Ferry and bus to Dahab

Trip Start Feb 16, 2006
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Flag of Egypt  ,
Thursday, June 1, 2006

I have been in Egypt for around 3 weeks now and overall I have really enjoyed it. I have always wanted to come here and see the pyramids and temples of the ancient Egytians, so my arrival was accompanied with great enthusiasm, aided by the false promise of cooler weather on the evening I arrived. Prior to leaving Delhi I had booked a place online and for once it was better than anticipated, even though my first impressions gave me serious pause. The hotel was on the 12th floor of a vacant office building in downtown Cairo. The lack of a sign and the debris filled lobby indicated I was in a condemned building. If it weren't for the old man selling sodas and bottled water in the shelter of the doorway I would have walked off, yet he was the landmark the hotel had given on their website. The room I was given had everything I wanted, which meant it was clean with hot water. After the rare pleasure of a hot shower I spent the evening exploring downtown Cairo. Certain things made me recognize immediately that I was in yet another foriegn country with it's own unique personality. The first such thing was the choking, sweet smell of perfume and cologne liberally applied to the now busy crowds of people occupying the sidewalks and stores. The lethargic, empty Cairo of 5 p.m., had transformed to a swarming hive of activity as the sun set and remained that way until well after my bedtime. Most concerning though was the lack of restuarants visible from the street, even though there were an ample number of bakeries with hordes of corpulent customers. The few restuarants I managed to find made it alarmingly clear that I could niether read nor speak Arabic. Luckily, Egyptians are incredibly friendly and after a few embarrassing attempts to order "fuul' and "kushari" I was given a shwarma which is akin to a gyro except in a bun. After one more shwarma, I luckily found my way back to my hotel and called it a day.

On my first day, I impatiently headed off to see some of the historical sights around Cairo. I started off for Saqqara, and the pyramids of the Old Kingdom. The most impressive of these was the Step Pyramid of Zoser built in 2650 BC which served as a template for the later Great Pyramids of Giza. After Saqqara I travelled to Memphis, the first capital of unified Egypt dating back to 3100 BC. Memphis had some amazing statues on display but relatively little else to see, so after lunch I headed back north to Giza. The Great Pyramids and The Sphinx being the top tourist draw in Egypt meant that I was to be bombarded by touts, guides and people selling everything from camel rides to plaster copies of the Shpinx. I successfully navigated the first wave of camel drivers selling rides and guides assuring me that without their services I wouldn't know what I was looking at. I'm not kidding they actually said that. Let me guess..."Three really old pyramids and the Sphinx?" The next wave of assault came from the camel drivers posing for "free" photo-ops which were never free. It was actually highly amusing to watch tourist after tourist naively take their photo and then be offended when the camel driver harrassed them for the next thirty minutes with constant demands for "baksheesh, baksheesh." "Baksheesh" is Egyptian for tip and is expected (often demanded) after almost every interaction between tourist and local. With all these shenanigans going on, it took nothing away from the majesty of the pyramids. Even with the suburbs of Cairo clearly visible on the horizon, I was given a clear sense of the awe that these pyramids have inspired in so many for so long.

On my second day I decided to visit the Egyptian Museum. When I had previously visited the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, I left being miffed that England, France and others had taken so many of Egypts important antiquties. After visiting the Egyptian Museum, I was actually relieved that other countries were properly taking care of these important artifacts as the ones on display in Cairo were poorly looked after and crowded into too small a space. The one exception to that was the Tutankhamun galleries which housed all the relics discovered in his tomb. Beyond the flash of the solid gold death mask and solid gold sarcophagi of Tutankhamun were other, more everyday, belongings thought to be necessary for his journey in the afterlife. Amongst the pairs of shoes, clothes, and jewelry, where various household items. My favorite was a folding bed, much like a chaise lounge, which still works some 3300 years later. In another area of the museum they had on display various mummified animals that had been found. Animals like cats and birds as well as larger specimens like cows and crocodiles. After visiting the museum I went to Coptic Cairo, which for centuries has been the home of the Christian community of Egypt. It is a maze of tight alleyways amidst churches, monasteries and cemeteries. Evidently Mary, Joseph, and Jesus did a little travelling through Egypt themselves to escape persecution from King Herod. One of the churches, St Sergius, has a cave in the bottom that is said to be a place where the holy family sought refuge during their travels.

