Saturday, October 13, 2007

Egypt: A Relaxing Interlude

Between Rosh Hashanah and the end of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, life in Israel really slows down. For that reason, much like last year when I went up to the Caucasus, I decided to use it as a travel season. A problem, of course, is that also like last year, the High Holy Days tracked closely with Ramadan, when the Islamic world is also on what you might call limited professional duty. After thinking about it, I decided to head to Egypt, on the assumption that thanks to tourists and Copts there would still be plenty of stuff open. I'd also heard that Egypt had the best Ramadan celebrations in the Arab world. Finally, I've become convinced I really need to relax more, which dovetailed well with the conclusion I reached in 2005 that the easiest way to see Egypt is to go ahead and stick to the tourist track. My fellowship is generous enough that I could certainly afford what by my normal standards would be a bit of splurging.

However, things really didn't get off to the best of starts. My initial plan was to reach the Red Sea resort town of Dahab the first day, do the overnight climb of Mt. Sinai the next, head to Sharm al-Shaykh for the day after said overnight climb, then take a ferry to Hurghada to see the monasteries of the Red Sea Mountains before cutting across to the Nile Valley. The trick came right after I crossed the border at Taba. I was initially wondering if this was an incredibly difficult border to cross, a concern amusingly worsened by the fact it had its own Hilton and snack bar between the two immigration checks. Instead, it was so ridiculously easy I felt like I hadn't really crossed an Israeli border at all. The problem was that I arrived in late afternoon, which is apparently late in the day for most public transportation options. In order to get to Dahab cheaply, I was dependent upon sharing a chartered taxi with a Japanese backpacker who, coming from the extreme penny-pinching school of travel with which I am well acquainted, insisted on taking a minibus to Nuweiba and then get a taxi from there to Dahab for a projected savings of $2.

If it was getting late to find transportation to Dahab from Taba, it was even later when we got to Nuweiba after sunset just over an hour later, after dropping clumps of Israeli tourists at several resorts and beach camps along the way. Incidentally, while Sinai Bedouin have been implicated in anti-Israeli terrorism in Sinai, the ones who actually work along the tourist track were, as usual in the Arab world, extremely friendly, chatting with the Israelis in conversational Hebrew, addressing the guy who was going to the five-star Marriott as "caliph," making fun of me because of President Bush and the Japanese guy because of the alleged poor quality of Japanese vehicles. On to the point, however, in Nuweiba the Japanese backpacker decided the onward costs were too expensive, and since the only ATM I could find was out of service, I didn't have the cash to do anything except join him in the Hotel Zahra, which quickly made the list of worst places I have ever stayed. It wasn't so much the moody electricity and water than came out of the faucet brown until you had let it run for a few seconds, or the rusty pipes and bare walls, all of which meet a bad hotel standard I have seen before. What set the Hotel Zahra apart was the bug-infested dead fish on the stairway leading up to the second floor.

While there, I decided to change my plans. Basically, I decided I was trying to do too much in too short a time, as I wanted to be back in Israel before the end of Sukkot to see what went on there. In addition, something about the Hotel Zahra made me eager for the splurging and relaxing to begin. Climbing a mountain didn't really fit that model. I decided to skip Sinai for now and cut straight to the Nile in Upper Egypt, working my way back as I chose. This plan, however, also got off to a slow start, as I needed to take a bus to Sharm al-Shaykh and get one from there to Suez, which I decided would be a good place to break the journey. I wound up getting stuck in the Nuweiba bus station for 45 minutes, as the bus was broken, and they had to track down a mechanic who could come in on a Friday morning (mosque day) to fix it. This meant that I missed the bus to Suez. The guy at the ticket office told me I needed to go back to Dahab and catch one to Suez from there, because even though Sharm is on the road from Dahab to Suez, the bus apparently doesn't stop there. What's more, the busses to Dahab left from a different station. There was just enough time to do that, and I got an (over-priced) taxi to go to this other bus station. While he was starting the car, the taxi driver asked where I was headed, and with a frown expressed his opinion that Dahab busses left from the station I was at, and that in any case there was another bus to Suez leaving in about half an hour. Becoming somewhat irritable, I insisted on my plan, only to be told by the ticket guy at the other station that Dahab busses left from where I had been. The same taxi driver drove me back, and this time I followed him to the ticket counter, where he ascertained that a bus was about to leave for Cairo that could drop me off in Suez. This I finally wound up boarding, thinking that I had perhaps gained an insight into how the Hebrews had wound up wandering Sinai for 40 years, as well as why in traditional translations they went from the Delta to Israel via the Red Sea: They were travelling via the East Delta Bus Company.

I finally arrived in Suez. Because my Lonely Planet didn't sound enthusiastic about any of the budget hotels, and because of my previously mentioned willingness to splurge and relax, I forked over about $45 to stay at the three-star Red Sea Hotel, where I took dinner and breakfast in a restaurant overlooking the Suez Canal. The guidebooks assertion that most guests were sailors proved spot on, as that was the definite impression I got from the all-male restaurant clientele, the fact that before seeing my face hotel employees always addressed me as "Captain," and the fact one Japanese guy in the elevator asked me what ship I was going to join. Perhaps because I grew up watching barges pass through the Lock and Dam along the Mississippi, I found the ship-watching to be only a mildly diverting, as opposed to falling into the multi-day hypnosis many report. Suez is reportedly not a scenic as Port Said at the northern end. Still, I can now say I've seen ships pass through the Suez Canal.

The next day East Delta managed to get me from Suez to Luxor without hassles or difficulty. Because my overall plan was still to get to the points furthest away and work my way back, thinking it would be easier to get to the closer stuff some other time if I chose, my main goal in Luxor was to book a cruise to Aswan. That proved easier than I expected. I met a travel agent during the bus's dinner break in Hurghada, who referred me to a contact in Luxor. That contact offered me $65 a night full board for two or three nights as I chose. As that was half or less of most posted prices, I didn't even bother haggling, and asked for two days. I spent the rest of the day visiting Karnak, about which I'll say more later, and wandering Luxor's corniche, where to my surprise I was hassled much less than I was in Cairo: People would try to get you on their feluccas or to buy their souvenirs, but they don't follow you around the way they do in the capital. The Luxor Temple was gorgeous sitting right on the Nile, and as I hoped there were plenty of good restaurants open, though the cheaper places were usually closed. The main concession to Ramadan is that restaurants all wanted you to sit out of sight.

The cruise itself was definitely worth the money, and one of the best times I've ever had. The only catch was that I was the only native English-speaker on the ship, which was mainly taken up with two French tour groups and some independent travellers from Germany and Mexico. The Nile was simply gorgeous down there, the way you see it in pictures and documentaries, with a thin band of green fields or palm groves separating the river from sand hills towering behind, with the route interspersed with small towns and villages where minarets and an occasional steeple lent a cultural framing also seen in the kids doing farm chores along the banks. In places there were also groups of younger kids waving to the cruise ships, cheering when they got a response from the people relaxing on deck. I also need to mention the food, which consisted of all-you-can-eat buffets with a variety of well-prepared dishes. The ship made two stops at towns with important Egyptian ruins, and it was a little amusing the way the tourist police starting giving you a spiel about hustlers and the like anyone who's been in Egypt for a day should know, though I guess if some rich yet exceptionally naive package tourists just flew straight to Luxor or Aswan and hopped on a boat it might be news. Finally, on the morning of the third day, I disembarked at Aswan.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home