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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Big Ships, Big Balloon and Big Graves

October 2 - October 5, 2010
Day 125 - 128

The next morning, we were taken to the bus terminal and ran into our Greek friend from the Mount Sinai tour; he was trying to get to Alexandria and thought he could go up through Port Said, north of Suez.  It seems a bit ridiculous but our route was via the south bit of the Sinai Peninsula to get up to Suez which is in the north. I feel like there could have and should have been a faster route (cross straight through the northern part of the peninsula) but we couldn’t find this option. It took us approximately 9 hours to get to the Suez via Sharm el-Shiekh.  Either way, it was a nice ride through the desert and the mirage that is so often talked about when you’re going through the desert, we saw! The big ships out in the Gulf of Suez appeared to be floating over the horizon.  It was neat but we couldn’t really seem to capture it on camera.

We arrived in Suez at around 5:00PM, and quickly tried to find a ticket for our bus ride out to Luxor.  We were told that the night bus to Luxor was at 10:00PM but upon arrival, found out that the only bus was at 8:00PM. We quickly purchased our tickets and tried to make the most of our 3 hours there.  We tried to find a taxi driver that would take us to the port area where we’d be able to see the large boats coming in and out.  We found out though that most of the ships would be coming through around 8:00PM which was when our bus was scheduled to leave.  We were also told that the best views of the boat action were from Port Said, further up north, but we didn’t have enough time to go out there because it would have required us to spend the night there and we wouldn’t have been able to get out there until the next day. So after several taxi drivers, we finally found our man who agreed to drive us to the port and then to pick us up.  It was quite funny because we couldn’t really communicate with him so when we negotiated for our taxi price, we settled with drawing out numbers in the dirt.  In the end, I won and he dropped us off and picked us back up for 20EGP ($3.60)!  It was a good thing because I wouldn’t have wanted to have to negotiate in the dirt all over again! He actually turned out to be a really nice guy, and on our way back to the port, he stopped at his family’s shop and offered us soda!
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                                                                These local boys were so excited to take photos with us!
                                                                          Our nice driver
Three hours later, we were back on the road heading for Luxor.  We still hadn’t figured out what we were doing there but we were going! 

We arrived in Luxor the following morning, 10 hours later. I’m so lucky I can sleep anywhere and had a good night’s rest on the bus!  We were dropped off outside of the town and had to make our way to the city center. Again everyone tried to rip us off but we managed to get in on the local mini-buses.  Even that driver, though he didn’t blatantly rip us off, wanted to charge us 4EGP ($0.70) but I refused and gave him 1EGP ($0.18) which was still 2x more than the regular fare; I think they were all shocked at how I confidently paid them less than what they were demanding.

We got off the minibus and tried to find a hostel that we had looked up on  Up until then, I didn’t like to book my stays because 1) I know the hostels don’t make 100% and the deposit fee that we pay to reserve our room goes to hostelworld and 2) Often times you can negotiate a better price, especially if you are staying for a longer period.  The hostel we found was run by an Egyptian man and his Japanese wife. The staff there offered us a room for 40EGP which was a good rate but without AC and instead a fan; the price also included breakfast. The room was so hot with the fan rattling and blowing the hot air around that it was a really bad sleep.  To the hostels credit, they did say they would try to give us a room with AC, if it were available, but according to them, they were all occupied. So, after one night I told Lee that I wanted to move hostels and check out a family-owned one, Fontana, a few blocks away. 

Fontana stands as a true testament to family-run businesses, I should know, but the dedication here was much more obvious and genuine. The owner, Mr. Magdy offered us our room at a lower rate and even gave us breakfast on the day that we arrived, which allowed us to get the first hostel to take off 5EGP each from our bill!  We also ended up booking a tour through Mr. Magdy for both a felucca ride to Banana Island and a day tour to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens and two other places, for a really good price.  Poor man, bless him; he was really kind and gave us a price we couldn’t refuse. Hopefully this blog can send him future customers!  The bad part though was when we left the first hostel, we couldn’t tell them that we were changing hotels and made up a story about where we were going….it was bad because we ended up having to pass that hostel 3x! I hope they didn’t see us!

