Wednesday, October 21, 2009
What better way to complete a solo vacation than to be able to dedicate specific moments to specific people? Thanks to Nancy's friends, you find yourself doing a Breast Cancer Awareness walk at the Pyramids, a far cry from Central Park. There are groups of people from all over the world, of every age, and everyone has a friend or relative to whom they are dedicating this hot, dusty, dry day. You think of someone back in the USA and imagine her walking with you, head held high, one deliberate step after another, admiring the Pyramids and casting aside her sickness to be a strength to you and everyone around her.
Sameer, of earlier posts, takes you on a drive through Cairo in his trusty, beat-up car -- the Batmobile, he calls it with his ineffable grin. You leave the traffic for the quiet of a mountain where the Zabbaleen live -- the Coptic Christian community of Egypt who collect the city's trash, and there is a lot in this crowded metropolis. You drive slowly through the hill, stopping to let people pass, they are hauling large bags into small godowns. The trash used to be fed to the pigs who crawled the hills, but the Swine Flu induced a nervous Muslim (and, so, anti-pig) government to kill most of them off. At the top is a beautiful church carved out of the mountain rock, and you have a quick cup of tea before going inside for respite from the dust and dirt further down the mountain. You leave the dark streets and the soot-covered men sucking slowly on hookahs for the Christianity that glows at this higher, more pristine altitude. The church is empty but peace echoes through the cave. In an adjacent outdoor auditorium, some sort of class is being conducted for young children who listen avidly to their teacher speaking about Jesus Christ. You think of someone back in the USA and imagine him walking with you, keenly and quietly observing each carving and painting, drawing strength from it as you draw strength from him.
It is your last night and the Nile laps at you, asking you to stay a little longer -- or so you hope she is saying, anyway. Men still stare and call out to you, one walks directly in front of you, cutting you off, making you stumble. You laugh it off -- you've made it this far, seen shooting stars in a desert, lunched in a local's home, drank the freshest mint tea, slept sitting up in a train, hitch hiked with a complete stranger, lost and found your way back to Cairo, been scammed by taxi drivers and used your 10 words of Arabic to get around. This moment is dedicated to your father who was bitten by the travel bug long before you showed up, and successfully infected you and your siblings to continue wandering, discovering, reveling.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
You’re on another early bus ride, this one headed not to the desert, but to the sea. It’s an hour blur and you are asleep for a lot of it, drugged, almost, and the boy sitting in front of you has to shake you awake each time someone comes by to check a ticket or passport. You respond to all questions with ‘Basata’ and a display of your ticket. But one policeman wants to know everyone’s nationalities – whether the bus is sufficiently foreign and if there are any Israelis on board. “Israeli?” it sounds like he’s barking, and your ticket doesn’t answer his question. Quickly flourishing your American passport, you soften his gaze, he approves with a “mesh” and moves on to the next passenger.
The British-Egyptian girl you noticed at the bus station in Cairo strikes up a conversation. She came to Cairo for a graphic design job but quit when she was told she had to forge signatures. Unemployed and broke, she’s figuring out what to do next. Turns out she’s a wild London girl with a penchant for punching people who irritate her. Her track record includes kicking an unrelenting drunk at her local pub in Londong – “I told him not to touch me, innit?!”– and smashing a beer glass in his face. “I just switch, you know, I can’t control myself!” she explains with an ease and confidence you envy. It’s clear she hangs tough.
The incessant wail of prayers over the bus speakers filters in and out of your dreams. Eventually the prolonged drone – you once considered it musical and relaxing, but now it’s become a nuisance – is replaced by a deafening television. You are treated to an Egyptian movie but its slapstick comedy, dangerously similar to that of an Indian movie, doesn’t captivate you like the scenery outside your window: jagged mountains and glimpses of the Red Sea are far more enticing.
You arrive at and continue from Taba , with signs for Nuweiba indicating you’re not far from your destination. Several campsites invite you to their bit of beach, from Diana Beach to Read Sea Star. Signs greet you , “Wel Come” and are painted on colorful boards and on mountain sides.
The bus stops at the ‘Basata’ sign and it takes you 5 minutes to walk from the main road to the center of this eco lodge. You are upgraded in the lodges’ books from ‘Mrs. Bus’ to ‘Aditi’ since the Bedouin who answered your call the night before speaks no English, German or Arabic, booked you as such.
