Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Egypt, part 6, Luxor(part 4): what's in the basket

Last Wednesday, our alarm went off at 3:30am. It took me an entire five minutes to slide my body from the bed to the floor, next to my suitcase. Mission: get up. Get dressed. Get out the door. Somehow we accomplished it in record time.

J and I climbed into a van and we drove to a second location, where we picked up more people. After that, it was onto a row of fallucas waiting for us on the edge of the Nile. More people started to arrive and pile into the boats. Hani, the main man in charge, offered each of us coffee or tea. We were all pretty sleepy around the edges. I sipped my coffee as the motors started up and one by one our fallucas pulled away from the bank and further into the Nile.

Light was just beginning to trick the edges of the sky above us. The waters of the Nile were dark, and I concentrated on the murmur of our boat mates to try to get my mind off of what was ahead. One man, an American now living in Kuwait, slowly read the safety contract out loud. "We've gotta practice the landing position," He told the woman sitting next to him. They were part of a group of five Americans--there was also a couple from Cambridge to my right. To my left were two women from Argentina, impressively fancy in their attire for 4am. This would be our group for the journey upward.

Once at the location, things moved pretty quickly. The fabric of balloons were being stretched out. Giant fans blew into them and trucks were connected to the baskets by thick rope--a method of uprighting them. We were actually doing this.



As a kid, I loved that moment of discovering a hot air balloon in the sky, random and unexpected. In my hometown, they used to have a yearly hot air balloon race. I was never clear on what the racing part entailed, but I loved to see all of the balloons taking off simultaneously. One year I remember losing my mind over the launch of a Mr. Peanut shaped balloon(it was gorgeous). Sometimes they offered little mini-trips up into the air, balloon still tethered to the ground but effective nonetheless. I never did it. But I was always a bit fascinated. What was up there, in the basket anyway? Special weights? A cooler packed with snacks? The mysteries of life?

And then there I was on the West Bank of the Nile, very close to finding out.

When I get scared, and by scared I mean petrified...my knees shake uncontrollably. It's a deep shake, an actual knocking, just like the expression. I've only felt this exceptional tremble a handful of times in my life thus far. Once was on that hellish flight from Paris to New York in big ol winter storms, another time was in the hospital with a migraine, scared and alone and connected to an I.V.

What I'm saying is this: my knees were knocking. The adrenaline was coursing. J tried to put a comforting arm around me and I half turned out of it, staring at the rush of flame inflating the balloon in front of us. My brain was teetering between two things: I can do this/I can't do this/I can do this/I cannot cannot cannot.

It takes a village to raise a balloon. Here is what the scene became in front of us:


There were easily 20 Egyptians working hard to keep the basket steady--this basket full of people. Hani screamed at the truck driver to back up, pull close, back up again. The basket was twice as large as ours would be, and swayed in the arms of the holders before finally skidding up and off the dirt, into the air.


Annnnnd there they go.


Holy craaaaaaaap.

And under my crazy-blooming fear, this childlike need to know: what was on the other side of that wicker? How awesome would it feel to be in a basket in the sky?



The company's name = Sindbad. In all my adrenaline pumping existence, I furiously image searched a picture of Sinbad the comedian on my phone. He, I decided, would be my spirit guide. This is the picture:


I walked up to one of the guys that would be in our balloon. "This is my spirit animal." I said it in one run-on flurry of syllables and he gave me a hell yeah and chuckled. Until take off, I distracted myself between my picture of Sinbad and taking pictures of the process of take off in front of me.


Our driver introduced himself as Kareem("that means joy--that must be a good sign, right RIGHT?!" I whispered to J). We stood in a circle as he gave us directions--position to take on landing, how to climb into the basket. This was happening. Soon we were walking to the balloon. This. Was. Happening. And then we were climbing in, and there I was, in the basket. The big mystery of what-was-in-the-basket solved. Here is the answer:


Nothing. There is nothing in the basket. Those two bags belong to two of our passengers(Argentinian women that, I think, were skyping/calling someone from the air at one point).

