Monday, January 30, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 9

I woke up to find SK standing in the aisle next to our seats. "It's nearly 5 AM", he said. That was when we were expecting to arrive at Cairo. One by one, everybody woke up as the train reached our final destination. Cairo - home to the greatest exhibits of mathematics and engineering - the Pyramids.

We scrambled out of the station waving off taxi drivers until we all were together. The hotel was quite near, probably even walkable, but we decided to go by cabs and have an early start to the day, if possible. RA called us the cabs and pulled out the address for them. SK would take a separate cab to the airport. There were hugs and promises to keep in touch, even as the cabs waited for us in the middle of the street. MS, S2K and I jumped into one and we pulled away.

Our cab driver, in the interest of fare, drove us through by-lanes and by-lanes of the Tahrir area and finally, unable to find the hotel, he asked a couple of locals at the Talaat Harb Square, which was just metres away. The hotel was neat, and although we were not due until 11 AM that day, he made some adjustments for us to dump our luggage and freshen up. Most of all, he offered us something all of us had not had for the last 3-4 days ... Wi-Fi!!!!!

As soon as we were done with our Facebook updates, SP and I ventured out for a 'beat'. We walked along the main road, into Talaat Harb Square, where I stepped into a pharmacy. I asked the pharmacist for some cough syrup and got an Arabic sentence back.

"Arabic, lah", I said, "No Arabic".
"lah, @£% throat straining syllables $%$, Arabi?? Arabi lah?"

I shook my head. He went back to find a colleague who spoke English. The other guy asked me if I had dry cough or chesty. I replied it was the latter. He brought me a herbal syrup. I saw some Strepsils on the counter, and grabbed a couple of strips, just in case.

SP and I continued on the street and found a small eatery. It had just opened for the day, I guess, and we were one of the first customers of the morning. It was so much similar to entering a darshini at 6AM, that I almost ordered idli-vada-sambar. Well, I did order vada, only, it was called falafel in this part of the world. We made a mental note to bring the gang here. (On our way back, we found another place called Kazaz, whose chicken-shawarma-sandwich was a huge hit).

We walked on from this place and reached Tahrir Square. It was just starting to get busy. On the square itself, on a raised platform, people were busy clearing up litter and flags left over from last night's protests (?). Off the square, on the main roads, traffic was building up. Further off, on the footpaths that went around the square and into the business districts, hawkers were setting up their stalls for the day. We looked at the Egyptian Museum and thought it must be some seat of the government. The rest of the panorama was made up of towering hotels - The Nile Hilton, The Semiramis Intercontinental, the Ritz-Carlton etc, overlooking the Nile Corniche.

We walked back to the hotel, thinking of getting the guys here for breakfast. As we walked up the stairs to the reception, we saw SK - horror of horrors!! SK - lounging on the sofa, checking his Facebook updates.

He'd gone to the airport, thinking about a request from someone special to extend his trip for another day. And at the airport, when he could no longer weigh his options sanely, he flicked his credit card to the pretty lady across the counter, and in his most baritone voice said "Change the date, darling"! Well, almost, except the last part.

And then he sagely says to me, "The best hugs are the ones that make you change your travel plans". Bugger!

By the time everyone freshened up, we had got our rooms allotted. The programme for the day was - Egyptian Museum, Pyramids, The Sound and Light Show, and party!!! SM rang his local contact and did a poll for the New Year's party scene. The guys were more or less all in, but the girls were reluctant. Safety, they said. Dresses and shoes, we thought. :) And were close. Some convincing later, they did agree to come along.

We all moved to Kazaz for breakfast, and the agenda changed. We were to do the museum tomorrow before flying out, and we would go to the Pyramids instead. After breakfast, we headed out to the metro and boarded at the Sadat station just below Tahrir Sq. It was a short journey to Giza, about 5-6 stops away. At Giza station, with the help of a small time guide, we hired a mini bus to take us to the Pyramids. The guide tried to make a small cut by getting us in via a different entrance, but was unsuccessful. And, since he had brought us to the other end of the Pyramid Complex, we were now entering the complex from the Sphinx side, instead of getting to the Great Pyramid first.

In these ten days, neither SK nor I had taken as much as a blade towards our faces. With our 10 day stubbles, we were probably indistinguishable, which is why we were able to use his student ID and pull off a few fast ones and buy our Pyramid tickets at the hugely discounted student rates.

