Archive for the 'Egypt' Category

October 5th 2007
St. Catherine’s Monastery

Posted under Africa & Egypt

Departing from our hotel at 11pm on a minibus, the two-hour ride took us along climbing, winding mountain roads site of St. Catherine’s Monastery and the trailhead for our trek summit of Mt. Sinai. The 14-person minibus would have comfortably fit about six people so the 12 weary passengers squeezed into it looked (and felt) like tightly-packed sardines. The high-speed ride was an adventure in itself that included police checkpoints with repeated passport checks and is best characterized by our driver’s apparent desire to set a new “land speed record” through the Sinai mountains. In general, Egyptians drive with reckless abandon of speed limits and safety measures (like seatbelts) but this driver was a maniac in comparison and our lives flashed before our eyes each time he took a curve at what seemed like 90 miles per hour. Our hearts raced for the duration of the ride and no one got a wink of sleep.

When we finally arrived at the base of the mountain, a Bedouin guide led us in our ascent along the “camel trail”. It is called the “camel trail” because the Bedouins, reminiscent of the Sand People from Star Wars, earn a living by soliciting camel rides up and down the mountain, selling refreshments at designated oases along the path and renting out blankets and mattresses at the summit. The trail is narrow, rocky and strewn with camel dung, which is difficult to avoid especially in the moonlight. It is shared by hikers and camels alike so when you heard the familiar “Be careful! Camel!” you had to quickly move aside to let the camel caravan pass because even the 21st century camels aren’t equipped with brakes. The hike was much more rigorous and grueling than we had anticipated. The terrain was steep and jagged. We carried head lamps but it seemed as though the moonlight better illuminated the angles of the rocks. The bright half moon and stars gleamed against the blackness of the sky and, as we climbed higher, we could see the winding trail outlined by the torches and flashlights of the hikers below us.

As we reached the summit, after a three-hour climb, our under-layers of clothing were drenched with sweat and the cold night air chilled us bone. Huddled together between a mattress and two of the Bedouin blankets, we still shivered beneath the stars for almost two hours before the orange sun began to rise from a purple haze. It slowly ascended, brightening the horizon and melting away the chill of the night with its warm, revitalizing rays. We stayed wrapped in the blankets as long as we could but finally laid them on a rock and groggily followed the quietly stirring crowd. We descended a different path, a long stone stairway, which afforded us a different view of the landscape. Our host at the Penguin had told us that there are 3,750 stairs; we don’t know if that figure is accurate but it sounds about right. It took us about an hour and a half to climb down. As we approached the bottom, we got a fantastic view of St. Catherine’s Monastery but the view was deceptive because we still had about 800 stairs to descend. Aaron’s knee had begun to bother him about an hour into our ascent and my legs were trembling from exhaustion and overexertion but we made it to the bottom relatively unscathed. In hindsight, the Mt. Sinai hike was a box to be checked but we would not do it again. We’ve seen more impressive sunsets in Tucson with much less effort. The most valuable insight gained from the primitive and punishing sojourn was the realization of the faith, dedication and physical stamina that Moses had to endure such a desolate, rugged climb to receive the Ten Commandments. I suppose that, had we heard the call of God beckoning us to reach for the summit, we might have toiled less begrudgingly. That thought calls for a little more soul searching for which we must definitely budget some time.

St. Catherine’s (the oldest Christian monastery still in existence in the world) opened to tourists at nine o’clock so we had almost two hours to kill. In the courtyard of the compound, a small coffee shop was open so we grabbed a couple of coffees and sat at a table in the courtyard. There were quite a few people there – a lot of Greek yiayias – waiting for the church to open. We had pulled out some snacks that we had packed and munched quietly. There were several children running around the courtyard, who seemed to belong to the monastery, and one of the boys approached us and asked for the rest of our orange cake. We gave it up and he hungrily walked away. The monastery is located in such a desolate, isolated spot that the children, if in fact they live there, don’t see a lot of packaged treats. When 9:00 rolled around, we lined up in the heat of the morning sun and eventually got in around 9:30.

The church was gorgeous and, as we entered the narthex, the familiar aroma of incense permeated the air and we immediately felt at home. We listed our names and the names of our family to be included in the prayers for the Orthodox living and nonliving. We venerated the relic of St. Catherine – a surprisingly large piece of bone, displayed in a glass case with ornamental trim. The icons were old and beautiful, some of them dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries. The chandeliers were all gold and the paint on the walls was a pale shade of sky blue. We paid an extra fare to enter the Library, which houses the treasures of the monastery. The price of admission into the Library is 25 Egyptian pounds per person but when Aaron greeted the monk at the entrance and told him that we were Orthodox (and conveniently presented his Orthodox Christian card that Father Michael had given to him); we entered for the “Orthodox price” of only 10 Egyptian pounds each. The treasures inside were magical! The unique and awe-inspiring icons were among the most beautiful that we have ever seen. There were old, handwritten manuscripts in Greek and Arabic with colorful, hand-painted depictions of Biblical scenes and the most gorgeous red vestments, adorned with gold and pearl detail and delicate embroidery. There were crowns, staffs and other priestly accessories of equal decadence and we wanted Father Michael there to share that powerful experience with us…and to impart his knowledge of the significance of it all. We had so little time inside because our minibus was set to depart at 10:30; we wanted to spend hours inside that magical treasury. As it was after 10:15, we left the Library prematurely and ran down the dusty road for about 10 minutes with backpacks thrashing against our backs to catch our bus. We did also see the Burning Bush, which was inside the courtyard of the monastery, and broke off a couple of pieces to take away. We didn’t realize until the next day, as we were thumbing through our souvenir book, that we had missed the skull room – a small cell which houses a huge pile of skulls from all of the monks who have prayed and died there. We would LOVE to have seen that – how mysteriously beautiful and haunting! We have learned our lesson about doing our homework before visiting places of such powerful historical significance!

