As I flew in, a sea of sandy colored square blocks – no shape to the roofs, just horizontal concrete – and not a single tree in sight lay before me. This city for 22 million people would be pure, deadly Saharan desert if it wasn’t for the strip of famous water snaking through. You can clearly mark out the ‘Green Zone’, which stretched a few kilometers from each edge of the Nile.
I arrived at 0540, eyes dragging because I couldn’t put down Fifty Shades of Grey; the newest cult following. In terms of raunchiness, we have gone from Harry and Hermione’s high school butterflies to the sexual tension between Kristen and R Patz in Twilight, but have now escalated to full blown soft porn in Fifty Shades. I’m so glad I have a kindle, otherwise I would be ashamed to read this erotica series publicly (apparently, sales on Mills and Boon have gone up tenfold since the invention of the Kindle haha).
So, EgyptAir wasn’t bad, no TV’s, but holy moly they know how to make a roast better than my mother (foot in mouth right now).
So, as I was saying, I arrived in Cairo early and my guide Ahmed was there waiting obediently with a big MS THOMAS sign (I could get used to this treatment). I have gone all out for Egypt, and caved when Krystel the Queen of travel agents emailed me the itinerary of an 8 day tour through Egypt, all inclusive (thinking hotels, flights, foot rubs and diamond rings). My heart and my brain had an all out brawl somewhere in my throat trying to decide whether or not to spend two thousand four hundred dollars (TWENTY FOUR PAIRS OF JEANS!!) on this eight day tour. My usually logical Dad was on one side with a cheeky grin and trident yelling DO IT! YOU’LL NEVER BE BACK!!, whilst my fat ass was saying skip Egypt and get started on the Camino Way and the tour company were saying hurry up and decide we want to go home for dinner. So, my heart won out. Luckily, all costs are paid upfront, so I shouldn’t even have to touch my wallet in Egypt. Unless I want to buy some of that famous gold of course.
Ahmed the guide whisked me off my feet, organized my visa and drive me through Cairo to connecting Giza. Cairo is incredible. It’s not like any tropical, run down, typically dirty Asian/African scene – even the goddamn dogs and rubbish piles look ancient. Judging by how old everything looks, they could have built the pyramids last weekend, slapped on an ancient tag, and I would still be hanging off their every word.
Everything Lara Croft Tomb Raider came to life before my eyes. Huge temples with an endless string of history tapped into the stones, statues of pharaohs in the streets, the sprawling Cities of the Dead which are very much a place of the living, choc a bloc with poor citizens. Everything is white sandstone and blue sky and old cars and long robes.
After catching up on some much needed sleep, I went for a walk in the burning heat of the late afternoon. Ambling terrace housing, stretching higher than my neck can bend, bold ten year olds blowing kisses at me, parked cars crawling with spiders and rust (all you need to drive in Cairo is a functioning horn) and makeshift tents worn by Muslim women who can’t afford to expose a single pore.
Some 80% are Muslim here in Egypt (pop 84 mil) and I have arrived smack bang in the centre of Ramadan. Just as I was contemplating no food for maybe 9 hours, Ahmed informed me that first light is at 330 am and the last light is 7pm. That is 15 and a half hours with not a bite of food or a single drop of life preserving water! Walking at 5pm, sweating my fingernails soft, I can’t imagine why the religious heads couldn’t have been a bit more forgiving and put the starvation fest on through winter – it’s absolute torture. At least the healthcare system wouldn’t be overflowing with dehydrating, collapsing victims of Ramadan! So, because of this religious event, basically nothing is open. I’m guessing everyone is at home, too weak to move, and the food joints don’t have any use anyway. I went on a serious mission to find a goddamn bottle of water – it’s madness.
Hassan picked me up early in the morning. Tall, well groomed and when I spotted the legitimate Georgio Armani shades, I immediately registered where my twenty four hundred shmackeroos have disappeared to. Hassan led me out to the air conditioned van and driver – all just for me! I feel so embarrassed getting out of my custom van before the eyes of the loaded tourist buses – they probably just mistake me for a princess (or a lonely rich bitch). I tried to get on a tour with people, I tried!
Honestly, I’ve been bursting at the seams to meet some English speaking companions. Not a single person in the hotel could speak English except the staff, with their broken dialect and compulsory smiles. I started thinking about the famous artists and mathematicians who were left alone and undertook their brilliant work, and I began wondering what my flare could be. My artistic head hasn’t reared its sculptured horns yet, but a few more days of this isolation and I should be onto something.
A black French guy slid into my table opposite me at breakfast when i was grabbing some tea. I sat there anyway and attempted some English. He knew non and kept probing me with French, eye rolling, arm raising and exasperated that I didn’t know his language. Right back at you, mister! PS: He needs the English language more than I need French in this world, even though his sounds so much sexier. That’s something that’s been flag wavingly obvious on my travels; everyone speaks minimum 13 languages, and I, hailing from island continent Australia, speak but one. Cheers NSW Education System – you didn’t have the foresight to give me some Arabic? Unbelievable.
