Saturday, March 21, 2009

Me, Amitabh Bachchan and Egypt

When I first landed in Cairo and the car driver who took me to the hotel said ''Indian ?.....I know Amitabh Bachchan'' I beamed with pride and thought Big B really is one of his kind ! The same thing happened with the porter, the waiter and at the end of the day my enthusiasm, on hearing the tall man being mentioned, had dropped way down and there came a point in the next couple of days when I was totally annoyed and actually said I come from China....well, I will get to that story later !

Before anything, spending a week in a country that needs atleast 2 weeks for a tourist to get a glimpse of everything was not a great idea but given the time and budget constraints I had to make the best of it.

Where did I go: Cairo, Giza, Aswan, Luxor, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Bitter lake (Ismailia and Fayed)


What ''touristy'' things did i do: Saw the pyramids (duh?), temples, carpet weaving, papyrus making, perfume palace, took a camel ride, horse-carriage ride, felucca ride, nile cruise, bought souvenirs among others...

What was Amazing

Journey to the afterworld: Pyramids, Sarcophagi, Mummies, Shrines.....When I think about it, all of it aim at making the journey to the afterworld easy and comfortable. I cant help wondering about how much thought has been given to this when for eg., the whole mummification process, a miracle in the world of medicine is to keep the body intact when the soul returns. The 4000 yr old pyramids, an unbelievably geometrically perfect construction is nothing but a pharaoh's tomb....almost every wonder revolves around their belief that they will rise again after death and I am filled with awe w.r.t their belief in eternal life and as to how this has gone on for generations when noone ''practically'' did rise from the dead (the Mummy movie suddenly makes a whole lot of sense than it did before !)

I have always grown up with the belief that there is something spiritual about the journey to the afterworld and you become one with God. So initially when I heard about how the tombs have the clothes, jewels, furniture and all other personal belongings of the deceased so that when he/she ''comes back'' they feel at home, this need for materialistic pleasure kind of bothered me but when I think of all the rituals that I do at home and in the temple in the form of prayers, I understood that people do have a way of expressing their beliefs and the form of expression and their perspective need not necessarily define or defy the belief itself !

Nile Cruise: I have read about it, seen it on TV but nothing compares to how it actually is ! The vast nile as far as you can see, the scenic villages on either side with the desert beyond will stay in my mind forever. Added to this are the comforts of modern times - great cabins, sun decks, delicious breakfast/lunch/dinner buffet. There is more to come though - the places where the boat docks - be it Aswan or Luxor or Kom Ombo or Edfu there is a beautiful 3000 year old temple waiting for you !

Mummification: Learning about the process is one thing but seeing 3000+ year old mummies where you can actually still identify the person, spot his manicured nails, notice his teeth is spooky and amazing !!

Luxor City: The nile in the middle, the majestic Valley of Kings and Hatepshut's temple (this time I was replaying Mummy in my head - movies really are educational !) on the west bank and the karnak and Luxor temples on the east bank make Luxor a perfect tourist destination. Inspite of tourists flocking to this place and the local population, the city is so well maintained and makes you wonder if you are suddenly in a developed country ! I would most definitely recommend staying in Luxor instead of Cairo.

Temples: When I was searching online for tourist information I came across tips from quite a few Egyptologists (I dint know the word existed !) and when I saw the temples, I perfectly understood why ! Knowing the stories and the meaning of each figure or hieroglyphic in one of the temples would take years ! Just seeing them and getting only the ''tourist-guide'' information takes half a day for every temple and to think that there were built 2000 or 3000 years ago is simply mind-blowing ! I saw only the Karnak temple at night and in daylight and I was overwhelmed in both cases (obvious from my use of exclamation marks, eh ?!)

Perfumes: When you enter a perfume palace (thats how these places are called) you get a demonstration of how the perfume holders (beautiful bottles) are made (If you have been to Disneyland and seen glass making, its pretty much the same). Then you are taken to an area with oriental couches and end tables with beautiful vases. I would think it would be impossible for anyone who sits there to leave without buying anything !

This is followed by a very friendly salesman offering you Hibiscus tea (I am not a tea person and to me it tasted like one of those teas I drink when I am down with flu). He then offers you a few essences that you can try on. Now comes the amazing part - almost every essence reminds you of a Calvin klein or Hugo boss or some other branded perfume you have tried on sometime. Sometimes he dares you to find out the brand and then goes on to explain how these essences are used to produce the perfume bottles that stare at us from all duty free shops !

