GUEST ARTICLE: I have to admit we did have some trepidations about going to Egypt, only because we would be arriving at a time when mass demonstrations were being held in regards to their newly elected President Morsi. But we knew the majority of these protests were happening only in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, so we happily continued on our journey to Luxor.
It was a 4hr flight from Dubai. Upon arrival in Cairo we each paid US$15 for entry visas. We chilled out in the lounge for another 4 hrs and during that time talked to a few locals to try and get a feel of where they stood regarding the new president. They seemed to go either way but one thing for sure was that they desperately wanted the democracy they’d fought so hard for and not to be ruled under a dictator again. Our hopes were that they would get what they had struggled so hard for and hopefully without any violence.
The flight to Luxor only took an hour and we arrived just after 10pm. Being so late the airport was completely deserted. As soon as we stepped outside we were propositioned by a group of guys for a taxi. After agreeing upon a fee of E£60 (Egyptian pounds) ($10AUD) we tucked our bags in Mohammed’s colourful little cab and headed to our hotel the Sheraton Luxor.
Once we got through the hotel’s security we went to get our bags out of the cab. While doing so our cab driver thought it okay to give my behind a quick feel up and then to try to touch me some more while handing over our bags. “What the hell?!!” And being covered from head to toe with my husband Rob only feet from me I thought it to be a pretty brazen slimy act. Unfortunately I didn’t say anything at the time mostly because of plain shock. Brushing it off as hopefully a one-off incident we checked ourselves in and called it a night.
After a great comfy sleep we headed to breakfast downstairs. The view that awaited us on the open veranda was breathtaking. The majestic River Nile lay before us with a spectacular backdrop of lush fields and The Valley of the Kings.
Being December the temperature was just right and hovered around the mid 20s. The breakfast was great with an assortment of Egyptian foods as well as western. After soaking in our peaceful scenery for a spell we only had to step outside of our hotel to find a guide and driver. We only had 2 1/2 days to really explore the area and wanted to make the most of it.
Mohammed (aka. Showgi) was our driver and he cost us E£250 per day and our guide Mando was E£150£ per day. They were both really nice and professional. Most importantly Mando spoke good English, which was a bonus since our Arabic was absolutely nada.
First off they took us to the Valley of the Kings to see some of Egypt’s famous tombs. On the way there we passed through some of the town. The dusty streets were bustling with people going about their daily business. We passed a number of horse drawn carriages called calèches. They were all beautifully decorated but unfortunately mostly empty. With the country’s current situation tourism was pretty low.
As we ventured into the beautiful lush countryside we passed many weather beaten faces of hard working farmers hauling the day’s harvest by mangy looking donkeys. Ladies congregated in groups dressed head to toe in traditional black flowing abaya cloaks and head covering niqabs. They sat along riverbanks some with babies in arms.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Valley of the Kings. A lone road meandered through huge jagged mountains of pale limestone stark against the bright blue sky. Mando said the limestone was one of the main reasons the royal tombs were built there. It’s perfect material for carving and it also has great durability. That was blatantly obvious once we entered the tombs and saw the excellent condition they were still in after so many thousands of years.
We paid E£80 each to see 3 royal tombs and another E£100 to see the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Then we paid a small fee to catch a little train to the main tomb area. On the way in we saw a replica of the area. It was amazing how many tombs had been discovered, 63 so far and each descended deep down in the earth with long corridors and multiple chambers. Unfortunately due to some photo indiscretions a few years back all photos were banned in the area.
Walking into the tombs was easy, just like strolling down a hall. Only this hall’s walls and ceilings were covered in beautiful ancient carvings. Some even still bore their original colors. We were able to see tombs 3, 4 and 6 before seeing the most popular long awaited one of King Tutankahmun.
Most tombs were empty due to either tomb raiders or because their contents were being kept safe in museums. We thought King Tut’s tomb was the best and well worth seeing. His tomb wasn’t as big as some of the others but that was mainly due to his untimely death at the young age of 19. His small fragile mummy still lays there, teeth and toes still intact. That was so incredible to see!
We loved exploring the tombs. The whole experience was a bit mindboggling really and hard to take in the entirety of it all. There is so much history there and Mando did a great job of trying to fill us in as best he could.
The only negative I had about the place is that at each of the tombs were these old male caretakers. I found most of them to be pretty creepy with their intense leers and pushy attitudes, trying to get tips by offering some random history lesson or even allowing a pic for a price (which I didn’t even consider out of respect for the people’s choice). A few of them also thought it okay to touch me (not again!) And I was covered! I couldn’t even imagine what they say or do to some of the Russian women who visit wearing only their skinny tank tops and little skirts.
