Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Edfu & Kom Ombo

28th February 2007

I feel like a human being today! The few extra (precious) hours of sleep in the morning has finally rejuvenated my tired soul!! This morning we anchored at Edfu. Without wasting any time, we immediately head out to the Horus temple in a horse drawn carriage. The driver was ancient and the horse emaciated! We clip-clopped through the small town of Edfu towards the temple complex. Edfu could easily have been mistaken as old city area of Hyderabad – the only difference is that Edfu is a lot cleaner than Hyderabad! Sonny boy complained loudly at the foul smell the horse emanated – we should take him back to India soon…he’s getting too used to the antiseptic environment in the US.

There were many entrances to the temple of Horus – but all the gates were closed save one – which made us walk through a series of souvenir shops and rather pushy salesmen! It was extremely annoying and sometime down-right nerve-wracking to say the least!!! We finally made it to the temple complex and what a magnificent sight it was! Temple of Horus is probably the most well-preserved archeological site in entire Egypt. In fact so well preserved it is that the temple almost looks like a set from some big budget Hollywood historical! Inside the temple, all the chambers are still there with their roof intact – giving us a glimpse of its actual grandeur!

Though younger in age (built in 237BC) than some of the other sites we saw over the last few days, it is no less awe inspiring or beautiful! Lot of the carvings inside the temple has been defaced by the early Christians in Egypt who were on a crusade of orts against paganism. It amazing to think that vandalism in the name of god has been practiced since time immemorial! Countless works of ancient art has been destroyed in the hands of religious fanatics all over the world! My mind keeps going to the Bamiyan Buddhas and their destruction by the Talibans. I wonder if Egypt, as an Islamic state, would ever consider destroying these temples of pagan gods?! Probably not – billions of dollars coming in from 9 million tourists a year makes it worthwhile to practice tolerance and secularism!

After lunch we sailed for Kom Ombo, another port upriver. We passed the idyllic Egyptian countryside, dotted with lush green farmland and palm trees on the banks of Nile and dry, arid desert land just beyond with dark brown mountains looming in the horizon. We pass villages of mud-huts painted blue – they look dusty and desolate under the hot sun. Fishermen throw nets into the Nile from their white painted sail boats known as Felucca. It makes such a picturesque setting, but life must be really hard for these people. Egyptian countryside is really poor and every year more and more people leave their villages to seek fortune in big cities like Cairo and Alexandria.

We reach Kom Ombo right after sunset. Its supposed to be one of the most important ports on the Nile owing to the large sugar factory located here. But you couldn’t guess that from the state of the dock! It’s a mess!!! Boats were parked 7-8 deep and we again trudged through lobbies of 8 different boats to get to the shore. The temple of Haroeris and Sobek is located right off the dock accessible by a few flights of stairs. This is yet another exquisite example of Ptolemaic architecture and looked even more spell-binding in the evening with all the strategically placed lights on. It was once a famous hospital in ancient Egypt and the very first documented cataract surgery was done in the halls of Kom Ombo. Sculpted wall relief include one showing ancient surgical tools, bone-saws and dental instruments.

Coming back to the boat was yet another nightmare. It seems that the traffic volume dictates the parking spot for the boats. In the one hour that we spent at the temple, our boat had to move away. So when we came back to the dock, the Sonesta St George was nowhere to be seen. The acrid smell of burning diesel hung in the air and the hawkers selling sub-standard souvenir created a terrible racket! Keeping spouse and a half-asleep sonny boy on the lookout for our boat, I decide to go for a walk. That was a very bad decision – I realize within a minute. Hawkers mill around me brandishing their special wares – camel bone jewelry, ghastly belly-dancing costumes, towels with King Tut’s face printed on them, hieroglyph-printed sarongs, Nefertiti’s bust, granite obelisk, fake turquoise scarabs and cheap Galabiyyas – I walked into a nightmare with my eyes open wide! Smelly men in skull-caps and dirty Galabiyyas jumped into my line of vision - so close to my nose that my eyes blurred! “Indiaaah! Namaste! Amitabh Bachchan!” they shouted trying to attract my attention. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and to save my sanity I quickly retraced my steps shaking my head vigorously and screeching “La shokhran! No – don’t want! Don’t touch me!! Get Lost!!”

Finally I find spouse carrying now-asleep sonny boy still waiting for the boat! The Japanese tour-guide who sits at the table next to ours in the dining room finds us – she was herding a gaggle of Japanese tourists to the nearest coffee shop where everyone’s to wait till the boat moors again at the dock. Just few minutes back, we refused Ahmed’s invitation to join him for Turkish coffee – I kept praying that we don’t bump into him at the café. A band of folk musicians were playing loud music and traveling from table to table looking for baksheesh. I already had a pounding headache and that music made the pain so bad that I had to grit my teeth and squeeze my eyes shut in order to ignore the cacophony! An orderly from the boat found us before the musicians could reach our table – thank God! I might have punched them in the face or something! The trudge back to the boat wasn’t terrible, but again we had to cross four other boats in order to reach ours – I’m getting used to it now!

