Finally, rain! I was beginning to think all this talk of bad Scottish weather was just to keep people out. Until last weekend. In between some epic downpours (the kind that drenches you in two seconds), we had a blast at the battle re-enactment at Killiecrankie, near Pitlochry in Perthshire. We saw horseback sword fights, cannon fire, musket demonstrations, a grumpy magic juggler, a sword dance and almost a beheading before the rain drove us away. Oscar got to hold a real sword, which was a highlight for him. We saw a witch dragged away and tied to a post, while a re-enactor assured us that the blood was fake, which was in hindsight was perhaps a bit worrying in itself. We, the audience, were a real disappointment to the magic juggler who expected a much more enthusiastic crowd, with more lust for danger. Rich and Ozzie did their best to cheer and gasp as appropriate. The magic juggler was either a very good actor, specifically at pretending to be bad (many sharp knives were dropped) or he was a very bad juggler and we were lucky to escape with intact fingers and no unwanted piercings. Overall, everyone was really into it, and it was a lot of fun.
As our time in Egypt is coming to an end, I though I would write about some of the best aspects of living here. We’ve lived in Kafr Abdou, Alexandria for almost two years, and although we are very much looking forward to starting a new life in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, there are many things we will miss about Egypt.
1. The People
The people in Egypt are, on the whole, quite friendly. They are quick to laughter and often enjoy interacting with foreigners. Of course, you get the odd looney tune, like anywhere. Wherever we go in Egypt, the common greeting is some variation of, “welcome to Egypt.” Egyptians are often genuinely interested in where we come from, and what we think of their country. Being from Canada, I’ve noticed almost every Egyptian has at least one relative who has moved to the great white north. Many return to Egypt - too cold for them.
Another positive trait is that if you’re ever confounded by something incomprehensible (this happens often) you can be fairly confident that someone will rush to your aid. We were once on the train to Cairo and found our tickets were a week out of date. A family quickly came to our rescue, translated for the ticket collector, found us seats, guided us through the Cairo Station and even booked us a Careem (Egyptian Uber) to our destination. This kind of thing happens a lot. Just act befuddled and help will appear.
Also, Egyptians LOVE children. Unlike the Yukon, where we’ve been kicked out of restaurants at lunchtime because we have our seven-year-old with us, in Egypt children are welcome everywhere. They are also very much fussed over. In a good way. Most of the time. Blond kids are subject to a lot of hair mussing action.
2. The Language
Most Egyptians in the cities speak at least some English, but if you like languages, Arabic is certainly fun to try. I took Arabic lessons, however, even if you only know the odd word, any attempt to speak Arabic will generally garner a positive reaction. Even, my husband, whose Arabic is limited to yimeen (left) and shimaal (right) is generally rewarded with cheery smiles from the taxi driver. **Note: My husband had read this and wants me to amend that he also knows alatool (straight ahead) and he can mispronounce sabah el kheer (good morning). My most humble apologies to you, Richard, you are indeed a linguist.**
It’s a tricky language, but very rewarding to learn. For me, not only is it fun to speak, but the script is super fun to write. Almost any phrase looks elegant in Arabic. It feels great to be able a read a signpost, or a price label in writing that at first glance, looks like nothing more than squiggles (or a doctor’s prescription). Living in Egypt means that you will always have someone to practise with. And you get better prices at the market if you order in Arabic.
Egypt is littered with historical sites and stunning vistas. We’ve seen moray eels, sea turtles and pufferfish the Red Sea, we’ve spent many an afternoon playing in the waves of the Mediterranean, we’ve climbed sandy dunes in a 4X4, floated in salt pools, unwound in hot springs and sailed on the Nile. Then there are the historic sites. We’ve touched pyramids dating from as far back as 2500 BC (they were built when mammoths still walked the earth), we’ve visited temples that are ghostly quiet, and we’ve tread softly in ancient tombs, wondering at the intricate paintings and hieroglyphs. And then there are the times we just chilled by the pool. All without breaking the bank. Our favourite poolside spot only cost 25USD per night to stay.
4. The Weather
I’m always a bit thrown when people refer to the winter here in Egypt. With temperature lows of about 15C, it feels more like Yukon summer (meanwhile Yukon winter temperatures were often in the -30C range). Most of the time I can walk straight out of our apartment - no need for coats, scarves, mittens and all the paraphernalia of a Canadian winter. And then, in the fall and spring, when Egyptians still consider it to be cold (maybe 24C), we go to the beach and have it all to ourselves. Bliss.
Rain is a big event here. The kids at school go wild. Sometimes they need to be picked up from school early, kinda like a snow day. Once I picked my son up from karate in the rain, and his instructor was aghast that I was going to walk five minutes in the rain. Meanwhile, summer here is way to hot for my comfort. That’s when we usually escape to the UK. But hey, three out of four seasons ain’t bad.
5. The Vegetables
You might think this one is a bit weird, but honestly, the veggies here are just better. It might have something to do with how fresh they are. I mean, they get picked, get loaded onto a cart, pulled by horse into town, and you can buy the veggies right from the cart. Can’t get much fresher than that. The UK gets about 12% of it’s vegetables from Egypt, but they have to wait until it gets there. I get it the same day it’s picked. Oh yeah, and they are cheap. Sometimes when I pick up a few kilos of veggies and fruits, I feel weird just paying 20 EGP (about 1 pound). But hey, I’ll take it.
Egypt may sound great to you right about now, but I feel I must warn you, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Okay, well there is quite a lot of sunshine. But many aspects of life here are difficult to get used to. Namely the pollution, litter, crowds, terrible internet, the green water week of 2018, instant summer sweat and the plethora of bad drivers (who constantly feel the need to serenade others with their car horns). But you certainly can’t say it’s not memorable. We will remember our time here with some frustration, but a lot of fondness.
We turn away from the coast and cross an invisible line between green and orange. The UK government advises against all but essential travel here. We are about halfway into our seven-hour-drive from Alexandria to Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Every so often we are stopped at a checkpoint and our passports are examined by soldier. Turrets with guns overlook us, a trifle menacing, but the soldiers are friendly enough.
The landscape changes subtly as we drive, scrubby bushes getting thinner and scarcer. The desert is a flat rocky floor, stretching until the curve of the earth hides it from view. Near Siwa, a few trees appear, then fields of palm trees. The sand coloured dessert is broken by blue lakes. Closer, we can see the salt that edges the lake like ice.
