Sand, tombs, pharoah’s revenge: minimooning in Egypt

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NB: I wrote this last year and never published it because I forgot. Better late than never.

First of all this post is dedicated to my travel adviser and Egyptologist Karen, whose fantastic recommendations really helped make our minimoon special.

I’ve always wanted to visit Egypt but never thought we would be able to afford it. But we got a great deal by waiting until a week before the wedding to book our minimoon. Plus it was such an exciting contrast to wedding planning which I was so over at this point. Frak, a year and a half of planning, instead google some places. Decide to go to Luxor. Book it. Less than a week later land in Luxor. Brilliant! I ace at planning holidays.

Due to University commitments, we decided to save our honeymoon to Cuba til next year. But we still wanted to take a week to decompress and unwind. HWSNBN and I can rarely afford to travel abroad so I really wanted our minimoon to be epic. Hot, relaxing yet also an opportunity to stretch our cultural horizons: Egypt was perfect. Plus it gave me the opportunity to cross Africa off my continents list and you know how I feel about crossing things off lists.

So the two days after getting married we boarded the plane to Egypt. The plane was so deserted that once it took off we could have sat with a row each. (We didn’t obviously, we were on honeymoon and contractually obliged to be ridiculously lovedy dovey at all times.) Although summer is traditionally the slower season (too hot for the tourists) this was my first sign of how much the Arab spring plus the recession in the UK was effecting Egypt’s tourism. The lady we sat next regularly visiting Egypt a couple of times a year and said both Thompson and Easyjet now only flew once of week instead of the half a dozen flights they used to charter a couple of years ago. She was amazing helpful and gave us the lowdown on what to do and what do avoid, how to haggle and the most common scams to avoid.

The case of the missing suitcase

We landed just as the sun set affording us a beautiful view of the brightly coloured lights of Luxor crowded either side of the black expanse of the Nile. As we walked down the plane steps the heat hit me like a blow. Nothing can prepare you for how hot Egypt is. The kind of arid heat that dries your sweat before it even has a chance to cool your body. It’s not the hottest place I’ve been to, that would be Alice Springs Australia. Or the most uncomfortably hot, step forward Bali, Indonesia. But Egypt was definitely in the top three hottest places Rowan has visited.

At the airport as we queued to buy our visas, some rather frantic Egyptians wandered up and down the queues holding up clipboards with different names on them, including ours. As I went to step forward HWSNBN motioned me back. The plane lady has already warned us about the visa scam where you are taken aside to buy your visa from a special (read: expensive) visa desk. After we bought our visas we identified ourselves to the transfer guy. He was incensed. ‘You bought the wrong visa. You will have to buy another from my friend.’ We insisted we were fine. ‘You will not get into the country.’ We did.

As we queued at the baggage carousel the Scammy Transfer Guy was STILL insisting we had got the wrong visas. HWSBN quickly found his case but although there was a suitcase that looked very similar to mine, mine was not to be seen. With a sinking feeling HWSNBN, I and the Scammy Transfer Guy stared at the suitcase that was not my case making its lonely way around the concourse. I should at this point tell you about the argument HWSNBN and I had when packing. This is not unusual as I get unaccountably vicious whenever I have to pack. I am a bad packer. I hate it. When we went travelling HWSNBN backpack consisted of neatly folded items with things he needed in a hurry like boots or an anorak towards the top of the pack. Mine was a jumbled chaotic mess which slowly decreased in size as I left items scattered behind me like the slowest undressing race ever throughout Australia and New Zealand. Which lead to me having to unpack and pack my backpack every night as I could never find anything (because it was either a) lost forever in the red dust or b) crumpled at the bottom of my pack). Anyway I digress, the argument started because HWSNBN advised me to pack a change of clothes in case my bag got lost. Because I am a bad packer, I ignored HWSNBN’s advice. All I had in my hand luggage was my passport, wallet, an eye mask, bottle of water, four books, trashy magazine and gum. This was going to be the best Project Runway challenge ever!

