Published: February 10th 2006February 10th 2006
January 20, 2006 (Alexandria, Egypt) Sean:
We fast forwarded a few thousand years into the future of Egyptian history and arrived in Alexandria today. This city was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC as the crowning glory of his empire and once rivaled Rome in its wealth and intellectual standing. At the height of its importance, it was home to the famous Pharos, a grand lighthouse built just offshore (and one of the Seven Wonders of the World), and its Library (which housed the most impressive collection of books and information in the world). Even though neither still exists, the city has its charms.
One of those charms that was plainly evident upon stepping off the train (because that mode of travel is so much more civilized) was the cleaner air. Granted, any city is bound to have better air quality than Cairo (my lungs protested audibly the entire time we were there), but Alexandria, situated right on the Mediterranean Sea, smells fresh and clean. On top of that, we managed to get a room in a hotel right on the main harbor with a balcony and a beautiful view overlooking the Med. This is the life.
Fort Qaitbey From Afar
The fort now straddles the small spit of land between the Med and the Eastern Harbor where the Lighthouse once stood.
The people are much more pleasant here as well. We went from being an oddity with wallets, to just an oddity which suits me fine. Here they will shout “Hello” in a friendly manner and leave it at that, while in Cairo, it was “Hello. Would you like to buy an overpriced cheap trinket from me?” Maybe I’m paraphrasing.
Our first stop after checking in was out to the site of the old Lighthouse. There’s no evidence or mention that one of the Wonders of the World ever stood here, but there’s a multitude of literature that discusses it, so we walked around the waterfront from our hotel to the narrow spit that separates the sea and Alexandria’s main harbor; a beautiful view and a perfect place for a defensive fort, which is what occupies the space now. The fort, which is in very good condition, was built about a hundred years after the lighthouse was completely destroyed by an earthquake in the early 1300’s. The Lighthouse stood for 17 generations, but that one earthquake proved to be the proverbial straw. You can catch some glimpses of its famous red granite in some of the stones used on
Passageways Through Time
This room was on the second floor of the fort - right above the main entrance. Through a slit in the bottom of that arched window (where the light is coming from) is where they poured vats of hot oil on their enemies.
the fort, but the rest of it was lost and only remains in historic accounts.
The fort itself is a very nicely restored structure that afforded some great views and pictures of the sea and the city. From this vantage you can see the other attraction that the city is known for. In those far distant ancient times, Alexandria was the premier place to study and perform research as its Library was the foremost storehouse of books, manuscripts and other printed matter anywhere in the world. The standing law at the time was that all ships that entered the harbor had to relinquish any documents they were carrying for copying and re-transcription. And since Alex (as the locals call her) was one of the world’s principal sea ports, there was no shortage of material arriving daily.
Of course, absolutely nothing remains of this massive structure and its homage to the written word. But since 2002, another library has opened up with the desire to fill the void. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has ambitious goals to become at least a shadow of its former self and provide Egypt with a window on the world. In addition to its ever growing
collection it also boasts an antiquities museum, an IMAX screen and one of the more interesting pieces of architecture in the whole country. The exterior is covered with the letters of alphabets from all over the world. Huge stone panels with examples from every known language - past and present - clad the outside. Shannon and I toured the inside and were fairly impressed with the size and ambitions of this fledgling endeavor. It’s a beautiful library that hopefully will fulfill its goals. Before we left, we spent an hour on the computers surfing the net, checking out different countries we’ll journey through. We couldn’t leave without doing some research at the most famous library in the world.
January 21, 2006 (Alexandria, Egypt) Sean:
Today we went out for further exploration of the city and its treasures. The first stop was supposed to be the Greco-Roman museum, but once we arrived we learned that it was closed for two days (unknown reasons). So we decided to walk instead to the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa, which are located on Alexandria’s western outskirts. As with many of our sightseeing trips, getting there turned out to be the adventure. Shannon:
First, let me explain a bit about how we get around. Sean and I use a series of guidebooks called Lonely Planet
which I’ve heard described by some as the backpackers “bible”. They print a guidebook for virtually every country in the world and are easily the standard when it comes to independent travel. The LP series is generally pretty good - and Sean and I have used them for years, so we know their limitations. But as you might imagine, they’re only as good as the particular author who writes it. And not everyone is good at giving directions, as I’ve found many, many times in my life. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the case for this guidebook’s co-authors. After establishing that the printed directions to the Catacombs were hopeless, we turned to the map of the city printed in the guidebook, hoping for clarification. All we found was a dot marking the location, with no street names at all listed, on a map with a scale of 1”= 1 mile. Hmmmm…not good, but we’ve had less to go on before.
