2.22.2017

aswan sights

We were very tentative about breakfast this morning, in a kind of truce with our stomachs.

Breakfast here is an elaborate buffet -- the usual yogurt, honey, and bread, several kinds of cheese, and a few hot dishes. The lovely Shyela and her assistant make a tomato-and-egg dish, fresh falafel, and a bean dish.

We had to get out early this morning, so we happened to be there while they were still cooking. Something must have needed thinning; the assistant filled a cup with tap water and added it to her skillet. The dish was almost done and there’s no way that water would be fully boiled. Now we are both not comfortable eating the food here.

We took the ferry early and met the taxi guy, who introduced us to the driver, and went over the plan for the day. Allan wasn’t convinced we needed a driver today, but I was very glad we hired one.

Our first stop was something called the Unfinished Obelisk. Around 1280 BC, the Egyptians were building what would have been the largest obelisk in the world, 42 metres (126 feet) long, weighing more than 1150 tonnes. At a late stage during construction, a crack was discovered and the project was abandoned, so there’s a gigantic unfinished obelisk in the remains of a granite quarry. It was an interesting glimpse into a work-in-progress, which raises more questions than it answers.

Next we drove out to the High Dam, the second largest dam in the world, which created Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake. The Dam is loaded with meaning. Its creation is linked to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and the Suez Crisis, and Egypt’s alliance with Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Its construction displaced and destroyed much of the Nubian community, and many irrecoverable antiquities. Yet it brought electricity to the whole country, and greatly increased the amount of arable land.

It was especially fitting to see the dam today, when we would visit Philae Island and the Nubia Museum, and the day before visiting Abu Simbel. We also saw the Aswan Dam, the old dam, which you drive over en route to the High Dam.

The next stop was Philae Island. You take a boat out to the island -- which you negotiate separately from your ticket price, a strange practice, since you cannot get there without a boat. The temples on this island were originally elsewhere, moved to higher ground before they were submerged completely by Lake Nasser. Previously, when the Nile flooded, only the tops of the temples were visible. Tourists used to go out on boats to see the temples from above.

The temples themselves are kind of typical; it’s their stories that are interesting. After the Egyptian gods were banned, first under Roman rule, and then by the early Christians, Philae Temple was itself converted into a church.

On the boat dock, men were selling Nubian jewelry and souvenirs -- camels, wood carvings, skullcaps -- and I was surprised to see some things I liked. I picked out two necklaces and a pair of earrings. No scarf this time. The haggling has gotten easier; I’ve developed a method that seems effective. I don’t like it any better, though. Allan especially dislikes paying the “tourist price” for ordinary things like bottled water or chips.

Also at Philae, I was admiring (from afar) the cotton pants we see being sold everywhere. They are elastic waist and ankles -- harem pants -- in black-and-white prints or colourful patterns, made of very thin, soft cotton. I would love to get several pairs, but they are all the same length, and much too long for me. Today, an enterprising young man must have seen me look in his direction, and he came running out to greet me. I followed him to his stall, but couldn’t buy anything. We were barraged with “No mehdame, this is perfect, this is fit you, this is beautiful fabric, look at the beautiful fabric, look, look mehdame, you must trust me, this is for you,” on and on and on. Away from the stalls, waiting in a bit of shade for our car, men were still coming over with clothes.

Back in central Aswan, we had too much time to kill. The Nubia Museum is open in the morning, closed mid-day, then open again in the late afternoon and evening. This town -- actually everywhere we’ve been in Egypt -- lacks for comfortable places to hang out and have a coffee or a cold drink. There are zillions of coffee houses where men smoke sheesha, but even if they weren’t all male, they would still be uninviting -- dark, dirty, and smoky. Plus any and all waiting means being besieged by “Felucca? Felucca ride, yes? Good price, felucca, mehdame, one hour, where from, good price, maybe later?” This is an incredibly unappealing aspect of the culture here. We actually wanted to take a boat ride today, but the idea of saying yes to any of those men is just awful to us.

We found a restaurant that is mentioned in our guidebook, and walked down, down, down levels until we came to a room that is actually on the water. Boats drive right up to the restaurant; we saw a large group of well-dressed locals go right from their table to a boat. When a man approached us in the restaurant itself -- felucca? good price -- Allan reached his limit. “We’re in a restaurant here, give us a break!” His tone must have scared the guy away.

We ate a decent lunch, thinking that our stomachs might be back to normal now. Then we negotiated a cab to the Nubia Museum and back.

The museum is beautiful. It tells the story of the people who lived in northern Africa who were not part of the Egyptian civilization, from their beginnings until the present day. There are paleolithic and neolithic findings -- pottery, tools, jewelry, and cave drawings. The jewelry is the same fine, uniform work we saw in the museum in Cairo. I especially love seeing the jewelry. It seems like a link between our world and this other world -- an assertion of our common humanity.

At some point in the Nubian story, the old gods are outlawed, and everyone becomes Christian. After that, everyone becomes Muslim.

The Nubia Museum also contains a large exhibit on the documentation of Nubian culture before the building of the High Dam. It shows how Abu Simbel was saved, a gigantic project led by UNESCO and Egypt, and assisted by 40 other countries. That was fascinating, but Abu Simbel and Philae Temple were a small portion of the treasures that would be flooded and lost. Lost, too, were whole communities and ways of life. A UNESCO project tried to document everything -- archeology, ethnography, everything. Fortunately the dam was built at a time when people understood the scale of the loss, and the value of preservation.

While at the museum, Allan discovered a setting on our camera that allows you to shoot at high speeds more clearly in very low light. He is now kicking himself for not knowing this while we were at the tombs. I’m sure his photos will be beautiful, though. I call him Mr. Tripod.

Before we went back to the ferry, Allan wanted to look for -- what else? -- a bookstore mentioned in the guidebook. I was adamantly opposed to being trapped in another souq, but this one was wider, not very crowded, and had a paved, even floor. It was actually an interesting souq, a mix of tourist and local wares. There was a huge amount of jewelry and a large number of spice and tea stores, everything in the traditional woven baskets. They all had mountains of dried hibiscus. We didn’t find the bookstore.

In the course of the day today, we went into two pharmacies, and bought anti-itch cream in one, and insect repellent in the other. (We have been eaten alive by mosquitoes for the last two nights.) Both pharmacies were staffed by pleasant young women who spoke English. It occurred to me later that this is likely because women cannot and won’t speak to men about their pharmacy needs.

The pharmacies, like all shops here, have one counter, where you state your needs, then the person behind the counter retrieves the item for you. We have seen no supermarkets, not even small ones -- no shops where you walk down aisles and pick up what you need.

We bought some yogurt (tourist prices) and junk food, and took the ferry home as it was growing dark and lights were beginning to turn on up and down the river.

* * * *

I forgot to write about Scarf Guy! I must immortalize Scarf Guy as the embodiment of Egyptian salesmanship. At Edfu, while we were still walking from the car, before we had purchased our entrance tickets, this man came running up to us. “Where you from? Canada, I love Canada! You are my brother, you are my sister, here, take this scarf, it is a gift from me to you, to show my love for the Canadian people.”

He grabbed a white cotton scarf and tied it loosely around Allan's neck. We said we did not want a scarf. “This is a gift, a present, if you like it, you can pay me later, no problem.” I could not get him to take the scarf back, so after we were in the actual site, I folded it up and put it in a bag we were carrying, so it wouldn’t get dirty.

I mentioned to Allan something about water, and SG overheard me. He gave us a big bottle of water from a nearby carton and would not take money for it. We decided we would settle with him later.

After we finished seeing the temple at Edfu, as we were making our way to the exit, SG appeared, all full of his love for Canada. But we were all business. I held out the scarf. “Here, take your scarf. Take it.” When he wouldn’t take it from me, I began to leave it on the ground. SG quickly grabbed it.

Allan tried to give him 5 LEs for the water, but he insisted on 10. Allan said, “It’s 5 or nothing, up to you.” SG continued to ask for 10, but Allan just kept walking. Now SG was getting frantic. “Give me 5! 5! You must pay for that water! I’ll take 5!” After he got his 5 LEs, we could hear him cursing and grumbling under his breath.

2.21.2017

aswan

Last night our car to Abu Simbel fell through, and we weren’t sure what to do. There are dozens of tour companies that will arrange transport, and our hotel does that for most guests, but the prices are wildly inflated, and the driver sees very little of it. What to do? Call Abdul!

At first I thought we couldn’t ask him for anything else, but then realized that a call would benefit him, too -- either directly through a fee from an operator, or indirectly when someone in Aswan sends him business in Cairo. He was very happy to hear from me, and I could tell we were bringing him business one way or another. I said, “Abdul, how can I thank you? You are wonderful!” He said, “You are wonderful! Thank you and your husband and be safe and enjoy Egypt!”

* * * *

Allan spent most of the day sleeping, practically comatose. I encouraged him to eat some dinner, which turned out to be a bad idea: dinner reappeared shortly. This morning we were both feeling much better, and had some breakfast. Immediately after that, I started feeling queasy again. Also, every muscle in my body hurts from yesterday’s vomit-fest.

After breakfast, we walked down to the little ferry slip, two minutes from the hotel. There are a few stalls selling water, soda, chips, and such, and a waiting area with stone seats and a thatched roof. The ferry is segregated, men from women. The older women all wear black galabeyas and hijabs (some wear a one-piece garment with a hood), the girls are in modern clothes with colourful hijabs. A few of the women wear niqabs, but they also are very “dressed up” -- fancy galabeyas, jewelry, henna designs, eye makeup.

Directly across the Nile is the big Aswan esplanade with all the big hotels, and the cruise ships lined up across from them. We had to meet Abdul’s contact in a hotel lobby. Apparently he is the only punctual person in Egypt, because when we arrived 10 or 15 minutes “late,” he had already left and called his supervisor. Supervisor made much of our lateness, but eventually the guy came -- and it turned out that he’s not even the driver. There is yet another layer of useless middle-person! No wonder it costs so much. But it’s still considerably less than booking it through our hotel or a tour agency.

We made arrangements for a car for some sightseeing tomorrow, and to Abu Simbel the following day. Tomorrow happens to be a big day at Abu Simbel, when thousands of people gather to see the sun rise and light up the faces of certain statues. A good day to avoid!

