29 June 2015

Cruising Up the River, Egypt 2008

A modern Sun Goddess, unlike the ancient figures we've been visiting, greets us dockside on the Nile at Luxor. Cruising is a novelty at this point of my travels and looks oh-so-appealing after our long sweaty trek through and around the enormous Karnak Temple site. Karnak was the pilgrimage centre of worship for several ancient gods and covers about two hundred acres. It felt like we walked all of it. 

The famed temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor are on the east bank of the Nile, the "side of life," so says Hami Habiba our guide. There is so much to see and linger for, but Hami likes to keep us moving with “mooshi! mooshi!” which means hurry up you dumb tourists.
So the river scene is enough to help us cool down. The ship is comfortable, enjoyable; ninety cabins, each with two beds and not much room for anything else. Doesn't matter; being up top when sailing is the main thing. There's a pool on deck and the food is wonderful. From dining room at the bottom to the sundeck, five flights of stairs, 80 steps who's counting? opportunity for more exercise training (they do have elevators!). We are one of a score of similar ships plying up and down the river. However it's rush-rush through our first impressive five-course dinner because Luxor Temple is waiting for us before sunset.
Again, everything is on a gigantic scale. Once the ages-old city of Thebes, the stone remains were uncovered beneath the sand and the town that superseded it. Once again we are overawed with the magnitude of proportion and design. We are bone-tired by the time the sun goes down. It goes down fast in Egypt. Our companion Joe still shaken by a stubborn camel at Giza causes a stir, getting lost and confused in the blackness pierced only by strategic floodlights. With relief I could finally settle on the ship's deck for a nightcap, keen to watch the quayside activity. A wedding party is whooping it up at a disco and passersby are merrily invited to join the celebration.
National Geographic, Keith Garrett
 Next morning, still Luxor, early rising. A group of fifteen is going to the west bank of the Nile, the "side of death." We are bussed, trammed, bussed, to the immense Valley of the Kings. The heat in this extraordinary desert bowl is ferocious, the reason we started so early. Ancient labourers dug down to bedrock to excavate the royal burial chambers. Tutankhamen’s tomb is not open to the public right now. We are allowed to visit three tombs that are mainly empty, i.e. none of the original accoutrements or sarcophagi. No warning that the first, for Ramses IV, was a horridly steep, narrow descent crammed with tourists moving each way; one line going down, one line coming up. The press of bodies, the stale air, and lack of circulation are too much for me. Wuss! ... halfway down I join the going-up line.
The next tombs are less daunting to access — the artwork on the walls and ceilings is amazing to behold in their original colours, many depicting the guide to the underworld. The symbolism, the gods they worshiped, the history, are complicated as the centuries rolled on. Hundreds of tourists file slowly back and forth, heads canted up for best viewing. Disturbing the rhythm by lingering invites nasty remarks or trampled toes. Security here seems pretty relaxed for protecting the priceless sites.
 Absorbed in the magnificent frescoes until a shove in the kidneys snaps me out of it, I lose my group somewhere. But I find a third tomb to visit on my own. Later I manage to relocate my buds in time to move on to the memorable tomb/temple of Queen Hatshepsut, dedicated to the sun god; she was a queen who actually ruled.
Then we go on to the nearby Valley of the Queens where we climb a zillion stairs. Here are buried many royal consorts and notables, dozens and dozens of tombs! Did I mention the temperature in this valley must be close to 50 degrees celsius? The unlucky few of us hit with the Egyptian flu are desperate for the W.C. There goes Joe. Did someone put a curse on the poor guy before he started his travels?

Back to the ship, a very full day already, and it's just lunch time. Now our cruising upriver begins. Every day features tea on deck at 5 pm. The group checks their various bruises, sprains, and shaky limbs did we know that hiking, scrambling, stumbling over archaeological sites required fitness training prep? The first lock on the river appears after dinner; it takes two ships at a time so we are jockeying in a lineup.
Despite the darkness, the “boat boys” are out in force to sell their wares. What a hoot for a couple of hours. They throw parcels up to the deck on request ... dresses (djellabayas), carpets, scarves, jewellery ... and we throw down the packaged money after a great deal of boisterous price haggling. Shoppers gone berserk!

