Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Farewell

I still remember the day she was born, like it was yesterday! Pingo chose to give birth under my brother’s bed and we waited in anticipation and barely suppressed excitement as each puppy came out of their mother’s womb. She was the last one – almost half hour younger than the rest of the pups and the smallest of the lot. I was immediately smitten and named her Chhotu, because she was so tiny! My sister named the rest Lolo, Goondi and Bhalo! What a joyful time that was – watching the four of them grow from red and sticky looking creatures to white balls of fur, their tails like baby-corns. As much as we loved them all, it was impossible to keep five dogs in the house – so we had to give away Lolo and Goondi. I couldn’t imagine parting with Chhotu and my brother with Bhalo. So they stayed.

The little fur-balls grew into playful puppies in no time and kept all of us on our toes with their mischief. They would run amok given the slightest opportunity throwing everybody in a tizzy to catch them and bring them back to safety! One morning when the pups were two and a half months old, Chhotu fell from the fourth floor terrace! No one knows till date how she reached the terrace and jumped over the vegetable patch – but she did, and miraculously survived the fall with only a fractured forearm! It was such a sorry sight – Chhotu would limp around all day on three legs, her forepaw stretched in a plaster cast! That made her even more adorable in our eyes. It was around that time she started sleeping on my bed, snuggling next me. She would sleep as long as I slept…that could be 10 in the morning on some days!!

A few years later I left Kolkata and moved to Bangalore. The first few months were sheer torture. I was homesick alright – but more than that I missed Chhotu; her playfulness, her frantic welcome when I came home, her warm furry body next to me when I slept at night! Eventually the pain dulled and I got used to living on my own in a different city away from everything I’ve ever known, but every now and then I’d rush back home to be with my babies Chhotu and Bhalo.

Eventually my distance from home became even greater when I moved to Seattle and I wouldn’t see my babies for almost two and a half years! When I walked into the house after such a long gap, Chhotu and Bhalo greeted me with the same frantic enthusiasm as always…but Pingo was very sick. That was the last time I’d see her…few months later she had to be put to sleep to end her sufferings! That was such a huge shock for me and even now when I enter my mother’s house, its hard to believe that Pingo is not there anymore!

As an empty-nester, my mother’s life started revolving around Bhalo and Chhotu. They were her children, her friends, and her reason to wake up every morning! When I relocated to Hyderabad, I decided to bring Ma, Bhalo and Chhotu to come and stay with me. It was a huge endeavor – convincing Ma that the two dogs, now more than 10 years old would survive the journey, stuck in a cage and locked up in the cold, dark belly of the plane! On top of that I had to get custom made cages for the two of them and get necessary paper work required by the airlines for transporting animals – finally everything was arranged! I couldn’t sleep at night all week before the journey and kept praying that Bhalo and Chhotu reach Hyderabad alive! Ma will never forgive me if anything happened to them in the hold of the aircraft! But we made it – Chhotu and Bhalo reached Hyderabad alive and all was well! We spent the next six months just like old times – well almost! I was reunited with my babies, but they were not babies anymore! Both of them were old and as much as they loved to play, they tired easily. Then there was sonny boy – those two never really took to him and regarded him mostly as a nuisance vying for attention from me and Ma! Yet, the six months flew and they went back home, which was yet another production involving cages, tranquilizers, frayed nerves and non-stop prayers!

The last time I went to Kolkata was a month before I was to move back to Seattle. Both Chhotu and Bhalo were not keeping well. Ma was tense and the vet had become a permanent fixture in the house. I’d call home every now and then to find out about them and talk to Ma who was getting into the vicious cycle of insomnia and depression. She would constantly voice her fears about the future without Chhotu and Bhalo and the bottomless pit of emptiness that she was slowly sinking into. How helpless that made me feel – not being able to do anything to help her out! I can’t leave here; Ma can’t leave Kolkata because the dogs are in no state to travel!

Then Chhotu fell violently ill…all of us gave up hope, including the doctor… but Ma didn’t! I’d call her everyday and enquire after Chhotu! I don’t know if it was the strength of Ma’s love or Chhotu’s will to live, in a few weeks she got better! We all heaved a huge sigh of relief!

But who has ever been able to cheat destiny?! Day before yesterday, Chhotu stopped eating and on wobbly legs started exploring the house. She would walk, fall down, sleep for a while and then get up and explore some more refusing all attempts to feed her. Ma waited for the inevitable with bated breath all day and then ten minutes to three in the morning, Chhotu came to Ma, lay down at her feet and breathed her last!

