Wednesday, July 31, 2013

‘Gypt in a land of wonder.

Small boys riding Arabian dancing horses, competing with small boys riding motorcycles. Grown men driving cars with no headlights at breakneck speed in the same poorly lit street. There's barely enough room for pedestrians and even they are very erratic, to say the least. In the midst of it all, a wedding cavalcade of mini-vans escorted by a traveling disco sound system. The police are very noticeable by their absence. The situation is unsafe and it all happens so frequently. It is dangerous, annoying and it is deafening. This is Luxor, one of the major tourist destinations on earth. It's also the festival of Eid. But, this is also Egypt after the authorities lost control. It isn't a pleasant experience but it's what independent travelers have to endure if Egyptology is on their minds. And, after visiting the ruins of one of the world's early civilizations, it has become a wonderful mystery as to why it's all so un-inviting.

The chaos, cacophony and crap on the streets appear as sure signs nothing good lies in the near future for the people who speak so proudly of their recent "revolution". It's as if this is their only period of "freedom" since the pyramids were built 5,000 years ago. And, they're going nuts with it. For example, it would be very difficult for foreigners to drive a car in Egypt. Car rental companies have vacated the country. I noticed a lot of missing headlights. I noticed very few traffic lights. The most were near the stretch of highway that connects the airport to downtown Cairo. In this city of 18 million it can be anywhere from 30 minutes to never when estimating how long it might take to do that trip. I've never experienced traffic congestion such as I lived with during my 5 days in Cairo.

I travelled by road from Abu Simbel to Aswan to Luxor. I'm sure that road operations were much smoother when the police were on duty. The linear urban strip all along the Nile lends itself to modern traffic control techniques but instead it can be pure pandemonium at times, often times. There's evidence of a police presence but I got the sense it was only interested in controlling the locals. Now, where the main Cairo road runs parallel with the Nile, traffic calming has sprung up in the form of crude bumps on the road. Using bricks, debris and concrete, speed bumps have been constructed at every school, market or intersection. Many have crumbled under the constant strain turning them into speed bumps to be avoided, rendering them more like gates through which both north and south bound vehicles must pass single file. In the absence of more sophisticated methods, these crude barriers to speed are taking a huge toll on travel time
The police are in their barracks, stationed only immediately outside. Government is frozen. So too are the wages many had come to rely on. Before the revolution most Egyptians had a daily government placement for at least 4 hours of paid labour. That's all gone now. For many it wasn't a tough job but it was where everybody got their share of the net worth of the Country, their institutionalised baksheesh, as it were. As far as I know, after a very short visit, while Egypt is not as resource-rich as Libya or Saudi, it does have significant wealth opportunities. The generosity of the waters of the Nile as it flows through the Egyptian desert is wonderful to see. Farm produce, hydro electricity, some oil, gas and significant infrastructure investments are all examples of the Country's gross domestic value. However, there's a saying in the arab world, "as poor as an Egyptian", and that is so very true.

The balance of an Egyptian's livelihood is supposed to come from income earned as licensed independent operators within their own communities. They work as taxi, horse and camel drivers Many are hotel, restaurant and perfume shop salespeople. The souks too are large employers. They’re all volume based tourist dependant occupations.

These days, it's very evident nobody's buying. I was told, tourism didn't slow down after the January 25, 2011 protests and police action - it came to a thundering halt. What's on offer in the shops, souks and museums has all the appearance of last year's goods. Income from that source has dwindled significantly. 

Now shopkeepers are stuck with cheap imported junk, a lot fewer customers and an unsustainable approach to merchandising and selling. It's obvious too that much of their inventory was not manufactured locally. Unlike other countries in the region where I've visited, Morocco and Turkey, there appeared to be no local craft industry. Yet, everywhere there was delicately manufactured chattels and trinkets. 

Honestly, I saw nothing being made that a tourist would be interested in buying. When challenged, they say, "No, it is made in Egypt". But, the empty "Made in China" packing cartons scattered all around the souks tells the true story.