We went on a felucca ride to Banana Island which was really not that impressive. A short felucca ride from one side of the river to the other took us to Banana Island which was an island accessible by foot, we later learned. We bargained and were able to bring down the price to EGP60 ($10.50).  On the island we received a plateful of bananas and received an ample supply of potassium that day.  What really made the trip special though was on our way back, our guide welcomed us to his home and fed us a home-cooked meal. The guide also let Lee try on a couple of traditional jalabiya and offered it to him. We thought he was extremely generous and then he named his price and we realized we misunderstood. Lee politely declined and soon after found a hole in the garment.  Either way, the experience was priceless.

The following day we joined a tour to the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. These sites are significant because it is the site where almost all of the Egyptian pharaohs have been laid to rest with their treasures.  It is also significant because these sites were hidden in a secret place and had been undiscovered for thousands of years.  The laborers who were required to work on these royal project were all blindfolded and transported to the site so that they did not know the exact location. 

I actually really liked our guide here in that he was always keeping us informed on what the plan was. He also used basic drawings to explain the history of Egypt.  Having a visual really helps to put one of the most powerful civilizations into perspective. It was all a bit shady though as we were never given tickets and it seemed that he was using recycled tickets.  The idea of how these sites were constructed and how old they were was amazing but the way they were maintained made them a bit disappointing to me.  Apparently there were about 18 tombs but with our ‘ticket’, we were only allowed to go into three sites; our guide chose which ones we would see.  We were told not to take photos inside the tomb but if we wanted to hand out a baksheesh (tip), perhaps the guard could look the other way. I wasn’t paying a tip to no one and managed to get some quick shots without having to feed into the corrupted system.

Our tour was cut a little early because one of the girls had a flight to catch.  It was still early, 1:00PM or so, so we decided to book our guide for another tour. He told us that he would be able to do both sites, Luxor Temple and Karnak for EGP50. I clarified with him, 2 different sites for EGP50?? He said yes and so we told him we would go out for lunch and then meet him at about 5:00PM to view Luxor Temple so that we could see it both in the day and at night.  Our guide took us to a restaurant that he probably had some kind of kickback from and the food was a bit more than what we wanted to pay but it was nice. I got into an argument with the restaurant though because they had told us that we could use our credit cards before we sat down and when we were ready to pay, after we kind of went overboard with the ordering, told us that their machine was broken. I was going to start bargaining for the meal had they refused our cards!

Our guided walk through Luxor Temple was nice and we were able to enjoy both the day view and the night view.  Somehow during the tour, we learned that our guide had a contact (of course) with someone who could offer us a hot air balloon ride the following morning. Most of the prices we had found were well over EGP600 which was still really good for a hot air balloon ride but still too much of a luxury for us unless we were able to get it for cheaper. I suppose trying to cheapen a hot air balloon ride is not the smartest thing as it would mean possibly going with a company that has a less than reliant reputation. We were able to negotiate a rate of 400EGP ($70) for a hot air balloon, payable with our credit cards (usually they will charge you a service fee to use your credit card).  We decided that if they were willing to accept our offer, we would go ahead and book it.

After our tour at Luxor Temple, our guide wanted to collect from us and told us that it would be EGP50. I asked him if we could pay him half now and the other half the next day.  He was like, ‘no, it is EGP50’.  I told him that I thought we would have Karnak included also but he said, ‘well, it’s another day.’ I was annoyed as I had asked him if we could do both tours together and he said ‘yes’.  He also did not suggest an earlier time so that we could do both tours; I suppose if he had the option to do one tour or two tours for the same price, he would only want to do one. He told us also at the end that if we wanted the tour the next day, he would have his friend come out and meet us and we would pay him slightly less. I didn’t really want to go on the tour with his friend but he did say that if we were to go with him, he would let us hold on to a student card so that I could purchase a student price ticket and so in the end, it would be like I was getting a free guide. We agreed to the tour, confirmed our hot air balloon ride the next day and he offered to pick us up at 5:00AM and take us to the balloon ride site. I suppose that was nice of him.

