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. :)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 8

After making sure the last night on the boat was worth it, the gang had gone off in the early hours of the morning to pack and get their bags out. The dancing and the sleeplessness had taken a toll on everybody. Everyone packed in a stupor.

We dropped our collective luggage in a corner of the reception, picked up breakfast boxes from the restaurant and made our way out of the boat. Mohamed led us to a mini-bus which was to take us from Aswan to Abu Simbel, our main destination for the day. From Abu Simbel, we would then see the Aswan High Dam, the Temple of Philae and be back in time for the train back to Cairo.

Everyone in the bus was weary, dreary and conked out. They'd been up for much of the last 36 hours. (Remember, we'd been to Kom Ombo, then lazed around the boat for much of the day sailing to Aswan, visited the Nubian Museum, seen a perfumery, ate Egyptian food, danced like crazy and met some interesting visitors). Of course, I was well-rested. My headache was gone, my throat was better and I only had a lingering cough, but it could have been a lot worse if I had not slept at all.

Presently, we moved out of the cityscape to reach the outskirts of Aswan where the convoy began. There was a small restroom break, as the drive to Abu Simbel would be non-stop. Most of them dozed off to catch some sleep on the road, and the ones who were awake continued their game of 'Tell-me-what-you-think-of-me" from last night. I sat listening as DT, RA, SS and NC belted out what they thought of the rest of us. Now and then S2K would pipe in with a comment, but generally people quietened down and fell asleep.

The vehicle continued its race to Abu in darkness. Aswan to Abu Simbel is about 265 miles. We covered that in about 3 hours. The day broke not far away from Abu. It was magical. I tried to capture it but the vehicle was so fast that I could hardly hold myself steady, let alone the camera. So I sat back and just watched.

The pink dawn broke over the sand and one could see the the horizon brighten slowly, as if someone was turning up the colours in a superbly choreographed sequence of lights. The greys slowly gave way to the blues and the browns. The terrain was mind-blowing. It was nothing like I had imagined. Miles and miles of sand, dunes smoothening out and then merging into another. It was like putting your head into a picture and getting transported into the land!

The sun quickly came up and the daylight became quite harsh by the time we had reached Abu. We parked and walked while Mohamed told us the story of how Egypt had made the decision to build the High Dam and a lake to act as a reservoir, how it would flood the villages of Nubia and the temple of Abu Simbel, and how there was a global call for help and UNESCO helped to garner international support required to cut the rocks and rebuild the temple 200 meters behind and 60 meters above its original location. The Nubian villages were given a choice to resettle in Upper Egypt near Aswan or Luxor or emigrate to Sudan.

Presently we walked around the bend and had a glimpse of the huge statues of Ramesses and Nefertari. As we walked nearer the size of the statue began to overwhelm us. Mohamed told us that on two days of the year, the light of the rising sun goes directly into the sanctum sanctorum to illuminate the face of the Pharaoh. That was not the interesting part. The interesting part was the light came in at such an angle that it did NOT illuminate the God of the Underworld, who was right next to the other Gods.

We had a lot of time to explore the temples of Ramesses and the nearby smaller temple of Nefertari and Hathor. The minibus had been dispatched for refueling, so while some of the gang did some monkey jumps, the rest of us walked around the site and drank Egyptian tea. Found a car with an IAF sticker on it. Awesome.

The drive back was more fun. The sun and the walk had shaken everyone awake, and now on the way back, out of tune Antakshari started out, before it just became a 4 line song fest - DT, S2K, SK, and me being the chief perpetrators of the musical violence on a few others like SP and ST who were making a genuine effort to read.

And then the tyre burst. There was a clap and the vehicle veered to a halt a few meters ahead. The tyre was a sight. The heat had ripped it apart. A car and a minibus passed us. Both returned in reverse gear to help out. They spoke to the driver and then the minibus went on its way. The car stayed while our bus driver, the car driver and Mohamed changed the tyres around. The terrain again tempted us for a round of photographs and again, when the monkey shots happened, SK and I walked a distance talking about things in general.

Back on the road, we were hungry and missing lunch. Since we left the boat, food was one more thing we had to think about. The more foodies of us - RA, SS and SK - interrogated Mohamed for some places where we could get some pigeon meat! Unfortunately, lunch would only be after we finished the High Dam.

Mohamed explained to us how the High Dam was built like a pyramid, and how it produced electricity enough for the whole of Egypt and more, which they sold to neighbouring countries. If you think about it, we spent a very short time (relatively) at the dam, as we also had to cover the temple of Philae. The temple of Philae is on an island on Lake Nasser. We took a motorboat to the temple, but the temple in itself was not very different from the other ones we had seen. I spent the time in the shade, talking to Mohamed and thinking about getting back to the train at 4 PM. It was close to 2:30 by this time.

Saw a bag at the souvenir shop at Philae and got SK to go along with me and haggle. It was a top loading cloth bag with Egyptian motifs dyed on it. Back at the boat, used it to stuff some surplus stuff I had in my backpack and made space for the stuff SP had got me from India. Batch by batch, we all freshened up to rush to the station in time. SK opted to take a bath, as he would be flying back to Germany from Cairo, whilst the rest of us did the Pyramids and the museum. The ones who went ahead promised to buy takeaway lunch for us.

RA, in true organiser spirit, stayed back to be the last to leave the boat. Him, SK and me left for the station with 10 mins for the train to start. Fortunately, it was just across the road. As the three of us were walking, I thought how 8 days before, none of us had met each other, how we'd sat doing pointless bakar at the Selsela, and tomorrow morning SK would fly out. The trip was coming to an end.

Our seats on the train were split. There were two seats in AC-1 and 9 in AC-2. There was a bit of juggling before SK and NC decided to move to AC-1 and have some privacy! Three hours into its run, the train halted at Luxor. We laughed at the fact that we took 2 days to sail from Luxor to Aswan when it was just 3 hours by train. We thought it was a routine stop and did not venture to get off the train. But, hunger got the better of us, and SP and I went to the snack bar to get something to eat. Turns out we were not the only ones hungry. Whatever food we got, lasted us 5 minutes. Tea was served. Jokes. No sign of movement from Luxor. We contemplated sneaking out of the station for some takeaway. Decided against it and went to buy boiled eggs instead. The guy outside our coach quoted too high, so S2K and I walked further down the train and got some at half the price. Hah!

Finally, about an hour and half later, the train moved. It began to get a bit chilly as the night set in. Conversations died down, books were put away and blankets brought out. I remember I and DT were talking about her diving before we put on some music and let the train rock us to sleep.

