By tomorrow I will be boarding a plane and saying goodbye to Africa. It has been 541 days since I first stepped on the plane in back in Seattle to start this incredible journey and it’s been more than I could have ever imagined. Instead of flying straight back to America however, first I stop in Germany to visit my good friend Stefan, who I met in Botswana and spent two months with between Botswana and Zambia, then I will finally arrive home to the city, the mountains, the ocean and the people I love. That said, I really feel my Africa trip ended the day I landed in Egypt, rather than the day I will be leaving it. The country is so different from Sub-Saharan Africa where I’ve spent so much time that I might as well have landed in a different world. I wish I could say I’ve enjoyed it, but in many ways I haven’t. I wish I could blame someone else for this, but the truth is I can’t. It’s been a tough few weeks for me emotionally here in Egypt and although I’ve seen many of the amazing the sights this country has to offer, the truth is I’ve checked out mentally already and feel like I’m just going through the motions. Although it’s been so different from the rest of my African adventure, it has still been very interesting and worth scrolling down to see what I’m talking about.
(also, sorry for the text size issues, not sure why it's doing that but for some reason I can't fix it...)
It was 2am when I walked out into the streets, caught a waiting cab and headed to the Addis Ababa Airport, leaving the friends I’d made and the country I’d really come to appreciate. By 4:30 the plane was in the air and by 6am I was looking out the window, somewhere over Sudan as the sun rose over the distant horizon. I’d had some bad airline breakfast and if I was lucky, maybe two hours of restless sleep, but otherwise felt normal enough.
As the sun continued to illuminate my surroundings the airplane traveled roughly parallel to the Nile and other than the river and the settlements on either side, it was just a vast, empty space; so this is the Sahara. The green Africa I knew was gone, some place to the south but I couldn't say where the end actually was. As we approached Cairo and I looked out at the incredible stretches of nearly identical, drab brown, 10-story apartments packed like sardines I was intensely curious about everything I was seeing but began to feel extremely uneasy. This isn’t Africa.
After going through immigration and picking up my bags I got a SIM for my phone and headed towards the door. Once I walked out of the air conditioned airport the heat of the day hit me like a flaming truck and I thought to myself “Ah, this is why tourists don’t come this time of year…” After fending off numerous taxi drivers, with some help I managed to find a bus leaving the airport. I had not been able to contact my CouchSurf host so I had no idea where I actually wanted to go, and I had no understanding of just how big and confusing Cairo actually is, but figured I’d just get somewhere, anywhere. I picked a random bus and headed towards the insanity that comes with the Cairo metro area and it’s nearly 20 million residents. So this is Egypt…
When I arrived in Ethiopia, I marveled at how everything there was ‘just a little different’ from the other African nations I’ve traveled through. Upon walking the streets of Cairo, I found myself searching for anything that was the same. The streets were huge, the buildings were overwhelming, the architecture was different, everything was in Arabic, although crumbling there was the feeling of a real infrastructure, there was a McDonalds, something I hadn’t seen since back in South Africa and most importantly I didn’t see a black African face in sight, because Egypt is an Arab country (the ‘Arab Republic of Egypt’ to be exact). I can’t explain it and maybe it sounds silly now but I almost started to panic. I was alone, exhausted, totally overwhelmed and filled with waves of emotion I didn’t exactly understand. I wandered the streets with nowhere to go, feeling like I was about to cry. Africa is gone and I never even said goodbye.
Now of course I knew Egypt would be different, I knew it “wasn’t Africa.” But it is never the same to know something in theory and actually see and understand it in practice. I came to Africa in hopes of traveling the whole length by land. To see the transitions from one place to another is important to understanding a place and (other than the small gap as a result of having to fly from Nairobi to Addis,) not being able to get the visa and travel through Sudan blew a huge hole in that route and in that understanding I was seeking. Sudan is where the transition from African to Arab really takes place and I missed it. I took off in Africa and basically landed in Arabia. I felt lost, I felt disconnected, I felt alone. There is a reason when people talk about Africa there is ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ and ‘north-Africa,’ they ARE different worlds. I’d spent such a long and intense time in one world that I simply wasn’t prepared to enter the other so suddenly. It was like spending every day with your best friend, going through the good and the bad together, then being ripped apart unexpectedly. I never even said goodbye.
Eventually I found a place to eat, which was harder than I expected because everything seemed to be shut down or places I expected to have food only did tea and shisha. Like the rest of Egypt, the food was also totally different from what I’ve been eating but was delicious and lifted my sprits a bit. After a great deal more wandering, I finally found an internet café where I sat for almost two hours and eventually finding some direction to my CouchSurf host. My wanderings continued and eventually I asked some young guys how to get to my hosts place. As I was talking to them and getting some advice, another man showed up, thanked me for coming to Egypt, flagged down a cab, paid for my fare and sent me on my way. Very kind of him and just one of the kind gestures I've experienced here in Egypt. Unfortunately when I arrived at the meeting spot and texted him, I found out he had to go unexpectedly and could not host me. This did not improve my mood. After dealing with internet problems for the next hour trying to find another host in Cairo I managed to find another host, texted him and went off to his place.