Tonight the dining room hosted an Egyptian themed gala. It totally made my day. The falafel was great; so was the lentil soup, hummous, babaganoush, mousaka and the baklava was simply sublime! After dinner the party shifted to the lounge upstairs where most of the people showed up wearing cheap Galabiyyas bought off the street vendors, pretending to be Arab sheiks! It was surreal – almost like being at the pajama party at a retirement home! Grey haired, moldy old-fogies shook their replaced hips and gyrated to thumping Arabian music wearing long night-shirts!! I was too depressed to linger – spouse was half asleep anyway and sonny boy passed out cold at 7pm…there was no reason to sit around and watch old European women rub themselves against the good-looking young stewards! Ewww! It was time to retire for the night!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Luxor, the West Bank

27th February 2007

A not very long, but extremely hot day!! We started early around 5:30am amidst major confusion - to eat breakfast or not; when is the boat leaving; where is Ahmed our guide; where is Oont (sonny boy’s toy camel which has been accompanying us everywhere!) Finally, we got off the boat and everyone was in a bad mood! The boat was leaving the Luxor docks and we were to catch it upstream at Esna around noon.

Our first stop was the Valley of the Kings on the west bank. Today for the first time I got a clear picture of the scale of the tourism industry in Egypt. At 6am there were at least a couple of thousand geeky tourists thronging the Valley of the Kings. Bus-loads and van-loads kept coming wielding digital cameras and guide books of every imaginable language – gaggles and gaggles of chattering tourists! Apparently between 6am and 9am everyday the Valley receives 5 thousand tourists!! Amazing!!! The ticket to the Valley offers visit to three tombs and the price of entering Tut-ankh-amun’s tomb is extra! Having traveled this far, I couldn’t go back not seeing the most important historical discovery of the 20th century!

The three tombs we got to see were of Ramses IV, Ramses IX and that of Meneptah. All of these tombs dug deep into the belly of the mountain are richly decorated with colorful inscriptions from the Book of the Dead. The shafts leading to the antechamber and the main hall (pretty much the same pattern in all the tombs) were quite well lit, easing my initial apprehension of closed spaces! We did miss the tombs of Seti I and Ramses II which I heard is fabulously decorated – but they are closed to the public for the time to preserve the old paintings and carvings which tend to fade and crumble from the humidity generated by millions of tourists milling about in such closed space!

The last tomb to have been found at the Valley of the Kings was in 2006 by the archeological team from the University of Memphis. 84 years before that Howard Carter, quite by chance discovered the tomb of Tut-ankh-amun – a really small pit and quite unadorned compared to the rest of the tombs we saw. All the fabulous treasures of the tomb of King Tut are on display at the museum of Cairo – but his mummified body still rests in its original cask at the sparsely decorated chamber. The Egyptian government is definitely minting quite a bit of money from geeky tourists like us by charging by charging 80LE a pop for viewing this tomb! Oh well!!!

Next stop was the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepshut – the only female Pharaoh in the history of ancient Egypt. She asserts herself as a man in all the paintings and carvings – that kind of gets rather confusing! Especially thanks to her feud with son-in-law Tuthmosis III, who ritually defaced most of Hatshepshut’s figures and statues, its hard to tell who’s who! But the temple of Hatshepshut is a marvelous monument rising out of the desert plain and blending into the cliff beyond! It wasn’t even 9am and the sun was beating down on us mercilessly. The open walkway into the temple glowed hot under the desert sun and the constant droning of Ahmed didn’t help the situation at all! Sonny boy started acting up; spouse was getting baked in his black turtleneck (it was freezing cold when we left early in the morning)! Mortuary temple-shmemple, we were eager to get back into the comfort of the air-conditioned van!

We did a quick photo-stop at the colossi of Memnon – two gigantic statues that once guarded the mortuary temple of Amenophis III (which was crumbled to ground thousands of years ago). The Valley of the Queens had to be given a miss – Ahmed insisted that it wasn’t in our itinerary (we didn’t have the paper with us to be able to argue with him); also the most interesting tomb, that of queen Nefertari (wife of Ramses II) is now closed to the public. On the way we passed Howard Carter’s residence sitting high on the hilltop looking down at the Valley of the Kings – it looks dark and forbidding and is closed to the public. We also passed the Nobles’ Tombs, the Ramesseum and the Mortuary Temple of Seti I.

Back in Luxor we had kill an hour waiting for a convoy which was to escort us to Esna. Egypt has a rather formidable force called the Tourist & Antiquities Police – totting vicious looking guns and wearing black uniforms, these people are everywhere! In fact I haven’t seen regular police so far – only these black-clad menacing looking men perched on tops of camels, in jeeps, on bikes! We check into this secured area and sit around for sometime, while Ahmed goes to obtain permission for us to get out and walk around. He did manage to get permission and we went for a stroll by the Nile in the scorching heat! Sonny boy wanted to use the toilet and we searched high and low till Ahmed decided to take him to the nearby mosque. I had no intention of standing outside the men’s room (which I was later told was just a wall), so I ventured into an air-conditioned store selling Egyptian cotton garments. I was looking for Galabiyyas, which turned out be very nightie-like and quite pricey at 250LE!

