The Return Journey
Sven, Amelia, and I intended to go on from Cairo to the Siwa Oasis, where Alexander was confirmed into godhood. The picturesque palm groves and pools of Siwa border the Great Sand Sea of Libya. They are rarely visited, and the people, a mostly Berber blend, with a high proportion of hermaphrodites resulting from the magnesium present in the springs, are kind and welcoming.
Old Skip, the Reader will recall, had considered opening a backpacker's hostel there, a quiet place to replace the hectic one he sold in Surfer's Paradise, Australia. He stayed a month in November, testing the mineral waters and the sandy waves, as it were, and then flew to Los Angeles to pick up a large 1950's bus with a shaggy 70s décor, which he intended to fix up and drive around America; however, he was dissuaded from this by greedy LA and the insensate American mentality. He sold the bus back to its owner and flew back to relaxing Egypt, a much better sheath for his sword.
I recently had received a message from Skip that he was on his way back to Siwa, but when he instead decided to spent another month on the Red Sea in Nuweiba, and given our general lack of motivation for such a long journey, Amelia and I decided to stay in Cairo for those days we had left in Egypt. We stayed at the Ismailia House, visited our old haunts, watched movies on the hotel's television (I remember Amelia shushing Sven and I during King Arthur when we went on talking about the Dark Age wars of Angles and Saxons during the scenes of Clive Owen's romance, though as usual the Egyptians had cut out all the kissing), and met a new cast of characters.
There were energetic bands from Korea and Japan, who kept to themselves for the most part, and Rob, a traveler from Perth, and Kyle, an American who had ridden his bike from Singapore, through the belt of the Himalayas, up out of Pakistan into the Tartar steppe around Iran, and then down through the Caucasus into the Levant and Egypt. These were the last legs of his trip.
While Kyle bought cardboard boxes to package his bike, so he could take it on the plane, we went with Rob of Perth to the City of the Dead, still very much alive. Fifty-thousand Cairenes built homes out of the crumbling yards of tombs in the city's northern cemetery, under the degraded beehive domes of sepulchral mosques. Only the new bits tacked onto the old, like bits of tape on an old book, looked clean. Those who haunted the place invested themselves in cafes and tired shops and watched us walk through.
Kyle was a Georgian by birth, though the cold and wild breadth of Alaska had made itself his home. From Anchorage he flew out to remote locations, landing planes on glaciers or lakes. One in five Alaskans has a pilot's license, and one in twenty a plane. He had watched the Aurora Borealis, “God's paintbrush.” He had seen the Magic Bus of Christopher McCandless and the salmon migration and grizzly bears. But he was born in Georgia and lived there until he turned 19. An absurd incident colored his leave taking. At a concert he was arrested with five kilograms of mushrooms he harvested himself, after selling a handful to an undercover officer for $5.
He made his phone call from jail. “It's okay,” said his father to the youngest son, who had never been caught doing anything wrong. “You messed up. It'll be good to spend one night there, thinking about what you did. I'll get you out tomorrow.” The next day, having talked to a lawyer, Dad said, “Alright you really messed up, but we'll get you out of there in a few days.” The prosecution had three felonies on Kyle: Possession, Intent to Distribute, and Sale of Illegal Drugs. A week went by, then two, and Kyle's father grew more desperate. “We're trying to get you out of there. We want you to come home.”
Kyle had to spend that whole month in jail, without option for bail. Drug laws in Georgia are strict. He waited three months for a trial. A possible sentencing of five years jail time loomed like a guillotine over his head, but he pleaded guilty in exchange for two months in jail, five years probation, and a clean record following a clean probation. He was one of four white people in his jail, segregated from the rest of the 500 inmates, and his neighbor was a murderer.
“That set me straight, though,” said Kyle, as he told us his story over koshary and ful sandwiches in Felfela. “I was a undisciplined before, a little rowdy and wild. But when I came out I was so much more mature, and focused. I had been locked up, and now I knew what freedom and comfort were. I knew I had to work hard and stay straight.”
