So I’ve realized that not only is the Excellent Adventure to Egypt going to take more than one post, it’ll likely take three. So, because Naguib Mahfouz authored the Cairo Triolgy, I’m declaring myself the author of the slightly-less-worthy-of-the-Nobel-Prize-for-Literature Egypt Trilogy.
After seeing the Pyramids at Giza, we explored Cairo until the next night, when we took an overnight train to Luxor. Luxor, which is about 2/3 of the way down the Nile towards the Sudan, is home to both the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Karnak. Now, the overnight train experience seemed exotic and exciting—and it was, until I tried to actually fall asleep. Imagine a girl whose legs are too long to fit comfortably into the back seat of most cars, stuck in a seat that leans back to a semi-sitting-not-really-lying-down position, trying to get comfy enough to sleep. Didn’t really happen. I woke up at 5 a.m., calves and feet cramping, and moved into the aisle to stretch—thereby nearly plowing into the guy handing out hot tea and coffee. “Sorry,” I muttered, feeling bad and looking like a class act in a sweatshirt, hoodie tied securely around my head (the A/C on those trains runs full throttle), squinting because my eyes were attempting to lay the smackdown on me for my having slept with my contacts in.
We arrived in Luxor around 7 a.m., and if Cairo was ungodly hot, then Luxor was straight-up hellish. Ditching the headscarves and opting for tank tops, we visited the Luxor temple and Karnak, which is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. For all the anti-climactic scenes that have occasionally happened this year (i.e., the visiting the Western Wall…I wanted so badly to feel the weight of history, religion, and so on when I went there, but wound up looking at it and saying blithely “Yup. It’s a wall. Great. So where can I get some food around here?”), Karnak more than made up for it. Made of 6-story colossi statues of various rulers and gods, the world’s greatest colonnade, and a devotional temple, I was awestruck by its beauty. The columns were bigger and more imposing than any picture can capture, and many of the paintings in the temple were well-preserved in full color. It was one of those places where, despite the blistering heat, I got goosebumps.
That evening, we took a felucca (Arabic for boat) ride on the Nile, and relaxed for the first time since we’d arrived—a much needed break, considering that in Luxor, tourists are incessantly dogged by locals trying to drag them into their shop, carriage, donkey cart, or restaurant. And when I say incessantly, I mean that it literally does not stop. At all. You have to say no at least 5 times before one person leaves you alone, and the second he backs off, another one is all over you. They don’t back down, and they actively cheated us—something that irritated me enormously. For example, after saying that he would take us across the Nile to for 3 pounds, one ferry driver immediately said “no, actually, I’ll only take you for 5” as soon as we pulled out our wallets. I was, at this point, at the end of my rope, and was furious. We ended up paying the extra 2 pounds (the equivalent of $.25, which made my hissy fit seem pretty ridiculous), but I made it my business to let the ferry operator know that this was not okay. Luxor is a town that depends entirely on revenue from tourism, which makes higher prices understandable–but the efforts to extort the tourists were out of control. I felt stressed and, frankly, angry about being cheated at every turn, and the three of us were more than ready to leave Luxor the next night.
That night, though, we boarded a felucca headed for a place called Banana Island. Contrived, sure. Do they take all the tourists there, walk through banana plantations, and then charge them obscene amounts of money for a bottle of water? Yeah. But for me, this held special personal value. My mother, for those of you who don’t know her, has imbued in me her Holy Trinity of Health: vitamins, plenty of sleep, and bananas. Always bananas. Whenever I was getting on a plane to head back to college or to D.C., she gave me bananas to eat on the way there. Back in the days of early childhood, my lunch always included a “have a good day!” note, and the ubiquitous banana. Getting on the plane to Israel last summer? Bananas. My. Mom. Loves. Bananas.
