One of the things we try to do on holiday is stay out of the tourist bubble. We buy at local shops and take public transit, for example, to try to get more into the streets and get a taste of what the locals are going through in their daily lives.
But one day we ran into a problem that is so acute in Egypt that the day it happened to us, someone actually got killed fighting over it: a shortage of fuel.
We were at the half-way point on our way back to Cairo after two unforgettable nights in the White Desert. Having said farewell to our 4×4 driver and guides and shoved our grimy luggage in the back of a big, white mini-van, we settled in for what we thought would be a quick three-hour drive back to the city and a warm, hot shower.
But as we turned a corner down a side street before leaving the oasis town, we knew something was up.
We arrived at a gas station to find a huge tanker truck parked at the entrance and a few people milling around the pumps. After getting in line and shutting off the engine, our driver explained that we’d be on our way again in a half an hour. First though, the tanker truck had to fill the gas station’s reserve tanks before they started fueling the waiting vehicles.
No gas? Not good. Besides, we’d learned by then that Egyptian Standard time ticks at least three times slower than ours, so it would probably be closer to two hours by the time we got going again.
Thirsty, we took a walk hoping to find a teahouse or a cafe, but that was useless. We were in the middle of the outskirts of a very basic town, and there was nothing.
So we turned back and sat down on building blocks in the shade for a while, swatting flies and contemplating how nice it was to be stuck in the noonday desert heat amid garbage and rubble with dust and oil fumes wafting around, the little red-haired girl passing the time playing Nintendo while we ate the last of our dates and oranges, wishing our tour company was just a little bit better organised.
“I mean, when you come to a foreign country, you expect things to run differently, that’s a given,” I said, “but what I can’t understand is, why didn’t they just tank up on the way down from Cairo? On the way down here we filled up at Giza within sight of the Pyramids, remember? And then half-way down he topped it up with only 20 litres.”
Then we looked over and realised things were getting pretty testy around the gas pumps.
Our van had been third in line when we arrived, but only a half-hour later there was no more line, just a gridlock of cars, vans, trucks, motorcyles and men on foot carrying gas canisters as word got out that there was fuel in town and you’d better come down and get some.
By now we’d wised up and had been sitting watching it all from the air-conditioned comfort of the van, but we all piled out for a closer look just as the first screaming matches were breaking out.
I don’t speak any Arabic beyond Salaam and Inschallah! but you don’t need a dictionary to figure out nobody was happy:
The man who drove us through the desert for two days, the same guy who helped set up camp and cook our meals, came through for us in the end. He’d driven up about an hour after we’d arrived because he needed gas for the next group he was taking out. He fought for our place in line along with our van driver. When our turn came, he grabbed the nozzle and filled our tank.
I asked him earlier why the driver waited to get to the far-flung oasis instead of tanking up along the way.
“It’s a problem all over Egypt,” he said. “There’s no gas. The van driver wanted to fill up, but the town where he usually does it 100 km away had none, so he had to wait until now.”
Ah-hah. I felt a bit stupid just then. Coming from a country where people bitch over a few cents’ rise in prices, the thought that such a basic commodity would be in such short supply had simply never occurred to me.