The Silver Tongue
26-June 2008 to 2-July 2008:
"Did we see Islamic Cairo," asked Julie.
"Yes," said Mohammed. "The churches we saw, the synagogue, the crypt of Jesus, we saw all of that."
Julie somehow didn't buy his explanation. But after we surrendered the tip and went back to our hotel room, Julie looked into our guidebook and learned that we might have been scammed all along...
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Day 1: EGYPT IS 4000 YEARS FROM KENYA
It wasn't until about midnight that we finally arrived at Cairo International Airport. Our flight from Kenya was delayed, though it was a flight that got us nervous for a couple of reasons.
One, there was a connection in Khartoum, Sudan. Yes, that
Sudan! The Dharfur Sudan!
Two, there were lots of uniformed people dressed in military gear sharing the flight with us.
So with our worries about being shot down by a rocket or being hijacked, we were quite glad to be in Cairo - late or not.
One thing that surprised us was that they actually checked for our Yellow Fever Certificate! We had expected to be checked in Tanzania due to earlier warnings, and when they didn't check for it there, we thought all that effort, stress, time, and money to get the certificates were for naught. I guess all that jazz turned out to be worthwhile after all!
After collecting our bags and changing currency (Julie made sure to get as much small denominations as possible for the ubiquitous tipping expected here), we were wisked away from the airport. Our vehicle hastily made its way through the crazy traffic weaving between swerving vehicles cutting each other off and ignoring the lane lines. The destination was the Grand Pyramids Hotel in Giza.
Even though it was already around 1am, the streets were packed with people and cars. There were even people fishing on the bridge over the Nile River!
The tour company representative accompanying us in the car (named Mahmoud) told us that Cairo doesn't sleep. They do this because they try to escape the heat of the day to live it up at night.
By 2:30am, we finally slept, but we were also raided by the everpresent mosquitoes. Apparently, even in these dry and arid parts, they have them. But we were assured that these mozzies don't carry malaria... (but what about the West Nile Virus?)
So with our limited sleep, we awoke at 7am and had breakfast.
By 8am, we met up with our tour guide of the Cairo area named Mohammed. Along with a pair of Canadian women, we rode the van together and headed right for the pyramids, where we arrived half an hour later.
The moment we left the van, it was scorching hot. There was also a little bit of humidity thanks to the Nile Delta and some of the polluted canals holding standing water (a haven for mosquitoes).
This was quite a bit of a departure from the rather cool and comfortable temperatures closer to the equator in East Africa. I guess it was because we were at elevation down there that it wasn't as hot and as steamy as we thought.
Nonetheless, out here, it was clear we were in a desert. Just on the outskirts of the city were endless tracts of sands, sandstone, and very few vegetation.
But the pyramids rose from the desert towering over the swarms of people and tour buses surrounding the attractions.
Mohammed wasted no time guiding us around and explaning some of the Egyptology involved in studying these ruins and artifacts. Though I had to admit that after a while, the energy needed to continue following his explanations amongst the stifling desert heat was probably more than what's possible for an Egyptology newbie to follow.
In any case, we had fun taking photos of the monuments and even spending a little extra money to walk into the second pyramid, which was an exercise in backbreaking ramped descents and ascents in a very narrow and humid corridor leading only to what appeared to be a tomb room. It seemed like an awful lot of stones involved only to house such a tiny little room.
Not much later, we proceeded to head out to the third pyramid. This one was significantly smaller because Mohammed explained that the pharoah at the time had run out of money in the treasury.
From there, we then drove to a panorama of the three pyramids. There, we were encouraged by the guide to go for a camel ride. Julie and I at first wasn't interested, but the camel jockey and the guide pointed to some people way in the distance where apparently the view of the pyramids was better.
"Only 100 L.E. per person for 20 minutes," said the camel jockey.
Julie and I still weren't that interested, but that was when Mohammed said we were going to be bored for the next twenty minutes. So Julie caved in and she wanted me to ride with her. So we were sold.
As we rode one of the camels (which was full of flies on its chafed head and neck) got up, the camel jocket proceeded to walk our camel and the other two camels ridden by each of the Canadian women on tour with us.
It wasn't but five minutes into the walk when the jockey stopped walking the camels and allowed us to take some photos.
Then the camel jockey said, "Are we finished?"
Julie and I looked at each other and wondered what he meant by this. I hope he didn't mean the end of the excursion. After all, we were told it was going to be twenty minutes.
So Julie said, "No."
The jockey then said, "OK. I will walk a little further." And after a few more steps, he turned the camels around and asked once again, "Are we finished?"
That was when Julie asked, "Aren't we supposed to go over there?" She pointed to approximately where the jockey said earlier he would take us.
Then, the jockey said, "Oh, that's too far."
From that point on, he walked the camels back to the panorama area. It was clear that we were ripped off. After all, I had recalled there was a 50 L.E. option and it seemed that was all we were given even though we paid double that price per person!
Chalk that up to a little gullability on our part. Hopefully we were wiser.
After feeling a little ripped off, we next proceeded to the famous Sphinx. There we took even more photos and soaked up the scenery before escaping the crowds and the desert heat for our air-conditioned van.
We next headed to the Cairo Museum arriving at about 11:15am. On the drive, I learned from Mohammed the extent of Arabic in Swahili when some of the words he used when talking to the driver sounded awfully familiar.
I guess Swahili ended up being more useful that I had previously imagined.
The museum tour was a blur of looking at artifacts as well as some artifacts extracted from King Tutankhaman's tomb. Despite the shade of the museum building, it was still a little humid and hot from all the people inside. Thus, we started tuning out to Mohammed's lectures after probably an hour or so.
Clearly we were already Egyptologied out.
The tour ended at 1pm and half an hour later, we were at a restaurant serving a mix of Egyptian and Armenian. It was probably the most authentic food we've had on this entire trip, and I certainly relished this moment loading up on the pita bread with tabouleh, hummus, with roasted chicken.
When we told Mohammed about the rather Westernized foods we were getting in the Serena Lodges instead of local African foods, he would smile and wryly say, "Egypt is 4000 years from Kenya."
