Sunday, August 23, 2009

Walk like an Egyptian.. tacky.. I know

Well my friends, we made it to Egypt! And so far, it is not what I expected. Ok, parts of it are, but parts aren't. Luxor is so much greener than I imagined. Not just the odd tree here and there, but the whole city is surrounded by maize and sugar cane fields, and palm trees and canals. I pictured it being all desert; dry and rocky and not really very pretty. But I guess when you really think about it, it makes sense, being right on the Nile and everything, makes things pretty green. Its beautiful.

Luxor is divided into the east and west banks, and divided by the Nile. We are staying on the east bank, in the city- the west bank is a lot smaller, but closer to the Valley of the Kings (and the Valleys of the Queens, and Nobles, and Workers). Looking across the river from our place, you can see the mountain ridges where all the Valleys are, rising out of palm trees. You know how in some video games, the end of the world is a canyon wall of rock? Well, that's what this looks like; if I were racing at the wall on my motocross bike, I would be able to climb the wall and hit the invisible barrier. Does that make any sense? Let's try again, its like living inside a canyon, but you can only see one wall of it, rising straight up.

Luxor is nowhere near as crowded as I thought it would be. Mostly because its the low season for tourists- who wants to be in the Middle East during the summer? Apparently we do.

Our first afternoon we had our fair share of the hassling Egypt is so famous for. We paid too much for our visas, and our taxi- once we finally found one, plus we were all tired and readjusting to the heat after 2 half days in airports and planes. When we made it to our hotel, things started looking up. It is a little, family-run place, not really anything special to look at by any stretch of the imagination, but the guys working there are so fantastic. Mohamed sat us down as soon as we'd settled in and outlined things we could do in the city and nearby areas, advised is about getting train tickets and gave us his cellphone number, and told us to call if we ever need anything, anywhere in Egypt, he'd help us out. It was really nice to feel like someone had our backs if we needed them.

After getting our train tickets to Cairo for Monday night, we took Lonely Planet's advice and went to Snack Time for oreo milkshakes. They really are as good as the book says. That night we thought we'd go see the light show at the Karnak temple- apparently only 20 minutes walking from the hotel. After we'd been walking for double that, we hit a dead end. Arguably the biggest tourist attraction in Luxor itself, covering a huge amount of land, and we get lost trying to find it. Sounds about right. We decided to just call it a night.

The next morning we were up and breakfasted by 8am, and had a tour booked for the west bank. There were 10 of us altogether on the tour, mostly recent grads either their undergrad or masters. Our first stop was at the colossi of Memnon.

The colossi are all that remain of a temple, destroyed way back by an earthquake. One of them (of the two giant seated statues) has a hole in it that makes it sound like it was singing when the wind blows through it, so the local people used to be quite frightened of it. Speaking of the local people, they're in a bit of a pickle; the government thinks there are probably more tombs buried beneath their village, and wants to find out, but the people don't want to leave. So, the government cut off their water supply, trying to force them to leave. This was three years ago. The people are still there, making 10km trips to get water. Appreciate your tap water- both that you have it in the first place, and that it is safe to drink in the second.

After the colossi, we went to the temple of Hatshepsut. It too was hit by an earthquake, but not completely destroyed. The temple was used for 70 days- the length of time it takes for mummification- for Hatshepsut's mummification ( go figure, right?), who was then burried in the Valley of the Kings, even though she was a queen. She was a ruling queen, who was also a cross-dresser, and ruled as a king.

By this point it was probably 10 am, and about 42 degrees. Very warm.

The Valley of the Kings was next on our schedule, and we saw 4 tombs- Seti II, Rameses V, Rameses VI (they share), Rameses IX and Rameses II. The biggest surprise was that the tombs are colourful. I always pictured the insides being sandstoney coloured, but they're not, the walls are plastered, then carved into and painted in red, yellow, green, black and blue. And the ceilings are deep blue with yellow stars everywhere. Absolutely amazing. The shared tomb of Rameses V and VI was by far the most amazing. Its also one of the deeper tombs- the longer a king rules for, the deeper the tomb goes. Unfortunately, you aren't allowed to take pictures inside the tombs, and the fine makes it not worth sneaking any.

