Tracy’s Travels in Egypt
We start with a drive to JFK airport, discover a cancelled flight, get re-routed through Rome, where Ron’s luggage is lost. On to Cairo, then another flight to Luxor, and finally a cab ride to our hotel. It feels like we’ve been traveling for days, and we’ve barely begun. But we are here! In the cab, we stop at a light and hear the call to prayer echoing through the streets, our first real indication that we are not in the West any longer. We pass a boy beating a donkey with a stick, speed along the Nile, and get our first glimpse of the Luxor Temple. The traffic is crazy. Different smells, different sounds. I am jetlagged, but anxious to begin our adventure tomorrow!
Tracy’s Travels in EgyptCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Egypt is a very different experience than Greece. I didn't realize as I traveled through Greece that even though the culture felt different, there was still much of the west in it. Here in the Middle East, I feel completely displaced. Everything about the way people look, speak and act feels different. Sitting beside the Nile eating breakfast, looking across at groves of palm trees, Ron comments that they look dusty, and I realize that I’ve been thinking that there was something odd about the view, too. It looks almost like an aged painting of palm trees at the riverside, as if the whole scene has been colorwashed to give it an ancient texture and appearance. We breakfast on cheeses, olives, pomegranate, Egyptian beans, and split three huge oranges between us. Even the oranges are different, with a smoother skin.
Dusty NileCairo & Luxor, Egypt
After breakfast we arrange for a cab driver for the day, and set out to explore. Through the city streets of Luxor, we pass donkeys everywhere, and men in robes and turbans. We cross the Nile and drive through sugar cane fields and banana plantations, and watch a huge team of oxen plow a field. The poverty and dust strikes me more than anything. Our cab driver honks his horn about a hundred times during this journey – some kind of signal that it will take us days to eventually figure out. He is careful with his car, swerving to avoid puddles caused by irrigating fields and driving onto the shoulder when he fears another car might splash his.
Banana PlantationCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Colossi of Memnon
Our first stop is the Colossi of Memnon, where a turbaned gentleman explains the history of the place thoroughly, calling us Nefartari and Ramses and insisting on snapping some photos.
Colossi of MemnonCairo & Luxor, Egypt
He doesn’t appear to be an official tour guide, and we soon discover that he expects a tip, baksheesh for his trouble with us. We try to tip him, but he seems disgusted with the 50 piastres we offer and turns it down. We’re still getting the hang of the money exchange!
Baksheesh?Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Back into the cab and onto Hatshepsut’s Temple. Our driver leaves us in the parking lot and we begin the trek toward the temple. This amazing structure is half-cut into the limestone cliff face. Egypt’s only female Pharaoh held powerful sway over the country and commanded one of the most incredible mortuary temples, which looks out over the valley toward the city.
Hatshepsut’s TempleCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Exploring the Temple
We take a small shuttle to the base of the temple ramp, then begin the climb. The sun is growing hot in spite of being December. There are children on field trips singing as they walk. We encounter a tourist police officer, who suggests he take our picture, and then asks for money. He seems unhappy with the amount again, although this time I offered one pound.
Exploring the TempleCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Part of the cliff
The temple emerges from the cliff face almost as though it has always been there. By carving herself into the cliff face, she somehow becomes part of it, and you feel impressed by her immensity, though part of it is borrowed from nature herself.
Part of the cliffCairo & Luxor, Egypt
We wander the temple for awhile, most impressed by the still-preserved colors of the paintings.
Temple paintingsCairo & Luxor, Egypt
View from the Temple
On the way out we must run the gauntlet of souvenir vendors, one whom offers three basalt statues of Bastet, Nefartiti and Tut for 100 pounds. We decline politely and keep walking, and the price continues to go down as we walk until he is calling “20 pounds” after us. He also offered to trade his mother and 1000 camels for me. I’m not sure if this is a good deal or not, but Ron declines.
View from the TempleCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Deir el Medina
Back into the cab, we wind through limestone cliffs toward the Valley of the Kings. We make a stop first at the Village of the Laborers, which would have been similar to the workmen’s village I have created in City of the Dead.
Deir el MedinaCairo & Luxor, Egypt
The village has one main road, with narrower alleys, and the roofs of the homes are gone. There is a temple here, the Temple Habu, which is very large with beautiful paintings. An Egyptian man offers to remove some rocks blocking the steps so we can climb to see the “panorama” from the roof. More baksheesh is exchanged, of course.
