India to Egypt, 1997.
We had been traveling for 9 months. Bruised, scarred, and calloused from bouncing jeeps and bitter camels, sleeping on hay mattresses, fending off insects of every type. It wasn’t terrible most of the time, always up for anything the world was offering us -we were just physically and emotionally exhausted.
Leaving India, after 2 months, ready for sand and space. Despite naked orphans sitting on cardboard boxes in the streets and lepers with stumps wrapped in newspaper – we saw our recently departed Bombay, or Mumbai, as it was now called, as a gleaming metropolis. People even swept the streets there. There was concrete to walk on. We traveled away from big cities most of the time….you learn to adjust expectations. In most parts of India, the homeless drifters sometimes don’t even have clothes. They sleep on railroad platforms, on piles of paper, in fields, where they also go to the bathroom. Naked children and old men, people shitting in pubic, burning garbage, general chaos at every turn, you kind of get used to it. I once waved from a train window back at a group of people who were waving at me, all while they pooped together on the side of the tracks. It’s just very different.
The time I had to time out myself…. to just breathe… was the day in Jaipur that we walked past a large hospital. Up ahead – we saw a restless group of crows, bickering and bustling alongside the hospital walls. As we got closer, we realized they were perched atop a large pile of medical waste: small pieces of tissue, bloody bandages, syringes, dirty gloves, flesh mixed with plastics. The crows were feeding on anything they could dig out of this mess, and I quickly rushed by, but already having taken in every bit of this image, seered into my brain. “Argh, why?!” I started crying, but couldn’t explain exactly…maybe because a crow was chewing on someone’s discarded appendix? I guess it was the abandon in which these items were dumped, in range of children, sick people, the eyes of anyone walking by. The world is harsh, and we forget that. I was fully jarred from my bubble and slapped with a new version of corruption and poverty. But also, life is hard and keeps moving.
In an old rickety hotel in Chennai, The Broadlands. You could sit up on the massive roof and watch flying foxes sail by. There was a basket of kittens that they kept in one part of the ground floor courtyard. Every day another kitten would be gone because the rats ate it. That was a jarring thing to take in, being from a cute-kittens-in-baskets culture, where we build special pedestals for our cats. One night, when the power was out all over the city, I walked through a corridor of The Broaldlands, thinking there was one of the local cats in front of me. It was actually a huge fat rat, that slinked into the shadows, it’s scaly tail shining in a thin ray of an oil lamp. I recoiled and ran away. I found out later that the rat had a name and they accepted his sinister presence. “Do not anger Durgha, we can live harmoniously together. Other kittens will be born, and others will die. ” So, it goes. Thank you for that perspective.
India is ancient, in-your-face and multi-faceted. It can seer an image or a memory so unique into you and never leave. It entices me with it’s dark and light, the never-ending adventure and grisly challenges. It is all things magnified. I have been there 3 times, and will not be done with the place, even though if horrifies me 70% of the time.
I had been eating only white food, like rice, bananas, cookies in the plastic long package, and bread, due to the burning ulcer forming in my stomach. It healed when I left India and slept more. If you are not raised eating chilies and heavy oil for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the restaurant food will make you sick eventually. I learned to make my own food in India later. But this sickness overcoming me had a lot to do with the Jaipur memory of The Hospital and the moment I felt like I was losing it.
The day I stared at the ceiling in Bikaner, thinking: “what if I just stop eating altogether? Yeah, that’s the answer.” Only the hangry made me hate everything. I was out of books to read, but not yet willing to scour the town for a new one. Getting up to re-wet the sarong I had wrapped around me. In the bathroom, next to the water spigot (there was no actual sink or shower, just a bucket -this is common) were old bindis that women had stuck to the wall. It felt seedy, but was also kind of funny. Nothing seemed real at this moment, other than my anger at India, in general. With damp sarong wrapped, I went back to the bed and stared at the paint on the walls as stomach burned, listened to the cacophony of life outside – a faint goat and blaring horns of tiny vehicles. We were fine roughing it before our arrival in Mumbai, where we needed to purchase plane tickets to Cairo. This place was a flophouse, but free of bedbugs and mosquitos, the people that owned it more than friendly. So hot you had to sleep in damp sheets with the fan blaring overhead.
10 days in the Thar Desert, drinking camel milk and running from dung beetles came before Mumbai. The sky at night, sleeping outside in the dunes and in the mornings -Pakistani planes speed overhead. Strange moments, half in darkness: the train station in Ahmedabad, within a few feet of the tracks were people living in piles of trash, with manged rats weaving in and out of the piles, dirty children with buckets, looking for anything salvageable. I don’t forget how that scene looked as the sun was sharply setting and soon I could only see eyes, and low wattage bare bulbs here and there. I was still on the platform, knowing that every inch surrounding was teeming with diseased life. We don’t understand what we have or what we waste.
