Thursday, March 31, 2011

Like a Mummy: Our Egypt Wrap-Up

Our trip to Egypt coincided with the start of some historic changes in that country and in the region.  Even though we (thankfully) left just as the major, shutting-down-the-city protests were beginning, it was an exciting time to be visiting Egypt, talking with local people - Christians and Muslims - and learning about current events from their perspectives.  I especially remember our guide explaining to us why Mubarak was so despised, how Egypt could only change with a revolution, and then adding as an afterthought, "I could be arrested for saying this."  We met some wonderful, warm and friendly people during our three weeks in Egypt, and we hope that they get the change they've been so bravely fighting for.

Dave gives an Egyptian a helping hand.
Presumably he asked Dave because he also looked like a fellow Egyptian.
The cost of our dahabiya aside, Egypt was a very inexpensive country to visit.  Getting around was, for the most part, cheap and easy.  The Cairo metro is a dream - about $0.16 gets you a traffic-free, hassle-free ride in comfortable, air conditioned style.  There's even a ladies-only car (which Dave inadvertently boarded, only to be scolded by the metro police) where women can avoid the lecherous male Egyptian gaze (and worse, grope). Cairo taxis come metered (white with black and white checkerboard) and non-metered, so be prepared to haggle if you find yourself in a non-metered cab.

We also saw a lot of Cairo on foot. 
The hardest part was finding a tiny gap in the parked cars so that we could actually get off the sidewalk.
This is an actual intersection, not a parking lot.
For a country that sees so much tourism, Egypt does not exactly embrace the independent traveler.  Big bus tours are ubiquitous, and even the most well-intentioned people seemed intent on getting us on one of them, or at the very least finding us a private car and driver, insisting that it would be too difficult for us to get around on our own.  Sights were poorly marked, if at all, and offered very little information. Some of the exhibits in the Egyptian Museum did have signs - these were typically haphazardly-placed yellowed scraps of paper with a typewritten misspelled word or two.

We assume there was a tree here at some point, in the last say, 5,000 years.
This was the only sign at Hatshepsut's Temple.

And then there is the hassle factor.  We had heard that Egypt was notorious for its annoying touts, smooth salesmen, and constant demands for baksheesh, and it really delivered on all counts.  At first we each employed different strategies:  I would stare vacantly ahead, refusing to make eye contact with anyone; Dave would stop and listen to the sales pitch of every. single. person.*  By the end of our trip, I was regularly employing my favorite Arabic phrase, "Yalowi!" (wow).  When a particularly persistent tout would approach me, "Only 10 Egyptian pounds, very good price, special for you, you buy, good quality," I would throw my hands up in the air in mock surprise and shout, "Only 10 pounds? Yalowi!"  Between the initial moment of shock and subsequent laughter, "yalowi" bought me just enough time to do a quick high-five with the salesman and make my escape. And baksheesh?  We eventually decided that it was best for our sanity to just treat it as the cost of doing business in Egypt.  In retrospect, Egypt was excellent training wheels for India.

Tout Alley (aka Khan al-Khalili market)
In the end, you don't go to Egypt for the delicious food (there isn't any) or the amazing shopping (unless you like junk).  You go for the incredible history and the ancient temples, monuments and artifacts. In our opinion, it is totally worth it.

* To be fair, there were some amusing sales pitches and one-liners aimed to reel us in:
   "You have money? Spend it all here!" 
   "Only one million Egyptian pounds!"
   "You buy now it's free.  Oh, too slow!"
   "Egyptian face! You have Egyptian face!!!  Best price for you!"
   "Free look, free look!"
   "Barak Obama!  Go Obama!"

Or Dave's personal favorite:
   "This your wife? I give you one hundred camels for your wife. Very good price."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Six Month Update

As of today, we've been on the road for 180 days.  That's 6 months of traveling through foreign lands with only each other, our electronics and Twinny Brown and Twinny Orange to keep us company.  So how has it been going?  What have we learned?  Do we still like each other?

Here's a recent photo in which we still appear to like each other, despite Dave's lack of hair.
The Stats:
In 6 months we have visited 11 countries (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, UAE, Jordan, Egypt, Germany, Austria, UK and India) on 4 continents.  We have slept in 54 different beds in hostels, hotels, guesthouses and apartments, and spent 2 nights on trains, 5 nights on buses, 6 nights on boats, 3 nights on planes, one night in a Bedouin tent and one night under the stars.  Dave has been mistaken for a local in 2 countries.  