We started walking. We thought perhaps that we could use the tram tracks (Alexandria has
This was a beautiful mosque very close to where we were staying.
an extensive tram network) as a guide, since those were marked on our map. But we soon realized that the maker of our particular map had not shown ALL of the tram lines, something we realized when we began to encounter many more tracks than were shown. We resolved to just keep walking, headed for a mysterious bend in a canal we saw on the map. After about 45 minutes or so, figuring that we might be nearing the vicinity and now needing a little more clarification, we asked a police officer standing in the street. He didn’t speak any English, but we garbled the pronunciation of our destination well enough for him to begin gesturing in a direction and rapidly giving us directions in Arabic. We understood enough to at least go in the right direction. About 15 minutes later, we asked again, this time to a small group of men standing in the middle of a deserted road near a warehouse. Again, more gestures and rapid fire Arabic. We went in the direction they were gesturing, at least confident that we were honing in on it. Several more streets, then more stops for directions - a woman sitting
Boats in the Harbor
These boats brought us our catch of the day.
on the street corner, then a man in a shop. After seemingly getting directions from at least half of the neighborhood, a teenager walking by took pity on us and basically led us by hand to the entrance. Though his English was only slightly better than our Arabic, we managed a stilted conversation on the way. Once he got us there, he simply smiled at us and walked away - never even asking for baksheesh. It’s so refreshing when that happens.
The Catacombs themselves, while being fairly small, were still very interesting. Discovered when a donkey disappeared into the ground (a somewhat common way that antiquities are discovered in Egypt, we are finding), they consist of three levels of underground tombs and chambers cut out of rock. The interesting part, for me at least, was seeing the triclinium, basically an underground room adjacent to the tombs. The principal function of this room was to provide a place for the families of the deceased to have a funeral feast. Low “benches” were carved from the rock where diners would recline to enjoy the food, which would have been served on a low table. I found it interesting that the feast
Catch of the Day
All of the fish that we ate was good, but the calamari was excellent!
for the dead would have been served basically in the tomb itself. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed, so we can’t give you a visual aid.
After wandering through the site, we bumped into a guy we had met in Cairo, who was now traveling with a Canadian girl. We caught up over tea and then decided to meet again for dinner. Being situated right on the Mediterranean, Alexandria is understandably known for their fish restaurants, one of which we chose for dinner. The concept of it was much the same as the one we went to in Cairo - you pick the fish that you want from the display of fish that they have, and then as it cooks they serve you copious amounts of appetizers. This time, however, the fish was absolutely amazing - we had barracuda, sea bass and calamari. And the appetizers were phenomenal. We couldn’t have left any happier - and our wallets were barely dented.
January 22, 2006 (On a train bound for Aswan, Egypt) Sean:
Today’s adventures took us outside of Alexandria on a trip to the desert along the Mediterranean. We took a bus out to El Alamein, the
site of Rommel’s famous defeat to the Allies during World War II. This victory was so important that Winston Churchill wrote it could almost be said, “Before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.” The town really isn’t much to speak of, but on the outskirts they have a relatively new and informative museum describing the conflicts that took place all along the rim of Northern Africa culminating with the final battles at El Alamein. Because it’s about two hours from Alexandria - with beautiful views of the desert and sea, by the way - the amount of tourists were whittled down to just Shannon and I. We leisurely meandered through the museum and the surrounding grounds with all of the old trucks, airplanes, and tanks that were fished from the desert. The museum is laid out with each major country involved - Germany, Italy, Egypt, and Britain - allowed their own room. And each of the rooms had translations in English and Arabic for everything so there was a lot to read. Fascinating bit o’ history.
Just down the street is the Allied cemetery which is always a moving reminder of the
The Ultimate Sacrifice
"May we be worthy of the things for which he gave his life."
costs of war. The tombstones themselves were very touching with each country seeming to have their own manner of remembrance. For example, the English markers were carved with the unit insignia of the fallen soldier/sailor, while all the New Zealand troops had a common carved emblem.
