Fond Memories of the Middle East – Egypt

Recent news from the Middle East and northern Africa turns my thoughts to the wonderful people we met during our trip to Egypt, Jordan and Israel. I wonder if everyone is all right.

For the Egyptians, I hope the change in government turns out to be everything they wished for. While there are many wonderful things to see and do there, there is also extensive evidence of a regime more interested in being served than serving.

The story of our Middle East journey around the turn of the millennium begins with a giant stroke of luck we stumble upon the year before as we wrap up our visit to England and Wales.

Dropping off our rental car takes much less time than we expect, so we wind up in the terminal at Gatwick Airport way too early for our scheduled flight home to San Francisco.

As we are among the first to check in, the agent asks if we would mind taking a later flight because ours is oversold. The next TWA flight to St. Louis might not be until the next day so they offer as compensation two round-trip tickets anywhere they fly IN THE WORLD! Hell yeah, we’ll take it.

We’re not so indispensable that we can’t miss one more day of work. I have a very competent assistant running the office and my counterpart in a nearby city is ready to help out if needed.  Oh, and by the way, we have no need to go to St. Louis (That was TWA’s hub.) so all of a sudden our choices for flights opened up exponentially.

They find us an 11-hour, non-stop Air New Zealand flight to Los Angeles out of Heathrow Airport and a quick commuter flight to San Francisco.

With our anywhere-in-the-world vouchers in hand, we load our stuff onto a Heathrow-bound bus and off we go, arriving home an hour later than planned, but in a much roomier plane with better food!

Jill & Mike’s Adventure Rule #1 is to always be available (ie: volunteer) to get bumped, especially when we are on the way home.  Of course this was back in the olden days when airlines were still pretty generous when they bumped passengers.

When I lived in Denver I always knew that a practically guaranteed method for grabbing a free flight voucher by getting bumped was to book a summer afternoon flight.  On a hot day, at that altitude, they often need to lighten the load so the plane can get off the ground. But I digress.

A year later and I face the quandary of how to make the most of the vouchers. I want our anywhere-TWA-flies destination to be a place I couldn’t afford to go to otherwise. The Middle East beckons. My mom had recently visited the area and was enchanted by Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Israel.

Inspired, I book flights to Cairo.  I want to see the pyramids and am intrigued by Petra in Jordan.

We have to pay the taxes on the tickets that amount to an unbelievable $20.13 each! Yup, 20 bucks each to fly round-trip from San Francisco to Cairo, Egypt!

Around the same time, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article recommending a tour operator in Cairo.  The guidebook called Let’s Go Middle East also issues glowing reports about the same guy, Salah Mohammed.  I contact him and can’t believe how reasonable his tour rates are.

Normally I don’t do tours but in this case, we want help navigating.  It’s one thing to go to a country that uses our alphabet but it’s whole other ballgame when we don’t speak the language and the written words are hieroglyphics to us.

I book a trip for about $1,000 each that includes a driver and a tour guide, hotels, some food, round-trip airfare to Luxor from Cairo, hotel with guide and driver for a couple of days there, a day trip to Alexandria and a car/driver/guide/entrance fees and hotels in Jordan.

I’ve tweaked the Jordan portion to include my mom’s recommendation to include a trip to the partially excavated Roman city of Jerash.  We start in Amman, followed by Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum and end on the Red Sea in Aqaba.  This steal of a deal also includes admission to all the sights and only adds about $250 each.

Because we are so close, I also book an Israeli guide, Zvi Keren, who will meet us at the Jordanian border crossing and we will explore the Jewish State for a few days before flying back to Cairo for our flight home to San Francisco.

So after tacking on the airfare from Cairo to Amman and from Tel Aviv back to Cairo, our Israeli guide, the Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem and food, we add another $1500 to our “free” trip.  Still, it’s not a bad deal for an international trip that will last just shy of two weeks.

Our journey begins with a long layover in New York City. We taxi to Sheepshead Bay near Coney Island for a luxurious American Last Supper prior to boarding our overnight flight.

Big mistake. Lobster and long flights do not mix. And it was a very, very loooong flight.

