06 April 2013

marching up Egypt

Our journey up Egypt began mid-morning on Tuesday, 12th March at the docks in Aswan where we boarded our felucca.  A felucca is a traditional wooden sailing boat that is very basic with a storage area below the flat deck with a small cabin up one end for the crew.  In the smaller space between the deck and the cabin the crew cooked our meals on a little make-shift stove.  Being such a simple vessel meant occasional shore stops for the bush bathroom.  Apart from that one aspect, I really enjoyed our time on the felucca.  The flat deck was our living space while sailing on the Nile River.  We relaxed and chatted there enjoying the sun or the shade as we calmly tacked down river against the wind.  No motor noise.  No rush of busy passing traffic. Just our chatter and laughter.  Rivers are my favourite body of water too and merge that with warmth I'd been missing and relaxation in nature and it was a blissful way to spend the day and definitely a highlight of my Egypt trip.  After a few days of rushing round and travelling in the heat, this was our chill time.  Snoozes, reading books, playing cards, relishing the warmth, observing the passing river banks, taking in the fact that we were sailing on the Nile...  Come meal time we cleared the middle and plastic table runner was spread out and adorned with food.  It was quite basic but tasty.

Later in the afternoon we stopped at a sandbank in the middle and some of us went swimming.  I didn't have my bathers on so I just waded in the Nile while others jumped or flipped off the boat.  As we left that area the daylight was dimming and the crew began to search for a spot to anchor for the night.  Being an old style vessel with no electricity, feluccas are not allowed to sail past sunset.  We ate another simple meal and played some more cards and chatted.  When it was fully night the crew pulled out a stash of timber and a got a mini bonfire cooking.  We all went ashore and the crew started drumming on two different drums.  The crazy drunken mugs danced around the fire and one of them fell twice knocking over the shisha both times. Most of them sat down for a short session with the shisha as well which is a glass-bottomed water pipe in which fruit-flavoured tobacco is covered with foil and roasted with charcoal.  The tobacco smoke passes through a water chamber and inhaled deeply and slowly.  And then they did some more crazy dancing before dispersing a bit.  My roomie and I were looking at the drums at this point and one of the crew was trying to show us how to play it.  I tried longer and eventually found some rhythm.  After a little more practise at keeping the rhythm steady and continuous, the guy grabbed the other drum and played along.  The crew had already wrapped a sheet around the deck area to create a breeze blocker and we sporadically climbed aboard and sprawled out side by side to fill the whole area for the night.

I woke at about 5am on Wednesday morning feeling cold even with a blanket on.  After attempting some extra warmth with another layer of clothes and lying down again for a little longer I conceded defeat and got up.  It had been a long time since I had watched the sunrise and I'd been meaning to do it again for long time.  I doubled the blanket and wrapped it round my shoulders and sat on shore and watched the sky lighten and then the sun peek over the horizon in the stillness of the sleepy morning.

After some breakfast we collected our stuff and hauled them up a sandy hill to the road where our bus was waiting and settled in for a long drive.  There was only 3 or 4 of us awake on the journey besides the driver. One girl and I were snapping photos out the window of the scenery and transport that we passed.  We saw loads of donkey pulled carts and other unfamiliar motorised vehicles.  The funniest sight was the queue of tractors lined up for a share in the recently arrived fuel at the petrol station.  Unfortunately we passed by before I could get my camera out.  Fuel is sparse in Egypt I think as we saw some pretty long line ups at petrol stations.  Beyond the Nile shores it was all desert but the fertile land near the banks was mostly farming.  Lots of sugar cane that our guide says grows all year round plus other crops too.

We stopped along the way to visit Kom-Ombo Temple.  Most of us didn't go in though preferring to skip the entrance fee and relax in the cafe.  My roomie spotted a kid and I tagged along when she "awwed" her way over to the guy who was holding it.  He requested that we name it and my roomie suggested Curly because he had some curls on his head.  The guy then took us round the back to show us the other goats in his little farmyard.  He showed us his horse as well and took us up a little watch tower where we could see across the cafe umbrellas to the temple and across the house and farmland in the other direction.  He also showed us inside the house which was set up like a typical house but I'm still unsure if it was actually used as it was all in order and didn't have such a lived-in look to it.  When everyone was back together again we loaded into the bus and continued on to our next stop.  At the temple of Edfu another girl and I decided to skip and sat in the hot bus while we waited for the others.  Our guide made it sound like we'd be better off being in the bus rather than roaming the shops stressing that we'd be harassed.  But I realised later he just meant by people trying to sell us stuff which happens everywhere and I'm not fazed by stubbornly refusing or simply ignoring them.  We got harassed by the children that were about through the bus windows anyway.  Once we'd all made the final ride to our hotel in Luxor we checked in and went swimming in their lovely pool that overlooked the Nile.

