Right. Egypt…pyramids…the Sphinx…camels…hieroglyphics…I’ll talk about all that, and more! I’m going to break this one into parts because I imagine it will become quite long, though.
So, why Egypt? Didn’t really fit in with my previous European itineraries, I know, but that’s exactly why I picked Egypt. I wanted to go somewhere new…really new…a different culture, lifestyle, and religion that I had never experienced during my previous travels. A few months before spring break started, I had been obsessing over where to spend my five weeks. One visit to the travel website lastminute.com was all it took for me to seriously consider the thought of Egypt as a vacation destination. The prices were amazingly low…I soon became convinced that I had to go, because if I didn’t do it now, when would I? Besides, Egypt had always intrigued me…everyone should see the pyramids at least once in their lifetime.
Day 1: Arrival
We flew out of Gatwick airport and landed at Luxor Airport about 4.5 hours later. Upon landing, the flight attendant warned us that taking pictures while at the airport was strictly prohibited due to the airport’s dual designation as a civilian and military airfield. We get off the plane and onto buses which take us to the terminal, which is nothing more than a giant tent…yes, a tent. The atmosphere is quite chaotic, with hundreds of people being stuffed into this tent, trying to exchange currency and purchase Egyptian visas, which are required to enter the country. I purchase my Egyptian visa with a 10 quid bill, and the official places it in the “Amendments and Endorsements” section of my passport, which slightly annoys me because that section is reserved for amendments by the U.S. GOVERNMENT, but whatever. Jessica attempts to buy her Egyptian visa with Egyptian pounds (yeah, their currency is also called the pound) but the official informs her that he won’t accept them. Yes, that’s right…Jessica could not pay for her Egyptian visa with Egyptian currency. After acquiring our visas, we then stood in a big line at passport control. The line didn’t really annoy me…what annoyed me was the fact that some of the Brits apparently couldn’t deal with the line (or, should I say, queue), as I saw numerous tourists slip Egyptian pounds into the hands of airport officials so they could be ushered through passport control in a matter of seconds. I wanted to shout, “Come on people, don’t help grease the wheels of corruption!” but surely they wouldn’t have listened to an American on that topic.
After collecting our luggage, we found the bus that would take us to the hotel and headed off to Luxor. Check-in at the hotel went smoothly, and I was actually quite impressed with our room. It was BIG, had air-conditioning, a refrigerator, and an amazing view, as show below:
We headed off in search of food, or more specifically, in search of some authentic Egyptian falafel. So…walking down the street…quite an experience, I must say…if you’re a woman, that is. I think the Rough Guide to Egypt does a good job of describing an Egyptian man’s view of Western women, so for your convenience I’ll reprint it here:
“The biggest problem women travellers face in Egypt is the perceptions that Egyptian men have. Unless accompanied by husbands, women tourists are seen as loose, willing to have sex at the most casual opportunity, and – in Egyptian social terms – virtually on a par with prostitutes. While Hollywood films are partly to blame for this view, the root cause is the vast disparity between social norms in Islamic and Western countries.”
Right…thanks, Hollywood. So, imagine if you will, Jessica and I walking through the streets of Luxor having to deal with all these creepy Egyptian men when all we wanted was some damn falafel. I was actually quite aware of this environment, as some female friends of mine had told me about the harassment they had to put up with in Cairo. I guess it just didn’t sink in, though, as I didn’t think that people would actually behave like that in public, much less Muslim men, who I thought would be rather conservative. Well, as it turns out, an Egyptian man wouldn’t dare harass an Egyptian woman, but when it comes to foreign women, it’s open season. The guidebook advises “It’s also a good idea to avoid making eye contact with Egyptian men, and it is best to err on the side of standoffishness, as even a friendly smile may be taken as a come on.” Well, you know, it’s a bit hard to avoid eye contact with anyone while you are walking down the street unless you are staring down at the ground!
Anyways, after facing the gauntlet of leering men, we find a restaurant that serves falafel, hummus, and pita bread…thank God! The waiter, who is highly amused that all we wanted to eat was falafel, suggests that we try the assortment of Egyptian pastries. Wow…they were…just…wow…amazing…and cheap. I think our entire meal cost us 4 quid…I don’t remember the last time I had dinner, dessert, and a drink for 2 quid ($4). We vow that we will definitely visit this restaurant again, and then head back to the hotel to catch some sleep.
Day 2: Sightseeing on the West Bank
The next morning, I was awoken at 5am by loud chanting in Arabic. It was coming from loudspeakers of Luxor’s minarets, calling the faithful to prayer. Before drifting back to sleep, I made a mental note that any religion requiring a 5am prayer is too much work, and cross it off the list of “possible religions to convert to.”
