Hey travel and adventure lovers, how about an awesome story from a totally different part of the world?! Our friends Scott and Linda recently took a trip to Cairo, Hurghada (on the Red Sea) and Luxor, in Egypt. Here’s the sweet essay Scott wrote about their journey:

After a 12 hour plane ride, Linda and I landed around 5:00 p.m. in Cairo and took a taxi to our hotel. Our cab driver offered us a miniature tour of the city in broken English on the way there. “Palace” he said, pointing to what we later would learn is the presidential palace. “School,” was a University, “mosque” he pointed out a large mosque. I was doing my best to take in the city, but I was also struggling to suppress my gut feeling we were about to die in a fiery car accident.
Driving in Cairo is…well something else. Road lines are completely meaningless, even stop lights seem optional. It seemed that people were using their horns more often than not. At first any trip in the car was a terrifying experience. I did not understand how anybody drove anywhere. As I spent more time being driven around the country, I noticed that there was a seemingly unwritten code in the chaos. Most noticeably, drivers seemed less aggressive and more willing to be passed and yield to a car moving in and out of their lanes. They would honk at every single car on the road, but I learned this was not out of anger as I’m used to in the U.S. It’s just part of how they drive- as if they need to let everybody on the road know they exist. After the first couple of days I hardly noticed the madness on the streets.
We arrived at the Marriott hotel, met our friends and travel companions, Christine and Efstathia, and checked in. Our room had a beautiful view of Cairo overlooking the Nile. The next morning we got up early for the tour you go to Egypt for- Giza and the Pyramids.
We took a van with our tour guide, Hesham, and a driver to Giza. Hesham is an archaeologist for the Egyptian government, and he is a licensed tour guide as a second job. He explained that this is a common arrangement in Egypt- government jobs offer very good retirement and low-stress working hours and conditions, however many people take second jobs because the salaries or wages offered are not enough for many families. He was very friendly and an excellent guide. We were paired with camels to take a short ride from Giza to the base of the Pyramids. The part of riding a camel that I, nor the rest of our group, realized about riding a camel is just how high off the ground you are actually sitting. I compared it to riding a horse before I got on- I sized up where the head of the camel was and prepared myself to sit a few inches higher; so I’d guestimated my head would be about 7-8 feet high. In fact, the hump you sit on is about a foot higher than the camel’s head, and your body goes up from there so my head was probably somewhere around 10-12 feet high. The other part of riding the camel I wasn’t prepared for was the “ride” up to that riding height. Again, to offer a comparison, when you get on a horse the animal is standing. You hop on and that’s it. To get on a camel it bends down on its knees for you to get on. Then, without warning, the guide shouts an order at the camel (in Arabic, I did not understand even that it was the order for the camel to rise) and the animal stands up. You shoot up from a comfortable 5 foot perch to a 12 foot riding height in a matter of seconds. That lunge up was quite a surprise!
We got settled quickly (some of us quicker than others) and started riding into the desert. This trip started in a crowded, hectic and noisy city street. Then, we turned around a sand hill, and the sounds of the city were instantly gone. The sudden change was startling, but the silence was incredibly peaceful. As we approached the Pyramids, my anticipation grew. Once they were before us I can only describe the feeling as a brilliant sense of awe. On one hand, they look exactly as they do in pictures. There is nothing visually lost in postcards, textbooks or other pictures you’ve seen before. Even their size was not necessarily surprising to me. On the other hand, even without any “surprise” in their appearance or size, the Pyramids still elicit a powerful sense of importance and mystery. Part of it is wrapped up in the knowledge of how old they are- built over 4,500 years ago. Part of it may be their symmetry (though, technically, only the “Great Pyramid” is mathematically perfect and symmetrical, while the rest have flaws that were not noticeable to me). I think part of it is how alien they look. There’s nothing like them in the world, and in some ways these giant tombs do not look like they belong on the planet. No matter what the cause, the Pyramids left an indelible impression in my memory.