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October 3rd 2007
Under the Sea

Posted under Africa & Egypt

Dahab, Sinai. We’ve been here almost a week in this laid back resort town that caters to backpackers who come specifically to scuba dive. The main area of town consists of a long row of resorts along a rocky beach with clear, calm waters and one row of restaurants and shops just behind the resorts. Our room at Penguin Village is the bare minimum of comfort: the sheets and towels are ratty and worn, there is no maid service and the shower is questionable on a good day but the staff is mellow and accommodating and the common area offers the perfect beachside atmosphere for relaxing after a long day of diving. The music is chill and you can look out over the sea to Saudi Arabia. The primary activities are windsurfing, snorkeling and diving and the remainder of your time is for eating, drinking, socializing, snoozing, and finding that Zen place inside your head. We have begun to feel at home here. We were ready to relax after our fast-paced travel in the earlier part of our Egypt trip but, after our first day of diving the Red Sea, we knew that it wasn’t going to happen.

Since I had only just completed my PADI Open Water certification in Texas before we left and hadn’t been diving in the ocean, we weren’t sure of my reaction to getting my fins salty for the first time. We paid for a quick skill refresher and a guided first dive at a site called the Lighthouse. I immediately felt like a fish underwater and the reefs were so amazing that I told Aaron that we would be diving every day and that was final. He was tickled by my reaction, since diving is one of his most beloved activities, so I signed on to start the Advanced Open Water certification the following day. The certification was a course of light book work and five certification dives (deep, drift, naturalist, navigation and night) to be completed over the course of two days. Aaron accompanied me on all of the dives except for the navigation dive and each one was amazing! It is almost a religious experience to realize and become part of the existence of life under the sea; the world suddenly seems so much bigger!

Led by my seasoned and competent instructor, Ahmed, we descended to a depth of about 30 meters for the deep dive at Canyon Coral Gardens. The crevice through which we descended was narrow and rocky, which surprisingly did not trigger any claustrophobic reactions though I did have to talk myself down off the ledge at the realization of our depth. I did a couple of math and hand coordination exercises at the bottom to examine how much more slowly the brain works at deeper levels due to a condition called nitrogen narcosis. The exercises were short and we spent the majority of the dive exploring the reef. Aquatic life is both fascinating and beautiful. We glided through schools of colorful fish, the sun glistening off their sleek, sparkling bodies. I didn’t feel threatened by them; I was one with them – just another big, slightly clumsy fish in the sea. The delicate corals along the reef were simply breathtaking! The colors were muted by the distortion of light in the water but the intricate shapes and gentle flowing movements brought them to life before my eyes.

Our second dive, the drift dive, took place at a site called the Blue Hole. The idea of the drift dive is to let the current gently carry you along, doing all of the work for you, so that all you have to do is breathe and admire the waterscapes. The current for our drift dive was light so we lazily drifted and slowly, peacefully enjoyed our surroundings. The Blue Hole is an enormous expanse of deep, blue abyss and swimming through it gives you a sense of flying or floating in space. You are weightless and free, exhilarated yet tranquil. It is the deep blue sea.

Our third dive, the naturalist dive, was all about exploring and identifying the coral and sea creatures. The ecosystem – the interrelation of living and nonliving things – is a subject of study that we intend to undertake slowly and patiently in different parts of the world. At Coral Island, the reef was teeming with life and, in my opinion, it was the most beautiful reef in all Dahab. The clownfish sleep and play in the anemone. The crocodile fish glides along the ocean floor. Schools of small shimmering fish in silver, orange or blue dart through the water in instinctively synchronized movements. Ahmed pointed out blue triggerfish, fire coral, barracuda (a whole school of them floating overhead!), Emperor angelfish and blue fin trevally. Coral Island was the ideal location for a naturalist dive. The light of the midday sun shines through the crystal clear water such that at 17-33 meters deep, you can see your surroundings vividly with natural light. If you look up from below, you can see that big ball of fire burning brightly in the white sky.

Ahmed and I went to the Lighthouse alone for my navigation dive. It was more of a chore than an enjoyable experience, probably due to my innate sense of misdirection, but I passed and that’s enough said about that. Aaron knows well enough not to put me in charge of navigation on land or underwater. He is my compass and has never steered me wrong.

