1971, Cairo, Egypt. My Dad was at the time an academic at the university of Surrey and somehow got sent to the university of Cairo. He worked there leaving my mum to look after us three boys. He wrote postcards to each of us and some very lovey-dovey letters on thin blue specialised airmail paper that folded up to make the envelope to my Mum. Whilst there he became aware of the Egyptian government’s drive to control rural population and how it involved enforced sterilisation of women. So he came up with a scheme to initiate work projects so that the women in villages had more to do than sit around all day getting pregnant. Actually, maybe “sitting around” is not quite the expression I need here. No matter. You know what I mean… Apparently it worked and after the pilot projects he was invited back to work for the government there. He flew back on an Egyptian Air plane and when he landed there was an announcement that “Mr Bakteer” was kindly requested to exit via the rear door. Eventually he worked out that “Mr Bakteer” was in fact him, Mr Baxter, and politely complied. He was shocked at walking down the steps onto a red carpet and finding himself shaking hands with an official looking gentleman. They chatted about his work and mutual places in England that they both loved. Only afterwards someone asked him if he knew who he had just been chatting to. It turned out to be Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, who was thankful for his humanitarian approach to rural population control.
So shortly after, on a subsequent visit to Egypt, he was able to take the whole family with him. I can date this precisely to 1972 because the Tutankhamen treasures were in London at the time we were there. There was plenty else to see in the Cairo museum, including the mummy of Ramases III whose bony arm was known to raise in a ghostly fashion when the heat got too much for him and expanded the corpse . We flew on BOAC and the plane developed engine problems so we ended up having to stay for a night in a swish hotel in Zurich. All quite exciting in the middle of the night. We got a pack of cards on the plane. The next day we flew to Cairo but because of the odd hours we arrived in the mid-day heat. This was generally avoided because the heat at that time of day tended to throw aeroplanes up as they landed, so it was quite a hairy, bumpy experience. In fact the plane was the same one that we had flown on the day before because the ground crew could not find any problems with it. Over the Mediterranean one of the engines had failed and started smoking. The plane plummeted thousands of feet before the pilot regained control, whilst the man next to my Mum calmly told her, “Don’t worry, these things glide quite nicely.”
The university had arranged a flat near the Nile river on a busy road. My Dad’s friend and colleague, Tom Hollingsworth was around as were other of his acquaintances from his earlier travels to the country. Tom and my Dad had obviously formerly had a bachelor-boy abroad relationship which was quite fun to be around. Tom told us how he had taken a mouthful of the Nile-caught fish on a hydrofoil trip, then turned it over to find it crawling with what he described as worms. We were invited to the house of one of my Dad’s other local colleagues where the teenage daughters spent the whole evening try to grab the small blond boys and kiss them. Eeeuw, we thought at the time. People in the street were always trying to kiss us on our blond heads. It doesn’t happen so much now to my grey head. Looking back, I could have made more of this! We played football on the balcony of the family’s flat and later down on the street with the street gang. Another colleague was a German man, Franz, who had lived in Cairo for a while. He was a professional-standard chess player who would suddenly do five moves for both players and say “And that’s how you will check-mate me”. His entire family had been killed in the bombing raids the English made on German cities, but he and his wife, Etta, were incredibly kind to us.
We all headed off to Alexandria for a break. Tom came with us and the hotel had a cage lift running up the centre of the lobby/restaurant. We used to have a sweeps on how long the first course would take to arrive, and my mum dutifully delivered the exhausted children one by one back up to the room as the tiredness became too much. I don’t think any of us three boys made it through to the dessert course. Habitually it took over an hour for each course to arrive.
Of course we visited the pyramids and the Cairo museum and the zoo. At Giza my Dad bought us a camel ride around the Great Pyramid. But the guy disappeared, freaking my mum out somewhat, with the three of us on the back of his camel. He had taken us back to his house to show his wife the three blond boys and take some photos. At the museum one of the guides tried to give my Dad one of the ancient artefacts. We were taken down hundreds of steps into a tomb and the guide wanted to take us further. My Mum declined. I later learnt that she was worried about scorpions. We climbed up the lower parts of the Great Pyramid and I remember that the blocks came up to my shoulder. The Khan el-Khalili souq was amazing to walk around, each area specialising in certain goods, and the usual glasses of mint tea in shops were an unforgettable early experience.
We were made to take a siesta at the hottest part of each day. It rarely worked. How could it for children under ten? So there would be cross words and tellings off and much “GO TO SLEEP”-ings. I don’t think any of us ever slept for even one second. We were also completely freaked out by the cockroaches we shared our flat with. We also detested the “foul” (a dish of pureed fava beans) and the sticky dates we were constantly finding ourselves served with. One day, after one of the usual arguments about us boys not being interested in a siesta, I took one of the dreaded dates and put it in one of the dark corners next to the front door. I then screamed merry hell about the cockroach in the hallway. My Dad came manfully running and dutifully whacked the date hard with his shoe. I called him a Brussels sprout for some reason (I think I wanted to be really rude after all those enforced siestas and that was the best I could come up with) and told him that he had just done me a favour and whacked one of those horrible dates.
My Mum used to sit in the back of taxis, gripping each of the rear doors to stop them from flying open and depositing us on the street, and the one we took back to the airport was memorable for my older brother sneezing for the entire half hour journey, which impressed the driver mightily. I have been back to Egypt since then, but this was my first travel out of Europe and lives in my memory as one of the best. Who, at the age of nine, would ever forget that?