We leave our Oakland, California house before the crack of dawn on a Friday for an 8:30am flight.  The distance spans NINE time zones of cramped and mostly sleepless flight. We land in the chaos of the Cairo airport at around 3:30 Saturday afternoon.

During descent we experience the striking contrast of how lush and green our destination appears for a few miles either side of the Nile River and then the sands of the Sahara Desert consumes the rest of the landscape as far as the eye can see.  Now this is exotic.

Amro, one of our guides, finds us as we walk down the hall from the plane.  He quickly herds us to the correct immigration line, then grabs our passports and some money and runs to a window to buy us visas.

Totally disoriented from the lack of sleep and mass of people, we are a bit worried.  We just handed our passports to a total stranger who is nowhere to be seen.

Before we get to the checkpoint, Amro is back with our passports stamped with the appropriate visas and we are then whisked outside to meet our driver Ihab (pronounced EE-hab) who is waiting patiently in our air-conditioned van.

It is surreal leaving the airport.  We are in a daze from exhaustion, residual lobster effect and being cooped up in coach seats and airport terminals for the better part of two days.

Amro and Ihab take us to the King Hotel on the Giza side of the Nile.  At the time it is considered a 3-star accommodation.  Worn but relatively clean, it includes breakfast that features a decent assortment of food.

With plans to be off and running tomorrow, we get something to eat in the hotel restaurant and call it an early night.

On Sunday morning Amro comes by to introduce us to Ahmed, our tour guide.  Guides in Egypt must be certified and have to go through rigorous training including a college degree in Egyptology.  We do a double-take, as Ahmed is the spitting image of an Egyptian Eddie Murphy.  He even has the laugh.  We hit it off immediately.

Our little group grows with the addition of Don and his wife Billie, a Canadian senior couple who travel extensively throughout the world including far-flung places that, at the time, I had not  considered, such as Bolivia.  They are very adventurous and are ready to dive into the culture.

We have yet to pay for our tour and do not have a finalized itinerary for the Luxor and Jordan parts of the trip.  It’s a bit nerve-wracking but we are go-with-the-flow kind of people so we aren’t panicking too much until Amro tells us they don’t accept credit cards.

WHAT?  This would have been a good thing to mention BEFORE we got here!  We aren’t carrying $2,000 in cash!  And so begins our constant daily search for ATMs.  It takes multiple visits to be able to withdraw enough cash because the machines only allow us to get so much at a time and our bank imposes daily maximums.

We are so lucky that we happen to have sufficient funds in our account, something that is definitely not the norm.  In a rare case of thinking way ahead, I have set money aside to pay the credit card bill when we got back so we were okay, but what a huge scare and gigantic pain in rump.

Mike & Jill at the Step Pyramid

The next morning, we hit the ground running. Our day starts at Saqqara, the step pyramid. The touristy camel calls us to climb aboard for a ride.  Totally cheesy but we did gain bragging rights that we rode camels in the Sahara…well, technically it felt more like the edge of the Sahara and it was only for about 15 minutes, but we did it.

Camels, Canadians and us

 

Nearby at the Mit Rahina Museum, a colossal statue of Ramses II is displayed on it’s back because it was damaged when found.  This thing is humongous but not much else to see here so we zip through in no time.

Next stop is the el Harrina Carpet “School.”  We learn that only children have small enough hands to tie the tiny knots on the fine silk carpets.  Child labor was our gut feel.  They tried hard to tantalize us but there was no way we were dragging a carpet around the Middle East and I’m not keen on sending things home, especially an expensive silk rug.

Also, there is that child labor thing that makes the needles on our moral compasses spin.  Are these kids really learning a trade or are they cheap or slave labor?  There is also the possibility that this is staged for tourists. We have no way of knowing.

Hunger pangs are satisfied with a “mixed grill” lunch at a place called Caviar.  It’s not a remarkable restaurant except for the fact that the tops of the pyramids tower over the buildings across the busy street.

Another opportunity to buy is presented with a stop at a “Papyrus Institute.”  Basically it’s another sales pitch at another tourist trap.  They are pretty inexpensive and easy to pack so we buy a couple just for fun.