I was informed almost twelve hours later…not that I could have done anything had I known earlier! I couldn’t have done anything even if I was right there! Except may be lend Ma a shoulder to cry on, wipe her tears, distract her from the vacuous emptiness that Chhotu has left behind, relive the last 13 years of joy that she brought to our lives…but all I can do is write this post and try to reduce the numbness that has engulfed my whole being since I got the email bearing the news early this morning! I know I’ll never get over this, but I’ll learn to live without her, just as I learnt many years ago in Bangalore…but this time there’ll be no Chhotu jumping up and down with unbridled joy when I go home in June!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Abu Simbel and the journey to Alexandria

March 3, 2007

This morning after yet another fabulous breakfast at 1902 we bid adieu to the Old Cataract hotel (and to moronic Akram and his over-powering cologne) and left for the airport to go to Abu Simbel. Everything is so organized here. The India-esque appearance can be very misleading – people are very laid back here, but at the same time everything’s quite organized and extremely clean! The high point in the whole check-in and boarding process was spotting an item called “spiral taking away instrument for cork-plug” in the prohibited items list at security check! The flight itself was short and unremarkable, flying over the vast Sahara and Lake Nasser to reach Abu Simbel. From the top the vista tourists was spectacular! Our companions on the plane were a gaggle of Japanese tourists and a very butch looking lesbian couple. The Japanese tourists are subjected to constant “Arigato Gozaimasu!!” just like our “Indiaah! Namaste!” torture – but at least they don’t have to hear some actor’s name a thousand times a day!!!

At Abu Simbel airport, someone was supposed to say “Aton” to us – that person would be our guide. Someone did say “Aton” but he vanished leaving us standing around twiddling our thumbs. Then yet another “Aton” showed up, shook hands and vanished. After 15 more minutes of waiting, a third “Aton” showed up and introduced himself as Nasir and escorted us to – guess what – our very own 40 seat private bus and we headed to our hotel, Seti I! I’ve been warned by Alnoor back in Seattle that this was to be a very basic hotel. How basic? Who knows! I pretty much had no idea what to expect! Would it be bug infested, leaky roofed dump? Seti I turned out to be this really nice resort situated on the bank of Lake Nasser! And our room was actually a large one bedroom cottage in Nubian style domed architecture overlooking the lake on side and an infinity edge pool on the other! The only thing “simble” about this place is its name!!

Later in the afternoon the local guide and “Aton” number three came to take us to the Temple of Abu Simbel. Built by Ramses II the two temples of Abu Simbel belong to the 14 temples UNESCO saved from submersion in Lake Nasser. These people literally moved the mountain – a project that took four years and extreme precision to complete! The original temples were cut into a giant cliff face – UNESCO engineers created artificial domes of concrete and piece by piece they reconstructed the Abu Simbel temples on these domes like a giant jig-saw puzzle!

The fa├žade of the main temple that of Re Harakhte takes your breath away no matter how many times you’ve seen its pictures! Arranged in pairs on either side of the entrance, are the four enthroned colossi of Ramses II. Standing at 20m high they dominate the landscape! Inside both the temples, well preserved carvings give glimpses into the life and times of the Pharaohs as well as the fashion of that era!

I was a little undecided about coming to Abu Simbel in the first place. But I’m really glad that I came – would have missed the fascinating sight that no picture or film can do justice to!

We decided to give the sound and light show a miss though. At $25 per ticket, it smelled of tourist-trap. May be we’d have gotten some really nice night-time pictures of the monument, but it wasn’t incentive enough to in cold wind and mosquito bites and get nagged by sonny boy!

The hotel, as nice as it is, unfortunately is completely dead. Wonder where all the tourists are. Saw a whole bunch of them at the temple complex! And I know for fact that there aren’t too many good hotels in this town, which by the way was built to house the people who worked in the rescue project of the temple. Before that it used to be just a Nubian village.

Well, all the tourists showed up at dinner time – most of them were Japanese, who rarely hang out by the pool or at the bar if you ask me. They were herded in by their tour guide – given time to eat their dinner and again herded out like chattel. I preferred to retire early than stay up and listen to soppy love ballads that were being played in a loop!

