Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 5

The day started early for the group, as Mohamed, our guide had said we would cover the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor and be back on the boat by lunch time. The afternoon, and the next morning would be free for us to relax.

The Valley of the Kings is a huge cemetery, nestled in the lap of mountains on the bank of the Nile. Legend has it that the Pharaohs realised that the treasures were being robbed from the Pyramidal tombs, so they resorted to picking a spot in the valley, where their tomb would be built. There are about 60 odd tombs discovered in the valley, and there are more still under excavation. We were to see only three this morning. Photography was prohibited in the valley altogether, which I thought was good; it allowed us time to soak up the experience. Mohamed also told us there is a ban on guides entering the tombs, as they typically tend to lecture to groups of people and too many people would start affecting the natural state of the tombs (read colours of the hieroglyphics).

So when we reached the valley, we took a little road-train from the entrance to the start of the tombs, and Mohamed took us away from the hawkers and peddlers and explained to us the significance of each tomb we would visit. The valley was breathtaking. There were miles and miles of sandstone hillocks; some leading to tombs, some lurking around from behind, tempting us to visit the Valley of the Queens. I'm told further into the valley, there is also a valley for noblemen.

The tomb of the legendary Tut-Ankh-Amun also lies in this very valley, but needs an extra ticket to visit. We did not visit it anyway, since we planned to see the mummies at Cairo on our way back. However, the tombs that we visited were nothing short of spectacular.

These tombs had the story of the after-life as a common theme - You could make out the jackal Anubis mummifying the body, the God Osiris making the judgement after weighing a person's heart against a feather and such. The colours used in the tomb are so bright and unfading that its hard to believe it was the ancient Egyptians who did this! I forget whose tomb it is now, but one tomb we visited had a massive roof mural, suggesting a snake which gobbled up the sun each night and a giant scarab beetle prodding the sun along its way across the sky. The hieroglyphics were in such abundance and telling a story of their own, which made SK remark that one should study hieroglyphics and come read these stories.

The hawkers at the Valley deserve a special mention, there are so many of them, and they never ever give up. They pestered us up and down the valley as we moved in and out of tombs. Mohamed did warn us about them, and we normally refused all offers. We eventually bought some books about the Valley, after a great deal of bargaining and hassle.

On our way back, Mohamed took us to an alabaster/basalt shop where we could buy some stone souvenirs. He probably did it out of good heart, to make sure we bought authentic souvenirs and were not ripped off, but frankly, we thought the prices were too high. But we had a lot of fun at the place, in addition to the free Egyptian tea and clean toilets.

The owner of the stone workshop led us through a choreographed introduction session, where his cronies belted out inanities similar to a primary school "Gooood morninnnnnng, maaaadam!". More fun was had when we went inside his shop and saw statues of the God of Fertility in all sizes - SP and SK even picked one up to play with!!

Our next destination was the temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was a queen, who ruled over Egypt like a monarch. It was not too far away from the valley, and was being re-constructed by a team of Polish archaeologists. The temple was eye-catching and the restoration activity gave it a very different look from all the temples we had seen thus far. The legend which goes with this temple is very interesting. Mohamed put some names in our group to explain who is who, so it turned out Hatshepsut (SS) had a devious mind and when the Pharaoh died, she devised her little son Tuthmoses III (RA)'s marriage with the daughter of the Queen, so that she would get to rule the kingdom (or some such frap, which I can't remember now). Equally interesting was the mountain behind the temple. In the light of the shining sun and our fertile imagination, it was looking similar to Mt. Rushmore. RA and SM went on a shooting mission, while someone made a suggestion to go back to the bus, and when we did, we saw the rest of the gang also sitting close by.

After Hatshepsut, we went to the Colossi of Memnon. The Colossi of Memnon are two huge statues of Pharaoh Dont-know-who. The story says that the statues whistle at certain times of the day and is considered to bring luck to the person who hears them whistling. We didn't. We did hear something else, that was the 'Ahoy' of a farmer on a donkey, who saw us taking his picture and came running for 'baksheesh' :D

Our tour for the day was done. Mohamed took us back to the hotel, and said he would meet us again at night, to deliver some of the things we had asked of him to make some 'sandwiches'.

Lunch was served, and we were all soon devouring the lavish spread. The best thing on this cruise was that we never had to worry about food. Breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner - we only had to be there at the time and we would be fed. So, we were having lunch and the conversation meandered along our two tables and there was a wager that DT would not say a word for an hour, and in exchange SK would give her a 100 Egyptian. She would also not sleep (it would be discounted) and always be with someone so there was a chance to speak. It was a deal and DT switched to sign language. Now, there are different versions of this, but I know SK did not say a word after Egyptian, so the argument - pounds, piastres, people - was always open.

