It sucks when you cannot find the time to write, when you have so much going on in your mind about your travels… so much so that you feel like the last time you lifted your backpack was more than a year ago. It does feel that long. A little over a month ago, I was actually walking on a ramp that a boatman set up between our quaint little Felucca and the bank of the Nile, skillfully balancing my backpack. That aside, I was also trying not to wince in pain, having hurt my ankle within 4 days of landing in Egypt. How I tripped and fell down the stairs is another story all together.
Anyway, we had taken the overnight train from Cairo to Aswan, after the little adventure in Cairo station trying to book tickets at the price it was supposed to be sold at (60 UDS) instead of the tourist price (80 USD). Taking the train from Giza station, we enjoyed the luxury – private cabin, proper dinner in a tray and even soft Arabic music in the speakers. Quite a change from the street food haggling and hostel beds. Reaching Aswan, we were the only ones in the station to be received by a guy holding an A4 sheet with our names misspelt as compared to the other hotels holding up brass name plates et all. Just looking at that, we knew we were headed to a budget establishment…. Isn’t that what I took pride in?
Hotel Memnon for now holds the record in my travel books as the shadiest hotel I have ever stayed in. The rooms were the saving grace. Everything outside the room looked like it belonged to a 80s B Grade movie. Luckily, we stayed only for 2 days in Aswan. 2 days was too much considering the temple overload – 2 killer temples.
First day, we headed to the Temple of Philae. A temple relocated to a beautiful quaint island, about a twenty minute drive and a 5 minute boat ride from Aswan city, this monument was moved piece by piece to this location as the earlier location was prone to flooding from the old Aswan dam. After the High Dam was built in Aswan, this was identified as a flood free location. I still could not believe how they could move a temple, but yes they did. I guess thats UNESCO for you.
Entering the temple, the first thing that struck me was the beautiful pink bougainvillea flowers and then the majestic columns of the temple. The courtyard and then the temple itself and the shrines all depicted Egyptians Gods and Goddesses, who I knew very little about that day. Though I had picked up the Ancient Civilizations of Egypt book and poured over it, I was thoroughly confused with Isis, Orisis, Hathor and Horus. And saying it over and over again, it even felt like a tongue twister.
After a couple of days, you’ll realise how I managed to fall in love with Isis and Hathor. Isis was the goddess of Magic.. more than that, I loved the fact that she was the Goddess of simplicity. The story about River Nile flooding from Isis’s tears after the death of her husband Osiris pretty much moved me to tears. Can you miss someone so much? Hathor signified love and personified love in all ways possible. She was the Goddess of love, music, dance and foreign lands, all things I love. Walking through many many Egyptian temples, I learnt how to spot the two of them. Its like looking through thousands of photos and just recognizing two people. I developed my own bond with these two Goddesses. I wrote postcards to the ones I loved with images of Hathor or Isis on them.
Philae had been beautiful and peaceful. The boat ride and the drive was a haggle. Its Egypt – what do you expect? But, it was a dry run for what was in store for us the next day. Waking up at 2 30 am, we left the hotel at 3 am with a mini van convoy towards Abu Simbel, the temple in the Southern part of Egypt, hardly any distance from the Sudanese border. Known for the larger than life statues of Ramesses II (even larger than the Rajini cutouts in TN), this temple too had been relocated by the UNESCO from its original location. Buried under sand, it was discovered by a Swiss explorer Buckhardt, the same man who discovered Petra in Jordan. Just imagine that guys CV. Anyway, reaching Abu Simbel, we were torn between the view of the statues, the beautiful lake in front and history peeping from every little corner. All the stories carved in the walls of the temples, well lit and preserved, was mesmerising. At the same time, the entire temple looked too beautiful to be real – almost fake. Made us wonder whether it really was that old. Whether it had been built by the great pharaohs of Egypt. All the lighting made it look somewhat artificial. Just wanted to go back in time and see it the way it was. Only wish. Having said that, we lived a photo feast for the few hours we were there and headed back to Aswan, just in time to board our beautiful Felucca.
Yup ! We gave up the 3 day – 4 night luxurious cruise liners for a wooden sail boat called a Felucca with a Nubian captain, an assistant boatman and 5 other wonderful travelers for company. Our Chinese child Alex was still around and one of them. Time to introduce the others – the oldest among the lot Maria from Austria, the quietest of the lot ‘dont remember his name’ from Japan, the neutral ‘Man’ from America (originally Chinese too) and ‘the loud, fun and crazy Jose’ from Spain. For every word that the Japanese guy said, Jose spoke about a million. Not having spoken in Spanish to anyone for over a week, Jose was dying to speak and the minute I said ‘Habla espanol… um pouqito’, he shrieked in joy and spoke non stop for the next couple of hours. Time flew by… We docked every once in a while to attend to natures call, spotted white camels in the banks and discussed business ideas about setting up a bar in the banks of the Nile called ‘Camelo Branco’, shared stories of Egypt, Spain, Japan, Austria, China and America. Overall, we entertained ourselves thoroughly.