Your hut is beautiful and 20 paces from the Red Sea. As the sun sets behind the mountains on the other side of the main road the sea gets ready for cocktail hour. Her tide becomes noisier and she puts on a new outfit showcasing the many blues in her Red. Couples, families with young children and older solo travelers – almost all German – relax along the beach and on the couches near the kitchen.
With the perfect timing one lucks upon with spontaneity and an empathetic Mother Nature, you set off for a walk along the beach as far as the red rocks scattered further north in time for a display of color and breeze. You know this is north because the sun has dipped below the mountains on the other side of the main road, streaking the sky orange, then pink. You spot crabs vanishing into frantically built holes – each one amidst impressive piles of hastily kicked up sand, although that could be the norm for 8-legged creatures – while the Basata cats peer intently into them. Hide-and-seek turned lethal.
You end your walk in Basata’s library and settle down with September’s New Yorker. Some pages have been curiously cut up – a school project, a cryptic ransom note? – but the Fiction piece is intact, which is all you really care about. You read under light bulbs that rest in twine baskets.
Dinner at last. You are seated 12 to a table: little Yusuf, his baby brother and his Moroccan and Kuwaiti parents; Swiss Leila who is doing a year of social work in Basata; her Egyptian colleague; the beautiful and soft-spoken Lebanese couple; a quiet German man; a German teacher on sabbatical and you. Quite the UN gathering. Food is copious and flavorful, fresh, hot and healthy. You wish you had a larger stomach to do it more justice. Rice, eggplant, zucchini, potato salad, a cole-slaw-like concoction, mozzarella sticks and fresh vegetables. You eat and learn about your table’s travel plans and backgrounds. For a while you forget you are traveling alone.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Saturday, October 17, 2009
You're meeting your friend's friend at a metro station from where you're taking a taxi to get to the pyramids. You've rushed through a brief shower—not only did your train from Luxor arrive in Cairo late that morning, but the water in Nancy’s apartment was turned off temporarily—and jumped on a train and now you’re at the station, on time, breathless. Waiting for Samir. He’s big, you were told. Glasses. Wide smile. He’ll be there.
35 minutes later, Samir arrives, his smile widening as you tap your watch impatiently. He placates you with lunch—you are also starving, you realize—and then you’re both in a taxi and on your way to see the pyramids. Yes, the PYRAMIDS! You and Samir are exchanging chatterboxy introductions, when suddenly, driving on an overpass, you think you see vague triangles in the distance. You’re holding your breath, and you release it with a whoosh. You want to ask Samir if those are what you think they are, but you point dumbly instead.
Your reverie is interrupted by a young boy who is now running alongside your taxi, now hopping into the front seat—all while the taxi is moving, of course. He starts reciting deals and bargains for you and Samir to take horse and camel rides to the various pyramids, all of which Samir wisely declines. You buy your tickets and walk through the gates and the first thing you see is the Sphinx and you fall silent a second time.
It is beautiful; never mind that the Arabic name for the Sphinx translates to “father of fear.” It is all contours and curves and eroded elegance, almost delicate. With poise and stony serenity, the Sphinx sits guard to the three tombs behind it, a preface to three triangular chapters of history, the Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure.
The pyramids are endless, each boulder marking an impossibility of time, strength, labor and grandeur that converged to create these structures. The scale is deafening—how did people manually drag such large stones so high up? Egyptian police loiter and assist tourists with signature tourist pictures: look look, you are taller than a pyramid!
You run back to the entrance to buy a ticket to go inside the Pyramid of Khufu. Inside it is dark, cool, almost cosy, and you snake your way down the narrow, steep sloping corridor towards the room at the center of the pyramid containing the tomb. It’s empty—robbed centuries ago, of course—which is a marvel in itself, and you have to silence your laughter when a panting tourist erupts, “that’s it?!” Yes, this labyrinth of tunnels and chambers inside this manmade Wonder of the World is it, sir. Sorry to disappoint.
You erupt from this stone volcano triumphant, elated. The pyramids! You walk the grounds a little longer with Samir, trying to get used to these steps of history slanting away from you, saluting the sun, everywhere you look. Eventually it is evening and the sun kisses them goodnight on its way down as you and Samir digest the visit over tiny cups of tea at his favorite tea shop. You’re smiling widely, too.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The sandy silence at each site fills the spaces between the stones with stories. Tour guides hum them out in multi-lingual harmony. Painted walls glow with pride--their color has persisted for centuries! Shadows lean over curiously, following you and your camera lenses. Temples and temple cities are structured such that the inner most sanctum, a chastely dark, windowless room, is preceded by numerous sun-drenched courtyards and passageways that get progressively more demure to the sun's rays, veiled by arghways, roofs, walls. By the time the High Priest has entered the sanctum to pray, his eyes have naturally adjusted to the darkness. By the time you have walked the entire temple grounds, you are too overwhelmed and thirsty to think of much else!
