Journal: Thursday 6 November 2003
The route we were taking to the Western Desert meant driving north as far as Sohag with the convoy. By 7.30am we were lined up in Luxor’s ‘Convoy Street’ with all the other coaches, minibuses and taxis waiting for the tourist police to give the signal to be off. It’s mayhem with drivers meeting and greeting each other, leaning against their vehicles and chatting while trying to keep an eye on their passengers who are wandering about, buying last minute supplies of cold drinks and snacks at the little kiosk. Eventually we were off and the long snake of traffic began to slither out of the street and through Luxor. As well as Abdul who accompanies us on all our trips as driver/guide, we have with us Mohammed who is the official driver of the hired minibus.
This particular convoy goes to Abydos, so we were all glad to stop there for a brief visit. Most of the group had never been to Abydos and they tore around the Seti temple in the hour and a half allotted, while Sam and I wandered more leisurely taking pictures of scenes we particularly wanted to look at again. This is one of my favourite temples and the exceptionally well-crafted colourful reliefs of Seti and his son Rameses always take my breath away. There was no time to walk along to the Rameses Temple today, but we did manage a quick coffee in the cafe in the park in front of the Seti Temple. There was a stall selling some really good replica antiquities where I found a lovely little shabti that looks surprisingly genuine. and I was still haggling as the convoy police blew their whistle to signal time to leave. The stall-holder didn’t want to lose the sale and I came away with a bargain, though not so much from my powers of haggling but because he remembered me from previous visits.
Back in our bus we drove with the convoy as far as Sohag and then had a change of police who would take us down to Asyut. This lot were really crazy and we had to endure some very fast driving with the lovely countryside whizzing past too fast to appreciate as we bounced up and down on the seats over the potholes and ridges in the road and tried to hang on as best we could. Poor Mohammed was driving and getting very stressed trying to keep up. At Asyut we crossed the river to the West Bank and onto the desert road where the police left us to travel onwards by ourselves. We still couldn’t dawdle because there are checkpoints at intervals on the long desert highway and if we didn’t arrive at the next checkpoint when we were supposed to there would be trouble. In the early evening we had a spectacular view coming down off the escarpment into the oasis of Kharga with the soft orange afterglow of the sunset ahead of us and lights beginning to flicker in the scattering of houses at the edges of the cultivated area. At 8.00pm we pulled up outside our hotel in Kharga City, all of us feeling very stiff and tired from our long journey.
There are only two tourist hotels in Kharga. One of them is the Solymar Pioneer and quite a bit more expensive than the hotel that we were booked into. After ten minutes in our hotel we all wished we’d chosen the more expensive option. ‘Basic’ is a generous description, but ‘clean’ obviously isn’t in their vocabulary. This was when the problems began. After a little time spent swapping around unacceptable rooms we learned that the hotel didn’t serve food, but that was OK, we’d planned to go out to eat. Mohammed had done all the driving and he had to be almost carried up to his room – already half asleep. It was at this point that we all realised the implications of travelling in the month of Ramadan, which we had been assured was not a problem.
While we westerners had been at least guzzling bottled water all the way here, Abdul and Mohammed had had nothing to eat or drink since dawn this morning. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar is held as a holy time by most Egyptians. When the sun has set Muslims are permitted to break their fast, usually with a simple snack before evening prayers in the mosque. Prayers are followed by Itfar, often a quite elaborate feast enjoyed by friends and family together. It’s a time of joyful celebration and companionship. The only other meal is Suhoor, which traditionally includes dates and is taken before sunrise – i.e. about 5.00am! Mohammed the driver, dumped unceremoniously on top of his bed in the hotel room, was oblivious to Itfar tonight. He could not be woken. The rest of us went out into town to look for a restaurant, only to find that the few there were had closed at 7.00pm after the Itfar meal.
Eventually we found our way to the Pioneer Hotel, whose deserted restaurant, the manager opened for us. Tired as we were, I think the others enjoyed their meal, though my recollecton of tepid spaghetti with a thin tomato sauce – the only vegetarian option – leaves a less happy memory. Once back in our own hotel later however, the Pioneer suddenly seemed very grand and palatial. I slept on top of the bed and didn’t unpack anything.