The return trip back to Alexandria was a bit more difficult than the trip out there. We had already booked a sleeper train for tonight, so we left the cemetery with plenty of time but very mindful of the clock. Since the town is not much of a tourist destination, there is no regular bus service back to Alexandria - standing along the highway and flagging down a minivan is de rigueur
to return. We didn’t have to wait long for one of the white vans that serve as buses to come along and made pretty good time on the way back. Unfortunately, though, the bus did not continue to Alexandria proper, but merely dropped us off on the outskirts of the city. The place where we were dropped off is the
place where taxis and other minivans congregate to take you the rest of the way, but unfortunately no one seemed to
be going downtown - and it seemed like they took one look at us and smelled money in the air. They wanted outrageous sums and fought over who could charge us more. We spent a bit of time trying to find a reasonable ride back into town, but with each passing moment we were running out of time to catch our train. Thus, we almost caved in and paid their extortionist prices. Luckily we trusted our instincts that said there had to be some cheaper way to do it and found some nice souls who pointed out where we could catch a city bus that could take us downtown. We made it to the train station in just enough time and settled into our sleeper car.
January 23, 2006 (Aswan, Egypt) Shannon:
Putting Alexandria behind us, we hopped on board the train last evening for the overnight journey to Aswan. Another positive thing that could be said for Egypt - public transportation is generally punctual. We were supposed to pull out of the station at 5:20 pm, and just as Sean’s watch hit that minute, we felt the tug of the engines as the train began to
Home in motion.
move. We were pleasantly surprised by the amount of space in each compartment, which was much larger than the Amtrak sleeping compartment we once took to go Whitefish, Montana. Inside our room were some fairly standard bench seats - large enough to comfortably have one of us sit while the other reclined - plus a wash-basin area with running water and towels, a small hanging area for clothes and a large storage area above the door for luggage. All told it was much more than I expected. Though it got dark soon after we left, Sean and I passed the time by reading books and talking. When we got tired enough, we rang for the attendant who swiftly unfastened the beds and made up the room for the evening. I slept very well that night, lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the train.
Waking up this morning, we found ourselves deep in the heart of the Nile, passing brilliant green fields and small towns. The amazing thing about the scenery in Egypt is that the whole country is basically one big desert with just a strip of green along the banks of the Nile. I know that sounds
obvious, but it really is something to see this vast desert - which does not have any form of vegetation growing on it at all - abruptly give way to lush fields and palm trees.
Aswan is a small town famous as the gateway to Abu Simbel (probably the most recognized Egyptian monument after the Pyramids of Giza). It is also the site of the Aswan Dam, which was built between 1898-1902 by the British to regulate the flow of the Nile and increase the area of cultivatable land. Unfortunately, the original dam was not sufficient and had to be raised twice (once between 1907-1912 and then a second time between 1929-1933). Finally, after the dam almost overflowed again in 1946, the decision was made to build a new dam rather than raise the existing one a third time. The result of this new dam (called the High Dam) was the creation of Lake Nasser, now the world’s largest artificial lake.
January 24, 2006 (Aswan, Egypt) Shannon:
We began our day at 2:30 am, getting up well before the crack of dawn to take a tour to Abu Simbel (a drive of about 3 hours each
The drive to Abu Simbel: 3 hours of desert...desert...and more desert.
way). The reason that we had to be up that early was to catch the morning convoy going south towards the site. In the 1990’s insurgents within Egypt tried to cripple the government by attacking the tourism industry. In response, the government stepped up its protection for tourists. Though there have been few attacks in the last several years, tourists are still required to travel with an organized tour in a police convoy to reach Abu Simbel. No problem. We arranged the tour through our hostel (the price seemed fine) and they were accustomed to people doing this so they served breakfast early enough to accommodate the tours.
We ate breakfast in silence (I wasn’t all that awake) and then the tour bus arrived to pick us up around 3:30 am. Sean and I, along with a few people from our hostel, were the last ones to be picked up for the tour so our bus went almost directly to the rendezvous point for the convoy. There we found bus after bus after bus all lined up. Some were big Greyhound-type buses, others were smaller tour buses like ours that could seat about 25. After going through a little
Ramses II ruled for 67 years. Because of this, he was an incredibly prolific temple builder. You can't swing a dead cat in Egypt without hitting one of his ubiquitous statues.
