My flight left Mumbai in the morning and I had a taxi scheduled for 5:30 to get me there in time. I went out for a last dinner in the city at Cafe Universal, a happening place with foreigners and locals alike, all drinking beer and wine and eating from a menu that had only a few select indian dishes, the remainder being pastas and even some Thai food.
I had butter paneer masala and garlic naan with a glass of Indian bubbles, in honor of Erika, whom I’m sure would have wanted to try it. It was late, since I had spent the afternoon figuring out how to fit all my souvenirs into my bags – and succeeding! I went back to the hotel and slept for several hours before waking up to finish packing. I got 30 more minutes of shut-eye before my phone rang and it was time to go.
My flight connected through Saudi Arabia – Dammam – and it was interesting to see the small and very new-seeming airport: barely used and with only a couple of food and coffee kiosks and one large duty free shop. Otherwise there was an area with wifi and a smoking room, and that was about it! It was all pristine, and I was literally the only person going through security!
The airport in Cairo was also nice – fresh. We arrived on the tarmac and took buses to the terminal, where I bought my visa and went through customs to get my bag and find my driver/guide. It was getting towards 5pm when we left the airport and headed through rush hour traffic to my hotel.
I had agreed to pay the balance for my tour in dollars, but had been unable to get any from the airport – apparently Egypt is really jonesing for dollars and euros right now, with the pound a bit shaky since the revolution. My guide, Maged, was a very nice Coptic Christian – coptic just means Egyptian, apparently. He took me to my hotel and bid me goodnight till the morning when we would be visiting Giza and Saqqara before my night train south to Aswan.
The quality of the hotels is far beyond what I have been used to in India, reminding me that this part of my trip is, in a way, more vacation than pilgrimage.
There are, however, elements of pilgrimage to be sure. For one, I have always wanted to visit Egypt. Those that knew me around the age of 10-13 will recall my obsession with all things Egyptian. I wore scarab earrings and had a working (if elementary) knowledge of Hieroglyphics; I read everything the libraries in our county had on ancient Egypt and every copy of National Geographic that had an article on the subject. I took a class on Egyptian art and archaeology in college which no one else seemed to relish quite as nerdily as I – or even to enjoy very much. Meanwhile, I happily sketched Narmer’s Palette and various statues of seated kings and queens and memorized the whole mastaba to pyramid progression and the works of Imhotep, vizier and architect to the Pharaoh Djoser.
But it is also part of what has become my mission statement for my travels, which have now taken up nearly 8 months, though two of those months were mostly spent in Florida, my home away from home.
So, what is this mission statement? This is my first attempt to put it into words.
In part, I have simply been giving myself the time and space to come to terms with my sister Erika’s death in 2011. Work and the pace of New York kept me from feeling like I was really able to grieve properly for her at the time. I had to put it on hold, hold myself together and continue with life as usual, though nothing felt the same anymore. So my primary mission: time and space. Time to reflect, write, play music, cry, listen to my sister’s ipod, revisit her apartment in Napa and her friends there – to retrace her steps, in some ways.
A secondary mission has been to do the things I have been meaning to do for years, but couldn’t because of other commitments: return to India (check), travel to France with my sister, Skye (check), go to Burning Man – where Erika died (check), visit the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Pueblo ruins, among other places and people in the western states (check 3x).
Losing someone suddenly makes you realize how silly it is to put things off, so I carpe’d the diem, as they say.
My tertiary mission is harder to pin down, but has been the thread connecting may of the places I have been over the last 8 months: I have been in search of the sacred. Though I love my church family from my home town, I must admit that I no longer find the kind of comfort in Christian ideals I once did. In fact, it has been some time since I considered myself a Christian, yet I have felt increasingly occupied with spiritual questions and thoughts. In Paris, I visited Notre Dame one morning and saw what heights Christian devotion can reach, at least architecturally (I will never forget the man I saw there, kneeling as if in prayer, slyly using his iphone all the while); I saw the Louvre with her halls stuffed with religious figures from ancient Egyptian goddesses all the way through to the thousands of Virgins with child and gruesome skinny Jesuses impaled on medieval illuminated pages. Catholicism – and especially Saint Therese de Lisieux, to whom a section in Notre Dame was dedicated when I was there – reminds me of Kathleen Donovan, an amazing woman and a devout Catholic who held strongly to her faith even as her health failed from the cancer overwhelming her defenses and outrunning the chemo.