On Thursday we opted to do all our Luxor touring in the one day and have Friday as a free day which was a good plan since Thursday was only about 38ÂșC.  The next day was low 40s.  We spent the morning on the west bank roaming the Valley of the Kings where we got to pick three tombs to go inside.  The tomb walls were lavishly decorated.  As soon as a new king came into power the people would begin work on his tomb.  As long as he lived they would keep digging away.  When he died the artists would come in and work away for the 70 days that the mummification of the king was taking place.  They would carve and paint all the walls as much as possible filling the tomb with the sacred script of hieroglyphics and pictures of gods and display stories of wishes for the blessing and help of the king to pass through the "underworld" to attain a welcome into the desired afterlife.  Being shut up inside tombs for years upon years means that this artwork is still in pretty darn good condition and lot of the colours used are still quite bright.  Annoyingly we weren't even allowed to take our cameras into the valley so I have no photos to share.   We then went to the Temple of Hatshepsut who was the only female Pharaoh to rule Egypt.  Most of the statues here are displayed in a masculine way and she wove her own stories to indicate she was born of the gods and had a right to reign. Or something vaguely along those lines.  There was swarms of school groups around and one girl wanted to get a photo with some of them.  Didn't take much persuasion.  A swarm soon encircled.  We actually stopped for a number of photos for them too; with our pale hair and skin we were almost celebrities.

We did a quick stop at the great Colossi of Memnon which are two huge statues that use to guard a temple and then drove back to Luxor for lunch at KFC.  For the afternoon we did the Luxor sites visiting first Karnak Temple which was huge and then Luxor Temple which it used to be connected to by a road lined with mini sphinxes.  By this point I'm getting tombed and templed out and we reached the hottest part of the day so I didn't wander around for long in our free time.  After the temples our guide took us to a proper papyrus shop where a guy actually showed us how they made it.  That was quite fascinating, appealing to the crafter in me. The prints were pretty amazing and we spent quite a while there while a couple of people decided what ones to buy.  There was only one I considered buying--mainly due to the fact that the typical Egyptian designs are so centralised around their ancient deities and quite symbolic.  I did like the tree of life one though that had a tree with birds that represented the different stages of life.  But since this tour included costs I hadn't budgeted for I was restrictive about when I let Egyptian pounds leave my possession.  I did ask if I could get just some plain papyrus paper without a print as that's the part the fascinated me the most.  The smallest piece was the same size as the smallest print (about an A4 size) and it cost the same.  So I left papyrusless.

That night, as well as the night before and the night following, we went to the Irish Murphy's pub around the corner from our hotel for food, drink and some pool.  I really enjoyed these evenings and it was great to have a go at pool again.  We got some real good doubles competitions going and there was quite a bit of laughing, teasing, groaning and attempted interfering.

