Ballooning Over Thebes

All photos by author.

Photo essay published at Matador Network.


It is just after 5 a.m. and our tour group is being herded onto a boat for the second morning in a row. We had made the same trip across to the Nile’s western bank yesterday, but a fierce wind had prevented us from boarding our waiting hot air balloons and making our planned flight over Ancient Thebes.

So we woke with our alarms at the same time this morning and stumbled down to the hotel’s reception, grabbing two packs of inadequate Nescafe to stir into our cups of boiling water. There was a mild panic before one of our group, the American, appeared at the last second, complaining that the hotel had neglected to provide him with a wake-up call. The Australian girl and I rolled our eyes in his direction; he’s 53 years old and apparently ever in need of supervision. Later on today he will put his faith in a stranger he meets at the Post Office and jump on the back of his motorbike to be taken to his home for lunch and to, inevitably, be sold something. “Would you do that in America?” Our tour leader asks him and he quickly shakes his head. “Well then why do it here?”

A warm red starts to color the sky as workers rush around rigging up baskets and examining the rising balloons, which soon dwarf them. Drafts of flames flare up, warming the chilly morning, and the first balloon rises skyward, aided by the tugging of a small group of men bundled up as if this were the Arctic.

I had originally dismissed the idea of a hot air balloon ride as a bit tacky. I was feeling more inclined to break from my tour group than to undertake yet another of those arranged ‘activities’ that we were methodically expected to join and of which I was tiring; the camel ride, the donkeys, the horse-and-carriage… I had no wish for another tourist activity – though, of course, every move I made in Egypt was unavoidably a tourist activity. Learning that it was archaeologists mapping the area that had first thought of it lent the balloon ride enough credibility to get over my creeping indignation and sign up for the trip.

An eighty-six year-old Australian man has to be lifted into the basket; the rest of us hop up and over, balanced on the shoulder of our pilot Mohammad. As some of the other balloons start to rise we are given our safety talk; it consists of telling us to crouch down in the basket. I’m the slowest to move and discover that there will not be enough room for all of us to take the emergency landing position. While I am half-standing, half-crouching, squeezed between two trip mates, a couple in our group starts to talk about a ballooning disaster in New Zealand. It doesn’t even cause me to flinch; death hosts this trip, it hangs in the sky as much as the tear-shaped balloons.

Our own balloon ascends, rising with the dawn sun. It drifts gently and peacefully across the lifeless desert. Viewing the area from above, I understand something of why this vast, empty space should have been chosen as the site to create a whole city of death. Beneath us lies the Theban Necropolis, testament to an ancient obsession with death and resurrection. It is strange, unusually beautiful and very peaceful. From tombs, to mummies, to pyramids and mortuary temples, the entire trip has been preoccupied with death and it brings a strange sense of peace to just yield to it.

Like a ghost ship we sail past waking villages and great monuments. We float over the Colossi of Memnon – two massive statues that have stood in place for 3400 years and once guarded the mortuary temple of Amenophis III – and the Ramesseum – mortuary temple of Ramses II. Other balloons in the distance drift in front of the morning sun, casting a heavenly glow across the sky. Mohammad keeps pointing out the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Tombs of the Nobles, and I sense that we are not really moving anywhere; just hanging suspended and lost someplace between land and sky; life and death, past and present. In near silence we float for close to an hour like this before making an effortless landing in a sugar cane field tended by an unmoved farmer.

The ground crew rushes towards us and gets to work while the farmer casually smokes a cigarette. Most likely, he’s seen this ritual before and will see it again the next day and then the next. Insha’Allah. Snapping my thoughts back into the present, the engine of our waiting van starts up; the crew yell at each other in that indecipherable Egyptian way that could be either an expression of love or of anger; commemorative certificates are dispersed, someone tries to sell us a DVD, and a hat comes out for baksheesh for everybody. The stuttering wheel of the Egyptian tourism industry grinds on.

