The Last Stretch - Egypt to Sweden

November 12, 2008 - Göteborg, Sweden

Returning to Egypt

We touched down in Egypt, the birthplace of my parents and brother. It had been 5 years since I had first come here with my family, and it felt good to be back.

After chatting with the friendly taxi driver, we checked in at the Windsor Hotel in downtown Cairo. The old hotel was a classic, in true Cairanese style, adorned with old furniture and posters from another era, and serviced with a clattering old-fashioned elevator. The managers pointed out a photo of Michael Palin, who had stayed here when doing his documentary "Around the World in 80 Days". And now two more famous adventurers had checked in to stay.

Our first couple of days in Cairo were spent enjoying the sights, sounds and, most importantly, tastes of downtown. Walking around downtown of this city of 20 million people, we were constantly dodging other pedestrians, or playing "frogger" while trying to cross 5-6 lanes of chaotic traffic. But it was worth it to get to the food, as we feasted on shwarma, kofta, babaghanoug, hummus, labneh, tahina, felafal, fuul, fiteer and wara einab, and followed it up with some tasty sweets such as baklava, isfinjiyya and kunafa. If you think that´s a mouthful... you´re right. But it was all yummo!

But, at Johanna´s request, we also made a stop at the golden arches. After 8 months in Africa, she just wanted a McDonalds hit. And personally, I could not resist trying a McArabia. But I have to admit, the local food was so much better.

When not eating or dodging traffic, we could simply relax at the ashwa (or local coffee house) across the road from our hotel. Johanna and I would play backgammon, smoke shisha, drink coffee, joke with the waiters and watch the world go by. We would watch muslims pray outside the mini-mosque across the road, and observe vendors who would wander past to sell bread, newspapers, socks, tissues or whatever else they had. A few of the patrons were surprised to see Jo, usually the only woman, there playing, drinking and smoking, but no one seemed to mind.

On our first couple of days in Cairo, I began to realise that I would see a very different side to Egypt than I did 5 years ago. My last trip was amazing, but I started to discover that I would now get to see this country from another perspective.

Johanna´s mum, Gerd, flew into Cairo at the ludicrous hour of 2.30am, and we went to pick her up at the airport. Johanna was stoked to see here after so long. We spent the following day showing her our favourite new spots before organising a tour of some of the ancient spots of Egypt - Memphis, Saqqara and the Giza Pyramids.

At Memphis, the old capital of Egypt, we admired the fallen limestone collosus of Ramses II and an alabaster sphinx, amongst other ancient pieces. Our next stop was Saqqara, further south. Here, at the edge of the desert, a huge step pyramid, one of the earliest, rises above the sand-covered ruins of numerous courts and tombs. An impressive sight.

From there, we ventured to the famous Giza Pyramids, the lone survivors of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. The three huge pyramids, stretched out in a line across the sands, were truly a sight to behold. Even the second time around, I still remained impressed.

The largest of the three, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, was particularly stunning. I think one camel driver put it best when he said "Very big. Very old." But the mind-boggling sight of this construction was made even more spectacular when you consider these mind-boggling numbers:

  • Built in 2570BC
  • It was 146m high and 230 wide
  • Made up of 2.3 million blocks averaging 2.5 tonnes each
  • And took 100,000 workers 30 years to build!

The mind stretches to contemplate how it could possibly have been built at that time. Wow wa wee wa!

Our next stop was the Sphinx, which unfortunately was packed with tourists. But it was worth jostling through to see the sculpture again, even if I got jealous when Johanna gave it a big smooch (see photos).

After some G&Ts at the nearby and ornate Mena House, we returned to the pyramids at night for the Sound and Light show. As the Sphinx narrated the history of Egypt, we watched as they lit up the pyramids, sphinx and ruins with projected images and laser lighting.

 

Alexandria - the motherland (and fatherland)

Catching a train to Alexandria (aka Eskendereyya), we checked in at yet another Windsor Hotel. This hotel had all the trimmings - polished marble floors, wide white columns, painted murals, an old-fashioned elevator, large rooms and nice views out over the corniche. My parents actually met here almost 50 years ago, and I wondered how much it would have changed. Looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, I realised we had officially made the trip from the bottom to the top of Africa, having only skipped one country, Sudan, along the way.

The following day we went to see Alex's pride and joy, the Biblioteca Alexandria. The huge modern building, which looks like a shining discus lodged into the sand from the outside, is both beautiful and functional. But for me, the most important thing to see here was the Impressions of Alexandria, exhibition. The photos of what Alex looked like in the mid 20th century gave me an impression of what Alex would have looked like when my parents lived here.

The next day was the official "Debelak tour of Alexandria". 45 years ago, when my family left Egypt to move to Australia, my father left his business, the Alexandria Lift Company, to a young apprentice named Sabri. He has been running it ever since. This day, Sabri's son, Ahmed, was nice enough to take us around town and see some of the old Debelak hotspots.

The first stop was the lift company itself, which had not changed much in the last 45 years. With the exception of a single computer, the old office looked pretty much what it would have looked like back then. We met with Sabri, who greeted us like old friendly, and chatted with him, Ahmed and Ahmed's sister. Then, calling my father, I watched Sabri smile and he chatted to Dad over the phone. He commented that my father's Arabic was only so-so, not nearly as good as my mother´s. We all laughed.

Picking up a spectacular bunch of flowers, we went to my grandfather's grave. Remembering the spot from 5 years ago, I went straight to the grave of Milan J. Debelak, my grandfather. The caretakers helped to clean the gravestone and place the flowers over the plot. I had never met my father's father, but from the stories I heard of his kindness and generosity, I think I would have lived him.