After an exciting taxi ride through the streets of Cairo and into the Giza area, I met my host, Hema on the street. We sat down for a shisha and then walked down a dirt ally to his house, the kind of place you could only end up at through CouchSurfing! It was a 6 story family compound, with various family members living in the bottom four. We walked all the way to the top of the building to a large rooftop deck, then through an open door into the house and down an internal set of creaky wood stairs to the fifth floor. It looked like an abandoned haunted house, everything covered in a thick layer of dust, strange and often broken furniture, and a maze of rooms. Somewhere inside all of this happened to be a clean room with a large bed, which was to be my room. The power worked, but there was no water. Looked like fun!
The real feature of the house was the view, and what a view it is. The house is only minutes from the pyramids and from the sixth floor deck you have probably one of the best views in the entire city. I was still feeling extremely overwhelmed with the arrival in Egypt but having a bed to sleep in and such an awesome place to stay helped me feel a lot better.
Every night at the pyramids, they put on a ‘sound and light show,’ which from what I gather involves some dramatic music, some recorded information about the pyramids and sphinx and lighting up them sights in different color lights for an hour or so. Of course I wasn’t interested in paying to see the show from the seats inside the gate, why would I when I could watch it from a rooftop? Instead I threw some Mars Volta on iPod, cranked the volume way up and had a little freakout dance party, alone, filled with nervous energy, on the roof of this semi-abandoned building and gazing at one of the world’s most impressive sights.
Staring out over the homes towards the lit up pyramids, on the other end of Africa from where I began, was yet another overwhelming experience in a long and intense day. I’d officially made my ‘Cape-to-Cairo’ journey and was looking at the finish line, the victory photo; but honestly I felt no sense of relief, no feeling of victory or even happiness in what I had done. I just didn’t know what to feel.
The next morning, due to the heat of the day and the activity in my mind I woke early. I explored the two floors of the house I had to myself, mostly empty rooms, closets packed with junk and a layer of dust like a light snow. Hema, my host was supposed to help me organize a tour for the pyramids but I couldn’t get him on the phone, so I began the day by wandering the streets looking around, finding some food and trying to gather some information on how to see the pyramids on my own, so I’d have another data point to compare.
For starters, it was clear just how much the tourism industry here in Egypt has collapsed since the revolution. Tourism can be a fickle business anywhere in the world, but in in pre-revolution Egypt it made up 13% of the country’s GPD and directly or indirectly employed 1 in 7 Egyptians so they had a lot more to lose. To have that kind of dependency on tourism is massive and when the revolution hit those numbers dried up, with hotels running at 10% capacity and everyone I talk to on the streets saying “there are no tourists anymore.” While that’s not exactly true, the numbers are much smaller than before and the pain it is causing is obvious. Shops are closed down and locked, hotels are ghost towns and idle guides sit and hope. I’d like to think these horses used to take tourists around were better fed than in this photo, but honestly who knows… Although people are hurting for business I really didn’t experience as much harassment for business as I had expected. Walking down the streets I had a good number of people approach me offering horse or camel rides through the pyramids (the going rate seems to be 60 Egyptian pounds, about $8.50) but it was no more aggressive than anywhere else I’d been, especially for such a prime tourist place (it was a lot better than my experience in Lalibela, Ethiopia) and I really didn’t feel it was a problem, which actually surprised me quite a bit.
By about 11am I’d gotten a hold of Hema and he brought me to a tourist office that arranged a guide, a camel and the entrance tickets. I have to admit I was a little skeptical about what I was getting for what I was paying, but I was trusting my CS host and really I just wanted an easy and hassle free way to see the pyramids. Within a few minutes a camel was outside for me, making ridiculous faces and disgusting gurgling noises. It was my first time riding a camel and right away I was surprised how tall they really are as the thing stood up. My guide and young boy who worked with him lead me and my camel through the streets, into a side gate and onto the sand. It was amazing because by passing through a gate I’d gone from the packed streets of sprawling Cairo into a complete desert with nothing but sand and stone as far as I could see.
We rode for a maybe 15 minutes to the ‘panorama,’ the spot out in the sand where you can get a view of all six pyramids lined up, and stopped for the typical tourist photos. I have no idea what this place was like during the tourist high season before the revolution, but on this day there were very few people around. A couple of locals came up trying to sell cold drinks, but that was it in terms of attention and it was no problem.
Well, here I am at the pyramids finally. I guess this is my victory photo, crossing Africa right? Table Mountain in South Africa to the Great Pyramids in Egypt, I made it.
Here are the pyramids without me in the way. From the viewpoint, we continued walking towards the pyramids themselves, first stopping at the three small pyramids that are associated with Menkaure's pyramid (large left) and then to the three main pyramids themselves.
The pyramids of course were built as tombs, with tunnels leading to the center where the burial chamber is located. It is possible to go inside of them and I chose to do that as long as I was here. The largest of them, Khufu, costs an extra 100 pounds to enter and because I’m told they all look pretty much the same inside, just a long tunnel and an empty room at the end, I chose to only go inside Khafre, which is 30 pounds (this photo is from one of the tunnels in a smaller tomb I visited however, I was not allowed to take photos inside of Khafre). Although it was true, there really isn’t anything to see inside of them, it was a pretty amazing feeling to be inside the pyramids, structures built thousands of years ago and one of the most iconic man-made objects on earth. Due to such low numbers of tourists, there was only one other person inside the entire pyramid.
Unsurprisingly the area is fairly developed, and good roads weave through the area for tour buses and cars, horse carts and camels. There was a handful of tour buses filled with foreign tourists at the base of Khufu and a few locals waving trinkets around to sell, but the whole place had a bit of an empty feeling to it, which was OK with me because I don’t like crowds!
