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Neatly down the Nile


It was early dawn and the lights of Cairo were visible from the plane as the Hungarian Airlines flight from Budapest made a touchdown. I was ecstatic. A dream was coming true. My friend Surabhi and I had planned this trip for ages. Traveling to Egypt would not be the most obvious indulgence for two Indian women, but Surabhi and I have the travel itch. Our companionship having been strengthened by earlier trips within Europe we had decided to take on Egypt this time. We took the Hungarian Airlines flight from Budapest where we had flown in a few hours before, she from Helsinki and I from Berlin. And so here we are in early April at Cairo’s international airport.

We join a long line of passengers at the Customs. Since I am carrying a video camera and other photo equipment it seems that this piece of information needs to be entered into my passport. An uniformed customs officer takes me to another room where a woman employee acutely scrutinizes each piece and then proceeds to scribble her comments in Arabic. The results of her endeavor occupy more than half a page on my passport.

While we are at this, another uniformed officer approaches us asking if we would need some transportation to our hotel. We wonder aloud if it might not be unwise to move out of the airport before daybreak while he continuously assures us that it is quite safe. These are the tourism department taxis he tells us. Stepping out of the airport, it doesn’t take long to realize that there are no such things as tourism department cabs. Taxicab operators are in cahoots with airport officials and give them a cut for every passenger they get. After haggling and shopping for the right cab we finally settle for a big van with only one driver. (That way we outnumber him two to one-our thumb rule for safety is satisfied!!!) As the cab moves out of the airport area we stare into the sleeping city. From a giant billboard a huge President Hosni Mubarak smiles a welcoming smile.

Our hotel is a relatively inexpensive place called Venus located in downtown Cairo next to the Ramses train station. After the gunning down of European tourists in 1997, Egypt’s tourism had suffered greatly.

As a result hotels and tour operators were cutting costs and outbidding each other which has brought down prices further. Our hotel the desk clerk who also happens to be the manager and owner (he might have been the cook too but we didn’t get a chance to find that out!!!) agrees to offer a discounted rate too for bookings of more than four days. We haggle a bit more and our tariff comes down to 25 Egyptian Pounds (1US$= 4E£). Our room is small and spartan but clean and comes with an attached bath. The windows overlook a mosque (this is the Al-fath mosque we are told later) and as we look out it is almost morning and a small queue can be seen gathering at the steps.

The breakfast is a so-called western one, comprising bread, jam and super sweet hot tea served on low tables. Throughout our trip across numerous hotels this is what invariably passed off as a western morning fare with greasy omelettes thrown in now and then. We didn’t mind as it was served early before other eateries opened. For other meals we generally ventured for the local fare. Now as we eat squatting on cushions on the floor our friend the manager arrives. The chap is friendly. He informs us that we need a student card which would give us half price at Egypt’s monuments, museums and trains. If we don’t have one, he will help us procure it. But we have a problem. We are not students. No problem, (this is the most commonly heard English phrase in Egypt), he says. He will get us a teacher card for 15 E£ a piece. Surabhi does a quick mental calculation and reaches for her purse. In half an hour we are off in a hired car arranged by our friend to a identity card center. Our man the driver knows the place and people. A woman photographs us and in minutes we have our new teacher IDs. Eventually the teacher card is of good use as it gives us half price into Egypt’s sites and rail tickets. It is now 11 A.M. and our next stop is Giza.

Cabs or hired cars are a good way to get around in Cairo or in Egypt. Noisy and belching smoke, with no seat belts or fare meters, one has to fix the price before the trip. For a small amount of waiting charge a cab can be hired for the day. That way you can stop wherever you wish without worrying about whether or not you could get return transportation from there. Another advantage is that most of the drivers get gregarious (even with two women passengers!) after a few hours though they speak little English but between that and gestures one can manage a conversation.

