Luxor, Egypt

December 20

We waved good-bye to Jordan and sailed for the port of Safaga, situated at the centre of  the Egyptian Coast on the Red Sea.  We gathered at 8 a.m. and were shepherded onto the dreaded coaches, clutching our overnight cases for the three-day land visit to Luxor.  The trek from the port to Luxor took 3.5 hours, with lots of  stops at checkpoint stops along the way where unsmiling men carried fearsome weapons patrolled.

We passed vistas of flat deserts, barren mountains as well as fertile fields.

(By the way, about a week after we left Cairo, a roadside bomb struck a tourist bus and killed fourteen tourists from Vietnam.  Like our coaches, these tourists likely also had an armed guard on board their bus but how anybody protect you against a random bomb? This will definitely hurt Egypt’s slowly recovering tourist industry. But then I guess that was the terrorists’ intention.)

The moment we reached our hotel we were scooted into a banquet room where a buffet lunch awaited.  An hour later, feeling somewhat refreshed we scurried back on the buses (there were five coaches and we always travel as a convoy) for the ride to Karnak Temple.

Our guide, a woman named Vivian, a passionate Egyptologist, had all the facts at her fingertips, and made them interesting. It helped that she had a warm and lively personality as well.

Karnak did not disappoint. Dedicated to the gods Amun, Mut and Khonsu more than 2,000 years ago, we gaped at the dozen, 80-ft columns which form the central aisle of what’s known as the Hypostle Hall. The Hall covers an area of fifty-thousand sq. ft. The tour lasted almost four hours, and worth every minute.

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A dozen giant columns form the central aisle of the Hypostle Hall, which covers a 50,000 sq ft area

 

December 21

The visit to the Valley of the Kings and the West Bank was even better.  I’m proud to say I descended into the tomb of King Tutankhamun and met the boy king in the (desiccated) flesh.  Lying in his glass coffin, he does look like a boy, and has very, very long toes. The contents of his tomb, like the many others that have excavated in the valley, are scattered around the world.  We got a chance to see some of his wonderous golden coffins, famous solid gold mask, and jewels in the Cairo museum.

The hieroglyphics inside the other two tombs we saw were remarkable.  However, it turned out I passed on the most remarkable of all because of the $60 U.S. entry free:  the 137-metre elaborately decorated tomb of Seti I, who died in 1190 BC.  However those who weren’t as cheap as I am said they would have paid double the price, it was that beautiful.  (How could I have known? We’d already seen so many tombs by then.)

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The next stop that day was my favourite: the mortuary temple of a remarkable female pharaoh called Hatshepsut.  She reigned for almost twenty years, and like her male predecessors she wore the ceremonial beard of a male ruler.  Her temple is wide and low; it hugs the earth, unlike the soaring pyramids, columns and obelisks the men erected to honour themselves.  (No surprise that her male successors did their best to erase her from history by scraping her name off monuments and inserting their own.)

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Temple of female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, in Luxor.

After that we had an entire free afternoon. Three of us decided to walk to the local souk, which the hotel staff had told us was a mere twenty-minute walk.

It was a harrowing experience.  From the moment we stepped out onto the street we were assailed on every side by horse and carriage drivers, taxi drivers, little boys selling post cards, men wanting to escort us across the street for our protection.

The most aggressive one, a fellow horse and carriage guy, followed us almost the entire way with his incessant sales pitch–the souk is much too far to walk to–alternating with helpful directions about how to get there, which we didn’t trust for a moment.

Much, much later but before we found the market, we finally got rid of Mr. Horse-and-Carriage but not before I lost my temper with the man.  By this time he’d been dogging us for forty minutes.  I stopped dead in the middle of the street.

“I’ve bloody had enough! Leave us alone. Go away,” I shouted, my arms waving.  I just couldn’t stand it one more second. Not one more second of his wheedling.

He looked down as though ashamed.  “Sorry, madam, sorry.”  We resumed walking.  But Mr. Horse-and-Carriage didn’t leave. Not until he was good and ready, which was another ten minutes.

No sooner did the horse man make a U-turn than a man on foot attached himself to us.  Another endless monologue, offers to take us to the best “cotton” store, etc. etc.  “You can trust me, madam.  I am Coptic Christian. I work for the Church,” he said, pointing somewhere in the distance.

Ignoring him, we found the souk, although he stuck to us like a barnacle.  When we stopped at a T-shirt place, one of several hundred storefronts, he gave the store owner the impression he’d brought us and when I bought a T-shirt the shopkeeper gave him a commission.

