A Journey

Basil & Tracy's Travels Abroad

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Christmas in Aswan - Wind and Water

Awake (so we must have had some sleep!) to dawn over the Nile. The railway line follows the river and an unbelievable ribbon of green, intensively cultivated land, the orange rock and sand of the Great Western and Eastern Deserts flanking it, a constant reminder of its brooding presence.

No longer having to rely on the ‘inundation’, this is all made possible by the High Dam, south of Aswan. Completed in 1970, it created the second largest reservoir in the world; Lake Nasser, which today provides Egypt with 85% of it’s energy, having drowned the entire Nubian homeland (bad luck, guys) in the process. Under the waters of Lake Nasser are the remains of human occupation dating back to the dawn of modern man, which was only properly understood by archaeologists in recent times. The lovely Nubian museum in Aswan displays a representation of what must still be down there, the story of civilisation. Also on the list of artefacts to be inundated, sacrificed to the gods of the modern world, were the Temple of Isis (the most powerful stronghold of the cult, and the last to resist the tide of Christianity, which held out here for a while before Salah al-Din sorted them out) and Abu Simbal, built by Rameses II to honour himself and fill his subjects and enemies with awe.

Four gargantuan statues of this megalomaniac guard the entrance, which is flanked by friezes of slaves, Nubian and Assyrian, roped together by the neck and crawling in obeisance.

Both of these were saved by a massive international effort headed by UNESCO, being cut into huge pieces and moved to higher sites at enormous cost. What else was inundated will remain forever a silent mystery. It is an impossible conundrum trying to decide on the rights and wrongs of this so, after scratching our heads and frowning a lot, we’ve decided that we don’t know what to think! We also don’t know what to think about the armed tourist police and army who have a high profile everywhere and escort tourist convoys to remote sights. Is this a token gesture to the international community, showing that Egypt takes security seriously, or just part of a military controlled state? It seems that Egyptians enjoy religious but not political freedom.

We arrive in Aswan, a bustling town in the far south of Egypt, almost on the border with Sudan and once fashionable winter resort for rich Europeans who travelled here courtesy of Thomas Cook, the first tour operator. The Aga Khan (who was weighed in jewels for his diamond jubilee in 1945) had a palace here where he spent his winters with his beautiful wife, a former Miss France. He also built a beautiful mausoleum, far bigger than the palace and it is said that, before she joined him there, the Begum put a fresh red rose on his grave every day and, on six successive days, when there were none to be found in Egypt, she had them flown in from Paris!

Bewitched by the silver tongue of Dominic, a lovely Irishman who has lived and taught in Cairo for the last couple of years, we find ourselves having our Christmas Dinner treat (omelette and salad) in the New Cataract Hotel (£6 each), our first non-Egyptian food for half a lifetime! This is the back door into the Old Cataract Hotel: the place to be in the 20’s, after dinner we wandered secretly through the rarefied and serene bubble of its gardens – Ahhh. The bubble is not burst, however as our hotel room has a BATH! For Christmas Basil bought me a bottle of bubble bath, and I wallowed in unimagined luxury, indulging in reading ‘Death on the Nile’ by Agatha Christie, the beginning of which is set in the Old Cataract Hotel (it’s funny what becomes a luxury, to be anticipated and savoured, when you’re travelling!).

Since then Egypt has shivered in a state of shock at the freak low temperatures it has been experiencing (down to 4o at night) along with high winds in this area. It is the only topic of conversation, people shake their heads and suck their teeth – ‘Very cold! Warmer soon, Insh Allah!’ We covered ourselves with more and more blankets until, Eureka! Hot-water-bottles! Fill your empty water bottles with very hot water and Bob’s yer uncle! The Egyptians think we’re mad (‘In Egypt we never do that’) but we’re the only warm people in Aswan at night! As a result of this cold, as well as a sandstorm, we postponed our planned trip (3 days and 2 nights) in a felucca (traditional Nile sailing boat) downriver to Luxor, until next Monday and are hoping the weather will turn more clement by then.

Meanwhile, there is lots to see and do here: we have spent a tranquil day in the charmed oasis of Kitchener Island, gifted to him for heroic deeds and where he indulged his passion for exotic plants from all over the Empire; been driven half-demented by wretched tourist hustlers, trying to sell you their wares (tourism has dropped away recently, a result, I suspect, of the media hype against all things Moslem); philosophised over countless cups of tea in the back of their shops with genuinely friendly people (who more than make up for the hustlers); wandered, invisible (they don’t hassle you at all, or even speak to you), through the Nubian village on Elephantine Island;

wobbled hither and thither on hired bicycles (much to the amusement of the locals!); met a flamboyant, gold-toothed Arab who produced a shenai from the folds of his five layers of djeleba and told us of his travels all over the world playing music; floated silently on a felucca, captained by the gently spoken and thoughtful Zukma, threading the many tiny islands in the river, to the west bank; and struggled, booted and intrepid across dunes and deserts (2 km!) between the ancient ruined monastery of St Simeon, standing alone in the dunes with only the chattering of sparrows to break the silence,

and the Tombs of the Nobles with their charming incised friezes.