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
“No change, no money” is the attitude of every street vendor, taxi driver and corner shop, and you’ve accumulated a bevy of coins clinking in your pockets to communicate more easily with Cairo’s hordes. One pound notes dominate the streets, worn thin by thick, hairy fingers exchanging them for metro cards, coffee, tea and sheesha.
You are almost relieved when a travel agent asks for your credit card to pay for a two-day, one-night cruise along the Nile, covering Southern Egypt’s historic tombs and temples. Your overnight train from Cairo to Aswan forces you to sit upright the 12-turned-15 hour ride on unyielding chairs, and you dance in your seat, trying to find a comfortable pose in which to sleep. Your efforts are in vain, so you pass the time chatting with the engineer from Alexandria sitting next to you, reading, and absorbing the Arabic pop and religious chants blaring out of a radio (which, you learn in your time in Egypt, never sleeps).
Your naps are too crisply disjointed to collectively pass for sleep, and when the morning sun casts his net of rays over the sky, you are invariably caught and drawn nearer to his brightness. You rest your gaze on the window where trees, fields and train stations creep past. Palm trees, you notice, are curiously expressive trees. At first, their height seems to prohibit public scrutiny – what can a mere passerby see of their plumage! – but the train’s momentum, your morning coffee and the stained windows encourage further peeking, cheeky as it may be in a culture where half the population are hidden behind layers of clothes and veils. Some branches droop in defeat while others start to stretch out and mark their own shadow-based territory, giving up halfway along the branch and succumbing to gravity. It is the top most branches which actively reach out to the sun; the celebrity branches commanding the most attention. You wonder if the three tiers of branches symbolize three generations of women at varying levels of sprightliness. The youngest at the top jut out, happily on display; the women at the very bottom droop with worries of family and the household.
Patchwork fields of green and brown meet at squat tenements and give rise to half-hearted walls that have crumbled with time and neglect. Clotheslines, a mosaic of laundry tiled across building walls, and young children enliven the dust-and-sand-inspired landscape. Telephone lines rise and dip across the length of the train car and the dirt patches on the window form floating musical notes on them. A jumble of palm tree trunks breaks the music into sophisticated bars. You convince yourself that the train’s rumblings and rhythms swell and subside with the manuscript you read on your window.The train is moving so slowly, you start pacing how quickly you are reading your book, to make sure it does not end before your train ride. Finally, you are in the city of Aswan, with just enough time to hop into a taxi to your cruise boat, get changed, and catch the bus to one of the sites on your credit card-endorsed itinerary.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
You wake up to sunlight bursting through the tightly shuttered windows. Everything is closed but the light finds a way in, heating up the room and urging you to start your vacation. You’re in Egypt, wake up!
You’re staying with a friend, Nancy, whose apartment is furnished in typically Egyptian style: fanciful upholstery, thick rugs and wall hangings of strange-looking flowers. There are balconies everywhere and you can see your friend’s vegetable vendor, fruit vendor, university campus and more from the windows. After a strong cup of thick coffee with your host, you set out together to see the Nile. The Nile!
You learn that the ‘Corniche’ is the name given to the street on either side of the banks of the Nile. At first glance, fifteen minutes from Nancy’s apartment, you think it looks like any other river – mostly blue, mostly shimmering, with bridges forming railroad-track-like-stripes over it and boats bouncing at the edges.
But as you walk along the shaded street, ducking under palm tree leaves eager to bid you salaam and stepping over stray cats – so many of them pregnant! – you get a sense that there’s more to this river, although you’re not sure what. The tree-lined Corniche is inviting and shady, and you peer through the leaves to see an imposing skyline of minarets and buildings, getting distracted by the colorful Ramadan lamps swaying in the branches above you. Nancy returns home to study but you continue meandering, admiring the dilapidated European architecture looking onto the river.
