Monday, March 9, 2009

Despair and hope

Sometimes I feel like I just can’t win. Some days it seems are lost before they begin. That’s how the past week has been for me; one blow after another. And the hits just keep on coming. Let me take you through and share some highlights from the week in question.
Last week I learned that several of my classmates from Milo were involved in some less than reputable, self-destructive activities at college this year. It came as quite a shock to me, to be honest. I went to school with these guys for years and I thought I knew them. Anyway, that put a damper on the beginning of the week. On Wednesday night I was preparing for bed when I was hit with a stomach virus that wiped me out for the next three days. I’m not sure what it was. Maybe food poisoning? Who knows? In any case, I had plenty of time lying on the couch in discomfort, to think about how much I miss home (by the way, I really miss home). This homesickness was compounded by the internet which chose this particular week to take a hiatus.
And to top it all off, my patience has been wearing thin. I find myself growing upset with students and staff alike for things that I just let go in the past. Off-hand comments, cultural irritants, and seemingly a thousand other things trigger me into a bad mood. To sum it up, the world seems to be crashing down around me.
All I want is a little peace. I want to be able to hug my parents. I want to be able to sleep in my own bed. I want to be able to hang out with my friends. I want to worry about when my homework assignment is due, not how to deal with an unruly classroom full of noisy and disrespectful kids.
But alas, all is not lost.
I have a friend who has never failed me in the past, and whose help I can count on today, tomorrow, and forever. I know that He’s here beside me, feeling my pain, hurting when I hurt, crying when I cry. And when I get discouraged, He’s always right there. Sometimes I forget that He’s here with me. I get so caught up in what’s wrong and how miserable I am, that I forget to look for the positive. There are always blessings. Always. It’s only when I become selfish and look inwardly that I lose sight of them.
I’ve heard it said that if we knew the end from the beginning—why we were allowed to go through the trials and pain that we do—that we wouldn’t have it any other way. I think I agree with that. I’m no sadist. I don’t enjoy being unhappy. But when I’m down, that’s when I look to Christ. So for that reason, perhaps the past week was just what I needed.
“My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”
2 Cor. 12:9-10
I have three months left in Egypt. What will the future hold? I have no idea. Will it be easy all the time? Of course not. But If this week has taught me anything, it’s that I am not alone. So there’s a reason to look forward to tomorrow.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Our train ride from Sohag provided a brief respite from the prying eyes of the police. Having a police escort is a complicated and somewhat irritating experience, but one that we had to endure during our stay in Upper Egypt. Our plan for the remainder of the trip was to take the train up to the city of Asyut and stay the night. The next day we would procure transport out into the Western Desert where we would spend an unspecified number of days traveling from oasis to oasis and seeing what the desert had to offer. After being hounded by shopkeepers, hotel owners, boat captains, peddlers, the police, and our students, we were ready to just disappear into the wilderness and find some relaxation in the process. That was the plan.
Upon our arrival in Asyut, however, it became apparent that our plan would need some adapting. Exiting the train station, our only desire was to check the bus schedule and then find a cheap hotel for the night. Therefore, when we were intercepted by six policemen who were to be our bodyguard, our hearts sank. It is important for you to understand that the police in Egypt are not like the men and women that are committed to serving and protecting in the United States. No, these men in whose company we were thrust, were only interested in serving themselves; nothing more, nothing less. Although an unfortunate turn of events, we determined to proceed as planned, and find lodging somewhere in the city.
Asyut is like Sohag in many ways. There is nothing of interest there, and very few tourists, if any, stop there. Because of this, we felt sure that finding a hotel would be as simple as walking through the door and asking for a room key. Eric retrieved the always-useful guide book, and together we determined to check at a reasonably priced hotel nearby that charged 30 LE a night. The police with us protested this decision for an unknown reason, but when we ignored their words and started walking away, they had no choice but to follow. As we entered the aforementioned hotel, one of the policemen pushed his way inside with us. Upon inquiring about a room, the concierge grew agitated and quickly told us that no rooms were available. Strike one.
