Yesterday morning Benjamin and I awoke at 4:15 AM and scheduled our Uber for 5:20 AM. We tried scheduling the night before but couldn’t get the app to work. After getting ready we went into the living room for a wonderful home-cooked breakfast with our host (Marietta) before departing. Marietta had quite the hospitality gift, cooking as a great breakfast again and then ensuring we were all set. She gave us a handwritten message.
The trip to the airport was as it should be – uneventful. I was amazed, however, that there was no direct route from Lima. There were lots of traffic lights and twists and turns. You would think that in a city of over 11 million people there would be expressways going directly to the airport and helping with traffic in general – especially since there is no railway/subway system. ☹
Our flight to Cusco went smoothly as well. While I was in the back corner, seat(literally) I was content. In fact, I was grateful to have a windows seat as it afforded me some spectacular views of the mountains surrounding Cusco, mountains that we would be hiking in a few days on our trek to Machu Picchu.
We were a little confused since we were not greeted outside the airport with the minibus that was to be our transportation for the day, but eventually figured out that we had to walk out the airport gate to see our driver with a sign. (Despite how much I have traveled, I don’t think I have had more than five occurrences of being met at the airport with a sign and my name so this was novel. 😊) The driver asked if we needed to run any errands (such as picking up water). Even though we were the only two passengers in the van, we declined. I didn’t realize that we would be responsible for our own food and drink for the entire drive.
Our first stop was Chinchero, Peru. We walked to the top of the village to overlook Centro Arqueológico de Chinchero. After taking a few photos, we headed back to the car, stopping with a local vendor to pick up water. As I looked over the courtyard and saw all the vendors, I can’t help but ponder the income. We were the only tourists we saw the entire time we were there and, suspect one of the few tourists for the entire day. Out-of-the-way sights like this are clearly experiencing some of the harshest economic impacts of the pandemic and its shutdowns.
Our next stop was Moray. A large stadium-sized hole with concentric circles. Entrance cost 19 USD each and if I had been paying attention, I probably would have declined as that is exorbitantly expensive, IMO. Oh well, I wasn’t paying attention, so I paid and we wandered in and took some pictures.
Our last tourist stop along the way to our destination was Salineras de Maras – about 3,000 different colored Inca salt pans each around 5 square meters and fed by a hypersaline spring that originated during the formation of the Andes mountains. There is an intricate process for managing the salt and mining it for distribution around the world that has been carried out for generations and continues to this day.
If all that wasn’t enough, we still had the highlight of the day – and our nights’ accommodation was just about to begin. We arrived at the bottom of SkyLodge Adventure Suites via Ferrata. A via Ferrata is a series of steel cables and rungs embedded into the rock to serve as our anchors. In this case, we were to climb 500 ft up to our “sleeping pods” – fixed to the side of the mountain. After putting on our harnesses and discarding all but the minimum we would need for the night, we started climbing. Both Benjamin and I are in relatively good shape, so it took us less than an hour to reach the pods – 1-2 hours before the other folks staying in pods near us.
This gave us plenty of time to wander around the various trails – including walking to where the zipline for our traversal down. The views were spectacular and it was awesome to see the pods in person. During the night I awoke several times and, rather than feeling scared, I was in awe by the fact that we were doing this and awe of the stars and views from the cliff’s edge. It was awesome.
In the morning we had breakfast as we watched the sunrise into the valley. Afterward, we stood out on the roof of our pod and flew the drone across the valley, taking some pretty cool video that captured where we were.
At around 10 AM we took a zip line – ~9 sections of which the longest was just under half a mile. It was a great way to exit and finish off a fantastic one-night adventure. Staying at Skylodge Adventures Suites (https://naturavive.com/web/skylodge-adventure-suites/) has been on my bucket list for a few years now and it met expectations… enough, in fact, that I would enjoy doing it again even. A rarity for me as I generally want to go to new places.
It was 5:15 PM and I guesstimated I had about two hours to reach Agua Azul Falls, the last significant item on my list of things to do in the Palenque area of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. First, I purchased corn on the cob cooked over the coals and covered in mayonnaise and chili powder. Mmmm!! Next, I purchased a couple of cups of freshly cut mango from the stall at the entrance to Roberto Barrios Falls and bought a couple bracelets (like the ones my daughter makes) to placate some children who offered to guard my car for free (arghh), and drove away. (To clarify, I am confident that this location is very safe and the people are wonderful but they offered to guard it – claiming it was for free mind you – in the hopes of some money.) After about going only 1 mile, the road turned to dirt and got significantly steeper and more treacherous. Not exactly what my compact economy rental car was built for.
After traveling a mile or two more I realized that, in fact, I would prefer to hang out with vendors than see the falls and turned around. I returned to the father selling me the mangos and asked if I could take him and his family (including his wife) to dinner. After a broken Spanish discussion back and forth, he apologized and declined. His brother’s family, however, would like to join me.
