Saturday, 8 December 2007

The boat took off with a lurch this morning at 4am, on its way to our first stop, the temple of Kom Ombo. I woke for a moment, then drifted back to sleep, to be awakened at 6am by Clay’s funky phone alarm that plays a terrible calypso wake up song. By 6:45 the boat’s occupants were gathered, ready to exit and explore the temple. Azza is a private guide for our family, so while the big groups jostle each other, trying to get close enough to hear their guide, we’re lucky enough to make a small circle around Azza and learn all sorts of interesting things.

Some of the carvings are medical instruments showing that Egyptians knew how to do a pregnancy test and brain surgery, and there were some dusty mummified crocodiles that were pretty cool. Remnants of color linger on some of the detailed reliefs that decorate all the walls, and I wonder how brilliant it must have all been once upon a time. This temple was dedicated to two gods, who were temporarily calling a truce from their incessant fighting.

When we returned to the boat, we had breakfast and then a free morning until the next stop. The kids found some friends up on the sun deck, when I went to check on Alayna she was surrounded by five kids (two of them her brothers), and she looked like a camp director as she got them playing games and sat them in a circle while she told them a story. One girl in particular, a four-year-old named Cecelia with curly locks, really loved Alayna and sat on her lap protectively. She wanted Alayna all to herself. She’s lived in London for the last two years of her life, but was born in Mexico. The smallest of worlds, her older half-brothers go to UT!

Clay and I watched the Nile scenery slip by. Women washed their clothes or worked in the small fields on either side of the river. These fertile fields only stretch a short distance before being overcome by rock and desert sand. A boy about Nate’s age steered a fishing boat beside our massive cruise ship, his little brother and a tangled fishing net in the prow. Little kids sat on the banks of the river and waved hello as we passed by. “We” being not just our ship, but a long chain of cruise ships all traveling the same route, almost tip to tip. It’s comical, seeing how many people are doing what we’re doing. It’s like we’re in a vast machine, grinding tourists through the trail of temples and sights along the river. The ships honk their horns at each other, and vie for position at the docks. We’ve passed through four ships to get to the land, and Azza said when it gets really busy you can pass through eight or more boats, they stretch across the entire span of the Nile as they dock and unload their passengers.

We marveled that the people who live along the edges of this tourist trail still seem so excited to see us, waving and calling out. Part of me wondered if they were all just props, placed there so we could take pictures and pretend we had seen rural Egypt, kind of like the Truman Show. The water buffalo and egrets and heron released right on cue as we came around the bend, and little kids hurried to take off their jeans and pull on their galabias before the gig was up. I know this isn’t true, people really do live their everyday lives along the Nile, their simple lives colliding with ours for a moment in time.

We reached the Temple of Edfu, parking next to only one other cruise ship, with many more in our wake, preparing to dock. We all disembarked, following Azza and her pink umbrella. Guides are known to carry things so their group can find them easily, Azza has carried a pink umbrella on our trip. She got it at Disneyworld and it has her granddaughter’s name, her name, and a picture of her cat on it. Some guides carry antennae with ribbons on top, giant sunflowers, or even plastic light sabers.

We took a horse and buggy to get to the temple, Clay and the boys got in one and Alayna, Azza and I got in another. Our horse was pregnant, but Azza explained that the driver’s livelihood depends on giving people horse rides, and he gives her two helpings of alfalfa to keep her healthy. There is a clinic in town that he takes his horse to, he is actually given perks if her takes the horse in on a regular basis and all visits and procedures are free. It is a charity set up by someone to take care of animals in countries all over the world, making sure they get good health care.

We felt a little bad when the driver began urging the horse to go faster so we could beat Clay’s buggy, Azza told him in Arabic to “take it easy”. Benji got a turn on his buggy to drive the horse, he didn’t seem fazed by the people, busses, and cars that crowded around them and whizzed past at high speeds.

The temple of Edfu was impressive, it is the best preserved temple from Egyptian antiquity, and still has most of its walls and ceilings. One of the main problems these days are the birds, they chip away at the hieroglyphics and carvings to make nests in the walls, you can see evidence of their droppings staining the walls and they are constantly chasing the pesky creatures away and restoring bits of the wall that have been destroyed. We found the first ever comic strip on a wall outside the temple, they showed a progression of Hathor and Horus trying to defeat Seth, portrayed as a half hippo, half crocodile. Azza said that the carvings represented the fact that in Egyptian mythology good and evil will always battle, it will never end. This is much different than our Christian perspective, that good will triumph over evil in the final days.