Tomorrow, we would wake up in Cairo.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - The Good Night

At about 4 in the morning, SP comes in to the room and says "Viky, you should have been there!".

I cringe. I learn he is the last to get down from the deck. The others had come down a short while ago. I learn it was a good night. I take my bag down to the place we were checking out. SM was paying off some bills, settling the 'tibs' and collecting passports. I walked to SM and took my laundry bills off him and settled the extras. Collected passports. NC was dozing on the couch. I handed her her passport. She waltzed her way to the reception to ask why the passport was 'bent'. I took her back to the couch. SK came along and said I should have been there. Said he missed not having me to back him up. Nice. MS and DT came along. They said, "You missed it".

I went back to when it all started.

There was a dance party. The DJ in the lounge was playing some peppy numbers, and then he even played a Punjabi number which got the gang going. There was fun and games. Musical chairs - only no chairs, but you had to pair up. There was limitless dancing again. As the party died down everyone, except yours truly, gathered on the top deck and met the two visitors.

The visitors mixed well with the group. They mingled so well with SS, NC, MS and ST (I hear), I was surprised they didn't say hello earlier. S2K, SM, SP and SK were no farther - they were downright pally and cracking lewd jokes with them!! Only RA (man! loosen up!) and DT (girl, come on!) were looking at them, wondering how someone could just gatecrash hours earlier and turn the group around.

I hear the two visitors got the the gang to sit around and play some games, ask questions and get to know each other better. So, one of them sat with SK and the other with ST and goaded them to ask questions. ST seized the chance and fired a volley of questions. Normally SK plays his cards well, but with the guest, he was not himself. He was cornered and pressed for answers and could not think on his feet. Eventually, a truth was revealed. It must have been surprising for some, but some had seen it building. You, if you're reading this, you know which group you belong to. :)

A lot of personal questions were asked of everyone that night, there were profanities, there were clarifications, there were mix-ups. The two visitors spoke to people in turns; sometimes to the girls, sometimes to the guys, sometimes to a pair, sometimes taking someone alone to the edge of the boat. I heard each one started to speak what they felt about the rest of the group, but before everyone could finish, it was time to go. The gang left the deck and went into their rooms to pack. The visitors left. SP lingered around on the deck for some more time, waving the visitors off.

At about 4 in the morning, SP came into the room and said "Viky, you should have been there".

It was a night to remember. It was a night to forget. The two guests, I hear, were amazing. One was Russian. The other was brown.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 7

Day 7 was a day of leisure and unwinding. We had been sailing since dawn. Do you recall we had got off the boat at Edfu, and went into town, met a local policeman, eaten tuna sandwiches and called off what would have been a tremendous prank. We had to recall that, too, over a continental breakfast spread of croissants and brioches.

The room service was pretty active that day. They brought their creativity out by arranging the sheets like a swan, complete with a twisted corner making a strong sharp beak. I sat down on the bed to look at some pictures from last night, and there was a firm tap on my head - the 'bedsheet' swan had craned its neck and its beak tapped my head. Useless buggers, why couldn't they just fold it flat.

It was slightly overcast and the weather was not too hot. The cruise had arranged for a 'galabiya' party at the lounge in the evening. Dinner would be 'Oriental', they said. We thought Chinese, they meant Egyptian. A 'galabiya' is a singlet - almost like a maxi, but a lot more richer - worn over the head and usually with an 'arafat'. We would stop briefly at Kom Ombo today, before we sailed to Aswan.

Kom Ombo is unique in that its temple is dedicated to two Gods, which is unusual for ancient Egyptian traditions. It is also special as it has a lot of carvings depicting daily life. Mohamed showed us the carvings of the tools that were used back in the day, their records of healthy postures, childbirth and suckling, sowing and harvest etc. There were pictures of the queens of Upper and Lower Egypt anointing the Pharaoh, who was wearing the double crown - which looked like a bottle of champagne in its basket. There was Horus and another God, preparing the Pharaoh for his journey into afterlife. Some of the pillars were resplendent thousands of years after they were coloured. One can imagine how grand it would have looked in its day.

Outside the temple complex, hawkers offered us the 'galabiya'. Maybe it was the cruise, or maybe we were close to the Nubian land, but we did see that the hawkers here stressed on the 'galabiya' much more than they did in Luxor. Also, the dock near the Kom Ombo temple reminded me of the various ghats on the Tungabhadra. Or scaled down versions of the Ganga ghats at Haridwar or Varanasi. Yes, Cage, your scarf added effect. (Yes, Cage sounds like SK. It is too).

From Kom Ombo, it was non-stop sailing to Aswan, where we would depart the cruise. This meant that all of today was going to be on the top deck. So, after lunch, we sat on the deck, getting Mohamed to write our names in Arabic and Hieroglyphic. Mohamed was our 'Red', we could count on him to find things from time to time. He made some calls and arranged for some tuna, and because drinks were prohibitively overpriced on the boat, some drinks to go with it.

The sun had come out by now, and in the brilliant sunshine, the Nile shone like a bejewelled bride. We pulled some chairs and chatted for a while before everyone went off to do their own thing. I sat at the edge of the boat, looking at the boat make its way through the water. It was like seeing a giant life-size album of a crazy traveller. Some scenes were plaid, normal, just your day to day stuff. Some scenes were outright breathtaking, making you wish you could stop your boat right there and just keeping looking at the horizon for hours on end. Some were so flamboyant, it was hard to believe they were real. It must have been half a lifetime ago that I sat jobless like this, with nothing to listen, read or do. I remembered sitting on the footboards of the trains to Gujarat and Delhi, looking at the terrain change as we passed regions and states. It is ironic I did that, because back then I used to wonder when I would look at a foreign country pass by like this. I guess things came around full circle.

A felucca made a great shot against the dusty desert in the background.

I must have dozed off in the sunshine, because when I got up DT was reading everyone's palms, and I did not remember how it started. By the looks of it, she was pretty accurate. SK, SP, SS all had their few key things told. Then, as if reading palms were not enough, SK started reading minds. Well, not exactly minds, but people. And, he did read DT quite accurately.

The boat docked at Aswan, and Mohamed led us towards a felucca to go towards the other side where we were to see the museum. A felucca is a sailboat, depending only on the wind for propulsion. The felucca-wala was a rustic Nubian. He was thin and wiry, singing his way along as he pulled the sails to steer the boat. His young helper laid out some Nubian souvenirs for us to see and buy. Our fun and games were distracted by a young lad on a pair of floats paddling along our felucca. He sang popular rhymes and songs - Macarena - only, he sang them in French. We tipped him for his bit of time.

