The Arab Spring Break: Egypt Edition

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“I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it…My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

— Langston Hughes

This promises to be a long post.  I’ve tried hard to condense it, but this experience is resistant to brevity.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t attempt to encapsulate a trip of this length or magnitude in a single post, but the exhaustive, thrillingly hectic pace of this particular sojourn left me little time for daily contemplation and on-the-spot writing.

In his parable, “Half a Day,” Egypt’s Literary Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, surrealistically reduces the entirety of one boy’s bittersweet formal schooling to just that– half a day.  Suddenly, I find I can now relate to the protagonist, an old man by the end of the story, when he exclaims: “Good Lord!…How could all this have happened in half a day, between morning and sunset?”  In many ways, visiting Egypt was less vacation than education, and that “half a day” will stay with me forever.

I walked alongside my father, clutching his right hand. All my clothes were new: the black shoes, the green school uniform, and the red cap. They did not make me happy, however, as this was the day I was to be cast into school for the first time.”

Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel sits in slightly faded five-star splendor across from the Pyramids at Giza. Entering the lobby from the nearly hour-long ride from the airport, my first impression was that I’d landed in a latter-day Bogey movie replete with Western expats hiding out from the law, and about to unleash their mischief on an unsuspecting North African crossroads. The lobby is huge, busy, buzzy, and emanates an occasional waft of the second-hand smoke I’m no longer impervious to thanks to decades of successful American re-conditioning. Check-in is mercifully pain free, as one of our assigned tour leaders has already collected our passports to facilitate things.

“I took a few steps. Then the faces of the boys and girls came into view. I did not know a single one of them, and none of them knew me. I felt I was a stranger who had lost his way. But then some boys began to glance at me in curiosity… .”

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With our wonderful traveling companions at Edfu Temple. (Photo courtesy of Russell Wasden)

Our time in Egypt is an organized tour with Encounters Travel which we purchased via Living Social. This is the first such tour T and I have done since China, so we know to expect certain benefits (lots of bang for your buck), as well as potential pitfalls (a horrible group? endless forced shopping excursions?). We meet our fellow travelers early the next morning, and I’m immediately thankful, at the very least, that we look like (Obama’s) America. The thirteen of us are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, married, single, and are made up of both younger, and more seasoned travelers. Our guide and soon-to-be guardian angel, Maged, or “Magz,” dubs us his latest group of “Babaghanoush,” and we begin.

“From the first moments I made many friends and fell in love with many girls. I had never imagined school would have this rich variety of experiences.”

The first stop, of course is the Pyramids, where T is game for every optional add-on, from climbing inside the Cheops, the largest of the three major ones, to riding a camel, even though we both swore we’d left our camel riding days back in Jordan. Apparently this time he wants to gallop. I stand by obediently recording this latest fascination until my Lawrence of Arabia gallops right out of the view finder, astride a camel aptly named Dennis the Menace.

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It’s an incredibly busy day, and as we go from the Pyramids, to the Sphinx, to a quick lunch stop at the shawarma stand, to an all too brief, yet wonder-full visit to the Egyptian Museum, our little community begins to form, the pace is set, and the race is on. Starting with an eye-opening drive through Cairo’s busy and colorful streets (one lingering memory is the man I see on camel back, reins and plastic satchel in one hand, and a cell phone held to his ear in the other), we set off on an exhaustive and seemingly nonstop trajectory of discovery.

“Our path, however, was not totally sweet and unclouded…” 

This day, however is also Palm Sunday, and halfway between the museum and a (thankfully not-so-forced and ultimately fruitful) shopping excursion at the papyrus shop, one of our tour mates checks his phone and reads of the lives lost senselessly in the bombings of two Coptic Christian churches earlier that day.  We are all fine, and as far removed from the bombings as anyone can imagine, but the tension and silence on our little white bus become almost tangible, as we simultaneously reach for our devices to reassure all those back home who told us not to come.  The irony though is that we all hail from either the greater New York or Washington D.C. areas, arguably the top two terrorist targets in the world.  But Egypt, as our guide intimated earlier at the museum, struggles from poor marketing, and when that happens, the bad news tends to hold sway.

“We played all sorts of games…we sang our first songs. We also had our first introduction to language. We saw a globe of the Earth, which revolved and showed the various continents and countries. We started learning numbers, and we were told the story of the Creator of the universe. We ate delicious food, took a little nap, and woke up to go on with friendship and love, playing and learning.”

The sleeper train from Cairo to Aswan is comfortable, but about as no frills as our tour accommodations get.  We bond over this with good humor, from making the best of the airplane-style meals–I try, and fail, to transform my nondescript beef dish into boeuf bourguignon by pouring wine into it– to the impromptu slumber party that begins just as introverted morning people like me have called it a night.

