Petra is breathtaking. It is unique, certainly in my experience, but likely in all the world. Imagine an extremely unusual and beautiful natural site, with unique rock formations, colours, and features, combined with a unique archaeological site, a place where ancient people honoured and buried their dead. It is wondrous.

More on this later. First, back to our story.

* * * *

I was up checking my email at 4:00 a.m., eager to get out of the yucky hotel room. I woke up Allan at 5:00 and we were out the door by 5:30, in a taxi and at the Jett Bus station before 6:00. The night before, the desk clerk at Yucky Hotel had called to reserve our seats on the bus to Petra, and I imagined getting there early would mean getting a better seat. Buses are fine -- if I'm sitting in the front.

Tourists slowly gathered at the bus station, but when it opened and I paid for the tickets, I was surprised to see we had assigned seats. The bus costs 10 Jordan Dinars each way, about $20 Canadian. It's a proper coach, not a local microbus.

While waiting for the bus, I spotted what appeared to be a breakfast cart, and went over to get a Nescafe. As the guy was making the coffee, I noticed he had cheese (the little foil triangles we have seen at every breakfast), eggs, vegetables, jars of spices, several different kinds of tea, and fresh herbs. On a breakfast cart!

I pointed to the cheese, and he asked, "Sandwich?" He made me a cheese and hardboiled-egg sandwich on a fresh, hearty wheat roll. I forced myself to decline tomato and cucumber. This sandwich and breakfast-cart experience made my day. I love the little things.

Once on the bus, we found our seats were the second-to-last row. It's a three-hour trip, and I didn't see how that was going to work, without major motion sickness. We saw there were lots of empty seats, so we moved up... only to realize the bus was stopping at another Jett station to pick up more customers. (Or else why would we have been assigned almost the last seats?)

A young couple was looking for their seats; I told them we were probably in them, that we had been sitting in the back, but I didn't feel well. To my astonishment, the woman said, "No problem, stay there, we'll take your seats. We hope you feel better." Of course I asked several times if she was sure, was that all right, but she waved me off. People are so wonderful (when they're not horrible).

When we stopped for a bathroom and food break, I found them to make sure she was OK sitting in the back. I tried to offer her a banana but she laughed and waved me off.

Once changing seats, the bus ride was uneventful. A man behind us was mansplaning human relationships for three solid hours. I didn't know Allan was also listening until we later deconstructed all of the man's sexist garbage. A real asshole.

We took a quick taxi to the Petra Moon Hotel; it's walking distance but not with all our bags. It's a beautiful, Western-style hotel, and was meant to be a bit of indulgence towards the end of our trip. We had no idea the timing would be so perfect! After Yucky Hotel, the lovely room and bathroom is like a palace.

We quickly settled in and walked over to the Petra site entrance.

Travel note. Petra is the most expensive site in the region, charging the equivalent of almost $90 Canadian per person. The ticket is good for two days. However, if you purchase a Jordan Pass, Petra is included in the pass. A Jordan Pass gives you free admission to a long list of historical and cultural sites in the country, plus waives your visa entry fee ($25 US). The only requirement is to stay at least three consecutive nights in the country. It's good for 30 days, and starts the day you visit your first site. An inspired idea. With only the visa fee plus Petra, we've already saved money, and will use the pass for a few other admissions.

* * * *

As I mentioned, Petra is a mix of natural and human-made wonders. The two are inextricable, as the Nabataeans, the people who built Petra, used the configuration of the natural site as their spiritual base.

Geological forces created a narrow space 1.2 kilometre-longs, and in some places, less than 1 metre wide -- a pathway between mountains of rock. The Nabataeans used this as a spiritual processional. At the end of the path, they carved a grand tomb out of the face of a mountain, and carved many more tombs throughout the rocks beyond.