Workmen’s VillageCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Howard Carter’s house
We drive past the house of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun and spent twelve years here cataloguing the finds
Howard Carter’s houseCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Valley of the Kings model
At the Valley of the Kings we first wander the visitor center. The most interesting item there is a Plexiglass model of the valley, which you can look beneath to see all the tombs that have been discovered.
Valley of the Kings modelCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Valley of the Kings
We head out into the valley and begin to explore. Not all of the tombs are open, but we venture into many. In each tomb we encounter men who want to explain the colorful paintings and then receive a tip. They all act like our money is not nearly enough, as if we have highly insulted them, but from the guidebooks I am fairly certain this is an act. We run into some Australians and ask them how much they tip, and they emphatically tell us NO TIPS! Still, we sometimes give a little if they have been very informative or helpful inside. The entire valley is blinding white - bright sun on white rocks, but towering behind are the orange-red cliffs, whose opposite side contains Hatshepsut’s Temple.
Valley of the KingsCairo & Luxor, Egypt
It’s a very steep climb to the tomb of Thutmosis III, and his is the farthest we visit. We get a picture outside King Tut’s tomb.
King Tut!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Riding out of the Valley
On the shuttle ride back to the parking lot, two young men who have been working at a digsite in the Valley and are now presumably on their lunch break, engage me in conversation. Every question begins with “Lady,” and when they hop off the shuttle with a “Goodbye, Lady,” Ron says “what about me?” I’m realizing that my blonde hair and blue eyes are an oddity here, and attracting attention.
Riding out of the ValleyCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Hassle Free Zone?
We are finished with our driver for the day, and get dropped off at the Luxor Temple. We wander up and down Cornice el-Nil, the street along the Nile, for awhile, trying to find a restaurant the tour book recommends, and being accosted by people selling souvenirs, offering taxi rides, caleche (carriage) rides, felucca rides on the Nile, restaurants, tours, and probably other things we don’t slow down to hear. They are relentless. The average salesman has to be told about fifteen to twenty time “no thanks – la shukran” before he will leave us alone. We keep walking, and they keep following, saying “listen, listen” behind us. It becomes exhausting. We passed a sign that calls Luxor the “Hassle Free Zone” and have to laugh.
Hassle Free Zone?Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Winter Palace Hotel
We finally decide on our late lunch at the Winter Palace Hotel on the Nile, which has been around for many years and hosted Agatha Christie, presumably when she came to do research for Death on the Nile. There is something cool about also being here for research for my novel, and eating at the hotel where she stayed.
Winter Palace HotelCairo & Luxor, Egypt
After our late lunch it is nearly 4:30. Although it’s been quite warm today, it is December, and the sun is beginning to set. We decide on a sunset felucca ride, and head back to the spot where we were offered a ride by several entrepreneurs. We settle on a price (which he afterward insisted was for one person, when we were certain he said two), and climb into the boat.
FeluccaCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Sunset on the Nile
A felucca is a narrow boat with bench seats along the side, and room for about ten people. We are the only passengers on the Sandra in the Sun, which is run by one man, with another to help him. Our trip down the Nile and back lasts two hours, but the boat moves slowly, and the distance covered is very short. Our two sailors entertain us with conversation, information, Arabic music, and hot hibiscus tea. The sun sets, the Nile grows dark, and the moon rises, a sliver over the water. The breeze grows a bit chilly as we return to the lights of Luxor. I mention that tomorrow is my birthday, and they try to convince us to let them arrange a big party on their boat with people we don’t know. They also guess my age at 25 (ha!) and I remember that Egyptian men enjoy flattering women. It has been a relaxing and delightful way to close a busy day of touring.
Sunset on the NileCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Back on the street, the Cornice el-Nil, we find a caleche and get a ride back to our hotel. The driver insists that Ron join him for awhile on his seat, and take the reins. The horse’s name is Susie, he tells us, and I realize that the people here take great pride in the things that they own – the taxi driver keeping his car clear of splashing water, the felucca owner who tells us several times “I hope you like my boat,” which he has named for his mother, and now the caleche driver with a horse he is proud of.
