13th Tried to go to Beni Hassan.
Dropped in Desert
Train to Mallawi
Waiting for Train
Sardine Tin Train
On the 12th we decided we needed a day off, as we were so frustrated yesterday. Spent at the hotel watching bad TV and typing up the blog. We even managed to get a few days uploaded!
During our day off we talked seriously about skipping most of Egypt and heading straight for Luxor, do the main sites and get the hell out of Egypt. However we are going to give it one more try. On the morning of the 13th, we decided to try and get to Beni Hassan. Not trusting the taxi’s with good reason proven country after country, we went to where the mini buses were gathering around the train station.
Asking around, we were basically pushed into the bus in front of us. Fantastic. we even managed to get seats. After the next train arrived, the bus filled up quickly and we were off. The guys around us were doing the usual “Where are you from? What’s your name?” Someone spoke some English, and asked where we were going. Replying that we wanted to go to Beni Hassan, he was surprised we were on this bus. Apparently it is not going anywhere near there! At this point we knew we were on the wrong bus. It was not that far out of Minya, so we asked for the bus to stop, and we could walk back. This was not to happen. Going further and further out, we were told we could get off at the next stop. The young men around us were having a great time yelling stuff at us in Arabic and giggling their heads off. Most of it did not sound flattering. Having enough of this, we forced our way to the front of the bus and made them let us out. Even though they knew they were taking us in the wrong direction they still charged us the fare, plus 500% tourist tax! We are being nice here, as we were basically held hostage until we forked out a lot of money. Just to be let out of the bus miles from anywhere in the desert.
This was not good, but much better than staying on said bus. In a foul temper, I started walking back along the road. Anna was trying to be calm and rational. One person did stop and ask if we needed any help, but we declined (well, I declined, as I was still not that happy) and we ended up walking all the way back to town. Nearly every time a car went past it would wait until it was upon us then beep its horn right in our ears. Most of these are not your normal car or motorbike horn, but supercharged anti-personnel fog-horns.
After the second blast in as many minutes, it got better as I had completely lost all hearing in one ear. In this way we made it back to the top of the escarpment, and down the winding road to the Nile valley. Then it was only a few kilometres to the bridge and one or two more on the other side. By this time it was mid-afternoon (after one of our earliest starts!) and there was no point in even attempting the trip again as it would be closed before we arrived.
This whole episode has again made us wonder what we are doing in Egypt, and whether we should even bother doing anything else. It has also re-enforced our opinions of most Egyptians. This is not a good or flattering one. In fact it cannot be printed! (As this is written later, I would like to make it clear we have met and will continue to meet wonderful people, but as everywhere there is a lot of scum that floats to the surface of tourism!)
On the 14th we decided to give up on Minya. The town itself has some nice buildings, albeit covered in grime, and slowly falling apart. There are also nice people here, but outside of the town centre….
At the train station, we wanted to know where to buy tickets, and were taken to the tourist office in the station itself. Here we asked by the people who we were, where we were from and where we were going. They also asked our opinion about Minya. Having time until the next train (we were there at 10:30 and the next train was 11) we told them exactly what we thought. How bad the young men are, Taxi’s and buses dropping us in the desert, the harassment, insults and rocks thrown at us. It was a good thing that the train was delayed as we took our time. They were actually interested, but we don’t think it will do any good. They were surprised when we said that Tahrir Sq with all the protesters was safer than Minyan countryside. That done, we could wait for the train to arrive. The delay was pushed out further, and by 12:30 we were allowed, with a police escort, to go to the platform. Apparently we could buy our tickets on the train itself. I feel a bit sorry for the guard, as he was then sitting there for the next 45 minutes until the 11am train arrived well after 1pm.
There was the usual Arabic frenzy to get on the train before people could get off, and we stood back to let it happen. Our guard came in handy there, as he forced people to make their way from the doors and further into the carriage so we could get in. Ending up in the corridor between carriages beside the toilets. At least there was a bit of room to breath, as the rest of the carriage was filled to capacity. You don’t want to breath the air though. Not looking in the toilet, we could imagine from the fragrant fumes of excrement wafting thickly through the air. The people around us made some space, and we were moved to the opposite door.