Hassan and the pudgy driver drove me between the sites of Cairo for the day, shedding some light on the history of this ancient capital. The streets of Egypt fit like a glove with my preconceived ideas of the ‘stan’ countries and the middle east. Villagemen swimming in dresses of long material and a red checkered scarf skillfully turbaned on their crown. Far-too-small donkeys are ridden with a bunch of grass doubling as a saddle and as the mules food. On the outer edges of the city, dirty rivulets of the Nile are piled high with waste so hard packed it has woven itself to become part of the land, while boys swim and men fish unperturbed. In the shade of a bridge, a hard of dag ridden sheep find shelter from the heat and all eyes are focused on the story being knitted by the eldest shepherd.
Our first stop of the day was the pyramids at Giza. These colossal monuments stand like tall poppies; just begging for tomb raiders to take a peak. Butterflies stir in my stomach which are normally associated with excitement at Christmas when I was six, but I suppose we did learn about the pyramids since early primary school.
I can’t believe I was considering skipping Egypt due to the summer heat I thought to myself as I stepped out of my air conditioned van – and was suddenly struck down by a wave of intense heat that singed all visible body hair. I thought I had done right by the Muslim standards, wearing a long shirt and knee skimming shorts, and I stood sweltering in the heat, staring openmouthed at the European tourists who were next to naked, flashing chiseled orange boobies and backsides to unexpecting victims of the Muslim community. I’m pretty sure Muslims aren’t even supposed to think about sex during Ramadan, so I guess they steer clear of tourist attractions as a general rule. Which means we are left with only those who are far from devout. Camel vendors add to the steretypical Egyptian pyramids scene, but they are so pushy. Vendors on foot stood in my path, pulling out concertinas of postcards and jewelery, rocks and everything else they could possible sell off, meaning you need to avoid eye contact and learn to love the saying ‘ana basmash’ (I’m deaf).
There are certainly tourists, but apparently nothing like the overcrowded numbers in the high season. Hassan tells me I have come at the best time of the year and I nod, busy trying to remember back to first aid classes about the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
The pyramids are awe inspiring. If you can ever get your head around the sheer size of a single block (up to 8 tonnes), then you can begin to untangle the equation of how the Egyptians transported the stone from Aswan to Cairo, some 700 kms. The pyramids are built on a 53 degree angle, the tallest stands at 136 m, and the shape is associated with eternity. Hassan rattled off the characteristics of the sites all day, and because I’m the only one on the damn tour, I have to listen to every word. It is safe to say I am now a very knowledgeable Egyptologist.
The pyramids at Giza hold ____ and his wife, son and grandson. They have also excavated some boats that were covered in pits just outside, but of course, everything from inside the tombs had been looted by the time we found them. I was actually allowed to go inside the sons pyramids, and I consciously made sure I went in with a group of Spanish people so that when the thing collapses on our heads, they’ll be more inclined to look for bodies greater in number.
Preparing for a shock to the respiratory system when I entered the tunnel into the tomb, I was surprised to find it well ventilated and relatively cool. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t claustrophobic – I walked bent double down deep into the ground, encased by this narrow tunnel of ancient stone and darkness. I went into a few tombs throughout the day, and it seems that scraps of the original paint remains and the carvings in the walls are amazing considering they are up to 5000 years old.
Just down from the pyramids is the Sphinx. Its nose has been defaced but it still looks immaculate. The pharaohs were constantly erecting statues and monuments and recording their successes in war, trade, physical prowess and relationships with the gods. I suppose it’s just like political propaganda these days. Hitler depicted himself as a sporting and hunting champion, while in reality he was just mustached short mans syndrome.
We made our way to an outdoor museum of collections and again I heard the ancient record in everything in the place down to the smallest stone.
For lunch, Hassan sat opposite me and watched, salivating, while he continued his fast. How many times do I have to feel like a devil when I eat on this trip! I had a delicious spread of pickled cucumber, garlic infused eggplant, tahini, chunky tzatziki and baba ghanoush on Egyptian bread appearing straight from the wood fried oven in the corner. I am so not going back to meat pies and vegemite toast in gastronomically embarrassing Australia.
After lunch, we went to see the first step pyramid ever built, designed by Imhotep and funded by Kind Djozer, the structure clings to modern scaffolding for fear of crumbling to its demise. It’s pretty spectacular, and a museum sits next to it, filled with canopic jars and copper tools and I get my first witness of a real life mummy. He is no one special and is still wrapped in linen, apart from his face and feet. The skin is black leather, ready to snap at the slightest twist. It seems nice to preserve his dignity with the cloth, even though he’s been dead a few thousand years and the concept of human rights hadn’t really been driven home during his time.
Finally, we made a visit to the papyrus factory. The lights came on and the workers woke from their slumber at my arrival – Ramadan really does bring this country to a halt for one month of the year. A man so friendly I would trust him with my life took the time to show me the way the papyrus reeds are beaten then soaked for six days then fashioned to a criss cross pattern and put in a hard press to produce paper. It really was the only form of paper for the ancient Egyptians, and libraries full of their work remains today.
