Marharba!

Apparently, when Evelyn Waugh visited the Mena House hotel in 1929, he had this to say. “The Pyramids were a quarter of a mile away; it felt odd to be living at such close quarters with anything quite so famous – it was like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there.” That pretty much sums up my feeling over breakfast upon my arrival in Cairo yesterday morning.

Mena House Hotel – not your average breakfast location!

I decided that there was nothing for it but to jump right into the cultural experience and so I fed on a feast of good, if unusual, things compared to my standard matutinal menu of crumpets and Vegemite. Hello hibiscus juice, eggplant mush thingy (really yum!) and pita pockets with hummus.

After goggling at the Great Pyramid of Cheops for a while I was so sated, stunned and jet lagged, that I had to go have a little lie down, first in a most salubrious bed chamber, and then by an even more salubrious palm-lined swimming pool. Oh yes, indeed I was surely on holidays and certainly no longer in Narooma!

I think I need to be quite clear here. My business in Egypt is not to wallow in decadent and pampered luxury, although I’m afraid that will be somewhat of a necessary concomitant of my planned itinerary. My mission is to explore and revel in antiquities and ancient wonders and today I launched the assault with the first stop being – of course – the pyramids.

Oh yeah!

About a million writers have tried to describe the immense and brain-shrivelling awe of these structures, so I’m not even going to try. I will instead share with you a few interesting factoids: there are more than 2.7 million two-tonne blocks of limestone in the Great Pyramid; it was built for the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, and was completed around 2560 BCE (yep, that means it’s coming up for its 5000th birthday pretty soon!); the ratio of its circumference to its original height is equal to the value of pi: 3.14 – a mathematical calculation that was not rediscovered for more than another millennium (it’s facts like this last one that have spawned theories that the pyramids were built by technologically advanced aliens…). And, of course, the pyramids are the last of the seven great wonders of the world still extant.

They are certainly wonderful. And popular. And right on the edge of the throbbing outer suburbs of Cairo. So despite the miraculous absence of hordes of people in the pic above, there were in fact plenty of other keen Egyptophiles swarming all over the site, and queuing up to experience the thrill of penetrating the structure and navigating the ascending passages to one of the tomb chambers. How could I resist such a lure?

Cheops – entry point…

I did not. Armed with my special ticket I approached the entrance to the tunnel with reverence. Finally I would be able to feel something of the frisson of a Carter or a Mariette, boldly going where no one had been for millennia in search of lost secrets buried with the remains of long-dead pharaohs. I could pause reverently in the sacred chamber and imagine the scent of incense and the beating of funereal drums …

What I found was an Occupational Health and Safety hazard situation of epic proportions, with literally hundreds of beetroot faced tourists trying to edge past each other in both directions of an oven hot, near-vertical, crawl-space sized tunnel with no ventilation. After a few minutes attempting to breathe calmly and slowly while waiting for the crush to abate sufficiently to take another step upwards, something switched in my head. Dear readers, I fled. Without reaching the burial chamber. Thus perish some of our fondest dreams …

Monumental…

But, as previously advertised, I’m the most incorrigible of optimists – you can’t keep a good Boomer down. And if the interior of Cheops didn’t match my clearly delusional fantasies, the exteriors and context of all of the pyramids could not fail to satisfy in every possible way. I’ve stated that the pyramids nestle snugly alongside the homes and shops of Giza, but if you narrow your field of focus and squint a bit it is possible to imagine a time when these great landmarks were a beacon for camel caravans arriving from the Western Desert.

The Western Desert

Which brings me to camels. Back in the 70s my mother and father visited Egypt, and I have a prized photo of my dad (fetchingly outfitted in a baby blue safari suit) mounted upon a camel with a pyramid in the background. What, I thought, could be more romantic than sitting aloft in a Berber saddle as your ship of the desert sways among the dunes? Then again, what could be less romantic than feeling like you would be committing and perpetuating serious animal cruelty in contracting any arrangement with the hawkers of transportation flesh in locations like this? No, I decided, despite their sartorial attractions, there would be no camel ride for me.

Not for mounting …

Given half a chance though I would have jumped at the opportunity to go for a run up the Nile in a solar boat. These were funereal barges which were used to transport the massive sarcophagi of pharaohs to their final resting places, and back in 1954 a fully-intact solar boat was unearthed from its own tomb in the shadow of the Chephren Pryamid. This fully-functional, 44 metre-long, 5000 year old-boat is now housed in its own special museum. Awesome!

Sun boat – 4500 years old!!!

And finally, for today, a visit to Giza would not be complete without paying one’s respects to its most famous monument. Yes, the sphinx is indeed a lot smaller than you’d think from pictures, but it is every bit as potent, mysterious and compelling as the most fervent of my imaginings.

Sphinx satisfaction

Tomorrow we head for Luxor and the Valley of the Kings …

Bon voyage!

It hardly seems possible, but this time next week I will be posting my blog from Egypt. After so long a time nurturing this writing dream, it’s about to become reality. I’m excited and terrified, unsettled and eager.

On the eve of departure, I’m stepping back from envisioning the delights ahead and finding that I’m dwelling instead upon all that I will undoubtedly miss while I’m off on this adventure. And as I write, one of them is sitting purring on my knee – our beautiful Bentley.

Bentley

Bentley is a thoroughly over-indulged British Shorthair, and has been with Martin and I from the very beginning of our time together (he even travelled to New York with us and appeared to thoroughly enjoy his Manhattan apartment lifestyle!). In the absence of children, he is our baby, and I’m going to miss him dreadfully. We are very lucky though that we have found a lovely young couple who will be house-sitting for us and who have promised to indulge Bentley in the manner to which he is accustomed.

I’ll miss my family of course, but I think I’m going to really pine for my dear friends. Last weekend and this one, a couple of them have really pulled out all stops in the farewell celebrations department.

Firstly, Julie threw a fabulous dinner party at her place and spoilt us with Croatian culinary delights followed by a riotous session of dancing and singing. Our rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody was a wonder to behold!

Catherine, Hannah and Julie rockin’ out

And last night Hannah hosted an all-French extravaganza at her place to help get us into a suitably Gallic mood. We had a huge amount of fun scouring our cookbooks and devising a mouth watering menu of French cuisine.

Many hours of chopping, boiling, blending, blanching and baking (not to mention dousing the boeuf in flaming brandy!) resulted in a mouth-watering feast of fine things. And when Hannah puts on a show we’re also talking about fully themed table decorations and frocking up in costume. So, for a French dinner, of course there was Le Menu:

Yum!

Fine food, good wine, lively conversation and shared friendship are some of life’s greatest pleasures and we were fully sated on all fronts last night. HWB and I are going to eagerly savour French fare in Carcassonne but we won’t be sharing it with such fine company.

Vive la France!

Later in the evening, Hannah and I had a good old chat and she told me once again of her unalterable conviction that I’m going to write a brilliant book which will not only be published but will be adapted into a blockbuster film. She asserts that she is going to buy a new pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes for the red carpet opening night event. Such faith in my endeavour both humbles and emboldens me and I know there are going to be many moments in the coming months when I shall yearn for her unfettered enthusiasm and support.

Hannah’s Tarte Tatin – lush!

There is of course such a thing as Skype, and I hope to keep in touch with my cheer squad online. But they say that writing is one of the loneliest of occupations, and I suspect I may find myself experiencing the pangs of isolation and too much solitude.

Actually, no. I’m an incurable optimist. I will have the pleasure of keeping in touch with those I care about at home, and I hope that I’ll make a bunch of new French friends with whom to share this fantastic adventure! Je suis prêt à partir …


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