Friday, May 27, 2011

Luxor; the baseness of Egypt.

Ah Luxor! This last step of our visit of the Egyptian oldies will not stay engraved in our memories only for the greatness of the temples of Luxor, Karnak and Ashepsut as well as the Valley of the Kings but especially by the level of baseness the Egyptians are ready to lower themselves to get money out of the tourists pockets. Of course, we’ve seen peoples of debatable honesty everywhere we went in the world but rip-off and manipulation are to Egyptians what manufacturing is to Japanese; large scale, efficient and inlaid in their culture and the social fabric like the roots of a willow in the ground. But before I give you more details I would like to specify that when I talk about Egyptians in this article I’m referring to the people involved in the tourist industry and not of the normal population. There are obviously honest Egyptians in Egypt, about 3 from the last census, but we didn’t meet them!

Luxor it’s obviously the temples of Luxor and Karnak as well as the splendid alley of the sphinxes linking them long time ago. Our hotel room gave on Luxor Temple with the Nil in background and since our visit was scheduled only for the afternoon we got the brilliant idea to go for a walk around the temple and along the River Nil. But the idea of walking peacefully in Luxor after the January revolution and consequently the collapse of the tourist industry was as brilliant as going hiking in the Canadian forest during mosquito season! But here the annoying bugs are the crap vendors and the boat tour operators that felt on us like a horde of Ethiopians on two walking steaks. In all, we managed to cross the record distance of 300 meters and being stopped every 3 meters by people simply not understanding the meaning of the word ``NO!``. Each interaction inevitably ending by an aggressive and firm rejection from us that would ruin the little pleasure we were hoping to have from the walk. After crossing 300 meters in a Herculean effort we gave up and resigned to hire a carriage and to ask him to take us for a one-hour ride away from any hassle. In the afternoon we were able to visit the two temples in the company of a guide without too much hassle.

The next morning was planned for the visit of the Ashepsut temple and the Valley of the Kings. Our guide was theoretically supposed to avoid us the usual hassles from the Egyptians but turned out to be the one trying to sell us stuff or asking more money then agreed upon. But in contrast with the street vendors he knew the meaning of a firm NO and would stop quickly. Despite the burning sun and the swindle try outs of our guide this visit of the West bank of the Nile turned out to be very enriching and we were able to wander around the majestic temple of Ashepsut that you can see on the pictures and in the Valley of the King where cameras were prohibited. The Valley of the Kings is a large complex of tombs with only a section opened to the public at any given time. Every three months or so they rotate the list of tombs the tourists can visit in order to reduce the degradation of the sites. This, of course, excludes the tomb of Tutankhamen opened at all time and for which we needed to spend an extra 100 pounds ($17) to visit. Even though the tomb is not particularly impressive we decided to go anyway to see the young pharaoh’s mommy and to be able to say that we entered the famous tomb, a thing we will probably never have the chance to do in the future.

While in Egypt do like the Egyptians do. Since we arrived in Middle East I wanted to get my hand on one of these long tunics men wear everywhere and seem to be called a jalabee or something like that. You can obviously find them in the tourist shops everywhere but they are of very bad quality and no local resident would ever wear them in public which would be equivalent to go walk in the street wearing a clown costume. With Mustapha’s help, our carriage driver who is as honest as a bank manager or a matrimonial lawyer, we succeeded in getting a custom made one and of very good quality. I wore it all afternoon and it was very amusing to see the faces of the Egyptians for whom a tourist is just a walking wallet wearing jeans or shorts with a baseball hat and a camera around the neck! But the jalabee alone was not enough to be completely like a real Egyptian. I also had to sell my soul to the Devil, eliminate any kind of respect for the other human beings, to learn to rip-off a person in every possible quasi-legal ways, to have no self esteem, to have no remorse harassing a tourist and bluntly lie to him right in his face as much as it is necessary to sell him a stupid crap with Egyptian drawings on it and this for 20 to 30 times the price I paid and finally to be able to sleep at night knowing that I am a thief, a swindler and a liar ready to lower myself as low as a used car dealer to get money from tourists. Finally, as it was to be expected, our ride with our national Mustapha ended up by a violent quarrel as he was asking five times what was agreed in the first place and we were just too happy to leave this town of thieves by the 5 O’clock train in direction of Cairo.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Aswan and Philae Island.

The second stop of our visit in Egypt was at the small town of Aswan about 800km (500 miles) south of Cairo. The place was relatively quiet, especially with the tourist shortage, and Egyptians would harass us almost in a humane fashion. There we could savor the Egyptian cuisine, modern or more traditional. Indeed at the end of our first day our guide took us in a Nubian village where the different dishes were served to us in ceramic or metallic pots and after the meal a group of children came in and danced and sang for us. It was obviously all organized but we let ourselves go at the rhythm of the drum and in the end had a lot of fun. To get to the village we took a small boat for a ride on the River Nile. Along the way we went through a narrower pass where an armada of boys sitting on their Styrofoam boards was waiting for us. Their plot was quite simple. When a tourist boat approaches they carefully position themselves on each side then grab the railing. They ask in what language we speak and then start singing a little song. I assume they know a song in each of the major languages and we were given a performance of “Il etait un petit navire” that would have chattered into pieces all the surrounding glass if we hadn’t been on a wooden boat! Obviously this was made in the pure Egyptian tradition which means that they don’t ask you if you want the song in the first place and after you have to give them money for their memorable performance. We then give them a coin but they look at you in a way to tell you that you are cheap and that it’s not enough and this no matter how much you give them in the first place! But they were only the Egyptian apprentices as the real pros were solidly waiting for us in Luxor!