For my final certification dive, we did a night dive at Penguin House Reef, just off the coast of our hotel. We were a larger group this time (seven, including Ahmed), which turned out to be an unsavory dynamic. As soon as we began to descend, I disliked the blackness of the moonless night and disorientation of the dark, even with a torch in hand. With no moon, we could see very little outside the torch beam, which did illuminate colors in the coral that are otherwise invisible to the eye in the filtered sunlight. The reds, in particular, were much more detectable. Two of the divers, an Israeli guy and a German guy, were decidedly unskilled and uncontrolled and, because they were in front of us in the sequence, we spent the entire dive avoiding their long, lanky, erratic, flailing limbs. Everyone was perturbed, including Ahmed, and the constant worry and eventual reality of being kicked in the face added a tone of anxiety to my already nerve racked night dive mindset. Though I was uncomfortable from the beginning of this dive to the end, I felt in control of my own devices. I did not feel unsafe but rather annoyed and anxious. There is a critical faculty of being able to “talk yourself down off the ledge” and avoid panic that is crucial to being a good diver; it allows you to maintain composure in stressful situations. You can usually breathe yourself back to a happy place if you have the wits to do so. The redeeming feature of the night dive was our discovery of a Spanish Dancer. It looked like a bright red flimsy Frisbee and, when Ahmed gently touched it, it began to slowly, erotically sway like the flowing red dress of a swinging seniorita. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. So I am an Advanced Open Water Diver now! A rewarding achievement! This labor of love opens the door to a lot of amazing dives all over the world and our trip around the world has now turned into our dive trip around the world. Aaron has been so encouraging and supportive along the way and it has enhanced my love for him even more, if that’s possible. I would follow him anywhere and, decidedly, we will go everywhere!

To celebrate my accomplishment, we booked a one-day dive trip to the SS Thistlegorm, a WWII British warship wreck which was bombed by the Germans in 1941. The wreck is 415 meters long, with tonnage of 4898, is quite well intact and coined as the most impressive wreck in the Red Sea. On the cruise to our site, a pair of dolphins glided along the bow of our boat, playing and entertaining us. The dives were absolutely, positively thrilling! For the first dive, we descended down an anchor line and explored the perimeter of the ship. The highest point of the wreck is about 17 meters deep while the lowest point is at 33 meters. I must admit that I find wrecks haunting – graveyards under the sea. I thought that I would be more intimidated by that notion but when I got down there, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. We explored the area where the bomb had hit and marveled at the debris. Two guns on the front were still intact and, as we floated around the outside, I realized that this was a real artifact of world history. Our second dive (40 min in duration) was spent almost entirely inside the wreck! We penetrated the captain’s cabin and his bathroom with tub and toilet as well as storage quarters full of boots, motorcycles and car parts. The cabins were cavernous and we carried torches to investigate the details but there was enough natural light illuminating the passageways to make me feel safe…the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. We saw a big sea turtle, sitting on top of the ship and it stayed there throughout our dive. The experience of seeing the wreck sparked such a hunger inside me for the stories of war, however gruesome and heartbreaking they may be. I want them from the perspective of those who were there, in the trenches and on the ships. I have never been especially interested in the study of history but the American classroom does not compare to the exhilaration of putting your hands on the broken wood and metal of a sunken battleship.

I much preferred diving from a boat than diving from the rocky shores in Dahab. It is much less laborious because you don’t have to stumble over jagged, uneven terrain in heavy dive gear to reach your entry point – you just put your gear on and step off the back of the boat. Our third dive of that day, and final dive for the week, was at Shark Reef and Yolanda Reef in Ras Mohammed National Park. It was supposed to be a drift dive but we ended up swimming against a strong current which was tiring and a little frightening. You kick and kick and hardly move until you exhaust yourself and find a piece of rock among the coral to hold onto and catch your breath. We did reach our final destination, though: the remnants of a cargo ship that wrecked, carrying a load of toilets which are now laid to rest along the ocean floor. Mentally and physically shaken from the current and weary from ten dives in four days, I didn’t enjoy that dive as much as I might have had it been earlier in the week but the purples and reds were more vibrant in the coral there than on any other reef that we had explored. When we returned to Dahab, we were happy to relinquish our dive gear and immediately got ready for bed. All night, I tossed and turned with dreams of negative buoyancy and falling towards the corals. Aaron says that I’m a real diver now.

