So I left off with me getting dumped off in Luxor. I left the nice air conditioned train for the heat of southern Egypt and braced myself for the onslaught of touts trying to get me to their hotels. I have to say, it is a fairly surreal experience to hop off a train or plane in a place that you know nearly nothing about and walk alone to the street, not knowing how you are going to get to where you are going (or sometimes even where you’re going). I just kind of walk with my backpack like a turtle with full confidence into the unknown and I love the feeling every time. Egypt though, like I’ve mentioned, is filled with touts trying to get you to go with them. It isn’t anything near like what you experience in India, but it is annoying and energy consuming to fight them all off nonetheless. All the train passengers filed out of the train station into the bazaar that was the street and I walked south. I always carry a compass with me and it is one of the most helpful tools I think you can have while traveling. You can look at a map and get exactly where you want to go without having to stop and ask directions or even pause as you can just face the map towards north and walk in the direction of your hotel. Stopping and looking lost in Egypt is dangerous because you will very quickly get 5 “friends” offering to “help” you get to your hostel (a service for which they will demand baksheesh or a commission from the hotel). It is kind of sad, really, that it is this way. There are some incredibly helpful and friendly people in Egypt and some of them really just want to help you because they like helping, but because there are such an incredible amount of people who just want money even though they say they don’t until they are done helping you (maybe 20 for every one genuinely helpful person), you are immediately on guard and doubtful of their friendliness, and they can feel that, which can insult them. Any act of kindness immediately gets looked upon with suspicion and that is indeed quite sad. At the pyramids, people walk up to you and give you “free gifts” and when you walk away, they run up and demand a gift in return. People on the street say “no money” but then hold their hands out. It’s quite difficult (nay, impossible) to distinguish between the two.
But I had already picked out my hotel and fought off the taxis and touts and was walking directly to the hotel. But wait…should I make a left here?
I paused for a moment.
A robed Muslim man came up to me. “Excuse me sir, you need some help? Don’t worry, no money,” he said. This is code for “you have to give me money,” just in case you ever come to Egypt.
“No I’m okay,” I said. I looked around.
“It’s okay. Where you go?” he said with a smile. For a second I thought he might just being friendly.
“Where is this street?” I asked.
“Which hotel are you going to?”
I hesitated, but then I said it’s name.
“No problem, I’m going that way anyways. I show you. No money,” he said.
“No really, you can just point the direction,” I said. He insisted that I follow him. After about 10 feet, I saw a sign with the hotel name on it and told him I could go from there. He insisted he take me. I couldn’t shake him. When we arrived, he looked at me and said, “you have something for me?” I said I didn’t as I didn’t want him to follow me. He then said he would just pop into the hotel and say hi to a friend (code for “I’m going to signal the hotel owner that he should hike up your rate as I need to get my commission”). I put my hand on his shoulder and in a very frustrated voice said, “no. just…please don’t.” I walked in the hotel and told the manager that there was a guy harassing me. He went out and looked around and then came back in and got behind his desk. We negotiated the price (from $10 US a night to $5) and then he started leaning on me to take one of his tours. He then started trying to pressure me to buy dinner from his hotel and then beer. I had jumped from the frying pan to the fire, but I’m pretty good with getting these guys off my back and so I did. I checked into my room and then went out and walked around town to hunt down some street food and then went back and slept (God bless AC!).
So in the morning, I headed to Luxor temple, which was incredible. I met an Australian and English guy there and we visited a few museums, Karnack Temple, and then got some food which was cool. The museums were great and we had a great time. I then randomly bumped into my American friends from Cairo as I walked by an internet cafe. I happened to look in and saw Michael and Katie responding to an email I had sent earlier that day. I just so happened that Michael had just clicked “send” on his response telling me where he was when I walked in the door.
“That was quick,” he said with a smile when I walked in.
I introduced him to Yanick and Charlie (my new friends from the temple) and we went and got some coffee and smoked the traditional water pipe (sheesha, as they call it here) as we caught up. Michael gave me tips for visiting some other sights in Luxor and later that night we went back to Luxor temple to see it again all lit up. We went to a pub that night and had a great time.
