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Our last day in Luxor was busy and fun. If you ever travel to Egypt without a tour group, I highly recommend securing the services of a driver. We have saved ourselves untold time, aggravation, and probably heat stroke, and we were able to pay generously while getting a great deal for ourselves.
Would you believe Allan wanted to get an earlier start than me? I can tell you without exaggeration that in 30 years of our domestic partnership, this was a first.
We went over to the east bank, and started at the Mummification Museum. It was small but excellent, explaining how the ancient Egyptians prepared bodies for mummification, with examples of all the instruments and ingredients.
After that, we went to the Luxor Museum, which is everything the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is not. Everything is labelled in three languages (Arabic, English, and French), with excellent background information to add context to the exhibits. There is also a lot of information about how objects were found and restored, with photos of various stages.
Most of the objects in the museum were found in the tombs we have visited. There are many beautiful statues of gods, goddesses, and pharaohs, not just religious icons but works of art. Most exciting to me were the glimpses into the creation of the great monuments. On a flat piece of alabaster, there was a floor plan; another stone was etched with a graph, clearly a blueprint. We saw a t-square, a level, and other tools of architecture and engineering. There were also very delicate tools used for jewelry-making, mummification, etching, and other activities. Imagine that someone had to create those tools as well! And they had to do that without examples -- they had to imagine what they needed and then make it. The Luxor Museum is a gem.
After the museums, we returned to the large fast-food place we enjoyed so much. The owner greeted us with, “Canada! Welcome!” Allan wants me to clarify that this is not fast-food in the North American sense. The food is freshly made to order, not processed, and the menu is quite large. It’s somewhere between fast-food and a formal restaurant. We had more koshari, shawarma, and basterma and egg.
After lunch, we walked through the souq (market) and had the experience we should have had in Cairo. It was clearly a souq for local people, not tourists. Women shoppers were dressed in special galabeyas, and many were “discussing prices” with the stall owners. Along with the fruits and vegetables, there was something we hadn’t seen before: poultry and butchers. Chickens and ducks were in cages, waiting to become someone’s dinner. It’s not fun to see, but I’m sure they have a better life than most chickens in North America. At a butcher stall, a cow head was hanging for display. I thought it was fake until I saw the neck. Not fake.
We saw fish of all sizes on display, with no ice or cooling equipment in sight. One stall operator periodically spritzed his fish with water, another burned incense at both ends of the fish table. We were pretty sure that some of the sellers caught the fish themselves in the Nile.
There were women selling pigeons, a sad sight. These women obviously have very low status in the market. They don’t have stalls; they sit on the ground between stalls with two boxes -- one with pigeons and one with eggs. In this culture, women rarely work outside the home, and if they do, they don’t work in public. I had the impression that selling pigeons is a job of last resort, maybe one step up from begging.
We had an interesting encounter with a spice seller! I was admiring the containers of beautiful herbs and spices, and he pounced on the opportunity. He would take a pinch of something, put it in my hand, and ask, “What’s this?” And then another, “What’s this?” I identified cumin, coriander, mint, anise, maybe a few others. Allan took a photo and we tried to give him 5 LEs, which would be a typical or slightly generous tip. Spice Guy waved us off. “You my sister! You my brother! This is not for money! This is my gift to you!”
I refused to buy, trying to explain that we are staying in a hotel and will not be cooking. Finally I gave in to a small amount of dried hibiscus, which I’ve been drinking both cold and hot; it’s called karkadee. Spice Guy weighed an amount, showing me he was giving me 120 grams for the price of 100 grams. “This is my gift to you!”
A few local women came by, asking about spices. They spoke to me, but it was well beyond my Arabic vocabulary. Then one woman was suddenly offended by something the shop owner said, made a disgusted face, and they all left.
Meanwhile, Spice Guy used a technique we have seen throughout: he put the hopeful purchase in a plastic bag and tied the handles. And all of a sudden, his gift to me that was supposed to cost 1 LE per gram became 100 LEs for the little bag of 120 grams. We said no, of course not, that was ridiculous, and he started yelling at us. He should have taken the 5 LEs for the photo. Allan said he doubts this guy makes 100 LEs in a whole day.
I did buy two cotton rag rugs -- runners. I had no idea I was going to buy them, but the colours were beautiful and the price quickly plummeted as we walked away. The confident walking-away is an excellent haggling technique. (I still hate haggling.)
The souq was interesting and fun, but it was also very long, with an uneven dirt-and-stone floor, and there’s no way out except at the other end. By the time we reached it, I was beat, and then somehow we ended up walking in the blazing sun, with the usual men calling to us and trying to “help”. Finally we called B’lal, and Allan found -- what else? -- an English-language bookstore he’s been reading about. I didn’t go in, which is just as well, as there were many beautiful books about pyramids and tombs and Egypt, and we don’t need to schlep them back with us.
B’lal and the other drivers repeatedly tried to arrange a felucca ride for us. Feluccas are traditional sailboats that are now primarily used for tourists, although some people still use them for fishing. One of our many drivers is also a felucca “captain”, and he’s in on the deal with B’lal, B’lal’s father, OG, and whoever else. So we surprised B’lal by finally saying yes to the felucca, since we had planned to do it that day.
Unfortunately for us, the air was very still, and we hardly went anywhere. Captain Felucca was assisted by a younger guy, who climbed up and down the mast, barefoot, and at times was forced to row a bit with a wood plank. He even made us the obligatory “welcome drink” on a tiny propane stove. It was very calm and peaceful on the water, but not much of a ride.
CF doesn’t speak much English, but for some reason he wanted to talk politics with me. “You know Mubarak? The people love Mubarak. He was strong for business.” The world over, people think dictators are strong for business. I said nothing. (Apparently the way to stop me from talking politics is to use a different language.)
After a time, CF made a phone call, and one of the motor boats towed them in, then gave us a ride to the west bank. (There are dozens of these boats, available for hire as ferries or for fun.) Allan went to pay the ferry guy a small tip, and he refused, saying B’lal had already paid him. Honest Ferry Guy was a welcome counter-balance to Spice Guy.
After resting at the hotel for a while, we went back to Restaurant Mohamed. (I’ve been spelling his name wrong, now corrected.) The food was even better this time. We had roast chicken and the usual 10 plates of food. This also gives me an opportunity to share another note about Mohamed: he gave us jewelry. Not junk either, necklaces of tiny stone beads that are authentic to the area. He has a huge number of them hanging up, and gives several strands to every guest. This night, he insisted on giving us more necklaces, plus two scarabs. We told him we would send him a postcard from Canada, inshalla.
I have so many of these saved up, I might as well make them a separate post.
-- All the men trying to “help” you at the sites, and most taxi drivers, and restaurant owners -- pretty much everyone -- asks where you are from. When we say Canada, they say “Canada dry”. Sometimes the next time they see you, they will say “Canada dry!” or they will call out to you “Canada dry! Canada dry!” to get your attention. On a busy day seeing temples and tombs, we might hear this five or six times a day. It is so bizarre!
-- All Egyptian men wear scarves. It’s like there’s some kind of law. Whether over a t-shirt or a galabeya, a scarf appears to be required. They wear them looped several times around with no tail. It is so rare to see an Egyptian man not wearing a scarf, that they look strange -- like tourists.
-- Egyptian men are... quite pleasant to look at. OK, I'll say it, they are hot. And charming. I have heard and read that Egypt is the street harassment capital of the world for women travelling without men, to such an extent that many Egyptians are embarrassed by this reputation. My age and my status as part of a couple shields me from this. So with that very large disclaimer, I will say that in my experience Egyptian men are good-looking, charming, and unfailingly polite.
-- Everyone takes care in their appearance. No one seems to go out in public in something you’d hang around the house in, whatever the Egyptian equivalent of sweatpants and an old t-shirt is.
-- Couples and families are out together all the time, but for single people, girls stay with girls and guys with guys. Men greet each other with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek, then the opposite cheek. This is not just a brief air-kiss, it’s very clearly a kiss, complete with kissing sound, on each cheek. In a culture where it is not yet acceptable for gay people to be out, this is interesting to me.
-- Many people here have very bad teeth; obviously there is a lack of access to dental care, and perhaps to education about dental health. But separate from that, many men have teeth stained brown from tea and smoking. Even my young friend Hamdi, who has a beautiful, full smile, has teeth that are mottled brown. (I look at teeth, and I always remember people’s teeth.)
-- When you buy a ticket to one of the ancient sites, if you look in the little ticket window, you will see a big pile of money, or someone rooting through a drawer with a big pile of money thrown into it. The man will rip off two tickets from a ticket book and give them to you, and throw your money in the pile or in the drawer. My library co-workers -- or anyone who is trained in cash-handling, would be amazed.
-- And in an all-cash business, with a giant pile of cash in front of them, most people do not want to make change. The ATMs only dispense large bills, but you need “small money” for many small purchases and for baksheesh (tips for services). If you stand your ground and insist you have no small money, they will eventually give you change.
-- One rule of travelling in Egypt, which I knew in advance, is to carry a roll of toilet paper in your bag or backpack. Abdul taught us the second rule: carry one-pound coins to tip the attendant. This person hands out a portion of toilet paper and you give them one pound.
-- In the visitors centre at the Karnak Temple, two men were standing guard in front of the washroom, collecting a coupon or chit from people on a tour, obviously something their tour guide gave them. I was also waiting, and when it was my turn, I indicated I had no money. They started yelling, insisting I pay them. I continued on into the washroom as they called "Come back here! You must pay!" These men were not handing out toilet paper or keeping the washroom clean, they were just collecting money from paying customers using the facilities! What a racket!
-- In the same washroom line, two female tourists tried to shove me out of the way to go ahead of me. Allan and I have seen this behaviour several times from tourists, always Japanese women. People talk about the “ugly American,” which is a real thing, but Americans in tour groups are sheep compared to these Japanese women. They will just shove you out of the way (or try to) and push past you, without looking at you or acknowledging your presence in any way. I wonder, do they live in a world where if you don’t push and shove, you are left behind, get nothing? To us, it’s incredibly rude. I can only imagine what it looks like to people from cultures more polite than ours... such as Egyptians.
-- I now understand the usage of the word inshalla, meaning (roughly) “god willing”. People here say it for any future event. How long will you be in Egypt, inshalla? I answer “three weeks,” and the other person adds, “inshalla”. When are you leaving for Luxor, inshalla? It’s a way of humbling yourself, reminding yourself that the future is not in your control, and obviously, a belief that the final say will be your god’s.
I had an eventful morning! We had an early breakfast and met B'lal downstairs at 7:00. I said hi, and fell forward, down two steps, onto the dirt road. The hotel has a piece of carpet covering the steps to the entrance. It was bunched up, my foot caught underneath, and down I went. (As I type this, I'm laughing so hard that I'm crying.)
I could hear Allan saying, "Oh my god, oh my god," as I tumbled from one level to the next. Then I suffered the humiliation of two men hoisting me up, dead weight, by my arms. (Yep, I actually apologized. Women, amirite?)
I was incredibly lucky. My right shin hit the edge of the concrete step, but both my knees and both my hands were fine. If my right knee (already injured and weak) had hit the concrete, my vacation is done right there. And I easily could have broken a wrist blocking my fall -- but it happened so fast, I didn't even have time to put my hands out.
So as Allan brushed the dust off my sweater and pants, I bent and flexed my leg a few times, and was very relieved. Getting in the car, I could feel a bump rising on my shin. Is there even ice here? In a country where simple refrigeration is iffy, ice is a luxury. B'lal and Allan went off and returned with Breakfast Guy (server) and a plastic bag of ice.
I said, "Alfuh shokran" (many thanks) to BG, who said "hamdulay" several times, smiling and happy to see I was OK. Allan said that BG found a bottle of water that had frozen, cut away the plastic with a knife, and chopped up the ice. Because of that, I was able to ice my shin and knee during the whole ride.
OK! Starting the day with a blast. I am incredibly lucky!
We drove out of Luxor, heading north and west towards Abydos. Past Luxor, the desert stretched out, a flat expanse, on both sides of the highway. In the distance, bald limestone mountains, the same colour as the sand, are partly hidden behind a layer of dust. Every so often there would be a tiny mud-brick house, or a pile of rubble where a house once stood. A few new-looking apartment complexes. A mosque.
B'lal drove 140 kms/hr (about 85 mph) most of the way, and did some pretty interesting passing and weaving. It turns out there is a middle lane.
As we neared a town, we would see donkey carts loaded with wheat or sugar cane or bright green alfalfa, men or boys riding donkeys, green fields growing beside irrigation ditches, animals resting in the shade of palm trees.
As always, we saw lots of dogs. They all look lively and happy -- tails up, heads high, trotting along. They are thin, like any wild or natural animal, but not starving, and their coats look nice. Today we saw one at a gas station that looked like Tala. She was sitting calmly... made me miss my little girl.
Out in the country, the horses, camels, and donkeys look better, too -- more lively, more like working animals than slaves. I wish I could forget the horses and donkeys in Giza.
There were many checkpoints, more than on our trip to Saqarra. At each stop, a seemingly haphazardly organized group of soldiers would take B'lal's license plate and phone number, and he would say "etneen canadee" (two from Canada).
In Abydos, B'lal showed us the coffee shop where he would be waiting. (Have I written about coffee shops? They are cave-like spaces where men smoke shisha. I've read that women now use them, too, at least in Cairo, but I see no evidence of that.) Naturally as soon as we get out of the car, people are offering us junk to buy -- but this was the first time we saw little kids doing it, too. Why aren't these children in school?? I gave a kid some money, then of course was mobbed by others. Bad. Sad.
Abydos itself is a beautifully preserved temple and a shrine to the god Osiris. The engravings here were incredibly finely detailed -- the patterns on clothing, the strands of wigs, the strings and beads on jewelry -- all depicted in minute detail, over and over and over. The ancient Egyptians obviously found beauty in symmetry and repetition. In this case, the engravings and the symmetry and the repetition were completely and beautifully over the top.
We read there was another nearby site, part of the same temple complex, so we set off down a dirt road in search of it. Men from the cafes and coffee shops all started calling to us. "No! No! No go!" and "Kholles! Haga kholles!" (Nothing! Not anything!) It was like we weren't allowed to walk down the street. One gentleman followed us the whole way, as if he was our escort. We walked around some houses with donkeys or camels outside, and soon saw some temple ruins. A man was lifting up a piece of broken fencing to let us in.
There wasn't a whole lot at this other site, but damned if we're going to let some busybody shisha-smoking men keep us from exploring. I wouldn't have pushed it too far, being sure no police or other "authorities" get involved, but for godsakes, are tourists only allowed to walk in designated tourist areas?