Dahab is an oasis in the desert. We have escaped the horse carriages and feluccas and, in a week’s time, we have not heard an utterance of the word “baksheesh”. It is peaceful here and I can wear a bikini and shorts without getting disgusted looks or beastly grunts from the locals. We have discovered a favorite eatery, the Koushary House. Koushary is a traditional Egyptian dish consisting of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, crispy fried onions and a spicy tomato sauce. It is the only dish served at Koushary House and it is delicious and cheap! The smallest size is plenty for me and costs 2 Egyptian pounds (about 40 cents). We finish off the meal with cool, sweet rice pudding and leave happily stuffed every time. The resorts along the coast all have similar menus and the maitre des are always out in full force, beckoning you inside. One night, as we were walking along the causeway, a maitre de caught our attention and wanted to show us his fresh catch of the day, which was displayed on a bed of ice. In an attempt to prove the freshness, he grabbed a fish and opened up the gills to show us the redness of its lungs. Instinctively, I screamed and ran with my hands over my eyes, trying to erase the image from my mind before it lodged itself in my permanent memory. The man was so apologetic, even when we walked by later that evening. I have always had an aversion to raw meat. When I was younger, if my mother was cooking chicken for dinner, I could not eat it if I saw the raw breasts defrosting in a bowl on the counter. I didn’t touch raw meat of any kind until I was well into my twenties, and even then hesitantly, but the aversion waned gradually. Still, I don’t like the final presentation on my dinner plate to resemble the live animal. I occasionally enjoy a marinated, thinly sliced chicken breast but if you put a half chicken on my plate, with a leg protruding from the carcass, it’s simply not happening! Likewise, when we sat down to dinner that evening at one of the resorts with a nice table overlooking the ocean and ordered the recommended mixed seafood grill, I could not touch the whole grilled snapper with skin, head and teeth. It was our most expensive and least enjoyable meal in Dahab.

We have truly enjoyed our time here and have begun to feel at home. To consider dropping anchor here in the long term, however, is nearly impossible. We’d really like to land in a place that has ice. We are beginning to feel about ice the way Tom Hanks felt about fire in the movie Castaway. It seems like such a simple pleasure but when we ordered a bottle of mineral water at the Oasis Café on our last night in Luxor and it arrived with a tall glass of cold, shimmering ice cubes, we were as giddy as two kids in a candy shop. I’ll never take for granted another icy schooner of beer. Also, in Dahab, toilet paper is a hot commodity. You must either carry your own or often go without and that is “no buenos”! You can buy two-roll packs in the markets and we have come to carry them religiously in our day pack. It is a perfect example of the well-known phrase, “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it”. One of the greatest beauties of our trip so far is gaining a new perspective of appreciation for something formerly taken for granted. We have no regrets about relinquishing our fine jobs and material possessions in search of adventure. The freedom and personal enrichment that we have felt over the past month alone have been as valuable as our comfortable, though often monotonous, life in the suburbs. We have already begun to question whether we will ever be able to return to that life. We know that, somewhere out there, there are lucky devils who get paid to travel and that we can definitely fathom.

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September 28th 2007
Diving Dahab

Posted under Africa & Egypt

Today was our first day of “vacation” after trekking through busy airports, world-famous museums, bustling cities and ancient ruins for almost a month.  Last night we landed in Dahab and today Tina completed her first two open water ocean dives.  She’s a natural in the water! 


September 27th 2007
“The Hassle Capital of Egypt”

Posted under Africa & Egypt

Archeologists and historians would no doubt argue that Luxor was one of the greatest ancient cities and the sheer number of temples, tombs, and ruins that remain provide unprecedented insight into the rise and fall of ancient Egypt. The remains of this once-great city have created a Mecca of Egyptology but to experience this history, travelers must endure the present-day city. Luxor is very small in comparison to Cairo and is actually made up of three separate areas: Luxor town, Karnak on the East Bank, and Thebes on the West.

We spent our first two days in Luxor touring ruins with Mohammed. On the West Bank, we saw the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and Temple of Hatshepsut. The Valley of the Kings contains sixty-two tombs of ancient kings; each tomb consists of three to five rooms, etched and painted with stories of the deceased slaying his enemies, making offerings to the Gods, and traveling into the Afterlife. The Valley of the Queens is similar, though smaller in scale, and contains the tombs of the sons of Ramses III, who both appear to have died at an early age because they are portrayed as children. Upon arrival you see why this place was so sacred to the Pharaohs. The lush green landscape, with thousands of date palms and fields filled with sugar cane, magically connects the Nile with the mountain range near the West Bank. As we drive, we spy farmers tending their crops unfazed by the sweltering morning sun. Goat herders guide their flock along busy thoroughfares oblivious to the hazard they present to passing motorists. Barricades slow traffic and provide checkpoints for the Antiquities Police charged with guarding tourist safety in between their frequent naps.

Arriving at each of our appointed destinations, we are greeted by rows of tour buses, all picking up or dropping off their cargo. We’re thankful for the privacy of our small entourage but we still are subjected to the touring masses in huge groups all pushing their way through the (insert featured attraction here) for a quick (often forbidden) picture of the claustrophobic tombs and narrow temple passageways. The oppressive heat of Upper Egypt penetrates the mind, body and spirit, invoking a mind-blurring sense of weariness. The history imparted by our all-knowing tour guide Mohammed is fascinating but soon all of the Pharaohs, Gods, and temples begin to run together. On our final day with Mohammed we visited Karnak Temples and Luxor Temple. One of the largest ancient complexes of courtyards, sanctuaries, pylons and obelisks in the world, Karnak Temples are interesting because generations of Kings contributed to the development of the sixty-acre complex by erecting temples and monuments to themselves, all in the same place.

