A Holiday in Post-Uprising Egypt: Part 1

Myself and the new Ms Plants are both the traveling sort, so as it was we found ourselves looking last August for places to go. Egypt came up. It was cheap - so it appeals naturally to northerners, and a Nile cruise sounded like a beautiful and relaxing journey, taking in some culture along the way. Thompson did a decent weeks package that would take us from Luxor down to Aswan and then back again, visiting places along the way. It was after all, a while since all that inconvenient uprising went on, and they wouldn't be running the cruises if the passengers' lives were in danger, would they?

'We wouldn't be running this cruise if your lives were put in danger', the smiling holiday rep said as she prepared to take our deposit.

Nevertheless, she let slip that booking numbers were down - way down - on their usual levels even at Christmas, which is when we plumped for. Our first new year together and it would be spent romantically on a boat ringing in the new year, hopefully without having to dodge any bullets.

The next few months involved trying not to think about it too much and having the stern resolve to take the subsequent events with a level of calm, and trust that the holiday place would let us know if all hell was really breaking loose.

Our day came, and semi full with Christmas cheer we hoisted ourselves aboard the plane and set off. Four or so hours later we were landing as the sun set and suddenly breathing the warm African air.

The first thing we noticed was the old fashioned 'step out of the plane and onto the runway' style of airport travel. Not for Egypt the covered walkways sealing you away from the aircraft exterior lest you get it into your head to climb into the still idling jet engines. Fortunately we didn't have to dodge planes on the way to the airport - a bus waited in the cooling night air not so far away. We mingled among a similarly attired group of fellow Brits as we made our way slightly blearily onto the bus and towards the airport buildings.

Through the other side, we had a short walk to the awaiting coaches to take us to the ship. We met our lovely tour guide, Alison who gave us a pack and directed us on our way.

'Don't accept any help', she kept saying to the bleary holidaymakers ahead as they passed her.

Within five seconds of saying it to us, we were approached by a couple of men whose familiarity suggested they were part of the organisers. They had approached from a loose group of similarly attired men in a traditional Egyptian shawl dress, and with a call of 'bags, please', they moved to take the larger of our bags for us to the coach. Like toddlers with their schoolbags on the first day of nursery, we obligingly let go with slightly puzzled expressions.

Lesson 1: Though you probably won't be robbed, you will be overwhelmed by people offering some sort of help or favour. No matter how basic the help - even asking for the time - they will put out their hand for a tip if they even get a whiff that they have convenienced you in any way.

Lesson learned, we tipped our 'helpers' for dragging our cases 20 yards, lest they get huffy with us, and resolve to be far more self-reliant in the future, or this would be an expensive holiday.
The coach sped down the main carriageway towards the Nile, picking itself through traffic that only vaguely followed any sort of highway code. Teens on motorbikes, horses and carts, and cars from a variety of decades almost without exception containing dents and scratches along their sides. Each were occupying a random space on the roads, as if the lane markers weren't even there. Many of the cars had headlights that were long-since blown or smashed (or just not switched on), meaning our driver had to rely more on the less-than-100% working street lighting. Occasionally our nervous system would get an extra jolt as we whistled past a car headed in the opposite direction - on our side of the carriageway. The rep calmly read from her script like we were on a summer holiday in the south downs.

Fortunately the highways are punctuated every so often with chicanes of erected barriers and speed bumps to ensure we don't go too fast too much. This freestyle approach to health and safety felt very refreshing for one so frequently wrapped in cotton wool in his own country.

About an hour later, we hit Luxor and the east bank of the Nile, where our ship was waiting. Predictably, as soon as we got out we were surrounded by people eager to either sell us something, or take our things again. Fortunately Alison had prepared us this time, and filled us in a little about how the Brits are seen over there.

Lesson 2: Egyptians know all about how to handle different cultures, and theirs is one of tipping for the slightest thing. As far as Brits are concerned, they know if they achieve eye contact, the majority of us are too polite to ignore them and turn away, leaving the weakened holidaygoer in a more generous mood. Avoid eye contact as much as possible, and if you happen to get it, keep walking and say firmly but politely - 'sorry, no'.

Ships tend to be stacked in the docks, and our Jazz cruiser was the third in line, meaning that for our maiden embarkation, we had to negotiate a wobbly gangplank and then walk through two other boats on the way. We trusted that our luggage could make it through the curious crowds and to our room at some point behind us, as we went up to the top deck to the lounge, where we would be told what was going on.

The holiday rep gave out some sheets showing what we were doing and when. Most things were still on, although the planned stopoff at Edfu was cancelled due to there still being a bit of tension in the area. We were also given a list of things we could do - at extra cost - if we fancied something other than sprawling out on a lounger in the free periods. Opting to make the most of being here, we filled most of the slots with penciled in extra stuff and handed our forms in.

Our bags had arrived safely, and after unpacking we went down to the lower deck to stuff our faces with food. We were allocated a table with a family who were staying for two weeks, and after some introductions we headed to the buffet. The chefs had decided to be prudent; the menu was decidedly European - even English - in origin, with cottage pie, recognizable vegetables and even some yummy-looking pud in among the silver basins. As the holiday progressed, this slowly changed to include some more local cuisine, much of which was delish.

Back in our room we settled in for the night, quite tired, although the jetlag wasn't severe enough to disrupt the sleep patterns for the next morning. Then we would have our first experience out in the city, at the mercy of the pickpockets or criminals, or worse, the vendors.
Radio 4 are putting on a series at the moment called The Nile, talking about the problems with the area, the reduced tourism and the effects of the problem on the economy (including the controversial rebuilding of Luxor). Combined with the regular reports of unrest coming from the region, I'm glad we went when we did.

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