After spending some time just walking alone around the pyramids, weaving between huge blocks of stone and stopping to examine hieroglyphics and some smaller tombs, my guide on his horse lead me towards the Sphinx. Unlike the other areas this site had a handful of tourists, Koreans I think, but even here I found places between the huge stone columns where other than an old man with a broom sweeping sand around, I was alone. The sphinx was interesting to me not only as an amazing creation in itself, but because of how the city has grown. To its back sits the pyramids and the open desert, nothing but sand and sun, but to its front sits Giza city and Cairo, one of the biggest metropolitan areas on earth. It feels like the Sphinx is some kind of barrier, telling people to stay around the abundance of the Nile rather than brave the Sahara.
About three hours after I first entered the pyramid complex, my camel and I walked out the gate and back into the sprawling city. I’m not huge on visiting all the tourist sites as I travel, but this was an obvious can’t miss and I had a nice experience.
Deciding to continue my typical tourist theme, I headed towards the Egyptian Museum, which was a fair distance away through the chaos of Cairo. Armed with rough instructions on how to get there from my host, I climbed aboard a VW bus that serves as a line taxi and was surprised to see they run on CNG. When I asked about this I was told this is done because it is much cheaper than petrol, but a side benefit it has the added burns quite a bit cleaner as well. From there I climbed aboard another bus and after asking some young guys the best way to go was pointed to the metro station, Cairo’s light rail. Having already spent nearly an hour in traffic just to get to the rail station I was extremely pleased and impressed with the rail system and its ability to get through the city and bypass the traffic jams. On the train I found plenty of people who were willing to help me find my destination and of course many were curious about my journey.
In the late afternoon I finally arrived in Tahrir Square which is adjacent to the museum. Tahrir Square of course was the focal point of the 2011 Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the countries leader for 30 years. Indicating how proud Egyptians are of this feat, I was asked by dozens of people if I had visited the area and was glad I could answer ‘yes’.
Although I’m pretty savvy to scammers and their games, sometimes my optimism gets the best of me for a few minutes and I make a dumb mistake of believing certain people. As I was walking out of the train station I asked a young guy which way the museum was and he told me it was already closed. I was unsure he was being honest, but I ended up hearing that from probably two other people as well as I chatted with people on the streets, so whatever, maybe it’s true? I wasn’t in a hurry to see it anyways and thought nothing more of it, but of course it was actually open, they were just trying to keep me out and bring me into their tourist junk shops. Like I say, even after all my time on the road I’m still an optimist, I couldn’t enjoy what I do otherwise!
I killed some time chatting with a travel agency about what kind of outings they offer, not because I was actually going to go with them, I just wanted an idea of what options were out there and what the prices were. The square is littered with tour agencies, papyrus shops and essential oil shops, it seems these three things are the bread and butter of the Egyptian economy! That said, every single one was empty and I only saw one or two other foreigners walking around the square. Again, the hardship caused by the lack of foreign tourists is very obvious.
I was then approached by a friendly young guy who said hello and thanked me for coming to Egypt. By this point in the day my optimism had faded and I already distrusted every single person who spoke to me. It happens. He assured me he wasn’t selling anything but just wanted to tell me about the revolution. I told him rather frankly that was good because I wasn’t about to buy anything. Over the next twenty minutes we walked through Tahrir and he told me about the protests, the revolution, the people who were killed by the police and explained the graffiti is intended to be a sort of outdoor museum and a permanent record of what happened in Tahrir Square and across Egypt. It was all pretty cool and I really enjoyed learning about the revolution; then of course at the end he asked me for money ‘for the families of the martyrs.’ Of course I saw this coming and politely mentioned “You told me you weren’t selling anything” which of annoyed him and he got more aggressive, asking me why I couldn’t give anything. I explained it was because 1) he was trying to mislead me and 2) because I didn’t know who he actually was or where any money would actually go. Eventually he gave up.
He was quickly replaced by a young boy who started painting an Egyptian flag on my arm, which I didn’t ask for nor want, then demanded money for it. Again, I refused and started to wash it off. As I was doing this I was approached by yet another guy who offered to help me wash it off. He was short, spoke perfect English, had disgusting teeth and was obviously a world class bullshitter. Even though it was obvious from the start what kind of game he was playing, for some reason I was curious and began walking and chatting with him. Naturally, this conversation and walk lead to his shop. He gave me coffee and told me his daughter was getting married tomorrow and he was in a ‘good mood and wanted to give me one of his paintings as a gift.’ He claimed he painted them himself (of course this is crap, it’s the same mass produced tourist junk sold at the hundreds of shops across the city) and had me pick my favourite in his shop. Again, it was obvious where this was going, but I played along. At the same time, he told me how he travels all over the world selling his paintings, that he makes money so easily doing it and I could take some of his and make $5000 selling them in Germany, haha. He offered me more to drink, packaged up the painting in a tube and then asked for money ‘just to cover the cost of materials.’ I wasn’t even interested in having one for free, so I offered twenty pounds, just under three dollars, to see what would happen. Of course this wasn’t enough for him, as he was really just taking a roundabout way trying to sell it to me. Eventually I got tired of this little game, thanked him for his time, the coffee and politely left. I guess you can’t blame a guy for trying right?
In short, don’t trust anyone in Tahrir Square, haha.
I continued walking around the area and as the sun was setting, found myself on a large bridge across the Nile River. Although I was still surrounded by the noise and hustle and pollution of the city, it was a surprisingly beautiful and calming place to be. Then I spent the next hour plus trying to get through traffic and back to my place. So it goes.
