In Egypt they drive on the right. Or sometimes they drive on the left. Occasionally, at the discretion of the driver, they drive in the middle of the road. In the absence of an appropriate junction, a left turn can be made by negotiating the debris and rubble strewn central reservation, facing-down the oncoming traffic in the opposite lane and entering an unmetalled track which serves as a side road. But your safety is always assured. Every five kilometres or so, a selection of battered oil drums, some carefully positioned hurdles, and one or two movable tyre-shredding strips, marks a military checkpoint where gun toting guards bring traffic to a halt, ostensibly to check that everything is as it should be, but perhaps just because they can. Heavy boots are lined up outside their guard-house in favour of lighter sandals, and sweaty bullet proof vests are draped over window ledges until they may be needed.
It is December, off season, and this far south along the Red Sea Coast, there is little traffic as the road cuts through the desert. These are not the rolling sandy dunes of movies, but endless hills of rocky rubble, dusty and drab in the hazy sunshine.
We had been invited to lunch in a Bedouin tent and were excited to witness this exotic experience as we pulled into the small camp and clambered out of our minibus. A collection of small square buildings formed the village; a tiny mosque painted deep terracotta pink it’s minaret decorated with ornate brickwork, and a single western style bathroom plumbed in for the use of us visitors. Removing our shoes, we stepped inside the ‘tent’. Cloths draped from the ceiling, billowed in the breeze from unglazed windows, woven mats were heaped on the floor and cushioned benches lined the room. Lunch was served buffet style, by a girl of about eight, as her younger brother raced his bicycle around the courtyard making engine-revving noises and pulling faces. Traveller’s tales filled my mind as I approached the food, not wanting to offend our hosts, could I stomach sheep’s eyeballs if they were offered? It was a relief, tinged perhaps with a tiny disappointment that our fare, tailored to western appetites, featured fish and chips. Egyptian rice, pitta bread, fried chicken and salads were all delicious, but apart from the children there was no sign of our hosts, the women remaining hidden from sight. Afterwards we were treated to coffee, hot, strong, spiced and sweet. A young man roasted beans over a tray of glowing ash set on the floor, ground them together with a few lumps of dried ginger, and added them to a round-bottomed clay pot of water to brew. Carefully polishing tiny china cups, he added sugar, and poured, a plug of dried grass holding back the dregs. It was then, with the aroma of warm sweet spices like mulled wine, that I remembered it was exactly one week before Christmas Day.