On the way into the pyramids we drive by the Mena House.  I really want to stay at this hotel but fail to get Salah to book us there.  I’m sure he has a deal with the King Hotel and selectively doesn’t hear or understand me.  I’m not saying he’s dishonest or anything like that.  I think he didn’t have the connections there and Egyptians don’t like to tell you that they can’t do something.  They don’t want to disappoint.  That’s probably why we were never told they wouldn’t take a credit card.  It’s a cultural thing.

Climbing a Giza Pyramid with the Canadians

 

The pyramids and the sphinx are in the Cairo suburb of Giza.  They are in the city.  Tourist guide pictures are always taken from a vantage point that makes them look like they are in the desert but they are not.  They are on the edge of the desert in the burbs.

Giza Pyramid and Sphinx

What’s worse, we follow the sphinx’s ancient stone-faced gaze pointed to a square that features a Pizza Hut and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.  As an American, I am horrified by this revelation.  Really?  The sphinx is spending eternity looking at a KFC?  I find this to be a shameful legacy.

Sphinx view of Pizza Hut & KFC (with red signs across the square)

 

And speaking of shameful, a dear friend sent us off on our trip with paper masks that depict ancient Egyptians.  She insists we have our pictures taken in front of the pyramids while wearing them.

Do we look like Egyptians?

 

Ahmed is quick to join in and play photographer and model.

Ahmed joins the fun

Other tourists don’t know what to think.  Some think it is funny; others have no sense of humor.  Secretly, I think they are all jealous.

These turn out to be some of our favorite pictures ever.  After our photo-op, we give the masks to Ahmed and suggest he rent them to other tourists for $5 a pop! We have our nerve bristling at Yum Foods when we are displaying attributes of ugly Americans.

Next stop is yet another shopping opportunity. But this time I intend to spend money.  I want a gold cartouche with my name in hieroglyphics.  Yes, it’s touristy but it’s also a rare opportunity for a solid gold souvenir.  I pay about $120, including the gold chain, and still enjoy wearing it eleven years later.

As darkness falls, we go back to the sphinx to watch the light show from outside as Ahmed continues to finagle our plane tickets for the Luxor and the Jordan portions of the trip.

Before calling it a night, our driver takes us by the Cairo Tower and we make a stop at a small supermarket.  It’s one of my favorite ways to get to know a country.  There we buy small gifts of notepads and postcards and some bottled water to quench our thirst.

Monday morning we break the toilet.  I don’t know what it is with bathrooms and us.  I swear that we don’t do anything weird or out of the ordinary but it seems that we always have a problem with at least one loo per trip.    No worries.  We have a jam-packed day ahead so hopefully it will be in good repair when we get back.

Traffic in Cairo is insane.  Traffic lane designations are a mere suggestion.  If there are five lanes at a stoplight (Where the traffic signals are merely decorative.), there are eight to ten cars abreast revving and ready to edge out the next guy.

Fellow commuters are often literally within reach.  At one point Mike notices that he can easily reach out the window and stick a finger in the next driver’s ear.  Needless to say, a lot of cars have lost their side view mirrors and are pretty scraped up.  Oh, and I can’t forget that we are sharing the road with donkey carts, camels and other beasts of burden.

The first stop after another perfectly orchestrated tight squeeze of a drive is the Cairo Museum to see King Tut’s treasures.  I had seen them in Los Angeles a couple of decades before but I wanted to see them again in their home base.

Not so shockingly, given the lack of rules of the road, there are no rules for queues.  People just push their way to the front of the line.  It’s not rude; it’s just how it’s done here.  Luckily, Ahmed knows how to navigate for quick access.  If we didn’t have him, we probably would have stood there for a long time not knowing how to move forward.

We not only need tickets for admission, but if we want to take any pictures we need a ticket for that too.  Our guides always seem to have a spare one in case we need it.  These guys are very resourceful.

Smoggy air in the Cairo Museum

The Cairo Museum is not what I expected.  The smoggy air wafts through the museum, casting a smoky haze over the antiquities.  Miss Snobby American was appalled because she last saw this exhibit in a pristine museum.  Also, I saw a lot more pieces at that time.  It seems as if only a small portion of the collection is displayed in Cairo.