My excitement grows as we turn into our lodge, the Talist Ecolodge and Farm. The colour of the buildings matches the wind-carved sandstone hills behind it. A still pool mirrors the landscape. The tranquility is somewhat marred by the persistence of flies, and we retreat to the screened-in porch.
Within minutes of our arrival, the kids are all off exploring. Our son, Oscar, and the two children of Lou and Andy, our travelling companions. They find caves, sand hills, and petrified shells from when this desert was a sea bed. They proudly take me on a tour of the caves. I’m told their names, first cave, second cave, third cave and fourth cave. Evidently they are saving their imagination for role-playing games involving dragons and other fantasies. Jemima shows me a magic trick where she disappears into one crack and appears out of another.
Our hut is simple but comfortable. There is no electricity so we go to bed soon after nightfall. At night I can hear the wind in the trees and feel the cool breeze on my skin and I’m feel like we are camping.
Breakfast on the second day is felafel and foul, eggs and bread, and a cheese and tomato mixture. Before our afternoon desert tour, we head into Siwa town. There are many men and children, but not many women. The women are at home. The few we do see are fully covered. Their faces are hidden by loose black cloth and they are hooded and draped in more fabric. Their garb is vaguely sinister, reminiscent of the wraiths from Lord of the Rings. My eyes slide off them uneasily, I feel like they don’t want to be seen. It’s hard to imagine that the hidden figures are regular women.
Most of the people we come across are friendly, we are greeted with smiles. "Mumkin soura, low samaht," I ask. Can I take a photo please. Aywa, yes. I'm given a good luck scarab at a shop where I perused without making a purchase. Life is unhurried here, tourists welcome.
We drive through town again on our way to the desert with our tour guide Ibrahim and his son. On our way to the desert, Ibrahim waves at most of the people we pass. Young boys in pairs or groups drive donkey-drawn wagons down the streets. Down an alley we see a small boy hit a smaller girl with a stick. “La! La!” Ibrahim shout out the window. No, No. I think this is a small town where everyone look out for each other, where the adults are parents to all the children.
At the edge of the desert Ibrahim’s son takes some air out of the tires. Soon we are speeding along the sand, revelling in the slip and slide of the vehicle. We go up a steep dune and pause on the the narrow edge. Then we are plunging down, fast. The vehicles fills with gasps, laughs, screams and low exclamations. I laugh, maniacally, a huge grin splitting my face.
We come to a stop and the kids are out, running. They climb a dune and run back down, laughing and falling. I marvel at the smooth wavy line where the sides of sand meet. This is the desert of movies and adventures. I can imagine slow, laborious steps along the peak with the sun beating down, lips cracking and dry mouth craving water. But today it is fun, we run around and expend energy freely. There is water in the vehicle and tea and biscuits for later.
The next stop is for sand boarding. Andy jumps on a board and pushes off. He is always first, says Lou. The guides encourage us to sit on the boards like a sled, but we are mad English people and one mad Canadian. We strap in our feet and sail down the sand like we are snowboarding, or surfing.
I try it only once. I sail down the hill, picking up speed, and bump over car tracks until one finally spills me. I fall into soft sand, unhurt, laughing. The climb up the sandy slope is another matter. The sand slips beneath my feet with each step until I make it to the top, gasping. After that I am content to watch the others play, and photograph the landscape as it changes with the light.
We stop at a hot spring pool on the way back. I would jump in with the others, but there are only men and children in the pool, the woman here are mostly veiled, so I dip my toes in the spring and wander the small oasis.
Back in the 4X4, we crest another steep hill, this time in the dimming light, and then stop and watch the sunset with small glass cups of tea and biscuits. Then it’s back to roads and slow driving and a dinner in the town. Next to our restaurant, crowds of Egyptians spill into the street watching the football match of Egypt versus Morocco. The crowd erupts into cheers and shouts when Egypt scores. I cheer along with them.
The third day we explore Shali, the old part of Siwa. The broken finger of the old town ruins reach up, as if a stone giant is reaching from inside the earth to grasp Siwa. We climb up stairs and winding paths and wonder what it was like when these were rooms and people lived here. Was this a well? Could this have been a dwelling? Now, it is hard to tell.
We walk further into the other side of town. Here, the old ruins are patched up inhabited. There are no women here, no girls. A group of boys hang out on a wagon. “La, la,” they says as I lift my camera. A man sits on a stoop and his eyes follow us as we pass. A few children chase us. “Take, take,” it sounds like one boy shouts. Take a photo? Or is it Arabic? “Ana mish fahma,” I say. I don’t understand.
The homes here edge the street and we walk softly, as if we are treading in people’s backyards. This is not a touristy area. I feel like I don’t belong here. I feel like it’s real. Then the street opens up into souvenir stalls and I am half relieved and half disappointed.
On the fourth morning I wake up with the sunrise and take my camera to the salt shelf of the lake, stalking a patch of still water where the flat-topped hill will be reflected. I find my photo and stop, gazing at the sand and water in the silence. I feel completely at peace and am in no rush to leave. I feel like I’ve found a place with no time. A noisy truck approaches and the spell is broken.
After lunch we leave on another tour. We go to the Temple of the Oracle, a temple where Alexander the Great was told his father was the god Zeus. Next is the Temple of Amun. It looks like a pile of rubble. At some point it was blown up in search of treasure. We elect to just drive past. At the spring of Cleopatra, the men and children jump into the deep circular pool. Lou shops and I take photos. The bathing suit I brought is modest by Canadian standards, but it would be scandalous here. I’m told I will be able to swim ash the next stop, a salt lake.
We drive out into the desert. Jonah and Oscar are deeply involved in a discussion about Plants vs Zombies. They have been inseparable for most of the trip. My eyes are usually glued to the window. We drive beside another large lake and on the other side are salt mines. Empty trucks drive in, and trucks piled high with salt drive out. Every once and a while there is a rectangular pool of water.
“Maybe this is the Salt Lake,” jokes Andy.
It was the Salt Lake.
Andy is in first, of course, and immediately bobs up. The others join him. Two of the children are soon out again, the salt stings their cuts. I pour water over Oscar’s scrapes and jump in once he has recovered. I float effortlessly in the dense, salty water. I could easily have a nap. But today, frolicking is far too much fun. Soon the children are all out, playing in the piles of salt, and the adults bob in the pool. Is this what it is like to float in space?
