1. The Long-Expected weekend: We have all had that special day that excites us beyond comparison. Yeah, that very day when you start planning a long journey.
It was on a Saturday, 15th of August 2015, that I started thinking of travelling alone. It wasn’t a bad idea, after all, I can be in touch with anyone I like with a simple smartphone these days. Holding but a laptop, I wandered on my porch (that was on 21st of August to be precise) looking for accommodations (It is never easy to find Home-like accommodations everywhere, you see). After 3 hours of intense research, I was tired for the day, so much so that that Saturday, I woke up with a severe headache. However, over the weekend, ever and anon, I was absorbed in this process. I had to reconsider the strategy many times over before finalising it. Howbeit, with a rough idea in mind about the places that I wanted to visit, I booked my accommodations and flight tickets online.
2. Home is behind, the world ahead: Departing home is always a noisy affair, especially when one is leaving for a foreign country. It was nought less than chaos at home. Preparations and packing had begun nearly 5 days before this. From Ready-to-eat convenience food items to sweaters, mufflers, and socks, everything was ready to be security scanned at the airport and airlifted across the Arabian sea; I was all set to leave on the 4th of September.
Departing at 4:00 AM from Kempegowda International Airport (KIA), Bengaluru, was Qatar Airways 573. Through the multilayered glass walls, I could see the maroon coloured Oryx vinyl on the tail of a parked Airbus A330 shining under crimson orange floodlights. The Airport was, for the most part, deserted. After all, 3:00 AM is too early to expect a decent crowd, even at the airport. After receiving my boarding pass and getting my baggage checked, I ran to the bathroom (The wee hours have had this effect on me since childhood). I used my last few minutes of freedom to connect to the airport Wi-Fi (which is supposed to be free, mind you). And it took ages to connect. As I was getting more and more impatient with the Wi-Fi, I heard the final announcement to board the flight. I had to pack up just when Google’s vivid logo loaded colourfully on my laptop screen.
As I was packing my things, I saw a man smiling at me from the other side of the aisle. It seemed like he could read the frustration on my face (I think he was looking at me the whole time).
‘You look agitated’, he said in a weird accent that I’d never heard before. ‘May I help you pack your things?’.
‘Yeah, thank you’, said I. ‘You’re going to Doha?’
Without a moment’s pause, the man replied, ‘Yes yes. My name is Antwan’, and shook my hand with a smile.
Meanwhile, an annunciation was made; ‘Departure of flight Qatar airways 573 to Doha, please passengers proceed to gate 2’. As we were both going to the same destination, we continued the conversation inside the flight.
‘Wonderful. So you’re here for business I suppose?’
‘Yea’, he said turning towards me. ‘I run a small textile manufacturing company under the name Antwan fabrics in Doha with branches in Bangalore and Mumbai. I was here to attend a legal case regarding my last transaction’.
‘Alright. How did it go?’
‘Oh well, It isn’t easy to set up a business in India and it is even harder to maintain one. The Court summoned me last Friday in Mumbai. I had to produce my agreements and import deeds to the Jury regarding my latest transaction in Vietnam’, he said ‘I import raw silk from Vietnam and cotton from here to my unit in Doha. My weavers in Qatar use Indian cotton to manufacture Thobes while, in Mumbai, we make silk dresses for the local population and also export it to some western countries, you know, the Americas’.
‘O! I wish you well!’ I said
After a frugal breakfast, we continued on matters of my visit to the west, he also added a few valuable suggestions to my itinerary. And soon, the Arab merchant I met at the airport lounge became a very close friend of mine. Our conversations went from clothing to matters like Indian food, languages and stuff. It was particularly difficult to read an alien accent and it was hard to understand some of his English words that were concocted by his Arabic intonation.
And so came the final announcement before landing. With a gushing sound, the plane landed by the Persian Gulf.
‘Asalamu Alaykum’ said the Arab; I had no idea how to return a greeting in Arabic but I still tried to repeat the same phrase; ‘I understand’ said the man with a smile and left the aerodrome leaving his visiting card in my hand.
‘I shall see you sometime soon in Bangalore and teach you Arabic’ he said with a big smile on his face.
3. On The Jutted-out Peninsula: It was a wonderful journey across the sea; an extra 150 minutes of valuable time and the vast expanse of desert on the Arabian peninsula felt like I was being transported back in time (my mind was flooded with the memories of Arabian nights and other middle eastern folklore).
The plane touched down at Hamad International Airport (DOH), Doha by the Persian Gulf exactly on-time. My connecting flight, however, was at 9:00 AM (Qatar local time) and there was enough time to waste if you understand my meaning. ‘The Qatar airways 1303 A330-300’ said the flight information display system ‘is delayed’; perhaps it was yet to return from its previous trip. The Sun was, by that time, starting to rise in the eastern sky and the silhouettes of huge structures were visible across the narrow gulf, to the east, while darkness yet shrouded the west.