As it turns out, the Egyptians are also concerned about the care of their artifacts and our guide tells us that the ones that are housed around the world are probably better cared for in those museums than in the Cairo Museum because of the air quality and security issues.

Our tour continues as we pass al-Arafa. Cairo’s giant walled City of the Dead is where many of the city’s living poor call home.  We are not interested in going inside the walls to make a sightseeing stop out of people living in squalor.

Inside Citadel of Salah al Din

The next destination is the ancient Citadel of Salah-al-Din, a medieval Islamic fortress.  A walk along the top of the wall is rewarded with views overlooking the city.  Straight ahead, those tiny triangles way off in the smoggy distance are the tops of the pyramids.  Pretty freakin’ cool!

View from Citadel of Salah al Din

An obligatory visit to a perfume shop turns out to be (Surprise, surprise!) another sales pitch. Though the explanation of how scents are made is pretty interesting.  It’s also an opportunity to sit in an air-conditioned salon and sip a cup of hibiscus tea.  Being February, the days start off cool but quickly warm up in the afternoon. How convenient.

Inside Citadel of Salah al Din

I don’t wear perfume anymore, so this isn’t much of a temptation.  The scent master claims he can replicate my mom’s favorite, Joy perfume. But, the price, with the extra cost of the bottle, is pretty steep. Bottom line, if my Mummy wanted Joy, she would get Joy.

When there’s money to burn, there’s no better place to buy bizarre goods than the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar.   We waste $11 on three embroidered t-shirts that never fit right.  But, the uncontested Blue Ribbon prize for frivolous spending is for two pyramid shaped snow globes.

Khan el-Khalili Bazaar

 

And of course what good’s a junk souvenir if you don’t get a deal on it? We haggle hard and eventually get them for $5 apiece.  Each contains a golden sphinx with gold glitter “snow.” One is destined to our genius friend Dina who provided the props and the vision for our hysterically fun pyramid pictures.

Sphinx Snow Globe

Later, we come across another pyramid snow globe, this one with Santa inside!  We really, really want this one for Dina’s gift because we know she will embrace the irony of it.

Not to be. The shopkeeper refuses to budge from his price of $10. We have our “pride.”  We walk away slowly to give him plenty of time to call us back. Can’t take a hint and he won’t get our money.

Turns out moments later someone else in our little group snaps it up for full price.  Obviously, our savvy salesman saw our fellow traveler salivating over this treasure and held out for the bigger bucks.  We are sorry that Dina missed out on the Santa in a pyramid snow globe.

After our fill of bargain hunting, we stop for lunch on the giant square. The Canadians dig right into pitas filled with truly questionable mystery meat.  Mike and I are horrified that they are consuming them.

I decide that the safer choice is more along the lines of hummus and pitas, something that I pretty much survived on for most of the Egyptian portion of the trip.  Mike, who usually eats everything, sits this meal out.  I think the flies in the square might be what push him over the edge.

If that action packed day wasn’t enough, we have plans for dinner on the Hotel Sofitel Nile Cruise boat.  The food is not memorable, neither good nor bad.  It’s the entertainment that really sticks with us.  It’s a combo of the best and the worst of entertainment that starts with a really bad belly dancer.

What follows is a fabulous performance by a spectacular whirling dervish.  Having never experienced anything quite like this before, we didn’t know what to expect.  While constantly spinning, this man manipulates his colorful skirted garment to create different effects.  This ancient religious ritual is a living work of art that is a must-see.

Whirling Dervish

Back in the hotel with our bathroom working once again, we provide a background to our nightly rituals with the only thing on TV in English that we could find: a subtitled Egyptian soap opera.

Tuesday, my birthday, I wake up with a sore throat and sour stomach – either food or smog are getting to me or, more likely, I caught a cold on the Trans-Atlantic flight.  Happy birthday to me.  Wah, wah…I know.

Our plans for the day will help rule out one possibility.  We are headed north to the clean ocean air of Alexandria, situated on the Mediterranean. We leave the hotel at 7:45 am for the 220 km (136 miles) ride to Alexandria.

My cartouche with birthday earrings

My wonderful husband has a birthday present that puts a smile on my face – a pair of diamond earrings that are slightly pyramid-shaped and go nicely with my gold cartouche!