We started with the Sphinx. I thought the Sphinx was a let-down, compared to the Pyramids. It was still and made for a great monument, but somehow I'd imagined it to be much more resplendent than it was. It was one of those moments where you think "That's all? This is all there is to it". The Pyramids were, on the contrary, a great experience. We went to the biggest one - The Pyramid of Cheops or Khufu. It has a separate ticket to go near the sarcophagus. As you enter the pyramid, you are amazed by the size of each block of stone. Every single block was cut in South Egypt, near Aswan, and transported to Cairo over the Nile. The very thought of that is overwhelming, scary even. I cannot even imagine the vision of the mind that orchestrated the logistics. A true wonder.

The entrance of the pyramid of Khufu narrows down into a steep incline, which takes us to the tomb. The passage is very narrow and one has to climb/walk with a bent back. I'm not very tall, but had to put my backpack across my chest as it was constantly chafing the roof of the passage. I wonder how RA and SP did it. As one climbed the passage, one could see the blocks of stone put together diagonally, and the joints were so tight, there was hardly any space to insert a tool. It was a feat, no less, to accomplish such perfection.

The tomb was a small room, with the sarcophagus - a stone coffin, which enclosed the mummy. The room was warm and stuffy, and a bit claustrophobic. It was completely empty except for the sarcophagus. There was a staffer who offered to take photos for us with our cellphone cameras, but we didn't oblige his offer, or his request for baksheesh. We slowly slithered down the way we had come, this time with the backpack on my back. The stuffiness and my pullover made me sweat and by the time we were out, you could see a shine on my face. DT, SK, SM and NC were keen on going inside the other pyramid too, but SP and I skipped it and walked towards the Pyramid of Khafre (Cephren).

Khafre was Khufu's son, and his pyramid, although smaller in dimension than that of Khufu, appears larger as it is built on a raised platform. The pyramid of Khafre still has a bit of the polished sandstone at the top, which makes it easily distinguishable. The third pyramid is the pyramid of Menkhaure, Khafre's son. Lined against the sun and the city, the three generations of Pyramids made for a great shot. RA and I walked into the desert to get that one shot!! (And the one where I hold the pyramid at my fingertips! Thanks RA).

All along the way up and down the desert, we were pestered to take a camel ride. It was almost 4 PM, and it was closing time for the Pyramid complex (They closed at 4 to allow for the Sound and Light show to begin at 7ish). We walked in the sand towards the pyramid of Menkhaure to get to the Sphinx, but a jeep behind us started honking. They called us back to the road and asked us to go through the road. They followed us for a short distance to make sure we were going by road and did not sneak back into the sands. Then they overtook us and sped off. We felt it was a bit strange because the road was winding down and going to the same place where we intended to go! However, because we came on to the road, I could get a picture of the Mahindra Scorpio which passed us.

Back at the gate, caught up with all the others and ate tuna sandwiches as ST and SS wrapped up some souvenir purchases. We went into a small eatery just outside the pyramid complex, and walked up to the terrace. The plan was just to have coffee and smoke some shisha (and eat our "parcelled" tuna sandwiches) to kill time until the Sound & Light show started. The coffee was expensive at 15 EGP apiece, but it was good. Dusk was setting in and SM and RA did some silhouette photography as the Sound & Light company starting testing their lights. We sat down to finish the rest of the tuna sandwiches. DT tried some, and immediately rushed to the washroom! Never before had I seen a quicker reaction to fish... :D

The Sound & Light show was a cracker. There was a brief history about the ancient Egyptians, the Pharaohs and their way of life, but the commentary got boring after a bit. The lights, though, were spectacular. It was glorious, all the three pyramids, resplendent against the dark sky, bearing testimony to time's travails. The show lasted 45 minutes, but it was well worth the time and money!

After the show was over, S2K went in search of the officer who had confiscated his Swiss knife earlier that morning. They wouldn't let him carry it into the Pyramid complex, and had asked him to collect it at 4 PM when the complex closed for the public. Then, they'd asked him to come when the Sound & Light show ended because the officer had left and they did not know where the knife was. Now, they asked him to leave a forwarding address and phone number. (To their credit, they did call back the next day and said we could collect the knife back). After S2K came back, we hired a cab to take us from the Pyramid complex to the Giza metro station, from where we would catch the train to Sadat (Tahrir Sq).

Tahrir was busy, as usual, but there were people gathering up. There was an election rally, I think, for there were elaborate speakers and a stage set up. We walked across the square and stopped at Kazaz to eat. As SM and I walked ahead to the hotel, we noticed a couple of Polish women looking, in turn, into a Lonely Planet guidebook and the top of the buildings. Evidently, they were trying to find our hotel (as we were earlier this morning). We led them to our hotel, and tired from the day's walk, crashed on our beds until the rest of the gang came in.

People were hardly interested to go out, but when SM is around, you can always count on a party!! It was New Years' night. :)

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