“Why are you paying him,” I asked. “He didn’t bring us here.”

“I don’t want any trouble madam,” he replied.

The fun was just beginning at the souk.

I have never felt so assailed in my life.  The merchants, sometimes half a dozen at a time, trying to snag your attention as you make your way down the long, long aisle between the shops. If you have the misfortune to show interest in any of their wares, the sales pitch heats up in a serious way. They do their best to lure you into their small shops with promises of “no hassle.”  Inside, you don’t get the chance to look at anything because they’re pulling out this, and that in rainbow colours. If those don’t suit they follow you out the door making other suggestions.  If you have the misfortune to want to buy something then comes the exhausting haggling. No matter what you end up paying, you walk away feeling like you’ve paid too much.

I didn’t dare take any pictures at the souk for fear I would have had to pay the owners of the shops I happened to snap.

We left the souk with relief. Too exhausted to walk back to the hotel we opted to take a taxi.  First came the haggling with the owner of the rust bucket called a car. We settled on $3 U.S for the seven-minute drive.

We got in, gave him the name of our hotel and off we went.  Ten minutes later we realized the driver had no idea where our hotel was situated (a five-star, for gods sake).  Luckily, we had maps.  Off we went again.  Turns out he couldn’t read maps either and he got lost again until he finally stopped a real taxi driver to asked for directions. So we made it back okay.

I had a nap before dinner.

After Luxor we spent the next five days at sea, a really good thing, too, because by then I’d developed a nasty chest infection, as did forty others in the next day or so.

My Christmas turkey came with antibiotics and a cough expectorant.

Next stop:  Oman

Jordan

December 17, 2018

Our ship departed Ain Sokhna, Egypt, on Dec. 17, sailed along the Gulf of Suez, into the Red Sea to the port of Aqaba, Jordan, where we stayed overnight.

Early the following morning some 200 of us hauled ourselves into our designated coaches for the two-hour inland trip to the ancient city of Petra.  Built by Nabateans (one of many Arab tribes) around 300 BC, Petra thrived well into late antiquity thanks to a lucrative spice trade.  The city fell into ruin after an earthquake around 500 AD.

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Excavation and reconstruction of Petra is ongoing led by Brown University.

Today, a kilometer-long walk through a narrow natural gorge leads into the breathtaking sight of a monumental tomb (100 AD) known as the treasury thanks to an old rumour about hidden gold.  Deeper into the heart of the partially excavated city you find the remnants of what was once a colonnaded street and a temple nestled protectively between giant red mountains. The mountains also served as their tombs and you can see the entrances of dozens and dozens of them as doorways cut out of the living rock.

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The tomb, aka the treasury. More tombs have been found beneath the structure.

After several hours of wandering about we headed to a buffet lunch at a big hotel, where I lost my hat, followed by the inevitable two-hour shake-and-bake on the coach back to the ship.

 

December 18

I declined the optional desert excursion to Wadi Rum (in old jeeps, for godssake) in favour of sleeping in then spent the afternoon shopping in Aqaba, which is where I met Tony.

His shop was no more than 300 square feet and seemed to contain millions of items covering every surface.  Jewelry at the front, old stuff at the back (some of it looked like it had been excavated that very morning) and fabric goods piled up along the perimeter of the floor.

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Tony followed me around telling me his life story as I tried to take everything in. He told me his family had come from Crete a couple of generations ago, and that the store had once belonged to his grandfather.

He offered me tea (I declined), told me he’d taken a liking to my face, that I was like a sister to him and as such would give me the best price if bought anything.

I ended up choosing three small items, a silver and turquoise bracelet, a brass and stone pendant and a porcelain ornament.

The bargaining began at an astronomical $100 U.S.

“What? I thought I was your sister!” I cried.

“Okay. Okay. Eighty. I make no money but I give it for eighty.”

Back and forth we went until we’d agreed to a price less than half the original asking, but maybe still too much.  As I handed over the money, he grimly announced he was taking a loss.

When I god back on board ship someone had, good news.  Someone had found my hat.

We moved on to our next port of call, Safaga, Egypt.

 

Egypt

December 13 to 15, 2018

So, I’ve been on board the ship, the Aegean Odyssey, for eight days now.   On day 2 my greatest fear came to pass:  rough, rough waters and seasickness, requiring a visit to the nurse and an injection.   It knocked me out for 12 hours and by the time I woke up all was calm again.