As previously mentioned, the drivers here are insane.  The concept of one car-length for every 10 miles per hour is as unheard of here as closing schools for a snow day.  The 3-second rule?  Never heard of it.

Yes, that is a van on our right front bumper & we are going about 70 mph!

We are breezing along the highway at 70 mph nearly touching the bumper of the vehicle ahead of us and I’m not exaggerating.  Another peculiarity is that they like to “save” their headlights so they rarely turn them on at night.  Yikes!

The mantra in my stuffy head is that the trip is worth the potential perils and physical discomforts. As it turns out, it is.  Along the highway are numerous conical-shaped pigeon cotes used to raise pigeons for food.

Conical Pigeon Cote

An oasis of sorts appears on the highway. We stop at the wonderfully peaceful Wadi Naturn monastery.

Wadi Naturn Monastery

This shrine is also said to contain a relic of John the Baptist. Somebody in our group wonders aloud that it’s hard to imagine there was enough of John the Baptist to go around to supply all of the other churches in Egypt and the Middle East that claim to have a piece of him.

Wadi Naturn Monastery John the Baptist Reliquary

After the monastery, I am feeling a bit whiney and just about ready to give up.  Denying that I have a cold is getting more difficult. We make a pit stop and load up on cough drops, Ho-Hos, Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes.  Yes, they are not the healthiest of food choices but it’s familiar road food.  We pass on the “Masticables” whatever they are, but the Canadians, dive right in to a bag.  We learn much from these fearless adventurers.

Kom El-Shuqafa catacombs

In Alexandria, the first stop requires us to descend 92 steps of a spiral staircase into the multi-level labyrinth of the Kom El-Shuqafa catacombs.

This is the first place where we hear the now oft-repeated story of a donkey making an invaluable archeological discovery by falling into a hole.  In this case, the beast was pulling a cart and fell into one of the tunnels, revealing the burial chamber last used in the 4th century. Other donkeys experienced similar fates at numerous other sites.

Inside the necropolis are niches where long since decayed bodies were placed.  The walls are ornately carved, and the ceilings in some places are quite low so it’s not really a spot for claustrophobics.

Not far from the catacombs is Pompey’s Pillar.  It’s a Roman column flanked by a sphinx on each side.  The view from the hill includes the busy surrounding streets but not much else.

Pompey’s Pillar

While there I decide to powder my nose. For a minimal tip or baksheesh, I’m handed exactly 3 squares of toilet paper by the attendant.  This is when the emergency roll of TP in my daypack really pays off.

Lunch is at an outdoor table at the Sea Maid Restaurant.  We load up on fresh, wonderful shrimp, calamari, fish and travel talk with the Canadians, our guide and driver.  After lunch we walk along the shoreline of the Mediterranean or as the locals call it, the Corniche, and end up at the lighthouse near the Montazah Palace.

Mike near Montazah Palace

The ride back to Cairo is uneventful.  We bid adieu to our Canadian friends who are off to camp in the desert and then experience a stay at an oasis.  We are jealous and vow to be like them when we grow up.

On the way to the King Hotel, we stop at a pharmacy for what turns out to be nasty-tasting cough syrup that costs 3 Egyptian pounds, which at the time was under $1.

There is a bit more itinerary business to take care of with Amro and Ahmed before we have a light dinner at the hotel and settle into bed to watch our Egyptian soap.

In my research for trips to the Middle East, I read somewhere that Cairo is the Hollywood of the Arab world.  Being in the biz, I know we have to find movie studios and take a tour.

Our guide Ahmed, points us to 6th of October City, a suburb of Cairo.  Ahmed tells us that there is also an amusement park there.  We mistakenly believe we are not interested in the amusement park, just the movie studio.

At 9:30 Wednesday morning, he sends us off with our affable driver, Ihab, whose English is sparse.  We pull into the empty parking lot of Magic Land.  The tickets and driver together cost $100.  Against our objections, he insists we go to Magic Land, which turns out to be the better plan…kind of.

Magic Land Map

Once in the gate, we start in the “Simulator” which is a movie screen with seats that move.  If you suspend all disbelief, you might, if you try really hard, possibly imagine zooming around digital pyramids.