The next day I was feeling pretty lazy and dindn’t want to do anything at all. I tried to sleep in, laid around the incredibly hot house and eventually went out to find some food and an internet café. The food was easy enough to find, cheap and delicious, but finding an internet café was surprisingly difficult. It was strange to come from Africa, where every small town seemed to have a handful of them to Egypt, which was far more developed and had none in sight. I ended up asking a very friendly shop owner and after we talked for a few minutes he said he would take me. Two minutes later he returned in his car, had me climb in and we set off, winding through the narrow dusty roads crammed between tall drab colored buildings that make up this entire city. Eventually we found one that was open, he gave me his number saying I could call him if I needed any help, and went on his way. A genuinely nice guy.
I had a second CouchSurf host lined up since Hema was only able to host for those few days, and after finishing up at the internet café I grabbed my bags and set off. What followed was more than two hours of buses, trains and taxis, and a great deal of helpful people trying to point me in the right direction.
By about 8pm I finally arrived at the apartment of my new host, Amr. From his CS profile it was clear he was a bit of a ‘super host’ and both him and his place lived up to that. It was a fancy modern apartment, with a big HDTV, wifi, air conditioning, washing machine and everything else you would expect to find. He’s a very social guy and there are always people hanging around the house. My first night was no exception to this and after settling in, taking advantage of the internet and time of day to call home, wound up partying until almost 3am with everyone. Yep, CouchSurfing is awesome.
Amr’s place was exactly what I needed. I was still emotionally and physically exhausted from my arrival in the country and all I wanted was a place to relax and recharge. I slept in, took an excessively long shower and spent the rest of the day on the couch. Perfect. That evening a bunch of us headed out into the Cairo traffic jams to visit a restaurant they all said was the best around. The traffic wasn’t as bad as I’ve seen on other days, but I still had to wonder how anyone actually puts up with this craziness. Nothing is nearby, getting across the city can take an hour or two and it seems you are either busy weaving in and out of traffic like a maniac or stuck in a jam like cattle in a cage. I could never live in a place like this.
The restaurant was everything I hoped it would be. I can’t remember the names of the dishes, but the table was practically overflowing with delicious bread, rice, veggies and meat (that’s Amr on the right). As far as I can tell, people in Cairo never sleep, or at least not people in this group! After dinner and dessert we headed to a rooftop shisha bar overlooking the Nile, then returned home where we stayed up until 3am yet again.
Ah, an interesting side note. We stopped off at a fruit stand on the street corner and as I was looking through the goods I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, a small and similar sticker. As I looked closer I confirmed my suspicions, the apples being sold on the street corner in Cairo were from Washington State, my home!
After another morning of sleeping in I decided I ought to give the Egypt Museum another go. After paying the 60 pound entrance fee and being waved through the broken xray machines and metal detector I was greeted by something that that looked a bit like the warehouse from the end of Indiana Jones Raiders of the lost Ark, a cavernous space filled with priceless artifacts, many on display, many sitting on the floor in large wooden boxes.
I spent the next hour or so wandering through room after room of mummies, statues, tools, jewelry sarcophagus's and everything in between. Sure King Tuts golden burial mask was impressive, as were the mummies and beautiful statues, but what stood out to me the most was actually the jewelry and two boats. That the ancient Egyptians could create such fine workmanship more than 4,500 years ago was really stunning to see and the contrast between that and rural sub-Saharan Africa where even today they are still in mud huts and in places still using dugout canoes. I don’t have an answer as to why this is, I don’t think anyone does, but it certainly makes you think.
That night Amr wanted to have a party so the evening was spent preparing food, getting drinks ready and then a few hours before people were scheduled to show up, the power went off. Walking around a fancy apartment and having to use my headlamp was good for a laugh, and it happened a few other times while I stayed there (people say this happens frequently since the revolution, one of the many complaints against the current government) but after an hour or two the power came back and everything was fine. Although it went late as all nights around here seem to, the party was very tame and consisted mostly of sitting on the porch smoking shisha and playing some dancing game on the Nintendo Wii. It was fun to meet more of Amr’s friends though and it is clear he surrounds himself with good people.
After another day of sitting around the house and trying to rest my still shaken body and mind, I finally made a move out of the house so I could actual begin to explore Egypt. I woke up early, threw on my backpack and took a minibus to Ramses Station, Cairo’s central train station. Although I’m being a bit sarcastic here, it feels like Cairo only has two different buildings, the huge and nearly identical apartment/condo units I shared earlier in this post, and mosques. I find the mosques to be quite beautiful, with the precise lines and angles of the minarets especially showing off true craftsmanship as the point towards the sky.
It is generally recommended to buy long distance tickets especially in advance. However I didn’t know exactly when or even where I was going until the day before, so I didn’t have that luxury of actually planning. All I wanted to do was get as far south as I could, near the Sudan border. If I couldn’t get into the country, I at least wanted to get near it, and to see Egypt from one end to the other in the process.