security checkpoint our bus driver just pulled right to the front of the pack, bypassing a whole line already queued up. Sean and I glanced at each other: “Hmmm…I guess we’ve got it like that.” At the head of the line he stopped and shut off the engine, obviously waiting for the remainder of the buses to arrive and the convoy to start, and then got out and started smoking his cigarettes like most of the other drivers. At some point, maybe 20 minutes later, I suddenly saw all of the bus drivers race to their vehicles - the convoy was obviously about to start. Expecting to see some sort of military vehicle pull to the front of the line, I looked behind us to see if one was coming. Not seeing one, I turned around just as our bus driver slammed our bus into gear and sped off - followed very closely by the other buses, some of which are now trying to pass us. Sitting up front, I had an excellent view of the speedometer, which was clocking better than 80 km/hr (when the posted speed was 40 km/hr) as we careened through the city streets. Wondering why
the buses were going so fast and when we were going to see the “lead” vehicle of the convoy, I kept looking for some organization in what had now become chaos on the road - each driver being hell bent on passing the others. At some point my sleepy mind finally realized there was no “convoy” - and certainly no military presence was going to accompany us on this trip. This was just going to be an all-out race by the bus drivers to see who could get us there first. After passing through the one measly inspection before the start, our security was now in the hands of these drivers whose only real aim appeared to be maintaining their position by blocking other buses and speeding around corners like we were on the speedway at Indianapolis and not some two-lane highway in the Sahara. Sure, we passed a few “checkpoints” along the way - maybe 3 or 4 in the entire 3 hour trip - but they amounted to little more than a place for the drivers to slow down to a reasonable speed while the guards glanced in our direction. Completely tense by the “action” unfolding before me,
I resolved never to sit so close to the front of the bus. Thankfully, we arrived safely…all that was missing was the checkered flag announcing the finish. Sean:
Mercifully, I couldn’t see the speedometer and slept fairly soundly as our driver careened south along the desert road. Abu Simbel is an amazing ruin made even more interesting because it was moved. Situated on a strategic location on the river, this huge monument was originally built by Ramses II for all to awe at the power of the Egyptians as they came down the Nile. However, over time the course of the river shifted and the temple was reclaimed by the desert sands. When it was rediscovered in 1813 by a Swiss explorer, all that was visible above the sand was one of the enormous heads. With the building of the High Dam, though, the temple was again threatened to be submerged - this time by the waters of Lake Nasser. Egypt appealed to the world for help - not only Abu Simbel but literally hundreds of other important sites were threatened to be lost forever. UNESCO stepped in: hundreds of sites were excavated and recorded, objects were recovered and
Moving Abu Simbel
There are two temples side-by-side at Abu Simbel - the larger one built by Ramses II and a smaller one built for his favorite wife. This diorama shows the relationship between their old locations (bottom left) and the new locations (top right). Note the water line.
most incredibly - 24 entire monuments were moved to higher ground. Abu Simbel, a huge monument hewn out of solid rock was thus systematically cut up into huge blocks and then reconstructed inside a specially built “mountain” 65m higher up. A visitor’s center at the site details the move, which was truly an engineering feat. Shannon:
From a distance, Abu Simbel is impressive. But as you get closer, you begin to appreciate the incredible scale of the temple and what an extraordinary achievement it was to have moved the entire site. Seeing the pictures in the visitor’s center of the move was pretty amazing - they basically carved it all up into giant blocks and built a steel framework to support it while the blocks were moved, then rebuilt the same framework on the site higher up and reassembled it all like a giant jigsaw puzzle. When you are inside the temple you have to look very closely to see the lines where the blocks were joined - it was all done very well. Also, one interesting thing that I learned was that the temple was originally aligned so that for two days each year - February 21 and
October 21 - the innermost chamber was lit by the first rays of the rising sun, which streamed in through the open door and reached way back through the hypostyle hall to the sanctuary. They took such pains in the reconstruction that this phenomenon still happens; only now it occurs one day later than before. Sean:
After driving back from Abu Simbel (another 3 hour race), we went to what was probably the most interesting site thus far, the Temple of Isis on Philae Island. This one, too, was moved from its original spot on a nearby island during the UNESCO operations. The new island is called Agilkia, but everyone still calls it Philae.
Before I say a little something about the island and its temple I’ve got a small example - while not categorizing all Egyptians - that defines what the majority of our interactions have been in the tourist spots: As it’s an island, you have to take a little boat to Philae. After we paid our admission we saw that this transportation was not included and we’d have to hire a boat driver separately to head out there. No big problem as we saw groups
Want a Boat Ride, Mister?
