Tuesday, February 15, 2000

TR Egypt Part 1

EGYPT 2/7 –2/15/00

Ahhhh! Another trip and lesson in the history of civilization. I am really beginning to tie together all the information and knowledge that I learned as a youth in school and even from Sunday school! But they never did explain how difficult it can be to arrange the trips to expand and confirm that knowledge.
And believe me, this trip is firmly at the top of my list for difficulty and frustration in setting up. Travel agencies (and in fact most companies in Egypt) are very inefficient and incompetent and when you try to explain to them that their service is such and recommend some solutions to improve their service and business, they just simply ignore you. My only travel tip in this regard is to arrange as much of the trip as possible with your travel agent in N America.

But after months of frustration, unanswered phone calls and emails, I finally got everything arranged and confirmed and Nicole and I were off to Cairo on KLM via Amsterdam. We arrived in Cairo at 01:20am, purchased our two visa stamps for $15 and proceeded through customs. We were surprised to find my cousin Gary Troke and his wife Sheila waiting for us in the Arrivals Hall. They have a business in Cairo and have lived there for the past six years. The plan was to visit them on our way home but an unexpected business issue required that they go to the US later that week and they explained that they would not be back in time to host us. However their son Carey would be at home and would host us and they offered us the use of their home and car and driver during our visit. They felt bad about the change in plans so wanted to spend some time with us. They drove us to our hotel at the airport where we had hoped to get about four hours sleep before catching a connecting Egypt Air flight to Luxor. But after a few drinks and lots of conversation we ended up getting only two hours sleep. If I had known they would meet us at the airport I would have cancelled the hotel and saved $140 for two hours of sleep.

So finally at 07:30am we arrived in Luxor! On our drive from the airport to the hotel we noticed that at least half the vehicles on the roads were pulled by donkeys or horses! Donkey carts are the main transport for cargo and horse carriages are as plentiful as taxis for carrying people. And the taxis are all at least 20 –30 years old, completely dented front to rear and held together with wire and rope! The only modern and well-constructed buildings in Luxor are the international hotels and a few government buildings. Even new apartment buildings look like slums and like they are ready to fall down. Poverty and filth are everywhere. But there are no beggars. The Egyptians prefer to work and hustle tourists rather than beg. After two days of relentless hustling by every taxi and carriage driver and every street hawker I was thinking that I might prefer begging! The upside was that everyone was very friendly and eager to provide service (and take some of your money in return). We quickly learned not to make any eye contact, show no interest in anything and firmly reject even innocent (?) offers of assistance or help. Egyptians expect payment for any service provided. If you take a picture of an Egyptian or his donkey he will demand payment. If he takes your picture with your camera he will demand payment! Payment may be 1 or 2 Egyptian pounds (LE --1 LE = $.30). But believe me you can get 1 LE’d to death very quickly if you are not careful! And they have more scams than you have ever seen to suck you in for that important 1 LE tip!

Our hotel was the Luxor Hilton, a supposedly 5-star hotel located on the East Bank of the Nile, but I have stayed in 30-year old Holiday Inns that were in better shape. Thirty years was also the approximate age of our TV set and the telephone system in the hotel. We foolishly dragged Nicole’s computer along thinking that she could stay in touch with the office and I could monitor the stock market – after all we were staying at a 5-star international hotel! Wrong! She couldn’t even reach her office using her MCI/NT calling card and had to make calls using the hotel’s long distance network @ $6/minute! I took taxis to an internet café and kept current on the stock market for 4 LE/15 minutes. The hotel was selected by the travel agency managing the Egyptian Marathon and our rate was very inexpensive -$80/day including breakfast and dinner for two!
Upon arrival we met up with a friend from NJ who is a member of the 50+ DC Club. The three of us ventured out by foot to visit the Karnak Temple that was only a mile from the hotel-but a gauntlet of dozens of hustlers wanting to drive us there by horse carriage or taxi. And our history lesson on Egypt began.
Luxor is part of the ancient city of Thebes. It contains two temples. The Karnak temple that was dedicated to the God Amon is the largest temple supported by columns in the world and is so vast that it could cover half of Manhattan. The Great Hall contains 134 columns 75 feet tall with a top circumference of 45 feet. When you look at the architecture you wonder how they built this structure 3600 years ago. The Karnak Temple is linked to the Luxor temple via an avenue about one mile long that is lined on both sides with sphinxes. The entrance to the Luxor temple is flanked by a giant statue of Ramses II and a tall obelisk. There used to be two obelisks but the second one is now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. We spent the first afternoon just wondering around the Karnak temple and listening to various tour guides explain the history of the temple and period.