Although slightly chagrined at this news, we decided that we’d try the next hotel on the list, because surely it would have rooms. It was still a reasonable 35 LE per night, and just down the street to boot. Our weary group hoofed it the several blocks north and entered, once again accompanied by the rather pushy police officer. Once again, the man at the front desk became nervous upon seeing the police, and insisted that there were absolutely no vacancies whatsoever. Strike two.
By now, we began to suspect that all was not right in Asyut. Still, we kept trying. The police chief told us of a hotel that he knew of where vacancies would be assured. But we weren’t ready to yield to the will of this somewhat dubious man. We pressed on. Our next stop was across town. We hailed a taxi, and with a military truck escorting us, we weaved through the crowded streets and arrived in short order at the next hotel. And guess what? It too had not a single vacancy. Strike three.
We looked at each other questioningly. Either there was an enormous sand-lovers convention taking place in Asyut, or for some reason the presence of the police made the hotel owners so nervous that they turned down business that they obviously needed. Curious. While each of us was mulling these thoughts over, the police chief once again suggested, rather strongly, that we try the hotel that “will have vacancies, I’m sure.” Our shadows were becoming less and less cordial, and so we grudgingly consented to at least see the hotel he promoted so vigorously. This was not quite the end of the story. Eric sidled up beside me as I walked and whispered something into my ear. I nodded in agreement and together we waited for the right moment.
As we passed an alleyway, Eric and I made a break for it. We sprinted away before the police knew what was happening, and as they began their pursuit we ducked into a small hotel around the corner. While I held the door shut, Eric quickly inquired about a room. The man smiled and said that indeed there were open rooms there. As he uttered these words however, one of the policemen pushed his way inside. An instant change came over the once-friendly hotel manager. Eric asked how much the room cost, but the hotel man only shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he stuttered, “No open rooms.” Now we were sure. The police were running a racket.
Feeling truly dejected, we rejoined Daniel and Kevin and entered the police-recommended hotel. By some astronomical coincidence, it was the only hotel in the entire city with vacancies, and it could be ours for a scant 140 LE! We were livid. We considered sleeping at the bus stop, just to make our police escort suffer with us, but in the end we decided that it we should just take the room. As our ragged group collapsed into the dingy room provided for us, we took stock of the situation. The police obviously had an arrangement with particular hotel owners. They made a commission off of any tourists they brought there. And just to make sure that they didn’t lose this money, they muscled the other hotel managers with threats. Unbelievable. I can say with all honesty that this was the most I have paid for a hotel here in Egypt, and it was by far the most unkempt and filthy room I have had.
Sleep came soon enough, however, and the next morning we talked about our options. We felt that it was in our best interest to ditch the police if at all possible, and so we plotted our escape. With money in hand we headed to the lobby, slapped the money on the desk, and ran out the front door, leaving the police in the lobby wondering what had just happened. The race was on. We ran between traffic and erratically veered onto side streets in a desperate effort to shake the police who were trying to catch up with us. Eventually we surrendered to the fact that one plainclothes officer had stuck with us, and determined to find the bus terminal and just get out of Asyut as quickly as possible.
The man pointedly asked questions of us during our walk, and we steadfastly ignored every word he said. Finally upon arriving at the bus station, we boarded a bus headed for the desert, and within 5 minutes we had seen the last of that vile city. The only lingering reminder of our experience was a police car that followed us for awhile. But eventually, it too dropped away, leaving us to look ahead to a police-less adventure. Finally. With this chapter of our trip closed, we relaxed and watched the dusty world pass by, stretching into the horizon. It was New Years Eve. What would we see next? How would we conclude 2008?