It was surprisingly/not surprisingly hot once we were in the basket. There was a giant flame shooting up into a balloon right above our heads, and it was hard to escape the heat despite the metal plates arranged above our heads. Kareem, our pilot, had removed his fancy pilot's button up and was pulling the flame release in a tshirt. Things happened pretty quickly once the 11 of us were in. So quickly that I didn't even realize we had left the ground. This is the first picture my shaking hands could manage once I did realize it:




I'll be honest. I spent the first few minutes being very, very quiet--a voice in my head was screaming YOU NEED TO GET DOWN YOU NEED TO GET DOWN NOW PLEASE but there was nothing to be done. I was in a basket, in the air, and there was nothing to do but be there. The camera helped. I looked through it to balance myself. Every time someone in the basket moved, the basket creaked and swayed with them. I couldn't wrap my head around it: in the air, in a basket, in the air.

I realized that if I was going to get through this, I needed to be there. I needed to feel both the fear and the utter exhilaration of doing something I might very well never, ever do again. I needed to enjoy it. To do that, I needed to let go.



And once I did, my goodness.

Of all that I know and have been and will be...my goodness. Such greatness.







I couldn't get over how exceptionally quiet it was up there. It makes sense--no real sound of motor or engine, other than the shot of flame above our heads every other moment. We were all talking amongst ourselves, snapping photos, but still keeping our voices to murmurs. I think we all felt a bit sacred about the moment.

The balloon slowing rotated, replacing green with mountain and then to ruins. With each shift the light changed a bit, but it wasn't difficult to shoot an amazing picture.









I've been fortunate to experience a lot of wonderful and amazing, inspiring things in my life thus far. I've fallen in love. I became an aunt. I danced in some awesome spaces(like First Avenue, where Purple Rain was filmed). I've been lucky to read my work, my passion, in many venues. But a hot air balloon ride over the Nile at sunrise? I think I may have found one of my ultimates with this one.

Landing happened fairly quickly, similar to take off. We were approaching an area of farmland. The house nearby had a bed on the roof, where a little boy was just waking up.



They waved and we waved back.
Just before landing we all assumed the landing position. You grab hold of a handle in the basket, crouch down in a squat, and lean back to balance the weight and shock of hitting the ground. As we approached, we could see one of Hani's truck hauling ass up the nearby road to receive us. As we hit, the Egyptian balloon workers were waiting to grab us and keep us from dragging. The balloon was deflated and dismantled all by hand--one man pulled open the vent at the top of the balloon by pulling and pulling a rope on the side. Ten other men pushed the air out of the balloon while twisting and gathering the material tightly. It was an impressively smooth operation. As we climbed out, I noticed a handful of children surrounding us, fists full of necklaces and things to hopefully sell. They must be used to balloons landing in their backyards.

J snapped some extraordinary pics--maybe I can convince him to share some in this space in a future entry. For now, I leave you with a video I shot from way up high. That gorgeous, gorgeous quiet. Along with a picture of my certificate upon completion, handed out in the van afterwards. So stoked:




Monday, October 13, 2014

Egypt, part 5, Luxor(part 3): Luxor Temple at night

It is one thing to visit temple ruins during the day. It's a whole new experience to venture into them at night.

Next on our list: Luxor Temple.

We grabbed a taxi from the hotel(our driver was an awesome man named Mahmoud who decorated his car with pictures of Bob Marley) and headed to the center of the city of Luxor, where the temple is located. And it really is in the center of town, easily seen from multiple roads. When we were in the actual temple, noise from the street and nearby shops filtered in, and children sat on the wall backlit by neon.

Here is the first thing you see after buying your ticket and entering temple grounds:



This is what I've been waiting for: The Avenue of the Sphinxes. Originally the avenue, lined with 1,350 sphinxes, traveled from the Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple, and was used for ceremonial processions. During the Roman area some of this was destroyed--roads and houses were built over parts, and some of the sphinxes were actually reused in the construction. Crazy to think about dismantling a sphinx to build your home. A few years ago a restoration project began--the governor of Luxor was given 30 million Egyptian pounds to compensate those who lived on the site, so that they could rebuild elsewhere. About 650 sphinxes have been restored thus far.

