Heights and Depths of Sinai

Posted December 10, 2010 by tripchick
Categories: Egypt & Jordan

Tags: , , , , ,

 

At about 7 AM on November 11, I collected my bag from the baggage carousel and walked out into the fresh desert air of Sinai’s Sharm El-Sheikh airport. I was immediately greeted with a big welcome hug from Linda, the English woman I’d met through a travel website before I’d left the U.S.   I think that Linda was as relieved to see me as I was to see her. Afterall, you never know how these meet-up type arrangements will go when you travel. Will the other person show? It’s always nice when they do. I’ve been lucky so far. Together, we met our driver, tossed our bags in the car, and off we went to St. Katherine, the first stop on our Sinai adventure.

IMG_2991              On the road to St. Katherine, Sinai

 

St. Katherine’s Monastery

We arrived at the monastery in the town of St. Katherine a little after 9 AM and left our bags in the reception area of the Monastery Guesthouse where we would stay for the night; check-in time was not until 12 noon. Then, we trotted off to explore the monastery.

IMG_3025      Monastery Guesthouse, St. Katherine’s

IMG_3026                      Shop and café at St. Katherine’s Monastery Guesthouse

IMG_3022          Gardens and olive trees at St. Katherine’s Monastery

IMG_3024         Strolling the grounds at St. Katherine’s Monastery

IMG_3021                     St. Katherine’s Monastery administrative annex

IMG_3011          Entrance to St. Katherine’s Monastery

IMG_3014                  St. Katherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Our first task was finding an English language tour of the compound. After listening in on a number of groups, we settled on one, introduced ourselves to the guide, and were granted permission to join. We were first shown the ornate Church of the Transfiguration in which St. Katherine’s body rests (although I have to wonder at what relative “rest” she lies… given that her skull and her left hand have been separated from the rest of her body). We got pushed along with the wave of tourists until we came upon a small glass case housing the relic thumb of the saint herself. Visitors must walk through the church with the steady flow of foot traffic, moving in a clockwise direction. A man at the end of the walkway guards the exit and will quickly shoo you out the door if you try to turn back for a second look at anything. Consequently, we had to walk through the church three or four times just to see everything properly. I smiled triumphantly at the guard each time I exited, but he didn’t seem to care. I wonder how many times I could have gone through before he would have noticed and said something. Hmm.

IMG_3003                                           Bell tower and Church of the Transfiguration, St. Katherine’s Monastery

IMG_3001                               Entrance to Church of the Transfiguration, St. Katherine’s Monastery

Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that our guide was giving very little information in English since it was being translated into Italian by another guy first; the line of communication fell off… as it does in the game “Telephone” I played as a kid.  So, we decided to try again and returned to the main entrance to find another guided English group. This time, the tour was difficult to follow because the group was large and we kept getting pushed to the back so that we couldn’t really hear the guide. But our third try did the trick. We stumbled upon a group with an excellent guide who spoke great English and provided lots of information. We stuck close to his side like groupies, asking lots of questions. Guess we were making up for our previous failed touring attempts. He was very patient and told us all about the monastery, St. Katherine, and the trail leading to Mt. Sinai’s summit.

The monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is named after St. Katherine, the martyr of Alexandria. It was founded in 337 AD when the Roman empress Helena, mother of Constantine, ordered a sanctuary be built around what was thought to be the site of the burning bush from which God is said to have spoken to Moses. It became a refuge for hermits and pilgrims in the Sinai wilderness.  In the 6th century (537-562 AD), Emperor Justinian had a fortress constructed around the original chapel, along with a basilica and monastery, as a secure home for the monastic community here. “Today, St. Katherine’s is one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world, and its chapel is one of early Christianity’s only surviving churches” (Lonely Planet, 2010, p. 495). The site still holds great religious significance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

IMG_2716         St. Katherine’s Monastery viewed from the trail to Mt. Sinai

So, who was St. Katherine? Her story is rather enthralling, I think. Katherine was born to a noble family in Alexandria in 282 AD, and converted from paganism to Christianity as a teenager. At the orders of Roman Emperor Maxentius, Katherine was to be tortured on a spiked wheel for refusing to denounce her faith, but the wheel broke when she touched it and so she was beheaded instead in 305 AD. Reportedly, her body was transported by angels to Egypt’s highest peak, Gebel Katarina (Mt. Katherine), about 6 km south of Mt. Sinai. The story goes that in the 10th century Katherine’s miraculously preserved body was found by monks from the monastery who then interred it (in pieces) in the monastery’s chapel where it still lies today.

St. Catherine by Michelangelo_Caravaggio_060                                             St. Katherine by Michelangelo Caravaggio

On our tour of the monastery, we also visited the Chapel of the Burning Bush where we saw what is thought to be a descendant of the original burning bush, the Well of Moses where Moses met one of Jethro’s seven daughters whom he married (it is a natural spring that is supposed to give marital happiness to those who drink from it), and the Monastery Museum displaying artistic treasures from the Byzantine era.

IMG_2994                              “Burning bush”… and fire extinguisher at St. Katherine’s Monastery

IMG_3005                   Well of Moses at St. Katherine’s Monastery

IMG_2999                    St. Katherine’s Monastery Museum

 

Heights

Gebel Musa, or Mt. Sinai, rises to 2,285 m / 7,495 ft. above sea level. Linda and I woke up at 2 AM to climb the mountain in time for sunrise. It took us almost 3 hours (with rest breaks) hiking in the dark to reach the summit, and 2 hours to get down. All along the way, we found “coffee shops”, Bedouin shacks really, where we could take a load off. Despite the 750+ rather grueling Stairs of Repentance leading to the summit, it was well worth the climb just to see the beautiful sunrise from the top.  And yes, one might feel rather repentant after all those steps…, but I honestly felt more triumphant and thrilled just to be there doing the hike. The mood of the crowd (about 150-200 people) at the summit was set by a small group of Russian orthodox pilgrims singing various hymns and chanting prayers. I noted that many of the Russian women had climbed in skirts and ordinary shoes despite the terrain and cold morning air, and I understand that some extremely devout pilgrims do the entire hike barefoot! – Hard core. I parked myself on a rock overlooking a cliff, and watched as the sun came up, taking photos/video periodically. Linda and I stayed on the summit until most of the onlookers had left. It was tranquil and the views of the surrounding mountains were superb. I could not help but try to imagine Moses receiving the ten commandments up there all alone. He must have been in pretty good shape to get up the mountain at his age.

IMG_2629             A “coffee shop” en route to Mt. Sinai’s summit

IMG_2631           Our guide and Linda slobbing (Linda’s British term) in a coffee shop near Mt. Sinai’s summit

IMG_2695               Steps of Repentance leading to Mt. Sinai’s summit

IMG_2645      Russian orthodox pilgrims singing hymns and saying prayers on Mt. Sinai’s summit just before dawn

IMG_2666        Watching sunrise from Mt. Sinai’s summit

IMG_2659            Sunrise viewed from Mt. Sinai’s summit

IMG_2671            Summit of Mt. Sinai with church and no crowds

IMG_2683          View of surrounding mountains from Mt. Sinai’s summit

Returning down the Stairs of Repentance, I saw a rather unfortunate accident. A German woman wiped out on the rocky steps and cut her leg wide open. When I came upon her, her friends were trying to help her, but they had no first aid kit. Fortunately, I had tossed my kit in my backpack last minute the night before and was able to provide the needed medical supplies. It was one of those times when you realize you are in the right place at the right time with the right gear, and I was everso glad I had my kit. (Note to self: ALWAYS ALWAYS take first aid kit on hikes!) The woman’s injury was rather bad and she would definitely need stitches once she got off the mountain. After we treated her wound and wrapped it tightly with pads and gauze, her friends and a guide were able to help walk her down most of the steps because she was still in shock and couldn’t really feel anything, until they reached the camel trail where they put her on a camel and took her the rest of the way down the mountain. I had gone ahead by then, but as I neared the trailhead and St. Katherine’s Monastery later, the woman passed me on her camel. She waved, said “thank you”, and even managed a smile. I was relieved to see that she was going to be OK.

IMG_2702         Camel path (with camels) from Mt. Sinai’s summit

Linda and I finished our hike, took some photos at the Mt. Sinai trailhead and returned to our Guesthouse to get breakfast, shower, and pack our gear in order to head on to Dahab on Sinai’s southeast coast. Our driver picked us up a little after 10 AM and off we went to the beach… for a little relaxation after our hike.

