As strange as it sounds, it didn’t dawn on me that I was in Egypt until I arrived in Luxor.
(note: this post is a long one. I blame luxor for absolutely stealing my heart. grab a cup of coffee and prepare for a lot of words)
When we awoke the next morning after a day of purging our bodies, Allie and I felt almost as good as new. I could have cried I was so happy. I was nervous that I had gotten seriously sick- and to be perfectly honest, I was even more nervous about the hypothetical phone call that would follow: "Hi, mom. It's me, Syd. So, listen... I've been blowing chunks for a few days now, and I'm slightly concerned I'm on the fast track to death here in Egypt." You can imagine how that one would have gone. Kim Estill would have been on the next flight to Egypt, even if it meant buckling herself to the wing of the plane.
Our AirBnB in Luxor was nestled in Banana Island - a small island that was wedged between the mainland and The Nile. I found its name to be very appropriate given the disproportionate amount of banana trees to empty space. Allie and I got dressed and packed my backpack full of our cameras, scarfs, sunblock and hats. We were suffering mega regrets from our two-day old sunburn, and were doing everything in our power to avoid worsening them. We loaded up the car, grabbing four massive water bottles for the road.
On my way out, I noticed my GoPro was missing. I tore up my bedroom, Mohamed called the owner of house in Hurghada, and I retraced my every step until I bitterly accepted the fact that I had lost it somehow. I was so mad at myself! How could I have lost it- I was so careful!
The drive to the first destination, The Valley of the Kings, was super short. We stopped for falafel on the way (I think that was our 4th consecutive falafel breakfast) and I can now die happy because I have now tasted the most incredible falafel in the world. We ate in the car, gaping over the ancient ruins that we would so casually pass every few seconds. To one side, you may have a row of stores and a ma and pop restaurant, yet on the other side, there's probably some famous ancient ruin. It’s such a stark contrast between ancient history and modern life.
At The Valley of the Kings, Mohamed let us out at the door so we didn’t have to walk in the heat, and Ahmed acted as our body guard getting us inside the gates. Seriously, these guys are the most incredible people. Once inside, we were swarmed by merchants who were trying to sell us anything and everything. Allie and I laughed at their silly attempts to catch our attention.
Our favorite was the one guy who yelled, “HEY! Welcome to Alaska!” in a broken English accent.
Allie and I died laughing. Did he seriously just welcome to Alaska? That jokester. Props to him. It made our day. After that, we would welcome each other to Alaska when the heat got extra unbearable.
To get to the actual valley where the tombs are, you board this open-air trolley thing. The guys sat facing Allie and I. You can’t imagine the heat in the Valley of the Kings- you’re literally hiking uphill in a desert and then climbing up and down ladders in tombs. I was out of breath by the first tomb- that was a bad sign. Those four water bottles we brought? They were all drained by the last tomb we visited.
A little more about these tombs: they’re the real deal. Nothing has been altered from the original state except for the installation of ladders to climb down in to and the wiring of lights so that the majestic ancient drawings and hieroglyphics can be appreciated properly. The ladders are ungodly steep, as are the ramps that connect the chambers. I was so thankful that I just so happened to pack my hiking boots- they were the real MVP of the day.
You’re not allowed to take any pictures whatsoever in the tombs. When you enter the valley, you have to leave your cameras at a camera-check hut. Flash fades the colors of the chambers, and since they’re trying to preserve these rich painted walls for as long as possible, cameras are a no.
I didn’t fully appreciate the rule until I went inside the first tomb and was overwhelmed by the articulate Egyptian mythology painted onto every surface. The colors were remarkably bright and the chipping of the rock was extremely minimal given the extreme amount of time that has passed since they were first discovered.
Each tomb is put on a time frame rotation. I think there were about sixty something Egyptian Kings’ tombs that had been discovered when we were there (archeologists are searching for more), though only three or four were open for visitors. By rotating each tomb every week, they can stay better preserved. We went into two of the Ramsses and Thutmose III. Thutmose's tomb was the coolest- it was the first one we went in, and we went wayyyy down underground. Mohamed bribed the guy at the bottom chamber to let Allie and I take a picture without flash. I was too nervous to get any really good ones, but hopefully you can see the intricacy of the chambers. Thutmose’s tomb, which is where this picture was taken, was actually the least intricately decorated tomb of the three I visited.
On our way out, another worker waved at Allie and I, and welcomed us to Alaska. Ha. What a morning.
* * *
Around noon, we went to the Temple of Hatshepsut. This was a teeny bit emotional for me because I vividly remember reading about this temple in school and just musing over pictures of it in textbooks.