Friday, February 20, 2009


Sohag is a city little-traveled by tourists, and for good reason. There are no culturally or historically sites nearby and the city is busy, noisy, ugly, and crowded. So why, you ask, were Eric, Kevin and I coming to this seeming vacuum of fun? Well, if you’ll just stop interrupting me for a couple seconds I’ll tell you everything.

Upon our arrival at the train station we were greeted by Magdy Dief, a junior whom we had been invited to stay with in the nearby village of Zowek. He escorted us out of the station and into the street, where two police officers brandishing AK-47s were waiting. After brief introductions with the men, we were informed that they would be our escorts for the remainder of our stay in Sohag. Furthermore, before we could go anywhere they had to be informed, or else Magdy and his family were liable to be punished.

So why all the security? It turns out that a number of Islamic extremists have hailed from the area, and the concern was that word might get out of foreigners visiting, and Americans at that. This could prove to be a very tempting target for kidnapping, indeed. Alas, the armed escort was meant as a deterrent, and that was that. It became clear to us that the police were taking no chances. We joined Magdy in his cousin’s taxi and in short order we were careening out of the city and into the night. The police car cleared a path using its lights and siren and we followed it through the gap. At a checkpoint several kilometers outside the city, the police cruiser was exchanged for an army truck full of soldiers, and we continued on. Our journey finally ended when we rolled into the confines of Zowek. After receiving final instructions from the officers, we climbed the concrete stairs to Magdy’s apartment and crashed for the night.

Sunlight greeted us as we awoke the next day. As we opened the shutters and looked out, Zowek revealed itself in all its… glory. According to Magdy, about 7,000 people call it home. Keeping with the Egyptian tradition, the houses are all made of brick and concrete, several stories tall, with narrow dirt alleys winding between them. From our third floor vantage point, the streets looked like a giant maze, replete with dead-ends and confusion.

Magdy disappeared, and presently returned with a platter full of breakfast items (i.e. bread, cheese, taimaya, fuul beans, and tea). Being chronically famished, we devoured the contents of the platter, and were just settling into a comfortable period of reading when Magdy notified us that we were expected at another student’s house for lunch in a mere one hour. Now I should not something here: A large contingency of NUA students hail from Zowek; about 40 in all. They each knew that we were in their village, and each of them was determined that we should visit their home and eat their food. The first on this list was Benjamin Zachariah.

And so began a harrowing two three days. Visiting locals is an experience that I will not forget. The hospitality of the families is legendary. The women of the house work all day, preparing a veritable feast for their guests. A typical meal consisted of rice, salad (chopped cucumber and tomato), bread, some form of potatoes, chicken or duck, and Coca Cola to drink. These were presented to us in copious quantities at every house we visited. We ate between 4 and six complete meals during our stay in Zowek, and I can safely tell you, that eating gets old after not too long.

I realize that it may seem that I am skipping some important details, but I can assure you that the only things we did during our stay was eating and sleep. That’s it. I have never been so uncomfortably full in my life, as I was in Zowek. Fortunately, we planned our escape and after 3 days we were once again at the train station, this time with Daniel accompanying us. As we waddled onto the platform we waved goodbye to Magdy and breathed a sigh of relief. Although the people were hospitable enough, we needed a break from the good manners and F-O-O-D. And so ends another chapter of our story.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Temple Fatigue

Our last day in Luxor dawned bright and clear. It was time to visit the West Bank and all it had to offer. And believe me, it offered a lot. The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens lay in the western hills, replete with tombs and temples. It was going to be a busy day.

After devouring our breakfast at the hotel, we were on our way to the ferry dock. A short ride later we emerged into the chaos of the West Bank. As was so often our experience, we were instantly assailed by vendors and tour guides. Amidst the rabble we had a quick team meeting and decided to hire a taxi. It wasn’t difficult to leverage competing drivers’ prices, and in short order we had a taxi hired for the day for a scant 150 LE.

Our first stop was the much ballyhooed Valley of the Kings. A veritable treasure trove of famous tombs for pharaohs including Ramses II and Tutenkhamen, the Valley of the Kings is set in a steep and narrow canyon between mountain rifts. Before leaving our taxi, we agreed to meet our driver at Hatshpsut’s Temple on the side of the next ridge, accessible by a pathway in the King’s Valley. And so with these instructions still fresh in our minds, we prepared to explore.

We were sad to learn that a ticket for the King’s Valley only applied to any three of the tombs (excluding the fantastic tombs of Ramses VI and King Tut for which separate tickets are needed). However, we couldn’t change this fact, and so with the help of our trusty guide book we selected Thutmosis III’s tomb as our first stop. Entering a tomb is like walking into a stuffy oven. I couldn’t believe how hot it was inside. A sign was posted declaring ‘no photos’. I noted this and made sure to be careful when taking my pictures. It’s really difficult to compose shots with an SLR when you can’t use the viewfinder, especially when tomb guards are watching. Nevertheless, I made a valiant effort, and was just getting the hang of it when I heard a ruckus rising behind me.