Hassan dropped me back to the alternate world which is my hotel, and once again I went walkabout on the busy streets around Amarantyne Hotel. I didn’t make it far though, because I entered the one pound shop across the road. I should explain, entering a shop in Egypt is not like ducking into Just Jeans for a browse, no, it’s a serious commitment only to be undertaken in a good mood and good health. As soon as I entered the dark shop, the owner bounced out of his chair, flicked on the lights and AC and shut the door, then started rubbing his hands together as if preparing for a gymnastics event. You can’t find tour guides that speak English as flawlessly as shop keepers; he began with introductions and offerings of dried dates and then came the hour long saga of the stories behind the painting, the compulsory testing of scented oils and his detailed family history. The visit ended with a neck massage using sandalwood oil, and I emerged from the little den into the darkness feeling refreshed and with a sacred promise to purchase something from him before I leave Egypt.
Ahmed arrived at 6am on the 6th to take me to the airport for a short flight to Luxor (ten hours by train). He dragged me around like an incapable child and I reminded myself for the second time this week that I really hate tours (maybe I should learn to listen to myself sometime soon).
The flight was low enough to view the unrelenting expanse that is the Saharan Desert – dips and mounds of compact brown sugar with not a single sign of life to be seen.
Luxor has only 500,000 inhabitants, but is uber well known because of the Valley of the Kings and Karnak. I arrived to my second MS THOMAS sign in a week (oh my god) and I have to remember to take a picture next time. We shuttled it through the quiet streets of Luxor to the Nile port, where we jumped between a maze of about 15 cruise ships before we reached my home for the next 5 days – The Nile Dolphin. My room is on the third floor of five. I think the boat has a capacity of about 200 but there are only 85 here for this cruise due to the heat and the scare of the revolution. The boat is awesome as far as third world standards go. We were walking through boats with Victorian era dining rooms, crumbling walls and mothballs to get to The Nile Dolphin, and I can’t be happier with the pool deck and sun lounges, AC bar and restaurant, gym, little shop onboard and very decent rooms. I come back to my room after a mini adventure and open the door to an elephant made of towels and sheets and my sunglasses smiling at me from the bed. I haven’t seen the cleaners once, but they are certainly on the ball. I leave the room in what I think is a decent standard and return to find everything folded, sorted, polished and screwed tighter. Now I’m stressing because I feel like I owe them a big tip at the end, so I want to lessen their work and have transformed into a cleaning nazi.
After a bells and trimmings lunch at the buffet restaurant (feeling rather unsettled by the number of waitors ready to serve our every whim), I met my guide for the next few days. Rather than get me a new guide in each place the boat stops, Asem just sleeps on the boat and accompanies me everywhere. Hard life. He’s a 25 year old Muslim from Alexandria who likes to talk about cars, muscles and marriage when hes not talking ancient monuments. He has big black eyes and wears a brown, side upturned cowboy hat everywhere, complete with tight faded jeans and a white button up shirt that reveal a smattering of very proud chest hair. Much more wild west than Nile in Egypt, but he’s cool, and he shoots my confidence through the roof by telling me I am beautiful on a 5 minute basis.
We took a private van to Karnak temple and Mr Smiths history lessons came flying back to me. This noted temple was an ongoing, conjoined effort by a number of pharaohs from the New Kingdom. I understand about 9 out of ten words that come from Asems mouth, and I was led from one precious slice of shade to the next to admire pylons, oblisques, carvings, cartouches and tales of love and religion read from the walls. The temple of Luxor is connected by a four kilometre walkway, and when the Christians found it a few hundred years ago, they built a church on top and then the Islmaic world thought, ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ and planted a mosque on top of this. Talk about crossing cultures! I came back past it in the evening to find it strung with a set of garish flashing christmas lights, and I shivered at how successfully we can ruin ancient artefacts.
I was on my way to the sound and light show at Karnak, which is a tasteful production that has you walking through the temple complex while the voices of ancient pharaohs boom into the air and relay their stories. This sort of thing is held at all the major pyramids/temples and you just have to make sure you turn up in the evening at the right time slot for the language you speak. Even though the people around me supposedly understood english, I still couldn’t hear a single familiar dialect (except for a whinging five year old) and I was yet to meet an english speaking tourist in close to a week.
Asem is a nice companion, but I can’t be too chatty or he’ll bring out the hearts, flowers and wedding ring. And don’t think I’m bunging it on either!
The sound and light show finished up at a square of water known as the sacred lake (originally connected to The Nile) and in the distance you could make out the silhouette of sandhills hiding in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank.
We made our way over to the west bank the next morning and I got a pass to enter three of the 65 tombs in the VOK (only seven are open to the public). I can’t really remember whose tombs I went into, Ramses II Dad or something, but holy guacamole they are something special! Everything I’ve been exposed to so far has been corroded and peeling paint, but these are different, and I’m glad I didn’t see them first or I wouldn’t appreciate it. The paint on the elaborate scenes is fully intact, freshly dried 3000 years ago – velvet reds, bright yellow, royal blue, ashen black. It gives the figures much more connected to these ancient beings after seeing the Valley of the Kings. It would have been so marvellous at the time with all the gold and jewels and hairless priests and fresh paint.
Before we expired from the heat, we made a stop around the corner at Hatshepsut’s temple, located in the same complex of sand hills. On the way, Asem pointed out the house that was Howard Carter’s for seven years after his world famous discovery of Tutankhamen in 1925. Asem told me that Carter’s sponsor had really wanted to open Tutankahmen’s tomb, so he took pleasure i breaking free the room which had been air tight for thousands of years. His excitment was short lived though – he died two days later from ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ (seriously gross bacteria say the scientists).
