Borneo: I was a different woman two leech bites ago

For Louise, because I owe you a story…

Forget the lushness of the forest; the shades of green so recklessly plentiful. Forget the determination of people in Borneo; houses build to defy the ocean currents and the steep rock faces. Forget all of it, I want to write about leeches.

Having spent so much time avoiding them, thinking about them and over-reacting to them, it is only natural that the first thing I want to write about my Borneo experience, is the leeches. Forget the lushness of the forest; the shades of green so recklessly plentiful. Forget the determination of people in Borneo; houses build to defy the ocean currents and the steep rock faces. Forget all of it, I want to write about leeches. I spent so much time with the leeches, I feel like we got to know each other as a species. The idea of being “blood enemies” comes to mind when I think about our relationship; the leeches wanted my blood and I was rather fond of keeping said blood flowing through my veins (selfish, I know) but I must admit that I did come admire the perseverance of the leeches. Of course, this is the sort of admiration that can only be shaped by distance. Place an ocean or two between me and the leeches and I’m all “Oh what marvellously resilient creatures” (I hope you heard my British accent and noticed that that version of me was sipping a cup of tea). Place a leech close enough for me to see it do that weird flip/jump manoeuvre and its full-blown ghetto version of me, pulling out a shotgun/flip flop/frying pan to protect myself from a creature not even half the length of my baby finger.

Preparing for Borneo, whenever anyone would ask me about whether I was ready for the trip, I would launch into a bravado filled discussion about leeches, hoping that if I pretended to be brave, I might actually start believing I was. I was beyond daunted by the idea that I would encounter leeches during our jungle trek but after the panic subsided (and I realised that the booking fee for the jungle trek was non-refundable), I deluded myself into thinking that it would be okay. How bad could it be? I’ve more than handled my own with cockroaches (flying ones included) and apart from fish moths, bugs don’t freak me out. I would be okay, I’m a calm, rational human and no leech would change that. Right?

I’m a calm, rational human and no leech would change that. Right?

I guess that’s who I was before a leech bite, I was a different woman two leech bites ago. All exaggeration aside, something shifts in you the moment you see a creature feeding on you the way a leech does. Nothing in my life prepared me for the sight of a leech attached to my forearm, merrily having an early dinner while I was none the wiser. Nothing prepared me for this sight, bearing in mind that this was my second leech bite, having discovered the first leech on me moments before. Perhaps some context is important here. It was the first day of our jungle trek, Husband and I had just arrived at Nepenthes Camp, the first rest camp on our journey, and I was eager to get my backpack off my shoulders and rest for the day. My feet and shoulders were sore, and I was tired. I had the nervous sort of energy that comes with fatigue and uncertainty but far worse than any of that, I was smug. You see. I had made it to camp, leech free (or so I had thought). Not that this was a competition, or that I would ever get joy from Husband’s suffering, but he had two leech encounters during the trek, and he had reacted with the sort of foul mouthed, panic ridden flailing arms that is nothing short of amusing to watch. I, on the other hand, was the epitome of calm. I soothed Husband, kept my laughter in check and told Husband that it was okay, it was not a big deal. Of course, I could see that those tiny creatures were harmless, poor Husband, he just didn’t have the composure I did. I’d watch our guide gently ease a leech of his hand every now and again and place the creature safely onto a leaf and I was certain that I would react in much the same way in the unlikely event that a leech did find its way onto me. You see I was smug (read delusional) on two levels; the first was because I hadn’t even so much as found a leech on my person and the second was because Husband was totally freaking out allowing me to believe in my dominion over all things, including him.

A fat leech having fed off our guide's foot
A well fed leech having hitched a ride (with a free meal) while attached to our guide’s foot

So there I was, at Nepenthes, staring at the rain and the imposing forest before me, sort of soaking it in that we’d made it to the first camp and that I was this self-aware human who had made peace with the jungle and the wilderness when I felt a sting just above the waistband of my pants. It’s the sort of sting breaks one’s ego. It’s the sort of sting that makes you question your sanity. The events that followed happened in slow motion so you must forgive me for replaying the exact sequence here, it is important only in the sense that this would be the same reaction I had every time I found a leech on me including the next leech I would find moments after this one. It’s probably even more important that I make mention that borne from that very first leech bite, was a new character we’ve never met before; Denira- Queen of the Leeches (Queen not so much because she reigns over them, but more so because of their affinity towards her).