I went back that night and found that I didn’t have any water in my room. They guy was a real jerk and said it wasn’t his problem since his water worked. It must be out in the street, he said. He also told me I had to leave the next morning because he had “other people coming” and when I left in dismay and started packing my bags, planning on writing Lonely Planet to complain (several bad reviews can cause Lonely Planet to give the place a bad review and destroy it’s business base). He then came up and tested my water and told me it didn’t work. I told him that I knew that. He told me I could use his shower and said that I “must have misunderstood” him about leaving after I told him how unprofessional it was. It turns out that he “didn’t say” that I had to leave. I could stay if I wanted. So I said I would.
The next morning at 5:00AM, I went to leave. The same guy told me to sit down. I told him I had to leave.
“Listen,” he said. “If anyone asks, you are just checking in today and are staying one night.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The money you paid me for the previous two days…I lost it,” he said as he emptied his pockets for me.
I’m sure. That explains why you wanted me to leave. You want to cover up the fact that you “lost” the money. I’m sure this happens all the time and if he gets away with it, he keeps the money. He wasn’t the owner.
“Well, I am an honest man. I’m not going to lie,” I said.
He thought for a moment. “Okay,” he said. “You can say you’ve been here two nights.”
“Okay,” I said (stuff like this doesn’t even phase me anymore) and I left to meet up with Yanick and Charlie. We were headed for The Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the Tombs of the Nobles. It entailed taking the early morning ferry and then renting a taxi on the other side to haul us around all day. Well, the tombs and temples were mind numbingly incredible. It is just so fascinating to walk around things so incredibly old. You just can feel the history of this place and the size of the monuments and temples makes you feel like an ant as you walk though and around them.
But the problem is that it is as hot as it is incredible, and one can only see so much before you are literally burned out from the incredibly hot southern Egypt sun.
We headed back to the town and met back up with Michael and Katie and got some food. Later that day we headed back to the pub and relaxed. The next day, I slept in until noon and then met up with the guys again for coffee. We got some lunch and then it was time to go our separate ways. Michael burned some CDs for me of my pictures and then I headed on the train to Aswan. Everything went off without a hitch and after 3 hours, I repeated the process of arriving in a new place. I eventually made it to my hotel without problems, negotiated the price and went out of the town in search of food. Today, I went and saw a few museums, visited some islands (where I spent a while chatting with the people and letting kids listen to my music and stuff) and sat around smoking sheesha and drinking coffee. The sheesha is really cool because it doesn’t feel like you’re smoking anything, but it is usually apple flavored and really good. I read the technology quarterly edition of The Economist and watched people walk by. I’ve come up with quite a few observations in my Egyptian travels. Here they go:
For one, little kids are everywhere here, playing around, selling stuff, helping their parents, smiling and yelling hello whenever you walk by. They always stare at me as I walk by and when I smile and say hello, they grin and reply in kind. It’s great. Men sit in cafes lining the street smoking sheesha in big groups and sipping coffee and tea as they chat or observe the action in the streets. Touts try their hardest to sell every imaginable thing from spices to drinks, water pipes to silk, tourist goods to cigarettes, food to rides on their boats. They aren’t as persistent in Aswan as they are in Luxor or Cairo, which is much more convenient for everyone involved. They ask if you want something and if you say no they say “okay, have a nice day!” and usually walk away (but of course not always). Aswan seems much more laid back than the other places, but that doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t try to overcharge you for everything. It seems like they do even moreso in Aswan – why, I have no clue. When something should cost 10 cents, they try to charge you a dollar. That’s quite a markup, indeed. And the heat of the south is incredible. The streets are nearly deserted in the afternoon, but come alive at night. People fill the streets – families and children included – until well after midnight. And you can see all sorts of stuff happening in the streets. In addition to selling everything imaginable, people are performing all sorts of services. There are shoe shiners, coffee grinders, bread bakers, solderers, tailors, bike repair men, artists and a host of other tradesmen in the streets offering their services. It’s quite entertaining just to walk down the street and watch the chaos. You have to dodge the taxis, trucks, donkeys with carts attached hauling anything from watermelons to popcorn to people as you walk down the street, but you get used to it. Men and women are all dressed very distinctly, from normal street clothes to Islamic robes to rags and when the call to prayer comes over the loudspeakers spread throughout the town, you can see people everywhere bowing in prayer on mats they carry around with them. Sometimes you see entire roads filled with people praying. Lots of men have bruises on their foreheads from pounding their heads to the floor in prayer. The Islamic women all wear dark black robes and sometimes have everything but their eyes covered, which I imagine must be incredibly hot. No one can explain to me why they must be in black. Maybe something like original sin? The men seem to be able to wear any color they want (but it must be white on Fridays from what I gather). Arabic is everywhere, and you only see English script at tourist places. Even the numbers are distinct. Arabic is interesting in that it goes from left to right, except the numbers which go from right to left. One thing I have noticed about Arabic though is that at times it actually sounds a lot like Spanish. In addition, there seem to be some similar words, like “Ustez” which is alot like the Spanish “usted” and the “el” which means “the” in both languages. Maybe it’s coincidence though.
