Saturday, February 28, 2009

Luxor: Day 2, The West Bank, Part II (January 4)

Our last stop for the day was Madinat Habu, and was definitely the crème de la crème of what we saw on the West Bank. The Lonely Planted touts it as “one of the most underrated sites on the West Bank,” but we couldn’t decide between it and another place nearby. We asked our driver which was was cooler.

“They are both very interesting places,” he answered, although the likelihood of him having ever been inside either is rather slim. Most Egyptians aren’t up for tourism, even though the cost for a local to get inside any tourist site is amazingly inexpensive.

Our friend Patrick said that some of his undergrad Egyptian students don’t even know where Dashur is, and it’s just outside of Cairo. They’ve neither been to it or heard of it.

So we doubted that our driver had been to either place, especially because he gave such a laissez-faire answer.

“But if you only had time to visit one place, where would you go?” Andrew pressed further.

“Definitely Madinat Habu,” our driver answered quickly, “Definitely.”

He answered with such passion that we simply had to take his advice. Plus, he was driving. And that’s where he was currently going.

We stopped at a ticket booth in a small, sleepy town, that sold tickets to all the surrounding sites. They didn’t have any tickets left for Madinat Habu, but gave us a ticket for another destination and wrote a note on the back explaining that we actually wanted to go to Madinat Habu. They said it would work out fine because the cost of the two sites was the same so we paid a fair price.

The minute we got to Madinat Habu we were all in awe. And it was only the outside!

Hieroglyphic reliefs on the outside of the Syrian Gate View of the first pylon Detail of hieroglyphics on the pylon

Andrew had to explain to the guards, dressed casually in galabias, why we didn’t have the right tickets and got stuck conversing about why we were in Egypt, the weather, and Rachel. The guard left us exclaiming that he “wish[es] that [Andrew] should be a professor, a mighty professor, and a wonderful professor.”

I happen to wish that, too. So long as it comes with a steady paycheck.

Madinat Habu not only is remarkably well preserved, it also is remarkably unpopulated by tourists. In fact the place was virtually empty which meant that we had a lot of fun. Not that you can’t have fun when there are a lot of people around, just that sometimes it’s easier to take your time and enjoy things without a crowd jostling around you.

It also means that the tourism police aren’t nearly as involved as they are in a place like, say, Karnak. Instead of actually doing their jobs they’re off smoking their hubbly bubbly so we can put Rachel in ancient tombs and do other things that we wouldn’t get away with in a more visited area.

It's alive!

In a chapel off of the Great Hypostyle Hall

Rachel’s enthusiasm for the ancient world didn’t last long, however, and she soon retired from running around and popping out from behind ancient pillars to cuddling in my arms.

It’s really rather unfortunate because there were so many neat things to see. She won’t remember it, anyway, but it still would have been neater for her if she had been awake.

The ceilings of many of the pylons are still intact so the paint on both the ceiling and walls is still very vibrant, and there is so much of it!

IMG_4490The hieroglyphics are very well preserved and were all over the place. They seriously covered almost every visible surface in the whole complex. It was amazing to see. I can’t imagine how much work it took to construct something like this!

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Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of time at Madinat Habu because we had only rented our van until 2:00 and had to get back to the hotel. We would have liked to spend more time there. At the same time, we were dog tired and wanted to get back to the hotel to relax. We’d been tramping around ancient tombs and temples since 7:00 AM and we were wiped.

Next time we go to Luxor we will be sure to go to Madinat Habu earlier in our trip so we’re not so exhausted when we get there. I that since we found Madinat Habu so impressive even after being to several other impressive sites is further evidence of how amazing Madinat Habu really is.

Even Carolee, whose “history-span” is very delicate and short enjoyed herself immensely at Madinat Habu. And she was not on board when we initially decided to visit one more thing before heading back to the hotel.

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Rachel, having napped all while we were at Madinat Habu and in the van, was all napped out by the time we got to the hotel, so while everyone else relaxed in their rooms, we decided to try out the pool on the roof.

There were three little boys playing in the pool making the water look rather inviting, but when I stuck my toe in to test the temperature I began to wonder if the boys weren’t crazy. The pool was freezing cold.

“Come on! Get in!” they cheered me on in their beautiful little accents, “It’s not cold once you get in!”

“It feels really cold,” I said.

“But once you’re all the way in it’s not!” they insisted.

I sat on the deck and put my legs in the pool. They agreed with my big toe. The water was cold.

“Hi!” said a little boy, coming up to Rachel and me.

“Hello,” I said.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“America.” I said.

“I thought so,” he said.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Ireland!” he chirruped.

“I thought so,” I said.

“Are you going to get in?” he asked again.

I’m a sucker for accents, I guess, because I ended up in the pool. But only for a few minutes.

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Andrew watched, laughing, while Rachel and I tried our very best to “get used to the water,” something that was only supposed to take “a few minutes.” We gave it our very best shot but ended up shivering with goose bumps, so we got out.

“Cold?” Andrew asked.

“Very.” I answered.

He had come up to the roof with us, in his swimsuit, but suggested that he take some pictures of the view while we tried out the water. Isn’t he chivalrous?

