Our Adventure in Egypt, Part Nine: Abu Simbel, Lake Nasser, and - finally - the end of the voyage
But first, we had to get there! We drove out to the airport at Aswan and waited for our plane. And waited for our plane. And, again, waited for our plane. This was when EgyptAir's absolute disregard for their own schedules came sharply into focus. Even though we had some issues with their timeliness before, our Aswan-to-Abu Simbel flight, which took less than 45 minutes of actual flying time, ended up leaving over an hour late. For no discernible reason, either. So we hung out in the airport, trying to avoid the dozens of merchants selling all sorts of stuff, and avoiding the temptation of ... Sbarro! We had seen fast food restaurants in Cairo - Kentucky Fried Chicken seems to be big in the city - but out here in the wilderness of southern Egypt, the sight of a Sbarro was just weird. We eventually had some pizza at Sbarro when we came back to the airport in a few days to fly back to Cairo, but on this occasion, we just looked on in appreciation that American Cultural Imperialism was doing its fine work!
We finally boarded our flight and took off. It was a short flight over the desert, and then we landed in the southern outpost of Egypt, Abu Simbel. It's a tiny town, but, interestingly enough, looks far more pleasant than the bigger towns farther north. It's probably because the lack of people means there's less pollution and trash. We took a bus from the airport to our embarkation point, which was the only bus we had to take the entire trip. Which was nice. Buses are fine, I guess, but we were packed in and for the ten-minute trip, we were more uncomfortable than at any other time in Egypt, with the exception of our flights. We reached the temple of Abu Simbel, where our new boat was docked, and went down a long flight of stairs, into a small boat with an outboard motor, and away to our new boat, the Kasr Ibrim. As we went down the stairs we kept thinking, "Crap, we're going to have to go back up these stairs, aren't we?" Well, yes. More than once.
Our boat was very nice. Pictures later! But first, we met Ahmed, our tour guide, and rejoined Jim and Alicia, who had taken an earlier flight. We ate lunch and then headed back to shore and up, up, up the steps to visit Abu Simbel.
The two temples are magnificent. I was very keen to see them, as they are ridiculously famous because they were moved when the dam was built and Lake Nasser was created. Of course, several monuments were moved, but Abu Simbel was the most spectacular, so it gets all the press. The setting, according to one of our pretentious tour books, is far less wonderful than it was before the lake came into being, and the writer even says it has lost its soul. I suppose he would have liked it to remain where it was and be lost to the water, but at least it would still have a soul! Despite the rather pedestrian surroundings, the actual temples are wonderful. We couldn't take pictures inside, of course, so I just took a lot of the exterior, most of which I won't show you:
This is the temple of Rameses II. It is, of course, twice as big as his wife's. We don't want those women to get uppity, after all!
Krys gives us some perspective.
The face fell off of one of the statues, and that's his ear. I wish I had a Q-Tip!
This is Nefertari's temple, right next to her husband's.
This is a picture I took the next morning from the boat, but it shows both temples better than the one I took the previous night.
That night we went to the sound and light show, which was better than the one we saw at the Pyramids, but suffered from some technical flaws. I took a few pictures of the temple lit up, and this one came out the best:
The next morning we set sail for Aswan, heading north on the artificial lake. It was a very nice cruise, and we got a lot of relaxing in! The boat was marvelous, built in a 1920s/1930s style that Krys loves (even though it's only 8 years old) and with plenty of places to sit around and relax. We spent a lot of time on the top deck, where they had pillows scattered around to sit on, and in the lounge, which kept reminding me of the bar in The Shining, and I kept expecting a ghostly bartender to show up buying souls. It was a beautiful lounge, though, and we hung out there many times, reading or playing hearts, which I taught to my three traveling companions.