Aswan is a sweltering contrast to Cairo’s comfortably cool temperatures; the heat envelops you the moment you step onto the train platform.  Everyone here, at this Egyptian/Nubian intersection, is likewise noticeably darker.  After a brief visit to the Aswan Dam, we take a boat to and from Philae Temple, a love gift to the goddess Isis, before checking into our hotel, the Movenpick Aswan, which with its incredible 360 degree view of the Nile, is also accessible only by boat.

Later on, at the market, T and I are immediately adopted by dozens of overzealous Nubian merchants whose cousins we’ve suddenly become.  With my now pretty highly developed immunity to over-shopping on overseas trips, I’m only drawn to the spice shops with their intense fragrances and colorful displays.  Dinner–ranging from mixed grill plates of beef, chicken, and lamb, to liver and pigeon, all served with lentil soup, rice, and vegetables –is at a local restaurant. And in true old-school fashion, dessert is a tour mate’s birthday cake, served at a party to which the whole class is invited.

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Spice market in Aswan

The next day begins with an early wake-up call for the trip to Abu Simbel, which is at once a testament to Ramses II’s assertion of power over Nubian lands, and his devotion to his queen, Nefertari. With its picturesque location on the banks of Lake Nasser, as well as its imposing and majestic beauty, Abu Simbel is one of the visual high points of the tour for me.

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In the afternoon, we board Captain Tarek’s Nubian felucca sailboat, where most of us have opted to spend the night.  We are also given the honor of being invited into his family’s home.  This is a unique and singularly picturesque experience that’s difficult to sum up in words, but so too is the fellowship we develop by playing “Heads-Up” and a low-tech version of “Name that Tune” while docked on the Nile for the night.

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From the incredible peace on the felucca, we head to Edfu and Kom Ombo Temples, where, apart from seeing some pretty neat alligator mummies,  I recall feeling hot, and, to a certain extent, hounded. Everything is for sale here, and understandably so, especially in light of  the much-diminished tourist market.  On the whole however, the touts aren’t as bad as I’d experienced in some parts of India, for example, and tended to pay heed to a polite yet firm “la shukran” (no thank you).

It’s late afternoon when we arrive in Luxor after a five-hour drive. Luxor is vibrant, as hot, if not hotter than Aswan, and apparently, we’re warned, rather short on honest taxi or horse-drawn carriage drivers.  Another interesting note is its attractiveness to retired expats from the U.K., looking for lives of ease and luxury courtesy of the depleted Egyptian pound.

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A scheduled evening tour of Luxor Temple leaves us just enough time to shower, change, and grab a bite at our latest hotel, the Steigenberger Nile Palace, before we head out.  The atmosphere at Luxor Temple that evening is another awesome experience that I would do more justice by  showing rather than telling:

The next morning ushers in yet another pre-dawn wake up call for a hot air balloon ride that’s eventually canceled due to weather conditions. This lily-livered blogger is secretly thrilled.  That only leaves the Valley of the Kings and two more major temples before Hurghada, and the hedonistic promise of unlimited food, hard and soft drinks, and best of all, two full nights of sleep.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Valley of the Kings, a series of pharaohs’ tombs buried deep (or high) into some pretty formidable rock formations,  leaves me little to share, since any visual evidence that I’d actually been there is strictly forbidden.  I opt to enter two of the three free tombs, and while I’m less than impressed with the first, especially not for the physical effort it took to get into it, the other turns out to be a celebration of the kaleidoscopic brilliance and longevity of Ancient Egyptian art.

The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, however is another matter.  Here, at the feet of Egypt’s  greatest female pharaoh (one of only three, and Cleopatra’s predecessor by 1400 years), and at what should be known worldwide as the ultimate shrine to girl power, pictures are encouraged and invited.  Here are my favorites:

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Girls bounding out of Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple

The amazing Karnak Temple’s ornate gargantuan columns and remaining multi-ton obelisks also testify to Hatshepsut’s legacy, as well as the miracles of Ancient Egyptian ingenuity and architecture.

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 “The bell rang, announcing the passing of the day and the end of work.”

As the day comes to a close, Hurghada shines ahead of us like a beacon as we pile into the little white bus for another three to four hour drive.  We are trying to make the dinner buffet before it shuts down at 9pm. I take advantage of the ride to update our family on our whereabouts –and yes–to sleep, if only in spurts.   We make it to the Jaz Makadi Oasis in time for dinner, its expansive yet quiet Mediterranean style lobby offers the first hint of a slower pace, and at this point, a welcome departure from the briskness of the previous few days.  The full day and two evenings we spend here are unexpectedly cool, limiting our beach time in the Red Sea, but they also provide necessary down time for serious fun.

I said goodbye to friends and sweethearts and passed through the gate.”