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IMG_4563 We ended up moving our pool party inside to a steaming hot bath, leaving the little Irish boys with the icy cold pool all to themselves. Rachel and I found it a little squishy, but much more pleasant!

Swimming in the bathtub

The day really wore her out, though, so even though she wasn’t ready for a nap when we got back to the hotel she fell asleep long before we expected her to at bedtime.

It’s hard to enforce bedtime when you’re on vacation. Sometimes we’d leave her alone in the dark (because that’s how she’s used to falling asleep) while we hung out in the Schilling’s room next door. Sometimes we’d turn off as many lights as we could do without and would sit quietly on the other side of the bed, hiding from her. And other times we’d put her in her crib with some toys and tell her to play until she wanted to go to sleep and then to just lie down.

This particular evening she conked out mid-imaginary-phone call. She’s too cute.

Hello?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Flahsback Friday: Juice and My Grandma's Food Storage

Most of the juice here is sold in boxes. When I was younger we used to have boxed juice frequently--mostly apple juice, from what I recall. Later on we stopped using boxed juice and started using concentrate, the kind that comes frozen in a can. We always put 4 cans of water in with the concentrated juice, and even though the box only said to put in 3 we never questioned our mother's wisdom. At least, I never questioned my mother's wisdom, and it wasn't until I got married that I learned that not everyone put an extra can of water in with their juice. Some people actually follow the directions and only put in 3 cans. And here I thought it was some internationally understood typo on behalf of the juice company because 4 cans of water easily fit in an average-sized pitcher.

I still put extra water in our juice. It makes it last longer and juice is expensive. I totally see where my mother was coming from when she instigated the 4-can rule.

My grandmother continued to use boxed juice long after my family made the switch to concentrate. I think it might be, in part, because she had excellent food storage. She didn't eat a large variety of things so didn't have a large variety in her food storage, but she had a lot of what she did have: canned chicken, tuna fish, mayonnaise, potato pearls, bran, boxed juice.

I remember one time when we were making lunch at my grandma's house after church one day. She had stayed after for choir practice or something and my mom walked all of the kids back to her house for lunch because we were "starving." We went scavenging in her food storage for something yummy to eat. Finding an acute lack of junk food we settled on tuna fish sandwiches and brought up a can of tuna and jar of mayo to have my mother prepare for us.

Being a very organized and particular person, my grandmother had marked every item in her food storage with the year it was purchased. Unfortunately she only used the last two digits of the year. This would have been fine if we trusted that her food storage turned over quickly. With only she and my grandpa at home we were sure it didn't, however, and there was no guarantee as to whether the can of tuna fish we found was from the year 89 or the year 68.

We stared at it for a while, everyone debating about which year it was from and whether or not it was still good. This was the mid-nineties so even if the tuna was from the eighties it was still 4 or 5 years old. Unless it actually was from the sixties...

My grandma had some old stuff, so this was a real worry for us kids. If my grandma had just used all four digits for the year we could have trusted that it was 1989 because I don't think she had anyway to get tuna from the future year of 6861. As much as my grandpa was in to tinkering and welding I don't think he ever invented a time machine.

We ended up eating the tuna. Judging by the familiarity of the label we figured it was safe. And not from the sixties. No one got sick, so it was probably alright, although we didn't eat tuna fish all that often at my grandma's house.

Canned chicken, though, is another story. My grandma was the type of housewife who had trouble sitting down at the table for very long. She was always up and running to get something out of the microwave (until she stopped using it), to refill the water pitcher, or to make the meal more square. Sometimes she would notice, mid-meal, that we were missing our protein and would rush off to get a can of chicken. She'd cut it up on a plate and pass it around and we'd all have to take a piece.

I hated it. It was like spam chicken. Spickam.

But other things from her food storage was alright. My grandpa had diabetes and had regulated snack time, which rocked because usually when he got a snack, the grandkids got a snack, too. Usually this was digestive cookies but sometimes it was tapioca pudding. And not just any tapioca pudding, either, but the kind made by Jell-o that came in those little pudding cups. We rarely got those as children so that was a real treat. We never did find the stash of those in food storage, although I'm sure there was one.

There was an area of my grandma's food storage for juice, though, and we knew where that was. There was always an open box in the fridge, but it was only for breakfast. We had water for lunch, dinner, and snacks--distilled when Grandma was going through her distilled phase, and tap water when she was going through her tap phase. She kept her water in the fridge in clear plastic pitchers (that a lot of church buildings have) with the lids from margarine containers on top. They were specially cut so they would sit on the rim of the pitcher better.

Juice, however, was kept in the box in plastic carton holders, which my grandma used for both her milk and juice. They made it much easier to pour.

We could probably use one of those here. We are forever spilling juice. I'm not sure it's so much the lack of the carton holder that is the problem as it is the ingenuity of the spouts the boxing companies are putting on the cartons nowadays.

Juhaina, for example, has a 4 part system. A hole is cut on the top of the box, which is covered with foil. A spout is glued over it, which, in theory should make it easier to pour. A twisty cap closes the spout so that the juice won't spill when not in use.