We were inundated by people trying to sell us things as we entered and left the temple, from galabias and little hats to jewelry and scarves and strange little violin instruments. A man who called himself “Cassanova” made us promise to come and see him, and when Clay returned to try and get a hat he liked (to match his UT orange galabia), he told Clay it would be 120 Egyptian pounds (more than $20). He knew what they were worth and Cassanova finally agreed to 10 pounds, and left disgusted that he “gave” the hat away for so little. We knew it was a fair price, it is what they were selling them for at the last temple, so we weren’t too concerned. Just a little angry that he tried to take advantage of us. Clay said he would have paid more if the guy hadn’t started by trying to get 12 times the fair price.

We returned to the boat for a really late lunch, and were looking forward to a free afternoon in front of us. Cecelia found Alayna and played with all three kids in their room for a couple hours. She is an adorable little girl, with bouncy curls and dark brown eyes and a charming lisp. At one point Alayna came into our room, a little tired of her four-year-old playmate who was perfectly content to play with Benji. They made quite a handsome couple, running back and forth playing some sort of game of their own invention. We went up to the sundeck, Alayna hooked up with one of the older girls, and we tried out the semi-hot tub. We are all very sad that it is too cold and windy to use the pool or sun deck upstairs.

As dinner approached, we all showered and donned our new galabias. I felt like I was playing dress up as I slipped on my beaded hat and a little curtain of beads fell all around my hair and across my forehead. Alayna also had a beaded cap and a pretty white galabia, and the boys looked adorable in their blue galabias and white Arabian scarves on their heads. Clay was dapper in his burnt orange galabia and skull cap, we could have passed for an authentic Egyptian family. Kind of.

After dinner, we headed to the lounge for some entertainment. The most entertaining thing we saw were the kids running around the dance floor, waiting for everyone to show up and dancing to popular Egyptian dance music. It had a pretty good beat, and Nate had the most itchy feet of all, he loved clapping and stomping and spinning around on his back. Once the other grown-ups arrived things got a little dicey, with imitation belly dancers and the beginnings of inebriation among the older set. There was a table set up with “prizes” that would be offered later for the winners of some games, and our kids were keen on winning, but we just couldn’t keep them there any longer. We headed out around 11 and tucked everyone in, including ourselves.


Sunday, 9 December 2007

While we slept last night, our boat entered a lock and dropped down 15 meters. I was sad to miss it, I heard at breakfast it happened around 3:30am. We had a busy morning, after docking in Luxor we got in a van with Azza and headed to the Valley of the Kings, stopping to see the Colossi of Memnon on the way. These were two giant crumbling  statues, rescued from a temple that is underwater. It helped us to appreciate the first temple we saw, at Abu Simbel, where the statues still had all their features and a temple to boot. Azza had told us we were seeing the best first.

This was our first chance to really travel any distance in a car in Egypt, and it was fascinating to see the green fields, so lush from the Nile, with workers hoeing, tossing out a rock every now and then. I was reminded me of the fields we had seen in Morocco, the fields given to the rural Berbers by the government, so they’d have a place to settle down and try their hands at farming. The land in Morocco was harsh, more rock than anything else, we passed a small, cleared field every now and then surrounded by the rocks that had been removed to try and find the soil. The fields we passed now were rich and black, few stones and enormous cabbages or sugar cane wherever we looked.

We also saw more armed men than anywhere we’ve been yet. It made me uncomfortable to drive past these men, wielding their powerful-looking guns under their arms casually. Were they sure the safety was on? They didn’t seem very friendly, they glared from the side of the road or from towers, where they leaned out the window, keeping an eye on all the activity, including us.

We arrived at The Valley of the Kings, where a pointed mountain resembling a pyramid resides over more than 60 tombs, new ones found every few years. Many tombs still haven’t been opened, because they have to wait until the archeologists can ensure that what they discover will be taken care of and preserved, they know of over 20 now that they haven’t unsealed. Before setting out to explore, we all had to make a trip to the bathroom. The way things are done in public restrooms in Egypt, a person sits outside the bathroom, and as you pass they hiss at you to get your attention and then hand you a meager portion of toilet paper. Like six squares, max. There is no other paper in the stall, that’s all you get. You then hand them a few pounds.

We were allowed entry into three tombs, and opted not to pay the extra fee to see King Tut’s tomb since we’d already seen the cool things found inside back at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Azza insisted that his tomb was not nearly as impressive as the others. We saw Ramses IX, Ramses I, and Ramses III. We entered each of them at a steep slant that led us underground. Paintings decorated the walls, alongside prayers that were written to convince the gods that they had been good enough to enter paradise. These prayers were later gathered together to made The Book of the Dead. The colors were pretty amazing, that they’ve lasted all these years, and yet I find all the gods pretty creepy. Their human bodies and animal heads, snakes and evil eyes and headless evil spirits being led away from the coffin.