A night on a bus.  A wonderful bus.
The Marriage:
We have spent a LOT of time together.  Often we don't even need to talk to have complete conversations.  "This reminds me of that time that--."  "Yeah, but it's not so--.". "Yeah, that's true.". We often find out from other people that we have each separately said the same exact thing to them.  At this point we have figured out what it is that we each do best.  Jesse is better at the planning ahead, selecting a general itinerary and booking hotels (see: the time Dave booked us at an "airport hotel" in Cairo during the protests that actually required us to drive an hour away from the airport, through the entire city).  Dave is better at negotiating discounts and navigating us from place to place (hence, Dave is Director of Maps, and Jesse is Assistant Director of Maps, except for those times she is demoted to Assistant to the Director of Maps).  Division of labor is quite useful for reducing day-to-day stress-related bickering.  We think we've gotten much better at communicating since there is literally nowhere to hide from each other.  And let's just say that bathroom issues that would once have been considered private are now major discussions topics between us.

Renewing our vows (we think?) in Karnak Temple, Luxor, Egypt.
Our Health:

We've both suffered through the colds and bugs that you would expect from constantly being exposed to new and abundant germs while traveling.  And as expected we've seen our share of stomach ailments, especially since we've gotten to India.  We do a lot of walking and hiking, and we carry around a jump rope and resistance bands and occasionally we even use them.  Despite all the delicious food we've enjoyed we're at or below the weight we were when we left home (maybe we can thank India's, um, cleansing food).  

Yeah, we're pretty sporty

Highs and Lows:

Everyone has asked us about our favorite part of the trip so far, and wow, there are so many.  Some highlights have been the steak and wine in Argentina, trekking in Patagonia, seeing our friends in Cape Town, skiing in Dubai and Austria, exploring Petra, the relaxing Nile Cruise and visiting the Taj Mahal.  The lows?  J's crazy seasonal allergies in Buenos Aires, the non-stop hassle in Egypt and India and getting sick in Goa.  We are also not fans of the ubiquitous wet bathroom - that is, where the shower head is in the middle of the bathroom and the whole thing gets sopping wet.  We have yet to embrace the use of the handheld water sprayer as an alternative to toilet paper despite Dave's regular (and always slightly awkward) questioning of homestay hosts, hotel managers, and even other guests about optimum technique and usage. It remains a mystery to us. 

Obligatory steak photo
What's Next?:

The blog:  Get ready for a lot of posts about our 6 weeks in India.  We have some amazing photos, ridiculous stories and a lot of thoughts about our love-hate relationship with this crazy country.  One of these days we may even catch up to the present day.  In the meantime, we're trying to post some photos on facebook as we go along.

The trip:  We'll be spending about 3 weeks in Thailand, enjoying the modern conveniences of Bangkok, checking out the beaches, and hopefully doing some volunteering up north.  Then we head back west to Nepal to hike the legendary Annapurna Circuit with our friends Ted and Sarah (from Patagonia and the Garden Route) and their friends.  After that we'll fly back to southeast Asia to do some more exploring and longer-term volunteering.  Recommendations, suggestions and visits are all welcome!

Do you have any questions about our 6 months of travel?  Leave them in the comments and we'll answer them!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Week Seventeen Daily Journal

Friday, January 21
Luxor, Egypt

Hiking from Valley of the Kings to Hatshepsut

Breakfast at Beit Sabee was really good.  It's always a treat to get eggs cooked to order!  Today we toured the west bank of Luxor - Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut, the Collosi of Memnom and the Valley of the Nobles. See post: Tomb Raiders We went to Moon Valley for lunch, and had a really good vegetarian dinner at the hotel where we met one of the owners.

Saturday, January 22
Esna, Egypt & Nile cruise

We spent the morning relaxing at the hotel, chatting with other guests and enjoying some delicious fried eggplants.  In the afternoon we were picked up and driven to Esna to start our Nile cruise on the Princess Donia.  The other guests were Ed and Ellen from Easton, PA, and Chaz and Stacey, who were living in Armenia.  The boat was really nice and the crew were super friendly.  We ate lunch on the deck and cruised (not enough wind to sail, so we were towed by the tugboat) to Edfu where we docked for the night.

Sunday, January 23
Nile Cruise

Dave's typical boating activity

Today we visited Edfu Temple, which was really well preserved and was dedicated to the god Horus.  Afterwards we had to walk through a bazaar.  That night, after dinner, we watched Death on the Nile (the original one, not the remake starring Rachel McAdams).

