Friday, April 9, 2010

Wrong Way to Nowhere!

Since leaving India, I have been sick. Sickened first by diarrhea at Rishikesh, and then by an onset of a cold soon after. Even as I was leaving Delhi, on the way to Cairo, I was nursing a splitting headache, a sore back, and intestines that churned and gargled every couple of hours, feeling like they could explode any minute! And arriving in Cairo, with its smog filled air, noisy streets and sweltering heat, provided no reprieve at all. That was when I realized that I needed to rest. The last month was spent moving at light speed across India, and now, I needed a time to recharge, to eat right, and to get some much needed sleep!

Setting my sights on the Siwa Oasis on the far western fringes of Egypt by the Libyan border, I was drawn to tales of crystal clear springs, endless date palm, olive and fruit groves, and a town where donkey carts outnumber motorized vehicles. Being the most remote, and purportedly most tranquil and beautiful of all the Egyptian oasis, I knew that this was the place for me to recuperate.

After consulting the travelers bible (Lonely Planet), I decided on the most reliable route to Siwa, by first taking a train up to the port city of Alexandria, and then catching a scheduled overnight bus west to Siwa. The train from Cairo to Alexandria was fast, clean and relatively inexpensive. At just over 2 hours long, it was a quick ride. Stepping out of the train in Alexandria, I was hit with a blast of cool refreshing air! The Mediterranean was right at its doorstep, and I was beginning to feel better already! But there was no time to enjoy it. I had to get to the bus station to see if there are any more seats left on the last bus that evening to Siwa.

Ignoring all the taxi divers along the platform asking me if I needed a ride, I heading straight to the street in front of the train station, looking for a shared minibus that would take me to the bus station. The ride should only cost E£1 (about 20 US cents), and I was determined to get around on a tight a budget as possible. Stopping by the first minibus along the pavement, I yelled to the driver, “Bus station?” He immediately nodded and signaled me to get in. But before I hopped on, I re-confirmed with the guy manning the door that I want to get to the bus station. He exchanged a few versus in Arabic with the driver, and waved at me to get on.

Twenty minutes into the ride, and I was beginning to worry. Alexandria is not a very big city, and the bus station couldn't be this far away. My worst fears were realized when the city slowly gave way to suburbs, and the suburbs to an endless expanse of desert. I wake the guy nodding off next to me, not knowing if he spoke any English at all, and blurted out, “Where is this bus going?” He looks at me like I am mad, and responds with the one word I did not want to hear: “Cairo!”

“WHAT!?!? Cairo? I don't want to go to Cairo! I want to go to the bus station!!!” I yell. The whole bus is now awake, and the passengers around me are having a heated conversation with the bus driver. A passenger behind me translates what the bus driver is saying, “He says he is taking you to the bus station in Cairo.”

“No, no, no! I don't want to go Cairo. I just came from Cairo. I want to go to the bus station in Alexandria. To catch a bus to Siwa!”

Only after a few more exchanges with the bus driver, translated by the guy sitting behind me, and agreeing to pay the full fare of E£22, did the driver agree to let me off. I was let off at a rest stop, a gas station along the freeway to Cairo with instructions to flag down any minibus going the opposite direction back towards Alexandria.

So here I am, stuck in the middle of nowhere, playing chicken once again as I dart across six lanes of freeway (with backpack and all), to get to the opposite side of the road, hoping that someone would take me back to Alexandria! Fifteen minutes of flagging at every moving vehicle coming at me turned out in vain. Most of the minibuses going by were full, and everyone else was wary of the strange foreign traveler on a freeway in the middle of nowhere. When the Persian King Cambyses sent an army of 50,000 men from Thebes in 525 BC to destroy the Oracle of Amun in Siwa, his entire army vanished into the desert, never to be seen or heard from again. Was I about to suffer the same fate as Cambyses' lost army?

Just as I was ready to cross back towards the gas station and either call for a taxi (if one came out this far), or get help some other way, a figure appears out of the haze of desert dust and freeway fumes - a good Samaritan, who spoke no English at all! With a dose of divine intervention and lots of made-up sign language, I somehow manage to explain my predicament to him. Grabbing my hand, he leads me about one kilometer up the road, to an exit junction on the freeway, where minibuses were stopping to pick people up! He went as far as to stop every minibus in sight, and spoke with every driver until he found a minibus willing to accommodate me and my backpack to the bus station in Alexandria!

Grateful and relieved that I made it to the bus station in one piece, I buy a seat on the last bus to Siwa, and slump down onto a wooden bench feeling exhausted. The bus station was no more than a plot of bare dirt, with a a few broken benches on one end under a makeshift shelter. Staring at the ticket in my hand, it is entirely in Arabic! Does it say destination Siwa? Or someplace else? Learning my lesson, I know I should double check...but that will have to wait. Right now, I'm going to just sit for awhile, and then find some food, and a bathroom. After all this, Siwa had better be worth the trip!


  1. Way to go Ken! Next stop, amazing race. I envy you and your trips but now I have someone to go to advice if I want to go anywhere in the world!