I turned to find Eric and one of the guards in a heated discussion. The guard was accusing Eric of taking photos and demanding that he surrender his camera. Simultaneously, another guard accosted Kevin with the same accusation. Both Eric and Kevin refused to give the guards their cameras, and this only served to anger the guards more. Basically, if they had given the guards their cameras, they would have had to pay a ransom to get them back. It was that simple. During all this, I made sure that my photos were well shuffled, so that when a third guard asked if I had taken photos, I could show him a string of innocuous photos and still retain my tomb pictures. So now the discussion had turned into a shouting match. At one point the guard tried to grab Eric’s camera and was pushed away. Enough was enough. Eric stepped up and in his most intimidating voice, asked the man if he was willing to fight for the camera. Upon the realization that these tourists weren’t going to be pushed around, the guards retreated to their corner, still breathing threats.

We made our way to the surface while we still had the chance, and headed to our next tomb of choice—That of Seti II. We were sorely disappointed to find that this was a rather simple and bland tomb, carved in a straight line descending in several levels. Little of the original color remained, and the inscriptions were damaged in many places. After spending a few minutes in the lackluster confines of Seti II’s final resting place, we headed topside to choose our last stop. We wanted our last tomb to be spectacular, so we again consulted the guide book. Based on its description we opted to head to Saurent’s crypt.

Unfortunately, once again we were greeted with a less than spectacular tomb. So much for the glory of the Kings’ Valley. Now we had to make a decision: buy a second ticket and try our luck once more, or call it a day and start our hike towards the Temple of Hatshepsut. While contemplating this, a middle-aged American man and his wife strode up to us. They offered us their tickets which still had one tomb visit left on them. We heartily thanked them for their gift and once more considered which tomb to risk visiting next. We decided to break with tradition and not consult the book. Heading down a side canyon, we came to the entrance of Thutmosis IV’s tomb. There was still one problem: Eric and I had a ticket, but Kevin had none. We attempted to baksheesh (bribe) the guard to allow Kevin to enter, but at that moment the man’s supervisor was standing only a few meters away, looking on intently. We struck out. Kevin volunteered to stay behind, and so Eric and I plunged into our fourth tomb of the day, hoping for something spectacular.

The best part about the tomb of Thutmosis IV was that there were absolutely no guards or tourists inside. Due to its location off the beaten track, we were able to explore its chambers uninhibited. The tomb was larger than the previous two we had entered, and its l-shaped layout made it a touch more interesting. We stayed below for long enough to take some photos and see the sites (not much to see, really) and then reunited with Kevin on the surface.

Time was growing short as we headed back down the trail, and so in one last ditch effort to see something worth remembering, we purchased tickets to see the tomb of Ramses IV. It was worth it. The tomb was made up of a large hallway that descended at intervals. There were two chambers where the hall opened up into a high-vaulted room. The best part about this tomb was the remarkably preserved hieroglyphics that decorated both walls and ceiling. Rich blues and yellows showed the story of Ramses IV’s life and conquest. Finally we had found something worth looking at, and I wasn’t about to waste this opportunity. While Eric distracted the guard by asking questions, I was able to enter the burial chamber and take photographs. Once the deed was done, we thanked the guard for his help and exited the premises posthaste.

Hiking up the steep grade to reach the Temple of Hatshepsut was rewarding in its own way. When we crested the ridge, a fabulous panorama opened up before us, revealing the Nile, Luxor, and into the distance far beyond. Just below us in the shelter of the cliff we had conquered, was Hatshepsut’s Temple with its long stairways and tiny ant-like people scrambling about. They were quite humorous to watch from above, but our amusement had to be cut short. We were already late to meet our taxi driver, and there was still much to see. Wasting no time, we scrambled down a shale-strewn path to the ticket booth adjacent to the temple.

Our taxi driver advised us that given the lateness of the hour, we should go and purchase tickets for all the sites we planned to visit right away. The reason for this being that the ticket offices closed an hour before the sites themselves. We heeded his words and he escorted us post-haste to the ticket window. And so, in the last hour of daylight, we completed a whirlwind tour of three temples: Habu, Seti, and finally with the sun setting, we completed our day at Hatshepsut’s temple. I am very happy to say that this concluded the temple and ruin section of our trip. All three of us were burned out on history, and enough was enough.

We returned from the West Bank and arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare. As promised, the French girls were waiting for us on the platform. When the train finally arrived, I had the pleasure of keeping company with Adeline Samain for the duration of our trip. Out of the group, she spoke the least English, but this only served to keep our conversation creative, as each of us used unique gestures and explanations to fill in the language gaps. I learned that Adeline was 21 and resided in the South of France. She had one year left in college, with a major in language and international business.

