Egypt really is awesome. That became clear almost immediately on my 2007 tour that included Cairo and outlying monasteries, Luxor, the Red Sea resorts, and Mount Sinai.
Two weeks in Egypt
A month wouldn’t be enough to see everything Egypt has to offer, but our two-week itinerary was a good way to start.
Tuesday, February 6: The Beginning
I am a little worried as the day gets stated – my fifteen minute trip to the airport takes almost an HOUR.
Usually I wouldn’t worry about this, as I still would have sufficient time to make my flight. However, unlike other tours I’ve been on where the tickets arrive in the mail and everyone meets the tour company representative/guide at the destination airport, our tickets are being held by the company that arranged the tour. This means I couldn’t e-check last night and, now, instead of hurrying to United’s counter to check in, I need to find someone I don’t know named Paul.
How is that going to work?
Since I am the very last one in our group to arrive, finding Paul turns out to be pretty easy – he’s the guy pacing around nervously at the end of a long line at one of United’s counters. I’m sure he’s relieved to check me off his list.
But the check-in line is really long and it is now only an hour before our flight departs. I’m not liking this.
United is handling all of us as a group and has assigned us to one ticket agent for all of us – an agent who is unbelievably slow (it turns out that he is exchanging recipes and fishing stories, which is friendly, but not very efficient). United’s staff has told Paul not to worry. He’s probably worrying even more than me, but I have plenty of worries of my own.
I am here today because Larry Alderink, one of my favorite undergrad professors, is leading this tour. Lane and I had been considering a trip to Egypt last year, but choose Thailand instead.
Shortly thereafter I saw the announcement for this trip. It didn’t work with Lane’s schedule, but he encouraged me to go – telling me I would have so much fun traveling with my former professor and other college alumni that I wouldn’t miss him at all. I alternately believe and doubt that. And now, standing in the airport, I worry both that I will miss the flight and that I will have a miserable time on this trip. Why am I doing this?
Wednesday, February 7: Travel to Cairo
It isn’t until we are making our approach into Frankfurt, Germany, that I realized I have never actually been to this place that is so important to my brother. It seems like a place I know, but I really only know it through his stories. Someday I’ll have to actually visit here myself.
It was a long flight, but at least it was relatively comfortable, although I couldn’t sleep at all. That is a bummer, but not so surprising considering the fact that my body thinks it is late afternoon (rather than early morning) and I have been consuming copious amounts of Pepsi.
I think of David and Joe ( our LA friends) and how this would have been a far more comfortable way to travel to Asia. When we go to Vietnam 🙂 I’m going to figure out a way we can all get there comfortably – no more scrunched coach seating in China Air!
The Cairo Airport
I can see the pyramids from the plane!
At least I think I can. The sun is so bright that it is hard to see anything, but I really think that is them. If only I can get a little better look. . .
We bank and they vanish from sight.
I don’t have much of a view of Cairo proper as we arrive. What I do see are many, many, huge new developments built in the midst of what appears to be solid desert. At least they aren’t wasting any agricultural land.
The Cairo airport isn’t very big. It reminds me a lot of the airport in Nadi, Fiji, but Cairo is a lot more efficient. If it weren’t for Lufthansa losing a bag or two, we would be moving through pretty quickly.
As it is, we have plenty of time to meet our guide and for me to try to get a better feel for our group. (I was pretty groggy in Frankfurt.) I started this trip not knowing anyone except Larry and, let’s be real, after not having contact with him almost fifteen years, two or three phone calls in the last few months to discuss this trip really isn’t enough to say I know him anymore either. So I am curious about the group with whom I will be spending my time.
It is a big group (31, just like Thailand), with a broad mix of ages, from a young teen to a number of older retirees. There seem to be a fair number who are about my age (give or take ten years). I think this is a good thing. As a group everyone seems friendly enough, but pretty quiet. (Maybe it’s jet-lag.) I’m hoping we gel as well as our Thailand group did.
As we finally gather up our bags, Larry advises us to stop in the airport liquor store if we will want anything during the trip, as liquor stores will otherwise be unavailable. In what I take as a good sign, I have lots of company pursuing the limited wine selection and I begin to get to know David and Rachel as we consider our options. We each buy a bottle or two, deciding we will share our purchases with each other during the trip.
I know now that I will be able to end my days here with a glass of wine and that there will be people to enjoy it with me.
Things are looking better by the minute.
Dinner in Cairo
For our first night in Cairo, we have a lovely dinner in a magical building in Al-Azhar Park.
Thursday, February 8: Cairo
The Egyptian Museum
The Egyptian Museum is a great introduction to the history and culture of ancient Egypt, but there is far too much to absorb in one visit!
In Search of the Holy Family
We visit the basement chamber where the Holy Family is said to have stayed on their travels.
The Night Train to Luxor
As it turns out, the night train to Luxor not only provides transportation, but serves as a force to bring many of us together.
After dinner with others in a cramped train compartment, I now have a bunch of new friends.
Friday, February 9: Luxor and the Valley of the Kings
Arrival in Luxor
A late arrival provides a pleasant introduction on our arrival in Luxor.
