Trip to Kemet (Egypt)â€¦ Travel Log â€“ Star Date 08-10-10
This was not a vacation. This was an odyssey of mind expansion and a test of oneâ€™s physical endurance. It began with an Amtrak ride to NYC to meet up with my girlfriend, Toniâ€”my trip partnerâ€”dragging way too much luggage through Penn Station, into a cab, and up to Brooklyn, where she and I both laughed at the fact that we had to get it all up to her third floor brownstone walk-up without the aid of an elevator. But because sheâ€™s faithful with her gym workouts and belly dancing class, between the two of us, (her pulling more than her fair share), we got all my stuff up the stepsâ€¦ also realizing what came up had to come back down first thing in the morning.
Excitement thrummed through us as we contemplated the fact that in the morning weâ€™d be headed back to Africa, back to the motherland, back to the source of all science and math, technology, and art and architectural wondersâ€”Kemet, aka, Egypt.
We couldnâ€™t sleep. She packed until three in the morning; I dozed and chatted as she hummed around readying for our adventure. My late great auntâ€™s words reverberated through my soul as I finally succumbed to sleepâ€”â€œBaby, our people came from the East side of Africaâ€¦ Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Egypt.â€ Before DNA testing, I thought my auntâ€™s words were simply urban legend passed down through the family in an attempt to claim that somehow we were associated with great empiresâ€¦ as many elderly African Americans still to this day detest remembering the tragedy of slavery. Therefore, to many, West African and its â€œdoor of no returnâ€ represents pain, not a point of prideâ€”so I thought my auntie in her later years was trying on a little revisionist history to distance herself from the â€˜Great American Scar.â€™ I believed that until a few years ago when I took the IBM Gene Experiment DNA Test offered for $100 through National Geographicâ€¦ six weeks after swabbing, my mitochondrial DNA came back from East Africa!
That said, I fell asleep wondering how my folks got caught up in the conflict that dragged them halfway around the world. My auntie said a trade caravan was raided and one of our ancestors wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I canâ€™t confirm or dispute her claim, because sheâ€™s gone now. But at least one half of her story held up under DNA testing, so Iâ€™m inclined to believe her oral report on the matter. That added to my excitement and sense of anticipationâ€¦ I was going back to ancestral lands.
The morning of the trip, I sat up before the alarm sounded, even though I had every reason to be exhausted. Toni bounced into the room I was sleeping in and announced, â€œToday is the day, girl! Did I mention weâ€™re going to Egypt?â€ That started the trip in earnest, and she had so much energy that, while I was repacking my overnight bag, she hauled my suitcase down the steps solo!
Laughing, gabbing, squealing in intervals, we headed to JFK Airport in her SUV. At points it seemed like time was standing still on purpose, or was messing with traffic to delay our arrivalâ€”but in NYC it isnâ€™t personal, smileâ€”just crazy morning traffic. By the time we got to the airport we were like little kids. She took her car to long term parking and I figured out a balancing act to take both our wheeled, too-heavy suitcases, along with carry-on luggage, into the terminal to meet the group.
It was a sight to behold. All gathered around Master Yoga Instructor, Yirser Ra Hotep, were smiling, eager faces just waiting for the Egypt Air desk to open. People were so nice, they just walked right up and said, â€œHi, my name is Sherri and Iâ€™m Kimâ€”weâ€™re from DC. Are you going with us?â€ Thatâ€™s how it started. I met people from Phillyâ€”Rhonda, Nisa and her mate Muneerâ€¦ met folks from Florida, Brother Ankh and Brother Gui. Ladies from Costa Rica, our seniors on the travel, who were awesomeâ€¦ baby brother, Darien from Chicago, who is a sophomore in college (all the Mommas looked out for him)â€¦ Anika and her mom Pricilla, and of course Dr. Sunyatta (who I call Dr. Sunny for her bright spirit and awesome comic relief), her daughter, Amina, and her sister, beautiful â€œMomma Cheryl.â€ Soon, author Wayne Chandler joined us, aka â€œThe Professorâ€ on the tripâ€¦ and I met Princessâ€”my sister who wound up sitting behind me on the bus for too many laughs, a second Rhonda, Tecumaâ€¦ comedic spiritual preacher of deep truthâ€”Armel (a Chicago firefighter), I know Iâ€™m forgetting someone, but forgive me. We had 27 people in allâ€¦ and if you do the numerology, it comes to 9, the number of completion went on the trip.
