Pack Up: To explore

Egypt was like the Red Sea. Not wet and filled with fish, but in the same sense that the Red Sea was beautiful, and frightening, and vastly different from anything I’d ever seen before, so was Egypt.

The first couple of dives after not diving for a while always makes me anxious. If a diver has failed to correctly assemble her gear, it can quickly turn into a fatal situation under water. The first couple of days in Egypt felt the same way. It had been a couple of years since I’d traveled abroad, and I was a little rusty. Granted, the safety of our large group and seasoned travel leaders gave me peace of mind. In some ways, it still felt like diving after a lengthy break.

We walked only a short distance from the boat to a delightfully air-conditioned van where our luggage was strapped atop the roof to sit in the blazing sun for eight hours. Too late now to get the trail mix with chocolate out of my suitcase, I thought to myself. We drove from Marsa Alam to Luxor, a ride that should have taken six hours, but dragged on much longer due to the constant switching of the guard every couple of miles.

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One of the guard trucks as they passed us on the road.

We were followed by a truck with no windows carrying two young men clad in camouflage, each with a rifle resting against his knee.

A lookout tower with the nose of a weapon peeking out of a small, rectangular window greeted us at every check-point. According to our guide, groups of five or more Americans and Japanese are required to have armed guards with them while traveling and touring in Egypt.

I would like to point out, here, that although the large amounts of guns and military may sound intimidating, it wasn’t. There is strife in the larger area, and there has been for a while. However, the government is simply taking extra precaution to ensure that tourists are protected and made to feel safe while visiting. Our guide told us that the majority of Egypt’s income derives from tourism and since the 2011 revolution, tourism has decreased nearly a quarter percent. They are desperate for tourism. It’s what keeps them afloat. And on numerous occasions, the other four women and I discussed that we felt safe the entire time and not once threatened in any way. I am telling you that my experience was incredible and I was safe the entire time.

The main road we traveled passed by local villages with smaller check-points where the men at the towers would smile and wave. We passed a bridge full of children driving small taxi vehicles. The driver slowed at these opportunities for us to take pictures and the children all jumped out of the cars waving and chanting, “Hello Americans!” We drove past donkeys piled high with sugar cane. The sweaty faces of the men leading the animals crested into smiles once they saw us. Everyone was very friendly and seemed to realize quickly that we were foreign tourists, probably because of our white skin, cameras and police escort. Egypt was the first foreign country I’ve ever felt welcomed as an American.

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Local kids waving as we drove by.

Once we arrived at the hotel in Luxor, we had a small amount of time to enjoy the views of the Nile from the bedroom balcony before heading to the Temple of Luxor, which we toured at sunset. Surprisingly it’s an excellent time because the air has cooled, the masses have dwindled and the lighting is stunning on the sandstone.

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The entrance to the Temple of Luxor.

During a quick powwow, the group simultaneously agreed to a sunrise hot air balloon ride and a sunset dinner cruise on the Nile, on top of the other tours we had planned for the next day. This was one of those times when just saying yes made an unexpected difference.

At 4 a.m. we left the hotel for the ferry. Small motorized boats with little cups of instant coffee and quiet Egyptian music transferred us to the West bank. The sunrise hot air balloon over Luxor with a view of the Nile, the Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s Temple was breath-taking. It was fascinating to see the abrupt contrast between the sugar cane fields and the desert. It was as if a line was drawn between the life of the Nile and the mortuary of the Valley of the Kings. And when the sun crested over the edge of the West bank, both the greenery and the sand were bathed in soft pastels. Smoke rose from the matchbox houses lining the road, and ant-sized boys rode their donkeys out into the fields to begin harvesting.

It was as if a line was drawn between the life of the Nile and the mortuary of the Valley of the Kings.

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Luxor from a hot air balloon.

From there we rode to Hatshepsut’s Temple. Early morning is another perfect time to tour. The weather hasn’t quite heated up to its roasting temperature of the day and the crowds haven’t awoken from their jet-lagged vacation slumbers. The temple was superb (especially without hordes of tourists in the way), and thanks to my roommate and ancient civilization buff Rachel Fisher, I had a constant whisper in my ear of much more updated and accurate information about most everything on our tours. Hatshepsut was one of the most successful pharaohs of Egypt, she took the throne due to an underage heir and ruled exceptionally to her male counterparts. After a while, however, the Egyptians defaced all traces of her cartouches and hieroglyphs because they did not want history to know that they once had a female ruler.