There is little, if any, industry in Luxor aside of tourism, which breeds intense competition for the almighty tourist buck; there are too many carriages and too many feluccas for all of them to thrive and no single one has any competitive advantage over the others. They are all the same. The only way that they can compete is to hassle, to be aggressive and persistent, and to make you say no at least ten times before they give up and move on to the next victim. The storeowners sit on chairs outside their storefronts, touting their wares and trying to usher you inside for a look at the same cheap, dusty tourist junk that every other store sells at “specially discounted” prices. “Just look! No hassle!” Newsflash: the mere fact that you are yelling at me is a hassle! We don’t even acknowledge them anymore – it’s more effective to simply ignore them. We have grown weary of personal interaction with the locals but we have discovered a second floor terrace café, where we can comfortably and inconspicuously do our people watching.

The woman walking down the street with a thirty pound sack of potatoes balanced on her head is far more intriguing than the tenth set of stone temple remnants that all look the same. It is common here to see two men greet one another by kissing both cheeks and also to see two men strolling arm in arm. Men lie in mats on the dirt, or on the dirt itself to nap in the hot afternoons and they can often be seen in groups, sitting in deep conversation under the shade of a tree. In one of the indoor bazaars, we saw several men napping on stacks of rugs that were for sale and one man sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes, under a table of merchandise.

On one of our first evenings in Luxor, we hired a carriage because the offer price of five Egyptian pounds (less than $1) was too low to resist. The eager driver offered to take us to a market where we could buy souvenirs and he took us on the scenic route so that we felt like we were getting our money’s worth. After a few zigs and zags through some back streets, we came upon a local (not tourist) street market similar to the one in Esna. Buffered by the security of our carriage, we rode through the market, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of daily life. Old men sat on the dirt road, with their wares for sale: fish, fruits and vegetables, spices, tails, hooves and heads of various animals. Skinned carcasses of meat hanging in doorways and freshly cut sheepskin on carts overwhelmed our senses with wild-eyed amazement. Women bartered for their daily meal stuffs and children wandered the streets with nothing to do. There is no free public education and many children do not attend school.

As our carriage pulled away from the local market, I conceived the idea of going back to the market the next day on foot, with a camera and a pocketful of baksheesh to see what kind of pictures we could get. The guys were on board with it so we spent that evening and the next morning working to break our bills into smaller denominations. Thanks to the Aaron and Andrew’s uncanny sense of direction, we found our way back to the street and the market was bubbling with activity. I should also note that I dressed more appropriately for the occasion and we all felt immensely more comfortable. The people were engaged in their daily business of buying and selling so, while we drew the typical “gringo” stares to which we have grown accustomed, less people actually approached us. For whatever reason, we did not disrupt the flow of activity to ask for photos but rather held our cameras inconspicuously low and snapped a few great shots of the interactions. As we reached the far end of the street, we began to turn down another alley that would lead us back into the market for another lap. As we started down the alley, we were engaged by a group of young girls who began following us and, despite our best efforts to thwart them, craftily enticed us into sparse conversation. The further we walked, the more they began to merge themselves with us, the stickier they became. If we tried to take a photo of something or someone, they would scamper into the shot and there were too many of them to manage. I found myself wanting to swat them like flies, to hiss at them, anything to shoo them away. With their scheming little black eyes, they seemed more like animals, like vultures, than children. Innocence has faded from the hardship they have already known in their young lives. As we came to the collective realization that our situation was not going to improve, we gave up and turned to walk back the other way. The little leaches followed us, of course. The ringleader (the oldest of the group; probably eight or nine years old) stuck to my side and continued to gradually crescendo her magnitude of annoyance. Both Andrew and Aaron were carrying backpacks and, while I had been walking with my purse clutched and my arms tightly against my pockets of baksheesh, I randomly glanced back to catch one of the smaller scamps trying to open Andrew’s backpack. I sternly swatted her grubby little claw away and, when I realized that their strategy was to steal, I firmly swiped my hand between the ringleader and myself and, in a raised voice said “NO”! As long as I live, I think I will never forget her response. She raised her petite four-foot frame, pointed a scrawny, brown finger in front of my face and, in the evil, muted tone of a gypsy’s curse, said “Be careful, Madam. Be careful”.

Shortly thereafter, we lost them and as we made our way back to the hotel, Andrew discovered that the little monsters had unsnapped the clasp of his money belt, which contained his credit cards and cash and remained concealed beneath his clothes. This seemed an unfathomable feat for such young crooks. Had they actually succeeded in the removal of his belt without his notice, it would have been an expensive and inconvenient casualty…but we would have to give the little thieves credit. They are good at what they do!

