When on holiday, there aren’t many reasons why I would chose to be awake while the sun still slumbers. The slow laziness of a morning abroad is something I look forward to, choosing to only really awaken with my first cup of coffee. But on one particular morning, I found myself wide awake and almost entirely dressed before the unnatural shrill the telephone broke the silence of the early morning calm of the Nile, signalling my 3:15am wake up call. It was the morning we would catch a Luxor sunrise and set off into the Egyptian sky in a hot air balloon.
Without the sun, a cool breeze navigated it’s way through my thin cotton clothes, my arms crossed over my chest, my hands grasping a shoulder or an elbow, anything to brace myself against the unexpected chill. It occurred to me that this was the first time I had felt cold in Egypt. Like a guilty conscience, the Egyptian sun seems to stalk you. When you find refuge in the shade of ignorance, the sun guiles you, you are convinced of it’s gentle nature. But there is no escape, even in the coolness of surrender, the sun burns bright and fiercely, letting you know that even though she shall soon slumber, her reticence is temporary. Her relationship with you is unrelenting. While I did not miss the angry fire in the sky, the coolness of her absence left me feeling empty somehow, forming a palpable void of darkness.
There is a brief moment when the sky turns orange and pink and I watch the hot air balloon that will take us into the Luxor sky reluctantly inflate. Chinese tourists move about excitedly taking pictures, urgent pleas from the crew either ignored or not understood. I laugh as I remember our tour guide’s comments from the previous day. He leant towards me and whispered in the most confidential tone that he found the Chinese tourists to often be rude and pushy. The solemnity of his tone and his unsmiling face made me realise that the revelation must have been difficult for him, he bore the easy demeanour of a man who naturally liked others. I laughed in agreement, echoing Husband’s words that perhaps we’re just culturally different. I have no doubt that the crew men that day may have also felt the same at some point or another, about all tourists alike. Yet they remained happy, gentle and relatively good natured, never once getting angry or raising their voices. The captain of our balloon, dressed in black pants and a white shirt with gold wings adorning his shoulders, tells us to be quick getting into the balloon’s basket. I may only have four limbs but somehow, co-ordaining them and my entry into the basket required a skill that even a blind onlooker would have found wanting.
Our laden basket had a brief tussle with gravity before emerging the victor and we began our ascent guided by the wind on the West Bank. The heat from within a hot air balloon assaults many of your senses at the same time. You hear the fire, a brilliant burst of ignition before the warmth radiates to the top of your head and your shoulders. A blaze of colours, blue at the base, a searing yellow at it’s core and a gentler orange framing it, somehow containing it within the fragile nothingness of the balloon. The flame would be more spectacular if not dulled by the surroundings. Lush green farms were made small beneath the balloon, the Nile snaked through the earth leaving behind fertile soil, leaving life in it’s wake. The Nile was a generous mother, feeding the land, stretching her arms wide with abundance and love. She brought life to the desert and from it’s arid sand she grew bountiful fields. She was the creator. But the life she created was abruptly interrupted with that which the desert destroyed. The desert was a hungry, tenacious beast. It’s ferocity only serving to highlight the magnificence of the Nile and of the promise flowing through her water.
Other balloons started to dot the sky around us, fading into insignificance against the Nile. As we drifted towards the East, I watched the shadow of the balloon darken the rural houses beneath us. Children and farm workers all turning their heads to the sky, enthusiastically waving in greeting. Our captain tells us to prepare for a bumpy landing as we drift further away from the river, the soil hardening and cracking preparing us for the desert. It is an awkward landing before I mysteriously manage to extricate myself from the basket without drama and when my feet finally touch the ground, I long for the mystery of the Nile.