Egypt: Pyramids, Tombs, & Hot Air Balloons
Who would have ever thought that visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza would be a lowlight of my trip to Egypt? Don’t get me wrong, the pyramids – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – and the Great Sphinx were amazing, but Egypt was so jam packed with adventure, beauty, and surprise, that the pyramids themselves didn’t seem too impressive when stacked against my other experiences.
After spending a week cavesurfing and hiking the spectacular country of Jordan, I crossed the border by foot through Israel. I had planned to take a 30-minute boat ride across the Red Sea but Egypt has odd and strict rules that prohibit one-way trips to certain cities and only allow one-way trips to other cities in the middle of the night and with several days’ advance notice. As such, I joined several hundred Jordanian men in line at the border as they waited, lunch bags of pita and hummus in hand, to cross into Israel, where they earn higher wages working in service and hospitality than in their home country. Israeli agents questioned me for 20 minutes, simultaneously demanding to know what countries my parents were born in, what my business was in Jordan, why I travel to Mexico so much, and why I would go scuba diving in Egypt and Jordan but not in Israel. I was very happy to have that unfriendliness balanced by the kindness of a couple near me who offered to drop me off at the bus stop to Egypt. Within 30 minutes, I was crossing into Taba, a resort city on the Sinai Peninsula.
Sinai is a huge and magical peninsula known for beach resorts, world class scuba diving, desert hiking, Mt Sinai (where Moses was given the 10 Commandments), and unfortunately, some isolated terrorist attacks of late. Drivers are welcomed to each new city by large mosaic murals displaying what the area is known for and cities offer smaller painted murals to brighten up dull and brownish desert landscapes. A friend (who drove 5 hours from Cairo) picked me up at the border and we headed straight to Dahab, which landed itself on my “must visit” list due to it’s designation as the 2nd best scuba diving site in the world. While the Blue Hole dive certainly was fantastic, it really can only be appreciated by divers far beyond my skill level who are prepared to plunge 130 metres/430 feet into the abyss. Nearly all tourists are Russian and many wealthy Russians live there all winter or all year (it’s the Florida of the region). Dozens of open-air waterfront restaurants don’t even offer menus in Arabic – only English and Russian and beauty products are even sold with Russian labels.
The bulk of my time was spent in Cairo, where I attempted to impress locals with my extensive and highly useful vocabulary, including: olives, falafel, the Muslim greeting for “hello/peace”, and “my love”. Christmas Day was spent visiting the pyramids, where my friend and I were constantly harassed by vendors offering camel rides. I tried to pretend I was from Spain, at which point a clever camel driver asked me in Spanish if I was from Madrid or Barcelona. Egypt relies heavily on its tourist industry and vendors, guides, and drivers across Cairo are prepared to speak in English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and virtually every other language. The pyramids were large and impressive but I was disappointed that the ticket to explore the interior only included a single, steep and narrow walkway to an empty tomb. I got in my exercise on the stairs but was in and out within 30 minutes, looking for my next adventure. Being Christmas Day, naturally, we went to the mall for Lebanese food. Traditional and modern Christmas music played from loud speakers, stores offered Christmas-themed clothing and sales, and two-story Christmas trees were decorated with bows throughout the mall.
I spent several days in Cairo stuffing my face with the best falafel and baba ganouj (roasted eggplant dip) I’ve ever had, and learned that “hummus” refers only to chickpeas in Egypt, unlike in Jordan and the US, where it refers to the chickpea-based dip. In Egypt, what we know simply as “hummus”, is referred to as “hummus with tahini (sesame)”. When I wasn’t eating or being amazed by the mummies and statues housed in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, I was often exploring the bustling shopping bazaar, of Khan al Khalili, a gigantic “souk” in the Islamic district. Street vendors sold roasted sweet potatoes (wrapped in notebook paper) from mobile coal ovens; delivery guys balanced massive trays of bread on their head while they biked through crowded pedestrian pathways; a monkey sat on a chair eating a cob of corn for some reason. I explored Cairo’s Citadel, Ah-Azhar Park (one of the world’s “great public spaces”), and visited the churches of Coptic Cairo, including one where Mary and Joseph are said to have stayed during their visit to Egypt. My evenings were spent salsa dancing or watching movies at the mall, where smoking is permitted and movies include a bathroom and snack break in the middle. During my last night in Cairo, I attended a traditional tanoura dance performance where the lead dancer somehow spun in a circle for 30 minutes straight without collapsing.
