Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Paradise Found

I took the train to Luxor early yesterday morning, and crossed immediately to Hotel Sheikh Aly in one of the small villages on the West Bank - and finally found an Egypt I could relax in. The West Bank is the perfect storm of beauty and wonder. The hotel is set around a small garden where we eat. Small irrigated gardens stretch from the outer walls for 3 km down to the Nile. On the other side the red Theban Hills rise out of the mist. The ruins of tombs and massive temples line the dusty country roads. There are tens of thousands of tourists on the other side of the river, but most only cross to the west side in hermetically-sealed buses that shuttle them between the main sites - Tutankanem's tomb and Hatshepsut's temple. Otherwise it's just local farmers, French artists, international teams of archaeologists, and a small scattering of random travelers.

I visited Medinet Habu yesterday afternoon, an almost intact temple complex built on an epic scale. It's the first time I've been in awe of a place in Egypt. Now I get it. Finally.

Six days to find my groove, and nine days to finally be filled with wonder - it certainly did take awhile.

I crossed to the East Bank this morning to hit the bank (none on the other side) and visit Karnak with an Aussie Town Planner I met in the hotel's garden. Karnak was mobbed with tour groups, but it's monumentality dwarfed everyone. The main hall - 100 meters by 50 meters - was designed to mimic a Nile garden, and was filled with hundreds of massive stone 'papyrus' stalks stretching up to the sky, and each carved with reliefs over every inch. It was too much for the eye to take in. In a bit I'll hop the ferry back to the villages. Tomorrow I'll explore the Valley of the Kings.

I want to extend my stay a day, but I have a flight in two days & the line was 60 deep at Egypt Air. I'd lose a day to gain a day.

As for my final night in Aswan - it was a bit insane. Dinner was a let down. The 'good' restaurant was only average, and I was the only one in it. In retrospect, I think meet me for a beer at my favorite bar meant let's go now so you can pay. Live and learn. I ate, and watched the felucca sail off into the dark waters. I could have joined in, of course, and it would have sounded romantic - sailing into a Nile sunset with your Nubian lover. Knowing that I'd by buying it took some of the romance out of it. I'm not that jaded to confuse a purchase with love, something some of these old English ladies taking Egyptian boys will have to learn the hard way.

Trudging back to my hotel I gave in & agreed to go home with one of the caleche drivers. I made it clear that it wouldn't be about money, and he made it clear that that wasn't what he was after. We hopped in a cab, and took off for the hinterlands of the City. I tried to keep track of all the turns, but when we crossed the railroad tracks into a world where donkeys and horses outnumbered cars (not too hard, given that we were the only motorized vehicle in the suburb) I lost track. We zipped in and out of potholed side streets.

The word ghetto flittered through my mind before I kicked it out. I was too much into it to turn around, and the only way out was forward.

His house was up an open flight of concrete steps. I took my shoes off, and went into the living room. The walls were unfinished cement, but they and the couches along each wall were lined with gold tapestries. Shabby chic, African style.

I heard women talking in the other room. There were no doors. The guy wanted to get it on. He assured me the women didn't come into this room - all of ten feet down the hall. We proceeded to be interrupted by crying babies, shouts from the street, and knocks on the door. This is not happening, I told him. Relax, he told me. A child walked into the room. My son, he said, picking him up and putting him on the couch opposite.

I wanted to be down with the culture. Silly me. One day I'll learn, if not in this life then the next.
Anyways, no way was I going to mess around with a kid sitting there watching. All doubt was removed when even more kids came in to check out the stranger. We drank tea instead. I wrestled with the kids, and they showed me all their World Wrestling moves. Later the other horsemen arrived, and the whole neighborhood gathered in his living room to smoke bhanga and gossip. This is what we do at night, the host said. Smoke and gossip.

I have friends just like that in Hawai`i. I passed on the bhanga (tobacco mixed with hashish oil and pot), as I really was disoriented enough & really wanted the full use of every single brain cell.

The party finally ended at 1am. We tried to take a horse back, but it bolted and refused to cooperate. Instead we hiked out of the ghetto (I can't get away from that word) back to the mainstreet, and I caught a cab back to the hotel.

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