So we stood there: me minus my suitcase and HWSNBN valiantly trying not to say I told you so. At which point we were approached by Helpful Airport Guy. We explained the situation. ‘Ticket. Passport’ I handed both over. He examined them and then the suitcase. ‘This is your suitcase?’ No, it was very similar but it was not. Scammy Transfer Guy asked the same question. ‘It looks like mine but it’s not.’  Airport Guy asked again. ‘This is not my suitcase’. He checked the tickets against the suitcase. He checked again. Finally he pronounced ‘Madame this is not your suitcase.’ I concurred. In a whirl of activity Helpful Airport Guy disappeared with the bag that was not my bag and my passport. Fifteen minutes later, I was officially beginning to freak out. It was late night, I was hot and sticky after travelling all day and the Scammy Transfer guy was still blabbering at us about how we went to the wrong visa desk, and I had no luggage and now no passport. (Because I am S.M.R.T. Who gives their passport away to a random airport official? Kids don’t do that.) I made a decision. I could cry here in the middle of the airport or I could go to the toilet, calm down, and maybe as if by magic when I got somebody would have found my suitcase. When I emerged like a guardian angel Helpful Airport Guy was there. ‘Come with me’ We followed him outside and there was my bag and a rather stoned looked bag abductor who would have gotten a shock when he opened the suitcase and found maxi dresses instead of megadeath t-shirt. I was so relieved I could have hugged Helpful Airport Guy. I settled for shaking his hand lots as HWSNBN gave him a large tip.

Our first hour in Egypt for me defined the two sides of the Egyptian people. The vast majority were warm, welcoming and went out of their way to be helpful. But because of poverty, desperation and in some cases greed, you had to be careful of being scammed. It’s really sad that the latter tend to make you so suspicious of the intentions of the former.

Rules of the road

Then tightly clutching my suitcase (‘We will never be parted again, baby.’) we were hustled into the mini bus taking us from the airport to our hotel. As the Scammy Transfer Guy tried to convince HWSNBN that we should use him for all trips, uh nope. I got chatting to the lovely L and V, friends who were holidaying together. In the mini bus was the first time I got a glimpse of Egyptian traffic which was terrifying. In Luxor as part of the traffic calming measures there are speed bumps. Egyptian drivers solution to this dilemma is to swerve over to the other side of the road into the path of the oncoming traffic avoiding the speed bump and then swerve back. Headlights are used sparingly, to flash other drivers, the street lights relied upon to see by. Hooting party buses passed us both sides light up to look like a disco ball/wideboys dream that charter people too and from the villages. Horns are tooted to say a) hello b) goodbye c) get out the road d) all the time. If you asked d) you’d be right! In the middle of the grassy verge between lanes of traffic sat groups of men, smoking hookah and debating. I couldn’t help but notice conspicuous in their absence were the women.

Our mini-moon haven

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Our hotel was on the edge of Luxor away from the hassle of the town. We passed the lines of taxis queued outside and drove into this green haven on the banks of the Nile. It was the perfect oasis of calm I needed to relax and unwind recommended by the lovely Karen. Now as everybody who is newly married knows one of the benefits is being able to drop the H-bomb with impunity. I had already told the airport clerk, lady sitting next to me on the plane, the air hostess, Helpful Airport Guy, Scammy Transfer Guy and L and V. But when it came time for me to check in I started to get a bit embarrassed. If I said that we were on honeymoon would it make it too obvious I was angling for an upgrade. But HWSNBN was nudging me ‘We’re on honeymoon.’ I not so casually dropped into conversation with the receptionist. ‘Yes, there is a note on our system.’ Karen has already taken care of this for us. This is because Karen is officially awesome. Just like that we were upgraded to a suite and as we were all inclusive we also got blue plastic wrist bands to wear. I felt like royalty albeit with questionable taste in bracelets.