Monday, January 24
Nile Cruise

Village cow
(wearing a blanket to beat the chill)

Today we visited an ancient sandstone quarry - it was really cool to see where the giant slabs of stone were hewn to make all the huge statues and monuments.  We also visited the Speos of Hormheb, which was totally deserted except for us.  That night we tied up on an island and Hassan took Dave and me on a walk to watch the sunset.  We passed banana trees and lots of small huts with donkeys and cows grazing outside.

Tuesday, January 25
Nile Cruise

Fresh Nile fish for lunch
We visited the temple of Kom Ombo, which is interesting as it has two symmetrical entrances, two halls and two sanctuaries, one set dedicated to God Horus (falcon god) and one to God Sobek (crocodile god). We saw a Nile-ometer (a deep well used to measure the height of the Nile to determine taxes).  Soon there will be a big crocodile mummy museum on site, since so many crocodile mummies were found at Kom Ombo in honor of Sobek.  We had some fresh juice at a Bedouin-style tent before going back on board.  That night the crew threw a surprise birthday party for Dave, complete with strawberry shortcake and his very own galabeyah, and lots of singing and dancing.  So nice of them!  Today was also the day the Cairo protests started, and our guide Hany kept us up to date on what was going on.

Wednesday, January 26
Nile Cruise
Nubian house

A very busy day in and around Aswan.  In the morning we visited he Aswan High Dam, which was built in the 1950s and 60s and created the massive.  Then we took a motorboat to Philae Temple, which had been moved from its original location which was eventually covered by Lake Nasser.  After lunch, everyone except Dave (who stayed to relax) took another motorboat to the Kirschner Gardens (a botanical gardens with trees and plants from around the world) and then, much farther, to a Nubian Village.  There, we had an Arabic lesson, had tea, held a crocodile and got henna'd on our hands.  That night was the big farewell dinner with more singing and dancing.

Thursday, January 27
Aswan and Cairo, Egypt

The long road to Abu Simbel
An extremely long day.  A taxi picked us, Ed and Ellen up after breakfast and we joined the 11am convoy for the 3+ hour trip to Abu Simbel.  An armed soldier drove with us.  We spent about an hour and a half exploring the ruins (which were massive) before making the trip back to Aswan. We were dropped off at the airport 4 1/2 hours before our 11:30pm flight, which normally would be ok except that they wouldn't let us into the airport (and into the food area) until 10pm.  To our surprise, there was a Sbarro in the Aswan airport and we enjoyed some mediocre (but at the time, delicious) pizza.  When we got to Cairo we discovered that our hotel, the Swiss Inn, was not actually at the airport but was in Giza, about as far from the airport as you could get.  Luckily the streets were quiet except for a group of teenagers fighting outside our hotel.  We tried to check email but the Internet had been already shut off in Egypt.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Giant Road Trip to Ramses' Giant Ego Trip

Abu Simbel is certainly one of the most impressive sights we visited in Egypt.  Built by Ramses II, the ruins are located 280 km from Aswan, and were moved by UNESCO scientists over the course of four years in order to save it when the Egyptians dammed the Nile and created Lake Nasser.  Basically, it's located in the middle of nowhere.

Hey there Ramses II.
Because of security concerns, the only ways to get to Abu Simbel are by plane, by convoy or by securing one of the four seats allocated to foreign tourists on daily local bus.  Because we didn't have time to figure out the whole local bus thing, we hired a van with Ed and Ellen and signed ourselves up for the 11 am convoy (our other option was the 4 am convey - ha).  It seems to me that if you were intent on killing some tourists it would be pretty convenient to know that a lot of them are going to pass you by at specific times every day, four times a day.  But we hadn't heard of any problems since they started the convey so I suppose it works.

The convey slowwwwly assembled in a large parking lot near a fallen obelisk and behind the Nubian Museum in Aswan.  Tourists milled about and soldiers inspected the cars, vans and buses while sipping tea and Turkish coffee.  To our surprise, a machine-gun-armed solider hopped in the front seat with the driver and we set off on the 3 1/2 hour drive to Abu Simbel.  (He proceeded to nap for the next three hours.)  The monotony of the desert was broken only by the horrible British-narrated DVD about Abu Simbel that the driver played for us at maximum volume.

