Wednesday, 23 July 2008

THE PHARAONIC TRIP

Easiness or simply my laziness in firing my imagination, prompts me to attempt a travelogue now.
The latest of my trips, of any significance, was to The Land of Pharoas - Egypt
After a few hours of stop over at Muscat I was scheduled to reach Cairo. The break fast menu, on board the airline,being nothing extraordinary, I just gobbled it up and initiated the standard procedures for catching up on my sleep.

OMAN AIR
By around 10 a.m I was in Muscat the Omani Capital. A stroll through the arrival and a climb up the stairs (or escalators - choice available) brought me to the small waiting lounge for the passengers. Traffic was thin, probably being early morning. The overall feel was of a small hotel with its mosaic, glazed tiles, glittering lights and all. Early in the path of human material progression, I should say.

In a corner was the money changer , manned by a tough looking guy who I guess would not have minded bashing you up, incase you happened to pay a lower exchange by mistake. Strangely even after spending some 2-3 hours in the lounge I couldnt find anyone exchanging any currency there. The Omani Riyal I noticed was quoating some where around Rs.110/-.

Not in a mood to exchange any currency, I strolled in to the duty free. They had an assortment of things right from kids toys and chocolates to clothes and other home gadgets. But the major emphasis I felt was on liquor, cigarretes and pefumes - the goods in demand by the immigrant Indian population , returning home on holidays.

The familiar site of the traditional "Mundu" , paying for his purchases at the cash counter, caught my attention. I was thrilled to see the free flowing mundu in an alien land - commendable
ofcourse. As I glanced at up at the departure announcements, the flight to Chennai had initiated check in -probably the reason for the "Mundu" to rush off in a hurry. Intrigued I strolled up to the cashier and asked if he accepted Indian rupees, since that and the USD were the two curriencies I was carrying. He assured me that both were accepted at the duty free, as also in most places in Muscat . No wonder our currency exchanger was swatting flies.

I strolled across to the large french windows that lined the hall. I gazed through them, over the wide expanse of sand and the quiet runway and hangars. SomehowI got the feeling of a country, laid back, easy going - a country, recent in origin, short on history and long on money.

Talking of heritage, I did see some of the artefacts of the early Omani culture, i.e. the original tribal inhabitants of Oman. These were exhibited in the "Art & Crafts shop"in the lobby. "Expensive" was the single all important word missing from the shops name plate. Pure cotton clothes - the gaudy coloured rags, were selling for thousands of Rupees. That was really a cultural shock, I should say.

The onward flight to Cairo was uneventful , except for the "thug-ess" of a stewardess who distictly gave the "dont mess with me " signal , especially to those passengers who were trying to give off a "I ve seen a lot of these" - attitude, when asked to put on the seat belts. Some of those who wished to use the wash room when the seat belt sign was on , were given a training on "libidinal control" by her and strapped on to their seats.


LAND OF PHAROAS
The smell of pyramids and an ancient culture were evident, even as I landed at Cairo International. Unlike in Oman the feel was entirely of a natural civilisation that had evolved over a period of time. The placed smelt of "HISTORY". Being winter , the chill was in the air. But the cold was pleasurable rather than being a harsh one. The Cairo International was in the process of further development/renovation as construction activity was going on. Though smaller than Mumbai International, it was colourfully painted on the outside, an attractive shade of wine red . The marble and granite in place of mosaic and glaze tiles were heartening to note.

The luxurious buses arranged by the tour operator took us through the deserts. We had to go across the city crossing the river Nile to reach our hotels where we were booked in for the trip.


As we left the airport area and entered the suburbs of the city the roads started getting congested with traffic. The slight drizzle, that had started, made the place look dirty. What really brought down my heightened holiday expectations were the innumerable unplastered, moss walled, houses and the apartment like honey comb structures, again unplastered and moss walled, that were seen at the side of the roads. I gazed in dismay, at those unfinished houses in large numbers, with muddy, sloshy lanes separating them. "Under developed", "fourth world", "slums" etc were some of the word that floated around in my mind during that melancholic feeling. Those houses had a different story to tell later.

The ride took us across the Nile in to the deserts once again, with the wide expanse of the white sand lifting up my spirits . The arrival at the hotel was the most welcome thing that could've happened to me then. Though not exactly a jet lag, slight home sickness could be felt, I have to admit. Hence after a strong tea, powered with snacks, I sank in to the fluffy double matress and under the warm blanket. The drizzle continued outside.


Lined up were the light and sound show of Pyraminds in the evening and the tent dinner at the foot hills of the pyramids.

THE TENT DINNER
The siesta continued in the bus ride to the Pyramids, until I was woken up roughly by the suddden revelry that broke out on our arrival there. The revelry was pre-arranged to welcome us, and none of the heroics that we never did , caused it. The tent was a beautiful red and quite in contrast to the white and grey sand.

As Egyptian music flowed, so did the wine and on stage was an Egyptian dance drama. The music was very rythmic and matched our Arabian thoughts. As the grand finale of the programme, was the famed Belly dance. Though show of skin does titillate, its not simply that. The dancers are rigourously groomed as in any other art form , I was told.