Our time on board gave us a lot of time to survey the people we were with. Ahmed, our guide, was yet another excellent person leading us around Egypt. Of our three guides, he was the first Muslim, which I found interesting. Copts make up a tiny percentage of the Egyptian population, yet both our previous tour guides and many of the ancillary people we had met for the company (our driver, Felipe, for instance) were Christian. Just a little nugget I thought was neat. Ahmed told us a lot of interesting things, not only about the sites we saw, but about the region in general. One of the weird things about Egypt is the concentration of people along the Nile and especially in Cairo and Alexandria. You may point out that it's not so weird, since the rest of the country is desert, but I'd point out that I'm typing this from the middle of a desert that has no river running through it (well, no river that has any water in it) and the six million people in this area seem to be doing okay (well, except for the fact that we're going to run out of water in 20 years or so, but that's another issue). My point is that I don't know why they haven't tried building canals from the Nile into the desert and attempt to spread out a bit. With what we know about water conservation these days, they could even make it environmentally friendly! We cruised on the lake, and the shorefront property was barren, and I remarked on this to Ahmed. He told us the government is in the process of trying to get people to move down south and cultivate the land, and when we flew into Abu Simbel we saw some of the canals that have been built, but he said it's a tough row to hoe, because so many people are comfortable in the city. They have no interest in picking up and moving south, even though they live in tiny apartments packed with people and down south they could have an acre of land that, if they live and tend for ten years, becomes theirs free and clear (that's the deal the government offers). Egypt has had many problems since they kicked out the king in 1952, and their experimentation with Soviet-style socialism in the 1960s didn't help - they're still trying to recover from that. So they have created this massive bureaucracy that doesn't get much done, and meanwhile they crowd into a filthy city and leave thousands of square miles of desert untouched. Yes, it's nice and pristine, but there are ways to live in a place and not destroy it.
So Ahmed was a cool guy. As we cruised, we checked out the other people on board. Of course, there were the French. At one point, Krys went up to the buffet table and asked for tea. A French guy standing next to her took it from the server and gave it to someone behind him, even though he saw Krys standing right there. He did this at least one more time and Krys and the server stood there, flabbergasted. I'm far from a confrontational person, so I probably wouldn't have said anything, but Krys likes to get into it a bit more than I do, but I still don't blame her for not saying anything, because what are you supposed to do when confronted with such unmitigated rudeness? It's like your brain can't function correctly because what you have just seen makes no sense whatsoever. This happened to me as well, also in the buffet line. I was the third person in line and a French woman came up and stood on the side, checking out what was offered that day. Suddenly she was in front of me in line, as smooth a cut as you're going to see. The weird thing was, there was one person behind me in line. It's not like she was going to have to wait long or anything. I just stared at her back, shocked into silence by the utter brazenness of her maneuver. I was so tempted to tap her on the shoulder and tell her to go to the back of the line, but before I worked up the courage, she had gotten her food and moved on, and it was my turn anyway. I've said this before, I will defend the French against the accusations of "cowardice" that Americans level at them. I will not defend them against accusations of rudeness.
Then there were the Japanese. They were a small contingent, all together, and they had at least two tour guides. They kept to themselves, and I really don't remember much about them. I know they shared a common bond with the other two big tour groups on the boat, one which I'll get to in a minute. Lastly, there were the Americans. This was a sizable group, which was a bit comforting after the previous cruise, on which I believe the four of us were the only Yanks. They were perfectly regular people, all in one group, and they had an Egyptian guide and an American woman who, I presume, organized the whole thing. And they had Bob.
Bob is an American documentary filmmaker. If you've ever seen a documentary on Egypt over the past decade or so, you've probably seen Bob. He's ubiquitous! Alicia pointed him out to us, and we didn't really recognize him until he started speaking, and then we both said, "Oh yeah! That guy!" Bob was filming a documentary at Abu Simbel, and then he came on the cruise with us. We weren't sure if the tour group had arranged this beforehand, but I can't imagine that it was just a whimsical thing on Bob's part. He became the de facto tour guide on the cruise, and I could see that Mohammed, the actual tour guide, and the American woman who was in charge were perfectly happy to let him do all the work. Often they would hang back, strolling around the sites, chatting quietly, while Bob explained things to the tourists. The tourists loved him, too. Bob had plenty of groupies. Many of them were middle-aged to elderly women, and they thought Bob was indeed the shit. We started to feel sorry for Bob. At one point, Krys saw him sunbathing, and two women came over and bugged him about one of their "assignments" (I'll get to that). Bob, game as ever, helped them out. They were always saving seats for him on the boats we took to shore - "This one's for Bob!" - and trying to get their picture taken with him. His wife was along on the cruise, too - I wonder if she watched all this with a fair bit of amusement. Bob is a rock star of the documentary set!
