Of course we've been busy since we left you hanging at Karnak Temple - the internet cafe we were at was rather stingy on the 2 hours we agreed to, most places are a bit more flexible. Speaking of flexible, our plans have pretty much completely changed, due to a rather hilarious and typically Egyptian situation, but first we need to get you up to speed with what we did a while ago, first our two days spent in Al-Kharga, which is where we went to after our 10 days in Mut City (Dakkhla Oasis), then onto our 2nd day in Luxor (spent at the Valley of the Kings amongst other places), and then what we have been up to our last 48 hours (let the suspense build!).
Unfortunately we couldn't stay in Mut City forever, though the wonderful and gracious Anwar family would have certainly allowed it (everyone was so kind and loving to us, we received countless free meals, only paid for a few glasses of shai, never once puchased our own sheesha, and our offers of payment for rides around town via car of donkey cart were summarily refused - not just by the Anwar's, but all the people of Dakkhla). We truly made some friends forever during our almost two weeks there, and will hopefully be able to return at some point, though we also want to help Sameh and Muhammad to come visit America at some point if that is possible.
So, we headed to Al-Kharga (another oasis town, although much more developed than Mut City) after many genuine goodbyes, in order to see our friend Muhammad (whom we had met in Dakkhla) and his family, since he had had to go back to work while we were still in Mut. Sameh went with us, which worked out well since he helped out with the transportation and such, and with the four of us hanging out, along with Muhammad's other friends, a lot of fun was definitely had. We rode to Al-Kharga via microbus, which meant we three were packed into the last row of a cramped 14-passenger van, filled almost to capacity, which was also filled with endless reading from the Quran. The Quran reading is interesting, though a little tedious while travelling for over 3 hours. Muhammad nicely met us at the microbus stop, and after our first hotel attempt didn't work out (their cheap rooms were all full), we ended up at the El Waha Hotel, a budget place if there ever were one, but the rooms were clean enough, the bathroom passable (expectations for bathrooms have dramatically decreased, some of them truly make you nauseous so "clean" is a very relative thing), and the price of 24 EGP was just right. We quickly discovered a hidden bonus of Al-Kharga, which the presence of a constant police escort. We'd managed to avoid such a thing in Mut, but literally the whole time we were in Al-Kharga a non-uniformed (but armed) officer walked with us, sometimes joined by a uniformed member of the Tourism & Antiquities Police, and at night (and sometimes during the day) a police pickup truck with 2 or 3 officers in it trailed us everywhere that we walked. As you can imagine, the whole situation was pretty ridiculous and very unnecessary, but there was nothing we could do about it at all (simply beauracratic government protocol for "our protection") - though it made walking through the town very annoying at times, as we attracted even more attention (since our group of people walking was at a minimum of 5 or 6) than usual. Also, none of the police spoke any English at all really, so even when situations arose where they could have been actually helpful, they simply "helped" us find an English speaker to answer our question(s). It should also be mentioned that Al-Kharga is far from a dangerous or threatening town, it's just that Egypt's unemployment rate is frighteningly high (the government claims 9.9%, most independent assessments put the number around 25%) so the police force is consequently enormous in order to provide increased employment opportunities, and also the US government just recently lifted a travel restriction on Egypt (which had been put in place following some tourist attacks at monuments) so we think that as Americans we are particularly guarded.
Fortunately we were really just in Al-Kharga to hang out with our friends, and we spent the majority of our nights then at the Coffeeshop Africano, a surprisingly hip and nice outdoor coffeeshop that Muhammad's cousin, also named Muhammad, works at (when he is not in Aswan for university). The coffeeshop was definitely the largest we've seen, with a wide variety of tables and ambiences spread out around a wide sandy park area between several buildings. We often relaxed under the gazebo, or after hours at one of the back tables. We also got to meet many of Muhammad's friends from Al-Kharga, including another Muhammad, Ahmed, Sayed, Honey - or Honi (a DJ), Hamam (who also worked there and was very nice and friendly), Amn, Mustafa, and many others, all male as you can obviously tell, but women aren't really allowed at coffeeshops outside the big cities unless they are there with their husbands or fiances. Liz of course was more than welcome, as the rules obviously do not apply to non-Muslim tourists!
