Last night we were at a party. A leaving party. Yes, we are leaving the country yet again to find a new place to live, a new home. In my life of more than forty years, I have lived in about a dozen cities and I have travelled to about thirty countries. I call myself a nomad. One of the questions that pop up every time when I meet someone new and they hear about my travels is “What is your most favourite place – a place you will never forget?” The question has come to me in different forms, worded slightly differently but in the end, everyone wants to know that one place/town/city/country that I have fallen in love with and would want to go back over and over again.
People ask me to write about my travels, publish a book and share my experiences. I’ve done some bits of it. I’ve written the odd travelogue, done a bit of ghost writing on travel and published a lot of my travel photos. But there is something I need to tell people, read them, read all my writing, but go there to experience it for yourself – for what I see may not be what you see or what you want to see. Don’t let someone’s writing make you feel not to want to see a place or disappoint you when you see the actual thing.
I travel a lot – my parents love to travel, my father was in a job which involved a lot of travel so we travelled with him. Then my job involved travel and thankfully my family now loves travel so that is something we do a lot. Which also means, sometimes we go to the same places over and over again. Like for example, I’ve been to Paris, Brussels, London, Venice and much more a good few times. Each time with a different set of people of different age groups and I would say each time my experience was different and we did do different things, visited different places and ate different kinds of food.
Also, over the years things change, we change, situations change, expectations change and that changes our view about the place and sometimes a place that looked like heaven might not look just as good over the years or the next time you visit it. For example, Paris was great when I traveled as a single person, it was fine travelling with my family and a baby in a baby carrier, the same Paris was a bit disappointing when I realised that most metro stations did not have escalators or lifts to help with a disabled child in a wheelchair where we had to carry the chair in each one of those underground stations.
Coming back to the question of a place that I will never forget, I have to say I can narrow it down to three places – The Andaman islands, Egypt and Switzerland. It is easy to remove Switzerland from the list. Yes, it is absolutely beautiful – the perfect picture postcard type. Everything is clean, perfect, the transportation is brilliant, the food is good, the weather is lovely, people are friendly and there is nothing to complain, except it is expensive for an outsider.
Egypt and The Andamans though are tough competition. I’ve been to both of these places only once and fallen in love with both and for not exactly the same reasons. Andamans – pure bliss. This is a place I would pack my bags and go back in a heartbeat. The quiet and clean beaches, the limited amount of tourists, the boat rides, the coral reefs – I would go back to live there forever, away from all the hustle bustle of the city life. It is more than twenty years since I last went there and I am sure things have changed there too, but I still think you cannot take away that raw beauty of that place easily.
A drink, a book, some music and some food and I can imagine myself there in one of the islands the rest of my life. This sure is a place that I would never forget…
But, wait a minute, did I tell you about Egypt? This is one place I keep talking about, to every single person that cares to listen. I love The Andamans but I don’t talk about it. That is like a secret dream. But Egypt, that is something else.
Egypt has always fascinated me. We all read about the pyramids in school, we hear about the odd Egyptian history and if you are like me and you watch National Geographic Channel and Discovery, you would have watched some documentary on Egypt. But all this does not prepare you for what you see when you get there.
Way back in 2006 when I landed there, it was such an excitement, despite the fact that we had chosen one of the lousiest airlines to travel there. When we came out of the airport and took a taxi, I instantly liked the place. Cairo felt like Mumbai. The mad traffic, the friendly taxi drivers who want to constantly talk to you and the minute they realise that you are Indian they want to share with you all about their knowledge of Bollywood movies and heroes and songs and what not.
We were warned not to use tap water for consuming or even washing our mouth and to refuse the tea offered by the ever friendly people. We came well prepared, we had spoken to uncles who had travelled to Egypt a few times, we had read the lonely planet, gotten information from our very good Egyptian friend and watched videos on Egypt. But nothing had prepared me for what I went through the next ten days.
We were on a business trip and we had decided to take extra time off to see the place. Who would want to miss this wonderful chance?
When we reached the hotel we were too tired and just crashed out. We woke the next morning, only to have a quick breakfast and rush to work. We were met by really wonderful and super friendly people at work. At lunch, they ordered for us local food which was amazing. I was already used to Egyptian food, thanks to my Egyptian friend, but the variety here was amazing. Over the next ten days, we had the best of the food possible.
I shopped on the streets, bought lovely Egyptian cotton stuff, which I still have. I enjoyed bargaining like I usually do in India, chatting away with the locals without a problem though I didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak mine. I ate an amazing variety of food in all kinds of places and completely avoided the likes of McDonalds and Pizza huts. We went on a tour of the perfume factory in Cairo, learnt about papyrus, enjoyed the light and sound show at the pyramids of Giza, took the train to travel between cities, listened to local music, did camel rides in the desert and tried to get the best out of everything.
We managed to find time between work to travel to Alexandria and Luxor and also look around Cairo. What I felt was that Egyptians and civilisation as a whole have gone backwards a few steps. How can someone build something amazing as the pyramids and huge and wonderful as the Hatshepsut temple or the temple in Luxor thousands of years ago without any of the modern equipment? Now, in this day and age, we cannot replicate half of that. So what happened to all the technology? I mean, those kings were wearing slippers made of gold a few thousand years ago and had huge libraries and all that information and knowledge about so many things – where did all that go? I have seen world heritage sites in different parts of the world before, but nothing compared to this.
All I saw was people who lived there without knowing the value of what they had in their backyard. Many Egyptians I met said they had been to see the pyramids once or twice in their lifetime. Nobody thought about what amazing knowledge and culture they had lost. From a country where Hatshepsut and Cleopatra ruled thousands of years ago to a place where women are not treated as equals now, Egypt has lost a lot over the couple of thousand years.
What I saw in front of my eyes was an Egypt where the taxis were all damaged, I could see cars from other countries like India, gun shops, and the world media talking about problems but what I could also see beyond that was the amazing history and culture this place holds. Each and every piece of stone has a history. There is so much undiscovered history there than we can ever imagine.
Probably like all other cities, Cairo would have changed in the past eleven years as well. But the history remains, nobody can change the fact that Egypt was the seat of amazing knowledge and culture thousands of years ago. It was like I could walk into the Egyptian museum and connect to every single piece that was displayed there.
Over the years, I have revisited Egypt in my own ways by reading up more, watching more videos and talking to more Egyptians, and I have never let the memory fade. I have brought my kids into this as well and given them enough information to keep their piqued. I want to go back with my children and show them what I saw and let them form their own memories of this absolutely wonderful place.
Yes, when it comes to a place that I absolutely cannot forget, Egypt as a country, wins hands down.