I fly high on a little Sinai ‘chocolate’

The Hun and I have a mission — to smoke cannabis in some of the most securitised parts of the world.

We have managed to do it near the empty pool in the official residence of an almost-president-for-life. It was during a photo opportunity session for the signing of bilateral treaties — so no need for the attendance of two sober journalists. The wind direction was just right and the security heavies far away enough for a proper stoning — the kind surpassing anything the Saudis may throw one’s way.

In the dark days before South Africa emerged into the burning cherry light of legalised marijuana for personal use, thanks to the Constitutional Court, we had even blazed a few metres away from a police Casspir at the ANC’s national elective conference in Polokwane in 2007.

Flipping a finger at the po-po by exhaling into the smoke billowing out of a shisa nyama braai on which our peri-peri chicken was cooking, we also scored a Checkers packet of majat from the twenty-something who had mortgaged his house to make some bucks off Kongolose’s delegates. He had secured a bum location at an entrance to the University of Limpopo, which almost no ANC members had used, and needed the cash more than we needed his herb’s 30-second high.

The Babylon were less than five metres away when we scored.

So. What’s a girl to do when stuck in the gilded cage of Sharm El Sheik, Egypt’s high-end Red Sea resort town on the Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel? Especially after a falling-out with my travel companion which, for brutality, would have seemed familiar to Palestinians up the drive? With all the flights in and out of the town booked up because of the Africa 2018 investment conference? During the worst holiday imaginable? Alone?

“Find some hashish,” The Hun growls on WhatsApp. “And smoke it.”

Easier said than done, though. Sharm El Sheik has suffered a tourism slump since the 2005 terror attacks — a series of bombings that claimed 88 lives. The situation was exacerbated by the 2015 bombing of a Russian plane, which had caused travel bans to be imposed by Russia and the United Kingdom, removing the area’s main source of tourism and poorly considered free-spending. The most striking feature of Sharm El Sheik when flying into it are the rows of empty sun-loungers at sea-side hotels and beaches as vacant as a New Year’s Day racist’s head.

“We only have Ukrainians and Khazaks coming here now,” says Ahmed, who sells tourist tat in a strip outside the hotel, where overpriced perfumes, keffiyehs and Mohamed Salah football shirts spill out of cubicles with names like CCCP Shop.

“They’re not rich countries, the people don’t spend as much as the Russians, so business has more than halved over the past few years,” Ahmed continues over a tea he has brewed in his shop.

His face lights up when I say I am from South Africa. “Doctor Khumalo!” he exclaims, bringing a bit of joy to an Azanian wandering without charm in Sharm.

I’m a Buccaneer, though, so I haggle hard on the keffiyehs, before popping the question. Ahmed doesn’t know where I can pick up some brown chocolate, but warns that it is safest to smoke it in my room, not wandering around on a private beach.

Which made sense.

The Egyptian army is still battling Islamic insurgents in the Sinai, a piece of land occupied by Israel since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967 until 1982, when it was returned after the Camp David Accord and the signing of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in town, together with other dignitaries like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, security is tighter than Donald Trump’s squint. Despite the West’s jazz hands about the former eviscerating the Muslim Brotherhood and the latter’s provision of high-speed internet connections back home, both men appear to have scant regard for dissidents with opinions and a craving for the herb.

Almost every kilometre of road in Sharm El Sheik is marked by masked bomb squads stationed behind shields resembling oversized metal hijabs. All cars in and out of the hotels, shopping malls and the conference centre are given a sniffing by jaded dogs who have the look of constant disappointment that comes from only finding exhaust pipes where a bum is preferable. Bags are checked and metal detectors passed every time one walks out the hotel’s foyer for fresh air.

A delegation from the United Arab Emirates and another from Namibia are staying in the Royal Villas at the hotel, so the driveway and walkways around my not-quite-hovel-with-a-view are crawling with suits with crackling earpieces and shades darker than Jacob Zuma’s heart.

With no resolution in sight, I jump into the Red Sea. Its beautiful coral reefs and tropical fish soothe for all of 10 minutes.