Kyle left for Anchorage the following day, and Sven for Siwa on the day after. The East German would see as much as he could before flying home on Christmas Day. I took a short trip the day after to see Alexandria. That ancient port languished under a sluggish smoke. The day was cold, and a wind blew dust and scattered refuse about the air. I walked up past the Roman ruins that stood out like scars among the grimy new neighborhoods to the custard sea, and followed the coast around to see the west and east harbors. The new Library of Alexandria was a structure like a dormant spaceship, and everything looked colonial and dim. But it was Alexander's city, and that mere fact made it a wonder to me.
Egypt has a terrorist problem, or at least advertises one on television. We saw two commercials, in all that time watching the tube, warning people of the dangers of militants.
One began with a gift: money paid to a barber. The trimmer of hair, unaware of his role as a cutter of heads, passed on his tip to a shopkeeper, who took those same pound notes on to a blue-collared teacher in his classroom. The teacher took the money and passed through rows of starry-eyed young pupils at their desks and notepads, and down a ladder secreted beneath the bookshelf and the posters of the periodic table of elements and the water cycle, into a dusty subterranean lair, where masked figures fingered their Kalishnakovs during a break in the jihad. They accepted the paid-forward donative with zealous gratitude. Red words slammed into the blackened screen and dripped blood!
The second showed children in a brown and tan Arab street. The dirt road steamed dust and hazed over with heat like a fire. The kids stood there with footballs or bicycles at the ready, and contemptuous, pitiable looks. The ad cut to a posse of jihadists, kefiyes pulled over their mouths to hide distinguishing features. They were a mob of indistinct killers, faceless martyrs, unmarked graves with Kalishnakovs and rockets. And then the bicycle was upturned, and its wheel spun idly. The blood red letters, they bleed like old scars torn open by too much scratching! The wounds will never heal.
Our plan for Christmas was this: We would go to Israel via the King Hussein Bridge in Jordan, thereby avoiding the black mark of the passport stamp, and come to Bethlehem, to stay with someone Denniz knew from CouchSurfing. Then we would go to Tel Aviv and stay with Denniz's friend Rachel for New Years. There was plenty to see along the coast and in the West Bank, and though the country was pricy, we would avoid the brunt of it by surfing couches.
On Thursday, six days after returning to Cairo, we left for Dahab. We packed up the night before. My bag was much lighter, as I had mailed home the tablecloth I bought in Damascus, a few gifts, and a great bronze shisha, which I bought from a salesman recommended by Yashar. The Iranian-Canadian had gone to the place two days in a row and slowly bargained the price down to something reasonable. I went in with a card Yashar gave me and in five minutes had arranged to get the same deal.
Both Amelia and I slept through our alarms that morning, but a nightmarish groan from a Japanese man in my dorm room woke me up a half hour later, at 6:45. Somehow we made it onto the 7:15 direct service to Dahab at the very last second. It felt good to come back to that warm and forgetful place. We checked back into Seven Heaven and shook hands with the proprietor, Samir, and all the staff who remembered us. Richie the Tae Kwon Do black belt, Maria the Danish diver, Saori the Japanese student, and Ahmed the optometrist. The touts and hawkers recognized us in the street, and at Friends cafe, we were welcomed back with a shisha on the house.
None of it lasts, however. Richie was leaving that night, along with an eager young American couple from Colorado. The Kiwi would go back to Liepzig, though he hated his job there. He said he would be back, but Maria did not believe it. “I hate goodbyes,” huffed Maria, a bottle of red wine in her hand. “That's the bad thing—people are leaving all the time. I don't like it. People leave after five days. I made a rule. If people aren't staying more than a week, don't get to know them. Not that it works.”