His brother’s name was Francisco and his wife was Bella. They had a son, Irving. Francisco was 24-years old and had completed 6 years of grade school. His wife, Bella, was of similar age but she had completed preparatory (12 years) of school. Francisco met Bella as she walked back and forth past his house down to the river to bathe. They also encountered each other at church and other community activities. They married 3 years ago and had Irving one year into their marriage. While poor, they seemed happy (though this is not a justification that they should stay poor or that this level of poverty is to be tolerated).
Francisco showed me his home across the dirt road where we could eat. (There were no restaurants in this small village.) The house was a small single room about 25ftX25ft that was owned by his grandfather. It was the same house that Francisco grew up in. There was a main area with a hammock strung across it and a refrigerator in one corner. The walls were decorated with some paper family photos along with two large female “pinup” pictures. In the other corner was a small 10ftX10ft area separated by a 5 ft. wood wall and a sheet for a door. This small area was where Francisco and Bella shared a bed along with their two-year-old son. The other two corners also had a 5 ft. wood wall where other family members slept. (Additional pinup pictures were in the larger of the two cornered-off areas.)
The entire room was lit by a single lightbulb. To get electricity, they connected their phone to a mini-USB cable where they entered codes they had purchased in exchange for electricity. There was a tap over by the outhouse/bathroom for water along with a toilet which was flushed with a bucket.
It was difficult for us to figure out dinner. Where do we eat? What do we eat? Is there enough space? In the end, we walked next door to a small wooden building and Bella chose some groceries (a few eggs and some spaghetti) which I paid for at a cost of 2.50 USD. Although I repeatedly offered to help cook, it was declined.
Instead, I wandered back down to the river. It seemed like it was “bath time” as all the kids were down by the river splashing away and swinging on rope swings. The women (and several teenage girls) were hard at work washing clothes – the “washing machine” being their arms rubbing their clothes against flat rocks at the side of the river. (Again, I am reminded of Hans Rosling’s magic washing machine video, which hopefully you have seen by now.) Some people walked back with clothes dripping – having bathed and washed clothes simultaneously – perhaps to wear them again tomorrow I wonder? As the men arrived back from work, they too wandered down to the river in a different area and stripped to their skivvies to bathe as well.
I also walked up to the other end of the street with a boy named Benjamin. He took me to another wooden house where they sold pieces of paper with codes for Wi-Fi. (There didn’t appear to be cell service out here.) The Wi-Fi only worked in the street and it cost 20 pesos (1 USD) for 2 hours. I used the connection to call home and to download my COVID-19 test results from the morning. Yay, I was negative. Not only have I mostly been quarantined this week, since taking the test I have barely been inside at all and barely encountered anyone within less than 6 feet and only with a mask. In other words, if I didn’t have COVID this morning, I was extremely unlikely to have it now – so that was good.
We ate dinner in the kitchen. Bella and Francisco’s mom had cooked over the coal stove to prepare tortes and a spaghetti dish mixed with a few pieces of chicken and spiced with some hot salsa and Picante. It was quite good. Although they wanted me to eat first, I requested that we wait until everyone had food so we could eat together. They willingly complied. In all, we had Francisco’s grandparents, mom, three immediate family members, and two other women that stopped by. It was crowded but comfortable.
Over dinner, we had a good discussion (bearing in mind that my Spanish is limited) the summary of which was that life was good. They didn’t really have any complaints. COVID is surely the biggest problem in Mexico right now, but not a significant issue in this community at the moment. We discussed a little about the differences between Mexico and the United States. The biggest and most obvious being – the people in the United States have a lot more money. I didn’t attempt to describe the difference as I think the disparity between life in the two countries is overwhelming and hard to comprehend. The disparity between lifestyles is obviously not surprising since no-one in the room had jobs outside the home (the women clearly worked very hard in the home) and Francisco was self-employed, selling coal-cooked corn on the cob for 25 pesos to people walking back and forth from the falls.
Over dinner I was told that Tzeltat was, in fact, their native language and no, they were not Mayan (Wikipedia says that Tzeltat is one of many Mayan languages so I’m not sure how to interpret to seeming contradiction besides my misinterpretation). They told me that there are roughly five or more people groups in Mexico and Tzeltat is one of several languages spoken other than the colonial Spanish. It surprised me that I hadn’t learned this over the past week already. Interesting! Also, how naïve I had been to think that Spanish was the only language except for a very small number of native Mayans who were trying to live separately. Ughh!!! Sorry!!
After dinner, Francisco repeated an earlier invite for me to stay overnight. I was conflicted. I had already purchased accommodations (a bedroom in a house) an hour away in Palenque and my host was expecting me there. Was Francisco just being nice and, in reality, I would be an inconvenience? Was he eager for me to stay? Would I be able to sleep all night in a hammock? What about mosquitos? These buildings were certainly not mosquito-proof. It was already dark and driving when it is dark is certainly not safe in Mexico, so if nothing elsem I really should either stay here or sleep in my car as soon as I am out of the village. To complicate matters, I was going to try to leave Mexico two days early, which means I had to be at the airport – 3 hours away – by 8 AM in the hopes of catching a last-minute flight for which I did not have a reservation. Etc. etc. etc.
