Hurghada lies on the east coast of Egypt, across from the more popular resort of Sharm El Sheikh just where the Gulf of Suez is absorbed by the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia lies further east glowering over disapprovingly at its more liberal neighbour.
The city’s promenade is a long thoroughfare of empty shops, battered restaurants and tired looking supermarkets. The walls of every house have been bleached white and beat into brittle blocks of crumbling shortbread by the punishing daytime sun. Piles of dirt and rubbish waiting to be lifted sit in every corner and weeds poke through the cracks in the uneven concrete slabs of the pavements. It’s far from the stereotypical image of Egypt: of ancient pyramids and bustling bazaars. The only sounds this early evening are from cars and motorbikes buzzing up and down a far-off motorway. This once bustling resort town favoured by rich Europeans and Americans is now flat on its backside and struggling to recover after a slew of terrorist attacks ranging from stabbings on the beach to the downing of a passenger airplane.
My brother and I are making a preliminary recce of our destination after landing in Egypt an hour previously. We walk on the edge of the main road not venturing too close to the many shop assistants that are trying to summon us into their establishments.
‘Where are you from?’ roars a young man from across the street.
‘Scotland’ I call back.
‘Ahhhhh, (obviously stumped), how you doing mate?’ comes a question in a comedic cockney accent.
‘Come inside, just looking, we have much things for wife, for girlfriend or mother’
‘No thanks man, maybe tomorrow’ I reply.
We move 10 metres down the road and are hailed by another man outside a shop.
‘Hello, hello, how are you?’ calls a man in an old Liverpool shirt.
‘Good thanks’ replies my brother.
‘Come and visit my shop friend, we have many things for you. Very cheap’
‘No thanks, not tonight, maybe tomorrow’ replies my brother.
Each shop sells the same tired fare; tourist tat with images of Cleopatra; small golden pyramids; busts of bygone rulers and crudely moulded ornaments of ancient gods and deities. I doubt much of it is made in Egypt but shipped in by the container load from China.
After six or seven salesmen using the same pitch the novelty wears as thin as the cheap clothing they are hawking inside. These are the guys that imbittered tourists whine about after returning home. By the time we reach our hotel we have been beckoned by of at least twenty of them and we are not even replying. We raise our hands to wave with a dismissive ‘yeah, yeah’. It’s bothersome but bearable. Only doing their job I suppose.
Over the next week we travel a little but mainly laze around the hotel reading books, watching Arabic subtitled TV and feasting on the all-inclusive meals and booze. Whenever we venture out, we are met with a smile, humour and hospitality. On our penultimate day, we go on a sightseeing tour. I am ripped off by the Bedouins that guard the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, bartered down into buying small alabaster busts of Nefertiti, procure marble scarab beetles and obtain an ‘ancient’ papyrus script which lights up luminous in the dark. We visit the Temple of Hatshepsut, wonder at King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and cross the river Nile to the grand pillars and statues at Luxor. Our only regret is that we decided not to take an extra plane to the Pyramids and back. When we climb up the stairs into our airplane to return home our bags are crammed with Egyptian gifts and stereotypical tourist jumble.
Our plane is (an Airbus A321- 32b) a short-to medium range, narrow body, commercial passenger twin-engine jet airliner. A bit like the cabin crew this plane looks older than usual and a bit worn. The upholstery is tatty, and the plastic frames scratched and marked through years of passenger abuse. There are no personal tv screens but a shared screen that bends down from the roof to be shared by nine passengers: this mainly presents the plane’s flight path, speed and ETA. A fold down table – which is very practical if you have arms like a tyrannosaurus rex – holds all available food and drink which can be bought in due course.
There are 36 rows of: 3 seats, the aisle, then another row of seats, that line up to 220 passengers the length of the body. Each passenger has 28 inches of body and leg room with 17 inches available width. As a big lad I have no room for manoeuvre and my knees knock against the back of the seat in front, neither can I recline the seat its 3-inch capability, but this doesn’t stop the passenger in front trying to unsuccessfully recline hers several times. Because of these constraints I must sit upright with perfect posture and not my natural slouch. My head sticks out high above everyone else. This is our sarcophagus for 6 hours and we are positioned rigid and stationary as an embalmed mummy inside.
There is one toilet at the pilots end of the plane (remember this is important) and a further two toilets at the rear. The American Airline airbuses are outfitted with a business class area however in this plane everyone is squeezed tight together like packet of polo mints. I take my seat by the aisle while my brother, who immediately sets about sleeping despite being of similar height and girth, is sitting across the aisle in the other trio of seats. In my row there is an old couple: the wife is fidgeting in corner by the window while her husband is agitated and suffering from air anxiety or a brutal hangover. They are bickering and swearing at other under their breath. In front is a large Indian family of three generations, the kids clamber over their smiling parents while the grandparents look on. I smile back signifying that the kids don’t bother me. I buckle my seat belt and begin to watch the attendants stony faced demonstration of the flight emergency protocols.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the nonstop service from Hurghada to Glasgow International. On behalf of your Captain and the entire crew, welcome aboard Thomas Cook Airlines flight MT711B. Our flight time will be of six hours and fifteen minutes. We will be flying at an altitude of …”
The announcement is unnecessarily loud making the plastic speakers vibrate under the pressure. The message is bawled at the passengers most of whom ignore any information and place their headphones over their ears. The engines growl and we race down the runway and gradually rise above the airport, city then into the clouds.