The infamous boats to Philae (Agilkia) island
of people being ferried away from the dock. As we approached the end of the dock, though, we were ushered away from a small group of people boarding one of the boats; instead we were directed into our own boat and the driver shoved off before answering our questions about the cost. He quoted an outrageous sum for the 5 minute journey and we told him to take us back, but he just kept asking “How much you want to pay?” We didn’t want to bargain with someone who, with each passing moment of the boat drifting away from the dock, increasingly had the upper hand in negotiations. Luckily, before we drifted out too far, we were able to scramble aboard an adjacent boat that was still moored to the dock and make it back to dry ground. Now I don’t mind paying a bit more than the locals - our economy is much stronger and we can probably afford it easier - but “take advantage of foreigners” seems to be written into the Egyptian constitution. (Shannon:
In this case particularly it felt like it was just a test to see how much money they could extract from us. We
saw boats filled with locals - who were probably paying something like 1 LE each for the ride - but when they see foreigners coming down the docks they try to herd you onto a boat by yourself and charge 100 LE for the ride. They make it seem as though you have no choice - they won’t let you join another boat or wait for one to fill up. And when there are only two of you it doesn’t seem like you have much bargaining power. It’s very frustrating.) To finally solve our problem of transportation to the island we walked back up the dock and asked a large group of Koreans who had just arrived if we could join them. They didn’t have a problem with that and negotiated a very cheap price for the group. This is what it’s like. Not always this egregious, but every single day it seems like you have to be on guard against being taken advantage of. Shannon:
Seeing the group of Koreans negotiate with the boat touts was pretty interesting. For one thing, very few touts speak Korean, so they have a distinct advantage: they can talk amongst themselves without
View from the High Dam.
the touts knowing what they are saying. Also, the Koreans, or at least this group in particular, are very good negotiators - they know the price they want to pay and won’t budge far from it. Of course, it helped that they were a large group and therefore had some bargaining power, but it was amusing to us to see the Egyptian touts get a bit flustered and be at the disadvantage for once. Sean:
Anyway, back to the island. Built to honor the Egyptian god Isis, the island and its temple complex were one of the last places in Egypt where you could still practice the ancient religions once Christianity took hold. The paganism of the old ways was allowed to continue until the 5th Century AD and the last hieroglyphic inscription was carved here in 394 AD. Besides the history, the buildings are in pretty good shape (possibly owing to the island location) and it’s well worth the little trip to get there.
After that we sped off to see the High Dam (not much to see…yep, it’s a big earthen dam) and then to a granite quarry to see what they call the Unfinished Obelisk.
Most of the granite used in the temples and monuments around Egypt was quarried here in Aswan. The ancient stone carvers were in the process of mining what would have been the largest obelisk in the world when they discovered a crack in the stone, rendering it useless; due to this they abandoned it where it lay. To be honest, it was a bit of a lame attraction and we definitely could’ve lived long and happy lives without ever seeing it, but now that we’ve been there I must bore you as well with the knowledge of its existence.
January 25, 2006 (Aswan, Egypt) Sean:
Today’s exciting adventure was spent bypassing the touts all trying to convince us to ride their boat, travel in their carriage or buy their souvenirs. We dodged and weaved, and mostly kept to ourselves sitting in the cafes drinking tea. Later in the day we managed something productive and went to the Nubian Museum, which seeks to highlight the culture and history of Nubia (roughly described as the area south of Aswan extending into Sudan). It was a very well done museum with a lot of beautiful artifacts and in-depth descriptions (much
more informative than the Egyptian Museum). Definitely well worth the visit.
January 27, 2006 (Luxor, Egypt) Sean:
Yesterday we jumped on the morning train leaving Aswan and headed north to the last stop in our Pharaonic cities tour - the city of Luxor. Home of some of the best known and most important sites, Luxor will be our final stopover along the Nile before heading east towards the Sinai. Shannon:
The sites in Luxor are basically divided into two areas - those that were located in the ancient capitol of Thebes on the east bank of the Nile and those sites across the river on the west bank where pharaohs built temples and tombs for themselves for hundreds of years. After spending yesterday settling into our hotel and then getting our feet warmed up walking around town, today we decided to head for one of the most famous sites of Luxor - the temple complex at Karnak, just north of where we are staying on the east bank. Unfortunately for us, we waited until mid-morning to visit the site, arriving at just about the same time that three or four dozen tour buses began disgorging their
tourists. Not exactly great timing on our part…
Karnak is very similar to many of the other temples that we’ve seen in Egypt so far - the difference is that everything there was just done on a much grander scale. Our guidebook says that the site measures about 1.5 km x 800m, or large enough to fit about 10 cathedrals within its footprint. It was added to, dismantled, renovated and enlarged continually for a period of nearly 1,500 years, so just about every pharaoh has left their mark in some way or another. The highlight of the complex is the massive Hypostyle Hall - a massive room with a forest of 134 towering stone pillars. The size of the room is unbelievable - it is said that both St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London could be contained within its walls. As large as it is, despite the hundreds of tourists visiting at the same time we were there, Sean and I were even able to sneak off to a far away corner to take some pictures without another soul interrupting the shot. If only you saw how many people were there today, that fact
How these temples really got built.
alone would be impressive.