To accomplish this task my plan, my hope, was to take the train as far south as it went, from Cairo to Aswan, then take a bus to Abu Sembel another 280km south of that and only 40km from Sudan. The idea was simple enough but I knew it wouldn’t be that easy and I was right. Most foreigners take the fancy overnight tourist train to Aswan, it costs something like $80 and since it’s at night you can’t see any of the countryside as you pass through it. Both of these issues were deal breakers for me, so I opted as usual for the cheap local train. I’d read online and in the books that they often refuse to sell second and third class tickets to foreigners, but I wanted to try anyways. After being pointed in ten different directions for who I actually needed to talk to, I was told that all tickets were sold out, for all classes and I’d have to wait a few days, or I could take a bus. I wasn’t interested in doing either of this things, and spent the next two hours walking in circles, talking to various people and getting various answers of questionable validity. I’d read that if you can’t buy a ticket, you can just walk on the train and buy one on-board however that would mean standing for the 12-15 hours to Aswan. It didn’t sound very nice but I had a mission, so to hell with it, I’m going.
As I was beginning to think my mission was hopeless and I may have to take a bus after all, I eventually found a young Egyptian guy named Mamhud who was headed to a town a few stops before Aswan and he offered to help me find my way. We waited another half an hour or so for the train to arrive, and although I found myself standing up in the isle instead of enjoying the view from a seat, at least I was on the train.
Given the density of the Cairo metro area I was surprised how quickly we arrived in agricultural land. For the most part the train line runs very near the Nile and does so for obvious reasons. Other than a few oasis towns, this incredible river through the Egyptian Sahara desert is essentially the only source of fresh water in the whole country and its life-giving powers have sustained the country for thousands of years. From what I could see, it appeared the towns, fields and river passed by with very little to differentiate one place from another. Combined with the flatness of the country, I found it to be an interesting ride I’m glad to have taken, but hardly a scenic one.
The train ride from Cairo to Aswan ended up being a full 15.5 hours, and I only had a seat towards the end of the ride, when most people had already gotten off the train and created some openings. Following the lead of a small local girl, at one point I crammed myself between some seats on the floor and fell asleep. It was very uncomfortable, and I was awoken to find I was sitting in a huge puddle of…. hopefully water? The floor had turned to a wet and disgusting mess, but all I could do was stand in the isle looking like I’d pissed myself, and try and make myself small every 15 seconds when someone had to pass me and the other passengers as he or she walked down the isle. I befriended two young guys and spent some time chatting with them, eventually getting an open seat hours after darkness had already set in. As the only foreigner on the train, I received a bit of attention, and these kids in particular were curious. It began with making funny faces and gestures across the train at each other, and eventually led to them sitting with me, playing around some more and practicing numbers and the alphabet while their father looked on and smiled.
It was 1am when I arrived in Aswan and although I was quite tired; I wanted to get to Abu Sembel as soon as possible and began making inquiries about how to get there. Naturally this yielded a handful of different answers indicating there was a bus somewhere between 4am and 6am, but it seemed like it should work out quite well. If there was a 4am bus, or even a 6am one, paying for a hotel room didn’t make any sense so the obvious answer was just to stay up all night. To do this I spent the next few hours eating, drinking soda and although I’m not a smoker, puffing on a shisha pipe as I chatted with random local guys at the café and read my book.
I arrived at the bus station at 4am by 6:30am found myself on a minibus headed 280km south, towards the end of Egypt and the start of Sudan. The sun was rising as I left Aswan and it cast a beautiful light on the river and the mosques on the way out of town. I had read that tourists were required to travel this route with armed guards, but no one ever mentioned such a thing to me, so who knows.
Crossing the Aswan Low Dam on the way out. This was originally completed all the way back in 1902 to help control the river, was raised twice and then made somewhat obsolete by the High Dam just upriver which in turn created Lake Nasser, one of the world’s largest man-made lakes. Again, here in Egypt water is everything….
…because this is what lies just beyond the shores of the Nile. The minibus ride from Aswan to Abu Sembel took another 4 hours, most of which was spent traveling good roads through endless sand on either side. There were a few sun-baked towns along the way and I was curious how the people actually survive out there as they appeared to have very little water, no crops growing and few if any employment opportunities, but no one spoke any English and I have zero understanding of Arabic, so my questions were never answered.
Abu Sembel resembled a ghost town. Due in part to the blazing heat and in part to the lack of tourists, shops were empty or closed and only a few people walked the streets. I was the only foreigner in sight. I was looking for a place called Abu Sembel Tourist Village as it was supposed to be the cheapest place in town, but it took me a long time to actually find as no one seemed to know where it actually was, and I was frequently delayed by friendly local guys inviting me to sit down and offering me cigarettes and hash joints simply as a gesture of kindness. After being lead to the wrong place, one that cost $160/night or something, I found what I was looking for, paid about $10 and lay down in the otherwise empty hotel.
After a bit of rest I headed back into town where I had some decent fish from the lake and began walking to the famous temples of Ramses II. As I walked through town I noticed something I’d seen all around Cairo as well, refrigerated water fountains! I can’t recall seeing any public water fountains in sub-Saharan Africa, yet in Egypt they were abundant, frequently used and even provided cool water. I was impressed.
I walked down the empty streets, followed by only one young Egyptian trying to sell me things, paid my 80 pound entry ticket and walked through the hot sun towards Lake Nasser and where the temples stood.
The temples originally stood at the edge of the Nile, but when the dam was built the entire temple complex was cut out of the rock, into massive blocks and moved 65 meters higher and 200 meters inland to avoid flooding. The process took 4 years, $40 million and incredible engineering feats to accomplish but they did an amazing job and managed to save a wonderful piece of history for the world to visit and appreciate.
As I explored the Great Temple, the larger of the two and dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, I saw only two other tourists. This is a place that used to get thousands of tourists a day. Not that I was complaining, I could enjoy the incredible 20 meter tall statues at the entrance and the amazing carvings inside all by myself.