Hatshepsut is definately an interesting pharaoh. Wife of Thutmosis II, she sent away her nephew who was due to be king once her hubby had carked it because she wanted to rule the land. If being a dominant female is hard these days, then imagine what this woman had to put up with! She made statue after statue and built this big temple to the gods, spinning a story that she was Amun Ra’s daughter by divine intervention. They finally accepted her as pharaoh, but then the hidden nephew returned and killed her. But honestly, my feminist juices stirred when I saw the mighty temple.
I spent the rest of the day in and out of the pool and speaking to newfound Spanish and Syrian friends. The Syrian girls took loads of photos with me because I’m foreign to them, and I couldn’t contain my curiosity regarding the state of their politically unstable country. They are young and live with their engineer father currently, but go back to Damascus for summer holidays this year. Interesting.
This morning I visited Edfu temple by horse and cart. The horses are decorated with rainbow tassles and beaten metal eye shields, the carriage is covered in laminated plastic with a Hello Kitty print and the surface blisters in the Egyptain sun. We raced horses and carts through the crumbling streets until we came to Edfu.
So the story of Edfu is something like this; it was built as the god Horus’ fortress. Amun Ra’s children were Osiris and Neftus, Seth and Isis. So, Isis and Osiris got hitched, much to the disappointment of Seth, who had to marry his sister Neftus, who had been given a whack with the ugly stick. Isis and Osiris gave birth to Horus, and the whole temple, built by the Greek Kings, documents how the King helps Horus to punish his evil uncle Seth. It’s well preserved, considering the Christian attempts at defacing the Grrek Kings since they despised paganism. The only problem with defacing of other Kings to erase them from history scheme is that everyone was so devout, they didn’t dare touch any carvings of the Egyptian Gods. For this reason, they could not collapse buildings or monuments, only attempt to hide the pharaohs or chisel away at the face, leaving everything else intact (luckily for us).
I sat down at an outdoor cafe before the tiring task of dealing with the street vendors again. I spotted a real coffee machine and and asked how much for a cappacino – he said 4 pounds and I said 2 and my blood boiled when a group of robed men behind him sniggered. I should have taken it as a sign, but I stubbornly stood my ground and he agreed to make me a coffee. It was no joke a cup of dirty water sprinkled with dust and I prayed my head wouldn’t be hanging over the toilet bowl in the afternoon. I drank as much as I could out of principle and reluctantly gave the waitor the money. That is what I hate about the tourism industry.
On the way back to the floating house, I requested a visit to the local market (one upside of being on the tour alone). Asem was more than reluctant to let me go through on foot, but I put my foot down and started walking anyway. He followed protectively and I got my way for the first time today.
He was extremlely concious of the amount of people staring at us and said ‘Jessica, this is not right, we must leave’ and I put on my best sad dog doe eyes and said that it only made me want to go further. It was Muslim central, and every few seconds we had to clear the narrow way for a bicycle or a donkey dragging a crate of lemons. Laid back sellers sprawled themselves over a trickling pile of watermelons. Young boys with a glint in their eye haggled with no bars held, stringy piles of deep fried sweets covered benches and the scent of overripe fruit hung, stagnant in the heat.
The boat continued its sailing for the day while I perched on a sun lounge and now I’m nursing the consequential sunburn. I’m sitting in the huge dining room wearing a turban and white dress for Egyptian themed night. Someone’s birthday is today and conga line just passed me. My belly is full of eggplant, roast duck, spicy tomato sauce and an assortment of Egyptian mini desserts. It’s strange to sit alone so I like to write while I’m at the table to feel occupied and avoid inadvertantly gazing into someones eyes. This afternoon, we visted Kom Ombo temple. I woke after a miday siesta ad emerged from the boat into the heatwave. It honestly felt like I’d just been lit on fire (if you know my skin, it probably looked like I had, too). I have never experienced this kind of weather, it was to the point the soles of my feet were burning and red inside my thongs just from the air temperature. Asem said it was about 50 degrees, and I felt like a scowling child every time he made me move acorss the suns deadly path to observe a new feature of the temple. However, it was a great temple with lots of pylons etc like all the others, but now I can’t wait to get back to Cairo and see the museum of Antiquities where all of the objects found inside these monuments are actually being held.
Just down from the temple was a museum which held mummified crocodiles. Up to 4.3 metres in length and teeth still snarling, it was a sight to behold.
9 Aug 12 – Aswan
Last night after dinner, the boat pulled into our final destination of Aswan. My guide Asem and I went for a walk through the busy streets; the sounds of cars and horses struggling in the traffic blasted through the air. With a population of 6 million, we passed those compulsory city icons, McDonalds, beggars and vodafone outlets. It’s the
only time of the day it’s actually bearable to walk, so when I spotted a bustling local market, I was like a bug to light. Like an over – protective father shielding his daughter from her first date, Asem tried to stop me. We had a ridiculous argument on the sidewalk and I asked him what the problem was. He ran his hands through his hair, exasperated, and told me there were so many people in there and he didn’t want me to get hurt. You’ve got to be kidding me. I stormed over and a bicycle promptly ran into me. After wiping away the blood, I was back up and had the best time of my whole day, observing a frantic scurry of bodies when money was dropped on the ground, carpet, costumes, clothing and gawdy accessories hanging in every available space.