The next morning we woke up bright and early and snuck out of the hotel; we didn’t want the owner to know that we decided to book a hot air balloon ride elsewhere.  I really didn’t care if he knew or not but our guide asked us not to say anything. So we woke up and quietly left.  We walked to the end of the street to get picked up and as promised, he came to get us. We were dropped off on the side of the street and met up with other passengers who were staying at the Sheraton and some other places to get on a boat; we felt a little better that people who were paying money to stay at nice places were on our tour…can’t be that bad, right?  We were offered coffee on the short boat ride and we were still only half awake.  We arrived on site at around 6:00AM and were told that we would be taking off right away but we actually didn’t take off until about 6:30AM, they seemed to have trouble getting the air into the balloon

It was my first time in a hot air balloon (since I missed the $20 one in the Philippines earlier this year) and it’s a bit of a surreal experience, at least it was for me.  For some reason, the book James and the Giant Peach comes to mind.  It would have been nice if they offered us champagne as they normally do on hot air balloon rides but I suppose we didn’t pay enough.  We rode over the Valley of the Kings and Queens which was nice since we had visited it the day before and so knew what we were looking at.  It was very difficult to take exceptional photos though as it was a tight squeeze and some way or another, someone’s arm or head would find its way into your shot. It was about 30 minutes up in the air overlooking the landscape of Luxor.  After we got back down to land, we were swarmed with village children begging for money.  Our guide had advised us NOT to give money because there were so many of them and it could get violent, but of course someone ignored his advice and there were at least a dozen kids at her side, reaching into her purse, trying to get something from her. Lee decided to give his pen away which was a nice gesture; them kids really like pens to draw!

We were then driven to Karnak at about 8:00AM. We decided to stop and have some coffee and were thinking about ditching the other guide.  When we finally decided to go in, the guide found us quickly, mission failed! He turned out to be really  nice though much of what he told us were things we had already heard from our other guide.  Originally we had planned to leave on the 9:00AM train to Luxor but since we decided to do the balloon ride and I wanted to see Karnak (it’s the main site of Luxor!), we had to take a later train. Our guide told us that there was a train at noon so that was what we were planning to ride.

We quickly went through Karnak and spent about 1.5 hours there. Of course we could have spent more time there but I could tell Lee was getting tired and I could see his point that a temple is a temple is a temple; they were all starting to look basically the same.  So we told our guide that we needed to be out of there by 10:30AM because we still needed to get back to our place and get to the train station and by our tickets.
We managed to ride the minibus back towards our hotel and decided to stop at the train station to make sure there was in fact a train at noon.  When we got there, we were told that there was no 12:00 train! WHAT?! Would we have to wait for another 5 hours for the next train? We didn’t want to waste a day…I must have felt something wrong with the guy’s answer and decided to check with someone else and it was a good thing that I did because there was a 12:00 train! My guess is that they want tourists to pay for the tourist train and the 12:00 train was the local train. We were advised to come back around 11:45AM and buy the ticket on the train.

So we rushed back to our hotel and Mr. Magdy, so nice, asked us if we had breakfast yet and offered to feed us.  While I had been talking to him at the counter, I noticed that the hotel could make International Student and Teacher cards for EGP120 ($22). It was already 11:15AM, but Mr. Magdy said he could make it for me if I wanted. I debated for a while and didn’t know if it would be worth it as typically teachers are not extended discounts. I tried to get the student one but I was told that I was too old! I didn’t know there was an age limit to being a student! Finally, I decided that I would go ahead and have it made. The son quickly came to the hotel and on his motorcycle took me a few blocks away to an office to have the card made.  Typically you need supporting documents but they told me it was okay, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to get a card. For the record, if you’re thinking that I falsified my credentials, remember I taught at Central Pacific College when I was home for a few short months?!

We were able to get the card quickly but I was worried about the time. It was already 11:45AM and our train was at noon.  The son kept telling me not to worry because the trains were always late. How can you not worry though when you need to catch a train in 15 minutes and you are nowhere near?  Within about 5 minutes, card was created and I was on my way.  On the way back to meet Lee to go down to the train station, I burned myself on the motorcycle’s muffler!  OUCH! It burned a huge blister on my leg!
Finally got back to the hotel to meet Lee and we quickly walked to the train station. We made it to the train station after 12 but the train hadn’t come yet, thank God! The people on the platform told us that they didn’t know when it would be coming either. So, they were right about the trains being late.
The train ended up being less than $2! But it was a dump! Trash everywhere and broken windows. I imagine the trains in India looking like this; I wouldn’t know because I only traveled on 1st class trains there.  The train wasn’t air-conditioned either so it was pretty hot with the sun shining in our car but it was definitely an unforgettable experience and all for less than $2!

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