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<   No. 3348   2014-09-07   >

Comic #3348

1 {photo of Cairo}
1 Caption: Bits of Africa

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Pyramid climb
Pyramid of Menkaure, Giza.
I am preparing for a major vacation, leaving home on the Friday after this is published, and not returning for a little over three weeks. I will be visiting Morocco and Spain, neither of which I have been to before. I plan to queue up enough of these annotations to allow automated updates to continue without interruption, but depending on how my time goes, the updates while I am away may be significantly shorter than normal.

The main objective of this trip during the planning stages was to visit Africa. Our initial plan (I am travelling with my wife) was to visit Morocco and then catch a flight over to Tanzania to see some of the Serengeti and its famous wildlife. Unfortunately our plans in Morocco see us ending our time there in Marrakech, and we would have had to arrive in Arusha in Tanzania to connect with a safari tour there. The best connection our travel agent could manage to find involved the following flights: Marrakech to Casablanca, Casablanca to Dubai, Dubai to Nairobi, Nairobi to Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam to Arusha. I would have guessed there would be a quicker and less complicated route, but for whatever reason our travel agent could do no better. Facing this prospect of a five-legged journey taking the better part of two days, we opted for a direct flight from Marrakech to Madrid to enjoy a week in Spain instead.

My wife has never visited Africa, but I have once before, when I was ten years old. I spent four weeks in Cairo with my mother and brother. We were staying with an Egyptian family in the city and didn't tour around the country. The furthest we went was a trip out to the Pyramids, which are so close to Cairo that there are suburbs within spitting distance. Houses and urban streets give way to the starkness of the naked desert sands at the western edge of the great city, and pretty much almost immediately you run into the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx, sitting on the Giza plateau.

View from centre of Cairo towards Giza.
Even at the age of ten, the culture shock of staying with a local family was considerable. There were three or four unmarried adult children living with their middle aged parents, and a grandmother, in a small apartment in a bare concrete block somewhere in the rabbit warren of streets that is Cairo. The stairwell up to the apartment was unadorned concrete, and the stairs were so old that they had been worn down by the passage of countless feet, such that in the middle of the steps there was no step left. It was essentially a ramp, with horizontal footing to be gained only by walking along the edges next to the wall, where the concrete was less worn. The kitchen was a small room with a single portable gas burner attached to a gas bottle. The family raised some of their own meat - there were a series of pigeon coops on a balcony. The toilet was a hole in the floor of a small room, with a hose to wash down.

One of the sons spoke English, and one of the daughters spoke French, so we could communicate a few words with her via my mother's limited osmotic knowledge of French, but the rest of the family spoke only Arabic, which was opaque to us.[1] Nevertheless, it is surprising how much you can communicate without a common language if you take the time. One of the sons owned a beaten up car, which he ran as a taxi most of the time to earn a living, but in which he drove us around Cairo to see various sights and tourist attractions.

I didn't realise or appreciate it at the time, but this trip to a very different country was a major formative experience for me. I saw how different other people's lives could be, and how people could be friendly and happy and, well, normal, without the myriad modern possessions of the Western world. Many years later I met a woman who became a friend, and I learnt that her parents had been aid workers and she had spent part of her childhood growing up in a small village in the Ivory Coast. I think some sort of worldly experience of different cultures like this is, or should be, an important part of growing up in this modern world.

But returning to Africa...

Returning to Africa has long been a dream of mine. I would like to return to Egypt specifically to see more of the amazing remnants of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation, and perhaps to take a cruise along the Nile River and see some of the landscape. But Egypt has become politically unstable and the danger to tourists is higher now than when I was last there. So I bide my time and visit other parts of the world. Morocco has been high on my list for some time. No doubt I'll share some photos with you when I return. Until then, enjoy the brief notes I will be queuing up for my absence.[2]

[1] I should perhaps explain how we came to stay with such a family. Possibly some of you are wondering at this point. There was an additional adult sibling, who had emigrated to Australia, and was a family friend. When we decided to travel to Egypt, he said his family would be delighted to host us. As the trip was stretching a very thin budget, we accepted. In fact, without this offer of accommodation, I suspect we never would have gone.

[2] I have no idea what they will be yet... I still need to come up with some ideas and then write them!

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