Friday was our day off.  We were in for a scorcher too.  While about a third of our group departed for their extended tour that included another town, most of the remainder of the group spent the day by the pool or in the pool.  It was take a dip, relax in the shade, order some thing to eat and drink, chat round the table, take another dip, chat in the pool...  Actually, we chatted to some older Brits who apparently lived nearby having retired to Egypt which came as a surprise.  They used the hotel pool as their local pool paying an entrance fee to come in and laze about.  Egypt is not a country that would have crossed my mind as a place to retire though it would stretch your money further.  Things were fairly cheap in Egypt. Very, in fact.  We were buying 1.5ltr bottles of water for 3 to 15 L.E (Egyptian pounds).  It was about 1 GBP to 10 EGP.  The starting prices were usually cheap enough or decent price but of course you're expected to haggle.  When it got to late afternoon four of us prepared to head into town for a look at local life.  We ended up catching the local taxi in which cost us 1 L.E each.  The local taxi was an experience.  They do have taxis that are a car you hire to drive you where ever but there's also the local taxi which I guess is more like a bus.  It's pretty much a combi van or a tarago (like what I grew up knowing as the family car) except no one wears seatbelts and they never close the sliding door.  And if you can hang on somewhere you can get on so we frequently saw them with full seats plus three or so people hanging out the door.  We didn't do much in town except wander around and look and buy some drinks and ice creams from the supermarket.  It was still quite hot but not too busy.  Being Friday it was prayer day or whatever they call it.  The religious day off.  Shops were pretty much closed for the morning and some all day so there wasn't much to do.  We ended up walking back to our hotel.  We gathered for tea at the hotel restaurant before some went on an evening horse and cart ride around town and the remainder of us headed back to the pub for some more vicious pool.  I will just point out here that the night before there were four of us that ended up dominating and hogging the pool table.  We played girls against guys and us girls won 2 out of 3.  So we went back for a rematch...and did the same.  One of the guys was really impressive with his shots though especially when bouncing the ball off the cushions to be able to hit the correct ball.  We were all well matched and all took some awesome shots and it was a lot of fun.  And our guide showed me how to write my name in Arabic!

We passed time until we had to go collect our bags and head to the train station for another overnight train ride.  This time at least the toilet was quite an improvement on the last one.  Apparently.  I never used it.  The train was delayed as our guide had warned us both times could very well happen with all the drama going on in Egypt.  We had to keep stopping along the way or going slowly.  Nothing dramatic really but I'm not sure exactly what.  Just took us longer to arrive.  We were about 2-3hrs later than planned.  Not too big of a deal as they leave room for that we just didn't have time to shower before our Cairo tour and had to pick two out of three destinations to visit.

So for Saturday, after saying goodbye to our guide who was ducking out early and leaving us with a Cairo guide, we chose to first go see the Egyptian museum which would have been much more enjoyable if we weren't so tired from our long train journey.  We got to see Tutankhamen's treasures which were quite amazing and wonderful.  Our second stop took us to the Citadel of Saladin to visit the Mosque of Mohamed Ali which is perched on the summit of the citadel.  We had to make sure we were well covered and removed our shoes before we went in.  It was very grand and decorative and interesting to see.  I've never been in a mosque before.  They had a pretty grand podium to preach from with lavishly decorated steps leading up to it.  Outside the mosque was quite a view of Cairo, not that it was very easy to see with all the smog and dust clouding the horizon.  On the opposite hill outside the citadel is a church which is fairly significant.  The story goes something like this: Some king or authority of Egypt wanted to rid the country of Christians and so called upon some Christian head and insisted that he pray and ask his God to move this mountain.  If it moved the Christians could stay but if not they were all banished from Egypt.  This Christian elder called upon others to fast and pray and on the day determined by the Egyptian king the elder met him in this area.  As people prayed the mountain began to move up and down and up and down until the king begged them to stop and permitted them to stay.  Egypt is still largely Islamic but there is also a collection of Christians there too.

Our final stop that we were always going to make due to the fact that it's open late into the night was the bizarre.  Quite a few of us were looking forward to this experience.  Our main guide kept saying we didn't need to buy things along the way because everything you can get here you can get at the bizarre.  Only we didn't realise until a day or two before that we were only going to have one hour there.  One hour went by so fast and unless you knew what you wanted and just went out and got it, one hour was certainly not long enough.  I would have loved to experienced more of it.  We didn't get to go far though the bizarre is huge and it's small alleys are packed with colour and sound and people.  There's some amazing handcrafted stuff there and a load of tourist crap.  I bought just a couple of things but would have bought more if I'd had more time.  I had hoped to get to the fabric parts too but that didn't happen.  The evenings are alive in Egypt as that's when people come out to relax and socialise as the day cools.

Back at the hotel we showered and changed and met again to enjoy tea together squeezing past the noisy, slow wedding procession that was passing through the hotel centre area and moving toward the room they'd hired to celebrate in.  The food and drink and company was wonderful and it was a nice way to wrap up our tour.  I managed to repack my bags due to removing the bulky warmer items I would need to wear on my journey back to the cold winter countries.  Sunday morning I was up rather early and took in the sights of Cairo in the early morning sun as I passed by on my hour long ride to the airport.

My Egypt tour was an adventure I'd not even considered when I left Australia but it's one I rather enjoyed and I'm glad I took it.