Our last two days in Luxor have been relatively peaceful and uneventful. Our tours came to an end and we sadly parted ways with Andrew, who headed back to Cairo on the overnight train. It was rejuvenating to have a couple of days with no itinerary and, now rested and recharged, we are flying to Sharm el-Sheikh and then driving to Dahab tonight for some scuba diving and beach time on the Red Sea. Time for Tina to get her fins wet…FINALLY!!!


September 24th 2007
Walk Like an Egyptian

Posted under Africa & Egypt

So you finally get situated in your room on your “Five Star” Nile River cruise ship. You’re rank and sweaty from three full days of touring ruins in the dusty, of the Sahara Desert, the stink of the camel is marinating in your clothes. You’ve been dreaming about nothing but a hot shower for days since your last hostel had no hot water and the overnight train to Aswan had no shower at all (not that you would have gone there anyway) so you peel off your ripened duds and turn the hot water dial and brown water comes pouring out. What do you do?

“Welcome to Egypt!” said the seemingly hospitable gate attendant at the Pyramids of Giza as he hurriedly popped the tops off of two lukewarm bottles of soda (which we didn’t want) and handed them up to us on our camels. “Here is a (tourist junk, thirty-for-a-penny plastic) scarab for good luck and bend down so that I can put a white sheet on your head to protect you from the intense Egyptian sun”. Caught off-guard and more than slightly out of our element, we hesitantly obliged. This once seemingly gracious man began to aggressively demand a ridiculous sum of money and when he only got nine Egyptian pounds (less than $2 US) out of us, he demanded his sheets back and angrily walked away. That was how we learned the crucial lesson that nothing in Egypt is free.

Welcome to Egypt! Where every man and boy is after the same tourist dollar and everyone wants “baksheesh” or tip over and above the price that you’ve already negotiated for a service. This is the urban jungle of Africa, where the Nile vitalizes miles of lush, green coastal cities and rural villages some thousands of years old but the lands beyond are desolate, lifeless desert. These ancient cities along the Nile boast some of the oldest and most magnificent temples and artifacts in the world and the Egyptians are capitalizing on all of them. Poverty is rampant and, as a tourist, you are constantly approached by a man or child trying to sell you some worthless trinket or a ride somewhere or a bottle of water that has been sitting in the sun all morning. The others simply say, “Hello! Money? Baksheesh?” I have to keep reminding myself that these people live hand to mouth and they are willing to do whatever is necessary, without regard for self-respect or decency, to sustain their lives. When your children are starving, there is no such thing as decency, no matter where you are.

We had been moderately concerned about traveling to Egypt during Ramadan, the fourth pillar of Islam, in which observant Muslims fast from both food and drink (and sex and smoking) from 4:00am to 6:05pm each day for 30 days. Approximately ninety-percent of Egyptians are Muslim and also, according to our trusty guide book, it is frowned upon to eat or drink in public during these strict fasting hours. The unforgiving sun drives temperatures upwards of 100 degrees in September so the mere thought of spending whole days touring desert ruins with no water sounded dreadful but since we had already bought the tickets to Cairo, we decided to go. We have had no regrets! In fact, being here to witness such an important facet of Islamic tradition has added a new level of religious education to our experience.

We arrived in Cairo at 1:30am and managed to secure a couple of visas and a taxi ride to the King Tut Hostel in downtown Cairo. As we were waiting in line to enter the country, I noticed a sign on the wall, warning that drug offenses perpetrated in Egypt are punishable by life in prison and, in some cases, death by hanging. I had to read it about ten times to truly comprehend its underlying meaning: “we’re not in Kansas anymore”! We are in Africa! Wild, raw, exotic Africa! The city is very much alive for the wee hours of the morning. We later learned that during Ramadan, the people break their fast at 6:05pm and then create a kind of festival in the streets until it’s time to begin the fast again at 4:00am. The men sit in groups outside small storefronts until sunrise, playing games, smoking sheesha, and conversing, and the whole city is illuminated!

The King Tut Hostel occupies the eighth floor of an old building that looks like it was once a large hotel or office space. We pushed the button for the elevator to be sent down and after about ten anxious minutes, it came down and we rode up in a wooden box of a lift that looked like an old dumbwaiter. We had been flying through the night and wanted nothing more than to slip into bed but our host at the hostel was eager to offer us tea and help us plan our entire Egypt trip…and book it through the hostel, of course. We decided to book our first two days of tours to check it out. Our guide, Mohammed, picked us up the next day to show us the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel, and the Hanging Church. There is intense competition in the tourism industry so the stewards are extremely knowledgeable and accommodating. Our tours were private – just the two of us, Mohammed, and a driver – and the car was surprisingly nice and new with leather interior and a/c, which seems to be rare around here. Most of the vehicles are old and beaten up because the driving in Cairo is CRAZY!!! Aaron aptly described it as “organized chaos”. There are few lights and no lanes and the streets are packed with cars whose drivers all honk incessantly and change lanes by sticking the noses of their vehicles into small openings in traffic and hitting the gas. Pedestrians – even children – walk fearlessly through the madness, bobbing and weaving, and somehow emerge safely on the other side of the street. The guide book strongly suggests finding an Egyptian who is crossing the street at the same time and using him as a human shield and that’s exactly what we did to survive in Cairo.