I chose to spend the night. I was to sleep in the hammock that was strung across the main area in the one-room house. I said my thanks and bid everyone goodnight before I changed clothes to minimize my mosquito exposure and went to bed early knowing the planned 5 AM departure and the expectation that I might not sleep very well. People pattered in and out for quite a while after I put my cap over my eyes, but I was able to doze off okay. For example, I missed when Francisco hung a towel so the light was no longer shining on my head. Also, sometime before midnight, Francisco woke me with a seemingly new blanket that he pulled out of a bag. I suspect he somehow went to purchase it late in the evening. I didn’t think I would need it, but they said that it would be good. And, when I woke a few times in the night I adjusted it, grateful for its warmth. (One wakening was due to the tigers – I mean howler monkeys – off in the distance.)
In the morning, my alarm woke me at 5 AM and I slipped on my sandals and headed to the car. Francisco greeted me as did his mom. We said our goodbyes and Francisco accepted the payment I gave him for the accommodations. I considered offering him a few of my things that I was expecting to part with but you can’t really tell whether you are insulting rather than gifting and so I left only money.
While it was still dark, I followed a local minibus taxi, figuring they knew the roads better so if I stayed close behind them, they would essentially guide me. It worked well. Once it was light, driving was a lot easier. At one point I pulled over to check on flights and discovered that my planned flights were full and similar routes wouldn’t be available till Sunday! Stink! That ruins my plans to surprise my family two days earlier. Stink! I called, searched, and eventually figured out a routing. While not exactly cheap, it would get me into Spokane just before midnight so I booked it. If all goes well, I will be home by the time you read this.
It’s our last day in Egypt and we are pretty exhausted with the tourist sites for the most part, but on the map there is a place called “Old Cairo” which seems interesting. It has a “Hanging Church” which adds to the intrigue, especially since we haven’t seen any churches here at all. (There is also New Cairo which the government is trying to establish as the capital, but that doesn’t interest me at all.) We walk the 4 miles there, mostly along the Nile. Of course, the location turns out to be another “tourist site” so we paid the requisite fee. Actually, this wasn’t only a site, it was also a museum and we were requested to walk through the museum rather than take a shortcut. Oh well… It wasn’t all bad. If nothing else, the woodwork on the ceilings and windows was exquisite.
A word about the police. I think I have already mentioned, that we see the police everywhere, but especially tourist sights and government buildings. In addition, we were stopped when driving. Generally, there is a guard or two standing behind a bulletproof metal shield. Accompanying them is a relatively nice utility sport vehicle, and either in the car or sitting behind it, are more police talking or drinking tea or coffee. One time we chose to leave our bikes near a spot they were congregated and at first they were telling us we couldn’t but then, once I approached them, they told us it was fine.
I can’t make any claims for certain, but it appears that a lot of money is spent on the police and, if you can get it, it would seem to be one of the best jobs if you aren’t well educated. We saw a couple high-class police officer clubs where there was clearly money. Our impression is that this was just accepted as the way of life in Egypt these days, and we never heard anyone question it even when we asked them.
Another point to note is that we were frequently walking through metal detectors. However, about half the time no one seemed to care when they went off. I would walk through with my cell phone in my pocket and it would beep. On the other side, they asked me to open my camera bag – which I had put through the scanner. Generally, my impression at the tourist sites was that they just wanted to know if I had an SLR camera and then charge me to take it inside. If that was the case, I always declined and left it with the guard to be picked up on the way out. Occasionally, at our Cairo hotel for example, they were more diligent and even took my backpack through a larger scanner because the smaller scanner picked up something suspicious. (They concluded it was my electric toothbrush.)
Afterward, we went next door to see the St Sergius and St Bacchus Church and walk around the cemetery. Surprisingly, there were quite a few modern tombstones (as late as 2020). I assume this is because the later generations were placed into the same plot as earlier generations as this clearly is a fairly old cemetery as well.
On the way, we encountered a funeral that occurred during noon prayer. There were a total of about 5 coffins. Again, lots of questions but connecting now seemed insensitive so we stayed our distance.
I can’t say for sure, but it seems reasonable that we may have encountered another area of people whose living was to process garbage. These people fascinate me. I would love to learn more.
We decided to take a long way back, not aiming for anything, even choosing a longer route on occasion. We were not near any tourist sites and, by the way people interacted with us, it would seem they didn’t see many Caucasians in these areas. We were frequently greeted. Often children followed us or requested to have their picture taken.
At one point we were invited to sit down and have tea followed by lunch. We accepted the tea. As usual, communication was possible thanks to Google Translate. People were extremely welcoming. When we were done, we left some money on the table but when we were about 100 yards away, the children ran up and insisted we take the money back.
Later we came across some children playing dodge ball. The ball came our way and I deftly popped it up with one foot and then – kicked it onto the roof of a small food truck. WOOPS!!! (I lifted one of the kids to retrieve it.) The kids all crowded around asking us to take pictures. There were some women on the sidelines that encouraged us and one man even had us take pictures of him. However, one woman went up to Mike and informed him in no uncertain words to stop, that this was completely inappropriate. Mike urgently called me to stop and we paid our leave. Ughh!!
