Category Archives: Africa

Enigmatic Egypt

May 2009

 “Man fears Time, Time fears the Pyramids”– Ancient Arab proverb

Egypt 1

A lifetime dream was about to fulfilled. For once, no airport dramas. In fact, quite the contrary, I was upgraded to Business Class. So, despite being early hours of the morning, I settled into my comfy seat, toasted my impending adventure with a nice glass of champagne, and peered out the window at the beautiful scenery as we flew over the Swiss Alps. I was finally going to Egypt, land of pharaohs, pyramids, and feluccas..

“Samira” and I kicking off with a Shisha

CAIRO: Egypt was all cerulean skies and sunshine, and stayed that way for the whole holiday. On arrival at the hotel, I was happy to be re-united with my flatmate, and shouted “Kusum!” as I gave her a big hug. This was met with glares and shocked glances, as if I’d just said “Mother F*cker”! Well it turns out, I had – Kusum in arabic means just that. From then on she was “Samira” lest the locals should think we were some potty-mouthed foreigners. That evening we had a brilliant night, entertained by the antics of the comedian waiters, while we drank beer and smoked shisha…sheer decadence, I like it!

The next morning we were awoken by unceremonious chanting at 4.00am – the muslim call to prayer. After Turkey and Morocco, I was familiar with this, and had my strategy all worked out – cover head with pillow and duvet and attempt to induce sleep by way of nice dreams. Kus was not a happy child in the morning!

Day 1 was jam-packed with activity, and I was rearing to go. First stop was CAIRO MUSEUM. Packed with gargantuan statues, sarcophagi, mummies, and other manmade objects that have cheated time to make it to present day, where they can be marvelled at by the likes of me! The piece de resistance for me was Tutankhamen’s shrines, sarcophagi and funerary masks. I had seen loads of pictures but nothing beats the real thing. Firstly there were 4 shrines – wooden, hieroglyphed, and beautifully painted boxes, nested perfectly within each other like russian dolls. Inside the innermost shrine was a stone sarcophagus which housed three nested coffins. Inside the 3rd solid gold coffin was the infamous gold mask resting on top of the mummy, surprisingly unsquashed! I can just imagine Carter’s frustration. As for Tut, he looks so young and sombre, but regal. No peace for the poor guy. The knowledge and craftsmenship of these people is unbelievable. Another curious object found in the tomb was a boomerang??! I could easily have spent days there. But alas, time was limited, so off to the next stop

PYRAMIDS OF GIZA: As we cruised through the busy streets of Cairo, I gazed nonchalantly out the window, and suddenly, there they were! From all the pictures I’d seen, I expected them to be in the middle of some desert, but no, they were smack bang in the middle of the city. As we drew closer, they loomed ever larger. Luckily it was a crystal clear day, and a short bumpy camel ride later, we were in the middle of the plain, gazing down at the 9 pyramids – 2 big ones, one medium sized, and 6 small ones, of which the 2 big ones are obviously the most famous. Rising from the desert plain like staircases to heaven, each constructed using approximately 2.3million blocks of stone, weighing on average 2.5tons, these colossal giants are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Standing at the base, I could only marvel and wonder as to what inspired these ancient people to take on an undertaking of such huge proportions. They are also different from other ancient architecture in the precision of their construction. “The Great Pyramid is the most accurately magnetically aligned structure ever built and faces true north with only 3/60th of a degree of error. The position of the North Pole moves over time and the pyramid was probably exactly aligned at one time. ” It is a very humbling experience to be gazed upon by these time cheating giants, the silent sentinels that have been watching the world for the last 45 centuries. 

The pyramids rising above Cairo
Approaching the great pyramid
Majestic pyramid piercing the blue blue sky
Stairway to heaven
Eerie sunshine over the enigmatic pyramid


The poor SPHINX must have been a beauty in her day. Her face has been disfigured more by man than by time – Napoleon’s army used it as target practice. Hidden and protected from man by the desert sands, and exposed only to be violated in the most repugnant manner…really sad. As we left the Giza plateau, I couldn’t help but feel lucky to have beheld such an object of mystery, fascination and awe – man’s statement to the world that we’re capable of great things.