Another thing, for the prices locals are paying for these goods the cost must be extremely low. It's interesting to ponder the value of the Egyptian market to China. Many home essential goods are imported from there. Based on my use of some of them during my trip, there is a lot of room for product quality improvement. If they are making a profit in such a poor country imagine how fantastically profitable it must be selling to the USA and European markets.

Most Egyptians in the tourism sector are living off a 5,000 year old story. It's a hugely valuable asset, a well established brand but poorly nourished. 
Culturally, this seems to be fine with the locals. They are acutely aware of the essentials of capitalism but seem to have little understanding of marketing or long term planning. It's as if the total revenue from tourism is divvied up among too many recipients and there's never much left over for repairs or improvements. Based on my own experiences, there’s the same neglect in public spaces, boat landings, train and bus stations from near the border with Sudan all the way north via Aswan and Luxor en route to Cairo. Egyptians don't seem to be making any strides to modernize, or even maintain, and glaringly unaware of the threats to their feature assets.

It's unfortunate too that while tourism revenues are down, the rest of the country must be in better shape. Egypt still produces wealth from the country's other assets. For example, Egypt is a major force in the construction industry throughout the Middle East, producing many of the materials used in it, like cement and other raw materials. In spite of this, the museums, hotels, taxis, camels, horses and donkeys all look down on their heel. That's a poor business decision that will have an increasingly negative impact for tourism. 
These people are screwed. It looks to me like the police and military are just waiting them out. The majority of Egyptians are poorly educated and so culturally retarded to be any match for the 1% that hold the levers to coercive power. The oppressors will undoubtedly reappear, and maybe soon when temperatures rise again to their most enervating. The country needs leadership but it's more likely to get another richly-anointed Chief Corruption Officer. Egypt has been controlled by force since antiquity and the current military machine won't tolerate change that endangers its preferred status. The oppressed can't hold out forever either. 

A weird combination of a lowering of the cost of many goods, in the face of a decline in revenues, has conspired to deaden the shock waves of the 2011 Egyptian Spring. It looks like a good deal for the controlling segments in the society but it's a lousy one for most. China enjoys good relations with Egypt for reasons solely to do with natural resources. I'd say the Chinese got the gas but 99% of Egyptians got the pains.

Amazingly, I noticed a number of references to Che Guevara, the kind of leader Egypt needs. But, I saw no evidence that his image is portrayed as anything but another piece of eye candy for the tourists. When I quizzed those retailers about their product offering they appeared to have either no clue who Che Guevara was and even managed somehow to link him with Bob Marley!  

This was the dirtiest, downtrodden country I've ever visited.
The underlying combination of religion and paganism could well be designed to maintain the population close to the lowest common denominator. Along with the chilling effects of fiscal withdrawal and a hands-off police force, it simply looks like another slight-of-hand piece of politics. The kind of political machination measured sparingly enough to mollify the great unwashed until such times as their oppressors re-emerge from their holes to get behind another modern day leader. One who will no doubt take a "rightful" place among a long line of despots. What this country needs is a severe injection of socialism but I fear the "Gods" will resist and the people appear inept at channeling their own collective power.

I went to see the only remaining Wonder of the World, the Pyramids and the Sphinx. They're located in a huge open air museum that is also an active archeological dig. At the edge of Cairo, in a suburb that threatens the very sands these monuments sit upon, Giza public transit takes you right to the foot of the Sphinx. It's an easy walk from there to the ticket office but you must endure another onslaught from the world’s most annoying tourist touts.

Where you from? (Canada, ah Canada Dry, never die) 
What's your name? (Lovely name, same as my father) 
You want scarf? (Made in Egypt, look like Arafat)

It drives you nuts and there’s no relief - even if you fight back.

Where you from? (Afghanistan, oh yea?) 
What's your name? (Osama bin Laden) 
You happy he's dead? (Don't even go there!)

Once through the gauntlet there's a lot more to endure. There’s garbage strewn everywhere. Horse, camel, donkey and dog crap desiccating in full sun and under foot. 