The landscape outside the tombs was absolutely desolate, just rock and more rock. Men waited outside the tombs, eager to pounce and sell you a book about the Valley of the Kings. When we told one man, “no thanks”, he told us he would be cursed if we did not buy his book. What a sales pitch! We still said no.

After leaving the tomb, we were taken to a shop where they made things from alabaster, onyx, moonstone and more. While these little visits always have an educational element about them, there is always a sales pitch, always a feeling of obligation as you down the mandatory cup of tea and the kids get high on their caffeinated sodas. We grow weary. We are now the proud owners of two tiny alabaster cups, an egg made of onyx, a statue of Horus made from alabaster, and a sphinx made of moonstone that glows in the dark. The haggling happened, but went a little smoother with Azza at the helm. Our wallet a little lighter, but a bunch of alabaster and onyx heavier, we headed to our next destination, the temple of Hatshepsut.

This one was different from all the others, it looked like a Roman ruin to me. Hatshepsut was a female ruler, who tried to turn her little brother into a high priest so she could be the ruler. The temple has three levels, built on the other side of that same mountain that towers over the Valley of the Kings. Hatshepsut had a tunnel dug through the entire mountain to lead to her tomb on the other side. Hatshepsut was eventually ousted by her younger brother, and he had her image defaced all over her temple so the gods would forget that she had been a ruler of Egypt. They also believed that removing the nose from the statues and carvings would prevent the pharaoh from returning in the afterlife.

We left the temple, eager for the next adventure, a donkey ride. We planned the Egypt portion of our trip at least six months ago, and one of the ways we decided what we wanted to do was by finding blogs and web sites of other families who traveled here. On one of these, I read about a family who took an amazing donkey ride above the Valley of the Kings to a city called Deir El Medina, riding along narrow mountain passes and passing through lots of local color. We drove to meet our donkeys, and Azza told us she would follow along behind us in the van. That was my first clue this wasn’t going to be exactly the same kind of donkey ride I had read about.

Alayna hopped on hers first, and it immediately started trotting off down the road without us, while we scrambled to get on ours. With her donkey completely ignoring Alayna’s attempts to stop the donkey, she kept looking back at us and holding up her hands, like “What am I supposed to do?” As I hoisted myself over the donkey’s low back (there were no stirrups to help me get up) the donkey guide gave me a little undignified heave, then I was up. Clay looked hilarious, his feet were maybe a foot off the ground when he sat on his little donkey. Benji climbed on with the donkey guide, Nate got on his donkey, and we all set off to catch Alayna, who was a good ways up the road.

We reached her without much trouble, and we all began to clip clop along this asphalt road, passing a few small plots of farming land, stores, and snickering locals who found us very amusing. Every once in a while the donkeys broke into a trot and we all bounced up and down, laughing our heads off. The donkeys had names, mine was Whiskey, Clay’s was Sissy, Nate’s was Bongo, Benji’s was Mr. Donkey, and Alayna’s was Hashish (the guide said it was because it was smokin’). We traveled further and further into civilization, our van trailing behind and busses, cars, taxis and bicycles whizzing past at an alarming rate.

This was no remote mountain pass. This was a donkey jaunt down a busy city street, but everyone was having a good time, laughing and bouncing up and down and bonding with their own personal donkey. Good old Whiskey. Our ride ended at a busy intersection, where a young boy grabbed the reins of several of the donkeys and led them onto a quieter side street where we could dismount. We paid the donkey man and climbed back into the van, just a few feet behind us. Maybe not a high thrill adventure, but a break from the temples and a good time was had by all.

Next we stopped at a papyrus place where they showed us how they made, and still make, papyrus. This is a cool process, it’s amazing to see how a green stalk can be sliced, soaked, pressed, and made into paper. No glue is used, when the slices of stalk are soaked, sugar is released which makes them gummy. They are then laid in strips overlapping each other and pressed for three days, and they naturally stick together. We walked away with a cartouche for each kid, their name written in hieroglyphics on a piece of papyrus for their room. A pretty cool souvenir. We got some blank sheets of papyrus, too, and Alayna had a good idea of what to do with hers. She’s going to write a letter to give to her first born daughter on her twelfth birthday, telling her girl all about who she is and what she’s doing. She wants her letter to be passed down from generation to generation, lasting on the same papyrus the Egyptians used so many years ago. I love this idea.