As we rode around the Pyramids, we came to what Howard Carter (the archaeologist that found King Tutankhamun’s tomb) often called the “magical point.” It is a spot where all 9 of the Giza Pyramids can be seen together, and they are lined up in a way that they seem to be pointing in the same direction or as if they are looking at some object in the distance. It is a beautiful view of these monuments to ancient kings. We also walked around the base of the Pyramids and went inside the second or middle Pyramid. The walk into the tomb was difficult. The ceiling of the passage was low so everybody had to bend down as we walked down a steep decline. Inside it was hot and smelled like sewage. The tomb itself was a large room with a high ceiling. It was actually fairly bare, with only a few carvings and inscriptions. The Egyptians did not start decorating the walls of the tombs elaborately until later periods, especially when they stopped building Pyramids and instead hid the dead Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings.
The same place in Giza also contains the famous large Sphinx (with the missing nose). The temple around it served as a sort of royal embalming building. The different rooms served distinct purposes during the embalming process. The other fact I found impressive about the Sphinx is that it was carved out of one large piece of stone on site.
One of the feelings I repeatedly experienced throughout Egypt was the sense of how old everything is. Coming from a country and culture that praises century old buildings as impressive, the concept of buildings, statues, engravings and art (not to mention actual bodies) that are several millennia old is difficult to fathom. Even more impressive about these ancient feats is the kind of condition they are in. Some of the temples we walked through look strong and sturdy despite their age. The hieroglyphics are not worn down or faded; they are still clear and precise. Many even kept their colors not only intact, but seemingly as clear and bright as when they were painted.
Another fact I heard repeatedly is how much from this culture has not been found. Archaeologists have found lists of tombs, temples, even pyramids and other artifacts that they believe should still be intact in some form but they have not found. We heard this at every site we visited- that there is more to be found, and that active excavations are still going on everywhere. We even saw active excavations of more tombs around the Giza pyramids from a distance while we were there.
The rest of the tour took us to Memphis, where the capital of Egypt was located for several dynasties. There they had older, more primitive “step” pyramids. As opposed to the more famous structures in Giza, these did not have the same smooth, even outer walls. They also were not built in the way you would imagine. I don’t remember the details, but our guide explained they were built as a one room tomb, then an outer casing was added to protect and hide the entrance of the tomb which completed the bottom “step”. Then the next level up was built to house other items that would be buried with the Pharaoh. I don’t remember the order of the levels, but this would include the organs of the mummified king, certain possessions and treasures, some pets, and maybe servants of the Pharaoh. Family members would usually have their own pyramid built, or some other sort of tomb close by. Also, we visited some more temples in Saqqara, including a temple that appeared to have been built around a fallen 40-foot statue of Ramses.
Finally, we visited the Citadel complex in Cairo. This was a military complex at one time, a presidential palace at another, and the location of one of the largest, most significant, and most beautiful mosques in Cairo. My favorite part was the mosque. When it was built, the president of Egypt, Mohamed Ali, brought architects and engineers from around the world to build it. As a consequence, there are engravings and inscriptions from other religions, cultures and countries in many places. Some of the most surprising were Jewish stars of David in several locations of the mosque. Some were inscribed on the ceiling. Others were built into a metal gate closing off a memorial built into the tomb (though I forget who the memorial was for). Other stunning features of the mosque were the characteristic domed rooftops, which inside this one had Christian paintings on the ceiling, and hanging chandeliers (now electric lights, but originally they held candles) whose frames were so thin that the lights looked as if they were floating above you. I also loved the minarets characteristic of Muslim mosques. The Citadel also offered some incredible views of the city of Cairo.
Before we headed back to the hotel, we visited Cairo’s largest and most well known street market, Khan el-Khalili. This was a fun experience, going through different souvenir, art, clothing and jewelry shops and haggling with the merchants. I learned to enjoy the haggling process, and had a lot of fun with it (even if I’m not skilled enough to get great deals out of the process). While this market used to be a staple of Cairo life, it has transformed into more of a tourist attraction as more “western style” shopping malls open with fixed prices. Entering the market was the first time in Egypt I questioned our well being as our tour guide had arranged to have an armed bodyguard with a pistol on his hip follow us through the market as an added safety measure. I did appreciate the extra security he offered, but before that moment I did not think we would need this sort of protection, especially in Cairo. I had done my research on the state department’s website, in several commercial travel guides, and other travel websites on the issue of safety in Egypt. Most of them said that there were some areas of extremism where extra precautions were necessary, but none of the high-tourism places we were visiting. This question of safety due to our American citizenship stuck with me through the rest of the trip since there were other accommodations we needed to make I was not expecting. While I had an incredible trip and it was a fantastic experience, this underlying uneasiness about safety was a very stressful factor to carry in a foreign country.