Finally, after hanging out in the airport from noon till 6:00pm, it was finally time to board. Thus began the second leg of the endurance testâ€”a twelve hour flight over the Atlantic and Europe. Dozing to Arabic films with English subtitles, I recall it got dark, then suddenly the flight attendants were coming down the aisles with breakfast and coffee. The windows opened and blaring sun entered the cabinâ€¦ not like sun Iâ€™ve ever seen on the east coast even on the brightest of days. This was equatorial glare that had been bouncing off of white hot sand for centuries, and in the distance (called out by the captain upon final approach) one could see the Pyramids of Giza!
I swear my heart rate kicked up a notch. I was spellbound. Human beings had done this without the aid of modern technology and so far, not cranes or anything else we have now has been able to duplicate the majestic structures.
My patience was near the fraying point as we waited on luggage and customs clearance, but patience and solemn quiet was the only way to deal with it. Once the group was released from the airport, we got slapped in the face with a blast of desert heat that made us simply stare at each other.
On the best of days, it was 118 degrees in the shade. I thought about our men and women in the Armed Services, wearing helmets, flak jackets, fatigues, and carrying about a hundred pounds of equipment, and knew I had no reason to complain in a tank top and a cotton skirt with flip flops.
Onto the bus, we didnâ€™t even stop at the hotel. You had to wash your face and take a bird bath on the plane, as we were headed to Cairo Museum to see actual mummies (still with eyelashes), King Tutâ€™s gold, Egyptian wigs and jewelry from antiquity, and marvels of the world. The guide said that they had so many pieces that if you looked at each one for one minute, it would take you NINE MONTHS to see everything in the museum. But even sadder was the truth he revealed on the bus that, Italy stole 17,000 pieces, France stole 4,000 pieces, and Britain stole over 7,000 piecesâ€”and that was just what they knew of. In the early days, wealthy people would send private excavations (tomb raiders, of the Laura Croft variety) to Egypt and there was no law about what was to remain in the country. It is feared that the best and most expensive pieces still reside in private collections. Plus, it was only in 1972 that the world agreed to uphold Egyptâ€™s law about returning any stolen goods (after 1972â€”but nothing beforeâ€¦ and that sucks.)
Truthfully, all the really great finds happened way before 1972â€¦ do not get me started on a political rant, but it made me wonder what France would have done to a country that stole itâ€™s priceless collections from Versailles, or what Britain would have done to royal grave robbers that had their Queenâ€™s jewels or body on display in Cairoâ€¦ or if the Vatican (that has a LOT of this stuff) would mount a modern-day crusade to get back their priceless relics? You know? Just sayinâ€™.
Anyhowâ€¦ I pondered these questions after I saw what was left, and it really burned deep into my consciousness as our tour guide explained how there were more of Egyptâ€™s treasures in the British Museum than in Cairo. Something seemed so wrong about that. But my only solace was that, when we looked outside, standing in downtown Cairoâ€”the Great Pyramids were a part of the cityâ€™s skyline.
Imagine, going downtown in your hometown and seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World as a part of your cityâ€™s natural skyline. Yet, in a bustling, congested city of 20 million people in Cairo, no one looked upâ€”only us tourists. It was also a clash of timelines and East meets West, with litter-filled streets, fast food joints, sprawling telephone lines and street lights, half-built apartments under constructionâ€¦ all set against the backdrop of ancient majesty. The cognitive dissonance was indescribable.
But when we finally arrived at a five star hotel, we were all so exhausted we could barely take it all inâ€”that is until I got to my room and opened up the drapes to see that my room faced the pyramids. I turned off the lights and sat on the bed watching the sun set in a rose-orange glow against the great structuresâ€¦ thinking with a sad smileâ€¦ â€œDamnâ€¦ I remember when I wrote this about Damali.â€ Even the quality of light was the same as Iâ€™d envisioned.
For me as a writer, this journey was as much an outward, Indiana Jones style expedition as it was a journey to the very core of my being. I was seeing places I had written about, and for good luck, just as I had my heroine doâ€”I collected stones at every temple to bring home with me.
Filled with brimming expectation, the first real day after our arrival, we headed to the Pyramids of Giza, where we got to see just how small and antlike we were against the amazing architectural wonders. Each block of the Great Pyramid was 4 tons, some reaching 40 tons in weight and much taller than me. Iâ€™m six feet tall and was dwarfed by what I stood next toâ€¦ and yes, there were camels.