We also ate at several delicious restaurants, and since we were with friends we not only got cut-rate Egyptian prices, but also did not have to haggle at all, a nice change from our typical day! Liz did a little shopping, and got to talk to some very nice women who are English majors at the Al-Kharga University (proof Egypt is slowly moving forward), and she got an amazingly nice Egyptian skirt for herself. We also got a bunch of Arabic music put on our mp3 player, which is fun to listen to though it is all a bit goofy and our player cannot read any of the Arabic characters so the names are mostly gibberish. Sameh stayed for one night, but he hung out for the entire next day before catching the last bus at 2:30 a.m., which made for a sad goodbye after a fun day in Al-Kharga, and a fun 10 days in Dakkhla before that, but obviously being travellers these things are inevitable. Our last day in Al-Kharga was spent mostly at Muhammad's house, since his wonderful mother, Mrs. Yousef to us, made us a fabulous luncheon feast. Their house, supplied by the government since Muhammad's father, a former member of parliament for the New Valley, is now the head of security for the mayor (governor more accurately), is definitely the largest and nicest we have seen, and it is surrounded on all sides by an extensive garden, full of orange, lemon, date, mango, fig, and tangerine trees, as well as many grape vines that are wrapped all around the thatch roof covering the porch. Even though we were stuffed, we couldn't resist a dessert consisting of fresh-picked oranges (still green) and traditional Egyptian cookies. Of course there was tea, and a policeman or two around the entire time as well. We then went to Coffeeshop Africano one last time just to wait until later to head to Luxor, since travelling at night is much easier and enjoyable than being in the Egyptian heat.
Since travel to Luxor is virtually non-existant directly, even though the cities are only 3 hours away or so, we had to take a microbus to Asyut (around 4 hours, though our microbus was really just a station wagon, equipped with 7 seats), and then catch a train to Luxor, which took about 6 hours or so, although we had to wait around 2 hours since it was very, very late. But both rides were reasonable, the coffeeshop at the train station was nice enough to wait in, and with our earplugs in the train ride was rather quiet! We thus arrived in Luxor around 8 a.m., and enjoyed our first day there, which you have hopefully already read about.
Our second day in Luxor was equally exciting as our first, though we opted to take a guided tour booked through our hotel, in order to optimize our day of sightseeing and minimize our wandering around Luxor's West Bank in the brutal heat. We did get a pretty decent price (about half what most others paid since we acted very disinterested through numerous sales pitches and then haggled a decent amount as well), although we still could have probably saved some money if we had travelled on our own, but that's just the nature of Egypt in general, and often it is worth spending just a bit more (as in $2-$5) for convenience.
The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the Valley of the Kings, where we saw 3 tombs, those of Ramses III, Ramses IX (& sons), and Ramses IV, all of which had pretty amazing and intact funerary wall-paintings. There are 62 total excavated tombs within the desolate valley, but most are either too small or delapidated to warrant viewing, or are currently closed for protection or renovation. Our ticket admitted us to three tombs, and our tour guide had obviously pre-decided for us which ones we were going to, but we definitely saw ones that were impressive and reasonably well-preserved. All sorts of bright colors, giant walls filled with incantations written in heiroglyphics, plus numerous scenes of life and the afterlife recreated, usually almost lifesize. Most of them had cracks and chips all over, and some unnecessary modern scratch-style graffiti, but the Ramses IV tomb did have some cool ancient Coptic Christian graffiti. Cameras were not allowed, but we did manage to record several videos casually, only getting hassled by a guard once, which are currently being uploaded to Youtube.
It should be mentioned that the King Tut tomb, arguably the most famous of all, is a seperate admission, which we skipped since it is very overpriced and the tomb itself is quite small; just the treasure which was discovered inside (which we saw at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), impressive in both quality and quantity, since it was the only completely intact tomb discovered within the entire valley.
We also saw the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Colossi of Memnon. The Colossi were just 2 huge semi-delapidated statues, but they were free, so not too bad, and the complex they were once a part of was actually larger than Karnak. Hatshepsut Temple was pretty massive, with some nice wall reliefs still retaining much of their color, although the huge desert mountain right behind it (backside of the 2 valleys) was just as impressive, really. The temple is literally built into the rock, which is simply amazing. Outside Luxor is very barren, which is why the ancient royalty picked it for their tombs, in the hopes that grave robbers would fail to locate them - too bad that idea failed so miserably.
We went on our tour with (amongst others) some Canadian girls who have been teaching English in Korea, so we learned all about that as a possible job option in the future... apparently the pay is more than reasonable (so you can save a couple thousand US dollars a month), plus they cover your housing and work transportation, so Korea is definitely a possibility for when we will be seeking employment (probably sometime late 2007, early 2008). Other options include Thailand and Cambodia for teaching, but that is a ways off, so currently all we are doing is gathering ideas and researching possibilities.