First there’s some self-talk lead by Composed Denira, “Deep breaths, you’ve got this” then an attempt, with the world’s worst hand eye co-ordination, to flick the leech off her body. Unsurprisingly ineffective. A deep inhalation and more self-talk, a less confident “Calm down” is offered. Composed Denira’s on shaking ground, she’s starting to doubt herself, she fights for control of the situation fearing her actions have only angered the leech. She issues another” CALM DOWN” to herself, this time in an altogether uncalm fashion before she’s able to reach for the leech and miraculously remove it from her body. Exhale victory. Exhale peace. The leech does some sort of back flip thing and sticks to her finger. Short sharp inhalations. Denira, Queen of the Leeches taps Composed Denira on the shoulder, she’s relatively meek at the onset, “What do you think you’re doing, this thing is going to eat us alive!”. Composed Denira shrugs her off, “It’s okay, it’s fine…I just need to stay calm. Look, it’s just a tiny creature…waving around…being…oh shit, it’s stuck! THIS THING IS STUCK TO ME!!” Just like that we unveil Denira, Queen of Leeches in all of her blind panic and sanity defeating glory,  “THIS THING IS GOING TO KILL ME, GET IT OFF. GET IT OFF”.  Someone’s screaming, no one knows who, all versions of Denira have shut their eyes. There’s more screaming and the violent shaking of hands as if the idea of dislodging a hand holds more promise than allowing a leech to settle on it.

By the time I’ve opened my eyes I’ve drawn an audience that includes Husband, the guide and ranger but thankfully not the leech. Embarrassed but glad to be alive I offer a frightened smile and say I didn’t expect myself to react that way. “I’m okay now, it’s okay”, I say more for my benefit than anyone else’s. Each time post that, I’m foolish enough to believe that my reaction to the leeches would be different, each time I discover myself to be a liar. I later turn my hand sanitizer into a leech stunning weapon and cover almost every part of my body but I never quite rid myself of The Queen of the Leeches title.

…each time I discover myself to be a liar

Here’s the truth about leeches, you simply cannot avoid them. Want another truth? They’re impossibly creepy, creepier than that old uncle in your family who drinks too much, or that sleazy guy at work with the moustache. In fact, a whole new word should be invented to describe their inherent creepiness. Worse still, that creepiness goes up exponentially the moment one lands on you. I think leeches are pre-programmed at some sort of leech finishing school to start behaving weirdly the moment the come into contact with humans. They start doing this terrible dance sort of jump thing that I’m sure is a form of hypnosis aimed making you lose your mind. I’m not sure whether I should be proud, scared or freaked out that I can not only identify two species of leeches by sight, but also by their bite. That you can’t feel the one type of leech bite is nightmare inducing stuff, at the least the Tiger Leeches have the decency to say hello with a sting before tucking into your blood. I will admit though, that at times of sheer exhaustion, when Denira, Queen of the Leeches could not be summoned, I had one or two clam leech encounters. I even saw a Tiger Leech land on my pants, and I admired its pretty colours and stripes before the ranger removed it lest I invoke Denira, Queen of the Leeches, and scare away the jungle creatures. Whether I had incorrectly identified the colours on said leech due to close contact with an hallucinogenic plant or if I had truly lost control of my senses is still to be determined but I’ll take the wins where I can. There’s no denying or fighting the notion that leeches are creepy, it would be easier to stop breathing. In the battle of man versus leeches, leeches win, every time. Am I ready for another jungle adventure? Probably. Am I ready to fend off ten million leeches to do it? Not a chance. Let’s leave Denira, Queen of the Leeches, where she belongs, deep in the middle of a Bornean rainforest.

My top five Amsterdam highlights

I want to start writing this blog with the words “Poor Tish”. Not that Tish deserves my pity (twice now she’s seen the Northern Lights so I double hate her) but some unfortunate misadministration laid ruin to her plans to visit Amsterdam earlier this month. Amsterdam was a city alive to me, it was as if the city fed from the people who visited her- every footstep quickened the pulse, every heart beat drew new breath and energy. I’m sorry you missed it Tish, if it’s any consolation (impossible), I’ll attempt to round up some of the errant memories from our short time in the city.

The Heineken Museum: A beer for breakfast

I don’t often have beer for breakfast (I am out of my twenties) but I suppose an exception should be made when visiting the Heineken Brewery and going on the Heineken Experience. Happy, friendly Amsterdonians (yes, I’ve decided that is a better name than calling them Dutch) greeted Husband and I and explained all sorts of wonderful things to us about the history of the brewery and the beer (of course I blame the beer for not being able to remember all of it).

I Amsterdam Sign

mde
I AM…

On this point I feel like I should write a book. I shall name it “How to be a stupid tourist” and I shall love it with all my heart. I do believe that part of being a tourist (or a stupid one) is being a tourist. I get that we all want to explore something off the beaten track and I love getting lost in an unfamiliar city just to experience something that the travel books didn’t write about. The travel books, for instance, did not prepare me for being the navigator in Florence with my map held upside down for all but the last day and that yielded the most specular results (read pizza). But sometimes, I believe there is a reason why the road well-travelled is well, well-travelled. And seriously, if you can’t be a stupid tourist, then we may as well all just stay indoors.

If you’re interested, here are some pictures below that are decidedly un- touristy.