After walking more than 20 miles, we were back at our hotel by 6 PM. They had graciously agreed to allow us a late, 8 PM, checkout – which was incredibly generous. We took advantage of the time and showered before heading to dinner and then the airport. Our flight wasn’t till 1:50 AM.
Last night we learned that we would not be able to get a COVID test after 5 PM. As a result, we abandoned any attempt to visit the Alexandria Library (something I am quite disappointed about) and instead took a tram to the train station in time to catch a 7:20 AM train to Cairo. In Cairo, we then dropped off our luggage at the hotel and verified we were scheduled for the COVID PCR test. The appointment was for a medical person to come to the hotel. In the meantime, however, we took a walk on the Westside of Cairo and visited the bottom of Cairo Tower. We decided the £200 EGP/person (~$13 USD) was not worth spending and instead took some pictures from the bottom (we were expressly given permission to do so), before grabbing some lunch and heading back to the hotel.
The COVID Test was interesting. A medical professional came to our room. She barely spoke English and didn’t really even introduce herself. She poked and prod each of our throats enough to trigger gag reflexes and scraped a portion of our brain through our nose into a test tube. Not a pleasant experience but certainly something memorable. I was surprised that a Muslim woman would come up to our hotel room on her own. I say this because we couldn’t even ride in the same train carriages with women on occasion. To complete the unfortunate image, we then went down to the ATMs in the hotel lobby and withdrew the requisite payment (about $115 USD). It just goes to show, things aren’t always what they might appear.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering around Cairo. We walked first to the Zuwayla Gate but this time we climbed to the top of the gate and into the tower. It was a great view of this part of Cairo. Again, I am struck with the magnitude of the city. More importantly, however, the building infrastructure, like in Alexandria, is clearly crumbling.
From there we walked through the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar area to El-Gamaleya and did some more exploring. There are several sites to see here but we decided not to go into any of them in favor of just walking around. After taking a side street, I joked with mike about avoiding dark alleys before taking a left into an alley looked particularly intriguing. We saw lots of industrious metalwork and a little woodwork as well. We greeted a few people and then reached a dead end. On the way back people were more friendly, prompting us to take pictures for example. One of the owners even invited us in to see his shop. Inside it was cramped but there were five or so lathe operators. It was wonderful to watch them work turning flat plates into different shapes that comprise a bong. We spent quite a bit of time watching these guys who were clearly masters of their craft.
We accepted their invitation to tea and talked with the owner some. (Remember, we don’t speak Arabic, so all conversation was via Google Translate.) I tried asking him questions like what life was like after the Arab Spring and whether it was better now under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi rather than Hosni Mubarak. The response was one of thankfulness to Allah. Here’s a summary of what he said:
My name is Ahmed <deleted>, and I live in Moez Street, Fatimid Cairo. The needs of the whole Egyptian industry are under the leadership of President Al-Sisi with a good spirit, morals, and generosity for us and from Allah. Peace be upon you. Allah willing, he will guide me to see you and Mike at length. I mean that our friendship will remain sustainable. Allah honors us and you. May he make tourism good and bless all of Egypt under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Thank you, I am Ahmed.
As with most people we talked with, the responses to questions like ours focused on gratefulness for the blessings bestowed by Allah and the leadership of the current president, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. I couldn’t help but wonder whether we would get a different answer behind closed doors if we lived here and spoke the language.
The time with the machinists was wonderful. I felt it gave us a glimpse of real-life in Egypt. After we left it was dinner time and I persuaded Mike that perhaps we should ask them out to dinner. He acquiesced and so we went back and invited them. They declined and said how, instead, they should take us to dinner – but not today. Mike learned from the woman serving tea that we should probably go because we were affecting production. And so we did, but not before connecting on Facebook.
On the way back to our hotel I saw a woman selling coal. She wouldn’t let me take her picture, but she was fine about me taking a picture of her store. (Also, I was still a little hungry after dinner so I grabbed some coal cooked corn on the cob from a street vendor on the way home.)
Today we have one full day to see Alexandria. To start, I woke up in time to go out and see the sunrise. I was taking pictures of the shoreline and the boats when a guard came out and told me I wasn’t allowed to. What? (Out of spite I took a picture of a half Egyptian flag on the top of his guard station.) I relocated but it seemed rather daft, especially since I had already been therefore at least 15 minutes taking photographs.
One thing you will notice is that the coastline is far from clean. It is such a shame to see. It is a problem throughout Egypt. We frequently see people just throwing their garbage out the window or tossing it where they are sitting. It is so foreign to me but it is clearly not taboo here. Unfortunately, it shows, and it is even more noticeable on what could otherwise be a beautiful shoreline.
Once we had showered, we packed up and switched Airbnb’s, dropping off our bags in the process before walking to the main road along the coast. From there we caught a minibus taxi (having such a good experience from the day prior and took it until they turned around. (Although, we learned that the price was actually EGP 4.5 rather than the EGP 5 we paid the day before – a whopping USD 0.30 difference). This put us close enough to our first destination, the Citidel of Quaitbay.
