Egypt 2009

January 13th through February 2

SrPato in the Cards at the airport

Egypt Museum

Giza

Giza

Excavated boat

SrPato's buddy

Villa Crew

Neighbors warming up

Felafel on the street

Boarding by the villa

The Egyptian Soug

Habiba purse maker

Our village guide and brother

Furniture maker's shop

Camel ride group shot

Omar's brother Yusuf in their home

Food tray by Omar's mother

Sunset on the Nile

Omar & Linden ,,Scarf display

A Temple

What color
Pita or flat bread cooling

Necklace maker and sibs

Ramses II Wife Temple

Camel Market

SrPato ordering chicken & Herpes

Hi Family & Friends,

It’s hard to believe we finally made it to Egypt!  We traveled with a group of 10 people (artists and art collectors from Bellingham, Kirkland and Lummi Island) put together by Wade Marlow of the Blue Horse Gallery in Bellingham.  Where we fit in I’m not exactly sure, but they were an interesting and fun group.  Getting to know them was one of the pleasures of the trip. 

Our first stop was Cairo (population 22 million) where we stayed at a hotel, surrounded by numerous embassies, on Zamolek Island.  We found it interesting that the number of embassies in Cairo is second only to New York.  The hotel wasn’t much to speak of but it had hot water plus a pretty good mattress and that’s more than we’ve experienced in some of our travels.  The location was great, just a short walk from the Egyptology Museum and Islamic Cairo.  A person could spend days at the Egyptology museum (two floors packed full of antiquities).  We had the better part of a morning and made the most of it viewing the treasures from King Tutankamun’s tomb.  Both Dan and I had seen the exhibit when it was in Seattle in the 70’s, but that was only a small number of pieces.  We could not believe the quantity, quality and condition of treasures found in the tomb and displayed at the museum in Cairo.  It was amazing to us that such items as an ostrich feather fan and complete pieces of linen underwear and other garments had survived in relatively good shape since 1336 BC!  We also found the animal mummy display extremely interesting.  Glad we had arrived fairly early, we were heading out of the museum as HERDS of tourists in big busses arrived.

 While in Cairo we took a day trip to Giza to see the pyramids and the Sphinx.  The sight was AMAZING, even though we were in the midst of a small sand storm that reduced visibility.  It was like the first time I saw Mount Rushmore times 100!  More spectacular than I could have imagined, the reason I had come to Egypt.  At Giza we visited the Celestial Boat Museum.  Several seaworthy boats are buried around the pyramids and to this point, only two have been dug out.  We found this interesting because it is a relatively new find.  After doing some reading, I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised, as experts feel only thirty percent of Egypt’s ancient monuments have been discovered so far leaving seventy percent of them are still hidden under the sand. 

One evening Dan and I headed off the island to find dinner in Islamic Cairo.  Although we didn’t find a restaurant where we could be understood enough to order off the menu, it was an interesting walk.  We happened on to a street lined for blocks and blocks and blocks with racks and racks and racks of what appeared to be used clothing……….a VERY BIG sidewalk sale!  There were lots of families crowding the sidewalks and streets, shopping and eating.

Traffic in Cairo is CRAZY with designated lanes and cross walks that are ignored and cars (not one without a dent or two) going every which way.  You just have to take your chances crossing the street.  Dan chose to walk at a leisurely pace with cars screeching to stop just inches from him.  I, on the other hand, ran across, hoping to make a moving target more of a challenge.    Luckily, both of us survived, BARELY, and sometimes only because friendly Egyptians stopped traffic to help us across the often four lanes of busy traffic. 

After three nights in Cairo, we arrived at the Villa Al Diwan for a 12 night stay.  Yes, it is truly a gorgeous villa on the banks of the Nile.  We flew from Cairo to Luxor then took a boat down the Nile to the small village of El Gurna.  We felt as though we are in an Egyptian movie.  It was almost too incredible to be real.  We all wonder if we would awake to find this had been a dream.  With a staff of five, including a French trained Egyptian chef, plus a van and driver and a boat and captain available for transportation, our every need seemed to be taken care of.  But even a villa has its glitches.  There was a learning curve with one of the toilets, knowing when there was hot water for one of the showers, and figuring out the washing machine.  I was the first to take on the challenge of the washing machine and was rubbing my fingers in my palm asking for baksheesh (tip money) whenever I was asked for help with it.  Having the convenience of a washing machine rather than having to rinse out our clothes every night was nice and drying our clothes on the patio roof worked well.  Although we had internet access at the villa, we were able to receive e-mail but did not have the signal strength to send e-mail without going out to our server.  Thus, there will be only one LENGTHY travelogue.  Sorry!  You’ll probably need to take coffee breaks over the course of this thing.