Finally our convoy took off for Esna – a port about 45 minutes south of Luxor. The drive made us feel rather vulnerable as well as somewhat important. This armed convoy has become a necessity post the ’97 attack on tourists at Hatshepshut’s temple. The threat must still quite considerable to warrant such an elaborate procession!

Our boat was docked in Esna –but getting onto the boat became quite a production by itself!! There were at least a dozen cruise-boats anchored at Esna, literally shoulder to shoulder. Our boat was second in row – so we had to pass through another boat to reach it. And how did we do that? Instead of a gangplank, there was a cane chair on the concrete wall (which will be the edge of the dock some day when its built); we are to step on the chair, jump into the deck of the first boat, go through the labyrinth of musty corridors to reach the grand foyer (in this case, not so grand foyer) and then hop over to our boat! Sounds quite simple, right? But in reality there were a gaggle of geriatric tourists with replaced knees and hips and old women with huge posteriors for whom even getting up on the cane chair was next to impossible – forget about doing the Tarzan swing on to the deck! That caused a huge traffic jam in front of the coveted chair! There was a lot of pushing and shoving; creaking cane; squealing women, grunting men – some managed to cross over to the deck, some gave up and stood aside, some kept trying without success completely unmindful of other people standing in line! We did the desi thing – skipped the line, gave the cane chair a miss and hopped over to the deck!

At lunch, again the chef insisted on serving me his version of ‘aloo mutter” - which was pretty much the same thing from last night – just different veggies! As it is the location of the dining room freaks me out – it is in the hold of the boat, as a result the windows are at level with the river. Not very good for people like me who are deathly afraid of water! And now the chef his doing his bit to scare me off!

Dinner was a complete disaster! All of us overslept our little afternoon nap! Can’t help it – day after day of waking up at 3am to make it to the tour van plus the jet-lag did us in! We reached the dining room at 9pm – almost everyone had eaten by then. The chef served me yet another ghastly preparation of the “special daal”! I really should have slept through dinner! Tomorrow the shore excursion doesn’t start till 9am. At least I can sleep in!!!!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Namesake

I’ll take a quick break from the Egypt travelogue and write about the most hyped movie in the recent times among the Indian diaspora – Mira Nair’s The Namesake. The Bengali intelligencia of Seattle area has been waiting with bated breath for the release of the movie and Jhumpa Lahiri’s book-reading coming up in May! So does the movie live up to the expectations? Read on!

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel, following her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, tells the story of the Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, whose move from Calcutta to Cambridge, Mass., is a balancing act to adjust to a new world while honoring the old. Saddled by his immigrant parents with an odd name and the hopes and expectations of his family, their son Gogol struggles to find meaningful work, sustaining love, and his own unique identity and place in the world. It was a rather simple story told in a grand way. Honestly, I didn’t find the book any great shakes – it was long and meandering and awfully boring at times! I mean there was hardly anything spectacular about The Namesake – nothing that I haven’t read before. Over the years a lot of books have been written on immigrant lives and some of them are quite fabulous – Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, or most of the works of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni comes to mind immediately. Jhumpa Lahiri is a gifted writer; I absolutely love her Interpreter of Maladies, but on a personal level The Namesake didn’t work for me. It is not classic – full of clichés and predictable plot twists, The Namesake didn’t give me much to think about once I was done reading!

Ever since Mira Nair showcased The Namesake to standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006, the buildup has been tremendous! I like Mira Nair’s work – she has given us some dazzling cinema like Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family and Monsoon Wedding and visually arresting but duds like Kamasutra and Vanity Fair. But her adaptation of The Namesake works and how! She took a 291 page average novel and turned it into a 2 hour film which gives the viewer very little to complain about. Very well written and brilliantly acted by Tabu and Irrfan Khan, the movie version The Namesake rises head and shoulders above the book!

Nair changes the setting from Cambridge to New York City where a young bride Ashima (Tabu) arrives sometime in the 70’s to begin her life with Ashoke Ganguly (Irrfan Khan), an academic whose deep attachment to Nicholai Gogol’s The Overcoat is never explained properly in either the book or the movie. Yes, Ashoke’s grandfather gave him the book to read; and it was the book he was reading when the train he was traveling in met with an accident; and he was clutching the remains of The Overcoat in his hand when rescuers found him. Quoting Dostoevsky he says “We call came out of Gogol’s overcoat!” Did he actually believe that Gogol’s spirit saved his life? Ashoke and Ashima’s love blossoms in cold wintry New York as lonely and isolated Ashima grudgingly makes concessions to the strange American world of washing machines and other conveniences. Nair has altered Ashoke and Ashima’s characters too from the novel in subtle ways, suggesting more warmth and love in their lives and includes a slightly gratuitous love-making scene. As Ashima settles into the American life and pines for her family in Kolkata, Gogol is born to the couple followed by Sonia, their daughter and they move to the suburbs in a bigger house to join the scores of middle class Bengalis who work hard during the week and congregate in each other houses over the weekend dressed in their best sarees and kurta-pajama and sing Rabindrasangeet after a few drinks!