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Hatshepsut’s Temple.

Next, we visited the Valley of the Kings where we toured three tombs. The paint, although chipped in some places, still resembled the vibrant colors of 1539 B.C. and has never been retouched. Granted, there is not moisture in the air, and the tombs were sealed until the 18th century, it’s still remarkable that the tombs are so in-tact.

The harsh sun beat down on us and we were all grateful that the tourist-driven cities of Egypt such as Luxor and Cairo are much more tolerant of Western dress such as short sleeves.

During all our land tours, we had a local guide, which was an amazing advantage. Each guide met us at the airport and either escorted us to the hotel or handed us off to the next guide who organized everything for us. Vagabond Ventures Travel really know how to plan an adventure. It was the first time I’ve ever traveled without the stress of having to figure out a new place on top of the stress of traveling. Everything was done for us. I didn’t have to worry about finding bottled water, or a bathroom, or the best parts of vast museums. Another huge perk was that we could ask our guides some rather intimate questions about their culture. During our lengthy drives, we had large discussions about local politics, religion, dress, economic standing, etc. It was an unexpected way to learn a lot about the culture.

Because our guides were local, they always took us into shops of native trades. The shop owners offered us Egyptian hibiscus water or glass-bottled sprite, and we were encouraged to accept the drink even if not buying anything. We traveled to an Alabaster factory, a small building across from the very mountains you could see the men harvesting the stone. Often, these small side trips were much more culturally enriching than the plethora of persistent vendors surrounding the monuments. Some of the only Arabic I learned on the trip, again thanks to Rachel, was, “No, thank you. I don’t want it.”

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Hieroglyphs at the Temple of Karnak.

After touring the Temple of Karnak, our guide took us back to the ferry for our sunset Nile cruise. He planned the rest of the evening local style.

We loaded into the sailboat, draped in colorful tapestries and captained by two young boys, and gently floated down the river as the sun glided behind the tree line. As we drifted away from the bustle of the city, the river turned marshy near the West bank. Fishermen pulled their nets into their kayaks and paddled away, startling cranes nestled in the reeds. Darkness quickly settled over the water and the wind abruptly stopped. The youngest boy pulled a long pole from the boat and began oaring with it.

Fishermen pulled their nets into their kayaks and paddled away, startling cranes nestled in the reeds.

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Sailboat on the Nile.

Our trusty armed guard helped us across a short, wooden beam to the dirt embankment and took the lead down a dark path. I could see lights in the distance and hear children laughing as it was finally cool enough to play outside.

Following an armed stranger down a dark path on the West bank of the Nile satisfied a deeply primitive travel itch. This was the adventure. This is the kind of experience I crave. Where were we going? I didn’t know, but if it followed the theme of the trip so far, it was going to be good.

Following an armed stranger down a dark path on the West bank of the Nile satisfied a deeply primitive travel itch.

The trail ended in a well-lit, open-air restaurant. Tropical aromas of shisha from the only other diners mixed with the smoky smell of a brick barbeque. A waiter brought out lemon-mint drinks (something we would begin to look for everywhere we went) and fresh mango juice. The ceiling fans above us, although sweet on our sweaty backs, spit little bugs from the straw ceiling onto our heads. As was common with any eateries in Egypt, hordes of skinny cats began circling around our legs.

Plates and bowls of hummus with strange bitters, rice, naan, chicken, meatballs, mysterious sauces, and vegetables just kept coming, all freshly cooked on the BBQ pit behind us. As we slowed down and began feeding the cats scraps, the waiter shooed us to another table down the hill. It is customary to move from an eating table to a socializing table in Egypt. These tables often have more comfortable chairs, sometimes poufs or beanbags, with hookahs standing beside them. We sat around under the stars and ate freshly picked bananas for dessert. The children weaved in and out of the tables even faster with their handfuls of starbursts Jill Petick, a fellow traveler, gave them.

The call to prayer sang softly in the distance, and in that field under the stars, the weight of a beautiful adventure satisfyingly heavy in our bellies, there was peace.

The undulating waves of a culture so vastly different from my own pulled me under the surface gratifyingly, and much like diving, I felt a dense calmness. This world is so big, and there is so much to see. When we travel and open ourselves up to new experiences, we open ourselves up to acceptance. People are the same everywhere, we just differ a little on the outside. This ocean was meant for exploring.

 

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