To open the juice you have to twist off the cap and pull a tab, which is glued to the foil that covers the hole. Inevitably, the tab comes away from the foil before it's done any good pulling and the foil is then stuck covering the hole, so you end up digging around with your fingers in this tiny, little spout, trying to pull the foil off the hole so you can get to your juice. Sometimes this is easier said than done and requires the use of pliers or tweezers.

Once you get the foil off you have to hope, while you're pouring, that you didn't wiggle the spout loose, because if you did it will fall off and the juice, instead of pouring into your cup, will pour into your lap, or onto the table.

And that's only if you're lucky enough to not have the whole spout fall off by the time you get the carton home from the store.

Today at lunch, Andrew pulled out a carton of juice that's spout had already come unglued. He pulled it the rest of the way off and then proceeded to pull off the foil covering the hole.

"Your pour," he said.

"Oh, no." I declined, "You go right ahead. I will not be blamed for this mess."

Just before he poured, though, I remembered how we opened juice when I was little, back when boxed juice was popular, and how my grandma opened boxes of juice until the day she died.

"Stop! Get the scissors!" I instructed.

Luckily, Andrew hadn't started pouring yet or we'd have juice all over our kitchen table.

"Just lift one of the flaps on the side and cut off the corner. It makes a nice spout."

It really does. And it only took me 6 months of living in Egypt to remember that.

I love my grandma. She's got more ingenuity than any of the juice box manufacturers out here. Her juice spout never malfunctions, which I just can't say for Juhaina. And, she's a problem solver; she died when I was in high school and she's still solving my problems!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Not your ordinary scout camp

While Nancy is feverishly getting caught up with all the posts from our trip to Luxor, I figure now is a good time to catch up a little myself.

A few weeks ago Brother Hall made an announcement in church about a future scout trip. This is a weeklyish occurrence and generally elicits some jealously from the elders who aren’t connected to scouts. A few months ago the scouts went out to the Red Sea to go boating, snorkeling, and scuba diving, and a few actually swam with real dolphins. On another campout they spent a few days in the mountains of Sinai, backpacking and camping on Mount Sinai and Mt. St. Katherine’s.

Our branch is pretty small scoutwise, so our young men are part of the community-based troop that meets at CAC (Cairo American College, the American school here in Maadi). Since the troop is not exclusively an LDS one, and because weekends in the Middle East are reversed (church on Friday, Saturday on Saturday), most of these excursions happen on Friday. The members that are connected with scouting, though, have permission from the Branch President to participate, though, since it’s the only scouting opportunity available in the area.

When Bro. Hall announced that the scouts would be taking a weekend to ride horses from the Pyramids of Giza down to Saqqara, and then camp at the base of the pyramids, the general reaction was something like “Oh wow, that’s cool. Only in Egypt, eh?”

I looked over at Patrick, who returned my furtive glance. Our unspoken exchange cried “No way. Never. Ever.” Despite the inherent orientalist romanticism found in a long horse ride through a huge, rolling desert between two ancient pyramid complexes, our previous equestrian experience was too traumatic. In summary: we had rented horses for a nighttime ride around the Giza complex; the horses were stupid; Patrick’s stopped mid ride and laid down in the sand, nearly crushing him; my horse tripped at a full gallop, sending me headfirst into the ground; our “guides” still tried to take as much bakhseesh (tips) as possible. In a word: ugh.

Later that night we had the Schillings and the Williamsons over for dinner and games. Aden being an adventurous type (check out his blog and website), I mentioned that the scouts here are also adventurous—they were going on a crazy horse ride through the desert. He immediately lit up and asked if it was possible for non-scout people to go, too. Neither Josh nor I thought it was possible, so we kind of forgot about it.

On Monday or Tuesday, Josh called us. Nancy answered the phone. Josh had just talked with the Hall’s and discovered that the scouts were looking for a few more adult leaders to come—apparently some had bailed out in recent days and they needed help. Josh had already volunteered to go and was checking to see if Aden and I wanted to go, too.

I overheard Nancy mention from another room that I wouldn't be interested in something and asked who was on the phone. She told me that there were possible spots open on the horse pyramid campout and that Josh and Aden would probably be going, but that she didn't think there was any way I would go.

She was right. I didn’t want to get thrown from my horse again. I was lucky the first time...

Somehow, though, five minutes after Josh’s phone call, I called him back to say that I wanted to go.

How? I don’t know. Nancy was cajoling me, calling me a chicken, or something like that. My inner orientalist was screaming “You’ll never get another chance to do this! Just go!” That scream somehow overpowered my rational self, who was saying “AAAAAAAAAAAGGH!!!”

Friday morning came. We all met outside of CAC and set up a car caravan out to Giza. There were only a few members of the branch there: Bro. Hall, Ian, and Chapin, Kevan and Jacob, and Josh, Aden, and me. We drove to a large stables outside the main pyramid complex and all went inside. There were dozens of horses waiting patiently. None of them were biting each other, bucking up and down, or making weird noises (like the last time we went). The stables were clean and big. This was promising!

