Sunday, July 29, 2007

Egypt, the next chapter: Welcome to Alaska!

We hear this joke at least 20 times a day. It's usually preceded by 'hello friend, where you come from?' and followed by 'very nice people. Just come have a look. Just look, no buy.' At times, you can feel like a walking wallet in Egypt, where even just stopping to look at a map is an entree for someone to offer you a guide/a horse-drawn carriage/a coke/a papyrus painting/your name in sand. It can be a bit exhausting, but overall we found Egyptians to be incredibly warm and helpful people. Many went out of their way to help us out (our favorite being Sherif, who saw us trying to hail a cab and hailed it for us, negotiated the price in Arabic, gave the cabbie directions, and asked us if we happened to know his girlfriend in Ohio....he wasn't sure how close it was to California. Unfortunately, we didn't.) You can't even blame the aggressive touts, as everyone's just trying to make a buck in a country where unemployment is outrageously high. Although at times, we wish we could give a little sales seminar on more appropriate sales tactics. In any case, at least everything is done with a wink and a smile.

When we last left you we were enjoying seaside bliss. We followed this up with yet another exciting foray into the world of trans-country bus travel. It was drama filled, as usual. We boarded the bus around midnight, and it was a mad rush for seats as veiled women, hauling huge shopping bags and kids, muscled their way to the back and promptly fell asleep. The bus was over-sold and Eric stood for the first 4 hours of the journey (until 4 a.m.), while Kathleen had one cheek on/one cheek off when a darling and toothless woman offered to share her seat. That being said, Eric made friends with the local Don Juan (whose suitcase was full of hair pomade and cologne) who shared his chips and snacks with us, let Eric sit for a bit, and shared some belly dancing porn (fully clothed) on his cell phone. Classic. A fight broke out in the front of the bus in Arabic at some point, which added to the excitement as the bus hurtled through the pitch-black hot evening air.

At least it didn't break down.

The next morning, we joined the police convoy at 3am to journey out to Abu Simbel, our first big ticket Pharaoh site. Ever since the 2005 tourist bombings in Sharm-al-Sheik, police convoys are required for travel in Southern Egypt. The result is an inconvenient obligation to travel by armed police convoy to areas---prompting a group tour mentality that we don't love. It's actually surprisingly rare to find individual travelers in Egypt. Or at least that's been our experience. Nearly everyone is part of some sort of package tour. In any case, it seems to me that putting all of the tourists in an endless line of tour buses all going down the same road at the same time seems like a good way to invite any would-be hooligans to get rid of us all in one fell swoop. Alas... That being said, Abu Simbel was entirely worth the hassle. A temple carved out of mountain on the west bank of the Nile River between 1274 and 1244 BC by Ramses II, it fulfilled all of our fantasies for jaw-dropping unreal Egyptian historical treasures. It's enormously grand with huge statues of the man (Ramses II) himself, hieroglyphics, and a stark, bold enormity that dominated the Nile River and designed in part to show strength to anyone sailing into the Pharaoh's lands. Even more incredible was learning how it had been painstakingly moved from its original location following the creation of the High Dam (and threatening flood waters that ensued). We loved walking through and imagining what it would have been like in the land of figs and honey over 3,200 years ago. Or to have been the explorer who stumbled upon one of the statue heads sticking out of the sand (the whole gigantic complex had been swallowed up by the earth), only to realize the colossus that lay below. In fact all of Egypt's many earthly treasures invite this kind of pondering: the deciphering of hieroglyphics via the Rosetta Stone, the shaft of light that illuminates hidden statues on only two days of the year, the thought of the Pharaoh’s riding to victory on horse-drawn chariots, gilded tombs filled with treasure for the's all the stuff of your wildest dreams. What isn't so dreamy, however, is the 115 degree heat that made us sweat from every pore and long for the evil sins of air-conditioning and copious amounts of ice-cream. And, of course, our bus broke down on the way back from Abu Simbel. Par for the course. But after hitching a ride on another bus (I guess the convoy isn’t all bad) we made it back in time to board a felucca to sail lazily down the Nile with six other travelers headed to Luxor. We won the lottery with our fellow sailors---a great, interesting, and fun mix of students, aid-workers, engineers, and globetrotters. We felt really lucky to sleep under the stars with such a charming and generous crew. Basically the felucca is an old-school simple sailboat with a flat platform where you spend all your time. You eat there, you sleep there, you read there, and you sit there to watch palm trees, donkeys, Nubian villages and Nile-side life drift by. And you try to ignore all the garbage and petrol and bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and Allah-knows-what-else floating alongside with you. Captain 'Cool', our fearless leader, had a penchant for saying ‘Hasta la Vista’ which really only got old by the third day.

We caught the sun rising sublimely over the Nile before disembarking at the ancient temple of Kom Ombo, where Sobek (the crocodile god) reigned. It’s fun to imagine the Nile teeming with crocs, and the land still home to roaming elephants and giraffes. We then hopped on the police convoy to Edfu, where blazing temperatures induced a bit of heat-induced insanity on our part. Eric and I crouched near a monument and laughed like maniacs, doing our part to increase good sentiments toward Americans. Ha!

From there we made our way to Luxor, a veritable treasure chest of indescribable monuments, tombs, museums, rows of Sphinxes, and mummies. Off the E-ticket temple circuit, we enjoyed wandering the souk, with its alluring shops selling everything from tea and spices to belly dancing costumes. We loved seeing the passing of daily life: the shoe repairman sitting outside with his sewing machine, the man ironing laundered pants on the sidewalk, the backgammon games being won and lost in a swirl of sheesha smoke.

The whole country is swarming with Tourist Police, many of who are a bit bored, we believe. One of our favorite sightseeing moments was when a Tourist Police officer showed us around Medinat Habu, took pictures of us switching hats, threw a rock at a sexed-up hieroglyphic to point it out to us, and then demanded a baksheesh (tip). All in a day’s work, I suppose. That being said, Egypt felt exceedingly safe everywhere we went.

The Valley of the Kings was impressive, for its location and isolation as well as the 62 tombs that have been excavated in the valley. This is the site of the tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut). The treasures themselves have been moved to other locations, but his remains still lie in the tomb. The tombs were generally huge structures built deep into the ground (sometimes 90 steps down) with decorated walls that tell the stories of ancient civilations.

One of our best Luxor memories was watching the dusty palette of sunset rise up to our rooftop bar view. Palms, palaces, crumbling rooftops, and feluccas plying the Nile River while a cacophonous medley of calls to prayer (from a multitude of speakers in a multitude of voices) reverberated across the city, rising above the din of honking cars, street hawkers, and the hoofs of horse-drawn buggies.

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