Into The Arabian West

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This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, June 15, 2004 was originally posted on June 18, 2004.

DAY 241:  “Where are you from?” the nameless taxi driver asked me from the driver’s seat.  I was in the back row, behind my carpool companion Rosa.

“New York,” I replied.

“Ah, New York?” the jovial portly man said.  “My brother lives in New York!”  He told me that he had planned to visit his brother in the Big Apple, but when he applied for a visa at the American embassy in Cairo, he was rejected.  The embassy said he didn’t have enough bank documents to show that he could financially support himself there — even though he claimed he did.  The taxi driver thought there was a different reason.

“I have three thousand dollars American, but I think they reject me when they saw my name,” he said.  “My name is Osama.”

Talk about having the wrong name at the wrong time.

OSAMA DROVE HIS BLUE AND WHITE STATION WAGON TAXI from Dahab westbound through the desert mountains (picture above) across the Sinai Peninsula.  His passengers were just two:  yours truly, and Rosa, the tall Spanish wife of my Australian dive buddy Oz who had decided to stay a week longer in paradise with his newly-acquired advanced diving certified status.  Rosa couldn’t stay any longer because she started a new job in London the next morning.  She left unwillingly, wishing her husband a good time.

Both Rosa and I had flights out of Cairo later that day and so the only goal of the day was to go west from Dahab to Cairo.  The cheaper but more time-consuming way was to take an overnight eleven-hour bus ride, but since both of us extended our stays in paradise for as long as we could, we split a six-hour private taxi ride for $96 (USD) at the latest possible time:  the morning of the day of our flights, at six in the morning.  However, I should have remembered the adage I learned in Namibia — “Nothing in Africa comes easy” — because just after two hours of napping in the back seat, a strange sound started coming from the engine.

I don’t know much about cars, but hearing the rumbles and feeling the decrease in speed, I knew enough that the problem was with the transmission.  No matter what gear Osama put the car in, it wouldn’t engage, leaving the car to do nothing but coast and gradually slow down to a halt.  When the car was parked on the shoulder under the hot desert sun, Osama took a mat out of the trunk to lay it underneath the station wagon to play around with the parts.  Rosa and I sat in the warm air of the car interior as the stick shift danced around like it was possessed by the Devil.

A worried look appeared on Rosa’s face.  “I really need to get to the airport by two.”

“Did you confirm your flight?”

“Uh, no.”

I think I got her even more nervous.


THERE WAS NOTHING OSAMA COULD DO for us except apologize and get on his cell phone to call every one of his taxi driver friends in the area.  The problem was that “the area” was in the middle of the desert, an hour away from a town in either direction.  Passengers vans whizzed by, most just off the ferry from Saudi Arabia, that wouldn’t pick us up because they were already full. 

Osama kept a positive attitude and was all smiles when he said that his friend would be coming in “two minutes” from the Suez Tunnel and that that friend would take us through tunnel to the other side, where another taxi driver that he arranged for would to take us to Cairo.  (New regulations only allowed taxis in their proper jurisdictions.)

It gave Rosa and I hope, but “two minutes” turned about to be about an hour (which made sense because the Suez Canal was still another 90 odd kilometers away).  In the meantime, a police pick-up truck driving by stopped to accompany us while waiting — they really had nothing better to do.  Being in the middle of the desert without an armed companion wasn’t advisable — especially for a portly man with a broken car and two tourists — because of nomadic Bedouin bandits. 


A RED MINIVAN APPEARED with a man and a boy inside by around 11:00 a.m.  Rosa and I transferred our bags into the new vehicle, which took us westbound through the desert to Suez.  The time flew by because I pretty much slept through the whole thing.  Once out of the Suez Tunnel and back onto continental Egypt, a plain taxi took us the rest of the way, 90 minutes to Cairo.  The new driver took Rosa straight to the airport so she could check in on time.  I on the other hand, still had over three hours to kill, and decided to take advantage of it.


THE EURAIL PASS, the unlimited (within a designated period of time) train travel pass valid for 17 western European countries is the way most American backpackers get around Europe, in the almost traditional post-college “rite of passage” trip.  Eurail Passes aren’t just for college kids, but are available to anyone (at varied prices) — unless you live in Europe, Morocco or Algeria.  With that said, I needed to get a Eurail Pass before my entry into Europe at the beginning of July, and between where I was in Egypt and where I would enter in Spain, there was only one place to get it according to the Rail Europe website:  at the Thomas Cook Travel Services Office in Heliopolis, an affluent suburb of Cairo. 

Getting to Thomas Cook was another pain because my taxi driver was from Suez and not Cairo and didn’t know the area, let alone its suburbs.  Plus he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Arabic.  We must have stopped for directions eight times at three-minute intervals and after about 45-minutes of driving in and around a radius of only about two or three miles, I finally spotted a Thomas Cook billboard with the address written in Arabic.  Ten minutes later I was dropped off.  Forty minutes after that, I had my one-month unlimited travel train pass — after racking up $960 (USD) on my MasterCard.  The hassle to get to Thomas Cook and the hefty price would pay itself off in the next coming weeks.


CAIRO HAS TWO AIRPORTS and luckily, I picked the correct one by chance, despite the confusing fact that I had an international flight from Egypt to Morocco and it departed from the domestic terminal.  In Egypt, “domestic” means “within the Arab world.”  I had hours to kill at the airport, and I spent them wandering the newly built shopping and eating pavilion, writing in my notepad and taking advantage of the free (but slow) internet services provided by the airport authorities.  Sooner than I thought, I was on the Egypt Air westbound flight across the African continent, high above the Sahara Desert, to Morocco, the westernmost country of the Arabia.  I slept for most of the flight, a five and a half journey that took me three hours back in time in the time zone game.