Looking in the front door.
Nearly every bit of wall space was covered in carvings, mostly depicting images of battles and of offerings to the gods. I spent more than 30 minutes walking around the temple basically alone, admiring the carvings and enjoying the cool air inside.
Next up was the Small Temple, dedicated to Hathor and Nefertari. Had this temple been anywhere else than ancient Egypt it would be pretty amazing, but honestly next to the Large Temple it felt a little underwhelming. Although 20 or 30 tourists had arrived by this point on a tour bus, I still had the inside to myself.
After walking through the small temple and looking at the carvings inside, I returned to the daylight and stared out over the lake. I’m not exactly sure what triggered it, probably just exhaustion, but I had a sudden urge to just say “Screw it! I’m done with this country! I’m done with this trip! I don’t want to be here! I’m going to skip everything I’d planned on doing in Egypt, go sit on the beach alone somewhere until my flight! I fucking quit!” I was in a horrible mood, totally failing to enjoy the stunning place I was at and I was mad at myself for even thinking that way. In my entire trip I’d never had this feeling before. It seemed like my energy, my enthusiasm my reason for this whole adventure across Africa just collapsed. I was still struggling with the very concept of the end of my journey, the way I ‘left Africa’ and doing all of this in a state of utter exhaustion at this stage. Even worse than when I got robbed in Zambia, or when I was so sick I was shitting blood and semi-conscious in Tanzania, this feeling was the lowest point of my entire trip.
I put on my headphones, blasted some music and walked past the handful of tourists who had shown up, I imagine for the evening sound and light show. The streets were still empty and I needed to clear my head. As I headed towards the town, I stopped to watch the sun set behind fishermen who were coming in for the day. When I reached my room, I turned on the AC, took my clothes off, and got swarmed by ants and a few roaches as I tried to shower, haha. After a shower, a shave and a movie on my computer I began to feel a little better but was still unsure what I was actually going to do.
I was still glad to have come to Abu Sembel. By reaching it I had gotten within 40km of Sudan, the country I hadn’t been able to enter due to visa nonsense, and was therefore able to see essentially the entire length of Egypt. It wasn’t just about going the length of Egypt though, this part of Egypt marks the beginning of the Nubian people, who stretch from here south into Sudan. While it wasn’t much, and I didn’t even experience any aspect of real Nubian culture there, just being in the area and seeing some of the people helped me mentally fill in the gap in my route across Africa.
I had originally thought about taking a boat out onto Lake Nasser the next day, but decided the town held nothing for me and I needed to get out. I woke at 5am and took a bus back to Aswan, which this time took a whopping 5.5 hours but I had a real seat so it wasn’t too bad.
Arriving in Aswan, I decided to take the easy route north because although I was feeling better, I was still pretty burned out and unhappy. By the easy route, I mean hop aboard one of the big cruise ships to Luxor and not have to worry about any of the details. The other option was to hire a felucca, the traditional sailboat of the river, and do it that way. The river must have had 50 different cruise ships, and clearly most of them were tied up and not going anywhere, there was simply no business. Still exhausted, I carried my bags through the hot sun up and down the river looking for ships leaving that afternoon. I found three, one of which was reasonably priced, and was set to go at 3:30pm. Hoping I could find a still better deal (I mean, these giant boats seemed to have maybe 10 guests each at most, can’t I get a better deal?) I kept walking and asking around. When I returned to the boat I was then told there had been a miscommunication and the price would be higher than I was originally told. Great. Upset yet again, I walked away and decided I’d hire a felucca, as that was the cheaper (and more unique) option. But I knew it would be a lot more work and I was crashing.
Now I had to find a felucca caption. There must have been hundreds of empty feluccas sitting in the water, but I didn’t see a single one with tourists on it. According to the guidebook (which for just about the first time I was actually using one) they usually go with 6-8 people, but I’d have to hire one on my own since there was no one else around. Despite the incredible lack of tourists, there were still people trying to sell boat trips and I was actually surprised how non-aggressive they were about it. I ended up finding a guy who said he could offer a “two night, two day” trip including food for 500 pounds, about $70. It sounded OK, and I was told to meet the captain at the McDonalds at 5pm
I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve eaten at McDonalds in the last five years, but here I was, sitting in Aswan Egypt, on the edge of the Nile, looking out at an ancient Nubian village and eating a quarter-pounder. Huh. By 6:30 he still wasn’t there and I was pissed. Eventually he did show up and after some tense negotiations and him telling me where I wanted to sail to was too far away and we would have to do a shorter trip, I agreed to go with him. But yet again there was a catch, his boat wasn’t actually here, we would have to take a cab up river, sail it back to Aswan and sleep there before setting off the next day. I was not happy, but wanted to get on the water and on towards Luxor. In hindsight I wish I’d backed out right then because I already didn’t like the guy…
At least the ancient village across the river looked beautiful…
At 8pm we finally got on the boat to head back to Aswan, but the wind died and we found ourselves stranded. He tied the boat along the shore somewhere and I spent an unexpected night sleeping on the Nile. We chatted a bit, he played lots of American pop music on his cell phone, and actually did walk to a small town to get some bread and cheese, but it really just felt like I was trapped alone on a boat with a rude guy I didn’t like and didn’t trust. Egypt was not going well for me.
