Monday, January 25, 2010

Egypt 3: In which it rains and I wish I had a million dollars

Hello again!

I keep telling myself to update quickly, or else I'll forget everything that happened during the trip! (I'm getting old....). So, here is (hopefully) my final entry on Egypt. More travels in the future will mean more entries to look forward to :)

Sometime during our morning in Luxor we saw an alabaster factory, of which there were many. Alabaster is very popular in that area of Egypt; I ended up getting some beautiful alabaster candle holders (in Cairo, though). We saw a quick demonstration on creating alabaster jars and pots from a chunk of the raw stone--it involves chipping away, then burying the hunk of rock in the ground so it doesn't break while the middle is bored out. The man demonstrating also showed us the difference between real alabaster (and other stones) and fakes which are (according to him) quite popular in the tourist markets.

Getting back to the boat was always fun, because we had towel animals to surprise us in our cabin! We had a very creative housekeeping guy, who knew how to make elephants, monkeys, babies, swans, boats, and crocodiles out of towels. It was great! He often showed up to see our reaction to his handiwork, too.

The next morning involved a trip to Karnak temple, which is connected to Luxor temple by the aforementioned Sphinx Avenue. Karnak was huge, with a lot of parts added on by various pharaohs who felt the need to claim the temple as theirs. Silly pharaohs. We had a full hour to wander around, and ended up seeing some parts of the temple that weren't mobbed by tourists. Very cool.

Here's one random note about Egypt: they use pop-tops on their cans. Pop-tops are the old fashioned way of opening a soda can; pull up a tab and a hole in the top pops off! This means that there are little tabs all over the place, which is why America got ride of pop tops a while ago (and sold their equipment to Egypt...). I thought it was great fun.

After Kom Ombo it was time for some tourism work, since my dad is making a website on Egypt ( This means going to see some of the nicest hotels and boats in Luxor! We first saw the Winter Palace, which made me wish for a million dollars. It was built to house European ex-pats or those who would come down to Egypt for the winter, and still retains a lot of the charm of that time. Many of the rooms looked like they came out of some fancy English palace a couple hundred years ago, and some areas allow only formal dress. My my. Made me want to get all dressed up and act like a millionaire.
Next we saw another millionaire's boat--a dahabiya, which is a sort of house boat that people can rent to take down the Nile. This one had a capacity of 14 people but carried even more crew and was equipped with a lounge, a kitchen, 5 cabins, 2 suites, and a hot tub. According to the owner, its maiden voyage was taken by Robert de Niro.
Our next stop was another nice ship, this one a cruise ship like our own, but a bit fancier. They served us welcome mocktails (welcome drinks are a wonderful Egyptian custom--we often got orange or hibiscus juice) and took us on a tour around the beautiful boat. Like our boat, it looked similar to the rest of the myriad cruise ships on the Nile.

Next we took a lovely caleche tour around Luxor. Luxor has a lot of signs of ex-pats--Irish bars, English food, German hotels, etc. but we were taken off the beaten path and got to see some of the real Egyptian Luxor. We passed through a market full of stalls and shops selling food, clothes, toys, and household supplies. Our driver even stopped to buy shoes! The market was fascinating because it's so different from how Americans shop. I really appreciated being able to see a side of a culture that works differently from ours, and an economy not as rich as that of America (though who knows, these days...). I tried to take photos but most came out fuzzy since I was in a (moderately) rapidly-moving horse carriage!
Our final stop was a traditional Egyptian café. My mom and I had tea with mint and our guide, Ashraf, got coffee and a shisha. We were the only women and the only foreigners in the café which was comfortable and cool and full of Egyptian guys smoking shisha. My mom tried it but I decided to skip. Even a snazzy water pipe can't persuade me to smoke.

That afternoon my mom and I went out for some more touristic research, while my dad stayed at the hotel with a case of food poisoning. We drove about an hour from Luxor, through beautiful fields of sugarcane, bananas, wheat, and other crops, and through a very underdeveloped village (whose contrasts with American life left a profound impact on me) to an oasis resort, which, again, made me wish for a million dollars. It was very different from the Winter Palace but equally luxurious: all the buildings were built in traditional Nubian-ish style and decorated with islamic motifs and woodcarvings. The place was full of plants, which made it seem even more like an oasis, and begged me to stay a week and forget about the rest of the world. The deluxe suite we saw even had a small hamam! I promised the owner I'd stay there on my honeymoon (about that million dollars.....).

