Category: Pyramids

Remembering Egypt – Part III

Continuing Preface: Much has happened in the few days since I posted Parts I and II. If you haven’t yet, please read them here:

Remembering Egypt – Part I
Remembering Egypt – Part II

Mainly, I got news that my upcoming February assignment in Egypt has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. I heard from my colleague who described in great detail the ordeal they underwent getting out of Egypt mid-tour, and I count my blessings. But now it’s a few days later and things seem to be settling down over there. Call me crazy, but if I weren’t a mom, I’d probably still get on that plane. It is my nature to project positively – that there be a smooth transition, that there be peace on the streets and in the hearts of all Egyptians, and that soon we will again be visiting the land of the Pharoahs, welcomed with the gracious hospitality of the locals… Insha’Allah (God willing!) إن شاء الله.

This was my favorite picture, and favorite memory, of the entire journey – when watermelons became the favored source of drinkable water.

In the lower left of the photo is the top of a jar of TANG which we used to make the bottled water more palatable. I couldn’t tolerate it and was so grateful for watermelons, although watching the young boy wielding a machete to split them open was unnerving.

Remembering Egypt – (journal series, part III)

Day 5

Hello Nile. Hello felucca. Here we go, sailing down the Nile.

Of course, the felucca we were shown yesterday was twice the size of this one that we are actually sailing on. I’m irritated, but I’m just too hot and relieved to be getting out of Aswan that I don’t even bother complaining. Good riddance. Of course, the dudes had to have their hooka smoke before we set off.

There were 8 of us total: Marie and myself, the two Danish dudes, two Swedish girls, our captain Kimo, and a small boy of about 7 or 8.

We headed out in a nice wind, but it was blowing up river, so we had to tack. This meant shifting from one side of the felucca to the other in order not to slide off. There was no getting used to this, especially having to hang on to all our belongings (cameras, backpacks) as well as keeping ourselves on the boat! But on we went in this manner – just as all 6 of us got comfortable on one side, we’d have to shift again, back and forth, from one side to the other, and try to get comfortable again. It was impossible to just lay down flat because then the blood would rush to your head (I tried this, just take my word for it).

We sailed down and I waved goodbye to that terrible place Aswan. I never want to go there again. It was such a relief to watch it grow smaller off in the distance.
The lights of the city began to twinkle as the sun moved down over the desert-y west bank of the Nile. It was a beautiful sunset, the sun sat on the horizon as a big red ball.

As we drifted away from the city we began to hear many different noises coming from the banks of the river. The crickets were a constant buzz, and above their hum sounded the frogs. There must have been millions, big ones at that, as their croaks were most prominent! An occasional donkey cried, and the cows, bulls and camels could be heard settling into the night.

The moon was already high in the sky when the sun slipped over the horizon. The silhouettes of the palm trees against the orange sky were the only visible signs of life. But the air was full of sounds and noises, reflecting all sorts of life happening along the river banks. It seemed all the villages were alive with celebration. Drumbeats were faint in the distance, but as we sailed along the drumbeats grew louder and were accompanied by many chanting voices.
“What’s going on?” we asked our captain. He told us they were celebrating because there was a sheik from the village who would be traveling to Mecca the next day.

We drifted ashore and tied feluccas together for the night. While the night was calm, the air was full of noise and it was hard to fall asleep. Or stay asleep. Or get comfortable.

Day 6

This morning our felucca was joined by a New Zealander from the other boat. I was in a terribly crabby mood as I’d not slept well and I wanted only to stretch out flat. Any time I settled somewhere, it seemed everybody on the boat decided to crowd around me, Jeff in particular, with his bad snoring and bad breath. Then when I was finally in my own space, the little Egyptian boy decided to make house and had to rearrange all the blankets on the boat. Which meant I had to move. Again. I gave up sleeping at all and sat up writing in this here journal.

Today was a long, hot one. We had to drift a great deal because there was scarcely any wind worth putting up the sail. With their Third World tape player, the Egyptians played Arabic music nearly the whole day. At first it was bearable, almost interesting even, but then it quickly got irritating. Especially when the tape was ejected and turned over several times and the rhythms were forever scratched in our eardrums.

We seemed to stop at every shore for one reason or another, and some of us were getting impatient. Eventually we set sail, and did a few hours of the shifting routine throughout the afternoon.

