Sunday, February 5

In the footsteps of Moses

I promised more on our rather long and rambling route to London. Perhaps the easiest place to start is the last place we visited - the Middle East. Garry and I flew into Cairo on November 29. We'd literally flown directly from South America to Egypt, stopping briefly in Madrid and Barcelona to change aircraft.

CAIRO - kingdom of the lost luggage
We started our tour in Cairo with a minor disaster. Our bags some how failed to accompany us from Argentina. Hardly the news you're keen to receive at 2:00am in a Cairo airport baggage hall. However, things ended well as our tour guide, Shona, did an incredible job tracking down our luggage and having it safely delivered to our cruise boat in Luxor, four days later.

Shona was simply delightful. As a lively, independent and intelligent, outdoor-oriented Yorkshire woman, she did a magnificent job bringing the Middle East to life. She had a cheeky side, that made the occasional dull moment quickly pass and regularly went beyond the call of duty, genuinely caring for the needs of others on the tour. Shona knows her stuff. She made our Lonely Planet guide next to useless. Of course we never admitted this. Instead we constantly threatened to check our guide book before acting on her 'local knowledge' recommendations. She soon had an effective solution to this threat, simply banned guidebooks from regular briefing sessions.

Cairo is a wild city. It's noisy, dirty, chaotic and filled with endless odors. The traffic is predictably chaotic and random. The tourist touts are everywhere and keen to empty your wallets. It would be fair to say that it wasn't favorite city on our world tour. Fortunately the rest of Egypt was far better, and at times, exceeded all expectations. Our first day in Egypt was spent visiting key sights in Cairo.

We started with the Pyramids and the Sphinx, before visiting the equally famous Egyptian museum where King Tutankhamen's golden treasures are displayed. The Pyramids are everything you'd expect them to be. Sadly they didn't make the most memorable impression as the Giza plateau was crowded with persistent touts, dodgy tourist police on the make and local student keen to become your well-paid 'guide'.

It was hard to absorb the historic atmosphere with so much distraction. Perhaps the one surprise was to discover how close the Pyramids are to the city of Cairo. You literally drive past the last suburb and there they are in front of you. We took an opportunity to climb down into one Pyramid and view the burial chamber inside. Not for the faint-hearted or those that fear confined spaces, a unique experience never-the-less.

Tutankhamen burial mask is spectacular. Photos barely do it justice. It is a stunning work of art. We saw it at the aging Egyptian museum, sitting downtown by the Nile river. We were lucky enough to visit the original Tutankhamen tomb a few days later in the Valley of Kings. Here we saw his comparatively humble mummy. Jet lag also took its toll on me during our museum tour. I literally fall asleep on my feet in the midst of the sarcophagus hall. Our local guide was less than amused as I stumbled across the floor interrupting her mid-sentence.

LUXOR - cucumber country
From Cairo we caught the sleeper train to Luxor. These trains are reasonably civil affairs with comfortable fold-down beds and fresh linen. Garry and I were able to get a reasonable night's sleep. The complimentary dinner was a remarkable combination of breads, rice and other unidentifiable starches. We reached Luxor about 6am after a reasonable night's sleep.

I knew very little about this city so almost very sight was an unexpected delight. The temples are incredible, with every surface covered in Egyptian symbols and hieroglyphics. History literally comes alive before your eyes. I can confidently report that Rameses II wants the world to know that he is terrific in battle, has large hands, large feet and an impressively large "cucumber", All this and more is literally carved in stone for all to read! I can also report that cell phone reception was excellent from the back of a donkey in the Valley of the Kings. Perhaps one of the more unusual places from which to call my parents?

We also took time to visit the Valley of the Queens while in Luxor before our boat departed for Aswan. While in the valley we visited smaller tombs with some of the most colourful hieroglyphics we saw in Egypt.

Cruising up the Nile was wonderfully relaxing. We watched life on the river unfold before our eyes; children playing, men fishing, women washing clothes and donkeys rolling in the mud. The Nile is an incredible oasis winding its way through endless desert. The population and building activities are concentrated along its banks, as the land quickly becomes inhospitable only a few miles east or west. In places the desert sand reached the river bank itself.

