Final Middle Eastern report: Amman to Cairo
(14 January 2002)
Hard Times in Amman! An invite to the British Ball at the Sheraton Hotel and a disappointed British Ambassador: my Christmas party schedule was simply too full to fit in his kind invitation to dinner. Merry Making and Calorie Cramming all round.
I found time for backgammon and a ‘hubbly bubbly’ waterpipe with a wise old Jordanian. He spoke of backgammon as a philosophy of life: it is black and white, you have no choice over what is dealt for you, or over what people do to you, but you can play your own pieces as you wish and you can make the most of what you are dealt.
My dice came up trumps: my Sudan visa arrived! My excitement was measured though: now I have no reason to wimp out. I have the visa, I’m going to have to tackle Sudan. There is no excuse now!
Two friends were going to join me for their Christmas holiday. One’s preparations were unconventional and decidedly ill-advised. I am delighted to make public his personal pain and shame:
“Al: I am in pain. Someone advised me to shave my bum to make cycling less painful. But now I am sitting on hundreds of tiny, deadly needles of stubble. Please advise…”
Even without a newspaper to read, the lowest point on Earth was fun. We bobbed and floated and giggled in the salty soup of the Dead Sea, donned fluffy white dressing gowns and gloated in the luxurious hospitality of the 5-star Dead Sea Spa Resort. Freshly shampoo’d and blow-dried, the three rugged adventurers left to camp by the seashore.
Across the tranquil waters lay the less than tranquil West Bank. So when soldiers found our campsite in the night they were naturally less than happy and moved us on to rest elsewhere. We peered through their night-vision goggles at the grainy-green far bank. Were the equally paranoid soldiers over there squinting back at us?
25th December: Christmas Away
“We three Kings of Orient are,
One in a taxi, one in a car,
One on a scooter, beeping his hoo-ooo-ter,
Smoking a fat cigar”
One of us was on a shiny blue bicycle, another on an old rattler borrowed at short notice from a friend and I am still muddling along on the bike (Rita) that has carried me all the way from England. I have a little bell on my bicycle and we had a few unpleasant drags on our Christmas cigar before discarding it in disgust. We weren’t quite kings, but we felt pretty regal today.
It is Christmas Day: my first ever Christmas away from home. We were riding the Biblical King’s Highway, pedalling towards the ‘lost’ kingdom of Petra, towards the ‘rose-red city half as old as time’. It was not going to be an ordinary Christmas Day.
Dana is the most beautiful place between London and Cairo. Christmas morning in Dana outshone even Petra. We were on the bicycles by 7:30am, bikes suitably tacky in tinsel and Santa hats warding off the early desert chill. Deep-fried falafel sandwiches make a fine festive breakfast for 10p. It’s Christmas so we had three each: hang the expense!
We bellowed Carols as we rode, not letting lyrics or tune get in the way of good old-fashioned, high volume roaring. Local Muslims amused by our good cheer cried out “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy New Year!”, even “Happy Birthday!”. Near enough – it is the season of goodwill after all.
Corned beef and tomato puree sandwiches made a sumptuous Christmas Lunch – at least we three hungry cyclists were genuinely appreciative of all we ate today. In the afternoon we sought shade in the company of a Bedouin family, hot sweet tea in small, delicate glasses reviving the senses and forging friendships. My mistletoe decked Santa hat looked daft but caused hilarity atop an old Bedouin man’s flowing red and white headdress.
We arrived in Petra before sunset, hot and tired and ready to share our mini Christmas Pudding. It was a Christmas Day without a full belly, without Eastenders, without Grandpa’s snoring. It was a Christmas without fine food yet with real gratitude for what I ate. It was a Christmas far from friends yet I was in a country of genuine unconditional friendship and hospitality. A Christmas buzzing on the glory of this high mountain road so near to where Christmas began. It was my first Christmas away from England.
Petra provokes ambition and far-sightedness. It mocks the triviality of our “I want it now” lifestyles. It gave me renewed strength: I can make it to Cape Town.
Where better to read T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (he really was a dangerous ‘dreamer of the day’ as I wish to be…) than in Wadi Rum? The vastness of Wadi Rum reminds you of your own insignificance; its timelessness highlights your own fleeting time flowing frighteningly fast. Lying on the desert floor the black silence is so absolute that you can literally hear yourself blink. Its enormous majesty of course provoked very childish naked running and aeroplane impressions.
I met an Irish conceptual artist. He was over here on business. With a disposable camera he was to take 24 photos of different Arabs writing Arabic on postcards of London and mailing them to another artist in Britain. The art? Sending a postcard of a place you have never been, to a country you have never seen, to a man you have never met, in a language he will not understand. “Ingenious,” I lied.
To avoid a troublesome Israeli stamp in my passport I was forced to take a ferry across the bay to Egypt. And so the unbroken tyre tracks, over 7000km long, stretching back to Calais and a very different me have finally been broken. The ‘Slow Boat’ carried out its job brief magnificently, being so slow that we disembarked in a chaotic Egypt a splendid eight hours late.
And then I was alone again. Simon and Arno have put me back on the rails; I have rediscovered laughter. Hopefully in return, the difficulties of the road have shown them that you only know your strength once you start to take the strain.
An easy ferry ride to Hurghada beckoned. It would save me 10 days of tough, unnecessary riding around the Gulf of Suez. But if I’m going to do this I’m going to do it right, so I pedalled for days across the Sinai Peninsula directly back towards England. Not good for the soul. My water bottles froze solid, my tent blew down, hailstones (hailstones?! This is meant to be a desert!!) bit my face. I fought as hard as I could into the teeth of a gale. I screamed at the skies and shouted at everything I saw. Which wasn’t much as I was in a desert. The Middle East has been so lusciously kind to me that she wasn’t letting me leave without reminding me of something important – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – also the motto of Stella, Egypt’s beer.
Across the Suez Canal. To the banks of the Nile. The haughty, hazy outline of the pyramids. I have arrived in Africa. Hailstorms and headwinds, silent majesty and beauty, the ambition and perseverance of ancient peoples, Santa hats and bad singing: the perfect tonic to give me strength.