Caleche rideCairo & Luxor, Egypt
The people are very friendly here, and we’ve had many men say “Ah, America, friends,” when they hear where we’re from, but I suspect that much of the friendliness is rooted in strategy – they have found ways to get tourists to stop, to buy, to pay more, to tip higher. We eat a light, late dinner at the hotel and end the day. It’s been exhausting, but incredible. I think of the famous quote by Howard Carter, discoverer of Tut’s tomb, when he first peered through a slit into that treasure trove. When asked if he saw anything, he whispered, “Yes, wonderful things!” I must agree. Tomorrow, the temples of Luxor and Karnak.
Wonderful things!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Happy Birthday to me!
Day 2. The most amusing thing happens when we exit our hotel this morning. A group of men are sitting outside the entrance with instruments, and as soon as we walk out they strike up a tune for us, assuredly hoping for some kind of baksheesh.We walk across the lot, away from them, but as we walk it strikes me what song they are playing. It is “Happy Birthday,” and today is indeed my birthday! A delightful coincidence.
Happy Birthday to me!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Outside the Karnak Temple Complex, which is immense (covering 100 acres), we encounter some men offering to be guides. This time I welcome the idea, and when a gentleman approaches us and mentions all the areas he will show us, I can tell that he is knowledgeable. Plus he speaks English well enough to be easily understood. We start to barter for a price, and he cuts us off. Sahmir says 50 pounds (about $9.00) when we are finished, if he “delights our heart,” and 40 if he doesn’t. (At the end of our 90-minute tour we give him 60. He was definitely delightful!)
Karnak TempleCairo & Luxor, Egypt
The Karnak Temple complex evolved over a period of centuries, with various pharaohs adding to it as they came to power. We are overwhelmed by the gorgeous architecture, the hieroglyphs, obelisks, sacred lake, and dozens of alcoves and rooms.
Amazing architectureCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Hieroglyphic columnsCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Close-up of hieroglyphs
Close-up of hieroglyphsCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Sacred LakeCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Ram’s head sphinxes
Ram’s head sphinxesCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Odd-looking sphinxCairo & Luxor, Egypt
After Karnak, we take a caleche a few miles to the Luxor Temple. The driver tries to get money for the horse again, which we refuse. But when we try to pay him the 15 pounds we agreed upon with a 20-pound note, he insists he has no change and we must let him keep the 20 pounds. In American money it’s an extra dollar, so I feel guilty resenting it. But being taken advantage of is always annoying.
Another rideCairo & Luxor, Egypt
At the Luxor Temple I find that I once again get lots of attention from old and young, presumably because I am a blonde American. Groups of school kids pass and all of them say hello to me. Ron gets upset when I smile and wave at a group of teenage boys calling to me, but he says hello to every little girl who greets him. After one hello to a boy, however, the boy asks Ron “what’s her name?”
Luxor TempleCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Columns at Luxor
The Luxor Temple is just as grand, if not as large, as the Karnak Temple. I love the way the light caught on this picture.
Columns at LuxorCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Huge ColumnsCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Pharaoh with his (very small!) queen
Pharaoh with his (very small!) queenCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Luxor from the street
Everyone we encounter seems bent on getting us to head to the Egyptian market. The cooperation is interesting to me. They want you to spend your money here, even if it doesn’t go to them. Apparently the Egyptian market is having a special “One Day Only” sale on Wednesday. Oh, and then again on Thursday. I am growing cynical, I am afraid. We walk the Cornice el-Nil for awhile again. Our felucca man from last night spots us, waves, and wishes me a happy birthday.
Luxor from the streetCairo & Luxor, Egypt
When we are ready to return to the hotel we find a caleche being pulled by a large horse, with a smaller, apprentice horse attached. The driver has a young apprentice too, a boy about seven years old who has all the tourist-pleasing patter you’d expect from his father. The driver offers to take a picture of Ron and me, and the little boy pulls me close with a “Let me love you, my friend.” Halfway back to the hotel, he asks Ron how many camels he’d take for his wife. Almost to the hotel and he mentions my lovely smile. We reach the hotel and he asks for 5 pounds to go to school. I’m amassing quite a list of ways I’ve been flattered here. I’ve been called by the name of Nefartiti (reputedly Egypt’s most beautiful queen) and Mut (sky goddess). I’ve been waved to, winked at, called to, smiled at, hugged, had my age guessed wrong, offered to have camels traded for me, and talked to when Ron is ignored. A girl could get used to this.
