On The Nile

In early 2012 Anya and I went on a river cruise on the Nile. 

We went as a part of an organised group.

Normally we much preferred to travel on our own, as individuals, determining where we went and where we stayed. But there was little choice in the matter.

Egypt was embroiled in a political crisis.

Two years before, not long after our first visit to Egypt, a wave of popular protest in the Middle East known as the ‘Arab Spring’ arrived in Egypt and led to weeks of protests and the fall of the dictatorial Mubarak government. Free and fair elections were organised, but this led to the resounding victory of the Islamic fundamentalists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Party – whose agenda was to turn Eygpt into a Sunni version of Iran. They wanted to base the constitution on the Sharia and furthermore, were equivocal towards Egypt’s ancient past which they regarded as heretical. 

In the euphoria of the Arab Spring, western journalists had failed to see that in Egypt there was a huge discrepancy between the people living in the cities and those living in the rural areas. In the case of the former, there were high levels of education along with the widespread use of social media and the internet; in the case of the latter, who constitued the big majority of the population, matters were very different. The women were burka clad slaves whose prime function was to produce children; illiteracy rates were high and the villages were controlled by fundamentalist imams.

Religion, low education and gender oppression provided the back drop for the spectacular success of the fundamentalists at the elections. 

In the meantime, the army became restive and the very urban dwellers, who had brought down the dictator Mubarak, were determined not to accept government by religious fanatics. The country slid into anarchy as its irreconcilable contradictions rose to the surface. There were strikes, attacks, and violent episodes. Tourism, the life blood of the economy, plummeted.

It was only on the Nile that the safety of foreign tourists could be guaranteed by the army. This was a far cry from the Egypt we were familiar with, where one could travel almost anywhere. Nevertheless, we went, drawn by the lure of the greatest outdoor musuem in the world, a country with a history like no other….

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Ozymandias

 

All day I travelled through a wasteland: once fertile agricultural lands destroyed by decades of foolishness, now just empty fields filled with weeds and drift sand.

The beaten up bus I travelled in was forced to stop for a few hours. 

´Mechanical problems´. Wouldn’t have been the first time.

At one stop, an area of asphalt, there were the remains of a bus which had been burnt out – or bombed.

I missed my connection to a distant place well known for its historic ruins and had to spend the night in a slum city –  another very different kind of ruin.

A monstrous place, an urban nightmare: rows and rows of flaking, decrepit apartment blocks. Old run down factories filling the air with thick black smoke. Crowded streets pot holed, littered with plastic bags and gaudy foil wrappings. Trucks and old motor cars leaving behind them clouds of dense fumes.

People walking passed like zombies, grim faced, dour.

 

Accommodation was hard to find especially for a foreigner. I walked into a dingy excuse for a hotel only to be dismissed with a wave of a hand. Then another, then another.

Eventually I found a soulless, run down room. A dungeon.

What did I do to deserve this?  

 

 

As the sun neared the horizon and darkness enclosed the city, I walked the streets in search of a meal.

And walked, followed by furtive stares, derisive laughter.

Foreigner.

One of them.

On my part, one thought occupied my mind as I ate a greasy excuse for a meal: 

What it would it be like to live here?

 The country I had come to in search of difference, diversity, had never had a free and fair election. It produced nothing. Beyond its borders, its currency was worthless. Corruption riddled it at every level. Its human rights record was scandalous. It’s prisons crammed with those suspected of not being totally loyal to a brutal dictatorship. Minority groups were living a precarious existence. The role of women was to bear children, cook and submit. LGBT’s didn’t exist. Whilst gladly accepting foreign aid, the same regime blamed the rest of the world for its poverty. There was only one source of information, the state controlled media.

The people were told that they were blessed, never had it so good.

Did they believe it?

Did they have any choice?

The truth was: this  place was hell on earth.

Then again, who was I to judge?

Me, a foreigner, with my ideals of freedom of speech, social justice and human rights?

When I went traveling, I wanted to see another way of life, to experience strange sights, to be disorientated, culture shocked. To escape the feeling of being one of ‘us’.

Well, here it was. I was amongst ‘them’ and the view was ugly.  

What the hell was I doing here?

 

On the following morning I got a bus out to the ruins of an ancient empire. Stone walls, columns, statues chipped and pitted, lines of script which had only recently been deciphered. All of it unearthed and given importance and meaning by foreigners. Now a handy cash cow for the government.

It was incredible. I walked around as if in a dream. I was suddenly transported miraculously, as if on a magic carpet, to a time long ago, when a civilization, an empire, rose out of the earth like a vigorous plant, bloomed, and then died.

Yesterday I´d wondered what the hell I was doing here, in this hell on earth, and today, that question was far from mind.

Overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of being alive, I knew why I was here.  

Walking amidst stone relics, some of them bearing the symbols of a strange script, Percey Shelley’s famous poem echoed in the desert:

 

‘I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert…..Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round that decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

 

 

The Flood Part 1

We had arranged to stay at Francine’s place for the night.

We were on a bike ride through Zeeland, a province of The Netherlands which lay west of Rotterdam.

Francine was a member of a Dutch organization called ´Friends of the Bike´ (Vrienden van de Fiets) and so were we. It worked like this: people offered to put up bike riders for the night and provide breakfast the following morning for a set fee of 45 Euros. The bike riders paid a nominal fee to be in the organization and received a book listing places to stay all over the country. Friends of the Bike was an inherent part of a national bike riding culture – and a country with the best system of bike tracks in the world.

Sometimes the people offering the accommodation were themselves also bike riders and felt obliged to contribute to the system they used. Sometimes they liked to meet strangers and talk. Over the years we had met some amazing people via ‘friends of the bike’ and had some memorable conversations – and Francine certainly fell into that category.

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The Inland Sea

 flinders

In 1802 a ship called ‘The Investigator’ captained by a young man named Mathew Flinders left England on its way to Australia.

Flinders was assigned with a special mission: to find out what Australia was.

No one knew. All was speculation.

No one had ever circumnavigated Australia.

A hundred years before, the Dutch had mapped the long western coast of Australia. James Cook had mapped much of the eastern coast. But there were still many bits of the puzzle to be filled in, the major one being the enormously long southern coast stretching from the tip of present day Western Australia to Melbourne; 7000 kilometres of it. 

There was intense speculation of there being a vast inland lake or lakes in the centre of the Australian continent with a huge river – a Ganges, an Amazon, a Nile – connecting it to the coast. For Europeans the idea of a huge continent with no major rivers or lakes was inconceivable. Their experience was that large continents and mighty tracts of water went together. 

 Flinders was charged with sailing along the southern coast of Australia and finding the mighty river – and then sailing into the centre of the continent and mapping the inland sea. 

He was in for a surprise and not the pleasant kind….

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Travels with Stephen Part 2

 

Leaving the portal, we entered the monastery grounds.

There was no one about. The silence hung heavy in the air.  

An early morning sun glanced over the perimeter wall.

What was once a fortified monastery built in a time of war and inhabited by hundreds of monks was now more like a museum.  

There was a wide area of grass on our left, whitened with frost. On our right, there was a church with high turrets. We went over there and circumnavigated it slowly like two children making a new discovery.

In these precious moments of solitude, it was possible to reimagine the past and the generations of monks who had lived and died there over the last 5 centuries.

Then the silence was broken.

Someone yelled.

The sound echoed in the cold air.

It took us a while to identify where the yelling was coming from: in an alcove next to the wall was an old monk sitting in a chair basking in the early morning sun. Dressed in black, a grey beard and a walking stick. He motioned for us to go over there

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