IMG_2721   Laurel and Linda at the Mt. Sinai trailhead after a successful hike

 

Sign Eye

EyeofraDo you believe in signs? No, I don’t mean the kind by the side of the road or the signs of the zodiac. I mean the little unexpected things that happen to you in life and seem to show you what you “should” be doing next. Well, I have an eye for signs. For instance, cats are a sign for me. And when I’m traveling, they show up at just the right time and indicate where I am supposed to go… like a big X-marks-the-spot. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not superstitious – really, I’m not. …Ok, well maybe a little. I just view these things as “indicators” that pop up at the right time not because of any bizarre, other-worldly influences, but simply because I am tuned in to perceive them at that moment. And for some reason I am most capable of seeing these signs when I travel.

Anyway, a number of signs presented themselves, one after the other… from the moment I arrived in Dahab, and they were so undeniable and shocking that I was left just a bit emotionally spent at the day’s end. Perhaps my body was still recovering from our Mt. Sinai hike that morning; I don’t know. I won’t go into the details. However, suffice it to say that I got the clear impression I was supposed to be there in Egypt… on this trip… at this time. And while I tried to ignore this at first, after the fourth or fifth sign within the span of just a few hours, it was obvious that resistance was futile. It was actually kind of funny – it seemed like the universe was hitting me over the head… just to make its point… repeatedly. And all I could think was, “Ok, I get it. You can stop now.” But it didn’t stop. It continued all day. And what could I do? When the universe is making a point, you can’t interrupt it, can you.

Laurel's Eye color reduct.8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

Depths

The next morning, I awoke at our lovely beachside hotel feeling rested, relieved,  and reassured that the psychological exhaustion of my first day in Dahab was over. So, what better way to rest your mind and body than by snorkeling in the fabulous Red Sea! Note for future reference: Swimming through schools of colorful fish amidst lush coral reefs has a calming effect on a Piscean (i.e., me).

IMG_2734                  At our beachside hotel in Dahab, Sinai

IMG_2739                  Beach at our hotel on the Red Sea in Dahab

Now, many of us have heard that the Red Sea affords some of the best (if not THE best) opportunities to see fish and coral in the world. Well, after my experience snorkeling the Three Holes in Dahab for just part of one day, I would have to agree… ABSOLUTELY!!! In fact, this experience left the Great Barrier Reef in the dust. We saw many different colorful fish and corals within just a short distance from the beach. It was amazing. The day before, I had purchased a fish and coral identification chart to help with our marine life spotting. Linda, Ahmed, and I spent a few hours exploring the coral reefs and relaxing on the beach before heading back to our hotel.

IMG_2728                    On the beach at Three Holes, Dahab

IMG_2732                   Relaxing on the beach at Three Holes, Dahab

The rest of the day was at our leisure. While Linda went into town to check her e-mail, Ahmed and I hired bikes to pedal around Dahab’s waterfront. The process of just getting our bikes was rather involved and entertaining. After locating a recommended bike dealer, it took us no less than 40 minutes just to get the bikes. Why, you may ask? Well, the shop owner was particularly conscientious. He made repeated trips to his tool shed in search of what he needed to adjust our bicycle seats to just the right heights, attach a front basket for my bag, and inflate our tires to their optimal levels. And if that weren’t enough, he then tossed in extra time for our money – a good deal. The guy was like the bicycle fairy.

IMG_2722                      Waterfront shops, Dahab

We biked around Dahab until sunset, and then stopped at a seaside restaurant for tea. Dahab is a real tourist town, and it seems like just about every other tourist is Russian. Dozens and dozens of restaurants line the waterfront. And as you stroll down the boardwalk, you are frequently accosted by touts from said restaurants trying to lure you into their establishments. Many offer Bedouin-style seating on comfortable floor cushions with lots of pillows and ambience. I love it. In fact, I’d like to convert my patio at home to an outdoor Bedouin lounge! My only reservation is that animals (e.g., coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, or cats) that live in my neighborhood might destroy it. I’m still working on a plan to outsmart them and have my Bedouin lounge anyway.

IMG_2738              Restaurants along the boardwalk, Dahab

On this our final night in Dahab, we went out to dinner to celebrate Ahmed’s birthday, stopped for ice cream on the way back to our hotel, and then retired for the night as we had an early start the next morning. Ahmed would return to Cairo while Linda and I would travel to the Taba border, crossing everso briefly through Israel, to reach Jordan. Sure, we could have just taken the ferry from Nuweiba to Aqaba, avoiding an Israeli crossing (and the branding of Israeli stamps in our passports which unfortunately prevent travel to a host of other countries in the future). However, due to the unpredictability of the ferries and sea conditions, we elected to travel via Israel in order to ensure a more timely arrival in Wadi Rum (Jordan) that afternoon.

IMG_2727           Waterfront after dark on our last night in Dahab

IMG_2725          Black cat watching us eat at a Bedouin-style restaurant in Dahab

And so Linda and I left Egypt behind, traveling on through Sinai and Eilat (Israel)… to Jordan. Our transition through the Israeli border was not completely uneventful, however. It took us almost two hours because they decided to hold my passport and scan my cell phone for… who knows what… before allowing us to proceed. We then waited in line for a half hour before getting through Israeli border control. There was just another 100 m or so to walk through no-man’s land until we reached Jordanian soil – hamdulallah (thank god)! …Welcome to Jordan.

© 2010 Laurel Colton

Secret of the Desert

Posted December 3, 2010 by tripchick
Categories: Egypt & Jordan

During my first week with Barbara in Cairo, I confess that I succumbed to the lure of a tourist-trap perfume shop and purchased a blend of what I was told contained some 26 herbal essences including lotus and… papyrus (who knew paper could have its own scent!?). The blend was called “Secret of the Desert” and the shopkeeper presented the little bottle to me with a twinkle in his eye and tight lips. It was hermetically sealed and packaged in a box for safe transport home. I never opened it during my trip, yet the smell of it still lingered in my bag… somehow. (Even now, I’ve not broken the bottle’s seal.) For some reason I’ve been hesitant to dab the exotic fragrance on my skin. I bought this stuff, so why don’t I want to wear it? I have no idea. Maybe it was the look on the guy’s face when he sold it to me — as if he knew… I had no idea what I was purchasing. Still, I liked the name and the sample he rubbed on my wrist, so it’s mine now and I just have to accept it. I have just one question: What’s the big “secret”?

Two weeks later in Luxor, Ahmed (#1), Marie, and I departed for the Western Desert early in the morning on November 1 in a well-used Toyota LandCruiser driven by our Bedouin guide, Sameh or Sam for short, and his “sidekick” (for lack of a better title) Saleh, whom Marie dubbed “the Little One” as he was of smaller stature than Sam. With a hearty “Welcome!” from Sam, we drove out into the desert toward Kharga oasis, but had to stop a couple of times along the way to change tires on our 4WD car. This is never a good sign — changing tires… twice… on Day 1 of a trip. While the Bedouins got busy with the repairs, Marie photographed the scene and the stretch of desert road on which we waited, and Ahmed and I chatted about some topic or other whilst I looked for interesting rocks in the sand. After about a ten-minute wait for each tire change, we’d piled back into the car, and off we’d go toward Kharga.

clip_image001    Changing a tire en route to Kharga

clip_image002    Examining our damaged tire

Kharga is a small oasis that has some of the best-preserved and oldest ruins of Christian cemeteries with mudbrick tombs in the world at the Necropolis of Al-Bagawat. There is also a shady cafe where you can take the edge off your thirst, use the toilet, and perhaps pet a nice cat (if it isn’t too feral). We explored the ruins with a guide who spoke barely a word of English (Ahmed served as our translator), and we absorbed as much as we could in about an hour’s time before heading on to our first stop for the night in Dhakla oasis.

clip_image003               Al-Bagawat ruins                                                  

Our hotel in Dhakla was a pleasant surprise: the perfect combination of comfort and rustic earthiness. Each domed mud structure was carved with patterns and looked out over the desert toward the sun setting as we arrived. We were happy campers. I’d definitely go back to this hotel. There was also a dining hall and an outdoor campfire area. That night we went to a natural hot spring to soak under a zillion stars, Venus, and Orion, and then enjoyed Bedouin music around the fire at our hotel. Some Scandinavian college girls danced and I got a quick lesson in playing the tabla (drum) from Sam. How I love tabla music!

