Friday 27 May 2016
Arrived Luxor. Departure was a perfect example of why flying in some parts of the world is such a chore. We were up at 6 a.m., at the airport (6th of October outside Cairo, HEOC) at 8, and departed, I don’t know, sometime after noon. The four or five hours was completely occupied with paperwork, argument, security theatre and one cock-up after another. We are venturing deeper and deeper into a dysfunctional world. I passed the time by jotting down notes because the sequence of events became comical and so ridiculous as to be difficult to remember.
We were detained for nearly an hour at the security checkpoint guarding the perimeter of the airfield, probably a mile from the actual runway. I hasten to mention that this is not a military airport nor an airport with any particular security concerns. It is a general aviation airport in a country that strangles general aviation and so is nothing more than a dusty runway, a few hangars, and a boneyard of airplanes that arrived and never left, each of them filling with sand and becoming part of the desert landscape. A tragic story adheres to each of these airplanes, but none of them will ever leave in flight. Eventually, I suppose, they will be trucked out to feed one of the fires raging permanently in the desert. After finally being permitted to proceed to the airport, we drove on I have a feeling that Abdullah, our driver, is the only one who understood the conversation, understood the reason we were detained, and was probably our salvation. Without his vociferous advocacy, we might still be there. At the sandblasted, tile-floored, cigarette-stenched terminal building we were asked to send our bags through an old x-ray machine that probably didn’t work. We were searched. And then we tried to reclaim our bags and were told that they must be carried to the hangar in the Follow Me car rather than returned to our possession. Then we had to pay fees for services that we didn’t want and didn’t need. And then we had to visit the flight planning office to extend our fight plan departure time because of all the delays. So, down at General Badran’s hangar, we readied the airplane for departure, only to find that the fuel truck was unavailable that day because it was the driver’s day off and no one else could or would fuel the airplane. So we had to arrange for a call-out as we might say in the States, a special request for him to come in and fuel the airplane. But he couldn’t come right away, so we were told he might make it by 12:30 or 1PM. Back to preparations. We ran up the airplane to check for oil leaks after the oil change we did the day of our arrival. Of course, we had to have the Follow Me car drive a half mile back to the tower to let them know that we would be starting our engine to a few moments. The tower could not have even seen us in our position by General Badran’s hangar, but by now we were so deep into ridiculous protocols that we had to comply. Now we were really ready. Wait a while longer. Finally the driver showed up, a very affable guy, and fueled us. We paid him directly. Then it was time to file a completely new flight plan or push up the existing one. Eddie Gould rode back to the office to work on an extension to the flight plan, only to return and report that the flight planning office was closed — for midday prayers. Finally, once the office re-opened, we refiled and prepared to depart, now at the hottest, most turbulent time of day, contradicting the standard advice in this part of the world to depart early in the morning before hot temperatures compound the difficulties of departing heavily loaded. (Hot temperatures being relative: by nine in the morning we were already sweating. But by midday, well, you remember that Rudyard Kipling wrote “Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Noon Day Sun.” Once we got all of the functionaries and hangers-on out of the way and fired up the engines for engine start everyone wanted to have their picture taken with us, so that was another delay. We finally started up, shut down, checked the oil and then took off. As soon as we called the tower for taxi, the response was very professional and continued to be so throughout the rest of the flight south to Luxor. On a long left downwind for the ILS 02 at HELX we flew up the west bank of the Nile over mountains of sandstone at the edge of the desert, and, just as I suspected at the time we confirmed later that we in fact flew immediately over the Valley of the Kings. You can see it on our flight track. My sense is that there at HEOC, as in so many subsequent stops along our way, we were in the hands of many generous, kind people who wanted to be helpful to us and our adventure but were struggling against a system that made every task more complicated, more tedious, and more frustrating than it needed to be. (Parenthetically, it occurs that often this overabundance of unhelpful and unnecessary requirements do nothing for safety. See Wolfgang Langewiesche on the unintended consequences of trying to perfect a complex social system by increased regulation, as occurred in the 1996 ValueJet 592 crash caused by oxygen cylinders that torched off.)