All too soon, the train pulled into our stop—Sohag. We bid our French counterparts adieu, stepped out of the car and headed to our next adventure.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What do Karnak and France Have in Common?

Our merry band awoke on the 26th with a decision to make. Luxor is a city that lies on both banks of the Nile. Sites are traditionally listed as either being on the East or the West bank. We had to decide which bank we wanted to see on what day. Since we were already off to a late start, we opted to stick on the East bank (that's the side our hotel was on) and visit the sprawling Karnak temple. So, after a hearty breakfast eaten on the roof of the hotel, we were making our way north along the Nile. the Karnak temple complex is within the city limits of Luxor, and before long, we were standing in front of the first pylon, preparing ourselves for the wonders no doubt hidden inside.
Of all the temples and ruins that I have visited in Egypt, Karnak is without a doubt both the largest and the most diverse. It was added to by a long series of pharoahs over time, each one having unique ideas. The result is a simply massive assortment of great halls, temples, pylons, and a sacred lake thrown in for good measure. It quickly became apparent to us that we would be spending the rest of the day there, and so, secure in this knowledge, we took our time exploring.
The great thing about many of the Egyptian ruins, and Karnak in particular, is that the guards don't pay attention. We found ourselves in some forgotten corner of the complex, completely isolated from the nearest tourist or tourist policeman. Karnak is a work in progress. scattered on every available patch of ground are giant stones of every shape and size. Throughout antiquity, weather and invaders have taken their toll on the temples and tombs, and so today archaeologists are working to reassemble many of these ancient sites. So, through chance, we found ourselves in a quite impressive temple alone. And conveniently enough, there was construction scaffolding forming a ladder to the roof of this particular building. Not wanting to waste such an opportunity, Kevin and Eric scrambled to the top while I went outside to capture the moment in pictures. Before long a guard appeared, yelling and gesturing wildly to the guys on top of the temple. After feigning ignorance for a few minutes, they finally consented to return to the ground, but only after striking several poses for me.
The day was highlighted by experiences such as this. The only other encounter of the day worth mentioning happened at another such deserted temple. As we were traipsing along, we ran across three rather attractive-looking young women. In the course of introductions we learned that their names were Boudour, Aasma, and Adeline, that they hailed from France, and that they were studying Arabic in Syria. After a brief chat, we went our separate ways and thought nothing more of it at the time.

It was nearly 4:30 by the time we left Karnak, and so the next order of business was to find supper. The other thought lurking in our collective thoughts was our impending departure from Luxor, or more importantly, how we could get to our next stop in Sohag. As we ate supper we debated the best means of transportation. The idea of a minibus was suggested, as well as taking the train or even hiring a taxi. In the end, we agreed to try to get tickets on the train, as it would be the easiest and most reliable method of transport. Upon finishing our supper, we wandered through some souqs (open-air markets), and were just about to head for the train station to inquire about tickets, when we ran into the French girls from earlier that day. We quickly discovered that they too were in search of train tickets. We agreed to go to the station together and try our luck.

I had the opportunity to talk with Boudour as we walked. Although she had an unmistakably thick French accent, her English was quite good. I learned lots about her in a short time. She was born in Morocco to a French father and a Moroccan mother and it was there that she lived until the age of 15. She then moved to France where she had gone to school up until this year when she took the opportunity to study Arabic abroad in Syria. I took this opportunity to ask a burning question I had. Being fluent in three languages, I asked her which one she dreams in. Apparently French is the answer. Okay, enough about that.

Once the six of us were in the train station, our plight became apparent. According to the ticket agent, all the trains were full for the foreseeable future. Now we all knew full well that this was a lie. The trains are never full. What the ticket agent meant to say is that he didn’t want to give us tickets because we’re foreign, and the word customer service has never been introduced into the Egyptian language. However, despite this setback, we were not going to give up that easily. In fact, we were in luck. Knowing Arabic fairly well, our three French friends began to solicit passing Egyptians, imploring them to help us procure tickets. It wasn’t long before a kind young man consented to purchasing tickets for us. And so while we tried to look casual and inconspicuous (very difficult to do for six white people in an Egyptian train station), he was able to get us tickets for the next night at 7:30 PM. Success!