IT WAS ABOUT ELEVEN AT NIGHT when I arrived in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city.  The streets, although in a modern environment, were dark and empty.  I bought a phone card from an airport shop and tried to call some of the accommodations listed in the Morocco section of my Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide (Let’s Go only covered the “Middle East” and not Morocco), only to have every phone tell me “Numero interdit”.  It was a reminder to me that French — not English — was the backup language in Morocco if you didn’t speak Arabic. 

I exited the airport doors — and the comforts of speaking English — and hopped in a taxi that took me the 30 km. into town.  I automatically reverted to the high school French I hadn’t spoken in years with a surprising fluency and told him where to take me:  the youth hostel in the old city neighborhood of Medina.

“[Medina is not good.  The roads are too narrow; I can’t drive around there,]” he told me in French.  “[What do you want, a two star, three star hotel?]”

“[Two star.]”

“[I can take you to Hotel Casablanca.  Three star.]”

“[How much?]”

“Three hundred dirhams,” he answered in English, quoting me the equivalent of about thirty American bucks.  I supposed when it comes to money, they will speak any language you want.

“That’s too much.”  The youth hostel was only about five bucks.

“[This is Casablanca.  Everything is expensive.]”

“[Just take me to Medina.]”

“[It’s not good at night,”] he said.

Okay, safety first — it was late already, and even later in my mind and body, which was still three hours ahead.  I looked up other hotels outside Medina in my price range.  “[Do you know the Hotel du Palais?  Near the Consulate of France?]”

“[It’s not good.  That’s downtown.  I’ll take you to Hotel Casablanca.  Three stars.  It’s good,]” he said, obviously trying to sway me there to get some sort of commission from the hotel.

“[How about the Hotel Colbert?]” I asked, pointing to it on my map.  “[Do you know that one?”]

“Oui.”

We drove through the night and into the city.  It was only about 11:30 Casablanca time, but most everything was closed, giving the streets an empty and vulnerable feel.  At least the signs were in some language that used the Roman alphabet.  Oh, how I’d missed the Roman alphabet.

We pulled up to a hotel, which I was hoping was the $8/night Hotel Colbert, but it wasn’t.  It wasn’t even the $30/night Hotel Casablanca.  It was the $32/night Hotel Sully, which I just decided to go for being late, disoriented and exhausted from jet lag.  “Breakfast is included,” the manager said.  When the taxi driver charged me $37 for the ride from the airport, I was too tired to complain and just paid him off.  Part of the drama of travel is getting ripped off.

After dropping my bags off, I went out to find a store to buy some water, walking to the right of the hotel entrance.  The manager called out to me, “S’iI vous plait,” shaking his head and hands for me not to go in that direction, but towards the left since it wasn’t safe.  Thirty two bucks, and it’s not even in a safe neighborhood?  I found a shop to the left, got my water and Cokes and went back to my room to unwind, write some Blog, and watch French television.  I pretty much passed out from exhaustion with the television on and laptop on my lap.  After being in transit for about twenty hours straight — with car breakdowns in the desert, lost city taxi drivers, and nighttime flights — I supposed it was well deserved.






Next entry: Now in Color!

Previous entry: Last Day In Paradise




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Comments for “Into The Arabian West”

  • riff rat, street rat, i don’t buy that….

    sing along everyone!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  12:47 AM


  • ERIK: Since you are in a French-speaking country…please refer to everyone as ‘Putain!’. I studied French for about 8 years (4 in HS, 4 in UG). All you need to know are:

    -putain
    -soixant-neuf, mademoiselle
    -merde
    -tes yeux sont tres jolies (this should preface, soixant-neuf mademoiselle?)

    keep these handy.

    oh yeah…cabbies everywhere (Brazil included) suck.

    chio nob.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  01:01 AM


  • PAUL: I didn’t take French at all…only that little 3 month course in the 6th grade….but i think you’re forgeting an important one:

    - bassiez vous (you can use a prefix or suffix of putain for this phrase as well)...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  01:05 AM


  • Okay, all y’alls French is better than mine…

    I’m glad you made it there safely - you should try to find a Moroccan bridal outfit. Wait, that was a friend’s trip - and she’s a girl.

    Have fun!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  05:03 AM


  • By this point, don’t you just expect your transportation to break down? smile

    Posted by Liz  on  06/18  at  10:46 AM


  • LIZ:  Yeah, actually I do.  Except for planes.  That would be bad.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  02:33 PM


  • Okay, consider me completely un-Frenchified. Besides merde, I’m at a loss. A little help please, in the translations. When I went to Paris for 3 days I had a short list: please, thank you, right, left, bathroom, and of course poo. I fudged the rest with hand-gestures.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  02:42 AM


  • CHRISTY - Let’s just say most people would consider the French phrases PAUL and I put up to be sophomoric….

    but whatever…here it is in order…

    - bitch
    - 69, madam
    - shit
    - (paul insert translation here)

    - f you

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  03:22 AM


  • MARKYT: I can see where they might come in handy for our pal in Morocco! And I would never look down my nose at a sophomoric comment! wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/24  at  11:50 PM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


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Now in Color!

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Last Day In Paradise




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