Back in the car, we headed towards Luxor, and would stop at another site on the way there. On all the roads, it is common to see carts and trucks beyond overloaded. Whether it's a donkey cart with alfalfa or a truck full of sugar cane on its way to a nearby factory or a van with luggage strapped on top, everything is loaded two or three times what you would see in Canada or the US. In a place with scarce resources, people make the most of every trip.
The temple at Dendera is interesting because its roof is fully intact, which has preserved the engravings inside, and much of the colour. I was especially interested because it's a shrine to Hathor, now my favourite Egyptian god. However, the artwork inside was done much later, mostly while Egypt was under Greek or Roman rule, and is much less detailed, more crude and clunky.
Back in the car, we had to talk B'lal into getting something to eat before heading back to Luxor. I think he was out of his comfort zone, taking tourists into a town he doesn't know. But I knew we could work it out. We were joking around with him, "B'lal we're so hungry, please let us eat..." and he finally gave in.
The town of Dendara turned out to be a bustling little city. B'lal thought of something called "Khikdur" -- "Do you know Khikdur?" I thought it might be a kind of food, but it turned out to be a fast-food chain called Quick Door. We got shawarmas and burgers and sat upstairs. B'lal let us buy him one shawarma only, then ordered a second that he paid for. Allan had our first burger in Egypt, much better meat and bread than North American fast food.
On the way back to Luxor we saw a sad sight. Remember those overloaded trucks? One was partially overturned on the side of the road. Tomatoes were everywhere. A few men were trying to pick them up and put them in crates, a bit like taking a broom to the sand. Cars on both sides of the mess were, at first, hesitant to drive through and crush someone's produce. B'lal opened his door, reached down, and passed me a beautiful red tomato. Then almost at once, everyone decided there was nothing more we could do, and drove through and on the tomatoes. We could then see that the entire cargo had fallen off the truck.
After that, we noticed truck after truck loaded with tomatoes; obviously it must be harvest time. B'lal said the tomatoes are on their way to factories in Cairo and Alexandria.
In our little village, we bought more desserts dripping in honey, showered off a lot of dust, and had dinner at the hotel. Tomorrow is our last day in Luxor; Allan has a full day planned for us. I will endeavour to start the day without falling on my face.
We thought we had settled our taxi troubles, but that was not to be. This time, “the father of B’lal” showed up, thinking we were taking a road trip. Instead, we went to Karnak Temple on the east bank.
In a blog full of superlatives, Karnak temple may top the list. First, it is massive. St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London could both fit inside. If you have not seen those cathedrals, I can only say that they are enormous, and one feels like a tiny ant inside them (obviously one of the desired effects). Imagine that Karnak is larger than both combined, and built in a time when no other buildings had even a second story.
Next, the columns. The columns! There is a forest of columns inside, 134 in all, each one 10 metres (33 feet) around and 24 metres (80 feet) tall. This hall alone, now called the Great Hypostyle Hall, is 50,000 square feet. And these columns once held massive lintels (horizontal stones) and another configuration of columned openings on top.
Naturally everything is covered in hieroglyphs and images, all of the highest detail and quality.
Imagine the number of people it took to build this! I think of that all the time. When I was writing junior nonfiction about ancient civilizations, I learned that the ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to figure out irrigation. This led to the first large-scale agriculture -- the first civilization to store wheat and other grains. This led to people eating well all year around -- when the Nile was flooded and when it was dry. This in turn led to more people -- more families, and more children in each family. The large-scale agriculture also led to more specialization -- people whose job it was to count grain, to make barrels, to organize work crews. The first middle class. And this enabled the ancient Egyptians to become the first civilization to build on a monumental level. It all began with irrigation. I’ve thought of this many, many times on this trip!
Karnak was built over many successive reigns, each pharaoh claiming it as his own and adding on more. It continued to be used through Greek and Roman invasions. On one back wall, some Roman faces appear -- the remains of Roman frescoes that were painted over the hieroglyphs.
This massive temple is only one part of the Karnak complex. There were ceremonial lakes and all manner of outbuildings. Allan and I were both absolutely awed. I believe the last time I felt like this was in La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona. Interestingly, that also contained a forest of columns, graceful and bending like living trees. I know that Gaudi was influenced by many world cultures; I wonder if he saw Karnak, or drawings of it.
Karnak was the first site we’ve visited that has an actual visitor’s centre, designed to (somewhat) echo the design of the temple. There are photographs of the sites before and during restoration, which is really interesting. There is also a model of the whole site. Nothing is labelled. The scale is 1 = 300, but it doesn’t say 1 or 300 what.
There were huge numbers of visitors at Karnak. All the tours go there, and daytrippers come up from the Red Sea resorts in the south. The immense size of the temple made the crowds more bearable.
After Karnak, we asked B’lal’s father to take us to a place reputed to have the best koshari in town. He wanted to take us to a “famous restaurant” but hamdulay, he did not insist. (That’s “thank god”, an expression you hear constantly. “How are you?” “Thank god I’m fine, how are you?”)
The place was a huge fast-food restaurant, with cooking on the street level and tables upstairs, orders and food going up and down by dumbwaiter. We each had a small koshari, and shared a shawarma and a hawawshi. I finally thought of what a hawawshi most closely resembles -- a quesadilla. It’s like a quesadilla with samosa filling inside.
Koshari is my new favourite food. It is delicious, energy packed, and vegan. (Obviously I’m not vegan, but it’s great that it bridges that divide.) This place served it with a bowl of tomato sauce, so you can control your sauce without anything getting soggy. Please will someone open a koshari joint in Mississauga?
(We’ve also learned that we’ve been pronouncing it wrong. It’s said as if it’s a store selling koshers -- a koshery.)
Our next stop was supposed to be the Luxor Museum, but we were disappointed to see it is open 9-2, then 5-9. We caught it after 2:00. We hadn’t wanted to do two temples in one day, but the museum hours kind of forced our schedule. B’lal’s dad wanted us to take a felucca ride (a traditional sailboat), but again, he did not insist.
Luxor Temple was also very large and impressive, with a huge amount of carvings and colours. It, too, was filed with massive columns. Only a visit to Karnak made it seem somewhat small or ordinary.
An interesting note about Luxor Temple: after the original builders and worshippers used it, Greeks used it, then Romans, then Coptic Christians built a church in it, and then a mosque was built in it. (Both church and mosque remain and are still in use.) This makes the site a continuous place of worship for more than 2,000 years, something unique or at least very rare in this country.
Outside the temple is the remains of the Avenue of Sphinxes that once connected the Luxor and Karnak temples -- both sides of a wide path lined with sphinxes for three kilometres! A large number of them remain outside the Luxor Temple, enough to give you the idea.
Luxor Temple was packed with tour groups. It can get loud and crowded in the passageways or small chapels. This is the first trip where Allan routinely wants more time than I do! He is totally engrossed with taking photos; I usually end up finding some shade to wait in. This is fine with me! This is more than fine, this is awesome. I am so happy that he is enjoying himself so much.
After this, we were tired and dusty (you are always dusty here), and we asked The Father of B’lal to take us back to the hotel. He suggested we take the ferry. But again did not insist. Back at the hotel, B’lal’s father was having a heated phone call with Salvation Army Guy (Allan calls him Orphanage Guy. Same dude.) While SAG was berating Allan, I paid B’lal’s dad, and suddenly the whole situation turned around. If you’ve read the previous guest post (or novella), you already know this.
We noticed a little bakery in the village of our hotel, and picked up some fig pastries and danish-type pastries drowning in honey. Because everyone needs to eat dessert before dinner, right?
B’lal’s father picked us up and took us to a local spot called Restaurant Mohammed, which turned out to be one of the coolest spots of this trip. Mohammed lives in a little mud-brick house, with the restaurant attached, and a patio for outdoor dining attached to that; the restaurant is three times the size of his house. The walls are lined with posters of jazz and blues musicians -- Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Dexter Gordon -- and as we sat down, one of Mohammed’s sons put on music: Miles Davis. Not what we expected!
Four noteworthy factoids about our dinner at Mohammed’s.
We both ordered kofta. These dishes were brought to the table: bread, fried eggplant slices, salad vegetables, pickled vegetables, white spreadable cheese, rice, fried potatoes, stewed vegetables, ripe green melon slices, and the kofta. We were laughing at the quantity of the food. We ordered drinks (more freshly squeezed mango for me), so the bill came to $15 Canadian.
While we were eating, two other customers came in, men with British accents. One of them called over to us, and began what social workers call “inappropriate disclosure” -- yelling across the room. TMI! Among other things, we learned that he met his father for the first time a few years ago. The lost father lived in St Catharines, in southern Ontario. And the man’s sister lives in? You guessed it, Mississauga.
Mohammed’s used to host musicians, five nights a week, regional and local favourites coming to play. I would have loved to see one of those shows.
Everything was delicious, although I had to discreetly spit out the pickled eggplant. Think of the pickliest thing you’ve ever eaten, double it, then soak it in pickling for another week.
B’lal picked us up, we made our plans for the next day, and were very happy, and very stuffed.
A guest post from Allan:
Laura has mentioned some of our troubles with our various taxi drivers in Luxor. She has not wanted to get into too much detail, but she thought a guest post on the subject would be a good idea. So I’ll be the one giving you way too much information.
In Cairo, we were extremely lucky when Tito at the Pyramids View Inn hooked us up with Abdul for our trip to Saqqara, Memphis, and Dahshur. During our second day with Abdul, driving around Cairo, he asked how we would get around in Luxor. (In addition to the sites near town, there would be at least one long road trip. Luxor was the kind of city where we would either need cabs everywhere or we would hire someone to drive us to various places.) We said we planned on asking at our hotel. Abdul said he would make some calls and see if he could assist. In seemingly no time at all, he had lined up someone to drive us for our entire stay in Luxor! He told us what this would cost; it was an amount that was more than reasonable for us and one he said that was generous to the driver (who was also guaranteed six days of work).
Monday: The shitty overnight train from Cairo arrived in Luxor roughly one hour late and we missed our pickup from the hotel (apparently he gave up when the train was late (?)). The arranged Luxor driver was meeting us at the hotel at 10 AM. Abdul told us that the driver should say Laura’s full name -- that way we would know he was the correct guy, rather than someone hanging around the hotel saying, yeah, sure, I’m your driver. When we went downstairs, the guy (a young man named B’lal) held up a piece of paper with Laura’s last name on it. That seemed good enough for us. We explained that we had arrived late and asked if he could come back at 1 PM.
When he returned, we explained that we were not going to do any sightseeing but would instead go into Luxor for lunch and then wander around a portion of the town. Our hotel is on the west bank of the Nile. Luxor is on the east bank and while there are local boats you can pay to ferry you across the river, if you are driving, you have to go maybe 10 km south, cross a bridge and then drive 10 km north into the city. As we were en route, we told B’lal where we wanted to go for lunch, the name of the restaurant and the address. Right away, he suggested another place that he said was very good. We know enough from our travels that this type of suggestion often means that the driver/guide has a relationship with the particular restaurant (or shop or hotel or whatever) and will receive a kickback when he brings in business. So we were mildly annoyed right away. We had arranged for a driver, not a guide. And we started wondering if this was the guy Abdul had hired for us. He seemed to not be as professional.
We got to our restaurant and as we were eating, B’lal came in with another man. He said this older man would take over as our driver for the rest of day. They told us to enjoy our lunch and the second driver would be waiting outside. After lunch, we said we’d like to go to a small store that I had read sold locally-made crafts. Our new driver launched into a pitch for a store he knew that sold everything under the sun. Three floors of items at very cheap prices! And the money benefited a local orphanage. He went on and on. Our mild annoyance grew with this new “helpful” suggestion. He did take us where we wanted to go -- as we employed the “maybe later” excuse for the mega-store -- and he was expecting us to return in perhaps 30-45 minutes. We spent a fair bit of time in the shop chatting with the owner and a few other customers. We wandered around the market area, and were accosted by dozens of men selling crappy tourist souvenirs. Someone launched himself at us and asked if we wanted some tea. Laura did, and so we sat down. On the way back, Laura bought some things for certain members of her union. That took awhile and when we got back to the car, Orphanage Guy (OG) was annoyed because we had been away longer than we had said. (But we hired you for the entire day, we both thought to ourselves, so who cares?) This guy was now supposed to drive us back to our hotel, but he made it quite clear that he did not want to do all that driving, so he said he was going to send us in a ferry across the river and then we'd grab a taxi to the hotel. The trip across was quick and although the taxi driver on the other side attempted to hit us up for a very large fee, it went easily enough. But we were annoyed that OG was so lazy (on top of his constantly trying to change our plans) that he could not do the job he had apparently agreed to do. And our small questions about whether these drivers were actually the guys recommended by Abdul grew (the first guy had actually never said Laura’s name to us). Laura tried to get in touch with Abdul, but we could not seem to call him from Luxor.
Tuesday: B’lal arrived promptly at 9 AM and we headed to the Valley of the Kings and some nearby sites. The morning went well, although we were in a different car than the one on Monday. One of the back windows in this car did not exist and the other one did not roll down. We didn’t have any ideas about where to eat lunch, so we agreed when B’lal suggested a small nearby restaurant. The prices were a little steep, but the food was quite good. We saw a few more sites in the afternoon. B’lal asked us several times when we wanted to go on a day trip to Abydos and Dendera (as had OG), which was odd. When Abdul had set this up, we assumed that we would pay one driver at the end of the week. We asked B’lal what he wanted and he said it was up to us ("as you like"). Then he mentioned something about repairing his car, so we paid him for this day. (We needed to get more cash to pay for Monday, so that would have to wait.) When we handed him Tuesday’s money, he thought it was for both days. No, no, we said, this is for you for today. He was clearly shocked. "This ... is for today?" Yes, this is for you, for today. We still weren't sure he believed us. Also, wasn’t this all explained (and agreed to) beforehand (by someone)?
Wednesday: We had arranged for a 9:00 AM pick-up. However, Laura needed more time to blog, so I went down at the appointed time to ask if we could leave at 10. I was introduced to a new, third, driver. Could he come back at 10? He didn't like that. How about 11? Well, 11 is a bit late, I said, we would prefer 10. He muttered something about taking his son to the hospital. (If you had this prior appointment (which I wasn’t convinced even existed), then why did you agree to work all day doing something else?) We settled on 10:30 and I was left wondering what the fuck was going on with all these drivers.