The processional way is now the heart of how visitors experience Petra. You walk on this narrow path, with massive, mountains rocks towering above you on both sides. Much of the stone is orange and pink. Along the path, there are the remains of niches, which the Nabataeans used as shrines or worship sites, as they neared the holiest place.

Also visible are the Nabataeans' water engineering systems. They lived in this place of extreme dryness where there were (and still are) flash-floods several times a year, so they learned to harness the floods. There are remains of dams, channels, and cisterns along the way.

The Nabataeans used these mammoth rock formations as the natural equivalent of soaring cathedrals or pyramids. Surrounded by these massive rocks, you feel incredibly tiny, and awed.

Then, suddenly, the path ends, the vista opens up, and there is a grand monument carved into giant rock face. The effect is exactly as planned -- breathtaking. We were blown away.

This is the image most associated with Petra (a quick internet search will show you). Beyond this, there dozens of tombs and steps and hidden pathways over more than 260 square kms (100 square miles). Most visitors see only a portion of it, although it's also a very popular site for hikers and backpackers.

After the hike through the canyon*, we explored some of the area immediately after it, where there are tombs and carvings cut into the rock. I was tired, and I knew it was a 2-km walk back, plus the walk to the hotel. I had been up since 4:00, and I was really flagging. Allan wanted to try a more strenuous hike, and I convinced him that we could split up. He doesn't like to do that, but why should we curtail his activity or why should I push myself to exhaustion?

[* It's not really a canyon, because it was not formed by water and wind erosion.]

The walk back was long enough, and the final portion was very sunny. (Great thing about Petra for us: shade!) I got back to the hotel drenched and tired, and was sleeping when Allan got back. He had a good hike with great views. He can tell us about it in comments.

We had dinner in the town, trying some Jordanian dishes, both with lamb. More on that tomorrow, for those who like the food portions of these entries.


aswan to amman

I’m writing this in a run-down hotel room in downtown Amman, the capital of Jordan. It’s been a long day, but we are finally showered, fed, and in bed, and looking forward to going to Petra tomorrow -- the reason we are in Jordan.

* * * *

Something I forgot to mention about Abu Simbel: there is a lot of graffiti chiseled into the rock, on the monument itself, especially on the standing figures in the first chamber. There are names and dates from 1812, 1847, and other 19th Century years. In case you imagine that people “these days” are less respectful than they were in ye olden times, it ain’t so. The graffiti really bothers me -- the disrespect for the creators, and the distraction to us.

I loved seeing Abu Simbel, but I would have liked to stay at the site longer.

* * * *

This morning Allan set out to hike up the sand mountain visible from our Aswan hotel. I unpacked and re-packed all our stuff. Our hosts did our laundry -- and by hosts, I mean her, because he doesn’t do anything but smoke cigarettes, ask guests how everything is -- in a manner that implies you must say things are great -- and order his staff around. Anyway, the laundry was great, but I had to repack everything. Our luggage is very full!

I was having breakfast on the roof patio when Allan showed up, sweating, panting, and asking for the room key. Apparently hiking up a sand mountain before breakfast is not a fun thing to do.

The patio was full of guests, so in order to be in shade, two people sat with us -- a good-looking young man traveling with his mother. They are Korean, and he has been living and studying in Egypt and Jordan for six months; mom is visiting. I said Allan had been hiking earlier, pointing to the mountain. They said, “How was it?” A pause, then Allan said: “Steep.” It was very funny.

We were figuring out our tips for the staff -- an extremely important thing here -- and I didn’t know whether or not to tip the owner’s sister, who does all the cooking. I’ve learned her name is not Shyela -- it’s Nusa. I think we were having a bad language-barrier moment. I thought she was telling me her name, but she was saying something else! I finally decided against giving Nusa money, but I gave her a gift -- one of the pashima shawls I bought in Luxor. Hopefully she is able to wear a colour other than black.

A short time later, she gave me a hand-made beaded necklace -- a distinct Nubian design with three colours in a spiral pattern. I was really touched.