The Egyptian stable owner divided us into three groups: people who had never ridden a horse, people with some experience, and the experts. I joined the intermediate group, supposedly to get an intermediate horse (I was terrified, but wasn’t a wimp. I couldn’t take a beginner horse :) ). We all mounted and then headed out in groups.

As we headed out, I tested out my horse. I made it go left and right, made it slow down and stop, and I was pretty happy with it. My last horse didn’t respond to me at all; no matter how hard I pulled on the reigns the horse just kept going where it wanted. This one, though, was promising. I weaved as much as I could between the other scouts and leaders and was having a blast. We had been riding for 3 minutes and I could kind of control my horse.

Once we got on the desert path, though, the horse went into autopilot. It stopped listening to me and tried to stay at the back of the pack of horses. All the horses did the same, except Aden’s, who insisted on being alone. Whenever the pack caught up to Aden his horse would bite any horse, or rider, that was near its head.

Autopilot was okay, I guess, for navigation purposes. We were in the desert on a semi-well-marked path, so staying together was important. For velocity’s sake, though, it was horrible. The horses would only walk or slow trot unless an Egyptian rider was cracking his whip behind us. Upon hearing the loud snap of the whip, the horses would start trotting fast, tempting a gallop, for a minute or two, when they would then decide to take it slow again. The only way they would move was if there was a whip.

The Egyptian riders, however, were apparently unaware of this. They kept yelling at us to go faster, telling us to kick the horses. We’d all kick, which only made the horses mad. My horse would protest and stopped walking altogether quite a few times. The Egyptians would get frustrated, crack the whip, and we’d all start going again. As we were trotting, the main Egyptian kept yelling “Up and down! Up and down! It’s an English saddle! Up and down!” What this cryptic phrase meant I’ll never know. Were we supposed to bounce up and down? Did that make the horse go faster, like one of those old-fashioned train cars with the see-saw pump on it? The more I pumped the more the horse went?

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Kevan getting angry at his horse

The horses would inevitably slow down and stop, giving me a chance to recover and readjust myself from the pain of hard trotting and to take in my surroundings. We were in the desert; a very barren desert. The desert near Cairo doesn’t have the “standard” rolling dunes that people imagine. There is sand, yes, but there are more rocks and garbage that speckle the semi-dunes. We were only about 2 miles from the Nile and the rest of the city of Cairo, but there were few signs of civilization where we were riding, apart from the one asphalt road we had to cross.

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After 2.5 hours of riding these unresponsive trotting horses we arrived at our campsite: the backyard of a large villa near the Saqqara Country Club. Miraculously I did not fall off. Nobody did. We all survived.

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Horses resting after the long ride

Apparently a South African man rents this property in the middle of nowhere and runs a homeschool (and offers his property to visiting scout troops). His back gate overlooks the Abu Sir pyramids in the north part of the Saqqara complex. Walk for five minutes from the gate and you can touch a pyramid.

IMG_7794View from the guy’s backyard

We dismounted our horses and watched as the Egyptians riders rode them all back (each rider took a pack of 8 or something), except for two, which stayed behind so that the scouts could work on their horsemanship merit badge. When not in a pack, the horses where a lot more responsive, which was good for the scouts since they had to demonstrate their prowess in controlling horses.

While they all worked on their skills, Kevan, Aden, and I went exploring at the pyramids. Because it was Friday the pyramids were free of tourist police. Technically the whole place should have been closed to tourists, but there were a couple unofficial guards waiting for the occasional horse or four-wheeler to come by and look at the site. One guy approached Kevan and said that he basically had to pay a tip or get kicked off the compound. These bakhsheesh guys would not go away. Even after we had finished looking at the pyramids, they followed us back to the campsite, demanding that we leave immediately (or pay them something). The South African guy called his landlord, who came and told the bakhsheesh guys off.

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Josh, Aden, and I sat with the other leaders and watched the scouts work on their merit badges. It was fun to sit back and not have to do anything at a scout camp—years ago I was working on the same merit badges, having to set up and clean up camp, just like these guys. Now I was free. I sat and listened to Kevan and the other “real” adults tell Army and Marine stories about Iraq, Afghanistan, and training camps in the States. Pretty much all the adults on the trip had real jobs either with the embassy, military, or oil companies, leaving me, Josh, and Aden feeling alone in our unemployed student world.

After a few hours of chatting we got a couple charcoal fires started and everyone started cooking. The scouts all had little portable stoves with tiny pots of boiling water, for Ramen, while the leaders had steaks, baked potatoes, and corn on the cob. The three of us were more Egyptian—we brought foul, ta’amiyya, koshari, and a whole bunch of pita bread. I even brought some flour, butter, and baking powder and tried to make some biscuits. That failed miserably. Grilled pita with foul, though? Delicious.

It started getting dark at 6:30. While the scouts entertained themselves by stoking the fire and burning random things, like Chapin’s sweatshirt, the three of us and Kevan went to take some shots of sunset at the pyramids. I brought my tripod, anticipating a beautiful photogenic sunset, and was not disappointed.

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After sunset, the three of us hiked out into the desert, away from the rest of the group, to find a place for the night. Aden had a one man tent for himself and Josh and I borrowed his fly for our ground cover. I’d never slept under the stars before; Egypt was probably a good place to do it for the first time.

