foreign travel

Of Tombs and Ruins

On my first big trip alone, in my 30s, I went to Athens, Greece, to see the Parthenon, then on to Egypt, to Cairo/Giza to see the Great Pyramids and on to Luxor/Thebes to see the Temple of Karnak and the painted tombs in the Valley of the (Dead) Kings and Queens.

This is what I remember:

Sitting on an enormous boulder below the Parthenon hill, at dusk, on the purported rock where Amazons, great female warriors, once besieged the ancient city of Athens, I looked up at the Greek city ruins and imagined, felt even, those large battle-worn women seated around me, facing the brave Greek men warriors on the hilltop, both debating their fate and their chances of victory come morning.

I remember the flea market in Athens, where a strong man was giving a display of his superhuman strength, breaking stones with a sledge and a chain with his powerful chest just like Anthony Quinn in Fellini’s movie La Strada.

Athens strongman

I remember running out of Greek money my last day, and I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, and I couldn’t read the Greek lettering on the buses and bus routes, so I studied my map and then walked 3 hours from my hotel in Athens all the way to the airport hauling a very heavy bag with no strap and no wheels, hurrying, worried that I would miss my flight to Cairo.

I remember buying fresh-baked flat bread from a tiny open stand in an alley in Cairo – the baker tossed it toasty from a black stone oven onto a dusty wooden bar. I remember the bus ride to Giza, and my first impression of the enormous pyramids – only giants or Gods or aliens could have built them. I remember the oppressive weight of that stone on me as I stood in the airless center of the pyramid. I remember finding in a field a polished stone on the ground, a stone polished by a workman thousands of years ago for who knows what monument. I remember the gateless stone wall framing an old stone tomb, and the tall dry grass rustling in front of it, and I snapped the picture.

cropped-giza-cemetery1.jpg

I remember taking the train from Cairo, a slow train that stopped often for no reason, running the length of the Nile to Luxor. On each side of the Nile for maybe a hundred yards river grass grew, then beyond that only desert and sand.

I remember hours, even days, speaking with no one. In a kind of tomb of silence. I became only eyes, witnessing in person what the books and TV hinted about the ancient world. The rest of the world.

I remember sweating so in the heat of southern Egypt, and buying chilled water until I couldn’t afford it anymore so I began buying unchilled water which I cooled myself by unscrewing the cover of the window air-conditioner in my room and jamming the bottle inside.

I remember the man on the horse-drawn carriage cursing me vehemently when I refused to allow him to give me a ride to the Temple of Karnak a mile north of town.

Me at Temple of Karnak 1990

I remember the enormous stone columns, and the quiet of the roofless temples in the early morning before the tourists arrived. This is what they have left, I told myself. This is all they could leave.

I remember the wooden ferry that took me across the river, to the Valley of the Kings and Queens. I remember the cool of the tomb interiors, and the gorgeous stylized paintings on the walls – and the one wall where the artist had rough sketched the drawings 4 thousand years ago, and then his master had died before the artist could finish the work.

I remember hiking back to the river and its ferry, passing 2 kids, and I wondered what their lives would be.

Luxor kids

Finally I remember arriving at the brand new Luxor airport 2 hours before my flight, and I was alone in the entire tomb-like complex of empty gates and counters. I walked across the polished stone floors, my steps echoing down ghostly halls, and I sat on a bench, and waited in silence, with my heavy bag next to me and my hands on my lap, sat in silence, not even thinking anymore, my internal dialogue quieted after a week of speaking to almost no one. I sat alone for what seemed like ages. Centuries. Thousands of years. Then, far away at first, then so close I jumped, a mosquito buzzed my ear.

Categories: foreign travel, memoir, travel

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