Van Gogh Museum: An ear for an eye

mde
A sneaky picture of Van Gogh’s easel taken before I realised photographs weren’t allowed

Now, before you think I’m all cultured and stuff please note that the next museum I write about is the prostitute one and I rank it almost as highly as the Van Gogh Museum. I’ve never really been a proponent of “the arts”, blame it on Bantu Education or the fact that I think beauty lies in everything, not just the objects we place exorbitant price tags on but I confess to having a limited understanding or appreciation of art. With that being said, I must also admit to having thoroughly enjoyed the Van Gogh Museum. Perhaps it was because the entire museum told one story; that of Van Gogh’s life, maybe it was because the museum was so quiet and peaceful that I could aimless wander around, taking my time at each piece if I desired. Of all the museums I’ve visited this ranks as my favourite.

Prostitute museum: How to be a successful prostitute

dav
A proper how to guide at the Prostitute Museum in Amsterdam

Knowing that Amsterdam is famous world over for the red-light district is vastly different compared to seeing it for yourself. The concept and idea of prostitution coupled with seeing the women in well light booths along the street filled me with a sadness so profound it was palpable. I stumbled into the museum part by accident and part to seek refuge from the onslaught to my senses. There was plenty to shock and stun at the museum but the one thing that stays with me, that probably will always stay with me, is the pictures taken by a research student showing the inside of many prostitute’s rooms in Amsterdam. So many of the rooms had a childlike innocence to them, that I couldn’t help wonder what these women were trying to recapture.

Lights Festival: I do believe they shine for me

Once a year around Christmas, Amsterdam hosts a Lights Festival and last year, Husband and I merrily boarded the vessel that would take us careening through the canals to see the light work on display. I could see the cold winter night air near herself to the light structures, reaching out a hand, not menacing, but rather as if to warm herself by what radiated within. The tour guide speaks of a myth that promises eternal love to the one you kiss while passing under a canal. I turn to Husband scrunching up my nose, puckering my lips and making kissy sounds as enticement and he responds by almost falling off his seat in an attempt to get away from me shouting “You can’t trick me”. I’m not sure he understands the point of marriage.

There’s a Korean in my backyard

img_20171007_135128.jpg
My, what big teeth you have…

I have a hair trigger reflex when it comes to adding new destinations to my travel bucket list. It’s as if the travel monster necessitates regular feeding although it’s hunger will never be satiated and of course, in a desire to please, I myself am all too eager to feed it. This past weekend, after spending the day at the Korean Food and Film Festival, it seemed close to madness that we had not previously considered a trip to Korea. Two big things influenced my view; the food and the people. I would not call my hunger insatiable, but very much like the travel monster, I too require regular feeding.

Nothing about the day actually started out promising. Dark, foreboding clouds loomed up above, discouraging the passage of light into our kitchen as my bare feet touched the cool tiled surface of our floors. I stood in the kitchen, a grapefruit clutched in one hand, trying to persuade myself to have a healthy breakfast. My mood matched the clouds outside at the thought of such foolishness. By the time I had showered and changed however, the sun had made a magnificent come back and the day seemed filled with possibility (also I had abandoned the grapefruit in lieu of last night’s pizza so I was in a remarkably better mood). Getting to the festival, I found myself alone as Husband went off to run some errands and the friend I was meeting had not yet arrived. I was none too phased, there was much to see and experience so I was happy to wander aimlessly (or rather to follow the smell of delicious food) around. I am distracted by a tantalising sign that reads Chicken and Beer as a young, fresh faced Korean woman, asks me “Do you drink? Would you like to taste some Korean alcohol for free?” Now, it was barely after 11:30am but the lady seemed so friendly (and she did say free) that I found myself unable to say no. I tasted a deliciously refreshing hibiscus cocktail and was given a brief explanation of the main ingredient, Soju, a firm Korean favourite made from rice wine. Already, I was sold on Korea, not only did her people seem to know me (offering me free booze) but the warmth of the reception and the eagerness to share their culture with me really warmed the cockles of my heart. Later when I took Husband around to sample some of the typical Korean drinks, a man who looked more like a teenage boy, enthusiastically thrust a small glass of Bekseju into my hand. Holding a similar sized glass filled with the cold amber fluid in his hand he proclaimed “Geonbae! We believe that if you drink this you will live to be a 100 years old!” After we had sampled the ginseng infused drink and he saw looks of appreciation, he happily proclaimed us Korean before proceeding to encourage us to try everything else he had to offer.

When my friend arrives, things get even better, she had lived in Korea for a few years and her enthusiasm about all things Korean (more especially the food) was contagious. Soon, I was stuffing my face with everything I saw, from Jeon (tasty pancakes with delicious fillings including Kimchi) to Mandu (fried dumplings) to traditional Korean barbeque and many other things I can’t re-name now. What really interested me (and my taste buds) was the use of spice and heat in many of the dishes I tried. A Korean lady laughed as she asked me in broken English to try a small finger shaped rice cake coated in a thick spicy broth. The rice cake was soft and gummy almost and the fragrant broth that it found itself in generated a respectful amount of heat without being overpowering. I sipped Bekseju from a heavy, tiny glass and found that it perfectly complemented the heat of the dish. I loved being able to experience this almost literally in my backyard. I also loved the fact that this small taste (not in the literal sense- small is a bit of a fallacy in terms of how much I tasted) had brought me closer to a country I knew very little about. Closer, but not close enough the travel monster reminds me.