Our Egyptian crew prepared us a meal. It was hardly edible for our systems, but we were soooo hungry and we needed to eat something. The utensils and vegetables were rinsed in the Nile river, and I kept thinking “if they can handle it, so can I, we’re all humans, right?” As for Marie and the Europeans, I think they preferred to stay in denial (de Nile…haha).

I began to take interest in the Kiwi dude, Joost. He was really quite nice, and funny too. He had a great way of making me laugh out loud even as I tried so hard to continue being p.o.’d at the whole situation. Yes, I really wanted to cling tenaciously to being irritable and moody, but he somehow got around that and broke through to the point where I was actually having FUN. I figured he’s nothing short of a magician, and I was intrigued by what might be up his sleeve.

We were talking a lot about people. And mosquitoes. And the fact that there were flocks of mosquitoes along the river just hovering and waiting to prey on sweet-blooded people like me. At one point Joost offered to share his sleeping bag so I wouldn’t get bitten (by the mozzies). It sounded like a good prospect because he was genuinely nice and didn’t seem the type to try anything (maybe even gay, not sure, but that would explain his ability to have me in stitches).

But as everyone on the felucca began to settle in, Marie and the tall Danish dude Henry rolled out their full length mat/bed around which the rest of us had to conform, and she kept bitching that there was no room on our boat even for a Kiwi (haha, but humorously rude). He heard her no doubt, and felt unwelcome enough that he went back to the other felucca to sleep. I was beyond upset, so angry I couldn’t even speak, and just had to sleep with only Marie’s skirt as a cover to protect me from mosquitoes.

Day 7

When I woke in the early hours from a sound sleep, both my legs were numb. I had fallen asleep laid out flat, but I woke up with Marie and Henry sprawled out flat and and my legs squished and curled up tight with no room to stretch out. How did that happen? I swear Marie was next to me when I fell asleep, but I rolled over to find Jeff right next to me in my face breathing like a horse. Enough. I got up and moved to the front of the boat and just crashed out on the deck, no covers, nothing. Alas! I had discovered the most comfortable place to sleep on the entire felucca! Too bad everyone woke up only an hour later and we began to move.

This was our last day on the felucca. Eventually we reached Edfu, where we got off. We took a taxi to Luxor and immediately got sold by an Egyptian “friend” to stay at his brother’s hotel. I remember Marie saying the rooms were ok, but then later refusing the sheets. I was wishing we had just gone to stay where we planned, but everyone was tired and lazy and just slept from the moment we got there. I really wanted to go out and see some sights but no one else was interested. I listened to tapes on my Sony walkman (King’s “Alone Without You”, OMD, the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and some early U2).

Eventually our “lunch” was ready at 4:00pm, so up we went to the roof garden cafeteria and looked at the food in front of us. Ugh. I guess the felucca Nile meals did me in, as I had to force myself to eat something.

Days 8 – 12

We finally motivated ourselves to go somewhere, so we took the hotel’s “special service taxi” (which was, of course, another brother’s old car). We visited Luxor Temple, which I found extremely interesting.

Then we went to Karnak for a few hours, most of which were spent outside drinking cokes. I was never a coke drinker but in Egypt the glass bottled coke was safer than plastic bottled water, and ironically coke became the most nutricious meal I could swallow, and only one to stay down.

Editor’s Note: Yep, I was most definitely getting sick, and sicker with every day. I think the technical medical condition was “pharoah’s revenge”. In fact, my journal stopped blank after the above entry.

My ticket stubs and pictures remind me that we went to sites of Deir-el-Barhi (which I had really wanted to see based on a b/w picture in an ad), and the Valley of the Kings, where we wandered into a few tombs, one of which belonged to King Tut. It was anti-climatic. It was also hot and dry. I think my failure to appreciate the history stemmed from the bug wreaking havoc in my guts forcing me to always be here and now (and mindful of the nearest pitstop).

Eventually we got back to Cairo. I don’t remember how. But I remember staying in a hotel with several beds in a large room, and windows looking out over the square across from the Mohammed Ali Mosque.

I remember looking out the window after dark and watching a whole black market taking place right outside – men selling knock-off t-shirts and knives and other things that you don’t see by day. It looked extremely dangerous with lots of shady characters, and I understood why we were told not to leave the hotel after dark. Then in the early hours of the morning they disappear, and as the sun rose I would look down to see people waking from their slumber on rooftops and patches of grass. I remember the guy selling shoes never left, day or night. I remember staring out this window endlessly as I recovered from my bug. And I remember questioning religious faith – theirs, and my own.