As the car runs along we get our first glimpse of the Nile. Giza is a small town adjacent to Cairo however the city’s increasing limits have made it almost a suburb of Cairo. As the cab nears I get a strange feeling. It is the same old thrill and excitement that I feel with every new trip. I glance at my friend and she squeezes my arm. We are almost there she whispers.

Growing up in India I had traveled throughout that country with my parents. This love of travel had grown over the years and taken me to many parts of the world. But the pyramids of Egypt were the one place I had always wanted to come to. And through all my travels I never lost sight of this. A few months before the trip I had read up all that I could lay my hands on. The pharaohs and their dynasties. The gods and the temples. Thutmosis, Hatshepshut, Amenophis, Ramses, Nefertari, Nefertiti, Tye , Amun-Ra, Ptah. And through this trip they all seemed so real to me.

The three graceful structures rise above us as if out of a book. I am a bit disappointed with the surrounding area though. The growing population has all but engulfed these structures and modern buildings and construction around the place stick like a sore thumb. Diagonally across this imposing grand structure of the long past is a symbol of the very recent, a Pizza hut and a Mc Donald’s.

As we walk towards the pyramid, a man on camelback emerges out of nowhere. He is offering cheap camel rides. In a few minutes we are enjoying the landscape on camel back. Of the three pyramids, Cheops (khufu), Chepren (Khafra) and Mycerinus (Menokaure) only Mycerinus was open to visitors at that time. A clerk sits by a makeshift office on the side selling ticket. “No camera in”, he remarks seeing my paraphernalia. “No photo”, I promise. I say the same at the trapdoor entrance to the pyramid while the gatekeeper removes the battery of my video camera. A 10 pound note shoved into his palm helps me retrieve it in a trice. We enter through a narrow trapdoor downwards. Huddled and hunched we make our way, a single file of about 10-15 tourists. I can barely see let alone photograph. The stairs lead to a passage which is as claustrophobic and then across to the burial chamber which contains the sarcophagus or coffin cask of Menokaure.

As we stand before the Cheops, the huge structure has a mesmerizing effect. For the local populace though it seems to be some sort of a outing or picnic spot. People are relaxing, eating, playing music and cards. We also observed a couple ensconced in one of the small hollows on the surface of Cheops. The pyramids were originally covered by polished limestone which has been stripped over the last few centuries, to build medieval Cairo, exposing the inner core stones and giving a general eroded effect to the surface. The sphinx with its damaged nose and cheeks bears signs of extensive vandalism. It is now well known that the Ottoman Turks as well as Napoleon’s soldiers used its nose for target practice. Around the pyramids are tombs in several rows, many of which are remarkably well preserved. This web of tombs called mastabas is considered by historians to be of that of the pyramid builders. We loitered around these for a while and I photographed some well preserved frescoes on some of the walls.

Sunset at the pyramids with the sphinx in the foreground was a beautiful sight. Late in the evening we return to Cairo and take a ride on a felucca along the Nile river. Cairo lies on the Nile and the lights of the city, the Arabian music, the dark waters of the Nile all make for a feeling of enchantment. The whole of the next day is spent at the Egyptian museum. This is in downtown Cairo and quite close to our hotel. We could either walk or take the metro. We opt for the metro and board the compartment reserved for women. Most women in Egypt observe the hijab, the practice of covering their hair with a scarf. Although Cairo and Alexandria were relatively liberal with women wearing western clothes too, we dressed conservatively in long sleeved loose clothes. In fact we kept our hair covered with scarves while traveling from one city to another by bus or train.