The first night we arrived at the villa, Dan and I were invited to sit by the fire in front of the neighbor’s house with their family.  It was a small fire in the middle of the dirt lane in front of their house.  They gathered round on stools and wooden benches to enjoy the fire and the evening.  Several members of the family, three generations, lived in the three story house, along with their animals.   I was invited inside the house by the daughter that spoke a limited amount of English.  The floors were dirt and there were few pieces of basic furniture.  The animals, including a donkey, sheep and some chickens, lived in a room of their own inside the house.  Even though the family spoke little English we were able to communicate well enough to feel like we had made a connection with them.  We felt honored to have been invited to share the fire with them.  From that point on, when we saw them as we went in and out of the villa, we always exchanged waves and Hellos.  We stopped by to visit with them a couple more times, sharing the small photo album we brought of our town, home and family.   The young women especially liked the photos of my one year old grand nephew and became very animated as they showed their delight.   The one daughter that spoke a bit of English had a young son and was expecting another child.  She thought she would have a daughter.

The food was incredible, at the villa, and out and about.  Our chef always included a fresh salad of some sort at lunch and dinner.  It was always full of fresh veggies (green, red & yellow peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes) spiced with fresh herbs and topped with a tangy dressing.   Our dinner began with a soup (which MADE the meal), a different one every time, flavored with cumin, cardamom or mint.  Soup and salad were followed by big plates of cooked vegetables, beans cooked in some exotic way and always a meat, mainly chicken, lamb or beef, although we suspect it might have been camel some nights.  Dan and I didn’t spend a lot of time on the meat because the vegetables and beans are so good.  And, of course, we ate local sun bread and pita bread at every meal.  As if this wasn’t enough, our cook treated us to dessert after lunch and dinner.  It was anything from fresh fruit to mousse to a baked torte.            

As a group we ate at local restaurants and had our favorites.  One hotel near the Valley of the Kings served us the BEST feta we have ever eaten.  Since we eat lower fat and limited amounts of cheese at home, we are sure the fat content of this feta is part of the reason for the suburb taste!  Along with the feta, they served freshly baked pita bread to scoop up tahina and hummus, chased with sweet, ripe, fresh veggies and fruit.  What a perfect lunch!  We ate at the Lotus in downtown Luxor three times, trying several different local dishes.  Stuffed eggplant, vegetable tagen (stew cooked in a clay pot), felafel, and baaba ghanooj (eggplant and tahina pate’) were a few of our favorite dishes.  They even had Shak Shuka (which we make at home) with an Egyptian twist, adding eggplant and meat.   The majority of the food is home grow, freshly prepared or baked.  What a treat!  Bottled water, diet drinks, cappuccino, espresso, Turkish coffee, and Egyptian beer were readily available.  We even purchased Egyptian wine to enjoy over dinner at the villa.  Although the food seemed to be fairly healthy we were surprised that we didn’t gain weight eating so much cheese, bread, rice and desserts that are not normally part of our diet.  OK, enough about the food……on to other topics.

Our days at the villa were varied.  Some mornings we were up and on the road early to visit tombs and temples.  Other days were more casual, with time spent lounging on the roof, reading or napping, or both.  At the beginning of our stay at the villa, I was up at 4:30 (adjusting to a new bed) with the Muslim Call to Prayer.  After starting coffee I would go to the roof and watch the sunrise.  The chatter of the neighbors sitting by their fire would filter up to the roof.  I would watch them as they began their morning, and then headed off to start their daily chores.  As many as 16 hot air balloons would fill the sky, but were often obscured as the smoke from burning cane fields took over the sky.

The villa was on the West Bank of the Nile across from Luxor on the East Bank.  We had several options for getting across to explore Luxor.  Often the group took Captain Omar’s boat across to poke around, shop, and eat dinner or lunch, or see the sound and light show at the Karnak Temple.  Dan and I took the local foot ferry across a couple of times to roam the back streets and alleys.  The Egyptian souk (market) was far more interesting than the tourist souk, but we enjoyed it all.  I sought out a fair trade shop I read about in Lonely Planet.  Habiba is newly opened and run by an Australian woman who loves to travel in Egypt and who wants to promote the best of Egyptian crafts.  This tiny shop sells a wonderful selection of Egyptian crafts including textiles, clothing and accessories.  The owner works with the local women, teaching them beading techniques and helping them improve the quality of their work.  The best part is that these women receive the proceeds from the sale of their work.  The blend of traditional and contemporary techniques produces gorgeous work that appealed to me and all of the women in our tour group.  In fact, we made a few trips back to the shop (conveniently located next to the Lotus Restaurant) to check on new items coming into the shop daily.  I purchased a few beaded bags and was able to meet the artist because she was working in the shop.  She seemed excited to be selling her art and I felt the same about purchasing it!

