Thursday, 6 December 2007

We got up and got ourselves packed and downstairs by 2:30am, and while we were a little groggy there’s something exciting about getting up while it’s still dark outside and heading out into an unknown land. There were people awake all over the hotel, sitting in the lounge having drinks or just chatting. What were these people doing at 2:30 in the morning? Does this happen everywhere we go, and we’re just never awake to see it? It’s like there’s a whole other world out there, filled with people who stay awake until the wee hours of the morning and hang out in hotels.

The airport was full of people doing just what we were doing, and by the time we got off the plane in Abu Simbel there were reams of tour busses that had beat us to it. Azza explained that it’s cheaper to take the bus from Aswan to Abu Simbel, but it takes 10 hours roundtrip with a police escort through the desert. I was glad we were able to fly.

The temples were amazing. There were two, one to honor Ramses II, the other his favorite wife, Nefertari (not Nefertiti). Both of these temples were moved when the dam was built to create Lake Nasser and they were threatened to be buried in water. They were very meticulous in moving them, they built an artificial mountain, consisting of a concrete dome, then cut every rock from the face of the original setting and transported it to the new spot. The temple of Ramses II was originally built so that twice a year, the sun would shine through the door and illuminate the statues of the four gods in the back. Only twice a year. This still happens, only it’s a day earlier than it was before the move.

There are four giant statues of Ramses II outside the temple. They are enormous, it’s hard to believe they were built so long ago. I can’t imagine the ego of Ramses, to build such a colossal monument to himself (it’s a temple to the gods, but Ramses is all over it, and since he considered himself a god, this makes sense). Inside is a little creepy. It was really hot, as we made our way deeper into the stone temple, giant statues lined the main corridor. It would be a really scary place to be at night, all by yourself, candles flickering across their huge faces. Murals were drawn on all the walls, depicting Ramses making offerings to the gods or defeating his enemies, and hieroglyphics wrote mysterious things across the walls.

Back in the late 1800’s, the statues were not guarded very well and they are now riddled with graffiti. Things like “1875 Lecaros” are written across their giant toes and enormous torsos. People were able to write way up on the chest of the giant Ramses statues when they were still mostly buried in the sand after being lost for centuries.

After the temples, we took a bus back to the airport, and hopped on a plane for a thirty minute ride to Aswan. There was a fairly large tour group that was also heading to Aswan, it contained several families with kids. Two girls, maybe seven years old, were sitting in front of Nate and Benji on the plane, and Benji started bugging them, pushing down their armrest, and then giggling. He was flirting with them!

As we were exiting the plane, one of the girls asked Benji, “What are you staring at?” and Benji, non phased, just grinned. He is not used to rejection by those of the female persuasion, and did not recognize their attempts to dissuade him. I think this is probably part of his charm. They ended up checking into the very same hotel with us, and Benji made sure to go over and say “hello” to them. One said, “Hi”, and then when Benji told her we were staying in the same hotel, she said, “Uh-oh.”  Clay talked to their tour group leader on the plane and he said that we were going to see them again in Luxor in a few days. I don’t think this girl saga is over.

We stay one night in Luxor, at the Old Cataract Hotel, before heading out again. I was excited to stay here, because Agatha Christie stayed here and part of her novel, Death on the Nile, was based here. It’s a beautiful old hotel, a grand old lady. Our rooms had shiny wood floors that squeaked and creaked when we walked across them, giant wardrobes and beautiful views of the Nile river outside the windows. I imagined it would be just the sort of place to inspire Agatha Christie. When we arrived we walked out onto the elegant terrace, where people without travel clothes on were sipping drinks and enjoying the cool breeze. A very old woman was sitting on a couch, dreamily looking into space, and I imagined she felt the very same way I did. It is a grand hotel.