clip_image004             Hotel in Dhakla                                             

We awoke early the next morning and drove into town to stash some of our gear at Sam’s home base hotel before heading out into the desert for our first real night of camping under the stars. The drive to our camp was punctuated with ambitious climbs up steep dunes in our LandCruiser. Each time, the car teetered precariously on the dune’s crest before plunging down what became a landslide of sand all the way to the desert floor. Honestly, it was a thrill. I could have done this all day. There is nothing better than the feeling you get in your stomach as your car lurches toward a sand abyss and then cascades with you, sliding into near calamity. And of course, sand is everywhere. It’s a mess. It’s great. It’s fantastic. I love the desert. Perhaps the best part about it is that there is nothing there. No buildings, no people, no pollution, no noise — just you and all those dunes. It is total peace. And at night it’s even better — when you awaken in the darkness and all you can hear is the wind blowing sand against your shelter. There is nothing else. I could go on and on, but I mustn’t….

clip_image005        Driving down a very steep dune in Dhakla           

Bedouin people are nomadic. They pitch their tents wherever and whenever they see fit. So, our camps were quite… impromptu and improvised, yet they had the basic comforts of home: a stove, campfire, table, and sleeping area. We packed in our own water and food, of course. What more do you really need? We slept in a small tent the first night and were out in the open under the night sky on the other three nights. The Bedouins built a standing shelter around our sleeping area, however, to protect us from the wind. We all slept together on thick mattresses on the sand – reminded me of girl scout camp. Actually, it was quite comfortable, and I didn’t have any trouble sleeping, but then again… I do sleep like the dead.

clip_image006        Sam, Marie, ”Little One”/Saleh, and Ahmed at Dhakla camp

clip_image007         Our camp at the base of a very high dune in Dhakla

In Dhakla, I got up at dawn and went out to do my walking meditation (more like a morning stroll than a “meditation” really). Counting out each movement as I stepped, “…one, two, three, four…”, I paced the sand some distance away from our camp to quiet the voices in my head. No, I’m not schizophrenic. It’s just that stuff tends to come to the surface when you are in what I would call a “pure” environment such as a desert with no real distractions. Any doubts, fears, or desires seem heightened, or perhaps they just stand out more in contrast against the desert’s barren landscape; I don’t know. Anyway, 10 minutes of walking did the job, and I got cleaned up for breakfast.

Bedouin food is simple but good. Breakfast usually consists of pita bread, a hard-boiled egg, cheese, jam, and coffee or tea. And in fact, this was pretty much what I ate throughout my ENTIRE 43 days in Egypt and Jordan (except for two glorious days at the Marriott’s Dead Sea Resort when my friend Linda and I indulged in a rather lavish breakfast buffet – yum!). Lunch (usually taken anywhere from 12 noon until 4 pm) consists of vegetables (usually tomatoes and cucumbers), cheese, pita bread (again), hummus or babaganouj, fuul (a bean dish), sometimes soup, perhaps a meat dish, and tea. Dinner is (you guessed it) pita bread, rice, a rather tasty hot vegetable dish of tomato sauce with potatoes, carrots, green beans, and zucchini, a meat dish (lamb, beef, chicken, or fish), and of course… tea! By the way, the Bedouin offer you tea CONSTANTLY. (Actually, now that I think of it… Egyptians and Jordanians in general offer you tea constantly.) And you’re not really supposed to turn down their hospitality from what I understand. I guess that’s smart also because drinking constantly does keep you hydrated. So, social etiquette aside, tea (and a little caffeine) is always a good thing.

clip_image008 Breakfast table at one of our camps and our 4WD

From our desert camp in Dhakla, we continued on across the desert highway to Farafra oasis. The road followed a long ridgeline or plateau which Sam referred to as “his” mountain, and his enthusiastic “Welcome!” made us feel that perhaps we had entered a part of the desert to which he indeed laid claim. Along the way, we were sure to stay on course thanks to the GPS Ahmed had brought with him. What can I say here? The man has a passion for gadgets. He also brought an iPad loaded with movies and books, his iPhone which rang “bling bling” seemingly every hour with colleagues from work calling for help (I nearly did him the favor of chucking it in a hot spring one day), an astronomical laser pointer to single-out stars each night, a high-powered flashlight which came in handy in the pitch darkness of the desert, an auxiliary electrical charger for the car which saved the day when the battery died on my portable hard drive whilst I was backing up photos, and several glow-in-the-dark bracelets (we’re not quite sure what they were for, but I can imagine they may have warned anyone approaching the latrine area that it was being used by a wearer, plus they were just plain fun). I’m probably forgetting other gadgets Ahmed had in his bag. But indeed, Gadget Man was there to fight for user-friendliness, convenience, and easy access in an otherwise inhospitable, technologically-deprived desert. Still, much as we all appreciated his fondness for gadgets and their undeniable value, it was a rather ridiculous last straw when upon looking at his GPS, he found it necessary to announce that we had “just turned left”. Umm… yah.

As we arrived in Farafra, Sam prepared Marie and me for our little “meeting” with the local tourist police. Now, I have not written much about the Egyptian tourist police in my blog posts so far. I felt I needed a bit more experience with them before I could comment more fully. But from what I can tell, the tourist police are a mixed brew. Some are good guys just trying to do their duty; others are jaded bureaucrats in love with self-entitlement and power. I would say that we encountered both types during our trip.

Our stops at the various police checkpoints en route through the Western Desert would have been no different from those in other parts of Egypt… except for one key detail: we were not just two foreign women traveling alone with our guide and driver but had an Egyptian guy, Ahmed, with us. Why, you may ask, should this change the situation? Well, apparently when tourist police see an Egyptian traveler with foreign tourists, it raises questions – many questions – potentially endless questions, actually. Questions like, “Is this guy another one of your guides?”, and “Why do you have two guides?” and “What is he really doing here? We know he can’t be traveling for fun because Egyptians don’t travel to the Western Desert just for fun.” So at each checkpoint, Sam patiently would tell the police that there were just “two different” foreigners in our car (Marie, a Belgian, and me, an American). The police would look puzzled, seeing Ahmed, and would ask, “But we see three; where is HE from (pointing to Ahmed)?” And each time, Sam would have to turn to Ahmed and ask him to say something in Arabic so the police would believe that he was Egyptian. But this only churned up more confusion, as the police then tried to work out what an Egyptian traveler was doing with two foreign tourists. Thankfully, they soon gave up on the complicated problem of who we all were and why we were all traveling together, and just waved us onward: Whatever. Be gone, crazy tourists.

clip_image009    Tourist police checkpoint, Western Desert highway (taken                   through car window on the sly ; > )

Perhaps now you’ll understand why Sam had to “prepare” Marie and me for what was about to happen at our Farafra tourist police meeting. The plan was that Ahmed would go with Sam and Little One to the Farafra museum and wait there for us. This would remove Ahmed from the tourist police equation which gets more and more complicated and red-tapey as you get farther and farther out into the desert. Essentially, the tourist police are there to protect foreign travelers, but it’s rather beyond their job description, shall we say, to protect the odd Egyptian citizen (i.e., Ahmed) who elects to travel into the desert with foreigners. So, Marie and I would go alone with our driver to the tourist police office in town and when the police would ask us where we were going we were instructed to say, “Siwa,” only (even though we were stopping at the White and Black deserts first). And when asked if we wanted a police escort, we would politely say, “No, thank you”. Then, we would sign away our lives on paper, stating that we were declining said police escort, and would be sent on our way. We’d then meet up with Sam, Little One, and Ahmed at the museum and our trip would continue as planned. And in fact, this is precisely what happened… without a hitch… no doubt in part due to the fact that our driver slipped the police officer a little baksheesh under the table just for good measure. Some call this giving the guy his “tea” and it’s very common.