Then the wind stopped. We were just floating along with hardly any movement, literally feeling the wind blown out of our sails!! Mohamed arranged for a motor boat to take us to the other bank. From the bank, we walked a short distance to the Nubian museum in Aswan.

I was beginning to get a small headache - must have been the sun in the afternoon. My eyes were smarting and I just hoped something in the museum would catch my interest so I could get away from this unwell feeling. Alas, although the museum was well laid out, there was too much theory around "The Golden Land", and it hardly helped to draw me away from my headache, and SP and I were probably the first out of each spot that Mohamed stopped to explain. To add to that, there were a group of local students who were having their museum day out! I just ambled my way around the museum looking at various statues of Pharaoh Dont-Know-Who, the construction of the High Dam (which we would see tomorrow), the movement of the temple of Abu Simbel (again, something we would see tomorrow) and some such frap until the others were ready to exit.

Mohamed had a bus ready to take us back to our boat. There was a detour though, we had to visit a perfumery. I could not bear to sample any perfumes on top of the headache, which had become splitting by now, so I chose to stay back in the bus. A short while later, the group came back and we made our way to the boat in time for dinner. Tonight would be our last night on the boat, so
(i) we would have to settle the 'tibbing' for the boat staff. This tipping business is sickening, the recommended tip was about 7 USD per person per day, however, we felt it was an exorbitant expectation, and we ended up tipping as per services received and put it all in a single envelope from the 'SM Group'.
(ii) we would have to get up at 4 AM the next day to go to Abu Simbel by road. This was important as we would be part of a convoy and the convoy would leave Aswan at 5 AM sharp. Breakfast would be packed for us.
(iii) we wanted to make the last night on the cruise worth it. Mohamed's package had arrived.

Dinner was Egyptian, but I was surprised that there was no 'falafel' nor any 'pigeon meat'. There were a lot of people in traditional 'galabiya' outfits. Some had 'arafats' alone, and some, like us, were looking spoilsports. There was an anniversary tonight, so again, out came the drumrolls and the cake, and there was a traditional celebration. This time, I did take a video, here it is.


video

There was also a dance party in the lounge after dinner, but some of us (oh ok, I guess it was only me) chose to pack for the early departure the next morning. Although the food had helped, the headache was still bothering me, the music from the dance floor was reverberating between my ears, so I told SP that I would wait until the party died down to join the rest of the gang on the top deck, and hit the bed for a nap.

And that's how I missed the most defining night of the trip - something that I feel like kicking myself for! (SK, SP, S2K, SM, thanks I don't need you guys to do the honours. RA - don't even think about it, I'll not survive!).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 6

Every now and then, you meet someone who makes amazing sandwiches. SK is one such.

Mohamed had left us the tuna with SK. After dinner on the day DT won her moun-wrath (bad one, but couldn't resist), SK, SP and I gathered in our room to make some sandwiches for later that night. SK quickly mixed the tuna and some mayo and celery and whipped up a fine mixture. He then took a pair of bread slices and buttered them before lining one side with a big lettuce leaf. He spread the tuna mixture evenly on the leaf and wrapped it up with the other slice of bread. He brushed down the excess on the edges and sealed the sandwich shut.

The tuna lasted us for about 4-5 sandwiches, which we took up with us to the top deck. The deck had a sheltered area with chairs and an open area with beach chairs, overlooking the swimming pool. It also had a TT table and a few more normal tables which they used to serve tea. Ever since we had seen it, the top deck had become our rendezvous. So, we all pulled up some chairs and sat in a circle, talking.

The city had gone silent. Far in the distance, across the river, one could see the Valley of the Kings lit up with floodlights. Nearer to the eyes, but still on the horizon, there were a dozen or so minarets with green neon lights. Mosques. If it got really silent, you could hear the sound of the Nile lapping against the hull of the boat. Further to the side, on the road, the odd vehicle whizzed past.

The conversation began normally before S2K took over with his jokes and had us all in a laughing riot. Kabhi stand-up comedy bhi kar liya karo, haramkhor S2K! Saare joke toh baithke suna diye!

Some of the girls had not eaten tuna sandwiches before, so they didn't know what they were missing. Some of them chose to try and sat with us while SK and I went down to our room for another batch of them. By the time we came back to the top deck, S2K and SM were playing TT. We sat down and started talking about my day at the market, hot-air ballooning the next day, the cruise in general and the jokes kept coming even as we devoured the sandwiches. For example, see below.

It was a great night, lots of laughter, amazing stories, delicious sandwiches for your late night cravings and a calming ambience that put you at ease with the world.

Day 6 started before day-break as we had to catch the sunrise from the balloon. Or that is what we aimed for :) We took the bus to the bank of the river, which was a short distance from the waterfront I had been to on Day 5. Even as we passed the waterfront, we could see 12-15 balloons already launched and marking the face of the valley. Presently, a boatman arrived to ferry us across to the West Bank. We were offered coffee and tea on the boat. There was a van on the other side, to take us to the site of the balloon launch.

Hot air ballooning was fun. It was the first time I was seeing anything like this. The balloon came in a small pickup truck and the lads spread a large carpet where they unfurled the balloon and its basket. The basket had huge cylinders and there was a burner to blow flame and hot air into the envelope. In a matter of minutes, the balloon was ready to go and we were asked to step in and hold tight. A hop, and then the ballooning staff let their hands and ropes fall away, and we were afloat. I know, for sure, that developed countries have a more stricter view of Health & Safety when it comes to things like this, so I was glad I saw it here first.

The balloon experience was enjoyable. We went up to a height of 2000 feet, I think, and got an amazing view of the west bank, the Valley of the Kings and the Queens, and beyond. The sun was bright, but not hot; more heat emanated from the bursts of the contraption which was generating the hot air. The direction control mechanism of the balloon was interesting. The envelope had two slits or overlaps which could be manoeuvred by some ropes. Depending on the direction of the rope pulled, the slit would let in cold air into the balloon and turn the basket in the desired direction. We ballooned for about 45 minutes before we started our descent in the desert beyond the valley. The terrain was fantastic. The landing was uneventful and after our usual photo-op, we headed back to the boat.

This was to be the most relaxed day on the tour. We sat down for a leisurely lunch, and while we were at it, we set sail from Luxor. We were to travel down south as far as Aswan, with a brief stopover at Edfu tonight. With nothing else to do, we all settled on the top deck after lunch, laid back and looked at the hillocks and the trees go by. Sat down with Mohamed and got names written in Arabic and Hieroglyphic. Put our legs up, let our hair down and watched as the the boat sailed over the Nile. It was blissful. Shortly after, I went down to the room and slept for about 2 hours! I had not slept that soundly in the last 7 days.

