Through the fatigue and the madness, through the mania and the melancholy, through the delirium and the hatred, through the tedium and the awe… Through all that, the Central Asia Rally taught me many things, but above all it taught me patience.
It taught me that if no one has been injured, arrested or killed, by simply being patient, you can overcome. No matter the disaster, you can simply wait it out, so long as you can muster the will to do so.
It may sound like a pathetic bit of self-help, but I’m glad I learned that lesson because what should be a fairly rudimentary group press trip to learn to kitesurf in the manufactured Egyptian resort of El Gouna is rapidly descending into farce.
I arrived in London to begin this little adventure 24 hours ago, only to receive a text message from the PR who’d organised the whole thing to say that staff in Egypt had called a strike, delaying our flight. By the time I got into the airport it was quickly obvious that our flight wouldn’t be going anywhere that day, so I made a few phone calls, went into London and got drunk.
Earlier today, after the hangover and some plodding around the city (and after I’d checked to see that another of the Egypt Air flights had actually taken off, albeit more than four hours late), I decided to head back out to Heathrow to meet up with the PR and the other four journalists on the trip.
Initially the airline indicate that our flight will go through the night, leaving at 1am and arriving in Cairo around 5, before we make a connection down to Hurghada, the large airport near El Gouna.
By this point, we’re supposed to have been in the resort, but instead we’re in a queue for check-in, listening to rumours that we might not fly at all, as told to us by a fat lady who looks like she’s about to lose her shit with the staff. In the middle of all this, one of the other journalists loses her phone – or at least thinks she does. Ten minutes of panic later, she’s found it in the bottom of her bag. “Hah!” I think, “What an amateur…”
|(Not our picture)|
An uneasy half-hour passes and we get to the head of the queue. We’re told our plane hasn’t even arrived in London yet and, as the fat lady predicted, we won’t be leaving tonight. Instead the airline decides to put us up in a hotel, which seems like a fairly logical decision to all of us – especially as it means we’ll all get a bit of sleep.
So we raid our big bags, take out some overnight essentials, and check-in everything else. I fill my pockets with deodorant and my tooth brush. There’s not a square centimetre of extra room in my camera bag, which won’t be checked in, and my pockets feel fat and full.
We head out to the bus stop where we are greeted by a stramash of Egyptian maniacs trying to shove their way onto the first bus that’ll head out to the hotel. I know it’s tough to believe that humans from the MENA region would be going radge en masse, but I swear it’s true: they shout and push, while we stand back and survey the ugly scene.
It reminds me of something else from the Rally, when we were at the border of Turkey and Georgia and moustachioed men shouted and screamed at one another, and the only response to that particular brand of madness was to do the same. My co-driver at the time, Gabor, turned to me and said morosely: “We came here as men; we leave as baboons.”
|(Not our picture)|
This time, we, the noble British, opt out of the babooning. And by the time the second bus comes, we’ve heard-tell that they're having to drive 45 minutes to a hotel near Luton. Of course, they’ll have to do the same to get back tomorrow. By now it’s almost midnight and, given that extra distance and the time it’ll take to check in, it seems we’d be going all that way for a total of three hours’ sleep at the very most.
We make a group decision to tough it out in Heathrow. Again, I probably agree that it’s the best course of action.
So we all trudge up to Costa to wait out the night. Some people try to sleep, but perhaps because I’ve spent most of the last month alone, freelancing without any colleagues, I find I can’t stop talking to literally anyone who enters my Thunderdome of conversation. On and on I rabbit, popping out stories like a burping baby, all the way through til 4.30am, when security opens and we can all shamble through to departures.
I get onto the plane, dump everything out my pockets and into the back of the seat in front, and immediately fall asleep, missing take-off and not waking for three hours.
Then the wheel of misfortune spins again and I’m woken by searing pain in my gums – having had a temporary filling installed in a broken tooth a few days previously, the trapped air is trying to expand, pushing on the dentine, like a sharp thumbnail into my naked nerves. I can’t sleep any more, so I have a flick through the (largely dreadful) entertainment system. I watch three American sit-coms, each more terrible than the last, then it’s time to land, so I grab my stuff, pat my pockets with satisfaction that they are again fat and full, and get off the plane. I walk into Cairo airport exhausted but happy that the worst of my problems are behind me.
It takes 15 minutes to remember to text Wee Mo to let her know of our safe arrival, and it’s then that I realise I don’t have my phone, that I’ve left it on the plane, and that the deodorant gave my pocket the false impression of being as full as it should have been. I've only just got the fucking thing and owing to the increasingly onerous contracts issued by the faceless telecom corporations, it'll be 22 months before I can get an upgrade. In other words, I'm their dream punter.
|(Not our photo)|
The day after a massive debilitating strike, Cairo Airport is not a tranquil place. “But,” I say to myself, “be patient; worse than this happened on the Rally”. Even so, it’s hard not to feel a little, y’know, infuriated when a comically casual man with a radio, his face a ruin of acne scars, has the responsibility of trying to get my phone back. It’s especially delicate as there are only 25 minutes before the must-catch connection leaves for Hurghada, and I’ve only had three hours sleep, and it’s hot, and no one given a pharaoh’s fuck about me or my phone.
So we have to just leave it and wait until we get to the next airport, where I tell someone else who seems a little more interested (but not really, not enough) in my problem. Even the people in my own party, affable though they are, don’t seem bothered about my phone now. I should feel indignant about it, but then the word comes that our bags haven’t made it here from Cairo. No one has anything other than the festering clothes on their backs. No sleep, no phone, no luggage…
“Thank god for the Rally,” I say to myself, “Thank all holy fuck.”