Our arrival in Cairo had co-incided with the tumultuous events that led to the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's dictatorial reign. But even at 3 am on January 26, the streets were buzzing with Hyundais, Fords and some old oil guzzlers. Illuminated monuments and buildings went whizzing past as we made our way to Giza, about 20 km south-west of Cairo, to see the famous three pyramids, built during the eras of Kings Cheops, Kefren and Mykerinos.
Overlooking the Great Sphinx, there were Americans and Germans, Indians and Australians, finding warmth in the camel wool blankets available on hire, as the Sahara desert air-cooled and the sound and light show began. The limestone monuments came alive with laser graphs putting the mammoth magnitude into context.
Next day, as we went through tight security checks at the Egyptian Museum, crammed with over 120,000 antiquities including the mummies and the treasures of Tutankhamen, little did we know that this home to 5,000 years of Egyptian civilisation would soon be vandalised.
At the Khan el-Khalili, a major souk or market in Cairo built in 1382, one can find silver jewellery, souvenirs, Egyptian cotton tops and Alabaster statues for a bargain. Tourists and locals were enjoying 'shisha' and Arabic coffee. Reclining on a traditional sofa at CafÃ© El Malky that night, near the imposing Al-Hussein mosque, I remembered reading about the terrorist attacks there in 2005 and 2009.
Next morning, as we drove across Cairo to take the flight to Aswan, where our three-day Nile cruise would begin, the roads were almost deserted, a far cry from the din of honking horns a night before. Sensing no trouble in Aswan, gateway to Nubia (the land of gold), we took a Felucca, the traditional sailboat, for a ride on the Nile. Perched between Africa, Asia and Europe, Egypt is also an important stopover for migratory birds. There were Hoopoes, Kingfishers and water birds aplenty. Few shops selling bread and spices were open and there were hundreds of tourists at the High Dam overlooking the Nasser Lake and the unfinished obelisk. As we sailed towards Luxor, gateway to ancient Thebes, the carnival of daily life unfolded -- men in galabeyas or the Egyptian ethnic kaftans riding on donkeys, women drying clothes, children playing on sandbanks, banana and sugarcane fields, and trains with red and blue carriages racing past.
Stops at Kom Ombo temple, the river-bank shrine to the crocodile deity, and Edfu temple were cancelled. Our cruise boat anchored opposite the Luxor temple with its huge colonnades and colossal statues of Ramses. The temple complexes were open though the sound and light show highlighting Karnak's Hypostyle Hall was cancelled because of night curfew.
On the west bank of the Nile River, deep in the desert are monuments, temples and tombs, including the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of Queens, where generations of pharaohs and nobles were buried in great splendour. The commanding Temple of Queen Hatshepsut stands tall amidst the mountains and the Colossi of Memnon, two giant statues, is all that remains of the mortuary temple of Amenophis III.
What makes Egypt endearing is the warmth of its people. One day, we will definitely return to see the ancient Coptic Christian and Islamic parts of inner Cairo; the temple of Isis which was moved to the island of Philae to save it from the floodwaters of Lake Nasser; the temples of Ramesses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel; Alexandria and Hurgadha. And above all, to immerse in the chaotic delights of this enduring land steeped in history and culture.
Tricks and treats:
For everything, there is an expectation of `baksheesh' or tip, which can be annoying and at times intimidating.
Ensure you have complete travel insurance.
The ideal time to visit Egypt is during winters from December to February.
The national currency is the Egyptian Pound (EGP), but most stallholders accept the US dollar, GBP or Euro and occasionally even the Indian Rupee.
People drive on the right side of the road.
Egyptians are huge fans of Indian filmstars and they will often attract your attention by calling "Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor".
Water is expensive. One has to purchase water even at restaurants.
Take packets of `bindi' to gift as Egyptian women love it.