In 1980, my mother received some sort of divorce settlement, the details of which are not known to me. But it allowed her to take me and my brother for our first overseas holiday. I was 12 years old (and my brother 8). I didn't keep any sort of diary at the time; these notes are written from memory many years later.
Altogether, we spent six weeks overseas, visiting Egypt and Germany. My mother had met another man named Samir after the breakup of her marriage, and he was an immigrant from Egypt. His parents and siblings still lived in Cairo, and we arranged to stay at their home while there. My mother also had a sister living in Germany with her husband, so we visited them too. We flew to Cairo first, stayed with Samir's family for two weeks, then hopped over to Germany to visit my aunt and uncle for two weeks. Then we returned to Cairo for another two weeks, before flying home to Sydney.
I took my first camera, a Kodak Anniversary Brownie branded camera which took 110 cartridge film. (This was a camera originally sold as the Kodak Pocket A1.) It had a shutter button, a film wind dial, and a slot for single-use flashbulbs. I didn't take a lot of photos on this trip because we didn't have a lot of film, and unfortunately I've since lost almost all of them, but still have a few which I have scanned.
I'd never been in a plane before, so the trip was already exciting just for that aspect. We also got six weeks off school, probably because my mother argued that travel was educational, and also because she never brooked any counterargument from anyone. I don't remember the exact months of the year we travelled, but it must have been mid-year because it was certainly warm summer-like weather in Germany. I don't remember much about the flights, except that before we left my brother and I each loaded up on things to keep us occupied. We visited a book shop and picked some titles. I chose Asterix and the Great Crossing, because I thought it was one which I vaguely recalled reading a "long time ago", in which Asterix and Obelix keep crossing back and forth over a land frontier between Gaul and some other place. (Asterix aficionados will recognise that this was actually Asterix and the Goths.) As it turned out Asterix and the Great Crossing was a title I'd never read before, so that was unexpected but cool.
We flew Qantas from Sydney to Singapore. The only thing I remember about Singapore is seeing someone in the airport playing with a cubical object with coloured squares on it. There were nine coloured squares on each face. He turned one of the slices to rotate the coloured squares around to adjacent faces. I was watching carefully and what he did next completely blew my mind. He turned another slice, which intersected the first slice at 90°, and instead of being locked by the rotational mechanism of the first slice, as should obviously have been the case, this slice turned too! I was clever enough to realise immediately that there was something strange about the construction of this cube. I watched him continue to rotate different faces, mixing up the colours, and I realised this was some sort of puzzle, and you probably needed to make a specific pattern of colours on the cube. I was too young to approach and talk to strangers, so I didn't learn anything more about this cube until some time later.
The next flight was Singapore to Bahrain. I'd never heard of Bahrain before we planned this trip. The airport was big and modern, with a huge glass wall facing the runways. We had a long wait here for a connecting flight. We were tired and I tried to sleep on the airport seats, but that's a trick beyond even a 12-year-old. In Bahrain we had our first glimpses of people wearing Arabic style clothing. Most notable to me were men wearing the keffiyeh and agal headdress.
Flying from Sydney to Cairo was non-trivial in 1980. Our next flight was a small Gulf Air plane from Bahrain to Kuwait City. The food service on this flight came with a slip of paper on which was printed a drawing of a pig, crossed out with a large red X. This amused me no end, even after my mother informed me that it was because Muslim people didn't eat pork, and was meant to indicate the meal had no pork in it. In Kuwait we had to disembark the plane by steps onto the tarmac. The air was intensely hot - hotter than any weather I could remember experiencing before.
Finally, we boarded an EgyptAir flight from Kuwait to Cairo. At Cairo Airport we collected our luggage and tried to navigate our way through customs and immigration. We were shocked by the customs officials opening everyone's bags and rifling through them very thoroughly, sometimes pulling everything out. I thought the same would happen to us, but someone looked at the passport my mother was carrying, determined that we were Australian, and ushered us through another channel where we skipped any sort of inspection at all, and emerged into the groundside of the airport.
I don't remember how we made it to Samir's family's home. His brother might have met us at the airport, or we might have caught a taxi and showed the driver the address we had. Either way, I was amazed by the bustle of the city of Cairo, and the strangeness of the buildings. I was doubly amazed when we arrived at the home. Samir's family were not rich. They lived in an ancient looking concrete block of flats, up a couple of flights of stairs. The stairs were worn down by the passage of numerous feet, such that the middle of the staircase was virtually just a ramp, and you had to walk on the sides of the steps to get any purchase. I was both amazed and somewhat horrified, having never been exposed to third world living conditions before.