All things wild and wonderful in the Waterberg Mountains

A walk on the Wildside!

Upon arriving at the Hanglip Mountain Lodge I am greeted by a giraffe, well actually the bum of a giraffe who is sipping from a small pond, it’s long legs splayed awkwardly, neck craned at an impossible angle. Immediately, I decide that the giraffe will be my friend, scratch that, best friend. I unimaginatively name said giraffe Giraffo. Giraffo does not take kindly to our intrusion to his pond drinking enjoyment and straightens his lean legs trotting off into the sunset leaving me heartbroken and eating his dust (literally). Never mind him, he’ll warm up to me. Giraffo should have given me an indication that this was going to be a weekend quite literally in the wild.

A giraffe near the swimming pool

Giraffo returned later that afternoon to munch on some of the higher branches of the trees shading the pool and upon seeing him I had the most inexplicable urge to hug him. He of course, still playing hard to get, fixed me with a stare that turned my legs wooden and reminded me that he was a wild animal and not an unusually large stuffed toy. We would spend the rest of the afternoon sipping wine on our balcony, watching the mountains steal the last light of the day. Nearby, wildebeest lazed about and upon the sunset, they rose in unison, barely thinking to dust themselves of the sand they had laid in and began to walk off to an unknown destination. The positioning of the lodge could not have been better thought through. Double doors to our thatched room opened to an impressive yet almost petite mountain range, preceded by two dams that served as watering holes, drawing in animals throughout the day. At breakfast, we would find hippos and warthogs and at lunch the elephants would come to visit. Before I went to bed that first night I left out some chips for Giraffo as a peace offering and a blatant attempt at bribery. The next morning, I found my chips gone and in its place settled the renewed hope for a giraffe-human friendship.

One of the great things about this bush weekend getaway is the solitude. Husband is emboldened by the wine and decides that he shall make friends with the couple we met upon arrival. He is convinced they are Portuguese and this seems to bring further proof that a friendship has been written in the stars. We are a giggly twosome, arms linked around one another when we arrive at dinner and before we sit down the waitress reminds us that we shall need an escort walking back to our room in the dark. That’s a bit dramatic, I hiccup to myself, I haven’t had that much wine. But it is not the wine they seek to protect us from, it is the predators lurking around looking for a juicy, fattened city person to sink their teeth into. “There are no fences here at Hanglip” the waitress reminds me, cutting short the stupid remark I was about to make about lions needing to eat dinner too. I nod gravely showing her that I get the point before the German Doctor man at the table next to us starts up a conversation. German Doctor man, as you may have guessed, is a doctor and he hails from Germany. He is one part of the family of four that are the only guests apart from us at the lodge. And just like that, Husband’s dream of making a Portuguese friend is dashed and to make matters worse, German Doctor man is infinitely boring, talking at length about his son’s school and later when he knows us better, his fluffy white dog. His wife does little apart from glare at him from time to time, her disdain palpable and his children are zombie like with their phones so close to their faces they seem to be inhaling them. Poor German Doctor man looks as though he needs a friend but Husband is far too self-absorbed to notice so he cuts him off and proclaims that we are off to bed.

A Cheetah mum and three cubs trailing behind
A Cheetah mum and three cubs trailing behind

The next day tough choices are to be made; stay in and be lazy or go for a game drive. No one said life was going to be easy. We are wooed by the game ranger over lunch and when he asks if he should pack us a bottle of wine to have at sunset I am sold (and I can’t help but wonder if I drink too much wine). I’ve never really liked game drives, a dislike born on the night we spent four long, uncomfortable hours at the Kruger National Park only to see a hyena that accidentally stumbled upon our path and a few bunnies. But, I was willing to give this one a go (bottle of wine notwithstanding). The name of our ranger escapes me but I wish I could recall it, because he deserves more than an honourable mention. He had such a passion and desire to show us all the animals he could, he tracked the lions all through the game reserve, managing to find them even when we had given up and all in all made that one of the best game drives I’ve ever experienced. I guess spotting both cheetah and lion cubs, a rhino with a calf, a herd of elephants and various buck as well zebra will do that to a person.