The avenue was incredible at night:







Note the city in the background:



At one end of the avenue stands the Luxor Temple. Here is a great resource for information on the temple:
http://discoveringegypt.com/luxor-temple/

The layout was a bit similar to Karnak--walls hiding rows of pylons that seemed to extend back forever. Everything we looked at was covered in hieroglyphics, and J and I were like two little kids--look at this thing! Oh oh! Look at this one! When you're done looking at that one, look at this one!. It was impossible not to point, turn in circles, giggle. All things we did at least a few times.

Anyway, some details...

When you turn your back to the avenue, this is what you see:


Here is the obelisk standing at the entrance. There were originally two--the other is currently in Paris. Covered, head to toe:


Here is a panoramic of the interior, just to give you an idea of the size:


Some detail(s) of the interior:



















When we were ready to leave, our driver Mahmoud was waiting for us. On the way back to the hotel, he hopped out and brought us back two pomegranate drinks. So good.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Egypt, part 4, Luxor(part 2): little moments

Trips to the unknown are built like a body. There are the essentials--the framework, the bones, the home base. Where you are staying. Your trajectory from here to there and back. There is you, and there might be whoever you are traveling with. Their bones and your bones and the big things(where the head rests, points on a map, the sleeping and the being awake) are the essential bodily things.

There is the muscle and guts. The plan, the agenda--the bumpy plane ride, the desert pointed to from above, the destinations of temple, ruins, pool, river. These are the bits you recount for others, traveling and still, who might relate or have their own bits of muscle to share.

The people, the places, the plan--all muscle and guts and bone.

Find the sinew linking it all in little moments. Every journey has them. We had ours.

The wedding photographed at our hotel, up against the Nile at sunset. J went down to catch the sun slipping behind mountains up close and concentrated--I stayed upstairs to catch glimpses of the bride from our balcony. The bride took a picture by herself, and a boat drifted by at the moment of camera snaps, and even from upstairs I could hear all of the men on the falluca singing in unison to her. It was a song in Arabic and I could not catch any of the words. The men sang together, big bellowing lines, some of them standing with arms up, and I wonder if it was playful or mean--I wonder if they wished her well or sang cruel lyrics...I do not know. But with my camera I caught her reaction--she grabbed handfuls of her immaculate gown, hollered something in return and to the photographer, and stomped away with one hand shooing in front of her face. In there, a brief smile or grimace.



Little moments. Like the full moon finding us everywhere, including the Temple of Luxor.


Odd, irrelevant things. Like this dress shop. "Oh where DID you get that dress?" "Oh you know...Santa Claus."


Little details. Like a sphinx missing everything but his toes.


Sinew is the uncaptured. The camera missed or was forgotten altogether. Smoking shisha after dinner, marveling at a spider with the perfect home--a web constructed in an inlet backlit, boasting many flying and crawling creatures to be consumed. She hovered there, letting them fly right into her clutches. Or J ordering room service when I was too ill with a migraine to make it downstairs for dinner. He brought the tray to me in bed and taught me how to pull the whole heads from the body of shrimp. The night I became unreasonably mad at him when we were laying in bed talking about exes. Our housekeeper, who kept us guessing with his daily towel constructions:



Playing slow motion matrix punch-kicks in the swimming pool, the flat tire and flat spare. The incredible smell of the elevator(I know...strange but true. The elevator always smelled delicious).

The big things, of course. Of course I will remember them. The hustle at the Valley of the Kings, taking the falluca across the Nile before the sun was even up. The way J calmed me when my anxiety overrode everything else as our plane landed again in Cairo.

But it is the sinew--the tough tissue marrying muscle to bone. Tendons--some I can show but most I will not. They are the little things in all my travels that I remember most.