Thinking wrongly, that hokey does not get any hokier, we follow the signs to the Muburek Media Center.  We are confused because there are pictures of a huge white building that we cannot see.  We are told that we need to take a tram to Media City.

Still searching the horizon for the unseen Mubarek monument, we wander onto the Prehistoric boat ride.  Once again the suspension of disbelief is challenged.

Here we find fur falling off the cavemen and his catch (probably decaying from the desert sun).

Sun-baked Caveman

Wow.  Look.  A pterodactyl hanging from a construction crane.   His primitive cries plaintively emit from the exposed tiny, tinny-sounding speakers right in front of us.

Can That Bird Fly?

Being traffic reporters back home, we had to take pictures of the pathetically empty kiddie ride “Traffic City.”

No Traffic Here!

As the only (obviously) non-Egyptians in the nearly empty park, our hosts are eager to show us a good time.  They demand we see every attraction we’ve paid for and initial our tickets to make sure we do.  There’s no way to skip anything.  We are hostages of their goodwill.

Magic Land Ticket

Next stop, the bumper boats.  For a change, this might be fun.  The place is deserted so we’re the only two on the water.  Mike’s boat’s battery dies in the middle of the lake.  Oh well. The rescue boat tows him to “shore.”

Next, the arcade, for the obligatory four games our tickets insist we play.  We’re having enforced fun.

“Rapid River” is another “treat.”  Imagine a giant two-story tall treadmill.  Imagine a raft waiting perilously on top of this moving carpet. Put unsuspecting Americans, who don’t speak Arabic, in said rafts.  Now add electricity.

The moving ramp inches towards a cliff where the raft is dropped into Class 1 rapids. Screaming is an international language. U.S. laws would never allow this ride to pass any safety checks.  I’m sure you get my drift.

Next, we are led to a desert version of SeaWorld. This “featured” one lonely sea lion. We could see two dolphins, but only one performs. The other swims around under water. Was he on a break? Not a jumper? Temperamental talent?  Sad.

Time to find the tram to get to the Mubarek Media Center.  Because we’re Americans, everyone really wants to make sure we are having fun and they are super sweet.  The Egyptians we encounter are truly lovely people and we appreciate their well-intentioned desire to show us a good time.

The tram is loaded with schoolchildren on a field trip that are eager to know more about us.  They only know us as Americans so they don’t quite understand when we say we are from the United States.  We narrow it down and say San Francisco (where we were living at the time) and a murmur of “America” floats through the crowd.

After practicing a bit of English with us, they are soon drawn back into the Arabic narration of the tour.  The park is obviously expecting only Arabic-speaking guests. Everybody from our tour guide on down to the cleanup crew in the midway are puzzled by our interest.

No English? No problem. Mike and I make up translations.  “That’s where they film Baywatch” (Inexplicably it’s seen around the world.) or “That’s the set for Sex and 6th of October City!”

Then the tram approaches a scene we really do recognize from the only thing we have been watching regularly on TV back at the hotel: our soap opera!  Everyone oohs, and aahs with recognition (including us) as we pass each empty set.  Finally, we pass the foundation of the famed Mubarek Media City – it hadn’t been built yet!  That was the final curtain. Show’s over.

We want to buy a couple of galabeyas, the floor length caftans that many Egyptians wear.  They will be gifts for some friends.   Our driver Ihab not only gets us a great deal on those and a couple of Egyptian cotton shirts for us but also negotiates a tip for himself in the process – clothes for his kids.  It was worth every Egyptian pound.

As I said earlier, I had really wanted to stay at the luxurious Mena House in Giza.  We decide the next best thing is to at least stop by for a late lunch.  The shrimp curry is delish as are the risky salads.

We have been warned to stay away from eating lettuce in Egypt because a parasite grows inside the leaves and cannot be merely washed off.  But, we are sincerely craving salads and this is an internationally renowned hotel that surely wouldn’t risk its reputation on tainted lettuce.  The salads turn out to be very agreeable to us.