We set out to find the Nubian Museum, and I was really hurting. I’d be fine for a bit, then I’d be overcome with nausea and dizziness, off and on. It was not pleasant, and much of the walk was uphill. The air quality is very bad (as it has been everywhere on this trip), and that wasn’t helping. Adding insult to injury, we both got bitten by mosquitoes while we slept. I had to call it quits before we made it to the museum.

The Nile around Aswan is full of islands, and very busy with river traffic. Right smack in the middle of the river is a big island with a giant Movenpick resort, a real eyesore. Some of the islands have ruins, parks, or other attractions. There are many ferries, boats offering rides to tourists, and many, many feluccas. The ferries are small and basic -- benches around the boat, one level. They hold around 30 people. The feluccas look beautiful in the water. The men trying to get you to take a ride, not so much.

We took another ferry to Elephantine Island. I was really feeling bad, and Allan was itching to do stuff, so we split up, I think for the first time on this trip. I waited in the shade near the ferry slip and Allan went off to explore some ruins. That was uneventful, although I felt like crap.

Allan returned, and we tried to negotiate with a guy to take us by boat to our west-bank stop, but the fares were ridiculous. The regular ferry only costs a 1 LE, for tourists maybe 5 LEs for two people. So we ferried from the island to the east bank, walked down the esplanade, then ferried again from east bank to west bank. Very easy to do, except for the annoyance of the constant “Hello! Welcome! Where from? Felucca ride? OK? Maybe later?” We’ve been the only tourists on these ferries, except for one other couple on one trip. There are lots of tourists here, though. At least a dozen huge cruise ships are docked.

Aswan looks like a rural town with a thin veneer of big-city on top. The big street itself is dirty, run down, ugly, and under construction, but there are wide sidewalks and big hotels. Immediately off that street are dirt roads, donkey carts, piles of garbage, tiny dark “coffee houses” filled with men smoking sheesha, stray dogs, stray kids.

Walking between ferries, I was hot, nauseated, aching, and itchy, but I felt better knowing we would soon be back at the hotel. Once changed, washed, and lying down, I felt much better. I don’t think I’m sick anymore. I think it just wasn’t completely out of my system yet.

More random notes:

-- I’m drinking instant coffee! This is a tea-drinking country. The coffee choices are Turkish coffee or packets of instant, which everyone calls Nescafe. I tried the Turkish coffee at first. The first two sips are all right, then you’re into the sediment. I switched to instant, and I never get more than two cups in a morning. At home it takes me four cups of strongly brewed coffee to function properly.

-- There are no napkins or serviettes here. People use tissues instead. I would think if you were trying to conserve resources, you’d use cloth napkins, no matter how infrequently they’d be cleaned. Nope -- tissues.

-- When we left Luxor, it was Sunday, and that made me remember another similarity between Islam and Judaism. (I listed a bunch earlier in the trip.) Friday is the feast day, and Saturday is the day off. Wikipedia tells me that this is not the case in every Muslim country, but it is in Egypt. As we drove out of Luxor, children were waiting for buses or riding in donkey carts to school, the girls in gray galabeyas and crisp white hijabs (looking very nun-like), the boys in gray slacks and white shirts.

-- Selfie sticks! I had never heard of them, Allan knew of them but hadn’t seen them in person. All the heavily touristed sites we’ve visited have been besieged by people with selfie sticks. If I’m not the last person in the world to hear of this, Google it.

-- I’ve mentioned that everyone here smokes. How about guards smoking inside ancient temples? Signs say No Flash, No Touch. But men are smoking!! Nicotine and smoke -- occurring all day every day -- have got to be more damaging than the occasional pop of flash. Then again, the “no flash” is only enforced if you haven’t paid someone off. Or the sign is only there so someone can ask for a payment. But really, smoking?

-- On our drive from Luxor to Abydos, I saw what must have been a Bedouin person shepherding a flock of goats through the desert. Although despised and even for a time banned, their culture survives. Imagine that.

-- There is no concept of accessibility here. Sometimes the sidewalks are so high off the street that I need a hand from Allan stepping up or down. I’ve yet to see an elevator. I believe I saw one disabled person in the museum in Cairo, but other than that, people with disabilities are not a visible part of society. I imagine for many people with disabilities here, it might as well be the 19th Century.

Egypt has participated in every Paralympics since 1972, but Paralympic participation is not an indicator of everyday access and opportunity. Here’s a good article from Muftah: People with Disabilities in Egypt: Overlooked and Underestimated. Do you know Muftah, by the way? It’s an excellent source of information: check out their mission statement here.

2.20.2017

aswan: welcome home

Right now I am on the glorious roof patio of Bet El-Kerem, a Nubian guesthouse in Aswan. I’m sitting under a huge bamboo roof surrounded by beautiful fabrics on the couches and tables. We’re on a hill, and to my right is a view of the Nile, and the city of Aswan beyond, and in front to the left, a sand mountain, with the remains of an ancient burial site visible. A few people are climbing the slope, tiny dark figures against the blue sky, and a man in robes is leading two camels across the sand. Birds are chirping. A cool breeze is blowing. A call to prayer just finished echoing across the mountain.

We were already planning to take a day off from sightseeing, before I spent the entire night being sick, so the timing was excellent. Allan slept all night, but is now sick. So, back to our story.

B’lal tried to tell us that our Aswan hotel is too far from the city centre, but he didn’t know it is a two-minute walk from a ferry that will take us to town for a few LEs. He finally offered to set us up with someone to take us to Abu Simbel at the same rate we’ve been paying, but only if we agreed to hire that guy for the rest of the time in Aswan. I came back with Abu Simbel plus two days, which is actually what we need, and he agreed. This negotiating power is all down to Abdul from Cairo, the gift that keeps on giving.

The hotel in Luxor was beautiful, but this place is spectacular. It’s a huge adobe house with 20-foot ceilings and views of the Nile on one side and mountains on the other. The walls are covered in fabric with bold blue, white, and orange Islamic designs, or painted sky blue. Our room is very comfortable, cozy, and spotless.

The hotel is run by two Nubians, a brother and sister, who are the most warm, welcoming, generous hosts you can imagine. When new guests arrive, Abdul greets them with “Welcome Home”. He speaks Arabic, English, and French. His sister Shyela cooks and spreads cheer with her beaming smile.

On the roof patio, coffee, tea, water, bananas and oranges are always available at no charge. We arrived at around 3:00, and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I asked if we might get some lunch. In a few minutes, there was warm bread, white cheese and tomatoes and cucumbers. Shyela asked if we wanted omelettes. These turned out to be a paper-thin egg crepes, cooked in butter. It was like finding an oasis.

We spent the afternoon on the roof patio while Shyela and a helper prepared dinner in their beautiful outdoor kitchen. At 7:30 ceramic pots started coming out. There was chicken, duck, and fish, potatoes, rice, bread, the usual array of salads and vegetables, and tiny pieces of the sweet-grain dessert with a dollop of yogurt on top. Several other guests were at dinner, but we managed to avoid contact except for a hello nod.

Not long after dinner, I started sweating, shaking, and hyperventilating. That was followed by five solid hours of vomiting. sigh

Perhaps the tomatoes did me in. They are so red and ripe and flavourful, difficult to resist. I keep imagining that anyone who runs a guesthouse for tourists must keep water that has been boiled available for washing vegetables, but perhaps I am fooling myself. One thing I forgot to pack was alcohol wipes. The public toilets here are not pretty, and there is often not a good way to wash your hands. When traveling anywhere with low hygiene standards, alcohol wipes or baby wipes are important to pack next to your toilet paper. But I didn’t do that for this trip.

I seem to have recovered, and now it’s Allan’s turn. He was going to climb up to the nearby tomb this morning, but he’s lying in bed sweating and moaning. Better luck tomorrow, inshalla.

luxor to aswan

Several readers have commented on the degree of detail in my posts. I realize that this is more than many people want to read. That’s fine with me. I write these travel logs mainly for myself. I have kept a travel diary of every trip I’ve taken since graduating university. I used to write them with pen and notebook, later on a laptop, and once I started blogging, I put them online. I love that some people enjoy following along, but I still write mainly for myself. It’s part of my travel experience. I'm not asking or expecting anyone to read every word, although if you want to, that's awesome.

B’lal picked us up early and we headed south towards Aswan. We thought we were stopping at three sites along the way, but the permit the drivers had requested included only two. I don’t know if that was to make it more cost-effective for them, or a mistake. Well, I do know. It’s a bit irritating, because they are never asked for the paper -- they speak to the guards at the gate, and the guards write something in a logbook, and that's it. But oh well.

The first stop was a temple at Edfu which is interesting architecturally. It was built during the end of the Egyptian civilization, while Egypt was under Greek and then Roman rule. But the builders wanted to mimic the glory of the earliest pharaohs, so they used the same architectural plans. It’s as if a 21st Century architect built a replica 12th Century cathedral, using the same materials and plans.

Because it’s newer, Edfu is more intact than most of the temples we have seen. It has an almost complete roof, plus about a dozen small chambers and hidden rooms. The hieroglyphs are lower quality, which is typical for the Ptolemaic (Greek) period, but the building itself is brilliant. The columns are not the massive style we saw at Karnak, but the more balanced style that Greek architects would have strived for. The temple even has a intact enclosure wall surrounding the entire building. We looked for something called a Nilometer, which measured Nile flooding so the people knew when to plant, but we didn’t find it.

Closer to Aswan, at Kom-Ombo (pronounced calm-ahmbo, kind of like Colombo) there is a unique temple that honours two different gods, Horus and Sobek. Sobek is represented by a crocodile (that is, a human body with a crocodile head), and in this area along the Nile, crocodiles were raised and venerated, often mummified when they died. The temple has two entrances, two shrines -- everything double. Apparently worshippers did not kill each other, but co-existed.

Speaking of gods and goddesses, someone asked about my choosing Hathor as my favourite Egyptian god. She is sometimes seen as a maternal or fertility goddess, and you all know I am not very interested in fertility! But the Egyptian spiritual system was very complex, and often in flux. They didn't have one god equals one attribute, like the later Greeks and Romans -- a god of war, a god of wisdom, a god of love, and so on. Most good writing on Hathor has her as the goddess of pleasure, sexuality, and female power. She is represented by a cow -- sometimes a full cow, and sometimes a human female with a cow head. I love the idea that a cow is used as a positive symbol of female-ness. In our world, being called a cow is not exactly a compliment. I also just really like how her figure looks, a tall, slim, curvy female shape, with a big cow head with two impressive horns.