Arriving at Edfu means a carriage ride to the remarkably well-preserved Temple of Horus. It was equally interesting to see the streets of the town as we drove through. “No shopping, no shopping,” Hami cries as we eye the vendors. A river of people streams through the monument. Built by the Ptolemaic dynasty to honour Horus, mythologized as the son of gods Isis and Osiris, the temple is on the site of a battle won by Horus. His life and myth are memorialized throughout; pilgrims would come to bring ritual offerings to the god. Later Ptolemies added their own royal self-depictions.
 Back to the ship for a sail to Kom Ombo. It feels like royalty to sit on deck watching scenery and agricultural life go by. Marshy islands. A few passing pleasure ships. Little or no small boat activity. Late afternoon docking at Kom Ombo with a short walk to the Greco-Roman temple. When we see tourists by the hundreds being funnelled into a very small entrance, once again I say no way. Later I hear almost everyone had been dismayed by the claustrophobic and chaotic crowds. The strongest elbows and shoulders won the shoving matches; apparently the Germans prevailed.
Instead I wander off toward the shops and stalls along the quay. The vendors are thick as flies but I don’t mind. Good humour is the key. Then I run out of shops after the sun sets and the remainder of the quay leading to the ships is inky dark and deserted. I approach Mr. Policeman to ask if it's safe to walk to my ship along the unlit section. No English, but he recognizes the word “ship” and escorts me along to the Sun Goddess in companionable silence. Just as well, because the ship moved from the position where we left it.
Tonight the ship decrees we dress up like Arabs for buffet dinner on the deck. My buddy looks very exotic, right from the desert. I do an Aw-renz (Lawrence) imitation with my camel shirt and makeshift keffiyeh. Another camera fail! There is belly dancing entertainment and the party goes on but the elbowing and shopping and the heat took their toll and we have to rise at ...

... 4:30 a.m.! That’s the call for a few who booked an optional excursion (flight) to the greatest highlight of the entire cruise: Abu Simbel!

Worth every extra penny. Our ship has taken us to Aswan overnight, Nubian country. Here is Lake Nasser created by the dam, over 500 km in length. We are shuttled across the famous dam and do the airport-waiting thing; it's a gorgeous airport. Our flight passes over the famous towering statues into a very steep landing at Abu Simbel.
Ramses II Temple
Queen Neferteri Temple
Creating the dam would have submerged the monumental 3,000-year-old statues and temples erected by Ramses II for himself and his Queen Neferteri. And so they were moved higher from their original position carved into a cliff a gigantic international engineering venture in the 1960s. Incredibly painstaking planning and equipment managed the process of new site preparation, the dis-assembly and reassembly. The inner rooms of one temple reach sixty metres back into the mountain. There's more effort here at security, and fewer crowds. More leisure time to enjoy the temples' masterpiece interiors. All this and the day is only half done when we return to Aswan for a city tour. 
 A felucca sail is fun the next day. Sailing is a two-man job and the men prove admirably skillful with the huge sail on an unusually windy Nile. We spot the tomb of the former Aga Khan on a hill. Eventually the main crewman produces a drum-like, tambourine-type instrument and gives us a few Nubian songs. All is authentically pleasing until he breaks into “She’ll be comin’ around the mountain.” Spontaneous laughter but I feel sorry about the disconnect. Hami then announces a “commercial break” with a straight face and the same crewman unfolds his jewellery table for us all to pounce on. Total disconnect :-D !

Rather soon we are leaving the splendid Sun Goddess which will take another load of tourists back downriver to Luxor. 

Egypt ... always a bundle of contradictions.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

22 June 2015



High Arctic Camel, mid-Pliocene period
(drawing by Julius Csotony, Canadian Museum of Nature)

17 June 2015

Hammamet, Tunisia 2012

In a beautiful Mediterranean resort outside the town of Hammamet, fellow travellers were reporting that camels were on the beach every day and where was I? the only committed camel-phile in our little group.