That night my mom and I had a nice drink and a Lebanese dinner in our hotel, complete with a dance performance, which looked to be a traditional-modern fusion. The next morning we headed back to Cairo! On our way to our hotel in the center of the city we saw long lines of soldiers standing along the street, facing away from us. They were preparing for the arrival of the president (Mubarak), who lives in Heliopolis, which is along the way from the airport--though I liked to think it was all for us. :)

After an impossibly long lunch (waiting, not eating) at our hotel we spent the afternoon resting up and getting re-accustomed to hearing car horns 24/7. We had dinner in the mall across the street from our hotel, which was quite interesting because it was full of Egyptians and pretty lacking in tourists. Many of the stores were similar--fake brand names and such, with a couple galabia stores and a bunch selling millions of shoes. The top floor had a movie theater.
Then an early night, because our next day was busy!

In the morning we met our guide, Ahmad, and headed off to see the Mohammed Ali Mosque in the Citadel (AKA the alabaster mosque, because much of it is made of alabaster!). It was beautiful, but is no longer active and was quite full of tourists. We got some cool views of the city from the citadel, and could see pyramids, satellite dishes, and smog!

Next we saw the Egyptian museum, which is where archeologists dump everything they find in Egypt. Well, not everything, but a lot of it (they're planning on building a newer, better Egyptian museum near the pyramids). We saw a lot of the beautiful treasures that were found in King Tut's tomb, along with twenty or so mummies, including some of the ones we had been hearing about, including a few Ramses and Hatshepsut. I probably could have spent half a year in the museum and not seen it all.

Next, for a visit to Khan el Khalili, Cairo's bazaar. We had lunch at a wonderful restaurant called Naguib Mafouz, after the famous writer. Then strolled around looking at jewelry, scarves, textiles, and all of the other millions of things that are sold there. If we wanted to buy something, we called on Ahmad to bargain for us, since natives always get lower prices.

Then a super long drive back to the hotel, since the traffic was crazy! Our driver (also named Ashraf, like our former guide), was amazing and quite patient.

The next morning we got up early to go to the pyramids! We had to get there early because they only sell about 150 tickets in the morning to enter the pyramid. After a brief look-around outside, we went into the great pyramid. At first the passage was wide and high, but soon it got smaller, and we had to be bent over double to climb. As we went in further it became harder to breathe, and even I felt a bit claustrophobic (the fact that it was chock full of other tourists didn't help with the amount of oxygen in the air). Climbing up played with my perceptions; at some points being at an angle felt like being vertical. When we finally got to the burial chamber, it was not spectacular (though a lot easier to breathe in). There was a broken sarcophagus, an air-monitoring thing and a security camera. I did a handstand in the burial chamber, but photos were unfortunately not allowed. On the way out, rather than climbing down, I just slid down the railings.

Next we got to take some pictures at a great lookout a bit away from the pyramids, and then took camel rides! Riding a camel was lots of fun, and I decided that a camel would make a great birthday present for me, hint hint. :)

Then we saw a museum about the Solar Boat (which is not actually the correct name), a big boat that was found buried next to one of the pyramids, supposedly having been used to transport the pharaoh from the East side of the Nile to the West.