The Khan el-Khalili market also demonstrated a cultural difference between Egypt and the US very clearly: differing views on women. This does not come as a surprise, but it is a good opportunity to exemplify some of the differences. We came prepared for different expectations, for example, the women all brought clothes that covered at least their shoulders (no spaghetti strap tank tops) and shawls or pashminas to wrap up their arms and/or head if necessary. We really did not want to offend anybody if we could help it. But I can’t help contrasting their views and treatment of women to those views of the US. First, the offers to “buy” the girls from me to marry them were everywhere. While most of these were jokes from the merchants, they are jokes based off of actual practices that still take place. One tour guide also told us that men are still allowed to have up to four wives in Egypt. In some of the shops, when one of the women was trying to negotiate, the merchant would look at me to continue negotiations, or even for payment after the price was agreed to, and I had to explain that his business was between him and the woman. Another example was when we were walking through the Citadel mosque, and our guide (who was a Muslim) explained how women were segregated to either the back of the prayer floor or the second level. He said this was so that the men were not distracted from their prayer as everybody bent down on their knees because all the focus should remain on their prayer to Allah. My immediate thought was about the assumptions this argument entails: either that women do not have the same sexual desires as men when they see a man bending down the same way, or that it is not as important for a woman to be focused on her prayer to Allah for some reason. Either way, that view is considered degrading to women in most of the US. I obviously was not willing to pick a fight about this issue- I was a guest in their country and must respect their differing views even if I do not agree with them. If you put aside the practices that the US would generally consider sexist, the bargaining for a woman’s hand in marriage did lead to some of the funniest quotes of the trip. If I had taken the highest (joke) offers for each woman I was traveling with, I would have come back to the US with 4 million camels and a jewelry store! (Of course, as I write this in the US, a commercial advertising Axe shower gel or body spray is running for a scent that changes because, “women get bored easily.” Glad to see how far we’ve come…)
Our next adventure was a bus ride to the beach town of Hurghada, located on the Red Sea. The bus gave us a view of the deserts around Cairo, and then rode along a road that overlooked the Suez Canal down into the shore of the Red Sea. Our hotel was a gorgeous setting with several massive pools, a water park and a beautiful beach looking into the sea. The staff of the hotel was incompetent and frustratingly unhelpful. We had some trouble booking a ride out of Hurghada to get to Luxor too. We thought there was a bus to get there, but it turned out to be a bus for hotel workers considered unsafe for tourists. While trying to make reservations for a car to drive us there instead, we ran into problems getting the proper paperwork and/or security escorts to get through check points on the way. This appeared to be required by the US government for the safety of American tourists. This added to my underlying feeling of being in undetermined danger, though there was never a specific event where I felt as though I was in any sort of imminent risk.
In Hurghada, I ran into one of my biggest cultural misunderstandings of the trip. While trying to arrange for a car and driver to take us to Luxor, we asked for a receipt that we paid a certain fee to get our paper work processed. The employee helping us make the arrangements told us we didn’t need to worry; he would take care of it. We asked to have a receipt anyway. At this point he started to get frustrated and asked why we didn’t trust him. Despite our assurances we did trust him, and that we did think he could do his job, we still demanded proof that we paid him. For me this is instinct- if something goes wrong in the US and you have a receipt, you have proof and you are likely not going to be ripped off. I realized after the incident that the person making our arrangements was genuinely hurt by our request- to him it meant we did not trust him. We had insulted his integrity by not taking his word. Later, when we were leaving and paying him for the rest of the car service, I had a discussion with him that I did not mean to offend him- I did not know that by not accepting his word I was attacking his integrity the way he thought. I felt like he understood, and he explained that in Egypt we needed to trust people when they give their word- that their word and reputation are one of the most important things to maintain for an Egyptian. When I got in the car and we were about to drive away, he tapped on my window so I rolled it down. “Always trust Egyptian,” he said smiling. “Always trust Egyptian.”