After a rest at the hotel (we were only able to get Nate to sleep, the other two just wouldn’t go even though we’d just spent two nights ago on overnight plane and last night getting up at 2am), we went to the Nubian Museum, where Azza spent a considerable amount of time describing just who the Nubians were. It was 6 o’clock, we were all a little tired and Nate was especially groggy, we had to wake him up from a nap before we left. When she was done with her fifteen minute lecture on the Nubians, she said, “So, now you know who the Nubians are,” and Nate said, “Who are the Nubians?” We all cracked up, even Azza, I was glad she wasn’t offended. She tries to temper her talks to the kids’ level, but now and then she goes on college lecture auto pilot. She is so chock full of information, and I doubt she has children on her tours very often.

The Egyptian kids are really interesting. We first encountered them at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and again at the Nubian Museum. They are fascinated with us, especially Alayna. They come up in little giggly groups and always ask the same question, “What is your name?”, followed by “How old are you?” Azza says they are practicing their English, and runs them off with great impatience, though I can tell Alayna would like to try to talk with them. She smiles at them from behind Azza’s back and answers their questions when she can. It’s funny to me, they know about as much English as I know French or Dutch, the two languages I half-heartedly studied, two years each. It is so far from what you really need to be able to get along in a foreign country.

After the museum, we decided to find a grocery store for dinner. We were in no mood for a long restaurant meal, a picnic on the floor back at the hotel would be just right. Azza found a good spot, and I hopped out to get the provisions while the kids waited in the car. I found some good staples, like Laughing Cow cheese and yogurt, as well as some more interesting products like dates wrapped around almonds, and “Pieces of Dolphin”. This was a brand of tuna, we just cracked up at the name. Clay and I were intrigued by the Coke cans, which had the old-fashioned pull tabs, instead of the modern fold back kind. We actually saved one, it’s weird what you forget about until you see it again. I felt old and wise as I showed it to the kids, as if it was another ancient artifact. “Now this is the way Coke tabs came off when I was a little girl.”

I mixed up the tuna with some mayonnaise in a wine glass, it was the only receptacle available, and we feasted on our grocery store dinner, then shook our towels out through the open window. Not a very “grand hotel” sort of thing to do. People “dressed for dinner” sauntered by through the wide corridor outside our room. Nate loves these wide corridors, they offer a great long place to run at full speed. I wonder if Agatha Christie ever slipped off her sensible, old lady shoes, and made a quick dash down the hall, just for fun.


Friday, 7 December 2007

We went to bed at 9 last night, and woke up at 8 this morning. This helped to recalibrate all our wacky sleeping habits, and we were packed and ready to once again depart when 10am rolled around. It’s hard to leave these beautiful hotels without really getting to know them, I especially loved this one with it’s amazing views of the Nile, the filmy curtains that blew over the shiny wood floors when we opened the windows, the heated pool that we never touched. It had great character.

We all clambered into a felucca, a sailing boat with a crooked sail and two young men who navigated us down the Nile. We passed water buffalo, egrets and herons, and a long caravan of camels headed into the desert. It was a beautiful morning, a gentle breeze and blue skies, and the ride was a very pretty one as we passed islands and interesting ruins and giant rock cliffs or sandy hills. It was mostly orange on either side of the Nile, not the lush vegetation I had expected, though here and there was a smattering of green.

As we approached the end of our ride, one of the sailors brought out a bag full of merchandise. Uh-oh, here we go again. The endless haggling and pestering were still fresh on our psyches from Morocco, and we were weary of it. He brought out many beaded head coverings for women, with longs strings of beads that went down around the edges, and a beaded hat on top. When Azza said they wanted $2 for one of them, I almost fainted. Two dollars! Now these were reasonable prices. She had mentioned that in a few nights there would be a “dress up” night on the cruise, where everyone would be wearing Egyptian clothes. Alayna and I really loved picking out the perfect hats for ourselves, and look forward to dressing up in a few days.

Our final destination was a Nubian village, where we were told we would visit a real Nubian “home” and be invited to tea. I was pessimistic as we entered this “home”, a sandy courtyard where twenty or so tourists were already milling about, sipping tea and looking nosy. Azza insisted the Nubians were very kind and loved to offer tea to guests and give them a peek into their lives. Of course there were women selling bracelets and little woven hats for the boys, Azza bought each of the boys a hat, her treat. 

