Friday, December 04, 2015

Thoughts on Chennai Rains

"Could the people running the Chennai rain relief operations on the ground and the net please run the whole country. It would be amazing." - Samit Basu

I cannot but smile in agreement to the spirit in which this statement has been made.

Last week when the first bout of flooding started, friends in Chennai kept in touch over Whatsapp and Facebook. They said they were safe, power had been cut off as a precaution and sent pictures of boats plying in affected areas offering help and checking if people wanted to be ferried out.

We are accustomed to blame the system and the government in times like this, but I was pleasantly surprised to find people from Chennai on my Twitter feed reported the opposite.

Public transport was spot on, in areas that were not directly affected. Auto rickshaws were plying and in many cases, without accepting payments. Traffic policemen, firemen and rescue teams worked overtime, clearing incident after incident, with concern and urgency. Ola came to the party with boats too, but it was quite clear by then that the public transport and system machinery were standing out as the real heroes. People in unaffected areas opened up their houses; hotels lowered their rates and offers to share food, power and phones started popping up on social media.

Towards the end of the week, I could see a really humane side emerging and standing stoically to withstand nature's fury.

A different solution was starting to appear. Mind you, the "national media" had not yet picked this story up but Twitter instead was offering field based information. Local volunteers checked and provided real time updates on Twitter. Some people like @krishashok were extremely active and posting out verified information, which I'm sure was reassuring for people like me who were outside the country but had friends and family in the city. @krishashok even compiled an end-of-day summary update for NRIs.

Over the last 2-3 days, the scale of socially arranged relief has been astonishing. @krishashok and his team scoured area after area, putting up regular status updates, checking Twitter feeds and matching up donors and the needy. @actor_siddharth and @rj_balaji set up base camp at Big FM and patrolled areas with convoys of cars. The teams pleaded on Twitter for help - cars, food, blankets, medicines, money, volunteers - but never stopped working with what they had in hand.

The NRDF, Navy and the Army have arrived and started to work in tandem with the volunteers. Relief work is now fully underway with state and centre both engaged. But this army of local volunteers have been beyond belief. They have found ways to deal with the amount of data being thrown at them. When it became too much for an individual, they brought in hashtags. When the hashtags became unreliable, they put up a website. As I type, the website now has various categories and offers the facility to add information, and is updated every 5 minutes.

So, you see, I agree with the spirit in which this statement is made.

When I think of the motivation of these volunteers to wade in the water and help, I draw parallels to Dan Pink's theory of what motivates us. This motley army of volunteers was motivated by the triumvirate of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Autonomy: the guys who put the site up had one objective - to get the site up. They were not constrained by design decisions, technology choices or performance requirements. Their objective of getting the site up and running was backed by a complete autonomy on the choice of tools and technologies they wanted to use.

Mastery: volunteers were asked to stick to the areas they know well and not venture into the far away areas. This helped in two ways. One, local knowledge was always in the area. Two, it prevented the need for a backup team to find the volunteers who ventured out too far.  Mastery also in the way the Army and the NDRF worked - they had superior experience in such operations and their supply chains were more robust than volunteers. It made sense that professionals went to the worst affected areas.

Purpose: this is the most important of them all. Every single volunteer did what (s)he did, not because of money or fame, but to help each other in crisis and restore the faith in humanity. They did it with a sense of brotherhood and collective responsibility.

I will end with a tweet from @srini091, one of India's elite marathon runners, based in Chennai, and whom I follow on Twitter - "God? Their places of worship have been flooded! We just have to help each other. You are my God. I'm yours & so on"

I am not in Chennai, and all information I have referred to are from my friends who are safe in Chennai, and from my Twitter and Facebook feeds, where I follow @krishashok, @srini091, @actor_siddharth among others. This is my view of things, like how I saw it on my social media feed. There are many others who were directly involved on the ground and have many such stories to tell. We owe it to them to get those stories out.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Back to the sheets!

Every now and then, there is an activity that makes you go "Why do we not do these things more often?" And it leaves you drenched with a will to restart all the things that were, for whatever reason, lost along the way.

This post is to mark another beginning to revive this blog. 

Earlier this week, a friend sent in a puzzle on Whatsapp, and in unravelling the solution, S and I actually had fun. We worked the logic through with actual paper and pen, and when theory did not work, we tore up the paper and enacted out the premise like 10 year olds!

And while we were at it, we also debated about this new meme doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. 

Let's just ignore the fact that there is an extra zero (maybe a typo). While it all adds up (or multiplies up) very nicely, what I did not understand is - how can a measure of time be used as a measure of distance? Quite clearly, a YUGA is a measure of 12000 years (time). And equally clearly, a YOJANA is a measure of 8 miles (distance). A SAHASTRA, of course, is 1000 (constant). Now, how can YUGA*SAHASTRA*YOJANA be the distance from earth to the sun.

How can the product of time * constant * distance be distance?

After three rough sheets of paper and a much rougher discussion with S (on whether it was the ancient scriptures, or Tulsidas, or the generator of the meme), the only logical explanation was to assume 'SAHASTRA*YOJANA' as a measure of speed.

