“Want some Valium for the bus ride?” Although I politely declined, probably I should have realized then just how bad the fifteen hour trip from Luxor to Sharm el-Sheikh would be. But I didn’t.
When I was in India last year I made the mistake of trying to ride “ordinary” buses in an attempt to see India as a local would. This time, remembering the horrors of the Indian bus experience, I had booked a first class bus ticket, and so full of confidence in the “deluxe” ticket I had secured, I turned down the Valium and headed for the bus.
At first glance the bus itself wasn’t bad. I had my own reclining seat and the bus was equipped with air conditioning. Sure it was crowded and a bit dirty, but nothing I hadn’t expected. It was only when the bus filled, and set off that I realized I might have a problem. I was one of only two foreigners on the bus, and the only woman, which meant I soon faced an onslaught of stares and questions. In a city I can walk away, but once on the bus I had nowhere to go, so I settled in for what I knew was going to be a long, tough journey.
I still haven’t figured out why there were so few travelers (beyond the fact that there are very few foreigners in Egypt at the moment) and no women on the bus. I suspect most foreigners would balk at the idea of a 15 hour bus trip and opt to fly, or take privately chartered buses. It’s still a mystery why there were no other women on the bus.
My usual tactic for buses to put on my iPod on sleep, but what seemed like every ten or twenty minutes the bus stopped so the driver and passengers could smoke. Amazingly, there is no smoking on the bus. We continued for hours at this pace before we hit the next (literal) roadblock: army checkpoints. At first it was just soldiers boarding at what seemed like random intervals and demanding ID, then getting off. Then we reached another blockade and the driver started shouting at the soldiers. I have no idea what was said, but we ended up having to wait for at least an hour before we were allowed to pass. The 15 hour bus ride was turning into an 18 hour trip. To make matters worse I ran out of food and water, and was quickly becoming dehydrated and dizzy.
Eventually we did reach Sharm el-Sheikh. Sharm is a place completely at odds with my bus experience, and in fact with most of my experiences thus far in Egypt; it is a playground for people who want to come to Egypt and have a beach vacation without having to experience the “real” Egypt. Western chains like McDonald’s and KFC line the main road, and most people rarely venture out of the resort compounds. Generally, the type of place I try to avoid traveling to. However Sharm also has some of the best diving in the area, and since I only have a week to spend in Egypt it made more sense to dive here, and not attempt to get to one of the more out of the way areas. Also, today the usually bustling resort town resembles a ghost town, so it’s turning out to be a nice place to chill out for a few days after the chaos of the bus ride.
Which is where perspective comes in. The bus ride was a pretty miserable experience, but at the end of the day I debarked from the bus and am hanging out in a resort town on the beach, while I imagine most of my fellow passengers are working in shops, begging the few tourists to come in a buy something in the hopes of making ends meet. And those are the people who can afford the “deluxe” bus. The majority of Egyptians end up traveling on the packed “ordinary” buses. Although cities like Cairo and Alexandria have their upscale areas, they also have areas of intense poverty, with people barely getting by and feeding their families. The Egyptian people I have talked to have told me over and over that the protests against Mubarak and the government were triggered in large measure by massive government corruption and the economic injustices suffered by so many Egyptians.
A few notes:
Buses: I haven’t entirely figured out how the buses here work. There are the publicly run ordinary buses (which are for the most part not available to foreigners, see the note on security) and first class buses. There are also the charter buses that many tour companies use to ferry their clients from stop to stop. However, I believe there are also private buses available for travelers not on guided tours. I don’t know if these are nicer than the public first class buses, but I suspect they are. However, I think they run on a much more limited schedule than the public buses, and may not have a Luxor to Sharm el-Sheikh route, since I’m starting to think most people aren’t crazy enough to get on a bus for fifteen hours unless they have to.
Security: Egyptian security also continues to baffle me. I realize many of the roadblocks and tanks are left over from the recent revolution, but there are also many security measures dating back to the 1997 terrorist attacks in Luxor, and the 2005 attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh. Tourism is a huge sector of the Egyptian economy, and the Egyptian government wants to it’s best to appear to be making Egypt safe for tourists, but it seems, at least to me, many of these measures are at best just an illusion and create a weird two tier system between Egyptians and tourists. Many of the ordinary buses and trains are only available to Egyptians, the justification being that extra protection is given to the other trains and buses, something I’ve seen no evidence of. I’ve read that soldiers will sometimes accompany tourist buses in the desert, but it’s unclear if this provides any additional protection, or is just a way to make tourists pay higher prices, and provide the soldiers with a source of baksheesh. At many of the museums, monuments, and hotels there are metal detectors and x-ray machines, but it appears most of these are broken, and as a tourists more often than not I am waved through without having to stop and x-ray my bag. However, I think the strangest thing was the checkpoints that the bus went through. At all but when checkpoint, when the soldiers boarded demanding ID, they walked right by me. It was unclear if I was getting preferential treatment as a tourist, or they just didn’t want to deal with someone who didn’t speak Arabic, but either way it was strange.