Friendly EgyptiansCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Off to the airport
Our time in Upper Egypt has come to an end, and we head to the Luxor airport for a quick, one-hour flight to Cairo. We take a cab to the hotel and check in. A few minutes after settling into our room, Amir calls from the front desk where he has just checked us in. He tells me he has called simply to wish me a happy birthday. Wow. Later in the evening when I approach the concierge desk to ask a question another of the hotel staff wishes me a happy birthday. I feel like a celebrity! We go to the business center and check email, and I find more than a dozen birthday greetings from friends and family.
Off to the airportCairo & Luxor, Egypt
On the way in from the Cairo airport we saw the pyramids for the first time. The Sound and Light show was going on, so the Great Pyramid was lit up. Awesome! I can’t think of a better birthday present than to see the pyramids for the first time. I am so excited to explore there tomorrow. One thing that has surprised us: Whenever you see pictures of the pyramids, they are taken from an angle that catches the Western Desert in the background. You never see how close the city has crept to the pyramids. As we were driving through what felt like a bad part of the city of Giza, I looked down one crowded street, and there at the end of it was a pyramid, where it seemed like the next traffic light should be.
First glimpseCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Off to the Pyramids!
Day 3. We take a cab through the crazy streets of Giza to the pyramid plateau.We want to be left off at the entrance, but the driver’s got another idea. He stops to let a guy jump in, after telling us that it is 15 km to walk around the area. The man who jumps in tells us it’s 20 km but he’ll drive us around for a good price. We keep saying we want to walk. This goes on for several minutes as we drive, then the guy gives up, jumps out of the cab and the driver brings us back to the place where he got in.
Off to the Pyramids!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
We try to make our way toward the pyramids but get stopped again by someone who claims to be tourist helper not a guide, but he also wants to to drive us around. This one tells us that where we’re headed to buy a ticket is only for the Sphinx, and it is a long walk to the ticket area for the pyramids and Sphinx together. Sounds fishy. We keep walking, he follows. Finally he gives up. We get to the ticket booth and find that it is for the whole area. By ticket booth, I mean a little stone building with one tiny window and one tiny woman. Nothing like the grandeur waiting beside her. My first impression of the pyramids by day – they are bigger than I expected. I’ve waited so long to be here, and tried not to get my expectations too high. It worked. I’m awed.
At last…Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Taking it all in
The place is crazy with tourists and school groups. People everywhere are trying to sell us memory cards and lithium batteries for our camera, a little girl with postcards taps my leg, but her eyes are distant, barely registering on me. While I sit and type these first impressions, the call to prayer again rings out over the area. It is Friday, their holy day. An old man gives Ron two blue pieces of something that look like bazooka gum. We have no idea what it is. He tells Ron to put them in his pocket – one for me and one for him. Eventually we figure out that they represent scarab beetles for good luck. Ron gives them back, even though the man insists he doesn’t want money for them, since we know that this is not true.
Taking it all inCairo & Luxor, Egypt
We head first to the Valley Temple of Khafre, at the base of the second pyramid built here, all pink Aswan granite and white limestone floors.
Valley TempleCairo & Luxor, Egypt
A steep ramp up out of temple becomes the causeway to the pyramid. I guess that it’s a five to ten minute walk from the Valley Temple up the causeway to the pyramid, the route Khafre’s sarcophagus took to be buried.
CausewayCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Along the causeway is the best place to stand and marvel at the Sphinx. I am amazed at the thought that the sphinx has been at least twice buried and cleared. How could anyone lose something so immense and wonderful? Doesn’t it’s mere existence insist that SOMEONE be responsible to keep it up? But things fall into disrepair no matter how wonderful they are.
The SphinxCairo & Luxor, Egypt
The Great Pyramid
After the sphinx the Great Pyramid. We head up past it and around. I am totally knocked out by its size. I had told myself not to expect much, not wanting to be disappointed. Apparently it worked, because I’m wowed. In this picture, you can see a small black shape in the lower corner of the pyramid. It's actually a man, bending over. It gives you some perspective on the size.
