Spring Break to Egypt
Trip Start Aug 11, 2007
29Trip End Jul 29, 2009
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Well it's been a few weeks and surprise, surprise, I’ve been up to my usual shenanigans over here, so get ready, set and GO!
First order of business: I’m coming back to the USA! I booked my tickets right before spring break so Inch Allah I’ll be there from July 7th to July 21st. (I’m flying in to Nashville and then back from Detroit.) So, I hope that you can mark your calendars and maybe find a way to meet up. I’ll bring pictures and stories, but more importantly I’d like to catch up with your happenings (since obviously you have been meticulously reading each and every one of these emails we won’t need to talk about Europe!)
The last week before spring break here was so typical of all weeks leading up to a break. The kids were unfocused and mentally out to lunch, but fortunately I think I was able to hold their attention enough to squeeze a couple things into their brains. In 12th grade physics we finished the course syllabus, ending with a chapter on Astronomy. My higher level physics student is known throughout the school as being very religious and so as I was explaining various things about the order of our world, solar system, universe and other cosmic things, she saw fit to question a lot of it. Finally when I had blocked away her best blows, she abruptly asked me gesturing to the board filled with descriptions of galaxies, types of stars, etc, "Mr Connor, are you an atheist?"
Shocked doesn’t quite describe my initial sentiment. She rephrased her question “You teach physics, so you believe all of this stuff?” I nearly died (and I guess went to hell?) trying to explain the amazing nature of our universe (I don’t want her to shut down on physics by saying it requires you to be atheist or something…but I said something eloquent about how by studying our world we realize that it is even more complicated and beautiful than we had ever imagined, and that it should in fact make you more spiritual) Thankfully, she was satisfied and we could conclude the lesson. This student also amusingly refers mistakenly to physicists as 'physicians.’ And who said teaching wasn’t exciting!
Thursday the school had a little Easter Egg hunt and the kids were zooming around on sugar highs while the teachers tried to haul them in for long enough to send them home in one piece for the holidays. Finally the end arrives and we have our two week spring break!!
Friday I go back in to the school to work on some more odds and ends and also use the internet since mine at home is completely kaput. It was really calming to be in the school with only a handful of teachers around and be able to really focus and accomplish some things before heading out. In the afternoon I head over to my colleague Colin’s apartment to discuss our Egypt vacation plans using the guidebooks and internet and stuff. Oh the anticipation!
The rest of the weekend is very calm and relaxed. On Sunday morning it begins to snow quite heavily (it hasn’t snowed all winter) and so I run out early with my camera to snap some winter shots and soak up enough cold air to last thru the desert heat.
Monday morning I meet Colin and we hop on a train for Cologne and a few transfers later we arrive in Cologne. We stop in the downtown area to walk around and find a place to eat lunch/dinner. We manage to finally find a place that is open Easter Monday and pop our heads into the cathedral for a second before heading off to worship the sun god in Egypt.
The vacation starts quite ironically. After we board the plane it suddenly starts to snow…western Michigan style. In about 15 minutes we have accumulated a couple of inches on the plane and the pilot announces that we must be de-iced. Well turns out that the deicers are sort of mothballed (this isn’t DTW ya kno…) so by the time they get it out of storage and de-ice the plane we are a couple of hours late.
At about 2 am we touch down in Cairo. We have to stand in some long lines to buy visas, change money (the exchange rate is 8.5 Egyptian pounds to the Euro) and get through customs. As soon as we are out the taxi drivers pounce! These guys are unbelievable as they bombard you with their offers to take you places. When we say that we are going to take the bus they tell us that there is no bus etc. Finally we break through and are able to get away from them. We start walking over to the other terminal where the cheap buses are. The night air is balmy and indicative of how warm the days will be. As we are walking we come to a police checkpoint where we try to explain that we are walking to Terminal 1 and the guard seems confused and tries to get us some English speaker. Finally everyone stops us and points to a bus that is arriving. Alas, a free shuttle to Terminal 1 that we didn’t know about…oops. Once on board we are greeted by this guy George who is an American living in Cairo and he is really helpful, telling us things about Egypt and what to look out for and importantly, where to get off the bus for the train station.