We set up our little camp and settled in, since it was getting cold. We all phoned home to our wives, who were all having dinner at Carolee’s house. At one point all three of us were calling or texting at the same time. I never realized how much I could miss my family until now—I’ve never left Rachel overnight and I left Nancy overnight two years ago for my NSA interview. After talking with Nancy and Rachel, I laid in the sand in my sleeping bag and read Taha Hussein’s autobiography, Al Ayyam, for my history class while Aden read something and Josh watched a movie on his iPod.

Eventually I fell asleep, but only for an hour. The Lewises and the Halls came up to our little camp so that we could have a mini-sacrament meeting, considering it was Friday and all. It was a powerful experience to take the sacrament in the shadow of ancient pharaonic pyramids while listening to an extra long ‘isha’ evening call to prayer. It’s amazing that we could use our priesthood and renew our covenants even in such an exotic, far away place. We had a short testimony meeting after the sacrament and then dispersed, happy and spiritually filled.

I then settled in again, trying to get comfortable. It was impossible. Although we were in a really soft, sandy desert, the sand was rock hard. I didn’t bring a pillow; I used an extra t-shirt. It got really cold as the night passed. Fortunately I had a keffiyah and extra socks. Socks went on my hands, keffiyha around my head.

Once I had a perfect system to protect myself against the cold, two mosquitos decided to join me. Mosquitos love me. I hate them. They spent the night biting my nose, since that was the only part of my body exposed. Despite the lack of surface area, they dove and attacked all night, meaning that I had to stay awake to keep the keffiyah on.

I was in a weird daze halfway between sleep and consciousness throughout the whole night. The mosquitos attacked until like 3 AM. An extra loud and long fajr morning call to prayer started at 4:45. A pack of semi-wild dogs charged us at 5:30. A crazy windstorm started at 6, blowing sharp sand everywhere. I wrapped myself as tight and deep inside the sleeping bag as possible and finally fell asleep.

At 8 I woke up to the sound of the wind and sand blowing against the sleeping bag. I laid there for another half hour, trying to figure out how I was going to get out of the sleeping bag without getting covered in the sand. By the time I got up Josh and Aden had already packed up their things and were down at the fire eating breakfast burritos. I packed up as fast as possible, mostly with my eyes closed, since the sand was so bad.

IMG_7868 That’s me, sleeping.

After breakfast, we all went over to the Abu Sir complex to have a better look at the pyramids and the surrounding temples. The three of us started climbing the main pyramid, but a couple of scouts followed us and somehow got in front of us. Ten seconds after Aden warned them that the number one cause of death in rock climbing is getting hit by falling rocks, one of the scouts accidentally dislodged an ancient pyramid block. It fell down the side of the pyramid, bringing other rocks with it, and headed straight towards us. We all ran down as fast as we could. I got hit in the arm with a smaller rock and Aden got hit in the back by the huge stone just as he got out of its way. In the end we were all okay, with the scouts a little shaken up.

The Abu Sir complex was neat. It felt a little bit like the temples in Luxor and was pretty well preserved.

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To get to that last tomb we had to slide down a narrow marble shaft. Quite cool.

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After a few hours we were sick of the blowing sand, which hadn’t subsided yet, so we packed up and headed back to Ma’adi. It was only a 30 minute drive until I was in the shower, getting all the sand out of my nose and ears.

I wish my scout camps had been like that when I was younger! Camping in some random forest in Utah? Camping in the desert at some pyramids? Which would you choose?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Luxor: Day 2, The West Bank, Part I (January 4)

We worked with our hotel to reserve a van to take us around the West Bank for our second day in Luxor. That meant that we had to be up early, but I suppose early is good. It meant that we beat the crowds and the heat.

The weather wasn’t terribly hot—it is January, after all—but by the time we hit the Valley of the Kings we were taking off layers.

Our first stop was at the Colossi of Memnon, two gigantic statues that used to guard Amenhotep’s temple. Ironically they are still standing guard while the temple was reduced to inexcavatable rubble.

When we were visiting the Colossi back in 2006 our guide told us that you could hear the wind whistling through one of the statues if you listened really closely. We had the Lonely Planet with us this time and they say that, while this used to be the case, the Romans patched up the hole in the 3rd century AD so there no longer is a whistle. Obviously tour guides still tell people that it whistles because it’s fun to see how gullible people are, and how cute their faces look when they’re straining to hear the non-existent whistle.

Andrew was acting as our tour guide and, although he read that there was no longer a whistle, he suggested that we all listen for the whistle, anyway, just so that the other tourists didn’t feel bad for craning their necks toward the statues and cupping their hands behind their ears.

He was also acting as photographer, which is why there are a lot of pictures of me and Rachel and hardly any of him.

From there we were rushed off to the Valley of the Kings. All of our preselected tombs were closed, which was kind of a disappointment. They periodically close the tombs to allow for restoration and preservation work, which is probably a good thing, but still a disappointment.