We basically spent the day wandering around Karnak, then walked back to Luxor for a late afternoon lunch. We ate in a café along the river and had a pleasant time talking and doing our share of people-watching. One of the interesting things about Egyptian culture that we haven’t really talked about thus far is how the Egyptian men relate to each other. Though public displays of affection are frowned up between couples, men particularly seem very affectionate with each other on the street. We often see groups of guys together, especially younger men (20-35 years old) with their arms linked or even reclining against each other in affectionate poses. You see women walking together, too, with their arms linked, but never with such obvious affection. It’s interesting to see.
January 28, 2006 (Luxor, Egypt) Sean:
Today we went across the river and visited a lesser known site called Medinat Habu. While smaller than Karnak, I felt that its reliefs and architecture were a bit better restored and therefore more interesting. Besides, after the crush of humanity that we were with at Karnak yesterday, it was nice to be at a site
that doesn’t see many tourists on an average day. Shannon:
Forgive us for not describing our visit to Medinat Habu in great detail - it was a very nice temple complex and made for a very pleasant day, but we’re as tired about writing about these different temples as you may be reading about them.
To be honest, Luxor itself is tiring. The sites are wonderful, but as much as we try to look on the bright side, there is no denying that this - like many of the heavily touristed areas of Egypt - can wear on you after a while. It’s the hassle factor. Whenever we go to see an attraction or we’re walking down the street or even just sitting on a bench somewhere talking by ourselves - we can be sure that our peace and quiet will soon be interrupted. At some point, usually in the very
near future, we are going to have to stave off someone’s advances to help us part with our money. And the hassle has a lot to do with the fact that a simple “no thank you” is never enough. Said two or three times, it’s still not
Beating Down the Libyans
Almost every temple we went to had some version of the Pharaoh "smiting" his enemies.
enough to get them to leave you alone (Sean:
See the conversation with the camel jockey in our previous Cairo post). And sometimes you feel rude, but walking away from them is the only way to get them to leave you alone. Sean:
This manifests itself (sometimes) into bad blood between Egyptians and foreigners. They get angry because we are seen as blowing them off and we’re annoyed that they continue to hassle us when we decline their offers. Westerners are pursued with an aggressive zeal that connotes that the salesmen are desperate, bordering on starvation. They get angry when I reply in the negative to their proposal and then continue walking. Maybe that’s an insult, I don’t know, but if we stopped and had a meaningful dialogue to explain to every huckster on the street - from the carriage driver to the trinket salesman - why we don’t desire to take them up on the offer of their service or good, we would never arrive at our destination. Walking through the market is even more difficult. They stop you and say “Look, no hassle” meaning, “just come over to my stall and browse without pressure” (even though their
"I make good price"
Those are maps showing the different historical sites along the Nile. As you can see the competition is fierce and no seems to be buying.
entire stock is visible and coincidentally appears identical to what everyone else is selling). We’ve taken a few up on this (mostly out of kindness) and the “no hassle” promise was then obviously forgotten as they shoved items in our hands imploring us to buy. When you refuse this initial - seemingly innocent - offer, they act offended. How could you coldheartedly turn someone down who just wants to chat and be your friend? (Shannon:
As long-term travelers, we’re really not interested in picking up nick-knacks anyway, so fending off all these salesmen is a trial. It’s not that we’re trying to get them down to the lowest price possible - we simply don’t want to buy the item. The salesmen can’t seem to understand this - they seem to think that if we only knew how cheap everything is, we would buy it. So when they come up to us - unsolicited - they act offended when they offer it to us at a “great price” and we still don’t buy it.)
Unfortunately, this has started to sour me on Egypt. I don’t want that to happen, but being here is very trying. We are very wary of
anyone who approaches us and are always looking for “the angle”. A couple of times we’ve been pleasantly surprised, but unfortunately they are the exception and not the rule. Admittedly, we are spending time in the tourist spots (like in Peru) and should know better than to complain about this, but… Shannon:
Sean did come up with a rather cute way of responding to kids, though. Whenever we’re walking - especially in situations like today where we’re walking down a somewhat rural road - we become something like a pied piper for children. One may start to follow us, then before you know it we’ve got a small little crowd trailing behind. I think it is because Sean and I walk so much, where many other tourists get shuffled along in their air-conditioned minibus. So we are a bit of an oddity - “why are those white people walking?” they must be asking themselves. In the typical situation, we exchange “hello’s” and “what is your name” type greetings. And then they ask for baksheesh. Sean pretends he doesn’t understand - “do they want to give him
baksheesh? Is that what they’re saying? They’re going to give him money? Ok
- I will take your money.” Children seem to think this is funny - that the white guy wants money from them - and they usually giggle and don’t know what to say. At that point they usually end up trailing off, but at least they’re smiling. Sean:
Let’s not linger anymore on this subject. We haven’t traveled half way around the world to concentrate on the negatives so I’ll end this part talking about one of the best restaurants we’ve eaten at in a while. Along the west bank of the Nile just south (up river) of the ferry terminal is a place called Toutankamen’s Restaurant. This was recommended to us by a couple of Mexican gentlemen (really nice guys…I also got to speak Spanish in Egypt) we met in Aswan and we figured, even though the guide book gave it a “ho hum” review, we would give it a shot. Not only was the meal inexpensive (by our standards) but copious and amazingly delicious. Even in comparison to some of the other wonderful meals we’ve had in Egypt, this far surpassed anything we’ve eaten in recent memory. Another traveler we’ve met (a tour guide with extensive time
in the Middle East) confirmed he also thought it was the best restaurant in Egypt. If you ever go to Luxor, you won’t be disappointed by eating here.