After the lunch, Mohammed had the driver drop off the two Canadian ladies at their hotel. Afterwards, he proceeded to drive us to a series of shops. First, a clothing shop and then an aromatherapy shop.
Julie and I had to fend off aggressive and persistent salespeople in the clothing shop (supposedly an Egyptian cotton school) and we even cut short the aromatherapy lecture telling the guy that we weren't interested.
It seemed rather annoying, but I guess we had to endure this because this is all part of the economy of escorted tourism in a third world country.
Still, Julie was a little concerned that there were already things in our itinerary that Mohammed didn't cover today. She hoped that all those things will be covered tomorrow.
The rest of the afternoon was pretty much spent catching up on sleep...
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Day 2: BELIEVING IN LIES
It was business as usual when we awoke at 7am. With the extra time to rest and sleep yesterday afternoon and last night, we were well rested.
And so we proceeded to rejoin Mohammed and be escorted around some religious district of Cairo. But with Friday being the day of rest and prayer for many Egyptians, there was a little bit of maneuvering that was going to be necessary due to some unforseen closures.
At 8:45am, we walked around what appeared to be an older part of Cairo. There were lots of tall churches, cobblestone streets, and narrow alleys surrounded by tall stone walls.
Although the scene was cool to walk around and look at, all the discussions about religion and some of the meanings of the monuments were lost on us. Being nonreligious, we tried to maintain interest even though we internally questioned what we were told.
Especially disturbing for me as the amount of ivory in many of the religious monuments, artifacts, and buildings. I wondered how many elephants were poached to meet such a demand for the ivory in their tusks?
In a way, we were seeing the ancient trade routes from Africa to Europe in action. It also made sense why Swahili was originally Arabic mixed in with Bantu and a little Portugese and Indian for this was all part of the spice, ivory, and slavery trade, and they needed a lingua franca to communicate with each other.
Still, we took photos of the Ben Ezra synagogue exterior, the hanging church, and some other mosque whose name escapes me.
By about 10am, Mohammed took us to someone's bazaar where souvenirs were being peddled to us. We ended up buying some miniature pyramid and wooden camel, but I wasn't so sure we got a good deal (even with Mohammed's help negotiating).
At 10:45am, we went back to one of the churches and actually removed our shoes to go see the Crypt of Jesus. Again, it didn't seem like anything special to us, but it was cool to look at I guess.
We then went to another restaurant near Sakkarah, which was delicious and authentically Egyptian. Once again, we relished the pita bread dipped in various sauces as well as the delicious garlic eggplant.
During that lunch, the topic of authenticity in the foods came up again in conversation when compared to East Africa. And once again, Mohammed said, "Egypt is 4000 years ahead of Kenya."
But then somehow Julie brought up the subject of chimpanzees and how the first humans must've come from Africa with the Olduvai Gorge skull being one of the strongest evidence of it. That was when Mohammed shook his head and refused to listen to the rest of the explanation as he said emphatically, "No, we not monkeys. We are made in Gods image. Adam was made from a rock and Eve was made from Adam's ribs."
As he was saying this, Julie and I both knew inside we hit the taboo topic. We still thought what he was saying was pure myth and that religion was nothing more than believing in fiction wrapped around possible historical events, but we didn't want to pursue this issue any further knowing no one's opinions will change. That's when Julie said, "Let's not talk about it."
At 1:35pm, we went to Memphis, where we saw the large statue of Ramses laid down on its back as well as well as other smaller statues standing up and a smaller sphinx.
The heat was still stifling so the visit here was short and sweet.
At 2:15pm, we were at Sakkara (or Saqqara) where it was pretty much like a homage to Imhotep - a commoner who ascended the ranks and became the 2nd to the king holding some 13 titles along the way.
Considering the degree of separation between royalty and peasants, that was quite a feat!
In any case, we sat through a little movie in an air-conditioned theater and then walked through an exhibit in another air-conditioned area before enduring the blazing afternoon heat in the courtyard area before the stepped pyramid.
As we walked back to the tour van, we could see the city of Cairo in the distance. And that was when the degree of pollution was apparent as we could hardly see the buildings amongst the thick layer of haze and smoke. It was almost like Los Angeles in Stage 1 on steroids!
Next, Mohammed guided us to some carpet making school. Knowing we would be pitched hard on buying one of their crafts, we sat through the lecture and then entertained buying something small for our souvenir shelf. The prices they wanted were too great through and we walked away.
Apparently according to Mohammed, our tour of Cairo ended, and we were headed back to the hotel. But Julie was concerned that we didn't get to see the Islamic Cairo, which had the Mohammed Ali Mosque and some kind of citadel.
So Julie asked Mohammed, "Did we see the Islamic Cairo?"
"Yes," said Mohammed. "The churches we saw, the synagogue, the crypt of Jesus, we saw all of that."
Julie somehow didn't buy his explanation. But it was only after we surrendered the tip and went back to our hotel room at 4:40pm did we look into our guidebook and learned that we had been scammed all along.
Julie angrily showed me the photos in the Eyewitness Travel book of Egypt of Islamic Cairo.
"He lied to us!" she said.
It was apparent that was we saw was Coptic Cairo and not Islamic Cairo despite what Mohammed had told us.
We spent the rest of the afternoon disappointed and feeling ripped off yet again. It didn't matter that such important sites were stated in our itinerary, which was what we paid for and expected. In the end, we figured Mohammed got his commission and his tip, and we got screwed because our itinerary was substituted for shopping excursions that weren't on the itinerary.
Indeed believing in lies seemed to be the theme of this leg of the trip. But in our case, the lies were from our guide...
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Day 3: VEGAS HAS NOTHING ON THE REAL THING
We grudgingly awoke at 3am for our 4:15am pickup to the airport. We were supposed to fly from Cairo to Luxor, where we would connect with our Nile Cruise. The early start seemed justifiable because we reckoned there would be a tour this morning to beat the heat.
Anyhow, we managed to get to the airport before the city goes nuts with rush hour traffic and caught our 6:20am flight. About an hour later, we landed at Luxor where we met up with a representative who would take us to the boat.