We enjoyed walking around the small village where the villa was located.  As we left the villa on our first walk of town, this 14 year old boy and his little brother very quickly attached themselves to us.  The older boy became our guide, showing us through the village while keeping the other kids from continually asking us for money.  He was quite the little entrepreneur.  The most interesting part was that the little brother, originally begging from us, quit begging and started guiding, acting like his big brother.  We got a big kick out of the two boys and the walk around town.  There are several carpenter shops making doors, furniture, cabinets, tables and chairs.  The carpenter on the corner nearest our villa had the best craftsmanship.  We stopped and talked with him and he gave us a tour of his shop.  Dan went back another day, photographed the interior of his shop, and showed him a photo of Dan on his motorcycle in front of a giant Redwood.  The man was speechless because he had never seen anything like it (the tree, not the motorcycle).  Dan gave him the photo to display in his shop.

One afternoon we took a 3 hour camel ride through the small villages out to the dunes to see the sunset.  It turned out to be quite different than the camel ride we took in Morocco.  In Morocco it was much shorter, from our hotel in the desert to the dunes, ending with us enjoying the changing shadows over the desert while sitting on top of the huge sand dunes.  This ride through villages was different but interesting, ended with us stopping for a photo op where the road met the dunes.  So what happened to that sunset??  It only took a few days for our butts to recover!

Another interesting experience was going along for the ride while a couple of the women in the group shopped for galabiyyas, an Egyptian man’s full length robe.  We loaded into the van with our driver with Omar as our guide.  Our first stop was at Omar’s home, one village from ours, where he lives with his father, mother, younger brother and only unmarried sister.  His home was much the same as the neighbor’s home we had visited the first night at the villa.  After being served tea, we sat on the floor around a huge platter of food (more than the family could possibly afford to feed us) prepared by Omar’s mother and sister.  After eating (enough to be respectful, but leaving plenty for the family to finish), his mother and sister brought out several abeyyas, women’s gowns, for the women to try on.  One of the women purchased three, saving face for all of us.  After the hospitality shown us, how could we POSSIBLY leave empty handed?!

Two of the women were determined to have galabiyyas made (even though they are traditionally a man’s garment), not necessarily an easy undertaking.  So off we went through a maze of narrow streets to the fabric shop.  It was hilarious, sitting back watching the process with Omar translating between the shop owner and the two women.  With the purchase of fabric finally accomplished, we were off to the tailor shop, one Omar highly recommended.  After a long discussion with the tailor, translated by Omar, it was determined the price was too high.  Actually, the tailor really didn’t want to make a man’s garment for a woman.  Off to the next tailor, in the dark, through the narrow maze of streets.  Luckily, this tailor was willing to make the garments and the price was right.  Now it was just a matter of measuring………not something that men are comfortable doing for women in this country, but because this tailor was a Coptic Christian rather than a Muslim, we also made it through that step.  It had been about a four hour process, but lots of fun and filled with laughter.  The two women did end up with finished galabiyyas which were picked up and delivered to them by Omar.

I don’t know what we would have done without Omar as he was so much more than our boat captain.  He was our guide, our friend, the person who could find what we needed and could make things happen.  Our first trip on our own to the East Bank we took the foot ferry.  We spent several hours in Luxor and it was dark by the time we were ready to head back to the villa.  We had walked a few miles from the foot ferry landing and didn’t have a clue how to find our way back in the dark.  Little did we know there was another foot ferry at the ferry landing in Luxor, but still, how would we get back to the villa in the dark once we made it across the river?  I had written down the name of the villa and the town but it might have been smart to write down Omar’s telephone number.  Then again, we didn’t even have a cell phone with us.  I wasn’t worried because I had a feeling all we needed to do was go to the ferry landing and ask for Omar and his boat, the Ra.  Seemed like everybody knew Omar so it was worth a try.   Sure enough, we asked for Omar and one of the guys yelled among all the boats and there was the Ra ready to take us home. 

The Luxor Museum, funded and designed by American museum specialists, was one of the best museums we visited in Egypt.  Smaller and less crowded than the Egyptology Museum in Cairo, fewer pieces were displayed, but the pieces were magnificent and extremely well displayed.  The mummy of Ramses I made it home to the museum after many years of being on exhibit in a freak show at Niagara Falls.  We looked forward to visiting the Mummification Museum thinking it would be extremely interesting, but it was disappointing.   

We visited pyramids, tombs and temples learning more than we ever need to know about all of them.  We took day trips to the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Valley of the Nobles and Valley of the Workers, visiting tombs and temples in each valley.  After seeing so many tombs and temples they all begin to look similar when, in fact, each are very different in style depending upon the period in history, the quality of the painting and carving, and how much money was spent to build them.  We ended up getting kind of “templed out”. 