We discover that while the salt is pleasant in the water, once it dries it becomes progressively more painful. Ibrahim takes us to another hot spring. This one is behind a gate and full of foreigners, so I have no doubts about plunging into the deep hot pool. The stinging salt is washed away and replaced with a soothing warmth as the setting sun casts everything in a warm glow.
Back at the lodge we enjoy another lovely meal. The main dish features the unlikely combination of eggplant and ground beef and raisins. Nevertheless it is delicious. The kids go to bed, exhausted. The adults stay up late, talking about politics and books, drinking wine and rum we brought from home.
The next day we decide to stay and enjoy the Talist Lodge. Oscar and I climb the “mountains” of sandstone, swim in the pool and enjoy leisurely meals. We watch the sun dip low in the cloudless sky. It throws out a blanket of warm light before it disappears, leaving behind a pale pink glow. It is Samhain and the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thin. That night we chat by the fire while the kids make robots out of bottles and mud.
The drive home is mostly uneventful. Soldiers do the same cursory check of the trunk at each checkpoint. There is a bit of excitement when we pass through a desert storm. The driver slows, uncertain. The storm passes and we are on our way again, careening down the desert road at 140 km/hr, bouncing jauntily. The empty desert is replaced with buildings and light, the silence with cars honking and engines revving, and we know we are back in the city, home.
This is the view from my balcony. I'm not sure how these guys managed, out there in the heat, breathing in dust. After a week with little progress, they brought in machinery to finish the job.
The hilarious comedian driver with 25 imaginary children drove us from Luxor to Aswan in a minibus. This time, he was mercifully succint.
Halfway to Aswan we stopped at the Edfu temple. I was pretty impressed with Edfu, a newer temple from the Ptolemaic Period dedicated to Horus. It is a few thousand years younger than Hatshepsut Temple and very well preserved. It even had a roof. It fell into disuse a few hundred years after it was built when non-Christian worship was banned and it was gradually buried in under 12 metres of sand.
As we left Edfu, we once again lost Bob. When we found him he was dressed up in a galabeya, the traditional loose ankle-length robe worn by some Egyptians. The salesman was looking very pleased with himself and offered us the “very low price” of 700 Egyptian pounds for the garment. We declined and attempted to extricate dad from the situation with a speedy escape, but our bus driver of many children was no where to be found. While we waited, the vendor stuck to us, lowering the price in drip and drabs. I offered to buy it for 100 pounds. The salesman swore up and down that he had paid 160 for it. He was either a horrible business person or lying through his teeth. He did end up selling it to me for my original price of 100 Egyptian pounds although he sulked and stalked away, only to return, once again cheerful, with more galabeyas for sale. Fortunately the bus driver turned up and we escaped.
It turned out the galabeya came in very handy at our next resort. It was 41°C and the cool cotton galabeya was dad’s garment of choice. He wore it every morning for the rest of the trip. He likes it so much he asked Mom to find him pattern and make him a few more, including a winter version.
Once more in the minibus, our driver offered to stop at Kom Ombo, another temple, but we were all tired and a bit templed out so we unanimously passed.
Somewhere along the way, Richard said the words I’ve learned to dread… “You’re not going to believe this…”
He’d booked the hotel for the wrong day.
He gave us a crooked smile, no doubt hoping we would be amused. Look what Richard has done now, chuckle, chuckle. Aw, shucks.
We stared at him balefuly.
He looked down and beavered away on his phone and managed to book another room at the same hotel for that night.
The hotel was stayed at was called the Ekadolli Nubian Guesthouse and it was on the west bank of the Nile in a Nubian village called “Nubian Village.” It looked like it had seen better days but it was a very good price. The room we were first given was a bit reminiscent of a prison cell with no windows, not a great look for a hotel room, but we were grateful to even have a room after the mix-up. Then, without us even asking, they offered to move us to a couple of much nicer rooms on the top level for the same price.
The food at Ekadolli was absolutely amazing. We didn’t order, they just brought out a selection of deliciousness. The top floor also had a large open terrace where I could lie down and watch the stars. That night I watched the stars for about 30 seconds and before I dragged myself to my room and collapsed into bed, exhausted.
The next day was an early start and then off to Abu Simbel. The guesthouse had packed us a breakfast of eggs, bread and cheese for our journey. Abu Simbel was an impressive temple but this one came with a three-hour journey on each side and at 5am start which dulled the impact. If you are going to make the journey to Abu Simbel, I recommend doing it first, before you’re templed out. The artwork was beautiful but we were not allowed to take any photos inside, which I just find painful.
Abu Simbel almost ended up under a lake. In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was being planned which would have caused the two temples at Abu Simbel to be submerged underwater. They were cut into 16,000 blocks and moved 200 metres to the top of the cliff where they were reassembled at a cost of a cool $40 million. Everything was put back in the same position and facing exactly the same angle. It’s impressive. I struggle to put together an Ikea table.
We stopped for lunch in the Abu Simbel village. Our driver volunteered to get us food at Egyptian prices rather than getting extortionate touristy crap. We had five felafel sandwiches and two bottles of water for 25 Egyptian pounds (about $2 Canadian) and it was absolutely delicious.
We got back to the hotel in the sweltering desert heat. Sitting under the ceiling fan was like sitting under a blowdryer. We unanimously decided to move to a hotel with a pool. We felt bad telling our host, who had been lovely and accommodating, but we were seriously melting.
Later in the afternoon our host took us on a tour of the Nubian Village and a Nubian house. I was in a better mood, knowing that I would be able to jump into a pool tomorrow, so I was super excited to get out and do some photography. My dad and Richard came out as well while mother wisely abstained.
The village turned out to be a market with mostly the same touristy crap we’d seen everywhere, although I found some nice dried herbs. I did buy some calendula after a hard haggle to get the price down to a reasonable level. I would have bought more but I just didn’t have the energy to bargain. It was that kind of heat that just sucks the will to live right out of you.
The Nubian house turned out to be a touristy tea place with an extremely depressed looking crocodile in a relatively small cage. I really hate that kind of thing. I wanted to let it out but I didn’t want to get arrested or be responsible for a vengeful crocodile massacre. I think the heat was addling my brain. We refused tea.