I woke up just after dusk, the boat was stationary - we were at the Esna lock. The Esna waterlock is one of the many locks on the Nile that allow boats to flow across different levels of water. I'd have liked to see the lock in operation in light, but had to make do with this. Freshened up for the cocktail party in the lounge - I think this was put together to be an icebreaker between the various groups on the boat, and S2K did a pretty good job of breaking ice. I was certain someone would come after us with a hammer or such, but luckily, we did not get to see any of that. Seriously S2K, what was introducing the Gujju couple all about? And man! you forgot all our names!!!

The party was not remarkable in itself, but I did notice two people were conspicuously absent from the party, one of which was NC.

Dinner was fun, the waiting staff came up with a surprise birthday cake for one of the groups and there was much celebration, with Egyptian music and tradition. People made a human train and paraded around the restaurant and wished the lady well. It was pleasantly refreshing. The tune was catchy too.

We went back to the top deck after dinner and spoke in the darkness of the night as we watched the boat go under bridges and along small patches of land, and finally docked at Edfu shortly after midnight. We realised we did not have any water on board (the ones sold on the boat were prohibitively expensive). So, we went down to the reception, and left the boat to go into Edfu town. The receptionist asked us to come back before 4 AM, as the boat would leave for Aswan.

We stopped at a small shop outside the dock to get some water, tea and shisha. We sat there experimenting with the camera, taking low light shots and enjoying the shisha. S2K found an internet cafe and went back to the 'connected' world, while SP, SK and I walked further on into the town. The crowds diminished slightly as we walked on, but so did the roads and the lights - we came to a dead end. Turned back and walked to the boat, but did not get on it. Instead we walked further on the waterfront and sat down on a parapet. There were a couple of locals below the parapet, on the rocks, fishing in the dark. SK pulled out some sandwiches, and we ate them in the silence of the night. Took out the camera and tried to do some slow shutter photography. Got great tips from SK, and we ended up doing some bouquet shots of the lights far in the horizon, we did some progression shots of the Christmas bell that adorned our boat. I am yet to study those photos, will get around to them once I finish the trip.

A local approached us and made small talk. Broken English. Counted three days and sang Happy Birthday. It took some time to register he was talking about the New Year. Apparently, he was from Luxor and was a policeman on night duty. It's amazing how much information can be passed with just a few words. Presently S2K returned from his Facebook-spree and we had an idea.

The receptionists had seen us 4 going out of the boat. S2K had seen us going out towards the town. We figured if the three of us (SP, SK and I) would lock ourselves in our room and give S2K the key, he would be in a position to raise an alarm in the morning saying we went into town while he checked his email, but did not return with him. The boat would have sailed by then, it would have been the perfect scare - right out of Hangover! The only hitch was the receptionists had to be in the know - else we would risk a real alarm.

It was a superb prank - only we called it off at the last second. After S2K had been instructed. After he'd collected keys and was at the door. And none of us really remembers why we called it off. It had all the things to be the highest point of this trip. We should have done it. It would have been great fun.

And if you're still interested in the tuna sandwich - here's how you make one, SK style!

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.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 4

Let's go back to Day 3 a bit, it's not quite finished yet.

We'd had a light dinner at Ahmed's (Achmed's), and the girls were shopping (?!) for SIM cards next door. I think they did get a couple of local numbers, and we walked back to pick up our luggage from the hotel. On the way, we stopped at a sweet shop. This again, was very similar to any Bangalore sweet shop, probably on a larger scale with AC and all, but then again, this was a bit more upmarket. There was a lot of the usual stuff - cakes, pastries etc, but also a lot of local stuff, with dates and dry fruits. Normally, I would have tried some of the sweets, but they did not appeal to me that night, so I did not venture to buy any. In hindsight, probably should have - I would have either enjoyed it or written about the experience here. I did pick up a packet of biscuits though - these were similar to the Monaco biscuits you get in India, but with a zeera flavour. I also withdrew a lot of Egyptian money from the ATM to pay the cruise the next day.

So, back at the hotel, we picked up our bags and called a cab to the Alexandria station. RA confirmed the platform and we all hauled ourselves in and took our seats. I did not notice SP walk away towards the AC-1 coach, where we had a lone seat, so once we sorted out our seats, SK and I went in search of SP, and after moving in and out of about 7 interconnected coaches, we found him comfortably in his more luxurious coach. We sat with him for a few minutes, and then returned to our coach to find a volunteer who would be ready to upgrade.

Unfortunately, the co-passengers in our vicinity could hardly speak any English, so we decided to wait for the ticket official. We sat back and were wondering how the AC-2 coach was not only more cleaner but also better lit than the AC-1. It was almost like walking out from an urban setting of bright incandescent light into a murky suburb bathed in the yellow light of a naked bulb. To which SK offered his logic of the AC-1 being dirty as the people who travelled premium were spoilt. Presently the ticket official arrived, and we tried to explain to him that one of our tickets was in AC-1 and we wanted it swapped. He nodded as though he understood and did some calculation, finally he said 12'o clock. We sat exasperated, realising he mistook our question for probably the arrival time or some frap like that.

We tried to pick out passengers to effect a seat-trade, but could not find any suitable candidate. As the night drew in, we settled back. I took a muffler from SM and rolled it into a neck support and stretched back. My sweatshirt was still wet from the rains, so when I saw SK's parka, warm and inviting, hanging over the hook, I did not spare a second in pulling it on! Poor SK was left snuggling in his sweatshirt to keep warm. Sorry, mate, and thank you so much! Say hi to the parka. :)

Day 4 began with a chill in the air, but warm and sunny once we were fully awake. Egyptian Rail serves tea and snacks in small wooden trolleys similar to the airplane trolleys. We had some tea and biscuits, and went to chat with SP in the AC-1. Turned out the coach was too noisy - we could hear some metal splutter like an AK-47 discharge every 10 seconds or so. It was annoying. But the interesting that SP had noticed the night before was that the seats on the train could be swivelled on a pivot so that it could face the one behind. Nice, we thought, and went back to our coach to show off.

I thought rural Egypt, through which the train was running now, was similar to an Indian setting. The railway crossings were similar, people in cars, autorickshaws (Yes! No, I did not notice if they were Bajaj!!) and some pedestrians with baskets waiting on either side. The buildings leading up to a station were similar, with advertisements and graffiti on them. It brought back memories of travelling to Mumbai via Udyan Express.