I found myself in Morocco during Ramadan – the holy month of fasting – visiting ancient palaces and mosques, cemeteries and markets, speaking with Muslims about their faith and my ambivalence about claiming any major belief system as my own, which they found almost as incomprehensible as my vegetarianism. I learned something of the Bedouins – followers of their own indigenous religion, despite the dominance of Islam among non-Bedouins. Theirs is a religion of herbs and magic, mysterious and ritualistic.
On coming back to the states, I made a b-line for Burning Man – another sacred place for some, and especially so for me. This was where my sister spent her last days and breathed her last breaths, but more than that, it was a life-changing experience the first time she went in 2010. The temple there was more sacred to me than any traditional house of God could have been and the ritual of bringing her ashes and pictures, souvenirs, the handout from her memorial the year before, of talking about her and sharing memories with friends and strangers alike, of crying, of watching the whole thing burn, at the end of the week.
Some of the most sacred places I saw were natural ones: the Grand Canyon was said to be the place where the Hopi people emerged into this world and their Pueblos reflect that original opening in each of their ceremonial kivas. Yosemite is home to a “cathedral” of giant trees that filter the light through their branches with all the effect of sacredness to which modern day churches aspire with their skylights and stained glass.
I visited my friends in Crestone, Colorado, where they held a sweat lodge for me – a Native American ceremony that is about more than just a steam bath. We made prayer ties with our intentions and prayers for the ceremony; we passed the ceremonial pipe, sang and drummed and rattled and saw white sparks in the blackness of the inipi.
I went home to the Ozarks and had my own fire to inaugurate mom’s new firepit, a kind of memorial for Erika she has been designing and building for a few months now.
In Florida I spent time working for Elysian Fields – a sacred place in its own right, but also a place to learn about many things: I began to think about the pyramids and sacred places to visit in India. Though of course I was paid for my work, working there feels like doing a service: the people who come in sometimes have real needs and to help them feels like karma yoga, as we used to call it in the ashram.
In India, I went to an ashram – different than before, but with the same swami I studied with the last time I was in India. Each night we meditated and chanted, we did yoga and ate healthful food, we performed homa ceremonies, burning coconut husks and herbs, sesame seeds and flowers as offerings to the energy of Ganesha: the remover of obstacles. We went one early morning to a temple in Varkala and I was reminded how much I enjoy the feeling of being in a Hindu temple, the rituals familiar, the smells and sounds, the devotion of the people, sandal paste and ashes.
I went to many temples, many sacred rivers and trees in India: the Kumbh Mela, the Sangam, temples to Hanuman and the Trimurti, temples of the nine planets and Shiva. I went to the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon, I bathed and drank from the Ganga. In the holy city of Varanasi, I stayed near the burning ghats and daily witnessed the procession of life and death, easy as breathing, grey smoke rising into the sky, mingling with the air we inhaled.
And now, here I am in Egypt, on another holy river, visiting more sacred places: pyramids, tombs, mastabas, temples. Though the pagan religion is dead in Egypt, Christianity and Islam are daily observable in the Byzantine crosses carved into the ancient ruins and the defaced (literally) carvings on many of the temples. Even now a muezzin is praying somewhere along the river, audible from where we float lazily along in the dark of evening, underscored by frogs chirruping and the occasional honking of a far away horn.
This is a hard time for Egypt. The aftermath of the revolution that was so inspiring to watch unfold two years ago is painful for the Egyptian people now and I have heard more than a few remarks to the effect that things have changed for the worse here since the Moubarek was kicked out: more violence, less of the common morality that was the fabric holding things together.
For my part, the people here have been very friendly and it has been a pleasure to be a tourist in this land, so accustomed to tourists, despite the fact that lagging tourism since the revolution has meant hardship for those who depend on foreign visitors for their income. This is my plug for Egypt: it is a great country and the revolution hasn’t changed that. The people are nice, the sites are still awesome.
i’ve visited the pyramids and the sphinx and saqqara.
i took a train to aswan and since then i have been on a floating hotel on the nile. we visited several sites in aswan: the famous abu simbel and philae temples.
yesterday we saw temples as edfu and esna. today it was the valley of the kings, karnak, and queen hatshepsut’s temple.
tonight we are in luxor and tomorrow i will visit the luxor temple! my friends from india continued on to hurghada today, and i already miss their warmth and the fun of having a family group to travel with – especially as they had four boisterous girls with them – tons of fun!
a few more stops, then my trip comes to an end! it is hard to believe i’ll be back in the states by the end of the month!
ok – all for now – love and miss!