March 4, 2007

I woke up around 5am this morning – it was light outside. Looking out of the large picture window of the living room, I caught a spectacular sight. The sun was coming up casting a golden glow on Lake Nasser and the sand-stone cliffs on the bank. The moon hadn’t set yet – it was white disc hanging low on the horizon forming a perfect iridescent triangle on the lake water with its reflection. I stood around and watched the moon set – for the first time in my life. A very poetic moment indeed. But my inability to express my feelings in verse left me handicapped! Kabi kabi bhaab, chhander obhaab!

Today we are flying back to Cairo and from there we’ll be driving to Alexandria. I’ve been a little wary about Egypt Air, mostly because of my bad experience with state run airlines. Especially the harrowing experience (thanks to China Eastern airlines) in China will be indelibly printed in my mind forever. Alnoor in Seattle had glowing things to say about Egypt air, but I wasn’t convinced. And I am happy to say that I was wrong to assume. Egypt Air is extremely efficient and always on time. There are some quirky things I noticed which are quite amusing! The first one is the small audio-visual presentation of Islamic prayer before the plane takes off! That’s a nice touch I thought – “Keep the passengers safe and reach the plane to its destination on time O Allah!” Then there’s this film for safety instructions – the protagonist is an animated pot-bellied Arab with unibrow and heavy moustache, who walks us through all the safety procedures of the aircraft. Last but not the least is the announcement from the cockpit by the captain. In the Arabic version, pretty much every third word is “Inshallah”. To me it sounded something like this, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. In a short while, Inshallah, we’ll take off from Abu Simbel for our destination to Cairo. We’ll make a small stop in Aswan, Inshallah for re-fueling. This aircraft will reach a maximum altitude of 30000 feet Inshallah! Inshallah we’ll provide you with light refreshments as soon as the seat-belt signs are switched off Inshallah!” That makes me wonder if Allah is flying the plane! Anyway, no cause for complain – if He is, then He’s doing a great job!

So we’re off to Cairo from where we’ll drive to Alexandria. I don’t understand why we’re not flying to Alexandria directly. But that’s something I will have to take up with Alnoor once we get back to Seattle.


At Cairo airport we were received again by Ramzy and Saeed. Together we loaded into Saeed’s van and went off to pick up Zainab, our guide for Alexandria from Ramses Hilton in downtown. Zainab turned out to be this delightful old lady who’s a big Indophile, or should I say Kolkata-phile. Having lived in Kolkata for almost a decade in the seventies, she still remembers quite a bit of Bangla and was delighted to make our acquaintance.

We took the desert highway from Cairo to Alexandria. Its desert highway only in name – Egypt has reclaimed more than 3 million acres from Sahara desert and urbanized it. They’ve built industrial townships, Smart City – the technological hub of Egypt, country clubs, private estates, olive gardens, vineyards, stud farms and acres and acres of green.

We stopped somewhere half way between Cairo and Alexandria for refreshments at a rather swanky pit-stop. Posh looking shops and rows of shiny foreign cars in the parking lot gave it a rather upscale mall look. Spotted a proudly displayed red leather thong set at one of the shop windows – hmmm so this is what the apparently conservative Egyptian women wear under their burqas!!

I had a very interesting exchange with the young Arab who served me coffee at the pit-stop. He poured three whole sachets of sugar in my miniscule cup of Nescafe with milk (no 12oz extra hot lattes here!) and exclaimed “Indiaaah!” I instinctively knew what was coming next, so I told him “Please don’t say Amitabh Bachchan!” The guy was very perplexed “Why? You don’t like him?” “Yes, I liked him, a lot in fact – but before you Egyptians started chanting his name wherever I went!” I said to myself. Back in the van Zainab explained that Amitabh Bachchan has always enjoyed major fan-following in Egypt. Apparently last month he came to Cairo to inaugurate some film festival. There were some other Bollywood stars with him too. But young girls stood outside the airport in thousands and screamed his name completely ignoring the rest of the stars. Now, how many men in their sixties can claim to have such effect on young girls!!

We reached Alexandria around 8pm. Our hotel, Sheraton Montaza was pretty much at the end of the corniche, next to the Montaza Palace. The hotel turned out to be a little ratty – may be because it was old and was in dire need of renovation. The lobby had a big poster for Monday night belly-dancing competetion – the girl featured prominently on the poster looked vaguely like Mallika Sherawat!!