The road was endless and straight as an arrow

We only had about an hour and a half to explore Abu Simbel, but it turned out to be plenty of time.  The complex consists of two temples, the first and largest of which is the Great Temple (dedicated to Ramses II and to the gods Amun, Ra and Ptah).  The four statues guarding the entrance are imposing, and were sculptured directly from the rock face in which they were originally located.  The inside of the temple is equally impressive.  Unfortunately, no photography is allowed, except for the photos the guards allow you to take (for baksheesh, naturally) holding a giant key shaped like an ankh (signifying the key of life).  Inside is a hypostole hall, and each of the columns is another intricately detailed statue.  At the back of the temple is a room featuring another set of sculptures of Amun, Ra, Ptah and Ramses II.  We weren't there to see it, but apparently on certain dates surrounding the Winter Solstice, the sunlight enters the back room in such a way that the statues of Amun, Ra and Ramses II are illuminated, leaving Ptah (the god of the underworld) in darkness. 

The entrance to the Great Temple at Abu Simbel

The Small Temple is dedicated to Ramses II's wife Nefertari and to the goddess Hathor.  The pillars in the hypostole hall are decorated with pictures of the gods and goddesses and Nefertari, and topped with the distinctive face of Hathor who is represented as a divine cow.  (What is this, India?).

Outside the Small Temple.
Before long, it was time to get back in the bus for the 3 1/2 hour ride back to Aswan.  We declined the driver's offer to play an Egyptian comedy DVD and just relaxed, read and admired the desert scenery.

Was it worth it?  At the time, we were feeling pretty ruined-out, and driving seven hours round-trip to stare at some more ruins for and hour and a half seemed excessive.  In retrospect, though, I'm glad we went.  The temples really were impressive.  But if money is not an issue, definitely fly.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cruisin' for Oldies

The Nile Cruise wasn't all about lounging and eating (unfortunately?).  Every now and then we would drag ourselves off the boat to see some amazing ancient ruins.

Edfu Temple

Dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus, the Temple of Edfu was built in the Ptolemaic Period (the reign of Cleopatra and her ancestors) between 237 and 57 BC.  It is massive (the second-largest after Karnak) and one of the best preserved temples in Egypt.

Depictions of the Pharaoh in battle, with gods and goddesses above
Horus with Nebedchanezzer
(Neb kill!)
Speos of Horemheb

The Speos of Horemheb is a small chapel on the Nile built by the pharoah Horemheb.  What it lacked in wow factor, it more than made up for in peace and quiet.  Our small group were the only people there.

View of a cruise ship, from inside the Speos of Horemheb.
We were so glad they were not crammed in there with us!
Kom Ombo

Kom Ombo was also built during the reign of the Ptolemies, and is unusual because it consists of two duplicate temples - one for Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, and the other for Haroeris, the falcon-headed sky god.  In ancient times, sacred crocodiles were worshipped here, and a crocodile mummy museum is in the works.  There's also a Nile-o-meter at the temple, the ancient method for measuring the maximum height of the Nile during its annual flooding.  The height of the Nile determined the amount of taxes owed that year.

Kom Ombo is also known for being the temple to which Dave wore his traditional galeybia.
All the guards spoke to him Arabic and were shocked to discover he was from America.
Hany doin' his thang..

Looking down into the Nile-o-Meter.
No taxes this year, I guess.

Village Visits

We visited an Egyptian village and a Nubian village (Nubia is the area around the Sudanese border) during our six days on the Nile.  The Egyptian village was far less touristy and, as a consequence, far more dirty.  As we walked among piles of garbage, we found it difficult to understand how people could live surrounded by so much trash (clearly we had not yet been in India).  It's even more difficult to realize that for some people, the daily struggle for survival takes precedence over developing a system for hygienic garbage disposal.

Village kids
Trying out the water pump
The Nubian village was another story.  Surrounded by an endless tourist market and touts pushing camel rides, spices, and the usual plastic junk, the Nubian village visit offered a brief Arabic class (having already learned to write my name in Arabian, I was of course the teacher's pet), henna painting and the opportunity to hold a crocodile.  The effect of this commercialization was clear, though, with clean(ish) streets, a large well-maintained school, and houses that looked much more prosperous than those we'd seen before.

View of the Nubian village
The middle heart says Jesse & Dave
A grade-school primer on prayer
Ellen getting henna'd
My incredibly ugly henna, thank god Inshallah this only lasted about a week
Me and my new croc friend.
I was assured he had been recently fed.

Aswan High Dam

The Aswan High Dam was built by President Nasser in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Originally, funding for the dam was promised by the US and UK in exchange for Nasser's cooperation in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.  However, after the US and UK refused to provide Nasser with all the arms he requested (to use against Israel), he turned to the USSR for the weapons and for money, machinery and technical support in the construction of the dam.

In 1960 UNESCO undertook a major archeological rescue mission.  Teams of archaeologists dissembled dozens of ancient monuments that would be underwater once the dam was completed, and relocated them to higher, safer ground.  Other monuments were donated to countries that helped in the rescue effort, such as the Temple of Dendur in NY.