No sooner has the belt buckle light dimmed then the old woman in the corner of our row needs to go to the toilet. This produces a furious response from her a narky little husband.
‘For fucks sake, we’ve only just took off’ he spits at her before turning his head to me.
‘Excuse me sir could you let my wife out to go the toilet, sorry’
I’m disarmed by his politeness and rise out of our row to let them both pass into the jostling queue of passengers for the toilet. An attendant is quick to scold me for taking the empty seat in the front row, but I explain that the old couple will be returning soon, and I’ll only get in the way until then. She accepts my excuse with a disdainful sneer then busies herself organising her food trolley.
An older woman is squirming at the tail of the queue eager to get into the single toilet. She is thin with a gaunt face and is wearing an old blue tracksuit and worn trainers: the old tatty type of gear that your gym teacher used to wear. I decide that she is Canadian merely because she doesn’t look Scottish but more French with a hint of American. She is clutching a grey, metal walking stick and crouches down and steadies her forehead upon her knuckles. It’s not a good look and I immediately appreciate that unless she gets into that toilet soon things will go awry very, very soon. The old couple and the others however are oblivious to her state and use the toilet with the speed of pregnant hippos.
It’s at this point, the sales spiels start roaring through the speakers: loud, obtrusive and about as welcome as a camel sneeze in the ear.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, in a moment your cabin crew will be moving through the plane and you will be able to purchase everything from the catalogues situated in front of your seats’
I turn around to catch the response of the other passengers, many of whom are contorting their faces in discomfort. The luckiest put on their noise cancelling headphones but the majority must endure the racket from above.
‘For this journey only, we will be offering special prices on select perfume and aftershave, perfect gifts for Christma …’
Even with my iPhone feeding loud house music into my skull I can still hear the din.
The old couple complete their affairs letting the Canadian crawl into the toilet behind them. I’m ordered back into my seat and sit back and close my eyes and try to fool myself into believing that I may drop off into uninterrupted a six-hour slumber.
‘You will notice that today we have a special offer of any two bottles of spirits for eighteen …’
Unlike the shop tenders in Hurghada the flight attendants already have their customers in their premises, yet their sales technique is more impolite tenfold. In the process of selling their merchandise they have destroyed their passenger’s comfort and discarded their customer service. As they busy themselves at the rear of the plane, I notice the door of the toilet flap open and shut a few times followed by a hand poking through the gap to attract some attention. I turn to see if I can hail an attendant, but they are too busy preparing themselves to sell, sell, sell, so I press the help button above my head. Thankfully the attendant rushes past me and straight to the aid of the floundering Canadian. Upon reaching the toilet she hesitantly edges open the door but is repulsed by the sight inside. She turns from the door with her eyes bulging and cheeks puffed out like an asthmatic hamster. Another attendant joins her and they exchange some disbelieving stares. Something has gone seriously wrong within that toilet and the curtain separating the bottom area is immediately drawn. Minutes later the Canadian’s husband (a small bearded man), is hailed from the belly of the plane and he rushes forward complete with toilet bag and a change of clothes. I’m struck by his preparedness and relative joviality surmising that isn’t his first rescue.
Then in act of unnecessary callousness the attendants loudly address the passengers through the speakers:
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, for the rest of tonight’s journey the toilet at the front of the plane shall be out of order, please use the toilets at the back’
Everybody is now concentrating upon the toilet at the front of the plane. Only doing their job I suppose.
After five minutes of hidden theatrics the curtain is finally pulled back to reveal the Canadian who must now endure a needless walk of shame down the aisle of the plane. She tries to steel her way past the condemnatory eyes of her fellow passengers with a taut, forced smile cum grimace. I stare forward not wanting to catch her gaze (my earphones are in, but my music has long been stopped) and I feign casual disinterest. I notice that she has returned minus her tracksuit bottoms and instead some dog-eared blue shorts. She passes my field of vision and takes her seat somewhere behind me.
The attendants immediately start accepting orders in the Canadian’s wake and start to distribute food and drinks while receiving credit cards and cash in return. The old woman in my row orders a small bottle of champagne while her husband crumples himself into temporary hibernation. After a while I turn around to see the Canadian several rows back: she is fast asleep, her head tilted back and snoring loudly, nobody bothers her for the rest of the journey. I try to get comfortable and start to leaf through the airlines catalogue and prepare to spend, spend, spend.