The tour begins and ends in Cairo; so too does the dream of two full nights of sleep  when I find out the time of our flight back from Hurghada.  Since rest remains elusive at best, upon our arrival, we opt into a tour of  Old Islamic Cairo, with its 11th Century gates and vibrant souk at Khan El Kahlili.  I quickly realize that I would not have wanted to sleep through this; while I’m not as much into shopping overseas as I may have once been, I remain fascinated by markets.

A walk through a real (as opposed to an exclusively touristic) local market reveals the spirit and energy of a place and its people.  While there, I manage to track down some papyrus bookmarks for my students,  which for many, may be their first, if not only, tangible token of Africa;  I connect with a young  Sudanese woman who gives me my first henna tattoo, and we communicate well enough with her broken English and the universal language of smiles;  our group stands for a while in the main square, facing the enormous speakers of an imposing mosque, as the call to prayer is broadcast for all to hear and to heed–or not.  Most significantly, however, we stop for lunch.

I tend not to post many food pictures on this blog, not because I don’t love food, but because I’m still working through my tendency to eat more quickly than I can photograph it.  In this case that works out just fine, since the restaurant in question, the Naguib Mahfouz Cafe, named for the selfsame literary inspiration for this post, doesn’t allow pictures anyway.  For the record, I have a delicious liver sandwich (Tommy, our guide for the day, seems genuinely impressed by my choice) and some excellent falafel, while T orders the legendary Egyptian koshari and his umpteenth chicken shawarma.  We wash all of this down with tall glasses of excellent lemonade with mint.

The whole time, however, I’m also geeking out about having stumbled into this unexpected literary excursion.  Mahfouz’s books and pictures adorn the inlaid wood walls, and rumor has it, he used to dine here daily.  As a Literature major and World Literature teacher, it doesn’t get better than this for me, except for the nagging feeling that I cannot remember which of his stories I’ve taught. That is, until I sit down to write this post.

“How could all this have happened in half a day, between morning and sunset? I would find the answer at home… But where was my home? I hurried towards the crossroads…”

Like the boy’s experience in Mahfouz’s story, my half a day of learning in Egypt is suddenly over, when it feels like it had just begun, and our little troupe disperses affectionately at the airport.  I had to go home to make sense of it all.

WHAT I LEARNED ON THIS SOJOURN:

1. I’ll be paying heed to those travel deals from Living Social, Groupon etc.  This tour was a tremendous value for what we paid.

2. Great companions make for great tours.  T and I REALLY lucked out, both with our lovely group and with our exceptional guide.

3. Despite the aforementioned temperature fluctuations in different regions, spring felt like an ideal time to be in Egypt.  My packing wasn’t perfect, but in the end, I’m glad I brought 1) older thick-soled, comfortable shoes that I was okay with dumping after they’d served their purpose 2) clothing I could wear in layers, and 3) scarves and a sun hat.

4. Egypt awakened in me a kindred feeling. Like me, she is still digging, learning, and growing.  The ancient artifacts continue to be unearthed, even as the 21st Century moves along at top speed.  This explains the feeling I often got while there that I was living in the distant past and in the present all at once.

5. I loved every moment of Egypt. Period. Despite the tragic events on Palm Sunday, I never felt unsafe, and would not have wanted to miss going. What I learned in books or saw in movies did nothing to prepare me for the real-life magnificence of a civilization that goes back much further in millennia than the U.S. does in centuries.  This is an incredibly humbling and necessary consideration.

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The Arab Spring Break: Jordan Edition

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Checking in luggage is the rookiest of rookie travel moves.  I did it, and paid for it. Blindsided by an overzealous agent at the EgyptAir counter at JFK, who insisted on weighing my prized koi fish orange spinner carry on, and finding it five kilos overweight (EgyptAir has a strict 8-kilo carry-on weight limit), I relented. I did so instead of redistributing my stuff with T’s; instead of putting on a couple more layers of underwear as outerwear; instead of doing anything to avoid parting with my bag–especially with a connecting flight, and especially, as it turns out, on EgyptAir.

Upon boarding, of course, I only to had look above my head from the 38th row in outraged fury at the population of clearly overstuffed and over-sized bags that had managed to make it onto the aircraft unweighed. Needless to say, eleven hours later, after disembarking in Amman from our connecting flight from Cairo, I found myself standing at the carousel like a jilted bridegroom, waiting a little too long, and with a little less hope, each time I looked toward the door that promised to deliver my beloved.

Short on time since we would only be in Jordan for three nights, we made our way to Petra anyway, accompanied by our incredibly patient driver, Ahmad.  While the airline finally found my bag the next day, they don’t deliver, and I would have had to drive about four and a half hours to Amman to retrieve it, so for three nights, I literally had the clothes on my back, a leggings/skirt combo I’d impulsively stuffed into T’s carry-on at the last minute, and later, two pairs of camel motif harem pants I overpaid for at the Petra bazaar (another rookie move).