The night was still young as we left the train station. Wanting to thank our Egyptian friend, we decided to go to a local coffee shop and celebrate our good fortune. So for the remainder of the evening we talked, exchanged stories, and enjoyed each other’s company. Finally, when the hour grew late, we departed from our French friends, but only after agreeing to meet each other on the train platform the next night. And with that, Eric, Kevin and I headed back to the Happy Land Hotel for our last night’s sleep in Luxor.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Friends, Food, and Fun?

Christmas morning dawned clear and bright as we awoke on the felucca. After a quick breakfast of fried pita, and eggs, we were again sailing. However, our trip was not to last much longer. By 9 o'clock we were moored to the shore and disembarking in order to join a minibus that had been arranged for us. We said our goodbyes to Captain Ayob and Ibrahim, and clambered aboard the Toyota Hiace van. We cruised across the countryside, following the Nile as it snaked northwards. In about and hour we were at the Kom Ombo Temple, our first stop of the day. The temple was interesting enough, but there was nothing that distinguished it from the rest of the temples, at least in my mind.
By 10 AM we were once again bouncing across the countryside, this time towards Edfu--The Temple of Horace. Now the Temple of Horace had one claim to fame--It was huge. The pylons at the entrance towered 30 meters above visitors as they entered the complex. The sheer size of the columns and antechambers was magnificent in scale. Edfu was one of the best preserved temples of our trip and it stands out as one of my personal favorites. But, as was often the case, we ran out of time and had to get back on the road after an hour and a half.
It was early afternoon when we rolled into Luxor's bustling city center. If Luxor isn't a tourist town, then I don't know what is. packs of visitors roamed the wide sidewalks, followed every step of the way by all manner of street vendors, touting their wares. As disgusting as this spectacle was, I was comforted by the fact that Luxor appeared to be the cleanest city I have seen thus far in Egypt. Modern traffic lights, tree-lined boulevards, and even crosswalks greeted us--at least on main street.
Before we arrived in Luxor, the driver of the van asked each of us what hotel we were staying at, presumably so that he could drop us off there. Our whole Felucca group (sans Humberto) had stuck together so far, and after some discussion, we agreed that we would try to stay in the same hotel. Now keep in mind that we didn't know what to expect from any of the hotels. Our travel guides gave us an idea, but frankly their descriptions were sometimes ambiguous. Our best bet was to check out several different hotels and then make a decision based on that. So we asked the driver to drop us off at the Happyland Hotel. He nodded in affirmation.
As the van came to a stop the driver announced that we had reached our destination. We all hopped out and looked around. Curiously enough, the Happyland Hotel was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we were standing in front of a sign that read: Nubian Oasis Hotel. Before we could react, a man rushed out of the hotel and launched into a pitch about his hotel. We were no fools. Clearly the driver was getting a commission for guests he brought to the Nubian Oasis, and we were the next victims! We were all upset by this blatant trickery, and we stormed off down the street in search our original destination. The hotel owner ran after us, desperately trying to draw us back to his hotel. When we confronted him about his scheme, he promised to show us where the Happyland Hotel was. He pointed in a particular direction and we just rolled our eyes. Even we knew that the hotel was in the opposite direction.
But this man was persistent! He followed us for 5 blocks, haranguing us the whole time. By the time he finally gave up he had offered us a free first night and a free joint apiece! But despite this offer of cheap lodging and free drugs, we refused one final time. If the man was that desperate to get people to his hotel, then there must be something wrong with his hotel. Having fought off his attacks, we finally made it to the Happyland Hotel. And despite its curious name, it turned out to be the nicest hotel we stayed at during our break.
The Kiwis and the Brits headed off to see some sites while Kevin, Eric and I decided to take it easy and lounge for a little while. Before we went our separate ways, however, we agreed to meet for Christmas Dinner later in that night. The American posse (we three) wandered the town until we found the aptly named Luxor Temple. It sits on a sight surrounded on all sides by busy streets. Since we could see the whole complex from the outside, we chose not to spend the money to get inside. After fooling around for a bit we meandered back to Happyland where we ran in Kathy and Kerry. Together we consulted the field book and chose a highly recommended restaurant named Sofra that wasn't too far away.
I can honestly say that Sofra is the most enjoyable dining experience that I have had in my 5 months here. We were stunned to find that the restaurant had atmosphere. I had almost forgotten what atmosphere was. An old 1930s era house had been converted into a quaint eatery, with private dining rooms on the ground floor and the main eating area on an open-air covered roof-terrace. Turkish style decorations and furniture, coupled with fitting music, gave Sofra a charming aura that made dinner all the better. Even the menu and the staff seemed legitimate. It was quite a departure from the standard "restaurant" where the menu is rife with mispellings and atmosphere is considered traffic noise and dirty, tiled walls.
However, the best part about this Christmas Dinner was the dinner itself. We all treated ourselves to fresh fruit juice followed by traditional pita bread and dipping sauces. We each chose a separate main course--I decided to really have a new experience and tried the lamb--after which I had fresh fruit salad for desert. And, after an enjoyable evening of food and conversation, we retired to our room, exhausted but happy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Onwards and Upwards!