Since then we sailed down the Suez Canal, disembarked and were hauled to Cairo on coaches where we spent the next three days being bussed from place to place.  The city is home to more than twenty million and its roads clogged with four million cars.

You can imagine the congestion day and night. It helped that our convoy of buses (we’re about 200 people on the ship) had a police escort from the port to our very nice hotel, the Marriot, where we were greeted by a five-piece band wearing Pharaoh outfits as we staggered off the buses. (The average age of the ship’s passengers is around 70.)

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The Pharaohs greet us as we arrive at the hotel in Cairo 

During those three days we did all the tourist things:  the Cairo museum (a spectacular new one is being built closer to the pyramids but won’t open until 2020.)  But the old one was wonderful, too.  We went on a weekday and the place was packed with local school kids (not to mention wall-to-wall tourists like us) who chased us around wanting to talk to us until museum personnel chased them away.

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Entrance to Cairo museum

The following day we were bussed to Memphis (capital of the Old Kingdom where the forty-foot-tall  statue of King Ramesses II was unearthed) and Saqqara, the vast necropolis of Memphis, to see the well-preserved stepped pyramid of Djoser built in 2700 BC.

As if that wasn’t enough activity for one day, that evening we had cruise on the Nile, which included dinner and “folkloric” dancing. The entertainment was great fun but had more in common with Las Vegas than folklore.

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Cairo city lights from as seen from our barge on the Nile

The next day, of course, came the pyramids in Giza and the Sphinx.

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Also interesting was my encounter with the clerk who ran the tiny pharmacy in the hotel.  Here’s what happened:  I went down to buy some toothpaste.  The guy behind the counter started flirting with me.  He kept asking me where my husband was, which made me laugh as he was about forty years my junior.  And he talked and talked until finally he accepted the twenty-Euro note I gave him. It was the only currency I had, left over from Athens.  I was so tired I didn’t even look at the change he gave me.

Sometime during the night, I realized he’d cheated me.  The toothpaste cost about forty Egyptian pounds.  He should have given me about 350 in change but he’d given me only 155 pounds.  The idea that he must have considered me a stupid woman, without her husband standing by, and ripe for cheating infuriated me.  The next morning, I marched straight to the tour operator.  Together we went to pharmacy (the same guy was on duty) and got my money back.

I used that money toward the purchase of very pretty gold ring.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

From Cairo we were driven (yes, by bus) to the port of Ain Sokhna, Egypt, on the Gulf of Suez.  I was glad to get back on the ship.  We remained docked there overnight for an excursion the next day to visit a pair of Coptic monasteries, founded by the followers of hermits of St. Anthony and St. Paul of Alexandria around 400 AD.   A resident monk took us around in each monastery and told us their stories.  Alas, our group was so large and the things to see many, in sometimes narrow spaces, that the tours took a lot time and little time remained to wander aimlessly to draw in the spirit of the places and feel the texture of stone buildings warmed by thousands of years of desert sun.

 

Then it was back to the bus for the two-and-a-half drive back to the ship.  I’m starting to hate that bus but there’s no other way of seeing these places.

Tomorrow we go to Petra.

 

Athens

After enduring two delayed flights (Toronto-Frankfurt-Athens) and an hourlong bus ride from Athens airport to Grand Bretagne Hotel I fell into (very comfortable) bed and stayed there for twelve hours until breakfast at 6:30 a.m.  Walked into hotel restaurant still dopey, headachy and hardly seeing at all. Waiter brought silver jug with coffee.  I drank one cup and a second one before the light in my head came on.  At which point I looked up and finally noticed the sight looking back at me through the wall of windows.  It was still dark but in the distance stood the Acropolis with the Parthenon lit by floodlights from below.

I ate my scrambled eggs (okay, I also had a mini croissant, a small slice of custard pie, and some kind of cookie) without taking my eyes off the site.

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Later in the day our group went up to the Acropolis where I stared up at the momumental columns slack-jawed before walking to the nearby Acropolis museum to visit the Parthenon gallary where original blocks of the Parthenon frieze and much more is on display.

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As to the people, on the whole, Athenians do not seem particularly friendly towards strangers.  Big city busyness, I guess. However, when I came out of the pharmacy and stood staring at my map to figure out how to get back to the hotel, a woman with a dog (of course!) approached me and helped me find my way.

I also have to make a confession now:  I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant tonight.  I have no excuse except that I longed for vegetables and knew I’d get still-crisp broccoli there.

Until next time.