Sunday, November 17, 2002

high dams, enormous statues and chilled feluccas

Marhaba from Luxor!

I think my last email was sent just before I finished the advanced diving course?

Since then I've qualified as an Advanced OW diver (just - I almost aborted after the 4th dive of 5 due to problems with an ear infection and coughing up blood, but we got there in the end).

Then it was the overnight bus journey from Dahab to Cairo. 10 hours on the bus, from 10pm till 8am. Sounds ok.

Then the journey began.

For the first leg, heading West towards Suez across the Sinai peninsula, there were 2 ticket checks and 3 passport checks, spread over about 3 1/2 hours. We're now at about 1:30am, cramp is starting to set in due to the pygmy sized seats and every time I doze off there's another stop and document check. It really is the worst kind of sleep when that happens... Then the passport checks stop for some reason and we're motoring towards Cairo. I start to drift off again and then it starts... and apparently this was not a one off (according to the trusty lonely liar, at least). The 'comfortable' bus which I had paid 10 egyptian pounds more to take than the 'super cramped' minibus had a video in the small print.

To the uninitiated this may seem like a bonus. Something to entertain if you can't sleep. A slice of local culture, perhaps? Perchance a subtitled glimpse at local cinema? No. Oh no. How wrong you would be. The 'video' is played at full volume (full, as in 100%. As an experiment, try turning your TVs at home up to 70% and see how long it takes for the neighbours to call the cops. Even those of you who live in the countryside, miles from the nearest cow.) because it's very important to hear the actor's clothes rustle, hear their breathing, hear their heartbeat against the silk of their brasieres, hear their change jangle, hear their voice boom in arabic and echo and bounce through your skull. At 4am. When you'd really appreciate a little sleep but are cruelly denied by the tinny, straining speaker placed directly overhead. So you put on your walkman, play your favourite tunes, thinking perhaps this will be more soothing, and it is but, even at full volume, you can still hear the rustling clothes, heartbeats, shuffling shoes and arabic arguments. Until, about
4:30am, the video stops. Peace at last.

Then the bus stops for breakfast and everybody gets off and shouts a lot and it's all change and hustle and bustle and hither and thither. Until about 5am. When, at last you can sleep, curled up into a little ball that almost fits between the fully reclined seats in front of you and the ergonomically uncomfortable seats under your bones.

Still, it could have been worse. The aircon could have been working.

After that, it was Cairo itself. And I liked it.

I had been fed horror stories of hassle and hustle and pollution and crime. There are lots of people (about 20m?). There is a lot of traffic (the average velocity seems to be about 5mph, after all the swerving and lane changing and horn honking has been taken into accuont). There is a lot of pollution (one afternoon, looking at the same view I had in the morning, suddenly the pyramids appeared on the horizon, peeking through the dusty smog). And there are a fair few people trying to sell things.

But the people are friendly. The traffic is scary, but at least it sticks to the roads so you're safe on the pavement. There are lots of green spaces and quiet back streets and people sell stuff everywhere in the world. Perhaps I got lucky. Perhaps it's because it's Ramadan, or I look almost local, or I'm a man, or I've built up some good karma. But I'm looking forward to getting back to Cairo and spending some more time there.

After a couple of days in Cairo - very relaxed lunches, wandering the back streets, dinner,shisha and conversation with a friend of my family and his acquaintances, twice failing to coordinate a visit to the museum with their Ramadan opening times and having fun with the whole train booking procedure at Rameses train station - it was the overnight train to Aswan (not much sleep there either).

Aswan, home of the Nubians before the dam was built and flooded them out, was interesting enough to wander around. But it was up at 4am the next day (not much sleep, again!) to head south to the majestic wonder that is the magnificent temple of Rameses. It's big, it's funky, it's beautiful, it's chunky. It's carved into the rock on the outside and covered in carvings on the inside. Including Rameses charging into battle on his chariot, Rameses smiting his enemies, various gods and ritual scenes, Rameses smiting his enemies and did I mention Rameses smiting his enemies? It's excellent.

After Abu Simbel, back to Aswan. Long conversations with the owner of the hotel, Nasser Farouk, about equality, which he practices; the Aswan dam, which he helped build; and his artwork, of which I bought a sample. Made lots of friends in the souks, chilled with a shisha and fresh juice, broke my camera (well it broke itself really - suddenlt stopped working and won't focus on anything further than 1 metre away), more friends made in the tourist office, then up early the next morning (no sleep, again) for the felucca (sailing boat) to Edfu.

Two days and nights later, on the boat with a Sikh and his Italian girlfriend as well as our Nubian captain, and we arrived at Kom Ombo temple. The felucca was very chilled, but late nights (smoking shisha and playing cards) and early mornings (hard to sleep in when dawn's at 5 and you're sleeping outside) meant, yet again, no sleep for the wicked.

Kom Ombo was ok (if a little ruined), Edfu temple was very well preserved and gave a lasting impression of size, then Luxor's Karnak temple and Luxor temple all in one day and Temple overload starts to set in...

Today was the valley of the queens, the valley of the kings, and Hotchickensoup (Hatchepsut) temple - not quite what I expected, and generally left me a little underwhelmed, but the tomb of Nefertari was the awesome exception. Now suffering from complete monu-mental overload and sleep deprivation. But that's ok. Tomorrow's a lie-in, then it's back to Sinai for a week of relaxation before a return to Cairo for a quick looksee-looksee of the Pyramids before heading back to Blighty. Remind me - what is this thing that is rumoured to fall from the sky? Ray-in? Sounds like an interesting concept...

Here in Aswan it, apparently, never rains. Our erstwhile guide today (Alah-ad-din, as in genie and the lamp) claimed that it last rained here last January, for two minutes, and the next rain is expected in a couple year's time. It's a remarkably green place, considering, but this is all thanks to the Aswan dams (that control the level of the Nile) and Nile-based irrigation schemes.

One last quickie - there are lots of unfinished houses here. Alahaddin said this was due to several reasons:
1) when you have more kids, or some of them get married and move in, you pick up the building again and add another storey
2) there's a 40% construction tax to pay when you finish a building, so it pays to be 'under construction' ad infinitum
3) it never rains, so there's no issue with having no roof on your house

That's all for now,

off to bed - hooray!


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