A rhino crossing the path
A rhino crossing the path

Namibia: The sand and the sea

 

I wish I had a well-crafted answer to the question that often follows my proclamation that I am about to set off on another adventure. When people ask “Why do you want to go there?”, instead of listing all the special sights and things unique to my chosen destination, I am known to reply over-enthusiastically with a crazy gleam in my eye “I want to go everywhere!” Of course, being back from Namibia, I wonder why I didn’t say that I wanted to experience one of the highest sand dunes in the world, to see the place where desert meets the sea and of course profess my love for any country within the African content. If I am being kind, I can spin some story about how my passion and thirst to explore overwhelms me and confuses my words. But we all know I do not have a penchant for being kind, least of all with myself, so I shall have to settle for the fact that I am neither clever nor sharp witted. Excuse me while I go cry in the corner.

Okay, now that that’s done, perhaps I should get back to Namibia. Landing in the barren sandiness of the desert that surrounds the airport, the warmth of the dry air felt unexpectedly light on my face. Perhaps I expected the ferocity of the dessert heat, a rough, calloused hand upon my throat, but instead Walvis Bay laid a gentle hand upon my arm that seemed to say “Welcome African sister”. I decided at once that I would love Namibia and so strong was that love that I almost forgot that it was not the country of my birth. When asked where I was from, genuine surprise would narrow my eyes and force my smile to retreat before I realised that I was in actual fact from South Africa and well, not Namibia.

Setting off towards Swakopmund, I kicked off my shoes and, anticipating a long car ride, I scrounged around in my oversized bag and triumphantly rescued a packet of chips from certain doom. Chips I one hand, book in another, I felt adequately prepared for the road trip. What I was totally unprepared for, was the magnitude of the beauty of my surroundings. A static ocean of sand, soft waves of pale, golden smoothness. The sun rushed towards the great mounds, illuminating ripples of stillness, following every curve and adding depth and variety of colour that seemed almost impossible. A light breeze picked up a sandy shawl from one mound and laid it gently on another. The silence of the dunes spoke to me, the unbroken music cajoled me. I could not bear to look away. It was only the sight of the ocean, with the sun burning a path towards the horizon, that finally drew my gaze away from the golden enchantress. The sun seemed to light the water on fire, brightening the blue against the starkness of the surrounding desert. Movement met stillness, sound met silence. Beauty made perfect though it’s stark contradiction.

 

It was only a day later that I would finally meet the desert head on. Literally. As it turns out, one should always pay attention to the instructions given before attempting sandboarding. But more about that in my next blog. Where I found myself that first evening on Namibian soil, was at the ocean. Cool, white sand beneath my feet, the sun melted into the horizon as the waves rhythmically crashed to shore. It seemed as though I could watch the sun set forever, a bright orange disc that dissolved into the ocean leaving behind a blush of red staining the horizon. In less than a day, Namibia had stolen my heart and taken my breath away more times than I could have ever dreamed possible.

Walk like an Egyptian

 

What kind of mad compulsion drives even the most normal minded people to act like absolute lunatics while on holiday? Not that I can claim to be normal minded, but I had to wonder why, when facing the great pyramids of Giza, I had the overwhelming and embarrassing desire to “walk like an Egyptian”. You know the pose, standing at a side profile, arms bent at right angles and one bent leg in the direction of your stationary movement. Admittedly, my pose was heavily flawed, more from a lack of practice than trying. There I stood; behemoth, antiquated structures reaching for the sky right beside me, with the grave concern of an ill formed pose creasing my brow. This is the part where I tell you that this was not the first pyramid I had seen in Egypt or on that day, and try to recover some of my dignity, but in truth I am a stupid tourist. And in even greater truth, I kind of love being a stupid tourist.

IMG_1032

Seeing my first pyramid was like taking a step back in time. Not thousands of years back, but maybe a few decades to the innocence of wonder in the world, to the innocence of childhood. My entire being filled with excitement, the kind of grimy fingers pressed against the inside of a car window kind of excitement. My face pressed too close to the window, the reverent whisper “Oh wow” is carried in a breath before it settles on the window in front of me. The feeling rouses contradictions within me; I need to free myself and run towards the pyramid and at the same time I want to stay exactly where I am in wonder and awe. It is an almost scary kind of excitement and my fingers yearn to feel the rough, brown surface of the weathered pyramid. It is as if through touch I would convince my mind of the truth that my eyes saw. Perhaps I needed to be grounded by my senses, to make sure that this was more than just a seductive fantasy. Ali, our tour guide, manages to bring me back to the present when he opens my door telling me with a smile “You know the air in Dahshur is so good, whenever I come here I feel like I can take another wife! This air is good for the body.” He inhales deeply to illustrate his point and laughs at his joke even though I am still to spellbound to respond. Cool air greets me as I step outside the car to find that we are in fact alone at the pyramid. There is something wonderfully precious about the solitude, the silence of the desert and the cool crispness of the air. There is something precious in being given the opportunity to experience this moment alone, allowing myself the leisure of wandering thoughts that form loosely and dissolve without ceremony in wind.