As we were awaiting our luggage, the rep said a few things about the itinerary in his broken english that made me uneasy. Apparently, the list of activities and the times they would occur were way different from what was stated in our itinerary. Of course, the rep asked if we were interested in the sound and light show at Luxor, but I didn't want to make the decision without Julie so I asked to wait (though I personally wasn't interested).
Julie had gone to the restroom so I didn't say anything. But I knew something unpleasant was about to happen.
Eventually, Julie returned to us and upon learning about the inconsistency between our schedule and what was actually going to happen, she was livid! I felt bad for the poor guy since it was hard for him to explain in english his side of the story or to calm Julie down. All of his pleas for "Don't worry. We'll take care of it" fell on deaf ears.
The problem was this. The itinerary stated that we would visit Valley of the Kings this morning and then Luxor and Karnak Temples in the afternoon. The rep told us that we would get to the boat and sit there until lunch (maybe about 5 hours of idle time). After that, we'd have some afternoon tea and then finally the tour to Luxor.
With our intention of changing around the back end of our schedule to allow more time to explore Cairo on the last day (to make up for not seeing Islamic Cairo), losing an additional five hours to idling didn't seem to further that goal and was thus a seemingly unacceptable solution.
Besides, what's the point of getting up so early if we were just idling the whole morning?
In any case, with Julie incensed and me worried myself about whether we were in for another scam, we were driven to the Nile Admiral Cruise ship on the East Bank of the Nile River. There, the fireworks continued inside the lobby area as now representatives from the boat as well as from the tour company were busy trying to calm her down and get her on the phone with the manager.
I gotta hand it to Julie. She's not willing to accept a rip off for something costing as much money as this.
Eventually, things calmed down and we had to swallow the current itinerary because the itinerary was now in the hands of the cruise. Clearly there seemed to be a disconnect between the tour operator and the cruise operator because of the mismatching itineraries.
Anyways, we were finally given the keys to the room with the anxiously waiting bell boys who made sure we didn't bring our own luggage to the room. The tour operator representative (doing his job) asked us once again if we were going to do the Luxor Sound and Light Show.
"Uh, no," said us collectively.
At first we were given a room on the 2nd floor, but the first thing I noticed was that the room smelled an awful lot like petrol. I wasn't sure we could endure four nights of this.
And with that, the idling began. I was struggling with a little bit of a headache (which I'm attributing to the petrol though my diarrhea attack from earlier this morning wasn't of much help).
Upon further thought about the itinerary we were given and what was to happen later on in the trip, I started to feel a little guilty for giving the staff such a hard time.
You see, the itinerary we were given assumed the Esna Lock would be closed between June 1-30. It wasn't July yet, but apparently, the cruise staff said the Esna Lock was not closed. So the itinerary discrepancy was understandable. I'm sure if someone explained that to us, there wouldn't have been as much drama.
In any case, with the Esna Lock open, we didn't need to cram a Valley of the Kings excursion this morning, and instead let the crew do their job and continue business as usual.
When I explained this realization to Julie, she was still upset and said, "Well none of this would've happened if Mohammed took us to Islamic Cairo!"
After having lunch, remaining holed up in our room (apparently missing afternoon tea time and a chance to bond with the rest of tour group in the process), and finally entering the lobby at the requested 3pm, we were introduced to our guide Abdallah and walked into the intense desert heat of the Nile Valley before boarding the air-conditioned bus.
As the bus was moving, Abdallah was talking into a microphone and addressed us in a rather slow, matter-of-fact manner of broken english, but one that was easier to understand than perhaps all of our previous Egyptian representatives and guides to this point.
He said something like, "Folks. You will notice shops and markets in town. They want you to come to their shop and buy something at good price.
"Please. Please. Please. Don't listen to them!
"I want you to have good experience on this tour. My neck is on line. If you have bad experience, I am not doing my job. So please. Please. Watch out for the Silver Tongue."
I guess Abdallah didn't have to tell us that twice. I couldn't help but wonder if we even got ripped off at the bazaar that Mohammed took us to in Coptic Cairo.
In any case, it wasn't much longer before we passed the Luxor Temple where Abdallah said, "This is Luxor Temple. We will come back later" and then we arrived at Karnak Temple.
As soon as we left the bus, we felt the blast of hot air and all of us were scrambling to juggle rushing to the nearest shadow while taking photos of the facade of the great Karnak Temple.
Abdallah took us to a shady area off the walking path where we went into his spiel about Egyptology and the significance of Karnak Temple (though I couldn't retain all that he said since I'm not an Egyptologist). And in his matter-of-fact style, he delivered a little bit about the history of the place. I honestly couldn't tell when he was being serious and when he was just BS'ing. But one thing I had trouble doing was trying to contain myself from laughing from some of the jokes he threw in there (with a straight face and matter-of-fact delivery of course).
"I like this guy," I told Julie. I think she did too. So far he was shaping up to be the best guide we've had so far.
Afterwards, we entered the temple where we were immediately awstruck by the tall columns and giant-walled facade full of cartouches. Right off the bat Julie and I forgot about the troubles of our tour and Abdallah had our full attention.
Of course the intense heat and the crowds of people kind of made it a little difficult to take the kind of photos we wanted.
Probably about a half-hour into the tour, one of the younger ladies on tour was starting to be overcome with heat exhaustion.
Abdallah noticed this and immediately had her sit on the ground with legs stretched out and have her head buried in her lap as much as possible while placing a wet cloth on the back of her neck.
The tour still proceeded, and whatever concerns Abdallah had about the tour already having a wrench thrown in it wasn't shown. In fact, when it came time to walk to the next part of the temple, he helped the lady up and in doing so smiled and said to her, "I'm just look for excuse to hold your hand."
As we were walking to another part of the temple, another one of the young ladies also seemed to be overcome with heat exhaustion. She went back to the bus.
The Karnak Temple was my first look at an obelisk with hieroglyphs (there were actually two with a third one that was fallen over), which was something I had only seen in video games back in the days when I used to play them. Anyways, the tunes that came from games like Hexen II were ringing in my head as we were walking amongst the columns and corridors of the temple.
Towards the end of the tour, many of the participants were looking silly (Julie and I included) walking three times counterclockwise around a scarab beetle statue on a pillar.