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We dumped our bags in our room and headed for the buffet at the restaurant. Despite being close to last servings the food was plentiful each night themed around a different cuisine. Predictably English night was the worst. I was worried beforehand whether there would be enough choice as HWSNBN is coeliac and I am vegetarian. Yes, we are officially the couple you least want to invite to dinner. But there was lots of different options. The chef even made special dishes for HWSNBN. AMAZEBALLS. After dinner we flopped at Carters Bar. I being sadly unable to hold my liquor chose water. HWSNBN opted for a series of cocktails the size of his head. There we were regaled to some truly odd renditions of popular songs by the weird singer caterwauling. Including our first dance song (SQUEE!) Then it was time for bed. (In one of the best beds I’ve ever slept in. I wanted to take it home with me)

Nile cruise

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Our first day we had one plan to acclimatize ourselves to the heat. This was the theory at least. Later in the week we realised the only way to get shit done in Egypt was wake up mega early, do stuff, then retire back to hotel when it hit the mid 40’s at around 10am 🙂 As we had arrived late at night we really wanted to see Luxor during the day and locate ourselves geographically. Our hotel had twice daily shuttle buses into town and a shuttle boat. We picked the boat and sat on it all the way into the centre of Luxor and then back to the hotel (much to the captain’s confusion). It was perfect seeing Egypt from abroad the Nile. The ibis birds pecking among the reeds, which was so exciting as I had only seen them in hieroglyphs before. Small children cooling themselves by splashing each other in the Nile. Most people seemed to get around by water taxi’s like ours. White boats with brightly painted details called amazing names like Midnight bliss, Desert night and my personal favourite Titanic! It was so deserted our captains even allowed HWSNBN to take the wheel for a while.

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This was our second glimpse that everything was not right in Egypt. Along the banks derelict cruise boats were parked up in lines, their windows empty and shuttered. Later that afternoon with V and L  we formed a plan to visit the no-hassle market (hah). To get off the boat you had to walk across other people’s boats in one long chain to the shore ‘helped’ by a mob of little kids. On another occasion when making our way across the bridge of boats I stepped in the Nile. Ewh!  We stopped briefly to refresh ourselves at the Winter Palace which was like something out of Agatha Christie novel. Before deciding to walk the ten minutes to the no hassle market.

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This was a mistake; a) it was very hot, b) pavements in Egypt as cracked strewn with rubble and with kerbs not built for my squat little legs c) as tourists in the down season and with the current political problems we might as well have been wearing signs that said Hassle Me! Immediately we were mobbed by taxi drivers/ horse carriage drivers/ felucca and street sellers. The noise as they tried to attract our attention was incredible. In the middle of this hubbub we were approached by Fake Gardener from our Hotel who advised us to get a taxi to visit the no hassle market and to find the cigars HWSNBN was desperately hankering after. Later I realised we were recognisable from our all inclusive wrist bands (each hotel had a different coloured wrist band) and this was a classic scam. Exhausted we negotiated a price and were off. Except not to our destination but to a shop where Fake Gardener also got a commission, then again not to the market but a pharmacy.

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Every time we stopped crowds of children as young as four gathered begging for money or food, which was so tough. By this point we were getting really fed up and asked us to take us back to the Winter Palace. A block or so away the taxi driver said that as it had been over an hour (actually it was 40 minutes I had been timing it) the price of the ride 2 quid (already more than we had been told to pay) to 60 quid. Proportional not. We all got out of our taxi’s and started walking while the taxi driver and Fake Gardener followed us shouting at HWSNBN as he tried to negotiate. In the end he threw at tenner at the taxi driver and fake gardener who had started shouting at each other while we ran into the Winter Palace. We hid inside while the driver lurked outside and made threatening gestures at us until the mini bus came. Looking back I can see at as an adventure but at the time I was so worried for our safety. Back at the hotel we learnt our experience was not unusual. Another couple at our hotel went outside the hotel once to visit the market. Rookie mistake, visiting an Egyptian souk as a westerner is like wearing a sign reading: hassle me, I am a rich tourist. They came back and refused to leave the hotel for the rest of the week. An attitude I really didn’t understand: why visit Egypt is you’re not going to see the tombs, the temples, the Nile? (Not only did I see the Nile I fell into it, because I am starring in my own chick lit book.)