Next we got to go down into a smaller pyramid--this was for a queen. The way down was equally steep and tight, but much shorter. I found it quite amusing to see a Red Bull can on my way down...
In the burial chamber we were allowed to take pictures, so I got a good one of a handstand inside a pyramid (I hope the pharaohs + queens don't mind). As we still hadn't gotten enough of the pyramids, we then took a walk around the medium-sized pyramid, and discovered where young Egyptian couples hang out (behind the pyramid of Khafra). Then a short van-ride to the sphinx, which is (believe it or not) smaller than I expected. We took the tereotypical "sphinx in front of the pyramid of Khafra" picture, then headed to a beautiful nearby hotel for lunch. During lunch, it started raining! Rain is very rare in Egypt; our guide says it come about twice a year. On the way back to Cairo (which was accumulating puddles because it has no drainage system), we taught our driver how to use the defrost setting.
We had two more stops before officially heading home: memphis, which holds a huge statue of Ramses II (who else?) and a bunch of other Egyptian artifacts, including a mini sphinx. We also went to see the step pyramid of Sakkara, one of the oldest pyramids (built before the great pyramids at Giza, which are the ones everyone knows about). After a quick tour in the rain (I went barefoot and got my feet muddy) we took another long, slow trip back to our hotel in Cairo traffic; luckily it was fun to look around at Cairo life (in the rain!).

Our final day was spent visiting coptic (old) Cairo, but first we saw some beautiful mosques. One Mosque was built in the 13th century, and the other was from the 18th century, but they looked similar. Seeing these mosques reaffirmed my love for Islamic art, which I find much nicer than the thousands of pictures of saints and religious figures that Christianity has produced. Since Islam forbids the depiction of living beings, a lot of the art is made up of beautiful geometric designs. Some of the tombs we saw were made up of and surrounded by beautiful stone like the alabaster we had been seeing all over.

Old Cairo, where the copts (christians) settled, is about twenty feet lower than the rest of Cairo, since it's so old. We saw two beautiful churches, one of which was built above an old roman fortress. Coptic churches have/had services in the coptic language, which has its own script! It was quite cool. We also saw a synagogue, so we had a very multi-religious day. We visited the coptic museum, which holds an (unexpectedly) vast array of coptic art and artifacts. Who would guess, from a country that is predominantly islamic?

Finally, we saw an old palace that was built by the family of Mohammed Ali, before the revolution in 1952 (Fun (or not so fun fact): Egypt is now ruled by Egyptians, but before 1952 it had not been ruled by Egyptians since the time of the pharaohs!). It mostly held impressive weaponry and silver from the time of Mohammed Ali and his family (he was Ottoman).

Then lunch at a restaurant "straight out of Casablanca/Bogie" as my parents said. We had lentil soup (my favorite!) and wonderful mezze (including köfte and liver!). For a main course I had chicken and rice with molokhia. Molokhia is a type of green plant found in Egypt that is chopped up and put in a soup-like mixture. It turned out to be very slimy! But I enjoyed it.

We took a quick rest at the hotel, then the tour rep and his adorable kids took us to dinner at the Four Seasons. The food was delicious but we ate little since we'd had lunch at a traditional Egyptian lunchtime--around 4:30! Dinner time in the summer, according to Ahmad, could be around midnight. Wow!

Well, there's not much more to say. We woke up relatively early the next morning to get the airport and take our flight from Cairo to JFK. We flew over the Nile delta, the Greek islands, the Balkans, the Alps, Paris, London, and Ireland! It was really cool, and I got some really great views. It was certainly pretty sad to land in the US again and get re-accustomed to the snow.

Egypt was wonderful. Many of the Egyptians we met said "come back soon!" which I thoroughly plan to do.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Egypt 2: In which we discover that Nubians are green

Ok, Nubians aren't actually green. But I'll explain that later.

I'm back in the states now after a wonderful trip to Egypt. Seeing snow is quite strange and a little depressing. But that's ok, I have lots of sunny memories.

Back to the trip.... The Nile cruise was wonderful. After lunch on the boat and an afternoon of sailing, we stopped at Kom Ombo temple around sunset. Kom Ombo was similar to Philae (many of the temples we saw follow a similar formula, with pylons in the front followed by hipostyle halls (with big columns) and a holy of holies, where only the high priest and king were allowed). Kom Ombo is a little different because it is dedicated to two gods: Sobek (the crocodile god!) and Horus. Out in front of the temple was a group playing Nubian music, which was quite cool.

Our next stop (the next day) was the temple at Edfu, which is located a little way away from the shore. Because of this, we got there in a horse-drawn caleche, which is not an unpopular form of travel in Egypt (though mostly for tourists... donkey carts are more common among the Egyptians). We arrived at Edfu for sunrise (a lot of our days started out quite early to beat the heat and the crowds). It was quite impressive, with a lot of rooms and hallways (many years after the temple was built, Alexander the Great came and built his own holy of holies within the old one...). It even had it's own resident cat! Cute.