Because Abdallah said if we made a wish and did this, then it would come true only under the condition that you keep that wish to yourself.
After enjoying this temple, we were back on the bus at 4:10pm and arrived at Luxor Temple at 4:30pm.
It was still hot, but at least the shadows were getting longer. It wasn't good for photography, but I think everyone cared more about relief from the heat than good photographs.
This particular temple had one standing obelisk to the left of the front entrance with a missing one on the right. Abdallah liked to point out that there are some 31 obelisks in the world and despite Egypt creating most of them, only has a handful left. He also pointed out which country and museum housed the other obelisks as well as other artifacts that were given away or stolen from Egypt.
Indeed Luxor Temple was pretty impressive, but not as good as the one in Karnak, we thought. Still, it made the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel look like child's play as Vegas has nothing on the real thing!
At 6:15pm, we were back at the boat. Julie and I were met by the manager of the tour company. Now we were in touch with someone who might actually do something about our predicament.
Anyways, at first it seemed like he was just repeating the current itinerary which wouldn't have given us time to see Islamic Cairo at the end of our trip. That was when he said that he would try to move our Abu Simbel flight and Cairo flight up by three hours each.
Sounded like a plan, and we proceeded on our tour waiting to hear back from him or some representative about the latest developments later on in our cruise.
When we returned to our room, we noticed traditional Egyptian feluccas sailing up and down the Nile River as the sun was setting. It was a nice end to an otherwise drama-filled day. Certainly, it seemed our state of mind has calmed down a bit compared to this morning.
After showering, we went downstairs to have dinner. The cruise made us sit with another couple from South Africa named Theo and Nalani. It felt a little strange sitting with people you don't know, but I did appreciate the effort being put forth here by the crew to get to know other people touring with you. Turned out we had pleasant conversations and it was a good thing that the cruise did this to get the guests to mingle with each other.
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Day 4: THREE TOMBS ONLY
We had an early morning wake-up call on this day, getting up at 5am and having an hour to get ready and eat breakfast before our took the bus to the Valley of the Kings at 6am.
Abdallah insisted before the bus ride that "I know this is early, but trust me. At 8 o'clock, you will thank me."
And so we went to the Valley of the Kings which was a series of tombs built underground or within the local mountains. In here were the tombs of several pharaohs.
Abdallah (and most of the other guides) took us to the first tomb, which was of Ramses IV. After giving us a talk about this pharaoh and a words eye view of what to see inside, he remained outside and let us explore the tomb on our own for a few minutes.
This one was long and full of hieroglyphs on the walls. Some parts of the walls seemed to have hieroglyphs and colors faded and I wondered how much of this was restored and how much of this was as is. In any case, it was a bit humid inside this tomb due to the number of people in here, but was impressive nonetheless.
After that, Abdallah took us into the heart of the Valley of the Kings where he gave a few more talks about some of the closed tombs before letting us go on our own. He recommended that if the Ramses III tomb was too crowded, we should go to the Seti II tomb as well as the Thutmosis III tomb. He also reminded us, "As I said earlier, you will thank me at 8 o'clock. It's now 8 o'clock and you can see it's already starting to get hot."
Julie and I ended up going into the crowded Ramses III tomb, which had a line. It was very long, hot, and humid inside with seemingly more chambers than the first one we saw. But it had a similar feel with the hieroglyphs on both sides of the walls as the first one. I began to wonder if you've seen one you've seen them all...
After this, we went to the quiet tomb of Siptah (or Saptah). We saw only a handful of people including the two young ladies who were overcome with heat exhaustion yesterday. They warned us about the guard in there who wanted them to stand on some podium. Didn't quite register with us, but we took their advice and prepared ourselves for it.
Anyways, this tomb was long, but the walls were bare and there really wasn't a whole lot to this except what appeared to be a sarcophagus with a gap between the lid and the bottom in the middle of a chamber in the very back room. There was nothing inside the sarcophagus and we left the tomb thinking there wasn't a whole lot to see here, but not before the guard (who presumably tried to get the two ladies before us to stand on the podium) hole punched our ticket as the other two guards from each of the other two tombs we had visited.
Next, Julie and I walked over to Seti II tomb. It was all the way in the back of the valley. There was another open door to a tomb along the way as well, but in any case, we just headed for the last one as we had vaguely remembered Adballah's recommendation.
Well we went about half-way into the hieroglyph-rich corridor before the guard intercepted us on his way out and was about to punch our tickets. That's when he suddently said, "No more! You are finished!" and turned us away.
Apparently, we were only allowed three tomb visits, and Siptah must've been our third one. We really wished Abdallah made it more explicitly clear about the maximum of three tomb visits.
We still had another half hour to go before we were scheduled to meet up with Abdallah again. So we took this opportunity to go to the Thutmosis III tomb, which involved going up some stairs and into an opening perched high above the ground.
Fortunately, all this was in shadow so we weren't going to be overcome with heat exhaustion making the climb.
Once at the top, we took photos of the entrance, but two locals were there (one selling water the other probably serving as the guard). Knowing we were turned away at Seti for exhausting our allocated tomb visits, we didn't bother testing our luck at this tomb.
At 8:25am, we were back at the meeting spot.
Next, we were shuttled to some kind of alabaster school and store on the way to Hapshesut Temple. Abdallah was a little slick with this one (though Julie and I caught on) saying there are restrooms there that are cleaner than the one at the Valley of the Kings.
At 9:30am, we were at Hapshesut Temple. It was very windy and sometimes the gusts of wind were strong enough to blow hot, stinging sand into our faces. Moreover, the heat of the day (Abdallah reckoned it was maybe 38 degrees Celsius) was already getting up there, though Abdallah said it wasn't as bad as yesterday, which he said was about 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
In any case, it was hot enough for the tram ride to go from the ticket gate to the base of the steps of Hapshesut Temple (a distance of maybe not even 150m or so).
Abdallah took us up the first flight of steps and then to the columns on the right side of the temple, where he showed us some hieroglyphs. What was special about these was that Hapshesut's son-in-law wanted her name erased from all the temples. But she was clever and managed to keep her name by disguising it in the names of gods (who were unerasable).
