police car from a few days before. Crazy.



We headed out from Tahrir around 1am, before the metro shut down completely.
 Again, Tuesday night gave me both the extremes of kindness that people have to offer. While sitting on the metro at one in the morning, full of a bunch of strange men and a thirty minute ride away from our stop, I suppose many people might have been concerned. It didn't seem too worrisome to me though. I don't know if that's because I have a better idea of what is safe, or a worse one. haha
About five minutes before our stop, with the prior twenty-five being completely uneventful, we pulled into one metro station which a group of young men were standing outside of. The windows of the metro were open, and there are a few bars crossing them, but they are spaced about a foot apart. I looked up when I heard loud talking from the guys, at which point I heard one of them shout "moza!" which means something like "sexy" or "hot." And then he threw his burning cigarette at me through the window.
The cigarette hit me in the face, and fell down my shirt into my lap. I struggled to grab it, because I still had my backpack full of things for a two-day trip blocking the way, but we managed to grab it and Phil tamped it out on the ground. I didn't get burned, and neither did my clothing, so that was good. All the men on the metro got so angry though. They started yelling out the window at him, telling him he acted like an animal (I know how to say that in Arabic, haha). The metro pulled away from that stop, and as we discussed what just happened all the men on our car came up and apologized to me. They all said they were so sorry, and that all Egyptians are not like that. They told me that man was an animal, and he shouldn't have done that to me. At our stop, about six or seven of them kind of surrounded us and escorted us to our next ride, to keep us safe from any other cigarette-pitchers.
We had to transfer metro cars, and at the next one we ended up being seated next to an adorable little family of a mother, father, and maybe six-year old son. They must have just gotten back from the pet shop, because the mother held a cute little albino rabbit in a bag on her lap. She kept holding it up to the little boy, who squealed with laughter every time it got close. The father helped him feed it little pieces of bread from another bag they had. I leaned over and asked the little boy what his name was, and if he liked the rabbit. He was so precious, and it was so nice to experience such a sweet little family and the kindness of several other people during the night after our few mishaps of the evening. Little metro boy with little metro bunny-in-a-bag could cheer anyone up, I think.

Whew! Three days in and still the most adventurous of our days has yet to be described. So after having a few disappointing consecutive days of travel, we took Wednesday off to relax at the school, and make decisions about our next adventure. We decided that we wanted to take a day trip on Thursday to a small city on the Red Sea called Ain Soknah. It is about three-hours drive from Cairo, and Sara had gone there once on a field trip two years ago.
We packed up our things, and headed to the train station/bus station to try and find a ride. We searched around for a bit, and found a big tour bus that would be passing through the city and only charged 50EGP for the trip per person. We couldn't get a clear answer on the return time of the bus, but they gave us the phone number for the company and when we needed our ride they said to call it. We hopped on the bus, and headed out!
So after about three hours of driving, we could see the Red Sea approaching. It was a cloudy day, and so we didn't expect there to be many people out. It is also March, which is hardly the height of tourist season. After the drive through the desert, we pulled up on the freeway to a long stretch of beach that seemed to be dotted with hotels and possibly other small city-like buildings. The bus pulled over on the side of the freeway, and the driver motioned for us to hop out. We didn't know exactly where we were or where we were supposed to go, but we could see the beach, so we figured we were fine.
Welp.
Turns out he dropped us off in the middle of nowhere.
The entire beach was fenced in, and there were lots of buildings, but seriously no people.
It was a ghost town. We walked for an hour and a half down the freeway, trying to find an open patch of beach without fencing or buildings, and could. not. find. it.
We ended up stopping at a hotel and going to the front desk to ask. The hotel was deathly silent. I don't think there was a single person in any room in any of those hotels. I've never been to a town that has been so empty, it was eery.
A man at the hotel told us in broken English that there is no part of the beach that is open, that you have to pay to visit any of it. He said there is a small shack near where we were originally dropped off where we could haggle the price down to 20EGP a person to spend the day on the beach. We were all exhausted and frustrated from walking for so long down a deserted highway, but made the trip back to the beach that we started at.
We found the beach, and there was a man there who we paid to stay at the beach.
Once we were there though, it was beautiful.
I've never been to such an empty beach. Everything about it was surreal. The Red Sea. The Red Sea! Holy crazy! That is one of those places you kind of dream of seeing, but never really expect to get the chance to visit.
We spent the next hour and a half wading to our knees in the warm water, taking pictures, and combing the beach for bits of shells and pieces of coral. It was gray and cloudy, but that didn't detract from the experience. It was so nice to spend the time with good friends at an amazing place.

