Africa Dispatch: Egypt

Egypt cell: +20-161229519
Thuraya: +88216-51071135
me@christophbangert.com

Dear all,

Chiho and I are in Egypt. Yesterday we left the African continent and we are now in a small town called Nuweiba on the Sinai peninsular. When I look up from my computer screen I can see the deep blue waters of the gulf of Aqaba right in front of me and the Saudi Arabian shore in the distance.

We traveled a great distance since my last dispatch reached you from Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. Many things have happened. I’ve been wanting to write this dispatch for a long time, but other things always seemed to get in the way.
In Uganda I was persuaded to shoot down some huge rapids of the Nile river in a rubber boat instead of writing a dispatch. In Kenya I spent all my time underneath my Land Rover repairing prop shafts, replacing rubber bushes, break pads, engine oil, gear box oil, filters, etc…
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, I was struggling to find a decent internet connection, which I finally found in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. But there I didn’t have time to write a dispatch either, because I spent my days and nights under my Land Rover once again, changing wheel bearings, engine oil and fixing tires. All this happened on Sudan’s only camp site at 45 Degrees Celsius. That’s 113 Degrees Fahrenheit. How was I supposed to find the energy and concentration to write a dispatch anyway?
In Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt I got sick with a bad cold and fever despite the incredible heat and I barely managed to sit up straight in my driver’s seat.

So here I am, on the shores of the Red Sea with a nearly impossible task ahead of me, namely to cramp almost one third of a journey of a lifetime into one short dispatch.

But first some practical notes:

On Wednesday, August 6, 2008, two days before our wedding, something very German will occur in front of my parent’s house in my home town of Daun in der Eifel. It’s called a “Polterabend” and it involves the destruction of old ugly plates and tea cups as well as the consumption of lots of beer and sausages. Please consider yourself invited, you just have to bring some old china. (yes, that terrible flower patterned one that you never liked anyway.) We wold love to have you there.

Here again a link to Chiho’s blog. She has been working hard on it every other day or so, while making me (!) correct her english spelling each time:
http://web.mac.com/chihochiho/iWeb/Africa/Blog/Blog.html
Here in Japanese:
http://web.mac.com/chihochiho/iWeb/Africa/CF9DBF1E-9DEB-4735-BA07-91818EAD8EBD/025A919E-4072-4144-81D9-A3FDF9419BE3.html

And again a map of our great journey so far:
http://web.mac.com/chihochiho/iWeb/Africa/Map%202.html

Some new pictures and a video you can find here:
http://africablog.christophbangert.com/

No dispatch would be complete without a friendly, but persistent hint towards my Iraq book. (As the ever present Egyptian hasslers always put it: “Just looking, no buying!!!” Right.) Here we go again:
http://www.amazon.com/Iraq-Between-Jon-Lee-Anderson/dp/1576874001/ref=pd_sim_b_title_2
And the German version:
http://www.amazon.de/IRAK-Schweigendes-Land-Christoph-Bangert/dp/3771643694/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1205256569&sr=8-1

I was very lucky to win one of only two honorable mentions at the international festival for young photojournalism called “Lumix” in Hannover, Germany.
You can check out the other winners here:
http://www.fotofestival-hannover.de/index.php?id=54&L=1

And at the Look3 Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was represented with a slideshow this year.
http://www.look3.org/2008/index_08.html

That was the easy part.

I did not even notice it. We were driving extremely slowly, maybe with 20Km/h through a busy market in an Egyptian oasis town called Bawiti. I heard a terrible sound, but did not understand what had happened. Some men in the crowd pointed at the car and shouted. I stopped the car immediately, and to my great horror I watched a man pull a little girl from underneath my car, right next to my window. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt in that moment. It was the worst possible thing to happen, a terrible nightmare that became a cruel reality.