The captain smoked up, cooked us some killer local food and gently steered the boat towards Kom Ombo. Just about 80 kms from Aswan, we sailed only 40 kms in a day. The stars that popped up everywhere in the night was the one sight I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Every once in a while, a giant cruise liner would pass our boat and sweep giant waves in our direction rocking our boat. All said and done, the Felucca ride was wo
rth every penny (Spent 100 Egyptian pounds – thats less than 1000Rs for a night and 3 meals and the entire journey).
We boarded a mini van about 30 minutes away from Kom Ombo and started our journey back on land, visiting more temples. The Temple of Kom Ombo, the Temple of Edfu….. I’m not going to elaborate about Kom Ombo or Edfu.
Instead I’ll talk to you about the 4 new travelers we met on the mini van journey. 2 Singaporeans and 2 Canadians. The funny part about the Singaporeans was our little discovery about them working for State Bank of India in Singapore and that reminded Roy of his work experience with the Development Bank of Singapore in India. All bankers love to talk banks and that was their moment. The girl (the one married to the banker) was more keen on my South American adventure. As I started talking about South America, that made the 2 crazy Canadian guys wake up from their slumber. Nathan and Douglas. Looking a them, you would classify them as the typical Gringo travelers in any developing country. But, speaking to them, I couldn’t help but envy their adventure through Morocco and Egypt and I guess through the rest of Africa (all planned). Outdoor people and just out of college, I envied how lucky they were to start traveling so young. And they felt I was the most atypical Indian they had ever met. We were in mutual admiration of our travels and hit it off instantly. The fact that I worked for Red Bull, which seemed to be the dream company for both these travelers made for some conversation about all the extreme sports and adventure sports that they loved to actually do and I had to make presentations about 🙂 We hung out and hung out and before we knew it, we had reached Luxor.
Oasis Hostel in Luxor was the best place we had stayed at so far. With a beautiful terrace cafe that served free tea at 5 pm and an owner Hassan who took amazing pride in the establishment and the tours, this place was a killer customer service place. Our days in Luxor were loaded with more temples….
On Day 1, we headed to the West Bank, which is where all the tombs are. The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, as it is known is this huge area, where many tombs of pharaohs and Queens were escavated. Visit three tombs and you have seen them all. Its an overkill. The relief that came between all the tombs was the visit to the Temple of Hatshepsut. Difficult to pronounce – you can call it the Temple of Hot Chicken Soup. Say it fast and it sounds just like Hatshepsut. Hatsepshut was the only female pharaoh in Egypt. This temple, also known as Deir-el-Bahri is the mortuary temple of the queen, phenomenal architecture and something which is considered pathbreaking in Egyptian classical architecture. This temple was inspired by another temple which was built by a Pharaoh called Menuhotep. Tucked amidst the steep cliffs, the temple stands unique with a display of layered terraces, a sight you can marvel at from a distance.
Taking a break from temples, let me tell you a bit about the most interesting travelers we met in Luxor. Ricardo and Eider. Ricardo from Argentina met Eider from Spain in Varanasi in India. They fell in love and have been traveling since 2007 through Asia, working in China, being on the road through Iran and more and reached Egypt. All this journey through life and it was fate that we would meet in this hostel in Egypt to talk Latina tales and smile, laugh and share some unforgettable moments together. There is something about people who can speak Spanish softly that sounds so romantic that it instantly sets me dreaming.
Day 2 in Luxor, we took a shared mini van ride to the Temple of Karnak with the entire gang – Jose, Alex, Ricardo and Eider. This was the last temple we visited in Egypt and simply the best. Save the best for last! And that’s exactly what we did unintentionally. We walked around for 4 hours through the freaking huge columns. Just trying to get one of those columns in a picture was a feat in itself. Just as much as the entire Egyptian civilization was so ancient and made us feel like we were from another time all together, this temple made us feel so small and insignificant in the scheme of history and time.
Jose’s running around and clicking pictures put the Japanese to shame. He even bought an Arab dress, which he insisted I wear. I attempted my Sheikh look for a while and was laughed at by a bunch of school kids on a picnic. It was our last day in historic Egypt and we couldn’t have spent it with a more interesting set of people. More tea in the evening and we said our goodbyes. We were headed to Dahab in Sinai Peninsula. Jose was headed to Cairo. Alex was headed to Alexandria. Ricardo and Eider were flying to Spain.
The past few days spent walking through temples and tombs, hearing stories of life flourishing in the east and being put to rest in the west, of prayers and rituals, all for the souls, we realised the stories of the civilization that lay buried. I am still in awe of Egypt and how ancient everything is. I cannot even begin to imagine how simple things would have been back then. How complex too in its own way. I feel far removed, yet lucky to be this close.
As touristy as it was, it was still some walk through history.
I think back on
how I would have made my dad proud had he read about my Brazil trip. And I know that this history hopping along the Nile would have made another man real proud – my grandfather – the person who converted anything in my history textbook into a treat by narrating stories and making me imagine what it would be like. And here I am…. walking through a civilization that he tried to explain to me when I was a kid. To him – I dedicate this journey.