January 29, 2006 (Luxor, Egypt) Sean:
Today’s trip across the river was coupled with renting some bicycles for our own transportation. Of course, the gamut of cabbies you have to pass through getting off the ferry is fairly thick and they tell you that all the sites are too far to bike to. Some are, but it’s all relatively flat and it turned out to be a very fun day. Shannon:
Just off the ferry dock we negotiated with some guys to rent the bicycles for the day. The amazing thing is that even after we had the bikes in our possession the taxi touts still wouldn’t let up. They kept pulling up beside us as we were cycling and asking us if we needed a taxi. The answer to that seemed obvious enough to me - “No thanks, I have my own transportation.” - but that did not seem to deter them.
Worn down a little by the whole atmosphere of Luxor, we decided to skip
How About a Nice Steaming Cuppa Joe?
This was a popular theme at every temple we visited.
This is the picture that raised the vehement ire of the guard at the Valley of the Queens.
one of the main attractions of the area - the Valley of the Kings (where most of the New Kingdom pharaohs were buried) - and instead go to the Valley of the Queens. We had heard that the tombs were very similar and the site (since everyone chooses to go to the Valley of the Kings instead) would be much less crowded. This turned out to be very true as we often had the tombs completely to ourselves. Sean:
Even though many of them were robbed in antiquity, the ones we went into had the most amazing reliefs. Closed up in tombs without being damaged by the elements, they were not only in perfect shape but because they hadn’t been faded by the sun, the colors are still vibrant. The only thing that marred our visit was a miscommunication with the guards. The signs outside the tombs clearly state “No flash photography”. I took this to mean that photography without
flash was ok. So in one of the tombs I took a picture. The guard immediately confronted me and raised hell that I’d taken the picture. I explained how I had read the sign but thought that only the
flash part was forbidden. He continued to yell at me, though, and then demanded baksheesh for my transgression. So I basically blew him off - we made a quick exit - and hence I am responsible for immeasurably damaging US-Egyptian relations. At least you’d think so by his reaction. (Well, I actually told him I was from Mexico, so maybe the U.S. has nothing to worry about. Me perdonan por favor, amigos Mexicanos…) When we asked a guard in another tomb if it was ok to take pictures, he said no - but told us if we wanted to he would be willing to look the other way. We told him no, that was ok, but the unmistakable impression we received was that as long as you pay for the privilege, they don’t care. As Americans, we’re just not used to things being done this way - it’s either allowed or it’s not - and the policy doesn’t waiver just because we slip some guy a few bucks. Shannon:
The reliefs inside the tombs were very beautiful, though, and it was interesting to see all of the bright colors. That’s one of the things you don’t really think of
In full pharaoh regalia, including the typical false beard.
when you see these ancient Egyptian sites - at the time of their construction they were amazingly colorful. Time has faded and worn away the paint, though, so you mostly see them in their natural stone color. It was interesting to see them as they were meant to be seen.
After Valley of the Queens, we moved on to a site a few kilometers away called Deir al-Bahri, famous for the Temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was the daughter of the Pharaoh Tuthmosis I. Since her half-brother was too young to rule, Hatshepsut was made regent. She ruled as pharaoh, though, for 20 years and is probably the most famous woman to hold that position. The temple complex she built has a very dramatic setting - long entrance ramps lead up to a temple cut into the cliffs behind. The site itself is in very good shape, and along with a few hundred of our closest friends, we explored the site thoroughly.
One pet peeve that I’d like to mention, which has been going on since we arrived in Egypt but now is really starting to annoy me, is the way Egyptian men stare at and/or treat foreign women.
The Sinai Desert
It's hard to believe all the fuss over this barren landscape.
