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Africa » Egypt
April 1st 2018
Published: April 9th 2018
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The first free time I had on holiday was in Egypt, on the afternoon of the 8th day. In Luxor. For a self proclaimed solo traveler like myself, proud to travel independently, this was shocking. Yet I had buckled down to being shepherded by some excellent guides, I have to admit. There was just too much ground to cover too much to see, too much information to get during my visit. There was no other way I could have done it. Not by wandering around on my own in an Arabic land.

So on my first free afternoon, I could finally do what I love best. I simply walked out into the streets, with curiosity. I roamed the small roads of the Egyptian neighborhood around my Hotel…Ammon is a bit superior from it’s ‘hood having a lush courtyard garden. Nearby is a sign, with a faded arrow pointing down a side lane , proclaiming the Pharaoh’s Camel and Arabian Horse Farm. Neither horse nor camel were anywhere in sight.

In the hot bright afternoon sun, the sandy surface of the alley felt soft underfoot like walking on a beach. The houses are typical of what I saw everywhere, Egyptian style, unadorned flat boxes in red or yellow brick. A few have the distinctive Nubian V design motif. Gezira El Bairat our little road leads on to another little dirt road around the corner. Children are playing in the street. A woman tosses a bucket of water into the road perhaps to keep the dust down.

Then comes the main road, paved, with a variety of small local shops, a clean modern bakery, an internet Café, grocery store, a couple of restaurants. Turning right at the main road corner leads to the Nile river bank so I head that way.

It’s the heat of the afternoon and there isn’t much movement. It’s siesta time, and quiet. Few cars, no pedestrians. Approaching the river I walk unnoticed, no one tells me anything. Male figures are sitting, shadows squatting in the shade, immobile in doorways. Anchored along the river banks there are dozens of river boats, bedecked, waiting for tourists. None are in sight. There's a slump in tourism in the middle east. Arriving at the sidewalk on the river bank, a couple shapes under the trees stir at my approach.

One determined soul tries his luck, advancing, calling out.

Tours! Taxi!.... “

“Tours! TAXI!...”

“60 pounds 2 hours tour of city!

…. pause….

OK … 50 pounds tour" …

…. pause….

OK …. 3 hours tour …..

.... pause...

Or a boat ride – felucca!

His voice fades. He gives up. I keep walking.

What I want to do is lean on the rail, look out at the river, admire the skyline opposite - the east bank, its minarets, towers and modern buildings, modern 4 deck tourist boats towering over the masts and sails of timeless felucca. There is a ripple of criss crossings from bank to bank by sundry vessels. One berthed vessel is ornately decorated, very regal looking in gold and dark blue. I think of Cleopatra! I’m sure this is the landing point for the ferries between West and East banks.

There’s a rooftop restaurant nearby overlooking the Nile and I’m hungry. I walk in, take one flight of stairs up to a large dining area. Just two people are seated, both are men. I order a simple meal. Baba ganoush with tomato and cucumber garnish, a platter of fries plus a large bottle of water. It arrives with the inevitable basket of pita on the side. Bread baskets were standard with every meal everywhere I ate. Below, as far as my eye can see, the Nile river stretches, it’s banks lined with modern buildings. The surroundings as I look down are surprisingly green. A park across from the restaurant features date palms and western style children’s playground, those modular brightly coloured swings, slides etc.

As I sit there the familiar call to prayer suddenly rings out from a nearby minaret. It excites and thrills me again as it does every time I hear it. There's something exotic, big and mystical about its shrill, plaintive echo that I find quite moving. It is antiquity. Now, as always, it generates a flurry of activity. Every one except me heads to the prayer corner or room provided in every establishment, no matter how small. Shoes are removed. They spend a few minutes kneeling, bowing, praying. It’s soon over. They emerge and resume life. It’s part of the normal rhythm of the day. A little time out taken to exhale. To connect with something bigger than money and activity.

That was my afternoon off in Luxor, but there are many other experiences that I recall with pleasure.