After awakening at a much more suitable hour, Jessica and I headed down to Jolley’s Travel Agency near the Old Winter Palace. While doing some research on the internet, I came across several recommendations that Jolley was the man to see if you wanted to visit Cairo. Well, the name of the guy who runs Jolley’s is actually Ahmed, but we throughout the week we kept referring to him as Jolley, because, well, he was a rather jovial fellow. His tour prices are amazingly low, especially when compared to those run by our hotel, so we book a number of tours with him, the first one being that of Luxor’s West Bank. We arrange to meet up with our guide (who referred to himself as “the Fox”…hmm…ok) at 12:30, and then head off to Luxor Temple down the street:
There were originally two obelisks at Luxor Temple, but in the 1830s the Egyptians gave one of them to the French government. The French put it on the Place de la Concorde, which I snapped a photo of back in January:
The Avenue of Sphinxes was my favorite part of the Temple:
Me as Ramses II:
After touring the Temple, we met up with our guide, “Fox” (real name was Walid, but much more fun to call someone Fox, no?) and our driver Ahmad. They were cool guys, and willing to discuss anything from politics (which Fox assured me he hated) to religion (learned a lot about Islam). On first stop on the West Bank was the Valley of the Kings, where many of the Egyptian pharaohs are buried. We visited three tombs, which was an amazing experience due mostly to the fact that we were wandering around a structure that had been built by humans thousands of years ago. Unfortunately (though quite understandably) cameras are not allowed in the tombs, so I was unable to photograph the amazingly preserved colored reliefs.
We then headed to the Temple of Hatshepsut, dedicated to the woman who ruled Egypt as a king.
A statue of Hatshepsut, shown with a false beard (only worn by pharaohs):
Afterward, we went to the Valley of the Queens to visit some more tombs. No pictures of these, either. The tombs here were also quite amazing, but it was in the Valley of the Queens that we ran into our first demand for baksheesh, which, I will conclude by the end of our week in Egypt, underwrites the Egyptian economy.
But Lindsay, what is this baksheesh you speak of? Well, quite simply, it is a form of tipping for services that you could have rendered yourself. In the case of tombs, Egyptian guards will motion to a hieroglyphic on the wall and then expect to be tipped an Egyptian pound for doing so! Incredible! As if I would not have noticed it myself! For comparison, it would be like if I was hanging around the Hope Diamond exhibit at the Smithsonian, pointed at it, and then demanded that you give me a dollar. Ridiculous, no?
After the Valley of the Queens, we saw the Colossi of Memnon, a pair of statues that once stood at the entrance to the mortuary temple of Amenophis III (was destroyed a very long time ago):
Thus ends our tour of the West Bank, and we head back to Luxor for dinner. Sometime during our tour, Jessica and I got it into our heads that falafel (yes, I admit it, I’m obsessed with fried balls of ground spiced chickpeas) would make an excellent pizza topping. To fulfill this desire for falafel pizza, we would need to find a restaurant that served both pizza and falafel. We walked down to the area where we ate last night, as it was filled with assorted restaurants. Now, it was on this walk that an Egyptian man asked for my hand in marriage (or, more appropriately, shouted “Hey! Do you want an Egyptian husband?!”) I was a bit shocked, as I didn’t imagine marriage proposals to be thrown about so carelessly, and had somehow imagined that it would be a bit more romantic, and coming from this man:
or perhaps this fellow:
But sadly, my first marriage proposal was from some random Egyptian guy sitting on the sidewalk. Just my luck.
Anyways…back to the falafel/pizza combination, which is of utmost importance. We settled on a place called Jem’s, which had great falafel, and OK pizza, but overall, falafel on pizza = quite tasty. Oh, and one of the waiters fell in love with Jessica…wanted to take her home to his mother…quite hilarious, really.
Not satisfied with Jem’s dessert menu, we went back to the previous night’s restaurant to once again partake in the Egyptian pastries. On the waiter’s recommendation, we also ordered an apple flavored shisha (When in Rome…right?) and had a generally relaxing evening. Jessica, however, had to endure some sexual harassment from the restaurant’s owner but promptly told him off. Something which we noticed and thought quite odd was the fact that the restaurant men always chased after her and the Egyptian souvenir salesmen fell in love with me…this was a constant theme of our trip.
That’s enough for now, as I have to do some research for my dissertation. The next volume, which will probably be up in a few days, will detail our adventures riding camels, navigating the Nile, seeing those big pyramids, and snorkeling in the Red Sea.