The Great PyramidCairo & Luxor, Egypt
We walk to the east side, all in shade now and climb to the entrance. Tickets don’t go on sale until 1:00 and it’s only about 12:30, so we are just checking it out. We take a few photos and climb back down. In spite of my lifelong issue with claustrophobia, I am totally excited to go in, I definitely convinced myself that I can do this. What’s the worst that can happen, I ask myself? I can freak out, have a panic attack. So what? I’ll live. It’s not a death-defying feat. I think back over the rollercoasters I’ve ridden and the horror movies I’ve watched. Being scared silly isn’t such a bad thing. It’s worth it. Once in a lifetime. I can do this. We have some time to kill, since we’ve gotten here early thinking there might be a long line. There’s no one, assuming that the tiny little hut with bars on a window is truly the ticket booth for one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
EntranceCairo & Luxor, Egypt
We realize that one of the queen’s pyramids is open for us to go inside. It seems like it would be a good idea for me to try it out as a sort of trial run. We head to the entrance, a small opening in the crumbling pyramid which is dwarfed by the Great one beside it. The entrance shaft slants down steeply. The ramp is covered by wooden planks with metal bars spaced about 18 inches apart to serve as a sort of step as you descend. I start down. I get about four steps down, maybe five feet, and panic. I don’t know how far it goes down. I don’t know how long it will take, all I know is that people are coming in after me and I’m trapped in a very small space with what feels like half the air I require to fill my lungs. Get me out now! Breathing apologies, I climb past a few people, escape into the light and take a deep breath. Then I start to cry. I’m so angry with myself, that something that’s only in my head could keep me from going inside the Great Pyramid, something I badly want to do. But if I can't even make it down into this small pyramid... I know I only have a few minutes to decide. The ticket booth opens in three minutes and only has a certain number of tickets they will give out today. I am angry and frustrated.
Queen’s PyramidCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Asking questions, taking pictures
But the crowds seem light, so maybe I have a little time. We go over to three tourist police to see if they can give us information about the inside. These three prove to be more interested in being charming and taking pictures, so they can get some money out of us, but they are a bit helpful. They assure me that I am a small woman and won’t have any trouble inside the pyramid. They tell us it takes about 20 minutes to get up inside and back. I’m still debating. Twenty minutes of horrible freaking out could be pretty terrible.
Asking questions, taking picturesCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Queen’s Pyramid – Take 2
Ron suggests we try the queen’s pyramid again. He’s heard someone say that looking at your feet helps. I also think if he goes ahead of me, it will help. We get over there, and I hear the first American since we arrived speaking to someone outside the tomb! Glory! I pounce, asking him all kinds of questions. He thinks I’ll do fine, but he says he’ll stay up top in case I need someone to come in and get me. I can’t see how this would be needed, but somehow the thought gives me comfort. He tells me to go down backwards. Down we go. Backwards, like descending a ladder, which helps because my face is toward the open air. Ron first. Me looking at my feet. Turns out it is 45 meters down, then we step down into the burial chamber, which is large enough that I am quite comfortable. I shout up a “no problem” and a thanks to the American at the top. I made it the whole way down without a touch of panic! We stay a couple of minutes, then I climb back up jubilantly. I did it! I can do the other, I’m sure!
Queen’s Pyramid – Take 2Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
We head straight to the ticket booth, purchase two tickets for the Great Pyramid, and we’re off! We take a few shots on the pyramid, and also of the city beneath us. All across the plateau, the calls to prayer regularly drift up from the city.
We’re ready!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
We climb to the tourist entrance (which is actually a spot the Arabs hacked into a millennia ago), and head in.
Going in!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
We walk a few dozen feet through gouged rock, and then encounter the shaft of the Ascending Corridor. Here we go. Ron goes first, so he can warn me of any changes. I have to bend at the waist to climb it, and it is not too much wider than my body. I watch my feet. Count my steps to distract myself. One hundred steps up there is a small landing, then another one hundred steps, even steeper. But after that first one hundred steps the Grand Gallery begins, with the lofty corbelled ceiling. It is narrower than I pictured, about four feet wide here too, but also much higher than I imagined, at least forty feet. This second set of steps is physically hard because of the steepness, but not hard on my breathing because the ceiling is so high. I’m doing okay! We crouch for a few feet to pass through a doorway, then it opens up into the King’s burial chamber.
Ascending CorridorCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Sweating and panting, we lean against sarcophagus to catch our breath. And then I start to cry. I pull out my Neo (the word processor I take everywhere), sit down with my back against Khufu’s sarcophagus, and type the following: I did it! Right now, as I type this, I am sitting on the floor of the burial chamber, with my back against the 4500 year old granite sarcophagus of Pharaoh Khufu. I cried like a baby when we got here, my sobs echoing in the vaulted chamber. Did Khufu’s queens cry for him in this chamber? Did the priest’s chants echo in the same way? The floor and walls are as smooth as any modern builder could create. Huge rectangular slabs that seem impossible to have been brought to this height and placed with such precision. There are no tour guides, no security here. Just Ron and me, and a few tourists who come and go.