With all senses in overdrive, you could never get bored of a middle eastern market place. Asem reflexifly grabbed my hand when the pull of the crowd became stronger than usual, and I can appreciate that he was legitimately concerned for my welfare. He often voices his disbelief that I am in the military, he always tells me to let my hair out and generally emobodies a sexist attitude. He does have a Muslim background and has grown up in the Middle East, yet I still find myself annoyed when he acts overly genteel. He gave me a shirt this morning with a print of the flag and told me he would buy me jewelry too. No, no, no!
August 2012 – An Insightful Day
The charms of Aswan are the human feat of the high dam, majestic Philae Island and Hatshepsut’s great-unfinished oblisque. The High Dam was first attempted in the nineteenth century, but was replaced with a more grand and expensive structure in 1960. Because Egypt is the final link of the Nile before the precious fresh water is destroyed in the Mediterranean Sea, it seemed obvious that this country would be the candidate to regulate the water and distribute it between the countries beneath. The infamous Abdul Nasser was president at the time of its implementation, and the requirement of water for Africa was greater than the consequence that many ancient monuments would be flooded and eternally destroyed by the rising water level. UNESCO, archeologists and historians across the globe had an anxiety attack and purchased tickets to Egypt; a combined effort began to physically transport 18 endangered monuments to higher ground. Once you see the size of the monuments, this modern effort seems like a task larger than building the damn pyramids!
The High Dam is spectacularly vast and is the meeting point for The Nile and Lake Nasser. I tracked the lake the following day on a flight south to Abu Simbel and witnessed its proportions; up to 20 km wide in some stretches. This High Dam now produces 60% of power for Egypt’s 80 million citizens through hydro electricity. The whole ordeal was a great success, only through the unified efforts of fifty countries.
We continued our adventure through Aswan, passing bubble style housing of the Nubian people who dominate this southern part of the country. The Nubian dark features are considered the most beautiful in Egypt and they are also renowned for their gracious character.
We came to the shore of the dam and caught a boat out to Philae Island. The lake is scattered with piles of granite, which emerge from the water something like the rock formations in Halong Bay in Vietnam. Slippery snakes of petrol and congregations of rubbish roam in the water as in the busier sections of the Nile. If you wanted to do something good for the world, come to Egypt and teach the people how to use a bin.
Philae Island is one of those monuments that were moved from under water 50 years ago. Five temples are situated on this rocky outcrop, and it feels bizarre to be surrounded by cool water while standing upon an ancient monument in the desert.
(I am sitting having breakfast at the Amarante in Cairo and that same French Arabic guy just slid in next to me when there are loads of free tables and he was staring like I have a bomb strapped to my head so I am now moved and safely seated alone. That is the second time he’s done it!)
Back to Philae Island. You can see big scoops from the granite where the ancient Egyptians inserted wood into chiseled cracks and filled the cracks with water, making the wood expand and the rocks break free, suddenly at the mercy of the Egyptians’ sculpting and transportation around the country.
Before embarking on a felucca ride, we visited Hatshepsut’s unfinished oblisque. The fat pylon lies horizontal in the earth with a long crack down the middle that prevented the oblisque from being completed and boated to Luxor like the others. Hawkers fill the entry and exit to every attraction with their items of aromatic oils and spices and colorful scarves and summer dresses. You have precisely 10 seconds of chitchat with a hawker before they ask if you are a) Married? B) Engaged c) Boyfriend d) Looking for one? My guide Asem is just as bad; all he thinks about is finding a girl and getting married, having children and being a father. Considering the no sex before marriage deal, I suppose these poor blokes couldn’t care less who the girl is, as long as it happens NOW!
We made our way through graffiti decorated streetscapes and crowd deterring weather conditions to a 12-meter, one sailed traditional felucca on the Nile. Our felucca captain wore a long beige traditional dress (very practical for a sailor..) and he couldn’t have been more than a teenager. I later learnt that these boat boys don’t attend school whatsoever, but they make so much money from tourists that they literally have no idea what to do with it. The money sits stagnant in their bank accounts and they continue to buy the same food and cigarettes and quote; ‘houses that dogs wouldn’t live in’. The sail down the Nile was pleasant with the soft breeze (a welcome change) and reflection of the sun off the water. Huge buildings and unused ships dominate the coast bank, whilst sand hills and the promise of a vicious Saharan desert fills the west.
I would rather be trampled by elephants than stranded alone in the desert. I don’t know if I would die first from the tongue stiffening, organ-burning heat or from clinical insanity!