Our guide took us to the bank of the Nile and offered to take us on a boat ride. At this point I was very grateful that my dad dislikes boats so I could totally throw him under the bus.
“I’d love to go but my dad can’t do boats,” I said, trying to sound regretful.
We headed back to the hotel via a “shortcut” that consisted of slogging uphill through thick sand. If this dude was trying to exact revenge on us, it was working. I stopped occasionally to “take pictures,” breath heaving and sweat collecting in some very uncomfortable places. I’m amazed any of those photos turned out since they were pretty much taken on autopilot.
We finally arrived back at the hotel, kicking sand out of our shoes and coated with a mixture of sweat and grit. I slogged up the stairs to see Mom lounging on the patio under a ceiling fan nursing a rum and coke on ice. I shot her a dirty/envious look.
An hour later, after a shower and change, sitting under the setting sun in the cooling air, eating another amazing meal, I was a bit sad we were leaving.
The next morning the hotel arranged a driver for us to take us to the Pyramisa Isis Corniche Resort. We picked this resort because it had a pool and we could just afford it. I asked for rooms near the pool and we were “upgraded” to rooms as far away from the pool as you can get, down a narrow cement corridor. Even though only we saw five other guests the whole time we were there. Turned out the hotel was fairly soulless with lacklustre food, wierdly dark bathrooms and bonus cockroaches in the room. It did have a pool though. And the location right on the Nile was fantastic.
I was a bit relieved to leave the next day. Back home to Alexandria. No more having to worry about the state of the hotel we were headed to or booking mix-ups. We got through the multiple layers of security at Aswan airport and settled for a short wait until our flight.
Except Rich couldn’t find his iPad.
He’d left it in the room. Aaaaargh. He loves that iPad. He’s on there all the time. If I was on a sinking ship and the iPad was on another sinking ship and he had a rescue boat, I’m not 100 percent sure he’d come get me first.
He called the hotel. No answer. I can make it to the hotel and back in time, he said. Only if you’ve developed a superpower and can freeze time. He managed to look panicked and degected at the same time. I hugged him. His hands were shaking.
Richard called the driver that had taken us to the hotel. Miraculoulsy the driver agreed to go to the hotel to see if he could get the iPad. We searched for the hotel’s phone number online with no luck. Then mom came through, dredging up a hotel business card with a working phone number from her purse and Rich managed to get through. They said they would look and hung up. Rich called back, they’d found the iPad and the driver arrived. The iPad was on it’s way! Rich would have to go out and come back in through three sets of security. The bus arrived to take us to the plane. Oscar and I waited while mom and dad boarded. Rich texted that he was on his way. A bus load of people had arrived at security just before Richard. The second and last bus pulled up. The last few people boarded. Oscar and I, at the end of the line, came up to the boarding agent. We need to wait for my husband, I explained in broken Arabic. I looked over my shoulder, I saw him!
With his iPad!!
We got on the plane, all of us and all of our devices.
I was truly amazed at this driver. He’d met us only once but he’d driven to the hotel and brought Rich his iPad even though a hundred things could have gone wrong and he very probably wasn’t going to get paid anything. The hotel might not have found the iPad. The flight might have left. The traffic might have been bad. Hotel security might not have let him in.
In any case, he did get paid, plus a very grateful tip. Plus a big unexpected hug from Richard.
If you ever need a driver in Aswan, here is one you can definitely trust:
Fared Abdallh Mohamed Salyn
Hand Stuff Nodu (Don’t ask me what this means)
It was our last day in Luxor. Our host, Mahmoud, offered to take us out to the desert villages in the back of a pickup truck. They’d prepared the truck bed with an assortment of chairs, carpets and colourful cushions. The final look was somewhere between a Maharaja’s palace and a redneck bush party.
My mother (or her majesty queen of Luxor as she now likes to be called) sat on her “throne” with her hat and fan, waving graciously at the villagers. Most of the Egyptians we passed waved back and seemed delighted and amused by our strange parade. A few kids even hopped on the truck for a short ride. We were greeted with shouts of “welcome” and broad grins wherever we went, a far cry from the “death to infidels” nonsense peddled by the media. I was glad my parents got to experience the generous warmth of these people.
I had a great time observing and capturing little snippets of daily life on camera. Dad was snapping away as well. He seemed incredibly happy during the tour and said that despite the heat, he could have done it all day. I had a similar sentiment. It was one of my favourite experiences of the entire trip.
Dusty and windblown, we stopped for a quick tour and cold drink at El Moudira, a beautiful and tranquil hotel in the desert. We all tried to behave around the posh people. Then we were back on the road.
Our destination was St Tawdros (St Theodore's) Coptic Orthodox Christian Monastery, in the desert near Medinet Habu. We removed our shoes and stepped reverently in the quite, peaceful chapel. The walls contained both carvings of Coptic crosses and hieroglyphs from recycled stone originating in nearby temples.
Afterwards we visited the gift shop where a variety of goods could be found. It was a strange mix of religious items and cheap plastic toys. We bought some frankincense and locally made honey. One nun demonstrated plastic cross that came apart to show it was also a pen. She seemed to think it was the best thing ever, but sadly there were no takers.
That night, back at Nile Compound, we sat on the balcony, smoked shisha and played cinquante-huit (a french card game). I was slightly concerned about Aswan and my next budget hotel choice but I didn’t let it bother me. Que sera sera.
The next few days in Luxor at Nile Compound were mercifully free of f**k-ups. We arrived to huge smiles and warm greetings. Even though we've only been there once before, it was like we were visiting good friends.
The worst thing for my parents were the flies. Indeed they were numerous but the Egyptian way is to shoo them away while my mother enjoys the murdering aspect of pest management. The folks at Nile Compound were kind enough to make my mom a flyswatter consisting of part of a tablet case nailed to a piece of wood. Somewhere in Luxor, someone is walking around with their tablet only half covered so my mother could get revenge on the little critters.
The best thing at Nile Compound was the pool. Or maybe the breakfasts. No, it had to be the gardens or the view from the balcony. It was almost universally fabolous. Service was friendly if not especially speedy, which kind of forced us relax and proceed on West Bank time. Magically, someone would appear with peanuts when we were feeling peckish, or fresh juice when we were thirsty.