Gogol (played from teenage on by Kal Penn) grows up and is hell bent on becoming a hip American and is ritually distancing himself from parental influence. Like many children of immigrants, he channels all his resentment into a profound loathing for his foreign name, Gogol Ganguli. In due course, Gogol finds his name all too distinctive and opts instead for Nikhil (often conveniently Westernized as Nick).

Later, as a twenty-something Manhattan architect, he finds that his unresolved sense of identity is affecting, among other things, his love life. The doting WASP girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett) and her snobbish moneyed parents represent ultimate assimilation, but he settles down with a mirror image of himself: a modern, independent Bengali woman Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson) who torn between her free-thinking spirit and her self-imposed duty of making samosas from the scratch, brings her own baggage to their relationship.

When we finally leave Gogol, he's still figuring out the immigrant's eternal dance between tradition and modernity, between adapting to the new world and longing for roots. Only now he understands that the dance never ends.

This should be a breakout role for Kal Penn, holding the dramatic center of a film for the first time (unless of course you consider his portrayal of Taj Badalandabad in last year’s Van Wilder2: Rise of Taj as a dramatic performance). His Gogol is a funnier and more believable creation than the book's, in part because to play the teen malcontent, the actor has shrewdly imported aspects of the pothead persona he popularized in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." He does very well even though he’s burdened with a face that registers very few emotions beyond “doh”!

Tabu on the other hand is blessed with the most mobile (and the most under-used) face in Bollywood...she’s shy, she’s naughty, she’s a woman in love, she’s a concerned mother, she’s a grieving widow and in the end a matured woman who has risen above all the pitfalls of her life…she’s is a delight to watch! Her mannerisms, her body language, her crisp cotton tangail sarees and her Bengali accent is so perfect that Tabu makes Ashima comes alive. Irrfan Khan’s Bengali accent trips a few times... but only hardcore Bengalis will notice that. He slips into Ashoke Ganguly’s skin with amazing ease, tapping into considerable reserves of depth and subtlety.

The running time of 122 minutes could have been shortened if one or two sequences were chopped...specially the one where Gogol and Moushumi does a rather weird dance to a remixed version of Mukesh’s “Yeh mera diwanapan hai”. Also, someone should have told Mira Nair that middle aged Bengali widows typically don’t wear red bordered Kanjivarams to their son’s wedding!

Jhumpa Lahiri’s book is driven more by incident than by plot, and Nair's largely faithful adaptation suffers at times from an episodic choppiness. Still, the lack of obvious narrative arcs is refreshing. We laugh with the Gangulys, cry with them and through the tears we smile with them! Instead of melodramatic implausibility what we get is the commonplace stuff of life: marriages and breakups, births and deaths. The Namesake is a thoroughly engaging, terrifically moving family story that's rich in beautifully observed and lovingly conveyed human detail making it Mira Nair’s best film yet!

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Luxor, The East Bank

26th February 2007

Early this morning we caught our flight to Luxor – a rather short flight – 1 hour to be precise. By 6:30am we were already in Luxor being received by our guide for the next part of the journey Ahmed, and by 7am we were at the Temple of Karnak. What a magnificent sight or site, whichever way you look at it! The Karnak site covers a huge area. One dynasty after another added to the temple of Amun, so that from its founding during the Middle Kingdom to the building of its outermost pylon during the 25th Dynasty, 1300 years elapsed!! A processional way lined with ram-headed sphinxes leads into the temple. They represent Amun, the primordial creation-deity and between the forelegs of each stands a diminutive figure of Ramses II, Amun’s representative on earth.

Once we cross the second pylon, we enter the Hypostyle Hall, the 19th Dynasty work of Seti I and Ramses II. Its forest of gigantic columns, some in the shape of open papyrus flowers and others as closed buds is probably one of the most spectacular sights of Egypt. Each of these columns are so massive, that apparently it takes outstretched arms of six people to encircle one. Since there were only four of us (including our guide Ahmed), we didn’t try encircling one.

An obelisk, raised by Tuthmosis I stands in the small courtyard between the 3rd and the 4th pylons. Between the 4th and the 5th stood two magnificent obelisks of Hatshepshut, daughter of Tuthmosis I. One remains intact at 29.5 meters, it is the tallest obelisk in entire Egypt. The other one has snapped into two – the upper portion lies at the corner of the Sacred Lake where one can examine the hieroglyphic inscriptions up close. Close to that is a giant granite scarab dedicated to the rising sun. Legend says going around the scarab gets boons – 3 times, good luck; 5 times, marriage; 7 times, baby! Spouse and I took turns to walk around the holy scarab…and no, I’m not telling you, how many times we went around the silly scarab!!

Next stop on the itinerary was the Luxor Temple. Its situated bang in the center of downtown Luxor, visible from all sides. The Luxor Temple, in my mind was a lot less spectacular, once you’ve seen the Karnak Temple. Yet the numerous colossi of Ramses II dotting the great court, his beautiful wife Nefertari standing knee-high at his side, cannot but inspire awe! It was built by two of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs - Amenhopis III, a magnificent patron of the arts whose 40-year reign was one of the peaks of Egyptian power, and Ramesses II, sometimes called the 'great builder'.