In a small container were some baby crocodiles, Azza said they often keep these as pets. The kids were enchanted, and I assured them we would not be taking one of them home for a souvenir. They had two other containers, each containing crocodiles of different sizes. A strange pet, it seemed. As we climbed some stairs to see the roof of this home, I began to wonder if it really was someone’s house. There were beds up there, and they looked as if they were used. Down below again, we peeked into the kitchen, where a box of laundry detergent and other signs of real living were neatly piled in one corner. Azza mentioned several times that the Nubians are very clean people, and she was right. The rooms were all swept, and the courtyard was sandy but clean. Our kids enjoyed drawing pictures on the sand while we sipped some tea, and I’m sure they would love it if we decided to put a sand floor in back home.

I left a little less a pessimist, I think it really was a home we visited. I think they have found a way to make a little money, and I was envious of the simplicity of the way they live. It is not hard to invite people into your home when you have so little to put away and clean. All they needed, they had. We noticed two large clay jars on our way out, with buckets underneath. Water was slowly leaking through the bottom of these jars, and we asked Azza what they were used for. She said they are the perfect way to store water. The water wasn’t leaking, it was condensation that formed outside the clay. The heat is transferred out of the water through the clay. As the water condenses and drips off the jars, the water inside becomes cool. And sediment in the water settles to the bottom. So they have a ready supply of cool, clean water. The Nubians have been using them long before refrigeration and still use them today.

We got back on our boat, and headed to the cruise ship we’ll be staying on for the next three nights. As we motored down the Nile (we had switched from the Felucca, which couldn’t handle some of the stronger currents and thin passageways), Nate asked about the itinerary. Again. All the kids are constantly asking “What are we doing today? What now? What next?” It’s hard for them, with no routine or place to call their own. Today, Nate said, “I like it when we stay in a place for a little while, and when I come home I know which bed I will sleep in.” I think they will have a real appreciation for their own home and bed when we get back in May.

The cruise ship is great, we’ve got cabins right next to each other and a balcony we can hang our wet laundry on. Once again, I don’t think this is classy cruise behavior, but we got to do what we got to do. We’re always a little excited when we get to change clothes and wash the travel ones that have had three days of wear settled into them. We had lunch, and all our preconceptions about cruise ship food was verified, the lavish buffets and eating until you bust. No weight will be lost on this portion of the trip. After lunch, we hopped into a van with Azza and visited a nearby temple. Yes, this is still Friday.

The Temple of Philae is located on a manmade island in the middle of the Nile, once again a temple that was moved so it wouldn’t be flooded with the advent of the dam. It was huge, we walked between two rows of giant columns topped by lotus flowers and palm leaves. As we approached, we noticed that one wall had well preserved carvings of Iris and Osiris in low relief, while on the other side of the entrance the carvings had been defaced and barely recognizable. Azza explained that the Christians came in and defaced many temples dedicated to gods, then using the temple as a Christian church. On this particular temple, they began by chipping away at the statues, but on the other side of the entrance they just covered the entire wall in clay, so that in modern times people were able to remove the clay and uncover the mural still intact.

As we walked into the interior we noticed several pictures of the gods where their faces had been covered by carved crosses. This opened all sorts of great discussion for later on, was it okay for the Christians to destroy these temples if they were tempting others to worship other gods? Were they wrong in destroying something so impressive that humanity had built, even if it was to worship other gods? And what does our God think about all this? We certainly don’t have all the answers, but it’s good discussion.

As we were leaving, Azza told us about some marks we saw on the outside of the temple. All along the side were gouges in the stone. I guessed maybe they were ways to count, they looked like tick marks, and the kids guessed that it was the Christians destroying another part of the temple, but we were all wrong. When the temple was used to worship the Egyptian gods, worshippers would wait outside the temple on the side, waiting with their animals to sacrifice. As they waited, they would sharpen their knives on the rock, and then take the crumbling rock that fell off back home with them for their local priests to make into amulets. It was easy to imagine what it must have been like, a dirty, hot, bloody place with animals bleating and lowing and the metallic sound of knives sharpening against the stone.