Each of these tour groups was apparently on some sort of learning trip. They were always doing assignments. Bob made the Americans learn hieroglyphics and translate some of the carvings on the temple walls, while the Japanese group was constantly meeting to discuss what they had seen. At one point we watched the two Japanese tour guides drawing floor plans of one of the temples we were about to visit. They were very detailed, and the next day, we watched as they gathered around their blueprints and compared it to the temple around us. These people were hardcore tourists! At one point Ahmed decided to quiz us on some of the hieroglyphics, and we yelled at him for being too much like Bob. It was quite weird, because we didn't know what happened if these people didn't complete their assignments. Were they shunned? Did Bob yell at them? Did they have to perform some weird ritual while the rest of us were sleeping?
We spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday cruising the lake. We stopped at several minor temples, but I'm not going to go into them in too much detail, but there were some neat places. At one stop we could have ridden camels between the sites, but we, being hard core, walked, and it was quite the long walk. At each stop we had an armed guard. That was fun. We asked Ahmed about it, and he said that terrorists liked to swoop down and take foreigners hostage. I believe I mentioned that we had to fly from Cairo to Luxor because of this. We never got a straight story out of our tour guides about who exactly got the armed guard, but we're pretty sure that it's only Americans. Nobody cares about taking the French hostage! The armed guards were interesting, because they tried to be inconspicuous, but that was pretty difficult to do, what with the automatic weapons hanging by their side. During one of the tour stops, we had another run-in with the French. Oh, those French! We were going to see the tomb of a local governor, who actually was accorded some honors and whose tomb was actually found. This site was sadly ironic. It survived thousands of years without getting broken into. It was one of many that was moved in the 1960s when Lake Nasser was created, but no one thought it was important enough to guard, so someone plundered it after it was moved. Now, of course, they guard the damned thing. It's an interesting little tomb, but it's very small, and the French group was very big. We got to the tomb and had to wait. Why is this a problem? One of our group had to use the facilities, which were beyond the tomb, a decent walk away, so Ahmed said we'd just check out the tomb before moving on. He told us all about the tomb while we waited outside, and then was going to let us go in and check it out ourselves. What did the French tour guide do? He took four or five people into the tomb at a time and gave his whole spiel, before letting them out and repeating the process. There were at least 25 French tourists with him, so he was taking his sweet old time. Ahmed was peeved, I'll tell you that much. We finally got into the tomb and checked it out, and then moved on. While we were waiting for the boat to arrive, we met the crocodile men. These two gentlemen had a small crocodile and an even smaller one, and you could get your picture taken with one or both (for a small fee, of course). Unlike other photo opportunities with the Egyptian natives that I passed up because I didn't feel like paying, I figured it probably wouldn't be too soon before I got to hold a crocodile again, so we got pictures taken. Then it was back to the boat!
So we cruised on. We ate well, relaxed a lot, sat on the top deck and watched the shore slowly move by, stood outside at night and looked at the stars. Living in an urban area, I always forget how many freakin' stars there are. We got a certificate when we crossed the Tropic of Cancer (I'm not sure why) and finally reached Aswan on Friday night. On Saturday morning we took a launch out to Kalabsha temple, our last tourist stop. As usual, it was a nice spot, and it looked like every other temple we had seen. I admit to a bit of burnout by this time, but it was still a very nice site, especially because when it was moved, they put it almost right at the water, and it's a spectacular setting. It also contains some pre-dynastic carvings near it, which were neat to see. Ahmed pointed out a hotel near the site that is run by the government but which never has any guests. He said that when Hilton ran the place, it did good business, but the government took it over because they figured they could make money off of it, but now no one stays there, even though it's fully staffed and ready to go! It soundly vaguely disconcerting, and I thought it would be pretty neat to check the place out. We didn't have time, though.