Bedtime comes early because we have tickets for a 7:30 am flight to Luxor on Egypt Air.  This is just 3 ½ months after the crash of flight Egypt Air 990 off the coast of Long Island.  The American National Transportation Safety Board ruled it a suicide.  The Egyptians came to a conclusion of mechanical failure.

Whatever the truth, this is fresh in our minds and we are a bit nervous.  As we taxi for takeoff, the plane rattles like a bucket of loose bolts.  I desperately want us to pullover so we can buy them a ratchet wrench to tighten up some of those loose screws.  I really don’t want to die on this plane.  If that plane is still flying today, there are probably fingernail marks in the armrests from other “concerned” passengers.

In Luxor we check into the Windsor Hotel.  We hate it.  There’s a view of the Nile and standing water on the bathroom floor (another problem with another bathroom) and no one seems to be in a hurry to fix it.  The early, scary flight zapped our strength.  It’s naptime.

Later, alive again, it’s time to explore.  There’s a rooftop patio with a nice view of the Nile.  Included in that view from the roof is a boy’s school next door.  Piled on the flat rooftop, we are astonished to see, hundreds of old, broken chairs.  What? How? Why?

Chairs on the roof of a boys’ school

Along the Nile, Captain Nemo and other similarly named felucca captains are begging us to take a ride on their boats.  We politely decline and pop into an Internet café to email our itinerary change so someone back home knows where we are.

Our Luxor guide Adel Assad picks us up at the hotel.  Let the sightseeing begin!  The first stop is Karnak Temple.  As we enter the grounds, Kirsten and Denise from New Jersey zero in on the Americans and ask if they may join our tour.  Of course you can!

Inside Karnak Temple

Kirsten works for Lufthansa, the German airline; Denise is in HR for Volunteers of America. Adel cracks us up.  Every time our little group strays a bit too far or lingers a bit too long admiring the remnants of this ancient shrine, he raises his voice and calls sweetly, “Angels” and we all come scurrying back.

Karnak Temple

The Luxor Temple was once connected to Karnak by the Avenue of Sphinxes.  We wander around here and just soak up the atmosphere.  I am amazed at the thought of how many kings, queens and historical figures have walked around these grounds.  Once covered with silt from the Nile, these ruins from 1400 BCE are reclaimed and restored to glory we see now.

Luxor Temple

Speaking of things that need restoration, we are reminded of the Windsor Hotel when the girls brag about their digs at the Luxor Hilton.  That’s all we need to dump our dump.  As soon as we can, we check out of the Windsor with its still standing water in the bathroom.

We don’t even bother to press for a refund. We paid so little for the trip (accommodations included) in the first place and don’t want to waste any more precious vacation time worrying about small change.  There is no way that place cost more than $30 or $40 and it just isn’t worth fighting for in the grand scheme of things.

We check into the much more luxurious Luxor Hilton. It is divine by the Egyptian standards we’ve experienced so far.  For only $100 US a night this place has a working bathroom with a great shower; a nice pool with a giant chess board and is clean, clean, clean.  Dinner is in the hotel’s Italian restaurant.

Luxor Hilton View

 

Friday morning we are out the door at 7 am with Kirsten, Denise and Adel.  It’s tomb time.  Our hotel is on the east side of the Nile where the sun rises and life happens.  We are crossing to the west side where the sun sets and the dead are buried.

The main attraction is the Valley of the Kings.  King Tut’s tomb is closed that day, so we get our fix by touring Ramses’ Tomb and two others. (If something is a must-see anywhere you’re traveling, ALWAYS check the open hours in advance.)

As we walk the road leading to the tombs there are kiosks lined by a gauntlet of people selling stuff.  We are getting weary of the constant barrage of beggars, salespeople and people asking for baksheesh so Mike tries a new tact.

The Gauntlet of Souvenir Sellers

Locals have told us that German tourists have a reputation of being very cheap (our German friends, please forgive us.)  A trinket-seller comes up to us and asks us in English to buy something.  Mike answers, “Nein Danke” or no thanks, in German.  Then the guy says, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” – Do you speak German? And Mike answers by saying, “Nein” which of course is “No” in German. You know that tippy-head thing some dogs will do when you ask it a question?  That’s how we left that poor baffled gentleman.