We pulled in at McDonalds (no joke) and I headed back to the Nile Dolphin to recover from the morning’s great exertions. Onboard, I began typing this journal, and after a few hours of finger slogging I went to email it but the Internet failed. Mr. Fahkry, the 2IC on the boat, saved the day by downloading the document to his phone and posting it. I couldn’t thank him enough and I sat for the afternoon with this hugely overweight, successful 30 year old with an ego triple his size and more understanding of his country than I could obtain if I lived here. Fahkry was impressed by my world expedition and attitude, and I just explained that I want to learn about the various cultures and perceptions on our gargantuanally diverse world. So insight on Egyptian relationships, marriage, work and family life was what he gave me. We sat in an air conditioned corner of the dimly lit bar overlooking a sparkling Nile whilst he puffed away on Marlboros and triple shot expressos, giving a very honest interpretation of his worldview. The basic moral I have come away with is that what is not seen (nose tap) is not there. Regardless of religious rules, social expectations or governmental laws, those boundaries are regularly ignored behind doors. For example (don’t shoot the messenger) Ramadan is more like a sleepy holiday with the front that people are fasting. He threw a figure out there that perhaps 60 % of Muslims stick to the hard and fast rules of abstaining from sex, food and water. Fahkry and his circle of friends also employ a rule of 40% work, 40% family and 20% ‘me’. ‘Me’ being not quite as loyal to marriage and a monogamous relationship as the Koran dictates one should. However, he couldn’t stress the importance of marriage enough in order to make your parents happy and to keep your family respectable. It’s not that he doesn’t love his wife, he loves her in a way that a human can’t help but like someone that desperately loves you. However, he still has his needs. I am taking an entirely neutral stance on his opinions because I just want to get an idea of how this foreign world operates. (I asked something like ‘but don’t the women know what’s going on?’ His reply; ‘Jessica, women are the same all over the world. They want to believe nothing is going on, so you don’t tell them otherwise’. Then his phone buzzed and he signaled for me to be quiet; his wife would kill him if she knew he was talking to another woman).
He spoke of his idea of success, and it was all material. The top dog job, the sexy car, the clothing, the house. I suppose that nothing should really surprise me; it’s the same stereotypical idea of the western world. The men are proud, he sat in a suit and dripping with gold when we met up again in the evening. He believes he is a good man. His father was 50% work, 50% family and would wear a shirt until it disintegrated on his back if someone didn’t buy him a fresh one. He died at 55 from cancer. However, the world is changing. New generations have modern exposure, and Fahkry believes he has retained the essence of a good man.
I mentioned the concept of not being entirely loyal to the rules of the Koran at dinner to Asem, and he was incredulous. Perhaps the notion isn’t as far spread as the Fahkry indicated, and there are always two sides to a story.
I sat with Estelle, Marta and Alberto, my new Spanish friends, until well after midnight. We endured a Nubian drum dance show that had us shimmying and shaking on the dance floor next to sweating, pink costumed overly enthusiastic Nubians. The rest of the night we had broken conversation in English and organized to possibly catch up in the Basque region of Spain next week. We then gossiped worse than Regina from Mean Girls (a common pastime Wherever you are in the world). I giggled with delight at the names they had given to the various groups on the boat. We have the ‘Desperate Housewife’s’; bitchy but beautiful Italian girls who are cuddling up to a group of boys so ugly they could only be filthy rich. Then there were the hunky, egotistical Spanish boys nicknamed the Gorillas, the trashy but adorable Argentinian couple the table of graceful elderly ladies know as the Widows Club and most intriguing of all, the two men who are painfully boring, never smile or speak but we think they must be gay, appropriately named Ted and Todd from The Simpsons.
10 Aug 12 – Abu Simbel
I said farewell to The Nile Dolphin and flew 25 minutes south to Abu Simbel. Driving would have been a cheaper option, but it requires a 2am wakeup, police escorts in case the vehicle breaks down in the desert, and a struggle in the heat for eight hours. Flying is worth it, regardless that the plane was 2 hours late and the turbulence was so extreme that my stomach kept regurgitating itself and I swear they turned the AC the wrong way. However, Abu Simbel made everything fine and dandy.
It’s another one of those monuments that was mind bogglingly sliced with handsaws and moved to higher ground under the threat of the high dam. Imagine moving a mountain and then putting every grass clump back in the same place, just 50 meters higher. You can barely see the lines where the monument has been carved into a puzzle 50 years previous. Abu Simbil is remarkable; I would even go so far to say it changed my worldview. I was there with an American couple from Atlanta, Georgia; a huge footballer named Joe Peacock and his lovely wife Andrea. We were at the mighty statue alone (before the hoards of visitors), which always makes you feel more connected to a site. We gaped at the mighty figures of King Rameses II sitting on his throne, not once, but four times over carved into the mountainside. The size is overwhelming, (we are only tall enough to kiss his toes) and it is clear why the ancient Egyptians (and even Ramses himself) believed he was a god on earth. I would have been satisfied with just this outside view, but you can actually walk between his legs and inside an intricate maze of rooms. This great testament to the ambition and skill of the ancient race took 20 years to build. Before they began building though, the architects searched for the exact position to build the temple so that the suns rays would shine on the far sanctuary room for a particular two days of the year. Somehow, they nailed this astronomical challenge after four years and then built the temple on this basis. Inside, you can see graffiti from Napoleon Bonaparte and his crew from when they came charging through the place as a tourist in 1836. It is funny how humans have always felt that urge to leave their mark on everything. The walls are decorated with depictions of Ramses killing, Ramses riding, Ramses offering to the Gods. The Egyptians don’t leave a single surface bare and the same patterns are sometimes repeated without a single alteration – and somehow I don’t think they had stamps three thousand years ago. These guys would definitely get an A in Art.