Luxor was a smaller station than we expected. I was hoping to see something like Cairo, but it was considerably smaller. We disembarked, stretched out and ambled off towards the exit, fending off the 'taxxx'i drivers. SM called our contact in Luxor, and arranged for a pick-up to take us to the cruise. Meanwhile, we lingered at the station, snapping up photos. Saw an Apple logo on a taxi and found it amusing. Clicked it and the driver came up to me asking for 'baksheesh'. He was kidding and strolled off when I said I would delete the photo instead.

Luxor was warm, sunny and dusty. We were in interior Egypt, far from the Mediterranean and its effects, and there was a marked difference in the weather. An English speaking guide came with an air-conditioned van to pick us up. A theme song was conjured "The whole thing is that, ke bhaiyya, sab se bada rupaiyya".

Mohamed, our guide for the rest of the cruise, broke ice very easily. He christened us Pharaohs - a name which has stuck and become our group name on Facebook. On our way to the cruise, we saw HSBC and KFC (Kentucky Fried Camels) and Mohamed spoke about the way of life and how the next few days would be like. We passed a few riverside resorts and made our way into the Presidential Nile Cruises harbour, where two cruise boats were moored. We were ushered empty handed into one, and requested to wait in the lounge, while porters carried our baggage into the boat.

Weary from the night's journey, with unwashed faces and scraggly hair, most of us were ready to just sleep off on the sofas, and SM and RA deserve to be thanked for speaking to the boat officials, calmly arranging alternate rooms, and arranging methods of payment. I offered to pay in Egyptian money, and imagine my dismay when the boat official said he would accept only foreign currency!! Thankfully, he accepted cards - so I was able to pay in USD (and get billed in GBP), but from that moment on, I became the local forex guy!

We were offered a glass of hibiscus juice while we settled our payment - I thought it was very refreshing. I even went and had a refill at the bar. It was nearing 1 PM and we were shown our rooms and the dining hall. Lunch would be served every afternoon at 1, dinner at 8 and breakfast the next morning from 8-9.

Lunch was awesome. There was a salad bar with various salads, a soup counter, a buffet spread with a main meat item, with a carver ready to serve it on to your plate, assorted accompaniments and vegetables, and a dessert counter. The maitre'd showed us our tables (these were to be our tables for the rest of the cruise) and took count of the veg, beef and 'no beef' eaters. We devoured lunch like we had not eaten for days!

The lunch did tempt us to go sleep in our rooms, but we had Karnak Temple planned in the afternoon. Mohamed met us in the reception and we boarded our bus to Karnak.

Karnak is the biggest of the temples around and is overwhelming. As we went in, I was in awe of the structures - so imposing, so brilliant, so perfect that it was hard to believe it was done in an era of primitive tools. The colours are still there, even after 1000's of years. It was surreal to imagine the splendour and the richness of the time gone by. The monolithic obelisks, with the stories of unknown kings, bore testimony of an old kingdom whose days are past its glory.

We spent considerable time at Karnak, and headed to Luxor by sunset. Before the Luxor temple, though, we stopped briefly at a papyrus shop, where they showed us how the ancient Egyptians used to make paper. I still think S2K bribed Mohamed to stop at this place. :)

The Luxor temple is not very far from Karnak, legend has it that the Pharaoh built the Luxor temple for his queen. It is said a road connected Karnak to Luxor and it still exists below the city of Luxor, and part of it is being excavated near the Luxor temple. It was dark by the time we reached Luxor temple, and there was a line of sphinxes just outside the temple, standing almost like a guard of honour. I went closer to have a look, and was separated from the group. I'd run out of space on my camera, so I just walked around, looking at the huge pillars, and when I was done, I walked out where I joined the rest of the gang who were drinking some really expensive coffee!

We went back to the cruise in time for dinner, and the show of the night - there was a Sufi Dance and belly-dancing. I'd seen the Sufi Dance in SK's camera and had high expectations, but the one we had on the cruise was nowhere near. I guess it was passable as a new experience, first-timers would have probably enjoyed it. The belly-dancer was a rip-off as well. When S2K shared stage with her, people thought he was the better looking dancer on stage - true feedback!!

RA and I then tracked down a guy with a laptop and managed to empty our memory cards into the hard disk, and after some inane chatter, we went to bed. Biggest learning from this trip: Delete all previous photos and carry empty memory cards.

Tomorrow, we visit the west bank of Nile at Luxor, which is home to the Valley of the Kings, The Valley of the Queens and the temple of Hatshepsut.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 3

There was a constant drizzle all of the second day, from when we left for Ahmed's (Achmed's?), to the time we went to the library, to the time we went to Selsela, to the time we came back to the hotel, pretty much until we had dinner. The wee-hour walk to Selsela was ok, but it was still damp and cloudy the next morning.

RA had booked us a local mini-bus to take us around Alexandria. Our itinerary for today was the Al-Montaza Palace, Pompey's pillar, the catacombs, the Roman amphitheatre and the Qait Bay Citadel. SK opted out to take a 'rest day'.

The drive to Al-Montaza was uneventful, and relatively short, but when we reached there, we learnt the palace was not open to the public. We chose not to go around the park and the palace gardens, instead walked down the water-sports gate. All of us had not even reached the water's edge that it started raining again, and we had to run for cover. We did get some pictures before we were all drenched, though. We gathered back in the mini-bus and voted to move to the catacombs. But since we would pass it on the way, we decided to stop at the Library so that the people who'd joined us last night could tick that off their lists :)

It was mid morning by this time, and we were sure to get into some traffic. Sleep deprived, as I was, I chose to catch some rest while the others invested their time in something more useful - numbers. The girls (I think) floated the idea of learning numbers and went wahed, itnen, taleta... (arabic for 1, 2, 3 ... the whole set is wahed, itnen, taletta, arba, khamsa, sitta, sabaa, tamaniya, tissa and ashara. Note how sitta and tissa are syllablic antigrams, just like the Roman numerals they represent are symbolic antigrams 9 and 6). Then they started reading the number plates of the cars ahead of us, while SP and I dozed off at the back.

We spent the next hour or so in traffic and rain, and finally stopped at the Library. A couple of the gang went inside, while the rest did most of the photography from the outside. After the brief stopover there, our next destination was the catacombs.

The catacombs are a collection of underground tombs, accidentally found when a donkey fell into a pit at the excavation site. The site has a circular stairwell into the catacombs itself, and a lot of the excavated relics in the general area surrounding the catacomb. They were all marked with numbers, which I thought were probably the numbers for listening to their history, via the audio guidebooks.