At that point, he let us explore the temple on our own for a bit. That was when we took the opportunity to climb up the next flight of steps to the top level where we were amongst the various statues and the inner courtyard where there looked to be a closed-off room at the very back.
Before returning to the bus, we enjoyed the views of the cultivated lands in the distance from our elevated vantage point.
With the heat of the day in full effect at this time, we welcomed the air-conditioning of the bus and the cold water on offer at a rate of 2 for 5 L.E.
We left the Hapshesut Temple at 10:20am and made a brief stop at the Colossi of Memnon, which was a pair of two tall sitting statues ten minutes later.
At 11am, we were back on the boat. The rest of the day was a free day. But before Abdallah stopped talking, he mentioned (on more than one occasion) that there was the Galabeyah tomorrow night, which meant that we had to purchase some kind of Egyptian clothing for both dinner and the festivities thereafter. Many of us doubted the seriousness of whether we'd be denied admission if not dressed in an Egyptian Galabeyah, but it would turn out to be an interesting topic of conversation amongst strangers and essentially a convenient icebreaker.
Julie and I were chilling out in our room when suddenly I kept hearing shouts of "Hello! Hello! Hello!..." out of our window. When I turned around to see what the commotion was all about, Julie was standing there by the window watching something going on outside. I was wondering if all those shouts of "Hello!" were directed at her (turned out it was!).
So when I joined her by the window, I was shocked to see a large gathering of Egyptian locals on rowboats trying to sell stuff! I don't think I had ever seen anything like this before.
On one occasion, one of the locals threw one of the cloths he was trying to sell at our window. With unbelievable precision, he managed to take advantage of the rope by our window and the cloth happened to be wedged between the rope and window!
Eventually, when Julie and I were about to walk to the top of the deck to see the whole scene, that guy was yelling to have his cloth returned!
Caught in this awkward situation, Julie reluctantly opened the window, grabbed the cloth, and threw the cloth back down towards the local asking for it. Unfortunately, Julie's aim was a bit off and the cloth landed in the water!
So with that, we bolted upstairs in no time to watch the rest of the scene unfold...
At the sun deck, the temperature was scorching hot! But it didn't matter because we were busy looking at scores of rowboats surrounding both our boat and a neighboring cruise ship.
Some of the locals were so bold that they skillfully lassoed rope onto that neighboring ship to lock their rowboat with it and let the ship do all the work as they followed by holding onto the rope!
We were joined upstairs by Theo, the South African guy who sat with us over dinner, and Nick, who came up to tell us that he saw someone throw a cloth into the water! Little did he know that was Julie!
I wasn't sure whether to be annoyed, amused, or scared that so many boats little row boats were around us. Of course Julie and I snapped photos of the scene, but all this commotion got me thinking about pirates or unwanted guests boarding the ship. However, I think there were crew members on board who tried to ensure that wouldn't happen.
Up ahead of us was a large dam-looking structure. There were two openings with what appears to be a gate fronting each one.
That must have been the Esna Lock!
We've never been a part of this before. But the idea was that the cruise ship needs to ascend several meters as the area probably used to be rapids or some kind of cascade. Once inside the gates of the lock, the gates would close and water would flood our side making the boat rise. At the same time, the other side's water would go down so they could proceed downstream at the same time we were proceeding upstream. It was actually a rather ingenious solution and doesn't really cost much in terms of pumping water because each lock gate spills into the other and vice versa on each turn.
Anyways, while all this was going on, Linda and Roger (a Kiwi couple who also brought their son and girlfriend along) also joined us at the sun deck and pool area checking out the scene.
When all was said and done, Julie and I retreated to our rooms. The intense heat of the Nile Valley was enough to make Julie sleepy and so she napped. Meanwhile, I was working on the computer sorting out photos and blogging of course.
By the time it was 6pm, Julie finally awoke and we decided maybe it was time to have afternoon tea, which started an hour ago. An employee said the afternoon tea is probably over by now. I guess we had assumed wrongly that afternoon tea was an ongoing thing until dinner like it was at the other places we stayed at (the Paraa Safari Lodge at Murchison Falls, Uganda was one such example).
When I got up to the sun deck, a group was gathered around having a chat it seemed. I wasn't sure if we would be intruding so we went back downstairs to await dinner. In hindsight, I think that was the first real opportunity to bond with the other shipmates, and it was an opportunity wasted in my book.
During dinner, Theo asked us where we were during tea. He confirmed my suspicions that it was a bonding opportunity. Oh well.
Anyways, tonight was also going to be Bingo night. Perhaps that might be another opportunity to get acquainted with the shipmates.
When 9:30pm rolled around, I went upstairs to the bar area. I was half-hour late to the Bingo party and I didn't buy any tickets so I just watched Theo and Nalani. I still wasn't fully acquainted with the rest of the crew so all I did was just pretty much watch and try to root on the South Africans.
Julie was tired and slept early.
After the Bingo was over (turned out that all three winners came from the same table who are in a different tour group), I headed back downstairs to join Julie in bed. Theo had mentioned something about going into the neighboring town (we were docked in Edfu by now) with Pete, but I wasn't sure if they were being serious or not.
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Day 5: POWER IN NUMBERS
It was a little after 7am we joined Theo and Nalani for breakfast. The first question from Theo was, "Where were you? We were waiting for you."
That surprised me. I guess they were serious after all. I said, "Oh, I just went to sleep. I was tired." Though the truth was I wasn't sure if Theo and Pete wanted to go into town to see a soccer match at a bar or something, which was something I didn't want to do in lieu of sleep. Chalk this up to an exercise in impatience and the consequences of that.
Then Theo said, "You should've come with us last night. It was nice. The whole group went."
"Doh!" I thought to myself.
Anyways, I guess we'll have to put more effort in fitting in before become outsiders in our own tour group.
But before all of that, it was 8am and it was time to go for a morning tour with Abdallah to Edfu Temple.
By 8:20am, we were at the temple. It was already started to heat up when we got there. But that was tempered somewhat by the impressiveness of the facade of the temple and the ruins presiding before the entrance courtyard.