These contrary, magical, smelly beasts bite and spit and complain under the weight of their loads. I admit, I punked out and decided it was far better to capture the essence of a caravan in digital pics than to actually get up on one of those things while they fussed and walked sloo-footed into the desert.
Yet, even that was surreal. Guys in white desert uniforms like in a Hollywood movie and toting AK47s with duct-taped double banana clip magazines guarded the monuments while tourists roved the outer walls and vendors hawked their wares. Camel drivers lazily swatted flies and bargained for the price of a mount, haggling loudly as though theyâ€™d stepped right out of the Middle Ages. Then, if you turned around quickly in the other direction, youâ€™d see tourist buses from our era and people speaking all languages from every country flocking to see the breathtaking sight of what Pharaohs had left behind. (For the record: We were told that slaves did not build the pyramids, but skilled artisans didâ€”and new information and research confirms that these were highly skilled workers paid significant money for the task. They were that eraâ€™s middle class.)
From there it was a blur of daysâ€¦ sailboats down the Nile to reach the Temple of Philae (just like a scene out of the VHL!), cruising down the Nile to Aswan, a night belly dancing and whirling dervish show, hiking up temple steps cut into the side of mountainsâ€¦ where some of our crew took an actual camel caravan through the Sahara to a Nubian Villageâ€”I drew the line at camel dung, camel sweat, and camel flies and opted for the Nile cruise by lux motorboat to meet them there. BIG SMILE! The ladies from Costa Rica, by way of Brooklynâ€”Ruby, Ms. Norma, and Momma Narissa, hung back with meâ€”we had on flip flips are werenâ€™t trying to really step in the full experience, LOL! (BTW, Momma Narrisa made it up the inside of the Great Pyramid!)
But can I tell you that watching the sunset while going down the Nile was something out of a fairy tale. Coming up on a village where people grabbed your arm and put theirs next to it and called you, â€œMy Nubian sister!â€ brought tears to my eyes. Guards and local children, women and villagers were all fascinated to see â€œdarkâ€ Americans that looked like them pile out of a tourist bus. I got many offers of marriage tooâ€¦ a man offered Dr. Sunyatta MANY camels, some chickens, and other livestock if she would agree to marry him, LOL!
Ahâ€¦ and hereâ€™s where there was some very deep cultural diversity. In the hotels and on the cruise ship, there was not one local woman to be found. These were jobs for menâ€”not even in housekeeping did you find Egyptian women. Also, no matter what we said, we were ignored (the ladies on the trip.) We had to pair up with one of the guys in our tour group and claim him as a husband to barter or buy anything without a hassle. It was truly deep. Several of us would gather around one of the men on the tripâ€”weâ€™d agree who was wife number 1, 2, 3 and so forth, THEN weâ€™d head out. If a vendor pestered us, all we had to do was point at the guy in the center of our little group and then the vendor would bow to the guy and back off. It was completely amazing and maddening all at the same time.
At one point, I got trapped in a market with very eager vendors and male offers, and Yirser (who is about 6â€™4â€ with a very imposing frame) walks by with five of the ladies from the trip and shouts, â€œLeslie! Why? I told you no shopping!â€ Now, had we been home and in Philly, Iâ€™da taken my earrings out, ha ha ha. But he was saving me, LOL! I covered my mouth, the vendors backed off, and I pointed at my so-called â€œhusbandâ€ and told them, â€œYou must ask him.â€ That was the end of it. Yirser stood there with five wives with me running to catch up as the straggling, errant 6th wife, like heâ€™d parted the Red Sea. The vendor who really wanted more than a dress sale asked, â€œMilady, do you think he might sell me one of you?â€ I just looked at the man, and realized this was all just cultural differences and the poor man was quite genuine and meant no harm. I took the compliment with a smile and shook my head, no and he left me with a sigh. From that point on, I became known as â€œMischief Wife,â€ my girl Toni who is real chill became â€œZen Wife,â€ and our friend Nebhet was known as â€œSpicy Wifeâ€ (because she would fuss about the inequities in a heartbeat, LOL.) Like I said, crazy and surreal.