We also went to visit the grande St Marc's boys school, where my father, as well as Ahmed, went to school. Walking around the school with Ahmed, we bumped into many of his old teachers, and even met his cute nephew, Abdalla, who was going to school there. Despite probably being stunned by being pulled out of class to meet some strangers, he smiled and greeted us politely. The day was completed by stopping outside the run-down building where my parents used to live.

On our final day in Alex, we went to visit the beautiful Fort Qaitbey, a faery-tale style fort on the western point of the corniche. Later, Ahmed met us again, and took us to St Catherine's Church, where my parents got married. Since they kind of eloped, I was surprised to confront such a grande and polished building.

Finally, to finish off a memorable stay in Alex, Ahmed took us to his place for a wonderful dinner with his parents, brother and two sisters. His mum made molokhiyya (a kind of green spinach soup which tastes so much better than it sounds). Despite being prepared differently from how mum makes it back home, it was still delicious. We also stuffed ourselves with bamia (okra), meat and some delicious desserts. It felt so nice to join this friendly and generous family for a home-cooked meal. They really made us feel like family.

Catching a train back to Cairo, we spent a couple of days in the plush Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, enjoying the immense and cluttered Egyptian Museum, and hitting the markets in Islamic Cairo. Then, unfortunately, Gerd had to leave. But it wouldn't be long until we saw her again.

 

Dropping into the Red Sea

Through the night, we crossed the Suez Canal and traversed the rocky landscape of the Sinai to reach Sharm el Sheikh. We then caught a cab to our last destination in Africa, the Shark's Bay Umbi Resort. There we spent the next week in a comfy Bedouin (the desert people) style room overlooking the Red Sea. On the plus side, the room was great, the beach nearby, and the resort had its own house reef with colourful fish life. But on the down side, the beach was dominated by package deal tourists, predominantly Russians, who were bussed in every day from other hotels, and the coastline was over-developed with way too many resorts.

We were definitely in package-deal country now - not something Jo and I are used to or appreciate But we were still intent on making the most of it. And in the end, we did.

Most of our week or so in Sharm was spent on or above the reefs of the Red Sea. Below the water, we dove the spectacular reefs of Ras Mohammed and the Strait of Tiran. The colourful reefs were teeming with fishlife, including plenty of triggerfish, butterflyfish, lionfish, trevally, bannerfish, anthias, pufferfish, angelfish, anenomefish (aka Nemo), fusiliers, damselfish, barracudas, unicornfish, scorpionfish, groupers, wrasse, humbugs, bigeyes, morays and stingrays. Every dive was a show of colour and movement.

Above the water, we lounged about on the roomy dive boat, doing the best to work on our tans. The sun was always shining, and brought the best out of the sparkling blue waters. Our days would usually end enjoying a shisha and coffee at the beach back at the resort.

For a change of pace, we also set out on a trip into the Sinai with some local Bedoiuns. Catching a taxi, then pick-up, we ventured into the rocky, barren lands, first stopping for a tea and a climb up a nearby hill for a great view of the surrounding landscape. Then, climbing onto some camels, we were led by two more Bedouins into the desert. One took a liking to the girls, and began serenading them, singing love songs comparing them to ishta (the cream of the water buffalo that many Egyptians seem to enjoy). Probably not the most flattering comparison.

Riding through some dirty villages, we looked upon camels and goats who were munching on rubbish as well as the rotting corpses of storks that had come to die It was not pretty, but probably the most authentic part of Egypt we had seen since reaching the glitz of Sharm. But past the village, we stopped at a basic house where we sat with three Bedouins as they cooked us flatbread and tea on a convex hotplate. It was a pleasure to chat away with the old Bedouins as we enjoyed the fresh bread, cheese and tea.

Heading back to Sharm, we had really enjoyed the day. For a while there, it had felt like we were back in the real Africa.

On the 5th November, we left Africa. Rising early, we caught a plane to Cairo before going through a ridiculously frustrating 11 checkpoints at Cairo airport in order for us to board our plane for London.

Despite the grandeur of the Pyramids and the beauty of the Red Sea, I have to say the highlight of Egypt was our time in Alexandria. It was so great to revisit my family history in Alex, and to be so warmly welcomed by Sabri, Ahmed and my Egyptian family.

 

London to Sweden

Arriving at Heathrow, Johanna and I caught the tube our to Hammersmith where we were to stay with two of my oldest friends, Nick and George. It was great to see them again. Our next couple of days were spent shopping and dropping into the British Museum for a quick look. And on the Friday night, we got together with a few old, and new, friends - Nick, George, Micky P, Heather, James, Simone, Ant, Julia, Alice, Phil, Toby, Anni, Lisa and Annabelle. Was great to see them all again.

Feeling kind of seedy the next day, we made our final flight to Göteborg Sweden, Johanna's home town. On the way, Johanna spotted Freddy Ljungberg, a famous Swedish football player. Be we were the real celebrities when we touched down in Göteborg. Freddy, who walked out just in front of us, would have been surprised when a huge cheer came up for our arrival. Johanna's family was out in force for a warm welcome. Håkan, her father, held up a large sign saying "Welcome to Paradise", and stood there with Johanna's mum and brother, Gerd and Erik, as well as the rest of the fam - Alan, Vera, Britta, Dick, Karin and Olle. A lovely surprise to see them all.

We had reached our final destination, and were looking forward to beginning our new life in Sweden!

Photos / slideshow on the blog as usual - enjoy!

And for those blog junkies out there. We will write one final blog and update our map as we settle into life here in Sweden!


Pictures

Enjoying desertion
Bedouin kids
Lunch with the village boss
Simple but tasty
 
 

1 Comment

Carly:
November 13, 2008
Congrats on making it all the way to Sveden!
Great to hear that you made it home safely after such an amazing journey, but I'll miss reading about all your great adventures!
Have a vodka and pickled herring for me in your new home town. :-) xx
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