I spent most of my time strolling inside the airport terminal, from store to store, with only a camera in my hand. I was fortunate, I would say, to spot a Mclaren MP14-12C (one of my favourites) at a luxury watch outlet. When I went to have a closer look, a man in tuxedo welcomed me graciously in Arabic. I knew, by looks of him, that he was a European (a German, I guessed); I and asked him about the exhibit. ‘The airport is holding a raffle to win exotic cars‘ he said, ‘minimum buy-in is 900 Riyal,’ and smiled back. He looked puzzled at my bewildered gaze as if I had never seen an exotic before (that was true). Meanwhile, he was also attending to other potential dealers who looked as intrigued as I was; that’s when the announcement shook me from my bewilderment. I knew that I was getting late and tried to find my way back to the lounge. It was 7:10 AM already and I received my boarding pass at the transfer counter at Terminal 1, Concourse B on my return. I had seen enough of the Arabian peninsula in just one visit and it was a perfect start to the adventures that were to follow.
4. The City of a Thousand Minarets: After nearly 3 hours in the air, I reached the sandy banks of the Egyptian capital. It was 12:30 PM, local time when I reached Cairo and I was already 25 minutes behind schedule. However, I was happy to have landed successfully at my first destination. After passport control, I picked up my trolley case from the baggage belts and exited the terminal at around 1:30 PM. I had never stepped into a Muslim country before but this place felt nothing like what I had expected. The city that flourishes on the banks of the Nile was full of spires. The nickname is a good metaphor, after all, I thought. It was spectacular!
I boarded the airport shuttle bus (Mid-sized bus, as they call it) outside the main terminal to El Maadi (closest drop-off point to Giza) from where I had to take a local taxi covering 12 more kilometres before reaching my hotel. In fact, the so-called shuttle bus was just a shared minivan.
‘Inta minayn?’ said the driver after a few minutes. I had no idea what he was trying to say but fortunately, an Egyptian policeman translated it to me. ‘The driver wants to know where you come from’ he said.
‘From India!’ said I.
‘So you’re going to visit the pyramids now?’ he said with a smile.
‘No, not today. Tomorrow perhaps’. A deep silence fell for a few minutes.
‘How safe is Cairo?’ I asked trying to kindle a quick conversation with the duo. ‘I mean, being so close to various terrorist organisations in the Middle-East and the Levant, how safe is this country?’ I repeated.
Just when the policeman was about to translate my part of the conversation, the driver stopped him and told me that he could understand English as well.
‘Ostaaz, the threat of terrorism in all of Egypt remains real. A suicide bomber tried to blow himself at the Karnak temple targeting tourists‘ he said (though not entirely in English).
‘What has the government done‘ I asked ‘to protect civilians and prevent such attacks’
‘Nothing much‘ he sighed ‘The attacks are aimed at people from the western countries, so much so that American tourists have been advised to have the U.S embassy’s phone number and e-mail pre-programmed into their devices. Drive-by shootings are so common in Cairo and elsewhere that civilians, bystanders, and even policemen have been killed or injured by terrorist groups. Tourists from the western countries have stopped visiting Egypt lest they should put themselves in jeopardy. Terrorism has become a religion with loose morals and strange beliefs in this part of the world’. This made me worry about my own safety in that country.
No sooner had I arrived at the taxi stand near El Maadi than the heavens opened up. Had I been delayed a little longer, I would’ve been drenched completely. However, the black and white taxi that I hired at El Maadi had a broken metre and haggling with a taxi driver is not an easy job when you don’t know his language. After checking-in at the Sphinx Guesthouse, Giza at 3:15 PM, I had neither the strength nor the desire to do anything for the rest of the day. I was famished and absolutely tired. It was time to take a quick nap before a scrumptious meal.
That evening, when I woke up and walked up to the balcony, I could see 3 huge illuminated mausoleums pointing up to the three stars in the Orion belt. The view was truly spectacular. Nothing could match the grandeur and the sheer size of these ancient structures, I thought.
I did nothing much later that evening as I was extremely tired and desperately looking for a place to rest my legs.
I woke up pretty early on the next day. It was 6 o’clock when the first rays of light swept across the sandy landscape. A beautiful morning indeed!
Someone knocked on the door (they had the traditional metal door knockers on wooden doors) at about the same time. I walked across the room holding my smartphone in one hand, typing, ‘how to say Hello in Arabic’. To my surprise, a handsome brunette woman was waiting at the door with a cloche covered plate in hand and a trolley full of food (I wasn’t ready for breakfast yet).
‘SabāH al-xeir (Good morning)’ she said.
‘as-salāmu 3aleikum (Hello!)’ I stammered reading the text on my mobile phone. ‘I’m sorry madam, I don’t speak Arabic’.
