Wednesday, February 19, 2020


I arrived in Egypt on December tenth in order to meet up with RC again (we had previously met up in Malaysia and Singapore). Unlike in earlier countries or with previous traveling companions, neither of us knew what we were doing or how to avoid the hoards of scammers we were assured were about to pounce on us upon our arrival. Given those factors (and some planning fatigue), we decided to hire a tour company. Unfortunately, we did not end up with the best coordinator.

Now that I’m typing this, I wonder if this marks the start of a run of general bad luck for me. Upon arrival, before I had a chance to decompress from flight, before I had even seen the room, I was told to pick what optional activities we wanted to do over the coming two weeks (and pay for them in cash on the spot). With a list of strange names and no information, I picked a few cheap options and went on my way. The coordinator was perplexed that we weren’t doing something every hour of every day - both RC and I like to relax and, say, swim in the hotel pool every once in a while. Crazy, right?

On the morning of our first full day we got up and explored the Great Pyramids of Giza. They were expected; we were whelmed. Don’t get me wrong, if one hadn’t grown up seeing them and hearing about how amazing they are and seeing pictures of friends and relatives standing and posing and whatnot, I’m sure they would have blown my socks off. As it is, however, they’re what every flyover shows. Amazing - a wonder of the world - but as seen on TV. Naturally, this was followed up by souvenir shops where our guide got kickbacks.

We had a free day at the hotel, where I made the mistake of going in the pool. I lasted about a minute before hypothermia started to set in (an exaggeration) and spent about an hour in the sun like a fleshy lizard trying to warm back up. Of special note, at this hotel we encountered one of our first Characters in Egypt. In between bouts of describing his love for America and for his dog, our bartender would mimic shooting himself from various angles. Any mention of hardship would elicit at least three gruesome shots, with “duck-hunt dog” chuckles in between.


Our tour package was a south-to-north Nile cruise, so, naturally, we flew south. We met up with our fantastic guide and went to Philae Temple, which was the first time I’d seen an Egyptian temple up close. This was the experience I thought I’d have with the pyramids - or even the Parthenon! It was absolutely astounding - a skyscraper in sandstone. The temples I’d eventually see were all monumental stone buildings covered in hieroglyphs, some taking up several city blocks.

In the case of the first temple, it took a boat ride to get there, as it was on its own island in the middle of the Nile. It was phenomenally interesting - the tour covered how temples were divided into public, private, and priestly spaces, each smaller than the last, creating a sort of triangle pointing toward the most sacred space in the temple. We also learned a little about Egyptian mythology and about later Christian uses of the temples as hideouts.

After visiting the temple, we made a beeline to the cruise ship and got settled in. The next day, we hopped on a sailboat for a bit, then a motorboat collected us off the sailboat and took us to a traditional Nubian village. It was interesting and colorful and RC bought a ton of spices to take back to the US.

At some point we started sailing (motoring?) up the Nile, which was its own experience. I’m sure you know, intellectually, that the Nile is a river that has two strips of vegetation on each side and then desert / desert mountains beyond that, but it’s another thing entirely to see it. It was amazing to think that an entire civilization grew and survived on this thin strip of arable land. Humans are amazing.

We had an overnight stop at another temple - the only temple in Egypt dedicated to two gods. The Egyptians apparently felt they should do something to placate the god of crocodiles, but also didn’t want to make it seem like they were giving that god special attention, so they split the temple down the middle - the other half being dedicated to the sun god. This temple also boasted a Nile-o-meter (taxes were based on how high the Nile rose in a year and this pit measured that) and a museum of mummified crocodiles.

Some more cruising and we arrived at the last boat stop - Luxor. We wandered around the “smaller” temple (“only” a city block) after sunset and watched a belly dancing (and spin-dancing?) session on the boat. Then came an extremely early morning where we packed into a hot air balloon and floated above the city with a dozen Chinese tourists. That was wonderful and I’d highly recommend riding a hot air balloon should you ever get the opportunity.

After the balloon trip we went to the Valley of Kings and wandered around some tombs. We didn’t do King Tut’s tomb, but would see all the stuff they pulled out of it when we went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. All the workmanship and human effort that went into digging, carving, and painting the tombs was something to behold.

We hit another temple or palace or something near the Valley of the Kings, which was impressive, but my attention was flagging after the early wake up. After that (and some coffee at a statue dealer), we went to Karnak temple - the big one! The grounds alone were huge - the temple itself was astoundingly massive. Perhaps indescribably big, with scores of monstrous columns inside, all covered in hieroglyphs. This temple alone is worth the visit to Luxor.

We spent the afternoon on the boat, being lazy, and flew back to Cairo in the evening.

The second stab at Cairo went better than the first. We upgraded our accommodations to the Ramses Hilton, which was well worth it - the hotel was nicer and much more central (and had a heated pool!). Over the next few days we variously relaxed, wandered around, and occasionally saw a sight.

The Egyptian Museum was pretty fantastic, though it had a lot of information to absorb and we didn’t have enough time to absorb all of it. The highlight, of course, was seeing King Tut’s burial chamber and all the things contained therein. The… death mask? was particularly impressive - despite seeing it countless times in pictures, it was cool to see it in person and see the workmanship inside and out.

As part of the same tour on which we saw the museum, we wandered in Old Cairo, which included old Christian and Jewish places of worship that were beautifully decorated. After Old Cairo, we went up to Saladin’s Citadel and took a bunch of photos of both the big mosque and the pyramids that were visible all the way across the city.

On our own, we saw a small palace with some absolutely hilarious taxidermied animals, had lunch in the Cairo Tower, and wandered through a botanical garden. Someday I’ll post pictures, as any description has fallen short.

Eventually it was time for RC to leave, which also meant I had to find different lodging. We said our goodbyes, RC endured another round of dealing with the tour company, and I made my way to a different part of town.

I spent my final week or so in Cairo exploring bars and cafes, visiting the library, and watching the new Star Wars movie in an empty theater. I should write a short story about waiting in line at the Egyptian post office on Christmas, but that should probably be saved for after I get caught up on the travel blog.

There was one big expedition outside the norm - I hired one of the guys from the hotel to take me up to Alexandria. In theory, I was going up to see a new city and do all the normal exploration. In reality, I just wanted to go check out the Library of Alexandria. I’ve done more for less - hell, my trip to Adelaide was spurred in pursuit of a piece of plastic (a “hotstopper” from Hello Internet). I’d heard of the Library from a talk given by Ishmael Serageldin to the Philosophical Society some years earlier and it’s always been on my map.

Alexandria was an impressive city in desperate need of a coat of paint. The Library was astounding, though I wrote an uninspired poem. My “tour” also included a fortress (neat) and an old mosque (neat). If I were to do it again, I’d spend a full day in the Library.

I’ll throw one special mention to three friends I met in a bar who decided I needed to take an immediate impromptu gastronomic tour of the city. I don’t know what all I ate, but it included fried sheep brains. It would have been easier to roll instead of walk by the end of that night.

My flight to Tunisia had me leave Egypt with the same taste in my mouth as I had when I arrived - annoyed with the pushy and the incompetent. That said, I’m glad I went. I left Egypt on December 26.

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