After a few days of relaxation we met up with some friends to visit Valley of Kings and my favourite temple, the Hatshepsut Mortuary Temple at Deir el Bahari. Hatshepsut's story is a very girl-power, stick-it to-the-man, kind of deal. This lady becomes king despite the patriarchy, leads a country to prosperity for decades. Unfortunately, when she dies, the future generations of male leaders try to erase all evidence of her but thousands of years later people dig up the fragments of her statues from where they were buried in pits, restore and replace them.
One of our friends also happens to be Oscar’s teacher, Mr. DC, who he loooooves. Poor Mr. DC, on vacation from teaching, had a talkative 6-year-old stuck to him like glue, dragging him by the hand on “tours” of the ancient sites. Bless, him, he never complained. I thought about offering to take Oscar off his hands, but then I thought maybe he was missing teaching so I thought better of it ;) Plus I knew if I tried to separate Oscar from his favourite teacher I would be public enemy number one. So I was blissfully free to take in all the things I’d missed the last time. Like clear evidence of where Hatshepsut’s name was erased from her cartouche, and carvings of gods and pharaohs with the original paint still in place. Awesome.
I have to give credit to my parents. We spent the day going up and down narrow staircases, ducking through tunnels and out walking the the desert sun. It was exhausting for me, and as I mentioned, I am much younger. But were they up for it. My mom even went part way down the narrow steep tunnel to the tomb of Thutmose III. It figures that this dude would make things as difficult in death for innocent tourists as he did in life for his poor step mother. He probably didn’t want anyone “pulling a Thutmose” on his cartouches.
The last tomb we visited was Ramesses VI which was a new one for us. It cost a bit extra but it was totally worth it, the best tomb by far. The ceiling of the main tomb was amazing. I could have stayed in there all day but it was almost physically painful to not be able to take photos. Fortunately my mom bought Rich a papyrus with a painting of the ceiling artwork so we will always be able to remember.
After all the adventure was over, we went to Nile Compound for lunch which was absolutely delicious, although by the time it arrived I believe it would considered dinner. I was happy though, more time shared with good people. Oscar got to hang out with a lot of his favourite people. We retired for the night tired, full and happy.
We were all up early due to city noises and insect bites. Richard went to the lobby to see if we could get our car to the airport earlier than we’d booked it, eager to put the Boutique Paradise Hotel behind us. He returned saying they’d looked a bit hurt saying, “But we have the coffee on.” Shortly afterwards they arrived with trays of eggs, fruit and freshly brewed coffee and tea, at no charge. I guess breakfast was included. We wolfed down our food, a bit chagrined about the amount of time we’d spent searching for breakfast the day before.
The car arrived and we were off to the airport. I was excited about this part of the journey. We were headed to Nile Compound in Luxor. It’s a little piece of heaven on the west bank that we’d visited in November. This trip was about to get much better.
We arrived at the airport, nice and early, and breezed through security. It was all going to get better from here. A short flight and we’d be picked up the airport and taken to a real paradise, sipping cocktails by the pool, surrounded by fragrant colourful flowers.
The check-in lady looked at our tickets for an inordinate amount of time. A thread of worry started to creep into my poolside reverie.
“Go there,” she said brusquely, gesturing towards a closed counter manned by a dude who was doing a lacklustre job of trying to look busy.
The thread of worry started knitting into a light sweater. We fumed and fretted quietly while moving the next counter. The check-in dude looked up at us. No Arabic was needed to understand his look said “Why are you here?”
“She sent us,” I said, indicating the lady who’d just passed the buck. She studiously ignored him. Maybe he owed her one.
Another inordinate amount of time was spent staring at tickets and I was getting a little peeved at the lack of service.
“You need to go to the sales counter,” he said.
My parents, Oscar and I sat and waited while Richard went back out though security in search of the sales counter. After a long time spent fidgeting and trying to unravel the caftan of worry knitting in my brain, I called Richard.
“We have to get on the the next flight,” he said. The flight wasn’t for another six hours.
I launched into a tirade about how they should upgrade us to first class and this was ridiculous. Richard was suspiciously silent.
“Actually, they are doing us a favour.”
Turns out Rich had booked the flights for May instead of April.
All I could do was laugh and feel grateful that it wasn’t me who royally screwed up. Fortunately my parents were cool about it. We had a 6-hour wait at the domestic area of terminal three with has a total of one exorbitantly expensive cafe and one ridiculously pricey duty-free shop.
Thank goodness for devices. I collected a good amount of Candy Crush boosters.
A good seven hours later we were picked up at the airport. The driver regaled us with fables about his 25 kids and five wives. Mom was having none of it.
“Don’t you believe me?” he asked.
“Honestly, no,” she replied bluntly.
No flies on her. I was so proud. Turns out he has one wife and two kids. We ain’t no gullible tourists dude.
We finally arrived at our little paradise and I was pleased to see it had only changed for the better. We had an apartment this time, with a balcony overlooking the Nile. Heaven.
Rich probably thought he was redeemed now that we’d arrived. My parents thought the place was fantastic.
“Would have been better five hours ago,” they agreed.
I woke up in the morning, fresh-faced and ready for the day, with a few more mosquito bites on my face. At this point I looked like a pimply teen. With wrinkles.
We rounded up my parents and tried to scare up some breakfast before our exciting day of exploring pyramids. McDonalds was closed so we headed over to GAD, the Egyptian food chain. We asked for fried egg sandwiches and but we were given LTs (BLTs without the bacon).
After breakfast we went to a cafe and asked for coffee. We were given ahwa. Ahwa is Arabic for coffee but means Turkish coffee. Great for those who like to chew their morning beverage. Yum. Fortunately we warned my mom not to down the end of her coffee so she didn’t have a gritty surprise.
We tracked down our bus with our guide, Azazza, and we were off to Saqqara to see the first known pyramid, the Step Pyramid, built for Djoser in the third dynasty.
The Step Pyramid was pretty neat although some of the effect was lost because of the scaffolding on the sides. Apparently they had attempted to “repair” this pyramid that had been standing for more than 4000 years, and they caused more damage. It was a bit of a shame but I loved the entrance and the temples around the pyramid. We visited the tomb of Kagemni, the first tomb where I’ve been able to take photos (no flash of course). The intricate carvings were amazing and some even retained the original paint.