On our second day of touring, we saw the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Mohammed suggested that we see these by camel and he took us to the camel and horse stable, where the stable owner successfully negotiated an exorbitant price, using the animated intimidation tactics of his home court advantage. The man jumped around and scratched calculations into the dirt with a rock but his most convincing gesture was his fierce and penetrating stare into the depths Aaron’s soul. While we had every opportunity to walk away, we were mesmerized by the dramatic showmanship displayed in this tiny square of the world and we succumbed to the hypnotic guiles of this crafty negotiator. Satisfactorily mounted atop our trusty camels, Alibaba and Kilobanana, we set off for the Pyramids led by our camel guide, another Mohammed. It is important to note here that a camel ride is more of a box to be checked during African travel than a luxurious or comfortable experience. The ride is bouncy and, to my unwitting surprise, camels don’t just walk – they trot and canter! Holding on for dear life, we galloped into the desert and snapped some great pictures at the Pyramids. When we returned to the stable, dust-covered and chafed, we were happy to bid farewell to Alibaba and Kilobanana, who hopefully enjoyed a large trough of water after we left.

Though Cairo is teeming with automobiles, the use of animal power is still very common. There is an abundance of donkey carts, camels, and horse drawn carriages, which carry loads of fresh vegetables, papyrus, and various other wares. For such an ancient culture, it seems so primitive, which adds to its intrigue. The style of dress is also fascinating. The most common male attire is a long-sleeved, ankle-length shirt dress (called “galabiyya”) that is lightweight, flowing and looks incredibly comfortable and appropriate for the hot climate. Many also wear turbans. Egyptian women remain a mystery to us. We see very few of them on the streets and the ones we do see are covered from head-to-toe, excluding the face, or donning the traditional “khemar” (which is all black and covers the whole face except the eyes) and usually following, with down-turned, oppressed eyes, obediently, reverently behind a man. We are told that the women choose to cover themselves in this way. It would take a much longer and more intense period of observation to make our own educated determination. In a culture where women do not have equal rights, my American-born instincts tell me that women would not choose to cover themselves from head to toe without generations of severe consequences for disobedience. This is a culture that is thousands of years old and I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of understanding.

A few nights ago in Cairo, we headed out in search of dinner after a hot afternoon of sightseeing. Our guide book had suggested dinner at a place downtown, called the Greek Club, but finding our way there proved most difficult because of the markings on the streets or lack thereof. Two middle-aged Nubian gentlemen collected us and walked us to a place that they recommended for traditional fare, a place called Alfy Bey. We were uncertain walking in but our hunger and thirst greatly outweighed our uncertainty so we took a table. At this hour, about 5:00pm, the restaurant was quite empty, except for two or three tables. The menu had both English and Arabic descriptions so we were able to decipher a bit of it, though ordering was analogous to diving face first off a cliff. Luckily, the water was fine and the food was excellent. We ate spiced veal and braised lamb with assorted dolmas and plates of pita, hummus, tahini, and a spicy tomato salsa. Interestingly, the Muslims began to file in and take seats around 5:30 and soon the restaurant was filling up. I watched the wait staff delivering drinks, salads, and steaming platters of meats, rice and vegetables to the tables of the Muslim patrons; however, the food and drinks remained untouched. The people were waiting for the clock to strike 6:05 so that they could break fast. They were contentedly smiling and chatting over the aromatic dishes, seemingly oblivious to the scrumptious temptations right under their noses. The Herculean strength of the will power of faith is both frightening and humbling! We finished our meal, paid our bill, and were rather abruptly asked to relinquish our table in time for someone’s Ramadan feast. We didn’t mind because we were finished, happily fed and weary from our long day so we stepped back out onto the streets, which were now crowded with outdoor seating and people everywhere, all seemingly in a festive mood.

We decided to book the remainder of our Egypt tour through the King Tut Hostel. This is a difficult country in which to independently navigate your way and we decided that it was worth the premium to have our transportation and accommodations arranged. Everything is still private but we have come all the way to Egypt and found a Texan! Andrew Leonard lives the Dallas area and was traveling solo but the three of us have been inseparable. We took the overnight train (13 hours) to Aswan. Our first class cabins had a row of three seats, which folded into a bed and there was another bunk bed above. There was a small sink in each cabin but a common restroom (water closet, as it is called here) and we quickly discovered that the toilet opened right onto the train tracks! Our passage included dinner and breakfast and we rested well, except for the abrupt movements of the train which periodically jarred us from sleep. In Aswan, we were transferred to our Nile River cruise ship, the M/S RA. Our rooms were not yet ready so we hired a felucca and set sail on the river. The felucca was pleasant with the shade of its canopy, the view of the river banks lined with date palms and papyrus, and the hazy, gentle breeze. We returned to the ship and checked into our rooms. As I entered the bathroom and turned the dial, I longed for a hot shower as if it were a desert oasis and when the steaming brown water came rushing down, I stood bug-eyed for a moment and then thanked God for the hot brown shower and hopped in. We are in passionate pursuit of experience in the art, architecture, culture, industry, landscapes and waterscapes of the world. An occasional brown shower and many other small sacrifices of comfort along the way are unavoidable and we are happy to endure them for the privilege of this journey.