That was three days ago. I hit a child with my car.
The man held the seemingly lifeless body of the maybe five or six year old girl in the air. Her eyes were closed and she did not make a sound.
A crowd formed quickly and people were very angry and enraged. They were shouting and wailing in a way I had witnessed so many times before in the Middle East. I was horrified and scared. Did I just kill a human being? Just like that? Without warning and without a chance to react?
The girl must have run right in front of my car. She was shorter than the hight of the bonnet, so if she was running very close to the front of the vehicle, I couldn’t possibly have seen her.
To my great surprise and relieve the men in the crowd did not blame me in any way for the accident. They just kept saying “mish mushkile!” – “No problem!” while motioning me to drive on. This was a good sign. I had been in a few mob situations before and I knew that in Africa and the Middle East a car accident can cause a bitter and violent response from an angry crowd. For a moment I saw Chiho and me being dragged through the streets.
A fat woman came running over and made a terrible wailing sound. She was probably the mother. Before the girl was shoved into a nearby taxi I noticed that she had started to cry. At least she was alive.
With people in the crowd motioning me to carry on, I followed the taxi to a nearby hospital. I checked that nobody was pursuing us and counted the money in my pocket. I must have seemed calm, but I wasn’t.
I tried to talk to the sympathetic driver of the taxi who had stayed outside of the hospital. He didn’t speak English and kept saying: “mish mushkile!”
Together we went inside where we found the girl in an examination room, screaming. The mother and some other people were standing around while a doctor examined her. They were pale and in shock. And so was I.
A short while that seemed to pass extremely slowly, I spent waiting outside the doctor’s room. I felt empty inside. As if to add to my misery the Egyptian hospital closely resembled a hospital in Baghdad that I had been working in. The same tiled walls, the same smell, state of disrepair, veiled nurses and unshaven, tired doctors. I had seen horrible things there.

Finally the whole group came out. The girl was still crying, the only difference was that she had her foot patched up with some bandage material.
Confused, I went to find the doctor. He told me that the girl was all right. She had apparently received no serious injuries, no broken bones, just a superficial wound on her foot.
I was greatly relieved, but also skeptical. How was this possible? I had rolled over a small girl and the child was just fine?
I thanked the doctor and ran after the group of people with the girl who had already left the hospital. On the street I caught up with them. A young man spoke a few words of English. He said that everything was fine. No problem. The girl was in his arms and had already calmed down a little. I suggested that they go an see a doctor again the next day, just to be sure. I gave them some money to pay for the medical costs if there would be any complications in the future. They didn’t want to accept the money, but I insisted and they took it reluctantly.

The group soon disappeared and I went back to Chiho who had waited for me with the car.
Only later, when we were on the road again I realized that in the heat of the moment I had failed to ask for a phone number or email address. I deeply regretted this, especially after having to drive for many hours in the monotonous desert afterwards with my mind recalling the terrible event over and over again, in an endless loop. I felt a great sense of guilt and maybe an even greater sense of failure. How was it possible that I did not see the girl? I always made a point of driving especially careful and slow in towns and villages. Was it really not my fault? It must have been possible to prevent this. It must have been.
But I didn’t.
And I will never know if the little girl really will be OK in the end.

I know that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself and instead should acknowledge how incredibly lucky the little girl and I had been that day.
The accident and my struggling to come to terms with it still added to a general feeling of exhaustion.
I’ve been on the road in Africa for over 13 months now. I am still battling a persistent cold that just doesn’t want to go away even after a week of swallowing antibiotics.
I feel sad that our great journey is slowly coming to an end. In less than four weeks we have to be in Germany to attend our wedding. In a way I’m thankful though, to have this deadline and to be forced to end this trip. Chiho and I are having the time of our lives, but we are very aware that the journey can not and should not last forever. There is a time for traveling and there is a time for being at home. Both states of mind can only be fulfilling in my opinion if they are taking turns in one’s life.
This sadness that we feel, especially after leaving the African continent just yesterday, is mixed with a strong feeling of gratefulness. We feel very privileged to have been able to spend a year of our lives exploring Africa and learning about this complex, diverse and often troubled continent.

Of course having a deadline can be a blessing, but it is almost always a curse as well. For our journey it means that we are forced to travel too fast.
This can be extremely unsatisfying, but I don’t want to complain. This is the most incredible journey I have ever done.

And this is how it went. From Dar Es Salaam on Tanzania’s coast we traveled to Arusha, passing the famous Mount Kilimanjaro. We then proceeded to the impressive Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park before reaching Lake Victoria. In Mwanza, a town on the lake’s southern shore we met Bonnie and Matthew, a couple from Canada and the UK, who are traveling with their Land Rover from Cape Town to Jersey, Matthew’s home. We immediately got along very well and traveled together to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, where we visited the deeply moving Genocide Memorial Center.
Alone we travelled on to Uganda, a country that we liked a great deal. From Kampala we went to Jinja, where we had our first and only encounter with African extreme sports. We went white water rafting on the Nile, which was spectacular and a wonderful way to get to know the Source of the Nile. We crossed the border shortly after into Kenya, I country that is still recovering from political and tribal violence following the elections earlier this year. We stayed in a great place in Nairobi called Jungle Junction, which features not only green grass to camp on and clean toilets (!), but also a workshop with tools and helpful advice from the German owner, a professional mechanic. Our Land Rover was showing serious signs of fatigue by then after traveling some grueling 45.000 Kilometers on Africa’s roads. I spent many days in Nairobi improving my mechanical skills.
(“What’s the difference between a black man and a Land Rover driver? — The inside of a black man’s hands are white.”)