Pharoah’s revenge

On our second day HWSNBN got Pharoah’s revenge. Before we went we had read lots of advice such on avoiding salad, fruit, and ice, and to only drink sealed bottled water and be obsessive about hand sanitising. And we were. But in the end every European person we met got Pharoah’s revenge sooner or later, what mattered where the degrees. And HWSNBN in typical all or nothing style got Pharoah’s revenge so badly he was placed on a drip. The hotel were amazing organising a Dr, negotiating a fixed price and sorting the Dr out  when he mysteriously tripled the price. Yeah, the doctor tried to scam us.

So the second day he spend in bed only emerging for the El Mouled Festival a traditional night of Egyptian food and entertainment (whirling dervish! Belly dancers!) on the lawns by the side of the Nile.

Karnak temple

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The first thing you need to understand about Karnak temple is that it was built for the pharaoh’s living god’s and is built to suitably godlike proportions.

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We visited for the sound and light show in the evening where the temple and hieroglyphics was lit up while a cheesey 80’s voiceover played.

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Shutting out the voiceover just the size and scale of Karnak is awe-inspiring. And I would definitely return.

Misogyny in action

One of the only upsides about Egyptian attitudes towards women is that HWSNBN got hassled by streetsellers, taxi drivers, barman while I was ignored. I found it very difficult. In the taxi back from Karnak with L and V the taxi driver asked HWSNBN ‘Are these your wives?’ Like Papa Lazarou, except less funny. With all other women and the majority of the men being so covered up I did begin to feel conscious of my body. I do feel it is important to be respectful and did cover up outside of the hotel, which many tourists didn’t (hotpant lady I am talking to you). But as a feminist I do have issues about the assumptions that underlie this cultural practice. Without getting too political if you are so incited by a glimpse of my ankles really you’re the one with the problem not me. End rant/

Balloons P1080035We’d never been on a hot air balloon. So we decided to take a (relatively) sedentary exploration by air before we took on the Valley of the Kings the next day. We got up at 4.30am and were taken in a mini bus into Luxor.  There we boarded a boat over to the West Bank (ai!), then a mini bus to a large dusty airfield. It was still dark the Nile slide like silk past the boat. Breakfast was a delicious Arab Twinkie. (American’s explain the big deal about Twinkie’s to me, because I do not get it). In the ‘airfield’ the balloons lay their brightly coloured discarded carcasses lying in the sand. Our pilot, who was amazing, let off a kids balloon to see about air direction. The reason they fly so early is because later in the day it gets too hot for the balloon to rise. With the extra heat provided by the burner in the centre of the balloon even at 5am in the morning I was sweating.

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As the balloon made it’s swaying process upwards I watched the ground drop away from us. Below were hundreds of discarded blue bottles littering the entrances to the tombs like black sunken eyes in the bronze hills. Ahead were the sandy hills cradling the Valley of the Kings, behind the Nile snaking between the green and verdant fields and eastern Luxor. From above you could really see why Egyptian towns were tied to the Nile and the fertility it provided. My favourite thing was the noted Egptologist Carter’s house sat alone on a hill.  If you do one thing when visiting Luxor take a balloon ride. It was absolutely magical.

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An hour later we began out descent heading down into the fields as our pilot tried to steer us between telegraph poles and towards the road. Bracing ourselves in the landing position we overshot hitting the edge of the road before crashing into some bushes the basket tipping on it’s side. As we regained our breathe and the balloon guys wrapped up the balloon I noticed we’d created an Egyptian traffic jam of two guys with the donkey and a beaten up car. In celebration of not dying in a bush the ballooners tempted HWSNBN and me into a honeymooner dance. Then it was back to hotel for breakfast and bed at 7.30am.