Egpyt, part 3, Luxor(part 1): Karnak Temple

I've fallen behind on updating here. Apologies!

Our hotel was located on the East Bank, right on the Nile. The pool and outdoor bar area overlooked the water and onto the West Bank. Just beyond the green, you could see the mountains in the distance(location for Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Kings). We were within walking distance of the Karnak Temple, and this was our destination on our first full day.

So, the Karnak Temple.

We walked through a bit of Luxor to get there, still quite empty due to the Eid holiday. Right before the actual temple, we crossed a large stone courtyard, partially overgrown with grass in places. The hustle was already beginning with a few people offering us tours of the grounds. I am quite lucky to have such an adventurous partner--J likes to go it alone where we can as opposed to booking with large tour companies. It's wonderful to explore at your own place and to not feel herded from bus to place to bus again. The freedom is wonderful. However, this trip taught me that there can be some "good" in touring with a larger group(and I put good in quotes here because it's not so much a good or bad thing but moreso just a thing worth noting). In larger groups, you're more likely to avoid the hustle. You stick out much more rolling solo or as a couple. I felt more ready for it this time, after my experience in Giza at the pyramids. Everyone wants to make that coin--some choose to do so in shadier ways like trying to get in the frame of your picture so they can charge you for their image. More on the hustle later.

Here, briefly, is where I interject to say I feel bad that I cannot sit here and describe all of the history surrounding the Karnak Temple. For that I point you in a few directions(side note: I am currently looking into books to read about this place, because I need to know more, asap):

http://www.karnak.org

http://dlib.etc.ucla.edu/projects/Karnak/assets/media/resources/IntroductionToTheTempleOfKarnak/guide.pdf



We bought our tickets for the temple and stepped inside. The temple is partially hidden from the stone courtyard by two large, crumbling outer walls. Just outside of these walls are a row of ram-head sphinxes:



I want so badly to properly express the enormity of this place.



I fall back on the photographs when words fail me. And with this place they do, again and again. My mind couldn't process all that my eyes were seeing. There is so much to take in. Nearly every surface within the temple is covered in hieroglyphics. And when I say covered, I mean covered.









It was nearly impossible to get a bad photo once we walked into the great hall. The rows of columns and sunlight created beautiful areas of light and dark. Grooves in the etchings became deeper in the shadows and figures seemed to extend themselves out to you.





It is, by far, the most fantastic thing I've ever seen. At times I would stop and run my fingers over the deep grooves in stone, each line connecting to make a picture, to tell a story. I thought of the person who made it, who must have wondered who might see this someday in the far off future. Some images and areas were destroyed and redone, depending on which king/queen ruled at the time. I wondered which parts were missing...what the emptiness might look like whole again.



I was enthralled with what wasn't there as much as what was.



Paint remained in some places in the temple...places where sun rays could not contort to reach:



Things learned:

- never follow a man with a gun behind a walled area of the temple, even if he beckons you. Even if he's a cop.

- tourism seems to be starting up again. We didn't run into any Americans, but plenty of Europeans as well as people from China and Japan. More than likely there will be at least one tourist wearing a ship captain's hat, for reasons very unknown.

- if you go here, get ready to have a sore neck the following day. You will be looking up and turning circles to take it all in, but the ache around the edges is so, so worth it.

- at the Karnak Temple I did not feel small as much as I felt at peace. I'd like to explain this a bit, as it might seem like a strange statement. There are things that I have been confronted with/exposed myself to, both natural and manmade, that have made me feel the exactness of my size in all of this. The ocean, for instance. Once I'm in it, feet off the bottom, I feel so small--a speck, a tiny not-even-a-dot thing. Maybe it's the water, the weightless feeling. There are cruel people that might have made me feel small, or too large and cluttery, a striding chaos in their way. I wish I had the words for it...Karnak made me feel very peaceful, very understanding, very...full of heart. I don't know how to express that very well, other than taking this space to note the calm and magic I felt there. I felt inspired. I felt alright. Hopeful even. A magic, yes. Certainly a magic.