Egypt: Sharm el Sheik and me

 

DCIM100GOPROIt 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.

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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

IMG_0556The 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.

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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.

Tomorrow is all we have

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Lutchmee Varma is 86. In short, she is a crazy woman, but crazy in the way all the best people are. She has known hardship and joy, and has seen a life that nothing I ever write would adequately describe. She fills my heart with her laughter and I wish I had the power to make all her days happy ones. She is my grandmother, the matriarch of our family and hands down one of my favourite people in the world. As I write this she is in hospital awaiting the surgery that will remove her inflamed gall bladder tomorrow.

I’m not sure why I am writing this, perhaps I am seeking a release in the only way I know how. I am terrified, beyond terrified actually. Almost paralysed with fear. We all know the risks associated with surgery at an advanced age, there are no guarantees. I want so badly to remain positive, to think only of a tomorrow when I will hear her voice, hear a silly joke and make plans with her for the future. The alternative is too much to think of. I called her today, she was in such good spirits, telling me that she’ll call me after the operation to tell me she’s okay. She joked in her typical fashion that she was getting dressed up so she could find a nice doctor. It’s been explained to me that the procedure is fairly routine but I cannot keep the emotion out of my voice I cannot stop the tremble in my hands. I can’t shake the thought that no amount of time would ever feel like enough with her. That I haven’t yet listened to all of her stories. That I have not hugged her enough or thanked her enough for everything she’s ever done for me.

I’m not particularly religious but I find myself conversing with what I hope to be a higher power, bargaining, desperately pleading for more time. It is selfish I know, but I have spent my whole life thinking my granny was invincible. She has been ridiculously strong and healthy and I find it hard to remember that she has aged, as we all do. To me she is the fiercely independent woman who raised her children the best she knew how. She is the woman who ran away to marry the man she loved, the woman who loves to dance, the woman who looked after herself for most of her life. She is the one who makes me special treats that no one else can, who sits and talks to me about her life, who laughs at my silly jokes and who tries to cure any aliment she may think I have. She is my granny and my life is made better by having her in it. Quite simply there will never be anyone else like her and I am not ready to give her up just yet. Varma women are made strong and stubborn and I am counting on that resilience tomorrow, on that stubbornness to pull her through. She is not yet done, her story not yet finished.

We, the people of South Africa…

I woke up to the sound of rain yesterday and wondered if it was a promising sign. Perhaps it was a cleansing rain. A rain to wash through the streets, to bring renewed purpose and hope. A rain to clean our minds and purify our thoughts as we prepared to gather at various places around the country and stand together as brothers and sisters, against a man who we’ve come to regard as symbol of corruption, greed and evil. The man we call our president.

I am by no means a political analyst or a scholar, I write this with only the most rudimentary understanding of economics and politics. But what I am, is a South African, more accurately put a troubled South African. And over the past few weeks, after the loss of Uncle Kathy, the cabinet reshuffling, the ratings downgrade/s, I feel compelled, driven, moved to action. I do not want to sit idly by and watch our beautiful country crumble. So yesterday, like thousands of other South Africans, I took to the streets managing to catch the tail end of the People’s March in Pretoria. Standing in the field outside the Union Buildings, grass poking through my sandaled feet, I saw my fellow South Africans wave banners, rise their fists in the air and I saw the clouds part and sun shine through them.

Hearing our national anthem is never just that for me, it is never just something I hear, it is something I feel and as I stood in that field I felt emotions surge and threaten to break free as tears burned my eyes. I felt what my fellow South Africans felt. Through the fear, sadness and anger, I felt hope. Hope in the beauty and diversity of our country, hope in the fact that standing together, we the people of South Africa, will be heard. The audacious hope that change is coming and that I could be a part of shaping that change.

Our president is just one man and I suppose this is what scares me. We see a picture of him and we see a greedy, self-serving man. He has become a symbol of what is wrong with our country and as the ANC scuttles to defend him, publicly toting notions of “political agendas” and threatening violence, I can’t help but wonder if cutting off the beast’s head is enough. It seems to me that the beast grew fat on the rot and propagated it’s cancerous stench, creating more rot, feeding itself of it’s own creation.

It is a start, an important one, that we took to the streets yesterday. That we the people of South Africa, sent an important message to our government. But what is more important now, is that we are relentless in our quest. Relentless in our desire to get rid of not only the beast, but the rot that threatens to destroy us all.

Confessions of a diving virgin

“You’ll never forget your first breath under water”, that’s what an American voice in a SCUBA video tells me. The video is great, complete with happy faces, women with miraculously neatly plaited hair and a gentle tranquil soundtrack, I’m sold. Obviously my first experience with SCUBA diving was going to be a walk in the park-bad choice of words, maybe a walk in the ocean, okay even worse choice of words. But you get my point, this was going to be great!

Fast forward to my first pool session, our dive instructor tells us to get into the pool swim a couple of laps and then tread water for 10 minutes. I show off, I’m not a bad swimmer and I’m natural in the water. Confidence unnecessarily and uselessly boosted, I gear up (there is no grace in getting into a wetsuit, I finally understand how sausages must feel) and ready myself for the first lesson. I would call what happened next a slap in the face but it really was an assault on the lungs as my “first breath under water” was one laden with water. I panic and pop my head out of the water, what the hell was I thinking? Humans are not meant to breathe under water! Maybe my breathing apparatus isn’t working? Maybe I’m not getting enough air, I do have Asthma, is this a sign of imminent doom? I look to the rest of the group, their heads just below the surface and panic even further when I realise that I’m the only idiot above the surface. Five seconds into diving and I’ve already convinced myself that I’m going to die and I haven’t even left the shallow end of the pool yet! The instructor appears, mildly irate at having to deal with his problem student and tell me to bite onto the mouth piece, that way I’ll stop sucking in water. I do as he says, biting so hard that my jaw hurts. I’m terrified but too stubborn to admit defeat and I agree to give it another go although everything in my body seems to fight the very concept of breathing under water.

The pool session is long, the group of us emerge wrinkled and tired but most importantly alive and with a great sense of pride. I can’t say that I enjoyed the session, what with being so afraid of dying all the time but I agree to do some skills dives the next day. I am proud of my stubbornness and at my success at saying alive and I am convinced that I have the basic knowledge to successfully complete the dives the following day. If you think I’m setting this up for one of those “oh boy was I wrong” moments, you’re quite right as the next day diving at Miracle Waters, I seemed to spontaneously forget all of my instruction the moment I head dipped below the surface. My mask was foggy, I kept forgetting to breathe, choosing instead to hold my breath defying the first rule of SCUBA diving and I almost fell off the diving platform. Couple my lack of composure with the fact that we were diving with two children a third of my age who seemed to have no issues at all and I felt like a complete idiot. I want to say that I survived not only that dive but two successive dives thereafter and that I displayed the correct skills but I’m pretty sure that survival during a dive is not really the reason one dives.

So here I am a few days post losing my diving virginity with a case of “severe bilateral otitis media” and I’m really not sure how I feel about diving. As for the pain in my ear and in face, I’m pretty sure I hate that but I’m not convinced that I’m a diver. I have one last dive to qualify for my open water certificate and perhaps the beautiful upside is that I can qualify in the Red Sea during our upcoming trip to Egypt. But I constantly wonder if, like how I deal with emotions, I am only meant to skim the surface and not really probe into great depths. Perhaps time will tell.