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Words of an Egyptian-Canadian in Cairo…

3 Feb

…in a time of Revolution (#Jan25)

My Egyptian-Canadian friend, Maged, lives in Cairo, Egypt. With the internet back on, I finally received an email from him assuring me that he is safe. Thank God.

With his permission, I am posting his email so that you can read it and have a feel for what it’s like for some of those on the ground. He is not near Tahrir. He is living in one of many neighbourhoods in Cairo. He is protecting his family, friends, and neighbours the best way he knows how in a city of chaos.

The words below have been minimally edited to reflect one person’s opinion. Please do not take it as anything else.

We’re all living under marshal law with a curfew at 3pm and zero police presence – we just have each other to depend on for security.

We block off our streets and don’t let anyone in after 3pm, and everyone in the neighborhood comes downstairs and patrols the streets looking for outsiders, I’ve been freezing my ass off every night staying up all night guarding my home and my family’s home with makeshift road blocks, handguns and shotguns….we also pray every night that this nightmare ends.

There’s no petrol in the gas stations but the food and water supply seem to be holding up pretty well. I’ve gotten to know everyone in my building and on my street from this vigilante type of self protection that we’ve set up – our situation is not unique. Apparently every single street in Cairo is like this.

Whenever we catch anyone trying to infiltrate our neighbourhood we whistle to each other and fire warning shots in the air. Usually they get scared off.
We wear armbands to tell friends from foes and so far we haven’t had any problems.

We all watch TV or listen to the radio on the street and hope that this shit ends as soon as possible so we can go back to our normal lives. There are tanks and APC’s (armoured personnel carrier) in Korba and Salah Salem, it’s a strange and bewildering sight. There’s still zero police presence on the streets and whenever we see a police car we make the occupants get out of the car and search them. A lot of police cars have been stolen and used by criminals released from prison or those just trying to steal anything they can get their hands on.

We pass the time telling jokes and talk politics. Everyone has an opinion, everyone is divided on who and what should happen, but we all agree that we want this to end.

It’s been days of this chaos with no end in sight, and yet when I walk around my neighborhood seeing the streets filled with people with sticks, knives, and guns protecting their homes, I can’t help but look on in absolute disbelief that this is happening in Cairo, one of the safest cities in the world that changed overnight. I still think its very safe though because everyone is on the streets protecting their homes, but vigilante justice is no way to live.

Anyways, I can’t wait to be back in Toronto and not have to deal with gunshots every night.

Originally from my Tumblr blog

Q&A – Egypt

22 Dec

This post is in response to Alkarim’s comments on Shukran (Thanks).


Q: Were the people friendly to foreigners?

A: Yes, in general they were really nice. Some people just wanted to talk/find out about you and where you were from – out of curiosity. Then there were people who wanted to chat you up so that they could try and sell you something (especially if you were near a bazaar or store-fronts).
I guess I should also mention that some guys could definitely get a bit aggressive if you were a female foreigner…it was actually sort of creepy!

Q: Did they speak English in small towns?
A: A little, but not much. We spent more time in big cities (Cairo, Luxor, Aswan), but when we were in small towns, our guide did most of the talking as English isn’t widely/fluently spoken. Our Bedouin guides and Nubian guides did speak some English – they pick it up from all the tours they are a part of.

Q: Were things expensive?
A: In my opinion, not really. [note: when I was in Egypt, $1 CDN = 5 LE (Egyptian pounds)]
Anything you bought from a market was pretty cheap if you could bargain – and if you were willing to walk away from anything and everything. I bought all my souvenirs for under $20 CDN.
Food-wise, it was pretty cheap if you ate local and avoided the tourist areas. Potential problem: not many locals speak English well…so you might end up being better off in the tourist areas in order to get what you really want. The cheapest meal I ate was 8 LE ($1.60) for shawarma from a take-out place in Cairo. In Khan al-Khalili market, one of the biggest tourist areas in Cairo, you can get the same thing plus some rice & veggies for 90 LE ($18). Okay, so $18 isn’t crazy-expensive for a meal, but when you compare it to what you could’ve had instead (at the cheaper price), it seems a tad pricey (read: rip-off).

Q: Was the night life similar to what we have here?
A: Unfortunately I didn’t get to experience the night life too much, so I can’t really give an accurate description. When we did go out, it was usually to a bar, and that scene is similar to what it’s like in Toronto.
The one time that I experienced a club-like atmosphere was in Dahab, and it was also pretty similar to what we have here – except they like their dance/euro more than I do!
I’ve heard amazing reviews of the Ministry of Sound clubs they have in Egypt. These are located in Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh – which I unfortunately did not have a chance to go to :(
Beach-side clubs…how could they not be great?

