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.

Photos from the Tombs of the Nobles are here.

Photos of the tombs at Deir el-Medina are here.

Photos of Medinat Habu are here.

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