We had a clothes line outside our bungalow, and I considered doing laundry. "Yeah," I said, "I need to wash my jeans. I still haven't washed them at all." But Amelia told me, "You don't need to wash them." I protested that "I've been wearing them for like a week." "Denim is better when you don't wash it. I haven't washed my jeans since... Hungary." "Oh." Cleanliness is a strange state of mind, dependent on circumstance. In the woods, an occasional dip in the lake is sufficient. In the cold, a shower is a horror. The city requires a daily scalding.
Wednesday had been a windy one in Cairo. All that turbulence kicked up the seedy rot that lined the streets, which gave Amelia an eye infection to match her cold. This perked up in Dahab. Her right eyelid puffed out to the size of a pomegranate. Pharmacists, the clinic doctor, and Seven Heaven's optometrist dive master Ahmed all gave different diagnoses, but Amelia trusted that of the latter. Every four hours she applied some antiviral cream he had recommended directly into her eye.
Meanwhile, she wore sunglasses when we walked around, like some victim of domestic abuse. We again ran into the Bedouin girl who had sold us our bracelets, braided Amelia's hair, and threatened to knife Jean. She sat down next to us and took note of Amelia's pustule. “Husband hurt you?” asked the girl. “Put ice on it. You go to doctor. Doctor better.”
Three days in that sunny haven. We sent out dozens of CouchSurfing requests to Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, hoping for a last minute host in that desperate season—or else risking the manger! Denniz's contact in Bethlehem was renting out his home, and Rachel already had a Polish group staying on her floor for New Years. Dismayed and antisocial, we retreated into our cheap little bungalow and watched movies.
My netbook had a sparse hard drive, but it was enough to hold a few digitized films. From Aussie Steve, way back in Aleppo, I got Wall-E, Pineapple Express, The Castle, and The Hangover; from Yui of Japan, the Miyazaki animations My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, and the Korean films Joint Security Area and Memories of Murder; and from the Seven Heaven Internet café, where downloaded movies languish, we found Man of the Year, Heat, Taken, Ong-Bak, Ong-Bak 2, Pixar's Up, and most of the first season of True Blood, to which we addicted ourselves.
We watched Up while waiting for the ferry in Nuweiba. It left an hour late and arrived in Aqaba at seven, though luck propelled us through the obnoxious touts and got us a spot on a late bus to the capital.
Amman was colder and quieter than we remembered. The familiar hotels had no vacancies, so we checked into one called the Cliff Hotel. The kindly old proprietor showed us our room, and after a quick visit to Hashem's across the street, we passed out. Suffering from the exhaustion of travel, we did not leave the hotel until after 1 the next day, and then returned immediately to Hashem's.
Hashem's Restaurant, as a world famous institution of street food, deserves more attention than I gave it here. The complex of street stalls takes up an entire alley. One cove fries falafels for sandwiches, one brews tea, and the largest makes dips and sauces. Waiters in red moved between the stalls and the tables set up between them, with trays of tea or plates of ful and hummus, doused in olive oil and sprinkled with chickpeas and a kind of salsa. They serve bowls full of hot falafels, stacks of fresh bread, with plates of tomato, onion, and mint to compliment the rest.
Coming so quickly from the overcrowded poverty of Cairo staggered us with the Jordanian affluence, like jumping from hot water into cold. We could not tell whether Amman had changed, or if it was only our perceptions that had changed. Urban Ammanites wore suits and western fashions, and the street stalls sold thick socks, gloves, hats, and scarves. All day, between calls to prayer, a mullah chanted Qur'anic verses unceasingly, insistently, as if reminding his nation of Mohammed's humility by quoting the Prophet's verse.
That was December 22, and we hoped to be in Bethlehem on the following day, although we had only a tenuous idea of where we would be sleeping. A quick stomach bug delayed our departure, but on Christmas Eve we emptied our bag of anything conspicuous, rehearsed our answers to the guards' questions, and departed from Amman for the border of the Holy Land.
So friends and travelers; so gamblers and robbers, drinkers and jokers; so soul-searchers: Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.