Once we get to Ramses station we have to wait around a while for things to open (it’s 4:30am) and so we sit on benches and watch the sky begin to brighten as the call to prayer comes from the nearby mosques. The amount of trash everywhere is sickening and people walk across the tracks at the station instead of the overpasses…Wow…we are in a really different place! When the ticket office opens we are able to buy our tickets to Luxor. I must say that all those criticisms I made about German trains should be taken back. This system is so beat up and chaotic. The trains themselves are quite old, there are no indications of what train is leaving when, no automated ticket/info machines…etc. When our train arrives we hop on and find our seats to be actually pretty comfy (although we were already very tired at this point) and settle in for the “11 hour” trip to Luxor. Once on the way the first sight is the Nile as we cross over it and view Cairo sprawling in all directions. The mighty river (the longest in the world) will be a theme of our trip as it has been the life-source of Egypt for thousands of years.
After traveling by train, plane, and train for nearly 48 hours we arrive into Luxor at sunset and we unload and head out into the fray. George had warned us about the tenacity of the local hotel peddlers and the guide books had said the same. We were still a little surprised. These two guys were trying to get us to go to their hotel (where they then also get a commission, which you pay of course) and they followed us for at least 4 blocks asking us where we were going and where we were from and our names and refusing to accept our no’s as answers. Finally I think they realized that we weren’t going to give in and they left us, but it was not a nice welcome to the city. However when we did reach the Nefertiti Hotel, we were happy to find that it was cheap, clean, and well located with a view of the Nile from the roof. After a quick look around town by the Temple of Luxor we find something to eat and then call it a day.
Wanting to take advantage of cooler mornings and fewer tourists, we wake up early and head to the Temple of Luxor which is just a block from our hotel. We basically have the place to ourselves as we explore our first ancient Egyptian site. Luxor is situated at the site of the ancient capital of Thebes, and hence the huge amount of tourism and sites. The temple is a sign of many things to come. You wouldn’t believe the condition of many of these things that are 3000 years old. The hieroglyphics and pictures carved into the temple walls are fascinating. Showing everything from temple offerings for Amun to battle scenes, they are clearly readable thanks to partial burial by sand and the dry desert environment. The huge statues of Ramses II and other pharaohs are awe inspiring and they dwarf the temple visitor. From the front of the temple is the Avenue of the Sphinxes which originally went all the way to the Temple of Karnak which is about 3 kilometers away, but now it is only 100 meters but still lined by small sphinx statues. The effect is lovely, especially with the palm trees as a backdrop.
We head back to the hotel to have our breakfast on the roof looking out at the Nile and across the river, the Valley of the Kings. To finish our day’s tour we rent bicycles and ride out to the Temple of Karnak. This place is probably the biggest ancient ruin I’ve ever seen. It stretches on for what seems like miles, with each king adding on his own ‘wing’ to leave his mark. Amazingly the roof is still intact in places and parts of the ceiling shows painted reliefs with brilliant colors! The pillars are quite different from the classical type and resemble local plants such as papyrus reeds and lotus flowers. Amidst the temple complex are several obelisks, a sacred lake, lines of statues to various gods and pharaohs. One of the complexes was built by Queen Hatshepsut who ruled while her son was too young to assume power. She acted as the pharaoh, building huge temples and other monuments, but when her son Tuthmosis came to power he didn’t agree with the power that she had taken. He then defaced all pictures referencing her. Some beautiful carvings are completely intact but then only the outline of Hatshepsut remains, the rest scratched out by this ancient vandalism.
I’m realizing already that attempting to describe all of these sites is going to drag on forever and be quite impossible still to relate how amazing these things are. Please check out the photos that will be online and hopefully that assists visually! Anyway, after finishing with Karnak we bike back to town to grab lunch and take a siesta. In the afternoon we bike over to the Luxor Museum which includes treasures from King Tut’s tomb as well as many other wonderful pieces of artwork and a couple of mummies. One of the mummies (Ramses I) was rescued from some hokey museum in Niagra Falls and finally brought back here. Haha.