However, Marie had another idea, and en route back to the museum, she hatched a plan to fool Sam and make him think we had screwed up our police interview, said far too much to the officer, and were being sent back to Dhakla! Of course, she got me and the driver to play along. When we arrived at the museum, our first challenge was convincing Ahmed of our failure. I felt horrible doing this, but I went through with it, faking my disappointment and upset. The look on his face was heartbreaking but necessary in order to fool Sam. Then, Marie and I told Sam we had to return to Dhakla. At first, Sam looked at us in disbelief, but then as we wove our lies into an unfortunate tale about our own stupidity at the tourist police meeting, Sam picked up the phone and starting calling the police office to sort out the problem! You know that moment when you suddenly realize that you’ve gone too far? Well, we were clearly there. Thank god we caught Sam before his call went through! But then the police phoned him back… and I guess Sam had to come up with some lame excuse that he was just calling to say, “thanks”. Yikes! That was a close call. Sam vowed to get even with Marie… although I don’t think he ever really did. Ok, kids… don’t try this one at home. Lying is bad… even when it’s just to play a joke on someone. This has been a public service announcement.

clip_image010    Marie and Sam                                                         © 2010 Laurel Colton

Having recovered from our little tourist police game, all of us toured the art museum in Farafra and then continued on to the White Desert between Farafra and Bahariya oases. The White Desert looks like a bizarre Dali-esque lunar landscape. Rock formations rise up from the desert floor like white cotton candy shaped by the wind and sand, and chalky white dust blankets the ground. Some of the formations look like animals, people, or mushrooms. We camped here one night and very late that evening as we lay on our Bedouin mattresses covered with thick wool blankets to keep out the cold wind, we heard the calls of what was probably a small, unidentified fox. The next morning during my walk, I found fox tracks everywhere as well as a number of fossilized shells and coral blackened with age. Too cool!

clip_image011  Sheesha pipe at camp in White Desert

clip_image012                                 At “mushroom” rock in White Desert

clip_image013 “Cotton candy” on White Desert landscape at sunset

clip_image014                       “Rabbit” rock in White Desert                                

Leaving the White Desert, we moved on to Crystal Mountain, a sub-volcanic vault and ridge of crystal-laden limestone probably dating to the Oligocene, and then the Black Desert, dotted with black basalt canyons and volcano-shaped mountains. We hiked up to lookout points at both locations and took many photos of these areas.

clip_image015 Crystal Mountain Rock Crystals                 

clip_image016    Black Desert                                                         

While driving to our camp at Bahariya oasis, our tires got stuck in the sand briefly and we had to dig our way out. It was windy and cold in our camp that night; perhaps 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit). During dinner, a fox came into camp to steal some scraps. It was probably a Ruppell’s fox which is a little larger than a fennec fox and has a white-tipped tail. I was able to film it briefly with my video camera. After dinner we gathered around the fire for Bedouin music, conversation, …and tea, of course.

clip_image017 HELP! Stuck in sand near Bahariya camp   

clip_image018 Bedouin music and campfire in Bahariya          

The next day, we traveled on to Siwa oasis at the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Settling into our hotel in Shali, a village deeply rooted in Berber culture, we met Omar, guide and agent for Sam’s Bedouin tours. Omar was a character I’ll always remember. In his late twenties, he was an extremely knowledgeable and professional person. And when Omar was not touring with us, we sometimes ran into him, equipped with remote microphone, leading groups of 90 or more tourists donning headsets at some of Siwa’s archeological sites. Best of all, Omar’s smile made others smile back. He was quite mild-mannered, but had a great sense of humor. Omar seemed to carry with him an invisible bag of private jokes and sometimes he giggled without warning and his nose wrinkled up when he laughed. This made the rest of us giggle too – it was infectious. One night, Omar took us with him to a friend’s hot spring camp and we soaked under the stars and then dried ourselves around a campfire while the Bedouins passed around the sheesha.

clip_image019 Giggling Omar (left) in Siwa House museum

During our time in Siwa, we also visited the ruins of Shali Fortress at sunset, and took a donkey cart ride to visit the Mountain of the Dead’s (Gebel Al-Mawta) tombs dating to the 26th dynasty of Ptolemaic and Roman times, the Temple of the Oracle of Amun where Alexander the Great consulted the oracle and was crowned Pharaoh of Egypt, and Cleopatra’s Bath. Later that afternoon, we biked out to view Fatnas Island at sunset.

clip_image020 Overlooking Shali Fortress ruins in Siwa

clip_image021 Donkey cart in Siwa                                       

clip_image022 Mountain of the Dead in Siwa                    

clip_image023 Temple of the Oracle Amun in Siwa         

clip_image024 Sunset reflection at Fatnas Island, Siwa

Siwa had a great deal to offer, and consequently, we all agreed that an extra day’s stay was needed for more exploration. We put this third day to good use with a morning visit to the Siwa House to learn about the Siwan and Berber cultures, and then a jeep safari out into the Great Sand Sea… with the best desert driver I’ve ever seen (he was also quite a good singer). He was a true showman and drove the dunes like an Olympic skier tackling moguls… with style and grace, power and precision… and a great deal of terror… for our benefit, of course. But any panic we may have felt quickly turned to exhilaration; the drive was better than any rollercoaster ride at Disneyland. Along the way, we stopped to swim in a lovely freshwater lake right in the middle of the desert. The scene was perfection… except for some biting flies that quickly swarmed us once we got out of the water. I should issue a general warning here for anyone traveling to Siwa: Use insect repellant – gobs of it!!! Mosquitoes are also a terrific nuisance after sunset. None of us escaped the little vampires. So, beware!

clip_image025 Great Sand Sea dunes near Siwa

clip_image026 Dunes in Great Sand Sea near Siwa

clip_image027   Our excellent driver (left) with Ahmed in the Great Sand Sea

clip_image028 Ahmed and Marie at freshwater lake in Great Sand Sea

Leaving Siwa, our drive to Alexandria took about 5 hours on the bus with stops along the way. Fortunately, we were rewarded with a hotel in a good location near the Mediterranean Sea and spent our next two evenings walking the length of Alexandria’s corniche. In Alex, we visited the Graeco-Roman catacombs, Pompey’s pillar and the  Serapeum, the Roman Amphitheatre, Fort Qaitbey (site of Pharos’ lighthouse) built in 1480 AD, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alexandria Library), a church, a mosque, and Montazah Palace where President Mubarak stays when he’s in town. En route to Cairo, we toured a Greek Orthodox monastery in Wadi Natrun and were invited to lunch there as well.

clip_image029 Alexandria’s waterfront seen from the corniche

clip_image030 Graeco-Roman Catacombs in Alexandria

clip_image031 Pompey’s Pillar and the Serapeum in Alexandria

clip_image032  The Roman Amphitheatre in Alexandria

clip_image033 Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria

clip_image034 With Alexandrian school girls outside Fort Qaitbey

clip_image035 Inside the Alexandria Library

clip_image036 Montazah Palace and moon, Alexandria

clip_image037                              Greek Orthodox monastery’s church interior, Wadi Natrun

clip_image038 Greek Orthodox monastery’s exterior, Wadi Natrun

Back in Cairo, due to the ungodly traffic, it was a mad dash to get Marie to the airport for her flight back to London. And while Ahmed and I were out exploring Old Cairo later that night, we learned that she missed her flight entirely. Poor Marie. She had to go back to Dhakla afterall! Well, no; not really. Instead, I offered Marie the spare bed in my room for the night, and found her sound asleep when I returned to the hotel at 2 AM. An hour later, I left for the airport to fly on to Sharm El-Sheikh (in Sinai). I’d just like to mention here that 3 AM is about the only time you will find yourself cruising through the streets of Cairo unimpeded by bumper-to-bumper traffic… hamdulallah (Thank God)! Be warned. In Sinai, I would meet up with Linda, an English woman with whom I would share the rest of my trip there and in Jordan. So, yes… the journey continues… inshallah (if God wills it)….

clip_image039        A street-side café in Old Cairo at 1 AM

So, what is the “secret” of the desert? – Having a really good desert driver and a lot of mosquito repellant, of course! If you don’t like that answer and want a more meaningful one, you’ll have to buy the book (if it ever materializes).  ; >  Egypt’s Western Desert is a magical place.  Go there and discover your own secret.

© 2010 Laurel Colton

…Sunrise and More

Posted November 22, 2010 by tripchick
Categories: Egypt & Jordan

Ok, so I guess I should apologize for leaving you all hanging like I did with my last entry about the Abu Simbel Sun Festival, but forgive me — does anyone doubt that the sun came up the morning of October 22? I didn’t think so. Yes, indeed the sun rose up over Lake Nasser as expected, shining a rather ephemeral light upon Ramses’ temple and all the way into the inner sanctuary to illuminate three of the four statues there… as predicted. The colors of the temple changed from golden to orange, peach, pink, and finally a pale yellowish-white. Everyone cheered, whirling dervishes dances, and Nubian singers sang in front of the temple. It was beautiful. Enough said.

Barbara and I returned to our hotel to wait for our convoy on to Aswan. We waited and waited for our driver to show. Then, at what seemed like the last possible moment, he arrived, threw our bags in the back of his car, and we spun out of the Nefertari Hotel’s driveway to join a line of what must have been about 30+ cars and buses in convoy to Aswan. We were the LAST car in line. Guess we just made it.