I woke with the sun the next morning but it seemed there was no clear plan and we sat doing nothing for hours. Eventually he sailed to the other side to pick up the food and head off, but again nothing was ready or organized. This was a day of the trip I was paying for, yet all we were doing was sitting on the boat next to a noisy road. It wasn’t even until 3pm that the food arrived and the boat was even ready to set off! To try and take my mind off it, I pulled out my book but when I quickly finished it, all I had left to do was sit there and think unpleasant thoughts.
With the food and cook finally on board I thought the sailing trip was finally under way. Technically it was, but all we ended up doing was spend about 20 minutes floating to the other side, where he tied up the boat and got off to chat with a friend for the rest of the night. It was like he was making no effort to give me a good experience and it was certainly no way to entice tourists back to Egypt.
The sunset was nice and so was the dinner, but that is the only good things I have to say about the entire day.
For the second night I woke up with the sun before 6am, bobbing up and down on the Nile. It was beautiful, but I was still unhappy. Well, maybe today would actually be a good day. We set off, simply floating with the current towards Luxor and after a good breakfast and some lovely scenery I was finally starting to feel positive about the whole thing.
Going under the newly constructed bridge.
The whole idea behind doing this was to just relax and sail on the Nile, simple enough right? I was actually enjoying the day and thanks to Amr my CS host, I’d been able to borrow a guidebook so I could plan my next moves when I arrived in Luxor. As I said earlier, and you may know if you have been following my trip, I’m not much of a guidebook person. I do like to visit a few of the big sites when I travel, but I’m mostly well off the tourist path and doing my own thing. Due to my time restraints and the number of ‘must see’ sights in Egypt, I decided to actually play ‘normal tourist’ this time around and for that a book was very useful.
After about three hours of simply floating down the river, we stopped on the shore to swim, lay about and eat lunch. Although I had serious doubts about how clean the water actually was, swimming in the Nile wasn’t something I was actually going to skip.
We lounged for a few hours tied to the shore, then set off again for what would be another slow paced float with the current.
As the sun was setting, we pulled up to the shore to spend the night. As I wandered along the shore enjoying the birds and the color of the sky, I saw probably five cruise ships pass by. I was glad I wasn’t actually on one of them and although my captain was no good, I think a felucca is a wonderful way to experience the Nile. As I watched the cruise ships pass by, I never saw more than five or ten people on the sundeck of any of them. It was amazing they were even operating with so few people.
In order to prepare the boat for the night, the sail had to be tied up and with surprising agility the captain climbed up the mast, holding himself by wrapping his legs around it and using his free hands to fold and tie the sail up.
It was another stunningly clear night on the river and I spent a while taking long exposure photos of the stars and the passing cruise ships. I wasn’t looking forward to the next morning though, because that meant the end of the trip and I knew there would be an argument about money ahead.
The last morning on the boat I woke even earlier for some reason, just after 4pm and watched the sun rise over the river. From there we floated 5 minutes to the other side of the river, had a pretty weak breakfast and that was it, that was the trip. One decent day, but otherwise pretty damn poor. It was clear the captain did everything he could to do as little work as possible and lied about the distances and times so he wouldn’t have to go as far. In my perfect world I wouldn’t have even given him the agreed upon money, as he really didn’t deliver what he said he would, but I knew that would end badly. Instead, I told him what I thought about it, and didn’t give him any tip. We had also discussed a taxi to pick me up, but naturally when it arrived he asked for money. I refused, and walked away, finding my own taxi down the road for a fraction of the price. The whole thing really left a really bad taste in my mouth and I wish I’d gone with my gut and found someone else. I think with a good captain, the felucca trip can be great, but it’s not always easy to find the right person to hire. Really, my biggest problem here was not having the time and energy to make a better choice and I feel like towards the end of my trip I keep running into this problem. The only solution is to travel with no return date.
I was headed to Luxor, because despite my initial idea to just skip it all and go to the beach I decided that would be a stupid decision. I have no idea if or when I’ll ever come back to Egypt (despite the problems this time, there is a lot more I want to see and do here) so I should just do some of these things now. Getting to Luxor required a tuk-tuk, a shared taxi and minibus, but two and a half hours later I arrived, not sure what to expect from what I heard was the hassle-capital of Egypt. As if I hadn’t had enough problems already.
My plan in Luxor was simply to take it easy. I needed to get some rest, mentally and physically, so I pulled out the guidebook, and decided on their ‘top pick’, Happy Land Hotel, I didn’t have the energy to search around and compare. Luxor is the tourist capital of Egypt, containing some of the best of the countries sights. As a result of this it has been hit even harder than the rest of the country with the collapse of tourism and it shows.
As I began walking towards what I thought might be the right direction (and it was) a man on a donkey cart offered to take me for 2 pounds (28 cents). At first I said no, but then hopped on, figuring it would be funny. The town is full of horse drawn carriages who take tourists around (the going rate seems to be 5 pounds) but here I was sitting on a donkey cart. Clearly the locals don’t see this happen often (or ever?) and a few pointed and laughed, but I was also enjoying it so I laughed along with them. The driver had no idea where he was actually going and we had to stop for directions at least 5 times, but we made it.
Happy Land Hotel turned out to be a great place. Despite being the top pick in Lonely Planet, which pretty much guarantees a steady flow of customers in most circumstances, I never saw another guest in the four nights I was there! Although I was hoping to have some company, the room was clean, it had good AC, a nice hot shower, included breakfast and the owner and staff was very friendly and helpful. It finally felt like something was going my way for once.
