2005 -- Biking and Exploring Egypt
Valley of the Kings / Upper Nile Valley

May 22-24 -- Luxor -- Valley of the Kings -- Karnak

Luxor is a town of perhaps 100,000 people on the banks of the Nile River, and has been a tourist destination for over 2,000 years.  Today, convoys of air-conditioned tourist buses arrive daily from Cairo.  Hundreds of enormous five and six-story riverboats--giant floating luxury hotels complete with swimming pools and even palm trees--travel up and down the river between Luxor and Aswan.  So many of these boats are moored in Luxor that they are six deep at the docks, forcing the tourists in the outer boats to walk through five other boats just to get to land!  Train loads of travelers arrive in deluxe pullman sleeping and dining cars.  And into this melee arrive two South Dakotans in a battered taxi from the Western Desert with their bicycles strapped on top.

We go on a three-day binge of non-stop temple and tomb exploration.  We start in Luxor temple, mostly built by Amenhotep III, 3,300 years ago, which is now in the heart of downtown Luxor, surrounded by at least 100 elaborate horse-drawn carriages which clippity-clop up and down the road, each carriage filled with foreigners snapping pictures, flashes popping, or standing up videoing the streets and pedestrians as they pass.

We bicycle to Thebes through the Valley of the Kings, and climb down steep narrow stairs into long tunnels, deep into the ground, to visit elaborately painted tombs of Ramses I, Tuthmosis III, Tawosret and Sethnakht.  The air inside is stale, hot, thick and ancient. Surprisingly with all the tourists, most of the time we find ourselves alone in the tombs.  When big tour groups do arrive we just sit quietly in a corner inspecting some of the beautiful artwork, and after five minutes the entire group leaves, huffing, puffing and wheezing back up the stairs, and we again have the tomb to ourselves. 

The quality of artwork and brightness of the colors is astounding.  The guards are all real characters and once they find we are travelling alone and not in a tour group they explain everything to us in great detail, and always make sure we see each little unique corner and nook (always for baksheesh of course, usually less than five Egyptian pounds, about $.90).  We don't mind paying when they are so knowledgable, and their salaries so pathetic. 

We explore Medinat Habu, the giant temple complex built by Ramses III, to commemorate all his victorious battles.  It is one of our favorite temples, filled with bright colors and surprisingly few tourists.  With little effort we again have much of the temple to ourselves.

Having our bicycles allows us to zip from one area to the next.  We ride to Karnak and explore the elaborate temples built by a succession of Egyptian Pharaohs, each trying to outdo the other in grandeur, many erasing the names of previous builders and adding their own instead, trying to heap even more glory upon themselves.  The temples are amazing to see, but it is odd how they are constructed as giant ego trips to each Pharoah. 

The temples have a much different feel than the Mayan temples in Central America, which also show some battle scenes and references to rulers and kings, but not on every square inch of stone.  Mayan temples seem to be more of a religious shrine than a testament to individual glory.  Still, the Egyptian temples are certainly impressive.

May 25 -- No Bicycling

As foreigners we are not allowed to bicycle south from Luxor.  We are also not allowed to travel in this area on the handy local microbuses running each hour (which is why most everyone visits this area in big pre-packaged tours with special chartered buses).  We waste most of the day at the bus station, trying to catch a bus we CAN ride to Aswan.  The 11 am Egyptian bus that will accept foreigners doesn't show up, nor does the 3 pm bus, so, not in the best of moods, we catch a taxi to the train station (the train for some reason is deemed safe, we can ride on any car) and hop on the 5 pm train to Aswan.

May 26-- Aswan -- Coffee Shops and Water Pipes -- Why Don't Americans Like Muslims?

The Nile River near Aswan is especially scenic and beautiful.  We take a little boat to explore nearby islands.  Our driver, like many people in this area, is Nubian, with much darker skin and more African body type than the average Egyptian in the north.  His nickname is Eddie Murphy, who he definitely resembles in both looks, smile, and joking attitude.  After our tour he invites us for tea in his home, then gives us a walking tour of his village on Elephantine Island.  We enjoy him so much we make plans to rendevous again the following evening.