Our evenings would be spent along the Tahrir Square also referred to as Midan Tahrir. This is a short walk from the Egyptian museum. Midan Tahrir is the center of Cairo. Downtown cairo is north-east of Tahrir. Tahrir Square is noisy and full of irregulated traffic. One afternoon lazing around Tahrir we entered a modest shop serving tea/coffee. We had earlier noticed no women at these shops but we went in anyway. Surabhi and I sat sipping our coffee though we were aware of all the people gazing at us. Most men were playing chess and the whole place seemed to have had a relaxed atmosphere until we entered. Hardly had we been served that a young man approached us and tried to start some kind of conversation. We pretended not to speak any Englishnot that it made any difference. In Egypt you don’t need to make any effort to mix with the locals. They seek you out and make conversation which after a point might become uncomfortable. Men and young boys are not used to women traveling alone and though they might make some concessions for white women, two conservatively dressed asian women could raise some eyebrows. After a few minutes into the conversation he proposes-now to which of us we couldn’t say-as he has the habit of looking from one to another. Perhaps we wants us as co-wives. Menage-a-trois says Surabhi and we burst out laughing. With everybody staring at us it’s time to make a quick exit. We walk out briskly but it takes a few minutes to get rid of our lothario.

Later that evening, we walk along the Tahrir bridge over the Nile to the Saad Zaghloul Square. On the right of the bridge is the beautiful Andalusian garden. Hawkers are pedaling a lot of stuff on both sides of the street-mini pyramids, sphinxes and king tuts abound.

On another evening we decide to take a bus to Giza. Several buses go to Giza from Ramses station. One of these is No 101, a bus station employee tells us. I have in the meantime brushed up my knowledge of Arabic numerals so as to read numbers. But we want to double check this piece of information. The best bet is to ask the lady travelers around us. They don’t seem to speak any English but we don’t give up easily. I try the woman standing next to me. What we can’t convey in gestures, is drawn on paper. It works but we have also managed to draw a small crowd.

There is a light and sound show at the pyramids late in the evening. As the whole place lights and sound fills up the atmosphere it is like a bygone era. Centuries ago Caesar came to see the magnificence of the pyramids. What he came to see then I have come to see now. It is a strange feeling.

Luxor was to be our next stop. As is the norm in Egypt we went to purchase tickets for Luxor from Cairo a few days before the trip. A few touts latch onto us at the ticket counter of Ramses station in an attempt to sell us some tickets. It was hard to get rid of them but eventually when they saw that we were determined to buy it from the counter they fled. We got a better deal too with a half price discount thanks to our teacher IDs. Besides the tickets from Cairo to Luxor we also bought tickets for our other journeys within Egypt.

The trip on the night train to Luxor was uneventful except that an unidentified piece of luggage had been detected in our compartment and security personnel accompanied by a large sniffer dog came in and there was lots of noise and commotion.

Early next morning we get our first glimpse of the countryside. There is lots of greenery and colorful mud houses dot the landscape. The Nile is the lifeline of Egypt and nowhere is this more evident as when you travel by train or bus across the country. All through our journey from Cairo to Abu Simbel we could see the greenery running parallel to the Nile. Where we moved away from the river was the dry countryside. Around 9 AM our train chugs into Luxor. Hardly had we stepped onto the platform that we were mobbed by hotel owners and their touts. With their small taxis outside the station they come to entice travelers with their low rate packages. We strike a deal too. Our man promises a A/C room with attached bath (saves the hassle of leaving your room at night) and television, garden, a pool room and a lobby with English speaking staff. Okay we settle for a rate of 40 EP whereupon he gesticulates wildlyto his sidekick and soon enough we find ourselves in an old ramshackle cab going to the hotel. In a few minutes the bubble bursts the hotel is old ill-kept building. I am disgusted with the whole place- what a cheat I remark when Surabhi, my friend points out that the man hasn’t broken his promise. We do have a noisy A/C with an attached mini-bath, a worn out pool table and well a garden too if a few pots of dried plants can be called that. I am furious. Not that I am looking for luxury on this trip but the fact that the chap cheated us is hard to stomach. I cool a little as the fellow has in the meantime arranged two seats for us in a tourist bus leaving for the Valley of Kings and Queens in a few minutes; besides he also manages to hold the bus while we freshen and grab something to eat. And eventually he did reduce the price.

