MuMu, Africa and compass consultation
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Dear Muammar al-Qaddafi
Humble greetings oh mighty one, oh lord and master of Libya and your universe, oh great unificator of my African universe, oh great pontificator and poet, pantocrator, philosopher to the needy and glorious benefactor to those deserved and undeserved, oh sublime versificator of the divine verdant scripture, oh hymn singer, praise singer, human prophet of your almighty, ye who have spread the word, fought righteousness with dignity, stood firm in the face of the evils of west and east, who holds thine country firm by ring of fire and wire.
I, humble servant of the world, a grain of sand blowing across its surface, wish to salute thee, and thank thee for crushing a dream, for destroying a long-laid (haphazardous though it might have been) plan, a journey of discovery, a hermit's voyage only seeking knowledge of the world, and yours
Stumbling hill to dale, canyon to crater, step by step, one roll of the wheel after another, traversing over 30,000km to reach your rapturous shores, your humble servant asked permission to breach the boundaries of the mighty cloaked one.
Only seeking to cover myself in the glory of your nation, universe, creation, to be anointed with your blessed brush, I unpresumptuously suggested to one of your point guards, one of your chaste emissaries to outer-Libya, that I be given permission to enter the promised land.
Having tasted the nectar, sipped the wine and heard the song of myriad valleys, mountains and kingdoms, I did so wish to sup upon the delicacies and delights, of taste, sight and ear, morsel and morality, of the nation of your self-proclaimed magnificence.
But this is what your soldier of righteousness said unto me: “Only if you pay a minimum of US$3,000 and join a tour group for a 9-day ride across the glorious nation, and pay for a 24-hour minder, can I offer you our seal of welcome.”
“But sire, all I seek is a barn or stall, haystack or feather bed, and a simple bus or truck to drive by
“Why don’t you fly to Tunisia?”
You, oh divine superintendant, would of course know that fool enough to ask such a question would be fool enough not to understand my reply. He took my silence for submissiveness.
Indeed there was submission. To the stone-wall subservience of your minion, your frontiersman, dutiful voicer of your voice, hearer of your words, keeper of your faith.
To this, one submits, tactfully if not gracefully.
“Just proffer your seal, and I will take the back seat of the bus along the shoreline to Tunisia.”
“Impossible. No foreigner can use our public buses.”
How I might debase the purity of those perfect wheels, I cannot imagine; and yet …
And so your humble servant must now find another path to wearily tread, ever dreading the holy grail might be hiding in your vast sandy field
For if it is not the holy grail, ye, oh mighty proclaimer, unifier of Africa, are protecting, then what is it?
My humble, searching, mind reeled at the Machiavellian thoughts that followed this silent question.
Of the dozens of frontiers crossed, north, south, east and west, nought have placed the gate so firmly in my path. Yet you are the banner, the bearer, the hailer of unity of all from the fairest Cape to Cairo.
Uncle Mu - if I may, for after these words I feel I know you, and this is indeed the African manner of respect - none other have so far swept the worldly carpet from beneath the feet of this tiny, rolling grain of sand. For while you might rightly and mightily be lord and master to your citizens, just as the whales roam and belong to the world, so too, surely must the land and it’s waters. Surely you are only a brief caretaker, to school and feed and succour the offspring of yours and theirs?
I only begged passage, sir
And was told passage was only for the high and mighty, sir, the bourgeoisie and more, sire, the ones that can afford to pour their lucre into the pockets of all the offshore companies that leave tyre tracks all over your precious dunes.
Is it not the very values of this very class of people that you rail against?
I, an African, only requested passage to a brother’s African state, seeking only simple, old-fashioned neighbourliness. I, who had been endeared by third-hand quotes of your desire for the unification of our weary, worn and mighty continent. For how else might we together fight the foes of disentreaty and logistical rape?
All I wanted was to smell the freedom, from which only could have come such glorious dreams as continental concubinage.
That this drifting, wind-blown grain of sand might not mingle with the sun-shone glory of your mighty desert did indeed leave my sail a-droop. Defluttered. Adrift, not in thy desert.
But as will has it, Mu, the season turned, a puff pulled up to the stern, and my ship has found another course.
I am saddened not to have shared a cup of fine, sweet mint tea with you or yours
Insha’ allah, maybe next time.
But that is all to digress from the pleasanter winds that finally blew me from Asia, out of the Middle East, across the Sinai and on to Africa.
The Red Sea runs up the northeast coast of Africa, dividing the continents. Near its northern reaches, it splits into the Gulf of Suez to the west, the Gulf of Aqaba to the right, holding the triangle of Sinai between.
The town of Aqaba sits atop its self-named sprit, militarily and geographically strategic, Turkish bulwark for WW2 and its fall the beginning of the end for the Axis forces in that theatre of that war.
It anchors the corners of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Sit on the foreshore, suck on a hookah and look at Israel across the waters.
The Zionist nation is the shortcut to Cairo, a cheap ferry and land dash, but that land’s mark in a passport is a seriously curtailing matter in northern Africa
The Red Sea is synonymous with coral reefs and scuba diving, one of the main destinations of its kind in the world.
There are no waves, the water is almost always clean, and – at least in the northern sectors – no sharks to fear. Wet-suit and oxygen tank heaven.
Dock in at Dahab, a kind of Koh Samui (Thailand) of Africa, that draws divers of all degrees of experience, novices, learners, drifters, desert travaillers seeking a bit of marine air.
Resorts line the water’s edge, accommodation, pillowed restaurants, overlooking the sea, and Saudi Arabia in the distance, raised platforms to suck up the rays, your regular assortment of touri shops all selling much of a muchness – flip-flops, T-shirts, sarongs, little pyramids and camels.