At 10:30, we discovered that there was now a FOURTH driver, who we quickly learned was the young guy who had taken us across the river in his boat on Monday night. On the way to the Valley of the Kings (Day 2), he pulled over and OG got in. WTF? OG immediately went into a sales pitch, suggesting things we could do, like spending time with an Egyptian family and learning about their lives. We had decided to not reply to these suggestions, to act like he wasn’t even talking (just the same way we ignored the many touts outside the various sites). He was again pushing us to go to Dendera/Abydos as soon as possible. The next day seemed fine for that, so we agreed. He told us that the price for that day would be twice the daily rate we had previously agreed on. Laura laughed and told him flat-out: No way. But don’t you know how far away Abydos is? Yes, we do, and it doesn’t matter. Everyone agreed on a fair rate for these days, and some days, like Monday, were very light and some other days would be longer. He grumbled and said he needed our full names for some paperwork that needed to be filed before we could go. This was the first time we had heard of this, so we balked. He told us this was simply for security (and some other reasons that made little sense) and that we needed to trust him and not be so suspicious. As you may have heard, this pissed Laura off and she unloaded on him, explaining extremely clearly why we did not trust him even one little bit.
After finishing up at the Tombs of the Nobles, we said we wanted a quicker lunch than the day before, perhaps some koshari at a local cafe. But we needed a bank machine first. The ATM gave us nothing but 200 pound notes, which we needed to change into smaller bills. OG said there was no actual bank on the west side and suggested that we go into a shop and ask the owner to make change. This seemed utterly ridiculous. The stores are small hole-in-the-wall places and there was no way a guy was going to give us small bills for, say, 600 or 800 pounds. We bought three bottles of water in one place to get a little bit of change and OG took us to a gas station where an attendant (who was related to him) changed another 200 bill. We left the water in the car and went to have lunch.
Unbeknownst to us, while we were eating, there was a change of drivers. Ferry Guy and OG left (with our newly purchased water!) and was replaced by the annoying guy I had seen first thing in the morning. When we got out to his ar after lunch, I remembered the water -- and cursed loudly. Seeing our anger at not having the water (which was feeling like a last straw of sorts), Annoying Guy started in, with an extraordinary amount of fake obsequiousness: "I'll get you more water. Do not be angry. We will buy more water. Why do you need three waters? Madame, do not worry. I will bring water to your hotel." He was using the Arabic expression for "no problem" over and over. We insisted that losing the water was not the issue, it was the least of the issues. It was merely the latest in a series of annoyances that we felt should not be happening in the first place, annoyances that we thought we had avoided by having this prior arrangement. The driver ran off and returned with two waters and we drove off.
At the first place on our afternoon schedule, he told us to stay at least an hour because he wanted to go home and have lunch with his family. We were speechless. After we complained (why not eat before you go to work for the afternoon?), he acted hurt and put out and agreed to wait ("as you like" -- but it's only as we like after you try to change things around to suit your own schedule). By this time, the hassles with the revolving drivers were really getting to Laura and she was wondering if we should scrap the whole arrangement. We figured we could postpone the day trip and not have anyone the next day. Get some time away from these guys. Take a boat across the river, and take taxis to and from the sites, and return by river at night. We called B’lal and told him our revised plans, but we would see him on Friday for the trip to Dendera/Abydos.
Thursday: While having breakfast, we were told that B’lal’s father (!) was here to drive us around. Yes, ANOTHER driver, for fuck’s sake, on a day we said we did not want a driver. But rather than send him away, we said we would be ready shortly. He thought we were going on the long trip today, but we said, no, we had cancelled that the night before and were going to be in Luxor. He waived some papers that OG must have prepared for our travel, but we just shrugged our shoulders. Besides, we would have needed to leave three hours ago if we were going to those far-away sites. So into Luxor we went. And this day actually was pretty good. B’lal’s father said some interesting things about the area and did not try to sell us anything (well, only a meet-and-greet with a family, a felucca ride, and dinner at a "famous" restaurant). He took us where we wanted to go, in the order we wanted to do things, and was always waiting when we exited a site.
We headed back to the hotel around 4:30 (after he passive-agressively asked us if we knew there was a ferry). We were debating whether to ask him to return around 6:00 and take us somewhere for dinner. He was hired for the day, but when did his day actually end? We weren't sure about that, so we figured we should get a separate taxi for the evening. During the drive, there was a series of phone calls where Laura spoke to B’lal on his father’s cell phone (and could hear practically nothing) and then when OG wanted to talk to me about the two days we had yet to pay for (so was he in charge of this circus?). There was a fair amount of confusion before he said that we could pay whenever we wanted to (then why did you even call me?). While I was on the phone, Laura was busy paying B’Lal’s father for the day. When he saw the money, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. Like son, like father. And, suddenly, everything changed.
His attitude towards us completely changed (maybe we weren’t divas after all), and he began apologizing for anything and everything. "Oh, I am sorry, I did not realize. So sorry." We figured now it was okay to ask if he or someone else might take us to a restaurant for dinner. He said he would be back at 6:00. Which he was. On the drive to the restaurant, he was joking, asking Laura if she had a sister that B’lal could meet. He said B’lal would take us back to the hotel afterwards. And during that drive, B’lal also began apologizing for any troubles we have had. We agreed on an early morning pickup time for Friday and said goodnight.
We don’t know who we will see behind the wheel on Saturday for another day in Luxor. But we know that we will refuse to go anywhere with either OG or the Hungry Guy. I never want to see those two clowns again. On Sunday, B’lal will drive us to Aswan, and we will stop at a couple of sites along the way.
These posts are one day behind. I write in the morning, but cannot get an internet connection until evening.
Our taxi arrangement should be great, but it has not gone smoothly. Today (Wednesday) we had three different drivers, and very nearly a fourth. With the exception of B'lal, none of them seem to understand the concept of being hired for a flat rate for the day. More likely, they understand it perfectly but are trying to make the day more profitable or easier.
The worst of the bunch is the older gentleman who we’ll call Salvation Army, since he is so hot to take us to a thrift store, “where they sell everything you will like, madame, all at 50% off, to benefit the orphanage.” He took over for B’lal the day we arrived in Luxor. We asked to go to a restaurant, he knew a better one. We wanted to visit a certain store we had read about, he wanted to bring us to “the orphanage”. He was supposed to drive us home, but instead put us in a boat and another cab, and we had to pay for both. He is supposed to be a driver, but he is actually a tout.
Today he was worse. He tried to extort an extra fee -- a very large one -- for a big road trip we have coming up. He tried to rearrange our plans for his convenience. He was either whining and complaining, or "making suggestions" the entire time. After all that, he said to me, "Sometimes you just have to trust people. You are very suspicious."
Let's just say that hit a nerve. I explained that we trusted Abdul, and we trust B'lal -- it's you we don't trust, and here's why. I was speaking rather heatedly, but nowhere near as angry as I felt.
Somewhere in the middle of this bullshit, while we were eating koshari in a local take-out joint, they switched drivers again, and someone drove off with three big bottles of water we had just purchased. This allowed another driver to act as if the whole problem was us losing our waters. No matter how many times I said, "The water is not important. We don't care about the water," it was all he could talk about. Then he takes us to another site, and says, “Make sure you take all your food and drink with you. I want to go home and eat with my family.” Meaning, while we are seeing the site, he was hoping to get in another fare.
In Cairo, Abdul assured us, promised us, that the daily price he suggested was generous to the driver, and we knew it was a good deal for us. If one of these drivers had half the professionalism of Abdul, we would love them. As you read this, you might think the whole thing is down to cultural differences. Perhaps, but Abdul and B’lal are also part of this culture, as are our friends at Pyramids View and the owners of our current hotel.
Annoying Taxi Tricks were scattered throughout the day, and you can imagine them scattered throughout this post.
Our first stop was to return to the Tombs of the Nobles, to talk to Hamdi and take more photos in the tombs. On our way there, we stopped to see two colossi which stand just off the road in a partially reconstructed site. These statues of Memnon are massive -- 18 meters (60 feet) tall -- and supposedly formed part of the entranceway to a temple that soared above them, three or four times as tall. I would be skeptical, but we’re talking about the people who created the Great Pyramids.
The statues are very impressive, but it's just a roadside stop, and we were back on our way to the Tombs of the Nobles, despite the objections of our driver. Hamdi helped us get in with yesterday's tickets, and we found ourselves bargaining a new arrangement. Shortly after, Allan went off with a guy to see a tomb and I stayed with Hamdi. Hamdi told me he had been "acting harder" for the benefit of the other man, a "bigger man" (i.e., his superior at this workplace), I shouldn’t worry, the arrangement from yesterday stands.
Scattered across the Tombs of the Nobles complex are small mudbrick buildings, usually with a small shaded area in the front, and a galibeya-and-kafeyah man and maybe a dog or two sitting. Hamdi and I sat in one shaded area and talked. He asked me about Canada, and said that he meets people from all different countries, and he would like to see the countries they come from, the way they see Egypt.
Many men ride motorcycles here, and as they passed, two or three on a bike, Hamdi and these men would wave and call out to each other. Hamdi told me a tourist offered him 300 LEs -- a huge amount of money to him -- to drive him on a motorbike over the mountain to the Queen Hatshepsut temple. Hamdi tried to explain to the man that this is illegal, so all along the way, he would have to pay off guards and inspectors, and in the end, he'd be left with very little money. The tourist thought Hamdi was haggling, but he was trying to explain the situation.
While we talked, men were clearing rubble from one of the tombs currently being recovered. Each man would walk with a plastic basket of rocks and rubble on his shoulder, all the way down and around a whole bunch of tombs, to a pickup truck parked near where I was sitting, reach up to his full arm length, empty the contents of the basket into the truck bed, then walk all the way back. To be any less efficient, they would have to be carrying individual stones without a basket.
I asked why the truck was so far away; why not move the truck closer, and save steps? Hamdi called out to one of the workers, to ask him my question. He replied that no vehicles are allowed on the paths to the tombs, because there are so many ancient sites underneath, it could easily damage them.
This reminded Hamdi that this same area used to be a small village where many families lived. When the ancient tombs were discovered, they were forced to move.
Hamdi and I talked until Allan came back from seeing three tombs. Now Hamdi was going to walk Allan to the tomb of the nobleman Sennofer and arrange with someone to let him go in and take photos. I didn’t want to hike up to the tomb for no reason. Hamdi wanted to find me a shady spot at one of the little buildings, but I would have to look at someone’s alabaster souvenirs -- “no buy, just look”. Instead, I sat on a low wall in the sun, put on more sunscreen, and waited by myself.
They were gone a long time. When they returned -- yay, Allan didn’t get locked in a tomb! -- I called our drivers. This gave us time to pay Hamdi and take some pictures of him. He posed beside a sign he called “a total lie”. The US international “development” agency, USAID, was announcing that the current restoration project is employing one person from each of 600 local households who became unemployed during the 2011 revolution. Hamdi says that he is one of those families, and no such employment has ever existed. I asked Hamdi if he knows the English word “propaganda”. From his smile and laugh, we knew he understood. I said, here is another English word: “bullshit”.
After this, the situation with our driver(s) really broke down. We wanted to have something small and quick for lunch. For many reasons, it’s not easy (or even possible) to do what we normally would do while travelling -- pick up some bread, fruit, cheese, yogurt, and find a spot to sit and eat. So we thought a bowl of koshari would be good. But first, we needed a bank machine, and then we would need some of the large bills changed into smaller denominations.
It was like we had walked into an episode of Fawlty Towers -- except not funny. We had multiple arguments with multiple drivers. Someone drove off with our water, while another guy was explaining to us how to pay 15 pounds for koshari, as if we were helpless idiots. (“15 Egyptian. Ten plus five.”)
We had only two more sites picked out for our west bank sightseeing. If we could just get through one more afternoon with the worst driver of them all, we could get back to the hotel and figure out how to manage the rest of the week.
The next stop -- Medinat Habu -- was absolutely amazing. It’s a massive monument dating back to 1550 BC, but used by successive invading or conquering peoples for centuries, all the way to Christians in the 9th Century AD. It has many massive stone pillars, and courtyard after courtyard, each with yet more massive columns. There are hieroglyphs everywhere, many depicting battles and the exploits of various kings and generals. (One famous and gruesome scene depicts a royal scribe totalling the enemy dead by counting severed hands and penises.)
You could probably explore this site for a full day if there weren’t 30 other sites in the area. We stayed about an hour, then found our driver -- who was only waiting because I insisted and argued with him.
Our final west-bank site was some newly discovered tombs and the remains of a workers’ village, where the people who physically created all of these masterpieces lived. I was really upset about the bullshit with the drivers, when I saw a kitten that clearly needed help, and it just put me over the edge. We see many dogs and cats around, and most look in good shape. I imagine there are many that don’t make it to adulthood, and this kitten would be one of them. I lost all interest in seeing tombs. I urged Allan to go without me while I sat down and tried to get it together.
When he came out, he said this tomb was small, but beautiful, and he had paid the attendant to take photos. We then had some role reversal, with Allan urging me not to let other people’s idiocy keep me from doing what I want, or let them spoil our day. It took a while, but he succeeded. I asked the attendant to let me into the tomb, and it was indeed small but beautiful. But I did not give the attendant more money!
There was one other tomb at this site, also small but very brightly coloured. The paintings and hieroglyphs at this site were much less detailed and fine than those in the Valley of the Kings or at Saqqara. These were made with thick outlines and broad pictures. They were either created by craftspeople with lesser skills, or perhaps were rushed, or both. These tombs are much more recent -- by roughly 1000 years -- so another possibility is that the intense rituals of the Pharonic era had become rote and routine by this time, carried out in a perfunctory manner without much meaning attached.
The cab ride back to our hotel was one of the most annoying of the day. I think the drivers were sensing that their sweet deal was falling apart, and they wanted to book us for one of the long road trips before we could back out. This driver called someone and handed me the phone. I have no idea who I was talking to. He apologized for the water (!) and for Salvation Army, and promised me the driver to Abydos would be great, the car would be great, and the payment would be enough.
Once back in our room, we thought of a way we could cut down on contact with these guys and make our remaining time in Luxor more pleasant. I called B’lal and changed some things around. Fingers crossed.
At the hotel, our laundry was ready early. We has asked about a laundromat, but those don’t exist here, you give your laundry to someone to take care of. (This is common in many countries.) One of the guys from the hotel delivered it -- for an exorbitant fee. After he left, we discovered that the clothes were all quite damp. sigh Bad timing for that. We let the high price go, but returning the clothes wet? Come on.
After we washed up and had a brief rest, we walked to the Sunflower Restaurant for our roast duck dinner. When the main course came, it was a whole roasted duck, with crispy, crackling skin, stuffed with a rice and wheat mixture. Our host brought us a big sharp knife to carve it, but in the end, we ate it Egyptian style -- ripping pieces off with our hands and eating it with bread or rice. Messy but delicious.