After returning from the west bank this afternoon Sean and I walked through the street market because it has been a bit chilly at night and I wanted to buy a scarf (a very popular item for sale, by the way). I saw one particular scarf that I wanted and engaged the seller (a young man in his 20’s) in some idle conversation to find out how much he would sell the scarf for. At first, the conversation went very well. But then he began taking liberties - touching my arm, trying to position the scarf on my body, etc. It wasn’t so much the fact that what he was doing was so intrusive - it was the fact that he was touching me at all. An Egyptian man would never dream of touching an Egyptian woman in that way - it’s just not socially acceptable. But many of them feel free to treat foreign women under a whole different set of rules. Some Egyptian men also have a very annoying habit of staring at foreign women; again, not something they would do to an Egyptian woman. Or, perhaps my favorite, they will whisper things in your ear as you
The view from the pedestrian quay overlooking the Red Sea and the many seaside eateries.
pass them on the street. They know they shouldn’t be doing it and will finally look away guiltily if Sean catches them doing it. But it’s very annoying, and over the time that we have been here, has developed into something of a pet peeve of mine.
January 31, 2006 (On a boat headed for Dahab, Egypt) Sean:
We’re now enroute to the Sinai Peninsula, leaving the ancient pharaohs behind and heading for a few days on the Red Sea before entering Jordan. Being in Egypt has been great - all of that history was absolutely amazing and, barring the persistent hustlers, I wholeheartedly encourage anyone who can to see these things. But after a while, with each temple and tomb, I was getting inured to history. Call it “Temple Fatigue”. Couple that with the everyday hassle of life as an independent traveler and it’s time for a bit of R&R. Shannon:
I’m not expecting that we will get much sympathy for the following sentiment, but it’s true: traveling is work. Its work that we enjoy, granted, but it is work. Worn down a little and needing a break, Sean and I are looking forward to
Hummus, mint yogurt, baba ganoush, tahina and a mixed salad. Delicious, filling and cheap. The three qualities I look for most in food.
a few days of not doing anything remotely touristy - hopefully we can find a room with a view and just chill out.
February 3, 2006 (Dahab, Egypt) Shannon:
Dahab is a small little resort town on the eastern coast of the Sinai. Just south of here (about an hour away) is the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, where we landed after taking a high speed ferry from Hurghada. Sharm is a bit of a concrete resort monstrosity - it’s the Sinai’s equivalent of Cancun. Rather than stay there, we headed on to Dahab, a once-sleepy little village by the sea that is fast growing into a tourist mecca. It’s described in our guidebook as once having been a hippie hangout, but you have to peer closely to see the bohemian trappings anymore. The tourist shops have definitely opened up, the beachside “camps” have been replaced with hotels and now nice restaurants crowd the waterfront. But in comparison to everything else we’ve seen lately, Dahab is very relaxed - exactly what we were looking for. Sean:
As Shannon mentioned, so far Dahab hasn’t disappointed. While not hot, it’s still quite warm and our hotel has
Banana Thick Shake
They weren't kidding when they said it would be thick...For $1.75, you couldn't go wrong.
a deck with a beautiful view of the Red Sea. The pedestrian quay has a ton of restaurants with great food and even though each one has its own tout to pass by, they are very friendly and not too pushy. Shannon:
The main draw of this whole area is the diving opportunities in the Red Sea, which are supposedly fantastic. We are benefiting greatly from the fact that it is low season right now, though. The weather is mostly sunny and warm, though it does tend to get chilly at times and may not be the warmest weather for snorkeling or diving. Hardly any tourists seem to be in town so business appears to be very slow in the restaurants - as a consequence there is quite a lot of competition for our business. Most of the restaurants are offering discounts, free drinks and desserts in order to woo us into their establishments. And the food is very good - excellent presentation, high quality, and gigantic portions. The food seems a little expensive in comparison to other parts of Egypt, but we have to admit that by American standards it is still a good value: at our favorite
place we can get drinks, appetizers, a main course and dessert for under $20 for the both of us. And the food is really, really good.
As Sean mentioned, the touts here are much easier to deal with; because our hotel is right in the heart of the tourist strip along the beach, whenever we leave our hotel we can’t help but run the gauntlet. It’s actually not a bad experience, though. Quite a few of them we know by name and the rest we’ve at least exchanged pleasantries with. They’ve restored my faith that not all touts are that bad.
After spending 4 days here relaxing, it’s time for us to take off again. From here we’re headed to Jordan, probably by ferry from Nuweiba (Egypt) to Jordan’s port city of Aqaba - and then on to the “Rose Red City” of Petra.