The next morning we took a guided tour along with some other marathoners to the West Bank of the Nile. The Bible’s description of the Nile and the Nile Valley are pretty accurate. The Nile runs from Southern Egypt-called Upper Egypt in ancient times to the Mediterranean Sea in Northern or Upper Egypt. The Nile Valley is very fertile due to the annual flooding of the Nile and both banks support lush vegetation and agricultural crops for about two to three miles inland all along the river. Once you get past that point it changes immediately to desert. On both sides of Luxor there are small limestone mountain ranges that rise about 800 feet above the Nile Valley.
Our bus joined a second bus to form a convoy that was escorted by an armed police vehicle to the tourist sites on the West Bank. On the trip we passed through armed police barricades about every two miles on the road and at the only bridge over the Nile in the area there are gun towers at both ends armed with machine guns. This very visible security is the Egyptian response to the terrorist attack two years ago in Luxor where 57 tourists were killed! Our first stop was the Colossi of Memnon, two giant statues of a Pharaoh. Then we traveled on through Medinet Habu and past the Temple of Ramses III to the Valley of the Kings. After I got over the surprise of seeing an armored troop carrier with a machine gun turret guarding the entrance to the valley (this is the location where the terrorist attack occurred) we proceeded with some more history lessons.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the East where the sun rises represented birth and the West where the sun sets represented death. Thus all their burial tombs were always located on the West Bank. In the ‘Old Kingdom’ which had its beginnings around 2700 BC the burial tombs were in the Pyramids that are located on the West Bank around Cairo. During the ‘Middle and New Kingdom’ periods, from 2060 to 900 BC, the kings realized that the Pyramids made great monuments but were easy to find and loot. So they decided to move their tombs to the limestone mountains on the West Bank opposite Thebes. Here they dug huge tombs into the solid limestone mountains and then tried to hide them. It should have worked because the area is very rugged and desolate (reminds me of Utah or AZ) but the legend is that the workers and their descendants went back and looted the tombs in later years. This also killed the legends/stories that they always killed the workers to keep the location secret!
Because women could not be buried with the men, they chose one valley to bury the kings-The Valley of the Kings and another for the queens –The Valley of the Queens. A third valley was chosen to bury the Nobles and workers. In the Valley of the Kings they have discovered 67 tombs to date. All had been looted of their treasures except for the actual mummies. Only one, that of King Tut, remained intact and unlooted until it was discovered in 1922. The treasures are now housed in the Cairo Museum. But the tombs themselves contain many chambers that are covered in hieroglyphics and paintings. And because of the depth that they were buried inside the mountains and the dry climate they are in excellent condition. Even the colors are virtually unchanged from when they were finished 3000 years ago! It is quite spectacular. And some are very difficult to get to since you must climb up or down a small tunnel for several hundred feet inside the mountain. We only had time to visit 4 or 5 tombs.
Then it was on to Deir El-Bahari with our police escort to visit the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This temple is built into the cliffs of the limestone mountains between the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens and faces due east towards Karnak Temple. At one time a road connected them on both sides of the Nile. Since it was not acceptable for a queen or woman to rule Egypt by herself at that time, Queen Hatshepsut used to dress as a man and even wore the false beard used by the kings- and she ruled for 23 years!
After we returned to the hotel we decided to attend the sound and light show at the Karnak Temple that evening. It is a one-hour show in which you visit various parts of the temple while music and the history of the Temple is narrated over loudspeakers and spotlights are used to highlight the features of the temple in synch with the story and music. It was OK but we had heard that they used laser lights to reflect beams and images off the Sacred Lake within the Temple and none of that happened?

The next day turned out to be cloudy with some rain showers even though everyone assured us that it never rains in Luxor. We canceled a planned lunch on a felucca –a small working sail boat that carries cargo and passengers on the Nile- and instead just strolled along the streets of Luxor. By then we were completely fed up with the street hawkers and also the fact that you have to negotiate for everything you buy. Only restaurants and tourist sites had fixed prices- everything else had to be negotiated. Even in the fancy shops within the hotel –you had to negotiate. Egyptians negotiate price on everything they buy and consider anyone foolish who does not! But it does get tiring.
Finally it was M-day (marathon day)! It was held on a Friday which is their main religious day. They bussed about 1000 runners –200 marathoners, the rest 10K’rs- in a large convoy escorted by several police vehicles to Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple on the West Bank. Since there were many foreigners and Egyptian dignitaries at the race there were more police and machine guns visible than I had ever seen in my life! The course started and finished at the temple and consisted of a 10K loop past most of the tourist sites I described earlier. So YES, we had to do it four times and it got very boring. Plus we had to endure fumes from the tourist buses, dodge donkeys, donkey carts and an occasional camel and the worst obstacle was the peasant kids who ran beside us begging for money or gifts. But I felt very protected since there were armed police at every intersection and two armored pick-up trucks with six police armed with machine guns continually cruising up and down the course!
Unfortunately I started too fast and my right leg (hamstring) began to hurt about 10K. So I slowed down a bit but not enough because by twenty miles I was a ‘hurting puppy’- my right leg hurt, my left leg hurt-my whole damn body hurt! I went into survival mode; e.g. just try to finish without dying. But it was difficult to focus on willing the pain away when you have peasant kids still running along begging for your headband, your watch and even your running shorts! During the first three loops I could put on a burst of speed and leave then but now there were no bursts left and I had to listen to their constant begging and almost tripped on them several times! But finally the finish line was in sight and I struggled over in 3:49:38 –a very disappointing time!
Nicole had hired our favorite taxi driver, Allie, to bring her to the finish so that she could take some pictures and we could go back to the hotel immediately and not have to wait for the buses. That turned out to be a wise plan since I was totally beat and in no mood to wait around.

After a good sports massage and hot bath I was ready to face the world again. We hired a felucca for a private sail and lunch on the Nile. We had a crew of two, a captain and a cook/waiter who grilled us an excellent lunch that was served with wine and beer as we cruised along the Nile for two hours. This was a most pleasant and memorable activity.

The next day, Saturday, was time to leave Luxor and return to Cairo for the final leg of our trip. Since our flight did not leave until 3pm we hired Allie to drive us into the Luxor Museum . We toured the museum and then did a final stroll around the city before Allie took us to the airport. We had developed a friendship with Allie because we soon trusted him to charge a reasonable rate for a ride without having to haggle. He would drive us anywhere we wanted to go and wait for several hours to take us on to another place or back to the hotel –for the same price as one-way trips! When I asked him why he insisted on waiting he explained that he was at least assured of another fare for that day. He looked about 60 years old but told Nicole that he had just turned 35 – a pretty tough life!
When he dropped us off at the airport I tipped him 30LE- about three day’s wages for him!

I am going to close this off for now and write a second section for Cairo so that y’all have time to rest.

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