Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ride a Train Like an Egyptian

The Train to Aswan, Egypt

“Pyramid!” Nate shouts, pointing to something out the window of the train. “Oh, no. It’s just some mud,” he says, disappointed.

It’s a thirteen-hour train ride from Cairo to Aswan. It’s a quite comfortable train if you go it in the daytime without a trainload of French teenagers, but we went at night, with a trainload of French teenagers. It’s morning now and we’re still two hours from Aswan and the teenagers are still French and annoying.

Apparently French kids get a two-week holiday in the middle of February. If I’d known that, I’d have hidden out in a mud hut in the desert somewhere, but instead I’m here, in one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations.

The two French kids who shared our compartment last night told us that they are here because their parents are employees of Air France, and Air France is socialistic enough to fund group holidays for their employees. While I admire Air France’s condescending show of paternal benevolence toward their employees, (they must know that you’re better than them when you’re paying for them to take their family holidays together — Oh, thank you benevolent employer! May I have another lump of coal for the fire?) I regard last night’s teen dance party in the corridor outside our compartment as their doing, and by God I swear I will one day take my revenge on Air France’s staff and equipment.

Nate and Linda flew out to Egypt to meet up with us. Linda got her permanent resident visa from the government of Canada much faster than they were expecting, (hooray!) so instead of hanging out in Borneo and eating wild boar curry in the jungle, the two of them decided to come to Egypt and eat baba ganoush and hummus with us in the desert.

Nate is as suspicious as ever; as I intently look at him sitting across the train compartment from me, trying to invent new adjectives to describe him with, he looks back at me and smiles and nods and tries to act like he is not unsettled by my penetrating stare. I can’t understand why he distrusts me so; I will have to watch my back with him around, and maybe consider making a preemptive strike while he is sleeping. How heavy an object would I need to finally put his poor, suspicious mind to rest?

Egypt is cool. I enjoyed Cairo more than I ever thought I would. Cairo is one of the world’s megacities, with a population of eleven million or twenty million, depending on who you ask and where they decided to stop counting. It is fairly poor and yes, you often have to chew the air before breathing, but it has character and loads of history. Cairo was the capital of the Mamluks and is full of fantastic old mosques and palaces. Cairo’s old city was built a fair distance from the Nile, before flood controls tamed its banks, and the new downtown was built next to the Nile, so the old city wasn’t destroyed when the new center was built. Cairo has everything.

Giza, which used to be called Memphis, is now a suburb of Cairo. I didn’t see anything in Giza that would be spared my merciless bulldozing of bad urban planning and ugly cities when I become dictator of the world, except for the pyramids. The pyramids are wicked. They look like big stone triangles. We took one hundred thousand photographs of them, all of which show big stone triangles standing in the desert, a short distance from the sharp line that divides the sand and the greenery of the Nile valley. Sometimes there are camels in the foreground.

Egypt is drawn incorrectly on all of the maps I’ve ever seen. It usually looks like a lumpy square on maps. It really is more of a long line down the Nile. How can a country say they own all that sand out in the desert, and why would they care to claim it? The area immediately next to the Nile is nearly as lush and green as the jungle Nate and Linda just left, but one centimeter past the farthest reach of the irrigation systems is the driest, deadest desert I’ve ever seen.

I’ve never seen a desert this dead, and I consider myself to be something of a connoisseur of deserts. The desert in Arizona always disappointed me, because it’s full of plants. You can hardly walk through the thing for all the saguaros and prickly pears and mesquite trees that get in the way. Both the Gobi desert in Mongolia and the edge of the Arabian desert we just saw in Syria and Jordan was freckled with the odd clump of bushes or grass, and could support the camels and goats of a few nomadic herders. The patches of the Western Desert we’ve seen here are completely dead. There’s nothing as far as the eye can see except sand.

I can’t wait to get out there and see it. I know from past experience that it’s going to be boring as hell. Tucker and I spent 9 days bouncing around in a jeep in the Gobi in 2004, and I’ve driven across Saskatchewan more than once, so I know what being in the middle of nothingness is like. I know what it’s like to look forward to stopping in some flyspecked dustblown shithole like Bogd or Regina, as though it were an oasis of worldly pleasures. The sensory deprivation of desert travel is something that needs to be experienced, though. Our main difficulty will be finding a way to get out into the desert without taking some kind of a tour.

The teenaged French girls at the other end of the car are now excitedly screaming about some kind of pubescent conversational outrage or some spectacular development in the soap opera of their social lives. Be warned, Air France: I am taking this out on you. The next time I fly Air France (which would be the first time) I am going to shit in the bathroom sink.


  1. And with this post, Ben sets off a chain of events that leads to an emergency Board meeting in Paris and the replacement of sinks in Air France livery with second toilets.

  2. All that comes to my mind is Vincent Van Gogh, Fecal finger painter.