That night I go out to photograph men smoking waterpipes and playing dominoes in the local coffeeshops (no women are ever in the coffeshops).  A group of six well-dressed men in their late 20s invite me to sit with them.  They are young professionals with good careers--three teachers, an accountant, banker, and a businessman. They are eager to talk with an American and our discussion immediately turns to politics.  Their first question, "Why don't Americans like Muslims?" which is followed by "Why do Americans discriminate against Muslims in the US?  Why does America always take Israel's side on every issue?  Why does America support and back a militaristic Egyptian government that has a President for life (in power the last 25 years and about to be "elected" for another six year term) that many Egyptians do not like?"

Sadly, I agree with them on many of their points, and find myself bizzarely trying to explain and defend American policies that I myself do not like.  When they ask about George Bush, I tell them I don't think he is an evil man (which they do).  I explain that he actually believes what he is doing is good.  He just does not understand Muslim people (after all, he had only been out of the US twice before becoming President).  Like so many Muslims, they believe the biggest issue to solve is the Palestinian problem.  That the US would ignore that issue and instead start a war by attacking and invading Iraq baffles them.

May 27 -- Police Escourt -- Abul Simbal

We get up at 3 am to catch the police escorted convoy of tour buses to see the giant statues of Ramses II carved in sandstone at Abu Simbel, just north of the Sudanese border in Egypt.  Earlier at the government tourist office we had asked why there has been a convoy system here for over 10 years (after all, the people in this region are all Nubian, and as laid back and easy-going as any you could find).  "It is for nothing" the official said candidly, adding that the entire area was completely safe.  "Then why a police convoy?" Tass asks again.  Rather than answering the unexplicable, he just shrugs his shoulders and replies, "But it works.  Just sign for the bus to pick you up and you go with police in convoy."  In other words, stop asking so many questions, pay your money, and get in line like everyone else.

The ruins themselves are beautiful, but the experience is like Disnyland on a crowded day.  We are thrown in the middle of one of the huge package tour groups, about 20 buses and 800 people.  Everyone has just two hours to see two small temples and then catch the convoy back.  We joke around and try to keep our sense of humor, but it is not something we would recommend or ever want to do again.

May 28 -- Egyptian Food -- Toothache

The food in Egypt has been great.  We most often eat from little falafal carts out on the street, where we get wheat pita "pocket bread" filled with deep fried balls of garbonzo beans, plus fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and cilantro smoothered in delicious tahini (sesame paste with olive oil), along with pickled carrots, turnips and peppers on the side.  A huge meal costs five Egyptian pounds, less than $1 US for both of us together.  In restaurants we eat spicy grilled chicken, soup, rice and an assortment of five salads (spicy fried eggplant, various vegetable dishes cooked or uncooked, bean dishes, yogurt dishes) all presented in artful designs with beautiful and elaborate garnishes as fancy as any five star restaurant.  The cost, 25-30 Egyptian pounds, about $4-5 US for both of us.

We drink water free from little machines, filtered and cooled, set up every kilometer or so on city streets.  The locals call it Egyptian water, and get the biggest kick that we drink it rather than buying bottled water in stores. We only use our water filter when the machines are not available and we have to drink regular tap water.

For the first time I get sick, after trying Egyptian pizza.  I think it is because I overeat.  The pizza has three cheeses, one is very strong and salty and perhaps too rich.  Later walking down the street I feel queazy, and suddenly get the three second warning before I throw up in an empty bucket convienently located two steps away. One hour later I am back to normal.

Back in Luxor Tass has more serious problems.  The last few days she has had a toothache.  Travel books warn about visiting just any Egyptian dentist as poorly sterilized instruments can spread HIV.  So she is happy to get a recommendation for a good dentist from the German owner of our hotel.  For 50 Egyptian pounds, less than $10 US she gets an x-ray, and a diagnosis of an infected crown.  The dentist can do nothing until the infection goes down so he gives her antibiotics.  We will have to find her another dentist in Cairo or Athens to remove the crown and deal with the problem.

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