From there we walked to the Sidi Abo El Abbas El Morsi Mosque and then through a market (my favorite) on route to the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa. The market was great as always. There was a ton of fish being sold. We even came across a vendor selling sting rays (not something I have seen sold nor something I have eaten).
At the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqaf we paid our usual fee, handed over my camera for safekeeping with the guard, and headed on down. It was neat to walk down into the catacombs and see all the cutouts for the caskets.
On the walk from the catacombs, we were invited to sit down for lunch with some locals who were eating on the sidewalk. Hour hosts turned out to be taxi drivers and who didn’t speak a word of English. They opened their lunches bags and handed us some pita bread and told us to dip it in the goat cheese and hummus spread that was in the plastic containers. Afterwards, they bought us some tea and we sat and talked. During our stay, several other people stopped to greet us and introduce themselves. It was great.
Towards the end a wedding celebration started (weddings last about a week here) with lots of noise and celebration. One of the performers tried to get our hosts to pay and then us to pay. Our hosts shooed them away. This was one of best interactions with Egyptians to date and I loved every minute of it. Everyone was so hospitable. We tried paying but they wouldn’t have any of it. The contrast between the hustling at tourist locations vs the welcoming we experienced in the everyday parts of town was so stark.
Afterwards we walked through the convergence of the taxi ranks (local minibus taxis) and the train station along with an open-air bazaar. It was such a lively atmosphere. All the while traffic was trying to get through despite the commotion of pedestrians buying and selling. It was wonderful. Just outside was an ancient Roman amphitheater and since we could see in through the fence, we quickly took a picture and moved on our way. (Just prior we also saw pigeons for sale. Hmmm?)
The lunch wasn’t exactly filling and since we had skipped breakfast, we splurged at a local fast food gyros type place and ordered the gyros. Basically, we said give us something great and then the pointed at our choices.
Our route back intentionally went by the Alexandria library – the inside of which I was excited to see. Unfortunately, they were closed and wouldn’t open until 2 tomorrow – well past when we had to leave town by. Argh! This was one site I was disappointed not to see as Alexandria isn’t exactly on the way if I should pass through Egypt again.
We briefly stopped by our apartment before heading out to see the sunrise and then off to dinner. The latter was a complete flop. We travelled to a couple different places I picked out but they had closed down. ☹ We ended up eating at a chain like Mediterranean place, but it was nothing special.
On the way home we navigated to the tram which ran close to our Airbnb. It was EGP 1 (USD 0.64) for each of us. Even so, today was the second day we walked over 20 miles. I am way over my tolerance of tourist sites at this point, but lunch really made the day for me.
At this point we have traveled by almost every means imaginable: tram, minibus, bicycle, taxi, Uber, private car, boat, swim, walk, scooter, camel, plane, train, and ferry. Obviously, the vehicle on several of these is the same but they all required figuring out. In some cases, like the minibus taxi, we just had to hop on and hope it went in the correct direction for long enough and for a reasonable price. We watched our location on Google Maps to guess when we had to get out. Since they were obviously the way to get around for Egyptians, I was excited to give it a try even though we didn’t speak any Arabic.
I woke up in time to exit my cabin and go on deck to watch the sunrise over the Luxor Temple and the Nile in front of that. I watched several birds (ibis, egret, moorhen, sand plovers, and even a king fisher) playing on the West bank as well. It was a great way to start the day.
For breakfast, we had salad, clay pot scrambled egg, fries, and several other Egyptian foods I am familiar with but can’t name. We also declined all our host’s tour options, informing her that we were too free-spirited and we couldn’t imagine someone waiting for us while we walked around a temple, etc. Instead, we rented bikes and set out to cover both the East and West banks in one day rather than the two days everyone seems to recommend. After renting the bikes we rode to the Valley of the Kings. All went smoothly until my pedals started slipping rather than cranking the wheel. Ughh!!! (I have experienced this on other bikes and it is going to be a problem that we can’t fix with duct tape and dental floss.) Fortunately, we were able to make it up (yes, the Valley of the Kings is slightly uphill from Luxor) without the bike failing entirely. At the Valley of the Kings, we were allowed to choose 3 tombs to visit (out of a ~40 that were open and a total of 62). This didn’t include King Tutt’s tomb which would double the $18 price. We chose to skip King Tut and, based on the person that stored my camera while we walked around (we could also pay to take the camera if we so chose), selected tombs 11 – Ramesses III, 14 – Tausert-Setnakht, and 16 – Ramesses I. Ramesses III was very small but it had the most brilliant colors in the wall paintings. The second and third were significantly larger and, while the colors weren’t as bright, they were still worth seeing. After 3 we were satisfied and didn’t feel the need to visit the remaining 59 even if they all were open and included in our ticket price. 😊
One of the guards during our visit was particularly pesty and a woman visiting from Serbia escaped past me after being bothered and whispered, “he’s all yours” as she walked by. Unfortunately for her, the guard quickly realized we were even less susceptible to his naggings and returned to her side. A little later we heard her exclaim to him, “If you don’t mind, I would really like to be left alone to explore the tomb on my own.” At which point, he left her alone from that point on. We had a friendly conversation with her and learned that she was a translator/teacher from Serbia that basically spent her time traveling the world and teaching languages to people remotely Monday – Thursday.