Next door to Abu Simbel is a temple built for a queen – the only one in al of Egypt. Nefertiri was a beautiful wife to a pharaoh and her temple is nothing like the magnitude of Ramses nirvana but holy crap it’s a temple built for a mortal woman 3000 years ago! I think we went downhill from there in the women’s rights category. After coming down from our high from witnessing these super structures, we began to feel the heat. My face was on fire and my scalp was a fountain, the devil was latched to my back and emblazoning my skin with his scolding claws. We slogged back to the bus and once a bottle of water was attached to my mouth, a hop skip and a jump and I was back in the shisha smoke filled coffee shops an raging pollution that is Cairo.
10 Aug 12 – Cairo
The familiar Giorgio Armani sunnies strolled through the door and Hassan welcomed me back to the big city. I say big city because he told me later that he hadn’t seen his family for a while because they are staying in Cairo at his mothers house for Ramadan. I asked how far away they were and he said 2 hours drive, they live in the north of Cairo and Hassan is in the East.
So we headed off to the impressive temple built by Mohammed Ali back in the 19th century , a high tower with minrets, winding staircases, finely painted roves and eery dim lit rooms. From there you get a birds eye view of the chaotic streets and sea of housing across the city. I had to wear a long white robe with gold trimmings and a head veil for odesty and felt very Nefertiti roaming around the old mosque.
After this came the much anticipated museum of Ancient Antiquities, where I ran around like a kid in a candy store. Unfortunately I couldn’t take pictures, but hint hint, to the criminals out there, if you want to get rich quick, this is the bees knees of overflowing gold stores. I pushed my sweaty nose and grimy fingers up against the glass of Tutankhamen’s possession, his chariots, bows and arrows, jewelery, beds, chairs, food, his sarcophagus and mask. There was so damn much stuffed into this young kings burial chamber, and I just can’t begin to fathom what Ramses II tomb must have contained. Seeing all of this makes them feel so real. Love letters, earrings, underwear and house servants, finely carved statues, tweezers, eyeliner, toys and cartoon books, religion, stories, manicures and wigs. The museum is overflowing with items found from the ancient world, and it shows it was a comfortable, civilized and passionate one. The most surreal thing was the mummies. They mummify everyone and everything; commoners, cats, monkeys, goats, crocodiles and baboons. This 80 day process of mummification still cannot be replicated to this day. I went into the famous mummy room and came face to face with Hatshepsut (who was actually obese!), Thut II, Ramses II, Amenhotep II and a number of other spectacularly preserved kings. Their hard black skin and unnaturally twisted wrists across their chest rest eternally with tufts of hair and eyelashes, white teeth and earring holes still intact. It’s sort of freaky but absolutely intriguing.
You could come to Egypt, visit this museum and be satisfied with the ancient world. I didn’t realize they had found So Much Stuff!
After lunch on the Nile (I ate while Hassan watched, salivating over the top of his newspaper) we made our way to a marketplace and I was given free reign. My green eyes and white skin are a walking advertisement for foreigner and I was so jealous of the locals who just stroll through un-harassed while I am clawed and groped like in a zombie scene from Dawn of the Dead. Everyone wants me to look in their little shop (of course I need a sheisha pipe and an Egyptain rug) and I found little solace in sunglasses ad ipod. The narrow lanes provide protection from the suns heat and instead, they buzz with human body heat. You can buy anything from dates to diamond rings. It’s a completely different atmosphere to any country I have traveled and I love it, including the harassment (it’s not often that 30 boys want your undivided attention simultaneously!).
I fell onto my bed at the Amarante and caught Terminator Salvation before heading to the Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids. It began at 8:30 pm and I sat in the front row being entertained by lasers and coloured lights and a voiceover giving life to the sphinx and the famous wonder of the world, the pyramids at Giza. It was a nice way to end my ancient Egypt adventure, and the small audience laughed their heads off when car headlights emerged on the desolate road between the two larger pyramids and destroyed the ancient (supposedly car-free) atmosphere.
The streets come alive at night when the temperature drops to warm bath setting and the Muslims have permission to get some energy from food. I should have learnt to sleep all day and walk about at night like the rest of the country.
12 Aug 12
I’m lying on a husky smelling bed on the eighth floor somewhere in the city. It’s 3:45 pm and I am waiting for the weather to cool to go into the city and poke my head around town. Today I miss home. I went on facebook this morning and chatted to Mum. She is feeling rather unsettled after Pa left us and it makes me upset that she is sad. Normally, I don’t know what’s going on at home and what you don’t know can’t hurt you. It’s worse that I am killing time until tomorrow night before I catch a flight to Madrid. It’s about time to leave behind the unreliable transport, stomach questioning food, bottled water and topsy turvy culture of the third world and head toward a promise of change in Europe. My stereotypical thoughts are tappas and sangria, smiling faces, hunky males, idyllic countryside and laid back cities drenched in history and culture. I cannot wait to see what’s in store.
I went out last night after my depressing little morning and had an absolute blast. First I roamed the streets with my ipod on full ball, ignoring the hisses and whistles of every male under 102. The streets are packed with clothes hangers, leaving only a slither of space for cars to get through. Pedestrians walk as vehicles and I slowly gathered the confidence to do as the locals do and walk across the road, eyes blind and with your fate in the hands of the oncoming driver. I am still dubious, but when everyone around you is committing the suicide act and walking head on into approaching traffic, I get the idea this is a no-fail.