I ended up buying a 25ml sample and the pure essence is so strong that I am sure I am going to end up using it for as long as I live !

What was a let-down

The Sphinx: Thanks to all the movies, I have always imagined the pyramids and Sphinx looming high in the middle of nowhere....in a desert....when I got there, my first disappointment came from the pyramids being so close to civilisation....for God's sake, there is a pizza place right in front of the sphinx !!!

All the pictures of the Sphinx with the pyramids in the background show the head of the sphinx just a little below the top of the pyramids. Even when Obelix climbs the Sphinx in ''Asterix in Cleopatra'' its quite an effort for him and that is enough for me (:D) to think of the Sphinx as a ''mammoth''. I was totally shocked on seeing how small (relatively, that is) it looks in reality.....when I saw it, I had to quickly erase and rewrite everything I had seen and heard of it (see, the problems of expectation....sigh...)

Beverages: Seeing all the oriental tea and coffee cups/saucers made me wait with anticipation when I first ordered coffee and I couldn't help but laugh when the waiter brought Nescafe and our very own lipton dip tea ! Not once did I have freshly made coffee or tea anywhere.

Jam-packed Tours: All or rather most guided tours in Egypt are planned to pack as much as possible within a day. This is rather difficult when you want to stop and admire a few inscriptions or decipher a few heiroglyphics in one of the huge temples. Most tourist guides (all of them are required to pass a course and get an id from the govt.) know only the ''key'' stories (say, about Cleopatra and Ceasar) and have little knowledge about the actual history. Nor do they appreciate questions like ''Is Ramses related to Ram ?'' (''Ra'' actually refers to a God in Egyptian history).

Interesting/bizarre facts/incidents

Toilet paper: hehehe....I never thought I would say there was something interesting about toilet paper......read on.....I went to the loo and when I noticed there was no toilet paper I came back to ask the lady-in-charge and she came towards me with a toilet paper roll. As I stretched my hand to take it from her, she takes a few plies from it and hands it to me !!!! I really thought she was being funny but when I saw her do the same thing to another woman behind me, I realised that somehow there was restricted paper supply and although, I was hoping against hope that it was confined to that restroom only I knew it would be in vain. God knows how embarassing it was when I had to ask different ladies-in-charge that I would need a few more squares....kadavule....!!! It was during one of these moments, that ''Indian ?....Amitabh Bachchan'' surfaced again and I ended up saying ''China'' !

Entrance fees: Entrance fees are almost as high as what one would pay in Europe and in some cases, even higher. I paid almost 120 euro in just entrance fees and whats more, they are increased on a weekly basis. In one case, my lonely planet guide, published 2 months ago said 65 egy. pounds while my guide said it had increased to 80 the previous week but the actual fare I paid was 100 !

Belly Dancer: Remember seeing the girl who made coins dance over her belly button just by her graceful movements in the Guinness book of records ? Well, you should get rid of that picture when you get ready to watch some belly dancing in Egypt. Unless you are in the dance bar of Oberoi or Hilton hotel, expect the belly dancer to really have a huge belly ! One cant actually complain since tourism contributes to a major part of the country's economy i.e becoming tourist guides or belly dancers are career options that will definitely pay.

Pounds - english or egyptian? In front of one of the sites, there was a man selling stone minatures and he had 3 quite good pieces in his hand and he kept shouting ''10 pounds for 3''. I was tempted to take a look and when he asked how I wanted to pay, I said pounds and he says he was shouting the price in english pounds and the price in egyptian pounds was 100 for the 3 (Even with the exchange rate 10 english pounds are about 80 egy. pounds !). I was irritated and amazed at his marketing skill....I totally laughed in his face and started walking away and his price when I got into the car was 20 egy. pounds ! I still did not buy those since I couldn't bring myself to encourage his ''false'' marketing !

Blame it on the Onions ! The plight of onions in Egypt is really sad. Every waiter seems to blame everything on it. In one place, when I needed a different spinach dip instead of salsa, the waiter points to the onions in picture in the menu and says ''chicken...not vegetarian...salsa very good''....good strategy to save him from some effort but not good enough ! Weirdly enough, in another restaurant the mixed vegetables had small pieces of meat and when I pointed those to the waiter trying to explain for the umpteenth time that I am a vegetarian, he says ''No meat...fried onions'' !!!

Sarcasm/Humour: Here are some samples.....