The drive from Luxor to Aswan was also interesting! It was basically the same crazy mayhem as we saw in Cairo, but on a winding country road, one lane in each direction. Honking, passing, weaving, at top speeds, slowing down for speed bumps before towns and villages, then back in the race.

There’s a pecking order for passing. Donkey carts are the slowest, and they keep furthest to the left. Then there are the tiny three-wheeled cabs, who can only pass donkey carts. Next up are the motorcyle-truck hybrids, three-wheeled vehicles that look like a motorcycle with a small pickup truck in the back. Then there are microbuses, the only public transit here, then the taxis. The huge trucks with open beds, wildly overloaded, are very slow, but scary to pass, as they look like they’re about to tip over. You sometimes see trucks like we have in North America, with the cargo closed in, but most are open, with about four times as much cargo as should be transported, strapped in.

All these vehicles are sharing the road, in both directions, and with the exception of the donkey carts, all trying to pass one another, in both directions. Inshalla, indeed.

Donkey carts are an extremely common sight, sometimes with a team of two, and sometimes the cart has big car tires for wheels. The donkeys look fine, but there is no end to what they are asked to pull.

We always see the giant trucks, and sometimes donkey carts, loaded with sugar cane. On this drive, we passed a sugar factory, with umpteen sugar-cane trucks lined up waiting. The Egyptians were the first people to refine sugar; their sugar industry dates back to about 700 AD. The modern Egyptian sugar industry is hurting. This story has a good photo of a farmer in his galabeya among his sugar cane.

As we got near Aswan, B’lal pointed out that we were seeing Nubian people. Nubians are a distinct ethnic group in Egypt (also in Sudan), and the centre of Nubian Egypt is Aswan. The people look exactly like African-Americans in the United States.

A few days back, B’lal asked if we wanted to hire him to take us to Abu Simbel, the ancient site for which Aswan is a jumping off point. We thought he might have friends or family to crash with in Aswan, and would be happy to hire him at the current rate. The fee he named, which supposedly included lodging and food for him, was outrageous. We said, no, we’ll take care of it a different way. We didn’t act like we were negotiating; we just said no.

The next time he mentioned it, he threw in how much it costs to go with the tourist bus (but I already know that, and it’s nowhere near as expensive as he said), and the next time he threw in how much any driver in Aswan would charge. No and no.

I’ll save our first evening in Aswan for the next post, because it’s special and deserves better placement.

2.19.2017

luxor: east bank sites: museums and souq

Our last day in Luxor was busy and fun. If you ever travel to Egypt without a tour group, I highly recommend securing the services of a driver. We have saved ourselves untold time, aggravation, and probably heat stroke, and we were able to pay generously while getting a great deal for ourselves.

Would you believe Allan wanted to get an earlier start than me? I can tell you without exaggeration that in 30 years of our domestic partnership, this was a first.

We went over to the east bank, and started at the Mummification Museum. It was small but excellent, explaining how the ancient Egyptians prepared bodies for mummification, with examples of all the instruments and ingredients.

After that, we went to the Luxor Museum, which is everything the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is not. Everything is labelled in three languages (Arabic, English, and French), with excellent background information to add context to the exhibits. There is also a lot of information about how objects were found and restored, with photos of various stages.

Most of the objects in the museum were found in the tombs we have visited. There are many beautiful statues of gods, goddesses, and pharaohs, not just religious icons but works of art. Most exciting to me were the glimpses into the creation of the great monuments. On a flat piece of alabaster, there was a floor plan; another stone was etched with a graph, clearly a blueprint. We saw a t-square, a level, and other tools of architecture and engineering. There were also very delicate tools used for jewelry-making, mummification, etching, and other activities. Imagine that someone had to create those tools as well! And they had to do that without examples -- they had to imagine what they needed and then make it. The Luxor Museum is a gem.

After the museums, we returned to the large fast-food place we enjoyed so much. The owner greeted us with, “Canada! Welcome!” Allan wants me to clarify that this is not fast-food in the North American sense. The food is freshly made to order, not processed, and the menu is quite large. It’s somewhere between fast-food and a formal restaurant. We had more koshari, shawarma, and basterma and egg.

After lunch, we walked through the souq (market) and had the experience we should have had in Cairo. It was clearly a souq for local people, not tourists. Women shoppers were dressed in special galabeyas, and many were “discussing prices” with the stall owners. Along with the fruits and vegetables, there was something we hadn’t seen before: poultry and butchers. Chickens and ducks were in cages, waiting to become someone’s dinner. It’s not fun to see, but I’m sure they have a better life than most chickens in North America. At a butcher stall, a cow head was hanging for display. I thought it was fake until I saw the neck. Not fake.

We saw fish of all sizes on display, with no ice or cooling equipment in sight. One stall operator periodically spritzed his fish with water, another burned incense at both ends of the fish table. We were pretty sure that some of the sellers caught the fish themselves in the Nile.

There were women selling pigeons, a sad sight. These women obviously have very low status in the market. They don’t have stalls; they sit on the ground between stalls with two boxes -- one with pigeons and one with eggs. In this culture, women rarely work outside the home, and if they do, they don’t work in public. I had the impression that selling pigeons is a job of last resort, maybe one step up from begging.

We had an interesting encounter with a spice seller! I was admiring the containers of beautiful herbs and spices, and he pounced on the opportunity. He would take a pinch of something, put it in my hand, and ask, “What’s this?” And then another, “What’s this?” I identified cumin, coriander, mint, anise, maybe a few others. Allan took a photo and we tried to give him 5 LEs, which would be a typical or slightly generous tip. Spice Guy waved us off. “You my sister! You my brother! This is not for money! This is my gift to you!”

I refused to buy, trying to explain that we are staying in a hotel and will not be cooking. Finally I gave in to a small amount of dried hibiscus, which I’ve been drinking both cold and hot; it’s called karkadee. Spice Guy weighed an amount, showing me he was giving me 120 grams for the price of 100 grams. “This is my gift to you!”

A few local women came by, asking about spices. They spoke to me, but it was well beyond my Arabic vocabulary. Then one woman was suddenly offended by something the shop owner said, made a disgusted face, and they all left.

Meanwhile, Spice Guy used a technique we have seen throughout: he put the hopeful purchase in a plastic bag and tied the handles. And all of a sudden, his gift to me that was supposed to cost 1 LE per gram became 100 LEs for the little bag of 120 grams. We said no, of course not, that was ridiculous, and he started yelling at us. He should have taken the 5 LEs for the photo. Allan said he doubts this guy makes 100 LEs in a whole day.

I did buy two cotton rag rugs -- runners. I had no idea I was going to buy them, but the colours were beautiful and the price quickly plummeted as we walked away. The confident walking-away is an excellent haggling technique. (I still hate haggling.)

The souq was interesting and fun, but it was also very long, with an uneven dirt-and-stone floor, and there’s no way out except at the other end. By the time we reached it, I was beat, and then somehow we ended up walking in the blazing sun, with the usual men calling to us and trying to “help”. Finally we called B’lal, and Allan found -- what else? -- an English-language bookstore he’s been reading about. I didn’t go in, which is just as well, as there were many beautiful books about pyramids and tombs and Egypt, and we don’t need to schlep them back with us.

B’lal and the other drivers repeatedly tried to arrange a felucca ride for us. Feluccas are traditional sailboats that are now primarily used for tourists, although some people still use them for fishing. One of our many drivers is also a felucca “captain”, and he’s in on the deal with B’lal, B’lal’s father, OG, and whoever else. So we surprised B’lal by finally saying yes to the felucca, since we had planned to do it that day.

Unfortunately for us, the air was very still, and we hardly went anywhere. Captain Felucca was assisted by a younger guy, who climbed up and down the mast, barefoot, and at times was forced to row a bit with a wood plank. He even made us the obligatory “welcome drink” on a tiny propane stove. It was very calm and peaceful on the water, but not much of a ride.

CF doesn’t speak much English, but for some reason he wanted to talk politics with me. “You know Mubarak? The people love Mubarak. He was strong for business.” The world over, people think dictators are strong for business. I said nothing. (Apparently the way to stop me from talking politics is to use a different language.)

After a time, CF made a phone call, and one of the motor boats towed them in, then gave us a ride to the west bank. (There are dozens of these boats, available for hire as ferries or for fun.) Allan went to pay the ferry guy a small tip, and he refused, saying B’lal had already paid him. Honest Ferry Guy was a welcome counter-balance to Spice Guy.

After resting at the hotel for a while, we went back to Restaurant Mohamed. (I’ve been spelling his name wrong, now corrected.) The food was even better this time. We had roast chicken and the usual 10 plates of food. This also gives me an opportunity to share another note about Mohamed: he gave us jewelry. Not junk either, necklaces of tiny stone beads that are authentic to the area. He has a huge number of them hanging up, and gives several strands to every guest. This night, he insisted on giving us more necklaces, plus two scarabs. We told him we would send him a postcard from Canada, inshalla.

2.17.2017

random observations about egypt and egyptian life

I have so many of these saved up, I might as well make them a separate post.

-- All the men trying to “help” you at the sites, and most taxi drivers, and restaurant owners -- pretty much everyone -- ask where you are from. When we say Canada, they say “Canada dry”. Sometimes the next time they see you, they will say “Canada dry!” or they will call out to you “Canada dry! Canada dry!” to get your attention. On a busy day seeing temples and tombs, we might hear this five or six times a day. It is so bizarre!

-- All Egyptian men wear scarves. It’s like there’s some kind of law. Whether over a t-shirt or a galabeya, a scarf appears to be required. They wear them looped several times around with no tail. It is so rare to see an Egyptian man not wearing a scarf, that they look strange without them -- like tourists.

-- Egyptian men are... quite pleasant to look at. OK, I'll say it, they are hot. And charming. I have heard and read that Egypt is the street harassment capital of the world for women travelling without men, to such an extent that many Egyptians are embarrassed by this reputation. My age and my status as part of a couple shields me from this. So with that very large disclaimer, I will say that in my experience Egyptian men are good-looking, charming, and unfailingly polite.

-- Everyone takes care in their appearance. No one seems to go out in public in something you’d hang around the house in, whatever the Egyptian equivalent of sweatpants and an old t-shirt is.