On my third day in Egypt I went to Bahariyya Oasis for a couple of days of camping under the stars in the White Desert. The White Desert is a bizarre landscape of stark white rock formations rising out of the sand, each having been uniquely shaped by the wind to take on the look of mushrooms, lions, birds and other more bizzare shapes. The group I went with were good company, as were the desert foxes that made a nuisance of themselves by licking our fingers and toes while we slept. After the desert I returned to Cairo for a night and spent the day touring the city's many mosques, before departing on the night train to Aswan near the border of Sudan. I spent a few days in Aswan, of which the highlight was travelling by police convoy to Abu Simbel with its' Temple of Ramses II and Temple of Hathor, dedicated to his favorite wife Nefertari. Getting to Abu Simbel requires leaving Aswan at 3:30 in the morning and travelling in a police convoy of nearly one hundred buses and cars. The convoy is the Egyptian governments overreaction to past bombings of tourist buses. After four hours and countless police checkpoints, which are common on every road you travel in Egypt, I arrived in Abu Simble with hundreds of other tourists. In the 1960's Egypt started construction of the High Dam in Aswan, which when complete would create the largest man-made lake in the world and also submerge many of the temples and monuments in southern Egypt. A worldwide effort ensued to save the most important of these monuments, of which The Great Temple of Ramses II and the Temple of Hathor were the most important. Both temples were originally carved out of the mountains on the bank of the Nile, which required new mountains to be built before cutting the temples into giant pieces and reassembling them at the new, safer location. The entrance to the temple has four collosal seated statues of Ramses II overlooking the Nile, or today Lake Nasser. The intent was to dissuade any would-be invaders from attacking such a formidable king. Some 3200 years later it still conveys an awesome message of power and was definitely one of my favorite sights in Egypt.

From Aswan, I spent three days sailing up the Nile in a feluca to reach Luxor. Unfortunately, Captain Mohammed, preferred drifting over sailing, erasing any promise of a cooling breeze. The other passengers were Nelson, Andrea and Alexandra from Columbia (who disembarked after one night), Sharon from New Zealand, Jen from San Francisco, Juhari from Vancouver and Lachlan "Lucky" from Australia. Fortunately it was a really talkative group and our time together seemed far too short. Lucky furnished us with some great stories of his three years on the road and also had the decency and foresight to bring some alcohol. We got off the feluca in Kom Ombo and toured its' temple before taking a bus up to Edfu's Temple of Horus. In the afternoon we arrived in Luxor, said our goodbyes and went our seperate ways. All I could think about was a shower (remember, it had been three days) and a good meal.

The thermometer had been climbing since I left Cairo and doing anything during the middle of the day was next to impossible, so I waited until the late afternoon to see the Temple of Karnak and Luxor Temple. After the pyramids, these are the two most touristed sights in Egypt, which means the hassle increases. One of the biggest dissappointments in my travells has been the need to stay on constant guard to being scammed by someone. It always works the same way, where someone trys to start a conversation with you; follows you for blocks having a one-sided conversation as they repeatedly ask, then guess, what country you are from; invite you to tea; and then either try to sell you something or simply ask for baksheesh as payment for the pleasure of their uninvited company. The drawback for you as a tourist is that you never know which people are being sincere, resulting in missed opportunities to meet local people. Pickpockets are pretty bold in Luxor as well, but fortunately they aren't too skilled at their trade. Two boys approach you on either side and one asks the familiar question of where you are from. After he decides you aren't really from "Hell" or "Mars", he then demands that you are from _____ (fill in the blank with any European country) while he extends his hand full of coins asking you for help with ascertaining the amount. If you are stupid enough to help him count the 10 euros in his hand, his buddy picks your pocket. This strategy was attempted almost every time I walked anywhere in Luxor, leaving several pickpockets scrambling on the ground trying find their scattered coins. It seems that most tourists I met didn't realize that this is probably how their wallet or camera went missing. With all this entertainment to keep me occupied, I still managed to find time to tour the temples. The Temples of Karnak were the first I visited and truthfully nothing I can write will adequately describe them. Even the pictures I took fall far short of conveying their true appearance. The singularly most amazing sight I have seen in this trip was the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. The hall is a forest of 134 carved pillars reaching up well into the sky where there was once a roof enclosing it. One photo I have included might convey the size of these columns but falls short in communicating the size of the overall space. After spending a ridiculous amount of time walking around Karnak I took the long walk over to Luxor Temple and the avenue of sphinxes that directs you to the entrance. This temple, like most in Egypt had several staues of the rather vain Ramses II, but most interesting was its conversion to a Chritian church during Egypt's Roman rule. I have included a photo of the few remaining painted faces of the 12 disciples that were done during that time.