The temple was dedicated to Amun, the king of the gods. It survived as a temple under the Greeks and the Romans, and later became a Christian church - and now a Muslim mosque still nestles among its colonnades.

On the front of the entrance pylon of the temple, Ramesses II had carved the story of his great battle at Kadesh in Syria, against the Hittite empire, the battle which inaugurated the Egyptian empire in the Near East in the New Kingdom. He also had six huge statues of himself constructed in front of the pylon, along with two great obelisks - one of which was removed, and can now be seen in Paris.

The sight-seeing was over and it wasn’t even 10am. But you couldn’t guess that from looking at the sun. It was high and hot. We get into our van and head out to the docks to board our cruise-ship. The entire east bank of Luxor seemed to be chock-full of cruise boats. Most of them looked old and ratty and in major need of repair! I was getting scared about our boat…they did send us a picture, but it was so small that I couldn’t quite figure out the details. But when we reached our private dock, the sight of the boat took my breath away! Its not the massive cruise-ships that voyage the oceans; a new generation stern-wheeler Sonesta St George is truly beautiful! Inside was opulent and sometimes slightly over the top (if not bizarre) with Louise XIV furniture interspersed with Rococo flowers and Trompe l’oeil galore along with statues of Egyptian gods. But somehow in this setting it didn’t look that incongruous! Either I’m losing my taste or the jet-lag has messed up my brain! At lunch all the dining room staff fawned over me making me really embarrassed. Somehow word has reached them that I’m vegetarian and they were running helter-skelter trying to make sure that I get enough to eat!

I’m ashamed to say that yet again I indulged in a 5hr afternoon nap! Jet-lag I say!!! Dinner starts at 7:30pm here – slightly late for our usual time but that gave me an opportunity to loll about in bed a little longer before getting dressed in formal clothes to go to the dining room! At dinner the chef insisted on serving me something “Indian” despite my protests. His concoction was ghastly – beans and carrots in a thick sauce which had way too much curry powder and no salt! I’m really touched by the thoughtfulness of the chef, but the prospect of being subjected to such “Indian” fare everyday might keep me away from the dining room!

The after dinner entertainment consisted of a male dancer with twirling skirts which he took off and spun over his head like roomali roti! Pretty neat actually! What wasn’t neat was the belly-dancing act after that! We’ve seen some fabulous belly-dance performances in Seattle where one can’t help but gasp at the grace, the fluid movements and at the sheer flexibility of the dancer’s body! This girl was plain bad…had the appeal of a beer-bar dancer at the most!

Tomorrow we have yet another early start. Got to get off the boat by 5:30am. Gosh! What I wouldn’t give to sleep in late for a change! So good night – Ma Salaama!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Memphis, Sakkara & Giza

Saturday 24th February

Just woke up from a 5 hr afternoon nap!! This stupid jet-lag is throwing everything out of gear! Spouse and sonny boy are still dead to the world. We have to catch an early morning flight to Luxor at 4am – may be I should try going back to sleep!

Today was hectic! Manal and Saeed (our chauffer) picked us up from the hotel at 9am and we went through the busy streets of Cairo towards the outskirts. Once we crossed the bridge over Nile, we came across rows and rows of unfinished houses…and people seemed to living in them! Manal said that all these are illegal constructions on agricultural land. They keep the outside unfinished in order to avoid paying taxes!! How very ingenious! Seemed like something builders would do in India! The similarity between the two countries is fascinating!

This morning we had our first sighting of the Pyramids from our hotel room. It looked like two floating shapes in the distant horizon. While we were passing through the city of unfinished houses, we could see it clearly. But our destination was in the other direction! Leaving the Pyramids of Giza behind us, we headed towards Memphis, the ancient capital or what is left of it near the village called Mitrahina. Sadly very little is left of the ancient capital of Misr except for three giant statues of Ramses II. The other notable antiquities are the alabaster sphinx and the giant column bases engraved with the cartouche of Ramses II. After a quick stop at Memphis, we headed towards Sakkara.

The palm lined road to Sakkara ended suddenly and literally ejected us into a vast desert. The change was so sudden, that it took us by surprise! This is the site of the famous step pyramid of Zoser, the 3rd dynasty Pharaoh who ruled Misr around 2700BC. Legend says he commissioned building his tomb at Sakkara, a site very close to royal quarters at Memphis, so that he could see it from his palace and admire it! The level of preoccupation with after-life is rather disturbing! We walk through the funerary complex of Zoser admiring the tall sandstone columns and the walls with their frieze of cobras. We reach the only tomb currently open to public – the rest are under heavy restoration work. It’s a mastaba of Akhti-hotep a vizier at the court of Zoser. His tomb is decorated with finely craved baas relief and rich painting in black and red.

