January 2009


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Somewhere in the runaway train ride that has been my experience of 2009 so far, sometime between the desert and my trip to Berlin I also took a trip to Abu Simbel. Finally Just for one day. It was so fleeting that it might have never happened, but happen it did. I rode the night train from Cairo to Aswan with my parents, took the convoy ride out and back and then flew back to Cairo the same night. The memories are too solid for it to have been a dream. It’s only that so much has happened since that writing about slid to back burner priorty.

I can’t swear that Abu Simbel was necessarily the best of the sights I’ve seen from ancient Egypt,  but it was certainly the most majestic. Despite being Egypt’s second most touted poster child after the pyramids, those giant statues of Ramses manage to inspire a feeling of awe when viewed for the first time. They really are enormous, and bear such looks of serenity on their faces, that its hard to believe that they represent one of Egypt’s most war-loving pharaohs.

The idea that the Abu Simbel temples and the carvings within were built some 3000 years ago was breathtaking enough in and of itself, but this site has a tie to the present that makes it all the more astounding, because it was very nearly submerged underwater for ever when the High Dam was built and Lake Nasser created. In order to prevent that from happening, our modern-day engineers performed a truly  impressive feat, they moved the entire temple (airlifted it actually) from its original location to a spot 65 meters higher and some 200 meters away from the river bank (data courtesy Wikipedia). The move shifted the days on which the statues in the inner sanctum are directly illuminated by the rising sun (originally calculated to so on the anniversaries of the Pharoah’s birthday and coronation day)  by 2 days – but personally I think that was a small sacrifice to make.

In many ways this visit brings a sense of closure to my journey to this country. Not that I’m moving anywhere anytime soon, as far as I know. But, just as I’ve written in the past that I hadn’t felt until I’d truly “arrived” in Egypt until I’d seen the pyramids (it took me a couple of month to get there), the museum (even longer that one, for reasons I’m unable to fathom) and my first Nile cruise, until I turned the corner at Abu Simbel and saw the faces of Ramses gazing inscrutably, composedly, at the waters of Lake Nasser, I had felt that my trip here had been somewhat incomplete. Despite the rare opportunities to visit Amarna, Beni Hassan, Rashid etc. No longer the case. After Abu Simbel, anything else here can only be be the icing on cake.

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Shukran w’ ma’e sala’ama.

Everyone knows that line from the classic Casablanca. Probably used it too, with undoubted good reason. And those who haven’t had a chance are just waiting for the right opportunity. Sunday night was when I got mine.

Now there may be all of 3 or 4 people living in Berlin – a city of 3 1/2 million people in roughly 3 times the area of Mumbai – that I had met before in my life,  who had nothing to do with the Max Planck Institute or the meeting I attended there. In order of my having met them, Maria, a friend from the Yale days, the Assmann siblings, and Niklas, cousin of the latter. Maria I’d gotten touch with soon after getting here and we met up. I’d tried to contact the Assmanns via email but to no avail, and so had given up being able to see them during this trip. Which meant, I assumed, that I had no expectation of meeting up with Niklas, because I had no real contact info for him, didn’t even know his last name (I knew it was NOT Assmann but that’s it) and as I just found out, couldn’t spell his first name properly either.

And yet, on Sunday night, at a small, quiet neighborhood French restaurant where I was enjoying dinner with Jan (Dietrich – host and new friend) who but Niklas  should approach my table with the words, “you may not remember but we met earlier this summer’? Talk about a Bogey moment. There are thousands of restaurants in Berlin, dozens in the very neighborhood as this one (called Kirk Royale) and there we were . Responsible (along with our respective dinner companions) for half of the restaurant’s clientele that evening!

Thanks to that chance encounter I did get to catch up with the Assmann brothers  as well as Niklas the next evening (last night) in typical fashion over a meal that went on forever. Along with Jan, Maria, Nicky and (I kid you not) someone who’s nicknamed Bogey! Coincidence come full circle oder?

Earlier in the summer I wrote about my meeting with wurst in Wien. It was a pleasant encounter, and as mentioned, it gave me a new appreciation for the hot dog. Coming to Berlin, I found out that it has it’s own wurst tradition in the guise of Curry wurst. Described in guide books as a grilled hot-dog served topped with ketchup and a dusting of a secret mixture pf spices. I’d heard about it before when I lived in Heidelberg, but never got around to trying it, and besides Berlin is supposed to be the originator of this delicacy anyway. So yesterday while wandering around town, I tried one out for lunch. At Curry 36, one of the 3 places recommended by The Lonely Planet as local favorite and one of the best.