Five times a day, mosques all over Egypt call worshipers to prayer, the beautiful chants echoing throughout the streets, just as they do in Turkey, Jordan, and Muslim countries throughout the world. Much of my time in Cairo was spent visiting ancient mosques, where I was warmly welcomed by Muslims eager to offer a smile, a kind word, or a request for a selfie with me (I only agreed if the request was from a teenage girl – grown men requesting pictures with foreign women is just creepy). I found so much peace watching Muslims pray, dozens at a time in a single row or multiple rows, as students studied under century-old lamps and young couples enjoyed a picnic near the mosque’s fountain.
As I was traveling during the busy holiday season, flights were sold out to Aswan, Egypt’s main tourist city in the south, so I booked a 14-hour overnight train. The seats were larger and far more comfortable than any airplane I’ve been on but the cars smelled constantly of cigarettes and the bathrooms were not particularly delightful for female passengers. I arrived at the Aswan train station by 6:30am, made my way to the bus station, and caught an 8am bus to Abu Simbel, 3.5 hours further south, in the village of Nubia, near the border with Sudan. King Ramesses erected the temples in 1244 BC in honor of his favorite wife, the Nubian Queen, Nefertari. The temples were the most impressive that I saw in all of Egypt and I would have loved to spend the entire afternoon exploring them and lounging on Lake Nasser, which the temples overlook. However, the tour bus ran late on the drive down so we had less than an hour to catch the bus back. Foreigners are not allowed to travel on Egyptian buses and if I missed this bus, I’d be forced to spend the night in the tiny town. I debated this option, as I also was interested in crossing the border into Sudan, but I only had a few days left in my trip so I hopped on the back of a quasi- ATV cargo cart with a couple other stragglers and we flew up the highway, holding tight to the roofless difficult-to-name vehicle and caught up with the tour bus. After a series of honks and waves, the tour bus pulled over, we boarded, and settled in for another 3.5-hour drive back to Aswan.
Two days was not enough time to explore Aswan, Egypt’s 5th largest city, where the Eastern side of the Nile River is occupied by a bustling city with modern hotels, museums, and a long line of Nile River cruise boats. The West Bank is home to Nubian villages, where black Egyptians mix their own history and culture with Arabic traditions after being relocated from their original home in Abu Simbel’s Nubian Village, as a result of a controversial dam construction in their sacred land. I hired a felucca boat, a traditional sail boat (this one prominently displayed a Bob Marley flag), to sail me around the river to visit the impressive Aswan Botanical Garden. I strolled through a huge array of trees and plants from five continents before sailing to explore Nubian tombs further south along the Nile, built into the stone cliffs holding back the Sahara Desert. I was incorrectly told that I must hire a camel to take me to the tombs. Said camel registered his disgust by immediately throwing me to the ground so I walked the rest of the way. Back on the Eastern Side, I visited a museum, attended the Sound and Light show at Philae Temple, and went to what is said to be Aswan’s best spice shop. Aswan is known for having the best spices in Egypt and half my backpack filled with Sudanese vanilla, Iranian saffron, eucalyptus oil, and Egyptian spices the shop owner custom blended for me on site.
Early on New Years Eve morning, I crowded into an Egyptian-only mini bus, prepared to hide my hair and eyes from highway patrol agents who may ticket the driver for accepting foreigners. The driver initially refused to take me but a group of men convinced him to let me board since a large train accident had cancelled all trains since the previous day. A 20-year-old Army cadet seated next to me spoke basic English, called my next host, and helped me get to my destination.
Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes, was the pharaohs’ capital at the height of their power, during the 16th–11th centuries B.C. and is home to so many monuments and tombs that it is referred to as the world’s largest open air museum. My host and I hired a taxi to drive us to the West Bank to visit various temples, the tombs of the workers who built and painted the Kings’ tombs, and then the actual tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Some of the tombs were unpainted, carved rock while others were brilliantly painted. All were impressive, though the port-o-potties located next to the King Ramses tomb sign was less regal. After bouncing between a few cafes and restaurant parties where live bands and belly dancers performed for New Year’s Eve, we caught a boat back to our side of the river and I was in bed by 1am.
My alarm went off at 4:30am and a mini bus picked me up to join a sunrise hot air balloon tour. For only about $65, I spent an hour in the sky, floating above the Nile River, looking down on the Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut Temple, and fields of sugar cane. Being my first time in a hot air balloon, I was a bit nervous, but the pilot was very comforting and ended the trip by giving everyone a personalized flying certificate that I’m not sure what to do with. After a morning visiting more temples and eating more falafel, I avoided the still-delayed train system by hopping a bus for the 8-hour drive to Cairo. I spent far more time in transit in Egypt than I would have liked but I always love to learn how locals get around and I enjoyed seeing the small towns that large tour buses and trains don’t pass through. Traveling alone also forces you to meet new people and just about every person I sat next to sparked up a friendly conversation, eager to hear how I was enjoying their country, and letting me know that they were happy to have me there.