As were finishing up, Allan said, What do you want to bet that he asks to book us for another special dinner? Not five minutes later, that’s exactly what happened. We gave some noncommittal answers, which appears to be the way people say “no” around here. Also, three different people have offered that we should come to someone’s home, meet a “typical Egyptian family,” have a “welcome drink” (tea) and ask them question about how they live. Salvation Army, Restaurant Guy, and Hamdi all suggested this. If this happened naturally, on its own, it would be wonderful. But we don’t want to go to someone’s home as part of a business transaction.
After dinner, we saw the hotel owner and told him what happened with the laundry. He asked what we were charged, and was shocked, repeating it several times, incredulously. He came up to our room to see (and feel) the damp laundry, apologized several times, and said tomorrow they could dry everything in the sun. That will not only dry the clothes, but it will get rid of any mustiness from leaving the clothes wet overnight. I imagine he will also straighten out the fee for us.
Yesterday was a full day of ancient sites and excellent Egyptian food. I woke up from a rooster crowing! Seriously, it called “Roo-uh roo-uh rooooo”. That was followed by the morning call to prayer. It’s a very pleasant way to start the day.
We had breakfast in the lush, green courtyard at the hotel. Breakfast here is hardboiled eggs, yogurt, honey, cheese spread, and rolls. I miss those fig pastries and green falafel from Giza!
After breakfast, our driver was waiting. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But it’s a great way to go here. If you don’t go with a tour, there are no buses to any of the sites. There are always taxis hanging around, but you’d have to negotiate every single ride, and there would be many rides every day. It’s super convenient for us, and a good deal for the driver, B’lad.
He showed up in a different car today. One back window is missing, and the other doesn’t open. We’re hoping his regular car will be fixed before we go on a long road trip.
We’re staying on the west bank, so we decided to see the west bank sites first. We started at Valley of the Kings, called this because the hills and mountains hid the tombs of so many pharaohs. Even early in the day, the parking lot was packed with tour buses and there was a “line” for tickets. And by line I mean a mob. There are no lines here. Just mobs of tourists pushing and jostling. We can’t blame this on Egypt!
First you walk through a gauntlet of stalls, men calling you from all sides. Then you purchase an entry ticket, separate tickets for some famous tombs, then there’s a separate ticket to take a trolley to the beginning of the site. It’s a walkable distance, but it’s uphill, and there’s no shade. It’s not a lot of money, but couldn’t they include it in the admission price?
As we entered, an attendant insisted that we check our camera with them. Allan was having none of it. We know that as soon as we walk in, everyone will be snapping away with their cell phones. Plus outside of the tombs, out in the desert sun, what would be the problem? Allan stuck to his refusal, and eventually the man gave up and left. Go Allan!
Your regular ticket gains you admission to three tombs of your choice. We chose tombs based on Lonely Planet’s descriptions. Each tomb has a passageway that slopes downward, opens into a chamber, then there is another passageway, another chamber, and so on until you reach the tomb itself. The walls of the passageways and chambers are covered in hieroglyphs, many still brightly coloured. In the tomb itself there is often a sarcophagus, also entirely enscribed with glyphs.
Each tomb is distinctly different from the others. Some are less accessible and require more effort and ability to enter. Some are known for the scenes depicted on the walls, or the degree of detail in the engraving, or the beautiful colours.
We saw two tombs together, then I took a breather while Allan challenged himself to see the least accessible tomb. First he climbed up many steps up a steep mountainside, then down, down, down into a tomb that was buried exceptionally deep within the mountain. (Supposedly this pharaoh chose the location to thwart potential grave robbers.) I did one tomb without Allan; it was easy to access, and therefore quite crowded.
At every tomb, a man in a galibiya and kafiyeh punches your ticket, then tries to “help” you. Much of this consists of watching whoever has cameras, reminding them not to shoot, then trying to extract a tip in exchange for photography. The guidebook suggests putting a bunch of one-pound notes in your pocket for tips -- but no one will accept a tip that small. I assume they know that 1 LE is an insignificant amount to us.
Each tomb was unique and amazing. They are almost all covered in intact hieroglyphs -- all walls and the ceiling. The degree of detail in the hieroglyphs is astonishing. Anywhere there is colour adds to your understanding of what these places once looked like, the beliefs of the people who built them, and their incredible skills.
As always, I am in awe of our ancient ancestors. How did they clear the spaces below ground? How did they remove millions of tonnes of stone? I’ve already been wondering about what tools were available for craftspeople to use -- and how did they practice their skills? There must have been master craftspeople, competing to work on a pharoah’s tomb. Now Allan has added another question: how did they see what they were doing? There is now some artificial lighting in the tombs, but 4,000-odd years ago, they would have been very, very dark.
Most of the tour groups rush in and out of the tombs. Maybe to some people (maybe most? I don’t know) it gets dull. What, another tomb? To us it is thrilling. That’s why we chose to come here!
After we saw our allowed number of tombs, we decided not to pay the galibeya gentlemen to see more. We found B’lad and asked him to take us to a place for lunch. On the way, we passed the Temple of Hatshepsut, and B’lad convinced us to see it before lunch. We were hungry, but it's not a large site. sigh
Once again, we walk through a gauntlet of men hawking crappy souvenirs. (I’ve been trying to remember the word my mother would use for the stuff being sold, i.e. the Yiddish word. Just thought of it yesterday: shlock.) The souq is set up so that you have to walk through it to buy your ticket -- a reverse “exit through the gift shop”. Which reminds me, there is no official gift shop anywhere, just these guys.
The Hatshepsut site is a temple, not a tomb, so it is very visible and has a grand entrance. The temple itself is built into a limestone mountain, and above the human-made part, the mountain extends upwards, as if it is part of the temple. This design makes it feel very grand, very impressive. You approach it down an aisle, now just a road, but once lined with sphinxes! A few partial, damaged sphinxes remain.
When you reach the temple, you walk up a huge, wide staircase, then through a narrow passageway, into the inner chamber. Naturally there are hieroglyphs on everything -- walls, ceilings, pillars. The temple is not fully restored. The restoration has been ongoing for decades, probably off and on when funding is available. (All the restorations are done as joint projects with European or North American universities and foundations.)
This site was also very crowded with tour groups. By this time the sun was blazing full strength, and there was no shade to speak of. We both wear long sleeves every day, and Allan wears as baseball cap, but we’re not completely covered up. I re-apply sunscreen several times a day and so far, so good. Back in Giza, when we returned from a sightseeing day with Abdul, loaded down with food to eat on the roof, I forgot to put sunscreen on for 15-20 minutes -- and got a slight sunburn on my face and upper chest. Not painful or lasting, but still, not healthy. (I already have two risk factors for skin cancer.) We are being very good about sunscreen here, and I always wear my thin black sweater on at these sites, or a pashmina if we’re in town.
B’lad was right, this temple took about 30 or 40 minutes, then we found him in the parking lot, and went to the Moon Valley restaurant. We walked upstairs to a roof patio -- every restaurant meal begins with these words. This had a view of the valley, where bright green sugar cane is growing, and the dry desert mountains beyond.
For the typical Egyptian meal, you order only your main course. Everything else comes with it -- salads, dips, vegetables, bread, rice, and sometimes a small dessert. It’s wonderful, as we would never order so many little side dishes, plus you have whatever is fresh and best at that particular restaurant.
I’ve discovered that those puffy breads were just pitas! That’s what Egyptian-style pita looks like straight from the oven.
This meal was tahini, eggplant, and chopped salad (more on this later). I had lamb tangine, like a lamb stew, brought to the table sizzling in a cast iron bowl, with the rice molded on the plate. Allan had kofta. Both were really good.
The rice here is a mix of two kinds -- a really short-grain white rice that almost looks like couscous, and a long-grain brown rice. It must be made with some very rich broth, because it is so flavourful and delicious.
The eggplant slices are small discs, one of the thinner varieties of aubergines. So far each meal in Luxor has included eggplant slices, each has been prepared differently, and each has been delicious. Some were more roasted, some more pan fried, different spices are used -- totally different dishes. These have none of the bitterness that our big eggplants sometimes do.
This meal was 100 LEs each -- the equivalent of $7.00 Canadian. We ordered drinks -- I’m drinking hibiscus now, similar to cranberry juice, but freshly squeezed -- so that is extra, and if you order coffee or tea, that is extra, too, and tip is not included. So this meal came to about $18.00. We don’t necessarily want to eat lunch and dinner at a restaurant every day -- we wouldn’t normally do that -- but it was the easiest thing to do at the time.
After lunch we were going to visit the Tombs of the Nobles. The ticket office for this is not located on the site, it’s in a central ticket office, which is really just a random cabin with a ticket window. Each tomb is a separate ticket at a separate price, although some tickets get you access to three tombs that are near each other. We wanted tickets to many of the tombs. The man selling the tickets said, “You are a teacher, so I give you a student discount. Remember, if anyone asks, you are a teacher.” Instead of giving me 50 LE change, he gave me 120! It was a rare case of reverse haggling. We later realized that most people probably purchase one or two tickets, not a large number as we did.
Tombs of the Nobles is a large, spread-out site. The people buried here were upper class, but not pharaohs, and the tomb decorations include scenes of ordinary life -- very interesting to us. In contrast to the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut temple, this site was empty. No tour groups whatsoever. No souq.
To get to the tombs, you must walk uphill; it’s the beginning of the mountains. It’s not overly hot, but the sun is absolutely blazing, and there is zero shade. I keep thinking, that’s it, I’m done for the day, then Allan says, ‘oh no, come on, I want you to,’ and I go, and it’s amazing. One tomb in particular was stunning -- a ceiling covered in yellow stars on a deep blue background, and vivid hieroglyphs everywhere. The attendant refused our offer of 20 LE for photos, then suddenly he was gone and another man appeared. There’s an obvious pecking order among the attendants, and I think the first guy got pulled for a younger man with higher status. He wanted 50 LEs for photos. I didn’t want to pay it, but in any case we didn’t have a 50 bill, and you can’t ask them to make change!
After a few tombs, I was totally done. I was re-applying sunscreen every 30 minutes or so, but I still felt like my skin might be getting cooked. We were very dusty. And I was tired and I was getting very tired of all the old men at the tombs asking for money. At some point, a guy appeared, an attendant who was much younger than the others, maybe a older teen or early 20s. He had this instant charm that so many Egyptian men seem to have -- somehow immediately making you smile and feel comfortable with them. He was joking around, trying to talk me out of leaving, and into seeing more tombs.
We did two more, and I had to declare myself officially done. While Allan was in one of the tombs, paying for photo privileges, I sat down with the young man, Hamdi. His English was excellent, and he told me he learned it only from tourists and TV, not from school; he also speaks German and Spanish, both learned the same way. I said, “I know you guys think tourists have unlimited money, but we do not.” He said, “We don’t want to keep asking and asking. But it is so hard for us to live.”
So this is what I learned from Hamdi. Tour groups used to visit the Tombs of the Nobles, but now do not. Even in Valley of the Kings, the tour guides instruct their tourists to talk to no one, and buy nothing, unless it is from the group. Then the guide brings them to a certain factory or shop, and tells everyone they should shop there -- the store where the western guide gets a 50% cut. Meanwhile, a bag of sugar costs 20 LEs and bread has tripled in price. The government pays the site attendants a pittance, and they are expected to live on tips -- despite the fact that no tourists visit their site, or that the ones who do visit are instructed to not engage with them.
There were many more tombs to see, and by that time I felt a solidarity with Hamdi, and a responsibility to pay him. Our tickets are only good day-of, but Hamdi promised that if we return tomorrow, we will be able to get in. What’s more, in the morning it will be cooler and I will be less tired. Hamdi said my battery was run down, like a cell phone, and I needed charging overnight.
B’lad brought us back to the hotel and we showered, and collapsed. After a while we went out, down the tiny winding dirt road street of our hotel, where little kids were playing in the street. They were all well dressed, wearing shoes, noisy, waving to us, running around, screaming happily. Around the corner, down a street or two, there are several restaurants near the ferry slip, right on the river.
The first one we chose seemed very touristy, so I persuaded Allan not to be shy about leaving, and we picked another. Up a flight of steps to the roof (see?), to a small rooftop patio. We sat side-by-side so we both had a view -- the Nile, the lights of the east bank across the way, some of the ruins right near the water lit up. The owner came over to welcome us, and chat about dinner. He explained how a typical Egyptian meal is served. We ordered drinks and a main dish -- roast chicken for me and a beef dish for Allan (not sure what this was called -- kabob hadad?).
First come the meze -- eggplant slices, baba ganoush, and chopped salad. The salad is diced carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parsley, and other fresh green herbs, in a very small dice, in some kind of herb vinegar. I really wanted to try some, partly because it smells so good, and partly to not offend our host. But one of the rules of traveling in a country where you cannot drink the water is to only eat fruits or vegetables that are either peeled (like bananas or oranges) or cooked. No raw vegetable that is not peeled. In this salad, we could see carrots and cucumbers were peeled, leaving the tomato as the wild card. I reasoned that I’ve had the Dukoral vaccination, and it’s not as unsafe as actually drinking water... and it was so delicious! Not smart, I know, but even at my age, I sometimes have trouble curbing my risk-taking impulses.
After this course, came three more small plates -- zucchini stewed in tomato sauce, potatoes, and rice. Our main courses came to the table in small cast iron bowls, sizzling. My chicken was roasted with aromatic herbs, and was super tender and juicy. Our host told us that herbs are put under the skin, then the chicken is baked for hours on low heat. Allan’s dish was meltingly tender beef in some kind of stew, great sauce for spooning over the rice.
The owner, Hamad, brought us tiny pieces of semolina cakes, something like a corn bread or polenta cake, just a touch of sweet, and then insisted we have a hot drink -- more hibiscus for me (it’s drunk both hot and cold), and anise tea for Allan.
Chatting with the owner between courses was fun and interesting. He told us he is wearing two long sleeve shirts under his down vest, long underwear and two pairs of socks. It is very cold this winter -- it goes as low as 19. (For my US readers, that is 66F.) In the summer, however, it will go as high as 50-55 (130F). No one leaves the house between 10 am and sunset. We told him about winter in Canada.
He asked us if we would like to have a special dinner there tomorrow night -- roast duck, which he would order and cook for hours before we came. We booked it for 6:00. On our bill, he included 100 LEs as a deposit on the dinner. Without that, the dinner was 75 LEs each -- about $5.00.
Which reminds me, I forgot to tell you something about our hotel. We are staying in a gorgeous Islamic mansion full of flowering plants, wide marble staircases, vaulted ceilings, and attentive staff -- for the equivalent of $17 Canadian per night, including breakfast. If you ever come to Luxor, stay on the west bank!