-- Couples and families are out together all the time, but for single people, girls stay with girls and guys with guys. Men greet each other with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek, then the opposite cheek. This is not just a brief air-kiss, it’s very clearly a kiss, complete with kissing sound, on each cheek. In a culture where it is not yet acceptable for gay people to be out, this is interesting to me.

-- Many people here have very bad teeth; obviously there is a lack of access to dental care, and perhaps to education about dental health. But separate from that, many men have teeth stained brown from tea and smoking. Even my young friend Hamdi, who has a beautiful, full smile, has teeth that are mottled brown. (I look at teeth, and I always remember people’s teeth.)

-- When you buy a ticket to one of the ancient sites, if you look in the little ticket window, you will see a big pile of money, or someone rooting through a drawer with a big pile of money thrown into it. The man will rip off two tickets from a ticket book and give them to you, and throw your money in the pile or in the drawer. My library co-workers -- or anyone who is trained in cash-handling -- would be amazed.

-- And in an all-cash business, with a giant pile of cash in front of them, most people do not want to make change. The ATMs only dispense large bills, but you need “small money” for many small purchases and for baksheesh (tips for services). If you stand your ground and insist you have no small money, they will eventually give you change.

-- One rule of travelling in Egypt, which I knew in advance, is to carry a roll of toilet paper in your bag or backpack. Abdul taught us the second rule: carry one-pound coins to tip the attendant. This person hands out a portion of toilet paper and you give them one pound.

-- In the visitors centre at the Karnak Temple, two men were standing guard in front of the washroom, collecting a coupon or chit from people on a tour, obviously something their tour guide gave them. I was also waiting, and when it was my turn, I indicated I had no money. They started yelling, insisting I pay them. I continued on into the washroom as they called "Come back here! You must pay!" These men were not handing out toilet paper or keeping the washroom clean, they were just collecting money from paying customers using the facilities! What a racket!

-- In the same washroom line, two female tourists tried to shove me out of the way to go ahead of me. Allan and I have seen this behaviour several times from tourists, always women, apparently Chinese. People talk about the “ugly American,” which is a real thing, but Americans in tour groups are sheep compared to these women. They will just shove you out of the way (or try to) and push past you, without looking at you or acknowledging your presence in any way. I wonder, do they live in a world where if you don’t push and shove, you are left behind, get nothing? To us, it’s incredibly rude. I can only imagine what it looks like to people from cultures more polite than ours... such as Egyptians.

-- I now understand the usage of the word inshalla, meaning (roughly) “god willing”. People here say it for any future event. How long will you be in Egypt, inshalla? I answer “three weeks,” and the other person adds, “inshalla”. When are you leaving for Luxor, inshalla? It’s a way of humbling yourself, reminding yourself that the future is not in your control, and obviously, a belief that the final say will be your god’s.

luxor: abydos and dendera and a face-plant

I had an eventful morning! We had an early breakfast and met B'lal downstairs at 7:00. I said hi, and fell forward, down two steps, onto the dirt road. The hotel has a piece of carpet covering the steps to the entrance. It was bunched up, my foot caught underneath, and down I went. (As I type this, I'm laughing so hard that I'm crying.)

I could hear Allan saying, "Oh my god, oh my god," as I tumbled from one level to the next. Then I suffered the humiliation of two men hoisting me up, dead weight, by my arms. (Yep, I actually apologized. Women, amirite?)

I was incredibly lucky. My right shin hit the edge of the concrete step, but both my knees and both my hands were fine. If my right knee (already injured and weak) had hit the concrete, my vacation is done right there. And I easily could have broken a wrist blocking my fall -- but it happened so fast, I didn't even have time to put my hands out.

So as Allan brushed the dust off my sweater and pants, I bent and flexed my leg a few times, and was very relieved. Getting in the car, I could feel a bump rising on my shin. Is there even ice here? In a country where simple refrigeration is iffy, ice is a luxury. B'lal and Allan went off and returned with Breakfast Guy (server) and a plastic bag of ice.

I said, "Alfuh shokran" (many thanks) to BG, who said "hamdulay" several times, smiling and happy to see I was OK. Allan said that BG found a bottle of water that had frozen, cut away the plastic with a knife, and chopped up the ice. Because of that, I was able to ice my shin and knee during the whole ride.

OK! Starting the day with a blast. I am incredibly lucky!

We drove out of Luxor, heading north and west towards Abydos. Past Luxor, the desert stretched out, a flat expanse, on both sides of the highway. In the distance, bald limestone mountains, the same colour as the sand, are partly hidden behind a layer of dust. Every so often there would be a tiny mud-brick house, or a pile of rubble where a house once stood. A few new-looking apartment complexes. A mosque.

B'lal drove 140 kms/hr (about 85 mph) most of the way, and did some pretty interesting passing and weaving. It turns out there is a middle lane.

As we neared a town, we would see donkey carts loaded with wheat or sugar cane or bright green alfalfa, men or boys riding donkeys, green fields growing beside irrigation ditches, animals resting in the shade of palm trees.

As always, we saw lots of dogs. They all look lively and happy -- tails up, heads high, trotting along. They are thin, like any wild or natural animal, but not starving, and their coats look nice. Today we saw one at a gas station that looked like Tala. She was sitting calmly... made me miss my little girl.

Out in the country, the horses, camels, and donkeys look better, too -- more lively, more like working animals than slaves. I wish I could forget the horses and donkeys in Giza.

There were many checkpoints, more than on our trip to Saqarra. At each stop, a seemingly haphazardly organized group of soldiers would take B'lal's license plate and phone number, and he would say "etneen canadee" (two from Canada).

In Abydos, B'lal showed us the coffee shop where he would be waiting. (Have I written about coffee shops? They are cave-like spaces where men smoke shisha. I've read that women now use them, too, at least in Cairo, but I see no evidence of that.) Naturally as soon as we get out of the car, people are offering us junk to buy -- but this was the first time we saw little kids doing it, too. Why aren't these children in school?? I gave a kid some money, then of course was mobbed by others. Bad. Sad.

Abydos itself is a beautifully preserved temple and a shrine to the god Osiris. The engravings here were incredibly finely detailed -- the patterns on clothing, the strands of wigs, the strings and beads on jewelry -- all depicted in minute detail, over and over and over. The ancient Egyptians obviously found beauty in symmetry and repetition. In this case, the engravings and the symmetry and the repetition were completely and beautifully over the top.

We read there was another nearby site, part of the same temple complex, so we set off down a dirt road in search of it. Men from the cafes and coffee shops all started calling to us. "No! No! No go!" and "Kholles! Haga kholles!" (Nothing! Not anything!) It was like we weren't allowed to walk down the street. One gentleman followed us the whole way, as if he was our escort. We walked around some houses with donkeys or camels outside, and soon saw some temple ruins. A man was lifting up a piece of broken fencing to let us in.

There wasn't a whole lot at this other site, but damned if we're going to let some busybody shisha-smoking men keep us from exploring. I wouldn't have pushed it too far, being sure no police or other "authorities" get involved, but for godsakes, are tourists only allowed to walk in designated tourist areas?

Back in the car, we headed towards Luxor, and would stop at another site on the way there. On all the roads, it is common to see carts and trucks beyond overloaded. Whether it's a donkey cart with alfalfa or a truck full of sugar cane on its way to a nearby factory or a van with luggage strapped on top, everything is loaded two or three times what you would see in Canada or the US. In a place with scarce resources, people make the most of every trip.

The temple at Dendera is interesting because its roof is fully intact, which has preserved the engravings inside, and much of the colour. I was especially interested because it's a shrine to Hathor, now my favourite Egyptian god. However, the artwork inside was done much later, mostly while Egypt was under Greek or Roman rule, and is much less detailed, more crude and clunky.

Back in the car, we had to talk B'lal into getting something to eat before heading back to Luxor. I think he was out of his comfort zone, taking tourists into a town he doesn't know. But I knew we could work it out. We were joking around with him, "B'lal we're so hungry, please let us eat..." and he finally gave in.

The town of Dendara turned out to be a bustling little city. B'lal thought of something called "Khikdur" -- "Do you know Khikdur?" I thought it might be a kind of food, but it turned out to be a fast-food chain called Quick Door. We got shawarmas and burgers and sat upstairs. B'lal let us buy him one shawarma only, then ordered a second that he paid for. Allan had our first burger in Egypt, much better meat and bread than North American fast food.

On the way back to Luxor we saw a sad sight. Remember those overloaded trucks? One was partially overturned on the side of the road. Tomatoes were everywhere. A few men were trying to pick them up and put them in crates, a bit like taking a broom to the sand. Cars on both sides of the mess were, at first, hesitant to drive through and crush someone's produce. B'lal opened his door, reached down, and passed me a beautiful red tomato. Then almost at once, everyone decided there was nothing more we could do, and drove through and on the tomatoes. We could then see that the entire cargo had fallen off the truck.

After that, we noticed truck after truck loaded with tomatoes; obviously it must be harvest time. B'lal said the tomatoes are on their way to factories in Cairo and Alexandria.

In our little village, we bought more desserts dripping in honey, showered off a lot of dust, and had dinner at the hotel. Tomorrow is our last day in Luxor; Allan has a full day planned for us. I will endeavour to start the day without falling on my face.

luxor: east bank sites: karnak and luxor temples

We thought we had settled our taxi troubles, but that was not to be. This time, “the father of B’lal” showed up, thinking we were taking a road trip. Instead, we went to Karnak Temple on the east bank.

In a blog full of superlatives, Karnak temple may top the list. First, it is massive. St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London could both fit inside. If you have not seen those cathedrals, I can only say that they are enormous, and one feels like a tiny ant inside them (obviously one of the desired effects). Imagine that Karnak is larger than both combined, and built in a time when no other buildings had even a second story.

Next, the columns. The columns! There is a forest of columns inside, 134 in all, each one 10 metres (33 feet) around and 24 metres (80 feet) tall. This hall alone, now called the Great Hypostyle Hall, is 50,000 square feet. And these columns once held massive lintels (horizontal stones) and another configuration of columned openings on top.

Naturally everything is covered in hieroglyphs and images, all of the highest detail and quality.