We have had time to discover bakeries turning out hundreds of puffed up, hot, hot pitta breads, which they puncture with a stick to let out the steam;

olive and halva merchants (10p and 20p per 100 gms respectively!); big bunches of rocket, tied with strips of palm leaf; and very good, hard, salty cheese dotted with peppercorns. But best of all, when all’s said and done, was the invention of the hot water-bottle, an important addition to any traveller’s survival kit!

Latest Photos

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Camels in Cairo - Welcome in Egypt

Sabah el-kheer. Here we are in Cairo, described in our guide as: 'Defying doomsayers by dancing on the edge'. All that we have experienced since our arrival has confirmed the appropriateness of this. Twenty million people live here under a thick layer of smog; a third of whom have no running water. Teeming with people, the city never sleeps, with noisy, noisesome rush-hour conditions day and night. Crossing the road requires a leap of faith - just step out, follow the path of least resistance, and you will arrive on the other side - Insh Allah! Few of the roads have any markings, traffic lights or signs - just go with the flow, dart into any opportunistic spaces that present, sounding your horn with abandon, absorb the flow of jay-walkers and you will arrive. In bumpy, single-track, two-way lanes expect to meet: lorries, taxis, motor bikes, bicycles, donkey carts, hand carts and herds of sheep jostling for space with pedestrians, cross-legged hawkers, people bearing enormous trays of flat-breads or gas cylinders (or almost anything else you can think of!) on their heads and children playing in the gutters. Welcome in Egypt!

To balance the mayhem, or maybe to add to it, we find that the people are happy, friendly and welcoming. All kinds of people, young and old, rich and poor, calling across the street to you, inviting you for tea, offering you a taste of their wares and, always, 'You are welcome in Egypt'! We expected more hustlers here but, apart from Giza and the like, the Cairoese are more interested in being friendly than in your wallet. We have spent most of our time wandering through the souks in and around our neighbourhood; the souk of tentmakers (fantastic), souk of car accessoriess, vegetables, musical instrument makers, mobile phone accessories, harness makers, appliqué workers, furniture makers, goldsmiths, shoe makers, brush makers, second-hand books…almost medieval, but with a twist!

We climbed up the spiral staircase to the top of the needle-like miranet of a mosque to survey the scene ('You can see Giza from up there' we were told - no chance through the thick pall of smog!).

We visited Giza as well as some lesser-known, and therefore unfrequented, pyramid fields (there are hundreds of pyramids around here, standing in the desiccating desert, still and silent and timeless, their various shapes and sizes reflecting different periods of Pharonic history), driving to them through the lush date plantations and arable land on the banks of the Nile - such a contrast to the desert just a short distance away.

We absorbed the calm of the gardens of the Coptic museum (10% of Egyptians are Copts; apparently, the monastic tradition, the cult of the virgin and perhaps the symbol of the cross (the ankh? breath/life) originated in Egypt, the Egyptians of old (45 AD) could relate easily to the concept of the resurrection, especially if it is available to poor people who can't afford expensive burial rituals!

The Coptic church has its own pope, totally independent from the Vatican, and some of its liturgy are sung in old Coptic - a language descended from ancient Egyptian); we marvelled at the treasures of Tutankhamun, astonishing stuff; and, perhaps the best (!) have feasted on falafels, fuul (broad bean stew) and sticky sweets. A pitta stuffed with falafels, tahini and salad costs 50 piastres (5p) (sorry, Edd!) and a large, freshly squeezed orange, mango or pomegranate juice costs E£1 (10p) (sorry Jason!) - yum, yum.

Tonight we are embarking on a 12-hour, overnight train journey to Aswan, in the far south on the Nile, so who knows what we will find when we wake up! It doesn't feel very Christmassy here, although many people do wish us a Merry Christmas, but we are staying in a hotel off Rameses Square run by Copts, who have a tree and nativity, which remind us to wish all our friends a Happy Christmas and to send our love to everyone.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Swimming with the Fishes – Salt and Sun.

The last week has been spent alternately in the translucent, azure, silent depths of the Red Sea: cool, calm coral gardens, peopled by unimaginably strange and wonderful creatures, and the hot dry windy sundecks of our diveboats.

It is a privilege to be able to observe this other world – to get to know its inhabitants and their habits and, for a short time, to be part of it.

Mathew and Finnian, we have put some pictures here specially for you to look at.

Here is a fish who has waited his turn at a special place to be cleaned by little blue and black ‘arabian cleaner fish’. If you look carefully, and I’m sure you will (click photo to see it bigger), you can see that it opens its gills wide and the cleaner fish actually swim inside them and get rid of any parasites that may be there (they also go inside its mouth, though we didn’t get a photo of that); the fish seem to love this, like a dog when you scratch it behind its ear.