‘Not a problem. Your breakfast is ready, sir’ she said, ‘would you want me to serve you now?’
‘O! thank you, but I shall manage it myself’ I said.
‘Your guidebook is ready and you can collect it from the counter downstairs. We also have exclusive audio-guides for visitors’ she said. ‘Do you need anything else, sir?’
‘No, thank you’ I said
‘If you need anything else, you can call the counter downstairs. We’ll be happy to help you!’ and smiled at me again.
Cheese spread on a few slices of bread was enough to last for at least 3-4 hours; after a few morsels of chopped apples, I rushed to the bathroom to get ready, for I had less than 24 hours before my next flight.
My sole purpose in Cairo was to visit the extravagant and widely acclaimed desert pyramids of Giza. And the view was beyond my wildest imaginations. I still wonder how they built those gigantic pyramids in an age when people were using bronze tools to work with. The stones seemed to fit every hole so perfectly and the alignment was precise. There were hardly any gaps in the structure. It is near to impossible to build anything like it with bronze age tools and to bring about such precision is truly mindblowing.
The audio-guides helped me a lot. After a long ramble around the largest and the oldest of the three pyramids which housed Khufu’s tomb (one of the 3 kings from the fourth dynasty), I reached the main entrance of the pyramid which faces the north. It is believed that the pyramid, weighing over 6 million tonnes, was completed in 20 years and to achieve that, workers had to quarry some 800 tonnes of stone blocks every day. Not an easy job at all. Interestingly, the ratio of perimeter to height amounts to 2π to an accuracy of 0.05%. How cool is that? Engineers, to this day struggle with accuracy. The stone blocks are precisely cut and placed. The pyramid itself is an 8 sided structure which points to the exact geometric north and not the magnetic north which means that the Egyptians knew their true north 2500 years before the beginning of the common era; an 8 sided structure is harder to construct than a traditional 4 sided one. I was lucky to spot some Egyptologists excavating a small piece of land on a hillock just a few feet from the Sphinx, or so it looked from a distance.
My tour ended at 12:20pm and I was getting late. 12pm was my checkout time and I was nowhere near my hotel. Fortunately, I was given an extension of 1 hour to vacate my area. I was totally spent. Though I needed some rest, my schedule didn’t allow me to have one anytime soon. The sun was burning the life out of me.
I left the hotel at 2pm after a proper lunch at their restaurant downstairs. The hotel provided me with an airport taxi and a surcharge was added to my bill. My time was short and I had to rush to the nearest pickup point.
‘To the Airport?’ I asked the driver. ‘I mean, Airport’. The driver was dumbstruck. He stared at me for a few seconds not knowing what I was trying to say. That’s when I managed to exhibit some of my acting skills and found out that I was pretty good at it. He deciphered the alien tongue when I showed my air ticket and made queer sounds of plane landings (the good thing about action is that it is universal). The incident irritated me so much that I decided to learn a few fundamental Egyptian Arabic words, enough to thank the driver at least.
I opened the translator and started writing down on a piece of paper. The bumpy ride turned my handwriting into an abominable script. 45 minutes into the journey, I could see the Airport to my right and the driver was busy shouting at the traffic. My new script was almost ready and I was the only person on the planet who could read it.
‘mut shakkrān (thank you). ma’is salāma (goodbye!)’ I said at once as soon as I reached the airport. He was flummoxed but thanked me for using his language. ‘shakkrān’ said the driver, thrice. And Cairo was officially over!
5. All roads lead to Rome: Perfect, my arrival at the airport was exactly 2 hours before my scheduled departure from Cairo. After all the airport hustle, I had just 1 hour to go before boarding the Alitalia 897. This time was precious; everything that I had experienced that day was played back to me in my mind like a slideshow. I can never forget the man-made mountains in my life; the tunnels inside the pyramids, the view from the hotel, and simply the sheer size of those monstrous structures were awe-inspiring. Truly, it was a dream come true!
And there I was, at the terminal 1, trying to recollect the 4500-year-old wonder when the boarding announcement was made. ‘Good evening passengers. This is the pre-boarding announcement for the flight AZ897 to Rome. Please have your boarding pass and identification ready. Regular boarding will begin in approximately ten minutes time. Thank you.’
Rome was on my list since childhood. I’ve always wanted to see the epicentre of the Pagan West. Rome is a special place to visit and it is even better to do so on a Sunday. 3 hours and 30 minutes later, the Airbus A330 landed at the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, Rome. The weather was gloomy and rain was expected any time now. After all the usual security checks and verifications, I was let into the country.
There were frequent trains connecting the International Airport to the city.