We caught an overnight train journey, to ASWAN, with the river Nile keeping us company for the whole 14 hour journey. As the bright sun rose into a cloudless sky, it quickly became apparent why the Nile is so important to the Egyptians. The desertscape is dissected by this long, seemingly never ending river, and only along its banks is there any sign of life. Palm trees and crops abound. People still farm the land with cattle driven ploughs. These people seem at one with the land.

Desert and greenery on the banks of the Nile
Farming on the Nile

 

That night we were treated to a Nubian dinner and dance. While the dinner was average, the dance was fantastic, the best I have ever witnessed (or been involved in for that matter!). Amid pulsating drumbeats, the dancers twirl around like human spinning tops, lifting their skirts over their heads like tents. It is incredible how long they can spin on the same spot, and still walk straight?! Seriously if you ever get a chance to see Nubian Dancers, do.

Nubian dancers


The next morning we were up before sunrise, together with our VIP police escort, heading for the much-lauded temples of ..


ABU SIMBEL: Abu Simbel comprises of two massive rock temples, originally carved out of the mountainside, during the reign of Ramses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his favourite queen Nefertari. In 1960s, the complex was relocated in its entirety on an artificial hill made from a domed structure, to avoid being submerged under the Aswan dam – one of the greatest engineering feats ever. We were welcomed by a magnificent sunrise, and another gloriously clear day. The sun lit up the enormous statues, as it had done for some 3500 years, but the passage to the interior of the temple remained dark, as it does for most the year, except for two days – 22 Feb and 22 Oct, Ramses birthday, and the day of his ascension to the throne, when it shines through to the deepest recess, to light up three of the four statues, including one of Ramses himself – the God of Darkness, Ptah, remains forever in the darkness. One can only marvel at the intelligence and purpose of these people who have left their lasting mark on the world. How clever they were. The inside was beautiful with hieroglyphs and friezes depicting the life of Ramses II, potentially and contentiously, the greatest Egyptian pharaoh. As we left, I thought if we are awestruck by this imposing temple today, how would the olden day people have felt as they dazed up at it, while sailing down the Nile.

Sunrise on the Aswan
Ramses II Temple
Relief of slaves from the Battle of Kadesh
Flock of geese over Lake Nasser

The next few days were spent cruising down the Nile on a Felucca, a boat with a triangular sail, with no motor, just the wind to power it along. I felt like Huckleberry Finn, no cares in the world, just cruising along to the next adventure – just idyllic! Our relaxing cruise was broken up by piss-stops (booze on board but no toilet), dinner, shisha smoking, swimming and general frolicking, and on the last night, a big bonfire night with local Nubians on the drums.

Human pyramid (sort off)
Feluccas on the Nile
Shisha time

 

Then onto LUXOR, olden day Thebes, where we visited several temples – Kom Ombo, Edfu, Hatchepsut, Luxor and Karnak, each more spectacular than the one before. The Edfu and Karnak temples are quite similar (see pics below). At the entrance of the Luxor temple are 2 huge statues of Ramses II (this guy had a bit of an ego problem me thinks!) as well as an obelisk. The obelisk is quite remarkable in the it is made from a single block of granite, one of the hardest stones in the world. What did they use to carve it? It’s twin now sits in Place de la Concorde in Paris. I could bore you with the stats, but I don’t think too many people are as geeky about them as I am, so will spare you. 

Temple at Kon Ombo
Temple of Hatchepsut, the only female pharoah
Kus had clearly had enough of temples
Hypostle Hall at Karnak temple

 

Gigantic statue of Ramses II at Karnak
Me and Kus in front of Edfu temple
Edfu Temple
Luxor temple

From Hatchepsut’s temple, we continued to Valley of the Kings. Due to the plundering of the pyramids, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom decided their tombs would be safer if they were less conspicuous, so they moved their final resting place to a deserted valley near Luxor, and carved their tombs inconspicuously into the cliffs. This worked for some such as Tutankhamun, but most others were plundered. However, the dryness of the desert has preserved the interiors really well. The tombs I saw were hieroglyphed from top to bottom, and all around, with each hieroglyph painted vividly in bold colours. The colours had been preserved because the tombs had been sealed, combined with the lack of humidity, and were really brought the stone to life. It made me think how spectacular all Egypt must have looked back in the day when all hieroglyphics were painted, rather than the current bare carving that remains today.

