Saturday, December 11, 2010

Egyptian Adjustment

There was no bounding out of bed with restless enthusiasm on Friday. We slithered quietly out. Julia announced she didn’t like Egypt and didn’t want to leave the resort. Regardless, Ramses was coming to pick us up at 10:30 so we prepared ourselves.

On the way in to Luxor we told Ramses what had happened the night before and he was horrified. He told me we should have told him the night before and we would have gone back to pick up the offender and throw him in jail. He made me describe the man and said he thought he knew who it was. By the time we reached the restaurant for breakfast, I was afraid he was going to hunt down the man and bring him to justice. I was envisioning a line-up at the police station and a long day of statements. At the restaurant Rhys said he wanted to break the man’s leg. We were all working the incident through in our own way.

After breakfast Ramses drove us to the Luxor museum. It was excellent and very interesting. We learned a lot about the various kings and daily life in ancient times. There were a couple of interesting movies as well. The biggest drawback was that we were not allowed to take pictures. We had to walk from the museum to the Karnak temple and it was with some trepidation that we started on our way. It was a beautiful day, however, and the bright sunlight made everything seem less frightening. Even the touts didn’t push as hard…or maybe we were just getting better at showing absolutely no interest.

Karnak temple in the sunlight was even more spectacular. It is actually a series of temples as Luxor (formerly Thebes) was the religious centre of Egypt. Many pharaohs had made their mark: Seti, Ramses II and III, Hatshepsut and Tut. We wandered around taking pictures. A guard asked us to enter an area that was blocked off and encouraged us to take pictures of ourselves with the statues. He wanted us to climb on them but we declined, agreeing that we would try not to contribute to the erosion any more than we already were. He needed to be paid, of course but the most interesting part was that another guard showed up at that point. Obviously, he was a supervisor and when we gave the first guard money, the first guard handed it right over to the other one. Interesting. It must have really irritated him to do it.

The temple’s most spectacular area was the hypostyle hall. It was the largest in existence with 134 towering pillars. Each column was engraved with hieroglyphics from top to bottom. Some of the columns had blocks stretching between them on top and the undersides were painted. At one time, it had all been painted. It must have been amazing when it was in its glory, although the common folk never got to see it. The inner complex was only for the priests and pharaohs. We spent a good two hours wandering around the sight taking pictures.

During our wander, we saw several school groups. The first group of girls found me amongst the columns in the hypostyle hall. They eagerly approached saying, “hello”. I returned the greeting the first time which caused each and every one of them to repeat so I could greet them in turn. Then one asked, “What is your name?” so I told her and asked her name so she told me. Then every other girl repeated the question in turn. At this point their young male teacher rounded the corner and asked one of them to take his picture with me. ? So, we posed for a picture together and I asked if he would take a picture of me with the girls which he did and then gave my camera to one of the girls so I could have a picture of myself with him. Then each of the girls wanted an individual picture with me and finally we all said goodbye.

A few corners later, another school group appeared and when I replied to the girls they all swarmed me so that one of the guards came forward to shoo them away. I guess I must have not looked too panicked because he backed off and I played “ask and answer” with the girls. They were very sweet and I really enjoyed talking to them. Suddenly, their male teacher came along and began shooing them away from me like they were chickens or something, yelling at them angrily. I suppose “swarm the tourist” is not an encouraged activity on school fieldtrips. It was far more enjoyable than playing duck and weave with the touts.

One of the more interesting facts we learned is that Ramses II had over 200 children. There's an awful lot of material there but this is a family blog. We found a birthday card from his kids though. Isn't it sweet that they all signed it? It continues on the next rock, of course.

After our excitement the night before we decided to end the day when the sun was still shining, grabbed some food from the supermarket and headed home with Ramses. Tonight we dined on homemade pizza made on the stovetop. We forgot we had no oven.

Harassed and Harangued

I bounded up in the morning, raring to go. I got ready and was out the patio door to explore our resort. We front onto the Nile so I immediately walked around the swimming pool and out to the river. I stared out across the river and absorbed the history oozing out of it. Scum gathered at the edges of the water, along with a shoe (thankfully without a foot) and some plant matter. On the west bank was an image straight out of a textbook on Egypt. Palms surrounded the muddy, flat-topped buildings and blue sky shimmered in the background. To my right I could see the mountains which protect the valleys of the dead. To my left the Nile rounded a bend out of sight with nothing but green bushes on either side. How is it that I can be in a part of the world inhabited by people for thousands of years yet not see resort hotels and skyscrapers as far as I look?

Ramses, the cab driver not the pharaoh came to take us into Luxor. We started with lunch at the Oasis Café. On full tummies, we set out on a walk to the Luxor temple. We walked up the main street, “Corniche” with the Nile on our left. It should have been a lovely walk but the constant harassment by Egyptian touts left us cold. They offered caleche rides, felucca boat cruises, taxi rides and other things I can’t think of right now. A caleche is a horse drawn buggy. They are everywhere and the touts don’t take no for an answer. They follow you along haranguing you in the hopes you will relent. Even if one gives up, the next one is right there to take up the call. Even if they watched you say no to the last five, each one seems to feel they have a right to make the effort by standing in front of you to force you to walk around them. It was exhausting and intimidating.

Finally we arrived at the temple. The huge statues, obelisks and columns were inspiring. The sun was low in the sky and so the ruins cast interesting shadows across everything. There was a wide street with sphinxes on either side leading away from the temple. It used to lead from the Luxor temple to the Karnak temples, a three kilometer distance. Can you imagine walking a street lined with sphinxes for three kilometers? That’s a lot of cat. The city is trying to restore the road now and they have cleared all the buildings covering the earth so they can excavate it to its former beauty. It should be amazing when it is done but I bet it is causing no end of controversy right now for those displaced! The people or buildings they are moving may have been there for hundreds of years!