I vaguely remember at one point (during daylight) I decided to venture out into the souks to try to shop, feeling dizzy and faint, and refusing beckons to “come inside to my store in back”. I was lost. It was hot, I was severely dehydrated, and only by a miracle did I somehow end up back at the hotel without any trouble. Beyond the gastrointestinal one.

The next journal entry is several days later:

Finally, back in Greece. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Athens! Now I’m back on Ios. The day is Tuesday the 22nd, and I somehow spent my 22nd birthday in Cairo, but it’s not even worth mentioning. So here I am, having walked across the beautiful Milopotas Beach to Dracos Taverna – my home sweet home away from home…away from home. Oh it’s good to be alive! How lucky am I.

This concludes my “Remembering Egypt” journal. Rather abruptly, I’m afraid, but there you have it. I did fully recover by the time I was back in Greece, and I’m certain the river water was at fault. The food itself in Egypt was excellent, and the entire experience was not so bad that I wouldn’t go back.

I have, in fact, returned in recent years, and took my husband and daughter (who was almost 3 at the time) to see the Pyramids.

It was a very different experience, and too short, with time only to visit Cairo and Alexandria. My daughter still has memories of our trip, but not of the Pyramids or the Nile or the other amazing sights we saw.

What she remembers, with great vividness of senses, is nothing more than…the sounds of the burping camels!

We all still have the dream to return and cruise the Nile together in much better circumstances, and I am certain this won’t be the last of my Egypt blog posts. I will return. Some day.

Thank you for coming along on my journey through the archives of my travel journal. If you would like to share a link of your own travels to Egypt, I welcome you to do so in a comment below!

Remembering Egypt – Part I

Preface: As I prepare to head to Egypt next month, I thought it would be an opportune time to reflect back upon my first trip to Egypt, over 25 years ago, and to share some of my early days of travel, writing and photography.

While many things have changed, and continue to do so on a daily basis – particularly in Egypt right now – much of what I read from the pages of my journal is a classic and universal “first time off the beaten path” perception of a 21-year-old backpacking penny-stretching college kid determined to see the world.

While other college kids were backpacking through Europe, that simply wasn’t exotic enough for me and my friend Marie. So when we’d had enough of sunning on the gorgeous beaches of Ios in the Greek Isles, we decided to get on a plane to Cairo and check out the Pyramids…in hottest July (what were we thinking?). With no return tickets and no set plans and no idea where we would stay, off we went with a “Let’s Go” guidebook, tiny backpacks slung on our backs with cheap straw beach mats we’d picked up in Greece, flip flops on feet, and cameras in hand. And journals, of course.

Remember, this was long before iphones, digital cameras, laptops and other tools of the modern-day blogging nomads. There were no ipod buds in my ears, rather, I wore the clunky headband of a Sony Walkman and carried a few cassette tapes in the backpack to remind me of home. I took pictures with this stuff called “film”, and composed on something known as a “notepaper” with an instrument called a “pen.” It is the pages of my handwritten journal that I have transcribed to share here.

The year is 1986. The U.S. had just retaliated against a Berlin discotheque bombing by conducting airstrikes over Tripoli in neighboring Lybia, and U.S. relations with Qadaffi and the Middle East were tense all over (sound familiar?). But at 21, we were convinced that our mere presence would constitute an international peace-keeping mission, and off we went.

REMEMBERING EGYPT (journal series, Part I)

Day 1
EGYPT??!! Oh my God (Allah?) I’m in (expletive) Egypt! Hello Third World. Hello Pyramids. Hello Arabs. Hello poverty. Hello camels. It’s all here! This is the place! The real deal!

Our flight from Athens was something else, if that didn’t frighten us, nothing will! The people crammed on to the Egypt Air plane as if it were a Stones concert or something – there was no specific seating, no non-smoking section, just take what you can get. The landing was more like being flung down a bowling alley, but we made it. We headed to a good, reasonable hotel in Heliopolis where we met some travel buddies – two guys from Denmark, who invited us to share the cost of their Cairo taxi tour the next day. Cool.

Our first adventure in Cairo is the TRAFFIC. No lights, no signs, no lines, and apparently no laws! Just lots of horns. That’s how it’s done in Cairo, you just beep your way through the streets and intersections, and our taxi driver played his horn in the orchestra of Cairo like a skilled musician.