A tomb Entrance

A tomb entrance in the Valley of the Kings

Three tombs, and many donkey falling in a hole discovery stories later, we decide to skip the Valley of the Queens and head instead to the Artisans’ Village. These are the craftsmen who contributed extensively to the building of the final royal resting places.

The two tombs we are lead into still display vibrant paint on the walls.

Artisan Temple of Siti I

Only a few people can jam into the tight space, so we wait above ground getting checked out by a pack of very skinny stray dogs.

Mike & a stray dog at Artisans’ Tomb

Next is Queen Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple.  This impressive structure is having restoration work done while we’re there so some areas are roped off.  We still manage to hit the highlights.  This was the scene of a horrendous terrorist massacre 3 ½ years before our visit, so security is heavy.

Queen Hatsheput’s Temple

 

Alabaster Cat

Adel tells us to remember the pronunciation of this queen as ‘hot chicken soup”.  It’s nowhere close but every time I see her name I get a craving for of hot chicken soup.

Scribe

Got to get in that obligatory shopping opportunity so we stop at an alabaster shop to learn about the craft.  We don’t leave empty-handed.  Wrapped for travel is a cat that looks like our Cornish Rex and a cross-legged scribe.  I worry the cat’s ears will break off but they make it home intact.  One ear does not survive a cleaning incident years later.

Colossi of Memnon & Mike

A quick photo-op rounds out the afternoon at the Colossi of Memnon: two gigantic statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III who was named for an Ethiopian king.

Our evening flight out of Luxor will be late, and even though it will put us well past check-out time, the hotel provides us with a free room.  After a nap, we enjoy a late, lunch by the pool with the girls.

We all go to the Sound & Light Show at Karnak.  If we had it to do over, we all agree that we would see the light show first and then take the tour because it seems kind of cheesy the other way around.

King Hotel View

There is no time to linger for good-byes.  We hurry to the airport for our 11 pm flight to Cairo.  It’s Egypt Air again.  Not surprisingly, they are an hour late.  By the time we land we are bone-tired and trudge back to the King Hotel for the last night in Egypt.

Friday morning we check out of our hotel.  And good news! After what seems like endless haggling, all details are confirmed for the Jordan portion of trip.  We have most of the day free and Ihab is at the ready to drive us wherever we want to go.

Mosque of Al Rifa’i

There are two mosques we are interested in seeing.  The first is the massive Mosque of Al-Rifa’i.  While I never come across any requirements anywhere to cover my head, at this one I pull out the scarf I am carrying just in case. It just feels respectful to wear it.  Shoes, on the other hand are always removed.  Sometimes there is a place to store them by the door but here we just carry them.

At the second, Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulum, there is a very old minaret where we climb the skinny staircase to the top.

Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulum

 

Top of the Minaret Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulum

To kill a bit more time, we settle in for some sweets onboard the empty Nile boat restaurant, La Pasha.  It is about 3 in the afternoon so it’s no surprise that the place is empty.  The only surprise is that they are open at this time.

La Pasha Restaurant on the Nile

We run out of things to do just in time to allow arrival at the airport at 4:30 for our 7:30 pm flight to Jordan.  Security is highly visible on the road to the airport because President Mubarek is flying in.  Soldiers are on guard in intervals of every 20 feet or so.

Security on the road to the Cairo Airport

The waiting area of Cairo airport is not very comfortable and with its dim lighting seems like something out of the 1940s.  Of course our Egypt Air flight is late taking off, two hours this time.  It doesn’t matter; we have become quite fond of the people here and are happy to embrace the disorganization.

Next stop, Amman Jordan.

About Journeys By Jill

I have spent most of my adult life working in and around TV, film & radio production. As an avid traveler, I have a goal to visit at least 100 countries using the Century Traveler's Club Country List. At the moment, I have 54 to go. My favorite form of travel is to get off the beaten path and discover weird & wonderful attractions. Basically, I wing it. I'd love for you to come along for the ride.
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2 Responses to Fond Memories of the Middle East – Egypt

  1. Pingback: Jordan: The Country, The People, The Movie Set (Not the River) | Journeys By Jill

  2. Pingback: Holy History – It’s Israel | Journeys By Jill

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