Allan took more pictures of the house, and we took a cab to the airport. Very low marks for the town of Aswan -- but it was absolutely worth it to see Abu Simbel.

Our flight from Aswan to Cairo was delayed, which left negative time to reach our connecting flight from Cairo to Amman. They were both Egyptair, so they held the flight for us (and one other couple) and someone from the airline helped us get through security quickly. Security is tough in the Cairo airport! Even though you have been screened before a flight, you are screened again after. And even though we had just been screened after a flight, we had to be screened yet again before boarding the next one! This includes shoes, and of course we’re wearing our boots because sneakers take up less room in the suitcase. By the end I just stopped tying the laces. Note to self: put nail file in checked luggage. We were held up twice by a little metal nail file.

Once on the plane -- out of breath, sweating, disheveled -- Allan wondered if our luggage would be as lucky as us. Would they be waiting for us in Amman? We were thrilled to find them right away. Thank you, Egyptair!!

Just a walk through the Amman airport and getting processed through customs, and we knew this was a more modern and functioning city than Cairo. I had arranged pickup through the hotel, and we had a long ride into the city centre.

On the flight, I realized there was a problem with our plans. Tomorrow we are supposed to get up very early to go to Petra. Why don’t we stay in Amman one additional night, and push everything back by one day? This was the general plan... until we saw the hotel room.

It’s very run-down -- dingy. It didn’t help that the heater was on full blast, and the air-conditioner didn’t seem to work. We asked at the desk about the A/C. The clerk was quite surprised. It is winter here! (Something like a warm summer day in Ontario.) After we determined that we could, in fact, get the room cool, and there was hot water, and the sheets and bed are clean, we decided we could stay here for one night.

To simplify things, we are still going to Petra tomorrow, and staying in Petra one night, as planned. But when we return to Amman, we’re staying in a nicer place. Tonight I cancelled our return nights at the current hotel, and booked the Amman Marriott for the last few days of the trip.

We needed a few things, so we went out to forage near the hotel. It’s a bustling downtown area, crammed with shops of all kinds. The streets are clean, and no one harassed us. At a pharmacy, a nice pharmacist recommended guava syrup for the cough I’ve developed (allergy-related, I believe). We bought some fruit, yogurts, and water -- the bus to Petra leaves too early to have breakfast at the hotel -- and no one overcharged us. We went into a store selling candy, dried fruits, and nuts. The gentleman there invited us to try pistachios, cashews, and almonds. When we were finished, he came around from behind the counter, chose two fancy foil-wrapped chocolates and gave us each one.

Egypt was an experience I won’t soon forget. It was thrilling to see so much of the ancient world, and it was amazing to do that with Allan. But contemporary Egypt... not a happy place.

Tomorrow, Petra!


aswan: abu simbel

Our last full day in Egypt was a study in extremes, both good and bad. Abu Simbel has been on my wish-list to see since learning about it in university art history class. It did not disappoint. I loved it. We also had a heaping dose of everything we don’t like about the culture here.

First the good. We left early with a box breakfast from our hotel. The early ferries were crowded with teens going to school. The ferry carried at least twice as many people as usual.

The tour guy was waiting for us on the east bank ferry slip. We settled up with him and settled into a nice car, with our breakfast. The drive to Abu Simbel is a bit less than three hours. It’s one highway the whole way, and once you leave Aswan, there is nothing but desert on both sides. There are no cacti or scrub grass like you see in the southwest US. Just flat sand to the horizon. When we got to Abu Simbel, and saw Lake Nasser on both sides of the monument -- the same lake we saw three hours ago in Aswan -- we really got a sense of how huge the lake is.

At Abu Simbel, there was a display of photos documenting the process of moving the monuments from their original location, to save them from being permanently submerged under Lake Nasser. A video (in English) was running, a documentary about the move. It’s an incredible engineering and archaeological feat. It seems almost impossible that it happened and was successful.