Personally, the catacomb reminded me of the Volkswagen automated car park, where you have cars elevated via a lift, and rotated to their slots and rolled into place. It was very primitive, but the same concept - lower the mummies via a central shaft, roll the coffin and push them into the slot. I also thought this must have been a mass tomb for the general public, for the noblemen and the priests would have had a site near a temple or the Pyramid of the Pharaohs.

After the Catacombs, we went to visit Pompey's pillar. The clouds cleared here and we got some awesome weather. The main edifice was the pillar itself, and legend has it that 22 people had dinner on its capitol in its day. The pillar was surrounded by sun-dials and a nilometer to measure the flood, and there was also a sanctuary for Serapis, the bull-God. From the entrance, the pillar and the sphinx ahead of it presented a regal sight, but once you reached the vicinity of the pillar to cross over to the other side, you could see these monuments against a polluted old-city background. Some would like to think of it as an old Egypt co-existing with the new, but I thought it was plain eyesore.

It was lunchtime. Lunch was had at Gad, which is a chain darshini similar to say, Sukh Sagar of Bangalore. Here's a video of some Gad staff slitting Pitta bread.

video

We drove to the Roman Amphitheatre after lunch, but it did not entice me to step inside, so I stayed out with most of the others and looked through the barricades. I could see the remnants of a Roman bath, and a few other ruins of Roman architecture, but it was not incentive enough.

The next stop for us would be the Qait Bay Citadel. The Citadel is built on the edge of the Corniche and houses an Oceanography Institute and a small museum outside. We bought tickets for the museum and just a few steps later, realised this was not worth it. There were hardly enough marine life to catch your interest, let alone hold it. SP and I exited double quick to spend some time near the water.

We walked around the Citadel to see if there was an entrance, but there was none. Towards the back, there was a route in, but military guards stopped us from entering or taking photographs in the area. I thought it was unnecessary since there was a shooting club next door and anyone with a decent telephoto lens could zoom into the place.

We walked back to the group, snapped some photos, and soon it was time to go back! The day has been wet, windy and the weather had so dampened my spirits, that combined with the Al-Montaza closure, the ride in traffic and the disinteresting marine museum, I thought it wasn't a great day of covering the tourist sights. I loved Pompeii's pillar though, must have been the sun!

Back at the hotel by 5 PM, we had about 3 hours to go before our train, so we sat down at the coffee house for some Turkish coffee and shisha. SK, having made a great decision of staying in, was well-rested. We all sat down at the coffee house, while taking turns to visit the hotel, have a change of clothes and get our bags down to go to the railway station.

With time to kill, we decided to be local and play some board games. But how? We did not know the game, nor understood the language. We did the next best thing - make up our own game. So like silly schoolboys with nothing to do, I and SK tried to play carrom-football (score a goal by making your striker rebound and go through a stack of coins), and destroy-fort (destroy the opponent's stack of coins so none of them lies on top of the other). SP looked on, wondering incredulously, how lame we could get. Eventually he left to make some calls, and we got bored of making up games, so we called the waiter over to teach us a proper game. The waiter could only understand we wanted to play, so he went and brought us a pair of dice. Then he found us a German who spoke very little English, but was able to explain to us the basic premise of the game. And so it came to pass that on the night we left Alexandria, SK beat me in a game of newly-learnt towlah (or backgammon, I guess, as far as the similarity of the board goes).

We went back to Ahmed's (Achmed's?) for some falafel and omelettes, and then hired a cab to the railway station. Our next stop - Luxor!!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 2

I woke up about 9 ish, and opened the slatted doors which were preventing the sunlight from disturbing my slumber, and stretched out. Fully. Like two arms outstretched and face contorted towards the sky. And I felt raindrops!! Perfect, you'd think, if you were a girl. Me, I uttered a profanity, and rushed back to the comfort of the rug. Opened the doors once again, and grabbed my shoes before they became too wet, and settled back in the warmth of the bed.

And I began thinking. Man, here I was, away from family, away from work, embarking on a trip with strangers. Thought I should have done it before. Thought I was lucky to be doing it now. Thought about getting some more sleep. Thought about the sea.

Got up and rushed to the other room. SK was sprawling on the bed, not ready to leave the comfort of it for whatever reason. RA was making disconcerted efforts to get SK out. I went into the balcony and looked at the sea. It was awesome. Here it was, the Mediterranean, which was snapping in all its rage and ardour last night, now tame and calm, lapping quietly at the bank.

The sea, the roads and the traffic reminded me of Marine Drive. Blackpool, to be honest, but then you'll accuse me of being an Englishman. Nevertheless, snapped a few photos on the cellphone and tried to Whatsapp them back home using the hostel wifi. Went back to the room, freshened up and met the guys for breakfast.

Breakfast was the usual continental setup - bread, butter, jam and coffee. Over breakfast, we decided the course of the trip for the rest of the time we were in Alexandria. SK and RA had already done the Catacombs (more on this later), so the agenda for today was mostly the Bibliotheca Alexandrina - the Alexandria Library.

Over breakfast, I also learnt that SK and RA met on the Skoda Yeti campaign. The campaign rang a bell, and I asked them if they knew Mridula Dwivedi, and they did recall some fond memories. I was happy - it made me realise the world was so small. Till yesterday, they were strangers to me, and this morning, I'd found a strong traceable link. I knew Mridula from my contributions to Blogbharti, and they knew her via Skoda. It was like the six degrees of separation, it was awesome!

It was still drizzling, so we lazed around a bit, but at around 11 AM, we thought we'd venture out. So we went out to Ahmed's (Achmed's?) for some more falafel and pickle (again, radish and salad leaves). It was drizzling even after the falafel, so we walked around the Corniche, and into a coffee shop to order a shisha. We spent time discussing mundane things and examining RA's Nikkor 18-200 lens while we waited for the rain to stop. It didn't, and we decided to walk in the light drizzle anyway. Our next stop was the Alexandria Library. (In hindsight, we should have taken the bottle of water and the box of tissues put on our table, we later realised our bill for 17.50 EGP included them too... and not just the shisha).

We walked about half a mile (or was it one?) to the Library. When I looked at it from outside, I thought it was just another architectural gimmick. Then, we went inside, and I was dumbstruck. This library was not just another library. It was just spellbinding. I took some time to assimilate the surroundings - there were levels one after the other and a flight of stairs connected them together. It made me wonder, with a library like this, who would attend regular class anyway. There were many a young couple flirting and making discreet passes at one another, to prove my point, hah!