With trains departing every 30 minutes, Leonardo express took less than an hour to go from Leonardo da Vinci Airport to the centre of Rome. Well, it only cost me €15 and that, I believe, is cheap for 40 minutes’ ride. My journey began from the Fiumicino Aeroporto railway station opposite the terminal 3 exit. As it was dark by the time the Airport authorities let me go, I was unable to enjoy the scenic Italian countryside. The coach was, for the most part, empty (except for a few teenagers on the far side of the bogie and an old couple to my right). And once again, language came into play.
‘Pronto! (Hello!)’ I said to the elderly man who was sitting in front of me (all thanks to the signboards and advertisement banners at the Airport).
‘Hello!’ said the man, ‘We’re British. I’m John and she’s my wife, Helena (and Helena smiled at me)‘
‘I’m sorry, sir. You know, it is hard to differentiate people on the basis of their nationalities here in Europe.’
‘Haha, but let me tell you something’, said the old man. ‘People from down south, from countries like Italy, Greece, Portugal among others tend to have darker hair than their northern counterparts. And that’s how different we are. My wife here, she’s a Spaniard by birth (his wife was actually a brunette).
‘Her family moved to York when she was in high school and she’s been one of us ever since. She was with the Women’s Royal Army Corps in Surrey during the second world war when we got married‘
‘Stop it, John. That was ages ago. I joined the army pretty unexpectedly’, interrupted Helena.
‘Well, I don’t think so.‘ said John laughing and winking at me like a kid in his twenties. ‘I know why you joined the army. In fact, our marriage was unexpected, an accident, so to say’.
‘She loved a man dearly. If not for him she wouldn’t have joined the Royal army’ said John turning towards me again. ‘He was a Scottish engineer with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in Deepcut, Surrey. Her boyfriend, however, died of cancer in his late twenties; she later married me at her father’s request‘I started chuckling so loudly that the lady gave me a queer look. ‘I’m sorry, madam. I didn’t mean to offend you.’ I said trying to convince her otherwise.
‘After all the introductory talks, John shared his experiences in India and his love for the country. We shared some biscuits and a cup of tea before they started packing their bags.
By that time, the train had covered 70% of the journey. The next stop was Roma Trastevere where the couple got off the train. After 35 minutes, I was only 3 stops away from my final destination. The train was rocketing through the darkness and all I could see were signal lights racing back in the opposite direction. Finally, at 10pm, I reached my destination.
I relied heavily on maps. After a bit of hustle inside the railway station, I finally found a way out of there.
Hotel Termini accommodation was just a few hundred feet from the railway station (It is always better to lodge at the centre of a city from where you’ll be well connected to all parts of the city via local transport). It was already 10 hours past my check-in time and walking that stretch would increase it by 20 more minutes. The 3 storey building was only 3 blocks away from Termini on Via Marghera street to the right-hand side of the railway station. The footpath was fenced on both sides of the building and the vegan restaurants close to the hotel were particularly encouraging to see.
Stepping inside, I found that the building was old, older than I reckoned and far older than what it looked on the outside. The landlady guided me to my room on the left wing of the building. And the room was horrible. The room itself was extremely small – about 12 feet × 12 feet – and the bed occupied 80% of its area; there was hardly any space to walk. And there was nothing I could do to get a better accommodation; I took the keys from the landlady and went straight to bed. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang just when I was getting ready to throw myself to sleep.
‘Who is it?’, I shouted.
‘Tu non…You have non imposta…’ said a female voice. I suddenly remembered the city tax that was due (a surcharge will be added to the rental charge of the room per person per night). I was lazy to open the door, but I still managed to unlatch the door.
‘Can I pay in the morning?’
‘Okay, mattina presto…fast morning (early morning)’ said the lady.
‘Fine’, I was not in the mood to think about anything at 11pm.
6. Day 1 in the City of Seven Hills: Sundays are always beautiful, but this day was special. I woke up early that Sunday, the 6th of September 2015. After a delayed breakfast at 7:30am (I was supposed to leave at 7 o’clock), I left the apartment at 7:45am hoping to catch the Metro train at the Termini station by 8 o’clock to the Ottaviano station. Local transportation in Rome is quite straightforward and all public transports are integrated (you can travel in any mode of transport with a single ticket); you only have to decide between a single ticket or a travel pass. I bought a B.T.I. (or Biglietto Turistico Integrato) pass that cost me €16.5 and availed me free transportation for a period of 72 hours.
The two operating Metro lines in Rome – Line-A, Line-B, and Line-C (under construction) – run almost perpendicular to each other connecting nearly all parts of the city to the Termini station at the city’s centre; both the lines intersect at Termini Metro railway station before diverging to other parts of the city. I, however, took the line-A which took me just over 15 minutes to reach Ottaviano; just blocks away from the Vatican City – a country with its own set of rules and regulations – and I was there to see the pope!
The start was perfect and my journey had only just begun.
– Immortal Chiron