In addition to the statues of Horus and more hieroglyphic inscriptions, perhaps I was interested in Abdallah's explanation that Egyptians had electricity. He warned us that we wouldn't believe him, but he pointed out a dark room with hieroglyphs inside that was deep within the temple.
So he challenged us and asked, "How could there be cartouche inside this room?"
A few reluctant answers were presented, and Pete (the Egyptologist in our group) was unable to provide Abdallah with a satisfactory answer.
Then Abdallah explained that this room was worked on with the door closed. With no soot on the ceiling, it couldn't have been a candle that provided light. He also argued it couldn't have been mirrors because of the presence of the door and because of how difficult it would've been to have someone hold the mirror while the scribe wrote in such a way as to account for where the scribe was in his writings and where the sun was positioned!
So given that, the conclusion was that Egyptians discovered electricity!
I didn't quite follow his explanation as to why, but that piqued my interest and I'm sure I'll read up on this little issue after the trip.
Anyways, we were done with the tour and back on the boat at 10:30am. It couldn't have ended soon enough because once again it was scorching hot.
But before Abdallah let us go, he made another friendly reminder about the Galabeyah tonight and the mandatory dress code. That got a lot of our group to go to the shop on the 3rd floor and negotiate with the shopkeeper there about a bulk order discount. We got a good feel for what was being charged and we would arm ourselves with this knowledge to tackle the bazaars later on this trip for a cheaper price.
After a few bluffs at intending to wear the skimpy belly-dancing outfits (Jenn, one of the young ladies in our group, suggested that guys should wear them and girls should wear the men's robes), we eventually decided to go to the shops on the riverfront at Edfu and see if there's someone willing to sell everyone his clothes at 20 L.E. per person later on this afternoon. Dan, the stern American from Kansas, already deviated from the plan when he found a blue robe he couldn't part with and bought it.
Afterwards, most of our tour group started to bond as they all went to the swimming pool area to cool off. I was busy blogging and naming photos in the comfort of the air-conditioned, but smokey, bar area. I was beginning to wonder if I should've joined them even as Julie stayed holed up in the room to get settled, but was reluctant to come out except to take a few photos on the quiet sun deck.
After lunch, Julie went to nap in the room.
I was itching to get to know the rest of the tour group especially since I had sensed that there was a bond or some sort of cameraderie starting to develop. So I jumped at the chance to play some cards with some of the tour folks when invited.
That was when I really got to know Nick, the son of Pete and Dorothy (the outgoing folks from Oregon who brought the cards and who schemed to have the group discount on the mandatory clothes) as well as Jenn and Gina (the two young Kiwi ladies where were having trouble with the heat at Karnak but seemed to be the center of all informal group activities taking place on board), and Jason (Kiwi-born son of Linda and Roger but moved to the UK with his girlfriend Rose, who was also on board but getting a massage at the moment). The South African couple Theo and Nalanie were playing Uno with Pete and Dorothy. I was playing Phase 10 with the rest of the group, though Jason left after a few rounds (but not before teaching me and helping me win the first game) for a relaxing massage after his girlfriend Rose.
It was quite fun playing cards and really getting a feel for each others' personalities and backgrounds. Before we knew it, it was already 5pm and time to have a cuppa (that's afternoon tea for those not in the know). That was when everyone pretty much sat around in the sun deck and chit chatted some more, and may have been one of the first times that everyone in the group (including the quiet ones) was face to face as a whole.
Linda got everyone to agree to head into the Edfu bazaars on the riverfront after the afternoon tour.
The afternoon tour started at 5:30pm and Abdallah led us on a walk from the boat to the Temple of Kom Ombo. It was scorching hot once again this afternoon, and Abdallah said it was probably around 45 degrees Celsius or 113 degrees F.
Kom Ombo Temple was pretty small compared with the others we had seen up to this point. Still, the hieroglyphs and columns were impressive. But the small size of the temple also made things a bit crowded, especially considering the limited shadow space.
Particularly interesting was a display of mummified crocodiles inside a small and humid dark room. It was really starting to become apparent just how advanced Egyptian Civilization really was, especially if they've perfected the art of mummification (preservation) several thousand years ago.
After the tour was over, it was time to put the Power in Numbers negotiating ploy to work.
So with brave faces, the whole tour group went into the melee of salespeople all trying to wave their wares in front of each of our faces and even just placing them on our shoulders.
What ensued was a blur of lots of yelling, lots of people amongst the tour group saying "No" and lots of vendors reluctant to sell the girls anything for 20 L.E. since their clothings tended to be a bit more embroidered than that of the guys.
I think it was safe to say that the Power in Numbers negotiating tactic where we come in as a group and buy as a group fell apart.
So with that, Julie had no trouble getting my shirt for 20 L.E., which she didn't mind because she thought it was a shirt worthy of re-use at home at some point. She bartered and got her robe for 40 L.E.
We weren't sure how successful the rest of the group was because we were back at the boat and showering well before anyone else in the group decided to finish their shopping and come on board.
Afterwards, an Egyptian-themed dinner buffet ensued where everyone was dressed in a Galabeyah (I think I might have been one of the least dressed-up in the restaurant despite my shirt purchase), and then the Galabeyah party came shortly thereafter.
The Galabeyah party was fun as it involved some games, dancing, and even a race involving the creative use of a hanging potato between the contestants' legs in an effort to push a ball on the floor with it to the finish line.
It was 10:50pm when Julie and I returned to the room. We couldn't stay up too much longer we had a 5am wakeup call to go to Abu Simbel tomorrow (which we learned about shortly before dinner). This was the part of the itinerary where we would deviate from the rest of the group in an effort to rectify the Islamic Cairo snafu.
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Day 6: LAST NIGHT WITH THE GROUP
True to form, we got up at 5am for our early wakeup call. So we had ourselves a rather uninteresting box lunch and were joined by three other people from the opposite tour group on this boat (two of them were nicknamed by our group the "Goth Couple" because they were all dressed in black). They weren't exactly the talkative types so we didn't converse a whole lot even though we kept running into them.