The day was long and tiring and we covered a long way from southern edge of Egypt to the northern tip in just one day. The room-service menu had something called “The World Famous Egyptian Lentil Soup”, we decided to sample that and which by the way was really yummy! Tomorrow we have an early start yet again, so its time to switch off the lights!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Journey Through Egypt - Two days in Aswan

March 1, 2007

This morning we arrived at Aswan, the last port of call for the cruise boat. Apart from our usual droning guide Ahmed, we were met by a travel coordinator called Akram – a cool dude of sorts wearing a suit in the stifling desert heat and waaaay too much perfume with a cell phone perenially stuck to his ear. There was an instant chemical reaction…I don’t know which happened first; did I decide to dislike him first, or did his perfume assault my olfactory sense and gave me a headache first? Whatever it is, I started bristling every time the dude came within 5 feet of my personal space. Much to my dismay, Akram decided to accompany us to our first stop of the day - the Temple of Philae. I had to endure his smelly company for the 15 minute ride to the small dock from where we were to take a motor-boat to the temple. Allah be praised, Akram left us there and went back to town to do whatever that he does, and I was finally able to breathe properly!

Now here’s the interesting bit of information about Philae that I wasn’t aware of before coming here. In 1902, after the British completed the Aswan Dam, the island of Philae got partially submerged threatening the future of the ancient temple that stood on the grounds. Then after the construction of the High Dam in the 70’s, this island got completely submerged in the waters of Lake Nasser. Before that happened, UNESCO took on the mammoth project of dismantling the Temple of Isis stone by stone and rebuilt on the nearby island of Agilika located about 500m away from the original site. So seamless is the re-assembly that it’s hard to imagine that the temple has not been standing on Agilika for the last 2000 years, but since the 1980’s!!

After suffering yet another attack from hawkers selling tacky souvenirs, we set out towards the High Dam. We had to cross the old dam and while doing so, we caught a glimpse of the first Cataract of the Nile. Though there weren’t much swirling water rushing through the stone outcrops, one can always imagine how spectacular it must have been before the dams were built. We passed a stretch of desert which I was told was the eastern edge of the great Sahara – how fascinating -makes me want to sit on a camel and embark on a desert safari. Since the morning at the Valley of the Kings, I have been wearing my shawl as a turban – in the true Bedouin style – tres chic I must say!! So no harm in fantasizing about hopping on a camel and seek out the mysteries of the desert!

The High Dam is definitely a giant feat of modern engineering. Apparently 17 times as much material went into its construction as was used to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops! The dam has also created the world’s largest artificial lake called Lake Nasser (named after Egyptian president who commissioned the dam), which reaches back 500km to the second cataract of the Nile in Sudan!Thanks to UNESCO, about 14 ancient temples were saved from the threat of submersion by Lake Nasser. One of them was the Kalabsha Temple situated now at the banks of the lake. It was visible from the view point of the High Dam, but the only way to reach it is by helicopter or a boat.

We drove on to see the unfinished obelisk in the ancient granite quarry. Had it been completed it’d have been 42m tall and would have weighed over 2.3 million pounds making it the world's largest piece of stone ever handled! Since no inscriptions were made on the stone, historians guess that it dates back to the time of Ramses II or Hatshepshut (New Kingdom 1570 -1090 BC). Standing in front of the gigantic obelisk I’ve had an epiphany – these Pharaohs weren’t very well-endowed! You know what they say in America – people with small …erm…apparatus buy big cars! Going by the same theory, the Pharaohs who weren’t very well-hung built extra large phallic shaped obelisks. Especially Hatshepshut, who asserted herself as a man, commissioned the largest number of obelisks – talk about overcompensation!

In the afternoon we went for a ride in the Felucca. What a wonderful little boat! It was rather windy and the boat kept tipping from side to side – it was great rush!! None of wore life-jackets (Ahmed insisted that we trust his judgment about the wind conditions) and the water of Nile looked dark and formidable! 12 weeks of swimming lessons with Frenchie hasn’t given me the confidence to even dip my toe in the Nile much less swim and save my life if we were to capsize! From the boat we had a better view of the Tombs of the Nobles and Aga Khan’s Mausoleum on the other side of the Nile. The trip back to the boat involved walking on a thin concrete ledge holding on to exposed re-bars for support! Its getting more and more adventurous every day - but not in a good way!

March 2, 2007

Today we were supposed to see Aswan at our leisure. Ahmed vanished in the morning after receiving a generous tip for his services – not that I’m missing him or anything! We checked out of the boat after breakfast and keeping our bags with the concierge, we went for a walk on Corniche El Nil (every city in Egypt has one such corniche) dodging various offers for Felucca rides and horse carriage tours! Indiaah – Namaste –Amitabh Bachchan seems to follow us where ever we go! I have developed a strong dislike for Mr Bachchan in the last few days!!!