Temple of Karnak
Our first stop in Luxor is the grand Temple of Karnak.
Temple of Medinet Habu
A drive across the Nile and through the green fields ends at the colorful Temple of Medinet Habu.
The Colossi of Memnon and Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut
There’s not much of the Colossi of Memnon, but there are some very dramatic statues (and a few wall paintings) at Hatshepsut’s dramatically sited mortuary temple.
The Alabaster Factory isn’t exactly my thing, but I find a couple things that allow me to join in the shopping frenzy.
The Valley of the Kings
The tombs of Pharaohs are hidden in this desolate valley. While there are many tombs here in the Valley of the Kings, visitors are only allowed to visit three of them during any one visit. I get to see the tombs of Ramses IV, Ramses IX, and Ramses III.
Compared to Cairo, Luxor is a relaxed place. We enjoy it on a cruise on the river and a carriage ride through the city market.
The Evening Convoy to Hurghada
Travel to the Red Sea is via the evening convoy to Hurghada.
It feels like it is 10 or 11 at night, so I am surprised to find my watch says it is only 8 pm.
What a day!
We are rumbling through the darkness as part of the police-escorted evening convoy to the Red Sea coast. I was able to briefly watch as the green fields of the Nile delta turned to barren sand and rock, but now everything beyond my window has obscured by darkness – the black darkness of night far from urban lighting.
Through the windshield a long line of taillights is visible snaking off into the distance ahead of us.
An equally endless line trails behind us.
We make only one stop along the way, at an official rest area that seems far from any village.
It is a place designed for truck drivers and other weary Egyptian travelers, rather than Western tourists. I like that about it. There are a few stands set near the road with typical tourist items for sale, but inside the stands sell local fast food and the same sort of items you would find at any truck stop in the states. (Although there are also well-stocked shelves filled with British biscuits and candies, which seems a little odd.) Music broadcast through low-quality speakers swells and falls the night air. Scores of cats lie about, some seeking attention, others avoiding it. It all reminds me that I am far from home.
Saturday, February 10: A Red Sea vacation
The Red Sea
We have a full day on the Red Sea, with snorkeling (or diving) in the morning and a beach break in the afternoon.
Sunday, February 11: Traveling to the Sinai
Leaving Makadi to cross the Red Sea
The charm of Sharm
Sharm El Sheikh is the most famous vacation town on the Sinai. I expect it to be an ugly, over-developed place, but Sharm has a charm all its own.
The road to Saint Catherine’s
The road to Saint Catherine’s Monastery takes us through a dramatic, desolate landscape.
Evening at the monastery
We are staying in the monastery’s guesthouse and taking our meals with the monks. I love having a quiet evening in the monastery, but I’m not planning to do the morning camel trip to the top of Mount Sinai.
Monday, February 12: Saint Catherine’s Monastery
While the others are trekking to the mountaintop, I enjoy dawn at the monastery and the beginning of a beautiful day deep in the Sinai.
Touring the Saint Catherine’s Monastery
Built in the year 550, Saint Catherine’s Monastery is one of the oldest active Christian monasteries. Our tour takes us through much of this UNESCO World Heritage site, including its library filled with rare books.
Later I have time to walk along the mountainside paths outside the monastery walls, providing wonderful views from the outside looking in.
Tuesday, February 13: Leaving the Sinai
Through the Sinai
We spend most of the day traveling through the Sinai, stopping only to visit a small museum near Saint Catherine’s and the Convent of the Seven Sister in the Feiran Oasis.
Evening from my balcony in Cairo
Our travel speed decreases dramatically when we reach Cairo and it is late when we finally reach the Nile take in the view of the city and Nile.
Wednesday, February 14:Cairo
Morning Above the Nile
We get to sleep in this morning, which is great.
When I finally get up, I head straight for the windows and pull open the curtains.
Traveling through Cairo
Weaving through the chaotic streets of Cairo provides an overview of the city as we slowly travel through the crowded streets.
Sultan Hassan Mosque
We learn a bit about Islam as we tour the Sultan Hassan Mosque.
While the Citadel in Cairo dates back to the 9th century, it wasn’t fortified until the 12th century. It’s huge! But as large as the fortress is, the large, elegant Mohammed Ali (Alabaster) Mosque is the Citadel’s highlight.
A sprawling park built on a former dump, Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park is the perfect place to enjoy a little greenery and watch the sunset.
Blessings and meditations at the Coptic Cathedral
Every Wednesday the leader of the Coptic church in Egypt holds an evening lecture for the faithful. We are lucky to be here on Ash Wednesday, when the Pope offers his blessing to all. It’s a moving connection to the past. After we have been blessed, the lecture begins. This week it is a meditation on love, since today is also Valentine’s day.
After the event inside, we learn more about Saint Mark in a small chapel below the main cathedral.
Thursday, February 15: Giza and beyond
Saqqara is the vast area that served as the burial place for Egypt’s earliest rulers. The area includes the step pyramid of Djoser and the tombs of many others, including the beautifully decorated tomb of an official named Mereruka.
