Sunday, 22 June 2014

Top ten : Egypt

My absolute favourites in Egypt:

1.  The pyramids.  Of course.  Start with the biggies at Giza, and the sound and light show is a must see. Then go to the step pyramid of Sakkara, the first and still the best one to understand the minds that dreamed them up as tombs.  Don't miss the small but rather neat museum on-site.  If possible also take in Dahshour.  

Khafre's pyramid at Giza


2.  Take the night train to Luxor and spend a day or two at the Valleys of Kings and Queens.  Karnak Temple requires a couple visits, one by day to wrap your head around its humongousness and another at night for another riveting sound and light show.  

Sunrise through the window on train to Luxor

Luxor Temple

3.  Go into the White Desert and marvel at the limestone shapes sculpted by the winds and sands.  Camp for the night under the stars. Enjoy a vast and unimaginable peace.  Watch the sunrise wash over the desert.  Unforgettable!

Road to Bahariya

Sunset in the White Desert

Campsite at White Desert

4.  Enjoy the Nile's final resting place, go to Damietta where the eastern branch of the Nile meets the Med.  Tranquil and honest and untouristy. Watch the catch come in early morning. And take a felucca and sail the evening waters at Cairo, Luxor and/or Aswan.  Sit by the river and sip a coffee, or smoke shisha if that's your thing.  Enjoy the Nile. Period.

Felucca at Aswan

Fishing boat at Damietta

5.  Spend a day in Islamic Cairo - Sharia Khayameya, Sharia Muizz and the Khan el Khalili.  Several mosques and mausoleums to check out, old merchant residences - the best restored is Beit Suheimy.  Great shopping opportunities too, but be prepared to bargain hard.  Go on to Wikala al Ghuri on Saturdays and Wednesday evenings to watch the Tanoura being performed by whirling dervishes.  Programme starts at 8 pm, but seats fill up by 7-ish.  Mind altering, in the best way possible.

Feel the drums and cymbals 'talking" to each other in this jugalbandi

Colourful, mesmerising, devotional, rhythmic and riveting!

6.  Alexandria - a two thousand year old city with a completely different vibe, Egypt's ex-capital and now her second city and main port. Visit the Graeco-Roman monuments.  The real roots of the revolution have their home in Alex. Khaled Said's home city, also home to many independent bands and musicians and graffiti artists. Museum at Bibliotheca is certainly worth a visit, Fridays it shuts at 12 noon. Eastern harbour and the Corniche at Qaitbey's fort great for people watching.  Best seafood.

Boats in the Eastern Harbour Alex

Qaitbey's Fort stands at the site of the famous lighthouse, a boat in Egyptian colours is moored in the foreground

7.  The monasteries at Wadi Natrun, and Zafaraana.  St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, where Moses' legends abound.  Each monastery is a reminder of a time when Egypt was profoundly Christian.  Sinai itself is forbidding and utterly fascinating and endlessly wonderful. Sadly, not such a safe place for travel any more.

St Catherine, Sinai

The bell tower inside St Catherine's Monasery

8.  When monument fatigue strikes, Pharonic, Islamic or Coptic, seek relief at Fayoum oasis for a spot of peace and culture-free quiet; or get to the Red Sea resorts.  Sharm al Sheikh is the most famous, the others are quieter.  My personal favourite is Ras Sudr.

Water wheels at Fayoum oasis

Ras Sudr at sunset

9. The Med resorts are not exactly terrible either, El Alamein has the WWII memorials, if you're into that period of history.  Or you can give those a miss and stick to the beach. Mersa Matruh is difficult to get to in terms of the driving distance, but the rewards are truly great.  Beautiful beaches and crystal waters.  

Ageeba beach Mersa Matruh

Father and children at Blue beach Mersa Matruh

10.  Can't get away from Cairo? Not even an hour's drive to Fayoum or Ain Sokhna? Never mind, get to the Azhar Park on Salah Salem Street, an oasis of greenery and peace in the heart of Cairo.  Open air performances by local artists every Friday evening.  Minaret view sunsets come for the price of the admission ticket. 

Azhar Park sunset

Those are my top ten.  What are yours?  In or out of Egypt, wherever you've travelled, and/or lived?

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Leave me out of it, Mister!

Credit Lennart Nilsson 

Lately I have come across a positive deluge of opinionated thinking on several issues related to family life.  An extrapolation of one person’s experiences, prejudices and shortcomings onto a blanket generalisation and thrown around the shoulders of the entire world.  Often this takes the guise of “golden words” or “30 things that you must do before you are 30” or some such. 

Someone writes casually that he hasn’t done this or that particular thing (for his child, for his parents, for his partner) and then goes onto an admonition – “do this now, or you’ll end up regretting it!” Another says women should delay higher education till after their childbearing is done. What? Yet another sermonises about how senior citizens should be cared for, or pontificates on how the family bed and co-sleeping has worked for their family and so should be adopted worldwide.  The carving of one person’s experience onto stone and then a moral drawn, and flogged as some sort of commandment for the world to live its life by.  It is the last bit that I have issues with.

Pick your regrets

I have lived my life as mindfully as I can under my particular circumstances, and I know what I want to do for all of my family members, thank you very much.  In fact, many of my choices have been specifically guided by “if I don’t do it this way, I’ll regret it later.”  Of course every choice comes with its set of residual regrets attached, it is just a matter of choosing which regrets I would rather, or rather not, have.  And we each choose the ones that we can live with individually. 

Ian McEwan, a writer whose books I admire, said some days ago that finding out an unborn baby’s sex is “moral kitsch” and predisposes the child to gender stereotyping, and that’s why his son and his son’s partner have chosen not to find out the sex of the baby they are expecting.  Fair enough, it’s a choice that many would-be-parents make, preferring to draw out the surprise till the last minute.  But to condemn all parents who might want to know the sex in advance seems quite simplistic and frankly, wrong.  There are issues of health and gender related diseases for one thing, and for another - if the parents are the sort of people who would gender stereotype a baby, then how will finding out the sex a few months later morph them into the opposite?

The 11th commandment

In my society, it is illegal for clinics to give out this information anyway, as we haven’t yet managed to overcome the preference for male children and the fact of female foeticide and infanticide and a host of other grave evils resulting from it.  It can be done privately and illegally of course. But for many would-be-parents who would simply like to follow the law of the land and also find out the sex of their unborn child without being into foeticide and all that, it is not an option even. 

I spent most of my pregnancies outside of India, and in the one that actually progressed as far as the 20-week scan, I answered “yes” to the doctor’s question without even having to think about it.  I found out the sex of my child, not because I wanted to gender select/stereotype, but simply because my own experiences made me unsure of how much time I had with this child, and because I wanted to be able to engage as personally, as intimately, as closely as possible with the “foetus”  for as long as possible. For all I knew, this would be the nearest I would get to motherhood, and I wanted to be completely aware who it was that I was carrying and mothering and to call them by name as soon as possible, long before I saw their face.  Or genitals.  Knowing that helped me to be mindful and grateful.  I kept my knowledge private at the time, in fact I have not spoken of it to anyone up until now, and only the father knew all along.  I cannot equate my motives with “moral kitsch” in any way. I don’t think I deserve blanket condemnation either, and neither do many others with different but equally justifiable motives.

There are many high and unrealistic expectations that society places on women, especially mothers; to add another straw to that particular camel’s back seems wholly unnecessary.  Judge not so one-dimensionally that ye be not judged the same.  If an additional commandment were really essential, if would be this, it would be this, it would be this.