Like the hotel, I wanted something western and hassle free for dinner and a few beers (I’d earned them). Once again I actually used the guidebook, and once again simply went to their ‘top pick’ which is a place called the Kings Head Pub, an ‘English themed’ pub that I figured would be stress free and maybe I could meet some other travelers. Stress free it was, but it was also empty when I arrived. Oh well, wifi and beer was enough to keep me happy! Eventually a few other people showed up later in the evening, and I spent the rest of the night hanging out with them which was nice.
After a morning spent on my computer, I decided it was time to actually see some of what the city of Luxor had to offer. I walked through the hot streets to the train station where I asked about tickets north in a few days, then turned and walked towards the Nile river. Sitting on the rivers bank, right in the heart of town is Luxor Temple. Sharing its name with the city of Luxor, I had initially assumed it would be the most grand of the sites in the area, but it turns out that’s not the case. Luckily you can see the whole thing from the street, so I just had a quick look and kept walking.
More empty Nile cruise boats.
Although I’d been enjoying the walk, just for fun I decided to take a horse carriage. These guys are always standing around looking for customers, but luckily they weren’t too aggressive. The most annoying part about them is that they only know one joke, which is “Come take a ride in my Ferrari!’ I probably heard this line ten times a day.
After paying the 65 pound entrance fee, I walked towards the Karnak temple complex and given the strong Egyptian sun I was glad to have my hat with me. I bought that hat way back in Botswana when I cycled across the country, it’s served me well and only cost like $3! Although visitor numbers at Karnak are low like everywhere else, I saw the largest numbers of tourists here, usually visiting as part of their package cruise boat trips. The hilarious part was that it was pretty obvious who came from boats, because half of them would be bright red from the sun, it was like there was a new race of red skinned people descending on Egypt, haha. Sun screen people, use it!
Karnak is a pretty stunning place. A seemingly endless maze of massive hieroglyphic covered walls, beautiful columns and statues are everywhere one looks. It is the largest ancient religious site in the world and the second most visited site in Egypt after the pyramids. Walking down the avenue of stone rams through the huge walls and into the courtyard filled with even more amazing things it is impossible not to be impressed.
Although it’s probably everyone’s favorite part of Karnak as well, Hypostyle Hall really blew me away. A 50,000 square foot room filled with 134 carved stone columns, some nearly 70 feet tall, isn’t something you see every day.
I wandered around sort of aimlessly through the quiet complex and around every corner there is something interesting, and other than some guy asking for money because he pointed at something and followed me for a minute it was completely hassle free.
As I walked out of Karnak I decided to take another stroll along the Nile rather than hire one of the many taxies who were waiting around. I passed a number of places just like this one, brand new hotels, restaurants and other facilities for tourists, all empty.
When I returned to the center of town, I was approached by a local man on the street. He asked me if I could write in English and when I said yes he asked if I could help him write a text message, insisting he didn’t want anything from me. Right away I didn’t trust the guy, but thought maybe he really did just need some help. I’ve had so many people help me out in so many ways I figured it couldn’t hurt to try and help someone else, right? We walked to a bar, sat down to chat and as he told me what he wanted the text to say ordered two beers. This went on for a while and it was clear my initial impression was correct, he was just the scammer I thought he was when I first met him. I decided I’d hung around long enough, so went to pay. Naturally he tried to get me to pay for his beer, something I’d never agreed to do and I told him that. Suddenly he was furious, shouting how I was the dishonest person here, blah blah blah. I paid for my beer and walked out as he was still yelling at me.
As I returned to the streets to walk back to my hotel I had a good laugh about it, but as it turned out it wasn’t over. When I was three blocks away, he showed up again on a bicycle. This time he started shouting how all Americans were horrible, dishonest people and that he was happy about the Boston bombings. Staying calm, I simply said “Good for you” and ignored him until he finally peddled away. As this was happening, another tourist was watching the exchange and we got to talking. It turned out he was a guy named Srikanth, from India but lives and works as a professor in Vancouver BC, just a few hours from my home! He was in Egypt for a professional conference and decided to see a bit of the country as long as he was here. He offered to buy me a fruit juice and we sat down to talk for a while as the cars and horses zoomed by into the darkening night. Later in the evening, I got my streets mixed up and couldn’t find my hotel. When I asked a local guy for directions, instead he told me to climb on his motorcycle and brought me to the front door! I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, you really do meet some of the best and the worst people when you travel!
After a shower and a movie in my room, I returned to the Kings Head to do the exact same thing as the night before; eat a pizza and salad, use the wifi and have a few beers with the same people I’d met before. As it turned out, the young guy owns the place, and his girlfriend (on the right) manages it and we had an enjoyable evening, complete with 1am KFC! Once again, I find myself here in Egypt eating American fast food I never eat at home! The night went on a bit longer, then I walked down the dark streets to my hotel and my much needed bed.
My transition from ‘Africa to Egypt’ has been a difficult one, but none of it has really been the fault of Egypt. Nearing the end of my journey and coming to that realization was a shock to me but I have to say I’m feeling a lot better now. Although I’m still not doing Egypt at 100%, I do like the place and am starting to have some fun finally, which is nice.
Up next I have a few more of the ancient temples to visit, and then I am going to the very northern end of the country, the city of Alexandria. There I will be able to stand in the Mediterranean Sea and will have officially crossed the entire continent of Africa! A few days later I will return to Cairo and stay with Amr, then fly to Germany to visit my friend before landing at home!