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!

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