Our next visit was in the Valley of the Queens area at the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut where we again ran into our Serbian friend. She asked to accompany us and we agreed but warned her that our lack of deep fascination for all the Egyptian antiquities was probably sacrilegious, but she should be warned. She was undeterred and together we ambled around the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. It was amazing how disserted it was. Perhaps 30 people total throughout the entire site. Wow! If there is anything positive to be said about COVID-19, it is that the Egyptian tourist places that remain open are disserted. We also visited Madinat Habu.
Once we were back in town, we swapped my bike out. It was good to have a bike that moved when you peddled. Before crossing to the West side of the river we came across a turf soccer game. We parked our bikes, removed our sandals, and we were invited to play. It was fun and all, but no significant connections. By the time we were done, however, Mike was hobbling due to a small coaster size blister on the bottom of his foot. We called it quits after about 45 minutes of playing and caught the Ferry to the East side of the Nile.
The bikes were no additional cost to take on the ferry so when we got to the Eastside we could easily ride our bikes to Karnak (the biggest of all the Temples in Egypt). We then biked past Luxor Temple to the train station and purchase tickets back to Cairo. The plan was to travel to Cairo again by night and, when we arrived, to purchase tickets to Alexandria. After purchasing tickets for Cairo, we rode back to the Ferry, returned our bikes in the Westside, and then went back to “our boat” to quickly washup a little and pick up our bags before going back across to catch the train back to Cairo.
This morning we have hired a car and driver to drive us to Luxor with stops at the Temple of Kom Ombo and the Edfu South Pyramid. After another wonderful breakfast from our host, we caught a ferry to the East side of the river, met our driver, visited an ATM, and then headed out for 7-8 hours of driving including the two stops. For the most part, the trip was uneventful. The stops were okay but not worth an 8-hour drive when we could have done the same distance on faster roads and without the detours in 3 hours.
When we arrived in Luxor, our driver dropped us off at our Airbnb – a 100-year-old Sandal Amira Sudan (a traditional Egyptian boat) parked on the West bank of the Nile, directly across from the Luxor Temple. We thought staying at the hotel in Cairo was on the Nile, then we stayed in the Nubian Guest House in Aswan and assumed we stay closer to the Nile than that. Until today when we found ourselves sleeping on a boat on the Nile.
Our host was a Dutch woman who was visiting a couple years ago. During her two-week visit, she fell in love, bought the boat, bought a house on the Nile, and married an Egyptian tour guide. Really, I am not making this up. It was quite a remarkable thing to listen to her. She kept talking about the “energy” here (a term we have heard a few other times from tourists). She offered to read tarot cards with us but I declined in favor of watching the beautiful sunset and watching the Nile boat traffic instead. For dinner, we stayed on the boat and she had her cook make a “home-cooked” Egyptian meal. It was good. Our host told us how much she barely making ends meet because of her impulsive (my word) behavior. She also offered to have a driver and boat available to shuttle us around to the various sights along with a tour guide. We declined! Instead, we went by small motorbike (Mike and I sitting behind the driver on the same motorbike) to get a SIM card for Mike’s phone. While he was waiting, I was invited to sit on the street corner and meet some folks. A proposition that I accepted. English was a struggle, but better than Arabic when it came to communicating, so we stuck with English with a little help from Google Translate. During the conversation, I ascertained that renting a bike for the day tomorrow would be 75 EGP which seemed like a way better option than all the chauffeuring that our host had offered. In addition, I learned about the passenger ferry shuttling continuously running passengers back and forth across the Nile. This meant we didn’t need the private boat shuttle my host offered. It is a little frustrating that she never mentioned the ferry, especially given that it was only 5-10 min. walk from the Sandal.
This morning I awoke before Mike and took a sunrise walk around Elephantine Island spending most of my time on the South end visiting the Elephantine Island Roman ruins. It seems like much of it is in the process of getting rebuilt/restored so it was unclear to me what was original and what wasn’t. I did learn a new word that would work well when playing Balderdash: “Nileometer.”
Last night we decided not to drive 3 hours one way to visit Abu Simbel – a relatively newish Roman temple that was also relocated from elsewhere. Instead, following breakfast, we took a boat to the West side of the Nile to see the Aswan Tombs of the Nobles. We hiked up and explored the tombs quickly (adequately avoiding a guard who wanted to show us the blocked-off areas we were not interested in the hopes of securing “baksheesh”). Next, we headed to the summit overlooking the Nile, the highest point in Aswan. A short while later, we were greeted by a camel driver whose services we declined at the bottom of the hill. He had ridden his horse up with three children trailing behind with… camels. From his perspective we had already negotiated the price, all he needed from us was to climb onto the camels. Fortunately, we were planning to take camels from here to visit the Monastery of St. Simeon so, climb on we did. The camel driver gave instructions and then left us with the youth. We proceeded on camel generally with the youth leading but occasionally leaving us to our own devices. Going down steep inclines is surprisingly unstable at first. Once we reached the flatter portions of the desert, the children ran along, occasionally hitting the camels with a cane to encourage them to canter. While camel riding was fun, I was mindful of the seemingly colonial/master type activity with the camel hand walking on foot pulling or caning the camels so the white guys could have some entertainment. Yuck!! I was glad when we reached the monastery and could pay the baksheesh and dismiss our transportation.