We got our first glimpse of Petra, the ancient “lost” city, the final world wonder to cap off our list–and our primary reason for visiting Jordan– by the light of the stars above and candlelight below. The 17 Jordanian Dinars(JOD) each we paid for Petra by Night was worth it, if just for the experience of being in that ancient space in a blanket of darkness that was almost as spectacular as the candlelight display. Once inside the Treasury area, there was a performance of vocal and instrumental Arabic music, which added to the sense of mystery and mysticism.

Petra in the daylight hours doesn’t disappoint either. This time we were able to enter using our Jordan Passes (highly recommended), which cover the cost of Jordan’s entrance visa plus a number of other attractions around the country. Petra can be a grueling walk or hike, depending on how much ground you want to cover, so we started early (around 7:30 AM) as is usually recommended, though not as early (6:00 AM) as some insisted.  Staying near the Petra Visitors’ Center in Wadi Musa is the best way to facilitate an early start, which is great for having the site to yourself–ahead of tour groups, cruise excursions, and school trips. We booked an overnight stay at Sharah Mountains Hotel just up the hill from Petra. Owned and operated by a group of affable brothers (say Hi to Mahmoud and Khaled for us if you go), its rooms are sparkling clean, include a hearty breakfast, and best of all, they offer free trips to and from the Petra Visitors Center.

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Our day in Petra started off well enough, including repeatedly and successfully fending off the army of Bedouin (or possibly Gypsy, as one acquaintance remarked) vendors who practically insisted that we ride their particular conveyance–carriage/donkey/camel–through the site, and up to the Monastery. By late midday however, we lost any conviction we’d had to walk the long way back to the visitor’s center and ended up hitching a ride on two camels, which, based on the exorbitant cost, must’ve been  Petra’s version of UberBLACK.  We got a pretty cool picture out of it though, and camel riding turned out to be a lot more fun and manageable than I’d imagined for a shrimp like me, who’s also scared of heights.

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From Petra, we took a 90 minute taxi ride to the Wadi Rum Desert for some “glamping” and a taste of Bedouin hospitality at Attallah Alblwi’s Bedouin Lifestyle Camp. Let me start by saying that I am not into roughing it, especially under the aforementioned luggage-less circumstances, but this was a singularly unforgettable experience.

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Saying goodbye to our hosts at Bedouin Lifestyle Camp.

Wadi Rum is the famous backdrop for films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, and the two most recent installments of Star Wars, so if its coral colored sands look familiar, that’s why. To call it a spectacular landscape borders on understatement. Our stay began with a nearly three-hour tour of the desert’s highlights, which include a dune for sand boarding, and a few vistas that will be recognizable to serious film buffs. From there, it was a brief orientation to camp, which meant getting our tent assignment and checking out the shared (and remarkably clean) bathroom and shower facilities. Then it was a short drive out to view the sunset, followed by an authentically prepared Bedouin meal of chicken, rice, vegetables, soups, and salads shared with a couple dozen other guests.  All the while our hosts went out of their way to make us feel welcome, even capping off the night with a lively musical performance, shisha, and sweet, addictive Bedouin tea.  I left thinking it was easy to see how this sublime setting could make you feel like you’d left planet Earth.

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We spent our final day and evening in Jordan briefly touring the town of Madaba, visiting Mount Nebo, Moses’s final resting place, and T was able to take a quick dip in The Dead Sea before we headed into Amman for the night.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM THIS SOJOURN:

  1. Jordan is joyful, welcoming and SAFE; someone we met described it as “a quiet house surrounded by noisy neighbors” and I couldn’t agree more.
  2. Jordan is expensive, so bring your wallets.  The USD to JOD exchange rate, as I write is $1.00 to 0.71 (JOD).  Buying a Jordan Pass though (see above) will definitely help with this.
  3. Many people suggest spending up to a week in Petra alone, before seeing other sights, but I think this depends on your travel personality/preferences.  For us, a night and a day were quite enough, and while we enjoyed Petra, we walked away feeling more fulfilled by Wadi Rum.
  4. We spent an afternoon and evening in Amman, which we felt was plenty.
  5. If you want to “swim” in the Dead Sea, you can either book a room, or buy a day pass at one of the resorts in the area.  While there is public beach access, there are no public showers to wash off all that salt.
  6. When I finally did get my bag back, it had a damaged pull-handle, and a few skid marks on its previously spotless and beautiful tangerine veneer.  SO THE ALL-IMPORTANT REVIEW LESSON? I WILL NEVER, EVER CHECK LUGGAGE AGAIN.

As always, please comment, like, or follow…Next stop, Egypt!!