Q: Any thoughts on your next destination?
A: Peru (Machu Picchu, specifically). Here’s hoping my plans work out :)


Shukran (Thanks)

18 Dec

I met a lot of great Egyptians living in Cairo on my trip – and I will never forget the hospitality that I received from them.
When my backpack was temporarily ‘lost’ (but found a day later) and I had no extra clothes to wear, Shahira and Maged came through for me with a bag of clothes and shoes.

Oh yeah, did I mention that I only met Shahira once in Toronto before I went to Cairo? And that I had never met Maged at all before Egypt? I was introduced to them by some friends here in Toronto.
Both of them and their friends took me out for some fantastic late nights in Cairo.

Horseback riding by the pyramids at night was exhilarating – and a little scary because you didn’t really control your horse’s speed…that was the guide’s job and the horses only listen to him!

Felucca’ing on the Nile was relaxing, while the party boat with neon lights and music was a fun and very entertaining experience. The only awkward moment was when they made me get up and attempt bellydancing (I did a really poor job, and a little girl on the same boat put us all to shame!).

What would an Egyptian experience be without coffee and shisha? Well I had a lot of that…I’m pretty sure shisha goes with everything though. i.e. Sushi + Shisha: my most memorable meal was sitting by the Nile at Sequoia and eating some really great sushi (along with some shisha). The sushi there was better than the all-you-can-eat ones here, that’s for sure!

I didn’t get too many days/nights in Cairo, but the ones I did have were definitely not wasted. I don’t think I got much sleep while in Cairo, but it was well worth it!

Thank you: Maged, Shahira, Tony, Andrew, Asem, & friends for showing me around Cairo, entertaining me, feeding me, and driving me around. You are awesome and I will never forget my trip to Egypt – and yes, you can go ahead and take credit for that! :)

And let’s not forget my tour-mates and tour guide, Shady: you guys also made my trip super fun and unforgettable – I will have entertaining stories to tell for a long time. Special thanks to Matilda! For putting up with late room-arrivals or non-arrivals at times, and for checkin’ on me when I was sick.

My trip in one word: Incredible

Up, Down, & Underwater

18 Dec

Locations: St. Catherine (Mt. Sinai) & Dahab

The last leg of my adventure was spent climbing Mount Sinai and relaxing by the Red Sea in Dahab. Gecko’s knew what they were doing when they ended a 3-week tour with a beach visit!

Our group got into St. Catherine in the late afternoon. There isn’t much to do there, and I’m guessing people don’t stick around for much more than the hike up Mount Sinai.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of Mt. Sinai (other than the fact that it’s also the name of a Toronto hospital), it’s where Moses received the 10 commandments from God. Unfortunately, the church located at the bottom of Mt. Sinai was closed to the public the day we went, so we didn’t get to see the Burning Bush.

We had to wake up at 2am to climb this mountain in time to reach the top before sunrise. It isn’t really climbing, in the sense that you didn’t need ropes and harnesses, but the foot-trek up was no easy task. If you do this hike, remember that head-torches/lamps are your friends. You want to see where you’re going and know where the edge is. The Bedouin guides and camels know, but you won’t in the darkness.

Here’s where you say “What? Camels on a mountain?”. Well, yes. They are for those who prefer to camel-trek most of the way up. I say most, because you still have to climb about 750 narrow, crowded, uneven steps to the top after the mini camel safari.

It’s about a 3 hour climb to the top (average) and there are rest-stops along the way so you can stock up on water and snacks if you need to. It’s pretty chilly at night, so I recommend layering. But if you’re still cold, you can rent a blanket and buy tea or hot chocolate when you get nearer to the top.

So how’s the view?A M A Z I N G. Cloudless sky. Bright rising sun. Mountain surroundings. A light breeze. Peacefulness. A climb well worth it!

The sun eventually warms you up before you have to make your way back down – which is a good thing because you need your muscles to warm up and work properly for the downward trek. We had two options – go back the way we came – which involved some steps and then ramps…or go down another way which consisted of 3750 steps (aka the Steps of Repentance…apparently the more dangerous way). Well, the 3 Canadians, me included, decided to take the steps…and we were rewarded with awesome mountain-side views and glimpses of little churches and man-made arches along the way.

After our very exhausting climb, our group went on to Dahab to soak up some sun and have some fun [yes, the rhyme was necessary! :)]

Dahab consisted of swimming, ATVing, snorkeling, and drinking the best Mojitos I have ever tasted. No joke! If you’re ever there, there’s a bar called Mojito…and yes, it does have the best mojitos! Oh and this is where Cherry-Mint shisha/sheesha was introduced to me at Tree Bar…delicious.

Snorkeling and scuba diving in the Red Sea is really popular, especially in the area we went to: the Blue Hole. It was my first time snorkeling, and it was def a good first-time experience. I only wish I had an underwater camera to show you how colourful the fishes were!

I guess I should mention that the beach portion wasn’t the greatest…Unfortunately, Dahab doesn’t have the white sandy beaches that everyone loves so much. They have pretty rocky beaches so I didn’t go near the ocean as I didn’t think my flip-flops would cut it!