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Towel animals

It started with a swan accessorised with Egyptian cigarettes. As the days progressed the towel animals got more and more elaborate. On our last day we gave the biggest tip if only to make the uncanniness stop.

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Egypt is…

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The uncanny delay of the morning prayers floating over from the West Bank to the East Bank

Baking searing heat that saps the will from your bones. The heat arising from the hot stones like an embrace.

Palm trees

The slow, slumberous beauty of the Nile

The beautiful calligraphy of written arabic

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Drunk foreigners cackling in the pool

Every evening before dinner we would sit in the Sundowner bar watching the sun set over the Theban hills. Twilight seemed to last about five seconds as the light levels drop from seeringly bright to pitch black. At night the Valley of the Kings was lit up with an unearthly green light and every night I would think three days til I can see the tomb’s, two days, one day.

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Valley of the kings

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We’ve visited the Mummification Museum (GROSS) and the Luxor Museum (FASCINATING) it was time for the Valley of the Kings. (NB, they don’t let you take your camera inside hence the lack of tomb pics). Unfortunately the day we went was the day I came down with Pharaoh’s revenge. Ugh. Now if you have every been to Valley of the Kings you will know that it one of the worst places to feel ill. Apart from the tombs, recesses cut into the hill, it’s just a valley snaking between the hills and a corrugated shack under which all the Europeans huddle in the shade. One of the fellow guides said come 2pm even he is dripping sweat in the Valley of the Kings.  

But all I had ever wanted was to see the tombs and by golly was I going to do this. We had a guided tour with a fantastic Egyptologist who talked us through the history. Basically the tombs were built in the Middle Period after the Early period equivalent (the Pyramids outside Cairo) had been deciminated by grave robbers. To the ancient Egyptians the pyramids was the connection between mortality and immortality. The valley was chosen because of a pyramid shaped mountain and contained the tombs of the kings, queens, nobles and my favourite the craftsman.

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Outside the entrance to the tombs is a diagram of the topology and the tombs burrowing beneath them showing you the scale of the work. Even the priests didn’t know where previous tombs were and often tombs had to be abandoned because they accidentally bisected other older tombs. As a anti-graverobber strategy it failed as all except Tutankum tomb was ransacked. One of the reasons they believe his tomb wasn’t discovered was because another tomb was built over the top of it, effectively hiding the tomb. In fact Carter only discovered the tomb by accident. One of his water jugs cracked in the heat and the mule got stuck in the mud. As they dug the mule out they discovered some steps. Digging down further they found an unbroken seal. Carter telegrammed his sponsor and waited 21 days to open the tomb! When they did, legend says they were so overwhelmed by the gold they tore Tutankamun’s body to pieces 😦

Back to the tombs you were allowed to visit three and not allowed to take photos inside. I can’t really describe what it was like descending into the cool darkness. It felt unreal, that we were finally able to see the brightly coloured paintings, drawings and burial chambers I had always dreamt of. Inside some of the tombs was early Christian graffiti. My awe was slightly lessened by the Egyptian guy who looking for a tip started pointing things out on the walls like a game of say what you see. Except he was  touching the walls. Dude, no! 

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After this, we stopped at the Valley of the Workers. Rameses the I created this village to stop the workers returning to their homes on the East Bank and gossiping instead they were segregated in their own village on the West Bank. On their monthly day off they would build their own tombs. There was something very joyous about the bright colours and images on a stone mason and his wife surrounded by their prize possessions. These tombs were a claustrophobics nightmare. Think a tiny tunnel with small steps that even I, Queen of the Shortarses had to crouch down. It was the highlight of our trip.

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Bye, bye Egypt.

It was time to go home 😦 With a weird sense of completeness as we checked our baggage we ran into Helpful Airport guy. ‘My friends’ he said embracing us and with a beckoning finger we skipped the security queues and boarding queues and we whisked onto the plane. For a moment I totally felt like a rock star.

This was our first trip to Egypt and I hope not our last. I would definitely return.

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