The bus was baseâ€”safetyâ€”where we could get back together as disoriented Americans and chatter away about what weâ€™d just experienced. Horse carriage rides that would turn your hair whiteâ€”not like the easy rides you see going around Central Park or in Independence Mall in Philadelphiaâ€¦ oh, no. These were more like Ben Hur chariot jousts at rush hour with road rage â€œhorse cabbiesâ€ jockeying for position as their withered mares sprinted to the temples though narrow, winding dirt streets. Yâ€™allâ€¦ it was beyond deep. I did a LOT of praying in Egypt! I prayed for strength as I crouched to make my way up pyramid steps hunched over and going through chambers meant for tiny priests with teeny feet. I prayed when a rocket hit the West Bank of Jordan and the Israeli Prime Minister thought it came from Egypt and retaliation was in the air. I prayed as a guy got on the bus with a Glock 9mm and an Uzi to ride shotgun, literally, with our bus driver as a military convoy took us to the edges of the desert 60 miles from the border of Sudan. I prayed as I looked down at the public toilets at rest stops, where you had to pay for toilet paper, and feared even squatting over the hole that was replete with flies. I prayed for water. I prayed for sleep. I prayed our bus would make it through the rural roads that were barely passable. I p[rayed thereâ€™d be no need for the military convoy that escorted us. I prayed for air conditioning. I prayed for forgiveness for taking so much for granted in my everyday American life. Oh, yeah, yâ€™all, I was in deep prayerâ€”not just in the temples when I put my fist in a beam of white hot light or felt the presence of ancestors.
Through it all, the group became like a little familyâ€”a funny, outrageous high school bus trip that Iâ€™ll never forget. There were comedians, philosophers, heavy fact deliverers, peace keepers, healers, complainers, and enforcers. We came from all over the country, and each of us probably only knew one or two people on the trip before we all got together. But then the group gelled like a rag tag Guardian team. We looked out for each other, shared toiletries like sunscreen and hand sanitizer. We made sure no one was left behind, and shared meds for whatever ailed people. And in the midst of all of that, we did yoga and belly dancing and laughed until our faces hurt.
Let me seeâ€¦ we traveled by bus, overnight train (sleeper cars right out of the 1940â€™s as though on the way to Calcutta!), boat, cruise ship, camel, sail boat, ferry, horseâ€¦ we ate dust and swatted flies, but always had our mindâ€™s blown when we got to our destinations. How does one account for a glyph that is of the ancestors, next to a leg, next to a series of stars, next to a doorway, next to a scroll? Dr. Sunyatta found it, and decoded it to meanâ€”â€œOur ancestors traveled from the stars with knowledge.â€ Beyond profound, and the story boards are all over the walls etched in granite.
What can I tell you of my tripâ€¦ my time-travelerâ€™s expedition?
I stood in the footfalls of queens and kings; I put my writing hand in the celestial light of the Temple of Ausar. I felt the chills of dÃ©jÃ vu as familiarity washed over me. I was humbled to silence. I saw tombs carved into the side of granite cliffs and monuments created out of single pieces of massive stone. I fought back tears at the desecration of ancient black faces and beautiful womenâ€™s bodies when the Romans invaded and then the Crusades in the Middle Ages deemed the naked female form unholy. I saw technology beyond my comprehension. I saw art that made me gasp. I saw myself, my people, my culture. I SAW THE NETERUS!!!! I saw engineering marvels; I saw mysteries of the cosmos. I saw the unlimited power of the human imaginationâ€¦ and I saw a whole new arc of characters and storylines come to life against the soft black background of my closed eyelids. I saw Atlantis when made aware that the Sphinx had been covered with seashells at its base, yes, in the middle of the desert. I saw a collision of flora and faunaâ€”great palm trees and lush vegetation if I turned left, and pure barren sand for as far as the eye could see when I turned right. I saw dreams and could imagine what the Great Pyramids looked like when in their full glory covered by white alabaster and having gold and copper capstones before invaders came to steal it away. And despite the ravages of time and conquest, it was all still there, still waiting to be discovered again for the first time, itâ€™s ancient ancestral ghosts whispering to each of usâ€”â€œWelcome back, daughter, welcome back, sonâ€¦ you can do anything you set your mind to.â€
If you get an opportunity in this lifetimeâ€”GO. Anything I tell you will not do the vision justiceâ€¦ and everything Iâ€™ve told you is only half of all that went on. How can I capture all the jokes, funny moments, breathless experiences? You just have to see it for yourself.
BIG PHILLY HUG from someone who has been changed foreverâ€¦ Leslie!
PS: See the pics on Face Book under “Leslie’s Trip” at Leslie Esdaile Banks.