One of the visitor must-do's in Luxor is visiting an alabaster factory. Thanks to Ahmad my guide, it was a unique visit. Squatting aside the entrance door is a row of craftsmen enacting the stages involved in production. Inside is a large bright showroom ( like a warehouse) with row upon row of alabaster figures on display, for sale. I am treated to a demonstration using light and darkness teaching me to distinguish fake from real alabaster. There is of course subtle pressure to buy. So much is on display I suffer from Crisis of choice! Crisis of cash too! But Ahmad comes to the rescue. He lets me to choose what I want and tell him what I can pay. He handles the ritual of the bartering process.

A tray with Arabic coffee in a silver pot is presented and served, before discussions begin. The objects to be purchased are presented. The price is announced. It was two and a half times what I want to pay. My offer is made. The shop owner protests unhappily and walks away. He returns. Ahmad and himself have a discussion in Arabic. His new price is announced. My counter offer is made. The owner pleads. Ahmad also pleads. I am his family. The owner leaves with a serious face and walks away again. It does not look good I say. Ahmad reassures me this is all part of the ritual. The owner returns, smiling. We have a deal. We shake hands. My purchases are wrapped, my card swiped. Everyone is happy. And Ahmad gifts me an alabaster figure with hieroglyph inscriptions. Such kindness!

I arrange to meet Ahmad next morning at the shisha Café that I’d passed by on the my walk. We sit out on the sidewalk on the main road now bustling with morning traffic. He has a coffee and his friend uses the hookah. HOOKAH is an elaborate, exotic looking water pipe used to smoke shisha – ie tobacco, flavored with various tastes. Dating back to ancient Persia and India its use is now spreading world wide. Typically hookah is practiced in groups who pass the mouth piece around.

Leaving the cafe we walk over to catch the ferry at the landing, joining ordinary folk of the town on their daily journey from Luxor's west to east bank of the Nile. Doing it this way we have avoided the heavy morning motor traffic and we meet our driver on the opposite bank. On board we sit on wooden benches along with men women and children wearing burkhas and hijabs and robes and western clothing, heading to work or to do the day’s business. I am very aware of how unusual it is to be sitting among them. A privilege. A small boy seated nearby keeps a wary eye on me. A handicapped young man comes on board seeking alms and is treated kindly. From my bench I see the pilot turning the wheel as he steers our vessel on the short ride across the water.

My time in Egypt will soon be over.

I met many lovely people during my travels. At Hatshepsut’s Temple while chatting with Ahmad a voice interrupted us asking “where is your accent from? “ I said “Trinidad “ The two young women who asked laughed in delight “ we thought so, we’re from Trinidad too!” what a moment. We exchanged excited rapid fire conversation. They were sisters now living in New York. We were all loving being in Egypt and quickly swapped our stories. For a brief moment there we stood, three women from a tiny green dot in the sea, a country just 60 years old, our paths crossing in the middle of the Sahara desert at the temple of a 5,000 year old civilization. What are the odds! That’s the modern world for you.

Something that struck me in Egypt is how they have turned Antiquity into an economic activity. Hundreds maybe thousands of Egyptians have graduated with degrees in Egyptology. They are fluent in Deciphering the hieroglyphs, have a full sound knowledge of their 5,000 year old history, can conduct tours to all the hundreds of Pharaonic tombs and sites. They take part in uncovering newly found sites working alongside senior archeologists. When an ancient discovery is found, recently built towns on the site are relocated for excavations to proceed. Theft from sites, damage and destruction can no longer happen. There is a nationally vested interest in protecting their antiquity.
Another thing that dawned on me, concerns the broad role of the military in daily activities, everyday life and government which is unlike other countries. But it’s not surprising. The rule of Pharaohs for thousands of years has made this style of government one that is culturally theirs. We cannot comprehend it.

People, and the different contexts of their lives, fascinate me. They shake up perceptions of what is ordinary and acceptable. They open me to new understanding. " If I had experienced different things I would have different things to say"

Traveling through these lands whose culture is totally different from mine there was plenty to absorb. I couldn’t read the street signs and graffiti because they were in Arabic. But In the streets men and women mingled as they hustled about their daily lives, just as we do. They speak Arabic, a rapid fire gutteral yet breath-y sound that I don’t understand. It can sound angry but I never saw angry behaviour.