DT continued to be on mute throughout lunch, and thereafter. I wanted to go out to the Luxor market, so I asked around if anyone wanted to accompany me. Some wanted to sleep, some wanted to swim, some wanted to go up to the top deck and read a book (ST, yes, that's you :)), so I went to the market alone. (I later learnt DT won the wager, but whether or not she got the Egyptians is another story :) - congratulations DT!!)
I asked the reception for a taxi and he said it would be about 30 EGP. Thanked him and went out of the boat thinking to flag one off the road myself for a lesser fare. Saw another guide from the boat taking a group of people to Luxor in a bus, so I asked him if he would drop me at Luxor temple, and hitched a ride to the temple.

From the temple, I walked around to the souk, trying to find a public pay phone. There was none, so I asked a group of tourists if they had seen one. An Italian said he had been to the waterfront for a felucca ride (felucca is a sailboat, and rides on the Nile are very popular) and he had seen one there. I spent some time there, called S and spoke for a while. I walked back into the souk and spent some time looking at the various items on display - there were the usual assortment of clothes, figurines of cats, mummies and the Pharaonic busts. I waved most of them off, but stopped at the shop of a thin lanky man, who tried to speak to me and guess where I am from. I liked him, he was not selling his stuff to me, he was just trying to speak - a clearly different strategy of marketing. I learnt his name was Armos. (His real name was Tayyeb) and he was just making some conversation - where I was from, what I did etc. I asked him for the 'Arafat' - which is a chequered Arabic scarf, typically in black and white, but also available in a few other colours. I knew, from my chat with Mohamed, that 10 EGP were a fair price for the scarves. So when he quoted me a high price, I waved him off. I only wanted two and was not ready to pay any more, but the scarves he had were bigger than the ones I had seen in Hatshepsut. They were also better. So when he made an offer for three at a little over 10 EGP a piece, I accepted it.

An Englishwoman came to his shop with a lad who was very friendly with Armos. Armos introduced me to the lady with "He speaks English", and went off to get us both some tea. The lady was named Heather, and she was Welsh. She was visibly overjoyed to hear I had been to Cardiff, Swansea and a few other places in Wales. Apparently, she had married an Egyptian and had been living here for the past 10 years or so.

We sat down and over tea, spoke about a lot of things. She recounted her stories with an Indian colleague when they were both teaching in England, and said she had been to Sri Lanka, but never been to India, for she was overwhelmed by the size and the amount of time and money it would cost her to cover India in a single trip. I spoke to her about my life in England, the various facets of social experiences for me to go from India and live in England; and for her to leave Wales and live in Egypt. She spoke to me about her daughter and I about my wife and son, and then we touched upon some of the things I had already covered with SK on Day 1.

We exchanged numbers and addresses and took leave. I continued my lone walk along the waterfront, reaching the high street - the Winter Palace and further on, the Lotus Hotel. From here, I hired a tonga to take me to the Egyptian Market and the Nubian Market, which were further across the railway station. The local markets were nothing like the souk - it was very similar to (at the risk of repeating myself) an Indian setting. I felt no different here than walking out of Mysore bus-stand, making my way through the touristy alleys selling bags, shoes and what not, to the palace square where S and I always ate chaat and butter dosa. It was different - there I was feeling almost at home, and the locals were like "Oh, look at the tourist in the tonga, with his expensive camera". I bought a couple of papyrus paintings at the Egyptian market, it was close to 7 PM. I was almost near the Luxor temple, so I got rid of the tonga and hired a taxi to take me back to the harbour. The cabbie was playing Mohammed Fouad on some local radio station. When I mentioned Amr Diab, he smiled in a way I thought the singer was over-rated in Egypt.

When I was back at the boat, there was a plan for hot-air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings. I thought it was an awesome idea, and we confirmed our entries. An aerial view over all the tombs we had seen this morning would be spellbinding, I thought. I was looking forward to a quiet day after all the walking I had done, but it was a fair trade-off, I had never done hot-air ballooning before.

Tomorrow was promising, but tonight was going to be legendary - with 'sandwiches' courtesy Mohamed.

1 comment:

Sush said...

Keep them coming Viky...Reading the blog and seeing the snaps together is fun!!
PS- When are you preparing the sandwiches the next time?? ;)