May 2008


When it’s hot out, salads are a wonderful thing to consume. Here’s a neat combination of ingredients, that proved refreshing and pretty at the same time:

Blanch fresh green beans, i.e. briefly cook in boiling salted water and before the beans turn color drain and plunge into an ice bath. In a glass bowl I mixed some mustard, the lovely lemon-infused olive oil from Siwa, chopped dill, the juice of half a lime, salt and pepper. Tossed the beans in this mixture and allowed to chill. Before serving I also added strips of roasted red pepper, some black olives and some toasted pine-nut (pignoli). Refreshed dressing with a splash of lime and of balsamic and…

Yalabena lets eat.

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This post should have by rights been my first blog entry, back in November, for it was after my trip to Upper Egypt that I felt I had truly “arrived” in Egypt. OK so I may be repeating myself slightly, and may have said the same after my first trip to the pyramids, but the whole Nile cruise experience seems to have trumped even that. Mummies, hieroglyphs, the Valley of the Kings, Egyptian temples. All of it, every bit as impressive as the hype had led me to believe — for the jaded and non-believers, let me assure you that there is NO such thing as hyperbole or anticlimax when it comes to the wonders along the Nile.

I took this trip over Thanksgiving break in November, a solitary party of one because most of my AUC friends had opted for the Red sea monasteries. In doing so, I redeemed myself in the matter of holding off on the pyramids — I was the first one from our gang to make this trip. Of course they were going to be around over Christmas break, I wasn’t, and so I seized on this window of opportunity.

In the obscenely early hours of the dawn I boarded a plane and flew down to Aswan. One noteworthy detail from the flight was the sight of the country as we descend toward land. I couldn’t get a photograph but it’s quite amazing to see this narrow ribbon of green wind its way through the vast expanse of the Sahara. No more than 50 miles at the widest, the ribbon — bisected by the Nile stretches for several hundred miles from Cairo down to Aswan (where it widens to become lake Nasr). As with the pyramids, the sight brings a jolt of awareness of the history and geography — narrow as it is, the Nile has watered and sustained civilizations for 5000 years. WOW!

I took the Presidential Nile Tours, (not the famed “Cook’s tours” that so raised Amelia Peabody’s ire) because that’s what the AUC travel office set me up with. Good bang for the buck — got a good overview of the important sites, and can now go back on my own to see things I missed or want to have more time for. We had a nice guide, Bessem, who named us the “Pharaohs,” and I got to meet some nice folks, notably a fellow nerd-by-inclination-and-profession, Andy a geographer from Georgia who was travelling with his wife, and a pair of South Africans from Cape Town, Mandy and Konrad. They were the folks I hung out with most during the trip.

The first picture here is I took was from the High Dam in Aswan, the beginning point of my journey downstream (yes, once again, the Nile flows from South to North, and I don’t know why that factoid still gives me cheap thrills! ). This is a view from the south, looking Northward, to the South is Lake Nasr (or Nasser) the artificial lake created as a result of the damming. Now, the High Dam is a newer structure begun in the sixties and completed rather more recently. The “Aswan Dam” that I learnt about in Grade IV is the older one I think, which was built at beginning of the century and then raised twice, before the idea for the High Dam was conceived. Quite a feat of engineering itself, the High Dam also instigated other remarkable feats of engineering such as the dismatiling and moving, stone-by-stone, and rebuilding some of the ancient temples. The most famous of these is the Abu Simbel temple (which I have not yet visited) but hope to in October. Meanwhile there is an interesting website about the dams (strangely enough through a website of an STS course, which was not by design) that you can link to by clicking on the photo.

The Temple of Philae

From the moment I stepped on to a felucca to be taken over to the island in the middle of the Nile, where the temple of Philae is now located, everything about this first Egyptian temple experience was steeped in romance. The original location of the temple is now submerged, sacrificed to the dam. The highest points of the hold island are still visible from the current temple — I tried but could get a good photo. Luckily the powers-that-were moved this temple (dismantled the original and rebuilt here stone by stone) to the island on which it makes its home today. Actually the island is a part of one of a cluster. Stepping of the boat, I was amused and pleased to see the legend “Welcome to Biga” scratched (or painted) on the rocks of a neighboring island. Biga was familiar to me from Mahfouz’s book as the dwelling place of Rhadopis, whose story I have mentioned before.

Philae itself is a beautiful temple, offering samples (and to me my first glimpses) of giant hieroglyphics on the temple walls and Hathorian columns (see flanking pictures). I think it’s a relatively new temple, by Egyptian standards, or at least is a temple that was re-built during Greco-Roman times. Apparently it also fun to see this island by evening when it’s lit up in crazy colors, but we went in the morning and so missed that experience. Ours was the short cruise so Elephantine Island as well as the famed cataracts were also not on the agenda, but that’s what next times are for!

We sailed sedately down the Nile from Aswan to our Kom Om Bo that afternoon. The view is not very varied, but nice nevertheless — a short stretch of green with dates palms and other crops near the water and then the vast expanse of desert farther out on both sides. Some of the scenes were rustic enough to make me think that I could be in Dame Agatha’s novel, Death (or was it Murder?) on the Nile, the one set in ancient Egypt. Other times, especially when I heard the accents of the bulk of the tourists on the boat, I felt more as if I were in the other novel.

I always thought it would be fun to live in a Peter Mayle novel. The pictures he paints of the south of France in his novels (Chasing Cezanne, A Good Year, Anything Considered, Hotel Pastis) have had me drooling for the foods and wines — his description of the truffle and that of a good cassoulet were especially inspiring)– and sighing for the landscapes and wistfully wishing I could be there.

And while I won’t echo the great Poe’s raven, I have to say I’ve gone one better. Having just spent two weeks in Italy — a week of it in the the lesser-explored Emilia-Romangna region — I got to sample all that I longed for in those books. Great food, lovely warm people, interesting characters who ought to be in books but am glad to say are real, art of course, fine wine and did I mention food already? Before I launch into any more rhapsodies (and there will be many to follow, I assure you) I have to pay tribute to Silvio and his charming cottage, Ca’ Lumacheto, which I urge anybody who wants to experience the good life but a little differently and less touristically, to try out. Here’s the link to paradiso:

Shraddha and I had an absolutely fabulous time, using the cottage as our base and tales of our adventures in and around the region will follow. But meanwhile I must keep a promise to the kind Venetian artist (Murano glass artist to be precise) who helped me. Mauro, his first name is, and he treated us to a very interesting interlude when we entered his shop in search of help, on the recommendation of the expensive if nicely-stocked bead lady two doors up (or was it down?) from his. Here’s his website and if you’re in Venice and have a taste for the unusual but authentic in Venetian glass visit his shop and help support the local artists and their centuries of tradition:

Artigianato d’Arte

Mauro’s is an interesting story, and I’ll try to tell it when I reach the Venetian portion of my holiday chronicle. Meanwhile, back at home in the Cairene batcave, duties in the guise of papers to grade, and lectures to give call, and hence I must to bed

Ciao. A presto!