After my visit to Aswan and Abu Simbel last week I continue with my throwback diary entries from my journey around the Middle East in 2004, along with some snaps from the trip!
Luxor is an anxiety-inducing mess between Aswan and Cairo. It was once the centre of all Pharonic civilisation, making for great monuments, temples and tombs. Today, Luxor is a town where tourists outnumber locals and therefore hated by locals. Even savvy travellers get ripped-off; as one Brit screamed “You are a tasteless bastard!!” Unfortunately it has to be said that many tourists don’t do themselves any favours, such as women wearing boob tubes walking around the street. It’s not that I think people should dress a certain way, but why draw more attention to the fact that you’re a foreigner? The rising anger against tourists seemed to boil over in 1997 when 58 tourists were mowed down by extremists at a local temple. Since then, entering tourist sites in Luxor is like boarding a plane in terms of security.
Having said that, the attractions are well worth the hassle, and many other locals are very very friendly! When looking for a post office one day I asked a local guy, who then offered to drive me there on his motorbike. After that he took me back to his shop and invited me to help him behind the counter (which I happily accepted!). At the end of it he refused any kind of tip, which was unusual for Egypt. Tipping seems to be a bigger deal here than anywhere else I have visited. Baksheesh is a local hybrid of tipping and bribery and applies to just about anything.
On Tuesday morning I caught a train to Cairo. Cairo is the intense, beating heart of the Arab world; it’s home to 16 million people in an area about the size of Newcastle in Australia. This makes for a seething compress of humanity; Egyptians, Arabs, Africans, Indian workers, European businessmen, Palestinian refugees, Afghan traders and even a Chinatown. It is through this that Cairo gained its nickname “mother of the world”. It is a city where survival can be a daily battle; unlike Tehran, Cairo doesn’t seem to have a gentle side. Nowhere is without traffic, noise or people, at any time of the day or night (that said, I did manage to click the below picture early one morning!). Everybody breathes the same polluted air, which is reportedly the equivalent of smoking a packed of cigarettes every week.
On arrival in Cairo my taxi driver told me there was a traffic jam, and despite my protesting, had to take the long (and expensive) route to the hotel (which was only three kilometres away). About halfway out of town, with his metre ticking overtime, he did a U-turn and joined the inbound traffic. I was contemplating whether to pay ten cents of just get out without paying at all, when he drove straight into the back of a semi-trailer. I sat back, smiled, and said Masha’Allah (a bit like “God works in mysterious ways”) before getting a taxi straight to the hotel. Ten minutes later an ATM ate my credit card, but after my triumph in the taxi it would have taken a lot to bring me down. More frustrating is the fact that anywhere frequented by tourists will only accept US dollars. That’s right – I’m in Egypt, and I can’t even use Egyptian pounds here. On top of this, banks don’t seem to exchange US dollars. So I was stuck with a slight problem which had to be solved on the currency black market.
So generally Cairo is an aggravating hellhole, albeit with many attractions. The Egyptian museum is fascinating, home to Tutankhamun’s pharonic mask. The museum is among the world’s largest, with over 100,000 exhibits. To put that in perspective, if you spent just one minute looking at every exhibit, it would take nine months to complete the whole tour.
And then there are the pyramids. The pyramids are what draw most people to Egypt; they are Egypt’s face to the world. And they live up to (although may not necessarily exceed) every expectation. Driving towards them, they loom over suburban Giza. You catch glimpses of them towering over side streets. And then you arrive, after dodging the touts, to one of the most famous places in the world. Although overrun with camel touts, donkey touts, bogus tour guides and enough school children to make you wonder about Egyptian contraception, the age-old structures strike awe into the visitor. How did they get the blocks there? They’re huge! And the fact that you step straight out of suburban Giza into the middle of what still feels like a desert is almost eerie. And then you wonder how KFC managed to get a piece of land just fifty metres from the sphinx. I toured the inside of the smaller of the three pyramids, which was just enough to satisfy my appetite for the landmarks.
I’m still trying to decide whether I like Egypt, and especially Cairo. Some people love it, others absolutely hate it. I think I’m somewhere in between. And that just about wraps up my travels in the Middle East, from my first day in Isfahan, Iran, through Turkey and into Arabia. Get set for a final, misty-eyed email from Malaysia next week.
In sha Allah to return one day…