(My trip to Egypt was sponsored through a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center)

Egypt-sick; maybe just travel-sick

They say that the time it takes to get over a relationship is two times the length of the relationship itself. How long, then, to come to terms with the end of travel?  And does three weeks really give you enough to miss a place? My three-week trip ended two weeks ago but I still dream about Egypt every night.

Travel, for me, is exquisite pain. Exquisite because it is in travel that I feel most alive; painful because travel and I cannot be together — she keeps on moving without me. I used to be able to deflect this end-of-trip deflation by just moving on, and on, and on — there was always someplace else to go. Now, unlike in that not so distant past, trips have to end. And it is always crushing when they do.

Right now I feel that my Egypt trip was the most special; the one I miss the most. Probably I will feel this way about the next one, and the next, but right now I am reveling in the exquisite pain of reliving that trip through memories, photographs, Facebook chats, and, especially, dreams. And, sometimes, this is what I see in my dreams:

Sunrise over Luxor - the view from the hot-air balloon.
One of our Bedouin guides in the Western Desert.
All photographs by author.
Karnak Temple, Luxor
The sugarcane field where our hot-air balloon landed, Luxor West Bank.
Our felucca at rest on the Nile.
Sunset from a Dokki window.

(Note: My trip to Egypt was possible thanks to a partnership between Adventure Center and MatadorU)

Night Train to Cairo

Photo by Gingerbrew via Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gingerbrew/5798610515/

It is 12 hours into our journey and one of the carriage windows has just shattered. Broken glass falls across two rows of seats like hailstones. Passengers dart to safety and take stock of the scene. A quick gust of wind sends more glass from the broken pane across more seats and a decision is made to kick out the remaining window pane. An off-duty policeman, gun still attached to his hip, takes a few swings then, satisfied, settles back into his seat. I’m trying not to laugh, but the policeman catches my eye and we share a grin.

We had left Luxor at 11pm last night and we due to reach Cairo three hours ago. I had the half-asleep perception of making a too-long stop somewhere during the night, and found out early this morning that an unexplained protest somewhere had stalled us for four hours.

My trip roommate sits next to me reading some erotic thriller and swearing that even the trains in India were cleaner than this. Me, I put it down to experience, even though the grime sticks, the toilets are disgusting and the snoring thunderous. The breeze from the broken window comes as a relief and we travel past a brightly coloured village along a canal. A women wearing an abaya is feeding her ducks while others wash clothes in the canaland children balance on trotting donkeys. Further on, a donkey that was pulling a cart appears to have fallen and several men are raining blows on him to get him back on his feet. I have to turn away.

Our tour leader stirs, thick black hair sticking up. We tell him about the window and he just shrugs. “It happens,” he says.

(My trip to Egypt was sponsored by Adventure Center and MatadorU)

Luxor

Luxor. Photo by author.

Luxor beat me.

We arrived in time for the Friday prayers, tense with the noise and tiptoeing around the crowds of men kneeling outside on the street – overflow from the mosque next to our hotel. Karnak overwhelmed; the Kalashnikov carrying temple guards hassled and hustled, and the whipped-up sand and dust burned my eyes through my contact lenses.

In the Valley of the Kings you are permitted to visit just three tombs; we saw the tombs of Ramses IV and III at tourist-shuffle pace – never getting the opportunity to pause for quite long enough. At Ramses I, I spent some minutes alone, in silence studying the hieroglyphics before one of the guards interrupted and began his pitch.

We shuffled all together through the bone-dry valley; back to the waiting van, on to the boat across to the other side of the Nile. Together with the two Australians I walked through the souk, the three of us forming a buffer against the beckoning shop owners and catcalls. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the noise; the disorder and the dust, but then I went back to the hotel and I stalled. I sat in the lobby looking out at the city then back down at my iPhone. I saw carriage drivers calling to tourists; children and unidentifiable touts doing the same, so I stalled. I returned to my iPhone and read about Marie Colvin, killed by shelling in the besieged Syrian city of Homs; about babies dying and rockets raining down, but still, nervous of the looks and the calls, insignificant and cowardly in comparison, I couldn’t drag myself out into the city and wasted the rest of the day by just looking through glass instead.