In a restaurant - I ask the waiter where the restroom is. He says ''restroom today holiday''. I wasnt sure if I understood him right and so I repeated my question and he says the same thing again, only more earnestly....silence....then he bursts out laughing at my bewildered look and points me to the restroom ! dhoda !

In a taxi - After a long ride, I hand him 320 egy. pounds and asked him to check it since it was made up of multiple denominations. He counts it and says ''there is 420'' and says ''my tip'' with a big smile and while I am thinking ''oh..dear God'' he totally cracks up....ahaa....kelambitangayya, kelambitanga !

In the perfume palace - I had a cold and when the salesman noticed it, he offered to let me smell a ''mint'' essence for relief and I told him, back home, we have a similar remedy - the eucalyptus. He brought back a glass which has fumes rising from it and asked me to smell it. He asked me if it was good and although I was able to smell nothing I wanted to be polite and so nodded while he laughs and says ''this is just boiled water'' and then adds the essence to it ! well, I made a mental note that I gotta learn to say ''No'' !!

Inside a temple - I ask my tour guide if he would take a picture of me and the gang and he gives me an irritated look and says ''no''. This time though I am ready for him and say ''yeah, right'' and hand him the camera but he still continues to stare at me and I stare at him and he finally relents and smiles.....idhu ennadhu idhu, chinnapilla thanama illa irukku...!

There were also some ''adults-only'' jokes though none of them were intended to be offensive...thankfully !

Cuisine: Although egyptian cuisine includes a lot of meat, the variety of salads, rice and sweets make it a good place for vegetarians too ! In Egypt, Kebab and Koftas are NEVER vegetarian. This is especially for those who are used to veg. koftas and kebabs in the numerous turkish stands in Europe .

Attitude towards Indians: Egyptians identify a lot with Indians right from skin color to carpets from Kashmir to sandalwood cosmetics from India. Above all, everyone seems fascinated with Big B, Mithun Chakravarthy, Amjat khan (One guy even mentioned Gabbar Singh !). Also they are used to Indians traveling to Egypt from the Middle East. In some cases, it works to one's advantage but in some cases it might end up in a second-class treatment since we are not exactly ''foreigners''.

left to right from Reading: Looking at the Internet pages that I look at normally and reading them from right to left in Arabic was quite interesting !

What totally reminded me of India

Traders/shopkeepers: 20 years of training in bargaining and haggling over prices with numerous shopkeepers in India came in quite handy. Prices stated were inevitably atleast 10 times the normal price. Plus the shopkeeper also was generous in his compliments w.r.t good looks and happy family and abt how he liked Indians ! I really felt bad for the foreigners with no or minimal experience in such verbal combat !

Lipton Dip Tea: Anytime, anywhere, ordering tea inevitably meant getting a cup of hot water with a lipton dip in it !!! When I ordered tea at the Bombay airport and paid 60 rupees for it, I was shocked to get a lipton dip tea and failed to understand why anyone would prefer that over freshly made chai, in India, the land of Tea !?!?!

Driving: Driving is as chaotic as in India only at higher speeds ! There is no concept of blinking, blind spot, sticking to your lane or taking care while overtaking. If you have a car with a loud horn, you are good to go !

Hospitality: Making tourists really welcome, trying to accomodate your needs - I attended a show that went on till 9:30 pm and since I knew I was going to miss the dinner buffet at 7 pm, I had asked the manager if it was possible to save some food for me. Not only did I get warm food served in my room at 10:00 pm after I came back but I got 3 plates full of all the vegetarian food and sweets they had available in the buffet. I am sure that I wouldn't have tasted all of them had I gone to the buffet myself !

Tipping: Everyone and literally, everyone expects a tip (and some in euros !)

Wooing: Many youngsters just give you ''looks'' and murmur something in Arabic but those who want to flaunt their knowledge of english say ''beautiful lady'' or ''nice''...

The urge to say yes even when its a no: Nobody will ever agree that something is not possible. they will say ''we can do it, my friend'' but that really doesnt mean anything until its actually done!

All said and done, I had a trip involving 4 flights, more than 3 cars, a felucca, a boat, a horse-carriage and a camel and I still managed to stick to schedule and not lose any of the baggage - I would call that a great trip !

.......and I have already thought out an itinerary for my next visit (I can already see myself staying in Luxor, making a day trip to Abu Simbel, another to the middle of the desert, a short flight to Cairo to visit the remaining portions of the Egyptian museum and the library in Alexandria!) whenever that might be !

Disclaimer: I have loosely used ''I'' everywhere since it makes it easier to write but the views here are shared by the gang and me.

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