The sun really is the god of Egypt
It isn’t hard to imagine why Ra reigned supreme in Egyptian mythology. The sun controls everything here, not just the rhythm of waking and sleeping as he comes and goes from the sky, but is ever present in each breath upon the earth.
I’m reminded of a fable I heard once, about the wind and the sun who were competing to display their power. They bet on who could reduce a man to nudity faster. The wind blew, and blew, and the man just clutched his cloaks tighter. The sun, in very short order had driven him from his clothing with her radiant heat alone. Egypt is like that. Every speck of shade becomes a respite and a destination. Every breath of wind worthy of a whispered thanks. And water, the sweet green river of the Nile, liquid life in an otherwise parched land.
I thought about that as the camel lumbered out of the village and out onto the desert. Remembering the awe with which I first viewed the ocean of sand which is the Grand Erg Oriental, from the deep south of Tunisia, where the desert scrub stops and suddenly there is nothing at all but sea like waves of sand. Here the moon like landscape is split down the middle of the country by the snaking green river of oasis that stretches south to the border with Sudan along the banks of one of the great rivers of the world, ending, for Egypt at least, at the Aswan High Dam with the enormous reservoir that is lake Nasser.
The pyramids took my breath away…
…from the first moment they came into view. I’ve read cynical reports of how disappointing they look at first, how small and insignificant. It was not so for me. Much like the rock at Uluru they deceive the eyes with nothing natural growing around them to lend perspective. And, of course, the closer one gets, the more enormous they grow.
Standing at the base of the greatest of them all transported me back to the jungles of Central America where, as a child, I discovered the pyramids of another continent and climbed like a monkey over them while my father told me the stories of great civilizations long since passed. Like everyone who has passed before me I marveled at the size of the blocks, how they could possibly have been moved into place and what it meant for the world that a civilization such as this could have its knowledge pass into obscurity.
Standing in Ramses Central station, with sweat pouring out of every single pore of my body, aware of the slow, tepid trickle over every vertebrae. Moisture marked my long white tunic and I could feel the salty slick in even the bends of my knees as I shifted my weight in front of the station board, hoping that the listings would switch from Arabic to English at some point. They did. Train 86 to Aswan. 8:15. On time. Track 8. Excellent.
“You have friend?” he crooned at me sideways, casting his eyes around the station for another (non-existent) westerner.
“Yes,” I tapped the oversized silver ring I wear in place of my wedding ring when I travel.
“I can help you, where are you going? I’ll be your friend…” I smiled, thanked him and walked off briskly to find something urgent that I was looking for, anything….
Should you be leaving Ramses Central on the second day of the Eid festival, know that the food shops upstairs are almost all closed… except for KFC. And thus, I found myself sitting at a wobbly metal table, on a rickety wire chair, pack jammed into an alcove at shoulder height to avoid having to put it on the floor. The water being pushed down the pretty tiled floor looked like the worst part of the Nile as it runs through Cairo: dishwater brown, filled with trash, and smelling a bit sour. They were vigorous about their work, creating little tsunamis of disgust flecked with bits of food, cigarette buts, paper trash and… I don’t know what else, and you don’t want to either. Lifting my feet to avoid any contact with the splash I shivered as I munched on the Egyptian style spicy chicken and not-half-bad french fries with ketchup squeezed from packets that I wished I’d had my sewing scissors to open. The (highly marginal) chocolate cake was the only redeeming factor. A treat I’d awarded myself for
a- Finding the station
b- Sorting the train as an illiterate infidel
c- Swatting away the “helpful friends”
d- My own little celebration of Eid
Besides, the food on the train would probably be terrible (and yes, indeed, it was).
Take the night train…
You’ll be happy to know that the night train between Cairo and Aswan is reliable, and reasonably comfortable accommodation and transport. Expect to be jammed into the foreigners car and isolated from the national passengers. Expect air conditioning and an attentive steward. And expect drop down beds that are hard as rocks but very clean and serviceable. To this point I’d seen exactly two other North Americans in Egypt: a mother-daughter combo at Giza. On the train four others presented themselves:
Virginia was well represented by an optimistic young man who is here on a three month stint at the American University in Cairo.
“I think I was just cased on the platform…” he said. “This guy asked me if I thought he looked strong. And then he asked me if I had any money. And then if I knew karate…”
I laughed. I was cased too, although not in exactly the same way.