From Sakkara we head back towards Giza. On the way we stop at a papyrus institute…I knew it was a tourist trap, but couldn’t suppress the curiosity to see how papyrus reed is made into paper! An Arab guy with a very thick and almost unintelligible accent took us through the process of making paper and then invited us to look at the gallery of full of gaudily painted scenes from the Book of Judgment or King Tut’s wedding! Now, I promised myself before coming to Egypt, that papyrus painting is one souvenir I’m not taking back home – but the sales tactic was too strong against my resolve! I finally succumbed and bought a blank sheet – to be given as a gift to someone I know who’s extremely artistic!

Off to Giza now. As we approach the great Pyramids, my anticipation builds! Let me tell you something, dear readers. The Pyramids of Giza are like Taj Mahal – no matter how many times you’ve seen it in pictures or in the movies, the real thing will take your breath away! Built in 2600BC, the Pyramid of Cheops (also known as Pharaoh Khufu of 4th Dynasty) once had smooth sides of polished limestones. 4600 years later, the casing of Cheops’ Pyramid is entirely gone – but that hasn’t diminished its magnificence one bit! One gets to see the underlying tiered courses of 2.5 million limestone blocks! Manal informed us that contrary to popular belief, the great pyramids were not built by slaves, but by volunteers who believed their Pharaoh to be God. I like the slave story better – gives it that exploitation angle where rivers of blood, sweat and tears have flown to carry out the whim of a selfish king! Makes it more poignant!

We climbed the few steps leading to the entrance of Khufu’s tomb. Its supposed to be a narrow, dark and low corridor (requiring some bending and crawling) which first descends and then ascends to reach the king’s chamber. I begged off the experience – knowing my serious claustrophobia, I didn’t want to venture into a dark, narrow tunnel, deep inside the belly of a gigantic tower of stones and then cause a medical emergency by passing out on my hands and knees somewhere in the middle!! The books I’ve read so far say that the king’s chamber is quite plain compared to the tombs in The Valley of the Kings in Luxor. I’ll save my energy for those, thank you!

I was attempting to climb the giant limestone blocks for a better photo-op, but a rather rude Tourist Police started wagging his finger at me, motioning me to come down at once!! No one has wagged a finger at me in like three decades!! Anyway, it’s really hard to get a decent picture of the monument among zillions of geeky tourists jostling each other for a better photo opportunity!

Next stop was the pyramid of Chephren or Khafre, son of Mr. Khufu. Its actually smaller than Khufu’s pyramid, but looks larger as it stands on higher ground. The impression of greater height is also due to the casing stones which are intact towards the top giving it a look of snow-capped mountain. Little away from Khafre’s pyramid stands the smallest pyramid of the trio – it belongs to Mycerinus or Menkaure – Khufu’s grandson. The interesting feature about this structure is that the base is made of granite blocks while the rest of the pyramid is limestone.

Next to Cheops’ Pyramid is the Museum of Solar boat. In 1954 a pit was found which contained a dismantled but perfectly preserved boat made of Syrian cedar. Archeologists painstakingly re-assembled this 4600 year old boat and put it on display at the specially built museum right over the pit in which it was found!

We head out into the desert for a panoramic view of the great pyramids – they look so majestic, so formidable – like three sentinels standing tall against the vast desert backdrop! I try to get rid of “Suraj Hua Maddham” playing in my head ever since we entered the complex. The desert wind whips my hair on my face making my eyes sting and flaps my jacket around while I pose for a picture against the ancient wonder of the world. “I should have worn a saree today”, I muse – “the anchaal would have fluttered in the wind like Kajol’s!” Spouse does a slow-motion run that would have put any Bollywood hero to shame!! Okay, enough cheesiness! Lets get on with the sight-seeing!!

Here, I must add that people in Cairo seem to be quite aware of Bollywood. Every now and then someone would stop us and say “Indiah! Namaste! Shukriya! Amitabh Bachchan!” Seriously, I think Mr Bachchan is the most well known Indian in the world after Mahatma Gandhi!!!

We take a short break from ancient history and try out something I’ve never done before – camel riding! Now this was a total Sonar Kella/Lalmohan Babu moment!! No matter how many times you’ve seen a camel stand up or sit down, it won’t prepare you for the experience or should I say jolt, when you’re actually sitting astride the beast!! We divided up – me and sonny boy on one camel and spouse on the other – off we went on our 5 minute desert safari! After a bit it turned out to be less scary and much easier than horse-riding! But I kept glancing at the ground – it looked really far away! When I disgraced myself by falling off the most docile horse in the riding club, it hurt really bad – camel is a taller animal – wonder how much it’d hurt to fall from that height! Mercifully we stopped before my fears actualized and after tipping the Galabiyya-clad handsome camel-herd, we boarded our van for our next stop – the great Sphinx.

My first impression of the Sphinx is that its not as large as I thought it’d be. Much of its bulk crouches within a large pit. Legend says that a limestone outcrop was left standing in the quarry from which many blocks of Khufu’s pyramid were cut. His son Khafre had the idea of shaping it into a figure with a lion’s body and a human face. Some say that the face is Khafre’s own. The mystery of the Sphinx’s missing nose could be simple erosion over time or may be the Turks used it for target practice in 16th century and shot it off – who knows! What we do know is that the British has its beard in their museum. The Sphinx is in a very sad condition mainly because of the poor quality of the stone that has contributed to its erosion over the last 4600 years!
To the left of the Sphinx stand the remains of the Valley Temple. A part of the causeway leading to the Mortuary Temple still stands, while the Mortuary Temple itself has crumbled to the ground long ago.

