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!

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

I'm alive...

...and a qualified 'Open Water' diver too.

Feels so... free ...underwater - gravity is suddenly almost optional, 'up' is a very relative concept and you can just hang around chilling with the fishies or checking out the underwater landscape, or swim through tunnels or sand banks covered in eels.

Basically, I'm hooked.

So I'm staying on in Dahab for 2 more days, leaving the truck to go to Cairo without me.

It's 'au revoir' to the Antipodeans and 'hello' to the underwater world!

Christian Seaman <-- the surname finally fits :)

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

Mohicans, Mosques, Mosaics and Mountainsides

Salam aleykum!

Ok, next up is Damascus. The oldest continually inhabited city in the world and former capital city of the Islamic world. Spent a sunny afternoon wandering the back streets, at first with four others then on my own (after they thought it would be a good idea to get mohican haircuts at the barbershop then didn't fancy going into the mosque).

The Umayyad Mosque was built to be an unmatched jewel and, although most of the gold mosaics and frilly bits are gone now, it still holds its own against Istanbul's Blue and Suleyman Mosques. A gigantic inner courtyard paved with blazing white flagstones (got a kind of snow-glare headache from looking at them too long) and surrounded on one side (originally all four) by a golden mosaic depicting Muhammed's vision of paradise. Inside is grand too, but slightly lop-sided thanks to the green-glassed mini-chapel built over the supposed final resting place of John the Baptist's head.

Elsewhere in the mosque is another chapel (I have to admit that I don't know the Islamic equivalent for a 'chapel'), this time full of weeping pilgrims from all over the Islamic world ranging from men in expensive looking robes (Saudis?) to women in head-to-toe black (Iraqis or Iranians, I've been led to believe). And all there to visit the tomb of Muhammed's grandson.

After the mosque, I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of old Damascus as well as the taste of the incredibly creamy ice cream topped with crushed pistachios. A very well spent 25p!

The next day was an early start for a run to the border, the crossing into Jordan and a trip up to Mount Nebo.

Mt Nebo is where Moses is said to have died, after seeing the promised land. There is a church full of mosaics and a giant brass 'rod of moses' (although the real one is in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, if you remember back that far!) as well as a fantastic view west across the Dead Sea into Israel and Palestine and north to northern Jordan. On a clear day (which it wasn't) it's possible to see all the way to Jerusalem.

From 1600m above sea level we descended to 400m below and went for a dip in the Dead Sea just as the sun was itself dipping, below the horizon. Dead Sea floating... very strange sensation - it's like gravity's been reversed. If you lie on your back, almost all of your body floats out of the water. If you lie on your front, your arms and legs float up into a sort of sky-dive position. If you stay vertical, you bob in the water like a buoy. And the water STINGS. if you have cuts, bruises or a case of the shits, prepare for a lot of... tingling.

We were forcibly ejected from the water by policemen with a giant searchlight and large automatic weapons (it's apparently illegal to swim in the Dead Sea after dark). So, salt encrusted and starting to itch, we decided to hike up a mountainside for 20 minutes, in the dark, to find a thermal spring to wash off the salt.

It was worth the effort, and risk to life and limbs, to find a large pool with a warm waterfall and a cave full of piping hot (40 deg C?) water. Excellent :)

The cooks rounded off the day with a fantastic dinner and I fell asleep in the truck (no camping - ie. tents - allowed where we were), curled up in my sleeping bag.

The next morning I was woken by half a dozen flies crawling on my face. Not nice. As I woke up and looked around, it got worse. A plague of flies, of almost biblical proportions, had descended upon us. Dozens of them on shoes and bags, and many more on the cooking pot and side of the truck.

We made ourselves scarce and headed back up to Mt Nebo, with an unrequested police escort. They had been patrolling back and forth all night, then pulled out of the car park in front of us and drove (too close) in front of us all the way to the town of Madaba. Not sure why... but I hear someone fairly famous got shot in Jordan about the same time we were there????

Madaba is a small town with lots of mosaics, in including a gigantic mosaic map of the middle east from Sinai up to Syria. After a morning there it was a long drive south to the village of Wadi Musa, gateway to Petra.

Up at 5am the next morning to get a full day in Petra. And it was well worth it! It's hard to describe why a city carved out of the mountainside is so awe inspiring, but it was. From the postcard-famous 'treasury' tomb to the djinn blocks and the obelisks up by the 'high place of sacrifice' down to the theatre carved from the mountain itself and up to the gigantic monastery 860-something steps up the mountain on the other side. 28km of walking up and down the scraggy half-paths off the beaten track of Petra, out of breath while our pot-bellied guide for the day barely spent 5 minutes without a cigarette in his mouth and never seemed to shed a bead of sweat. I think he was cross-bred with the mountain goats...

Like I said, though, I really can't explain it all... check out the photos on my Flickr site for a taster then go there. Preferably soon, 'a' because the tourists are staying away atm and 'b' because it now costs #6 instead of #20 for a day pass (partly because of 'a'). The next day I went back on my own at 5am and had the place entirely to myself until about 8am, save for a couple of donkeys and a group of Bedouins just visible and audible in the distance. Eerie, awesome and totally recommended. But Jordan had (even) more in store - Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum is a desert, and a certain T.E.Lawrence hung out there for a while. Then again, the Grand Canyon is a river bed and Niagra Falls is some water going over a cliff. And, to me, Wadi Rum is every bit as spectacular, in a different way, as the Grand Canyon (not been to Niagra yet, so can't comment on that one). Lots of desert, then rocks and mountains in fantastic formations rising from the shifting sands. Colours that shimmer and change as the sun rises and sets, mountains that fade in and out, nearer and further, when you pause for a moment on a morning trek and stare at them (not sure why - heat haze? dehydration? sand in the air?). Managed not to fall off a mountain (again) that I was circumnavigating on my own, although I can't guarantee the fate of the 6 apparently abandoned puppies that did their best to chew off my ankles during a particularly tricky rock face ascent.

After two days in the desert with jeeps, camels and trekking on foot, it was back to the truck and a jaunt down to Aqaba to catch the ferry to Egypt. We arrived here in Dahab a couple of days ago and I convinced myself that doing a dive course would be a good idea. For those of you that don't know - I can't really swim. Hasn't been too much of a problem so far, but I had to swim 200m at one point - managed to scam a face mask (ostensibly to prevent my contact lenses being splashed off) so made it in the end, mostly on my back but with a mix of freestyle (to call it 'front crawl' would be a lie), breast stroke (with arms and legs working at the same time, hence sinking between each stroke) and doggy paddle (thrown in when I hoped the instructor was looking the other way).

In 24 hours, if I haven't drowned or had my inner ears implode, I'll be a qualified 'Open Water Diver'! Who would have thought it?

Dahab is a strange old place, too. Apparently the dope capital of the Middle East until a recent crackdown - now there's nothing on show, but a few people have managed to seek out a score. The town, such as it is, is mainly along the sea front with dive shops, souvenir stalls, hotels and restaurants done out in whitewash-with-fairylights. There's the old cliche of women in black headscarves walking past (drop dead gorgeous) scando blondes in skimpy bikinis squeezing into a wet suit branded 'body glove' and oh how I'd love to be that glove covering supporting and caressing every curve keeping warm the skin beneath moving when she moves and --
But I digress.

Having a brilliant time, even though a slight head cold is doing its best to sabotage my diving. And I promise to take some time out and reply to everyone's emails before I leave Dahab (2 more days) too.