Then back to the boat to continue on our way. I spent a lot of time just watching the shore pass by either from our room or from the lovely top deck. At some point during the trip we passed through a set of locks, and many of the passengers went up to the top deck to watch. On either side of the boat there were vendors trying to sell souvenirs and kids asking for baksheesh (tip). Some of the crew had to prevent the vendors from getting on the boat and trying to sell us things.

That evening we arrived in Luxor and visited the (aptly named) Luxor temple. This one was full of statues of pharaohs, mostly Ramses II, of course. Leading from Luxor temple to Karnak temple (another temple in the city of Luxor) is Sphinx Avenue, a 2.7 km road lined by sphinxes on either side. It was really cool, but is as of yet unfinished. Excavators may run into some difficulties, though, since the avenue goes through/under a church and other buildings.

That night on the ship we had a show, with Egyptian music (two drummers and a keyboard set to sound like traditional instruments, hehe). The first performer was a guy who did a dervish-like dance, with two huge skirts and tambourine-like drums (no bells). While spinning, he made shapes out of the four drums, not unlike juggling. He also did some fancy moves with the skirts. It was quite cool, and (if I had the power) I was ready to recruit him for Cirque du Soleil.
The next performer was a belly dancer in a very tacky costume, but who danced quite well. I was happy to see that a lot of the moves she performed were similar to what I had learned in my belly dance class in Portugal. Our guide proposed that I get up and dance, but, being myself, I was too shy.

At this point we were permanently docked in Luxor, but still stayed on the boat for one more night. The unfortunate thing about being docked is everyone else is too! We were in the middle of a "stack" of about six cruise ships, so our views were sadly quite diminished. To get to the shore, we had to climb through a bunch of other boats!

The next morning was another early morning--on our agenda was the valley of the kings and Hatshepsut's temple! Very exciting. The geology of the Valley of the Kings is gorgeous, especially in the early morning light, but unfortunately, pictures weren't allowed. We visited three tombs which were all very beautifully decorated on the walls with heiroglyphs and paintings, many of which looked like they had been painted much more recently than 4000 years ago. Next we got to see King Tut's tombs, which was not as interesting as the other ones because it was smaller and had fewer wall paintings. None of the treasure found there is there anymore, so it's pretty empty, except for 1 thing: Tut's mummy! It turns out he was actually quite a short guy (he was only 18 or 19, after all).

Next we visited Hatshepsut's temple, on the other side of the mountain from the valley of the kings. Hatshepsut was a female pharaoh (the only one, I believe), so all the staues of her make her look like a man. The temple was quite impressive in itself, but is also famous because it was the sight of a 1995 terrorist attack on tourists. Guards were posted on the hillsides around the temple for protection.

Most tourist sites, hotels, and cruise ships in Egypt have more security than in the US. Almost everywhere we went had a metal detector, and some places had bag x-rays. In the airports there were two or three security checkpoints. The thing is, most of the security check was just the guards profiling us, since most people made the metal detectors beep. If you looked ok, they let you through. It was kind of silly, but I suppose the guards are experienced in telling the difference between tourists and terrorists.

This day was a busy day. Next stop was Habu temple, another temple similar to all the others we'd seen, but almost empty (very nice!). This one holds a giant statue of Ramses II, that was toppled in an earthquake a couple millennia ago and is now lying in a very undignified jumble of broken pieces. After Habu we saw an ancient village built for the workers who built and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. They themselves had their own small tombs which were exquisitely decorated like those of the kings; in my opinion, the paintings were even more beautiful (take that, pharaohs! The workers probably saved their best work for themselves!). A guide inside the tiny, hot tomb told us that the people painted with green skin (which I had been seeing in other tomb paintings) actually represented the Nubians. Funny that the Egyptians painted what was supposed to be dark brown skin green, but who knows what they were thinking. I've looked it up and found that Osiris was often painted green because he was god of vegetation, so I'm not sure what to believe, but I suppose the main point is that there were green people in the tomb paintings. Probably aliens, I'd guess. :)

Next was a stop to see two giant statues called the Colossi of Memnon, because the Greeks thought the two statues depicted their hero, Agamemnon. Beats me why. They're actually statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III.