We bid farewell to the Pyramids of Giza and head out to the historic Mena House hotel for lunch. Now managed by the Oberoi’s, this fantastic palace was built in 1869 by the Egyptian government for accommodating royal guests who came from all over the world for the inauguration of the Suez Canal. A lovely specimen of Moorish architecture, the Mena House is like an oasis in the shadow of the great pyramids. The lunch was fabulous and leisurely, during which manal regaled us with her stories of guiding various people around the world including celebrities like Mrs & Mr Collin Powell.

We came back to Cairo through nasty traffic. The plan was to take a short nap and then go for dinner. Its midnight now and my boys aren’t showing any signs of waking up. Perhaps I should try to get some more sleep before we have to leave for the airport to catch a flight to Luxor!

Friday, March 09, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Cairo Museum

Sunday 25th February 2007

Yeah!!! Our bags are here!! It almost felt like meeting a long lost friend when spouse dragged in the suitcases early this morning! All that “inshallah” did pay off – god has brought our luggage back to us in 24hrs!

Yesterday was tough – all of us were in bad mood –smelly clothes, unwashed underwear – it was gross! How can one relax and enjoy a vacation like that!? Sometime around 6am we went for breakfast. It was a lavish spread complete with some authentic middle-eastern/Egyptian favorites – we ate like famished travelers and crashed soon after that only to be woken up at noon for the day’s excursion. We met up with Manal Helmy our English speaking Egyptologist – a smart woman with blonde hair and French-Arab accent all decked out in designer garb. Being around her made me feel even smellier!!

Our destination was the Cairo Museum. A fabulous specimen of 19th century colonial architecture, the museum houses some of the world’s most priceless treasures. It was heavily guarded and we had to go through a series of metal detectors and scanners to enter the building. Apparently it takes more than three days to explore all of its 120,000 exhibits; but we were on the fast track. Manal took us on a “Best of Cairo Museum” tour. That included among other fabulous exhibits, the King Tut collection.

Last December I managed to catch the Tut-ankh-amun exhibition at the Fields Museum in Chicago. The 100 objects on display were on loan from Cairo Museum touring the US to raise funds for the new museum in Cairo. The Fields Museum exhibit was lavishly mounted, with an audio-guide voiced by Omar Shariff – it was very informative! I guess I’m so used to the western style of museums with their information plaques and audio-guides etc., that Cairo Museum, in spite of its fabulous wealth of priceless artifacts was a big let down. It felt like walking through a massive warehouse of antiquities! It was crammed to the brim with ancient articles which had little or no information or explanation! It must be an Egyptologist’s dream come true – but for a layman like me, it was frustrating. I needed more information! Manal tried her level best to guide us through the two hour tour, but I left the building thirsting for more knowledge!

Along with King Tut’s treasures, we were also privy to the Mummies room. Sonny boy did quite well for a while, but the female mummies with their inlaid eyes and matted wigs kind of freaked him out a bit! Can’t blame the poor child…it was a creepy sight! I was reminded of an ancient horror movie of black and white genre where a mummy comes alive late at night and attacks the archeologist!

The late afternoon went in search for a suitable mall to buy some clothes. The mall attached to the hotel was useless – full of pricey winter clothes (it is winter here after all!). Across the street the department store of Four Seasons was no better – it was all about Gucci and Prada and Fendi and Ferragamo! Finally we ended up in Liberation Square (pretty close to the museum). A non-descript store selling conservative clothes for Arab women caught my attention. A little search and a little bargaining later I had an outfit. The sales lady insisted on tugging at the neckline of my t-shirt to conceal any skin show! What touched me was her sincerity - in my world this is something only my mom or my sister or a very conservative girlfriend would have done…not a complete stranger! Barring the sour guy at the immigration counter, so far my encounter with the Egyptian people has been nothing but pleasant!

A Journey Through Egypt - Reaching Cairo

Saturday, 24th February ‘07

Just checked into the swanky Grand Hyatt in Cairo sans our luggage. What a mess! NW-KLM has lost our bags, and we have no clue when we’ll get them back!! Here we are in Cairo, all set for a tour of our life time, wearing two day old stinky clothes, while all the carefully chosen “vacation” clothes are languishing somewhere else in two suitcases!!

This whole trip started bad! First the Indian consulate in San Francisco took a month to give us additional pages in our passports – as a result the Egyptian visas didn’t come on time and as a result of that we had to postpone the trip by 20 days! Then we come to airport only to find that KLM hasn’t issued a ticket for sonny boy! Some major confusion and an additional $150 later sonny boy gets a ticket and we board a plane to San Francisco and start the long journey to Cairo. Spouse had a premonition about the bags and I knew it too, in my heart – but who likes to believe in such premonitions anyway!!