Egypt supposedly has a democracy but the current president keeps an iron grip on who can run against him. You see his pictures everywhere all throughout the country (sometimes one every few hundred feet) which seems very strange. I’ve talked to some people who want a true democracy but I’ve talked to taxi drivers who love him.
Everything here is incredibly cheap if you can get the local price. The other day, 4 of us ate for less than a dollar. The coffees and an hour of sheesha was less than a dollar. There are always animals everywhere, too. Men ride full on old school carriages around and try to get you to go for a ride. “You go for ride? Cheap price! No? Why not???” they say as they gallop beside you. There are cats everywhere too. There seem to be actually very few stray dogs, but an insane amount of stray cats out. From what I gather, cats have had a special status in Egypt since ancient times. And Egyptian sweets are incredible. If you ever come to Egypt, you have to go to one of the thousands of stores that specialize in sweets. They are all made of nuts, pastry and honey and every one of them is phenomenally good. Take my word for it.
All the hotel rooms in Egypt have really hard pillows.
And people in Egypt love to talk to you as you walk by. The most common question is “Where are you from?” They always want to know that. The next popular question is “what is your name?” I don’t know what they do with this information or why there is such a compulsion to know, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that they are very social and those happen to be the only two phrases most people know. I feel a little exposed when I say I am from the US (I’ve had a variety of responses to my response, some good, some bad) and so it gets a bit annoying after a while – but tolerably so.
The elevators here are hardcore. They are the kind that the door is open on and you could totally lose an arm. It adds to the excitement. And the toilets all have a little pipe coming from inside the bowl and facing your bum so you can “spray” wash. The only problem is (besides them freaking me out) that they are directly in the line of fire, so to speak, and so they are always filthy as they don’t get cleaned with the flush. Yeah…
Little kids try to sell everything here. One kid tried to sell me random rocks he had just picked up off the street. I resisted the temptation to buy.
And because everything is so cheap, you always need small change. But it is hard to come by here. You try to pay with even a 10 pound note (less than two dollars) and people cringe and ask for smaller bills. Seeing as you get 100 pound notes out of the ATMs and even hotels don’t seem to have change, it’s quite a challenge to keep a hoard of small cash here. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes to wait for change.
I was in the museum museum today and I noticed the Egyptian sarcophagus. Crazy, huh? I also noticed that in Cairo, they talked a lot of uniting upper and lower Egypt in the ancient Egypt, but in southern Egypt (what they call upper Egypt), they make no real mention of it. Upper Egypt (the south) used to be a place called Nubia way back in the day and the people here are much darker and African looking. It’s quite interesting.
Has this series of observations been sufficiently random for you? Tomorrow I head for Sinai and then Israel. Yes, Israel. No worries. Remember I’m here to bring peace. There hasn’t been a bombing there for over a year and there is actually a cease fire at the moment. I won’t go to the trouble areas and will be taken around by my buddy Zach. The slight risk of danger I do run (which is probably no greater than in southern Thailand, if no less) is worth seeing the place where one of the worlds oldest and most influential religions was born – or several of them, rather.