Cairo, taken with my pocket camera
The home occupied a few rooms on about the third floor. There was a communal room decorated with rugs on the floor, where we met the family. Samir's brother was the only one in the family who spoke English. He had a car, which he used part of the time as a taxi. He may have had another job or been studying something as well, but I don't recall. There were two sisters, who spoke some French, and my mother remembered enough fragments of her high school French to manage some rudimentary communication with them. There was a mother and father, and possibly a grandmother as well. The home also had a kitchen space, in which the women cooked on a small gas burner on the floor. And there was a toilet, which was a tiny bare room with a hole in the floor, and a hose connected to water for washing.
They gave us Coca-Cola to drink, which I recall because up to that point I'd almost never drunk Coke before. The food was, I think, mostly rice and lentils and vegetables. We ate meat which I assumed was chicken, until my mother informed us it was from the pigeons which the family raised in tiny cages on the balcony. This balcony overlooked the narrow dusty street below. I spent a fair bit of time on that balcony, observing the to and fro of humanity on this small urban street.
Directly below the balcony, pretty much any time I looked, at any time of day or night, there was a man standing over a large hotplate, cooking something in the most fascinating manner. He had a pot full of a thin, runny batter, which he scooped into a long device which he held horizontally. This had holes along the bottom, which let the batter drip out in thin streams, forming a sort of comb. He swirled the comb over the hotplate, generating dozens of thin circular trails of batter on the plate, which cooked into crispness before he scraped them off with a spatula into a pot, and then began the ritual again. It was fascinating. It was only after a few days into our stay that I discovered what it was that he was cooking, when the family bought some for us to try. The thin noodle-like fried strands we squashed together and soaked in a thick, sweet syrup, and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Searching now, I believe it was something like kanafeh, particularly the kadaif noodles part.
Cairo, looking towards Giza and the Pyramids
I don't have a day-by-day memory of what we did in Egypt, so the following are just specific events in no particular order - some of them may have happened in the final two weeks in Cairo after we visited Germany.
Of course we visited the Pyramids of Giza. Giza used to be a town just outside Cairo, but the city has now grown so much that Giza is a suburb. In fact, the home we were staying in was in the urbanised part of Giza. So the Pyramids are not that far out of town. Samir's brother drove us there in his tiny car. Once you hit the edge of the city, the landscape instantly becomes desert. The Pyramids sit atop a plateau, overlooking Cairo, so you have a great view of the city from there.
Pyramid of Menkaure (I think), with small out-pyramid
We spent time going all over the Pyramids site, which includes the three great pyramids of Khufu (aka Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure (Myceranos), each of which has three smaller "queen's pyramids" nearby, plus the Great Sphinx. We climbed up onto one of the giant stone blocks which formed the base of one of the pyramids, to pose for photos. On Menkaure's Pyramid, the smallest of the three, we saw men soliciting money from tourists for the job of climbing all the way to the top of the pyramid. I'm not sure if any tourists themselves were attempting the climb - I have no idea what regulations, if any, were in place. I wanted to try climbing up higher, but my mother wouldn't let me.
Pyramid of Menkaure, with a man on the top
Nearby we took a brief ride on a camel. In the evening we attended the Pyramids Sound and Light Show - the same one seen in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. My own memories of what this was like have now been irrevocably tainted by the film, but I assume the experience was actually quite similar (minus the mysterious murder of an informant).
Another highlight was visiting the Egyptian Museum. This was a rambling site with multiple buildings and a courtyard full of fruit trees, oranges perhaps. Inside were amazing displays of relics from Ancient Egypt: mummies, sarcophagi, sculptures, tools, and many other things. I've since seen Egyptian artefacts in several other museums around the world, but of course here they have more than any other collection, with some of the prime pieces. Even at a young age, it was impressive and awe-inspiring. We also took a trip to the Cairo Planetarium, which seemed very large at the time, to see the star show. (This planetarium seems to have closed - I can't find any references to it online.)
The only other identifiable building I remember visiting was the Cairo Tower. This is a free-standing cylindrical tower, the tallest building in Cairo, and visible from many places in the city. It has a concrete lattice design around the exterior which flares out slightly like lotus petals near the top. Up there is an observation deck and a revolving restaurant. We ate dinner there one evening. My brother and I had spaghetti, probably because it was the most kid-friendly option on the menu. At one point we cracked up laughing because one of us was twirling the spaghetti on a fork, and ended up with the entire plate of spaghetti spinning around. Obviously for a kid this sort of thing is the absolute height of hilarity.
