Egypt: Highs and Lows Part II

Trip Start Dec 04, 2006
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Trip End Aug 05, 2007


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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Nathan here: So we left Cairo for the South of Egypt via an overnight train. Unfortunately, our group ran into some pretty nasty luck. The person at Intrepid Travel who was supposed to buy our first class tickets totally screwed up and bought second class tickets instead. Is there a difference between classes you ask? Without question. Let me say that we were not impressed. Our car was packed with people standing in the aisle, it was loud - thanks in no small part to a dometic dispute between a man and a woman that resulted in several loud slaps - smelly and just generally disgusting. The bathrooms were even worse.



Tara here: It was like a bad dream really. People yelling at each other, guys screaming prayers in the aisle of the car throughout the night (including for 15 minutes straight at 3a.m. - and I mean yelling), a door right in front of us that did not close and, as a result, let smoke from the smoking section in. Loud cell phones went off all night making the atmosphere seem like a middle-eastern rock concert. Yes, it was pretty bad. Needless to say that our group was not impressed. It is a bit hilarious after the fact, but was definitely not at the time. A quick call to the company the day after saw some free stuff thrown our way, but still. Anyhow, total travel time: 14 hours.

Fortunately we arrived the next morning in Aswan to stay at a great little hotel near the corniche - the road which boders the Nile River. After wiping off the filth, we spent the day cruising the Nile with a Nubian family. Nubians are an ethnic minority in Egypt that live close to the Sudanese border and are known for their hospitality as well as for the fact that they are very different culturally from Egyptians.



They even have their own villages and language. The men of the family took us for a ride on a river boat to see the sites in Aswan and served a delicious lunch. We even stopped for a swim which was nice as the weather was pushing 45 degrees. We then met their families and had tea at their house. Later in the afternoon we got a chance to ride camels beside the Nile. What an experience. This time I had a camel named Moon and Nathan rode Mickey Mouse. My camel handler, after finding out I was an experienced rider (ha!) let the camel run with me on it. Very fun - a highlight for sure!



Nathan here. Aswan is a launching off point to visit Abu Simbel which is a further 3 hours South by bus and is virtually a stone's throw from Egypt's border with Sudan. The 13th-century BC rock-hewn Temple of Ramses II is perhpas the most impressive monument in Southern Egypt. The four 70 foot high seated figures of Ramses II that guard the entrance are among the largest sculptures in Egypt. Ramses II also built a temple nearby for his favourite wife Nefertari, Both temples offer a surprising amount of detail - both inside and out - despite their age.

For many years the majority of these temples lay beneath the waters of Lake Nasser. In the 1960s, the some members of the international community worked together to raise and relocate the temples above the rising waters of Lake Nasser. The temple and the hillside into which it was cut were sawn into 1,050 blocks, weighing up to 30 tonnes each, and reassembled on higher ground where tourists now flock to view the impressive monuments.



Sadly, to get to Abu Simbel from Aswan, one must travel in a "military-protected" convoy which leaves at the un-godly hour of 3h30 am. This to "better protect" tourists. The irony is the convoy offers virtually no protection and, if anything, makes us even better targets. The other bummer is you are all forced to arrive and leave at the same time from both this temple and one other one enroute. Imagine 50+ buses, minibuses etc. driving in a line at break-neck speed. Regardless, we got there and back safe and sound before the temperature really soared. See pics for the sights.

Next on the agenda was a 2-day sailing cruise on the Nile by Felucca. A Felucca is a simple one-masted sailboat of ancient design. It was approximately 30m long and about 5.5m wide. The floor of the boat is raised and covered with comfy mattresses that became our living space for two days. It wasn't long before I was engaging the captain in a discussion about the structure, rigging and sail of the boat. Sufficiently convinced that I could tell bow from stern, he handed me the tiller with a smile.



In truth, I would have stayed there for the remainder of the sail save for the fact that I was pretty much in full sun so I was worried about burning. The crew of two cooked very simple but delicious vegetarian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner and - thanks to a large ice chest - we had a constant supply of cold pop and beer. Wonderful. If we ever return to Egypt on our own, renting a felucca for a few days will be high on our list of things to do.

The Felluca leisurely took us North up the Nile to Kom Ombo. From here we grabbed a minibus to take us the rest of the way to Luxor. Luxor has a wealth of major ancient Egyptian attractions, none more so than the Valley of the Kings. For more than 500 years, this barren and secluded valley was chosen as a burial place for many of Egypt´s pharoahs. Unlike the pyramids that were visible to anyone with two eyes, these tombs were hidden. However, the treasure buried with each pharoah was simply too great so most tombs were raided before much time had passed. We were able to visit three tombs and we were blown away by the massive scale of the tombs and the magnificent and colourful wall paintings that remain to this day. I mentioned that the company we went with screwed up our train tickets and so as a response to our displeasure it paid for a donkey ride (and guide) as an alternative way to arrive at the Valley of the Kings (instead of a bus). The donkey ride took us up a big hill and allowed us to view many temples from high above Luxor. What a view! The donkeys each had their own personnality, as did the man and his daughther who accompanied us on our journey. This all made for a very enjoyable start to our day - an alternative mode of transport for sure.



Perhaps the biggest drawback to Luxor, and it is a big one, is the fact that the locals are brutally tenacious in seeking out "backsheesh" at every opportunity. Loosely translated, the word means tip in Arabic and is a fundamental aspect of daily life in Egypt. Everyone, even Egyptians, give backsheesh to people for opening doors, parking cars, finding things for you, etc. As tourists, we are huge targets for backsheesh at every attraction. Locals will try to show you something off the beaten track, then ask you for backsheesh. You´ll enter a washroom and someone will stand our front dolling out toilet paper and he/she will accept at least an Egyptian pound (roughly .25 cents Cdn). As a rule, backsheesh is not a problem but sometimes it gets to you because people will have done nothing but will ask for it anyway.



Smacked of begging at times. For example, after having visited a temple, the entrance official (read: the guy who tore our ticket in half) would ask for backsheesh on the way out. Whatever. Should mention that not everyone is like this. An employee of our hotel showed me the way to a barber and waited patiently for me to receive my shave. On the way back to the hotel I gave him a couple of pounds. He had no idea why I was giving it to him. I tried to say it was for his help. What did he do? He ducked into the nearest corner shop and bought me a coke. What odds?

The other frustrating issue about Luxor is how the local men look/regard Western women. As we walked through the streets and markets, the men were all eyes on Tara and the other girls in our group and often they would mutter "nice" or "lovely jubbly" or worse. It may not sound bad on its own, but when the comments are combined with a look... well it´s just not great. If I was near them - and if they even noticed me - I would get a host of comments like "lucky man," "you must be a strong/rich man," "how many camels [did she cost]," etc. We were told by a few sources that Luxor is the place in Egypt where foreign women looking to score come so perhaps this adds to the problem.



All things considered and despite the drawbacks, Luxor has unbelievable attractions and we could easily have spent more time there. Final thoughts on both Aswan and Luxor, the weather was insanely hot and we were told that it would get even hotter still in the weeks and months to come. Too hot for these two Canadians but not much you can do. Thank God for a/c. Stay tuned for Part III. N&T.
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