World Travels

Chapter Four: Friends Old and New

We left the last chapter on a return to “real” travelling. But I spent the time in Egypt and Jordan on a group tour. To more purist travellers, this must seem like a deadly sin that I did not slum every night in a $2 hostel hitchhiking my way between places. Group tours have their time and their purpose. It was great to not have to think about where to go next, where to stay, how to get there but to sit back and watch all the logistics be someone else’s problem. The amount of activity that you can fit in one day also increases because it is all already planned. This means that this email is not going to be so descriptive as there is a lot to fit in!

My greatest fear was who on earth would be in the group: who else would want to spend the holiday period away from everyone they knew in odd countries?? It turns out (and of course, I’m just saying this because some people from the group are now on the distribution list for these emails and I plan on visiting them on the way around) that they were ALL JUST SO NICE!!

With that introduction… Egypt was incredible. Pyramids, Sphinx, Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo (with pictures of early medical instruments and mummified crocodiles), Edfu Temple, Luxor Temple, Valley of the Kings are of course all the big sites. We swam in the Nile, ate in villages, took a donkey ride, sailed down the Nile. Our guide was brilliant. His father-in-law was a lawyer and I went to say hello in his office in Aswan.  Egypt has become the first country where I couldn’t visit a court. Apparently, they would just assume any westerner was a spy and all sort of trouble might occur. Other signs of abnormality were evident: we had to have a police officer accompany us through Cairo market and another from Sharm el Sheik airport to our hotel. The security at the airport to Sharm was so good that one person got their whole set of toiletries through and two others successfully carried pen-knives all the way.

The highlight for me was climbing Mount Sinai by night to watch dawn. It was a bright full moon and we could see the mountains around us clearly with camels looming up out of the half-light. All the way to the top were little shops selling tea and snacks (my kind of mountain). At the base, we saw the burning bush: all the rocks around the mountain have old fossil remains that look like trees. Even the rocks are showing that this burning bush was indeed the one where God appeared to Moses.

Perhaps because of being a group, I didn’t feel so uncomfortable or hassled in Egypt than I had anticipated. You can just be rude to people there and ignore the traders completely. That all changed on the ferry to Jordan where for 8 hours, we were stared at and photographed by a boatful of male Egyptian migrant workers. This doesn’t really make a good first impression and so Jordan started off a little on the wrong foot. Everyone was also tired and things were fraying around the edges. I had waited to go to Jordan for 7 years and wish I had not been in a group when I finally got there. It is a very easy country to navigate: lots of signs in English and road users obeying the rules of the road. And it is exceptionally beautiful. The desert at Wadi Rum (where they filmed The Martian) is full of sandstone outcrops, striped like licorice allsorts, that crumble if you attempt any kind of climbing. The hills around the Dead Sea glow pink in the sun. From Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land before dying, a rainbow appeared over the plains of Moab.

No amount of minor issues (including a second camera casualty) could dull Petra. Many finer writers than me have described this place so I can’t even begin to. We spent a whole day 6am to 4pm in the site and didn’t finish it all. We climbed up and down, seeing facades of tombs in the cold and rain, walking through canyons, peering at church mosaics, refusing endless donkey rides. After all that walking, it seemed a good idea to relax with a Turkish Bath. It turns out that this involves you sitting very happily in a sauna until a crazy Syrian lady throws cold water on you at unknown intervals. Then you lie on a slab while the same surprise water treatment continues. Somewhat relaxing; somewhat confusing.

I have now been in India five days and, goodness, does it feel longer! Getting off the plane in Delhi and seeing my best friend Keelin waiting was an uplifting moment. After a short stop in Delhi (which is actually fine with a great metro system and a super-modern light and sound display at Aksharmham Temple if you can brave the two hour queue), we headed north to Uttarakhand to hunt tigers. This is where Jim Corbett National Park is: the Jim who hunted and killed lots of man-eating tigers in the early 20th century and whose book Keelin is now forcing me to read. We spent a few days hunting tigers without the same success as Jim in scenery straight from Kipling. We visited a hill station and saw the Himalayas for the first time beyond mist-covered forests. But the mountains that side are inaccessible right now in winter so we have come slightly west (only an 8 hour bus ride) to Rishekesh and will set off on a few days’ hiking from here tomorrow. Rishekesh is the yoga capital which the Beatles famously visited. It is full of classic yoga traveler types in harem pants and dreadlocks, along with monks (maybe not so real monks but for tourists), temples, yoga studios and stalls selling everything that makes you think of India.

I had mentally prepared for India and have certainly found some things difficult (the crowds, the constant noise and smell) but, in reality, it has not been the assault anticipated and, here in the hills, feels magical and unworldly. Let’s see how long that feeling continues.

Having proved to the world that I could survive without a phone in Kenya, my tablet has now broken and I need to learn to live with any easy access to the Internet, Kindle books or Harry Potter audiobooks. Olwen, I have shouted “plot twist!” and will get on with the next chapter.



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