Our drive to Aswan was uneventful and when we arrived, we checked into our hotel and collapsed for a little while… partly from the heat and partly from some sort of chest cold we had caught along the way between Cairo and Abu Simbel. I’d like to add a note here about the incredible amount of dust that exists in Egypt (and Jordan for that matter). Even now I am not entirely sure that the lingering cough I (and other travelers whom I’ve met) have endured is not a result of the tremendously dusty, dry air… at least in part. However, despite the respiratory discomfort, Barbara and I did manage to make the most of our time in Aswan (somehow), touring as much as possible during the morning hours, and resting during the afternoon. We visited all the main sites, did a Nile felucca ride out to the islands, visited the Nubian Museum (two BIG thumbs up!) and High Dam, and explored Philae Temple by day (but just barely because our boat broke down and we had to be towed by another boat) and night (by the light of a nearly full moon).

Moving on to Luxor, things improved remarkably — at least in terms of the weather (less hot) and touring options… if not in terms of our general respiratory health. We spent the entire week sightseeing all over Luxor and even did a hot air balloon ride over the West Bank’s Valley of the Kings/Queens. Our guide from Cairo, Wael, with his vast knowledge of Egyptology, joined us for this part of the trip again. You name it, we saw it. I was blown away by Karnak Temple in particular and found myself wandering through those ruins in total awe.

Finally, on Oct. 31, Barbara and I made our way to Dendara and Abydos for Halloween. Abydos is known as the most sacred city in Egypt and many people make pilgrimages there because it is believed that Osiris’ head it buried there and the temple site is considered the gateway to the afterlife. (Spooky, eh?) Unbelievably, I ran into a friend of mine, Libby, from the States at Abydos. Amazing coincidence…or perhaps not.

Later that night, upon returning to our hotel in Luxor, Barbara and I met up with Ahmed #1 again and Marie, a Belgian woman I met through the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree. And so as Barbara prepared to depart for home, ending her 18 days traveling with me, Ahmed, Marie, and I prepared to depart on a Western Desert Safari the following morning.  So closed one chapter of my trip through Egypt as another began… out amidst the oases and dunes.

Abu Simbel Sun Festival — Oct. 22

Posted October 25, 2010 by tripchick
Categories: Uncategorized

So, we left Cairo a few days ago and headed down to Aswan on the Abela sleeper train overnight… arriving in Aswan about 9:30 AM on Oct. 21. The train was very comfortable and a fun adventure. Barbara enjoyed it too. We had bunk beds and dinner and breakfast served in our compartment. We had a sink and mirror and it was actually a lot of fun. When we awoke in Aswan, we were met at the station by our tour contact/agent Ahmed #2 (I call my friend Ahmed G-E “#1″) and his driver Ahmed #3 and driven to Aswan airport where we caught our flight directly on to Abu Simbel. By the way, 65% of the men here are called Ahmed we were told. Go figure. Anyway, we were a bit surprised that our flight to Abu Simbel was not full and we were able to switch seats to be on the LEFT side of the plane as we arrive in Abu Simbel, flying in low over Lake Nasser in clear and glorious view of Ramses’ and Nefertari’s temples!!! Awesome. Upon arriving at the airport, we met a rather hurried agent, Moustafa, who whisked us off to the Nefertari Hotel (reportedly a 4 star hotel, but more like a 2 or 3 star by U.S. standards). Now, I’m not sure if I should go into the nitty gritty details of how things turned horribly wrong for the rest of the afternoon, but what the hell… it might just make for fun reading.

Let’s just say that even if you have a reservation and a hotel voucher in your hand and the room has already been paid for with credit card, there is no guarantee that you will get a room in Abu Simbel… especially during the crowded Sun Festival (Oct. 22). And sure enough, while our agent Moustafa argued with the Nefertari Hotel’s manager as best he could, we could see from a short distance that all was not well. Apparently the hotel had “overbooked” due to the high demand placed on rooms for the Sun Festival. And despite our patience for over 2.5 hours, nothing was being done to rectify the situation. Sadly, Moustafa took off and left us (perhaps to try to find a room for us elsewhere or perhaps because he knew it was a lost cause and had better things to do), and we were left sitting in the hotel lobby… left to our own devices. While Barbara went into the hotel restaurant to grab some water, I called Aladin Tours in Luxor to check in with them and see if there was anything they could do from their end. Ahmad (a variation of Ahmed, so I guess we can call him #4) and Aladin himself spoke with me and tried to reassure me that the reservation was made, but since the Nefertari would not do anything about the absence of our names on their master list, we were still s*** out of luck. On to Plan B.

I got up, walked over to the hotel check-in counter, and BURST INTO TEARS. Yes, that’s right… on cue… in front of all the staff and manager and pretty much everyone in the lobby… and then an Egyptian TV crew that happened to be there to shoot the Sun Festival. Perfect timing. And while the TV crew did not film me sobbing at the counter, I know they saw what was going on because they turned to Barbara who had just re-entered the room and asked to interview her… and she gave a nice little spiel about why we were there and how things had gone terribly wrong and how we were not sure if we would have a roof over our heads for the night at the NEFERTARI HOTEL!!! Good PR spot, I think, don’t you? Right.

So, then the staff hand me some cleenex and the manager tells me to come over and sit down with him and he will talk with me… FINALLY!!!! AFTER nearly 3 hours he is willing to try to work something out. He introduces himself as… that’s right… Ahmed (#5) and says that he wants to help me/us, but that they only have one cancellation due to all their overbookings (which by the way, I find hard to believe — I mean, really, I didn’t see them turning other people away — just us). He says he can let us have this one spare room…. BUT (and there is always a “but”), we must pay for it on the spot: US$130. I phone Aladin Tours and get the OK from them… so they know they’ll need to reimburse us for this later and I get the OK from Aladin (owner) himself, and he talks to Ahmed #5 to verify everything… yada, yada, yada. Now, manager Ahmed #5 turns to me and says, “And there is one other thing — you must not mention this to ANYONE else!” Well, I guess I’ve blown that promise now, eh? And you know what, I don’t care… because I don’t think that what he did was legit and I think that it’s a total scam. When we got to Luxor today, Aladin told me that the price we had to pay him was much higher than the price they had negotiated and pre-paid when Aladin Tours made our reservation for us. So, that’s why we had to pay cash and we had to only pay it to manager Ahmed #5 and we had to keep it a secret. Yah, right. Well, to all who plan to stay at the Nefertari Hotel in Abu Simbel — PLEASE THINK TWICE and BEWARE.

But that’s not all, folks! So, we finally got our room and a somewhat late start on our afternoon tour of Abu Simbel, but the rest of the afternoon was productive. We stuck around for the Sound and Light Show and then returned to the hotel to get some shuteye before waking super early to get back in line for the Sun Festival at the temples. Back at our hotel room, we started up the AC because it was still about 38 C (something like 98 F I think) at 8 PM and guess what!? The AC broke down. Of course it did. So, we called the desk and they sent some guys out to pour some kind of fluid in it, and it worked again… for a little while, and then it really conked out. So, the guys had to come back and believe it or not, they took the ENTIRE UNIT out of the wall, hauled it away, and brought us a new one! And yes, it worked. We went to sleep… until 2:15 AM… when I got up and went back down to the temples to get in line with about 30 or 40 Germans and Japanese (the hard core Sun Festival seekers, I guess), at the gate. At 3 AM, they let us back in and we all made a bee-line to Ramses temple. I was 35th in line and took a seat on the ground near the temple entrance amidst the German group. So, I was sitting there until about 4 AM just thinking about what was about to happen as the sun would rise at 5:50-ish AM or so, and how it would look and how I could watch the sunlight illuminate the 3 statues of Ramses, Amun, and Ra-Herakte (but not the fourth statue of Ptah, god of shadows), and it suddenly dawned on me that I am in the wrong place. I won’t be able to photograph ANY of this inside — they don’t allow it! In fact, I would be better off staking out a prime spot right in front of the temple so that I can photograph and film the sun rising and the light changing the colors of the temple walls/statues outside, while at the same time being able to watch the statues of the inner sanctuary being illuminated on the two TV screens they have set up outside. So, I get up and I start to leave and everyone is asking me, “What are you doing?! Why are you giving up your spot?! You must be crazy!” But I knew what I was doing and I left and found a prime spot right out in front — in the center of the courtyard leading up to the temple. There was even a little stone bench for me to sit on and so there I sat until after 5 AM when the hoards of travelers came through….

Stay tuned. Battery running low. More to come later on the SUNRISE!!! Ooh.

Pyramids, Sphinx, Memphis, etc.