We walked the entire length of the promenade and reached the Coptic Church. Being a Friday (equivalent to Sunday in non-Islamic countires) morning – the mass had just ended and a whole lot of Arab-Christians were coming out of the church. We walked into a hall – very plain, made of concrete and plaster and whitewashed walls greeted us. There weren’t any pews either – only cane chairs. The walls were mostly unadorned – few painting depicting Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection thereafter hung on one side. It was so sad! Even the Medak Church in middle of nowhere Andhra had more character than this! We quickly left the so-called cathedral and made our way into the Feryal Gardens across the street.

A group of noisy school-children waited outside the garden gates waiting for their turn to enter – and what an entrance that was!! With what sounded like a war cry, at least 50 children shot through the garden gates leaving us shocked and petrified in their wake! Sonny boy was paralyzed with fear, poor thing! And to make matters worse, a group of pre-pubescent girls decided to stare at sonny boy and whisper and giggle among themselves! Sonny boy declared that he hated girls in general – hopefully this hatred won’t last for long! I’m not very sure that those girls were laughing at sonny boy…may be collectively we looked like a funny family…who knows! We spent some time chilling out in the beautiful Feryal Gardens – located on a cliff just by the Nile – overlooking the idyllic Feluccas dotting the river, the ruins of the Tombs of the Nobles, Aga Khan’s mausoleum and the vast desert beyond.

We came back to the boat and waited for Akram who was to escort us to the Old Cataract Hotel (even though we knew exactly where it was!). The wait was long and tedious and somewhat irritating! Since we had already checked out, we didn’t really belong on the boat and on top of that there cropped up an issue of two missing cans of Heiniken from the mini-bar, which we knew nothing about! Finally cool dude Akram showed up around 1:30pm reeking of some strong perfume and we got off the boat for the last time with a bad taste in our mouth and me with yet another headache!

The Old Cataract, a very historic hotel in southern end of Aswan, that has hosted various celebrities and dignitaries since they opened their doors in the late 1890s. Their guest list includes names like Sir Winston Churchill, T E Lawrence, Lord Mountbatten, Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie (who immortalized the hotel in her famous novel Death on the Nile), President Mitterrand and Princess Diana among others. We decided to lunch at the picturesque patio overlooking the giant cataracts of the Nile and the ruins of the ancient Nubian village of Yebu, while our room got readied. By 3pm we were tired and anxious and extremely irritated. Finally a very apologetic Resident Manager informed us that we have been upgraded to a suite (sweet!!!) and escorted us to our room. And what a room!!!! Called the Champollion Suite (named after French archeologist Jean-Francois Champollion, who deciphered the Rosetta stone in 1822), it was by far the biggest room in the hotel with a spectacular view! Appointed with period French furniture (most likely Louis XVI – I’m not very sure!) and silk damask in yellow, gold and blue, it was bigger than a lot of apartments I’ve seen! Instantly our mood lifted! I went down to read by the pool, a glass of chilled white wine keeping me company while spouse and sonny boy took a dip. The room had a decent library of really old first edition books – I picked Voices in the Night by Flora Annie Steel published in 1900…seemed like an interesting story set in India during the Raj. The sun was setting over the western desert and the hotel seemed to glow under the light. I quickly went back up to the balcony to enjoy the view of the sun setting on the Nile.

One of the Old Cataract's broad and lofty corridors led to a vast Moorish dining hall simply called 1902. From the dome shaped ceiling that rises at least 40 feet if not more, hung a massive Moroccan chandelier flanked by a dozen or so smaller pendants which cast an ethereal glow on the entire hall. There is a formality and timelessness about dining in this vast hall with the dishes named after the hotel’s more famous guests from Howard Carter, Sir Winston Churchill to Prince Charles and King Farouk. Come to think of it, that we almost didn’t come to 1902 because Akram said that the restaurant didn’t allow guests in without a dinner jacket! Also the totally fish-y prix fix menu displayed outside thwarted us somewhat! They did have a whole bunch of vegetarian options in the a la carte menu. Great dinner, great wine and great ambiance – tonight I’m a happy camper! Wonder who all lived in this room before us and if there are any famous ghosts haunting the halls in the dead of the night!!