Philae Island is the main attraction in Aswan where can be found the temple of the same name although it was originally located a little further down at a bit less than a kilometer of its actual position. It was entirely moved, brick by brick, to save it during the creation of Lake Nasser for hydroelectricity purposes in the 70’s, I think. It was really beautiful and very Pharaonic with nice sculptures on the wall and a very geometrical architecture. However, it was heartbreaking to see how many engravings were voluntarily damaged by religious devout of other religions finding offending the pagan ideas depicted on the temple’s walls. This was obviously yet another example showing how tolerance and religion don’t always go together! But beside the religious vandalism Philae allowed us to appreciate the scale of the post-revolutionary devastation of the tourist industry in Egypt. When we climbed on the boat taking us to the island we could see the hundred or so similar boats moored to the dock without work. In fact we were the only living souls when we arrived at the site. Believe me; it is quite impressive to be alone in one of the major tourist spot of a country. There is definitively no better time to visit a country than just after a good revolution!

Finally the two temples of Abu Simbel were the primary goals of our last visit in the Aswan area. The temples were lost in the middle of nowhere and getting there required a three hour bus ride then one hour to visit the temples and three more hours for the ride back. Despite the long distances to cover the visit was worth the trouble since the bus ride took place either along the Nile or in the Sahara desert. In the former case it was impressive to see how much people can pull out of the meager 200m or so of fertile shores along the river, the rest being just sand. The two temples of Abu Simbel are special not only because they are carved directly out of the mountain, which is certainly very impressive, but for the fact that, like the Philae temple, they were moved stone by stone by UNESCO at the creation of Lake Nasser! But in this case it was not only the fact they had to move the stones and the four magnificent statues of Ramses II but the workers also had to recreate a mountain behind them!!! A temple carved in a mountain without a mountain isn’t simply the same.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cairo; the greatnesses of Egypt.

Without a single exception all sailors visiting Egypt are in awe before ancient Egypt and totally disgusted by the Egyptians themselves! But in Cairo, a city of over 20 millions, it was the greatnesses of Egypt that greeted us. As for the Egyptian baseness’s we will talk more about them in our post about Luxor. Cairo is obviously the Great Pyramids and we wouldn’t miss the opportunity to go for the traditional camelback ride at the base of these 5000 years old monuments. It is even more impressive when we think that the Montreal Olympic stadium has a hard time holding 20 years without losing a 20 tons concrete beam once in a while! For those more attentive, it is fair to say they were in fact dromedaries but let’s not go there shall we!

Of course Cairo is not only the pyramid. We left Chocobo at the Port of Suez near the entrance of the canal of the same name and jumped into a bus to Cairo with the intention to take the train from there to the other points of interest, namely the towns of Aswan and Luxor. For our visit of Cairo we were in the good company of Gillian and Graeme who also left their sailboat Kathleen Love in Suez and with whom we sailed on and off with since our convoy in the Maldives. We then enjoyed a good coffee at the feet of the sphinx and the Egyptian Museum was also very interesting especially the section about Tutankhamen with the golden sarcophagus and all. The young pharos’s mommy wasn’t there though since it is in display in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Of course one cannot go through Cairo without a short walk along the shore of the River Nile one of the longest in the world. Note that I say a “short” walk since it is nearly impossible to have a quiet walk there without the constant hassle from the street vendors and boat tour operators.

Beside the oldies we were also able to appreciate the unique charm of the city itself which is worth spending at least two weeks visiting. Unfortunately, time constraints being, we could only stay three days. Friends recommended us the City View hotel located directly in front of the Egyptian Museum and we decided to follow their advice. But what they forgot to mention is that the hotel in question also gives directly on Tahrir Square which is precisely where the main protests were held the month before leading to the fall of former President Mubarak. Tensions have calmed down since then with the militaries taking control of the government until the November elections but the population still maintains a continuous protest in Tahrir Square in order to maintain the pressure on the authorities. Thus we were able to enjoy a nice cold beer on the balcony of the hotel, located on the 5th floor of the building, while admiring the majestic museum and especially the crowd of the protest getting excited once in a while in front of us. The mood of the crowd was generally calm, no gunshots such as in Yemen, and we could even observe the street vendors taking advantage of the situation to sell hot peanuts and Egyptian flags at high prices. In the end the biggest impact these protests had on our time in Egypt was the total annihilation of the tourist industry in the country and consequently the tourist sites were virtually empty hence making the visits more enjoyable for us. However, all Egyptians living off tourism ended up with no customers in a matter of days and saw us coming like steaks in Ethiopia. Everywhere we went we were swarmed by the crap vendors assailing us like a horde of mosquitoes that, with their deficient English, had completely forgot the meaning of the word “NO”. However, if we were interested in buying something the negotiations were turning in our favor. Thus the price of a gismo would quickly drop from 15 Egyptian pounds down to 2 pounds after a few refusals from us!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Arrived in Turkey

We arrived in the town of Kas in Turkey from Port Saïd in Egypt on April 26th 2011 after a passage of 329 nautical miles that took us 2 days and 14 hours for an average speed of 4.8 knots. This was our first sailing in the Mediterranean Sea.