Interestingly enough, we ended up going through the exact same tombs that we went in with the BYU tour. It would have been nice to see something new, but since we couldn’t remember which ones we had seen the first time we came I guess that’s our own darn fault. And nothing there is really “new.” In fact, it’s all pretty old, so seeing something new would have been quite impossible.

I was a little nervous about going down inside the tombs because it had been so long since I’d been inside them and I’d forgotten how it was like. The last ancient thing I had been down was the Dashur pyramids, and I was carrying Rachel, and that was harsh. I happened to have Rachel strapped to me on this day, as well, and the first tomb we ventured off to was that of Tuthmosis the Third, which happens to be up a tall, steep staircase. It’s on the Lonely Planet’s list of best tombs though, so we figured we should go see it. The minute we did, we knew we had been inside before, but it’s well worth the visit, anyway. It has the first tomb in the Valley of the Kings to be painted. Plus, the sarcophagus is still inside, which is pretty cool if you ask me.

Personally, I think they should have more things inside the tombs and less inside the Egyptian Museum. The museum is brimming full of ancient stuff that is so uncatalogued it is rather overwhelming to visit, and impossible to see in one day. I think it would be more interesting to see some of these relics in their natural environment. Like a theme park for ancient Egypt.

They could do rides and things through the tombs. Just load people up on a wannabe rollercoaster and zoom them through the tombs, popping out a real mummy every now and then, showing off treasure, statues, and sarcophagi. In my mind I’m seeing a Disneyland Indiana Jones/Pirates of the Caribbean-esque ride, only more educational, natural, and realistic.

I’m always so disappointed when I go inside things like pyramids and tombs. And Petra? What a joke. The Treasury is completely empty and uncursed. There is a fantastic facade and you walk up the steps expecting axes to start swinging at you and instead, rather anticlimactically, you see an empty, square room. Blah. If they had some treasure heaped up in there it would have been way cooler.

But I digress…that isn’t how it is at all. I found myself hauling Rachel up a long flight of stairs dangling over a crevice, trying to keep up with a crowd of people not lugging a quarter of their body weight in baby, wishing that rollercoaster-type ride would suddenly whisk me to the top of the stairs.

The stairs are a bit of a climb, but it really wasn’t that bad. It’s nothing compared to climbing inside a pyramid. And Rachel could have walked down the ramps to get in the tomb. In fact, the ramps were so not-steep that we let Rachel walk everywhere else after we made it back down the stairs.

After visiting Tuthmosis’ tomb we meandered down to see Amenhotep the Second and Horemheb. Both were closed. So we went to plan B, backtracked a little, and visited the tomb of Tawosret/Sethnakht instead.

This tomb is a little humorous. Apparently Tawosret started building it and had her name and cartouche all over the place. Later, Sethnakht decided that he’d take over and covered up her name with plaster and replaced it with pictures of scarabs or his own cartouche. There are two burial rooms and two mummies were found inside. This tomb is definitely interesting and well worth a visit.

After we’d come up from inside the tomb, Rachel started dancing around like a little person that needs to go to the bathroom so we figured we should find one. We looked at a map and found that the bathrooms were on the opposite side of the valley that we were (not that we expected them to have bathrooms out in the middle of no where, or at all) so we trekked on over there.

We didn’t feel like walking around trying to find another open tomb and Ramses IX was right there, so we decided to go see that one and be done (you’re only allowed into three tombs and they actually mark your tickets). This one was the epitome of anticlimacticity.

It seems fairly interesting at first and is, in fact, the most-visited tomb of the valley. The reason behind that little fact, I’m guessing, is because it’s located right by the WC. It’s really nothing special.

The walls, on the way down, have some interesting hieroglyphics depicting animals, people, the Book of Life, yadda, yadda, yadda. They’re all behind Plexiglas so that no one can touch them (which is fine…and I think they could really use Plexiglas to their advantage by employing my theme park idea) and it seems like the corridor is going to go on forever.

There were two lines, one going in, and one going out. And they stretch as far as the eye can see. So we just knew it was going to be neat.

Suddenly the line we were in, the one going in, slowed to a crawl and I spent most of my time trying to keep Rachel focused on pointing out cows on the wall instead of screaming. We were inching forward, waiting to see whatever spectacular thing it was everyone was stopping to stare at for so long. And then we got there!

We stopped and stared. This? Was it? This empty room that is equally wide as the corridor, only decorated far less-enchantedly (read: not at all) was it? We’d waited in line for this?

While we stared, in slack jawed shock, at the dismal emptiness in front of us, we were holding up the line. A “guard” in a gallabia yelled something to prod us on. We turned around and left, still in stunned silence.

I wanted to warn everyone still standing in line that this tomb was not the best tomb of all the tombs. There are other tombs, that are more interesting, that have no line to go in.

It was fine, though. Still good. I was just expecting more, I guess. At least for the burial chamber to be fairly huge, or at least bigger than the hallway. What was Ramses IX thinking?

He should have been thinking bigger. Had he been thinking bigger he might have thought of building a whole temple instead of just a measly burial chamber. Queen Hatshepsut did that.

It’s a pretty impressive temple but I’m still torn about whether or not to recommend visiting it.