In the evening we knew that Egypt was playing Argentina in a football friendly and so we found a café on the street to watch the game with a bunch of old Egyptian men smoking Hookahs. It was a weird atmosphere, the reception on the tv was terrible and Egypt ended up losing but it was fun to hang out and watch the game to try to feel a little more connected to the Egyptian culture. To say this place is worlds away from Europe is an understatement. The minaret that is in front of our hotel makes the call to prayer 5 times daily and the muezzins seems to compete with each other from different mosques making some weird and interesting clashing sounds. One interesting connection to home did arise though. As I was walking up the stairwell in the hotel I noticed a familiar logo stuck to this mirror: 5,000 miles from Michigan here was a Bell’s Beer sticker…I don’t think Colin understood the significance when I tried to tell him what Bell’s was all about but certainly for me I had a little bout of nostalgia for Kalamazoo.
For dinner I wanted to try something off the deep end of Egyptian food: Pigeon. Well, I guess I got what I asked for. The thing was stuffed with rice but it basically didn’t have any meat on it at all. The bits I could find to eat tasted good but the whole things just ended up being a big joke for the rest of the trip, especially when we came across pigeons. In fact I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a pigeon the same again! In general though the Egyptian food is really good. They have nice mixes of meat on a stick or grilled fish or things cooked in a ‘tagen’ which were usually delicious. Also the prices were awesome. Basically you couldn’t find a meal that cost more than 5 euros, everything included. Usually we ate for much less, and drank our weight in water daily.
With entry into the Valley, you get to go into 3 of the tombs (yes we got to GO IN the tombs!) The first one (Siptah) was a long gradual descent past amazingly preserved paintings decorating the walls until reaching the burial chamber at the end. Of course all of the tombs are now empty except for wall paintings and the sarcophagi. They are often dimly lit (we brought a flashlight) creating a very eerie atmosphere. You can imagine the funerary rites taking place around you in a tomb filled with shining gold and treasure.
The second tomb we went in was Tuthmosis III who was a famed warrior pharaoh who built his tomb to try to escape grave robbers (that was unsuccessful.) You have to climb up a bunch of steps and then descend down into a crevice to get to the entry to his tomb before descending down a very steep passage and then coming to a pit (now crossed by a bridge) and then descending another steep passageway where you reach the burial chamber. The tomb is well visited because of these difficult features making it extremely hot and humid down in the tomb. I imagine it must have been torture to build these things, lots of workers sweating down in these saunas.
You could pay a whole bunch extra to visit King Tut’s tomb, but we didn’t feel it was necessary. Most of the stuff is now in museums anyways, and we’ll see that later. So next we begin hiking up the ridge that will take us up and out of the Valley of the Kings to the temple of Hatshepsut on the other side. It is hot out, but not too bad for a short little hike. At the top the view is amazing. You can see the whole Nile Valley below, as well as the marked differences crossing into the desert on either side of the flood plain which is a lush green. It is not hard to see why the Nile is so important here… without it Egypt would simply be desert. After a quick water break we descend down to the temple, getting a great bird’s eye view of the whole complex.
The last couple of sights were the Valley of the Queens, where Ramses II’s Queen Nefertari was buried. Unfortunately her tomb is closed because of damage caused by too many tourists adding so much moisture that the wall paintings were suffering. We were however able to visit a couple of other tombs. The damage caused by tourists is quite shocking at these incredibly important sites. Each tourist apparently leaves 2 grams of water in the tombs (that adds up) and I can’t tell you how many times I saw people touching the wall paintings, resting up against the sarcophagi, and in general being incredibly disrespectful. I hope that these monuments will still be around for touring in the distant future. Also unnerving is the way that the locals trash the place, littering leaves the whole country literally covered in trash.
In the evening we grab some street food (kebabs in a roll) and watch this cultural folk festival that was going on in front of the Temple of Luxor. It was fun to listen to the Arabic music with a bunch of locals, little kids running around, and everyone having a good time.
The next morning we take the train to Aswan, further south situated near the first cataract of the Nile. The train was 2 hours late but other than that it was a smooth journey and we checked into an awesome hotel with a window on the Nile and a pool on the roof. We set out to check out some of the views of the river and visit a Coptic Cathedral that is up the street, not really used any more but beautifully decorated inside. The windows are all of yellow glass giving a beautiful yellow glow to everything inside. The Copts are a branch of Christianity that have a lot in common with the Arabic traditions, but they only represent about 5 percent of the population.