The fight with my travelling companion and subsequent imprisonment gnaws constantly. I am Rapunzel, minus the blonde hair. Or the “blonde hash” North Africa is synonymous for.

As a traveller, I prefer politics and Tahrir Square to all-you-can-eat buffets and spa therapies. Give me Cairo with its Egyptian Museum, constant traffic, bazaar haggling and proximity to the pyramids over what I have here — a gilded cage of seaside resorts with swim-up bars in the middle of pools the size of Midmar Dam, tan-tacklers on sun-loungers, overpriced beer and tourist-tempered food, where everything tastes like a blander version of rice crackers on rice crackers.

Whereas five years ago the hotel was filled with Russian oligarchs and the Egyptian elite, it is now catering for Ukrainian and Khazak couples and families, including some single mothers with young kids holidaying together. Decent types. Ordinary folk. The kind who bath and dress their kids in their pyjamas before hitting the hotel dinner buffet.

Aside from those couples.

He: Much older, heavy-set and grumpy-looking — as if he has misplaced his Eno after spending the last fortnight bingeing on cheap vodka. Someone who runs a nightclub-bouncer racket registered as a laundromat.

She: Much, much younger. With the augmented perma-pucker lips of a duck-billed platypus and the docile affectations of an heir-producing machine. Someone who may have been a model or a pornographic actress before retiring from the business at the age of 22 and marrying at 23.

I chat up one of the Ukrainian activity co-ordinators at the resort who may be hip enough to know where I can fill my chocolate craving.

She asks where I come from.

“South Africa,” I say. “Where?” “South Africa,” I repeat.

She has no clue where that is, so I use the passport to universal acceptance: “Nelson Mandela?” I say.

With a stare as blank as faded papyrus, she is confirmed, quite possibly, as the only person on Earth unfamiliar with Mandela.

Finally, I take out a phone and Google-map Cape Town for her.

“It’s a long way away,” she says, adding that a direct flight from Kiev to Sharm El Sheikh takes three hours. She tells me that without these kinds of conferences the hotel is usually 20% full during peak season.

In English as broken as my spirit, she confirms not knowing where to source hash from, before trying to convince me to join a group of Ukrainians who are hitting a club later that night to check out the biggest-selling music group in the country, Vremya i Steklo.

It’s $30 for transport to the club, entrance and a free drink. The duo look like Borat had reproduced with one of the gangsta-porn couples from the hotel and mugged a stuffed zebra for their outfits.

I pass. Without a puff.

Instead I hit the conference centre where el-Sisi has, in anticipation of Kagame handing over the leadership of the African Union to Egypt, called together a hostile takeover of capitalists from around the world. “Afri-capitalism” is the “new narrative of African development”, apparently.

Both Kagame and el-Sisi address the continent’s youth with nods to the digital future, which includes “venture accelerators” for startups and state “energy” for youth entrepreneurship.

El-Sisi sounds like a man from the 1970s using language from the 2010s. Kagame sounds like the smooth operator who has seduced everyone from Tony Blair to the German government into believing that democracy in Africa equals clean streets and fast internet — not ensuring free and fair elections, which have been obviated for his almost 20-year rule of Rwanda.

I bump into some cats from Cairo, who invite me over to their hotel for some bedtime chocolate. It isn’t too hard — they think I’m in a band and, by this stage, I’m ready to ask el-Sisi’s chain-smoking guards to hook a brother up.

These guys are solid, cool people. They’re in their 20s and complain about the chasm that exists between el-Sisi’s tech-speak and the reality on the ground for Egyptian youth, which causes them to be wary of the army, of dissenting and of what the government intends for enabling their future.

We smoke and laugh and joke. We bitch and swear and are cynical in a way that only a new generation can be. Even Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring of 2011 belong to another time for these cats. Their present is a beautiful, shitty place in which they continue to be ignored. They say Egyptians are a forgiving people for whom it takes a lot to become angry, but there is always anger when food becomes more expensive and life less precious under el-Sisi. They call me a brother and refuse to take money for the hash they pass over to me.

Later that night I watch the suits whisper into their wrists as they patrol the pathway below me. I turn the air conditioner on full, strike a match and toke. Then exhale.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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