At Milan’s airport at the start of the week, a young man on Air Italy staff remembered “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”, the lyrics which Loren and I well know from Scott MacKenzie’s hit song of our youth. I asked if he could sing it but he declined until Loren began. He then joined in with a lovely voice. Farewell again Italy and Europe. Grazie for these more wonderful times, we so hope to return!
We purchased our tourist Visas for Egypt at a bank on arrival in Sphinx International Airport – this is standard procedure. Then we were met by a most efficient man from our tour company who helped us whisk through customs, and afterwards helped us find our hotel transport in a much shorter time than if we had been on our own.
Cairo is a sprawling city of 25 million people, full of skyscrapers and traffic that we saw throughout our 45 minute drive. Fortunate for us traffic was moving in our direction – until we too were caught in a quagmire of red brake lights. The sheer number of small cars in narrow, poorly marked lanes contribute to the muddle between four rows or five, for example, depending on the courage of a driver to squeeze into a new fifth – even an amazing sixth, on a highway that in the States would allow for just 3 lanes of cars. Others follow, unless car horns stake claim from drivers already in the way, and we heard a lot of honking horns. What was more surprising were the parked cars and pedestrians on the sides of major highways, as well as incredible risks taken by jaywalkers – more often jay runners.
Loren and I awoke early for a pre-tour day trip to Alexandria City, and were treated to a stunning sunrise though through thick haze. We spent the day with one of our upcoming tour mates, a young woman guide, and our driver. I learned that the Egyptians celebrate two special days: 26th July, for claiming income for the Suez Canal from Britain in 1954, and, 6th October, for reclaiming the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in 1973. I also learned that the familiar name Ahmed is actually said Ahck-mehd. We saw the Giza pyramids in the not too far distance as we left Cairo by van.
In Alexandria we visited intact ancient Roman catacombs, the Alexandria museum, the site of the ancient lighthouse, and the library. The lighthouse was one of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World. but is no longer standing. Built from around 300BC/BCE, it was devastated by an earthquake that hit Alexandria in 700AD/CE. Now a nearly abandoned citadel – or palace, marks the spot. The library is outstanding for historical significance, innovative modernistic redesign including the world’s largest reading room, and, advanced use of technology. Anyone can visit online: http://www.bibalex.org, worthy of a look.
Afterwards, we met up with a delightful group of 10 others and our guide for the week, in time to join in the Day 1 activity of our tour’s visit to Khan al-Khalili bazaar, then to have dinner together. One valuable benefit of our Journey is that Loren and I had no jet lag – since Italy and Egypt share a time zone, compared to some who flew from other time zones.
A bit about our travel mates includes two different Australian men, one who just finished a month working in the United Arab Emirates and the other on holiday during a year work commitment in Saudi Arabia, who both helped to increase my awareness of day-to-day life in these Middle Eastern cultures. It was interesting that many of us live elsewhere from where we were born. For example, a Canadian works in Japan with his wife of Thai descent who was raised in Australia, a Jamaican woman who lives in the US, a female American Chef who is headed to work in South Africa, an Australian who has moved some around his country and is on extended travel, and a German who has relocated within her country. A woman from England and another from Germany round out our new travel friends.
Our next day began with a fun boogie led by a travel mate to another’s phone playing Walk Like An Egyptian. We then spent part of our day at Giza to see the Great Pyramid – the sole wonder remaining of the 7 of the ancient world! Of course I have seen its images many times in my life, but to be up close, in person, is breathtaking for its sheer size and construction. It is like the difference in seeing photos of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park versus hiking the trail to its peak.
This giant manmade structure is the burial site of Pharoah Cheops, created 5 thousand years ago – around 3000 BC/BCE. Made of 2.3 million stones, each is anywhere from 1.5-15 tons of perfectly fitted limestone. We had the incredible opportunity to climb inside, taking steps partway up or nearly crawling in other parts of short, narrow passageways, to see the burial chamber. It is perhaps more magnificent and awe inspiring than Machu Picchu in Peru. Seeing this Pyramid was a long-held dream of mine come true, and to share the experience with other appreciative travel mates was a special added treat.
There are actually three giant Pyramids at Giza, each with smaller ones for the Pharoahs’ wives. The son of Cheops made the second one, nearly as tall, and the top of this one retains the sleek layer of covering that used to grace all of them. Since he did not like the huge stone blocking the view of his burial site, he had it sculpted to reduce its size. As a result we have the massive Sphinx,
which is near where our group briefly rode camels. The third belongs to the grandson of Cheops, is the smallest and seemed least well made attributing to it being last able to survive the elements.
