Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dinner and farewell

Our last day in Cairo we were free to do whatever we wanted. Some visited museums, or took that Camel ride near Giza that they had been dreaming about. Most rested.

It was with great effort that we dragged ourselves out of bed. I haven't had a good nights sleep since getting back to Cairo. But we HAD to buy another piece of luggage. Our purchases simply would not fit in our bags even after our usual pre departure jettison ritual.

We made our way to a small shop and for ten bucks got a bag that zippped out to four times its original size. Like most items here it is a knockoff. The badge logo says "HR High. Laplink out longitude".

We spent a good chunk of the previous night in the Khan el Khalilli engaged in serious haggling with a scarf merchant. After an hour we had hammered his price down and bought 40. The purchase was slowed by our lack of funds and the fact he did not take credit cards. Of course he said he took them, but in the souks that means he has a cousin who has a friend who works at a place that takes them. This involves literally running all over the souk and paying a hefty fee. Eventually we managed to pool our Egyptian and US money and made the deal. On our return we had more time to browse. I found many treasures. Yes the modern world is intruding here, but there is much of the old Cairo here. Dark alleyways that lead to crafters who have practiced their trade since before the time of the Mamluks. Fragrant spices fight with the smell of rotting matter. Small awah's or coffee shops feature unsavory looking types, men who can be hired to obtain certain forbidden items. All you need do!
is slide a thick stack of money across the table through the smoke of the shisha pipes and it is done. And we only scratched the surface of this place. But time is our eternal enemy and we had to get back.

Our last dinner together was at the Cairo Businessmens Club at the unfortunately named World Trade Center. The club featured a rich European decor with leather sofas, oak paneling and wingback chairs. Its the kind of place one sits with a Congac and a Cuban cigar discussing the empire over freshly ironed copies of the London Times. Since our empire, unlike the British one is neither secure nor profitable I contented myself with a sprite (stirred not shaken) with a lime twist and some snacks. Dr Weeks was presented with our donations to the Theban Mapping Project and thanked us profusely. He told us how the project started with zero budget and a five year plan. The project actually took 20 years. After the discovery of KV5 there was a flood of donation money, chiefly from three oil companies. Those companies have all undergone mergers and none donate any more. So they are once again in need of funds to help with the website, the translation of their 250 page conservation plan!
n and continued excavation and exploration. I hope they are able to do it all

We also said our official thank you's and farewells to our guides Fathy and Morad as well as our fixer and all around tourist wrangler Hatem. It was actually kind of teary. I have actually enjoyed traveling with this tour group a great deal. There is no way we could have gotten the kind of access we do if we'd done this solo. There is even talk of a reunion in Chicago this spring when the Tutankhamen exhibit arrives there.

And what of Egypt? This grand and glorious country. Will I ever return here? I feel I must. There are still wonders to be seen, tombs to be uncovered and adventures to be had. Yes, someday I shall return to Egypt, the land of the Pharohs. And I urge you to as well.

Sallah Malaychum


So much! After Abu Simbel we flew back to Cairo. After a lecture with Prof Mark Lerner we were hauling ass across the Giza plateau in jeeps to some of his excavation of the village of the workers. The day was grey and high winds threatened to blow us off a high bluff that overlooks the pyramids.

Next day and we get another lecture with Zahi Hawass, who is one busy little bee. He has been finding tombs all over the place. He announced that the team working in the valley of the Kings have found a tomb and this could be big news. The SCA has not made any announcement so I will keep my pie hole shut lest I get someone in trouble. Archeology here is still rife with politics.

We got into the Egyptian museum after hours (there were 5000 people there during the day). What we saw there was nothing short of incredible. It is said that if you were to casually glance every item on display in would take you a week. After touring so many empty tombs and temples it was amazing the see the quantity and diversity of the items discovered over the years.

Of course, with great joy comes sacrifice. Rossana is hobbling along in pain and I have caught a nasty cold from a fellow traveler. My last dream was to shop the souk called the Khan el Khallili. It has been written about in countless books. It is indeed a place of great wonders. Vast in size and unmappable. Every conceivable craft in practiced and sold here. Marshalling the strength to make the journey was hard. I almost didn't go. That should tell you how sick I am.

Too tired to go on. We fly home tomorrow. We will likely need a few days to recover our health. After that I hope to post pictures that I hope can convey some small part of the wonders we have seen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Farewell to the Sun Goddess

Our Nile cruiser is now a fond memory. This was my first lengthy cruise and I must say that it is THE way to travel. The ships are generally the same size. Roughly rectangular and flat bottomed to prevent grounding on the ever shifting sandbanks. The layout on our ship was thus: The lowest beck is the dining room. Above this is the reception desk and a lounge/disco. The next deck in a small reading lounge and cabins. The next deck has several small shops and cabins. Above this is the sun deck with a bar and small pool.

Having a few spare minutes one day I took up the captains offer of a tour. I will say I was impressed all the way around. The kitchen was spotless and suited to any hotel. The meals on our journey were superb. We saw the engine room which was also in excellent condition. We finnished up on the small bridge. The early steamers were obliged to stop at night since it was impossible to see the river. Since we sailed through the night I thought that sonar and other hi tech equipment was in use. Imagine my suprise when I was introduced Mahmoud, the pilot. He is it. No radar, no maps. He has over 50 years experience piloting cruisers (pilots are required to have a minimum of 30 years experience) the ship is fairly agile thanks to forward thrusters. The rudder is almost never used. I have never seen more focused attention on a face. Perfectly still with only slight twitches of his right hand on the the thruster switch. He can read the ever changing river like a book.
Since there is limited dock space these ships park side by side. To get to shore you may walk through the lobby of two or three ships. The steering of these ships is so gentle you may not notice you have actually docked.
Although tipping, or baksheesh, is the tradition here you don't tip until the end of the cruise. This tip is split amongst the whole crew. When we repacked last night we decided to abandon our dress shoes to make room for swag. Rather than just pitching them we hid them above the ceiling tiles of our room along with a note saying we wanted a small part of us to stay in Egypt, cruising the Nile.