How then do you assume distance to be a measure of speed? The answer presumably is, on an empirical basis. Note that it was not uncommon for people to answer in days when asked "How far is Takshashila from Magadha". So if one were to conjecture that a man (or a caravan / army / troupe / whatever) travelled 22 miles in a day, then the distance they would travel in a year would be ~8000 miles (one SAHASTRA YOJANA per year). This (SAHASTRA YOJANA per year) is now a measure of speed, and if one travelled suchlike for a YUGA (time), then they would traverse the distance to the sun.

While I'd love to hear any other interpretations, the take-away from that evening was that we both had fun (and arguments) in making our points clear and convincing each other. The realisation also led to the fact that although I have been catching up with new (and old) blogs, this blog has been gathering dust for a long time. 

It's time to clear out the cobwebs and spread new sheets! :-)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - Day 10

I think I must have slept deeply for about an hour, for I was quite refreshed when I woke up RA at about 8. It was our last day at the hostel, in Cairo, and for some of us, Egypt. I was due to fly out later that afternoon (but for some reason I had thought I was flying earlier at about 11 ish). RA, DT, ST and MS would proceed to Dahab for their dives. The rest would fly back to Bangalore later on that evening.

So, the priority for the early leavers was to visit the Egyptian Museum across the Tahrir Square, the others would continue to the Khan-el-Khalili market to do some touristy shopping. A small batch of us went ahead into the museum, while the others dallied around to settle the bills, pack up and book their onward travel to Dahab.

The museum was a short walk away and looked imposing. There was locker to store cameras etc - they were not allowed into the museum. SK had told me about it earlier, so I had packed my bags and left them at the hostel. We bought tickets (I thought they were expensive) and declined the services of a persistent guide and walked in.

I walked around the various sections and rooms that made up the museum, and the upkeep of many of the artifacts was appalling. In some rooms there were free standing display boards with some information about the artifacts. Where the artifacts were not covered by glass, you could see a layer of dust on them. The ones covered in glass had some kind of markings on them, probably for an audio guide, but even they were not consistent with the display boards.

There was a section which had rows and rows of mummies. Common mummies, they must have been, because the Royal Mummies are preserved in a dedicated section which is temperature and pressure controlled. More on that later, but this section made me feel I was in a mortuary, more than a museum. Across the museum, there was a section for the treasures found in Tut-Ankh-Amen's pyramid. A gold chariot, objects of daily use, a rudimentary armour and head gear.

By this time, NC, DT and others had also entered the museum and we bumped into them every now and then. When SP and I saw them go into the Royal Mummy Hall, we gave it some serious thought. The Royal Mummy Hall had a second entry ticket, and it was more expensive than the original museum entrance ticket. Now, SP and I are not your normal museum buffs, we would rather be outdoors and have beer in the sun (:P) but still, we considered going in there. We did too. And I was glad we did that because the Royal Mummies were awesome.

It was a bit eerie as well. Spread over two pressure and temperature controlled rooms, you had just over a dozen (or more?) mummies. Most were bandaged all over, except the face, palms and feet. It was overwhelming. Although discolored to a smoky black hue, the bodies had their features impossibly undamaged. When I looked at the mummies of Ramesses and Thutmose (I don't recall their numbers), I was amazed at the degree of preservation of this ancient process - you could see the hairline and some wisps, the jaw was complete, with teeth intact.

The Royal Mummy Hall was probably the only thing which interested me enough, apart from that I felt the museum was highly overrated. Probably a disclaimer is in order here. I'm not particularly interested in Egyptian history. I'm awed by their stories, but that's it - I don't have a fancy for dwelling on the kind of pottery or leather saddles used by the Pharaonic people. So, I had very little to take away from there, but I had definitely expected it to be managed better. The Nubian museum at Aswan was more well-kept, if you ask me.

I was one of the first people to leave, so I thought I would go back to the hostel and grab something to eat before leaving, and began to bid goodbye to the gang. The usual promises to meet again etc were made with SP, DT, RA and SM and I stepped out of the museum only to see NC and a few others who had come out bored and were waiting for MS (and few others) to join them for Khan-El-Khalili market. So I did some photos, gave out addresses and bid good bye to them. Before I left, SP and others came out and we stopped near the cash machine as some of them started withdrawing some moolah!

I bid them farewell again, and walked back to the hostel with ST. We stopped at Kazaz and took away some sandwiches for lunch (real ones, not tuna). It was good conversation on the way back. Having picked up my bags, I waved her bye and was almost out when I saw DT and RA return to the hostel. I must have run into these guys 7-8 times before I called a cab and finally left to the airport.

The flight back was uneventful, and once I settled in my seat, I tipped my head and dozed off. The steward woke me up once for some food, which I declined, and the next time I opened my eyes, we were circling over London Heathrow. I spoke to GK on the bus home and we were wondering how something that was almost a dream, slowly loomed large, came to pass and now was being ticked off as 'done'.