That morning was our last in terms of visiting sites. Jim and Alicia left to catch their flight back to Cairo, and we went back to the boat to hang out and wait for our flight, which was later in the day. It was Saturday afternoon, the 18th of November, and we wouldn't be back home until late Sunday night, which sucked. I hope someone gets around to inventing a teleportation device that won't turn you into a giant fly soon, because flying halfway around the world blows. We went back to the airport at Aswan, which is an international airport. I thought it was "international" in the way some tiny airports near the Mexican or Canadian borders are "international" - one flight over the border and it can call itself international! However, EgyptAir flies from Aswan to London, so that's pretty impressive. We ate pizza at the Sbarro, and after two weeks of eating Egyptian food, greasy pizza tasted like heaven. We actually did eat pretty well on our trip - when most of the meals are buffet-style, you can always find something you like - but sometimes you just want a good piece of pizza. Naturally, our flight was late, but in the late afternoon we made it back to Cairo and to our hotel for our last night in Egypt.
There aren't a lot of highlights from our last night in Egypt, although our hotel room was something to behold. We had no idea what to expect, but when we entered, we were blown away. It was a baroque monstrosity! It was very nice - we had a living room and a bedroom, a (fake) fireplace, two televisions, a powder room and a main bathroom, inside of which was a sauna. We certainly weren't expecting any of it! It was decorated, however, in such a gaudy fashion, with big ugly paintings on the wall, lots of crimson and gold, and all sorts of curlicues. I felt like I was staying at Versailles, which was just weird. We had a nice dinner with Jim and Alicia, who were staying at the same place, and the next morning we headed to the airport for our flight back to New York. It was another horribly long flight, but nothing that was all that awful. Flying over Long Island was pretty cool, though. And then we landed at JFK. We felt like suckers, carrying all our own luggage - where were all the people ready to jump in and take it for us? Man, those Egyptians had the right idea! I guess it's okay lugging your own crap around, because you don't have to tip anyone, but we did get a bit spoiled in our two weeks abroad. We said goodbye to Jim and Alicia, who were at a different terminal for their flight back to Los Angeles, and then we hung out at our gate for a while. After another annoying flight, we finally landed in Phoenix, where my dad picked us up. We were home!
The next day a co-worker of Krys called her (she was taking Monday and Tuesday off) and asked her when she would be back at work. Krys told her, and the woman said she might want to show up on Tuesday, because the bank that ran Krys's mortgage company shut the whole place down and was handing out severance packages. So that was a charming way to return to the United States! They paid her through the end of the year, which gave her a bit of time. So she was home for six weeks or so, and she eventually found a new job because she's so good. It's only a contract job for a few months, but the company anticipates hiring people permanently soon, so we're not particularly worried about that. The only pain-in-the-ass thing is that we have to go on COBRA because our health insurance lapsed, and if we ever had a break in health insurance the new one would classify Mia as having "pre-existing conditions" and not cover a lot of stuff. Don't get me started on health insurance!
So that's our vacation. I apologize for taking so long posting about it, but with Krys being home and Mia being out of school for a few weeks and Thanksgiving and Christmas and the fact that I was foolishly trying to analyze every single issue of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers saga in December (read about them here!), something had to give, and it takes so long to upload pictures to the blog (maybe I should switch to the new version, but I'm stubborn that way and won't switch until they make me) that I often became frustrated and just gave up for a while. I'm sure any interest anyone had in our Egyptian vacation waned long ago, but that's okay - you can always come back later when your interest is back!
It's the new year now, even though I'm keeping the date of 31 December on this post, just to symbolically finish up last year. We'll see what I do with the blog, because I really do have less time to devote to it. The kids are getting bigger and Norah is demanding more and more interaction with her parents - the nerve of these kids, demanding interaction with their parents! - so I might be less reliable about posting than I have been in the past. But I'll still be throwing stuff up here a few times a week, so I hope my vast readership (all eight people!) comes back regularly! And, despite my long-windedness, I do hope you enjoyed our vacation pictures. We had a great time, and I highly recommend checking out Egypt if you have the time and money. It's a stunning place to visit, and it's so unlike a lot of places that have become Americanized. I love American culture as much as anyone (as you can tell by my running to Sbarro the first - okay, second - chance I got), but it's very neat to see things from a different perspective. Egypt is a fascinating country, and I know we saw far less than we could have (Alexandria, for instance, would be neat to visit), but we had a wonderful time, and I hope you guys liked the nifty pictures.