..: Seat of My Pants :..

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Proposal

I had forgotten the dry, gritty, smell of it. The colour was as I had remembered and hoped it still would be and so was the feel underfoot. But the air in Egypt was suddenly specific to my senses and I inhaled great lung-fulls of it as we stepped out of the Cairo airport that warm evening.

Carrie and I had missed our flight from Paris because of a stupid time-setting problem with my watch and were turned away at the gate 20 minutes prior to scheduled departure. We could then only imagine the confusion and disappointment our absence on the arriving flight in Cairo would entail with my sister. She was coming to the airport there to meet us specifically. We could only arrive the next evening instead and make our own way to the Pension Roma in mid-town Cairo not far from the Nile (but a helluva long ways from the Nile Hilton, so to speak).

We were well-encumbered by our baggage: a backpack each, a good sized camera bag each, I with a tripod and I think we had a bag specifically for film. Those were the days before the world had gone fully digital, but the transition was practically on the world’s doorstep. I had brought my old Graflex 4x5 camera, a press-view camera and had brought 40 sheets of a particular Polaroid black and white negative film – yes, film from Polaroid. It produced a paper print as Polaroids do, but also a B&W negative of exceptional range and beauty. The trick with this special film (called Type 55), is that it required a special ‘fixing’ bath after ‘pulling’ the ‘roid and then a soaking in another solution to prevent watermarks from appearing on the film as it dried. I had taken this kit to Guatemala five years earlier and had a lot of fun with it. Here in Egypt, I hoped to lug it to Karnak and Luxor when our journey took us there. Carrie brought her Hasselblad as well and shot some beautiful images with it. These cameras were in addition to our 35mm gear. All in all, we intended to take a picture or two home with us.

We did, indeed, meet with my sister and she showed us around her archeological site on the Giza Plateau and we met some very nice people (she is a combination dirt and desk Egyptologist – meaning she digs in the field and also produces papers as an academic). However, this story is about something else that happened on that trip, something that turned into a life-changing event for us. It happened in Karnak about a week later. We had made our way up there by overnight train without event really (‘up’ is such odd nomenclature, because Karnak is south of Cairo, but the area is called Upper Egypt). This stood in stark contrast to the same trip I’d made in 1992 when I’d cleverly saved some Falafels from dinner the night before to eat on the train in the morning. As a result, I spent most of that train journey in one of the more disgusting washrooms I have ever seen trying to have a BM while standing because everything was too filthy to touch and the train was rocking all over the place. I spent my first visit to Luxor vomiting all over the ground as hotel touts tried their damndest to get myself and two travelling companions to go to their hotel.

But we arrived in good shape in March of 2000 and set off to find the hotel that sounded best from our guidebook. There was something very large in my camera bag that Carrie did not know about and I wanted her to see it when we got to Luxor. But the time was not yet right just then.

We spent three or four days exploring the ruins at Luxor and Karnak and the Valley of the Kings and Deir Al Medinet across the Nile. We would each have our gear with us and would split up for an hour or so at a time, re-uniting here and there to share what we’d seen or drag the other to a choice location. As well as the sand-smell of Egypt, I had forgotten the quiet and flittery sound of birds wreathing the columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall in Karnak, and I wandered amongst them as so many have before me in utter awe and abandonment. The columns rose up and flared out like palms at the top, supporting huge lintels for several millennia now. We would arrive each day at the sites as early as we could – usually before 8 am. This allowed for fewer tourists, fewer touts selling crappy souvenirs, and a much greater feel for light. Once the sun had risen fully, the light became flat and banal and shadows deeper and blacker. We had colour slide film as well as B&W film and the first time we went to Karnak I lugged that damn Graflex and tripod. I became apoplectic when the site guards insisted my tripod was a video tripod and wanted to charge me the video cost of US$60/day. Despite my proving that I had no video equipment, they insisted that this was the tripod’s purpose. I felt like banging heads together and just marching on in. Bloody idiots! I kept thinking. I was stubborn enough that I bargained them down to half that cost, but still was severely put out and off my photograph game (so to speak) for the day. I did take some adequate pictures in the end with the 4x5 that day, but not what I had felt in me at the day’s outset. I have a lovely one of Carrie close up, sitting at the bottom of one of the great pillars in the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, chin on hand (her hand decorated with henna from a shop we stopped into the previous day – a beauty shop run by Arab Christians).

At one point during the day we met up toward the rear of the Karnak complex, near two pillars attributed to the reign of Tutankamun. One pillar flowed into a lotus at the top and the other became a papyrus frond, each a symbol of Upper or Lower Egypt; the median being the series of Nile cataracts that separate the two. We wended our way along a wall outside the Hypostyle Hall and turned right to see a freestanding box of a structure, near the wall. It was a single enclosed room with a normal doorway, but a ceiling inside perhaps twenty feet up. There wasn’t that much to see inside other than an earthen floor and some bas-relief carvings on the walls. While Carrie’s back was turned, inspecting the walls, I withdrew the small box I’d been carrying for the past week. This was the ‘large’ object I referred to earlier and while small, it carried great weight for me and so many hopes and dreams. I placed it on a short wall jutting into the room from the entrance to the structure. Within a few seconds, Carrie had turned around and noticed the small blue box on the wall and flung her eyes up to me in surprise. Just at that moment, a slew of Germans poured into the room and we were obliged to step back away from each other as they all piled in clutching tour books and shuffling attentively after the guide. Carrie and I regarded each other shyly and with surreptitious smiles and looks. I pawed the ground with my toe and felt my face grow redder by the second. The guide droned on and on about the significance of the room – in German – and I remember being impressed by his voice. How authentic he sounded! After an eternity, the Germans filed out and Carrie started to speak. I jumped in and asked her if she’d marry me. She immediately replied Yes, followed by How come you’re not on your knee? I dropped like a rock but she hoisted me up and we embraced. Stepping back out of the room, the sun was blinding. We winced in the light to get our bearings, feeling heady and so in love. The Germans, it turned out, were just outside and the guide was droning on further. I caught him as they were leaving to ask the name of the building. The Chapel of Hatshepsut he replied, somewhat annoyed, and hurried off after his charges. The Chapel of Hatshepsut. I knew then that I would remember that location for the rest of my life. Perhaps we’ll go back one day and I will propose again to Carrie, but on bended knee this time.


3 Comments:

  • How I love that story! I've heard it before of course, and love the pictures of the two of you. thanks for telling it on your blog. Your kids will come to love it too when they are older.

    By Anonymous Ma, at 10:01 AM  

  • Yeah, I love that story, too, and those are among my favourite pictures of the both of you. Thanks for putting a smile on my face. With love.

    By Blogger Jen, at 5:28 PM  

  • I remember that day. The incongruity of the blue velvet box on a rough-hewn ledge. The inability to put two and two together, the dawning of understanding and the desire to say yes. Hmmmm....

    By Blogger gardengirl63, at 7:59 PM  

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