If that seems impossible, the fact of the monument and temples themselves seems truly otherworldly. The four seated colossi carved out of a mountain are so outsized, it’s overwhelming. The pedestal on which their feet rests is six feet tall.

Inside, in the temple of Ramses II, more colossi serve as columns. With these, a tall person comes up to their shins, no taller than their knees. The temple is much larger than I realized, with many chambers and little rooms. The reliefs are beautiful. There’s a series depicting Ramses conquering his enemies, with great detail of chariots, horses, people begging for mercy, bows and arrows, and so on.

The smaller temple of Nephertiti is also impressive and beautiful. Only in terms of ancient Egypt could this temple be considered small. The statues outside it are about 10 metres (30 feet) tall. The colossi of the Ramses temple are twice that.

I was thrilled to see this monument, and sad to leave it. I know I’ll never see it again. I feel so fortunate to have seen it, but that is also a little sad, because now it’s over. It’s strange. You want to see something your whole life, and then you see it for a couple of hours, and then you’ve seen it.

* * * *

Now the bad.

Allan is totally sick of the harassment by souvenir sellers and the tourist prices. Today it got really bad, prompting us to have a long discussion about why this happens at all.

Why can’t we walk past a row of stalls or stores without being called to, men blocking my way, putting things in front of my face? Why can’t I look at one piece of jewelry without hearing a sales pitch for seven more pieces? Why do so many people have to call attention to every tourist that walks by? Why can’t local and tourist treat each other with mutual respect?

Coming to a country so different than my own, I took care to learn the appropriate shows of respect -- how to address people, how to dress in public. I was very focused on, as a tourist, showing proper respect to our host country. But the constant hawking, the endless comments, and the crazy prices feel very disrespectful.

At Abu Simbel, we tried to buy two postcards (which we need for two specific people). The seller tried to charge 20 LEs for them. First, “Smile, smile, why do you look so angry? Smile, you are welcome here,” then 20 LEs for a postcard that likely costs five for 1 LE. Then the price immediately drops to 10. It’s not the money. It’s the fact of this happening.

Two minutes later, we try to buy a water and a seller (not the same person) asks for 25 LEs. Water costs 5 LEs. We were so annoyed, we didn’t discuss it with him, we just put it back.

Why is it like this? Tourist and host could be, should be, a mutually beneficial relationship, but the harassment and the hugely inflated prices make it feel completely adversarial.

I fell asleep on the ride back, so I felt kind of gross from that. Then we went to the souq, partly to look for the bookstore again, but mostly to pick up something to eat, preferably something we could bring back to the hotel to eat later.

Every food stall looked dirty and disgusting. You know I am not germ-phobic, nor particularly hung up about cleanliness. I often think people make too big a deal about these things. If you have a healthy immune system, you don’t have to worry about shaking hands, or using a phone that someone else has used. So in that context, I tell you that the thought of eating food from any of these places nauseated me. Literally.

We saw a man making falafel sandwiches for some girls (tourists). One girl refused to take the wrapped-up sandwiches. The man started pulling out the sandwich fillings -- with his hands -- and throwing them back into the containers on his cart.

Everything is filthy. There is so much garbage everywhere. There was no stand or stall or fast-food joint that looked remotely like something we would eat in or from.

To top it all off, Allan tried to buy some bread and pastries at a bakery stall, and the owner tried to charge him 30 LEs for something we know costs less than 10. Allan handed him back the bag, and we walked away. The man yelled after us, again and again and again, as if we were haggling.

I also want to add to what I wrote in a previous post about street harassment, that I’m too old, and traveling with a man protects me from that. Well, not quite. Young guys, walking in groups, say things to any female tourist, or perhaps any tourist with her head uncovered. They act as if they’re supposed to do this -- making a comment, then snickering together like they’re indulging in some naughty fun. It doesn’t happen very often, and it’s usually one comment, no more. But today it added to the general disgust factor.


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.



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.


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.


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.