Inside!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
The burial chamber
The few tourists with us get quiet for a moment as they pause to have their picture taken, and I feel the silence for a moment, and sense the enormous amount of rock bearing down on me. How these people ever figured out they could build a chamber in the center of a mountain of rock without it collapsing is amazing. I know we have to leave. We’ve been here 15 minutes already and Ron’s probably bored to death. I’ve typed all I need to, and there’s nothing else to do here. But I find myself longing to prolong this truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hemiunu was here. Khufu was here. Dead and alive. One more moment. We are alone in here now. The smells – musty, dry and hot. The sound – echoing of work outside. Voices keep going for a long time. Conversation is hard to distinguish because of the echoes. Ron yells and scares me. His voice goes on and on. I wonder how many people have sat here and typed? Probably not many!
The burial chamberCairo & Luxor, Egypt
The Granite Sarcophagus
The Granite SarcophagusCairo & Luxor, Egypt
I did it!
And then, reluctantly, we climb down and out. (can you spot me in this picture?)
I did it!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Back on the plateau, we begin to explore the mastaba tombs alongside the pyramid, where I know Hemiunu's tomb is located. I'm not overly hopeful about finding it. This is not America, and there are no bronze plaques everywhere, explaining the sites you're seeing.
Mastaba tombsCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Saqqara in the distance
From up here on the mastaba tombs, I realize for the first time that Hemi and Khufu could see the pyramids their fathers built in far-off Saqqara from here.
Saqqara in the distanceCairo & Luxor, Egypt
We are "stalked" by an Egyptian man who offers several times to unlock a tomb for us to see inside. Well aware that this will cost us, we decline. Until... he makes the offer again, this time saying, "would you like to see the tomb of the engineer?" Hemiunu! I try to appear nonchalant, but am thrilled that I'll get to see the inside of the tomb of the main character of City of the Dead.
Hemiunu’s tombCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Inside Hemi’s tomb
It turns out to be a complex of family tombs, so we are able to see more than just Hemi's tomb. Very cool!!
Inside Hemi’s tombCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Hemi and me!
This is most likely a statue of Hemiunu, the architect of the pyramids, and main character in City of the Dead.
Hemi and me!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Mortuary Temple base
Back outside, we find the basalt base of the Khufu's mortuary temple.
Mortuary Temple baseCairo & Luxor, Egypt
The classic pyramid shot
We succumb to the requisite camel ride across the desert. The drivers take us farther and longer than we want, practically holding us hostage so they can get a bigger fee. We refuse to pay them more than agreed upon. But the ride is fun, and gives us some great shots of the pyramid from a distance.
The classic pyramid shotCairo & Luxor, Egypt
The camel driver proves to be just as adept at taking photos as everyone else we encounter, and does a little impromptu photo shoot with the two of us.
Fun photosCairo & Luxor, Egypt
The photo shoot continues…
The photo shoot continues…Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
Day 4. This morning after breakfast we get the hotel’s shuttle bus to downtown Cairo. It takes a little asking around but we find our way to the Egyptian Museum. We have to walk across several narrow streets, which feels death-defying. We are almost there when we are stopped by a nicely dressed man who wants to help us. He tells us that he works for the museum and used to live in NYC. Later we doubt that any of this is true. He tells us that we can’t get tickets into the museum right now because they are closed for prayers. Another 15 minutes. While we are waiting we should feel free to do some shopping here. This is where the locals shop, not like the bazaar (where we are later headed) where they take tourists’ money. The prospect of crossing the crazy-busy street to get there is more than enough to deter us. Our friend will help us across, though. He takes my hand, and in a stop-and-start dash across eight lanes of traffic where there should be six, we play a game much like the old Frogger video game, complete with the constant honking of cars. I truly don’t think we’ll make it. But we do, and our friend kindly directs us into a ‘government’ shop where they will treat us fairly, he assures us. Later we are certain he gets some kind of kickback here. But the papyrus is nice, and they have something I am looking for, so we make a purchase. We also get a quick demonstration on papyrus making, so we can chalk the whole thing up to research. Fortunately the shop owner’s helper is there to take us back across the street.
Into CairoCairo & Luxor, Egypt
I love camels!