We actually zonked out right after our tour for a much needed nap, but we'd already decided that we'd seen all that we wanted to in Luxor (the museum is somewhat of a repeat), and we saw all the major sites on both banks (the Luxor Temple is part of the modern town so we'd walked all the way around it numerous times). The sleep was great, though we did grab some falafels and some blackcurrant flavored Fanta (both amazingly good and cheap, 6 EGP total = $1.10), before working on things at an internet cafe for a while.
Luxor is a lot like Cairo as far as being irritating and frustrating, and the locals are even worse about harassing us than in Cairo in some ways. We literally get chased around by horse-carriages and taxis as their drivers yell at us about needing a ride and how "cheap" it would be. We usually do not even want a ride, since part of travelling is wandering about semi-aimlessly soaking things up. It's rather awful at times, and somewhat dehumanizing for all involved, though only we seem to realize it! We're not quite sure whether Luxor's persistent yelling is worse than Cairo's ceaseless "friends" who just happen to be selling papyrus or perfume, but truthfully neither is enjoyable or necessary in the slightest.
Conveniently our first bout with upset stomachs (nothing like painful and frequent liquid poo to liven up your morning) hit on our last morning in Luxor, so our hopes of going to the post office early were dashed, and we slept for several more hours, which was semi-successful in regards to our feeling better. After a nice (and nicely haggled) lunch for only 10 EGP each, we began what became a lengthy and agonizing journey to find the Luxor bus station, since the town had recently closed down the old station (located downtown), and moved it several kilometers outside of town, though supposedly there was still an Upper Egypt Travel Office around somewhere. After getting the run-around from numerous people, greedy taxi-drivers and other unhelpful locals alike, we ended up wandering all over the downtown area, train station, etc. without finding anything helpful at all, so we finally caught a microbus ride out to the new bus station, with enough time to catch the 2:00 p.m. bus that our hotel had advertised, though our guide book said that it was actually at 3:30 p.m. Our driver tried to ditch us several incorrect places, first at the train station ("no, bus station"), then at a microbus pickup ("Upper Egypt Bus"), and once even at some random spot along the road before we finally got there - only to discover that no buses at all went to Aswan anymore. Apparently the only way to get to Aswan is to take a microbus early in the morning as part of the once-daily police-escorted caravan, or to take the twice daily train. However, taking the train (which was supposed to arrive at 5, though would probably come hours later) would mean that we would not arrive in Aswan until 10 or 11 p.m., much to late to get on a felucca, meaning we would have to wait around in Aswan for a day, which was time we didn't really have since we wanted to go to Dahab for snorkeling and peace, not necessarily in that order, while Aswan didn't have much worth seeing save the Nile boat ride. So we made the decision that we should just head directly to Dahab, and cut out the costly and time-inefficient trip to Aswan. That means of course no felucca ride, but since we'd seen plenty of the Nile, and heard from some people that the river is far noisier and dirtier than it is advertised to be, going to Dahab seemed the better choice, plus a bus would be leaving for there (around 20 hours or so) within a few hours. However, since we'd planned on going to Aswan, our finances were rather restricted (since carrying lots of cash around is a bad idea usually), so we didn't quite have enough money for the ride all the way to Dahab (and of course the bus company refused to take a traveller's check). So we caught the next bus leaving Luxor, which was headed to Hurghada, about a quarter of the way to Dahab, and since it was leaving an hour before the Dahab direct bus, we would have time in Hurghada to go to an ATM and eat an actual meal. The ride wasn't too bad, since half of it was at night, and though we had to walk much further than the Hurghada map in our Lonely Planet guide indicated, we did find an ATM relatively easily, though our tasty kushari dinner was definitely the highlight of our brief time there. After inhaling the fumes from more than a few other buses, and using a far-from-pleasant toilet (and completely ignoring the tout asking for baksheesh to use the "clean toilet"), our bus arrived, only about 40 minutes late.
A huge line of people formed outside the bus, and it became quickly apparent that the bus itself was already packed, as no one really got off, and soon the announcement came that the bus was completely full. We asked a semi-helpful tourist policemen when the next bus would be, and he said that one wouldn't go to Dahab until 9 p.m. the next night. We immediately knew that that bus as well would be similarily packed, and we didn't want to spend a day in Hurghada anyway (though it is on the Red Sea, it is over-developed and consequently terribly touristy and overpriced), so we begged to get on the bus, without a seat, and were finally allowed to sit/lay in the aisle between the seats with our bags. Awful doesn't really quite describe the situation, since no one got off the bus until Sharm-Al-Sheih, over 12 hours later; that meant that for half a day we lay on a dirty floor, cramped between smelly Egyptians and a few EU tourists who were totally passed out, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep. That never really quite happened, so our sleep came in fitful 15 minute spurts, and that only after we switched spots so Liz could avoid a "sleeping Egyptian" who kept trying to grope her. The time slowly passed, and we managed to get only some semblance of sleep, but we figured waiting 24 hours wouldn't have really changed our experience at all, since the buses depart from Luxor filled with people, and no Egyptians would ever go to Hurghada (nor should any smart travellers), so our ride was what it was, inevitable and unenjoyable. Once we arrived in Sharm, and got our own seats, things were much better, though the sun was up enough that sleeping wasn't much easier, but at least our comfort level was infinitely higher.