Posted October 17, 2010 by tripchick
Categories: Egypt & Jordan

Yesterday (Oct. 16) we started early in the morning (8 AM) with a visit to the Giza Pyramids. We saw all three of the great pyramids, rode a camel (I think I got my holiday card photo for 2010 ; > ), climbed down INSIDE Chefren’s pyramid Indiana Jones-style, visited the Solar Boat museum, and then went to see the great Sphinx. It was just amazing and our guide was pretty patient with us (we are training him to let us spend more time taking photos/video, etc.) — he let us stay there 4 hours (instead of 3) which was really necessary. I cannot imagine going on an organized tour where they only let you stay a couple of hours usually. That would have been really rushed and we would not have been able to do all that we did I think. By the way, on the camel ride, my camel’s name was Michael Jackson and Barbara’s was named Mickey Mouse. : > MJ was a nice camel and I had a good (but very rocky) ride. Got my photo on the camel with Chefren’s pyramid in the background (that’s the one with the outer coating on the top of it still remaining). I think it is the most recognizable pyramid and my favorite.

After our pyramids visit, we visited two obligatory shops (no matter how you try to escape this on even customized tours, the tour operators always take tourists to these shops because they get a commission from any purchases tourists make). So, we were taken to a papyrus shop (where a guy there talked to us about how papyrus is made without ever making eye contact with us from what I could tell). Then, we went to a shop where they sell Egyptian cotton garments. Both shops were WAAAAY over-priced. Barbara and I will shop on our own in our free time because then we can haggle with the sellers more (on the streets), and I don’t plan to really do this until the end of my trip anyway (don’t want to carry the stuff with me all the way). But it was somewhat interesting seeing the items for sale and learning something about how papyrus is made.

We then returned from the pyramids to our hotel, took showers (because it was rather sweltering yesterday at about 38 degrees C or just over 100 degrees F) because we were DRENCHED with perspiration from the day. Cairo has had a bit of a “heat wave” this week they say — yah, right… I think they just tell people that because they don’t want them to cancel their trips — the reality is that it’s bloody hot here no matter WHEN you come outside the months of December-February which is high season and you’d pay top dollar then. Egypt could not afford to have a tourist season of just 3 months a year, so they tell people that they have a “spring” and “fall” and it’s cooler then. Sure — instead of 120 degrees F, it’s 100 degrees F. Right. But I knew this all along. Just go on http://www.weather.com or http://www.wunderground.com and check out Egypt’s temps in years past and currently and you’ll see this has been a going pattern for quite a while. So, you just have to suck it up and deal with the heat if you want to come here. I have been drinking at least 2 liters of water during the day and more at night… and I’m still ALWAYS thirsty. It’s pretty incredible. Fortunately, bottled water is pretty cheap — about EGP 2-2.5 (about US$ 0.50) for 1.5 liters — which surprises me considering this country is just a big desert. However, they do have oases and my current 1.5 L bottle says the water in it comes from the Siwa oasis (which I will visit later in my trip) out in the Western Desert. I also plan to try out my Steripen Classic soon as it will allow me to sterilize the tap water from my hotel room (and I won’t have to use bottled water to brush my teeth anymore). Today, our guide actually told us not to believe what people say about Egyptian water being bad for you and that it is OK to drink it. Umm… NO. That’s not safe and I don’t know anyone else who would advise that to travelers. I have no idea why he would say this, but I think that someone needs to explain to him the risks of hepatitis A and various bacterial problems one can catch from water in this country… especially if one is a foreigner and has no resistance to it. Anyway, I have NOT taken his advice and I AM sticking to my program of using ONLY treated, bottled, or boiled water. Period.

So, last night after our showers, we hopped in the car and drove to the Mena House Oberoi hotel (very posh; originally established as a hunting lodge by an Indian moghul of some kind). We had a look around and took some photos, and then continued on to the Giza pyramids to see the Sound and Light show. Narrated by the “voice of the Sphinx”, this rather cheesy show hits the highlights of Egypt’s ancient history, pharaohs, and pyramids while laser-like beams hit the pyramids themselves, projecting images and symbols on them. However, did I mention that the haze in Cairo is rather thick? Well, it was particularly thick yesterday and so the illumination did not show up all that well from what I could tell. The colored lights on the Sphinx, however, were beautiful and I’d say that people mainly attend this show in order to photograph the Sphinx and pyramids at night as they are colorfully lit up. Personally, I took a few photos (trying to hold my camera perfectly still so as not to get blurry night photos), and then nearly fell asleep during the rest of the show. The narrator’s voice was so monotonous — picture the old British voices used in various Star Trek episodes in the 70s — really kinda hysterical but also very sedating for me. At times I had to catch myself from falling over asleep on Barbara or the guy sitting to my left. Reminds me of the time I fell asleep during an evening performance at the Sydney Opera House after a full day of sightseeing. Sigh. : /

Anyway, after the Sound and Light show we just came back to the hotel and fell into bed. I went to sleep at about 8:45 PM — not sure if it was the emotion of the day seeing the great pyramids and Sphinx, or residual tiredness from my flights a few days ago, or just the slow-paced, droning Sound and Light show that exhausted me, but I slept soundly until 5:45 AM this morning!

Today, we met our guide at 8 AM again and drove off to see Dashur, Memphis, and Saqqara! At Dashur, we visited the Bent and Red pyramids. We climbed down inside the Red pyramid Indian Jones-style again and it was a rather challenging climb on the way back up and out. However, it was well worth it as we were able to access three inner chambers/tombs. At Memphis we saw sites where Ramses erected many statues featuring himself (of course) and other symbols of his reign in Lower Egypt (although he actually ruled from Upper Egypt). At one time, Memphis was the main capitol of Egypt. Then, at Saqqara we saw the very first pyramid-LIKE structure in the world — the Step Pyramid! They say this is the first stone building ever built. It’s a series of mastabas (square-shaped structures placed one on top of the other much like a wedding cake). It was built by the great architect Imhotep to house King Zoser’s tomb (Old Kingdom) and it was built over the course of about 10 years (completed in about 2650 BC). The Step Pyramid is being restored on two sides, so there was some scaffolding, but the structure was still quite impressive and I was just thrilled to see this building which later led to the famous pyramids seen at Giza.

We stopped at a Persian rug weaving factory on our way to lunch, but I didn’t buy anything. All the carpets were incredibly expensive. I mean, a little 10 in. x10 in. square bit of woven wool was US$ 60. And what am I going to do with that? I mean, I guess my cat could curl up on it, but seriously…. It was kinda useless. Still, we did get to watch them weaving the silk carpets and the wool carpets. But they were not even 100% — but blends of silk and cotton or wool and cotton. So, the place was pretty overpriced I think. But that’s the deal with the obligatory shopping stops tour operators make — they just want a nice commission. I will get much better deals later on the streets if I want to buy anything.

So, we had lunch at what our guide said was a more traditional Egyptian restaurant. In truth, it was just a tourist restaurant just like the others we’ve stopped at so far. The only difference was that we sat outside and we arrived there at 2 PM AFTER all the tourists had already left. So, by then the buffet was closed (which may have been a good thing) and we were served a selected variety of dishes at the table. Many were vegetarian items — so, no problem there. But I look over across the lawn and spotted a fellow sitting with a rather strange looking dog in his lap. Then, I looked a little closer and saw that it was actually a LION CUB. The guy caught my eye and gestured to me as if to say, “Would you like to come and see?” I quickly turned away, however because I do not support that sort of thing. I won’t get on my soap box here, but suffice it to say that as much as I LOVE lion cubs in particular, I won’t encourage the taking of those animals from the wild in order to make money from tourists petting or photographing them. Ok, there… I’m done.

After lunch, we returned to our hotel in the Doqqi district of Cairo and so here I am catching up on my writing and e-mail. Tomorrow we’ll drive out from Cairo about 2 hours to the east to see the Suez Canal which should be interesting. The next day, we’ll tour Coptic Cairo, the Citadel, etc. Then, on Oct. 20, we go to the west of Cairo near Al-Fayoum oasis to visit Wadi Hitan (Valley of the Whales) where we’ll see whale fossils out in the Western Desert since that area was once all under water thousands of years ago. So, stay tuned for more reports on that later. Signing off for now — Laurel — OUT.

Getting Started…

Posted October 15, 2010 by tripchick
Categories: Egypt & Jordan

Greetings from Egypt!