We managed to catch a 7:30am flight from Aswan to Abu Simbel. For such a short flight, Julie and I were surprised that it was such a full flight on such a big plane (maybe a 737 or Airbus equivalent). What surprised us even more was that we were also joined by Pete, Dorothy, and Nick.
So at 8:25am, we were at Abu Simbel. We were on a private tour so we parted with Pete, Dorothy, and Nick as we did our respective tours.
At first, we met up with a guy named Mina. Unlike other representatives or guides we've had, his second language was Spanish and not English (his third language). In fact, we would end up speaking mostly spanish to each other. I didn't think I'd have to use it on this trip, but hey, this trip was full of the unexpected.
Our tour of Abu Simbel began with a photo lecture because guides are not allowed inside. The Abu Simbel Temples of Ramses and Nefertari were both moved to its current location as a result of the creation of the High Dam, which flooded its original location.
If they didn't tell you these things, I probably wouldn't even have known that little fact.
No photos were allowed inside the tomb, though I did see one pair of Contiki backpackers take flash photos without the knowledge of the guards outside. Not particularly respectful if you ask me.
We rejoined Pete, Dorothy, and Nick outside the Nefertari tomb area. That was when I got some mustard-looking stain on my right shoulder. It happened to be bird poop. It was funny that nearly a year ago at Niagara Falls, a bird pooped on me except it was on my face that time!
Anyways, our impressions of Abu Simbel were good. The inscriptions were mostly intact. We even had fun looking at the depiction of the God of fertility with the unmistakable protrusion at his lower extremities.
At 10am, we headed back to the entrance where we rejoined Mina. Nearly half an hour later, we were back at the airport. I guess it was a good thing we did Abu Simbel when we did because it was terribly hot here. It didn't matter that the emerald blue waters of Lake Nasser were near.
I hated to think had we stuck with the original plan, we'd have been at Abu Simbel at 11:30am tomorrow!
Moreover, if we had gone with the first improvised schedule of pushing everything 3 hours earlier, we probably would've missed our connecting Cairo flight by now.
I guess sometimes things just work out in unexpected ways.
We were back on the plane at 11:10am. Nick and I were commenting how strange it was to do a half-day excursion involving a flight. Even the bus ride between the plane and terminal (a distance of not even a few hundred meters) seemed like kind of a waste of fuel.
By 12pm, we were back at Aswan. There, we were picked up by the rep and met our guide for the Philae Temple. About 12:35pm, we were at the temple itself after a short (and smelly due to fuel and exhaust) boat ride.
This was another one of those short but sweet temples. Except this one had more of a Greco-Roman feel to it (built during the Ptolemaic Period).
Since we were touring at the height of day, the heat was stifling and the shadows were small. But mercifully, the guide kept the tour short and sweet and perhaps she too didn't want to be out in this heat.
By 1:10pm, we were back at the boat where she reminded Julie not to forget to tip the boat driver and car driver. It was funny that under Abdallah, we each paid all drivers on tour a one-off fee of 20 L.E. per person. I guess since we deviated from the rest of the group, we had to baksheesh (tip) again.
It was about 1:35pm when we arrived back at the boat and see some familiar faces once again.
"Boy you look flustered," said Linda to me. I guess it was pretty obvious we had just gone touring in some searing heat.
The rest of the afternoon was pretty much spent waiting for tea. Though Pete, Dorothy, Nick, Julie, Roger (who's doing it again after having done it this morning), and I were to join the other tour group that just got on for their 4pm felucca ride. Abdallah's group had done it just before lunch.
When 4pm rolled around, it was time to go on the old Egyptian sail boat.
It seemed like the boat was doing lots of moving back and forth in an effort to try to catch the wind. Unfortunately, we weren't really going anywhere. It turned out that we were getting a rather unusual southerly wind (most of the time, the wind goes upstream or from a northerly direction).
In any case, it was relaxing albeit a bit less exciting than the earlier felucca ride as Jenn and Gina had mentioned theirs went all the way to the end of the botannical island.
When we were done with the felucca ride, it was time for some afternoon tea at 5:30pm. There, we met up with the group once again and decided to go to the old marketplace in Aswan for some shopping.
The bazaar experience turned out to be the kind of market experience Julie was craving for that we felt we got screwed out of in Cairo. There were tons of shops lining old streets where it was pedestrian traffic only.
A large deal of shops tried to peddle spices as well as some cloths and carvings. Perhaps more prevalent were aggressive locals trying to get us into their stores. Although they were pushy, it didn't feel as bad as it had been in other places like Edfu and Cairo.
One of the funnier things merchants would say was, "I don't know what you want, but we have it in my store." Ha!
We returned to the boat at 7:40pm. There, we had ourselves one last dinner together as well as a Nubian dance exhibition after dinner. The last dinner felt like the last supper as Pete managed to get Abdallah to put all of our tables together so we could sit together. I wish we had done this earlier in the trip, but better late than never, right?
After a rather interactive Nubian dance exhibition where Jenn and Gina always seemed to be picked on by the dancing crew, many of us chilled upstairs on the sun deck. There, I brought the laptop so I could play "Walk Like An Egyptian" by the Bangles for Dan, as I had promised. Abdallah also joined us as he traded praises with Pete on how fun the tour and the group was to be with.
Gina was playing DJ as she was thumbing through the iTunes library churning out Luka, Hotel California, Kokomo, Love Shack, and even Beautiful Day by the Eels.
But with all that was going on, there was a bit of an air of sadness as all good things must eventually come to an end. I think many of us had felt a type of bond and cameradie with each other that can only happen when traveling in a group in a far away land while sharing experiences you can't get at home. Indeed, when little by little people started to retreat downstairs to bed, hugs and handshakes were exchanged as we knew me might not see each other again (as many of us had different itineraries tomorrow).
Personally, I felt something like this was missing from this trip (and doesn't happen often enough in our travels) where Julie and I usually just go off as a couple on our own when traveling. Even though it wasn't a waterfall excursion and I had reservations about going to Egypt, I was glad we did it as I got to meet great people who shared a passion for travel - albeit archaeological and religious in nature. Yet irregardless of our differences in political, religious, or philosophical beliefs and backgrounds, we shared a great time on the cruise and those are memories we can look back on fondly when reflecting on our travels.