My last day in Luxor started with an early morning to trip to the west bank of the Nile and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens as well as the Temple of Hatsheput. In an effort to preserve the paintings in the tombs, they forbid photography and rotate which tombs are open to the public. The three tombs I visited in the valley of the Kings were those of Ramses III, Ramses IV, and Ramses XI. The paintings in each were amazingly clear and detailed, which ceilings painted blue or black and covered in small gold stars. The Temple of Hatshepsut was very impressive with its three levels seemingly cut out of the mountain that looms overhead. It is the only temple in Egypt built on multi-levels and under the reign of a female pharaoh. After touring around the temple, I headed back to Luxor for a quick shower before catching a bus up to Hurghada and the next morning a ferry and bus to Dahab on the eastern coast of the Sinai penninsula.

Dahab is a popular little village on the Red Sea with a far more relaxed feel than its more developed nieghbor to the south, Sharm el-Sheikh. The rugged Sinai mountains run right up to the waters edge and create an unbelievably beautiful backdrop to the Red Sea. One of the main reasons people come here is for the incredible dive sites right off the coast. In fact you simply wade out in the surf about 10 feet and descend. The coral and the visibility of the water is the best I have seen in the short while I have been diving. About a month before I arrived here, Dahab suffered from a triple terrorist bombing which killed 4 people. The bombings have resulted in fewer tourists, making a sleepy little Bedouin community even quieter. The zenith of my diving occured yesterday, when I went south to dive the WWII wreck, The Thistlegorm. I took a bus to Sharm el Sheikh, where I boarded the boat at midnight, sleeping on the deck, before sailing at 4 a.m. in order to arrive at the dive sight by 7 a.m.. The Thistlegorm is considered to be one of the best wreck dives in the world. It was sunk by German aircraft in 1941, with a full cargo of British army supplies, including locomotive engines, motorcycles, munitions, guns, and trucks. The ship took one perfect hit and sunk, with most all of its cargo left in neat order in the hull and on deck. The wreck was discovered by Jacques Cousteau in 1950 and written about in National Geographic at the time. Since Mr. Cousteau was not fond of sharing the whereabouts of his discoveries, it was left untouched for the next 40+ years until it was rediscovered again in 1994. The first dive I took was around the outside of the ship, which other than the twisted and torn steel where the bomb hit was sitting upright and nearly level as if it was delicately placed there. The second dive was into the hull of the ship, starting at the bottom and working up the levels before exiting through the small door of the captains quarters on the submerged deck. Inside the hull were entire trucks with cargoes of guns, boots and motorcycles lined up neatly in the truck beds. The last dive of the day was at a site called Shark Reef and Yolanda Garden in Ras Mohammed National Park. The coral here was vivid and plentiful supporting large schools of barracuda and Jackfish, sharks, giant grouper and Napoleans (4 ft.) as well giant morays and blue-spotted stingrays feeding near the sandy bottoms. Any one of these three dives would have ranked as the best dive I have been on, so doing them all in one day made for a perfect day of diving. Since I do not have an underwater casing for my camera, I have downloaded some pictures from the internet to give you an idea of what i saw.

I am planning on leaving Dahab soon. Maybe tommorow or the next day. If I don't leave soon I am afraid I will get sucked into this extremely lazy lifestyle. There could be worse things I guess. I am still unclear on where I am off to next, so my next email can be a bit of a surprise as wherever I go will be for me.
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