The verdict? Sorry Berliners, much as I love your city, I have to side with the Viennese on this one. There was certainly nothing wrong with place – in fact it had the type of ambience** I like – unpretentious, fresh stuff, quick turnover, low costs, and standing tables to eat them at but the taste experience was mundane. Ho Hum. Not something I’ll be standing in line to repeat.

**Actually the ambience (a word they might lynch me for using in these places) brought to mind another place I love whose snack I adore – Pat’s Steaks – one of the rivalling homes of the world famous Philly cheese-steaks in South Philadelphia. But that’s a subject worthy of its own post. Some day…

Every bit of the pun in the title of this post is intended. It’s been a week since I got to Berlin, and its been frigid. Brrrr describes it exactly. And while the last few days may have in fact been warmer than the first three days that I was here, today is the day that I felt the cold the most. Small wonder, being caught in freezing rain while on a walking tour of the city (or maybe I should say, slithering/slipping tour), running mostly on coffee and hot chocolate all day. But more on that later. I should begin as all stories ought to (but seldom bother, it seems) at the very beginning.

This particular story began back in the summer in Vienna actually, or if the time stamps in my computer are accurate, perhaps even a little before that in Cairo, but with the usual end-of-term pressures, grading, moving, packing etc, Vienna is when and where I think of it as starting. Anyway,  a few days after I had first arrived in Vienna, I dashed off an abstract – not carelessly mind you, but hurriedly nevertheless in an attempt to make the deadline – for a workshop that had been announced at the Max Planck. Now the Max Planck Institute – specifically the MPI of the history of science or wissenschaftsgechichte as it is called in German – has been one of my personal academic grails for some time, and when I saw the call for abstracts/proposals on Making Mutations – I couldn’t allow myself to pass it up. There seemed to be a logical connection to one of the papers I had included but only perfunctorily dealt with in my dissertation, and since writing a 500-(or less)-word abstract doesn’t take much time, I did it. And then forgot about it in the excitement of my new environment in Vienna and the summer school.

The weekend after the summer school, I got the fateful letter from the organizers of the Max Planck! My proposal had been accepted, which meant that (gulp!) I now had to write the @#%$&  paper which delivered at least some of the promises I’d hinted at in the proposal. That I did (write it) and it did (deliver) is borne witness by the fact that I’m writing this mail today. The conference was exciting, exhilarating and a bracing reminder of why I love the field of the history of science particularly 20th century biology. It’s a good club to be a member in.

As for Berlin, as a first timer I’m wowed! Chilly – rather freezing – as its been since my arrival (the warmest day had a high of 2 degrees Celsius I think) it’s been a really great experience. Not only the conference (enough said on that already) but the city itself. The sense of history I feel here is as acute as, but in striking contrast to, the one I get in Egypt. There it is the ancient-ness and depth of everything is what get me.Whereas in Berlin – mostly everything was so very recent. Both the darkness of the Nazi history as well as the Wall of course. In fact, everything pertaining to the latter has happened since Appa  was already past boyhood. It only came up in ’61, scant years before I was born, and it came down in ’89 when I was living in Edmonton. I can remember something of the excitement then that the Wall was coming down then, but until I came here I’d had no idea about the details of the story.

Berlin is probably marvelous in the summer, but I’m glad my first visit here was in winter for it made my first tours more atmospheric somehow. Out on a random walk on Friday evening, I found myself halfway to Checkpoint Charlie and so went the distance and checked out the museum (Haus am Checkpoint Charlie) there as well.The cold and somber outdoors matched the mood inside, which besides the relics of real escapes across the border also houses an interesting exhibit on memorabilia an reports from various non-violent movements and protests from all over the world, beginning with Gandhi. Was also interested to learn on my tour yesterday, when I revisited that point, that Charlie was no real or imaginary soldier, but rather the 3rd checkpoint along the wall. It brought to mind the Ludlum book The Bourne Identity, that I was so fond of as a teenager in which the same litany alphabetic spellouts was repeated in the head of the protagonist Jason Bourne.  Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta…. Same etymology in both cases.

Made it back from Charlie in time to greet birthday gal Liz, who came from Poland to see me for the weekend. A nice Thai dinner sent us into a pleasant food coma  (I haven’t mentioned it but Berlin is also a foodie haven also which I’ll have to explore in more detail later) and it was to bed that evening.