As we were finishing dinner, Allan said, "Ohmygod, is that the moon?" and the owner came running over to say the same thing. A nearly-full orange moon was rising in the sky like a giant balloon. And with that, we walked back to the hotel.
Naturally we had to haggle for the taxi ride. Every transaction begins with an argument. We both really dislike it. We could pay the first price offered, but it is always wildly inflated. The train station is on the east bank of the Nile, where all the big chain hotels and most of the tourist scene is found. Our hotel is on the west bank, where the locals live and which is supposed to be great for great food. There is a bridge, which means quite a bit of extra driving, first south on one bank then north on the other. There are also ferries and many people with their own boats who will whisk you across.
After crossing the bridge, some guards stopped our cab, asked to see something from the driver, then asked him to get out of the car and follow them. We had no idea what was happening and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The driver returned, gesturing wildly, waving what appeared to be a receipt for something. He paid something to someone, and he was not pleased.
We drove down some tiny, winding streets, but these were in a cute little neighbourhood with clean streets and flowers in the window boxes. At the hotel, the driver tried to badger the person at the desk, still waving the receipt around, and he was quickly and definitively put down and shoo’d away. (This happened to us at the Pyramids View, too -- one final appeal from taxi driver to the hotel: save me from these terrible tourists!)
Then we entered the Hotel Sheherazade, and everything changed. This building is an Islamic-style mansion -- adobe and brick, red and white striped archways. courtyards and gardens, a fire pit, a pool, all spacious and green and serene. What a change after Cairo! We were helped upstairs to a nice clean room, and were just amazed. (Right now I am in the courtyard, drinking red wine, eating the desserts we bought in Cairo. It is warm and breezy. In the distance, someone is praying.)
Abdul had arranged for our Luxor driver to meet us at the hotel at 10:00 a.m. We went downstairs to meet him, and asked if he could return at 1:00 p.m. We showered and changed and decided to take the day off from sightseeing, to have lunch at a nice restaurant and do some shopping.
Here’s something we find very annoying. The driver picks us up and says, “Whatever you want to do, wherever you want to go, just let me know, we will go there.” We thank him and say we’d like to go to Restaurant A. And he says, I know Restaurant A, but wouldn’t you much rather go to Restaurant B? sigh This happens every single time we ask to go anywhere, and we are totally sick of it. The Luxor drivers are supposed to be drivers. We’re not paying enough for guides, and we’re paying too little for touts. I hope the whole week is not going to be like this.
In any case, Sofra, the restaurant Allan picked out from Lonely Planet, was lovely. Spacious, on an upstairs patio, with beautiful fabric sails to keep it cool and quiet. The menu was amazing; I’d love to go back and order all different things. We shared basterma and egg (basterma is something like pastrami), meatballs in tomato sauce, and the world’s best babah ganoush, then I had stuffed pigeon, an Egyptian specialty, and Allan had a rabbit and rice dish. The main dishes were small and delicate. You’re supposed to eat a lot before they arrive.
Our next stop was the Habiba Gallery, a fair-trade craft shop that features the work of local women. The owner -- who was there, chatting away -- is an Australian ex-pat who sells whatever the crafts person makes, offering feedback and advice on what sells and what they might want to tweak. The prices were crazy cheap. The women are getting fair prices for their work, but there’s only one step between their work and our sale. We bought a inlaid wood picture frame (it will look beautiful with Tala in it), two beaded zipper pouches, two three-string bead necklaces, and a scarf. (Every purchase ends with the words ‘and a scarf’.) (There were some young archaeology students who said they were suffering from scarf addiction.)
From there we wandered into the souk, and had the experience we meant to have in Cairo the day of the crush. It’s a strange phenomenon, walking down the centre aisle between rows of stalls, and men are calling out to you from every stall. “Miss, look here, beautiful, only 10 pounds,” “Over here, miss, no hassle, special for you,” “Come look, great quality,” “Germany? US? Why you no speak to me?” Every. Single. Stall. I may smile and look at someone, and that is taken as invitation. It doesn’t feel at all threatening or dangerous; depending on our mood, it is either amusing or annoying.
I had an idea about a fun gift involving some CUPE-pink pashmina shawls. It started with me asking a shop guy if he could give me a good price for a quantity. Plastic chairs and tea with mint appeared. A boy was sent on an errand. A tablecloth was introduced to the mix. Calculators were tapped by both parties. In the end, we walked out with a haul. If I went a bit overboard, I’ll never be here again. The tablecloth fell from 500 LEs to 100 LEs. That means it cost seven dollars.
When we met up with our driver, it was almost dark. The nearby ruins were lit up for the evening. Our driver dropped us at the ferry slip, and a young man took us across the Nile on his boat. Lights were twinkling on both sides. A felucca sailed past. Here it is: the Nile. Although we technically saw it in Cairo, we had no sense of a river being nearby. In Luxor, the Nile is still sustaining life by bringing dozens of cruise ships to its shores every day.
On the other side, the young man had a taxi waiting, and we were two minutes from the Sheherazade.
The train was interesting -- and eye-opening about the divide between the first world and the third. We decided to take the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor, as internal flights are quite expensive, and we are already taking three of those. The fare includes a sleeper car, dinner, and breakfast, and it ends up saving a night of hotel as well. I also thought the train would be fun.
Locals talk about this train as being very special, because it’s made for tourists. There were many (apparently) Egyptian people waiting for the train, and they were obviously well-off. The Giza train station has two tracks -- one north, one south. There’s no board listing arrivals and departures, and the only clock on the platform is broken, permanently announcing the time as 10:55.
The train itself is run down and dingy. It’s not disgusting, but in Europe it would never pass as first class. Once we got settled in, putting our bags in an overhead storage space, it was all right. Dinner was delivered, airline style. We put two plastic trays into slots to create tray tables. The plastic trays themselves were dirty and worn. I know I’m not eating off them, and they’re not going to hurt me, so I feel uncomfortable even thinking, ew, this is dirty. But I know some of my co-workers wouldn’t touch them.
Dinner seemed like a sad attempt at mimicking an in-flight meal. It also made the cabin impossibly cramped. The attendant soon came to take away the trays, and asked if we wanted the beds down. We stood in the hall while he did this, and were pleasantly surprised by the results. We had more room sitting together in the bottom bunk than we did in the seats. There appeared to be clean, fresh sheets on the beds (this had been a concern of mine), and a small ladder had been placed at one end. The ladder blocked the sink, and didn’t appear to be moveable.
I had imagined that the train motion would be conducive to sleep, but it was very noisy and also herky-jerky. I’m sure we both dozed off and on throughout the night, but it was not at all relaxing. In the morning there was a mad dash for water bottle and toothbrush and scrambling into our clothes. Breakfast consisted of four types of bread-y things -- a white roll, a large croissant, some other sweet pastry, and a slice of cake-bread -- each in its own individual plastic wrapper.
I’m not complaining. I don’t need to eat luxurious breakfasts and I don’t need to sleep in a king-size room. We like to spend less money on hotel rooms and more money on having fun. My only requirements are a clean room, a bed, and a hot shower. So my point is not that I thought this “sleeping train,” as it is called, is beneath my standards. It’s that it is considered first class, and quite expensive, and it was passable, and a bit gross.
Our hotel was supposed to arrange a cab to pick us up at the station. We didn’t realize that the train was an hour late, and we waited a long time for the driver, who had already given up and left. Waiting, here, means being approached constantly by people offering to “help”. It was not a fun way to spend a morning. Yet it turned out to be a terrific day.
We had our last breakfast looking out onto the Giza Plateau, and the massive, ancient, extraordinary pyramids. I loved the Egyptian breakfast, and I loved the scenery. We packed up, left our things with our wonderful hosts, and took a taxi to the Giza metro station, to the Sadat station on Tahrir Square.
The Egyptian Museum is the most visited site in Cairo, and one of the most heavily visited sites in all of the Middle East. Every tour bus, every Nile cruise, every school group goes there. Almost everything that was excavated from the pyramids and ancient royal tombs and temples lives there. And it is famously awful.
The museum is notorious for its poor lighting, poor or nonexistent information, and haphazard displays. There are no audio guides -- a standard feature in museums for at least 40 years -- and no organized tours. Touts stroll through the halls, offering their services for a few coins. It’s clear that many of them have no specialized knowledge whatsoever.
Many pieces sit on unmarked shelves, collecting dust. There are packing crates, who knows what inside, left in galleries.
A mammoth new museum is being built near Giza. It supposedly will be modern in all ways. But this new “coming soon” museum cannot be a legitimate excuse for the state of the current museum. It's been this way since its opening in 1902.
However, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. The Lonely Planet guidebook has a nice “best of” itinerary; the museum is huge and a greatest-hits tour is very useful. I was thrilled to see the Narmer Palette, one of the oldest records of written language in the world, and a huge array of hieroglyphics with the colours intact. At Saqqara, we saw tombs with star shapes on the ceilings -- here, we saw the same designs, but gold stars on a deep blue background. It was extraordinary.
The Egyptian Museum’s most famous holdings are the royal mummies and the treasures from the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, be st known as King Tut. (Queue Steve Martin.) For some reason there is an extra admission ticket for the mummies, but not for Tut. Allan did the mummies while I rested my feet. (This was surely the first time Allan wanted to spend more time in a museum than I did.) Maybe he will tell us about the mummies in a comment.
We were both in absolute awe over the Tut treasures. (No photography allowed in that room, and strictly enforced. The engraving work in the gold, the delicate and elaborate beadwork, the uniformity of the stone work, and of course, the excess -- the excessive excess -- is breathtaking. It seems nearly impossible that these works were created without the use of modern technology, but once again, the ancient civilizations dazzle us with their knowledge and capabilities.
The Tut death mask is one of the most famous antiquities, ever, and is certainly the most famous ancient Egyptian object. The death mask is indeed amazing, but the golden sarcophagi, each one more insanely elaborate than the next -- becoming more elaborate as they are closer to the body -- were stunning. The special King Tut room (included with your admission) is also full of gold jewellery, all in keeping the same themes, colours, and symbols.
The real capper on the commentary about the museum itself came on our way out: the gift shop. Museum gift shops are usually good places to buy quality gifts, and if you’ve been to any lately, you know the huge array of books, games, jewellery, accessories, tee-shirts, knick-knacks, and swag that is usually available. Here, there were some replica vases on a shelf, and guidebooks in different languages piled up, spilling over, and jammed into a display case. Another display case held a whole bunch of dusty DVDs, seemingly thrown in heap. Throw in a spinner-display of postcards, and that's it. Nothing else. We were so amazed by the gift shop that Allan took photos.
From a purely consumer perspective, can you imagine what a gold mine this gift shop could be? King Tut, mummies, Nefertiti...? From a cultural perspective, it’s just very, very sad.
We had some time before our train, and Allan (of course) had some cafes he wanted to find. One was a high-end patisserie called El Abd. We found it easily enough, but we had been hoping to relax with tea and dessert, and the place didn’t have tables. There was a crowd ordering gelato from a take-out window, and inside a brisk business in both traditional Egyptian and French sweet baked goods. We bought boxes of assorted Egyptian desserts, and another box for Abdul. Allan’s eyes flew open when he saw giant donuts, and he had to buy three of those.
I don’t know where Caireans eat when they shop in downtown Cairo, but on our second time walking around there, we saw fast-food takeouts only. It’s a very nice area -- wide sidewalks, relatively clean -- but as far as we can see, nothing to eat. We ended up at Cafe Riche again, the place where we recovered from market crush. The food is not very good, and we got into a thing with the waiter, and in general that was a waste of time and money, but at least we had something to eat.
We then made our way around the Tahrir Square traffic circle. Friends told me to be careful crossing streets in Cairo, but better advice would be “Don’t be careful, be bold”. When there’s a brief break in traffic, you must step out into the street, and you must keep walking until you get to the other side. At first, find a group of locals and tail them. Get a feel for it and jump in. The traffic circles are not littered with dead bodies, so something is working.
We took the metro to Giza, found the train station, and found Abdul. We went to his car retrieve our bags, and were pleased to surprise him with a box of sweets, and I was able to say, “This time we get the dessert.” He said, “Thank you for what you did for my family.”
It is strange to be in this position. Here, we are rich. Not just because our money stretches so far. We are rich simply because we are here -- we can travel halfway around the world, just because we want to see some famous things. Recreational travel is a first-world luxury. I have felt this before, but never as keenly as this.
We had an awesome day of sightseeing today; I have much to report.
We had planned to ask our hosts if they could connect us with a guide for Cairo sightseeing for Sunday. The plan was to do the Egyptian Museum today and sightsee with a guide tomorrow. While we were having breakfast, Abdul, our guide extraordinaire, appeared. Yes, he does urban tours, and yes, he’s free, let’s go today. He quoted us an extremely reasonable price, and asked us not to tell the Pyramids View guys. Fine with us. The one who does the work should reap the reward.
On the way into town, Abdul told us about modern Egypt’s political history -- views on Nasser, Sadat, Mubaruk, and Morsi. He told us how the election of Morsi was 100% democratic, the first real election in the history of Egypt, and how people loved Morsi for cleaning up police and army corruption -- and how those benefiting from that corruption made sure his presidency could not last. This came complete with a fake revolution in which incarcerated felons and friends of the police were paid to stage a fake coup in Tahrir Square.
We were soon driving on narrow, winding streets, where we parked in someone’s dirt yard and walked a few back streets to our first site.
This is what we saw.
First, Coptic Cairo. I learned that the word Coptic originally meant Egyptian, so a Coptic Christian was merely an Egyptian person who practised Christianity. Now the word has evolved to mean Egyptian Christian.
Hanging Church. This 9th or maybe 7th Century church was built on top of a Roman fort (hence its name, hanging on top of the Roman pillars). There are some beautiful mosaics when you first enter, in a style something like folk art. There’s also beautiful inlaid woodwork, and a bunch of creepy paintings and icons. It’s very cool to see the Roman remains, built by Hadrian, of England-Scotland wall fame.
Church of St Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga). From the Hanging Church, we walked down, down, down, to walkways below the city streets, past a long display of books in both Arabic and English. The walk ended at a church known as Abu Serga. This was filled with intricate wood inlay and brick, very quiet and understated. The ceilings of both churches are made of wood beams, created to recall an upside-down boat. Coptic legend says that old Cairo was the landing place of Noah’s Ark. Also, since Egypt figures prominently into the story of the Holy Family fleeing King Herod, there are maps charting that journey, overlaid on the map of the modern Middle East.