After our stay at the villa we drove to Aswan where we spent four nights in a budget hotel with a great location but a very crappy mattress.  Still, we DID have hot water!  Many of our group suggested to Wade that he position the villa at the end of the trip because going from the villa to the budget hotel was a rude awakening.  Despite the marginal hotel, Dan and I were happy for the change.  We had done everything we wanted to do in Luxor and surrounding area and were ready to move on.

Up to this point, the air had not been very good.  Cairo is close to claiming the dubious title of the world’s most polluted city.  Airborne smoke, soot, dust, and liquid droplets from fuel combustion constantly exceed WHO standards, leading to skyrocketing instances of emphysema, asthma and cancer among the city’s population.  PLUS all the men smoke!  Luxor was not much better, with smoke from the burning cane fields.  All of us had developed a cough and congestion that settled in our throat.  The air in Aswan seemed better most days.  Aswan is south of Luxor on the Nile.  Actually, most of the inhabited land in Egypt is along the five miles either side of the Nile.  Egypt is twice the size of Montana with the majority of the land being arid desert.  The more time we spent in Egypt, the more I could see that Egypt was not the romantic country I had envisioned.   I guess the Egypt portrayed in movies and TV specials, along with the mysterious pyramids, tombs and temples of the past formed my vision of what Egypt would be like.  In reality it is a very poor, dirty third world country.  Probably the dirtiest and poorest we have visited.  The Egyptians see Americans as $$ so we were constantly being hassled for money by kids and adults.  This is not new to us, but was the worst we have experienced in our travels so far. 

 In Aswan we spent lots of time on the water with the breeze blowing.  We hired a boat to visit Elephantine Island to visit the Aswan Museum.  We found the building, the villa of Sir William Willcocks (architect of the old Aswan Dam), more interesting than the collection.  Built in 1898, it became a museum in 1912.  Lunch at a Nubian restaurant was a high point of our visit to the island.  I met a young girl (about 12 years old) in the water closet and complimented her on the embroidery on her jeans.  She responded by giving me the necklace she was wearing (and had made) and welcoming me to Egypt.  She, her sister and brother came to the table with me to meet our group.  It was such a sweet thing she had done, giving me her necklace.  I was trying to think of something I could give her then it dawned on me I had some handwork in my bag.  I ran after her as she was leaving the restaurant to give her a module I had knitted and crocheted hoping suggesting she might use it as an embellishment on a shirt or jacket.  She seemed pleased and so was I.  It is this kind of experience that makes a trip memorable.  Next we visited the Aswan Botanical Gardens on Kitchener’ Island.  Covering 6.8 hectares, it is filled with bird as well as hundreds of species of flora.

We had one last hurrah seeing the Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.  It was a six hour round trip van excursion out of Aswan which caused us to consider skipping it, but we are glad we didn’t.   We went in a convoy of vans and busses.  Our drivers had registered our group as Dutch so we could travel freely around the country.  The Egyptian government requires all tourists to travel in conveys from one city to another for safety reasons. So there we were, along with numerous vans and busses traveling through the dessert like sitting ducks with no military escort.  If we were registered as Americans rather than Dutch, the government would have put an armed guard in our vehicle.  Anyway, we did not fear for our safety, except for our driver thinking he was Mario Andretti!   Egypt is a military country, lots of soldiers with guns, to protect tourists and, for the most part, the Egyptian people have been very friendly. 

A visit to Aswan wouldn’t be perfect without a visit to the camel market followed by a felucca sail which we did our last day in Egypt.  At the camel market we were harassed by young boys begging and reaching into our bags for PENS, of all things.  Had we known pens were such a hot item, we would have brought a bunch to give away.  Despite the harassment, the camel market was very cool and well worth the stop.  We followed the camel market with lunch then an afternoon felucca sail to make for a PERFECT end to our trip.

Each night in Aswan we enjoyed walking the streets and through the souk.  While we were walking one night we discovered this gorgeous McDonald’s……..very clean with lots of seating indoors and out.  The bathroom was the cleanest I’ve seen in Egypt with the exception of the villa.  Since our budget hotel in Aswan served a less than appetizing continental breakfast, including Nescafe they tried to pass off as coffee, we decided to give breakfast at McDs a try.  Great (relatively speaking) breakfast, even the coffee!  I had three cups!  As most of you know, since retiring, McDonald’s is a thing of our past.  This was something like our third visit to McDonald’s since we retired and moved to Anacortes.  We must have been ready for comfort food from home because we hit McDonald’s again the next morning along with several others from our group.  We would have stopped again for breakfast the next morning but there was not enough time before heading to the airport.  Guess we were ready to be home!

In-shalla (God willing)……………………..after 3 flights, 18.5 hours in the air, and 2 hours in a shuttle we were finally home.

THE END!