Imagine the number of people it took to build this! I think of that all the time. When I was writing junior nonfiction about ancient civilizations, I learned that the ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to figure out irrigation. This led to the first large-scale agriculture -- the first civilization to store wheat and other grains. This led to people eating well all year around -- when the Nile was flooded and when it was dry. This in turn led to more people -- more families, and more children in each family. The large-scale agriculture also led to more specialization -- people whose job it was to count grain, to make barrels, to organize work crews. The first middle class. And this enabled the ancient Egyptians to become the first civilization to build on a monumental level. It all began with irrigation. I’ve thought of this many, many times on this trip!

Karnak was built over many successive reigns, each pharaoh claiming it as his own and adding on more. It continued to be used through Greek and Roman invasions. On one back wall, some Roman faces appear -- the remains of Roman frescoes that were painted over the hieroglyphs.

This massive temple is only one part of the Karnak complex. There were ceremonial lakes and all manner of outbuildings. Allan and I were both absolutely awed. I believe the last time I felt like this was in La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona. Interestingly, that also contained a forest of columns, graceful and bending like living trees. I know that Gaudi was influenced by many world cultures; I wonder if he saw Karnak, or drawings of it.

Karnak was the first site we’ve visited that has an actual visitor’s centre, designed to (somewhat) echo the design of the temple. There are photographs of the sites before and during restoration, which is really interesting. There is also a model of the whole site. Nothing is labelled. The scale is 1 = 300, but it doesn’t say 1 or 300 what.

There were huge numbers of visitors at Karnak. All the tours go there, and daytrippers come up from the Red Sea resorts in the south. The immense size of the temple made the crowds more bearable.

After Karnak, we asked B’lal’s father to take us to a place reputed to have the best koshari in town. He wanted to take us to a “famous restaurant” but hamdulay, he did not insist. (That’s “thank god”, an expression you hear constantly. “How are you?” “Thank god I’m fine, how are you?”)

The place was a huge fast-food restaurant, with cooking on the street level and tables upstairs, orders and food going up and down by dumbwaiter. We each had a small koshari, and shared a shawarma and a hawawshi. I finally thought of what a hawawshi most closely resembles -- a quesadilla. It’s like a quesadilla with samosa filling inside.

Koshari is my new favourite food. It is delicious, energy packed, and vegan. (Obviously I’m not vegan, but it’s great that it bridges that divide.) This place served it with a bowl of tomato sauce, so you can control your sauce without anything getting soggy. Please will someone open a koshari joint in Mississauga?

(We’ve also learned that we’ve been pronouncing it wrong. It’s said as if it’s a store selling koshers -- a koshery.)

Our next stop was supposed to be the Luxor Museum, but we were disappointed to see it is open 9-2, then 5-9. We caught it after 2:00. We hadn’t wanted to do two temples in one day, but the museum hours kind of forced our schedule. B’lal’s dad wanted us to take a felucca ride (a traditional sailboat), but again, he did not insist.

Luxor Temple was also very large and impressive, with a huge amount of carvings and colours. It, too, was filed with massive columns. Only a visit to Karnak made it seem somewhat small or ordinary.

An interesting note about Luxor Temple: after the original builders and worshippers used it, Greeks used it, then Romans, then Coptic Christians built a church in it, and then a mosque was built in it. (Both church and mosque remain and are still in use.) This makes the site a continuous place of worship for more than 2,000 years, something unique or at least very rare in this country.

Outside the temple is the remains of the Avenue of Sphinxes that once connected the Luxor and Karnak temples -- both sides of a wide path lined with sphinxes for three kilometres! A large number of them remain outside the Luxor Temple, enough to give you the idea.

Luxor Temple was packed with tour groups. It can get loud and crowded in the passageways or small chapels. This is the first trip where Allan routinely wants more time than I do! He is totally engrossed with taking photos; I usually end up finding some shade to wait in. This is fine with me! This is more than fine, this is awesome. I am so happy that he is enjoying himself so much.

After this, we were tired and dusty (you are always dusty here), and we asked The Father of B’lal to take us back to the hotel. He suggested we take the ferry. But again did not insist. Back at the hotel, B’lal’s father was having a heated phone call with Salvation Army Guy (Allan calls him Orphanage Guy. Same dude.) While SAG was berating Allan, I paid B’lal’s dad, and suddenly the whole situation turned around. If you’ve read the previous guest post (or novella), you already know this.

We noticed a little bakery in the village of our hotel, and picked up some fig pastries and danish-type pastries drowning in honey. Because everyone needs to eat dessert before dinner, right?

B’lal’s father picked us up and took us to a local spot called Restaurant Mohamed, which turned out to be one of the coolest spots of this trip. Mohamed lives in a little mud-brick house, with the restaurant attached, and a patio for outdoor dining attached to that; the restaurant is three times the size of his house. The walls are lined with posters of jazz and blues musicians -- Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Dexter Gordon -- and as we sat down, one of Mohamed’s sons put on music: Miles Davis. Not what we expected!

Four noteworthy factoids about our dinner at Mohamed’s.

We both ordered kofta. These dishes were brought to the table: bread, fried eggplant slices, salad vegetables, pickled vegetables, white spreadable cheese, rice, fried potatoes, stewed vegetables, ripe green melon slices, and the kofta. We were laughing at the quantity of the food. We ordered drinks (more freshly squeezed mango for me), so the bill came to $15 Canadian.

While we were eating, two other customers came in, men with British accents. One of them called over to us, and began what social workers call “inappropriate disclosure” -- yelling across the room. TMI! Among other things, we learned that he met his father for the first time a few years ago. The lost father lived in St Catharines, in southern Ontario. And the man’s sister lives in? You guessed it, Mississauga.

Mohamed’s used to host musicians, five nights a week, regional and local favourites coming to play. I would have loved to see one of those shows.

Everything was delicious, although I had to discreetly spit out the pickled eggplant. Think of the pickliest thing you’ve ever eaten, double it, then soak it in pickling for another week.

B’lal picked us up, we made our plans for the next day, and were very happy, and very stuffed.

2.16.2017

luxor: the trouble with taxis

A guest post from Allan:

Laura has mentioned some of our troubles with our various taxi drivers in Luxor. She has not wanted to get into too much detail, but she thought a guest post on the subject would be a good idea. So I’ll be the one giving you way too much information.

In Cairo, we were extremely lucky when Tito at the Pyramids View Inn hooked us up with Abdul for our trip to Saqqara, Memphis, and Dahshur. During our second day with Abdul, driving around Cairo, he asked how we would get around in Luxor. (In addition to the sites near town, there would be at least one long road trip. Luxor was the kind of city where we would either need cabs everywhere or we would hire someone to drive us to various places.) We said we planned on asking at our hotel. Abdul said he would make some calls and see if he could assist. In seemingly no time at all, he had lined up someone to drive us for our entire stay in Luxor! He told us what this would cost; it was an amount that was more than reasonable for us and one he said that was generous to the driver (who was also guaranteed six days of work).

Monday: The shitty overnight train from Cairo arrived in Luxor roughly one hour late and we missed our pickup from the hotel (apparently he gave up when the train was late (?)). The arranged Luxor driver was meeting us at the hotel at 10 AM. Abdul told us that the driver should say Laura’s full name -- that way we would know he was the correct guy, rather than someone hanging around the hotel saying, yeah, sure, I’m your driver. When we went downstairs, the guy (a young man named B’lal) held up a piece of paper with Laura’s last name on it. That seemed good enough for us. We explained that we had arrived late and asked if he could come back at 1 PM.

When he returned, we explained that we were not going to do any sightseeing but would instead go into Luxor for lunch and then wander around a portion of the town. Our hotel is on the west bank of the Nile. Luxor is on the east bank and while there are local boats you can pay to ferry you across the river, if you are driving, you have to go maybe 10 km south, cross a bridge and then drive 10 km north into the city. As we were en route, we told B’lal where we wanted to go for lunch, the name of the restaurant and the address. Right away, he suggested another place that he said was very good. We know enough from our travels that this type of suggestion often means that the driver/guide has a relationship with the particular restaurant (or shop or hotel or whatever) and will receive a kickback when he brings in business. So we were mildly annoyed right away. We had arranged for a driver, not a guide. And we started wondering if this was the guy Abdul had hired for us. He seemed to not be as professional.

We got to our restaurant and as we were eating, B’lal came in with another man. He said this older man would take over as our driver for the rest of day. They told us to enjoy our lunch and the second driver would be waiting outside. After lunch, we said we’d like to go to a small store that I had read sold locally-made crafts. Our new driver launched into a pitch for a store he knew that sold everything under the sun. Three floors of items at very cheap prices! And the money benefited a local orphanage. He went on and on. Our mild annoyance grew with this new “helpful” suggestion. He did take us where we wanted to go -- as we employed the “maybe later” excuse for the mega-store -- and he was expecting us to return in perhaps 30-45 minutes. We spent a fair bit of time in the shop chatting with the owner and a few other customers. We wandered around the market area, and were accosted by dozens of men selling crappy tourist souvenirs. Someone launched himself at us and asked if we wanted some tea. Laura did, and so we sat down. On the way back, Laura bought some things for certain members of her union. That took awhile and when we got back to the car, Orphanage Guy (OG) was annoyed because we had been away longer than we had said. (But we hired you for the entire day, we both thought to ourselves, so who cares?) This guy was now supposed to drive us back to our hotel, but he made it quite clear that he did not want to do all that driving, so he said he was going to send us in a ferry across the river and then we'd grab a taxi to the hotel. The trip across was quick and although the taxi driver on the other side attempted to hit us up for a very large fee, it went easily enough. But we were annoyed that OG was so lazy (on top of his constantly trying to change our plans) that he could not do the job he had apparently agreed to do. And our small questions about whether these drivers were actually the guys recommended by Abdul grew (the first guy had actually never said Laura’s name to us). Laura tried to get in touch with Abdul, but we could not seem to call him from Luxor.

Tuesday: B’lal arrived promptly at 9 AM and we headed to the Valley of the Kings and some nearby sites. The morning went well, although we were in a different car than the one on Monday. One of the back windows in this car did not exist and the other one did not roll down. We didn’t have any ideas about where to eat lunch, so we agreed when B’lal suggested a small nearby restaurant. The prices were a little steep, but the food was quite good. We saw a few more sites in the afternoon. B’lal asked us several times when we wanted to go on a day trip to Abydos and Dendera (as had OG), which was odd. When Abdul had set this up, we assumed that we would pay one driver at the end of the week. We asked B’lal what he wanted and he said it was up to us ("as you like"). Then he mentioned something about repairing his car, so we paid him for this day. (We needed to get more cash to pay for Monday, so that would have to wait.) When we handed him Tuesday’s money, he thought it was for both days. No, no, we said, this is for you for today. He was clearly shocked. "This ... is for today?" Yes, this is for you, for today. We still weren't sure he believed us. Also, wasn’t this all explained (and agreed to) beforehand (by someone)?