We took a ferry back from the island the temple was built on to the car, making a quick stop to buy us all some cheap galabias (same as Moroccan jellabas, pronounced “gal-uh-BAY-uh”) for a dress up party they’ll have on the boat tomorrow night. Clay opted for a burnt orange galabia, since he could wear it for all the UT games back home. Alayna and I are giddy that we’ll get to wear something new, even if for one night, and the boys looked like little Lawrence of Arabias in their white turbans and light blue galabias.

That afternoon we also stopped on both of the dams that were used to create Lake Nasser, the old dam and the high dam. The high dam was really impressive, Azza told us that the amount of concrete and rock used to build it could have built seventeen pyramids the size of the Great Pyramid. As we got out of the car to take some pictures, I noticed the armed guards posted along the bridge. This place can be dangerous, and the dam could be a real target. It always makes me feel a little shaky to see men in uniforms walking around with automatic rifles tucked casually under their arm.

Our driver for the day had an uncanny ability to make bird sounds, he chirped from the front seat and impressed us all. He could also snap with fingers I’ve never seen used for snapping, we liked him a lot. Azza gave both boys a chance to use the microphone that plugged in up front, and they got to play tour guide. Nate especially hammed it up, saying “This is Nate Davis with CNN news, here with Dr. Azza . . .” and then bursting into his rendition of “God Bless America” as we rolled down the dusty, busy streets of Aswan.

We had one more stop before going back to the boat, a perfumerie where they make oils from the essence of flowers. This stuff is a lot more potent than the perfumes we see back home that have been mixed with chemicals and alcohol, so they last a lot longer and are a lot stronger. I never was much of a perfume wearer, and we had flashbacks to uncomfortable rug sales pitches back in Morocco, but it was kind of fun to sip mint tea and hibiscus tea and smell all the different smells, using different fingers to test each one. We did buy a small bottle of peppermint. When mixed with boiling hot water, just ten drops in a small cup, all our nasal passages were cleared up. It’s often used for people with allergies or sinus infections, and we figured we could always use some back home in allergy land. We also got small bottles of frankincense and myrrh, we figured we could use them next Christmas to show to Sunday School classes and maybe burn at home. I’ve looked for them before in the states, and never could find them.

We finally arrived back on the boat, where we were greeted with a steamy hot towel to rub on our hands and face, and then got an hour to ourselves to kick back before dinner. We washed some more laundry and the boys checked out the upstairs sundeck, where there’s a very tiny jogging track. It won’t be good for a real workout, but it works great to sprints to time the kids. I could hear them thundering back and forth since our cabin is on the fourth floor, just under the sun deck. The pool was too cold, we are experiencing the first few days of an Egyptian cold spell, which is very mild but not quite warm enough for a swim unless the pool is heated. We headed down for dinner, where everyone made it to dessert except Benji, who curled up in his chair and fell asleep. As we were finishing up, he sat up straight, his eyes still closed, scratched his nose and attempted to open his lids, but they never quite made it, then curled back up. It was pretty cute. I scooped him up and we all went to bed, skipping the Nubian show downstairs. It was a very full day, and we have an early start in the morning.

Being on this boat is kind of like being at camp. You get a schedule under your door that tells you when you get your wake up call, when you eat, and when you leave and come back to the ship. We aren’t really used to this dictated schedule, we’ve worked hard to make our own plans these past few months and it’s hard to let go and let someone else do it for you. While we feel a little like rebels with our laundry swinging in the breeze on our porch, we are officially part of a tour, and at the mercy of the schedule. This may be the only way to really see all these temples and ancient sites, but part of me wants to jump ship and find a small fishing boat, and start rowing away, making our own plans and adventures. The thing is, the buffet on the ship is awfully nice, and this bed is way more comfortable than a fishing boat. I think we’ll stick with what we’ve got, we can always come back to Egypt someday and get our fishing boat.