The remaining ride up the georgeous Red Sea coast only took a few more hours (thankfully), and all the tourists on board (every last Egyptian got off before Dahab, which is known as a "backpacker Nirvana" in addition to an amazing place to snorkel/dive the Red Sea) emerged to the yells of taxi drivers offering rides into town, which was about 3 km away. Some Australians we had met earlier had recommended the 7th Heaven Hotel, so we headed there, though after our "welcome drink," of warm but good mango and strawberry juices, we learned that we weren't really all that welcome since the hotel was fully booked! So we headed down the strip of hotels with our guide book in hand, and ended up at the Auskie, a cheap (20 EGP/night total for both of us - about $3.35) and simple place, though it actually had a queen-size bed, versus the double twins that virtually all budget hotels offer exclusively. We decided to take the hotel up on one of its tours, a cheap snorkel trip to the nearby (6 km) Blue Hole, which is an internationally-known dive spot. We've thought about scuba diving, but neither of us really have that much interest, and it is something that not only costs a lot of money (in US dollars), but also takes several dedicated days to take the classes and introductory dives necessary to receive certification. Maybe later in life we will try scuba, but for now we are content with snorkeling!
We were supposed to go snorkeling today, but Liz was up much of the night with a very upset stomach, and Anderson isn't doing all that much better, so we decided to postpone that until tomorrow, which turned out to be quite fortuitous because the sea is unbelievably rough today, and high-intensity winds have been blowing in from offshore the entire day.
We have had what was possibly our best meal in Egypt, though its hard to really judge such a thing, but after weeks of chicken and the occasional cut of beef, freshly caught seafood from the Red Sea was a welcome change. We ate at the Sea Bride restaurant last night, and before you are seated you go next door to their market, where you pick the actual fish or seafood that will be prepared for you. We chose to split a red snapper and a seafood sampler plate. The fish was simply amazing, so we didn't even mind its cute teeth and eyes, and the shrimp, mussels, calamari, and other fish were exquisite as well. The meal also came with the usual rice, vegetables, soup, and bread, so it quickly became a much-deserved feast/reward after our heinous night aboard the bus. We were so hungry that we left a music shop, who's owner Osama was nicely showing us all types of Egyptian music, in order to rush to eat, and when we returned we were so stuffed we could barely drink the tea that he made us! The music was great to listen to, as we got to hear all types of traditional and interpretated music styles, from Egyptian jazz to Bedouin oud to synthesized Arabic music. We're going to trade him American music off of our mp3 player for a few burnt CDs, so we're going back to his shop tonight to finalize the deal, though we did already get a complete copy of the Quran being read in Arabic (since we've been hearing it constantly and it does sound quite interesting). We also journied all over the lengthy Dahab boardwalk, stopping to play dominos (ours, since coffeeshops here don't have them as abundantly as in the oasis') at a rather Western bar called Adam's Place - though the real attraction is the several-pounds-cheaper Stella beers, which they serve ice cold, as though the literal half-price versus the other bars around wasn't enough of an attraction. Not the "coolest" place to hang out certainly, but we just wanted to relax and play dominos and have a few beers, so it fit our needs perfectly.
Today then, we haven't really done much, though it seems we are feeling a bit better, and Liz is no longer such a frequent visitor to the bathroom (!), so hopefully the seas will also calm down for us tomorrow, and we can then enjoy our first day of Red Sea snorkeling. It is possible to just rent a snorkel and check out the reef right offshore, but the minimal additional cost for the all-inclusive trip makes it well-worth it, particularly for our first day in the ocean.
That's where we are at, with sunset turning into night here in Dahab (it gets dark just around 5 p.m.), so we will soon go grab some dinner before swinging by that music shop again, and we plan on avoiding alcohol until our poor overworked stomachs are feeling happy again. Hopefully that will be tomorrow, since we are very excited to go snorkeling!