Saturday was devoted to museums. Went to the all important Pergamon museum which is spectacular and may be closed soon for reinforcing the building structure which is sinking. Also paid brief respect to the bust of Nefertiti (had to do that!) who is very beautiful indeed. It closed the circle on the experience of visiting the archeological site at Amarna in middle Egypt in mid-November. And finally went the Jewish museum, whose wealth of material culture is so rich that we barely made past a third of the exhibit (we took the chronological route) in two hours before the museum closed. An unexpected encounter with history there was Glickli, a businesswoman from the Early Modern era, whose memoirs I’d read as part of James Amelang’s excellent course (attended by all of two grad students) on autobiography as historical source while in grad school. The museum had a rather large section devoted to Glickli and her life and times, and it was a pleasant reminder of a great course!

Our Saturday didn’t end there. We came home and after a brief (15 minute) refresher, where Jan had thoughtfully bought a sparkly to toast Liz, we set off on our nocturnal adventures. This included a very stylish Asian dinner (can’t pinpoint the exact cuisine for it had influences and ingredients from both Vietnam and Korea) at a lovely restaurant called Chi Sing and with a grand finale at the B Flat (whose stamp has not yet washed off my hand as I sit typing on Monday morning), a jazz club where we met up with Maria, an old friend from my Germanic-Yale crowd (and upon whose recommendations we went there).

The sun is shining out and I must interrupt my Berlin story to take advantage of it. More in a next installment, maybe.

Bis whenever the muse strikes next … Tchus

2009 is here – and what a unique way it began for the elder Sankarans, joined by my former roommate Manish. im002846Under a starlit sky in the middle of the Black part of Egypt’s Western desert, shivering partly in delight and largely from the freezing cold, but warmed nevertheless by a campfire built for us by our Bedouin guide Ahmed, im002853 not to mention the food and tea he’s just plied us with, all of which was topped of by a Bedouin song with his drums. This experience was the real McCoy of camping – no tame campgrounds with pre-constructed tents or anything. We were the only people in that part of the desert as far as we could see and other than a moth that flew by, and a mouse I thought I saw scurrying across the fire  (everyone else pooh-poohed my story but the second night brought forth evidence that my claim was a plausible one at least) there wasn’t a living creature within reach.  There was one small patch of light on the ground from what Ahmed identified as a small village some 5 km or even more away but that was it. Eerie but very cool.

The second night was an encore, further west in the white part of the same desert, a little colder perhaps, but less desolate, for we could discern other campers around us. In fact, there were perhaps too many because tending to our ablutions seemed a bit of a hazard. Some of us had narrow escapes being caught with our pants down by a wayward jeep looking for a campsite! While on this topic, I should mention a curious thing. Out among the elements as it were, people seem not only willing but positively eager to talk about bodily functions! Generally a circumspect individual, even Manish wasn’t above inquiring “Mission accomplished?” sometime during the day. Maybe its the feeling of being in a landscape so alien that people need the comfort of talking about the most mundanely familiar! Whatever the reason, evidently its not just Mary there is something about, but the desert as well!

Our two nights were truly a study in contrasts. The black desert is black because of volcanic activity. The most interesting sight for me was this mountain topped with what looked like charcoal bricks! Ahmed told us that it was a “famous volcano.”

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El Marsosa

The white desert is made of a brittle white rock – limestone most likely – overlaid with sand.

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Though winter those glistening white patches are limestone not snow.

Other interesting things abounded. There was a the Crystal Mountain which, at first glance did not appear to live up to its name. im002865It was a nice looking gateway or hole in the rock, im002866but there was no transparency or anything to the hills. In fact the top looked like red sand.im002870 But a closer look revealed plenty of crystalsim002868 imbedded in the stone like so many shards of glass catching the sun a different angles. Further into the desert im0028772we drove through a pass called the Agabat im002874(in our trusty 4-wheel drive) which Ahmed tells us was the sole, albeit treacherously difficult route for camels until the roads were built. Then there were the flower stones. im002881At first glance mere black pebbles  strewn on the desert floor but upon closer scrutiny revealed a veritable garden of black im002882chrysanthemums.

It was at about this point that my camera batteries started to give out and so I have no more pictures. Of the magic springs springing forth at unexpected places providing a brief flash of green and dates; of a tomb site overlooking one such grove, where there are a couple of glistening human skulls and a fabric like covering with what felt like (according to Dad and Manish) real human hair; or of the odd formations of white in the New White desert where we camped which our guide identified with such odd names as chicken, fox, ice cream and mushrooms. Of course there were many more that looked like the outlines of sphinxes and pyramids – it’s obvious where the pharoahs got their ideas. As we drove by these mountains of rocks gave the illusion of large cities in the the distance like an Egyptian Shanghri-La (Ankh-re-Ra?).  It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that if we actually reached one such city, that a giant Ramses himself would rise to greet us and usher us into the brand new year. Have a great one everyone.