Inhuman Swill : Mediterranean Adventure 2008

Just when you thought it was safe to come back to my blog, I'm going to start talking about Egypt again. I've been uploading more of our Flip Videos to YouTube, and here's one Laura took of me just after (as I've mentioned earlier) I emerged from my journey to heart of the second pyramid. She, of course, is conducting the interview from off-camera:

A few new video playlists are also available, including five short videos from around the pyramids and the Sphinx, and four videos from our overnight train to Aswan. (But not that video.)

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Photographic wrap-up

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William Shunn and Laura Chavoen at Great Pyramid, Giza, Egypt
Finally, for a little closure, clicking this photograph will take you to a Flickr set of my choices for the best pictures from our trip. Relax, there are only 148.

But if you want to see more, way more, you can sample this collection instead.

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Laura Chavoen in the courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque, The Citidel, Cairo
[I've only written 12,000 words so far about the big trip, so I suppose there's no reason not to go ahead and slap on a few more and close this out.]

Our lame-duck tour company had, belatedly, offered us some options for our Cairo sightseeing pleasure on Saturday, May 31. We could have a tour guide, or a driver, or a tour guide and a driver, or we could do it all on our own using public transportation and taxis. After some hasty private consultation, Laura and I opted for a driver only. We figured it would be useful to have someone who could take us where we wanted to go, but wouldn't get in our way or try to drag us off on annoying consumer side adventures.

We set off on our adventure first thing after our buffet breakfast at the hotel (which featured the best damn fresh orange juice I've had in a long time). We had three items on our sightseeing agenda: the Citadel, Islamic Cairo, and Coptic Cairo. Well, two out of three isn't bad.

Things started off well enough. Our driver whisked us away to the Citadel, that ancient fortress city built up by Saladin to defend against the Crusaders. We were especially enamored of the Mohammed Ali Mosque, a grand structure in the Ottoman Baroque style—even though Laura's carefully composed outfit was not proof against being wrapped in a green cloak as we entered. Our small playlist of five videos from the Citadel complex will give you an idea what we saw there. Or, if you prefer to see only one, try this video of Laura in the courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque:

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Borderline retarded

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Koshary (yum!) in Cairo, Egypt
We knew that Friday, May 30, as another long travel day, was going to suck. We just didn't know yet how badly it was going to suck.

Over dinner the evening before, Ra'ed had broken the news to us that there would be yet another change in our travel plans. It seems the tour company had not booked our return tickets on the morning ferry to Taba soon enough, and the earliest ferry with berths still remaining would not be until 7:00 pm. That would get us to Taba far, far too late to make any bus that would reach Cairo at any remotely reasonable hour.

The solution foisted upon us—dreamed up by that same favorite benefactor of ours in Cairo who only days before had failed to get us from Hurghada to Sharm al-Sheikh by boat—was overland travel. It seemed fairly straightforward, if tedious, on the face of it. Ra'ed would drive us back to Aqaba, hand us seventy American dollars, and drop us off at the border crossing to Eilat, Israel. Once in Israel, we would take a cab to the Egyptian border, where a driver would be waiting to spirit us south to Dahab to catch our bus.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it?

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In the Siq, near the Treasury, in Petra, Jordan
Petra is an ancient city established in what is now Jordan in the 6th century B.C. by a tribe called the Nabateans. The city inhabits an extensive valley defended by a narrow canyon called the Siq. The Nabateans carved open channels into the canyon walls to bring irrigation water into the city, and covered channels for drinking water. In this way they were able to defend against numerous invaders over the centuries, establishing Petra as an important center of commerce on the trading routes between Arabia and the Mediterranean. Petra finally fell to Rome in A.D. 106 after a lengthy siege, but continued as an important population center until being crippled by an earthquake in 363.

The most notable archaeological feature of Petra is the proliferation of elaborate tombs or temples, and smaller shrines, carved into the faces of the area's sandstone cliffs. The best preserved example of this beautiful Greek-influenced architecture is al-Khazneh, or the Treasury, which has survived as long as it has thanks to the protective overhang beneath which it was carved. The Treasury may be most recognizable in popular culture as the exterior of the temple containing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The drive from our hotel to the entrance to the Petra site took all of two minutes, first thing on Thursday, May 29. We had been told that we would be riding horses in as part of our tour. I pictured us arriving at the Treasury like Indy Jones, riding out of the Siq in a thunder of hooves. This turned out, disappointingly, not to be the case. Instead, our grand horse ride took us from just inside the site entrance to near the upper end of the Siq, a distance of only 200 meters. Our Arabians were led by their grooms. There was no free riding. Well, Laura somehow managed to convince her groom to let her take the reins from him. Me, I completely failed to communicate to my groom that I could ride a horse all on my own, or even that I knew how to mount and dismount by myself.

That turned out to be the only disappointing thing about Petra. No, there were two disappointing things about Petra. First was the horse ride, second was the fact that the battery of our borrowed digital camera (as it so often did on this trip) died just as we were getting to the good stuff. Everything else was spectacular (although when you imagine how a site like this is going to be, you rarely picture the proliferation of tourists and merchants cluttering it all up).

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Dinars on us!

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The view from breakfast, Dahab, Egypt
[Now that we've been back for more than a week, maybe I should get cracking on these last few trip updates.]

Wednesday, May 28, was another travel day, though we did get to enjoy another fine hotel buffet for breakfast and some more relaxation on the Dahab shore before the next van came calling for us. We loaded up at 11:00 am, then rushed north up the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba to Taba.