Our guide to the Valley of Queens and Kings is a learned man who taught Eygptology at Cairo and regales us with interesting anecdotes throughout the journey. Tombs of Egypt’s Pharaohs and their queens dot this valley. Our first stop is the mammoth Colossi of Memnon. These twin statues of the enthroned Pharaoh Amenophis III are faceless; the result of centuries of erosion caused by Nile flooding. Amenophis III was known to be an extravagant builder and his son Amenophis IV is famous for having abandoned the traditional gods of the Pharaohs and taken to a form of monotheistic religion.

The most famous tomb in the Valley of Kings is that of King Tut. The tomb’s possessions having been removed to the Egyptian museum at Cairo it is practically empty. An unimpressive flight of stairs goes to the burial chamber. Here lies the gilded wood sarcophagus that had once contained the mummy.

The showpiece at the Valley of the queens is Nefertari’s tomb. Nefertari the queen of Ramses II one of the greatest ruling Pharoahs and a great builder. The tomb with its walls decorated with beautiful scenes of royal life, coronation, death after life is a treat. Our guide points to the hieroglyps and explains some to us. Seeing the excitement of several people in the group he goes into greater detail trying to explain how some of these changed. He also shows us the cartouche of queen Nefertari as well as some other pharaohs. A cartouche is a oval outline which contains the Pharaoh or the queen’s name and was used as an emblem. In another tomb of a prince, a small mummified foetus was on display. This is the foetus that a queen lost while grieving for her other son.

The next stop is at Deir El bahri, the temple of Hatshepshut. This rock cut series of terraces jutting out of a mountain were built by Hatshepshut, the only woman pharaoh of Egypt. The reliefs and show her in a man’s dress with a beard! Ramps and steps from the main road lead to the temple’s terraces. Hatshepshut was the daughter of Tuthmosis I, wife of Tuthmosis II (her half brother) and step mother of Tuthmosis III. The last out of spite for his stepmother defaced and vandalised most reliefs. Over the ages he has been helped by successive dynasties and later Muslim and Christian conquerors, so that very few reliefs are well preserved. Our guide also points to an area on the main road where in 1997 a busload of tourists were gunned down by Egypt’s fundamentalist terrorists in a bid to destroy the country’s tourism industry. In this effort they had partially succeeded since tourism had abruptly declined since then causing a great loss to the locals heavily dependent on tourists for their livelihood. We heard this lamentation wherever we went. Early next day we are at the Amun temple at Karnak. The entrance is flanked by rows of ram headed sphinxes. The gigantic hall of pillars is a major tourist attraction here. This forest of papyrus shaped Pillars is so gigantic and enormous that it is impossible to get an overall impression of this place. At another place stands the highest obelisk in Egypt built by Hatshepshut in her father’s memory. The Luxor temple on the banks of the Nile is a much smaller temple built by Amenophis III. The path to the temple is a avenue of sphinxes. Ramses II added to this temple later as is evident by his seated statues flanking the entrance. At the entrance there is also an obelisk, one of a pair, the other having been uprooted and placed in Paris in the 19th century. The main courtyard has a row of elegantly placed to pillars. At night in Luxor we take a ride on the Nile and watch the beautiful sunset sky. We stop by the Luxor temple again on our way back to the hotel. The lit up temple looks like a beautifully crafted jewel. We spend another two days at Luxor going around the museums during the day and enjoying the Nile rides every evening.

One evening while roaming around the bazaar we notice a young boy of about ten following us. We ignore him completely as by now we have become accustomed to stares and interest of the locals. Exasperated that being unable to shake him off I turn around to speak to him. But his vocabulary is severely limited to a single word “madam”. However he seems such a simple nice kind that we try to make an effort to understand him. It finally emerges that his cousin had sent him after us to invite us to his store around the corner. No, not to buy anything but to write. The store is on the main road and doesn’t seem unsafe The beaming cousin welcomes us. After another round of gestures, mime and signs we realize that he wants us to write a letter for him in English. He had becomes friends with an English tourist who writes to him now and he would like me to word a reply. Where is the letter, I ask him? He brings out a sheath of letters and we read them and write a reply as well as we can. Funnily he is not much concerned about what I am writing. His chubby cousin has in the meantime appeared with tea and some sweet home baked stuff. The envelope addressed and sealed, we take his leave.