We had thought that the carriage was full, as people were barely able to move, but then the salesmen started going through. These people sometimes had massive containers of drinks and chips, others were selling watches, headscarves and fake leather wallets. Then there were people selling tea and coffee with their large water containers filled with boiling hot water. It was amazing how they could fit through and move along the aisle. There was someone that occasionally tried to talk to us, and when the conductor made it to our section, he explaned the price. It turned out that we ended up paying for his ticket for his “help”
On arrival, we declined our friends offer for more help, and left the station. Grabbing a couple of tea’s we took some long deep breaths. The air here may not be clean, but it was pure oxygen in comparison to the train. Asking in our best Arabic for a hotel (“Fundu?” with hands up in a sleeping motion!) he pointed down the main street running along the train tracks. Wandering over, we found the hotel. It wasn’t that bad and we checked in for a couple of days. The hard part over, we went for a walk. Mallawi is mainly built on the west side of the large canal running down the west bank of the Nile, and we thought we would go have a look at the mighty river here. Crossing over the road, canal and train tracks via a large overhead pedestrian crossing was a blessing, and once down the other side, we were definitely on the wrong side of the tracks. The town that we have seen so far was a fairly standard Egyptian town. Not doing that badly, but not at all interesting architecturally. Here it was a lot poorer. Most of the people were still friendly (Although we are always nervous now when followed by rabid packs of shambling dirt otherwise known as children) although a bit surprised we were there. Past the few streets on this side, mainly doing auto repairs on the road we were walking, it suddenly opened up. Past the last big truck being fixed, the buildings just stopped and the fields appeared out of nowhere.
On this fringe of town there were a few people minding their cattle, sheep and donkeys. Mostly tied up under palm trees or in simple yards. The old men were asking us if we were lost or needed help. Convincing them we were fine took a bit of time in a good natured way. After they realised that we were not lost, they wanted to know why we were here. The town must not see too many backpackers as it took a while to convince them that we just wanted to walk around and see the crops and Nile. Once that was made clear and they got over their surprise, it was all grins and waves. Moving on we heard some growling. Looking for the dog, we were stunned to see it was a water buffalo. Looking directly at us, it opened its mouth to show a long line of lower teeth and growled again. The sound is exactly the same as a dog’s growl, although it did not look that unhappy, we have never had pet buffaloes, so we still gave it a wide berth. It continued growling at us as we walked past and even in the distance we could still hear it. The next thing that is fascinating in Mallawi is that they shear their donkeys!
The first one we came across looked a bit weird. Thinking that it must have suffered some sort of mishap and needed a haircut. Only the top half was shorn, and you can clearly see the line along its belly where the hair is still full length. As we passed more donkeys we saw the same thing. We have no idea why people here shave their donkeys, but threw some ideas to the wind. The heat in summer, using the hair for weaving, to identify ownership or just a quirky fashion statement. We wanted to ask the young man carefully and patiently clipping away around a donkey’s ear’s with good old hand shears, but were a bit worried that startling him may result in the donkey being dis-eared. Still it was amazing to watch. Almost as interesting as watching rabbits being shorn. If you think a donkeys ears are long, have a look when they have no hair or mane.
Although we were only walking along the road, it was great, as this is the first real chance we have had to look at the way Egyptians set out their fields, what crops they grow, or how they irrigate. We know the basics, sure. But it is also nice to see it in action. Let alone how peaceful it is.
The irrigation system is a lot more basic than Morocco and Jordan, and consists of the main wide canals or Nile, which is slowly separated into smaller and smaller streams. From these it is then pumped up into the fields with big petrol or diesel pumps. The smaller irrigation lines are just earthen works, but are maintained. There is the occasional link to the old way of doing things as we passed the odd out of place hand pump, but most of these are seized up and no longer useful. At the Nile, there was a long brick fence. Made it kinda hard to see the river, but we walked along it for a while, past the banana trees, cabbages and clover crops. There was one section we could sit on the wall and look over the river. To our uninitiated eye, it looked as if they were planning something for this section of the Nile but we have no idea what. Luxury hotel? Berths for the Nile cruse ships or just private land. On the other side in amongst the crops there were patches of colour sticking out. Thinking these were people working in the fields, and not wanting to disturb them, we started to walk around the area, then we saw that they were scarecrows. Good old ones with sticks for arms and everything! I swear I have not seen a scarecrow for years unless it was on TV! We were half right though, as latter on some heads appeared, and there were people working in the field cutting clover for the animals!
Having had a decent walk, we headed back to town. There was a large church in the distance, and we thought we would go and have a look at it on the way. This didn’t happen, as the building is walled in by a maze of houses, and from the outside seemed to be more confusing than a Moroccan Medina! Getting lost out here is the last thing we wanted, so we appreciated it from a distance and slowly made our way home. This section of Egypt is known as the Coptic heartland, and there are almost as many churches as there are mosques. We still cannot tell Christians from Muslims unless there is something blindingly obvious, A silver cross on a chain, or a skirt that shows ankles or similar.
Still, we have a good feel about Mallawi. Or it could be that we have just spent a few pleasant hours out of the traffic and constant noise of the towns.
Note: In the three days recorded here, there is not one mention of GARBAGE! We didn’t even say on the winding road that it is collecting on the lower sides as it is shoveled from road to cliff to fall on the road below it, only to be shoveled off again. Or the huge stinking piles of refuse that is burning where people have set it on fire. The massive landslides of disposable nappies oozing their way down the sides of the cannals or the river. The vacant plots that have found new purpose as impromptu dumps or just the muck created as people constantly water the bitumen streets to keep the dust down (not good if you have a hole in your shoe!)