Sunday, January 29, 2006

Travels in the Antique Land

I met a traveler from an antique landWho said:
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias haunts every step of a journey through Egypt. The antique land – a blue river through a green furrow in a vast yellow-brown desert.

Despite many many notes to myself to “do some homework” before going to Egypt, there we were on the 21st of December, all packed and ready and I hadn’t even made that trip to the British Museum again, let alone read the book we brought on Egypt. But then, who reads guide-books before going on holiday! It therefore came as a bit of a surprise to learn that we might need warm clothes for Cairo!

Cairo! If there’s one place in the world who’s name is redolent with mystery, it’s Cairo. If an operation is codenamed Cairo – you can be sure its very cloak and dagger. But there we were all flesh and blood and a bit confused stepping off the plane into the desert night and immediately getting caught out by a feeling I’ve never known before – of being in a land with a completely impervious language and a somewhat menacing aura about it. (And no, I’m not confusing it with the US of A!) – from the moment that they took our passports away at the immigration desk with a dismissive wave of our hand to proceed on without it, I realized how unused we are to this situation. No language is shared. No communication is encouraged. Just a very brusque military outlook.

The hospitality department begins just behind this military façade. But throughout Egypt the military presence lurks beneath the sheen of the tourism industry – more often than not a benign and reassuring presence. At the airport, large and little men in suits and wide smiles and with tags on silver chains hanging from their necks tell us that they’re from the ministry of tourism and will guide us through the process of getting taxis out of the airport. It is they who inform us that the passport has not been confiscated, it is merely being used to enter data into the computer system. Relieved, but not quite trusting, we decide to call the Sofitel and find out the rate for the taxi to the hotel. Ultimately one of the suited officers, does guide us to the taxi, and is all crisp, friendly and businesslike, but in his polite and professional way, asks for a baksheesh while Karuna starts the first of what is to be a nearly continuous series of price-negotiations,. The guide book, which we have started reading on the flight says 25-50, but the taxi starts at 100, which is closer to what the hotel suggests. If memory serves me right we settle at 75. We’re still learning to get familiar with the exchange rate – which is about 10 Egyptian pounds to the Sterling and close to 7 to the Euro.

The Sofitel at Giza is almost a 45 minute drive – parts of it through Cairo city. It is stunningly similar to driving through Mumbai with one big difference – the roads are shiny new and the cars zip along at a hundred kilometers an hour. But the buildings, the demeanour of people on the street, the shops and restaurants and the general ethos of the city seem to be an absolute replica of Mumbai, or as I still think about it, Bombay. Of course the little differences pop out more because of the dramatic sameness. Sartorially of course, many Egyptians dress the Arabic way, there are many more mosques and funnily (but not so surprisingly when you think about it) there’s a McDonalds, Pizza Hut or KFC almost every couple of hundred yards of the journey, but just those 3. No other real icons of the west save the odd hoarding for Coke.

All hotels in Giza pride themselves on having a view of the pyramids, which isn’t surprising since they tower over the horizon on the suburbs of Cairo. It’s the first thing you see you see as you step out, but we didn’t till about 10:30 on the first morning, and we decided to take in Cairo city first, leaving the pyramids for the next day.

We were told that guides couldn’t be found at short notice, so the hotel fixed us up with a driver who spoke English and could be part guide, part driver. Enter Mr. Sayeed. He was incredibly dapper, very polite, a great champion of the Cairo tourism cause and completely hopeless as a guide. Over the next 2 days we went from liking him and treating him like an uncle to actually being insanely annoyed with everything he said an did. Poor guy, he was just doing his best. If we said, now we want to eat, can you take us to a place where we can get good local food, he would say “OK, we see the Citadel first and then we go eat”. We would say “NO, we eat NOW”. Then he would take us to a ridiculously touristy place and we’d end up eating at a KFC. Towards the end of our stay in Cairo, when we said is there some nice, coffee place on the river where we can really get to see the real Cairo, he nodded and drove us straight to TGI Fridays.

But back to the city of Cairo, whose distinguishing feature is the uniform sandstone colour which is the colour the whole country is painted with. And the toadstool-colony like proliferation of television receiving dishes on every building. Not small, unobtrusive ones, but giant ones that would each take 4 men to carry. Every building has a dozen of these on the terraces, bursting out of balconies and hanging on to the walls like bizarre growths on the architecture.

The old market or “Souk” at Cairo has very tangible signs of age and antiquity. The Café Al Fawsi is hundreds of years old and proudly displays its age in its very medieval characteristic. Hot, strong, thick, and sweet coffee – mostly served black is the order of the day, before we embark on an incredible 45 minute journey through the bye-lanes of Cairo’s marketplace, in a large Toyota. People have to squeeze against the walls and into recesses to let us pass. Cycles are lifted, three-wheeled barrows are jostled, maneuvered and the road twists and turns like the small intestine of urban sprawl. Children, poultry and all forms of merchandise and services adorn the lane like improbably friezes. A couple of times we meet oncoming vehicles and like a mating dance the 2 cars go back and forth prodding and searching for space till one backs into an alley or to a crossing to let the other pass. If this was me driving I’d have panicked but we just sit back and watch with detached interest this impossible journey. Ultimately we emerge out into broad, open spaces 45 minutes older and 2 kilometers further in this journey we call life. The Egypt adventure has begun in earnest and we haven’t even seen the Pyramids yet.