We crawled out of bed at 2:45 the next morning for a half-day trip by minibus to Abu Simbel to see the colossal temples of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari. Mohammed explained that the construction of the Great Temple of Ramses II (built between 1274 and 1244 BC) is fascinating for two reasons. First, there are four enormous statues of Ramses II, carved into the stone entrance and the sheer size of these magnificent statues is jaw-dropping as you round the corner to the temple’s entrance. Inside there are several cavernous rooms, adorned with stone columns, more giant statues of Ramses II, and floor-to-ceiling etchings of ancient battle scenes portraying Ramses II slaying his enemies and making offerings to various Egyptian Gods in the afterlife. Even more remarkable is that the precise alignment of the temple is such that, on February 22 and October 22 (the day of Ramses birth and of his coronation) each year, the first rays of the morning sun shine on the faces of three of the four statues of Egyptian Gods carved in the innermost sanctuary of the temple. The fourth statue of the God Ptah is not illuminated on these two dates because Ptah is the God of Darkness. We are utterly bewildered by the advanced degree of calculation and measurement involved in such a feat that was achieved over three thousand years ago!

Our “five star” cruise ship is far from luxurious, two stars at most by American standards, but we have enjoyed our cruise nonetheless. Gliding down the Nile brings a wave of tranquility over us and we have spent most of our time on the sun deck: reading, writing, snoozing, talking and watching with fascination the life along the river banks. The tribal women are washing their clothes, pots and utensils in the (notoriously polluted) river while the farmers are loading the backs of their donkeys with reeds of papyrus and other crops. They fish and sow the land and live on the fruits of their labors. Farming seems an unimaginably hard way of life but I think that the daily communion with the land must cultivate the soul to its richest purity.

The ship docked for several hours in what we initially thought was the West Bank of Luxor. Hungry for a little adventure, the three of us decided to take a walk through the town. I should interject here that until now, we had stayed primarily in tourist areas and while the traditional Egyptian dress code is the polar extreme of conservative, the standard is relaxed in the tourist spots and we flesh-baring foreigners can safely wear our shorts and t-shirts. Thinking that we were in the tourist town of Luxor and having spent days on the cruise ship, I unwittingly exited the boat in capris and a little spaghetti strap top. I would soon realize my error in judgment. Luxor is often coined the “hassle capital of Egypt” and we braced ourselves for a more intense magnitude of harassment. The moment that we arrived on the shore, we were approached for a horse carriage ride, which we firmly declined. The driver proceeded to follow us down the road, trying to negotiate a continually decreasing fare but to no avail. Then a group of young boys began to follow us, begging for a pound, just one English pound! The children are fascinating; they are persistent and savvy in their pursuit of a handout. They speak fragments of about eight languages and try to engage you by greeting you in all eight tongues to see which one is yours.

As we turned to walk deeper into the town, we came upon a small street market on a poverty-stricken stretch of dirt road. The stalls were lined with fruits and vegetables, spices in heavy burlap sacks, clothing, shoes and miscellaneous household wares. There were motorcycles, bicycles, donkey carts and goats on the road and the stench of filth and feces invaded our nostrils; it was the smell of true poverty. As a woman opened her door and dumped a bucket of who-knows-what into the middle of the road, Aaron noticed the dim light and dirt floor of the interior. There were no tourists here and we drew the stares of every man, woman and child as we hesitantly walked, wondering what exactly we were getting ourselves into. The harassment continued for the entire length of our walk with hawkish stares, honks, whistles and unmistakably derogatory Arabic and English comments, mostly directed at me. The adult men stared their fierce, penetrating, stares while the children aggressively taunted us, a few times throwing rocks at our backs. The rural women, even more conservatively dressed than in Cairo, looked at us in wonderment and then quickly averted their eyes and moved on.

We wanted desperately to photograph everyone and everything in this place, to capture the untamed spirit of the people but we were honestly too afraid to take out our cameras. Everyone wants baksheesh and you can’t seem to get small bills anywhere. The ATMs spit out hundreds. The eyes of Egyptian men look through you, intimidating and preying on your innermost vulnerability. You don’t know what is in their hearts and minds but their piercing stares imply suspicion, distrust and hatred. The uneasiness in our gait only fed their hunger for our fear. We handled the situation with poise, ignoring the insults and the rocks, walking around the people who stepped in front of us and remaining guarded and cognizant of the volatility of our environment. Near the end of the road, we spotted a hand-painted sign for the “Politie Esna” or Esna Police. We had only been a couple of streets from the dock in the port town of Esna but we felt like we were in another world. No photograph or story could truly capture the adrenaline rush, the sheer exhilaration of that experience but the vivid memory of it will stay with us for a very long time.