After Luxor its time for us to move to Aswan.

We decide to take a morning bus. The morning bus we are told leaves at 8:30 AM. Arriving at the bus station a few minutes before we are told by the counter clerk that it has left at 8:00 and we would have to wait for another three hours. The waiting area is full of mothers and small children on the move over the weekend. People are eating and talking and shouting. An old lady has been observing us for quite a while. Clad in the local clothes with our brown skins it would seem that we could pass off as your next door local woman; however our cameras and backpacks give us away. With this old lady we are once again back to our most primitive form of communication–gestures and sign language. She makes us feel very comfortable though. She is taking the same bus as us to visit her sister’s family. We have a long conversation with her. Which country are we from? Are we Muslims? Do we have husbands? Why are we traveling by ourselves? She wants to know everything including why are our backpacks are bulging!

The bus turns up in time and we manage seats near the window. Halfway through the journey, the driver having noticed that I clicking away with my camera, beckons to us and in his broken English asks if we would like to sit next to the driver’s seat to get a better view. We squeeze in next to him. Three hours later we are at Aswan. After checking into a hotel we hire a car to take us around the place. The cab driver Abdullah turns out to be friendly and gregarious, although communication is severely restricted to a few syllables. By now I am becoming quite adept at gesturing to make myself well understood. He drives us to some spots from where we great good views of the Aswan dam. We go from one breathtaking spot after another where the Nile flows from the dam. Near Aswan is also located the temple of Philae. This temple was moved from its original site when the waters of Aswan submerged it to its present site on the Agilika Island. Boats leave the banks of the Nile for this island. We make a dash for the last boat of the evening. It is a full moon night and as the boat moves towards the island one can see the outlines of the temple against the moonlit sky. It seems like a timeless, ageless moment. This splendid temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis. The Outer Court has colonnades running along both sides to the entrance of the temple. The central court has extensive reliefs of Isis. The lighting has a wonderous effect on the reliefs and walls. I am going around mesmerized when I hit one of the stairs and stumble hitting my big toe really hard. One of the guards with a flashlight is there in a second. I, of course am shrieking in pain. Some of the guards have gathered by now. Another tourist massages my toe while I dig into my bag for some medicated tape. The guards stand around probably thinking that they missed a bakshish. Surabhi appears from somewhere admonishing me. The rest of the evening is spent limping around the place.

Our next stop is to Abu Simbel. My toe is slightly better and I am downing pain relievers by the dozen. If it doesn’t look good by tomorrow we will see a doctor.

The three famous temples at Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo lying enroute between Aswan and Luxor had featured in our initial scheme of things. But my toe has slowed things by a day. Since we have a early afternoon flight to Abu we could squeeze in two of these temples if we start early. But Abdullah informs us that private cars are not allowed to ply between tourist spots without a police escort. And the police do not provide an escort before 10 A.M. It is his third day with us and Abdullah is now very expressive. No police, no tourist, he says. But of course he has a cousin in the local police station and what can a little bakshish not do. All is settled after a couple of phone calls.

Our first stop is Kom Ombo. This temple is perfectly symmetrical along the main axis. Huge twin arches are the entrances to this temple. In the inner sanctum are the most exquisite and intricate carvings I have ever seen on stone. These depict Horus, the falcon headed god, and the offerings made to him. In the outer and inner halls are relief decorations which our guide and guidebooks tell us are Graeco-Roman. Though most of these reliefs and carvings on the walls and pillars are discolored I noticed that those that were under the arches were somewhat unaffected.