Also, by the time we left the resort, all four of us had at one point started to feel slightly ill. Not sick enough to worry any of us, however. Part of this was our stomachs not being used to the cooking oils, food preparation methods, sanitary standards and natural bacteria found in fresh produce that, while not dangerous, our bodies are not accustomed too. Part of it might have been exhaustion of waking up early, going to bed late and being under hundred degree heat most of every day. I think part of it was the buffets at our Hurghada hotel had bad food in them. We were warned ahead of our trip several times that most western tourists have stomach problems, and I had been good about taking some Pepto Bismal after every meal, but this was the point it started to catch up to my body, as well as the body of my companions.
When we finally arranged to leave Hurghada, we had to drive through a fascinating mountain range to get to Luxor. I don’t even know how to describe the mountains. They were a dark reddish-brown color with an intimidating jagged shape throughout. They appeared to be peppered with black sand that almost looked like charcoal dust. Finally, the mountains just appeared out of the desert with no warning. Our driver said this mountain range had no name, though in was a continuation of a set of mountains from a different beach town farther south on the Red Sea. Adding to the beauty, and the mystique, was that we were driving through the middle of them at sunset. The red sun going down over these mountains was a beautiful light. Even more stunning was on the other side of the mountains the terrain changed drastically and rapidly. We left the mountains into the desert for several miles, and then, out of nowhere, we were in a lush green area with woodlands and farms. There was no transition, just a sudden line of dark, vibrant green.
In Luxor we spent the first day exploring local sites and museums. First was Luxor Temple. This temple was smaller than some others that we had seen, but it had some unique aspects to it including lots of art and hieroglyphics etched into the walls and columns. Its entrance way had a line of sphinxes with rams’ heads on lions’ bodies. This line used to go clear across Luxor to a second temple, but in the millennia that passed the city was built over this impressive footpath. My favorite part of Luxor Temple was the back room that was turned into a Christian church around the time of the Crusades. They plastered over the stone walls inscribed with hieroglyphics to paint Christian bible scenes. Over the years, the plaster started to fall, exposing the original carvings of the Egyptians. The juxtaposition of these Christian paintings blending into ancient Egyptian codes is fascinating.
We made a stop at Luxor’s mummification museum on the way to Karnak Temple. This museum had intriguing exhibits of the mummification process including tools, drawings, artifacts left with the mummies, and (of course) actual mummies.
Karnak Temple is the most famous site within the city of Luxor, and probably the largest temple from ancient Egypt. It was actually built in many stages as several separate temples all connected together. One room has 134 columns all inscribed with hieroglyphics. This was the largest collection of columns in a single room in the world, according to our guide. There were also some famous statues, two large obelisks and some un-revealed treasures that will be unearthed and hopefully restored for the public in the future. Unfortunately, in 115 degree heat, we had to rush through the temple and could not take as many pictures as we wanted for fear of our digital cameras overheating and causing permanent damage.
The last day in Luxor we toured the Valley of the Kings across the Nile River from the city. This is where the Pharaohs from the “new kingdom” of ancient Egypt were buried. This is where King Tutankamen, a/k/a “King Tut” was discovered. The goal of the Egyptians in using these mountains to bury their kings was to thwart grave robbers from finding the bodies and treasures buried with them. Considering only King Tut’s tomb was found intact, I’d say they failed. Inside the hallways to these tombs are intricate hieroglyphics, well preserved and outlining the path to the afterlife for the Pharaohs. The inscriptions were again in magnificent condition, and many of them in vibrant colors. Later that day, we visited Deir el-Medina. This was the site of where the workers who dug out and inscribed the Valley of the Kings lived and were buried. These tombs had different artwork that talked about the daily life of the common worker in ancient Egypt. It was a different view of the past culture from the views offered in the Pyramids and royal tombs and temples.
After Luxor, Linda and I separated from Christine and Efsta. We took an overnight train back to Cairo. For one more day we visited Cairo and the Cairo Museum. In there were thousands of the artifacts from the sites we had been visiting. Finally, we took a taxi back to the airport. Exhausted and exhilarated at the same time, we boarded our twelve hour flight home.