Carpet shops are rather ubiquitous in this part of Egypt. I have no plans to buy a rug, but the showroom is filled with magic carpets of all colors.
The Pyramids of Giza
We finally get to the great pyramids of Giza, where we gawk at their size, take a short ride on a camel, and admire the Sphinx.
Friday, February 16: Old Cairo
The Coptic Museum
The Coptic Museum holds a large collections of treasures related to Christianity in Egypt.
The Hanging Church
The Hanging Church (El-Muallaqa) was built above a first century Roman fortress. It’s been remodeled a few times, but retains a holy and ancient-feeling interior.
Religious Architecture Galore
A walk through the neighborhood allows us to visit a variety of religious architecture: The Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, Ben Ezra Synagogue, and the Coptic churches of Saint Barbara and Saints Sergius and Bacchus.
El Azhar Mosque and the Khan El Khalili Market
We split our time between the El Azhar Mosque and the Khan El Khalili Market, because you can only do so much shopping. (And the mosque is historically important and very beautiful)
Saturday, February 17: The Monasteries of Wadi Naturn
Our day takes us into the Western Desert to visit the Christian monasteries of Wadi Naturn. Long a center of Christian monasticism, even today a number of active monasteries remain in the area. We visit three of them:
Wadi Naturn has been important since the days of the pharaohs as well, as a source of salt. But it has always been far removed from the rest of the world. Today, however, the area seems to be growing rapidly.
I end the day by meeting a grad school professor who is currently living in Cairo. It really is a small world.
Sunday, February 18: Cairo
Cairo’s Christian Garbage Collectors
Cairo’s Christian Garbage Collectors have a large community hidden in the ancient quarries of Mokattam Mountain. We are here on a Sunday to learn a bit about this community and join in a worship service in one of the community’s enormous cave churches.
Cario: 4 pm
There is still one hour until checkout and I am spending it on my deck, the Nile sprawled out below me and the city’s wonderful cacophony of sound swirling all around.
I love it here.
It seems odd to be leaving – somehow it has come to feel normal to be here and it is odd to think that tomorrow I will be gone and someone else will take my place. It doesn’t seem right.
The end of our time in Egypt
We end our trip to Egypt on a Nile dinner cruise party boat. It’s not the end I would have chosen.
After a few quick errands – including shopping for last minute gifts, I head up to the hotel bar to meet Larry and Lynda and others from our group. We talk some, but the conversation is subdued. Perhaps no one wants to leave.
Not sure what else to do, we wander out to the bar’s patio to watch the sun set as night begins to cloak the city in darkness.
This story should end here, a group of friends reflecting on an amazing trip as night falls over the city. . . but it does not.
Because our flight does not leave until very late, Romani has arranged for us to end our trip at one of the ubiquitous dinner and entertainment barges anchored on the Nile.
The whole thing sounds tacky, but I am hoping for the best.
Inside, the river barge reminds me of the fake luxury paddle wheelers that ply the Mississippi back at home. The whole boat is taken up be a large, glass-walled room with long tables set up around a makeshift stage.
Most of us are seated together at one of these very long tables. It is impossible to talk to anyone except those seated immediately at hand.
It also turns out to be nearly impossible to get a bottle of wine. Not that they don’t serve wine – indeed, the other end of the table has wine – we just can’t get the wait staff to serve my end of the table. I finally make enough of a scene that Romani intervenes and, eventually, we are able to order wine.
And, believe me, I need the wine.
The food is the bland international fare of tourist class hotels worldwide. While not horrible, it is about the most uninspired food we have had on the entire trip.
The less-than-stellar food is accompanied by entertainment so bad it is almost humorous. (If only I had a little better sense of humor.) It begins with a couple of young women (probably Russian). Neither has any discernible talent, but one is clearly out of her element, unable to sing or slither around the stage without looking clumsy. She seems particularly pathetic. They attempt to sing a mix of bad American and European pop songs (John Denver’s Country Roads is among them. I’m sure Muskrat Love is coming) in a variety of languages – none of which they seem proficient in.
While I am appalled and embarrassed for these young women, the large group of Russians seated across the room are clearly delighted. They shout and cheer (and make salacious gestures) between draws on their strong cigarettes. Ugh.
We are also treated to a little interlude of traditional music. I find it delightful. However, I don’t think all of my traveling companions are as fond of the unfamiliar sounds.
The next entertainer is a male dancer who performs a showy whirling dervish type of dance, with over-the-top costuming. While it lacks authenticity, he is a flashy performer and an amazing athlete.
The highlight of the night is, of course, the belly dancer. Let’s just say she is not very good. Ok, so she is really, really bad – and that is before a “wardrobe malfunction” early in the performance sends her running from the stage, her confidence clearly shattered when she later reappears and soldiers on. (A paycheck is good incentive for completing a job no matter how distasteful.) I really want her to be good. I love watching Cassandra perform at home, but now I realize how rare her artistry may be.
We are not allowed outside on the narrow deck that surrounds the dinning area, but I can’t take it any longer and I flee the bad music, worse dancing, and impenetrable cigarette smoke. At the open entrance to the boat, I gulp in both the cool night air and the glorious view of the city slowly passing by.