For lunch Mando took us to this little outdoor restaurant located not too far away from the valley. It looked pretty rustic but authentic and that’s what we were looking for. Before settling in we agreed on a set price since we know from previous experiences that most of the places tourists are taken to are usually known ‘Baksheesh’ places (meaning the drivers get kickbacks for bringing clients) and if you’re not careful you could end up with an overpriced bill. We agreed on E£130 all up for two.
There were so many delicious dishes brought out like Tahini, fresh baked breads, tangy cucumber tomato salads, chicken shish kabobs, beef koftas, fragrant rice and Egyptian baked beans. It was a feast fit for a king! And all of it was absolutely delicious, we couldn’t have asked for more.
After lunch we went for our last sightsee of the day to Hatshepsut’s Temple located beneath the cliffs in Deir el Bahari. Although a woman, Hatshepsut ruled as king during the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. She accomplished this feat with not only her charm but also by claiming her father was the god Amon.
A long line of smooth pale stones made up the scenic walkway to the terraced stone temple. At the entrance of the temple stood a line of giant statues standing stoically with arms crossed. Inside the temple were elaborately decorated rooms with ancient paintings and scripture telling stories of days of old. It was a beautiful place and learning about her story made it that much more special, she was quite an incredible lady with many accomplishments.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we finished our tour. We decided to spend the rest of the day chilled out back at our hotel’s pool. It was a wonderful place to relax overlooking the River Nile. Egyptian ships called Faluca’s lazily drifted by and every now and again we’d see massive river cruise ships. For our next trip to Egypt we’d love to take one of those and travel to Aswan, we’d heard great things about it.
Rob was surfing the net reflecting on some of the places we saw that day and found out that the temple of Hatshepsut was where the 1997 Luxor massacre happened. On that tragic day a group of 6 Egyptian Islamist terrorists overtook the temple and systematically killed anyone in sight. Their siege lasted 45 minutes before they fled into the hills and were later found after reportedly committing suicide. In the end 62 people in all were killed, 58 of those were tourists. What a horrific event! We had no idea of this incident and there is nothing in memoriam that we saw. I suppose it’s something they would rather forget?
The Egyptian sunset was just as vibrant as we remembered, coupled with wonderful smoky scents that lingered in the air. Every now and again we would hear the Call to Prayer. What started off with a rather melodious chorus soon became a mixture of shrill and off beat tones. It was an unnerving sound that I think would have made a great sound effect to a suspenseful movie.
The next morning after breakfast we met Mando and Showgi for our last sightsee. We asked Mando about the Luxor Massacre and immediately his face became very solemn, it was not a good memory for him. It was a very dark day in his city’s history, one he did not like to dwell on. He said he was on the other side of the mountain that day in the Valley of the Kings and heard gunshots but didn’t know what was going on. He said that only two days after the incident the temple was open for business again, but of course no one came and it remained that way for at least 3 months.
Our first port of call was to the famous temple of Karnak. To get to the main gates we had to walk through a large bazaar while being bombarded with pushy vendors. We found their selling techniques extremely annoying (that applied everywhere), which was a shame because I saw a few things that caught my eye. But just the thought of having to deal with that aggressive attitude was a complete turn off. Oh and me being harassed (again) with lewd comments and uncouth touching certainly didn’t do them any favors.
Karnak is Egypt’s second most tourist visited place after Giza and is the largest ancient religious site in the world. It covers a massive area so even though there were heaps of tourists there was plenty of room for us all to comfortably roam around.
The temple is extraordinary with a grand entryway lined with sphinxes. Inside we entered a magnificent area called The Great Hypostyle Hall where 134 gigantic decorated pillars cover an impressive 5,000m2. It felt like standing amongst giants, they made us all look miniscule in comparison.
Karnak is super rich in history being built by a number of pharaoh’s over a span of 200 years. There were so many incredible things to explore. My favorite spot was the Festival Hall of Thutmose III. Immense thick pillars stood throughout the room with swirls of warm colors blanketing the room, that space was absolutely amazing!
Our next stop was to the Luxor Temple. Our driver took us there and as soon as we pulled up our car was immediately surrounded by yep you guessed it – more vendors. This time I finally verbally lost it when some guy shoved a map in my face while going for a cheap feel of my chest. Before the guys could do anything he was gone. I did my best to brush off that gross incident and headed into the temple … unfortunately really steaming by this point.
I have to tell you it was an odd feeling going from absolutely livid to pure astonishment in just a matter of seconds but that’s exactly what happened to me as I stood before the Temple of Luxor.