When we arrived, we went through the same process of going through security and the employees continually asking our nationality to Mohamed and Ahmed. Everyone guessed Allie was American or European, but I was a wild card. Interestingly enough- but by no surprise if you know me - people really did not think I was American at all. In fact, I apparently look very Arabic- Egyptian, specifically. Add another tally to my running list of people attempting to guess my ethnicity.
After Ahmed and Mohamed told me about this reoccurring phenomenon, we decided to have a little fun with it. Since the situation was always the same- the four of us rolled up to security; Allie and I went through security first; the guards asked the boys about us; and they always answered as we waited in oblivion- a little playful prank would be easy to get away with.
Mohamed and Ahmed taught me how to say “I am Egyptian” in Arabic. From then on, to each guard that asked about our ethnicity (they all did, if you’re curious), I answered “Ana men Misr” or “I am Egyptian”. It went a little too well- everyone bought it right off the bat and from then on, people would try to speak Arabic with me. Oops.
Once on the Temple of Hatshepsut grounds, we took a bunch of photos and then ascended into the actual temple ruins. It was unbelievable. I truly don’t have words for my experience, except you have to visit in your lifetime.
When I asked Mohamed about the crowds (or lack thereof) at the temple ruins, he told us that tourism had dropped so much since 2011, but was on the rise now, thank goodness. The Temple of Hatshepsut- according to Mohamed- used to be so overcrowded with tourists that you could’t even move. You would wait in line for a ticket for a full day in the sweltering heat and then have to fight your way through crowds. Now, these attractions are hardly occupied. We never once waited in any line, and every ruin was nearly bare of tourists, comparatively speaking. I feel so lucky to have come when I did, especially since Egyptian tourism is surely going to pick up soon.
* * *
The second half of my day in Luxor was just as much of an out of body experience as the first.
After visiting the Temple of Hatshepsut, we loaded back up into our car and drove to The Nile River. On the way over, Mohamed and Ahmed told Allie and I to gather the leftovers from breakfast so we could give them to a poor person. They taught us, in Arabic, how to tell someone we wanted to give them food.
The first man we pulled up beside to offer food kindly shook his hand and replied in Arabic. Allie and I were both confused- Ahmed explained that the homeless man said he had already had lunch- he wanted us to find another homeless person to feed. Y’all. Arabs are the most incredible people. That’s just one example. I have a hundred other, if only I had the time and space to record every one.
When we found parking along the road bordering The Nile, Mohamed grabbed the leftovers and asked a young boy playing in the street if he was hungry. They exchanged a few sentences, none of which I could understand, until the boy shyly ran off with the food a few seconds later.
We followed Mohamed and Ahmed across the street to a boat dock where dozens of brightly colored motor boats were docked. Each one had a different name. Beneath me, children were swimming in the river. Boys were jumping from the metal railings of the dock into the murky water below, their joyful squeals so precious I couldn’t help but to smile. Ahmed was complaining how unsafe it was for the kids to be swimming in, meanwhile, Mohamed was goofing off with the kids, playfully pushing them into the water.
The guys helped Allie and I into “The Titanic”, the boat that Mohamed chose for us. That wouldn’t have been my first pick, but hey. I suppose sinking in The Nile wouldn’t be the worst way to go.
The River Nile has always been one of those travel dreams of mine, so once our boat’s engine sputtered to life, I literally just sat in silence for a few minutes, overwhelmed and in complete awe. The four of us rode down the river to the peaceful sounds of Arabic music. The whole experience was so serene. About halfway to where we were getting off on the other side, the four of us climbed on the front of the boat and all sat as the wind played with our hair and the water engulfed us into a continual cloud of mist.
When you look back on really memorable moments- moments that are just frozen in time- this was one of those. I’m sitting on the ladder in the front of the titanic, my arms outstretched to all of Luxor, smiling uncontrollably.
When the boat slowed down and neared the bank, I was a bit confused. Why, might you ask? Well, dear reader, we literally just pulled up to a barren, completely uphill river bank littered with rocks and reeds. Jumping off the boat was interesting too, because you were’t just concerned about jumping far enough- no, you also had to factor in jumping and landing on a mega uphill and rocky (aka not stable) slope. I must admit, it was one of my finer moments, as my clumsy, injury-prone self stuck the landing like a pro.
From the bank, we made a short walk to the Karnak Temple. I practiced introducing myself as an Egyptian over and over to my two Arabic coaches. Our joke was going so well with me that we decided to teach the fairer-skinned Ahmed how to say “Hello, I’m Sam” in the most American accent possible.
Our student learned pretty quickly. We didn’t choose the name Sam right off the bat- we had to cycle through a few stereotypical American names before we found one that Ahmed could pronounce without his thick Egyptian accent.