We had a great day today. We started at the Giza Zoo and Barbara (a friend from Maryland) and I enjoyed hearing about how animals factor into Egyptian mythology. She’s very interested in the mythology and the gods and goddess (as I am too). Our guide, Waeel (sp?) took us and showed us around the Zoo. We were the only foreigners there! Today is Friday and so it’s a holiday and lots of Egyptian families visited the Zoo and took picnics. I used my new camcorder and it seemed to work just fine. Took video and photos with it — very easy. : >

After that, we went to lunch at a nice tourist restaurant called Soiree in Cairo. I ate a popular Egyptian dish call Koshari… which I loved and want to learn how to make for you. It is vegetarian and contains noodles, rice, lentils, garbonzo beans, sauteed/fried onions, and spices — delicious! Ahmed (who we had dinner with tonight) says he has a recipe for it he can give me. The restaurant for lunch also had other vegetarian dishes/salads and great babaganoush (eggplant-based dip) and their deserts were outstanding too! The best was the little donut-hole-like balls saturated with honey juice — a lot like Khofti (sp? — Indian desert). I drank LOTS of bottled water today. I was so dry — probably residual from my flights even though I thought I drank a lot on them too.

After lunch, we visited the Egyptian Museum… and it was SUREAL!!!! Unbelievable. It was literally just like a dream walking through that huge place full of antiquities and mummies. I opted to pay the extre EGP 100 (about US$ 17.55) just to go inside the two Royal Mummy rooms. And I’m so glad that I did. I actually *SAW* the mummies of Thutmosis I, II, and III, Ahkenaten (!), Queen Hatsheptsut (!!!), Ahmenhotep (!), and (drumroll, please…) RAMSES II (Ramses the Great !!!!!!!!!!!!!). Even Queen Tiye was there and I could not believe I was looking upon the very face of her pictured in the National Geographic article I brought with me. INSANE!!!! By the way, these Royal Mummy rooms were the only air-conditioned rooms in the whole museum. And it was rather warm and stuffy there… with lots of crowds mostly gathered around all the King Tut antiquities… many of which I had seen and remembered from the time I saw them in L.A. so many years ago. In spite of the crowds, I was able to view all of Tut’s stuff too — including his sarcophagi and funerary mask (!), canopic jars, throne, etc. It was still phenomenal even though I had seen it all before. And it felt like visiting “old friends”. So, I was inside the Egyptian for about 4 hours (thankfully our guide took us to the highlights and then left us there to explore on our own and we just met up with our driver outside when we were done). By the way, they don’t permit ANY photography/video inside (you cannot even pay for it), so the only photos/video I took was outside in the garden that Dr. Bob Brier talked about in his lectures. I saw all the engraved stones he showed and took many photos of them. So, that was cool. It was just amazing to be there and I still cannot believe that we did it.

Then, we came back to our hotel — Noran Hotel (13 Mohamed Khalaf St., Dokki, Cairo). It is about what I expected — probably 2 stars. I have hot water in my room, a TV, AC, and a small refrigerator. It feels clean and safe, but nothing fancy. I sleep well on the bed and the small side street outside the hotel is quiet, so there is minimal noise. I took a nap in my room this afternoon after returning from the Egyptian Museum and before meeting up with Ahmed (my Egyptian friend) for dinner tonight. Ahmed took Barbara and me for dinner at Chilis (American restaurant they have here) on a huge floating boat on the Zamalek island in the middle of the River Nile. It was very nice to talk with him. I think he would make a great teacher because he knows so much about Egyptian government, history, and politics.

Tomorrow morning we get an early start at 8 am to go to the Giza pyramids and our guide is going to try to get us into the one pyramid folks are permitted to enter. We’ll see the sphinx, of course, and then the solar boat museum. I’m going to ask if we can have tea at the Mena House Oberoi on the way back (where Churchill made all his war plans, etc.) — it’s a lovely hotel. Then, tomorrow night, we go to the Pyramids Sound and Light show. So, it will be a full day I think. Gotta get some sleep. Goodnight!

Egypt & Jordan Itinerary, Oct.-Nov. 2010

Posted March 22, 2010 by tripchick
Categories: Egypt & Jordan, My Travels

  
  
First, let me assure you that I am NOT a travel agent or in the travel industry and I will not earn any commissions or other pay for this trip. I’m planning this journey for myself because I love to travel and explore other countries in a more customized manner. I’ve done this many times before, so I’m experienced. The benefits I get from having other travelers come along are: 1) I’ll feel safer as a woman traveling in the Middle East with a few other people, 2) lower costs for EVERYONE (including me) because transport and accommodations can be shared, and 3) the pleasure of other travelers’ company! So, if you or someone you know is interested in participating in any portion of the itinerary below, please contact me at LMColton@hotmail.com . The Western Desert portion in particular should be done in a group to cut transportation costs. The Western Desert really is amazing and should not be missed!  

Overview:                  

  • Egypt Travel Dates: Oct. 13-Nov. 14, 2010.
  • Jordan Travel Dates: Nov. 14-24, 2010.
  • Choose to do any or all parts of the trip depending on your time schedule, etc.
  • Small group forming now: 4-6 travelers.
  • Single/individual travelers can share a room with another group member.
  • Budget accommodations.

            

Wanna come along?: There is still space on the Western Desert oases safari and other day tours I’m doing in Egypt. Please contact me if you’re interested – LMColton@hotmail.com or tel: 323-256-8406 (USA). A 30% deposit is required by the tour operator at least one week in advance. AFTER OCT. 13: Please contact Aladin Tours (Eman Ahmad), the tour operator, directly as I will be traveling and my e-mail use will be greatly reduced (you won’t be able to contact me at the U.S. phone number above either). Aladin Tours’ contact information appears near the bottom of this page. Thanks for your understanding.              

What makes this trip unique?                  

  • This is a customized itinerary incorporating the very best of Egypt and Jordan in 43 days total… at a very reasonable cost.
  • Visit Egypt’s spectacular Abu Simbel temple for the Sun Festival and watch the sunrise illuminate 3 of 4 statues in the inner sanctuary, leaving only the god of darkness in shadow. This only happens twice a year.
  • Spend Halloween in well-preserved Abydos, “gateway to the afterlife” & Egypt’s most sacred city. Spooky cool!
  • Instead of spending half our time in Upper Egypt on board a Nile cruise ship, we will venture overland between Aswan and Luxor, to more fully absorb the culture and scenic landscape en route.
  • Visit all 5 Western desert oases, including Siwa, and the vast Sand Sea.
  • Climb Mt. Sinai and snorkel or dive in the Red Sea.
  • Visit historic and biblical pilgrimage sites in Jordan.
  • Spend two nights at a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum, land of Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Explore legendary Petra by Night.
  • Enjoy floating in the Dead Sea at a Dead Sea Resort.
  • No package tour companies offer as much in one trip; believe me… I’ve looked and looked — NO ONE!!! That’s why I’ve created my own trip! : >

            

              

EGYPT: October 13 – November 14, 2010                  

Oct. 13: Depart home airport for Cairo (CAI).                  

               

Cairo Area Segment: October 14-17, 2010 (7 days)                  

Oct. 14: Arrive in Cairo; afternoon/evening free to rest up from flight or explore independently.                  

Oct. 15: Cairo, Giza Zoo, Egyptian Museum.                  

Oct. 16: Giza pyramids, Sphinx, Solar Boat Museum.                  

Oct. 17: Memphis, Saqqara, Dashur — Visit Step and Bent pyramids.                  

Oct. 18: Suez Canal day trip.                  

Oct. 19: Coptic Cairo, Hanging Church; Mohammed Ali Mosque (Islamic Cairo).                  

Oct. 20: Marvel at the ancient whale fossils in the “Valley of the Whales” (Wadi Al-Hitan) near El-Fayoum oasis. Depart Cairo for Aswan on a comfortable sleeper train.                  

               

Sun Festival at Abu Simbel & Journey to Luxor Segment: October 21-31, 2010 (11 days)                

Oct. 21: Short morning flight from Aswan to Abu Simbel. Optional visit to Abu Simbel for sunset.                  

Oct. 22: Visit Abu Simbel temple for Sun Festival at sunrise.                  

Oct. 23-24: Aswan – Philae Temple, High Dam, Unfinished Obelisk, Elephantine & Kitchener’s Islands (felucca ride).                  

Oct. 25: Drive from Aswan to Kom Ombo, Edfu, and Luxor.                  

Oct. 26-30: Luxor – East & West Banks, Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, Valley of the Kings & Queens, Hatshepsut Temple, Colossi of Memnon, hot air balloon ride over Valley of the Kings, Luxor & Mummification Museums.                  

Oct. 31: Dendarah & Abydos, “gateway to the afterlife” and Egypt’s most sacred city… on Halloween!                 

            

              

Western Desert Oases Segment: November 1-10, 2010 (10 days)                  

Oases visited: Kharga, Dhakla, Farafra, Bahariya, and Siwa.                  