This was the place on the freeway we were dropped off at. Empty for miles... 
The view from behind the sea. Egypt is so flat everywhere, so it was strange to see it so rocky with all these mounds. 

The sea was absolutely calm. It was empty in every direction, and so incredibly smooth. 

The water is incredibly shallow for a very long distance. You could walk fifty feet out from the shore , and it would never get higher than your knees. I wish I had brought my swim things, because I would have loved to hop in the water! It was definitely as warm as summer lake water, and despite the clouds it was in the 70's most of the afternoon.


There were so many pretty bits of ephemera to be collected.  And the water was so clear!



Our escorts for the day, to protect us from any marauding kidnappers disguised in the back of a hitchhiked microbus. haha. From left, Jordan, Jeff, and Phil.
At that point, Sara, Mary, and Jeff decided to walk across the street to a little gas station-esq stop and see if there were any buses coming in the near future. They returned to the beach to tell us that there was a bus that would be stopping in twenty minutes, or we could wait over three hours (till after dark) for the next one. We made the decision that it would be best to take the bus leaving in twenty minutes, because it would suck if we waited around for three hours to have the other one not show. It also gets cold after dark, and with no place to go, as the only buildings we ever saw were empty hotels, we wouldn't have any place to stay at while we waited.
We packed up all our things, went to the bus stop, and waited.
And waited.
And waited.
And waited.
And pretty soon, we realized, that the bus "coming in twenty minutes" was imaginary, for it never came at all.
Which put us in a bit of a pickle.
Do we wait for three hours till after dark, in the middle of nowhere, three hours away from Cairo for another bus that had no guarantee of showing?
We realized we had the number for the tour company, so we called it to see if they would be making a return stop in Ain Soknah.
No answer.
No answer again.
So we were out of luck, it seemed.
We went back to the gas station, and asked if there were any microbuses or taxis in the area. He told us that nothing stops there, only the buses.
Except apparently those don't stop there either.. haha.
So as we stood on the side of the freeway, sun setting behind the red sea, a speeding microbus approached from a distance. I suggested that we flag it down, to see if we could get a ride back to Cairo.
That's right.
I suggested we hitchhike.
Now, don't freak out just yet. If you haven't been to Egypt, then this will be more difficult to understand.
Microbuses are the primary form of public transportation here. They are like large taxis that you share with as many other people as can fit. Generally you pay a flat rate, and hop off wherever you need a stop. When you get them normally though, it is inside a city at a designated bus stop type area. We take microbuses nearly everyday though, and have never had a negative experience with them.
So the only difference was that this one was in transit outside a major city. Aaaaand we had no guarantee of its final destination. But we figured it was really our best option for getting out of the city.
We flagged it down, and it pulled to a stop. The driver told us in Arabic that this bus was going to Suez, not Cairo, but that their were people on the bus transferring to one heading to Cairo once we arrived in Suez. We decided to take the chance, and hop in.
There were six of us, three of us being big guys and two of us knowing a decent amount of Arabic, so we figured we were fairly safe should things head south.
We ended up making a good decision, because after a brief stop in Suez, we began heading towards Cairo and arrived that at the train/bus station around 9:00pm. That was followed with an uneventful metro and follow up microbus ride, with arrival at our house about an hour later.
It was an exhausting day, to say the least.
And we definitely spent more time travelling than we actually did at the beach.
But what an adventure!
I'm glad to have come out of it this week with several great and entertaining stories, if nothing else.
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