Land of hassles.
Jamie and Karla at Abu Simbel
We boarded the Kuwait Airways flight (late) on Thursday morning, bound for Cairo, Egypt. Martine, Karla and I were looking forward to a week away from Kuwait, as we always do. This time especially because we would miss the height of the pre-Eid shopping when the streets are crowded past capacity (the sidewalks too) with cars and shoppers desperately in search of the something to buy. It's kind of like Christmas eve, but in a country where doing whatever you can to get somewhere is considered par for the course.
So we found our extremely snug seats, to wait for the late departure. After a routine flight, we landed in Cairo. Now, prior to leaving Kuwait, I had made arrangements with an Egyptian travel agent for train tickets and a cruise on the Nile. Sure enough, our man had sent a man with a black-marker-on-white-paper sign to pick us up. Cairo airport is well arranged, but poorly signed. Once off the plane and past duty free (which, we discovered is happy to take any currency except Egyptian pounds), we came to several long line ups leading up to the customs agents. Lining one wall of this room are the exchange offices of several banks. There is nothing to tell you that the bank booths sell the tourist visa (except for the customs agent at end of the long line you've been waiting in). Fortunately, Karla knew what to do and we sailed through.
Karla had said that Egypt was the land of hassles. I had steeled myself for the barrage of touts that would try to guide us to taxi, hotels, shops, camels, brothels, deals, tours, weddings, bazaars, pyramids, romantic getaways, and the latest stop-smoking gimmick. But there was nothing. We walked past the crowds and met our travel agent, Abdou. We went outside to a well-maintained mini van that took us through the traffic (and I mean traffic) of Cairo to the train station. Traffic in Cairo moves slowly and is jam packed. There are no lines on the roads, possibly because there is never a time when they aren't jam-packed full. And they're not just crowed with cars. There are donkey carts, buses, and pedestrians . As we drove (inched) along a tangled head came bobbing by the window. It was a little girl, probably 6 or 7 years old, making her way along the street between the lanes of traffic.
We arrived at the train station, starving hungry and three hours early for our train that left an hour late. We feasted on potato chips, chocolate and soda. We met our guide, Marianna who was an unmentioned part of our package tour. When I booked the tour, I knew the cruise included trips to the sights that it passed, but I didn't realize that there would be a full time tour guide for us. The train's lateness, which Marianna told us was due to the fact that it was Ramadan, turned out to be the norm for Egypt. Everything happened an hour later than promised.
We caught the sleeper train south. We checked into our little room on board and got set up. The Egyptian railway uses old European train cars, which means they are nice, but well used. The meal service was not beef or chicken, but beef and chicken, neither of which, reports suggest, were any good. But, Martine and I did have a duty free beer with dinner (no drinking for the expectant mother) and we settled in for a good night's sleep.
The next morning we rose to find ourselves, you guessed it, an hour late arriving in Aswan (to be precise, an hour later than the promised one hour late - or in other words, two hours late). This meant that Karla's plan to see the temples around Aswan would not happen. We had to be in the convoy headed south to Abu Simbel under police protection by 11:00. The convoy left on time, but since the train was late and we didn't have time for some of the planned sightseeing, we were early for the convoy and still waited for 45 minutes.
Egypt must rely on tourism for the great majority of its revenue. Tourists are well protected. At all the sights, it is common to see uniformed and plain-clothed officers with big guns walking around. And so the road to Abu Simbel, which is 300 km across barren desert and just a few km from the Sudan border, is only accessible to police convoys.
We set off on time - eight vehicles, including a few large buses and a few minibuses. It seemed orderly on the way out of town, but as we hit the open highway it became a bit of a free for all. We were passing and being passed. Eventually we stopped at the only little rest stop en route (They sold coke, potato chips and chocolate). According to Marianna, we had to stop because the police had stopped. I had it figured out. The police had two cars - one at the front that drove as fast as they could to the rest stop and waited for everyone to catch up, and the other that followed along at the end.
Abu Simbel was worth the drive. Originally carved into a valley wall on the shores of the Nile, it was moved to the top of the valley to prevent it being submerged under Lake Nasser when the dam was built. There are two temples, both guarded by huge statues. Inside are rooms covered floor to ceiling with carved and painted hieroglyphics that describe the military victories and the offerings to the gods from the pharaoh.
The big temple at Abu Simbel
The small temple at Abu Simbel
We left, an hour late, for the long drive back to Aswan to get on board the boat. We stopped at the rest stop on the way home. We were the first to arrive and the last to leave (Karla needed to get something real to eat- mama and baby can only survive on chips and chocolate for so long). It was here I discovered that there was no police escort.