Well, I know you're all dying to hear about the rest of my vacation, so I won't leave you in suspense for any longer.
We opted to sleep in following our hectic day of traveling to Abu. We had a felucca tour booked for 3:15 in the afternoon, and we were awake by 11:30 in the morning. After a brief meeting we decided to visit Elephantine Island for the remainder of our time in Aswan, then catch a taxi to meet up with the felucca. We implemented our plan immediately, and in short order we were stepping off the ferry onto one Elephantine Island. This particularly island is the largest of a group wedged into the Nile in the Aswan area. It has been inhabited for hundreds of years, both by Nubians and Egyptians. We spent the better part of 4 hours exploring the ruins, museums, and villages before heading toward our rendevous with the felucca. There wasn't anything significant about our visit to Elephantine Island, otherwise I would have mentioned it. Ergo, no writing = a fairly boring island. So moving right along...
Upon boarding the felucca we were greeted by 5 other guests as well as the captain and his firstmate. Before I go any further, let me describe a felucca. Essentially, a felucca is a sailboat characterized by its bright colors and unique sails. As we learned, the captains of the feluccas sew together their own sails, lending to the individualized nature that they display. Now, getting back to the story. There were two couples and a single man already on board as we embarked. One couple introduced themselves as Kerry and Kathy, both from New Zealand and both currently living in London. They were in their early 30s. Kerry was a stocky man with a shaved head who told us that he used to be a rugby player. He is a contractor by trade for almost any kind of work you can imagine. Kathy was a blonde, somewhat serious woman who grew up on a farm with 4 sisters. Kerry and Kathy had been together for 7 years and were seasoned travelers.
The second couple I met were Daniel and Ana. Both born and raised in Britain, they were thoroughly charming. Daniel was a 25 year old graphic designer from London who loved to joke and laugh. His sharp wit and quick smile made him easy to get along with. Ana had jet black hair and a pretty face, and everything about her seemed gentile. She was 28, and currently employed as an animation artist for an ad agency in London. Despite her quiet manner, she was by no means a pushover. It didn't take long for me to realize that she too had a keen sense of humor. Daniel and Ana were also very seasoned travelers who had recently been to India for a month.
The other guest was a man in his late 40s by the name of Humberto. He was originally from Lima, Peru but for the past 19 years he has worked as the janitor at a factory in London. He spoke only a small amount of english, and quiet besides, but nonetheless he was a very friendly fellow who was always wearing a smile. The other two actors in this scene were the captain and his first mate. Captain Ayob was similar to Jamaica (our felucca captain from two days prior) in that he felt the need to brag and swear exessively whilst doing no work to speak of on the boat. His counterpart, Ibrahim, on the other hand did all the work rigging the sails, steering, cooking meals, and making tea. So there's the cast.
We sailed into the sunset (literally) and pulled into shore shortly after dark. According to Captain Ayob it wasn't safe to sail at night because of strong winds and the large cruise ships that patrol the waterways. So we made ourselves comfortable on the boat deck by laying out pads and blankets, and began an enjoyable evening of eating, talking, and laughing. I had honestly forgotten that it was Christmas Eve until Kerry brought up the subject. Everyone took turns telling about their Christmas traditions and other interesting anecdotes of the past, and before too long it was time to retire for some welcomed shuteye.
As I drifted off to sleep I mused to myself. This was definitely the strangest Christmas Eve I had ever experienced. I don't know of many people who can say they spent Christmas on a Felucca with 5 strangers-turned-friends from all over the world. With these thoughts in my mind, I drifted off with the rocking of the gentle waves.