I love camels!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
The old and the new
Though we would like to stay longer, and haven't had a chance to see the solar boat museum, the pyramid plateau is closing, and it is time to leave. We walk out of the pyramid complex, cross the street, and head into KFC for some dinner. It’s surreal, the juxtaposition of old and new here. People are talking at us the entire way across the street: Taxi? Postcards? Bookmarks? Camel ride? Money for nothing? Even as we eat our dinner, children wave to us through the glass and make motions of hand-to-mouth as though they are starving and desperately need our money in order to eat. It’s hard. I feel compassion, but by now it is tinged with a healthy dose of cynicism, especially when an older man comes into the KFC and starts making a deal with the owner to allow “his kids” to beg on the street in front of the restaurant. Shades of Oliver Twist.
The old and the newCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Chatting with the locals
We want to see the Sound and Light Show, which doesn’t begin until after dark, so we walk the streets a bit and find a little café. Ron chats up the boy at the counter, Gazaly, who speaks almost no English, as I type notes from the day. (Just before Ron snapped this photo, Gazaly slipped his hand across to rest on my thigh. These people crack me up!)
Chatting with the localsCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Sound and Light Show
The Sound and Light Show is cheesy and fun, but we are glad to return to the hotel after another long day.
Sound and Light ShowCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Papyrus roll in hand, we reach the Cairo Museum. I really cannot begin to describe this place effectively. I have never seen a museum with such a display of riches. It is packed from wall to wall, floor to ceiling with statues, figurines, sarcophagi, tools, implements, jewelry, fragments of tombs and doors and lintels, beds and chairs, vases and pottery. It goes on and on and on. Two and half hours later I am so exhausted from trying to absorb it all that I think I may cry again. The highlight was seeing the contents from King Tutankhamun’s tomb, of course, including his gorgeous gold coffins and death mask, but I think I was equally impressed by simply the staggering amount of things this culture left behind for us to find and study and wonder about. I take as many audio notes as I can, and we stumble back into the light, eyes blurry.
Cairo MuseumCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Hussein Mosque square
We wait only a few minutes until we find Michael entering the courtyard to meet us. He is an American living here with his family, and we have mutual friends in the States who have arranged this meeting. We make quick introductions, then grab a taxi to the Khan el Khalili market. It is so enjoyable to hear Michael converse in Arabic with the driver, and to hear the VERY cheap price he pays, compared to what we ignorant tourists have been paying. During lunch with Michael in a street café along a square, a cat runs in, jumps up, and steals a huge chicken breast from the counter just as I’m finishing my chicken shwarma. Ick! My Coke costs more than the sandwich but is worth it. (Side note - In February of 2009 we were saddened to hear that a bomb was detonated in this very square, just feet from where we ate lunch, killing one tourist and injuring many other people. Another reminder that the world is different here.)
Hussein Mosque squareCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Khan el Khalili Bazaar
We head into the market, and into total overload again. The alley is about four feet wide, shops spilling into the alley. Constant talk is aimed at us. More compliments for me. Today it will prove to be my eyes that get the most attention, with four or five men telling me how beautiful they are. From the first day we got here, I have been entranced by the eyes of the Arabic people, so deep and dark. It occurs to me that perhaps I am a bit exotic to them. Funny thought. “How can I take your money today?” “What do you want to spend your money on today?” They have funny lines. We spend the next two hours haggling with merchants. After watching Michael for a couple purchases, we try it ourselves, and after a while, we get quite good at it. We are willing to walk away, and we do. It’s not that hard, when there seem to be a thousand shops selling the same things. In all the times I say no, hand back the purchase and walk away without it, I am never allowed to truly leave. They always admit defeat and give me my price. I start to get a little intoxicated with the power of it. You can see the respect in their eyes when you get the final word. They seem surprised by the strong Americans. I can’t take the credit. Michael has shown us the best way.
Khan el Khalili BazaarCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Time flies, and we need to catch the Metro (subway) to Michael’s house. But first a taxi. We hop in, but there seems to be no arguing over price. Later Michael tells us that when we got in, he explained to the driver that he was a local, he knows the local prices, and he has guests with him, so don’t try to take more than what it really costs. The driver laughs and agrees. I wish I knew Arabic! The Metro is crowded like a NYC subway. We reach the station, take a quick taxi ride to his house in an apartment building. We spend the evening with his lovely family, eat a delicious dinner, and have some good conversation. Also, some time well spent with their 12 year old daughter who is an aspiring novelist, also working on a novel about Ancient Egypt. It is great fun encouraging her, and before the night is over we exchange email addresses and promise to keep in touch. It is 11:00 PM, and we do not yet realize that the night is not nearly over for us.