On the one hand, like I said, it’s a pretty impressive temple. On the other hand, it’s in the middle of no where and all that is at the complex is the temple, so it’s kind of, dare I say, boring, and not worth the trip. On the other hand, there are some interesting hieroglyphics there with some excellent color and the bird statues on the staircase are cool. On the other hand, there are interesting hieroglyphics in more interesting places that are cheaper to get into and less filled with tourists. On the other hand, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple is a really popular tourist destination so you kind of have to go. On the other hand, it was the sight of a terrorist attack.

There are good parts, like the amazing hieroglyphics mentioned.Hieroglyphics of food

HieroglyphicsAnd not-so-good parts, like the non-existent tree that is so clearly labeled. I don’t know why they label thing like this when there are only like 3 labels in the whole Egyptian Museum (I kid. There are probably 5 or 6 labels in there).

IMG_0366I’ve been there twice, but I don’t think I really want to make it a third. There are other places I’d rather see but I won’t judge you if you still want to go.

Rachel was borderlining on misery by this point in the day, but she managed to be pleasant for most of the visit. That’s because she spent most of her time picking up rocks and rolling around in the dirt. I stopped trying to make her not get dirty because it was either dirt or tears. I usually choose dirt over tears.

After everyone had had their fill of gaping at hieroglyphics and/or tasting rocks we went back to find our van. While we were walking through the “gauntlet” of vendors, Andrew realized that he didn’t know where our Lonely Planet book was. A tragedy, I know.

We thought that perhaps we had left it at the ticket booth after we got in a huge fight with them about our status as students, but it wasn’t anywhere on the desk, that we could see, and no one wanted to go up and ask them about it because we were worrying about something else we had lost.

The van was no where to be found. Andrew, who was terribly worried about our book, went off in search of the van while we sat on the curb and waited for him to return. I gave Rachel some juice and cookies from the backpack, which she found much more satisfying than rocks and dirt, and Andrew arrived a few minutes later with the van, our driver, and the Lonely Planet. He had left it in the van, thank goodness. I don’t know what we’d do without that book.

We all piled into the van and settled in for our drive to Madinat Habu. It was only about 11 AM and we were all exhausted. Rachel fell asleep, and I was just about to doze off, when the driver pointed out the Ramesseum, launching a discussion, piloted by Andrew, about the Ozymandias. We were almost there…and most of us just wanted to go back to the hotel and nap.

View of the Ramesseum from the road (see Ozymandius)

Luxor: Day 1, Felucca Ride (January 3)

It was such a nice day that, although very tired, we decided we shouldn’t remain shut up in our hotel room all night. Instead we set an alarm in order to wake up in time to take a felucca ride on the Nile, hoping to catch the sunset while on the river.

Bargaining down the price for a felucca ride is always a bit of a joke, even in Cairo. In Luxor, though, it was downright ridiculous. They lies they tell to jack up their prices are unbelievable at best, and downright outrageous at worst. We finally agreed on a price with the boat vendor: 40 LE for the whole boat for an hour.

That’s about what we would pay in Cairo, so it sounded fair to us. We followed a little boy onto the bank of the Nile, going under the boardwalk and into some muck. We used a plank to get from the bank to the felucca. It was a little scary for me since I was holding Rachel and she tends to throw my balance off a bit. We all made it on the boat without falling into the murky water, though.

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Once we were on the boat we sat and sat and sat and sat some more. We didn’t know what we were waiting for until a Japanese couple followed the same little boy over to our boat. They started arguing with him but ended up getting on the boat with us.

Sensing that both parties were a little disgruntled the “captain” said that since we both wanted to ride at the same time and they didn’t have enough staff, we would share the boat and split the cost: 20 LE for us and 20 LE for the Japanese couple.

This seemed like a good deal to us, and that’s how it works in Cairo—you rent the whole boat—so we made friends with the Japanese couple and sailed on down the Nile.

Sailing on the Nile in Cairo is one thing. Sailing on the Nile in Luxor is a completely different experience. It’s still a little trashy, but really, it’s not half as badly polluted as it is downstream in Cairo, and the air is much more clean and fresh. The sun, instead of disappearing suddenly into a thick cloud of haze and smog, actually sets and there is usually a brilliant display of color. In Cairo you usually just get a dusty orange that quickly dissolves into grey twilight and the sunset is over. It was definitely nice to have a little vacation from all the pollution.

When our ride was over, the Japanese couple hopped out of the boat, shoved 20 LE into the captain’s hand, and took off. We were a little bit slower going. We had to gather up all our hud—babies use a lot of stuff—and work our way off the boat. The Japanese couple was long gone by the time all of us were on the shore.

Andrew gave the captain 20 LE and we all started walking away. The captain followed us yelling about needing another 20 LE for the other couple (the Schillings) and 10 LE for David (since he was half a couple). We ended up having a huge argument with the captain because his “boss” had told us that we could have the whole boat for 40 LE. We shared it with another couple, who paid half of the 40 LE, so we only owed them 20 LE.

And even if we were to pay him the full 40 LE that we had originally agreed upon, before we knew we were sharing the boat (and were told we’d be splitting the cost) with the other couple, we would be paying less than 10 LE per person.