Los Angeles boarded in stereotypical style and didn’t stop talking until long after I fell asleep. I could hear him through the wall. Within five minutes it was a contest for who had been the most places, spent the least money, traveled the longest and the lightest. Virginia’s face fell, I did my best to change the subject.
“I’ve been to 49 so far… do you know how many countries you’ve been to?” he asked, brightly.
“Yes,” I replied, sipping slowly at the bad tea the steward had delivered, “But I think it’s rather bad manners to advertise it… it’s not a contest, you know…”
He didn’t take the hint, but Virginia smirked.
Indianapolis huffed down the hall with his roller bag behind him looking tired. A head hunter for major corporations, in his 26th year in the Arab world. Nothing says, “It’s not my first rodeo,” in a country where alcohol is not the norm quite like a safety sealed bottle of Listerine… that turns out to be whiskey. His Arabic was impressive. We talked about central Indiana and past lives.
In other news… it’s hot… but not crowded
With the two women who have joined me on the dhabyia, another mother-daughter duo, this brings my North American count to a grand total of 8. Mahmoud tells me that in the wake of the revolution, tourism dropped from 15 million people a year to a current rate of 5 million, and this is up from last year, “Things are getting better,” he smiles, optimistically, but I’m still seeing a glass two thirds empty.
If Cairo was hot, upper Egypt is a furnace. Every time I step out of the shade my body runs slick with my own water. I smell vaguely of salt at all times, and my head wrap has become the icing on the cake in terms of excessive clothing. How the women do it in full niqab, I will never know. To my Canadian sensibilities it’s a wonder that there are not women passed out everywhere.
The men, for the record, are not much better off. Almost all of them are clad neck, to ankles, to finger tips in gelabyas as well. Cooler than the women, perhaps in that they are white or grey instead of black, and the veil is missing, but this is a country of warm dressers in a downright oppressive climate.
“There are two seasons in Egypt,” Mahmoud smiles, over dinner, “Hot… and very hot. We are at the end of the very hot now.” I make no argument.
If you are tempted to take a Nile cruise opt for the dhhabyia…
These are boats that feel as though their woodcut prints torn from the pages of a Hemingway novel brought to life. Barge like sailboats, rigged with a felucca like sail, front and back, with an expansive open air deck and not more than five or six cabins below, they have been traversing the Nile for centuries. I’m reading a book, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, by a Victorian lady traveling on one a hundred and fifty years ago, laughing at how much has not changed. The cruise boats might be cheaper, but there is nothing quite like having the captain and guides ask you, and the only other two passengers on the boat, what you would like to do for the day, whether a Nile swim seems like a good idea, and what time you’d like the private chef to prepare dinner for you.
A swim in the Nile, in case you were wondering, is a very good idea indeed.
“Should I be worried about crocodiles?” I asked Mahmoud.
He smiled, “No, no, we keep all of those in the lake,” he assured me, “They can’t get through the dam.” I’m not sure about the accuracy of this statement, as the cab driver in Cairo told me that there were crocodiles, and that’s even further the other side of the dam, but I decided to trust Mahmoud, who surely can’t afford to lose one of the few tourists he’s got this fall.
The water is cool and green just below Aswan off of the sand spit island we slid up next to to swim. The crew leapt from the deck as enthusiastically as anyone slinging balls of sand and laughing. I swam out around the boat and then lay on my back and let the current pull me the length of the beach before swimming sideways towards land, walking slowly back to my starting point and doing it again. Over, and over. I saw perch around my feet, but no crocodiles.
The sun god returned…
…wearing a peach cloak embroidered with silvery sequins that trailed out across his long train that is the Nile. She smiled warmly in the dew damp morning at me, sitting quietly on the deck, waiting for her, just like I do at home.
The constancy of the rhythms of the planet is a comfort to me, even when I’m very far from home in places where I feel like a child who knows nothing. The almost-full moon waited for her sister to hand over the reins of the sky and just now, as I’ve written these last lines the boat is coming to life.
Turbaned men are laying out prayer cloths on the back deck. The cook emerged on deck to see what I might like and has set his boy to boiling tea water. The first of the open boats, painted much like the familiar chicken busses of Guatemala just buzzed past; I imagine them powered by dragon flies, not Evenrude motors.
The Nile is waking.