Where I was most of the time, was wandering with travel buddy in Hammamet's old medina, the magnetic focal point in this location. The adjacent cemetery also required lengthy browsing. It was good to start our explorations early morning along with the residents, enjoying countless cups of excellent coffee at every opportunity. Thus plenty of attractions kept me away from the beach.


The very first day travel buddy had an experience that by rights was mine ... as I slumbered obliviously from jet lag under a distant nook of palms. Strolling on the beach, waiting for an optimal photographic shot of the sunset, what to her wondering eyes should appear but the likes of a desert sheik or prince astride his camel. He beckoned. She went. Insisted she sit on the camel so he could photograph her. Have a ride, no charge. She urged, come back for my friend tomorrow.

Whenever I had time to reach the beach, no camel in sight. No sign of the prince. Unseen forces were obviously working against me. Fate did not kick in until our last day.

Off we went that morning to visit a rather un-promoted but splendid 1920s seaside villa of classic minimalist design — “close to architectural perfection” — a comment attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright. Absolutely; Dar Sebastian is a gem, built by a wealthy Romanian who migrated to Tunisia. He is credited with putting Hammamet on the map for the rich and famous in the post-First World War period. Many European artistic worthies visited Dar Sebastian such as Cocteau, Gide, Klee, Sitwell, and so on. What jolly times the guests must have had in the Roman-inspired communal bath! One also boggles at the juxtaposition of Rommel, having commandeered the villa for his Tunisian campaign headquarters, and Churchill (later, obviously) spending time here to write his memoirs.

From the height of the villa overlooking the sea, our plan was to walk back along the beach to our hotel for lunch. Said plan fell short in finding actual access to the beach because the villa and gardens are securely fenced. Some walking time in the town outskirts was involved and some discussion of whether a coffee in yet another sidewalk café full of vaguely disapproving men would reduce our creeping hunger pangs. However, a passing man on a bicycle genially led us to the public access path. More discussion dillying over appropriate baksheesh for his assistance and who had the appropriate coins. But finally, there was the beach and the distant prospect of our hotel. Somewhat more distant than we expected.

Then like a genie out of a bottle, a camel and his handler popped up before us on the shoreline. As I was about to embrace this opportunity, travel buddy said No, Wait! She spotted another. Her very prince leading his recommended camel. She and he ~ Felipe ~ fell into excited dialogue like old friends (90% incomprehensible on both sides). Travel bud herself had had enough of camels, rejecting the first offer. Among the three of us and one camel, we negotiated a fair price for “voilà hotel ... oui ... montez ... d’accord ... .” 

My first camel ride on a beach was just as perfect as I could wish — bare feet, a quietly lapping sea, and the wonderful air in that part of the world giving a clearer, cleaner hue to all around me. To my immense satisfaction, it took a long time to reach our hotel front. The downside was travel buddy staggering along the entire way through the sand. That’s a kind of brand loyalty. And friendship. Her camera always ready, I treasure her photos.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman 

07 June 2015

Friends Send Me ... camel things (2)

A First World War buff, I am also a longtime admirer of contemporaneous Gertrude Bell, the fearless desert adventurer and tribal negotiator, turned British intelligence officer and kingmaker. With expertise in antiquities and architecture, she located countless ancient sites for archaeologists to uncover; she founded the great Baghdad Museum. The Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University Library includes thousands of priceless photographs of her explorations, nomadic encounters, and historical artifacts. Many of those same subjects have disappeared or are in great danger of destruction as we speak.
Iraq (Mesopotamia) 1914; photo by Gertrude Bell

Why mention Gertrude? In the nature of Friends Send Me ... camel things, imagine my delight when Mike shared his grandfather's story with me. It is a story of military perseverance in the same time period and unforgiving climate. The First World War was fought not only in Europe. British Forces were in the Middle East alongside Arab allies to drive the Ottoman Empire out of the storied Euphrates lands called Mesopotamia. We have to remember that one hundred years ago there was no Iraq, Iran, Israel, or another half-dozen Middle Eastern countries we hear about today. 