I have to go now, but will be posting Egypt part 3 ASAP. To look forward to: Karnak temple, fancy hotels, towel animals, pyramids, camels, rain, and Cairo traffic!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Egypt 1: In which we learn how to tip and discover that Ramses II was quite narcissistic

Salaam from Egypt!

After half a year of working and beginning my college career I am back out in the world ( but will start college again in a week). It was great to take a long plane ride again :).

On that note, our trip to Egypt started out with a 10-hour plane ride on Egypt Air from JFK. We arrived in Cairo in the morning, were picked up by a tour representative (our whole trip has been with a tour company--more on that later) and experienced Cairo traffic. My goodness. I could write a whole post about Cairo traffic--it's crazy! The roads are always packed, and there is a constant symphony of car horns. Stop lights and signs are optional, along with lines on the road. And somehow no one hits anyone else! (so far... though it seems every car is kind of scraped up). I am entirely impressed; I know I don't have the reflexes that these Egyptian drivers have.

Anyway, after a nap we went out to dinner at Felfela, a cute and not-too-touristy restaurant walking distance from our hotel (which is right by the Nile and the Egyptian Museum), where I had traditional Egyptian foul (beans). To get there, we had to navigate Cairo traffic, which is entirely different from Minnesota. As I said, stop lights are often optional and crosswalks are few (at least where we are), but somehow we arrived at the restaurant unscathed--the drivers have good reflexes. Crossing the street is quite a dance.

Then an early night, because we woke up at 3 to take a care to the airport for our 5 AM flight to Abu Simbel, which is not irregular. The desert/Nile scenery from the plane was gorgeous--apparently the area above Abu Simbel is sometimes called Egypt's moonscape. We arrived early enough to beat the heat and some of the crowds (though lots of tourists took the same flight we did). Abu Simbel, on the shore of Lake Nasser, is home to two gigantic temples built into the side of a mountain. The largest was built by and for Ramses II, the pharaoh who seems to show up most in Egyptian history (King Tut, despite popular opinion, actually didn't do much of importance except have a tomb that was tricky to find); four huge statues of the pharaoh dominate the front of the temple. The smaller temple was built for his favorite wife, Nefertari (he had many wives--no one knows exactly how many).
A couple cool facts about the temples: 1) at two different times during the year (it used to be October 20 and February 20 or so...) the sunlight will shine directly in the doorway of the temple so that it lights up the last room deep inside. I love how those ancient architects knew so much about the astronomy and math. 2) After the Aswan dam was built, lake Nasser grew until it threatened to flood the temples. So the temples were moved 65 m up and 200 m back from the lake and put into a newly constructed mountain. The sunshine lines up at different dates now, but other than that the temples are like they would have been in the old setting.

After a quick morning visit to Abu Simbel we flew back to Aswan, where we met our tour representative and were taken to our hotel on Elephantine island, in the middle of the Nile. Ironically, the hotel is called Mövenpick and is run by the Swiss :). After a brief rest and lunch we took a ride on the Nile in a Felucca--a traditional Egyptian sailboat. It was beautiful and very relaxing--we didn't move much because there was little wind--and I even took a nap on the boat.