Ali is excited and understandably invigorated by the fresh Dahshur air and when he announces that we are going to go inside the pyramid, I’m sure that I have not heard him correctly. “Inside?” claustrophobia increasing the pitch of my voice. “Yes! Inside! I will carry all your things and wait for you outside. You go!” Oblivious to my mounting fear, Ali happily leads us up the uneven footpath towards the entrance of the pyramid. In equal measures, indecision, fear and my penchant for laziness, hamper my ascent and when I finally reach the top, Ali is waiting for me with a broad smile and an outstretched arm to hold my bag and camera. I look to Husband, hoping to find some signs of reluctance in his demeanour so that I can cowardly use his fear as a mask for my own but I come up short as he returns my eliciting gaze with a smile. I look at the child size opening before me, a poorly lit path continues indefinitely into the depths of the pyramid and the voice of panic tells me that I’m going to die inside this pyramid. It is that voice that glues my feet to the ground and shortens my breath. It must have been the magical winds of Dahshur that carried the voices of adventure and her sexier sister, stupidity, when I heard the whispers of “You’re going to die anyway, might as well see what’s down there” cajoling me out of my inertia and fuelling me with adrenalin. It is an uncomfortable duck walk, with our knees close to our chests and our heads bent low, before we reach the bottom and without the wind to carry comforting thoughts, the shrill voice of panic begins to thicken the air and close its hands around my throat. I try shake off the cloying, debilitating fear by reminding myself that there is much to see and explore and this provides a momentary respite before the panic sets in again. It is Husband’s voice that brings calm, although his words do not comfort as he expresses his eagerness to leave the still, cavernous depths. We begin the crouch walk up towards the light and in my eagerness for escape, my steps are hurried and heavy on the wooden slats beneath my feet. Before we are finally released, the man who stands guard at the entrance insists on taking a picture of the two of us and even though I am convinced that I shall go mad spending one more second in containment, I oblige and hand him my camera. Pictures done, I burst from the opening, taking greedy gulps of the fresh Dahshur air, hands clenched around the wooden railing preventing a steep fall down the front of the pyramid. In the span of less than an hour I had come to love and hate Dahshur.

Perhaps I was a bit jaded then when we arrived in Giza to find crowds of people just as annoying as myself trying to take the perfect picture. My mind and imagination had already been fuelled by the pyramids of Dahshur and Saqqar, where the quiet, open spaces allowed me time with myself as well as the imposing structures from an ancient world. But, of course, The Great Pyramids are as their name suggests- great. They are still magnificent to behold, even if all you’re doing is taking a stupid picture in front of them.

Egypt: Sharm el Sheik and me

It seemed as though I followed the Nile for most of my time in Egypt, and like a young lover I was held in awe of her mystery, her bounty and her beauty. When the time came to finally part ways and I arrived in Sharm El Sheik, there was a certain sadness that tugged at the corners of my mouth and pulled at my shoulders. At the airport, our driver rushed about in a desperate hurry and I could not help but feel mildly annoyed. Perhaps it was true that this town was overrun by tourists, perhaps my love affair with Egypt would be forced to an abrupt, merciless stop. This was not my Egypt. This was not the Egypt that held the magic of the temples, tombs and hidden treasures. This was somewhere else. When the driver turns to me and asks “First time in Sharm?” and then to my confirmation replies enthusiastically “You are welcome to Egypt! Inshallah, you will return” I realise that I may have been far too hasty in my judgement of both the driver and of Sharm El Sheik.

At the hotel, we receive a brusque reception. Two odd-looking goblets are placed before us. At the base of the sweating glass lies a fluid of such insincere green that I am almost scared of it. Floating on top of the green perversion is a clear viscous liquid that seems to be besotted with the unnatural colour beneath it as it reaches down grabbing eddies of green, colouring itself. I am staring unpleasantly at this concoction, thirst and the heat of the beginning of an Egyptian summer rivalling common sense when a man from reception comes by, urging me to relax and take a sip. His coaxing reminds me of the men at the souks who shout “Madam, no hassle here” as you walk past, increasing the urgency and volume almost to a shout when they see that they have not got your attention. It is a reluctant sip and a grateful sigh when we are given the key cards to our room.

As usual, when I am in proximity to the ocean, I am drawn to the water. The sand is white and hot under my feet and I walk to the water’s edge with tentative steps. It is a hop, skip and a graceless dance to dodge the sharp pieces of coral and shells recklessly cast out by the sea. Around me people sun themselves, turning alarming shades of pink and deep red, perhaps it is the stark contrast between their sun bitten bodies and the white sand that brings some sort of harmony to the scene. I wonder if I can hear their skins crisping in the sun. Before my thoughts lead me astray I look to the cool water to remedy the effect that thought has on my mind. The water forms an unbroken line of pale green closest to the water’s edge and a deeper blue where the reef drops off. Watching the water lap over this unbroken line is hypnotic. I am not sure how long I have spent mesmerized by that contrast, time seems to have no meaning. My mind grapples with a thought, but trying to hold onto it is as foolish as holding a handful of the salty water beneath my feet. I open my hands and let it slip away as easily as the water would and it is taken back to the ocean. Small waves break the surface of green and blue with faint, unstructured white lines and snorkelers close to the reef are gently bobbed and swayed with the motion. In that moment, it is as if nothing else exists. Paradise? I am not sure, but this feels close.

