The Nissan Pathfinder was humming along and I felt comfortable at the wheel.
The tune was monotonous but no worse than listening to Dido. We had coffee and sandwiches, made by my girlfriend, Hannah, and the miles were aptly melting away like an ice cube in chicken noodle soup.
Hannah had been great helping me to get ready; she was going back to the UK to do a Masters degree in Oceanography at my alma mater, Southampton University. I thought about talking to her about my moral situation but thought murder and turtle molesting were too disparate.
As Chris and I were getting ready to leave, Hannah took me to one side and said, “Two months or more on the road – that’s a long time without sex. If you get the chance to enjoy yourself, do it – I would.” I opened my mouth to protest my innocent intentions. She put her finger to my lips and said, “Shh!”
Man! My imagination needs some reining in. That’s how it should have happened but we’d had several bust-ups over the trip and we agreed that we should call it a day, sad, but true. Hannah and I stayed friends, no, really!
After the initial excitement of actually getting on the road wore off, Chris and I settled into actually thinking about what we were doing and talking about the things coming up. Chris had made copious notes in a book and proceeded to regale me with a few.
Saudi Arabia is often thought of as the homeland of the Arabs, which is not completely correct, but it is accepted wisdom that the first Arabs originated on the Arabian Peninsula and Saudi is definitely the biggest component of that. So far so good.
Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam, the world's second-largest religion by head count and the fastest growing religion in the world. The prophet Mohammed founded Islam there, and it is the location of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Many millions of Muslims every year visit these cities on a pilgrimage called the Hajj.
And this is where Chris and I started to get the measure of each other.
Chris had a wicked look in his eye. He said, “But how do you really feel about religion?”
We got to talking a little about Muslims and Islam, which ended up being a staple for us in the coming journey but we immediately agree that in our limited experience Muslims, per se, are not terrorists, killers or extremists any more than people from . . .
“Belgium,” I chip in as I used to have a Belgian girlfriend who said she was Muslim, although not a particularly good one. She had a weakness for BLTs and long lazy days in bed.
“Real Muslims, not to be confused with Real Madrid are wonderfully warm and friendly people, prone to spontaneous acts of kindness just like real Belgians,” I added.
Chris agreed heartily with this statement and said, “Muslims true to their faith are supposed to be warm and friendly people prone to spontaneous acts of kindness.”
I added that, “They do not have to have mayonnaise on their fries like the Belgians though.”
Chris, ignoring my temporary obsession with Belgians, chimed in with, “According to one of my pipeline construction pals, Islam literally means ‘peace’, via submission to God, and that Islamic terrorism is therefore an oxymoron.”
“I grew up in a place called Oxhey,” I tell Chris, sounding like one of my parents. “I don’t think I’m a moron though, well, not yet at least,” I add. “Oxymoron is a very nice word,” I state, and although I don’t know Chris that well I know we are going to get on; which is good because I might have hated him. He has rugged good looks, he’s educated and he seems to be a decent bloke. We are a dangerous combination though, I fear. I continue with my Belgian tack, exhibiting far more of my mother’s genes than I care to acknowledge.
“How many famous Belgians do you know?” I ask. He laughs but sneaks a sideways glance to see if I’m serious. I’m not but he can’t tell. “Really,” I add. “Apart from Jean-Claude Van Damme, Eddie Merckx and the singing nun . . . who is there?”
Chris is thinking hard but he’s good. “So you mean apart from Adolph Sax (the inventor of the saxophone – really), Django Rheinhardt and Toots Thielemans (both fine jazz musicians) who do I know? Well, there’s no one really, is there.” He smiles and it is then I notice he has a dimple à la Kirk Douglas, but is that a good thing? And never mind that right now, as I realise this is going to be list-making heaven. Boys love to make lists of things and this seems as if the phenomenon extends to Civil Engineers – Hallelujah! We’ll be on to movies, beer, sex, the smellier bodily functions and old girlfriends’ irritating habits in no time, sorry, Hannah.
We continue our discussion, with Chris referring periodically to his notes. Arabs are then, as best as it can be told, the only inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula region – ever. They didn’t kill anyone, but themselves occasionally, for the right to call it their land. Not many Nations can say that these days. But, sadly, the Arab rarely stands out globally in many areas other than the obvious – yawn! – oil and perhaps their diabolic media image. Dubai is trying hard to change that and dragging the rest of the region with it – slowly.
* * * *
TACKY motels are the same the world over. This one had pastel colours on the outside as well as the inside. They couldn’t give us any food, as it was too late; the kitchen was closed and locked. There goes another star from my rating I thought until they said they did have some cold beer – Egyptian Stella. Not to be confused with the real thing, which should not be confused with that Cola that makes the world sing or vomit or rot its innards? I still have a T-shirt that proudly states on the front ‘Drink Stella – twenty million cockroaches can’t be wrong’.
With a tin of baked beans heated on the gas cooker from the camping equipment for me and a pot noodle made with boiled drinking water for Chris and, of course, four bottles of cold beer, we ended our first day in Egypt. We’d made it. Sleep overtook us like pantomime nightfall.