Arthur James Knowles, Mike's grandfather, served in that theatre with the 1/4 Hampshire Regiment from March 1915 to the end of November 1919. Arthur's service records are gone, destroyed with so many others during the bombings of the Second World War. But using the published regimental history, Mike could reconstruct the actions of Arthur's unit.[1] The Brits encountered unfamiliar terrain and the inevitable battles but were unprepared for the climate's deleterious health consequences.
[quote] The climate and moist heat of Mesopotamia were having a detrimental effect on the battalion. By June 1915, 180 were sick in the hospital and six had already died. Only 16 officers and 300 men were available.[2]

And that was just a few months after arrival!

During his service, Arthur took numerous photographs that did survive, although not in good shape, with Mike doing his best at restoration. What unique treasures! These two photos are of Sudanese allies. Camels were the natural choice for cavalry. 
Mike wrote about Arthur in the newsletter of the Ottawa Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society (see footnote). Clearly Arthur survived the Great War and I'm more than pleased to add that he came to Canada to settle in 1921.

Ancestor envy!

[1] C.T. Atkinson, The Royal Hampshire Regiment, Volume Two 1914-1918, Glasgow: Robert Maclehose & Company Limited, 1952
[2] Mike More, "The 1/4th Hampshires in Mesopotamia," The Ottawa Genealogist, Vol. 47, No. 4, October – December 2014.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

31 May 2015

Past Pieces of Paris

A. Before ...
The pre-teen years. Evening in Paris. Remember that? A gaggle of entranced little girls in grade five overdosing with the same scent. 

Eartha Kitt purring "Sous les ponts de Paris ..." was the rapt epitome of an enthralling city that attracted eons of artistic and literary figures.   

B. Then ...
Back when life was still young and travels in France were plotted with Gourmet Magazine firmly in hand we liked to stay at Hotel Montalembert on the Rive Gauche, mainly in the company of gourmands focusing on restaurants with multiple stars and fine wines (who's complaining?). What a rush, aspiring to perfectly-accented, luscious French. Except one time the mental dictionary failed me. After the order for two was enunciated, kidneys appeared instead of beef medallions, a lapse for which I was never forgiven.

At Le Grand Véfour, a Michelin two star, I nearly choked on my Gateau St Honoré when I sneaked a look at the wine prices (menus for female companions, bien sûr, protect them from the sordid side of life).

Another memorable meal was at Vagenende 1900, a brasserie of acclaimed art nouveau decor on Boul' St Germain. Eight of us breathed in reverence as each new course appeared. And led to a lifelong obsession hunting for rhum baba and crême brulée.

C. After ...
The world of budget living. A drop in my bucket: Père Lachaise Cemetery. The Palma Hotel is near a side entrance to the cemetery; it's a quiet, mostly residential neighbourhood in the 20th arrondissement.

A couple of days to admire tombstone architecture and commune with the long-dead artistes. Molière, Chopin, Hugo, Bizet, Wilde, Delacroix, Colette, Daumier, Modigliani, Signoret, Montand, Proust. Abélard! Jane Avril!

What about Eartha, that icon of international flavour, whose song was to me the embodiment of a seductive, starry Paris? "There won't be a burial," she said to her daughter at the end. Santa Baby: she died on Christmas Day 2008. She was cremated and the location of her ashes is unknown.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

22 May 2015

(Dutch) Camel Love

That is a camel face on my left shoulder. Necking with me.

What can I say?

Camel love.

Combining two of my interests, camels and reading (try Phyllida Law's How Many Camels are There in Holland? title taken from the British Alzheimer's test ― nothing to do with camels really, but a delightful memoir of her mother's progression with the disease and how the family dealt with it, including daughter Emma Thompson and son-in-law Kenneth Branagh), I now know there are at least 85 of them, all at Kamelenmelkerij Smits (Smits Camel Dairy Farm) in Berlicum, Netherlands.

The friendliest beasts I have come across yet.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman