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Published: November 21st 2015
Morning On The Nile
View from our hotel. See the green balloon over the Valley of Kings? No matter where we travel there are always tourists willing to fork over hundreds of dollars for a little hot air.
We flew into Luxor at night. The city was a vast plain of little twinkling blue and yellow lights. The Nile cut through the middle like an inky black canyon. I asked a friendly Egyptian on the plane how much I should expect to pay for a taxi to the Sheraton hotel where we were booked for 4 nights. His name was Mohamed. He told me to follow him to the baggage area where we collected our two suitcases. Outside the nearly empty terminal we found a few men waiting on arriving relatives but not a single taxi. Mohamed led us to a beat to hell and back Corolla and talked with the driver. I asked Mohamed how much the fare was and he told me not to worry about it as the driver was his friend and was happy to take us into town. I hate it when people tell me not to worry about things. A gnarly looking old man was quietly crumpled in the front passenger seat. He looked to be about eighty-plus years old. He was sixty five as we later learned. Cautiously, we got in the back and headed to Luxor City about 8 klicks from
KJ and Amin
Our first Felucca ride. Sunset on the Nile. 2 hours of joy; $15
the airport. We talked with the driver about Luxor and its people. About the politics and the dwindling number of tourists headed to Egypt. He was surprised to learn that we were American as he hadn't seen a Yank in years. We get that a lot in Egypt. He dropped us off at the Sheraton as promised. A handshake and a hug and he was gone.
The Sheraton Nile is one of the nicest hotels that Karen and I have ever stayed in. Friendly staff, great room and a breathtaking view. We got the comfortable bed for $40 a night. Right on the Nile. Milky morning mists rise off the narrow green Papyrus islets that snake along the river. Date palms and the khaki-colored Valley of the Kings fill in the background. Black Ibis skim the waters' surface single-file. Sailboats called 'Fellucas' whisper by. The lines of their elegant white sails look like a bride lifting the train of her wedding gown. We're living in a romantic film. It is so quiet in the morning. There is no commercial traffic on the river as goods are transported by road and rail. So I'm taking it all in. The morning
The High Aswan Dam
Soviet engineering and Egyptian labor combined to produce electricity and the largest outbreak of Schistosoma mansoni (parasitic infection) in Egypt's history.
light, the Nile, the stillness, the whispering Fellucas when suddenly a donkey starts braying madly nearby. It had the comic punch of Chuckles the birthday clown stumbling into a church service.
The Egyptian people could not be kinder. The hotel staff bends over backwards to make certain that we are content. The guy that takes care of our room is named Hakeem. He has a wife and three kids. He works 40-hour weeks and makes less than $100 a month. We tipped him $6 when we arrived. We wanted for nothing. While in Egypt always tip the people who take care of you when you first meet them. It is custom here and it ensures that you will be well looked after. $2 is more than sufficient to elevate you in their eyes. These people are living day to day. Always remember that. If there's one thing KJ and I have learned out here in the third world it is to always look up to the poor.
The first time I studied Egypt was in my 5th grade geography class with Mrs. Panko. There were probably a grand total of two pages dedicated to the subject in my
Abto, Amin and Mike
Abto is the man to see in Luxor. He knows everything. Where to find it, how much it costs and how to get where you want to go.
text book. There was a picture of a pyramid with a guy on a camel sitting in front of it and another of a mummy which fascinated me to no end. I had seen the movie 'The Ten Commandments' so I knew that it was good to be Pharaoh and that you needed a lot of slaves to build stuff. I had watched a few National Geo programs where British academics explained the basics of Egyptian religious beliefs in excited little Cambridge-honed voices.
When I knew we were coming to Egypt I Google-crammed. I've spent 5 days in Luxor climbing in and out of tombs and temples and tour buses with Karen and this is what I have learned:
The first Pharaohs lived in the original Egyptian capital of Memphis which is south of present day Cairo. The Pharaohs embellished the burial mound idea until the pyramid was born. When the Pharaohs died their mummified bodies would be placed within the pyramid along with tons of food and live servants to care for the dead rulers in the afterlife. This time period is called the 'Old Kingdom'. The problem was that it took a long time to build
a pyramid and those servants weren't real keen on being entombed with a mummy surrounded by rotting food and no nightlite.
The Pharaohs moved their capital further south on the Nile to a place we now call Luxor and an imaginative Pharaoh gazes at the mountains west of town where one of the peaks is shaped like a pyramid and Pharaoh says; 'Why the hell don't we just stick our mummies in there?' and one of the high priests tells Pharaoh that he has been giving the entombing of live servants some thought and the priest figured that if they just painted pictures of servants on the walls of the tombs then that would be as good as the real thing. And while they were at it they'd paint pictures of food too and farmers growing food so that there would be a perpetual source of vittles for the dead Pharaoh's future. The nervous servants thought this to be one damned fine idea and they immediately went to the Luxor School of Art and got jobs filling the tombs' interiors with awe inspiring images. This is what is known as 'The Middle Kingdom'. This is the time of Tut
KJ and Diana at Hatshepsut Temple
Diana is a 60-something fearless Aussie woman who travels the world solo. Good on you Diana!
and Rameses and a slew of others you wouldn't remember 5-seconds after you heard their names.
Luxor is loaded to the gills with temples and tombs. The entire city is an active archaeological dig. There are too many places to cover in a single blog but I'll try to describe what it's like to see the bigger venues.
Valley of the Kings. You ride along the east side of the Nile 4 Km south to get to the Nile bridge so you can cross over and drive 4 Km back north. Egyptian roads have speed bumps every 200 yards at which point your driver will slow to a crawl then speed up and then slow down again. Men in donkey-drawn carts loaded with sugarcane hug the roadside. Egyptian drivers do not use turn signals, headlights nor do they stay in their lanes. I don't think they know what a lane is. So now you're in the Valley of the Kings and it looks like the place they shot that movie 'Pitch Black'. Mountainous desert terrain cooking off under sunlight so intense it flattens out topographical features and reduces the pupils of your eyes to pinpricks. You enter the
These are the small ones.
unimpressive main visitors' building only after passing through a gauntlet of vendors selling knock-off alabaster vases, Egyptian robes, scarves, papyrus pictures, postcards and fake antiquities. It's the same scene at every temple you visit. Just keep walking with your eyes focused straight ahead. You have to board a little train to get into the valley. The same sort of vehicle you ride in at Disney-world to get back to your car. "Your next stop is Minnie Mouse aisle 12".
The first thing I notice is a bunch of sweat-drenched workers excavating a site on a nearby hillside. Hacking at the crumbly rock face with hoes. Hand carrying 40-pound slabs of hot limestone to a dump truck parked down on the road. There had to be sixty guys doing this and I'm thinking to myself that if they just added a dozen Nazi overseers to the scene they could have the makings of a great Indiana Jones; Raiders of the Lost Ark show here. Swastika palm tree emblems, Ark of the Covenant, snakes, melting faces. Talk about a tourist draw! Somebody needs to look into this.
There are a lot of tombs in the valley. Some belong to Pharaohs
and the rest are occupied by the high priests who ran the various temples that dot the area. Your one hundred Egyptian Pounds ($12.50 US) buys you access to three tombs. If you want to see Tut's it'll run you an extra 50 Pounds. Your guide, if you have one, will lead you to the tomb entry and let you loose. A sleepy looking guy will take your ticket, punch a hole in it and away you go. Some tomb passages lead upward but most of them consist of steeply descending narrow hallways. The Egyptians have done an admirable job of surfacing the passages with varnished wooden decks and handrails. These are ramps, not stairs, so make certain you have some tread left on your sneakers otherwise you're gonna be slip sliding away. If you're in a wheelchair bring the Incredible Hulk along to push you around. Take a flashlight. The lighting inside the passages sucks.
Our favorite was the tomb of Horemheb also known as KV-57. KV stands for Kings' Valley. The longer the entombed lived the larger and more ornate the passages and rooms. I have no idea who Horemheb was but he must have been one
KJ In Karnak
Use the wide angle lens
old dude when they finally packaged him up. We walked quite a ways before we hit his sarcophagus. The artisans would continue work on the digging and decorating until their patron's death. After that they only had 70 days to tidy things up before the place was sealed. That's how long it took to pickle the body. As a result you can see the methodical process the painters employed to create their mini-masterpieces. After the tunnel was dug they squared it off and plastered it. You can still see workers' thumbprints in the material. Another guy would then grid the walls and ceilings with lines drawn in charcoal. The next artist would pencil-in the figures and hieroglyphics. The carvers came in afterwards to scrape out the bas-reliefs and then the painters did their magic. The colors and detail are amazing. As fresh and vibrant as they were 3,500-years ago when they were laid down. I always appreciated photos of this stuff but when I saw the real deal I couldn't help but be blown away by the jewel-like quality of the final product. I was surprised to see that there were no barriers to keep people away from the walls.
One of my first unofficial 'guides'. Nice guy. Wife, three kids and he let me wear his hat.
If this stuff was in the States there'd be a Plexiglas shield and armed guards covering everything.
Taking photographs in the tombs is a major no-no. If you're caught doing it you'll get whacked for nearly $200 US per photo. Still, you'll see nimrods from around the world happily snapping selfies with Rameses II. There are unofficial 'guides' loitering around that will perch on your shoulder like little turbaned devils, encouraging you to slip under a barrier to get a better look at things and take a picture. When you look like you're ready to boogie your 'guide' will expect a tip and if it's less than he had hoped for he'll hit you up for more. If you haven't taken any pictures tell him to suck it up and scoot on out of there. If you have taken illegal pictures delete them ASAP because your guide's buddies will be waiting for you at the exit with a uniformed official to look at your pictures. Never hand your camera to a guide to take a picture of you, especially when he suggests it. Once he has the camera you're screwed unless you pony up. It's a racket. Your official
tour guide can only accompany you so far whenever you visit a site. This is to allow the unofficial guides inside to make a buck. It's Egypt. Be advised. If you need a picture of the interior that badly buy a postcard. There are vendors selling them twenty for a dollar.
Final impressions; It's definitely on the must visit list. Wear good walking shoes. Bring a flashlight. Bring water. Bring small bills in either Egyptian or American currency. You can tip with one dollar bills. Finding small Egyptian bills is well nigh impossible unless you get friendly with a hotel desk clerk. Don't take photos in the tombs and plan on a half day or less for the visit. After trekking in and out of a couple of these things you'll need a major, drool-inducing power nap. But that's just me.
We met our driver Omar after the hotel's shuttle dropped us off at the Luxor museum on our first full day in town. We were the only people on the bus. Omar approached us about acting as our tour guide while we were in Luxor. He quoted us a price of $19 US (150 Egyptian Pounds) per
Putting the pieces together
day to drive us wherever we wanted to go. I gave him a hard look. He had non-evasive eyes, a sincere face and he was desperate to make some money in a tourist Mecca that now finds itself in very hard times. We gave him a $6 deposit and told him to pick us up at our hotel at 8 the next morning. When you come to Luxor you will encounter an endless parade of polite locals asking for employment in one form or another. People selling tours or car services or small packages of Kleenex. Times are very hard in Egypt right now. Karen and I try to spread it around as much as we possibly can. Our philosophy is that while we can't change anybody's life we can usually make their day a little better.
The Luxor Museum turned out to be one of the best things we saw in Luxor. Beautifully displayed artifacts from the temple at Karnak as well as tomb goods from the Valley of the Kings. A load of stuff from Tut's tomb. Things that I remembered seeing at the Smithsonian during the over-hyped 1980's Tut tour when you had to pay $25
KJ at Luxor Temple
After awhile all of the temples seem the same
and wait in serpentine lines to see a tenth of the artifacts that the Luxor museum holds. Beautiful sculptures done in black granite and as smooth as a baby's bottom. Tut's chariot complete with harnesses. Hunting bows and arrows inlaid with gold and ebony. Room after room filled with stuff like this. Really remarkable. The ticket costs 100 Egyptian Pounds or $12.50 US and it's worth every cent. There weren't more than a dozen people visiting while we were there. The museum's gift shop and cafe looked as if they hadn't been in operation for quite awhile. It's been this way in Luxor for 5 years now. The commercial spaces in all of the major hotels that once housed luxury goods shops are now shuttered and filmed over with fine white dust. The locals are desperately hopeful that things will turn around soon. Meanwhile a plane filled with tourists is blown out of the Sinai sky and Putin shuts down air traffic from Russia to Egypt. Hope for Egypt is hard to come by.
Omar picked us as promised. We cruised around town and talked about Egypt's woes. We sat and talked in a cafe hidden away in the
Relief work on interior sandstone wall
Valley of the Kings and populated by drivers waiting on their fares to finish touring the tombs. We drank jitter-inducing tea and listened to drivers gossiping in between the long puffs they drew from large hookahs. Yeah, they really do smoke out of these things. Fruit-flavored tobaccos smoldering atop charcoal embers. The constant bubbling sound reminded me of an American college dorm.
We visited the Temple of Karnak. A bewildering complex of sandstone and limestone structures crawling with tourists. Karnak was built over the lifetimes of fifty Pharaohs. At one time the Nile flowed right up to the main entry. Time and silt have moved the riverbank a quarter mile to the west. The temple is defined by rows of closely packed columns some of which are over forty-feet tall. The huge exterior wall was never completed and the remains of earthen ramps used by workers to haul enormous blocks of stone to the top of the wall are still visible. At one time Karnak was connected to the Temple of Luxor 3 kilometers away by a boulevard lined with ram head sphinxes. The boulevard is currently being excavated. The plan is to reconstruct the entire complex. Every contemporary
building in Luxor is sitting on an archaeological site. I came away from Karnak thinking of little else other than those soaring columns. Most of the statuary that had been there was stripped out by the French, Germans and Brits back in the 19th century. Some workers in the 1990's stumbled across a hidden stash of more than twenty large, well preserved sculptures buried under a Karnak courtyard by some prescient Egyptian priest. Those statues have a room to themselves in the Luxor Museum. Would I go back to Karnak? Yeah. I guess so. Maybe. I spent half my time in Karnak avoiding 'guides' and dodging Germans wielding selfie-sticks.
Temple of Hatshepsut. It's a huge, colonnaded temple carved out of a limestone cliff face. Famous because the Pharaoh who constructed it was a woman who had balls enough to get a sympathetic high priest to declare her to be a man so she could steal the throne from the rightful heir. After her death, the kid who should have gotten the keys to the royal barge spent years defacing every likeness of her in Egypt. He had a lot of work to do as Hatshepsut filled Egypt with hundreds
if not thousands of images of herself. In the temple you'll see beautiful statues and bas-reliefs of Hatshepsut with the faces hacked away. Historians agree that she was one of Egypt's finest rulers and the world's first great woman from a historical perspective. The temple is accessed by a series of long steep ramps. There is no shade. The temple is three levels high. Visually it is the most impressive sight in Luxor.
There are dozens upon dozens of temples to climb through in Luxor but after a couple of days of this stuff you become somewhat detached. You start thinking about that great hotel room you've got and the A/C and Hakeem bringing you a big tray of room service delicacies.