After a short stop at Edfu we barely make it in time for our flight to Abu Simbel. Abu Simbel is often referred to as the “forgotten wonder”. Now although Abu is accessible by road from Aswan, foreign tourists are not allowed to travel by road. We did try talking to some local drivers but the ban being very strict on this matter they fear that should this be detected the police would cancel their licences.

The plane takes passengers early in the afternoon from Aswan and flies them back the same evening. So we have about 3 hours at Abu. Out of the airport into a busload of tourists to the gate of the monument. Walking upwards from the entrance we are required to take a turn.

All the pictures of Abu could not have prepared us for this. Ahead of us rises the huge mountain with the colossal sitting Ramses. It seems as though we are in a pharonic age and time. The pillared hall inside is full of intricate frescoes depicting Ramses in various battles. Our guide is well informed and explains the battle scenes and the details of how the temple was dismantled and relocated to its present site when the waters of the Aswan flooding its earlier site. Next to this is the temple of Nefertari, the wife and queen of Ramses.

Back in Aswan we now board a night train to Cairo and from there another train to Alexandria (Sidi Gaber station). Abu is on the extreme south of Egypt bordering on Sudan while Alexandria is the extreme north tip of Egypt and lies on the Mediterranean. So the whole journey is a long one indeed.

By now my toe has recovered but I have a sore throat caused with the fluctuations of temperature and drinking iced water. We reach Alexandria late in the afternoon and hail a cab to the tourist office located near the tram terminus. Armed with a list of low budget hotels facing the waterfront, called Corniche, we start our search. At the first place the owner after examining our passports says he will offer the place for free if we could buy some liquor for him. It seems that in Egypt, locals need a licence to purchase alcohol; foreigners however are allowed four bottles at a time. Since we are unaware of all this it takes awhile to understand his offer in the right context. And he gives a look of disgust at having to deal with two morons!

We move to the next hotel on our list. At the New Hotel we get a huge double room overlooking the harbor with cool breeze blowing in, though God knows I could do with a bit of warmth. We spend the next two days in Alexandria. This place has a kind of relaxing and holiday atmosphere to it. On both the evenings we would take a horse carriage and ride all along the waterfront and enjoy the lights of the city late into the night from our hotel window. Alexandria has many remains of its Graeco-Roman past such as an amphitheatre, and ruins dating to the time of Pompeii. We spent a whole day at the Graco-Roman museum, which houses beautiful sculptures of Roman emperors, Greek nobles and also coins dating to the time of Alexander the Great.

Back in Cairo our hotel owner is glad to see us. Before our flight back we are anxious to visit Memphis, Saqqara and Cairo’s famous bazaar, the Khan-i-Khalili. This 14th century market with its narrow lanes and bylanes and shops with wares spilling out into the lanes. Almost every commodity is available here. Rows after rows of shops selling incense bottles and sticks, perfumes, papyrus, alabaster pyramids and sphinx, rugs, carpets and so much more. Silver and gold jewelery stores sell cartouche shaped pendants of the famous pharaohs. They also make on demand with the name of the customer engraved on them in hieroglyphs. At one of the jewelers the man takes me to his garment store. One look at the exquisitely embroidered jalabiya (loose garment) and I can’t resist. The price is 400 E£. I quote 50. The man in the meantime has started addressing me as “sister”. As an Indian I know that this form of address is to make the woman feel comfortable in her dealings with the man. At my offer he pretends to faint and asks me to have pity on my brother. This continues for awhile and we are thoroughly enjoying his histrionics. Finally I part with 75 E£ and this beautiful piece comes into my possession.

Our last evening in Cairo is spent boating on the Nile. The loud music, the lights of Cairo and the parting of the Nile’s dark waters as the boat plows though will remain etched in my memory forever. As will the majestic pyramids, the lights of the Philae temple and the gigantic Ramses towering over us from the mountains. On our way back to the airport to fly out of Egypt we are both silent. The past few days have been like a dream. As the engines of the plane begin revving up on the runway I turn to my friend. “I must come again” she says. She couldn’t have echoed my thoughts better.

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