You can’t stop for a look around without some tout approaching and going through the same old, same old routines. Of course, there are two Egyptians. Any who were not annoying touts came across as friendly enough. But, the touts are surely leaving an indelible image on the minds of visitors. I came across a few who I rewarded with a tip of Toronto proportion but in every case my generosity was scoffed at in a most demeaning manner! These were not nice people at all.

Everywhere you look there are solutions that would make the situation better, but Egyptians aren't interested. A simple thing like a garbage bin is resisted because, "who wants a garbage bin on their corner?" That the garbage is tossed on, or swept to, that corner anyway doesn't seem to resonate. These are a culturally stubborn people. That so much of their well-being depends on tourism concerns them very little either. My guess is only the most die-hard Egyptologists would ever want to return to this place.

On the night before I left Cairo I walked by Tahrir Square. Friday is the holy day and the day of protest. That Friday was at the tail end of the Eid holiday. The streets were absolutely crowded with little room for cars or people to move. Drivers honked incessantly, out of holiday joy and frustration. The horn in Egypt is both a toy and an imaginary weapon for disposing of obstacles. 

In one of the roundabouts off Tahrir, three or four young men had taken up position on the statue in the centre. It was obvious they were spouting political protest but only a small crowd was paying any attention. If CNN had been filming it could easily have looked like a growing protest. 

Thankfully though, that didn’t happen until a week after I left. Having been ‘gypt enough, I was happy to have seen what I wanted but also quite happy to get the hell out of there.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Safetytoes on the Nile.

My company, Safetytoes International Inc., sells the Slipp-R rubber safety overshoe to end-users all over the world and I often go on missionary work where interest in our products is on the uptake. Trips like these have a fair amount of personal discovery too and after a couple of days in noisy, hectic Cairo I flew as far south as I could go to begin such a journey. 
It's a four hour trek from Abu Simbel to Aswan that skirts the Western Desert. That being the case, it's best done in the cool of the near morning. Temperatures in this part of the world are in the 80/90 degree range, in the winter, and in the 105/110 degree category, in summer. We had stayed in Abu Simbel village for the previous two nights and decided to make the journey to Aswan as early as possible. 

The preferred vehicle is the 6am big bus that carries 60 passengers but, on the night before, we were alarmed to learn that it was already sold out. We had come up against another one of those big floating Muslim holidays. The kind that jump onto calendars from nowhere and give independent travellers a very hard time. Try as she did, my wife had no luck flattering the crusty old driver or his assistant. The bus was full and there were no more tickets to be sold. The later bus was a 1pm start, a long hot drive and a late arrival in Aswan. It was not on our wish list.  

Public sanitary conditions in Egypt are crude. Public spaces are trashed and floors everywhere are horrible. We faced the prospect of a dangerous, dreadfully uncomfortable and unsanitary trip ahead of us. With so many locals planning a well earned sojourn from work, our chances of getting on the 1pm bus were, at best, dubious. Big buses in Egypt carry loads of spare parts, and their own mechanic, so our worries seemed well founded. We had little choice and at 10pm we went to bed comforted only by an offer of "seats" on the floor of the 6am big bus. 

In Abu Simbel we stayed in a small 5 room hotel constructed in the Nubian style. It was very comfortable indeed, given that we were situated on the perimeter of a great desert. At 5 am we headed to the village transit assembly point. The large open space public square in heart of the village was already filling up with like-minded travellers. 

Aswan is the most easily accessed modern urban area. It's the Southern Egypt destination of choice for a well earned vacation. For many of the resident farm and livestock workers it may be the only holiday they get. We were only about 24 kms north of the border with Sudan and surprised to learn that Khartoum is a much shorter direct drive route to comfort and joy than Aswan. However, no travel is permitted there down the western side of the Nile, even for locals wishing to spend time with family or friends.  It's bandit and kidnap territory where close quarters protection is recommended.  The only approved route is to first trek the 300 kms north to Aswan, cross the Nile and head south again another 300 kms to the Sudan border and another 350 kms to Khartoom. For locals in the Abu Simbel area to visit family just inside the Sudan border it could mean a trip of over 600 kms!