The High Dam was effective in controlling - actually, ending - the annual flooding of the Nile.  It has also been effective in reducing drought and keeping out the giant crocodiles and hippos that came with the flood and caused much death and destruction.  However, the creation of Lake Nasser - 5250 square kilometers large - meant that many monuments that were not saved are now underwater. The land along the banks of the Nile became arguably less arable as the flooding (which brought nutrient-rich silt) stopped.  And more importantly, 120,000 Sudanese and Egyptian people were relocated, their villages destroyed by the lake.

Here are a couple of horrible photos of the High Dam.  There really isn't much to see, but it was interesting to learn about.

On one side of the dam, the Nile.

On the other side, Lake Nasser
I'm not sure what this sign means exactly, but I love the last-minute addition of the "T"

Philae Temple

The Philae Temple was one of the lucky ones moved by UNESCO from its original site, now covered by Lake Nasser.  Dedicated to the goddess Isis, the temple includes various sanctuaries and shrines that relate to the Isis and Osiris myth (which involves Osiris being killed and dismembered, and Isis finding and using his penis - ancient Egyptian mythology is fun!), including a birthing room.  Later the temple was used by early Christians.

We took a motorboat over to the Temple,
simultaneously annoyed and entertained by young boys in rickety canoes
who would grab on to the boat (while desperately bailing out their own) and sing Frere Jacques for money.

When we arrived at the dock we were greeted by endless rows of souvenirs for sale...

...including these fashionable socks.

Oh yeah, here's a photo of the temple.

Kitchener's Gardens

This small island, in the middle of the Nile in Aswan, was granted to Lord Kitchener as a thank you for his service in the Sudan Campaign in the late 1890s.  He converted the island into a botanical gardens, full of trees, flowers and other plants from around the world.  It is a peaceful refuge from the heat, crowds and hassle of Aswan.

Shady paths.

Pretty flowers

There's even a museum displaying various seeds grown in the gardens,
with helpful descriptions such as "woody tree of good wood."


In our opinion, seeing these sights during the course of a five day Nile cruise is ideal - only visiting one or two a day prevents Ruin Restlessness.

All of our Nile Cruise photos are available here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Grooving in Gelabiyas

♥ H.B. David The crew of the Princess Donia really took a liking to me

The Princess Donia was a real budget-buster, but we splurged to celebrate my 30th birthday.  And because we regularly trotted this out when negotiating the price of the trip everyone – the front office, the back office, the crew, the chef, the captain, and probably most of the fisherman cruising the Nile – was well aware that I was celebrating my birthday with them.  This also pleased Jesse, who relished asking the staff how old I was (thirty) and then pointing out that she was my younger wife, in her mere twenties.

Gelabiya?  Strawberry shortcake? Celebrating with new friends on the banks of Nile?
Exactly how I always imagined my 30th birthday.
To celebrate the big 3-0 the Princess Donia went all out.  After dinner one evening we heard a loud drumming and the entire crew, in their dress-whites or fanciest gelabiya, marched up the steps and pulled me to my feet.  They cranked the boom box and as we all danced around produced a fantastic birthday cake and, as a present, my very own galebeya.  I threw it on, the crew tied the turban for me, and everyone started dancing.

I am dancing with our friend Madu, the creator of the towel-animals, and one of the happiest men we have ever met

 Like any proud Egyptian I finished the night off smoking a large hookah.

I love a sheesha!
Ed looks a little jealous doesn't he?

To show just how much I loved the present from the crew I wore it sightseeing the next day.  No one, and I mean no one, believed that I was American.  Not my (near) perfect English, my complete lack of Arabic, or the five other Americans I traveled with could convince the passerbys, policemen, or shop-keepers who insisted I was Egyptian.  Well, its good to blend...

Reservoir Egyptian Tourists.  And Dave.
 Below are some more photos from the fun.  Some of these photos are from the following night when the crew threw a galaybia party, whose main purpose so far as I could tell was to encourage guests to borrow and the purchase these handsome garments.

Looking swarthy as ever
 And two more of my touring as a native:

Touring like a native

A policeman was standing just outside the frame of this photo.  When he started speaking to me in Arabic I simply smiled and asked if he spoke English, but he did not.  He continued speaking in Arabic until I told him I was from America and did not speak Arabic.  After that he just stared at me with the skepticism I'd expect from someone who thinks they may be on Punk'd or Candid Camera (for our older readers)