You slept through the morning prayer call but it’s noon as you find your way to a nearby hotel to exchange money, and the rich voice of the muezzin, who performs the call to God five times a day from the mosque, penetrates the air. You expect a Cinderella effect – people turning into prostrating pumpkins or scurrying like mice into mosques, but no such metamorphosis occurs. You notice during your walk – and you are strikingly brisk because you come from New York and you want to explore! – that movement around you is constant but sluggish. Idleness hangs like a heavy curtain in the polluted air of Cairo that vehicles and people struggle through at every moment. Cars crawl because of the hordes of pedestrians threading carelessly through them, and the people themselves stop frequently to light a cigarette, stare a stranger up and down or catch up with friends. It’s not that people are loitering, they just don’t have anywhere to be. 10% of Cairo, like the rest of the country, is unemployed and 100% of Cairo appears to be in love. Couples snuggle in the shadows – the few patches of darkness they can escape to – and gangs of men exchange punctuated banter and create symphonies with their cell phones.
That evening you set out to visit Al-Azhar Mosque, your very first. You pad through the heavy gate, barefoot, and encounter utter peace. In spite of the bustle raging on the street just steps away, a gentle hush has settled over the huge courtyard – blowing away the heavy curtain from earlier – and you can’t help but whisper. Domes bulge, then taper into a perfect point, their curves both calming and alluring. You are struck by the detail everywhere – everywhere! Lattice work on the doors, patterns painted on the ceilings, calligraphy etched onto the walls, lights casting the enormous structure in a divine glow.
You sit on the soft carpet and your head naturally tilts back to gaze upon the towers sprouting from every corner. You're moved to pray, to ponder, to stop thinking and allow the mosque to work its magic. It does. You feel cleansed.
Back on the street you are struck by the majesty of each minaret, each wall, each door that you pass. Not only are they perfectly constructed and intact, but they grace the very streets where carts and trucks and market vendors graze with a nonchalance only a local can feel. You admire the juxtaposition of hand-to-mouth street vendors smoking sheesha next to architecture from millennia ago. The mosques are as tall as the alleys are narrow, their minarets as solitudinous as the streets are crowded. You are struck by the symbiosis between the city’s base and its lofted spirituality.
Time for another Egyptian tradition: coffee! You and Nancy walk like experts through clusters of tourists, curious locals and lackadaisical tourist police, from mosque to midan (square) and arrive at Fishawy’s, one of Cairo’s most popular ahwas (coffee shops), made famous by the globally renowned author Naguib Mahfouz. If he was as inspired by the color and coffee and cacophony as you are – your mind reeling a little after basking in the serenity of the mosques – it’s only natural that he wrote as effectively as he did. Perhaps a little of him will seep into you!
Energized, you press on, deeper into the city. The mosques and the markets continue to exist harmoniously. So much of what you have seen is strips of street buttressed by superbly high walls on either side, as if the streets are but lattice work on a topography made up entirely of mosques.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
The energy pulses from the crescent-shaped streetlamps and rustles in the palm trees. It slaps you in the face along with the heat, as you step off the plane and take in your first breaths of Egyptian air. A bus brings you to the terminal, overflowing with people, bags, plans, relief, excitement: energy. Inside the building, tourist groups cluster around men with signs and clipboards in language-barriered silence, while restless tour guides take over with a swagger you come to identify in every Egyptian man you interact with. They bark in Arabic to their colleagues and brandish pop-song-singing cell phones, one hand slapping the back of a friend while the other controls their cigarette. Conversation, commotion and smoke arc across the ceilings, buzzing indiscriminately in everybody’s ears. Shouting into their phones while signaling a puny boy for another cup of tea, they point solo travelers towards a counter to pick up visas before going through immigration.
Oh wait, that’s you.
You leave one line for another. Fifteen US dollars, cash, gets you a grunt and a stamp and you are back in the original line, politely telling others around you to do the same while the airport employees attend to urgent jokes and phone calls announced by a techno beat in their pockets. The high decibel Arabic rattles your ear drums while a rattled immigrations officer drums impatiently on his desk, getting louder when he wants the next person to step down.
Outside, the foreigners have been ushered onto brightly painted buses or zoomed away in large cars. Locals scramble into smaller vans, claiming their seats with the baggage they have already thrown in through the window. Those leftover are waiting for family members, stepping to the side to pray, or idling in the airconditioning and enjoying a cigarette. Fending off piercingly persistent taxi drivers while waiting for your friend – “no, thank you, no taxi, my friend is coming,” – you become keenly aware of men everywhere. Bushy eyebrows, abundant facial hair, tall figures, Cleopatran noses, handsome faces, wide grins greet each other with kisses, hugs, cigarettes and praise to God; Al Hamdullilah!
“Welcome in Cairo,” a sign reads.