Luxor from the sky: Hot air ballooning over the Nile

IMG_0888When on holiday, there aren’t many reasons why I would chose to be awake while the sun still slumbers. The slow laziness of a morning abroad is something I look forward to, choosing to only really awaken with my first cup of coffee. But on one particular morning, I found myself wide awake and almost entirely dressed before the unnatural shrill the telephone broke the silence of the early morning calm of the Nile, signalling my 3:15am wake up call. It was the morning we would catch a Luxor sunrise and set off into the Egyptian sky in a hot air balloon.

Without the sun, a cool breeze navigated it’s way through my thin cotton clothes, my arms crossed over my chest, my hands grasping a shoulder or an elbow, anything to brace myself against the unexpected chill. It occurred to me that this was the first time I had felt cold in Egypt. Like a guilty conscience, the Egyptian sun seems to stalk you. When you find refuge in the shade of ignorance, the sun guiles you, you are convinced of it’s gentle nature. But there is no escape, even in the coolness of surrender, the sun burns bright and fiercely, letting you know that even though she shall soon slumber, her reticence is temporary. Her relationship with you is unrelenting. While I did not miss the angry fire in the sky, the coolness of her absence left me feeling empty somehow, forming a palpable void of darkness.

IMG_0923.JPG

There is a brief moment when the sky turns orange and pink and I watch the hot air balloon that will take us into the Luxor sky reluctantly inflate. Chinese tourists move about excitedly taking pictures, urgent pleas from the crew either ignored or not understood. I laugh as I remember our tour guide’s comments from the previous day. He leant towards me and whispered in the most confidential tone that he found the Chinese tourists to often be rude and pushy. The solemnity of his tone and his unsmiling face made me realise that the revelation must have been difficult for him, he bore the easy demeanour of a man who naturally liked others. I laughed in agreement, echoing Husband’s words that perhaps we’re just culturally different. I have no doubt that the crew men that day may have also felt the same at some point or another, about all tourists alike. Yet they remained happy, gentle and relatively good natured, never once getting angry or raising their voices. The captain of our balloon, dressed in black pants and a white shirt with gold wings adorning his shoulders, tells us to be quick getting into the balloon’s basket. I may only have four limbs but somehow, co-ordaining them and my entry into the basket required a skill that even a blind onlooker would have found wanting.

Our laden basket had a brief tussle with gravity before emerging the victor and we began our ascent guided by the wind on the West Bank. The heat from within a hot air balloon assaults many of your senses at the same time. You hear the fire, a brilliant burst of ignition before the warmth radiates to the top of your head and your shoulders. A blaze of colours, blue at the base, a searing yellow at it’s core and a gentler orange framing it, somehow containing it within the fragile nothingness of the balloon. The flame would be more spectacular if not dulled by the surroundings. Lush green farms were made small beneath the balloon, the Nile snaked through the earth leaving behind fertile soil, leaving life in it’s wake. The Nile was a generous mother, feeding the land, stretching her arms wide with abundance and love. She brought life to the desert and from it’s arid sand she grew bountiful fields. She was the creator. But the life she created was abruptly interrupted with that which the desert destroyed. The desert was a hungry, tenacious beast. It’s ferocity only serving to highlight the magnificence of the Nile and of the promise flowing through her water.

Other balloons started to dot the sky around us, fading into insignificance against the Nile. As we drifted towards the East, I watched the shadow of the balloon darken the rural houses beneath us. Children and farm workers all turning their heads to the sky, enthusiastically waving in greeting. Our captain tells us to prepare for a bumpy landing as we drift further away from the river, the soil hardening and cracking preparing us for the desert. It is an awkward landing before I mysteriously manage to extricate myself from the basket without drama and when my feet finally touch the ground, I long for the mystery of the Nile.

Cairo: The chaos and the charm

It is with a touristic uncertainty that I arrive in Cairo. The websites describe the chaos of the city, the guidebook tells me to be vary of pickpockets so I clutch my shoulder bag close to my body in case anyone dares take my travel sized lotion or lip gloss (I have no other items of value). Outside the airport, a man wears a broad smile and holds up a page with my name printed on it and almost at once I relax. Perhaps the sight of your name in a foreign country does that to a person, it makes you feel like you belong. Or maybe – and this is the more likely option- it is the Egyptians themselves who have been so warm and friendly that you cannot help but feel welcome.