In the afternoon sun we jump in the hotel pool overlooking Aswan and the river, and it definitely felt like being at a resort. The heat here is much greater, as we are further south, and the pool is definitely a nice escape. We spend the afternoon reading and lounging before eating a nice dinner on a floating restaurant on the shore of the Nile. After this we go out on a Felucca cruise for sunset, but there was just about zero wind. It was quite hilarious as we had these two guys paddling us around to get anywhere, trying to battle these currents and really getting no where. Because the two crew guys were paddling, it was up to us to man the rudder which was a fun time because they never really said where they wanted us to steer, so sometimes they would just wave their arms, and you would have no idea what they meant for you to do. Anyways, it was a fun experience until they dropped us off and when we paid them they said we had agreed to a price based on Euros (ie they wanted the agreed upon amount in Euros instead of pounds (or 8 times as much) I wasn’t going to give into that trick though, and after insisting for about a minute, we prevailed and went back to the hotel to get to bed early.
At 3:00am we get our wakeup call for our tour down to Abu Simbel and the temple of the sun down there. Because the police insist that tourists in this part of the country travel in convoys, everyone has to get together and leave at 4:30am. So there are about 50 tourist vans and buses all lined up to be escorted through the desert to the south. While we were driving around Aswan collecting people from different hotels for our trip this one guy wasn’t sure about getting on the bus (the bus was crowded and I think he thought he was getting ripped off) but the bus driver was like “Get on the bus, or stay here” and the guy started trying to complain to him, and then the guy laughed at how serious the driver was… the bus driver responded with perhaps the funniest thing I heard anyone say in Egypt. “Are you smiling at me? No smiling in the morning on my bus!” Everyone on the bus was dying laughing and kept repeating the line for the rest of the day.
After attempting to take some pictures avoiding some of the thousands of tourists, you can go inside the temple, which was hollowed out of the cliff. The inside is spectacularly preserved since it was protected from the elements. In fact this temple was only discovered in the mid 1800s because it was completely covered over by sand until then. The statues of Ramses are absolutely enormous and you can see that it is mostly a temple to him and not actually much dues are given to the god.
On the way back we stop at the High Dam to take pictures and to see its size. The Dam itself is not that imposing looking because it is not steep, but long and sloped, holding back Lake Nasser which stretches well into Sudan. Israel threatened to bomb the dam in the 1976 war and so the whole area is covered by the military to protect Egypt’s livelihood (if the dam were destroyed Lake Nasser would wash the whole country right out into the Mediterranean.)
The last stop of the tour was the Temple of Isis at Philae. This beautiful spot which was relocated due to water levels from the old British-built dam from 1900 is reached by renting out a motorboat and cruising out to the island. We spend about an hour wandering around the site, admiring its lovely columns, temple pylons, carved artwork, and abundance of flowers.
We are pretty tuckered out after this long day and so back in Aswan we eat lunch and then laze around enjoying the roof terrace and reading. The next day is a fairly low-key one. In the morning we buy tickets for the night train at the station and then pack up our stuff and leave it at the hotel before going across the river to Elephantine Island. This island is home to a couple of Nubian villages as well as some Old Kingdom ruins. They have a cool device that measured the level of the Nile so as to appropriately tax their citizens on their expected harvests. There are also cool ruins of a city and a small museum with lots of Nubian artifacts. The Nubians are from further south and many of them had to move here when the High Dam wiped out their homes. The far end of the island is also completely fenced off and is home to a huge resort with its own private water taxi. It looked pretty nice but I prefer staying at the budget places and mixing it up with the locals.
When the evening rolls around we go to the train station and board our first class car where we have room to stretch out across our compartment but things don’t go much smoother in first class. The train is two hours late to leave and then we are rudely awoken at about 4am with the assistant in very broken English telling us we have to get off the train. Thankfully we found an English-speaking Egyptian couple that told us what was going on. There was a train crash and we had to get off the train, take a bus around the wreck, and then get back on another train north of the accident site. When we got there, all of these police rounded up all the foreigners from the train and ‘protected us’ until we were back on the next train. While on the bus we saw the wreck from the road, and fortunately it was just a freight train, but it had ‘accordioned’ and dug into the tracks pretty good. It might take them a while to get things repaired. Anyway, the train ended up arriving to Cairo about 3 hours late putting us in the mood for just finding a place to stay and eating something. Luckily the first was accomplished pretty easily.