There is a mild throng mentality, Euro quickies of bleach skin popping in for a week R&R, some back-burning snorkeling in the shallows, kebaps and falafels, beer and hookahs to chill down the day.
Laid-back, economical cool.
Camel rides into the interior and a climb up Mount Sinai if you feel you need your holy spirit moved.
My guide had made around 200 dives in the zone, and knows the moves. Bliss to cruise around on automatic, with somebody else’s hand on the steering wheel for a while; not to have to clumsily work out the quick hassles that always haunt and cost one on arrival at almost any strange place.
The trick is to pay and dispense with them as quickly as possible, but there is always the process to go through.
Sunrise walks along the promenade normally finds one alone, before the stiff northerly desert wind begins to blow.
Late afternoons dawn in a blink and it’s time for backgammon (taavla), water pipes, tea … kind of place that could easily eat up a month or two – especially if the roll of the dice goes your way. And they lean toward me. (Isn’t that right, Ms B?).
It's good to finally prove I play as well as Mid-Easters.
But this is Sinai, part of Egypt, yet not part of Africa proper. Debate places the odd, historical triangle in Asia or Africa, though the weight of argument pleads the Gulf of Suez and Suez Canal as the official boundary, leaving Sinai attached geographically to Saudi Arabia and beyond.
It is physically an island between two continental plates, yet joined to each on the planet's surface. Perhaps it may easiest be described as a kind of Madagascar, kind of part of Africa, yet definitely not.
Across the Suez to Cairo, and on to undisputable African soil.
A sense of accomplishment and relief give new wings to an old horse that foolishly thinks he can see the finish line at the end of a long downhill slope from here.
Cairo, Cairo, Cairo just sucks one in. Wake up at dawn on a bus and you’re in the middle of a huge, monstrous city of 20 million plus. Horizons are buildings and dust, dusty buildings.
A sense of calm, stillness comes with daybreak, unexpectedly in a city this size. The streets are still. But not for long.
Downtown throngs, teems with pedestrians, hooting cars, very slow moving traffic, shop after shop after shop, “welcomes” all round, yet here somehow often tinged with 'let me eventually sell you something’.
Tourists have been visiting Cairo for 4,000 years to see the pyramids. It is a scalper’s dreamworld, but they are gentle, and easily disentangled, not wishing to spend too much time on a dead sale.
It’s a walker’s city, a safe walker’s city. For miles and miles, through slums, upmarket zones, blocks of mosques and souq after souq after souq.
Sidewalk tea shop after tea shop beckon, chairs lined against old walls, filled with mostly men, leaning back in the warm wintry sun, sipping refreshing mint tea, sucking slowly, broodily, on the ever-present sheeshas (hookahs, or hubbly bubbly pipes).
Tea, Turkish coffee and sheeshas are cheap. Sit and watch the traffic, people of all shade and dress. Strange head-dresses from Syria to Morocco, robed men of undefinable origins. Brown robes, white, red, black.
A cacophony of sound. Traffic sound. Pile-drivers and tile cutters make up the orchestra of Hong Kong. In Cairo, hooters squawk and howl, yelp and squeak, undulating with the rhythm of the traffic; in motion the horns grow stiller, the traffic cop, conductor extraordinaire raises his baton, the file of vehicles shudder to a stop, and the instruments find their voice again. Incessant.
The city seems to imbibe one, suck one in and not spit one out, there is no release. It steals time, days pass in a flash. Walk and talk, “ hullo my friend, where u from, welcome”, drift along the Nile, eat kebabs or koushari, the national local food – a bowl of small noodles, rice, lentils and chick peas. Douse heavily in garlicy olive oil, fresh tomato puree and chilli. Filling, for a dollar.
Walk a few hours, watch old men in little home factories creating goods for the souqs next door. Picture frames, backgammon boards, curtains, shoes, sheeshas, trousers, blouses … you buy it, they make it in the back room down the road.
Friendliness is all-encompassing.
My guide is a mini-Cairo expert, and we make a point of a sheesha at all the favourite haunts. Market place Al-Kahlili, where Feshawi tea house is reputed to have been open, 24-hours per day for 200 years. A small boast really, considering the edifices that have adorned Giza for four millennia.
A home note is struck when Egypt line up against arch-rivals Algeria for a shot at going to the World Cup in South Africa next year.
A tale of hope and despair. Two games, Egypt win the first, Algeria the vital second. The party atmosphere deflates. My party trick is whipped away from me: I could have gone around Egypt saying “welcome to MY country”, and probably been offered doormat after doormat.
Algerians beat up on a few Egyptians, and the region is enraged and enflamed. Editorials fill and spill with vitriol of unimaginable kind. Accusations are made in the Egyptian press of Algeria flying in 40 airplanes of disguised commandos to wreak havoc on the Egyptian fans that went to see the second game in neutral Khartoum, Sudan.
I fall in love with Cairo.
But am rejected by the Libyan embassy, given a similar though not quite so severe story from the Algerian mob, and suffer a national tiff between South Africa and Morocco.
It seems Pretoria sides with a rebel, independence seeking group in south Morocco, which puts visa requests under a beggar-like scrutiny.
Only one thing for it.
Head for the hills.
West, west, as far the road can take me.
To Siwa, Egypt’s most exotic oasis 50km away from the Libyan border. A stone's throw. I chuck up a fistful of sand and watch the the westward blowing breeze catch hold.
Knock, knock. Hullo there, Uncle Mu.
That’s as far as one can go down this road; another road beckons; time to take out the compass and reconfigure.