As I ventured a bit further in to the darkness shrouded desert, away from the tent, the dark expanse of sand in front did give an eerie thrill. The wind was very strong and cold was biting. The moon came out after a while. Still the dips in the desert were quite invisible even from a few feet away, anyone could hide there- it was trechearous. Some local arabs stopped me from going further out in to the desert, they said "distances are deceptive in the desert", which I realised after I had to walk for almost 25 minutes to reach back, trying to keep the tent in view. Iwas told that the temperature outside was around 2.0 degree centigrade.The tent was a world of warmth.













THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA

We rode up the hills , up and away from the valley. Metal detectors and a little careless frisking after, I stood beside those massive structures - the Pyramids of Giza. Three in the vicinity of one another. The Wonder -built by king "Cheops", a similar one built by his son and a much smaller one beside that. But in a few kilometers radius in the same desert , I was told that there are more than a thousand pyramids, big and small all put togather.

(The second largest on in the photo is the actual wonder and the bigger pyramid. The visibly largest is smaller and built ona higher ground.)
2,00,000 stones were used to built the Pyramid, the stones at the top weighing around 2.0 tonnes and those at the bottom weighing aound 15.0 tonnes. The stones were brought from the valley. Pulling up the stones to those heights is unimaginable just for one thing - the pulleys were yet to be invented. Sticking them togather was another issue - no cement , no concrete. Walking around the structures took me around 35 minutes. Roughly 3 kms - the base? The Pyramid was built over a period of 30 years. Not that it takes so long. Its because, the common people were involved in building it and not just the slaves. The Nile valley used to be flooded for 3 months in ayear , during which time the people of Egypt came up to built their beoved Pharoah a beautiful abode in heavens - The Pyramid. After the floods they went back to the valley, to their farms.

The pharoahs were buried, along with their treasures and things for their daily use in the after world . But the desert robbers who came later, I was told, did manage to clean up the place leaving just the structures, bereft of the treasures, for the tourists.
Intrigued by the absence of any desendants to the Pharoahs I enquired about the same.

"We are the descendants" - my guide said. Seeing the expression of disbelief on my face he ventured further- "The Pharoahs had more than hundred wives, i.e. publically acknowledged. What to say of the others. So you see..."
"I myself have 3 wives" - he said grinning. He sounded as if he is about to close the deal for acquiring one more.








The Sphinx
I dont know what makes it an awesome figure. There is something about it that draws u towards it. A sort of fearlessness, standing alone there towering above us. Folklores and stories apart - its simply magnificient. Also probabaly its the only real thing which has the face of a Pharoah. Simply put its induces a feeling of power and fear too.












The City
Taxis are all black. The city is full of vehicles but the traffic, though with jams, was more or less orderly. Around 5 million people enter Cairo every day to leave in the evening. Driving all the way into and out of the city. Petrol is aorund 1 Egytpian Pund i.e. INR 8/- around i.e around 1/5 of a US $. At the heart of the city, is the Anwar Sadat memorial - a fitting tribute to one of their modern day presidents whom the people revere.



















A place worth a special mention is the Khan-el-Khalili market which has all that Egypt has to offer to a shopping tourist. Its bustling with activity 24 x 7. All the paraphernalia, from an ancient Pharoanic civilisation - to the modern Egypt are avilable there. Right from the pharoahs war weapons to the belly dancers revealing clothes. Since Iam neither a war hero nor a belly dancer I left the market with a few 'papyrus paintings'. These are beautiful and colourful paintings on Papyrus . Again since Iam not an expert, either on papyrus nor on paintings, my judgements on the quality were based on the looks of the shops and shop keepers. Graver the face of the shop keeper- the more serious the shop keeper and hence more genuine the material. Also the richer the ambience of the shop, the better the quality.

The Nile Cruise

Nile , the longest river in the world and mother to one of the earliest civilisations in the world, supports the Egyptians even now - like a true mother. By feeding them through the tourism revenue . The Egytpians, atleast in Cairo, have constructed some palatial boats to carry the tourists along the river. The cruise lasts a few hours long, with food, drinks, and entertainment provided inhouse. Its certainly worth a ride, if not for the river, then for the lively entertainment.

The music an earthy arabian one , with the Egyptian folk art including belly dancing on display. Food quality though questionable, its an entertainment packed lively trip otherwise.

Though lively for me, the ride must have been monotonous for the artists, for day in and day out 365 days a year they do the same. But , as true proffessionals,the smile never left their face while they performed.

Back to the Pavilion
I once again lay back on the fluffy mattress at my hotel, ruminating over the past few days , gazing out the window through the smoke rising from my cigarette.

A few things came back strongly to me again and again, the Pyramids, the air thick with historical mystery and the heavy scent of tourism in their economy.

As I paid for a few things at the duty free at the airport, I enquired about some other items on the display.

After a brief look at me the man at the counter enquired - " Tourist"?

"Yes" I said

He came around the counter and in all politeness , carefully, showed me the antique pieces one by one which I had enquired about.

He , as all modern Egyptians , or atleast Cairoites, seem to have successfully turned into true tourism proffessionals.

EPILOGUE

The Pharoahs might have have flogged thousands of slaves to death while making the Pyramids. Many of his so called present day desendents and those of the slaves too, have a lot to thank those deeds of the Pharoahs for the bread they break daily.

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