Nov. 1: Depart Luxor for Kharga oasis, ancient Christian necropolis of Bagawat, and tombs of “the lost city”, Oum Dabadeb.                  

Nov. 2: Dhakla oasis: Beshandi village with Graeco-Roman & Islamic tomb.                  

Nov. 3: In Dhakla, visit Qasr, one of the oldest towns, and Mouzawaka Tombs. Continue to Farafra oasis to visit Badr Museum (contemporary art), and White desert where we camp have a BBQ dinner, and sleep out under a starry sky.                  

Nov. 4: Drive to Bahariya oasis, stopping at Crystal & Black Mountains en route. 4WD jeep safari of Black Desert, naturally shaped pyramid, salt lake, and Valley of the Golden Mummies. Watch sunset from English Mountain.                  

Nov. 5: Drive to remote Siwa oasis via the Great Sand Sea with rolling dunes up to 100 m high in every direction.                  

Nov. 6: Explore exotic Siwa oasis with its unique mud-brick architecture, traditional Bedouin culture, and Berber dialect.                  

Nov. 7: Drive to El-Alamein (war memorial) en route to Alexandria.                  

Nov. 8-9: In Alexandria, visit the famous Bibliotheca, Catacombs, Pompey’s Pillar, Citadel of Qaitbay, Al-Montazah Palace’s Garden, & Abu El-Abba Mosque.                  

Nov. 10: Spend the morning in Alexandria and then return to Cairo to visit the colorful Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar.                  

             

            

Sinai Segment: November 11-14, 2010 (4 days)                  

Nov. 11: Fly from Cairo to Sharm El-Sheikh, then drive on to St. Catherine’s Monastery for a visit.                  

Nov. 12: Very early morning climb of Mt. Sinai to watch the sunrise over the surrounding landscape. Then, drive to Dahab for a relaxing day on the beach.                  

Nov. 13: Spend a free day in Dahab swimming, snorkeling, or diving in the Red Sea.                  

Nov. 14: Drive from Dahab to Nuweiba to catch the ferry to Aqaba if traveling on to Jordan. Otherwise, return to Sharm El-Sheikh or Cairo (at separate cost) for your flight home.                  

           

           

JORDAN: November 14-24, 2010 (11 days)                     

This overland trip covers approx. 574 km (357 mi.) from Aqaba to Amman, including all sites below. WHAT AN ADVENTURE!                  

Nov. 14: Arrive in Aqaba mid-day and drive to Wadi Rum, land of Lawrence of Arabia. Optional camel trek for sunset. Arrive at Bedouin camp to enjoy the local hospitality and spend the night in a Bedouin tent.                  

Nov. 15: Wadi Rum Visitor’s Center & museum. Wadi Rum 4WD jeep tour to several important sites (e.g., Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Burrah Canyon, Khor umm Ishrin, Lawrence’s House, Alameleh rock inscriptions, Nabataean Temple, sunset lookout). Return to Bedouin camp for dinner and a second night stay.                  

Nov. 16: After breakfast in camp, depart Wadi Rum for Petra, ancient rock-hewn home of the Nabataeans. Spend most of the day exploring Petra’s Siq (by optional horseback ride) and hallmark Treasury building. Learn to cook some local Jordanian recipes at Petra Kitchen as an optional evening activity (including dinner).                  

Nov. 17: Spend a second day in Petra, hiking to the High Place of Sacrifice, Royal Tombs, Theater, and Roman Soldier Tombs. Optional Petra by Night tour.                  

Nov. 18: Depart Petra, driving north to Little Petra (Siq Al-Barid), Shobak crusader castle, Lot’s Cave, Gomorrah (now called Numeirah), Sodom (now called Babh adh-Dhra), and Kerak crusader castle.                  

Nov. 19: From Kerak, drive to Wadi Mujib for a morning hike to spot wild Nubian ibex and other animals native to Jordan (weather permitting). Continue on to Mukawir (Machaerus) to see the ancient ruins of King Herod’s Castle where John the Baptist was beheaded at Salome’s request. Heading further north to Madaba, we visit St. George Church to see the elaborate Byzantine-era (560 AD) mosaic map of all major biblical sites from Egypt to Palestine; it is the oldest map of Palestine in existence.                  

Nov. 20: Morning drive to Dead Sea beach panorama and museum. Free day and time to float in the 31% saline waters of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at 408 m below sea level!                  

Nov. 21: Morning drive to Bethany where John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. Also, visit Mt. Nebo where Moses is said to have viewed the Promised Land and was then buried. Drive to Amman for the night.                  

Nov. 22: Morning drive to the historically Graeco-Roman town of Jerash. Explore several sites at Jerash and watch a chariot race in the hippodrome. Return to Amman in the afternoon.                  

Nov. 23: Full day sightseeing in Amman — Citadel, Roman Theater & Museums/Odeon, Al-Husseiny Mosque, & the old Souk, then drive through Amman’s new city area.                  

Nov. 24: Depart Amman airport on international flight home.                  

           

           

ACTIVITIES in Egypt and Jordan: These are just some of the cool things you can do in Egypt and Jordan.                  

  • Sound & Light Show (night) in Giza and/or Luxor/Karnak
  • Khan Al Khalili bazaar in Cairo
  • Papyrus workshop visit in Cairo or Luxor
  • Cooking class to learn how to make Egyptian dishes in Cairo or Luxor
  • Coffee and sheesha cafes of Alexandria, Cairo, etc.
  • Felucca ride/s on Nile in Aswan and/or Luxor
  • Hot air balloon flight in Giza or Luxor
  • Camel ride in Giza, Western Desert, or Sinai
  • Climb Mt. Sinai for sunrise
  • Red Sea snorkel or dive (Dahab)
  • Bedouin camp experience (Wadi Rum)
  • Learn to cook Jordanian dishes (Petra)
  • Hiking in one of Jordan’s nature reserves or wadis
  • Float in Dead Sea (Jordan)

            

                    

EGYPT PRICES (in Euros): You can use www.xe.com to convert from Euros (EU) to your currency.                  

           

Days 2-19 and 30-33 (22 days, WITHOUT Western Desert Safari):  Includes 26 meals.
EU 1925 per person — if 1 person traveling
EU 1330 per person — if 2 people traveling
EU 1165 per person — if 4-6 people traveling
       
            

Days 20-29 (10 days, Western Desert Safari ONLY):  Includes 23 meals.
EU 720 per person — if 2 people traveling (EU 1440 total for 2 people)
EU 638 per person — if 4-6 people traveling (EU 2555 total for group)
        
            

TOTAL FOR EGYPT TRIP, Days 2-33 (32 days, including Western Desert Safari):  Includes 52 meals.
EU 2050 per person — if 2 people traveling
EU 1803 per person — if 4-6 people traveling
       
            

TOTAL FOR JORDAN TRIP (in Euros), Days 33-43: Includes 14 meals.
EU 1315 per person  — if 1 person traveling
EU 1191 per person — if 2 people traveling
EU 1106 per person — if 4 -6 people traveling       
            

                    

PRICES INCLUDE:                  

Please contact the tour operator directly for a list of what is included: tours@nefertitihotel.com or booking@nefertitihotel.com .     

PRICES EXCLUDE:                  

International airfare, tipping, optional activities, and items of a personal nature.                  

If you have any specific questions about the tour operator’s services or programs in Egypt, please contact Miss Eman Ahmad at Aladin Travel Services & Adventure Tours (in Luxor, Egypt): tours@nefertitihotel.com or booking@nefertitihotel.com  .                  

           

UPDATE (May 27, 2010): Prices subject to change after June 30, 2010. Contact me (LMColton@hotmail.com) for up-to-date information. The tour operator requires a 30% deposit on this trip in order to make the necessary reservations. Please reserve your spot at least ONE WEEK before touring departure date. Thank you.    

           

MAPS:                    

                   

                  

                    

       

Contact LMColton@hotmail.com for more information. Thank you.     

    

    

   

   

   

   

DISCLAIMER: Laurel Colton is not a travel agent or a seller of tours. As an independent, paying traveler on this trip, she will not be held responsible or liable for the safety or welfare of other travelers, the services and accommodations provided by the tour operator or affiliates, changes in itinerary or costs made by the tour operator or affiliates, or any other existing or unforeseen circumstances in Egypt and/or Jordan that make travel in this part of the world unpredictable. Fellow travelers on this trip acknowledge and agree to this liability release and sign on with their own judgment of risks involved and with an understanding of what is included in the trip and what is not. If you have specific questions, please contact the tour operator, Aladin Tours, directly. Thank you.   

   

      

 

     

 

    

  

   

 

  

 


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