Throughout our wander through the temple, we were met by curious gazes. I began to feel like I had something on my face. The guides, guards and guests all stared as we walked around. Some of the visitors were children and they giggled and stared, whispering to each other. Once a little girl got up her courage to say, “hello” so I smiled and said, “hello” back. Her next word was, “money?” Sad.

Tom wandered in a different direction at one point. I was alone looking around when a guard motioned me with his finger to follow him further away from where I thought my family might be. He was smiling but I was a bit shaken by all the strange attention so I felt very uncomfortable. Rhys appeared and the two of us followed him together. The guard showed us an inscription in the wall which people touch to bring good luck. He took each of our hands to touch the wall, then our head three times and then the wall and our heart three times. Then he took our picture with my camera at his insistence. Then he held his hand out for money. I don’t carry money but I managed to dig up a British pound coin which he accepted. We then repeated the whole procedure with Tom and Julia. More guards signaled they wished to show us things but at that point we declined as politely as we could. We have found this behaviour from guards is the norm at tourist sites.

We went from the temple to the Mummification museum, weaving our way through the throngs of touts wanting to give us rides. One actually asked what he could offer that would make us give him money. The museum was small but excellent. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, unfortunately because there were some fascinating items. We saw a mummy, preserved skin from a foot, a piece of preserved flesh, a mummified head that had been halved to reveal the cavity which had once housed the brain. It is now stuffed with linen. There were lids from sarcophagi and a mummy looking rather blackened and dead. However did mummies get the white bandaged look? Every one I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few now) has been black and shriveled looking, and far more spooky than some old toilet paper doll.

We walked to the Karnak temple for the rather weak sound and light show. The guidebook said it is the best one in Egypt so it will be the last one we see. The walk was far more exciting than the show. We took a dark and quiet road by mistake and wound up in an area we probably shouldn’t have bothered walking through. Although I was holding Tom’s hand and walking with my children, a man brushed up against me and tried to grope me. This caused a significant amount of horror and rage from all of us and greatly contributed to our already unpleasant impressions of Egyptian men.

The Sound and Light was as cheesy and underwhelming as it could have been but the temple at night was spectacular. We caught a cab to the restaurant after the show, too shaken to attempt another night-time walk. By the time we got home, we were all wondering how we were going to cope with another day of harassment and anxiety.

Friday, December 10, 2010

First Impressions of Egypt

We are well outside our comfort zone here. Landing as the sun set yesterday was spectacular. The sands stretched out, the Nile snaked, the palms rose up and we landed in a place I have only read about it books. We had arranged to stay at a resort-type place and this turned out to be a good idea. Egypt is not a place to “do it yourself”; at least, not for us.

It was no problem passing through customs and having gaining our entry visa. A person from the resort met us as we entered the airport and slapped the sticker into our passport before we even met the official. We paid him for the visas which seemed odd but nobody else questioned this so we continued. He gave us a sign to hold up on the other side of customs and as we left we met a second man who led us to the waiting cab. Our walk from the airport to the cab cost us about $4. We paid the fellow who gave us our visas. We also had to pay two men who grabbed our bags and pulled them to the vehicle. One complained we didn’t give him enough but Tom stood firm.

We arrived at the resort and the apartment turned out to be a three bedroom place much to the glee of the children. Sadly, there is no internet so in order to communicate we have to plug in at the office for short periods. Maybe this is a good thing? We had some food at the apartment waiting as I had requested but it was mainly breakfast foods. We asked our host to call a cab and set out for dinner. We are several kilometers outside the city so it would be difficult to walk.

The cabbie was a riot. His name is Ahmed but calls himself Ramses IX. I don’t know why but it works. He made us feel a bit more at ease as he gave us his evaluation of what to do first and so on. He dropped us at the restaurant with a promise to pick us up when we were finished. We could pay him when we got back to the resort.

The restaurant reminded me of a movie set. I cannot think of a specific movie but it seems to me someone was chasing someone else. Maybe an Indiana Jones scene? It was similar to the Turkish restaurants in décor but felt so Egyptian. The upstairs room was open with heavy carpet-like curtains rolled up to reveal the buildings around us in the streets. While we dined we watched a man raise and lower a basket from his third floor apartment, obviously receiving some sort of goods. Another person kept emptying buckets of washing water into the street from the top of a different building. It was clear that when you parked you needed the covers most cars sported. The food was delicious, cooked in clay dishes and similar to the Turkish dinners we had. No alcohol was allowed because it was a Muslim restaurant. Tom dealt with this admirably.

The dinner was reasonably priced but not cheap and the restaurant was filled with tourists. Ramses was waiting for us and drove us home saying he would wait for our call in the morning. As we drove we passed many wagons pulled by donkeys, many people wearing the long gowns and headgear you see in movies about the desert and odd shaped motor vehicles of varying sizes. The cars do not use their headlights at night if the streets are lit. They only flash them at each other to alert the other vehicles they are approaching. They also use the Turkish method of honking on approach. All of this served to create a sort of brain overload for the four of us and we were thankful to reach the safety of our European-like resort and go to bed.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Movin' On

We will be sad to say goodbye to Hopferau. This area of Bavaria is quite delightful and our week here has been relaxing and fun. The castles were spectacular but it was the scenery that really delighted. Yesterday's skiing just reminded me of how much fun winter can be. When the snow is in the fields and not the road, the sun is shining and the air is clear, winter sports are the best. Gotta keep travelin' on...