The monastery was basically deserted of tourists save a single Egyptian couple who entered behind us. This means that we got to explore the entire area almost entirely on our own. During adventurous moments, we could have done some parkour down some of the walls. Fortunately, no such moment occurred for either of us.
Since we had told the camel drivers that we only wanted to go one way, we were now left to find our own way. The goal was the Nubian Village about 4 km up the Nile. However, in navigating towards it we were diverted to protect “archeological digs” (I suspect this was a ruse) and then a 6 ft high Mosque wall that traversed all the way down to the Nile edge. Hmmm… Upon reaching the water there was a kind Felucca owner excited to have caught unsuspecting tourists in his trap with no way out except his Felucca services. That is, unless, his prey had expected the possibility of getting trapped on the Nile bank and had come prepared to swim across the Nile, which, as it so happens, we had – perhaps even hoped for. So, with much gesticulating and broken English warnings about the ridiculousness of our quest, we proceeded to rearrange and secure our pockets and wade in. The Nile water was cool but comfortable and in about 30 minutes we had completed our traverse. While not quite across the Nile entirely – since our destination was Elephantine Island – it wouldn’t have been much more than an additional 200 yards to do the full traverse, we will paraphrase it as swimming across the Nile. (For those of you wondering about the danger of getting attacked by the Nile Crocodile, I was informed during my research prior, that the crocodiles were only on the other side of the dam, so even though we were only a few miles away from the said dam, crocodiles were no of concern here – so that is good.) By the way, since we are on the Southside of Egypt at this point, with far less civilization upriver than when in Cairo, the river was seemingly quite clean. …regardless, it was certainly refreshing after our camel ride and hike through the desert.
Upon making it back to our guest house, our hosts were curious about why we hadn’t called. Upon revealing our methods, we were informed that what we did is just not done, well, at least not in the winter, it’s too cold we were told.
In the afternoon, we went by boat with our host’s son upriver to the Nubian village (the same village we had attempted earlier in the day by foot). Once there, we had to walk through a gauntlet of vendors to a coffee shop where we ordered the bright red hibiscus tea and sat on the rooftop terrace, and discussed politics, Egypt, the Arab Spring, Iran, Iraq, etc. The conversation was interesting, and I came away having filled several blank spots in my Middle East understanding (there are of course untold more). This included (and forgive me for my ignorance in some of these areas):
• The difference between Shia and Sunni Islam at their core is that they each believe the supreme caliph role to be two different men. (For Christians, this would be like disputing whether Paul or Jesus were the Messiah.)
• Learning that at the root of the conflict with Iran and Iraq is the conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam in the Middle East
• Listening to our host as he outlined marrying an American tourist who is now living in Seattle out of fear of COVID while he chooses Aswan because he wants to support his mom and because of the lifestyle here. (Marriage is hard enough, I was so curious to hear his wife’s perspective.)
• Discussing the view that Egypt is now a police state and not a democracy.
• Hearing a little more about the conflict in Sudan (again rooted in Shia/Sunni disagreements).
• Amazed that the Shia group Hezbollah and the Sunni group Hamas are allies – an amazing partnership given the intense conflict in other parts of the Middle East.
Alas, the time came to wrap it up so we paid and wandered back to our boat. By the way, the restaurant had gone to the other side of the Aswan Low Dam and caught baby crocodiles which they were then keeping as pets for the crazy tourists to enjoy. The biggest one had recently passed away and was now mounted on the wall as we walked in.
Once back at our guesthouse we again enjoyed a fantastic meal before crashing for the night.
All through the night, there was a cacophony of train car noises whether it was conversations, loud phone calls, robust snoring, passengers boarding or disembarking, doors opening and then slamming, apologies, attendants selling food, trains honking, trains brakes entering the station, the Islamic call to prayer, …. Of course, I didn’t notice any of this – not! I tried headphones, and then earplugs, different headphones, questioning my sanity in not looking harder for my own cabin, etc. In the end, while it wasn’t peaceful, I did get some sleep and woke up in time to watch the sunrise as the train trundled on and on. Considering we paid $12/person for this night’s accommodation, which relocated us 550 miles south while we sort of slept, it wasn’t too bad. I would do it again actually. In case anyone asks, I was masked up (really – this is how I looked for most of the trip).
We arrived in Aswan just before noon and disembarked. Repeatedly declining assistance and a driver, we walked a mile or so to the KFC that identified the ferry boat to carry us across to Elephant Island in the middle of the Nile. Once across, we then walked back downriver to the Nubian guest house to drop off our bags and greet our host.