After checking in we turn the wrong way going to find food and cannot find ANYWHERE to eat (we are starving at this point) but finally we do find a place. Turns out that our hotel is at the southern tip of the restaurant area of town, and we unknowingly turned the wrong way! It was funny afterwards, but at the time we were quite angry, wondering how Cairo didn’t seem to have any restaurants! To end the evening we walk down to the Nile and then crash, exhausted.
Cairo is a CRAZY city of about 18 million. The traffic is absolutely nuts. This place makes South America seem like Germany. The drivers don’t obey any traffic signals so when you want to walk somewhere you literally have to walk out into traffic, and basically pray that you make it across. We usually tried to wait for when locals would cross and try to run with them, but sometimes we had to forge out on our own…Colin and I did some reminiscing about cross walks in Germany!! The pollution is so bad that being in Cairo for one day is like smoking 30 cigarettes and you feel like you are choking all day. The constant honking competing with the call the prayer and street hawkers makes this one of the liveliest places I’ve ever visited.
Tuesday morning, April Fools Day, we get a cab early and head for Giza and the Pyramids (what trip to Egypt is complete without this rite of passage??) When the gates open we rush to the stand where they sell a limited number of tickets to go inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Luckily there were tickets and so we go in right away. It’s hard to describe the feeling of crouching down and climbing your way to the burial chamber inside the Great Pyramid (but just typing this brings back goosebumps.) After a long climb the hall becomes much larger and you can actually walk upright the rest of the way to the burial chamber and the sarcophagus of Cheops which was finished about 4500 years ago. Simply amazing and I was really happy that we were able to go inside and even have the place mostly to ourselves. However on the way out we passed a group of about 50 Japanese on their way in, so I think we timed it just right! Once back out in the sun we enjoyed taking in the sheer size of the only remaining Wonder of the ancient world. They are difficult to judge in size because when you are close they look like big piles of rocks, but when you are far away they seem like skyscrapers and their perfect pyramid shape is ridiculous. After taking a couple of pictures we wander over to the next pyramid (Chephren) which has the intact limestone cap and seems actually even bigger than the great pyramid (although it isn’t.)
The rest of the day involves visiting the other pyramids and watching all the tour buses arrive prompting us to make comparisons to Disney World. (Disney is a registered trademark of the Walt Disney Corp… all rights reserved and all that jazz) But before we high-tail it out of there we check out the Solar Boat museum. They unearthed this huge boat used in the funerary procession of the king, and then reconstructed it. It is the oldest boat in the world and for being made of wood nearly 5000 years old, it is in excellent condition.
Once back to our hotel we take a siesta then have some food before heading out to Islamic Cairo. The ‘city of a thousand minarets” is known for more than just the pyramids of course, but its influence in the Arab world is second to none. The cultural center of Islam for hundreds of years it is filled with many Muslim madrassas, mosques, mausoleums, markets, minarets, museums, and more. (Sorry about all those M’s…I couldn’t help myself!) We wander around and take in some of the sights around sunset, getting lost in tiny little streets that seem to dead-end yet suddenly emerge. People selling tea to store owners, motorcycles that somehow think they can drive through the crowd and the occasional donkey cart loaded up. The assault on the senses is powerful and I vaguely remember what it was like to visit Morocco all those years ago. Wandering back to the hotel at sunset with the call to prayer coming from all around us is something you just can’t get on your memory stick.
Wednesday we visit the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The big museum for everything Egyptian, this thing has way too much stuff, is barely in order, and requires fording through the stream of tourists at every exhibit. The museum apparently holds 160,000 items and so much was in storage in the basement that they have had to excavate the museum itself to find stuff that has sunk into the soft ground! The chaos of the museum might be a perfect reflection of Cairo itself. On the top floor the highlight is certainly seeing all the treasures from King Tut’s tomb, included his golden funerary mask (an unbelievable sight…way more beautiful than any picture can possible show.) We spend 5 hours at the museum and manage to see most of the highlights before wearily dragging ourselves back to the hotel to recoup some energy.
In the evening we head over to Islamic Cairo again where there is a free show of Sufi dancing (whirling Dervishes) that we want to see. These guys spin themselves around like tops for too much time (I was feeling quite dizzy watching them.) One of the dancers spun without stopping for 30 minutes…the displays and various cloaks they were wearing have spiritual significance but mostly they are just beautiful to watch. One of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever seen a human do!