View south from Cairo Tower, with Gezira Island in foreground
We went shopping in Cairo. One place we visited was like a large department store, and it was on a boulevard with large expanses of grassy parks nearby. Since we had money for this trip, my mother was being rather generous in buying me and my brother stuff, and we pressed our luck by coveting a huge Meccano set from the toy section of the store. She argued that we could just as easily buy that at home, and she didn't want to carry it to Germany and back home to Australia, so we didn't get that. (We never did get any Meccano when we returned home. We'd probably forgotten about it by then.)
One day we went swimming, at a local outdoor public pool. This was very popular because of the hot weather. The pool was similar to public pools I knew back in Australia, with one major difference. As part of the Muslim custom, only men or women were allowed in the water at any given time - never mixed together. There were set times for each sex, and sirens sounded at the designated change-over times. And in between there was a ten minute period in which the water was allowed to "rest" before adults of the opposite sex got in. Children were allowed in during either the male or female times, but not during the "rest" period.
One evening, we went on a cruise of the Nile River. The river runs through the heart of the city, with numerous bridges crossing it. There is a large island in the middle of the river, Gezira Island, right in the middle of the city. This island contains the Cairo Tower, the Planetarium, and numerous other buildings. I don't remember much about how long the cruise was or where it went exactly, but one thing remained indelibly in my memory. At one point, my mother quoted what is apparently an old Egyptian proverb: "Once you drink water from the Nile, you are destined to return to Egypt." (A bit of Googling shows this indeed to be an Egyptian proverb.) She leaned over the edge of the boat, cupped her hand into the water, and took a sip, then gave both me and my brother a sip. In the fullness of time, I'm guessing this was rather a risky thing to do, as the water straight from the river is probably not the cleanest, but none of us got sick. And I'd certainly like to return one day.
Sunset over Cairo and the Nile River
Another evening we went to a circus. I recall clowns and acrobats, but am not sure if there were any animals. It was a fairly small circus, and our seats were very close to the action. I had some black and white photos of the circus, because we bought some extra film in Cairo, and the only film we could find that fit my camera was black and white. However all of those are among the photos I have since lost.
Moving on to Germany, after two weeks in Cairo we flew to Frankfurt on Lufthansa. My aunt and her husband met as at the airport and drove us to their home in Würzburg. My uncle drove a BMW, down the Autobahn, very fast. It felt like the fastest speed I have ever experienced in a car in my life. The front seats had thick sheepskin covers, and I dug my fingers deep into it, holding on for dear life.
They lived in a smallish flat on Rosengasse, a street near the centre of Würzburg. It was the same street my mother had lived on with her parents before their family had migrated to Australia, but I don't know if it was the same building. The flat had a small balcony overlooking a courtyard below between the building and the one behind it.
One of the main attractions in Würzburg is the Residenz, and we took a tour of it, seeing the magnificent interiors of this large palace-like building. I have vague memories of seeing amazingly decorated rooms, but this has since been trumped by another visit to the same building, when I travelled to Würzburg again in 2007 (and visited my aunt and uncle again). We probably also visited Festung Marienberg, the large fortified castle overlooking the town from the hill across the Main River, though I don't remember specifically doing so. We spent some time in a beer garden which I think was near the castle (I remember it being up a hill), whiling away an afternoon.
Since it was summer, we went to a public swimming pool here as well, though it was nowhere near as hot as in Cairo. It was barely warm enough for us to consider going swimming, really. It wouldn't have been swimming weather back home in Sydney. Before going into the pool, you had to pass through a gate area which had an ankle-deep foot pool that you had to walk through, and cold water rained down in a shower from above. I presume it was to rinse people off so they're not sweaty and disgusting before they get into the swimming pool.
We went shopping in Würzburg too, and acquired several fun things here. Firstly, we got a huge jigsaw puzzle, with 1500 pieces. The picture was an old painting of a huge naval battle between sailing ships on it. It was the hugest jigsaw I'd ever seen. We began building it in my aunt's living room, but of course didn't get anywhere near completed within the time we were there, and had to pack it up to take it home with us. (It took ages to complete the puzzle when we got home, but we eventually did, and it was very satisfying.)
Possibly the most expensive item I acquired on this trip was a chess computer. Being 1980, this was quite a primitive affair. It was a plastic box, about the size of a videogame console, with a 7-segment red LED display with 4 digits, and a series of buttons labelled A-H and 1-8. You had to have a separate chessboard to play on. You entered your moves in coordinate chess notation, indicating just the starting square of your piece and the end square for its move. The machine would then blink its LEDs for several seconds or so while it "thought", then display its own move on the panel. You had to interpret its move notation, move its piece, and then consider your next move. This was pretty much the height of the technology at the time.