Reliefs from tombs in the Valley of the Kings

While the pyramids and sphinx were amazing to behold, having seen countless photos and documentaries, I felt like I’d seen them already. What really blew me away were the many other temples, the beauty and detail in each, their durability and defiance against time, the fact that they held secrets of a past civilisation who were truly advanced, yet lived were in harmony with the land, whose ideals were very different to ours, and whose monuments outshine ours. I hope to return one day, armed with more knowledge of Egyptian history, so I can better appreciate their legacy. To those of you who haven’t been, one word – “GO!”.. it will not disappoint.

Magical Morocco

 October 2009

Morocco
Morocco

The adventure started at 3am..acutally it started the night before when Tasha and I polished of a bottle of wine and some port, and consequently struggled to get up. So late cabbie and my habitual lost boarding card dramas aside, we set of to the land of tagines, couscous and leather…

Upon arriving in Marrakesh, I was surprised to learn that French is widely spoken in Morocco – this was to prove very handy. We were swiftly re-acquainted with the ways of the 3rd world i.e. any foreigner is fair game for a rip off. So to catch a cab that should have been £5, they tried to charge us £50! Needless to say, it wasn’t their day. In the afternoon we caught a bus to Essouira, and arrived there early evening (after almost being left behind at a piss-stop!).. our bags weren’t so lucky. We were advised that they would be waiting for us in Marrakesh the next day when we got back.. it would be 4 long, dirty-clothes-wearing, no make-up days before we would see them again.

ESSOUIRA is a truly beautiful, picturesque, postcard type fishing village, with little beached blue rowing boats, white washed houses, forts with canons, seagulls, and of course, typical to all Morrocan towns, a wall around the old city (medina). Perfect place to surf, relax, just chillout really. In the evening we wandered through the maze of streets lined with stalls, with the smell of ocean, fish and tagine wafting through. Next morning, we walked along the fort, and strolled along the beach while the seagulls flew overhead, and the kids played football. Then back to Marrakesh where there were no bags to be found. We requested, cajoled, we kicked, we screamed, we begged, we cried (actually only I did) all for nothing.. no one was interested in our plight.

Postcard perferct Essouira
Fort in Essouira
Essouira – fishermen boats near fort;
Essouira – old cannons on the fort wall
gorgeous ball of kitten
Essouirian kids playing soccer on the beach

So off we went to Fes (el Bali) , sans bags. In a way it was a small blessing not to be encumbered by them as we (and thousands others) boarded the overnight train. Tasha and I were fortuitously positioned to board at the front.. we were pushed on by a surge of people from behind, but were very grateful to have seats as people crammed the aisles and every other available inch of floor space. Lots of dodgy folk and shitty toilets (bad pun).. Happy to be picked up on arrival.

We stayed in another amazing riad.. a riot of colours and geometric shapes, with huge doors, open spaces, and balconies. After a nice breakfast in the courtyard, we were ready to explore Fes.

FES was a revelation.. in the medina, life was going on as it had for been for hundreds of years before. Everything was brought in by donkey. The streets were so narrow that you had to jump into a shop when a donkey was passing through. If you were unfortunate enough not to hear the donkey coming, you were unceremoniously booted out the way, as I inadvertently found out! The medina is humming with activity, and the air of mystique is preserved by the dimness of light (the sunlight is mostly kept out by the narrowness of the streets, immediately flanked by buildings throughout), as well as the old people, doubled over their canes, women with tattooed faces, and people darting in and out of doorways and alleys that are barely visible. It is difficult to walk through in a hurry as every little shop looks like Ali Baba’s caves, and beckons you with its tantalising display of all things shiny and colourful.. rugs, lamps, mosaic mirrors, jewellery. An unattractive modern twist is given by the string of Converse sneakers hanging from every other shop. Bit hypocritical as I bought a cute pair of yellow ones!