Security in Egypt. Is security an issue in Egypt? I imagine it is but then again it's an issue in the States and it most certainly is an issue in Paris right now and sooner or later it'll be an issue somewhere else. Some people we know believe that it's more problematic in Egypt because KJ and I are Americans and Egypt is Muslim so the locals must be a threat to our safety. They'd be
wrong. As a rule; When an Egyptian learns that we are American they are very happy to meet us. "Welcome to Egypt!" are the first words out of their mouths. Then they tell us how long it's been since they've seen an American. We get preferential treatment in hotels and restaurants because of our passports. People could not be nicer to us. If we get crap from anybody over here they're usually cheese eating surrender monkeys or overweight German tourists from whose lips the name Obama springs almost immediately. Consider the source. Remember when the French were all Ga-Ga over Barrack's presidential win? That's over with.
There are armed men at every tourist site in Egypt. Little Fort Wilderness guard towers at every bridge and along every road. If you are alarmed by the sight of guns then Egypt may not the place for you but as for me? The sight of a vigilant young soldier with an automatic weapon always give me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. After years on the road KJ and I have learned to stay alert, watch our six and trust our instincts. The biggest problem we encounter while traveling anywhere in the world
The Temple At Karnak
See the clear blue skies? It's like that every day of the week.
is petty theft. And even that's not a major issue. We constantly see people leaving personal items on outdoor cafe tables while they dart off to the bathroom. Don't leave your crap laying around unattended. The most stolen tourist item in the world is........ Anybody?............. The i-Phone! Go figure. Kj and I use a cell phone that we bought in Turkey for $15 and it looks like we overpaid at that. If you own something that is so precious to you that you just wouldn't be able to cope if it were taken from you then leave it home.
It's dark and KJ and I are sitting in an Egyptian souvenir shop across the street from a defunct American tourist hotel. It's our last night in Luxor. Outside, in the parking lot, a young, blue-uniformed cop with an automatic rifle stands next to an armored personnel carrier. He smiles like a kid and gives us a little wave every time we take a look at him. Once in a while a horse drawn carriage jingles down the street looking for a fare. We're sitting with Omar and his buddy Ahmed who owns the souvenir shop. The dusty glass shelves
Omar, Mike and Ahmed
In Ahmed's shop. Wonderful people. You can find them all over the world.
are lined with little statues of Tut, small alabaster jars and stones etched with hieroglyphics.
The four of us are sitting in a circle sipping from our store bought drinks. The guys are buzzing and everybody has a big-ass smile plastered on their faces. We talk about what we think happens after we die. Starting a business. What life is like in the States. What life is like in the rest of the world. What life isn't. We eat cheese and flat bread from sheets of newspaper spread across our laps and we talk some more but Karen and I have to go and we know that we will probably never see these boys again just like the hundreds of other people that we have spent similar moments with over the past 40-years on the road. So we do what we always do in these moments; We hug them up as hard as we would had they been our own kids. We tearfully wish them a bright, happy future and then we move on. Sorrow is the sweetening that accompanies every parting in our lives.
Note: I will try to get one more blog out regarding our Nile
Squinting In The Valley Of Kings
I really ought to invest in sunglasses
River cruises. More of a traveler tip thing. WIFI where we are on the Red Sea in Egypt is sluggish at best and the uploading of the photos in this missive took us two mornings to complete. Patience is a virtue. Egypt surpassed our expectations in every way. The people are wonderful and the accommodations are spectacular but we still cannot forget the food in Turkey as hard as we try.
Shouts out to Aerin and Noah. To the Goodbrads and Kallenbachs and Sarp and Yessim and Tolga and Omar and Karen and all the folks in Chicago and Alamo and San Antone and Frisco and to Tommy and the family in Maine. Godspeed Tom. To Rick Stites; I made it back to the Red Sea dude and it's still the same beautiful fish-filled blue! Wish you were here. How goes it April? Welcome to the club Omar. Until next time; Inshallah.
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