In the distance we saw the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. The Bent Pyramid was Sneferu’s first attempt at a pyramid. The angle of the sides changes near the top, giving it a bent appearance. I think they realized the original angle was a bit too ambitious and switched to a shallower angle, hoping the big guy wouldn't notice. Sneferu was not pleased with the results. I personally think heads might have rolled. He then had the Red Pyramid built. Probably with new staff. This was first pyramid with the classical form and even sides. Sneferu’s son Khufu would then go on to build the Great Pyramid.
I looked at these distant pyramids wistfully. I tend to like the less important (and less touristy) places where you can get a real sense of the place. Not that I don’t love seeing white people in cargo shorts and safari hats, operating cameras badly and loudly pointing out the obvious. My parents basically fit that description and they’re lovely. All two of them. A bus load, not so much.
We piled into the van and headed off to Giza to see the Great Pyramids. Unfortunately they are so Great that the afore-mentioned tourists visit in droves. I’d been there a few times before but this time was different. I got to experience the wonder of seeing it the first time through my parents eyes.
They said it was smaller than they thought it would be.
Our guide, Azazza, gave us some helpful hints for dealing with vendors before we approached the pyramids. Rule number one "Don't let them hand you anything." She should have made Dad hold someone's hand. He kept wandering off. Azazza would start her spiel of fascinating information, only to stop mid-way. "We've lost Bob." Once time, when Bob returned, he was decked out in various pieces of touristy crap including a scarf wrapped around his head with his belongings in a plastic bag. Unbelievably, this was not the only time this would happen.
My son, Oscar, had been drawing pyramids since we first decided to move to Egypt. He was very disappointed when our apartment was a rectangular shape. Every time we passed a mound of dirt on the road he would ask if it was a pyramid. Now that were were at real pyramids, he was more excited to see his grandparents than the ancient structures.
Another draw to Egypt for Oscar were the camels. Of course, he wanted to do a camel ride. Everyone piped up with reasons they couldn’t go with him. Arthritis, old legs, bad knees etc. As the youngest (and best-looking) adult, I gamely stepped up to the plate. I limberly hopped up onto the waiting camel. And realized my legs don’t go that wide anymore. I was told to move back to make room for Oscar. This would be towards the wider part of the camel. The pain was… let say excruciating. I plastered a smile on my face that was somewhere between a grimace and a silent panicked scream.
Note to self, must get back into yoga.
After my pain dulled to a low flame, the ride was marginally enjoyable. Ozzie got a kick out of it. I didn't risk moving my legs. For me, it was pretty cool to see the only remaining wonder of the world, a structure that has endured for 4500 years. But, unsurprisingly it hadn’t changed much in the 15 years since the last time I saw it. Saqqara was by far my favourite place, and we only scratched the surface. Hopefully we will get a chance to go back.
I did learn a lot. Our guide was great. I learned they carved the Sphinx out of a block of limestone in the quarry that they couldn’t move. The Great Pyramid was built at Giza because it was a big faux pas to build a bigger pyramid right next to your daddy's pyramid.
And of course I learned to have an excuse ready when camels are in the vicinity.
The street was lit like a Christmas tree. Music was pumping. It was uncomfortably loud and the taxi vibrated a little with every bump of bass. I covered my ears. I was really looking forward to getting to the hotel after our stressful train journey.
The taxi pulled over.
No no no, we told the driver. We want to go to the hotel. This is some main drag retail/party area.
We drove a bit further on. Our driver pulled up to the Cairo Paradise Hotel. I looked at our reservations which showed Paradise Boutique Hotel. Surely this wasn’t it. Richard called the hotel manager who spoke to our driver. We drove on and I breathed a sigh of relief. We were almost there.
We pulled over at the very same music blaring, lights flashing spot.
Oh gosh, our hotel is here.
My legs refused to propel me out of the car. Even when the hotel manager arrived to take us to our room.
Ok, maybe it is a hidden gem. Maybe there is a garden paradise with sound proofing, just around the corner.
The hotel manager led us down a dark alley, through a decrepit doorway and into an ancient elevator. It was one of those old designs where you can see out the wrought iron gate at each crumbling floor we passed.
Then a beach came into view. Or rather it was a beach mural plastered over the entire wall of floor 5. Still, it was an improvement. The lobby looked fairly decent. As the manager led us towards our room I was starting to think a little more positively. Then we got to our room.
Thump, thump, thump, thump.
How was it possible for my teeth to be vibrating with each beat of the music playing SIX FLOORS DOWN? The Cairo party scene was challenging the laws of sound waves. Richard immediately tried to secure a different room but apparently this particular paradise was so popular there were no other rooms available. Bloody hipsters paradise.
We sat down dejectedly, our dour countenance at odds with the upbeat party music thrumming through our molecules.
When the manager came back we were still sitting there, frozen with misery. A new room was provided. Hooray! It was still loud but not bone-vibratingly so.
The next morning Richard picked up my parents from the airport. As he left the hotel and waded through the garbage littering the entrance he realized the entrance looked way better at night than in the light of day.
I have to give my parents credit though. After an 11-hour flight they arrived at this rough budget hotel and they rolled with it. They were seemed unfazed by the surroundings and excited to be with us and embarking on this adventure.
On the plus side, the hotel was only $30 a night and it was very central. The staff, while largely unhelpful, were pleasant. The rooms were nicely decorated. There were ill-fitting screens on the windows which were wholly ineffective in keeping out bugs, but the thought was there.
There was a McDonalds a block away which was brilliant for breakfast to lessen the culture shock a bit. We only had to wait half an hour for our fast food. Then we took a short walk to the Egyptian Museum, which was amazing. We saw Tutankhamen’s death mask, ancient statues, sarcophagi and mummies and finished with a lunch of Egyptian food at Felfela.
I’ve known my mom for a long time, my whole life in fact. There are a few fundamental aspects of my mother. One, she likes ice in her rum and coke. A lot of ice. Two, her ideal museum visit duration is about ten minutes. Three, she’s a meat and potatoes gal. Foreign food is not her jam. So, I was a bit worried after we came back from our two-hour tour of the museum followed by foreign food and the ice situation at the hotel was not looking good. The hotel staff responses to our multiple requests for ice ranged from “no” to “yes, in ten minutes” to “check in an hour.” A walk down to the shops was equally unsuccessful.