The next day we went to see what no visitor to Fes leaves without seeing, and the image that is synonymous with Morocco… the colourful vats of the tanneries. But what the images fail to convey is the god awful stench that fills the air. Those who have a delicate disposition are given a sprig of mint, which I initially thought was laughable, but soon found myself reaching for. The smell is due the pigeon shit and cow piss used to soften the hides for the production of world renowned, soft Moroccan leather.

Upon departing Fes, we were ecstatic to be re-united with our long lost bags. Perfect timing as I had bought enough stuff to fill them. From Fes, we caught a bus to Meknes..

Fes – tanneries (sprig of mint tucked to the left!)
Fes – our brightly painted riad
Fes – narrow streets with donkey transport
Fes – Tasha & I in our dodgy Grand Taxi
Fes – me shattered after a long day shopping
Fes – full doors, arches, alleyways
 MEKNES is another Medieval town about an hour way from Fes, but not as charming. It still has beautifully preserved medina walls and gates, but lacks the charming narrow streets and shops. From Meknes we did a day trip to
Meknes – Riad where we had dinner
Meknes – I ordered salad and got 8 bowls of assorted goods
Meknes – Medresa Bou Inania
Meknes, little souk
Meknes – Beautiful display of olives and lemons – yum!

 

VOLUBILIS  is a Roman settlement dating back to the 1st century, that was damaged by an earthquake. The mosaics, baths, communal shitter remain in tact, and in surprising good condition. From there we dropped into Moulay Idriss, town of the most famous Morrocan, but didn’t see much due to bad weather. Now we were ready to head back to crazy Marrakesh for the final adventure.

MARRAKESH, the train ride back was quite comfortable, and as we got in at night, we checked into the closest hotel, had a couple of beers – our first taste of alcohol, an elusive luxury in the semi-dry state of Morocco, since we arrived, and promptly went to sleep.

After a good night’s sleep and much needed McDonalds breakfast (I was all tagined-out by this stage), we were ready to brave the souks of Djema el Fnaa, the main square in Marrakesh. After hearing so much about the harassment by shopkeepers, I was quite apprehensive, but was pleasantly surprised. Nothing like the harassment of India. I also learned that it is better to smile and walk on, then to frown and walk on. They are just trying to make a living – thanks Tasha. The souks are full of pretty things… I continued to shop while a sceptical Natasha, my voice of reason, constantly reminded me that there was a finite amount of space in my suitcase. The shopkeepers are very entrepreneurial, and said the funniest things in the hopes of engaging us. Some of the comments we got were..

  • “English? Fish and chips”
  • “Lookie, lookie, free to lookie”
  • “Madam I will give you democratic price”
  • “Big welcome”
  • “Moskey” (instead of Mosque)
  • “Vous etes Berber??!” – this when you tied to haggle as Berbers are renowned for this.

The other thing I didn’t realise was that the Moroccans are very much into Bollywood movies despite having no link to India, and not speaking the language.

In the evening, the schizophrenic souk becomes a wild, exotic beast, imbued with colour, smells, and heaving to the drums and tambourines. The centre of the square is filled with food stalls, diners, storytellers, henna ladies, horse carriages and more. Every night we would dine at one of the restaurants on the outskirts of the square, and revel in the atmosphere. After that we would go for a drink, then rest and wait for the all the craziness to begin the next day.

On our final day, we caught a taxi to the Ourika valley. No travel adventure is complete without a crazy driver story, and thus we were acquainted with our 80 year old, toothless, half blind driver, who insisted on looking at us while talking, which he did most the time, rather than the road!

Marrakech – Kotoubia Mosque
Marakech – where it all happens, Djema el Fnaa

 

Marrakesh – Tasha & I having a cuppa
Marrakech – storks are abundant here

 

The OURIKA VALLEY is at the base of the Atlas Mountains. It was very energising and rejuvenating to be among the green trees, and bubbling streams after a week of being in souks and medinas. We trekked well into the mountains, across some rickety wooden bridges, and dangerous looking, fast moving streams, and were rewarded with good views.

One final shop around the souks, and we were out of the colourful, crazy, land of Morroco..

Ourika Valley – hazardous crossing across a fast moving river
Ourika Valley – rickety bridge