We learnt about Nut (pronounced like newt), who swallows the sun every night at sunset, the gives birth to it again every morning. And Horace, the falcon-headed god of life, and that scarab beetles mean good luck, and that when modern religions arrived in Egypt, they scratched the faces off a lot of the figures carved into the tombs, because you can't have gods that look like humans, even though in ancient Egypt, every god was human once, before they became a god.

And in case you thought all the tombs had been discovered in the valley of the kings, the University of Memphis, TN, discovered a new tomb 2 weeks ago. So there! There are still treasures to be found in the Valley of the Kings.

After a quick visit to an alabaster shop, we were at the Valley of the Queens. And I think other than the 10 of us, and our guide Aladdin, there were 3 other people there. Not busy. Very hot, but no crowds. We saw two tombs; Queen Titi's, and that of her son. Actually, her two sons, as the tomb also contained the skeleton of a second child, a stillborn.

After a quick boat ride across the river, we grabbed a late lunch, went home and rested a little, then went for a felucca ride.

A what?!

A felucca ride! A felucca is a boat, not unlike a sailboat. There was no wind when we got to the river though, so we got a tow up river to Banana Island. They grow bananas there! The banana forest was so cool! The leaves are huge! We also got to see a little crocodile and a boy throwing rocks at a fish! Then we got to eat bananas! And yea, they were delicious. Once we had had our fill, we took banana forest jumping pictures and climbed back onto the felucca.

We went a little further up river before turning and sailing back down towards Luxor. At sunset. Now, I like to think I've seen my fair share of killer sunsets, but until you see a Nile river sunset, you ain't seen nothin' yet (b-b-baby, you ain't seen nothin' yet). Mind blowing. Absolutely stunning. Palm trees silhouetted against a pure gold (hehe Pure Gold- Oakville joke) sky. Wow. WOW. We also got tea on our cruise home. And that was when Egypt and I became friends.

After doing some riverside sitting, we wandered the markets, to the sound of shouts directed at AJ of "two wives?! Two problems!!" Its not common here for girls and guys to travel together unless they are married or siblings. So its assumed (I don't know how seriously) that Meagan and I are AJ's wives. We pretty much laughed our way through the market. So far, most common market items include: scarves, sheesha, spices, stone figurines of cats and pyramids and knock-off purses, a universal treasure.

The next day saw us up at 530, and on the road an hour later to Abydos, to the temple there, dedicated to the god Osiris, 3 hours north of Luxor. We did some learning, took some pictures and walked down these terrifying creeky wooden stairs over murky green water. Then it was south to Dendara, to the temple of Hathor. Same deal, only no sketchy stairs. I swear I learnt things, I have notes in my notebook, but I don't want to bore you with paragraphs of history lessons right now.

Yesterday was a recharge day. We slept in, had a late lunch, Meagan and I did some computer stuff- called home, uploaded pictures to our harddrives.. In the evening we went to the Luxor temple- literally in the middle of the city, 5 walking-minutes from our place. It was all lit up, and looked really cool! I'm sitting across the street from it right now actually, and even from here you don't really get a sense of just how grand it is. There are 14 columns (from what I can count from here) still standing, and they're Huge! Highlight of the night: I was on my way back to our team meeting spot (a necessity after a near team-splitting episode at the aquarium in Valencia, in which we each tried to think like each other and ended up in 3 different places), when I was approached by a little old lady. She mimed taking a picture, so I thought she wanted me to take a picture for her with her family. I nodded, she linked her arm through mine, pulled me in front of a statue and her son took our picture. And then I got my picture taken with her granddaughter, who gave me some of whatever she was snacking on. They were all so excited to have me in a picture with them, it was really fun. We parted with a lots of goodbyes and shokrans (thank you) and laughs.

When we got back home, we were met by Mohamed and one of the other men who run the hotel, and they treated us to lemon juice and tea, while telling us what to see in Cairo, and even calling a friend in Dahab, to arrange a place to stay for Meagan and I. They've been so great to us.