Synagogue Ben-Ezra. In this same section of town, we visited the oldest of the 10 synagogues in Cairo. I have chosen to keep my Jewish identity private on this trip, so I listened with great interest. Abdul said this is a “Jewish temple”, that “Muslims worship in a mosque, Christians in a church, and Jews in a synagogue, and those are just different words for the same thing, a holy place of worship”. He described the various parts of the synagogue and what they signify. He used different expressions than I would have, but everything he said was correct.
The security officer wished us Shalom and asked where we were from. He said, “Canada good. Canada good”, nodding and smiling.
I said to Allan, “You know how sometimes I say, ‘My father would have loved this,’ such as an African-American becoming President, or my strike? This is the opposite. My father would be rolling in his grave right now if he knew I was pretending not to be Jewish.” Allan said, “That’s reason enough to do it.” Tee hee. I feel that declaring oneself as Jewish here is fraught with meaning that I don’t want attached to me. What am I going to say, “I’m Jewish but I’m also an atheist and I support Palestinian freedom?”
After seeing the synagogue, I asked Abdul about religious freedom in Egypt. He said Egyptians can be either Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. They must declare themselves one of those three religions. They cannot be a nonbeliever and they cannot openly introduce any other religions into the country. They can intermarry, but then must choose one religion from then on.
Garbage City. On our way to the next site, we drove through something called Garbage City. I had envisioned a vast landfill dump with people and dogs scavenging. But no. We drove through a rabbit-warren of extremely narrow streets, which was a veritable factory of recycling. In huge garages, people were sorting and packaging trash. One was all paper and cardboard. Others were all plastic bottles, another all strips of plastic, another car parts. Abdul said organic waste is sold for agriculture, plastic is sold and shipped to China for their factories -- with plenty of money changing hands in the middle. There was garbage everywhere in various stages of reclamation, from piles to bails to large compressed bricks.
Naturally no one was wearing gloves, face masks, or protective clothing of any kind. Many children were barefoot. But there were convenience stores, tiny cafes (imagine eating there?!), clothing stores -- and smartly dressed women with well-dressed children. The whole thing was fascinating and very strange. And we kept the windows closed.
Cave Church. The Cave Church was one of the most beautiful houses of worship I’ve ever seen. Biblical scenes and verses are carved into a sheer wall of limestone, all created by one artist named Mariusz. You walk down a ramp that is tunneled into the rock -- very wide, a gradual slope, not scary -- which leads you to the level of the altar. An amphitheatre of benches rises behind you, with more New Testament scenes and scriptures carved into the rock. It had the same effect on me as the great cathedrals of Europe: I felt small and awed. (Despite my hardcore atheism, I am extremely susceptible to spiritual feelings.)
From the Cave Church, we began the Islamic Cairo portion of our tour.
Citadel Saledin and Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The Citadel is a massive fortress commanding the highest land of Cairo. There’s a lot of history attached from the first Islam invasion through modern Egypt. There are sweeping views of the city, including the tops of the Pyramids in the far distance. The first mosque we visited is on the same site as the Citadel. We were given (for a small tip) coverings for our shoes and I brought a scarf with me for my head. (Many female tourists did the same, but not all.) This mosque has a huge shining white dome and four smaller domes. Abdul pointed out the difference between the various minarets on the skyline, the pencil-shaped ones from the Ottoman period, and the “jar top” style from the Mamluks. (This made me realize that my own art history courses completely skipped Islamic art!)
I love the geometric designs of the mosques, and the way text is used as art. Muslims believe (as do Jews) that there be “no graven image”, the mosques were a welcome change from the images in the churches, which I often find gruesome.
In the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hussan, the security guard would not let us re-use our shoe coverings, demanding that we remove our shoes instead. Abdul got into it with him for a bit, then said it was best to let it ride. We took off our shoes and hid them in a corner of the mosque. Abdul said the shoe-check guy pockets the fees, and we would foil him.
This mosque was also full of beautiful inlaid wood, text designs, and soaring open space. A madrassa is the Muslim version of a yeshiva, a place where students live and study their religion. Have you ever noticed how Judaism and Islam are practically the same religion? Montheistic, dietary restrictions (including special butchering of meat and no pork), a lunar calendar, fasting, separation of men and women, head coverings, no hierarchy of special privilege (i.e., imams and rabbis are regular people, teachers, not representatives of god), no images... probably more that I can’t think of right now.
Mosque of Ibn Tulun. This is a huge, old Islamic monument, said to be the first building to use the arch that would later be called the Gothic arch -- 200 years before Europeans used it in churches. This mosque has a beautiful minaret with a spiral staircase. Allan tried to climb it for the view, but when the staircase changed to the outside, he returned. I was conserving my bad knees.
We were very much aware of how difficult or impossible it would have been to see these places on our own. The day was relaxing and enjoyable, as a vacation should be, instead of frustrating and unproductive. We wanted to take Abdul out for lunch, but he said he wanted to save his appetite for the big family dinner this evening. We told him how fortunate we were to meet him, and he said we were helping his family, and that it was very mutually beneficial. This made us feel better. Our money goes so far here that we worry we are not paying him enough.
Abdul is arranging a friend of his to drive us the whole time we’re in Luxor. It will be considerably cheaper than the hotel price, yet put much more money in the driver’s pocket. He explained the economics to us, and it made great sense -- a week of guaranteed work at double his normal earnings, and still less than what we would pay the hotel. Plus it will be someone who Abdul recommends.
After the last mosque, on our way back to Giza, we stopped at Felafila, a local take-out chain. We ordered shawarma, hawawshi, falafel sandwiches, and fries. We brought it all back to the hotel to eat on the roof, but not before Abdul stopped to buy us more desserts. Today it was rice pudding, which I have never liked before, but I devoured this. It’s a good thing rice pudding doesn’t taste like that in Canada. I also thought, these Felafila people should come to Mississauga, they would be instant millionaires.
After eating our desserts with Abdul, he made some suggestions about our visit to the Egyptian Museum tomorrow. He also said that he had overheard us talking about getting ourselves and our luggage from the hotel to the Giza train station. He decided that hotel to museum, then museum to hotel to station would be too much back-and-forth for us, and instead he would pick up our bags and meet us at the station. We thought this was too much, but he insisted.
Then we paid him for today; it was quite a bit more than the agreed-upon price. Some time later, he appeared on the roof again. “Guys, this is a lot of money.” We said we felt very lucky, that he had increased our enjoyment of our trip so many times over. He then insisted that tomorrow’s drive with our luggage to the station would be a gift from him. He was quite insistent. I told Allan (privately), it’s good to be generous, but we also have to respect Abdul’s wishes. Maybe he feels he didn’t earn that much money, and it feels more “even”, more appropriate, for him this way. Perhaps an overly large tip feels like charity. On our end, we feel like we’re ripping everyone off, because 100 LEs, a large sum, is only $7.00!
The people who run the Pyramids View Inn are the friendliest, most helpful staff imaginable. Every time you turn around they are offering you water, tea, or coffee, and often appear with a plate full of some delicious sticky desert. It’s a low-budget hotel, but perfectly clean and comfortable. I would much rather spend my money on a sightseeing guide than a fancier hotel room. I like nice hotels for, say, a weekend in Montreal.
-- With our lunch in Memphis, we ordered fresh mango juice. It was so thick, you practically needed a spoon to eat it.
-- Everyone smokes here. In restaurants, in ticket offices, in banks. When you order a coffee or tea, they bring your drink and an ashtray.
-- We asked Abdul how much a street kabob should cost. It turns out that our four skewers for 62 LEs was a good price. Also, they are normally sold by the kilo, so each stick was probably a quarter-kilo. I had never met a dishonest street food vendor, and I’m glad I can still say that.
-- More street food: men set up an oven and cook sweet potatoes. They sell cut-up chunks in little cardboard dishes.
This is going to sound like a bad day -- but it wasn’t a bad day. It was a crazy day, a day that we’ll probably talk about in amazement for a long time to come.
Out here with the Great Pyramids across the street, we are not really staying in Cairo proper. We’re in Giza, and it’s not near or convenient to many other Cairo sights. It’s not a problem for us -- taxis are everywhere and very inexpensive. We’ve read great things about the Cairo metro, and there is a stop in Giza, so we thought we’d use it to get in and out of town. It turns out the metro stop is quite far away, but a cab ride to the metro is still much shorter and less expensive than going all the way to the Egyptian Museum or Tahrir Square by taxi.
When we told our hosts we would take the metro, they went nuts. “Subway?! No, you cannot do that! That is crazy!” We wondered, had we read the guidebook wrong? But no, Lonely Planet highly recommends the Cairo metro. We also found some great posts like this one: Nine Things You Should Know About The Cairo Metro
. Then we realized our hosts are suburban guys who drive or take taxis everywhere. They’ve never been on the subway! So we told them, no, we checked it out, and we are going to do it. They thought we were very adventurous -- which I find a bit hilarious.
Today is Friday, the day most people have off from work and spend with their families. We had a leisurely breakfast and walked over to the entrance gates of the Pyramids. There were throngs of people, all appearing to be local, all queuing up to go in. I find it interesting to see, in one family or group of friends, women wearing hijabs, women wearing niqabs, and women without their heads covered. I also see some women wearing their hijabs a bit farther back on their heads with some hair showing, which (I have been told by some Canadian friends) is a bit more relaxed.
We got a cab to the Giza metro station easily enough. Subway tickets are 1 LE each, the equivalent of $0.07 Canadian. The stations are clean, the signage is excellent, and the platforms are wide and well lit. We jumped on a car right away. Only then did I start looking around, and realized Allan was the only adult male in the train car. In the post linked above, we learned that a few cars are reserved for women only. At the next stop, two women got on, said something to each other, then one said to me, “Ladies only”. I nodded, we jumped off, and waited for the next train, which came in less than five minutes. On the platform, I kicked myself for not being able to pull the Arabic “I’m sorry” out of my brain fast enough.
On the next train, there were a few women with families, but mostly men. I noticed for the first time that no one is in short sleeves in public, neither men nor women. I was glad to be wearing the black flyaway sweater -- the only long sleeves I brought -- over my standard brightly coloured tee.
Our plan was to see the big souk
-- the market, or bazaar -- and along the way see some old Islamic architecture, find a cafe, and wander a bit. Three things you have to know for this to make sense. Caireans rarely use maps. It is extremely difficult to find a map of the city. Since we knew this in advance, Allan made good use of the small maps in the guide book and maps online. However -- the second thing to know -- there are very few street signs. You see them occasionally -- erratically. And third, it is Friday -- market day.
We came out of the metro stop and couldn’t get oriented, because there were no street signs. I said min fadlik
-- excuse me, to a female -- to a passing woman, and she looked right through me, not exactly filling me with confidence. I tried again with another woman, saying in Arabic, “Excuse me, where is the Khan Al-Khalili market? Is it near here?” She looked bemused but helped me. She talked fast and used too many words for my vocabulary, but she did gesture in a direction, and she repeated the name of a street several times. I thanked her and off we went.
We walked up a narrow sidewalk with stores and stalls on one side and insane traffic on the other. There were people selling everything you can possibly imagine -- ordinary, everyday items, not stuff for tourists -- and all of them seemed to be yelling prices and hawking their wares. Some have recordings blasting: khamsa! khamsa! khamsa!
(five, five, five). The tables are often blocking most of the sidewalk, forcing everyone into the street, where cars and buses are constantly honking in a giant snarl of traffic (which is the case at all times on all streets).
And people. People, people, people. Imagine everyone in Times Square all trying to work on a tiny bit of sidewalk in both directions. I’ve seen nothing in Canada that I can compare this to. The closest thing I’ve seen is in our old neighbourhood in Washington Heights -- West 181st Street, but on steroids. It was so crazy. And little did we know, as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
At some point, we started to see smaller streets that were pedestrian only, coming off this main crazy street we were on. We took one just to get out of the crush. From there we wandered a bit, seeing stalls selling hookahs
, jewellery, scarves, galabiyas, and on and on. We also saw some archways or street entrances that were obviously very old, a very old mosque, some obviously historic buildings. Here’s what we didn’t know: most people weren’t out yet.
Soon after we got there, stalls starting closing up and the streets became much emptier. I remembered our host mentioning Friday midday prayers, and I assumed that’s what was happening. We wandered more, took some photos. I bought a scarf, clearly paying too much, but when the guy lowered the price, he said, “But you give me something, too.” “I give you...?” “Yes, you give me a present, any little thing, I will give it to my daughter.” I looked in my backpack and pulled out a pink CUPE pen. “This is for your daughter.” He liked that... and said, “But I have a son, too.” Amazing. I gave him a black pen, hoping it was the one that wasn’t working. It was pretty funny.
Then it started to get busier. And busier. And busier. The narrow street was becoming impassable. We could see there was an open area ahead, probably a big square. We thought, let’s go there and re-group. Oh boy. There
was packed. Hundreds of men and boys were streaming out of a mosque, into the already full square. We were in a crush. We saw a narrow side street, and jumped into it.
This street was fairly empty and quiet-ish. Men hawking items in their stalls would recognize tourists and call out: “Smile! Do you want to buy?” or amusing things like “Let me take your money!” or “Scarf for one million dollars! No? OK, five thousand!” If there were other tourists around, I didn’t see them.
Allan knew of a very old, historic cafe in the area that he really wants to find. (We may yet find it, with the help of a guide.) It has no street address, and I felt it was a bit needle-in-haystack or random chance, but who knows, we might stumble on it. Now we don’t know how this happened, but we found ourselves in a complete human crush. Imagine a narrow cobblestone street, small cubicles of stores on either side, but every store has an outer stall sticking out into the street. All the salespeople are yelling, and some have those recordings going. And down a tiny, narrow center lane, all the people in Times Square are moving -- in both directions.
You will think that I am exaggerating, and yet no matter what I write, it is understatement. We were absolutely crushed from all sides. Every so often a space would open up, perhaps a stall was closing up or momentarily empty. We jump aside and just stand there catching our breath, then steel ourselves to re-join the human river.
Being short, I sometimes find crowds very unpleasant, but I am not afraid of crowds. However, I am terrified of being separated from Allan and not knowing where he is. We once lost track of each other in The Strand, a big used bookstore in New York. When we found each other, I was so shook up, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. Today, in that market, I found it impossible to walk ahead of Allan unless I put my hand in back of me and he held it, or even just linked fingers. I felt more comfortable with him walking ahead of me, and me holding on to the strap of the camera bag. Because, oh yeah, we have the camera bag and a backpack with us. But if Allan’s ahead of me, then people are behind me, and they are too close, and it’s giving me the creeps.