Thanks to the free tickets bought on mileage rewards, we had this insane 10hr layover in Amsterdam. By the time I reached Schiphol, I was exhausted and delirious. We decided to rent a room at the on-site Mercure hotel. That was the most worthy $160 ever spent – we slept like logs!!!!! Woke up all groggy- even a hot shower in the dingy 80’s style bathroom didn’t defog my brain. Had to stand in line at McDonalds for sonny boy’s Happy Meal – no drive-thru here!! Forgot that the Europeans didn’t serve ketchup with their fries…by the time I realized, I was back at the end of the line for a 40cents sachet of ketchup!!! Sonny boy should learn to eat his fries without ketchup!

A café with tacky beach-shack décor was selling foccacia sandwich with tomatoes, mozzarella and pesto – sounded yummy (tasted like cardboard!) I asked for a non-fat latte. “We don’t serve non-fat milk here!” came the curt reply. Oh all right, make it extra hot then, 190 degrees. She stared at me as if I had landed from another planet or something. What? Spouse came to her rescue “Its Europe, they measure in Celsius, remember?” How much is 190 degree Fahrenheit then, translated to Celsius? Ok make it at 95 degree C – I’m still sleepy you see! Earlier I had wished her “Good Morning” at 7:30pm – so she has probably made up her mind about my mental health!!

Another 4 hours of flying got us to Cairo. First impression stepping out of the aircraft was, its very much like India. Same rickety old stairs leading weary travelers to CO2 spewing buses waiting to transfer us to the arrival hall. There a skinny young fellow ceremoniously handed me a bouquet of half-wilting flowers. “Welcome to Cairo”, he tells me. “My name is Ramzy”. We follow Ramzy to the immigration check, where a sour-faced officer promptly stamped sonny boy’s US passport but detained ours for extra checking! We stood around like idiots, while yet again I wondered why we’re still holding on to our Indian passports!? A little while later an angry looking older man stormed into the little cubicle where the immigration officer was holding court. The new guy waved our passport at the officer’s face, wagged his finger right in front of his noise and yelled in Arabic, before he stormed out again. Without a single word the officer stamped our passports and let us in.

Then started the infinite wait for our bags, which didn’t show up. But the KLM folks at the airport seemed helpful…aided by Ramzy’s translation, we managed to lodge a complaint for lost baggage. I didn’t quite catch what they said, but heard the word “inshallah” a few times. Yeah, god will bring our bags to us!! We took our complaint number and headed to the hotel.

The drive through the city of Cairo to the hotel seemed a lot like the drive from Chhatrapati Shivaji terminal to the town…only the number of rather grand looking mosques seemed to pop up every few meters reminded me that we’re indeed in an Islamic country. On our way, we passed Heliopolis, a very posh area of Cairo where all the grand palaces and villas of Cairo is concentrated. The roads were empty at that hour, but the number of fly-overs also reminded me of Bombay.

The Grand Hyatt is located on an island in the Nile. Our room has a fabulous view of the Nile and the city…apparently in the day we’ll be able to see the Pyramids from the room. Tried standing outside in the balcony, but the smog hanging over the city was asphyxiating me! There’s a barge bearing TGIF logo floating on the Nile – isn’t there a single place devoid of American commercialism???!

A Journey Through Egypt - Prologue

My love affair with Egypt started a long, long time ago – when I was a little girl of about 6 or 7 years. One my birthday someone gave me a book which was an encyclopedia of sorts – concise and written in Bengali. It contained among other treasures of information, a chapter on Egypt – the pharaohs, the pyramids and the legend of the Egyptian gods. I learnt about the boy king Tut-ankh-amun, the sun god Ra, the jackal-headed Anubis – I was hooked for life!

Over the years I have eagerly absorbed all information available to me about ancient Egypt – books, articles in National Geographic, features on Discovery Channel. I knew almost everything a lay-person can know about ancient Egypt; but I knew nothing about the modern country.So when I finally landed in Cairo, I was a bit taken aback – even though I didn’t quite know what to expect. Cairo is a city where 3500 year old pyramids co-exit with 21st century glass towers. It is a bustling city of 18 million people – the largest in Africa! It has imposing 19th century villas and multistoried tenement buildings, swanky malls and 17th century bazaars, communication towers right next to 12th century citadel! It is a Islamic country, where non-Muslims are welcome to enter mosques; where young girls in hijab wear form fitting clothes and walk arm in arm with their boyfriends on the Corniche El Nil; where the ancient clan of Coptic Christians live peacefully with Jews and Arabs! It is a place where people are friendly and smiling, the food is sublime and the hospitality is outstanding! No wonder 9 million tourists land in Egypt every year, making tourism the main industry of the country!

For the next few weeks I’ll be posting the diary I maintained during my two weeks in Egypt. It is long – I must warn you, and contains very little historical reference to the ancient sites we visited (one can look it up on the net very easily). This is mostly my observation, my experience and my feelings while I came face to face with some of the best known monuments on earth along with some fabulous pictures of the breathtaking country called Egypt!