Here is a 'rockskipper blenny' who can live in the open air as well as in the water; this one is very small, about 4cm, and was hiding on a rock, isn’t it well camouflaged?

The next one is a Lionfish. You mustn’t touch it, even though he looks so beautiful, as it can give you a very nasty poisonous sting.

This one is a giant puffer fish (about 80cm long). When frightened it blows itself up like a huge prickly ball with a mouth and little fins and tail sticking out. We didn’t want to frighten it so we didn’t see it happen.

Here are two clown fish (the same as Nemo in the film) they are outside their home which is the bubble sea anemone behind them, they are very brave and territorial, and try to chase you away if you get too close, even though they are only small! (about 8cm).

Most of the time the fish just ignore you, they don’t seem frightened, and some actually come up to look at you! I think they know that they can swim away in a flash if they want to, because divers can only move in slow motion underwater.

A couple of times dolphins came and played alongside our boat – they love swimming in the bow wave (where the front of the boat cuts through the water) when the boat is going fast, and you keep thinking that the boat is going to hit them but it never does – they’re too clever for that! You can see some more pictures of the beautiful world under the sea if you click here

We met up with a really nice couple, Suzanne and Graham, both widely travelled and interesting to talk to. He runs Bite-Back, a shark conservation organisation which concentrates on reducing over-fishing by applying pressure on supermarkets to change their buying policies - a worthy cause in these days of massive over-exploitation of the last wild food resource on the planet. The beautiful and fragile eco-systems of the oceans that we still know so little about but could so easily destroy.

On the last dive we had a minor adventure. Having become separated from the rest of the group, and mindful of the guide’s warning not to go round to the windward side of the reef, we decided to stay on the inside of the reef while we finished our dive. On surfacing, although surrounded by other dive boats, we discovered that our boat was some distance away on the other side of the reef. Basil’s fluorescent flag finally found justification, it was raised and we were soon spotted and safely picked up.

We have had fun and games interfacing with locals: for instance, we went to the local Egyptian takeaway (‘Fast and Slow Food’!) hoping to buy 10 falafels for lunch. What we ended up with were 10 falafel sandwiches – pittas stuffed with salad, tahini and falafels! Luckily they were only 15p each, so it didn’t break the bank, though we wondered what they thought we were going to do with such a lot of food! The next time we went there they were closed, but the proprietor insisted on giving us a gift of some he had put by for himself. This kind of generosity seems commonplace and is very humbling.

We had a minor panic when we discovered that Basil had lost his fleece (hee-hee Edd!), containing wallet and flat key, during the minibus ride to the boat. Luckily it had been safely returned to the dive centre – a timely reminder to keep track of stuff when travelling.

It is very windy today, outside great clouds of fine dust go rolling past, and a fine film of it covers everything, floating hazily in the shady rooms of our apartment. We are making the most of the easy life here, knowing that Monday will see us stepping out into the hustle (and hassle) and heat of the real Egypt with our rucksacks on our backs…

Latest Flickr photo set

Friday, December 08, 2006

These Birds Have Flown

So, here we are in the dry dry heat of Egypt.

After an exhausting (physically and emotionally) final two weeks sorting the house out for the boys, having last minute doubts feeling that we were somehow breaking up the home, and sleepless nights, we arrived, frazzled, at Sharm el Sheik airport as the sun was setting over the Red Sea.

By a series of happy traveller coincidences we ended up on the first night at the hotel attached to the dive school that we were with this spring. Much to our surprise while we were having breakfast we spotted Nina, our guide from that previous trip. We said hello and asked her if she new anywhere cheap to stay. She was great and sorted out for us to take over the apartment that Douzer, one of the other dive guides, had just left for a new one.

As a result we were able to take on the apartment in a residential area of downtown Sharm el Sheikh with a big saving on hotel bills.

Tracy’s been working (copyediting – yes, Kate, that is me by the pool at the hotel on the first day!) and we have now settled in to days of snorkelling on the local reef (5 mins walk)

(fish are great – so calming).

We've been getting groceries at the amazing local shopping centre (see left) and generally chilling out.

[I can now, with eyes unclouded by stress, see that this is indeed a very good move for us all, Edd having the house feels great, not like breaking up the home, which we spent the last 24 years making (which is how it felt when we were boxing everything up into the loft) but opening our minds to possibilities where all the family can use it to help build their futures. What a relief! I should have listened to both Jason and Edwin’s council, they were right when they tried to reassure me, but it’s difficult to believe that your kids are wiser than you!]

The locals are very friendly, always ready with a smile and a greeting and happy to help. Walking along any road you are constantly solicited by taxi drivers who beep their horns and stop to offer you a ride, do they imagine that you have somehow forgotten that you needed a taxi?

We have uploaded a few other photos to Flickr if you want a look