It was dark when we arrived at the boat. The MS Caprice was grand. The interior was finished with marble floors and wood paneled the walls. Unfortunately, our rooms were not ready. We'd have to wait. Almost immediately, one of the rooms was ready and we moved in to have a drink and wait for dinner.
The common room on the cruise ship
Our room on the cruise ship
Killer swan (with fleece)
Our next day began at 6:30, when we arrived at the Kom Ombo, the temple of Sobek, the Crocodile god. Even though it was early, we were in a mob of hundreds going to see the temple. Even though there were crowds, I was impressed. It was massive. It's walls were carved with kings defeating enemies and giving gifts to gods. There was even a mummified crocodile. After an hour at the site staring up at huge carving covered walls and columns, and being told in front of at least six different sections of carving that we could see the king making offerings to the gods, we were back on the boat, enjoying breakfast. After breakfast, we stopped in Edfu to see another temple.
The king making an offering to the gods
The temple at Kom Ombo
That afternoon, we relaxed on the boat and watched the banks of the Nile drift by. Martine and I also enjoyed a couple beer. By dinner, the food on on the boat was getting to be a bit monotonous. Every meal was a big buffet of similar tasting foods. I dared to try a Stella, an Egyptian beer of questionable formulation (according to the Lonely Planet). After dinner, we retired to the lounge upstairs for the Ghalabia party, which meant dressing up in colorful traditional Egyptian clothing. After ten or fifteen minutes, we retired to the room due to exhaustion compounded by an early morning and an afternoon of drinking beer.
Day two on the boat began with breakfast (identical to the previous day's morning meal). We arrived in Luxor soon after. Our first visit of the day was Karnak temple - an immense complex of carved walls depicting kings offering gifts to the god. Despite the repetitive decoration of the temples, Karnak was impressive. The temple itself was a series of elaborate structures which were erected by a series of pharaohs over centuries. In one magnificent hall, I found myself in the middle of a forest of enormous pillars. In places, the remnants of the colors that decorated the temples were visible. Ancient Egyptian temples would have been brightly painted - the hieroglyphics would have not been subtle sandy coloured carvings, but more like comic books, full of lively simple pictures and stories.
We visited the mummy museum, which was well laid out - dark and mysterious, with focused lighting on few exhibits. There was a mummified crocodile, baboon, cat, fish, and even a high priest. The high priest's coffin was there too. In fact, the Egyptians liked coffins, and nested them one inside the others. Maybe those little Russian dolls were all the rage back then. Whatever the cause, the coffins were like the temples - covered wall to wall to wall with brightly colored designs.
Before lunch we squeezed in the Luxor temple, which was not as large or grand as Karnak temple. But in the middle of town, it had been buried in sand. At some point, a mosque was build on top of the temple. Then, once the temple was found and excavated, the mosque had to be left perched on top of a section of the ruins. Temple fatigue had definitely set in. On the way back to the boat for lunch, our tour guide told us we had to stop at a government run papyrus factory and outlet store. We had to use the excuse that Karla was exhausted to escape being taken to some other "official" (i.e. overpriced and commission paying) bazaar by our guide.
After lunch we retired to our rooms for a little rest, and then snuck out. With Marianna back on the boat, we hit the town to look for a hotel for the next night after we left the boat. I wasn't feeling 100%, but we wanted to try Egypt on our own and we needed to find a hotel for the next night. The streets were decorated for the Eid festival and crowed with everyone out in their finery. Boys were out in the streets on horses and donkeys. Two of the Lonely Planet's recommendations were dismal but we found the hotel Karla stayed in when she was in Luxor the first time. It was two shades brighter than dismal. But the owner was friendly and showed us up to the banquet room that was set up for his daughter's wedding reception that night.
On our way back to the boat for dinner, we were the victims of a hit and run. An out of control horse and rider came from behind us, knocking Karla out of the way but not off her feet, and Martine to the ground. The rider kept on his out of control progress. The people around us apologized and we decided it was time to head back to the boat.
When we arrived, I had begun to feel considerably worse. I tucked into bed and skipped dinner in favor of trying to read a bit of The DaVinci Code while submitting to the occasional whimper. When Karla returned from dinner she diagnosed a fever in addition to my by then well-established stomach troubles. She headed out to find help and sent one of the boat's crew out to get me some medication.
The next morning I was improved but still not up to the day's tour. Karla and I missed breakfast thinking that we had an extra half hour to pack up. All three of us decided to skip the tour that day and rest - party due to my illness and partly due to being annoyed by our guide. Marianna left at noon to head back to Cairo. We checked into our hotel and Martine and Karla left me to rest while they went to do a bit of shopping. By evening I was feeling better and we headed out to be tourists in Luxor. We had dinner at a touristy restaurant that was identical to the touristy restaurant right beside it - both with the same menu. After dinner we bought a few carvings from a shop that Karla and Martine had discovered and went to bed early.