The chess computer ran on mains power, and I worried that the European plug wouldn't fit Australian power points back home, but my mother said not to worry, because my grandfather could fix anything. As it turned out, when we got home, he simply cut the European plug off, wired an Australian plug on, and then when we plugged it in it failed to work. Nothing happened at all, and we never got it to do as much as blink a red LED. This was pretty upsetting, as well as annoying as a waste of money. (I presume the problem was that Australia uses 240 volts, while European power is 110 volts, but I had no idea at the time.) But after giving up on getting it working, I took the thing apart and had fun fiddling with the electronic components inside.
But the coolest thing I got was when I spotted what looked like one of those coloured cubes that I saw the guy playing with at Singapore airport. There was a big display of them, and they were named Rubik's Cubes. I had to have one, so my mother bought one for me. Of course, as soon as it came out of the packaging the coloured squares were scrambled within seconds, and I suddenly realised how hard it was to get the cube back to its starting state. When we brought the cube back to Australia, the Rubik's Cube still hadn't appeared for sale locally. So I must have been one of the first people in the entire country to have one.
An incident I recall with clarity occurred one evening when we had gone out to dinner with my aunt and uncle to a restaurant, walking distance from their home. During the walk back, I suddenly had an urgent need to use a toilet. When I expressed this need, my aunt gave me the keys to her home so I could run there and let myself in. I ran ahead and reached the block of flats, but discovered that I couldn't operate the key to open the door! So I ended up squirming and wriggling in the street, trying to avoid wetting my pants, until the rest of the family arrived and my aunt let me in anyway.
We didn't spend the whole two weeks in Germany in Würzburg. My great grandmother lived in a small town outside of Hamburg, so we took a train trip north to visit her. I think she was my grandmother's mother, but she might have been my grandfather's mother. After arriving at Hamburg, we took a taxi to the town. The driver had some trouble finding it though, actually getting lost driving through the countryside. We ended up going through Stade, and my great grandmother's town was somewhere near there, but I can't remember the name of it. The fare on the taxi meter ended up being something more than $50 (after converting from Deutschmarks), which at the time sounded horrendously expensive. But the driver was apologetic for getting lost and waived the fare.
I have a vague recollection of my great grandmother living in the upper storey of a two-storey house. It was the only time I ever saw her in my life. She spoke no English, so my mother had to translate everything she said for us. I can't remember how long we stayed, possibly a couple of days, before returning to Würzburg.
We didn't travel anywhere else in Germany, spending most of our time with my aunt. For some reason, I didn't take any photos with my camera at all in Germany. I remember years later, having the photos from this trip, before I lost most of them, and every photo was from Egypt. Possibly at that age I thought Egypt was really interesting and Germany was rather dull.
On our return to Cairo, my mother decided not to impose on Samir's family any more, and so instead we took a room in a hotel, whose name escapes me. The lifts in this hotel had no doors on the carriage. There were only doors on each floor that closed, and when the lift moved up and down you could see the wall of the lift shaft moving past the open doorway. The shaft wall was papered with poster images of Egyptian scenery, so you watched these pictures slide up or down as the lift moved.
We ate several meals in the hotel restaurant. One dish they had was rice with a tomato sauce, like a pasta sauce. The rice had short, thin brown noodles mixed through it, and was presented shaped in an individual serving size mould, with a hole in the middle. The first time I thought it was weird to have rice with pasta sauce, but I liked the dish and we ordered it again a few times.
Being kids, my brother and I got up to all sorts of hijinks. At one point we were bouncing on one of the beds in the hotel room when the frame collapsed! Naturally we thought we'd be in big trouble, but somehow this was resolved and there was no big drama, at least as far as we were concerned.
I discovered that Samir's brother liked playing chess, so we played a few games in the hotel. I was astonished to learn that he could play a game without looking at the board, purely from memory and by describing his moves to me. He still beat me.
Me, my mother, and my brother, standing on one of the Pyramids of Giza
Eventually we left Cairo for the long flight home to Sydney. I think we passed through Kuwait again, on the way to Bahrain. This time we had a layover in Bahrain for a day or so, two nights I think, and my mother booked us into the Hilton hotel. I remember clearly because at that age I associated the word "Hilton" with amazing luxury, and I was amazed that we could afford to stay at such a swanky hotel. I don't remember much about it though, other than the weather was hot when we ventured outside.
And so finally we returned home, again via Singapore. I had a 1500 piece jigsaw puzzle that would take us the best part of a year to assemble, a chess computer that didn't work once in Australia, and one of the first Rubik's cubes in the country. And memories of a trip of a lifetime, seeing the mystical and strange land of Egypt.