So knowing that I was going to go to an island full of bananas, where I’d be served a plate full of bananas stacked almost a foot high, I was cracking up the whole way there. Trying to explain to my friends the inside/family joke that this fruit has taken on in the last few years, I tried to contain my laughter when the heaping mass of bananas arrived. (Case in point: after I finished my junior year of college, my dad made the bi-annual pilgrimage to the East Coast to help me drive my stuff back home. We were somewhere in the middle of Indiana when my mother called to make sure we were doing okay. “Yup, we’re fine. In fact, we were just reminiscing about the good ol’ days of being careful and eating bananas,” said my dad, causing me to choke on my Dr. Pepper.) I felt healthier within seconds. No lie.
The next day, we went to the Valley of the Kings—the ancient secret burial ground for the Pharoahs, on a massive plateau overlooking Luxor. We paid the allegedly-regular student price to get in, and were issued three tickets: “one tomb per ticket, three tombs,” was what both the sign at the entrance and the ticket guy had said to all three of us. Not so much. We saw one, which was beautiful, but…looked like it’d been drawn by some guy with a Sharpie permanent marker. Most artwork in Egypt is engraved, and that which isn’t is painted in great detail. This looked like some guy had rolled in with a pen and some Crayola paints, but despite not being of the caliber of other things we saw, it was still amazing. Most of the other tombs were closed for renovation/refurbishing/whatever you do to an ancient tomb to touch it up a little, so we hiked up to one that sounded promising in the guidebook, and definitely had people going in. We walked into a corridor featuring gorgeous wall carvings of Egyptian deities, and then into a larger ante-chamber that not only had exquisite carvings, but that was in full color as well. The sarcophagus lay at the bottom of another corridor, and it was massive.
From there, we schlepped to our third and final tomb (having used two of our three tickets). “Three tickets to enter,” said the man at the entrance. “I’m sorry, they said it was one ticket per tomb.” Said Audra, looking perplexed. I was, at this point, too agitated by being cheated and harassed all day to be nice in such an interaction. “No. Three tickets. One, two, three. Three tickets.” I kept my mouth shut, looked at my feet to avoid giving the ticket guy my Death Glare, and told myself that there were other tombs we could get into. Not so. All the tombs from that point on demanded three tickets to enter; nearing the end of our respective budgets for this trip, we decided to pack it in and head back to the hostel.
On the way back, I needed to use the restroom—by this point, I’d learned that bathrooms in Egypt are BYOTP, so I declined to pay (as politely as possible) when the man outside the bathroom asked that I give him 5 pounds. “Actually, I brought my own,” I said, showing him the roll I’d brought from home. “You still have to pay,” he replied. “For what?!” I asked, feeling like my nerves now resembled fiber-optic wire. “Clean water,” he said, acting like this should be obvious. “No,” I rebutted, “I am absolutely not paying for clean toilet water. You have no reason to charge people for that.” With that, I turned on my heel and walked away.
Wanting to kill some time before catching another overnight train back up to Cairo, we decided to take another felucca ride so we could relax for an hour or two. In what ended up being a comedy of errors, our felucca guy fell off the boat, accidentally slammed our boat into two others, I nearly was decapitated by the rudder handle while trying to keep the boat from colliding with the ones we wound up hitting anyways, and once we got across the river there was no wind. At all. We were in a sailboat. This was not helpful. By this time we’d acquired two other boat guys to help row us down the river, a process which had taken an hour in and of itself.
“If you want to stay out here 5, 6 hours, is no problem,” says one of them. “5, 6 hours, no problem.”
Nervously exchanging glances with each other, Amanda politely replied, “No, that’s very kind of you, but we need to be back in one hour. One hour.”
“But really, 5, 6 hours, no problem.”
“No. One. Hour. We go to Cairo tonight. One hour.”
“I have great idea!” Pipes in guy #3. “We can take you on a 5-day felucca ride to Aswan!” (60 or so miles down the Nile, and very very close to the Sudan.)
“Um, not tonight, maybe next time we’re here, but we really need to get back to the other side of the river. Soon.”
“But we had to row all the way over here. We’re tired.”
“I’ll help you then,” I said as I climbed onto the deck, knowing that these guys would sooner drive through Baghdad with Israeli flags on their cars than let a woman show them up. “C’mon boys, let’s row.”
Looking stunned–if slightly annoyed–they sat down with me, and we began to row towards the shore.
More to come in The Egypt Trilogy: Part III!