This went on for blocks and blocks and blocks. There were so many people. Every so often someone would be pushing a hand-truck or wheelbarrow loaded with bales through the crowd, so everyone had to somehow move over to let him pass. And every once in a while, a young man would pass carrying a tray like a waiter, with a coffee or a bottle of water and a glass. We had no idea where they came from or where they were going.
The stores we were passing were mostly the same, and total overkill. Walls of scarves and galabeyas. Mountains of cheap plastic beads. Socks, sheets, towels, shirts, pants, shoes, bras, slippers. I cannot imagine actually shopping in this environment.
In one of our momentary breathers, we both said, this is quite an experience, something we’ve never seen before -- and now we’ve had enough, can we get out of here, please?
After maybe 30 minutes of this, I looked ahead and saw a bus drive by. That meant we were headed to a main street! It gave us hope. We slogged onwards, and finally, Allah be praised, we were out.
We just stood there, trying to catch our breath. And where were we? We had no idea. We walked a little ways -- back to crazy honking blaring traffic on one side and shops on the other -- hoping we would see a cafe, but never did. In fact, the entire time we were in the market, we never passed one place to eat or have a cup of tea.
After a few blocks down this larger street, I had the idea of getting a cab -- to anywhere. We decided to go to Tahrir Square, just to name a place we knew, and because we knew there would be cafes and restaurants in the area. We got a cab, and all my hard-earned Arabic was wasted. I forgot all of Mango’s lovely “cultural notes” and blurted out where I wanted to go and asked how much. Only as we were driving along did I realize I should have and could have been much more polite and friendly.
But we were sitting. We were moving. It was nice.
At Midan Tahrir
(Tahrir Square), we actually found a map. Although there were no street signs, Allan figured out where we might go. We stuck close to some locals to cross the traffic circle -- definitely the best approach -- and after a short walk, found Cafe Riche. It’s supposed to be a Cairo institution, although mostly frequented by ex-pats and foreigners. We were very happy to be sitting, and eating.
I had a Turkish coffee -- which I must say is something like drinking sand, and we had beer, and some nondescript food which was very wonderful. More walking, which did not please me, and we found another cafe Allan had read about, called Kunst Gallery, “books, art, coffee”. Everyone there was young and hip. More tea with mint, which I’ve discovered is very good with a touch of sugar. (I don’t normally drink anything with sugar in it.)
From there we wanted to find a metro stop, but we also wanted to get something else to eat, or at least pick up something to bring home. I was so tired of walking, and so completely sick of not knowing where we were, that I was almost ready to just take a cab all the way back to Giza. But this time when I asked a woman for directions, she was very nice, I understood her directions, and
we were very nearby!
And then food appeared! A stand selling feteer
, kind of like a flat bread pizza that is rolled up for easy handling. We got one of those, then smelled the unmistakably delicious smell of meat on a grill. A man was grilling koftas and kebabs, in the street, next to two tiny tables and some plastic chairs. We ordered some, and they came two kebabs and two pitas per order. We had a really hard time understanding how much they cost. It sounded like 62 LEs for two orders. This seemed like a lot of money in this context, but on the other hand, I’ve never had anyone selling street food try to rip me off, anywhere. This
is my problem with a culture of haggling. I don’t want to be ripped off, but I also don’t want to insult you. Just tell me the price! If it’s worth it to me, I’ll pay it. If I can’t afford it, I’ll walk away. We were very surprised at being asked for 62 pounds for 2 orders of take-away food, but if the price was special, then everyone around the cart, including other locals buying the same food, kept their faces perfectly deadpan while they watched a bit of theatre.
The subway was indeed nearby! We hopped on a train easily, and were in Giza very quickly. Tell your friends, the Cairo metro is great. From there, we got in a cab... who was very nice, but didn’t know the way. We had the hotel business card with us, but I couldn’t find it in my backpack. The cab driver pulled over, turned off the meter and waited patiently while I looked, but in the end, we paid him, thanked him, and waited for another cab. (And yes, found the business card.) The second cab got us back to the hotel. We picked up some water and chips (more special tourist prices), then headed to the roof with our kebabs -- catching the end of the sound and light show, in French.
Today we felt like we spent a lot of money. While I was writing this, we tallied our spending for the day. Two subway rides, four long cab rides, two pashima scarves, 4 cups of tea and coffee, 2 beers, 2 appetizers, an entree, four kebabs, 2 two-litre bottles of water and a bag of chips. Grand total: 765 Egyptian pounds, or $53.55 Canadian.
Yesterday's post contained a coding error that rendered five or six paragraphs invisible! Please see below; scroll down to [update].
I had a bit of a rough night -- what am I doing drinking strong tea at night?? -- but I must be running on a travel high, because we were up and out early. Yesterday, when we asked our hosts about arranging a driver and guide for us to see more local ancient sites, they advised doing that right away, and saving more urban sightseeing in Cairo for later in the week. They quoted us a price for the whole day -- three sites, including all admission fees, plus lunch, and all gratuities. And, they said, the greatest guide. And they were right!
We had our lovely little breakfast on the roof, looking out at our friends the Pyramids and the Sphinx. While we were eating, our guide dropped by to introduce himself. He said his name was Abdul, and he wanted to make this the best day of our holiday. He told us to take our time, we had all day and he would go according to our pace.
So off we went with Abdul. First stop, a papyrus "museum", as many retail stores call themselves. A charming young man brought us drinks (Turkish coffee for me and hibiscus for Allan), then demonstrated how papyrus is made, by making some in front of us. We also learned how the imitation papyrus sold on the street is made and why it is inferior. And thus began my first lesson in shopping, Egyptian style.
Papyrus Guy showed me a small sample, with my name on it
. What a coincidence! So now I know that Abdul has a deal with this shop, and possibly our hotel is in on it, too. We saw some truly beautiful painted papyri, and I started to get sucked into the idea of buying one. We’re not huge shoppers, but we always buy one really special thing on each trip, then a bunch of less expensive items like earrings, bookmarks a such. The “one nice thing” from this trip could be a beautiful papyrus painting.
When Allan and I conferred privately, I discovered I had completely misread the price of the painting. I thought it was 98.00 LE; it was 9,800 LE. That is almost $700, almost what we paid for air fare to Egypt. I apologized to Papyrus Guy, explaining what I misunderstood, and went to find another, less expensive paintings. To my surprise, Papyrus Guy was unfazed. He said, “You have a budget, and this is outside your budget.” I said, yes, well outside our budget. And suddenly the painting was 4,000 LEs! Still more than our “one nice thing” usually costs, but much closer!
And so we began negotiating. I noticed that once we got down to 3,500 or less, PG now offered to throw in other smaller paintings for free, or to not charge us tax or credit card fees. I could get more stuff, but I couldn’t get it for less than 3,200. In the end, we bought the painting I loved best, plus a smaller painting, and a third even smaller painting, for the equivalent of about $225 Canadian. This is not out of line with our handmade Aran sweaters from Ireland or our mates burilados
from Peru. Buying it on the second day of our trip was disconcerting. But oh well! It was done. Papyrus Guy rolled it and wrapped it and taped it within an inch of its life, made sure Allan was still breathing, and off we went.
On our way to Saqarra, Abdul recounted the history of Egypt from the Old Kingdom to present times. He’s a good storyteller, and his English is perfect (spoken with a slight Australian accent), and it was enjoyable. He brought us all the way to Morsi, who he called “the greatest man for Egypt,” and the military coup that overthrew him.
And then we were at Saqarra. Abdul gave us these instructions: talk to no one but me, don’t even say ‘no thank you’ to anyone else, don’t take pictures of animals (because the owners will try to get money), don’t take out your money, take all the time you want, if you want photos where you are not supposed to take them, I will tell you when to shoot.
Inside, there were a few other scattered tourists and a school group, but it was mostly empty, especially compared to Giza. Everyone knew Abdul -- which would be the case all day. As we walked around Saqarra, I told him about our experience at Giza, and he was visibly upset. He said passionately, “I hate
those men! I hate them. They make life so much harder for tourists, and that means harder for everyone who runs a legitimate business.” When I told him the different ways I had tried to avoid them, he said, “They love to hear ‘no’. ‘No’ is gold to them...” and I said, “Because now you are having a conversation”. Abdul put up his hand for a high-five. He said, “Say nothing. Focus and say nothing. Do not say ‘go away’. Do not say a word."our new wide-angle lens
A few temples at Saqarra were a short drive away, and those tombs were even more richly decorated. Abdul did his thing, then told us one of the hangers-on -- more tout than actual guard -- would bring us down into the tomb. Through a similar non-scary passageway, and into a room with a sarcophagus. And the guide is telling us to go inside -- in
the sarcophagus! I wouldn’t, but he practically forced Allan in! So Allan is in a tomb, and the tout says to me, “Do not tell Mr. Abdul! He will be angry! Do not tell him!” and he goes on and on. “Promise not to tell him? Promise?” I’m thinking, why would I not tell Abdul? And who is this guy that I should protect him? And didn’t Abdul pay off these clowns? After Allan emerged from the coffin, the tout expected to be paid. That was unsurprising, although against Abdul’s instructions.
But here’s where this tout made a big mistake. I gave him a 20 LE note, and he said, “This was very special! Very, very special! You must pay me dollars. Only dollars!” (More on this obsession with dollars later.) I told him I have no dollars, only Egyptian pounds. “I must have dollars! This is not enough!” And he went on and on, trying to badger me into giving him more money -- in other words, trying to extort me.
Outside, Abdul was waiting, and we went into a few more beautiful hieroglyphic-covered tombs. On our way out, I asked Abdul, did you pay those guys to let us take photos? He was immediately on guard. “Did they ask you for money??” I said, yes, but that was not a big deal. I didn't mind tipping him; it was attitude.
Abdul is a big man with a bald head. He looks stronger and more imposing than any of the older men hanging around the site in galabeya and kafiyeh. Abdul called out to the man in sharp barks, holding his hand out, demanding the return of the money. I said, “No, it’s ok, it’s ok,” but Abdul wouldn’t hear of it. He took the 20 LE note and berated the man for his greed and stupidity, the put it in my hand.
In the car, driving to Dahshur, Abdul told us his philosophy of service. He feels very strongly that part of his job is to protect his clients from unwanted attention, and to make sure there are no hidden costs, that the agreed-on price is the real price. Abdul pays the entrance fees, the bribes, the gas -- that is all his overhead. I understand that is taken into account in his price, but he is self-employed and takes pride in his work, and in great customer service -- something I truly respect.
At Dahshur, about 10 kms away, there are two failed pyramids -- one built at a weird angle, and another that is falling apart (relatively speaking). From there, you can see the stepped pyramid at Saqarra. Dahshur is just a quick stop.
Memphis, the long-time capital of ancient Egypt, houses an outdoor museum with many statues and pieces of statues. The highlights are a Sphinx for Queen Hatsupshet, the only female pharaoh, and a monumental statue of Ramses II, lying horizontally in a room, with a gallery for better viewing. It is enormous, and carved out of a single block of limestone. Here, too, and on the way -- everyone knew Abdul and welcomed him like the return of a conquering hero.
On the drives between sites, we passed through tiny main streets, with poor-looking stores and a few cafes. We also passed shocks of bright-green fields, growing alfalfa, the occasional man on a donkey cart, children in school uniforms, boys leading horses. There was a lot
of garbage. And many scavengers -- dogs, children, old people.
We went to a huge, simple restaurant. I knew that Abdul had called ahead -- I can understand enough Arabic to get that -- so our lunch moments after we did. Abdul told us he would give us privacy and disappeared. First came tahini, hummus, baba ganoush, and grilled eggplant, and of course puffy bread. Then came plates of grill chicken, koftas, and chicken livers. We were quite hungry and the food was so good
On the way back, we drove through a lot of poverty. There’s a huge amount of garbage, which is obviously connected to the absence of healthy drinking water. Perhaps that’s the first great divide of a world of haves and have-nots -- access to sanitation and drinkable water.
We were almost back at the Pyramids View when Abdul told us he’d be back in “an Egyptian minute”. (He said this is like 30 Canadian minutes.) He popped in to a store, and soon came out with a wrapped take-out container, urging us to eat a bit now, and save the rest for later. It was an Egyptian desert called kunefah
, and it is awesome. It’s something like baklava, but substitute tiny shredded wheat noodles instead of phyllo leaves, and add shredded coconut. If you like honey and coconut, you’ve got to eat this.
Back at Pyramids View, we had to reserve our overnight train from Cairo to Luxor. We tried numerous times to do this online, but it was impossible. Literally impossible. There is the appearance of a website, but it simply does not function. Emailing for support is useless. Anyone posting on Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet forums confirms this. We figured we would do this while in Cairo, and our hosts are happy to help. However...
It became a bit complicated. The hosts offered to send someone to the station with copies of our passports and money, to buy tickets for us. But we can’t pay in cash; for large purchases like that, we need to use a credit card. We thought we could do that tomorrow while sightseeing in Cairo, but today would be the last day to reserve for a Sunday night train. After some discussion, our hosts called the train station, confirmed that we can pay by credit card there, and sent us in a cab. The cab would wait while we bought the ticket, and then drive us back.
The traffic was crazy, but in some places the road was relatively open, so we were back to the crazy races between cars, vans, tiny two-person cab scooters, and horsecarts. At the train station, the “sleeping car train” office took our reservation with a pen and paper. There was no computer. Aaand... cash only. Fortunately there was an ATM nearby. Factoid: the ticket agent has a sister in Toronto. She is a doctor. He loves Canada -- in the summer.
The ride back was quick. We saw a lot of dogs, who must come out in the evening to forage. We saw a family of five riding one motorbike -- two small kids squeezed up front with dad, and mom and baby riding on the back -- the baby in a blanket, held in the crook of the mother’s arm, off to the side of the bike. We saw a lot of sad things. When I see these things, I rage inside about the injustice of capitalism. All these things are preventable.
Back at the hotel, we were tired but happy. We couldnt thank Abdul enough, and hoped we tipped him appropriatel. It's so hard to know!
Yesterday we couldn’t see Diego on the webcam -- the dogs were out, but he was not there, prompting Allan to email Dogtopia. They said he’s doing great, and tonight we saw him.
The whole time I’ve been writing this, the sound and light show of the Pyramids has been going full-tilt, over and over, in three or four different languages.
I was very pleased to have slept a full night last night. The time difference is so much easier going east. We hear the Muslim call to prayer very loudly, but I went back to sleep afterwards. Each room in this hotel is equipped with earplugs!