That evening we headed to the Temple at Philae (which, like Abu Simbel, was also moved block by block because of Nile flooding. This one was built by the Greeks, though, and is on an island--we got there in a boat with a driver who looked to be about 10) for the sound and light show, a very popular tourist activity in Egypt. Different parts of the temple were lit up while various speakers played out voices of the gods and goddesses talking about the temple. On our way back to the hotel we stopped by the souk--the market in Aswan. It was filled with stalls selling clothing, shoes, spices, souvenirs--anythinga tourist or a local might want. Some parts were more touristy, which meant more hassle. Egyptian vendors are very vocal, which takes some time to get used to. As we walked down the street, it was impossible to avoid vendors coming up to us, trying to sell us things, inviting us to their shops... even using lines such as "You marry me your daughter, I give you my shop" or "How many camels for your daughter, madame?" Marriage proposals, lovely! Never serious, though; just a way to attract tourists. We also heard "We have everything--whatever you need--I don't know what you need, but we have it!" My favorite was when men would yell "No hassle here! No hassle!" when really, what they were doing was hassling. It is a totally different way of selling; sometimes I longed for the peace and quiet of a store where you are left alone. On the other hand, I've enjoyed discovering the Egyptian culture first hand. I ended up buying a nice shirt in a galabiya shop--galabiyas are traditional Egyptian robes. My parents insisted that I try to bargain--bargaining is also part of the buying/selling culture here. I discovered that I have no natural proclivity to bargaining and really don't enjoy it, but I managed to get the price down a bit. I'll work on it.

The next morning we met our guide, Ashraf, and saw the Aswan High Dam, a huge dam constructed from 1960-1970 to control flow of the Nile (this was the dam that caused some of the temples we saw to be at risk for flooding). The structure was quite impressive, and full of tour busses, of course, like any other site. We then headed back to Philae, to get a look at it in the day time. The temples along the Nile (we've seen quite a few), like Philae, are beautiful, and some of them are quite well preserved, even the painted parts that weren't exposed to the elements. Our guide, Ashraf, told us about some of the stories depicted on the walls (Philae is dedicated to Isis and Hathor, two goddesses). After Philae we headed to a granite quarry from the time of the pharaohs to see the unfinished obelisk. This obelisk, which would have been the largest in the world, had begun to be carved out of the granite when a crack formed, and the workers were forced to give it up. I'm almost glad they did, because I could hardly imagine the amount of work that would go into transporting the obelisk and putting it into place when it was completed.

Our next stop in Aswan was the Nubian Museum, a lovely museum showcasing ancient Egyptian artifacts with a focus on Nubia. Nubia is the area encompassing southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and is characterized by darker-skinned people than those in Cairo. The Nubians also have a distinct history, gastronomy, and musical tradition. The museum was beautiful: much of it was made out of the same type of granite from the pharaonic quarry.

After saying farewell to Aswan, we headed to our cruise boat that would take us to Luxor. There are around 300 boats like ours on the Nile--cruising down the Nile is a very popular activity for tourists. Tourism in Egypt is different from many of the other places I've visited: organized tours are the way to go. Because 95% of Egypt is desert, it's good to be in the hands of someone who knows their way around, and renting a car would not be the way to go. Egypt is also less developed than most of the other places I've visited, and tour companies are good at finding hotels and restaurants that are comfortable and safe for tourists. It also helps a lot since none of us speak Arabic. And I'm extremely thankful for the van drivers, since I know I couldn't navigate this traffic!

Speaking of van drivers, one thing that this trip has illuminated for me is the art of tipping. Egypt is a tipping culture, and having people drive us and take our bags means that we're tipping a lot! There are often attendants in bathrooms who need a tip, and many people will try to help us to get a tip. Sometimes this means helping us with our bags, giving us directions, or explaining something in a temple. It's almost overwhelming like in the souk, and we've only started to learn how to tip. The Egyptians use pounds and piasters (cents), and at around 5.45 pounds to the dollar, it takes some calculating. In general, everything in Egypt is quite cheap, but tourists are expected to tip quite a lot.

Anyway, back to the boat. Ours was the Monaco, and was like a mini Caribbean cruise ship: basically, a floating hotel. It has a restaurant, a pool on the top deck, a lounge, a small work-out room, a gift shop, and a lot of comfortable cabins. We had a beautiful view out of the picture window in our cabin, but the best view was from the top deck. Watching the Nile pass by was breathtaking; I could have stayed on that boat for a month. We saw a lot of donkeys, mud huts, and agriculture; scenes that have not changed much in the past 4000 years. In some areas, the desert came right up to the banks of the Nile, but there were always palm trees along the shoreline.

I have so much more to write about, but I think this is enough for now. In the next post I'll talk about our cruise and our visit in Luxor. Right now We're back in Cairo having a relaxing afternoon, and will start our tour of the city tomorrow.

Thanks for reading, I will update again soon!