It is around 2pm when we leave for the hotel and the man who has come to fetch us tells us that it is a very busy time on the roads. With his curly hair and scruffy beard, I cannot help but notice that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Rick Grimes from the Walking Dead, apart from the fact that Mohamed smiles almost constantly. “Why are the roads so busy at this time?” My uninformed question is answered with a mild mannered chuckle and “In Cairo, we don’t have rush hour, we have a rush day”.

Nothing has adequately prepared me for the madness of Cairo’s roads. And what seems like madness to me is perhaps some form of ordered chaos for those who live here. I feel as though I am looking at one of those pictures made out of a series of unconnected dots. The roads here seem to bear that same concept, that perhaps if I looked at this scene at just the right angle I would see the coherent picture hidden in it’s midst. Everyone else seems to. Everyone seems to understand the collective, unwritten rules that govern these roads. Cars swerve dangerously close to one another correcting course at the very last second to avoid impact. Hooters punctuate every turn, movement or annoyance and altogether they rise and fall rhythmically. The sound is so constant and unyielding that I wonder if it has any effect at all on the motorists. Almost all the drivers are either smoking or on their phones, or in some cases both. In the puff of cigarette one car almost crashes into another, a torrent of Arabic words fly off coupled with emphatic hand gestures, a fury burns so blight it blinds you witness it. Then something remarkable happens, when the driver exhales, releasing a plume of smoke from the depths of his lungs, his anger and rage dissipates as quickly as the smoke does. The driver’s anger, as fleeting as the smoke that circles him, escapes through the open window. A moment of violent passion followed by a calm acceptance, no residual anger or frustration, just another Egyptian trying to get to where they need to. And perhaps in the next couple of puffs, the same scene will repeat itself but for now there is such a serenity and calm in the madness, that I can’t help but admire the Egyptians fortitude on the roads. I can’t quite picture the same thing happening back home in Johannesburg.

It was later that evening that we walked through the bustling streets of the Khan el-Khalili market. Streams of people crowded the alleyways, streets and market stalls, filling the bazar with a collective murmur, the chatter and sounds of life. The feeling was unmistakable. In these streets, Cairo lived and breathed, pulsating with every sound and movement of it’s people, both native and foreign. I smile politely but do not encourage any of the vendors as they alternate between “India? Where are you from?” and “Come madam, no hassle”, my purpose that night was to experience the market, to experience Cairo at night. My lazy feet could not keep up with the steps of those around me, Egyptians seem to all walk at a hurried, purposeful pace, although upon seeing a friend or someone known, they stop, leisurely exchanging warm greetings, perhaps a kiss on each cheek in greeting. I occurs to me that my time in Egypt is too short and that perhaps this visit bears repeating. Later when I have a sweet glass of fresh mango and orange juice for a ridiculously cheap price in one hand, and a black henna tattoo adorning my other, I realise that have never felt more at home and like a tourist at the same time.

Aswan: A felucca ride at sunset along the Nile

The guide book says that an Aswan sunset is not one you would soon forget and it’s hard to disagree when I remember the felucca ride we took as the harsh Egyptian sun finally began to set, darkening the waters of the Nile from the daylight green, to a an inviting darkness of the evening. Walking back to towards the ferry that would take us back to our hotel on Isis Island, a slightly more impressionable version of more than just a small formation of rock that spilt the Nile as depicted in the guide book, we were approached by a young man. He smiled invitingly and asked us if you wanted to take a felucca trip. “Very cheap, do you want to know how much?” It would be an introduction we grew accustomed to over the next couple of days. We gladly accepted his offer, choosing not to bargain as the price was reasonable to start off and we walked a short distance to where he untethered his wooden sail boat and pushed off the dock.

IMG_0549

The orange light in the sky faded too quickly, as if the sun itself was tired from burning so bright and high in the sky. It seemed to me that the glory in the Egyptian sunsets were precluded by their brevity. But when the darkness fell, it descended so languidly over the river that instead of bringing darkness, it seemed to light the night with possibility. There is something infinitely calming about the water, it is as if I am home, as if I am at peace on the water. Tiny openings in the sky burned with the light of the Egyptian stars and the river frogs began their night-time symphony and as I lay back, with my face towards the heavens, I felt as though that moment was created just for me. Beyond anything I felt lucky. Lucky to enjoy an experience that people only read of in books. Lucky that I have been given the opportunity to pursue my dreams. Lucky that my quest for hedonism is always met with unadulterated satisfaction.

The boat’s man plays Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier and I cannot believe that it is fortuitous. No, this moment, on the Nile under the cool night sky with the sounds of Bob Marley and the river night life come alive, was made for me.  The wind catches the sail of the felucca and in an instant we are pushed forward through the river before our pace slows again, there is no rush to get to our hotel, all that seems to exist is us, the river and the stars. It is gentle breeze that flaps a small flag rhythmically at the bow of the boat. The noise catches my attention and I’m amused to see a Rastafarian flag with a cannabis leave emblazoned on it. I laugh as I settle back to once again face the heavens and I wonder why life couldn’t always be this peaceful.