Horus is home
Each temple we stopped at was equally fascinating. Two highlights include the temples at Edfu and Kom Ombo.

Edfu is home to the Temple of Horus, probably Egypt’s best preserved temple. The complex was built over a 180-year period from 237 BC to 57 BC but lay buried beneath shifting sand for centuries, thus preserving its interior. We arrived early and had much of the site to ourselves for the first hour. It's most recognisable symbol is a statue of Horus the falcon god standing outside the main hall. A popular photo stop for every visitor!

Kom Ombo sits right on the edge of a river bend, affording spectacular views up and down the river. The temple itself is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and the falcon god Horus. Horus seems to be quite popular around these parts. This location symbolised ancient Egypt for me. Here we watched the sun set across the Nile in spectacular fashion. Our tour group also held a Nubian dance on board our boat. After touring the temple, everyone went shopping in the local bazaar for costumes. Local Nubians then joined us for an evening of music, whirling dancing and plenty of laughter.

ASWAN - more than just a big dam
Aswan was very pretty. The Nile splits into a series of picture-perfect islands at this point with a dozen traditional felucca boats sailing by at any given moment. Here we hired camels and trekked across the desert to an abandoned monastery on the West bank of the Nile. A most memorable experience. We also visited nearby Philae temple at night for a stunning sound and light show.

On our last full day in Aswan we awoke at 2:30am to join a convoy of 50 buses traveling to Abu Simbel, about 280km south. Tourists now travel in armed convoys as a result of a terrorist attack that occurred at Luxor in 1997. Abu Simbel was amazing. Ramses II certainly knew how to commission a decent temple. The location is everything you imagine it to be. To think that such a structure was taken apart and moved to higher ground in the 1960s is equally amazing.

ALEXANDRIA - the cleaner part of town
From Aswan it was back to Cairo on another sleeper train. The complementary breakfast wasn't so memorable. There are only so many pieces of stale bread one can endure! We spent our last day in Cairo touring the Islamic sector. A maze of old streets, filled with mosques and local people. One highlight was an unexpected tour of a local mosque organised for us by a friendly student. The doors leading to the highest minaret were specially unlocked, affording spectacular views of the Cairo skyline.

The following day was a rest day. I caught a train to Alexandria with another member of our tour group while Garry chilled out at our hotel. Alex was worth a visit if only to offer a contrast to the dust and dirt of Cairo. Patti, a Canadian soldier on R&R from the Afghanistan front line, came with me. We walked from one end of Alex to the other, taking in the most popular tourist sights, including Polmey's Pillar and the extensive Roman catacombs. I also managed an unscheduled plunge into the Mediterranean Sea, slipping on a slimy rock while capturing just one more digital memory. The camera took a solid whack and never focused quite the same again. You can see me taking this final photo below, moments before my feet disappeared from under me.

SINAI - desert highs and lows
From Cairo is was off to the Sinai, crossing under the Suez Canal and travelling down the resort-covered Red Sea coast. Our final destination was Mount Sinai, which we bolding climbed the following morning to watch the sun rise. If truth be told, we actually hired camels to take us most of the way up the mountain before dawn. I'm not one for walking in the dark at 3:00am, although at least another 500 people were happy to do so, singing hymns and Christian ditties until dawn. Again, the cellphone signal was solid on the summit. If only Moses had had such an option. The Lord could have just phoned in the ten commandments rather than carving them in stone.

While Mount Sinai was memorable, my strongest memories remain those of the stark, red and purple-hued desert valleys we drove through. These hillsides grew all the more spectacular as the sun began to set. Perhaps the most magical moment though, was a brief stop in a date palm oasis sitting quietly in the middle of nowhere.

From Sinai is was off to the coast to catch the Hydrofoil in Nuweiba. The descent to the coast is quite an experience in itself. The road literally drops from more than 1200 metres to sea level in just a few short kilometres. The brakes on our bus overheated as our driver struggled to negotiate the steep incline. I've never been so happy to see a sturdy boat in all my life. The rest of our journey to Jordan was rather uneventful.

1 comment:

Patti said...

Hey guys, loved the trip down memory lane. Soldier was spelt wrong, but at least you spelt my name with an 'i'. lol
Somewhere I have a picture of the two of you covered in Dead Sea mud.