We both hung up thinking we should have done the Spain trip when we thought about it. Here's the whole trip in a picture.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Egypt Chronicles - New Year's night

We arrived at the hotel, tired and weary from walking around the Pyramids. Most of us just wanted to laze around and rest. There was a party going on downstairs at the hotel reception. More of a 'bring your own beverage' party, than anything else. We went there for a few minutes. All the hostel's inmates had gathered around. The Polish women were there too. There was a Sufi dance going on. Here's a video of that.

It was fun, but SK had seen (and shown on his camera) better ones from his visit to the Pyramids at the start of the trip (he had already been in Cairo for a few days before we arrived).

We went back up to our floor and I was sorting out currency for SP and SK. (I was the local forex guy, remember?). SM came in all showered and shaved, ready to rock Egypt's nightlife senseless. He was a tad disappointed to see all of us saying 'Mehhh' to go out that night. MS, SS, ST had already chosen to rest and retired to their rooms. S2K also had almost gone back to bed. The rest of us were really not sure, so the deal finally came down to a walk around Tahrir. It was close to midnight, so we stayed until it struck 12, wished everyone, and headed out into the night. It was six of us - DT, SM, RA, S2K, SP and me.

We walked down to Tahrir, and crossed the square back to the other side and went around the bend towards the Semiramis Intercontinental. That seemed to be our first stop. As we approached the hotel, I began to get the feeling we were standing out. The general public in the hotel was smartly dressed, not surprising considering it was New Years' and a luxury hotel to boot, and here we were in unwashed jeans, dusty shoes and an assortment of jackets and hoodies. SM was probably the only one looking smart enough so we let him go first. We entered the lobby and as soon as I passed the door, the alarm of the metal detector went off and attracted 2-3 bouncers to the gate. I was pretty sure I'd left the wallet at the hostel, but hadn't realised the hip flask was still at the hip :D

The bouncers patted me down to make sure there wasn't anything else in the decoy of a hip flask - and let us enter. The jazz was on the fourth floor. SM went to negotiate with the concierge and came back with an entry charge so high, we burst out laughing. We looked around the hotel (DT, remember the lady with the heels?) and quietly made our exit to check on something else. That was when we found a cab driver, who suggested other options in the Zamalek area. He made us a good deal - he would take us to the club, we could check it and he would drop us back if we did not like it. And he quoted a reasonable fare. So the six of us (and him) squeezed into his cab.

He drove away from Tahrir, across the Nile into the other part of the city. All along, he insisted on playing music at a high volume, and made inane conversation. Thankfully, I was sitting towards the window and let SM field all his questions. It was a long drive, making us think whether we should have declined his request. The busy roads became a bit quieter, and the signboards began to disappear, and it was becoming a bit unfamiliar, so we decided to pull out and asked him to turn around. He said it was not far from here, and turned around into a quieter alley. A lot of cars were parked around, and there were the odd shops. The club was around the corner, he said. I got down from the car and walked towards the club. It was called Melouk, I think! The cabbie called one of his cronies to park the car, and accompanied me and SM into the club. I felt the club's entrance was shady - there was a cloud of smoke, a small lift to take us up and it was quite crowded inside. I could hardly see any ladies in the outer part of the club. We were led into the inner part, which had a dance floor and a bar, and I could spot very few couples. We thought we didn't want to get the guys here, so we excused ourselves and asked the cabbie to take us back. Poor guy, he could probably see his cut vanishing … he tried to sell us a couple of different venues, but nobody was *really* interested, so we went back to the Semiramis. (Note - Google Maps says Melouk is in Dokki, which is on the way from Tahrir to Giza, by road. But we didn't go by road, so why were the signs familiar??)

We got down on the bridge and looked at the bright lights reflected on the Nile. There was a small boat, similar to our cruise boat, moored towards one of the hotels. There was the usual New Year crowd - people walking around, wishing other groups and making merry. We slowly walked our way back past the bridge, past the hotels and across the Tahrir Square. The Square was lit up, but the crowd was dissolving. We stopped at a handcart and ordered tea. Stood at a historic site, on New Years night, and let the feeling sink in. DT wanted coffee, so we stopped for her coffee at Kazaz (which by the way was open every time we passed it in our time in Cairo) before we went into the hostel.

Back in the hostel, while everyone hit the bed, SK, SP and I sat down for tuna sandwiches and what we did best - bakarbazi!! It was a fine mix - SK on the verge of something new, SP in his first year of marriage, and me in my second year of fatherhood!! It was here we really caught up on the day's events. SK recounted his story of the scarab beetle. How it had weaved itself into his activities today, and all along the trip. Conversations turned again towards marriage, life and love. Then some jokes. 3 AM. Silence. Contemplation. 4 AM. The fact that tomorrow was the last day. The fact that today was the last day. Tomorrow would be the first day. 5 AM. No, 4 AM. No, 5 AM. SK's flight in an hour. Let's sleep.

I think I finally slept after seeing SK off at about 6:30 AM.

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.