Our friendly hotelier had arranged a ride to pick us up early to go see the Valley of the Kings, Queens and Nobles. These valleys in the rocky hills on the other side of the Nile from Luxor are only a few minutes away from the river by car. The first stop, the Valley of the Kings, is a barren, narrow uphill slope. Over the space of a kilometer or two, there are more than 50 tombs. The tombs open for viewing rotate, and we chose to see six. The tombs have similar layouts - long, straight, downward-sloping hallways with one or more rooms at the end. The walls throughout were decorated. Some of the tombs were busy, and some were almost deserted. In the deserted ones, the guard was very obliging, offering to let visitors stand on blocks of stone and take pictures (otherwise forbidden) in hopes of getting a little tip at the end.
Some temples were carefully decorated from end to end with detailed, colorful carved hieroglyphics. Others began well, but deteriorated as they went back so that the tomb had sparse designs, unpainted carvings or even paint on flat walls. It seems that the old adage, if you want something done right, do it yourself may have originate among ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Once they were dead, their successors cut corners on the funeral, getting the old king buried and put away as soon as possible so he could begin on his own tomb before it was too late. At times, pharaohs would even take over their predecessor's tomb. Tutankhamen's tomb is in the Valley of the Kings, and is the only tomb to be looted by a museum instead of looters. But we missed it, as it was a long decorated hall (like all the others) with an exceptionally long line and an expensive ticket. All the loot is in the Cairo museum anyway.
The next stop was the Temple of Hatshepsut (hat-ship-suit), Egypt's first female leader. Her temple is a striking sight at the end of the rough valley that houses it. In the gathering midday heat, it was a long, hot walk to the top, only to find that the temple itself (I'm sure full of carved hieroglyphics that depicted the Queen making offerings to the gods) was closed to viewing. By this point, a serious case of temple overload was beginning to set in.
We made a brief stop in the Valley of the Nobles to see a couple of tombs of less important people - royal administrators. The decorations depicted more of the day to day life - dancing, hunting, funerals. These tombs are now in the midst of a town - certainly unsanctioned - that have grown up around them. A young boy led us through the maze of buildings to get there. The young guy was eager, quiet and patient - probably the most pleasant person we met the whole trip. These remote temples were staffed by persistently bothersome guards.
Our final stop was the Ramesseum - one of Ramses's temples. This temple was exactly like all the others we had seen. It was huge, stone and covered in a stupefying assortment and density of familiar but incomprehensible symbols. Whew. Temple overload was serious. Before long, we were back in the taxi headed back towards Luxor, politely rebuffing the driver's offers to take us to lunch and to several "official" (see above) outlets of all things Egyptian.
We got a few provisions for the overnight train ride back to Cairo. We stopped off at the King's Head Pub, a British pub that served all Egyptian beer) for a pre-train meal. We caught the first class seated train on the way back north. Karla's report that it was good, turned out to have changed. The train was uncomfortable. And the whole atmosphere of our little six seated cabin was poisoned by a pair of Dutch travellers. It seems they couldn't get two seats together and so took up two seats in our cabin. When the nice Egyptian man arrived who had a ticket for the seat that one of them was using, they got downright snippy. And when, after spending 15 minutes trying to find a place where he could sit, he insisted that they give up his seat, it was cause for much huffing and puffing and stomping about. Well, there wasn't very much friendly chit-chat in the cabin after that.
We arrived in Cairo tired and sore at 6:30 in the morning. We caught a taxi to our hotel. The Windsor was built around the turn of the century (as were many of the grand old buildings of downtown Egypt). It's been used as a royal bath, served as the British Officer's Club, been set on fire, and now houses a second rate Egyptian Hotel with two extra scoops of character. They were good enough to check us in at 7:00 in the morning. After breakfast (completely lacking any love in preparation) and a surly waiter, we tucked in for a nap.
Around 10, we set out to the offices of Kuwait Airways to reconfirm out tickets home. Since they weren't bothering to answer their phones that day, we had to show up in person. Martine (who wasn't feeling top banana) and Karla waited in the waiting room while the agent informed me that our tickets had been cancelled since we hadn't reconfirmed our flights at least 72 hours in advance. After an hour or so and a discussion with the manager, we were asked to come back tomorrow with the promise that everything would be alright. Reluctantly, we left. We visited the Egyptian Museum that afternoon. Security was tight. They don't tell you at the entrance and locker area that you have to check your camera in. They wait until you have gone through the next section to tell you that. But, with a sincere promise that I would keep the camera in my bag, I was permitted to enter.