And so now, after a two-hour flight during which Adam and I took turns taking naps because we were both exhausted, we are in Luxor. (I literally woke up from an unintended nap to find Adam with his eyes closed.Not certain that autopilots are a good thing.)
And Luxor … Luxor … We took a taxi into the city from the airport and found ourselves in a hotel that … well, some have heard me say that I like old, firetrap well-worn hotels. Let’s just say … be careful what you wish for. My room looks, truly, as if someone walked out of the door in 1936 and I am the first to open the door since. It is the Paradiso Isis on the banks of the Nile. In a neighborhood where peddler’s carts and motorbikes and rundown shops line the street – but it is not picturesque. Just tragic. It is a 300-room hotel and there are probably five people in it. Maybe. There is a broken X-ray scanner at the door, the keys look like skeleton keys from a hundred years ago. They are kept in a big wooden rack on the wall with 300 cubbyholes. There are no peepholes in the doors, everything in the room is chipped, scratched, battered or faded. The air conditioning rattles and sort of blows air. The lobby is large and dark with potted palms everywhere. And by dark, I mean I would find it hard to read a newspaper. Remarkably, as large as the lobby is, it feels stuffy. I have not seen another soul anywhere in the hotel. The two bellhops are about eighty years old and speak no English. I think the entire staff is down to about three people.
Me, I am just going to enjoy the ambiance. I am going to hang up my uniform in the old armoire, get some Egyptian pounds, tip like crazy, enjoy a chance to live like an ugly colonial for two days, and go sit in the lobby and wait for Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre to show up.
P.S. The three revolutions in the last ten years have devastated the Egyptian economy and the tourist business — which are more or less the same thing. it’s like a bloody ghost town. Very sad. We sat in the bar, which would be my favorite bar if it were in Chapel Hill, for an hour and talked and had a Sakara, a local beer. After meeting with Ahmed, our tour guide for tomorrow, for about fifteen minutes, we went into the restaurant to eat something light – or first actual meal of the day. This is where the strangeness of the experience ratcheted to another level and also began to demystify. Our host, waiter, and, for all I know, cook greeted us with the friendliness that we find everywhere among Egyptians and which we sometimes regard with suspicion but which often proves genuine – that’s a complicated dynamic for all concerned. He ushered us to our seats at a table for five, which was one of perhaps fifty in a cavernous dining room. We were the only diners. After our meal, carried through with a curious formality by both us and our waiter, neither of us mentioning how strange it was to have two men seated in a restaurant late in the evening that should have been serving dozens if not hundreds. During our time in the bar and continuing in the restaurant, Adam and I asked ourselves and each other how and why a country like Egypt becomes so dysfunctional. Politics, economics, culture, world affairs all entangle in a tightly linked sequence of events to empty a dining room on the banks of the Nile. After dinner, when our host asked repeatedly if we were happy, if the meal pleased us (it was not a highlight, but that’s another story) we asked him how long it had been like this – gesturing to the empty dining hall. He said, “Five years, sir. Since the first revolution. We used to fill this dining room. We had fourteen people working here on one shift. We had an Italian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, an Egyptian restaurant, all in the hotel.” He went on to say, “I am Muslim. My neighbors are Christian. We have no problem.” He put his hand over his heart, a gesture I see frequently here in Egypt, but recognized the world over. All around, the lobby, the bar, the restaurant, the pool and gardens, which were still lovely, all around were the signs of stagnation, of decay, of hardship and wear and tear and deferred maintenance. Or, one might say, faded elegance. I could imagine this dining room filled with the sound of clinking glasses and the sight of busy waiters carrying large trays to tables with every seat filled. I could imagine the lobby, with its many levels and many lamps, lit and busy with talk and meetings and assignations. And the pool full of splashing kids and their parents around the pool with a drink from the outdoor bar.
But none of that will happen this season. Five years. The political and military instability in Egypt has shut down tourism. As our host in the restaurant said, once we opened the topic – one can be jailed or worse in Egypt for talking politics – “Our old friends, the ones who have come for many years, they come back, but there are fewer of them as they grow older. New friends no longer come.”