Not that we had any desire to visit Khartoum, however, it was sad to learn of the inconvenience and unfairness of all this coming and going. The territory from Aswan to Khartoom is the Region of Nubia, a thin band of ancient culture clustered along both sides of the Nile. While never a very large population, Nubia is considered by many to be the birthplace of Egypt. It was a Nubian Pharaoh that first conquered the south and successfully unified the country. The Nubian culture is fantastically rich and the Nubian temperament endearing. 

Unfortunately for Nubians, none of this mattered much when Egypt decided to dam the Nile at Aswan shortly after the 1952 revolution. This threatened some stunning temples, tombs and other important archeological sites, two of which are in Abu Simbel. 

Following a world-wide appeal, hugely important archaeological ruins were relocated in a monumental international effort from 1956 to 1962. The rising water drowned the ancient Nubian society with considerably less sympathy. Approximately 120,000 Nubians were simply forced to move to new housing with no compensation for loss of incomes or income generating assets. 

The area was famous for its date palm trees many of which were very old. The date palm requires years of growth before yielding significant amounts of fruit.  Today, they now lie under millions of gallons of water at the bottom of Lake Nasser. The northern Egyptian Government, domiciled in Cairo thousands of kms away, left much to be desired in terms of equity and fairness. Since all habitation was located in a very narrow strip on either side of the river, most of Nubia now lies under water. The current complexity of travel has made family and old extended family contact a real hardship. While the Aswan dams have provided Egypt with an abundance of wealth-producing opportunities, they have all but decimated a much respected ancient society.

The big bus had not yet arrived and we noticed that there was a constant mustering of small 14-seater mini buses. We learned that these head out as soon as they filled and one looked like it would be leaving soon. So, we negotiated a price and hopped on the one we hoped would be first to depart. Leaving so early meant we would arrive in Aswan by 8.30 am and in plenty of time to secure a hotel. It's funny how unexpected consequences can bring so much joy! We escaped sitting on the floor of the big bus. With all the pressure from the unexpected Muslim holiday we had started to worry about availability of reasonable accommodations. Now, arriving at our destination so early and the added bonus of an actual seat, we were feeling a whole lot better about the new day. 

Buses and taxis travel in convoy here. Being just 15 miles north of the Sudan border we suspected this was for good reason. The route is protected by military check points and we maintained a low profile throughout the trip. Our travel book had indicated foreigners were not permitted to travel this way. Only travel on the big bus, first class train or by air is allowed for tourists. Since most Egyptian buses travel with a mechanic we figured breakdowns were frequent so we reckoned travelling in convoy was for good reason. For the independent or guided traveller these reasons give a much appreciated sense of security. 

We left Abu Simbel with only 11 on board our reasonably appointed mini-bus. At each group of people along the road our driver stopped for a brief few words. It became obvious that he was looking for some other passengers. Then phone calls started to come. Apparently, the other three passengers were further ahead, and late. This didn't please the driver. Like the rest of our group he was Nubian who are a very pleasant people but seemingly also quick to anger. Finally, at the mouth of a road emerging from the desert, there appeared two men and two children. They clambered on board and we entered the desert proper.

The road is black top, smooth, straight and well maintained. Another rather nice bonus. The sun peeped up at around 6 am, not that anybody but us was noticing. Our fellow passengers were quiet or slumbering. After the sun had ascended it all became quite boring. Until that is, the racing started. Hammering along at average speeds of 120 kms an hour a game of overtaking dulled the boredom for the drivers. With the road being so sure-footed it didn't bother me and I soon recognized the bus against which we were in competition. There was only desert on either side and overtaking was the only fun to be had. Occasional and annoying Arabic music and constant interruptions from cell phone calls ensured there was no chance of sleeping either. 

We had only one crude toilet stop before we disembarked at a spot along the Aswan Cornice. It looked like good hotel room hunting grounds. We were spot on! Within an hour we had already crossed the Nile twice for the first time and secured a decent hotel room for the following two nights.