When we first began driving I kept thinking to myself “this must just be the bad part of town” and waited for the nicer parts of town to appear. As the day went on I realized this IS Cairo. This IS the way they live. It’s ALL like this. Half-finished housing, broken windows, dirty dirty streets, and poverty everywhere – there IS no nice part of town!

The most fascinating observation about the people is that wherever they are at the time of prayer, they stop everything, throw down their rugs, and pray. In the streets, in the train stations, in the markets and the cafes. You can hear the call to prayers over loudspeakers throughout the entire city. Five times a day. Every day.

We went first to see the Muhammed Ali Mosque – we had to remove our shoes and cover our shoulders and legs. In every part of the mosque there was always someone to tell you about the room then ask for your money. We so wanted to learn everything we could, but we’d never have lasted beyond the first day if we kept this up! So we learned instead to be politely rude and to refrain from smiles and eye contact or appearing even remotely interested because then you get hooked in to listen and it costs ya!

From the citadel there was quite a view – but as far as the eye could see was nothing but pollution, crowded streets, traffic, dirty buildings, dotted with colorful garments of clothing hanging outside windows to dry. Miles and miles, endlessly, this is Cairo. This is how it really is.

We drove on beeping our way through traffic to “Old Cairo”, which quite frankly doesn’t appear any older than the rest of the city. We walked down the market streets (souks). So many things to see, so many things to resist temptation to buy. (Darn! Why didn’t I save more money?!). We sat and had a drink at a café on the street. Our (taxi driver) guide smoked from a giant pipe about 4 feet high. After a rest we moved on to the Egyptian Museum for a quick browse,

then off to a restaurant to eat….

Real authentic Egyptian food! This place was cool and interesting. The floor was laid with large rocks lined with smaller pebbles (I was barefoot so I noticed these things). The roof was thatched up with some sort of palm fronds, and the walls of opaque glass were painted with scenes of Egyptian customs.

Ah, the menu! Finally, a real authentic meal of pita bread and those other foods I usually make from a box mix at home. First came the light salad and dips – tahini sauce, and a hummus flavored with mint leaves. I ordered falafel and rolled vine leaves and Marie had foul with sesame. All of it was sooo good!

After lunch we beeped our way through the city to the Pyramids. You could see them right there beyond the dirty city buildings, as if they were in the center of a downtown street. But as we got closer, we saw that they stood on the city outskirts and on the edge of the desert. THE DESERT! The Lybian Desert, which forms the edge of the Sahara Desert stretching across all of northern Africa! Wow. Just think, this sand I step on is the same body of sand that Qadaffi hangs out in. I’m cool with that.

There was no way we were going to visit the Pyramids without riding a camel. So we found ourselves 4 camels and a little boy to guide (?) our caravan. I got along really well with my camel, which I named “Filter”.

We wandered up to the Pyramids, past the Sphinx (or “swings” as our Danish buddies pronounced it), and took pictures on our camels, with our camels, off our camels. I really enjoyed it – my camel was pleasant (as far as camels go) and comfortable.

However, the exciting part was taking off and landing. Yes, I’m referring to the camel! Like any mammal, a camel has four legs. But the camel can only bend two at a time to sit down, and the front ones go first! This is when you realize that the camel is a really tall animal with really LONG legs! Try to stay on a camel when he is kneeling without sliding down his neck. Fun stuff.

So we watched the sunset from the Pyramids and then went to a shop and paid a ridiculous fee to see the “Sound and Light Show” at the Pyramids, what a rip off! But there we sat like tourists listening to the voice of the English-speaking Sphinx and getting eaten alive by mosquitos.

Finally back to the hotel after a long day. Tired, hungry, and a headache to boot. Watched a bit of Arabic tellie to get an idea of the media here – just as crazy as the traffic! Too weird. I really wonder what they’re saying. I really wonder….

– to be continued –

(Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to break this out into a series of several posts, given my tendency for wordiness and an admitted lack of skill at editing my own journals. Hey, it’s a journal, not a 1500 word article feature that anyone has hired me for. And this is my personal blog!)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this enough to return for Part II, when we ride horseback through the desert to Sakkara, visit a train station and splurge on a First Class overnight train cabin to Aswan! In Part III, I chronicle our felucca cruise on the Nile and visits to Edfu, Luxor, and Karnak. And hey, if you happen to have a blog of your first trip to Egypt, are a 20-something modern day backpacker, or are currently blogging from Egypt, I welcome you to share your link in the comments!

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