Wednesday: We had arranged for a 9:00 AM pick-up. However, Laura needed more time to blog, so I went down at the appointed time to ask if we could leave at 10. I was introduced to a new, third, driver. Could he come back at 10? He didn't like that. How about 11? Well, 11 is a bit late, I said, we would prefer 10. He muttered something about taking his son to the hospital. (If you had this prior appointment (which I wasn’t convinced even existed), then why did you agree to work all day doing something else?) We settled on 10:30 and I was left wondering what the fuck was going on with all these drivers.

At 10:30, we discovered that there was now a FOURTH driver, who we quickly learned was the young guy who had taken us across the river in his boat on Monday night. On the way to the Valley of the Kings (Day 2), he pulled over and OG got in. WTF? OG immediately went into a sales pitch, suggesting things we could do, like spending time with an Egyptian family and learning about their lives. We had decided to not reply to these suggestions, to act like he wasn’t even talking (just the same way we ignored the many touts outside the various sites). He was again pushing us to go to Dendera/Abydos as soon as possible. The next day seemed fine for that, so we agreed. He told us that the price for that day would be twice the daily rate we had previously agreed on. Laura laughed and told him flat-out: No way. But don’t you know how far away Abydos is? Yes, we do, and it doesn’t matter. Everyone agreed on a fair rate for these days, and some days, like Monday, were very light and some other days would be longer. He grumbled and said he needed our full names for some paperwork that needed to be filed before we could go. This was the first time we had heard of this, so we balked. He told us this was simply for security (and some other reasons that made little sense) and that we needed to trust him and not be so suspicious. As you may have heard, this pissed Laura off and she unloaded on him, explaining extremely clearly why we did not trust him even one little bit.

After finishing up at the Tombs of the Nobles, we said we wanted a quicker lunch than the day before, perhaps some koshari at a local cafe. But we needed a bank machine first. The ATM gave us nothing but 200 pound notes, which we needed to change into smaller bills. OG said there was no actual bank on the west side and suggested that we go into a shop and ask the owner to make change. This seemed utterly ridiculous. The stores are small hole-in-the-wall places and there was no way a guy was going to give us small bills for, say, 600 or 800 pounds. We bought three bottles of water in one place to get a little bit of change and OG took us to a gas station where an attendant (who was related to him) changed another 200 bill. We left the water in the car and went to have lunch.

Unbeknownst to us, while we were eating, there was a change of drivers. Ferry Guy and OG left (with our newly purchased water!) and was replaced by the annoying guy I had seen first thing in the morning. When we got out to his ar after lunch, I remembered the water -- and cursed loudly. Seeing our anger at not having the water (which was feeling like a last straw of sorts), Annoying Guy started in, with an extraordinary amount of fake obsequiousness: "I'll get you more water. Do not be angry. We will buy more water. Why do you need three waters? Madame, do not worry. I will bring water to your hotel." He was using the Arabic expression for "no problem" over and over. We insisted that losing the water was not the issue, it was the least of the issues. It was merely the latest in a series of annoyances that we felt should not be happening in the first place, annoyances that we thought we had avoided by having this prior arrangement. The driver ran off and returned with two waters and we drove off.

At the first place on our afternoon schedule, he told us to stay at least an hour because he wanted to go home and have lunch with his family. We were speechless. After we complained (why not eat before you go to work for the afternoon?), he acted hurt and put out and agreed to wait ("as you like" -- but it's only as we like after you try to change things around to suit your own schedule). By this time, the hassles with the revolving drivers were really getting to Laura and she was wondering if we should scrap the whole arrangement. We figured we could postpone the day trip and not have anyone the next day. Get some time away from these guys. Take a boat across the river, and take taxis to and from the sites, and return by river at night. We called B’lal and told him our revised plans, but we would see him on Friday for the trip to Dendera/Abydos.

Thursday: While having breakfast, we were told that B’lal’s father (!) was here to drive us around. Yes, ANOTHER driver, for fuck’s sake, on a day we said we did not want a driver. But rather than send him away, we said we would be ready shortly. He thought we were going on the long trip today, but we said, no, we had cancelled that the night before and were going to be in Luxor. He waived some papers that OG must have prepared for our travel, but we just shrugged our shoulders. Besides, we would have needed to leave three hours ago if we were going to those far-away sites. So into Luxor we went. And this day actually was pretty good. B’lal’s father said some interesting things about the area and did not try to sell us anything (well, only a meet-and-greet with a family, a felucca ride, and dinner at a "famous" restaurant). He took us where we wanted to go, in the order we wanted to do things, and was always waiting when we exited a site.

We headed back to the hotel around 4:30 (after he passive-agressively asked us if we knew there was a ferry). We were debating whether to ask him to return around 6:00 and take us somewhere for dinner. He was hired for the day, but when did his day actually end? We weren't sure about that, so we figured we should get a separate taxi for the evening. During the drive, there was a series of phone calls where Laura spoke to B’lal on his father’s cell phone (and could hear practically nothing) and then when OG wanted to talk to me about the two days we had yet to pay for (so was he in charge of this circus?). There was a fair amount of confusion before he said that we could pay whenever we wanted to (then why did you even call me?). While I was on the phone, Laura was busy paying B’Lal’s father for the day. When he saw the money, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. Like son, like father. And, suddenly, everything changed.

His attitude towards us completely changed (maybe we weren’t divas after all), and he began apologizing for anything and everything. "Oh, I am sorry, I did not realize. So sorry." We figured now it was okay to ask if he or someone else might take us to a restaurant for dinner. He said he would be back at 6:00. Which he was. On the drive to the restaurant, he was joking, asking Laura if she had a sister that B’lal could meet. He said B’lal would take us back to the hotel afterwards. And during that drive, B’lal also began apologizing for any troubles we have had. We agreed on an early morning pickup time for Friday and said goodnight.

We don’t know who we will see behind the wheel on Saturday for another day in Luxor. But we know that we will refuse to go anywhere with either OG or the Hungry Guy. I never want to see those two clowns again. On Sunday, B’lal will drive us to Aswan, and we will stop at a couple of sites along the way.

luxor: west bank sites, day two, and we miss abdul

These posts are one day behind. I write in the morning, but cannot get an internet connection until evening.

Our taxi arrangement should be great, but it has not gone smoothly. Today (Wednesday) we had three different drivers, and very nearly a fourth. With the exception of B'lal, none of them seem to understand the concept of being hired for a flat rate for the day. More likely, they understand it perfectly but are trying to make the day more profitable or easier.

The worst of the bunch is the older gentleman who we’ll call Salvation Army, since he is so hot to take us to a thrift store, “where they sell everything you will like, madame, all at 50% off, to benefit the orphanage.” He took over for B’lal the day we arrived in Luxor. We asked to go to a restaurant, he knew a better one. We wanted to visit a certain store we had read about, he wanted to bring us to “the orphanage”. He was supposed to drive us home, but instead put us in a boat and another cab, and we had to pay for both. He is supposed to be a driver, but he is actually a tout.

Today he was worse. He tried to extort an extra fee -- a very large one -- for a big road trip we have coming up. He tried to rearrange our plans for his convenience. He was either whining and complaining, or "making suggestions" the entire time. After all that, he said to me, "Sometimes you just have to trust people. You are very suspicious."

Let's just say that hit a nerve. I explained that we trusted Abdul, and we trust B'lal -- it's you we don't trust, and here's why. I was speaking rather heatedly, but nowhere near as angry as I felt.

Somewhere in the middle of this bullshit, while we were eating koshari in a local take-out joint, they switched drivers again, and someone drove off with three big bottles of water we had just purchased. This allowed another driver to act as if the whole problem was us losing our waters. No matter how many times I said, "The water is not important. We don't care about the water," it was all he could talk about. Then he takes us to another site, and says, “Make sure you take all your food and drink with you. I want to go home and eat with my family.” Meaning, while we are seeing the site, he was hoping to get in another fare.

In Cairo, Abdul assured us, promised us, that the daily price he suggested was generous to the driver, and we knew it was a good deal for us. If one of these drivers had half the professionalism of Abdul, we would love them. As you read this, you might think the whole thing is down to cultural differences. Perhaps, but Abdul and B’lal are also part of this culture, as are our friends at Pyramids View and the owners of our current hotel.

Annoying Taxi Tricks were scattered throughout the day, and you can imagine them scattered throughout this post.

Our first stop was to return to the Tombs of the Nobles, to talk to Hamdi and take more photos in the tombs. On our way there, we stopped to see two colossi which stand just off the road in a partially reconstructed site. These statues of Memnon are massive -- 18 meters (60 feet) tall -- and supposedly formed part of the entranceway to a temple that soared above them, three or four times as tall. I would be skeptical, but we’re talking about the people who created the Great Pyramids.

The statues are very impressive, but it's just a roadside stop, and we were back on our way to the Tombs of the Nobles, despite the objections of our driver. Hamdi helped us get in with yesterday's tickets, and we found ourselves bargaining a new arrangement. Shortly after, Allan went off with a guy to see a tomb and I stayed with Hamdi. Hamdi told me he had been "acting harder" for the benefit of the other man, a "bigger man" (i.e., his superior at this workplace), I shouldn’t worry, the arrangement from yesterday stands.

Scattered across the Tombs of the Nobles complex are small mudbrick buildings, usually with a small shaded area in the front, and a galibeya-and-kafeyah man and maybe a dog or two sitting. Hamdi and I sat in one shaded area and talked. He asked me about Canada, and said that he meets people from all different countries, and he would like to see the countries they come from, the way they see Egypt.

Many men ride motorcycles here, and as they passed, two or three on a bike, Hamdi and these men would wave and call out to each other. Hamdi told me a tourist offered him 300 LEs -- a huge amount of money to him -- to drive him on a motorbike over the mountain to the Queen Hatshepsut temple. Hamdi tried to explain to the man that this is illegal, so all along the way, he would have to pay off guards and inspectors, and in the end, he'd be left with very little money. The tourist thought Hamdi was haggling, but he was trying to explain the situation.