The library also had a section for antiques, on a separate ticket. We went into the section and saw the articles on display. Remarkable ones were the mummies; an artwork of the mummification process, where we learnt about the God of mummification Anubis, and how a person is brought before the God Osiris and his heart weighed against a feather; a figurine of Aphrodite from the Greco-Roman period, and a latticed wooden window shade, which had deer so cleverly built into the geometry that you would not notice it until you stood about 4 feet away and really attempted to find the deer. Sadly, photography was not allowed in the section, otherwise, it would have been a fantastic capture.

Library done, we retreated to the cafe across the road, the El Selsela. The place had great ambience - it was right next to the sea, we just wished it were more sunny so we could get to sit outside, but it was downright rainy, so we had to settle for indoors. Some food, coffee and shisha later, we were chatting away in all our glory. Played a game to pass some time and learnt RA really struggles to lie :) Sorry, dude!

We spent some 2-3 hours just sitting in the cafe, chatting, joking, making up unprintable parodies of popular Bollywood songs, listening to SK's stories, before we realised we had to get back before the rest of the gang arrived at the hostel. The day was not a clincher in terms of tourism - we had hardly covered any place except the Library, but it was great fun. It was time well spent - great ambience, great company, and the feeling that *this* is how travel should be.

We then walked back the mile or so to the hostel, where RA had agreed with the owner to move us into a different hotel, so that all our party (us and the 8 who were coming from India) could be together. So, SK and I volunteered to move our bags into the new hotel, whilst RA stayed back for the rest of the group to arrive. We walked about two blocks on the Corniche, opposite to the direction of the Library, before SK thought he had to re-confirm the address of the new hotel.

It was raining, so we thought the best thing to do was to sit in a coffee shop with the luggage, while one of us went and tracked the place down. As it happened, I sat down with the bags, and SK went back to locate the hotel.

The coffee shop was imposing, to say the least. It covered almost the whole block, and seemed to be quite popular with the locals. One side of it overlooked the Corniche and the sea, and the other side of it was adjoining the side road which was perpendicular to the Corniche. Locals were playing chess, backgammon etc, and the ambience was great. While SK went off to find out the hotel, I sat back and watched the locals and ordered a coffee.

I should probably tell you now that by coffee, I meant the espresso, or if not, the normal black coffee without milk or sugar. Little did I expect I would get Turkish coffee.

SK and RA had already warned me about Turkish coffee. Apparently, they had been to a coffee shop and ordered the Turkish coffee. It was served in an elaborate fashion, with specialised jugs to pour from, but it tasted like a concoction made of mud. SK was quite verbose and actually took the time to explain that the 'mud' settled in the crevices between your teeth.

So, when the waiter brought my coffee, I almost bit my tongue at my gaffe. Nevertheless, like all proud men, I took a sip and realised SK was right - it was muddy and downright loathsome, and the powder did really go into the crevices of your teeth. So I politely put the glass aside, not wanting to take another sip out of it, and waited for SK to return from his quest.

About five minutes passed and I noticed the powder in the glass slowly settle at the bottom, while the coffee stayed on top. Without disturbing the sediment, I took a sip of the liquid above. It was heavenly. SK returned jubilant, the hotel was right outside the coffee shop. I asked him to taste the coffee. He did, and confirmed it was way way better than the muddy coffee he and RA had left earlier.

And right there, in that coffee shop, SK and I had discovered the right way of enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee. It would stand us in good stead for the rest of our stay in Al Iskandriyah!!

We finished the coffee, and checked in to the new hotel. Shortly after, the rest of the gang arrived and the group was complete. Introductions done, we went to a nearby place for local food. Most of us had koshary - a heady mix of noodles, rice, pasta, vegetables and mild spices - for dinner. It was almost like bhelpuri, but not quite the real thing.

Back in the room, more ice was broken - with SM and S2K in addition to SK, and good old SP. Conversations went on as people dwindled one after the other, and not before long, it was just me and SP going back in time.

We felt the urge to take a walk, so we went down and into the chilly Alexandria night, and walked half the distance towards the library, before we realised we had not brought our wallets. So, we marched the retreat, back to the hotel, and armed with wallets, walked back to El Selsela, the shack which had impressed me so much earlier that afternoon.

We spent some time at the shack, this time by the sea. Between the strong coffee and the rough sea, we wondered how we had never imagined we would ever meet on a different continent, let alone country. It was calm when we walked back, almost dawn, the roads were deserted; even the late night taxis had left, disappointed at not having got a fare.

We slept that morning at 4:30 AM, wondering how on earth would we get up to 'sight-see' Alexandria in the private cab that RA had arranged!!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 1

The plane started circling Cairo in its attempt to land, and I craned my neck to catch the first few glimpses... there was sand everywhere, as far as the eyes could see. Thin black lines cut across the vast expanse and occasionally there was greenery and habitation around. The landscape was dry and a wee bit rugged, if I may presume too.

The landing itself, was uneventful. Routine checks on landing cards and I was sent off on my way.

Presently, an airport official accosts me and asks something in Arabic. I shake my head and offer a shrug. Another fellow, suited up, walks over and suggests I have come in from London, and speaks in English. The first one checks my visa and waves me off.

The suited guy walks with me and explains that I looked Egyptian. I nod. He starts selling me a package tour. I wince. I explain to him that I'm a student from India and was backpacking, and didn't have a hotel to stay. He kept on selling his package tour. Finally, I took his card and some pamphlets and said I would be in touch. He didn't quite buy it, but let me go nevertheless.

I looked at the signboards offering taxi services which read 80-100 EGP from the airport to downtown Cairo, from where I had to take the train to Alexandria. So I called a cab to take me to Ramses Square, where the train station was. I later learnt the rates were 'fixed' and it doesn't even cost you half as much. (True enough, on my way back, I took a metered taxi from downtown to the airport and the fare was about 30 EGP).

The cab driver led me to his Verna (Hyundai is huge in Egypt and Verna seems to be their flagship model here), and we were off. At first glance, Cairo did not seem any different from Pune. It was the usual horn-blaring, swerving traffic, except this is left-hand-drive. The buildings were similar, the flyovers reminiscent of Karvenagar area.

I have my camera out by this time, and I see the driver fervently waving his hand to grab my attention. He gestures to me to look on his side of the road and snaps his fingers like a flash going off. Sign language for "Take a photo". Okay. He showed me what I now know as 'Al-Azhar' mosque. We were passing through Islamic Cairo.