The MetroCairo & Luxor, Egypt
To Catch a Bus…
A taxi ride back to the metro station, then the subway for nine stops, then a transfer to a different subway for another five stops, then we come out of the subway to try to catch a bus. We say “catch a bus” in America, when we really mean “stand in one established place, usually a shelter, until a bus stops for me.” In Egypt the catching of the bus is a bit more literal. Firstly, you stand anywhere along the highway, and for the bus to notice you, you must stand far enough out in the road for the bus to also run you over. A catch-22. The buses are actually more like 12-passenger vans, which careen all over the place, whizzing past about every thirty seconds, with their doors open. Nothing on the bus identifies where it is going. You simply yell your destination into the bus, and they say yes or no. This would have been quite impossible if I hadn’t asked a woman about my age along the road where we could get a bus to our town. She directed us to stay with her and her mother. Bus after bus passes us by, with her yelling “October?” into each one. (The name of the town where our hotel is located is named 6th October, to commemorate victory in the Ramadan War). One bus after another says no. Finally someone tells her that we should take another bus to somewhere we can’t understand. She tells us to stay with her. We get on the bus and try to pay, but she smiles and shakes her head no, and says “you are our guest.” She is lovely. Her name is Lamya. We are so grateful.
To Catch a Bus…Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
The bus travels for probably twenty minutes through some of the poorest streets I’ve ever been in. Lamya and her mother remain on the bus past their stop, just to help us. We’re overwhelmed by this kindness. When we finally get to the place where we can catch the next bus, they get off with us, help us cross several insanely busy streets, and spend another ten minutes trying to find us a bus to 6th October. At last, one comes along. With many shukrans for Lamya, we cram ourselves (literally) into the bus. Ten minutes later when we are still bumping along, the extent of our situation hits me. I am the only woman in a 12 passenger van with about 15 Egyptian men and Ron. I am in a poverty-ridden section of a foreign, Muslim city at 1:30 AM and I have no idea where I am. And I have blonde hair. Strangely, I’m not the least bit frightened. It just runs through my head that I’m probably crazy. We start to recognize our surroundings and know we’re heading in the right direction. When our hotel comes into view, we start calling out “Hilton” and the driver slams the brakes in time for us to tumble out at the foot of the hotel parking lot. We made it! I say to Ron that I think we can do anything now. There is a quite a sense of empowerment at having accomplished this, although I know we owe much to Lamya and her patient mother. Still, we knew enough to ask the right questions and attach ourselves to the right person, so that counts for something, I think. It is 2:30 now as I finish chronicling the day. Our plan was to rise early and head two hours north to Alexandria. That plan doesn’t look as attractive at the moment. I think I will open the curtains and let the sun wake me when it will. Alexandria will still be there.
Crazy tripCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Day 5. We spend the day in Alexandria, on the north coast of Egypt, where the Lighthouse of Alexandria stood as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, researching for the third Seven Wonders novel, Guardian of the Flame. You can see photos of that location here.
AlexandriaCairo & Luxor, Egypt
Back to the bazaar
When we get back to Cairo at about 10 PM, we decide to revisit the Khan el Khalili market tonight, rather than come back tomorrow. The place is beautiful at night, but it's closing down soon. We hurry to find a few more things to purchase, haggle a bit, try to avoid the commission-seeking street people, and then find a taxi to take us all the way back to our hotel, about 45 minutes away. Another late night, but much accomplished today. We gratefully sink into bed, knowing that tomorrow we won’t even be leaving the hotel. Our last day will be devoted to rest and relaxation around the hotel pool and spa.
Back to the bazaarCairo & Luxor, Egypt
What a trip!
It’s been more of an adventure than I expected, trying to navigate our way through this foreign country, and its customs, money and culture. By the end we have become experts at ignoring the badgering tourist trade, at getting the best price for the things we need, and we have even begun to trust the cab drivers as they careen through the streets clogged with cars driving across lanes. But more than an adventure, it’s been a widening of horizons as well, feeling what it is like to be a minority, touching some of the oldest structures on the face of the earth, and discovering yet another beautiful place in the world, with people who at the core, are people just like us.
What a trip!Cairo & Luxor, Egypt
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