We are an a short flight from Aswan to Abu Simbel. When the high dam was constructed in the 60's several temples had to be moved piece by piece or be lost beneath the waters of the soon to be formed Lake Nasser. This feat is an engineering marvel. After this we will fly back to Cairo for the last few days of the trip.

Monday, January 23, 2006


After a morning boat trip to Philae we hit the souks of Aswan in force. The shop owners here are brutal. One cannot go more than a few feet before you are assaulted on all sides with demands for your attention. Every kind of item is sold on this crowded street. We found some pretty necklaces and Rossana hammered the guy from 80 Egyptian pounds down to 5. We found some lovely scarves that we thought would sell at shows but getting the price and colors we wanted was difficult. In the last store I was growing weary of the constant banter and tried out a new persona I've been saving for just such an occasion. Gone is the polite and softspoken Ohio boy, he is replaced with a loud southern gentleman bearing a striking resemblance to Forhorn Leghorn.

'Look heeah sir, my wife..I say my wife like this little bauble but I can't see mah way to payin ninty pounds for it. It's a scandle!'

Rossana instantly assumes the soft lilt of a southern belle:
'But daddy ah want it! It's the prettiest thing ahve evuh seen. '

'Oh bah! You say that at every store, sugarbumps.'

'Ah told you I want it'

'And people in Hell want ice water puddin pie.'

'Ahm sure this nice man will give us a good price.'

'Certainly madam. For you special price of seventy five'

'Do ah look like I just fell off the turnip truck sir? I come from a long ...I say I come from a long line of fiscally prudent men'

'He means that his side of the family has always been tightwads'.

'Look heyah sir, ah love mah wife so I'm willing, I say I'm willin to go to fifty. And that mah final offer. '

The shop keeper tried to get me up a few pounds but I won't budge. He cries how he can't sell it for a loss.

'Well suh ah understand. You seem like a nice fellow and I hope..ah say ah hope someone will give you a fair price. Come sweet cheeks, lets go speak to that nice fellow Mohammed down the street.'

The shop owner gives me a last dirty look and turns to Rossana. 'I make deal for 50 pound for you because you nice, him he not so nice'.

'You're a gentleman and a scholar suh.' I said tipping my hat as we left the shop. It's fun to play the heavy.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


The current joke amongst my fellow travellers is that we will soon be rising so early that it will just be easier after dinner to change and head out again to see another temple. Sleep be damned. We were up at 4:30 am to visit the temple at Edfu. Once again our group had somehow managed to get access to the site before it officially opened. This didn't seem like a big thing until the gates opened at 7am and hoards of noisy tourists poured in.
At lunch we found ourselves sitting across from Dr and Mrs Weeks ( the man who is in charge of the Theban mapping project and the re-disccoverer of tomb KV5). Figuring he was constantly assaulted with Egyptology questions I was at a loss as to what to discuss. Rossana came to the rescue by mentioning the website for the Theban Mapping Project and how much I loved it. This led to questions about whatWE did and that always tends to break the ice. We ended up discussing several items unrelated to Archeology influding finding a way to get internet to his house boat so he could take the boat out more and still get work done. Had a great time. He then pointed to an area of rock cut sanctuaries near the quarries that provided some of the materials for the buildings at Luxor some 200 kilometers away.

I have fallen in love with this place and this way of travel. I will miss this boat when we have to leave it in Aswan.

Hard Core

We pulled into Esna last night. This is a lock much like the Panama canal. This allows us to pass what is called the first cataract. As we waited for another ship to be lowered to our level a small flotilla of row boats arrived. These guys were selling shawls and gallabeeyahs. The sales process consisted of a pitch, the salesman showing the item and declaring a rediculously high price. A counter offer is made. More shouting ensues. When the salesman has you interrested he expertly throws the item up to the sun deck of our ship some thirty feet up, never missing. The item is inspected and if found desireable another counter offer is made "two for fifteen dollars" you shout. He of course i appalled. You offer this price five or six times, possibly going up a dollar or so. He will refuse untill you indicate that the item is coming back down. He relectantly agrees. You then place your money in the plastic bag you shawl came in or in a bag of an item you aren't buying and this is!
thrown down to the boatmen. All this is done in semi darkness next to a working lock. Capitalism, like love' always finds a way. I might have been able to get my three items cheaper in Edfu but I have to give these guys props. They are truly hard core.

Ugly Americans

Travelling with a tour group presents is own unique challenges. One thing we didn't want was to be stuck with a bunch of Ugly Americans. People who came to see the sights but have no interrest in learning anything about the country they are visiting. They complain loudly about the food or the service and have only snide remarks about the native inhabitants.

I can now say that this is not our group. A fairly diverse group in age and occupation, most well travelled and some on their second or third trip to Egypt. Most are aware of basic social standards and are respectful of tradition.
I cannot say the same for the Russians. These people are giving us a bad name. Its hard to tell a Minnesotan from a Muscovite when they both wear jeans and a snoop dog basketball jersey. But the Russians have taken our ugliness and cultural insensitivity and like the japanese with cars, they have improved upon the concept.. They tend to be very loud in public places. The women are dressed scantilly, if not in all our slut gear. The men wear their shirts open to the navel exposing pasty gut flesh. They are constantly videotaping so someone needs to be 'doing something' at all times, usually something stupid.

I feel the urge to tell local Egyptians that we're not with these clowns.

Egypt takes it all in stride. They see it all, but they are raised well enough not to point out our flaws.