Our ferry was supposed to leave for Aqaba, Jordan, at 2:00 pm. At the appointed hour, however, it hadn't yet arrived, so our guide and driver Hassan suggested we retire to a nearby cafe and have some coffee while we waited. From the open-air cafe, we had a perfect view of the ferry's long approach, so we were back to the dock in plenty of time to get run through customs and have our Egyptian exit visas stamped in our passports.

In the process, an X-ray machine detected the presence in my suitcase of a fancy multi-tool pocketknife, and I discovered that the word "Leatherman" is one of the unexpected words in the lexicon of Egyptian immigration officers. As in, "Your Leatherman must stay with the captain of the ferry during your transit."

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Forced to resort

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Cat at internet cafe in Dahab, Egypt
[Writing in Cairo hotel room, hoping to stay up all night in preparation for sleeping through our 7:35 am flight to Paris.]

According to the original plan, we shouldn't have been on that overnight train back to Cairo at all. This was the first leg of our two-day journey from Luxor to Petra, and it was supposed to have started first thing Tuesday with a drive east to Hurghada, a resort city on the western shore of the Red Sea. From there we were to take a ferry to Sharm al-Sheikh, another Egyptian resort city, this one on the western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. We would spend the night in Dahab (yes, another resort city), and then continue on our way from there.

We had been informed of the change in plan on Friday evening, our first evening in Cairo. We were sitting at an outdoor cafe near the train station at the end of our sightseeing day with Shiko our guide and our three new Australian friends. I was smoking a shisha, and Shiko was favoring a distinctly reluctant Jemima with a rather flirtatious palm-reading when the Egyptian agent of our tour company showed up. He had some news for Laura and me.

It seemed he had just learned that the ferry from Hurghada to Sharm al-Sheikh would not be running the day we needed it. It seemed, also, that he had known this might be a possibility, but hadn't let us know any sooner. His alternate plan would be for us to take a train back to Cairo from Luxor, then ride a bus from Cairo to Dahab. He said the bus would take six hours.

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Luxor deluxe

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[Writing in our hotel room back in Cairo again. I have an internet connection, but can't seem to reach the mail relay server that will let me send email.]

After about four hours on the train Sunday evening, we reached Luxor. It was not exactly a comfortable train ride, since we didn't have a private sleeper car and we were hot and cramped. But we were determined to put the bad and discouraging aspects of our trip behind us.

As soon as our new guide Ibram met us at the station (and, by the way, I am certain that I am massacring even the loose art of transliteration with all our guides' names), we felt the tide had turned. Young, short, and rotund, Ibram was nonetheless filled with a contagious enthusiasm about Luxor. Laura asked him if we could stop for fast food on the way to the hotel, and he and our driver were more than happy to accommodate our wish. We scored some tasty falafel and shawarma sandwiches from a walk-up cafe, and we polished them off long before reaching the hotel.

The hotel itself was beautiful, and from the balcony—yes, balcony!—of our spacious fifth-floor room we could see out across the Nile. When we awoke on Monday, colorful hot-air balloons were drifting through that view, over a glistening, glimmering green landscape on the far side of the river. Our morning itinerary was set, but the for the afternoon itinerary we had three options to choose from, one of which was a balloon ride. Seeing the balloons there in the morning light made me a little sad that we hadn't selected that option. But not too sad, because I really had no desire to see Laura huddled in an acrophobic lump on the floor of a gondola.

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Death race 2008

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[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

We awoke at 2:45 am today. Well, I awoke earlier to deal with the unsavory consequences of our delicious meal at Makka. Sorry, Ali! I promise my heart will never stray again!

The reason for the early hour was to meet our guide Ahmet at 3:30 am, and thence to meet the Abu Simbel convoy at 4:00 am. Access to Abu Simbel is restricted to certain hours of the day, so buses and cars collect at the entry point to the route in Aswan, then are released to proceed at either 4:00 or 4:30, depending on how many vehicles have gathered.

When we heard the word "convoy," we thought of a rather stately, sedate procession. What actually transpired was a road race. For three white-knuckled hours, Ahmet piloted our van through the desert like the utter fucking lunatic he is, using whichever lane was most convenient, overtaking other drivers, tailgating another van for miles at a distance of a couple of feet at I-shit-you-not what had to be eighty miles and hour or more. I'm sure there were times we hit a hundred. Laura and I were each locked in our own private hells. All we could do was try to keep our eyes closed and pretend to be asleep.

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Oh, what a Philae!

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[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

Saturday morning we slept in. Conveniently, our train had had some engine trouble during the night, so we wouldn't be reaching Aswan in the south of Egypt until after 11:00 am, which put us over two hours behind schedule. But this was good news for the exhausted lazyheads from Friday, who didn't have to be up at the asscrack of dawn.

In Aswan, at last, after more than fifteen hours on the train, our local tour representatives installed us in the Sara Hotel, a lovely hotel in a dusty, hilly neighborhood that's either half built or half decayed. Our guide that afternoon was a woman whose English was so thickly accented she was hard to understand for a while. (We were spoiled by Shiko's perfect English in Cairo.) She took us to the Aswan High Dam, rattling off facts and figures at a pace that was hard to follow.

After that, we drove a ways and then sailed by fellukah down the waters of Lake Nasser to the island site of Philae Temple. Philae is a temple from the Ptolemaic period, unmistakably Egyptian but with unmistakable Greek influences. It is one of the many temples and monuments that were relocated by UNESCO during the building of the Aswan Dam in the '60s. Otherwise they would have been flooded and lost.

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