While we talked, men were clearing rubble from one of the tombs currently being recovered. Each man would walk with a plastic basket of rocks and rubble on his shoulder, all the way down and around a whole bunch of tombs, to a pickup truck parked near where I was sitting, reach up to his full arm length, empty the contents of the basket into the truck bed, then walk all the way back. To be any less efficient, they would have to be carrying individual stones without a basket.

I asked why the truck was so far away; why not move the truck closer, and save steps? Hamdi called out to one of the workers, to ask him my question. He replied that no vehicles are allowed on the paths to the tombs, because there are so many ancient sites underneath, it could easily damage them.

This reminded Hamdi that this same area used to be a small village where many families lived. When the ancient tombs were discovered, they were forced to move.

Hamdi and I talked until Allan came back from seeing three tombs. Now Hamdi was going to walk Allan to the tomb of the nobleman Sennofer and arrange with someone to let him go in and take photos. I didn’t want to hike up to the tomb for no reason. Hamdi wanted to find me a shady spot at one of the little buildings, but I would have to look at someone’s alabaster souvenirs -- “no buy, just look”. Instead, I sat on a low wall in the sun, put on more sunscreen, and waited by myself.

They were gone a long time. When they returned -- yay, Allan didn’t get locked in a tomb! -- I called our drivers. This gave us time to pay Hamdi and take some pictures of him. He posed beside a sign he called “a total lie”. The US international “development” agency, USAID, was announcing that the current restoration project is employing one person from each of 600 local households who became unemployed during the 2011 revolution. Hamdi says that he is one of those families, and no such employment has ever existed. I asked Hamdi if he knows the English word “propaganda”. From his smile and laugh, we knew he understood. I said, here is another English word: “bullshit”.

After this, the situation with our driver(s) really broke down. We wanted to have something small and quick for lunch. For many reasons, it’s not easy (or even possible) to do what we normally would do while travelling -- pick up some bread, fruit, cheese, yogurt, and find a spot to sit and eat. So we thought a bowl of koshari would be good. But first, we needed a bank machine, and then we would need some of the large bills changed into smaller denominations.

It was like we had walked into an episode of Fawlty Towers -- except not funny. We had multiple arguments with multiple drivers. Someone drove off with our water, while another guy was explaining to us how to pay 15 pounds for koshari, as if we were helpless idiots. (“15 Egyptian. Ten plus five.”)

We had only two more sites picked out for our west bank sightseeing. If we could just get through one more afternoon with the worst driver of them all, we could get back to the hotel and figure out how to manage the rest of the week.

The next stop -- Medinat Habu -- was absolutely amazing. It’s a massive monument dating back to 1550 BC, but used by successive invading or conquering peoples for centuries, all the way to Christians in the 9th Century AD. It has many massive stone pillars, and courtyard after courtyard, each with yet more massive columns. There are hieroglyphs everywhere, many depicting battles and the exploits of various kings and generals. (One famous and gruesome scene depicts a royal scribe totalling the enemy dead by counting severed hands and penises.)

You could probably explore this site for a full day if there weren’t 30 other sites in the area. We stayed about an hour, then found our driver -- who was only waiting because I insisted and argued with him.

Our final west-bank site was some newly discovered tombs and the remains of a workers’ village, where the people who physically created all of these masterpieces lived. I was really upset about the bullshit with the drivers, when I saw a kitten that clearly needed help, and it just put me over the edge. We see many dogs and cats around, and most look in good shape. I imagine there are many that don’t make it to adulthood, and this kitten would be one of them. I lost all interest in seeing tombs. I urged Allan to go without me while I sat down and tried to get it together.

When he came out, he said this tomb was small, but beautiful, and he had paid the attendant to take photos. We then had some role reversal, with Allan urging me not to let other people’s idiocy keep me from doing what I want, or let them spoil our day. It took a while, but he succeeded. I asked the attendant to let me into the tomb, and it was indeed small but beautiful. But I did not give the attendant more money!

There was one other tomb at this site, also small but very brightly coloured. The paintings and hieroglyphs at this site were much less detailed and fine than those in the Valley of the Kings or at Saqqara. These were made with thick outlines and broad pictures. They were either created by craftspeople with lesser skills, or perhaps were rushed, or both. These tombs are much more recent -- by roughly 1000 years -- so another possibility is that the intense rituals of the Pharonic era had become rote and routine by this time, carried out in a perfunctory manner without much meaning attached.

The cab ride back to our hotel was one of the most annoying of the day. I think the drivers were sensing that their sweet deal was falling apart, and they wanted to book us for one of the long road trips before we could back out. This driver called someone and handed me the phone. I have no idea who I was talking to. He apologized for the water (!) and for Salvation Army, and promised me the driver to Abydos would be great, the car would be great, and the payment would be enough.

Once back in our room, we thought of a way we could cut down on contact with these guys and make our remaining time in Luxor more pleasant. I called B’lal and changed some things around. Fingers crossed.

At the hotel, our laundry was ready early. We has asked about a laundromat, but those don’t exist here, you give your laundry to someone to take care of. (This is common in many countries.) One of the guys from the hotel delivered it -- for an exorbitant fee. After he left, we discovered that the clothes were all quite damp. sigh Bad timing for that. We let the high price go, but returning the clothes wet? Come on.

After we washed up and had a brief rest, we walked to the Sunflower Restaurant for our roast duck dinner. When the main course came, it was a whole roasted duck, with crispy, crackling skin, stuffed with a rice and wheat mixture. Our host brought us a big sharp knife to carve it, but in the end, we ate it Egyptian style -- ripping pieces off with our hands and eating it with bread or rice. Messy but delicious.

As were finishing up, Allan said, What do you want to bet that he asks to book us for another special dinner? Not five minutes later, that’s exactly what happened. We gave some noncommittal answers, which appears to be the way people say “no” around here. Also, three different people have offered that we should come to someone’s home, meet a “typical Egyptian family,” have a “welcome drink” (tea) and ask them question about how they live. Salvation Army, Restaurant Guy, and Hamdi all suggested this. If this happened naturally, on its own, it would be wonderful. But we don’t want to go to someone’s home as part of a business transaction.

After dinner, we saw the hotel owner and told him what happened with the laundry. He asked what we were charged, and was shocked, repeating it several times, incredulously. He came up to our room to see (and feel) the damp laundry, apologized several times, and said tomorrow they could dry everything in the sun. That will not only dry the clothes, but it will get rid of any mustiness from leaving the clothes wet overnight. I imagine he will also straighten out the fee for us.

2.15.2017

luxor: west bank sites

Yesterday was a full day of ancient sites and excellent Egyptian food. I woke up from a rooster crowing! Seriously, it called “Roo-uh roo-uh rooooo”. That was followed by the morning call to prayer. It’s a very pleasant way to start the day.

We had breakfast in the lush, green courtyard at the hotel. Breakfast here is hardboiled eggs, yogurt, honey, cheese spread, and rolls. I miss those fig pastries and green falafel from Giza!

After breakfast, our driver was waiting. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But it’s a great way to go here. If you don’t go with a tour, there are no buses to any of the sites. There are always taxis hanging around, but you’d have to negotiate every single ride, and there would be many rides every day. It’s super convenient for us, and a good deal for the driver, B’lad.

He showed up in a different car today. One back window was missing, and the other didn’t open. We’re hoping his regular car will be fixed before we go on a long road trip.

We’re staying on the west bank, so we decided to see the west bank sites first. We started at Valley of the Kings, called this because the hills and mountains hid the tombs of so many pharaohs. Even early in the day, the parking lot was packed with tour buses and there was a “line” for tickets. And by line I mean a mob. There are no lines here. Just mobs of tourists pushing and jostling. We can’t blame this on Egypt!

First you walk through a gauntlet of stalls, men calling you from all sides. Then you purchase an entry ticket, separate tickets for some famous tombs, then there’s a separate ticket to take a trolley to the beginning of the site. It’s a walkable distance, but it’s uphill, and there’s no shade. It’s not a lot of money, but couldn’t they include it in the admission price?

As we entered, an attendant insisted that we check our camera with them. Allan was having none of it. We know that as soon as we walk in, everyone will be snapping away with their cell phones. Plus outside of the tombs, out in the desert sun, what would be the problem? Allan stuck to his refusal, and eventually the man gave up and left. Go Allan!

Your regular ticket gains you admission to three tombs of your choice. We chose tombs based on Lonely Planet’s descriptions. Each tomb has a passageway that slopes downward, opens into a chamber, then there is another passageway, another chamber, and so on until you reach the tomb itself. The walls of the passageways and chambers are covered in hieroglyphs, many still brightly coloured. In the tomb itself there is often a sarcophagus, also entirely enscribed with glyphs.

Each tomb is distinctly different from the others. Some are less accessible and require more effort and ability to enter. Some are known for the scenes depicted on the walls, or the degree of detail in the engraving, or the beautiful colours.

We saw two tombs together, then I took a breather while Allan challenged himself to see the least accessible tomb. First he climbed up many steps up a steep mountainside, then down, down, down into a tomb that was buried exceptionally deep within the mountain. (Supposedly this pharaoh chose the location to thwart potential grave robbers.) I did one tomb without Allan; it was easy to access, and therefore quite crowded.

At every tomb, a man in a galibiya and kafiyeh punches your ticket, then tries to “help” you. Much of this consists of watching whoever has cameras, reminding them not to shoot, then trying to extract a tip in exchange for photography. The guidebook suggests putting a bunch of one-pound notes in your pocket for tips -- but no one will accept a tip that small. I assume they know that 1 LE is an insignificant amount to us.

Each tomb was unique and amazing. They are almost all covered in intact hieroglyphs -- all walls and the ceiling. The degree of detail in the hieroglyphs is astonishing. Anywhere there is colour adds to your understanding of what these places once looked like, the beliefs of the people who built them, and their incredible skills.

As always, I am in awe of our ancient ancestors. How did they clear the spaces below ground? How did they remove millions of tonnes of stone? I’ve already been wondering about what tools were available for craftspeople to use -- and how did they practice their skills? There must have been master craftspeople, competing to work on a pharoah’s tomb. Now Allan has added another question: how did they see what they were doing? There is now some artificial lighting in the tombs, but 4,000-odd years ago, they would have been very, very dark.

