Sleeper trains are wonderful. Sure, our next-door neighbor was an obnoxious SoCal man-child trying to woo some female backpackers in his room, and sure, they were so loud I had to open the window to drown them out, and sure, that open window allowed soot to settle on my face while I slept. BUT, it sure beats the packed sitting trains we saw leaving the platform in Cairo, with people hanging out of doors and sitting out the caboose, sardines for a 10-hour ride.
So we arrived in Luxor fairly well-rested. Our couchsurfing host, Hamdi, picked us up from the train station and ushered us through the crowd of taxi drivers and various other touts. One of the annoyances of traveling in Egypt is the incessant hassling on the street. Please look, come buy, good deal, pretty lady, etc. One Egyptian told us, “You look like an Egyptian, but you walk like a tourist.” Don’t ask me what that means. But walking with a local reduced the hassling to a minimum, which was nice. It also helped us avoid the inevitable 300% markups for “tourist prices” that are common throughout Egypt. A typical conversation:
Us: How much for this bottle of water?
Clerk: Fifteen pounds (about $2.50).
Us: Are you kidding? Five pounds.
Us: Two for ten.
This happens for just about everything, unless you are content to get ripped off. Mind you, we are usually talking a difference of a dollar or two, but it’s the principle. It’s exhausting to have to constantly haggle for everything — there are no fixed prices, and everything is negotiable. The Egyptians will take as much of your money as you willingly impart, and the onus is on you to avoid getting ripped off. Ugh.
Anyway, our first stop in Luxor was the coffee shop for some tea. Both the coffee shop and tea (“shay” in Arabic) play a very important role in Egyptian society. The shops provide a social gathering place (primarily for men), where people drink super sweet Egyptian tea and Turkish coffee, play backgammon or dominoes, and often smoke shisha (flavored tobacco) in hookahs.
We then tagged along for a tour Hamdi was leading for an older English couple, to the Valley of the Kings and beautiful Habu temple. Having a guide was wonderful; we learned so much about the iconography and hieroglyphs at each site, which we would otherwise have been left to guess. After a falafel dinner (one of many to come), Hamdi took us to Luxor temple at night, whose columns and statues are beautifully illuminated.
The first night in Luxor we stayed at Cleopatra hotel on the west side of the Nile, which had a lovely rooftop lounge for shay and conversation. The Egyptians are always ready for a chat and a cup of shay. We talk with almost everyone we meet about Egyptian politics, and they are more than willing to answer our inquiries.
The next day: more old stuff, more talking. The enormous Karnak temple monopolized our morning — a gigantic complex that spanned many kingships over thousands of years. Amazing and beautiful. It’s so awe-inspiring to wander through thee structures and gaze upon the stories held within them; stories meant for our eyes, and for the eyes of those to come. Stories direct from the source, and that have withstood thousands of years of shifting politics, war, and development. Amazing.
We decided to go on a felucca (small sail boat) for the next day, and Hamdi helped us arrange it before going to his house to sleep. Another thing in Egypt: everyone’s got a cousin or brother or friend who does exactly what you’re looking for. Need a driver? Let me make a call. Need a tour guide? I know a guy. Anyway, we spent the next couple days puttering around on a sailboat on the Nile. We didn’t go anywhere, really — just from one end of town to the other, to a couple islands, and in between.
The felucca man, Ahmed, force fed us enough food to feed a family of four. A couple things about Egyptian hospitality:
1. They welcome you often as a guest to their country, and they seem sincere.
2. They will feed you to the point of explosion, and no amount of protesting can stop them.
3. It is difficult to differentiate between genuine hospitality, and hospitality for baksheesh (tips). Do they want our company, or do they want our money? Or both?
4. They cannot understand why you do not want a 15th cup of tea for the day, and will likely force you to have one anyway.
Regardless, we had already paid for the felucca, so we ate as much food as we could without hurting ourselves. His mother cooked it and sent it out to us with a boy in a rowboat. No kidding.
We slept on the boat, and each finished a novel in the 30 hours or so we spent on the boat. We had some nice chats with Ahmed and his assistants, and disembarked feeling well-rested. Upon returning to terra firma, we had dinner at Hamdi’s house, met his wife, and promptly flew out on a regional flight to the Sinai. Our time in the Nile Valley had come to a close, and it was time to move on to the desert peninsula and Red Sea. Next chapter!