Standing on either side of the entrance stood two ginormous statues. They were both extraordinary pieces and of likes we have never seen. Each of them had been meticulously carved out of one massive piece of stone. We were completely mesmerized to say the least.
Continuing forth Mando gave us a brief lesson on the temple’s history. Inside were grandiose stone courtyards surrounded by towering pillars. I could just imagine the elaborate parties that were held there. Splendidly decorated with fine statues and kingly riches.
While we were there a group of local school kids arrived. They were each separated into two groups of boys and girls. Each of the boys had a cell phone and asked if they could take pictures of us and also with us. The girls giggled happily and asked the same, they were all ecstatic when we said yes. Such cute and happy kiddies, it was so good to see and hear their joyous laughter.
For lunch Mando suggested another one of his restaurants, this one was located right downtown. To get there we walked through Old Market Street. That was a really interesting place and we got to see how the locals shop. There were all types of goods for sale. From handcrafted bowls, brightly bejeweled clothing, fresh produce and big flanks of meat on hooks, you name it that place had it all! We got a lot of stares again but also warm smiles.
The restaurant we went to was called Oum Hashim. It was on the shabby side and we had to climb a set of dirty stairs up to a small dingy dining area. We had our fingers crossed we weren’t going to get food poisoning (please oh please!). As soon as we sat down we asked for the menu and were given an English one with what I’m sure were their ‘special’ prices, but it was okay since it all seemed reasonable.
Mando left us to enjoy our lunch and that we did, that was until the waiter decided it was okay to get friendly with me. I really don’t understand how ‘some’ of the men there can think that kind of behavior is okay??!! I’m more than sure if the tables were turned a little touchy touch to their wives wouldn’t fare so well. Then to top it off we got given a bill that was over double what we were supposed to pay! Damn Baksheesh!
Well we weren’t having any of it and immediately sought out Mando and told him how unhappy we were about the whole situation and that we refused to pay that price. I’m sure that this incident didn’t bode so well for him but tough, he needs to learn not to try one on tourists. The aim is to want people to come back right? In the end we paid what we were supposed to and got out of there.
Once back in the car we confronted Mando about what happened and also asked his opinion about the disrespectful comments and touching I’d been experiencing and he was lost for words. With a rather sour taste in all of our mouths we went to see our last sight, the Luxor Museum. There was so much tension you could have cut the air with a knife. After taking a few very deep breaths we did out best to clear our minds to try and appreciate this last stop for the day.
The museum was nicely done with modern nuances throughout. I was most fascinated by a well-preserved wooden chariot on display that was found in King Tut’s Tomb. They also had a great mummy display and one of them still had its hair! The museum wasn’t very big but it packed a punch with all of its impressive artifacts. I would definitely recommend a visit.
Tensions had somewhat eased as we headed back home. We exchanged handshakes and our thanks to Mando and Showgi. We really hated the way things ended, it’s a shame when you think you have a good rapport with someone and they ruin it with one stupid gesture. I hope Mando learns from this in the future and stops taking clients to Baksheesh places…I’m guessing probably not.
By the time we got back home it was still early in the afternoon but by then we’d had more than enough for the day. The last few days felt like we were on some kind of crazy emotional rollercoaster. It certainly took a toll on us especially me and I was so done. I was more than content to just sit around our hotel.
The next day before our 3 o’clock flight Rob went for a small walk around Luxor. He said he fared a lot better being just a single male on his own and wasn’t bothered nearly as much as the previous days. He actually made a few friends along the way and one in particular touched his heart. It was a man who drove a calèche for a living his name was Hussein.
With the economy being so bad he alone supports his divorced sister and her kids, his own family and his parents. So for Hussein it’s a pretty tough life and hard to make ends meet. He asked Rob what his dreams were and said, “I bet you wish to retire and travel.” He hit the nail on the head there. Then he said his was “just to exist.” Pretty stark differences if you ask me.
In the end Rob bought a ride back in his calèche for E£30. On the way to the airport Rob wanted to say goodbye to his new friend so we got our cabbie to make a quick pit stop. As you can imagine Hussein was surprised to see him and even more surprised to receive a pair of Rob’s runners and an envelope with a letter that he was told to open after we’d gone. There actually wasn’t any letter but US$50 (about E£300). Hussein was going to have a Willy Wonka moment and hopefully be at ease to feed his family for a few days.
Back on the plane we had time to reflect on our Luxor adventure. We figured once we wrapped our heads around all the frustrating negatives we were more than grateful for all the wondrous things we saw in just that short amount of time. I refuse to let the bad habits of a few ruin it for the good of the many. We look forward to exploring more of Egypt’s treasures hopefully next time on the River Nile – Insha’Allah.
This travel diary has been written by Machalle Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!