The Lonely Planet boasts that if you took a minute to look at each item in the museum, you would need nine months to see it all. It is a huge place, not well labeled and jam packed with goods. It's a massive collection, organized in chronological order from the old, passing through the Romans and Greeks, to the new. Upstairs, the contents of King Tut's tomb have been laid out. An unimportant king who died young, Tut obviously had a "you can take it with you" philosophy. You roam through a collection of stuff he must have regarded as indispensable: couches and beds, bows and arrows, boxes and chests, thrones - no less than 5 - fill several rooms down one whole side of the museum. Around the corner, you walk past his six chariots and the boxes that housed his coffin. Starting out as a gilt enclosure the size of a garage, the rectangular boxes nested tightly inside each other.
At the back of the museum, you duck into the room with the goods. Here's the stuff you've seen - the solid gold mask (17kg) that he wore, along with the hordes of other jewelry that was layered between the layers of linen his body was wrapped on, and the two body shaped coffins that nested inside one another. You have to wonder what they did for someone who was popular and powerful.
Then there are hundreds of other body shaped coffins, none quite so shiny as Tut's. The Romans arrived and started mummifying their own, but including a lifelike painting of the person's face in their prime over the deceased's linen wrapped face. It was kinda spooky.
For dinner we tried a place the LP recommended for great sandwiches. However they served no sandwiches and so we opted for Egyptian fair - falafel (called tamy'ya in Egypt) and hummus. It hit the spot, especially since we were starved after a day of walking.
Day two in Cairo began with a nervous trip to the Kuwait Airways office, where we were given confirmed tickets back home. Martine and I set off for the pyramids and Karla stayed at the hotel to do a bit of marking. Karla's dire warning that the Sphinx was face-to-face with a Pizza Hut, turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration. Yes, there was one just outside the gates of the site, but it was at least 100m away from the Sphinx itself and unobtrusively nestled in with the other touristy shops.
Pyramid with camel
Nothing will separate this man from his customers
The pyramids themselves stand in rocky dunes. The temples that once led up to them are just piles of stone that occasionally got in our way as we tried to navigate around. It is hard to say if there are more tourists, or camels, donkeys, and horses to take your around. And five minutes certainly didn't go by without someone offering to take us around on the back of some beast.
On the advice of our driver, we opted to go down into the smaller pyramid, rather than its larger brother pyramid. With my chest to my knees and staring at the behind of the person in front of me, I began my way down the steep passage. As I went, it got hotter and stuffier. I was surprised how far it went and was glad we hadn't chosen to line up for the big boy. At the bottom, there were a few plain stone rooms, which was just as well since it was so unpleasant that I was ready to go up as soon as I got down.
We stopped at the Khan Al Khalili bazaar before dinner, the main tourist market in old Islamic Cairo. We shuffled through and dusted off our bartering skills to make a couple purchases: very atmospheric; very full of junk; very, very full of tourists.
We caught a ride to the Hilton to have a good meal. The last night of Eid, the Cairo traffic was out in force. As we crawled toward dinner along streets packed with cars, it seemed that if we all tried to get out of our cars, we wouldn't be able to open the doors because the cars in the lane next to us were so close.
We used the morning of our last day to go to Coptic Cairo. We caught Cairo's subway to get there. Unfortunately, being Friday (the day of rest in Egypt), services were in session, so we didn't actually go in any of the churches. We just peeked in from the door.
We headed to the airport early - a combination of distrust for Kuwait Airways and a bit of eagerness to leave the hassle of Egypt behind. When we arrived, there was no line and I approached the check in agent. He told me that we couldn't check in yet for our flight as the flight before ours was still being processed. When I asked if we might sneak onto the earlier one, he laughed. He explained that it had been overbooked by 80 people. When we did go back to check in- 15 minutes prior to when we were supposed to, a jostling mob had already formed behind the angry mob who were crowded around the counter trying to yell their way onto the flight.
Karla, Martine and I waded into the fray (which was like a rugby scrum with luggage carts). Before long, the people behind Martine had pushed her through the line up to the front. Karla and I weren't so lucky and were pushed aside. We did get checked in, which involved some passing of bags forward past the people who had butted in front of us.
Our flight home was par for the course. We were all searched getting on board the plane - the women physically patted down for booze hidden on their bodies. The flight left late. They lost our request for vegetarian meals. They took the headsets to land five minutes before the end of the movie (one of which wasn't awful).