I hate having to barter for everything here. I prefer posted signs with the cost clearly labeled so that I know exactly what I’m getting.

We went out to dinner that night at the Luxor Hotel Hamees Restaurant-bar-Coffee, mostly because their menu was hilarious.

Most of us got pizza, and we were sure to order it exactly as it appeared on the menu. I had Chicken Pizza (also available as Chiecken and Cchicken) with green paper and hushrooms.

The restaurant is right across from the Luxor Temple so we stopped by to get some night time pictures before heading back to our hotel to put Rachel to bed and watch Wall-E.

Luxor temple at night Luxor temple at night

Monday, February 23, 2009

Luxor: Day 1, Luxor Temple (January 3)

The train ride from Cairo to Luxor was a long one, that’s for sure. For some reason we keep leaving for trips late at night, thinking that Rachel will fall asleep. She never does, though, so we end up staying up all night long with her.

We didn’t want to fork out extra money for the fancy sleeping car, so we took the regular “sleeping” car, which was full of Arabs instead of tourists. I have nothing against Arabs, per se. I just don’t understand what they have against sleeping at night. Or why they enjoy listening to music (read: ring tones) on their phone at full volume, especially at 2 and 3 in the morning.

There was a baby down the hall and his parents weren’t putting him to bed, so it was nearly impossible to convince Rachel that this was a “sleeping car” and not a “party car.” This little boy kept visiting her, which was fine.

Eventually she tried to go visit him and learned that it was easier to crawl down the corridor while the train was moving. She kept falling over every time she stood up.

At the time I thought it was because the train was bumpy but now that I think of it, I could have been because it was 2 AM and she was well past tired.

The train pulled up to the station in Luxor at around 8:30 AM on January 3rd. Much to our surprise we found that we had slept for a couple of hours, which was nice.

Luxor is a tourist trap. If you remember nothing else, remember that.

The minute we got out of the train we were surrounded by taxi drivers asking us where we wanted to go. We found a guy who said he’d take us to our hotel, St. Joseph’s, for only 10 LE. We thought that was a pretty good deal…until we learned how close our hotel was to the train station.

We were too tired to make much a stink about it, though, and went into the hotel to see if they would let us check in 6 hours early. St. Joseph’s was a wonderful place to stay. They told us that our room would be ready in twenty minutes and to wait in the lobby. Less than twenty minutes later they escorted us up to our room, which had just finished being cleaned, set up a crib for Rachel and left us to relax in peace for a few minutes.

We were grateful that they let us check in early, but we didn’t want to waste our whole first day in Luxor so we walked down to the Luxor temple, which was just a 10 or 15 minute walk from our hotel. Andrew and I kind of knew the way because we had stayed at the Pyramisa hotel, just a few blocks away from St. Joseph’s, when we were in Luxor a few years ago. After walking the wrong way for a while I convinced Andrew that we weren’t going the right direction and we turned around and found the temple in no time.

IMG_3962The Luxor temple was much more pleasant this time around. The weather in Luxor is much nicer in January than in July! We were happy about that. It made it much easier to focus on exploring the temple. Last time we were so focused on not passing out that we forgot to enjoy ourselves.

Luxor pics, finally

Rachel wasn’t too impressed with the Avenue of the Sphinxes.

IMG_3829I’m not sure why. I find them rather remarkable, personally. The original Avenue of the Sphinxes stretched 3 km between the Luxor and Karnak temples, which is pretty amazing, although they’re mostly in ruins now. We got to see a lot more of the Avenue of the Sphinxes on our minibus ride to the Karnak temple, which was neat (but that’s a story for another day).

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Eventually Rachel warmed up to the idea that there were going to be statues of strange half-people-half-animals everywhere and spent the rest of our time at the temple running around and picking up various rock samples.

from david

It was interesting to go to Luxor temple a second time because we noticed many more things than we had noticed the first time. For example, a beautiful stucco done by the Romans in 200 AD covers the original relief done by the ancient Egyptians in the sanctuary of Amun. We completely missed that last time. It was an interesting contrast to see.

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We also had to visit some old memories, like that place on the wall that the guards tell everyone to rub for good luck. I was the only one who would touch it. Out of 5 people you’d think a few would touch it. Everyone else thought it was too unsanitary. It’s not like we hadn’t brought hand sanitizer with us. Sheesh. I guess I’m the only lucky one.

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Soon Rachel was getting a little grumpy. We hadn’t really eaten anything except snack foods since the day before and were in desperate need of brunch. We waited to take a family picture until after she had lost it just so we could say that we took her to Luxor and all she did was cry.

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We left the temple complex, dragging our screaming child with us, and then tried to decide where to have lunch. The Schillings and David were with us and everyone had their own opinions about where they wanted to eat so it took us a while to decide. Soon we found a cheap falafel stand and ordered a bunch of sandwiches, sat down in a park facing the Luxor temple, and enjoyed the spring-like weather while filling our neglected tummies. And then? Then we walked back to the hotel, collapsed on our beds, and took a long (and lovely) afternoon nap.

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