Many men wore traditional floor length robes or shirts called galabiya and women wore burkhas. Still, they were the minority, perhaps about one quarter of the people in the city streets, more widespread in the countryside. Children rarely. The majority of people in cities wore western dress, many women wore slacks with a hijab (the shawl with an open face). There was nothing repressed or sinister in their demeanour. I noticed with appreciation that the gross use and exploitation of women’s faces and bodies of the West was totally absent in Mid Eastern advertising. That was refreshing and positive.

At the same time women as hotel and restaurant employees were totally absent! There was one exception, a lovely young woman at the Reception desk at Marhaba Palace hotel in Aswan but everywhere else in both Egypt and Jordan, all hotel staff I encountered were male. Including the housekeepers. My house boy (I guess that’s the title) in Luxor’s Ammon hotel was on spot. He also loved making towel shapes! In Cairo at Great Pyramid Inn, the room was also immaculate. But elsewhere there were many lapses most glaring in Jordan. Our Petra hotel was almost comic, while our first hotel in Amman could have used some help. But by and large the fellas kept the rooms clean. And they cooked up decent meals.

On Elephantine island I made a young friend, at the Nubian home we visited. Ahmed Khogly with a bright beautiful grin had an engaging curiosity so we hit it off nicely. We exchanged what’s app numbers. A memorable evening was spent after a chance encounter outside my hotel in Abu Simbel, with Kiwis Karen and Kevin and Salwa their Egyptian hostess. We piled in to the back tray of the Egyptian version of the tuk tuk and had a fun filled evening. We saw a sound and light show which made excellent use of modern projection technology then found a genuine Egyptian restaurant to have a simple dinner. Just that morning I had ridden pillion on a motor scooter with my driver guide to buy entrance tickets to the Temples.

Ahmad was definitely my best guide in Egypt, but they were all of high calibre, knowledgeable Egyptologists, well trained, fluent in English, courteous and patient with me. Deluxe Travel of Gizeh I definitely highly recommend. I found them on Trip Advisor. The men answered every question, willingly volunteered to take photos of me at the sites and indulged my constant stopping to capture images. The drivers were top notch. Not once was I scared and I never felt insecure either. In fact on my first night in Cairo I fell sound asleep from flight exhaustion on the bus drive (I was the only passenger!) back to my hotel. No problem. The driver woke me when we arrived.

I’ve been asked What were the most memorable moments of the entire journey. If I must choose I would say the jaw – dropping first view of the Pyramids when I drew back the curtains of my hotel window. I fell head over heels and could not take my eyes off. Also, the stunning first view on entering Petra after walking through the gorge. And Floating in the Dead Sea then trying to stand up! Indelible memories.

I also highly rate the experience of climbing the giant stones of Cheops Pyramid and the struggle, once inside, to scramble up to the burial chamber. Close encounters with the pyramid stones, their size and overpowering silence. The avenue of hundreds of sphinxes. Those many colossal towering figures of the Pharaohs. The elegance of Hatshepsut’s temple.

The entire desert experience, from driving through it in Egypt and seeing a mirage that spanned the entire horizon, to living in it with the Bedouin in Jordan, riding on it with a camel and wandering out onto the soft desert sand at sunset. The greenery of the Nile River, without which there would be no Egypt. Period. The antiquity and serenity of felucca gilding across its waters.

Street scenes of Cairo: camels and horses and donkeys and cars and trucks and people and dogs and piles of grass . The call to prayer. That wonderful enthusiastic encounter with the school girls at Jerash, Roman Jordan. They were all Special. And the most joyful surprise of finding Ally and Bish at the hotel in Amman.

With so many gems to treasure, choosing among them is like trying to count my blessings. There are too many. The entire journey was an outstanding episode in my life. It will be difficult to top this in the future. I'm not even going to try. If it should unfortunately happen that I never travel again, I’ve had this.

I’m happy.

Thank you for joining me!

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