We then teamed up with Thomas, a German traveler with a Toyota Land Cruiser, whom I had met in Cameroon before and again in Dar Es Salaam, and Matthew and Bonnie, who we had just met in Tanzania and Rwanda, in order to travel together to the wild and remote area around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya and the Omo Valley in south-western Ethiopia. This was a particularly beautiful part of our journey and we greatly enjoyed traveling in a small group of very reliable and enjoyable people. (Matt and Bonnie keep a travel blog, check it out here: http://www.travelpod.com/members/bonthorn)

In Addis Ababa we finally got our Sudanese visas sorted out, a major achievement. Along with Matt and Bonnie we then traveled on to northern Ethiopia, visiting Lalibela, the monasteries on the islands of Lake Tana, and Gonder. Thomas stayed behind in order to spend some more time in Ethiopia, while the four of us proceeded into Sudan. The Sudanese landscape and culture could not possibly be more different than it’s neighbor Ethiopia’s.       The incredible heat hit us like a giant hammer after descending from Ethiopia’s cool and green mountains down into the barren and flat desert landscape of Sudan. While Ethiopia is dominated by an ancient christian culture, was never colonized, and has always been a unique and independent nation in Africa, especially northern and central Sudan in contrary is strongly dominated by muslim arab culture. Although geographically located very much in Africa, Khartoum and northern Sudan culturally strongly resembles the Middle East, just as Egypt does to the north. The Sudanese people struck us as some of the most hospitable and genuinely welcoming people we met in Africa.
By ferry we crossed from Sudan into southern Egypt on lake Nasser, the huge artificial lake created by the damming of the Nile close to Aswan. Bonnie and Matt’s as well as our own Land Rover made the same 17 hour journey a day earlier on a cargo barge that we were lucky to be able to hire for this purpose. Other travelers who arrived in Wadi Halfa, the Sudanese port town only two days after us and who took the same weekly passenger ferry are still waiting in Aswan for their vehicles to arrive today.
We were not prepared for what awaited us in Egypt. Mass tourism. After so many months spent in sparsely visited corners of Africa, and especially after just arriving from northern Sudan, where we camped most nights in the uninhabited, beautiful and peaceful Sahara desert, at times even sleeping undisturbed right next to ancient pyramids, entering the shameless mass tourism of Egypt was a great shock for us.
At times we were not sure if we were more appealed and disgusted by the disrespectful behavior of the international package tourists, who thought of nothing wrong in strolling through a conservatively muslim town practically naked, showing off tattoos, holding hands and kissing in public, or on the other side the aggressive and intolerable hassle that Egyptian shop owners and street vendors put you through even if you are just trying to buy a bottle of water or some bread for the same price as the local population buys it.

Despite all this we were deeply impressed by Egypt’s ancient temples, tombs and treasures that we visited around Luxor and at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Additionally it was great to see the Aswan Dam, the river Nile, that never fails to overwhelm you, the Western Desert and the Suez canal. Yesterday we also visited Mount Sinai where Moses is believed to have received the 10 Commandments and the Monastery of St. Katherine at the mountain’s base.

So far so good.
What lays ahead of us is a short, but interesting journey through the Middle East, namely Jordan and Syria, then on to Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany.
We hope that our trusted Land Rover will take us all the way back home without falling apart too much. In Nairobi in Kenya he was diagnosed with an engine problem by a Land Rover specialist. The engine needs to be completely revised. When I asked the man if it would be possible to still drive the Land Rover all the way to Germany before fixing the engine, he looked at me and smiled. “Maybe.” he said.

Wish us luck.

Best
Christoph.

Christoph Bangert
-photojournalist-
Thuraya Sat phone: +88216-51071135
me@christophbangert.com
http://www.christophbangert.com/
http://www.iraq.christophbangert.com/
http://www.travelnotes.christophbangert.com/
http://africablog.christophbangert.com/
http://www.laif.de/

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