The odour of open beer bottles is probably not the best smell to start the day with, but at least we were in Egypt. Swinging my legs around from the bed to the floor, I planted my feet firmly into the puddle of soapy water emanating from the bathroom. The wildlife in the room that we hadn’t noticed last night was unhappily swimming around. My face meshed in my hands I tried to process what was going on, as my brain’s 1958 gearbox needed a little double de-clutching first thing in the morning.
Chris was in the shower and the curtain had had an argument with the shower tray, as they were keeping a healthy distance between the two of them. Measure twice cut once, my granddad used to say, but then he never put shower curtains up in any Egyptian motels - that I knew about.
In true Heath-Robinson style, or Al Heath-Al Robinson as he would be known in Egypt, the floor that was supposed to be gently sloped toward the drain centred in the bathroom was instead creating its own little aqua park by diverting the water into the bedroom. Nothing we could do about it if we wanted to be clean and this wouldn’t be the first time this had happened judging by the high tide mark of the pleasantly pastel foam-backed carpet of the prefabricated motel-style room in which we found ourselves. All it really needed was rental by the hour, a coin-operated vibrating bed and a cheap mirror mounted on the ceiling to complete the dreadful picture I’m trying to conjure in your mind.
The elation of ‘having one over’ on the Egyptian Customs was still with us when we checked out of the hotel that morning. We paid over the odds and didn’t really care; it would contribute to them rescuing the species stranded on a small island of carpet in room 104. The last thing I saw as we left the room were some cockroach helicopters trying to rescue the smaller species from the humps in the carpet. More cockroaches with Channel 4 Cockroach News neatly stencilled on their carapaces surrounded them. I guessed there’d be film at eleven. They looked in control of the situation so I wasn’t too worried about letting them get on with it. One should never interfere with professionals trying to do their job.
It was time to check out Egypt. And, hopefully, in the coming pages you will see what an incredibly ludicrous statement that is.
We were about to explore a country steeped in history, covered with temples, pyramids and populated with tens of millions of people – most of them in Cairo and most of them in cars, and most of them in front of us. We were also looking forward to sampling some of the best scuba diving in the world.
First, it was time for an adventure, as we hadn’t had one for a while. We took out our map of Egypt, as the one for France wouldn’t have been much good.
Looking at our map of the Sinai Peninsula, which was a big chunk of beigey-yellow paper that included a few contour lines. This was not a surprise and we noted two routes to the Cairo road, which was where we had decided we would go first. One route was the long way with a good road the other wasn’t. We opted for the other. It cut straight across the desert of the Sinai, went past the burning bush, or the site of it, and then on to the Suez tunnel and across to Cairo on the African mainland.
Sinai did not disappoint our thirst for our particular flavour of adventure – people.
The Sinai is shaped a little like a heart. The road we weren’t taking went all around the outside – safe and boring. The road we took went almost straight across. We found the turn off quite easily. It wasn’t signposted to Cairo but we knew what we were doing, as in, we didn’t really know what we were doing or care for that matter. It looked right in any event.
Five minutes along the road we met an Egyptian police officer who I thought could easily be Officer Khalid’s brother. He wasn’t of course, but the resemblance was remarkable. The officer flagged us down by waving his arm up and down as if stopping a bus. His hand was outstretched and the palm down, otherwise he would have been being rude. Palm up rude, palm down not rude. I have no idea why and religiously failed to find out why.
“Marhaba,” (Hello, less formal) I offered as we drew close to him.
“Marhaba”, he said quickly and added “Ben.”
Either he was expecting someone else or I was missing the point. I thought I’d tell him that my name was Greg, not Ben.
I said what I hoped was correct, “La, ina ismi Greg . . . wa anta (No, my name is Greg . . . what’s your name)?”
“You haff Ben?” he said again more insistently and then added, “Ben!” waving his hand around.
I pointed across myself to Chris in a theatrical manner, which is akin to speaking English loudly, “This is Chris,” in true Brit style I over-enunciated as if I were talking to an idiot rather than a foreign police officer, “We haven’t seen anyone called Ben.”
Chris, a little more on the ball than I, said, “I think he wants a bitch.” Chris was already dipping into the glove compartment, where we had some bens, but no gloves. He handed the pen across me to the police officer, who turned on his heel and went back toward his hut. Just before he went inside, he must have noticed we weren’t moving and he waved us off and disappeared.
“You are kidding me, right?” said Chris astounded at the cheek of this guy. He put all our papers back in the centre storage compartment. All he wanted was the bitch formally known as ‘Ben’.
“He probably needs to do The Telegraph crossword or something,” I offered.
(They Saddle Dogs, By Greg Hunt, Jerboa Books, Dh49 ($13.3) is out now. The book has been described as ‘crossing the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction with grace…’, and ‘a quirky hybrid between a novel, a snapshot biography, a travelogue and more!’)