Most of the tour groups rush in and out of the tombs. Maybe to some people (maybe most? I don’t know) it gets dull. What, another tomb? To us it is thrilling. That’s why we chose to come here!

After we saw our allowed number of tombs, we decided not to pay the galibeya gentlemen to see more. We found B’lad and asked him to take us to a place for lunch. On the way, we passed the Temple of Hatshepsut, and B’lad convinced us to see it before lunch. We were hungry, but it's not a large site. sigh

Once again, we walk through a gauntlet of men hawking crappy souvenirs. (I’ve been trying to remember the word my mother would use for the stuff being sold, i.e., the Yiddish word. Just thought of it yesterday: schlock.) The souq is set up so that you have to walk through it to buy your ticket -- a reverse “exit through the gift shop”. Which reminds me, there is no official gift shop anywhere, just these guys.

The Hatshepsut site is a temple, not a tomb, so it is very visible and has a grand entrance. The temple itself is built into a limestone mountain, and above the human-made part, the mountain extends upwards, as if it is part of the temple. This design makes it feel very grand, very impressive. You approach it down an aisle, now just a road, but once lined with sphinxes! A few partial, damaged sphinxes remain.

When you reach the temple, you walk up a huge, wide staircase, then through a narrow passageway, into the inner chamber. Naturally there are hieroglyphs on everything -- walls, ceilings, pillars. The temple is not fully restored. The restoration has been ongoing for decades, probably off and on when funding is available. (All the restorations are done as joint projects with European or North American universities and foundations.)

This site was also very crowded with tour groups. By this time the sun was blazing full strength, and there was no shade to speak of. We both wear long sleeves every day, and Allan wears as baseball cap, but we’re not completely covered up. I re-apply sunscreen several times a day and so far, so good. Back in Giza, when we returned from a sightseeing day with Abdul, loaded down with food to eat on the roof, I forgot to put sunscreen on for 15-20 minutes -- and got a slight sunburn on my face and upper chest. Not painful or lasting, but still, not healthy. (I already have two risk factors for skin cancer.) We are being very good about sunscreen here, and I always wear my thin black sweater on at these sites, or a pashmina if we’re in town.

B’lad was right, this temple took about 30 or 40 minutes, then we found him in the parking lot, and went to the Moon Valley restaurant. We walked upstairs to a roof patio -- every restaurant meal begins with these words. This had a view of the valley, where bright green sugar cane is growing, and the dry desert mountains beyond.

For the typical Egyptian meal, you order only your main course. Everything else comes with it -- salads, dips, vegetables, bread, rice, and sometimes a small dessert. It’s wonderful, as we would never order so many little side dishes, plus you have whatever is fresh and best at that particular restaurant.

I’ve discovered that those puffy breads were just pitas! That’s what Egyptian-style pita looks like straight from the oven.

This meal was tahini, eggplant, and chopped salad (more on this later). I had lamb tangine, like a lamb stew, brought to the table sizzling in a cast iron bowl, with the rice molded on the plate. Allan had kofta. Both were really good.

The rice here is a mix of two kinds -- a really short-grain white rice that almost looks like couscous, and a long-grain brown rice. It must be made with some very rich broth, because it is so flavourful and delicious.

The eggplant slices are small discs, one of the thinner varieties of aubergines. So far each meal in Luxor has included eggplant slices, each has been prepared differently, and each has been delicious. Some were more roasted, some more pan fried, different spices are used -- totally different dishes. These have none of the bitterness that our big eggplants sometimes do.

This meal was 100 LEs each -- the equivalent of $7.00 Canadian. We ordered drinks -- I’m drinking hibiscus now, similar to cranberry juice, but freshly squeezed -- so that is extra, and if you order coffee or tea, that is extra, too, and tip is not included. So this meal came to about $18.00. We don’t necessarily want to eat lunch and dinner at a restaurant every day -- we wouldn’t normally do that -- but it was the easiest thing to do at the time.

After lunch we were going to visit the Tombs of the Nobles. The ticket office for this is not located on the site, it’s in a central ticket office, which is really just a random cabin with a ticket window. Each tomb is a separate ticket at a separate price, although some tickets get you access to three tombs that are near each other. We wanted tickets to many of the tombs. The man selling the tickets said, “You are a teacher, so I give you a student discount. Remember, if anyone asks, you are a teacher.” Instead of giving me 50 LE change, he gave me 120! It was a rare case of reverse haggling. We later realized that most people probably purchase one or two tickets, not a large number as we did.

Tombs of the Nobles is a large, spread-out site. The people buried here were upper class, but not pharaohs, and the tomb decorations include scenes of ordinary life -- very interesting to us. In contrast to the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut temple, this site was empty. No tour groups whatsoever. No souq.

To get to the tombs, you must walk uphill; it’s the beginning of the mountains. It’s not overly hot, but the sun is absolutely blazing, and there is zero shade. I keep thinking, that’s it, I’m done for the day, then Allan says, ‘oh no, come on, I want you to,’ and I go, and it’s amazing. One tomb in particular was stunning -- the pictures on the walls depicted wine-making and the wavy ceiling (like little hills and valleys) was covered in green vines and little dark grapes. The attendant refused our offer of 20 LE for photos, then suddenly he was gone and another man appeared. There’s an obvious pecking order among the attendants, and I think the first guy got pulled for a younger man with higher status. He wanted 50 LEs for photos. I didn’t want to pay it, but in any case we didn’t have a 50 bill, and you can’t ask them to make change!

After a few tombs, I was totally done. I was re-applying sunscreen every 30 minutes or so, but I still felt like my skin might be getting cooked. We were very dusty. And I was tired and I was getting very tired of all the old men at the tombs asking for money. At some point, a guy appeared, an attendant who was much younger than the others, maybe a older teen or early 20s. He had this instant charm that so many Egyptian men seem to have -- somehow immediately making you smile and feel comfortable with them. He was joking around, trying to talk me out of leaving, and into seeing more tombs.

We did two more, and I had to declare myself officially done. While Allan was in one of the tombs, paying for photo privileges, I sat down with the young man, Hamdi. His English was excellent, and he told me he learned it only from tourists and TV, not from school; he also speaks German and Spanish, both learned the same way. I said, “I know you guys think tourists have unlimited money, but we do not.” He said, “We don’t want to keep asking and asking. But it is so hard for us to live.”

So this is what I learned from Hamdi. Tour groups used to visit the Tombs of the Nobles, but now do not. Even in Valley of the Kings, the tour guides instruct their tourists to talk to no one, and buy nothing, unless it is from the group. Then the guide brings them to a certain factory or shop, and tells everyone they should shop there -- the store where the western guide gets a 50% cut. Meanwhile, a bag of sugar costs 20 LEs and bread has tripled in price. The government pays the site attendants a pittance, and they are expected to live on tips -- despite the fact that no tourists visit their site, or that the ones who do visit are instructed to not engage with them.

There were many more tombs to see, and by that time I felt a solidarity with Hamdi, and a responsibility to pay him. Our tickets are only good day-of, but Hamdi promised that if we return tomorrow, we will be able to get in. What’s more, in the morning it will be cooler and I will be less tired. Hamdi said my battery was run down, like a cell phone, and I needed charging overnight.

B’lad brought us back to the hotel and we showered, and collapsed. After a while we went out, down the tiny winding dirt road of our hotel, where little kids were playing in the street. They were all well dressed, wearing shoes, noisy, waving to us, running around, screaming happily. Around the corner, down a street or two, there are several restaurants near the ferry slip, right on the river.

The first one we chose seemed very touristy, so I persuaded Allan not to be shy about leaving, and we picked another. Up a flight of steps to the roof (see?), to a small rooftop patio. We sat side-by-side so we both had a view -- the Nile, the lights of the east bank across the way, some of the ruins right near the water lit up. The owner came over to welcome us, and chat about dinner. He explained how a typical Egyptian meal is served. We ordered drinks and a main dish -- roast chicken for me and a beef dish for Allan (not sure what that was called -- kabob hadad?).

First come the meze -- eggplant slices, baba ganoush, and chopped salad. The salad is diced carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parsley, and other fresh green herbs, in a very small dice, in some kind of herb vinegar. I really wanted to try some, partly because it smells so good, and partly to not offend our host. But one of the rules of traveling in a country where you cannot drink the water is to only eat fruits or vegetables that are either peeled (like bananas or oranges) or cooked. No raw vegetable that is not peeled. In this salad, we could see carrots and cucumbers were peeled, leaving the tomato as the wild card. I reasoned that I’ve had the Dukoral vaccination, and it’s not as unsafe as actually drinking water... and it was so delicious! Not smart, I know, but even at my age, I sometimes have trouble curbing my risk-taking impulses.

After this course, came three more small plates -- zucchini stewed in tomato sauce, potatoes, and rice. Our main courses came to the table in small cast iron bowls, sizzling. My chicken was roasted with aromatic herbs, and was super tender and juicy. Our host told us that herbs are put under the skin, then the chicken is baked for hours on low heat. Allan’s dish was meltingly tender beef in some kind of stew, great sauce for spooning over the rice.

The owner, Hamad, brought us tiny pieces of semolina cakes, something like a corn bread or polenta cake, just a touch of sweet, and then insisted we have a hot drink -- more hibiscus for me (it’s drunk both hot and cold), and anise tea for Allan.

Chatting with the owner between courses was fun and interesting. He told us he was wearing two long sleeve shirts under his down vest, long underwear and two pairs of socks. It is very cold this winter -- it goes as low as 19. (For my US readers, that is 66F.) In the summer, however, it will go as high as 50-55 (130F). No one leaves the house between 10 am and sunset. We told him about winter in Canada.

He asked us if we would like to have a special dinner there tomorrow night -- roast duck, which he would order and cook for hours before we came. We booked it for 6:00. On our bill, he included 100 LEs as a deposit on the dinner. Without that, the dinner was 75 LEs each -- about $5.00.

Which reminds me, I forgot to tell you something about our hotel. We are staying in a gorgeous Islamic mansion full of flowering plants, wide marble staircases, vaulted ceilings, and attentive staff -- for the equivalent of $17 Canadian per night, including breakfast. If you ever come to Luxor, stay on the west bank!

As we were finishing dinner, Allan said, "Ohmygod, is that the moon?" and the owner came running over to say the same thing. A nearly-full orange moon was rising in the sky like a giant balloon. And with that, we walked back to the hotel