I retreated back to our room at around 11:30pm where I saw Julie on the bed with money all over the sheets. She was spending all sorts of time playing accountant trying to manage what little cash we had left with tipping the guide, the staff, and other incidentals along the way with still another day to go in Cairo tomorrow...
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Day 7: GOODBYE, AGAIN
It was a somber morning as the reality of the end of us as a cohesive group was sinking in. Even still, the tables remained together for us for breakfast and we managed to squeeze in what precious few minutes we had left together doing more small talk over breakfast. I had secretly hoped that we would all meet up in the brekkie room at the same time, and though it only happened for a few minutes (as people came and went at various times), it was still good times.
And so when 8am came around, we checked out of our rooms and proceeded to the lobby. There, we said our goodbyes one more time and went with our driver and representative to the airport at Aswan.
At 9am, Julie and I were one of the first ones at the airport. So we got settled and awaited our 10:10am flight to Cairo.
But about 20 minutes or so later, Pete, Dorothy, Nick, Dan, and Jennifer (Dan's mate) all showed up in a very unexpected surprise.
In another ten minutes, the rest of the group (Jenn, Gina, Jason, Rose, Linda, and Roger) showed up. So we made more small talk before it was time for the Abu Simbel group to get boarding at the gate on the opposite end of the departure area.
"Goodbye for like the 4th time," said I sarcastically. And that was the last we saw of them.
Meanwhile, we boarded our flight probably 20 minutes or so later. And we arrived at the Cairo Airport at noon. There, we met up with our familiar driver again, and he proceeded to take us straight to the Citadel.
At long last, we were to see the very thing whose omission caused so much drama on this trip!
At 1pm, the driver finally made it to the Citadel after weaving through some crazy Cairo traffic. As we approached the gate, Julie and I saw that our guide for today was none other than Mohammed, our guide from the first two days!
"Hey, it's Mohammed again," said I.
"Great," said Julie sarcastically.
I had to admit it was a little difficult trying to hold back my snickers at the irony of it all. But anyways, Mohammed went right into his guide persona and talked about Mohammed Ali, the inventions pertaining to the Citadel, and some additional modern history of Egypt.
As we walked around the Citadel, we couldn't help but notice how much cooler it was here than it was in the Nile Valley. I'm sure it was still in the high 30s (in Celsius) here, but that felt way better than the 40s and 50s we had been getting on the cruise.
We entered the mosque but only after removing our shoes and zipping back on our pant legs. The dusty marble and alabaster floors of the mosque courtyard provided some photo opportunities, but it also dirtied our feet while scorching them as well since they had plenty of time to collect the sun's rays.
Inside the tall multi-domed, Mohammed, Julie, and I sat in a little section of the carpeted floor. Then, Mohammed gave a talk about Islam in Cairo and more about Mohammed Ali.
When this part of the tour was over, Mohammed then fessed up and apologized for his mistake earlier in the trip. He said he even couldn't sleep when he received the itinerary after the fact and saw his mistake. And he also returned the tip money saying he never accepts tips, and the envelope we gave him was misconstrued as a letter and not a tip, which was why he accepted it earlier.
I don't know if Julie complaining to the manager upped the urgency of the rectification process, but Mohammed even said he pulled some strings to get us access into areas that most visitors couldn't do. Well, those would be surprises for us later on this afternoon.
And in any case, apology accepted. After all, we finally got to see the missing piece of our Cairo visit. That was all we wanted.
At 2:35pm, we visited Mohammed Ali's personal quarters. This was one of those places I don't think visitors are usually allowed though we did see other Egyptians around there.
At 2:45pm, we went into the more humble but older mosque just across from the grand Mohammed Ali Mosque. This was another one of those places where the shoes had to come off and the extremities had to be covered (though women have the added burden of covering arms, which wasn't a problem for Julie since she had long sleeves on).
At 3:30pm, we went to what Mohammed called the Modern Pyramid. This pyramid (like other pyramids) was a tomb, but this is in honor of the late Anwar Sadat, who signed the Camp David Treaty with Israel and paid for it with his life in an assassination plot.
The Modern Pyramid was actually a modern structure with Arabic names scrawled on the triangular contours. In the open spaces stood about a half-dozen guards looking serious and never looking anywhere else but straight ahead.
We were the only tourists here, and Mohammed reminded us that he pulled strings to get permission to come here, which is normally reserved for ex-presidents and other international dignitaries.
Clearly, I felt out of place here and I don't think Mohammed had to go to such lengths. But at least we knew his apology was sincere and he really tried to make it up to us. He even told us the change in flights wasn't ordinarily possible, but he managed to pull strings to even rectify that!
As we were at the Modern Pyramid, we had heard honks from passing motorists. We weren't sure if it was because of us or if it's for traffic. Somehow, I doubted it was because of the latter.
And so concluded our tour of Cairo. Mohammed insisted on taking us to the same Egyptian Restaurant (his treat) that we went to on day 1. That restaurant was called Andrea, and we once again pigged out on pita bread, hummus, some kind of eggplant mixture, roast chicken, falafel, and watermelon.
On the way there, we finally saw the City of the Dead from the road in broad daylight. Said to be the largest necropolis in the world, it was known for people actually living in mausoleums and tombs as if they were their own personal homes. The mixture of gothic-looking tombs with satellite TV dishes on their roofs attested to this strange combination.
At 6pm, we were back at the familiar Great Pyramids Hotel again. But not before we saw our good-byes to Mohammed who happened to be living nearby. He taught me another Arabic word such as Ilhamdulilleh (thank God) for having the opportunity to rectify the mess.
And so ended our Egyptian tour. We couldn't wait to get back home after being gone for two months. And so tomorrow would be a long day of flying for us with another early morning wake-up call for an 8:30am flight to London and then connecting to LAX.
But before we could look forward to the upcoming July 4th weekend with the parents, I was coming down with what appears to be a cold and I also seemed to still have diarrhea again. I guess this trip went full circle where I arrived in Sydney, Australia sick, and left Cairo, Egypt sick.
Have a waterfall travel story you'd like to share?
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