Today, our last day uh Luxor was an early morning of packing and fighting the ATM before trekking to Karnak. Remember how I told you we got lost going there on our first night? Not altogether true... We actually made it there, but didn't realize you had to go through the gate to get in, so we turned around. Today though, we figured it out. If Luxor is grand, the temples of Karnak are beyond grand. Talk about feeling tiny and insignificant, the proportions of Karnak are giant. Nothing is anything less than really really big. The hall of columns was by far my favourite place- the scale is just so impressive. We were there early enough that it hadn't been overrun by tourists yet; although by the time we left it was filling up pretty quickly. We also managed to beat some of the heat. The Luxor museum was next on our agenda, and fortunately it has air-con. We wandered the museum, which is mostly full of antiquities from the Luxor and Karnak temples as well as from the Valley of the Kings- including a lot of King Tut's everyday objects- a chariot, bows and arrows, a bed... There were also two mummies. One is believed to be Rameses the 1st, and until recently was living in dirty, dirty Niagara Falls, Ontario. What are the odds of that? Running into a mummy who resided a few cities away from where I grew up, while in Luxor?

After a very leisurely lunch, mostly spent pouring over a spring issue of the American journal Foreign Affairs- actually a really interesting read- we wandered back to Snacktime for dessert, and to kill time before the train to Cairo. The guys at the hotel are letting us back into our room to shower before we hop on the train, which our fellow passengers will be most grateful for- even if they don't know it.

Well my dears, I made it to Cairo. The train was fabulous! We ate dinner, read about Jordan and Israel- our next 2 stops- and then it was bed time. And I slept like a rock! Next thing I knew, it was morning, and we were being served breakfast. We almost got off at the Giza station instead of the Rameses station, which is in Cairo, but fortunately someone caught us and we hung out until we were actually in Cairo.

Sooo... Cairo... Its.. Fine. I mean, definitely not BAD, but not you know, wonderful or anything. It certainly isn't anywhere near as chaotic as I had previously imagined- I was picturing India-esque insanity. Don't get me wrong, its still pretty obvious its the biggest city in Africa: its non-stop noise, pea-soup smog, Frogger-like traffic, and generally shoulder to shoulder crowded streets, especially at night, when its not 40 degrees out. But its not as in-your-face as I had thought it would be. So that's nice.

From the train, we sardined ourselves into the metro to our hostel, along with about a billion commuters, all of whom were THRILLED to have giant backpacks smashed into their faces. Our big goal for the day was to find the American University in Cairo, to find the bookstore, to buy some books in English. And after a wrong turn or two, it was mission accomplished. We spent a long time wandering through other people's stories, enjoying the AC. Afterwards, we scoped out the possibility of seeing a movie, but it didn't work out. it did work out though that we got killer sandwiches!

Today we took on the pyramids. In the spirit of saving money, we opted to take the bus. So we eventually found the bus stop- and by bus stop I mean swarm of people standing on the road. Then we waited. And waited. And it was HOT, as it was just before noon. Eventually, after nearly an hour, a man next to us turned and said to us, in French, that there was a strike, and also that a lot of buses to Giza had already gone by. He put us on the next bus, and it did take us to Giza, but not to the pyramids. But that's ok, we grabbed a cab and were at the tall, pointy rock heaps soon afterwards. And they really are pretty amazing; the amount of work that went into them, the perfect symmetry, the size, all are pretty awe-inspiring. We wandered around the pyramids, the headed down to the Sphinx, which is mostly carved out of one giant hunk of limestone. Once we were back in the city, after having our pictures taken by our taxi driver on his phone- not the first time either, it seems Meagan and I, Meagan especially, are pretty popular here- we grabbed a mid-afternoon meal and came home to nap. Tonight we're off to the market, to see if we can't bargain our way into some treasures.

Quick note- for those of you who haven't noticed.. in the top right corner, there's a link to some pictures (not many, don't be excited) and to Meagan's wonderful blog (definitely worth a read if you want another perspective on our journeys).

We're in Dahab right now, living a beach-bum lifestyle and loving it. I'll let you know more as the stories develop.

paz e amor.

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