We're still in Egypt, and still on the tourist trail, but as usual on Potty Family Holidays, under our own steam.
I am simultaneously both blessed and cursed in the fact that my husband loves ‘independent’ travel. Blessed, because it means we get to do things at our own (for which - more often than not - read ‘his’) pace, and cursed because it means that we frequently step outside the comfortable numbness of package tour organisation.
When, for example, I went over our itinerary with an Egyptian friend recently, she looked at me as if we were stark raving mad. All I had done was mention that we had organised an over-night sleeper train from Giza to Luxor, and that the Boys were incredibly excited about this fact. She tried to hide it of course, but when I asked her if she had ever done the same thing herself I could tell she was biting back the words ‘Take my son on one of those death traps? Over my dead body.’
As we stood on the platform at Giza on a warm evening, and train after dilapidated train rattled through full to the brim of soldiers dimly visible through what looked like the candlelight inside, I have to say that I did begin to question the wisdom of our choice of transport...
The look of wonder and excitement on the Boys’ faces though when the sleeper train finally pulled in were enough to make me decide that we were doing the right thing. Experiences like this one - especially when you're five and three years old - don’t come along every day. The train wasn’t the smartest I’ve ever been on, sure, but it was safe, and clean enough for me to be happy to put them to sleep in the bunks. Although ‘sleep’ was not something I got much of when Boy #1 decided variously at 2 hour intervals that he wanted water, was scared (of the dark rather than anything in particular), and wanted water again, and that I was ‘it’ in dealing with these problems...
We then spent the next two days visiting Luxor’s ancient ruins and tombs, swimming in the hotel pool, and drifting along the Nile watching the sunset. We also – just in case you thought this was all as easy as falling off a log - were still outside the protective arms of any holiday company, so found ourselves haggling prices with taxi drivers, being harassed to buy tickets simply to look at a view, and refusing to stop at alabaster factories where the taxi –driver was a member of the family, and the ground outside was strewn invitingly with cigarettes and glittering stone chippings.
And if you ever find yourself in the Valley of the Kings with time to visit only 3 tombs, the only one worth bothering with is Tomb No. 47. Don’t say I never tell you anything...
And today we stepped still further outside my comfort zone. It’s common, I know, for holiday-makers in the Red Sea resorts to make day trips to Luxor to see the glories of Ancient Egypt. The thing about these journeys though is that you are cocooned in air-conditioned luxury, high up, and looking down on the countryside passing you by. If, however, your husband has organised a taxi (admittedly of the air-conditioned van type, with of course those all-important rear seat belts) to make the same 4 hour trip in the opposite direction to the next destination on your independently organised holiday, you are at ground level. In, you might almost say, the line of fire.
On the plus side you notice the incredible diversity of the crops grown in the Nile Valley, a triumph of endeavour over heat. You see the actual moment when the lush greenery of the Nile Valley gives way abruptly to the arid plains of the first real desert you've ever experienced. But you also see - and worry about - every hand-signal oncoming bus and taxi drivers give your car to let them know there is radar / police / the army around the next corner. You feel the bump of every stick of sugar cane littering the road - and there are a lot - and see every sleeping policeman in the road approaching the army road-blocks, of which there are approximately one every 10 – 20 km, often with more around large towns.
You look right into the mud huts that so many people still live in, and the contrast with your own comfortable 21st century life couldn't be clearer. You see the locals running for the mini-buses with lunchboxes in one hand and rifles slung over their other shoulder. You can hear the wailing of the girl who has clearly broken her arm in the horrific looking pile-up on the side of the road. And you want to stop and help, but not only does your taxi-driver speed up to get past the danger zone as soon as possible, but you are too worried about your sons in the back seat to risk their safety.
In short, you realise that Egypt, whether you properly understood it before you arrived or not, is not the South of France. Diluted though it might be, you are in Africa.