Our host was a wonderful woman of about 65 years. She was short in stature but full of spunk and vigor in her manor. She greeted us in a traditional black hijab and spoke broken but quite adequate English. That evening we sat overlooking the Nile and talked with here about here life. She married a Nubian man from a much poorer Nubian village. Her mother didn’t approve of the marriage, but her dad didn’t think he had much choice, so he went along with it. Unfortunately, the marriage was abusive, and she separated after having a son. After some time, the community persuaded them to give marriage a second try but while pregnant with her second child, the abuse continued, and she return to her parent’s home, never to marry again. While she didn’t say anything explicitly, I imagine it was incredibly brave especially given the Islamic stigma regarding divorce and a woman’s place – in the 1970’s none the less. On a different topic, she also talked about how she likes the current government as they provide safety rather than the threat of war, even at the expense of freedom and democracy. I suspect the view is relatively common among those 60 and older.
In the afternoon, our host setup a driver to take us to the Aswan High and Low dams, the Unfinished Obelisk, and the (relocated) Temple of Philae. The Obelisk was unfinished because it cracked down the middle before it was even extracted. I say relocated in regards to the Temple of Philae because it would have been buried when building the Aswan High Dam but the UNICEF relocated it to another before the dam was complete.
At the Obelisk we were ushered in to watch a free 15-minute National Geographic movie and then promptly asked for tips. As we walked around the Obelisk, the security guard proceeded to demonstrate to us what we already knew from the movie and then he too cajoled us for money – and then money for his friend. It’s non-stop. You can’t even go to the bathroom without someone asking for money or, at a minimum, to buy a few squares of toilet paper – even if you are a guy and just went pee.
The temple required a boat ride and I confess that I was exhausted when they started haggling with us so we paid too much but oh well. I don’t actually mind paying, even slightly more, but I have no clue how much a boat ride is worth here. And asking me how long I am going to be at a temple whose name I can’t even correctly pronounce, doesn’t help. Furthermore, preventing me from going on the same boat as some Egyptians when we are going to the same place, now that’s just silly.
Similarly, I shouldn’t have to pay when I don’t actually want your help. Ask me if you must, but if I decline, leave me to get lost on my own, laugh at me if you like, but wait until I come back with my tail between my legs rather than constantly hound me or walk in front of me as though you are leading me to where I was already going.
Of course, there is the alternate perspective that tourism is all but absent here and they are desperate for some income. What’s another $3.34 USD to me (a €50 EGP note). If you were trying to feed your family and the economy collapsed, wouldn’t you be doing the same when presented with no other options? But, still, when they provide a service you want – sure, but not when they just annoy you and want you to pay them for it. And so the internal battle rages over and over again while you are out and about.
We finished up our tour and headed back to the ferry, crossed back to Elephant Island and had a fantastic Nubian meal cooked by our host. It was a great way to end the day. After dinner looking over the Nile, we hung out with a couple (progressive?) Egyptian women who had hooked up with an American man that was holding out in Egypt as a cheaper option until post COVID-19 in the United States. His manner was a little off, but we tolerated him. In contrast, we had great discussions with the Egyptian women about whether it was possible to enter Jordan, or take a ferry across the Red Sea to the Sanai Peninsula. Our host, however, didn’t agree, and took me aside to warn me that these women were lacking discretion, free loading and possibly engaging in less than proper Islamic behavior.
Garbage city is truly remarkable. It covers 5.54 square kilometers, was home to 262,050 people in the 2006 census (up 100,000 people 10 years prior). It has the highest population of Zabbaleen (garbage collectors) whose livelihood is based around collecting the resident’s garbage on trucks and donkey carts, hauling it back to their home, sorting it based on what is useful and then selling it back to middlemen or feeding the organic scraps to pigs and goats that live alongside them. As we passed by, we could look in on large rooms with people sitting on concrete slabs sorting through garbage. Everywhere you turn – in the buildings, on the streets, even on the rooftops, there are bags of garbage and the people here going through the bags and sorting it out.
To make matters worse there is limited availability of sewer, electricity, and water. It is hard to fathom. As we walked through we were greeted and followed by the kids who wanted to know our name and then smile and greet us. Remarkably, unlike in the bazaar yesterday, they weren’t begging us to buy anything. They were just friendly and excited when we greeted them back. After about 1-1.5 hours zig-zagging our way through Manshiyat Naser we ended up against the hillside where the road merchants disappeared as did the garbage associated with the commerce there. We walked through a gate and suddenly found ourselves in a quite clean area of sanctuary from the hustle and bustle that preceded. We continued our walk and ended up at St Simon (the Tanner) Monastery. It was surreal to walk into such tranquility after the “slum” area. Here there were numerous Christian rock carvings and two churches hidden in the overhanging rock. The acoustics were incredible and there was certainly a calm. I would love to attend a service. There is also significant school and accompanying children’s programming here as evidenced by the zip line and a small turf soccer field with a youth practice in session. I was impressed with what it offered and fascinated to know more – both about the church and the favela type living around it. I would love to spend time here and see how I could serve.