We concluded this day with a tour of Cairo museum where we saw a copy of the Rosetta Stone – the original is in the British Museum in London, and, the many gilded and golden belongings, caskets and protective housing of King Tutankhamen’s mummified remains, amid a plethora of artifacts of the Old, Middle, and New historical Kingdoms of Egypt.
An overnight train ride brought us to Aswan, the southernmost city of Egypt. Here we took a boat to reach Philae, which is the painstakingly relocated Temple of Isis, Goddess of health, marriage and wisdom. In olden times all Egyptians were to make a pilgrimage here. The removal to higher ground was necessary in the 20th century to make way for the new High Dam.
We had time for hand laundry – and, a nap for Loren, the pool for me – at our waterfront hotel on the corniche, or promenade. Then we went for a boat ride on the River Nile, which reminded me of when Loren and I boated to see birds at the source of the Nile in Tanzania nearly two years ago. This was followed by a memorable dinner with a local Nubian Village family who shared meaningful stories of their culture. Loren even had a henna tattoo done in Arabic of the words: Loren-in-Nile. An Ozzie – or Aussie as Americans would say, had the Southern Cross done on his arm, another had the Eye of Horus, known as the Protective Eye, on his arm.
We had a pre-dawn-morning departure for our bus to tour Abu Simbel, the ceremonial temples of Ramses II and his favorite Queen. Both have four gargantuan statues of him on the facade, and the Queen’s has two additional statues of her. Both were originally carved directly out of the mountain on the west bank of the Nile, then methodically relocated to preserve them from lovely Nasser Lake, which formed as a result of the new dam. They are located just 40 kilometers from the Sudan border. So close…
We spent the next day relaxing on a felucca, “a traditional wooden boat with broad canvas sails,” on the Nile River, propelled mainly by gentle winds, otherwise the Nubian crew gently rowed us. My highlight was swimming in the Nile! I photographed Loren’s temporary tattoo while he was actually in the Nile. We saw the sun set, then I taught the standing series of a Bikram Yoga class, which was interesting for my travel mates, guide and one of the crew to balance even though the Nile is quite calm.
After a wonderful dinner that our crew prepared, we sang a little and danced a little around a bonfire while the crew sang and drummed. Then we slept on mattresses on the large deck on board. Fortunately we had our sleeping bags to keep warm as the temperature dropped as predicted overnight. In the morning a flock of egret flew overhead before we enjoyed the crew’s delicious breakfast.
It was awesome to see the Temple of Edfu, dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed god, son of Goddess Isis and God Osiris, and, famous for his Protective Eye. But, afterwards both Loren and I and maybe a couple or few other of our travel mates started to “tomb-out or temple-out.” I was interested but aware that my lack of sleep on the felucca and the pre-dawn day earlier was draining my ability to fully appreciate what we were seeing. We checked in at our hotel for a refreshing shower before visiting the temple complex of Karnak, a massive expanse of open air museum displaying what was an incredible monument to the Kings of the day. We enjoyed a delicious dinner in downtown Luxor, then walked the 30 minutes to our hotel.
Our last full day began with a donkey ride – a fun, first ever experience for Loren and me, through local fields. and, then we went on to the Valley of the Kings, a massive area where many Pharaohs chose to be buried thinking to better preserve their treasure from thieves. In that day it was believed that their treasures were needed after reincarnation. I gladly paid the extra fee to see the Tomb of Tut Ankh Amun…
I felt rejuvenated after a delicious lunch with another local family – father, mother, daughter and two sons in their home, before we went to see the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. She disguised herself as a man to rule, but as she had unseated her nephew, he later reclaimed the throne and this site is known as Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple. We ended the day stopping briefly to see the remaining Colossi of Memnon, huge remains in themselves at the entrance of what was once a much more tremendous site in it’s day.
We enjoyed another dinner at the same downtown restaurant – because the food was that good, and, we had a special birthday to celebrate of a travel mate. Our guide made it extra special with a cake. I realized I had finally mastered remembering how to say Cheers in Arabic: fe sehetak – which sounds like vee seh-head-ahk. It was only on the felucca that I drank alcohol as it is rare to find it in Moslem countries, but, I gleefully toasted whatever beverage – hibiscus tea or juice, for instance, at our meals.
An overnight sleeper train brought us from Luxor back to Cairo, where we said our farewells to our lovely new friends. We had been a most compatible group, with 5 of us 50 or older, the other 7 were in their 30’s. It was a privilege to spend time with such nice, interesting, travelers!
Tonight Loren and I leave for a week in Kathmandu, Nepal. We hope this finds you well!