I found myself walking down produce filled alleyways, and gleefully snapped away at weird and wonderful desserts and sampled a one pound (20 cents) falafel and a spotty pear like fruit that is supposedly the best for clenching thirst.
I saw the same man over and over and it dawned that I had a stalker situation on my hands. I hid behind some clothes racks and was well secluded amongst the hoards of people and traffic and stalls set up on the street. As suspected, the man came back once he realized he’d lost my track and it unnerved me a bit, and then some teenage boys grabbed my bum, so I instinctively turned around and slapped him. In hindsight, I wish it was a punch. They continued laughing and jeering me on in Arabic, so I told them in no uncertain terms to leave me alone. This attracted the attention of some older citizens who scolded them, and I feel like everyone has got your back. We are, of course, walking dollars. I wouldn’t walk down a lonely street in a hurry. I scurried over to a store and bought a shapeless floor length dress to cover my hippie pants and shirt to deter further attention. I met a man who really held my interest for the right reasons. Omar is a 31 year old ex-sergeant for the Egyptian army. We sat down over tea and he explained that he was involuntarily discharged when he refused to follow orders during the Revolution last year. He refused to shoot protesters. Omar is now teaching English at the university and enjoys his freedom, but now wants to go back (especially now the revolution is over) as the wage is better in defence. He is also interesting because he abandoned his Muslim religion for Ganesh, the white elephant god of India. This really goes against the grain in Egypt, where if you’re not Muslim, you are Christian. We had a great chat and it only got weird when he told me that he would meet a girl that was very similar to him. Okay, Omar. And then he went on to say that we had met in a previous life, where I was Egyptian. He bought me some polenta type dessert and wanted to go for a beer, but I felt I was overstepping the mark with dream man so I came back to my hostel. Up here, I had another freaking fantastic chat with Ali, a 24 year old who explained so much I would never have guessed. He’s onto his second degree, and I thought he must be a great academic, but the truth is far from that. He cheats, he doesn’t attend class, he just passes. Ali despises the army like so many poele in this country, and the only way he can escape conscription is through studying. He is eligible for conscription until age 30, so he will continue to study in order to avoid the wrath of the institution. Apparntly in basic training you don’t even learn to use a weapon and it’s just 40 days of physical and mental punishment. Beating, kicking, spitting – Kapooka sounds like hearts and roses in comparison to what he describes.
The owner sat sleepily in the corner smoking a bubbling sheisha pipe and Ali and I drank sweet black tea on fat pillows in a psychedelic bright room and talked until 1am.
14 Aug 12 – Last Day
Yesterday was my final day in Egypt. I went online and discovered a post from Uncle ivor saying Australian Post have lost my diary and 8 gb of photos that I sent back to Australia with Amanda to post to Mum and Dad. Foam starting filling my eyes until I saw red and had an internal hissy fit that has certainly left damage to brain cells. Tears streamed down my face and I haven’t felt more helpless and far away. If I was in Australia, at least I could strangle someone from Australia post! Apparently the package turned up in Moruya via registered post but the package was empty.
Today I am better, clinging to the hope that I will a least get the photos back somehow. (I am still clinging to this hope sitting in Scotland a month and a half later.) Ahmed Hassan added to these delirious hopes, telling me that they will come back to me in two and a half weeks. Guaranteed, with a two year warranty. Ahmed told me a lot actually. He lives in Switzerland with his wife but is Egyptian and back in the middle east for Ramadan. Earlier on in his life, he had a crisis and thought it wasn’t worth living. An old Bedouin lady offered him to come and live in the desert with her for three years. He did and has learnt to read the world a lot more clearly; especially people. Ahmed began with small stuff, describing my personality to a tee while smoking a sheisha pipe in that eighth floor hostel in crazy Cairo. I re-energise from other people, I live too fast for others to keep up, I achieved when I was younger and don’t accept a job unless it’s done properly. I get tired and bored if I stay in one place too long and my father has had a profound effect on my life. Feeling often drives me. At first I thought he was just doing a typical star sign thing, but he really got everything right. It brought a new high of thoughts and I walked into the streets and a group of men kindly ushered me to have dinner with them on an outdoor table in a busy laneway. I beamed while a robed, obese man generously scooped more tomato stew into my bowl and used hand gestures to tell me it was great with the flat bread and shiny, stuffed, black eggplants. They wouldn’t take a single cent for the food. The concept of hospitality and empathy oozes from this culture of peoples, and I couldn’t have left on a better note.
I am sitting in the smack bang centre of Madrid, Spain. I just downed the thickest, richest, brownest hot chocolate of all tie and I’m just at a crappy corner café. I am people watching every passer by. I am not one for generalisations, but the Spaniards are all beautiful and they all smoke! The men are groomed, and the beggars dress like the average Aussie man. Clothing is short and floaty with strappy leather sandals and wedges are everywhere. I suppose the architecture is just another world city, but in the smaller streets, the older buildings have been transformed into apartments and offices. I am so keen to begin the Camino De Santiago, but I know I can’t walk 800 km in two weeks, so I just bought a bus ticket to Logrono, 600kms from Santiago. Doable? I thought I was going to get rid of my big pack here in Madrid, but I can’t find anywhere to leave it, so it looks like I’ll be a walking house for the next two weeks. Come and get me, durite sculpted thighs!