That night, while sipping on warm rum and cokes in our budget hotel room, with the music pumping in the background and mosquitoes trying to suck some fresh Canadian blood, I was surprised and pleased to hear my parent excitedly recounting how much they loved the day, including all two hours of our museum experience.
As we turned in for the night and the mosquitoes prepared for their evening buffet I reflected on what troopers my parents were and resolved to make this an epic trip for them.
It was a long wait at the train station, and now I had found my row, son in tow, but there were people in our seats. I’d heard of this happening in Egypt. I squared my shoulders.
“You’re in my seat,” I proclaimed, in what I hoped was an authoritative tone.
My tone had approximately zero effect. The interlopers trying to steal my way to Cairo stared resolutely ahead. More passengers were pressing in from behind me.
“Look!” I said, brandishing my tickets which clearly stated these exact seat numbers.
“I have the same seat numbers,” said a voice behind me. It was one of those matter-of-fact no-nonsense sturdy Egyptian ladies that you do not want to mess with. She was wearing a jaunty pink hijab, somewhat at odds with her stern demeanor.
Oi, is it possible they triple-booked these seats? I pictured my parents arriving at the Cairo airport early the next morning with no one to greet them. I trembled.
“Let me see those tickets,” said the not-to-be-messed-with Egyptian lady. Of course I handed them over, a split second after she snatched them from my hand. My 6-year-old son Oscar started getting a bit twitchy, sensing my tension. I could feel sweat starting to sprout from my pores. I glanced desperately towards the other end of the carriage where my husband was waiting with the bags.
“This is the wrong date,” the lady informed me, indicating the tickets. I stared at the Arabic numbers on the paper but my brain stubbornly refused to translate.
“I can’t read this,” I said to myself.
“It’s in English here,” said the lady dryly. “See, it says Apr 4, and it’s Apr 14.”
You know that sinking feeling, the dread, when you realize things are about to go horribly wrong.
Yeah, I had that.
The next few minutes are a bit of a panicked blur. I remember looking over the heads of the passengers trying to get past me, towards my husband, who couldn’t see me. At some point my son’s twitchiness turned to distress as we got pushed into the treacherous space between cars. Richard managed to make his way to us as I tried to explain our situation to various people, hoping to find someone who worked there or knew something. Oscar started crying in earnest and attempted to flee the train despite my iron grip on his slippery, sweaty hand.
Then the train pulled away.
Oscar screamed, I sweated, and Richard fumed.
“You will have to pay a fine and there will be no seats,” a man said.
Great, three hours standing on a train with three suitcases and a screaming child. Richard and I looked at each other in despair.
Then, the pink hijab lady came and saved the day.
“There are lots of seats here,” she said, regarding the ill-informed man disdainfully. “Come with me.”
She sorted out seats for us, checked on us during the journey, booked us a cab to get us to the hotel and even directed us out of Ramesses station, waited for the car and made sure we got in. All while wrangling a large family group with small children, pulling her luggage with one hand and carrying a baby in the other arm.
She brushed off our thanks saying she knows what it’s like, having been lost in Europe before.
As we piled into the car while issuing additional profuse thanks, I wished I’d gotten her name, but it is nice to know there are good people out there.
In November during our trip to Luxor, we sailed a wee bit of the Nile on a felucca, a traditional wooden sailing boat. We spent the afternoon breathing in the sea wind and beautiful views of the Nile. Our hosts, Ilsa and Mahmoud of Nile Compound, packed us a tasty hot lunch and drinks. Oscar even got to "help" the sailors steer the boat. Possibly for a bit longer than they intended.
Our destination was a place called Banana Island. It has a lot of bananas. Also, it's an island. Did you know they didn't have bananas in ancient Egypt? I didn't. I even lost a bet.
After a stroll along a path through he bananas, we stopped at a restaurant/gift shop/zoo. This was a strange place. Like, awesomely strange. Particularly the gift shop. I suppose it's possible there is a market for dusty jewellery and badly preserved dead animals. With bonus cobwebs. The restaurant did serve up a jolly nice platter of fruits. And, if you got bored (or, more likely, if your children get bored), you could always check out the live crocodiles.
Not creepy at all...
As you know, I love the weird and wonderful, so I was pretty thrilled. The people were actually quite lovely. The trip back was beautiful. We enjoyed being gently rocked by the waves while enjoying the warm light of the dipping sun. Once ashore, we retired to a riverfront cafe to watch the sunset.
I've always been weird. It used to bug me. At some point I guess I decided to embrace it. Now I'm drawn to everything strange. That's why I returned to the Marine Museum in Alexandria. I didn't quite get my fill of strange the first time. It's like a good movie, every time you revisit it, you see something you missed last time. For me, anyway. No one else seems to be as fascinated with this gem as I am, but where other people see odd displays in a weird museum, I see magic. I see a place where time stands still.
The museum is full of dioramas and bones. The surreal and the dead. The figure of an old-fashioned diver has fallen over with it's head resting on a rock. It has very likely been in place, staring at this rock, for years. A flock of taxidermied birds stare out from behind glass, perpetually in mid-flight. Fish are frozen in place in fake aquariums lit with an eerie blue light. The husks of aquatic creatures suspend from nets. Time has stilled here. The frantic quest for survival has no meaning to the bones and paper mâché creatures of this particular place.
I would be happy to stay and wander the celebrated weirdness of the museum, but the kids have finished racing through the exhibits and hunger for the next morsel of entertainment. The adults are congregating at the exit. My husband has left the building. I'm happy to leave though. I don't want to spend this discovery all at once. I will be back.
After a few days at Rouqayah’s Ranch we are full of fresh air and healthy organic food. My hair is full of bounce. I’m convinced it’s from the fresh well water, a welcome change from the heavily chlorinated tap water in Alex. Even the pool at the ranch is full of untreated fresh water. The water gets emptied into the fields every few days and the pool gets refilled for the next guest.
Oscar got to meet a lot of friendly farm animals and one unfriendly hissing goose. I’ve never been a fan of geese, swans or opossums. I’ve been hissed at by all three and I’m convinced they are mean, nasty creatures. We had a roasted bird for lunch the next day and I was rather hoping it was the offending goose. Turns out it was duck. I'm not worried, his day will come.