Thurs we hire a taxi to go out to some of the even older pyramid complexes at Dahshur (home to the bent pyramid and red pyramid) We climbed down into the bowels of the red pyramid where the air was so rank we had to leave quite quickly but it was an amazing (and eerie) experience to have the whole pyramid to ourselves. After this we drive to see the step pyramid at Sakkara (the first real pyramid it was built in layers…I’m sure you’ve seen and heard about this one. They also had a nice museum about architecture including the famous architect Imhotep who was responsible for this “birth of architecture.” He was also later deified, giving hope to all of us engineering minded people.
After a short stop at the ancient capital of Memphis, we make it back to the hotel and for our last night in Egypt we wanted to go see a movie at a theatre. This was a hoot, as we had the receptionist at the hotel write the titles in Arabic for us and then we asked the cinemas if they were showing these movies by pointing to the paper. We actually ended up seeing this pretty interesting action movie, but needless to say my Arabic isn’t good enough to understand the whole thing…maybe once I figure out German??
Our last day we check out of the hotel and then head out to a little section of Old Cairo known as “Coptic Cairo.” It is the center of the Copts in Egypt and is this little bastion of Christianity. They have an amazing museum there filled with wonderfully categorized items (in such contrast to the Egyptian museum!) and the museum itself was probably the most beautiful museum I’ve ever been to. The ceilings were all done exquisitely with woodworked Arab porches, columns, and arches. Unfortunately you couldn’t take pictures.
We also got to look down into this crypt beneath an old church where the Holy Family apparently stayed while hiding from the Romans during their travels around Egypt. I had totally neglected to study up on this aspect of Egypt before going. Certainly I knew lots about the ancient Egyptian stuff, but the stuff in the last 2000 years is just as interesting! Egypt makes Europe seem young, and Europe makes the States seem young, and basically you end up feeling overwhelmed by how much has happened in this place over the millennia.
After taking a little look into Coptic Cairo we walk to the Citadel which is topped by the grand Mosque of Mohammad Ali. This huge mosque has gigantic needle-point minarets that dominate the whole skyline of Cairo, and from the edge of the Citadel walls you can look out over all of Islamic Cairo and the thousand minarets. We go inside the mosque (taking care to remove our shoes of course) and are a little surprised by the simplicity inside. Of course the floor is just covered by prayer mats but other than that it is just one big room. Islam’s dislike of any type of idol means that there are no statues or paintings that you often see in the old Catholic cathedrals of Europe.
As we walked back through Cairo towards the hotel this guy asked us if we wanted to climb a minaret, so we paid him some money and we got to climb these beautiful minarets right at sunset. The view was stunning as we saw all of the chaos from above and the lights around the city coming on followed by the call to prayer. In short, a great end to a fabulous trip. Egypt is certainly not the easiest place to travel, but with some flexibility the rewards are certainly worth it. The sites are unbelievable and I know that this trip will change how I view all sorts of things. Even in the Hotel before we were on our way to catch a cab for the airport the movie “the Mummy” was on. Being able to watch and roll our eyes at how incorrect all of the places and events were was refreshing. 10 years ago sitting in Mr. Mess’s 7th grade history class (and practically teaching it for him) I never would have thought I’d someday visit Egypt myself. Climb inside the great pyramid, sail a boat on a Nile, and walk through the Valley of the Kings. After this latest travel experience my friends I feel like the King. I hope my next trip can compete!
Well well, you have made it to the end (or scrolled down) and I congratulate you. I hope that you’ll check out the photos when I make them available. I haven’t heard from many of you in a long time, and I’m sorry if I haven’t written back to you yet as I don’t really have internet at the moment and I’ve been away. I hope to catch up soon, but please send me updates from around the world… Has spring arrived? (It’s supposed to snow here still.) Let me know if somehow you will be around TN or MI in the times that I’ll be there. Spread the word, Mr. Connor is including the USA on his world tour! Haha.
I hope that this letter finds you all happy and safe. All the fun travel in the world can’t replace you, the great friends and family that I know are out there wishing me the best, and that is a wonderful feeling. I hope you’ll tune in for the next installment.