Shortly after, he dropped me off at the train station, near the parking lot. The entrance to the parking lot was shabby, there was dirt near the compound, the flyover behind had a great deal of muck accumulated, and stray cats meandering on their way, trying to grab a morsel in the dirt. Not very different from Pune station, I thought, only a few degrees more polluted, maybe.

I walked on into the station quadrangle, and things improved. The pavements were cleaner and there was evidence of a lawn which was cared for until recent times. The building was grand, but could do with some cleaning. There was construction work going on at a corner. I walked into the station from the side entrance, towards the platforms. A lone train stood on one of the four platforms behind the main facade. Again, it could do with some cleaning. It must have been a special train or such, for all the coaches were filled with cadets in military green. I walked further in towards the main entrance. There was a small pyramid on the ground, with a huge inverted pyramid extending from the ceiling and almost touching the tip of the pyramid below. It reminded me of 'Angels and Demons'. There was a signboard with some information on it, but it was in Arabic. I waited a while, but the LEDs showed no signs of turning to English, so I approached a group of cadets and asked whether they spoke English. They did. I showed them my ticket and asked them the platform. They told me. All three of them shook my hand and welcomed me to Egypt. Upon my ask, they said 'Yes' in Arabic was 'aiwa'; and 'No' was 'lah'.

I had about two hours for my train. So I walked out of the station and into the city. The first thing I noticed was all male adults were smoking. They were smoking outside, they were smoking inside, and some were smoking in front of a 'No Smoking' sign. I saw some hand carts selling the local snacks; koshary, I think it was, but I wasn't hungry so did not ask. I saw a huge building with Egypt Post on top, must have been the administrative office of the postal department. Good.

Across, there was a line of shops on one side of the road, and mini-buses waiting on the other, and men of my age calling out 'Iskandriyah, Iskandriyah'. I walked on and saw a fruit juice shop. Ordered an orange juice for 2.50 EGP, bought a bottle of water and some chewing gum. There were hawkers further on selling bags, scarves, cigarettes. Some shops serving tea and snacks. A cobbler and boot-polish. It was quite similar to an Indian setting. If you would take a bus into Mysore and walk out of the bus-stand, you would see a similar setup - shops selling fruit juice and newspapers, lottery shops, old women hawking flowers and betel leaves and maxi-cabs shouting out 'Mandya - Bangalore'.

I walked all around the block and reached the other end of the station and this time, from the main entrance, I saw a helpdesk. I went and reconfirmed my ticket and platform and waited in the station. Met a Swede, who had been in the country for about a week. He told me Tahrir Square had been mostly calm, but on one day, he had just walked out of his hotel and he saw a crowd approaching from Tahrir, and he had to rush back in for safety. That lone incident apart, he said there was no action whatsoever. In fact, if you were out of the Tahrir area, you would not even notice.

He said he landed in Hurghada, and the hotel staff there said this was a popular time for tourists, and they are usually overbooked, but this year, they were at 30% occupancy. His cab driver had a story to tell, too. Apparently he plied to Giza Pyramids on a daily basis, but now he would be lucky to get a fare once a week. I later learnt some of these taxi driver stories are just sob-stories in an attempt to fleece some 'baksheesh'.

Baksheesh is local for tips. The whole of Egypt has a sickening baksheesh culture. Almost everything will need to be topped up with baksheesh, so better to haggle accordingly. Waiters, cleaners, drivers, guides, even locals of whom you take photos approach you in an attempt to get some baksheesh! It's quite ok to wave them off saying 'lah'.

Back to the train. The train was on time, and surprisingly the coach numbers were in Roman numerals, so I lost no time in finding my seat and settling in. The coach was dirty from the outside, but cleaner inside. The seats were quite roomy and the cushions thick. The windows were no cleaner than an Indian train. The coaches were marked non-smoking, and had doors on either side, outside of which one was free to light up. There was a rickety wooden pantry trolley which made its round every hour or lesser, selling bread and tea. I sampled the tea, but it was too tea-y for my taste. The train took about two and a half hours to get to Alexandria.

Now, Alexandria railway station is not exactly the Raml station which I was looking for, so after searching high and low for a certain Hotel Cecil, I walked up to a chai-shop and asked for Hotel Cecil. The good man tried to explain in broken English, and said it was near the sea-side. I contemplated calling our hostel, but realised I would (i) need a phone booth; (ii) someone to explain. So, instead I walked to a taxi and said 'Fondo Cecil'.
"Fondo Cecil? Sea side. 10 Pound Egyptian".
"Aiwa, aiwa".

In about ten minutes I was in front of Cecil, walked around the back of it into the shabby entrance of our hostel, and took the lift up to the 4th floor. I was greeted by a chubby young man with a bright smile, who showed my room, and also said some of my group were already in the other room.

RA and SK took me to a great place called Ahmed's (Achmed's?) for some local Egyptian food. They explained that falafel was similar to medu-vada, and that there was rajma, which was called 'foul'. There was also hummus and pickle (although the pickle was just diced radish, chilli and some salad leaves). I was famished and devoured all the three falafels we ordered.

Back in the room, ice was broken and there was fine conversation with SK on marriage, travel, advertising, IT, management, movies, music, student life ... until the people next door requested some peace.

I plonked out at about 2:30 AM, to get up to a sea-view the next morning.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The first of many...

Rarely does one get a chance to cover a foreign country with a bunch of motley strangers - rarer still that one gets to the point of missing them when the trip is done.

The trip to Egypt this Christmas was unique in so many aspects that I've lost count. I had not been outside India or UK for a long time. I had not travelled without S and T (A huge thanks to S, for having it in her to manage herself and the baby alone - I owe you one, sweetie). I had not travelled with strangers before. I had not been on a trip where I was not involved in the planning or finances. I had not travelled to a place which had seen recent political tensions.

Like many of us, I was setting foot on the African continent for the first time, did not know the language, was apprehensive of the situation in Egypt, and was wondering on the plane about the company I would get, how S would manage, and how this whole thing would turn out.

It could not have turned out any better. Egypt was awesome - Tahrir Square is phenomenal, the cities of Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan and Cairo are fantastic. The temples leave you in an anachronistic daze. The dusty Pyramids against a clear blue sky leave you dumbstruck.

Then again, the places you visit are hardly an indicator of your journey - its the people you travel with, and some conversations which started on the night I landed worked their way seamlessly throughout until the day I flew out, with warm hugs and promises to keep in touch serving as punctuation marks on the last line of an unfinished poem.

The Egypt Chronicles start tomorrow.