We were unusually close to our food. We saw a cow being milked and the milk was used in our pasta sauce the next day. We saw the lettuce being picked that would end up in our salad an hour later. We toured the fields with olive trees, wheat, barley, fig trees, banana trees, vegetables and herbs. Much of the food we saw in the fields would be used for the olive oil, jams, salads and meals for future guests. Instead of a hundred-mile market, our food all came from a 100-metre non-market. Farm to table at it's finest.
Oscar had two horseback riding lessons on a beautiful mare, Asal. He’s a natural. Oscar, not the horse. I'm sure the horse is a natural as well. If they've started mass producing artificial horses, I missed the memo. I was so proud. Of Oscar. He was riding on his own after 30 minutes. I completely trusted Rouqayah and Hassam to assess his ability and take care of him during the lesson. Later, Oscar and I had a hilariously fun bouncy donkey cart ride. Totally worth the butt splinters.
The downside of the trip? The weather. We’d kind of banked on the pool providing entertainment for Oscar, but it was quite cold and windy. Everything is usually more fun in the pool but he went in for a couple of minutes and was shivering like an electric toothbrush. After the failed pool experiment, the horse and donkey rides, game of footy, game of catch, playing with the dogs, playing with the cats, an hour on the kindle, countless rounds of UNO and various animal introductions, this is what my son had to say:
“I’m bored - there’s nothing to do!”
Fortunately our host, Rouqayah, in addition to looking after all her animals and her crops and cooking up lovely organic meals, still has time to “borrow” an easily-bored six-year-old to “help” around the farm. Rouqayah is a British lady who moved to Egypt on her own with only a smattering of Arabic and started a farm. Respect. I get thrown for loop trying to mail a letter.
In 197 B.C., a real-life drama of conspiracy, murder and bribes would result in a decree, carved in stone, and placed in a temple, to reinforce the rule of a 12-year-old pharaoh. It was carved in two languages, and in three different scripts, so everyone would be able to read it. Millenia later, in 1799, this same stone would be discovered in the wall of a French fort in the Nile Delta region of Egypt near the present-day town of Rashid, or as the French called it, Rosetta.
The Rosetta Stone was the key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Before this stone was found, many historians believed each hieroglyph was a word, object or idea. The Rosetta Stone showed that words were made of hieroglyphs that represented sounds, as well as hieroglyphs that represented ideas and objects. That changed everything. The Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets of the Ancient Egyptians, written in temples, tombs and monuments.
The real Rosetta Stone is at the British Museum in London, but this week-end, I got to see the fort and touch the wall where the Rosetta Stone was found. I visited the Rashid Museum where there is an exact replica of the stone. I marvelled at the same neat lines of Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic text that Jean-François Champollion used to interpret the ancient language.
Needless to say, it was super exciting.
There is an exact replica of the Rosetta Stone at the Rashid Museum.
The fort where the Rosetta Stone was found was called Fort St. Julien. Now it is known as the Citadel of Qaitbay and a mosque has been built within it’s walls.
Our second attempt to visit the Citadel of Qaitbay (or the Fort of Qaitbay) was much more successful than the first. Mainly because it wasn't about to close. Actually, I almost abandonned the attempt when I saw how long the "line" for tickets was. I put "line" in quotes because the concept doesn't really exist here. It's more of a throng, I guess. The one who shoves in the most effectively gets the ticket. I am not effective. I blame my Canadian heritage. Fortunately for me, Oscar is not so affected by his Canadianess. After a few minutes of not having moved (other then involuntarily, due to being shoved) Oscar volunteered his services. He easily scooted between the legs of hapless adults and loudly requested tickets. It's a good thing he is cute. I passed him the money, and he got the tickets, much to the delight of the rest of the throng. I love that boy.
I am a lover of the bizarre, the strange, and the random. This is one of the reasons I love exploring Egypt. From a men’s clothing shop called “Newborn” to the Pizza Hut with a view of the Pyramids of Giza, there is randomness in abundance.
My most recent find, the Marine Museum in Alexandria, is one of the best so far, and only 15 minutes away from where I live (on a Friday morning with no traffic).
My friend and I were taking our kids towards the entrance of the Qaitbay fortress when the two children were drawn into the museum like moths to brightly coloured displays of marine life. After trying unsuccessfully to coax them out, we decided to shell out (pun intended) the 20LE (less than $2) cost of tickets for the four of us. And oh my, I’m glad we did.
An enormous skeleton of a marine animal takes up the entire length of the museum. We stared at it in wonder. With no obvious signage in view we were forced to speculate. Could it be a plesiosaurus? a whale? a prehistoric beast of some kind? We eventually discovered it was a Fin Whale, apparently found in the 40s. Now it is the centrepiece of the Marine Museum, carefully put together with what looks like plastic cable zip ties. We did find a sign which, being mostly Arabic, just raised more questions. If anyone can read this, I would love to know what this says!
One of the most bizarre displays was a set of anatomically correct sea cows. One sign read “male” sea cow, I’m not sure why the word male was in quotation marks as it was very obviously a male, perhaps a bit aroused by the female sea cow across the corridor, who also had obvious “female” parts but was labeled as a mermaid. Ironically, the word mermaid was not in quotations. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about my completely oblivious son seeing any inappropriate sea cow displays. He was too concerned with bouncing from display to display to actually take anything in.
Many displays looked like models of creatures, some looked like taxidermy work and some were real bones and shells. One display had shelves of strange creatures preserved in jars, similar to what you might see in and underwater lair of villain in a superhero movie.
The kids got the biggest giggle from a display where the main figure of a diver appears to have fallen over. There were many jokes about how he’d gone diving and fallen asleep, or given up on life, or been frozen into stone by an underwater medusa.
It does look like a lot of work has gone into this museum, and the historic surroundings certainly added to the ambiance. Now that I’ve toured the displays at the lightning pace of children I plan to go back and stay longer, maybe even read some of the information posted.
If you are visiting Alexandria, I would highly recommend this museum. It’s right in the citadel of Qaitbay, you can’t miss it!
There was lots of music, dancing and laughter at the BSA Staff Kids Party today. These are the families of the staff at the British School Alexandria where Richard works. I got a chance to practise my limited Arabic and snap some fun photos. One of the things I love about Egyptians is the adults get right in there and play with the kids. These guys know how to enjoy a party!