By the time he perfected it, we had devised a full our show. It was hilarious-
“Ana men misr!”, I would announce with a great deal of pride.
Allie raised both of her hands, looked around and would proclaim “American” in the most perfect dumb, confused American way.
The star of our joke was Ahmed, who came in after Allie: “Hello, I am Sam”.
Mohamed would wrap everything up in full out arabic. It never stopped being funny. We would laugh and laugh about it all day.
The Karnak Temple is the ruins of an ancient temple. In fact, it is the largest temple in the world. Although it’s an ancient ruin, it is still impressively intact. We hired an English-speaking tour guide to show us around. Her English was super questionable, and Allie and I were super keen on taking lots of pictures, as the sights were unbelievable. Our tour guide, however, was not keen on us taking pictures. The crazy lady would snap her fingers whenever we pulled out our camera, “Are you listening!” she’d demand in her barely comprehensible English. It was annoying as all get out, and when our tour finally ended, we were relieved to see her go. For the rest of the trip, we’d all snap our fingers and yell “Are you listening!” to each other. I swear, my trip turned into a collection of inside jokes more than anything else.
On our way out of the Karnak Temple, Mohamed pointed out a group of westerners making circles around the remains of what looked like a pillar.
"You circle that 10 times and it's good luck," Mohamed stated matter-of-factly.
Allie and I needed no convincing- we were circling that dang severed pillar in no time. The more I circled it, the more angry I got over my lost GoPro. I needed some good juju and a miracle to get it back.
Once our time at Karnak was done, we hurried back to where our boat dropped us off. We slid down the bank on two feet, sending rocks flying everywhere, yet somehow managing to make it back on the boat dry and in one piece.
* * *
Dinner was at Mohamed’s favorite restaurant in Luxor. It’s on Banana Island and is basically the most gourmet restaurant in the area.
We had a little trouble finding the restaurant, but once we did, I knew it was going to be a trip highlight. You entered through this massive archway into a bungalow. Lines of picnic tables occupied the open-air interior, and brightly colored textiles adorned the furniture. The back wall (or lack thereof) opened the area to a patio-esque yard that overlooked The Nile River. Palm leaf umbrellas provided shade, and ripe banana trees fenced in the tropical space.
Our first table was outside. Our waiter quickly brought us water, a basket of Bananas and the most legitimate Hookah I have ever seen. We sat, taking in our surroundings and laughing about everything from earlier in the day. I can’t express to you how much I love the people I was with.
We then moved inside for our food. Mohamed had called earlier in the day to inform them they would be cooking for a vegetarian (so sweet). When they came to our table to ask what we’d like to eat- there’s no menus- the waiter informed me that they’d prepared a vegetarian plate for me. On the meat list for that night was beef, chicken, fish, the butt of a cow, and pigeon. God bless my veg needs.
Our first course was pita bread, some fancy spinach olive oil dip, the most delicious potato and tomato soup/dip thing ever, a Mediterranean salad, and some amazing soup. I devoured my salad first, followed by some sweet, sweet pita (it became habit for us to put “sweet, sweet” in front of everything we were describing. Don’t ask. I don’t know- only that it was freaking hilarious anytime someone did it). I took a few bites of soup and was really impressed!
“What is this?” I asked the guys, really curious.
“Pigeon soup!” They responded nonchalantly. Allie and I both put our spoons down at the exact same time. 'BUT I’M A FREAKING VEGETARIAN', I wanted to scream.
Dinner was incredible. It was rice, tabouli, and in my case, phenomenal eggplant and potatoes cooked in tomato sauce. I ate all that I physically could- it was one of the best meals I’ve had in a foreign country. After dinner, we reclaimed our table outside. I ordered mint tea (and then another one after that) while we all sat and watched the sunset.
Ahmed was approached for a selfie by the waiter to which he consented, and then by a huge group of people to which he dragged me into being a part of. Feeling famous in a foreign country is kinda fun.
We kept to ourselves at the restaurant after that, talking until it was dark. Allie and I were both wrapped in our scarfs to keep from being bitten by mosquitos. The guys ordered us all some delicious juice smoothie, and we sipped on it as they talked to us about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and 2013. I learned so much about the revolution, as well as the character of the Egyptian people. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again- I have the upmost respect and admiration for Egyptians. They’re truly the Southerners of the Arab world, though they outperform us in their pride and loyalty to their homeland.
Back at the house, the boys brewed a massive pot of tea and we sat on the rooftop patio. I went downstairs to get a clean scarf to wrap up in and as I went to grab the scarf- lo and behold- I grabbed a gopro instead. Talk about some weird egyptian juju- that dumb pillar thing was magic after all.