Mumbai was a few days of tea houses and ticket hunting, the old school British vibe and distinct caste system still very much alive. In the Mumbai airport marveling to my travel companion about the fancy chaise lounges made of leather. “Look at these! Have you ever seen a cleaner place with fancy nap lounges like this?”I sprawled out on the leather, noticed how it was built to cradle your back. Then somehow I was in Cairo. No recollection of the flight or the airport on the Egypt end.
Cairo, a bustling golden brown-toned city, full of dust and music, cab drivers, and grifters at every turn. We found an old hotel that had an ancient cage elevator, the whole place was like a 1930’s embassy. We got to our room after having shaken off a young guy in a jean jacket in the lobby who was trying to get us to go to a club with him.
The bed was legit. Four posters, clean sheets, no insects in sight, heavy drapes that blocked out the light. Solid, old walls, of another time. Classic and preserved. No sounds could penetrate our state of exhaustion. I remember lifting my head a few times, not knowing if it was light or dark out, and falling back asleep. We seemed to be synced to this level of hibernation, and both woke up, refreshed and ready for the next chapter. “It’s been 16 hours.”
The sun overpowered and menaced its way into the narrow corridors of Cairo as men’s voices competed with calls to prayer, honking horns, motorbikes, and blaring radios playing Middle Eastern pop music. We ate fresh falafel, kushari, drank karkade, pomegranates and mangoes, fresh squeezed. Drinking juice and smoking is everyone’s favorite vice. Sometimes you can secretly find alcohol, but only if you have a connection. We didn’t care, we were ecstatic to be there.
My head was covered, my skin covered as well. We didn’t take tour buses, not our style, but also because one got blown up a few weeks previously outside the Egyptian Museum. “God is Greater!” they yelled as they firebombed a bus with homemade bombs, fashioned out of 7up bottles – killing 10 people. It was said it was terrorism in retaliation for the Egyptian government enforcing the death sentence and imprisoning extremists, but other sources claimed it was a mentally ill nightclub owner. That didn’t stop throngs of tourists from coming to Egypt.
We learned of two very common types of white western tourists in Egypt: the extra terrestrial fanatics who visit the pyramids daily and try to talk to aliens and the Christian fanatics who are on bible tours, making their way to St Catherine’s monastery and eventually Jerusalem. The museum bustled and was incredible. The mummy monkey, complete with tattered tunic was a favorite. He was the pet of a pharaoh and his tiny face looked like it had seen things.
I could talk about the pyramids but what can I tell you that you haven’t already seen or read? There are men riding camels out in the desert. The Sphinx is a lot smaller than it looks in photos. There are firework shows at night. The heavy pollution that hangs over Cairo is easily seen from this vantage point. Climbing underground and being beneath the pyramids is weird. It smells weird, the ramps that slide you down are terrifying but worth it, because how can you not be curious about what’s down there. There is magic that happens as the sun sets and the camels are galloping around. Remarkable structures, but I also think of human slavery. About gratitude and suffering, religious zealotry, grand gestures, extraterrestrials. Everyone seems to have a moment when they sit there…..the pyramids themselves completely still, the earth radiating stillness almost as stars and satellites beam and shoot . Egypt is where you can see the 7 Sisters the best- in my opinion.
Leaving Cairo for the far southern town of Aswan.
In Aswan we slept hard again and then set out to Abu Simbel, where we marveled at our diminutive status next to the wonders of the Pharaohs. All of the kings were made huge and the queens small, sitting passively next to them. The scientific, precise placement of the the structures no longer applied as this whole monument was moved from its original location, meaning that the sun did not shine on the face of the Pharaoh every year on his birthday as it originally had, but rather somewhere off to the side, no longer having as dramatic effect. Impressive that the ancient Egyptians could figure out, in the middle of the desert, where to place this statue so that the sun shone perfectly on the exact time and day of birth.
After that, onward to Elephantine Island, home of the Nubians. The Nubians here in this place had been forced from their original land by the Aswan Dam, and now maintained the island as their hub of existence. This place was sleepy in the day and vibrant at night. It was a Little Sudan of sorts, because other than the Elephantine islanders, most people were Sudanese. We hung around for a day or two and met a chill and fun Nubian guy who had a cool felucca, and so we set out for 4 days up the Nile. Onward to Luxor, where a dark memory would be forever ingrained in my mind.
Trying to write about Luxor…..I can get to the biking part……the haziness of the tombs, because that wasn’t the most haunting bit. TBC…