We had breakfast on the rooftop patio; all the seats face the pyramids the way Parisian cafes face the sidewalk. Breakfast consisted of breads, some herbed white cheese, a few hardboiled eggs, some fig pastries, plain yoghurt (really creamy and delicious) and bananas. Two highlights were halawa, a sweet made of sesame (my grandmother used to bring us this when I was a kid), and a few falafel. The falafel were delicious and different from the ones we see in North America. Here they are made from ful
(fava beans). These also contained some pistachio. They were light and fluffy, and right off the skillet. I managed to get by with only two cups of coffee, half of my usual morning need. Our host has to walk downstairs for each cup. I couldn't ask him to do that more than twice!
After breakfast we headed down the street to the entrance to the Giza plateau, where the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx stand. It was a bit surreal, walking up past the Sphinx towards this crazy-huge structure, something we've seen pictures of all our lives. We've seen the pyramids in Mexico, and they are impressive and wondrous -- and these are almost twice the size.
We walked around all three pyramids. As we finished the furthest one and walked back towards the first, it had gotten considerably more crowded. The tour buses and the selfies and the screaming kids are bad enough, but it's not the crowds that grates. It's the touts. Men approach you constantly, trying to get you to buy things, or ride a camel, or ride in a horse cart, or whatever. And they do not take no for an answer. If you ignore them, they hound you. "I'm speaking to you. Do you not hear me? Most people say 'no thank you'." Then if you say "No thank you," that is taken as a sign of interest and it all starts up again. Sometimes a sharp "no thank you" will work, other times I resorted to "Please go away!" It is obnoxious, and tiring -- and it's constant. People have to earn a living. I get that. But these methods are extremely off-putting -- and for me, not at all conducive to buying!
The other thing I found difficult was the animals. Camels are adapted to the desert, and they move slowly. But are horses equipped for day-long exercise in the hot sun? They pull carts often loaded with people, and the drivers make them gallop. They appear to rest between rides, but they have no access to water and no shade. On our way out, we saw lines of horses pulling carts up and down a long hill. Some of the horses seemed strong and able, but I saw some who were really struggling. The pavement is worn smooth, and I saw one old-looking horse sliding down the hill, the cart behind it. It appeared terrified.
Before writing this, I looked for information about animal welfare or standards. I found some other travelers concerned about the welfare of the animals, and the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals
, who endeavoured to feed starving animals when businesses were devastated from the sudden disappearance of tourism after the revolution in 2011. Other than that, I didn't see anything about standards of treatment.
So the experience at Giza alternated between breathtaking, irritating, and disturbing.
There's almost no interpretative signs, so groups have their tour guides and we used our guidebook. Allan has read a lot about the pyramids, and I studied ancient Egypt when I was writing children's nonfiction about ancient civilizations. Besides walking around the three pyramids, and the Sphinx, two other items are worth noting here.
In 1954, four huge wooden ships -- 43.6 meters (143 feet) long each -- were discovered under giant limestome blocks, buried under the sand. One ship was in more than 1200 pieces, plus miles of rope. Over a period of 13 years, one ship was re-assembled using the original materials and is on display. There's a gallery that gives an excellent view. You can also see the original pit it was buried in, and the 41 limestone blocks that guarded it, each weighing 18 tonnes. Wikipedia says that some scholars believe the ships were symbolic only, for the Pharaoh Cheops to sail to the afterlife, and others think the boats transported his funerary haul to the pyramids on the Nile flood plain. Factoid: in the boat museum, you are given canvas coverings to put over your shoes, to keep the sand out of the museum.
The other thing of note was literally a nonevent: our failure to get into the tombs. We had read that the passageways were very narrow, and that even a touch of claustrophobia would render the tombs impossible. We waited in line... only to learn there was a separate admission ticket. Then we waited in line for those tickets. Three different people told us to stand in three different lines. Then we waited in line again to enter. You cannot enter with a camera, and we were not about to leave our camera on the ground next to the ticket-taker, so we thought we'd take turns. I can handle those kinds of things better than Allan, I could give it a try and report back.
When you first enter, you're in a wide passageway, and air is circulating. (Everyone was taking pictures with their cell phones.) Soon after, there is a narrow, uphill passage. Small guide rails have been put in for your hands and feet, and you climb up at about a 20 degree angle. There is very little clearance over head, or on either side. And it's crowded. I started up, and someone a few people ahead of me started freaking out. She tried to turn around, and couldn't, and panicked even more, forcing her way backwards. I had only taken three or four steps, but it was already very hot and humid, and I was starting to sweat.
I stood in the wider part of the passage, trying to decide if it was worth it. When it was clear of people, I tried looking up the climb to see how far it went. It went a very long way. If it had been all in one direction, so you climbed in and then continued climbing out, I could have done it. But this passage wasn't built for tourists. There is one passage, and long lines of people are going both in and out. As I stood there considering my options, many people exited -- drenched in sweat. It just seemed not worth it.
Outside, I told Allan he wouldn't want to do it either, but I encouraged him to go see for himself. He came out shortly, smiling at the folly of even trying.
Although seeing the Pyramids was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was also a difficult one. I imagine it will be like this at every stop on the trip. Although hopefully without the animals.
We walked back to the room, our boots white with dust. We cooled off and cleaned up, then headed to a restaurant that sounded great. We hadn't eaten since breakfast, and somehow I was still doing ok at 3:30 p.m. (No idea why. Adrenalin?) Our hosts were very excited about our choice of restaurant and called a cab for us.
The restaurant, Andrea
, is far off in a newly developed area called New Giza. There are billboards promoting it all over Cairo -- all in English. The restaurant was a knock-out -- a large patio of beautiful wood tables overlooking a valley, with colourful sails and sheets designed both for beauty and protection against sun and sand.
The food is simple but perfect. We had baba ganoush and tahini, then the flame-grilled chicken they are known for. And everything is eaten with this delicious fresh puffy bread. (Apparently good restaurants here all bake their own bread.) As we were eating, the patio was filling up with families and large groups. Servers went by carrying platters piled high with chicken and mountains of puffy bread.
On our way out, we saw women sitting on rugs, making the dough and sliding it in and out of brick ovens. They were colourfully dressed and obviously an attraction. They gave me a bread right out of the oven, and we took a few pictures, and tipped them. The bread... oh boy.
Then we had one of those ridiculously difficult times getting back, the kind that make you wonder why you went out in the first place. But we did make it back, in time to get our jackets (it is cold at night) and sit on the roof for the Pyramid sound and light show. You can see and hear it perfectly from the rooftop patio here.
Seeing the giant pyramids lit up against the night sky was an impressive sight. The narration was completely corny and ridiculous, with pompous music that sounded like something out of an old Hollywood newsreel. But it was lovely sitting on the roof, drinking tea and looking at the Sphinx!
* * * *
Readers may be wondering if I'm using the Arabic I've been studying. People here are speaking to us in English, and it seems pretentious and silly to reply in my beginners' Arabic. But I am understanding a lot of what I hear! That is pretty cool. I can pick out a lot of words, and I can hear the words used in context. I can tell you that Mango is as advertised: the speakers sound exactly like what I'm hearing. Maybe later in the trip I'll get to speak more? Whether or not that happens, I'm hooked on learning this language and want to continue.
Another question people will ask is about women -- how they are dressed, if they wear hijabs. Most girls over a certain age and women do wear headscarves, but some do not. Almost everyone is in modern dress. The girls look exactly like the Muslim girls in Mississauga -- jeans, sneakers, cute tops, cell phones, hijabs. We have seen a few older women wearing galabeyas, and a couple of women in niqabs. I saw more women in niqabs in Malton then I have here.
Personally I find hijabs either completely unremarkable, or pretty. In the tradition I was raised in, men cover their heads for worship, and many men cover their heads at all times. If a man with a little beanie on his head is unremarkable, then surely a woman with a scarf should be, too.
Greetings from the Pyramids View Inn
, Cairo, Egypt. Although I don't post photos until after we return (sometimes well after!), this is one photo you have to see now. This is the view from the window of our hotel room!
Seriously: the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are immediately across from us. From our window we can see people seeming ant-size beside these mountainous structures, walking around, some on camels and horses.
So to backtrack. The flight was kind of crappy, the plane very crowded, with minimal room and not much in the way of comforts. But I prefer not to focus on those things, and not lose sight of the big picture. I don't want to become a traveler who forgets how lucky we are and can't tolerate minor discomforts. On the plus side, we flew nonstop to Cairo without delays.
It took a bit of doing to navigate the airport routine, and perhaps gave us a taste of the culture. First we waited in line at passport control, only to learn we should have purchases entry visas first. At the visa window, the staff -- smoking a cigarette, while at work! -- told us it was shift change time, could we go next door. Not another window -- a different company. That guy told us cash only, and we didn't have cash yet, so we had to get some Egyptian pounds, and start all over. It would have been funnier if we weren't so exhausted.
Passport control and customs asked us zero questions, just waved us through. And after retrieving our luggage, we saw a driver with the hotel sign, waiting for us. Yay!
And then: our first wild Egyptian cab ride. Friends who are nervous drivers and passengers, if you ever come here, you'll have to be blindfolded to avoid heart failure. The lines between lanes are only suggestions. Cars weave in and out of lanes, and between lanes, and around and through, passing and re-passing and re-re-passing, at highway speed. And our driver was answering his phone and texting most of the time! We gasped repeatedly, holding our breath as we came within a whisper of scraping cars on either side. Our driver was completely unfazed, of course. And lest you get the wrong idea, we were laughing and enjoying it.
It was a long ride, past zillions of huge blocks of apartments, and zillions of billboards in both Arabic and English. Every so often we would pass a cluster of cars and people on the shoulder, often with a large number of white transport vans. After a while we realized these were bus stops for commuters.
Once off the highway, we drove very slowly through an impoverished area. There was a lot of garbage and seemingly abandoned construction, but also many tiny cafes and food joints that were just opening for the day. We saw several people riding carts pulled by donkeys, both human and animal looking thin and tired. We saw this off and on all day -- including on the highway shoulder.
I saw a man on a traffic island stirring a huge cook pot, ready to feed people on their way to work. I was about to point this out to Allan, thinking it was a lovely sight, when he gasped and pointed. A pyramid. The
Pyramid -- larger than life and visible between two buildings! We drove through some police check gates, to the hotel, with the pyramids and the Sphinx visible on the other side of the street. To quote Allan, holy shit!
It was very early, and we didn't expect our room to be ready, but our hosts carried all our things -- they wouldn't let us carry anything -- up a few flights to a small room they said we could lie down in while our room was prepared, assuring us that our real room was much nicer. We were tired and a bit cranky, and with a sleep mask on, I managed to sleep for a couple of hours.
We were woken by knocking on our door, profuse apologies, and more people moving our bags for us. A boy led us to our room, and with a practiced flourish, flung aside the curtain, revealing an unobstructed view of the Pyramids and the Sphinx.
I was desperate for a shower, so it was disappointing to discover we had no hot water. More conversations with our hosts revealed the hot water heater had been turned off, and would now need another half hour to warm up. (That is, a half hour longer than the 20 minutes we had already given it.)
The Pyramids View Inn is a bit lower budget than we usually do, the lower end of the "mid-range" scale. Our Lonely Planet guide tells us that Cairo is full of both high-end chain hotels and dingy crashes, but it can be challenging to find quality places in the middle. But the place is very clean, the hosts could not be friendlier or more helpful, and did I mention the Pyramids are right outside? It's the equivalent of about $75/night Canadian, including breakfast.
After showers and more bottled water, we asked our hosts to call us a taxi, and headed to Zamalek, a neighbourhood on an island in the Nile. Allan read that it was a great place for local eating, drinking, and people-watching. ("Allan read" will be a big theme on this trip. He's done almost all the research for the whole trip. Lucky me!) This was another long cab ride, slightly less crazy. Our driver charged 47 Egyptian Pounds (EL)... the equivalent $3.30 CAD. We did not haggle.
We quickly spotted one of the places we were looking for, a local chain with a fresh and gourmet take on traditional street food. This place -- Zööba
-- was awesome. The decor, the music, the whole vibe was smart and hip but friendly and laid back. They have a huge takeout business, and they deliver, but in the middle of the small room was a long table, with pairs of people eating across from each other. We thought there was no room to sit, until one of the servers asked two women to move their bags for us. Everyone else at the table was young, female, and hip. And eating from stainless steel bowls with gusto. We were very hungry, and the menu -- in both English and Arabic -- was mouthwatering.
We ordered a bowl of koshari for each of us, and kofta and hawawshi to share. Everything was so good
. Koshari is classic Egyptian street food -- a bowl of lentils, pasta, rice, and corn, in a tomato-based sauce. I had no idea what to expect, but it was totally delicious. The kofta, which is like a long meatball, very dry and flavourful, was amazing. Hawawshi is a grilled bread pocket filled with meat and ful
(fava beans), with a coriander taste, similar to a meat somosa, but in freshly baked and grilled bread. We were very happy!
We asked some of the lovely young women near us about the condiments they were shaking into their koshari. One was obviously hot sauce, and the other was a lemon-garlic-olive oil dressing. After some of the women left, a large group of young men came in, very friendly and polite. It was just an awesome place at the exact time we needed it.
After eating, we walked down the Zamalek main drag, 26 of July Street. It is lined with funky shops and eateries, very obviously middle class, and everything in English. On some side streets, we passed many quiet coffee houses where people were relaxing, smoking sheesha. Lonely Planet tells us there's a coffee house and a sheesha flavour for every type and taste. I've decided that with my crazily sensitive respiratory system, I shouldn't be smoking anything. It's disappointing, as I'd like to try both the sheesha and the experience, but the idea of triggering a possible allergy or asthma attack while in Egypt is quite a deterrent.
Even in this neighbourhood among the more upscale shops, there was a lot of garbage, and random construction, and a lot of loud, noisy traffic. Kind of like the Upper West Side or Park Slope used to be! We passed a painting crew working on "scaffolding" -- sticks of raw wood lashed together with rope -- a guy standing on a rickety platform wearing no protective gear of any kind, trying to balance while rolling on paint. I could hear my union peeps all yelling "Health and Safety!" in unison. It's sad and awful that workers risk their lives like this every day, all over the world.
In the cab on the way back, the streets were even more congested and the traffic even crazier. We passed at least a dozen donkey carts walking on the highway shoulder, and once a man was driving his horse cart across at least eight lanes of snarled traffic.
Our driver wanted 100 LEs for the same trip we had paid 47 for earlier. I offered 50, and when he moaned about it, I gave him 20 more. If you're a wmtc reader, you may remember that Allan and I hate haggling of any kind ("the only good bargaining is collective bargaining
"), but we are told that in certain situations here -- in the markets and in cabs -- you are expected to come back with an offer of half of what you've been asked for.
Tomorrow: the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the rest of the Giza Plateau.