After 3 nights in Dahab, we spent about 7 hours on a bus to get to Cairo and spent a final night together as a group.

Kom Ombo to Cairo

30 Oct

We temporarily got off the felucca at Kom Ombo to visit a temple known as a “mirror” temple for its symmetrical architecture: one side of the building perfectly reflects the other. Facing the temple (1st pic below), you will notice that the left side looks similar to the right – it’s the same on the inside.

This temple is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, and to Horus as well. There used to be crocodiles in these parts so Ancient Egyptians prayed to Sobek to protect them from these predators. Kom Ombo was also a place of healing where everyone went to receive treatment from the priests & priestesses – it served as a hospital.
There are engraved images of what is thought to be the first representation of medical instruments for performing surgery including scalpels, forceps, scissors and medicine bottles.

After our Temple of Kom Ombo visit, we had our last nite on the felucca. In the morning we were driven to Luxor where we boarded an overnight train to Cairo.
Note: if you ever plan to take an overnight train in Egypt, bring a sleeping bag. It gets frigid!

Once back in Cairo, two girls and I decided to fill our day with a visit to the Egyptian Museum and a trip to the Khan el-Khalili market.

Egyptian Museum highlights included King Tutankhamun’s very large and magnificent jewelry collection and the other artifacts that were buried with him in his tomb. We also had the chance to see some real mummies – kind of creepy, but fascinating. On some of them, you could clearly see facial features. I’ll have to admit that the Egyptian museum lacked in the labeling department, so I had no idea what I was looking at some of the time. Hopefully the new Egyptian Museum (being built to house the artifacts that didn’t all fit in the 1st museum) will have everything labelled.

Khan el-Khalili is a major souk/market in the Islamic district of Cairo. The bazaar district is one of Cairo’s main attractions for tourists. Expect to see the typical souvenir stores, food stands, and coffee shops when you go.

My Khan el-Khalili adventure was interesting because we got lost and ended up on the side where local Egyptians shopped.
The side we were aiming to explore has your typical tourist souvenirs (papyrus, toy camels, scarves), more-expensive-than-usual prices at restaurants, and touts who never leave you alone. Where we were, there were undergarments, rugs, and things that you wouldn’t normally buy as a tourist.
After wandering through maze-like alleyways, a really nice mosque tour guide pointed us in the right direction and we, so to say, got “un-lost”. Without his help, I’d still probably be in that maze.

That night, some people from our tour group were leaving so we had a goodbye dinner on a Nile cruise boat where there was bellydancing entertainment and a whirling dervish.

What’s a whirling dervish, you ask?

This isn’t my video, but I figured it would do the job in showing you what a whirling dervish does….spin, spin, and spin…with objects too! I have no idea how they can spin for so long and how they keep their balance, so I’m going to have to attribute it to talent.

Along the Nile

12 Oct

Location:

The Nile (starting from Aswan and heading north)

After our Abu Simbel visit in the morning, we had some time to shower (our last one for 2.5 days) and pack our stuff for our Felucca adventure up the Nile. For those unfamiliar with feluccas, they are traditional wooden sail boats of Egypt’s Nile.

Felucca - photo by Andrew RushworthOurs (pictured) was manned by 3 Nubians who not only sailed the boat, but also cooked for us. There were 16 in our group (including myself) plus 3 crew members on this felucca. Imagine 19 people cramped together on a boat with very limited space.

How you established your personal space: you boarded, then you picked a spot to lie down. Et voilà! That space your body just occupied? That was your personal space for the next 3 days and nights. 8 people on one side of the boat, and 8 on the other (the crew had their own separate space).

This is where/how we spent the next couple of days. As you can imagine, there isn’t all that much to do when you’re stuck on a small sail boat. So we read, listened to music, played cards, and generally tried to kill time. We ate all our meals on the boat and slept in sardine formation.

As for washrooms…well, the rule was to pick an unoccupied bush or tree once we docked. And you had to mind the donkeys, cows, and water buffalo because it’s kind of hard to see them in the fields when you’re trying to go at night. Yep, that’s right – you had to “share” the washrooms with the animals. Sharing is caring, right?

So we sailed from Aswan northwards. We sailed slowly….very slowly. You go at whatever pace the wind decides to take you at (“Insha’Allah” as they say).
The experience was really peaceful – which is such a change from the hecticness of the cities (especially Cairo). Along the way, we saw a lot of animals and village kids swimming in the Nile.

Boys in the Nile - photo by Andrew RushworthNile Sunrise

We also had the chance to swim in the Nile when our felucca was docked. The temperature of the Nile is cool, so swimming was very refreshing – and also much needed because of the intense heat during the day.
I guess taking a dip was the equivalent of showering during this part of our tour. Not that it was cleansing or anything – we were not only sharing our washrooms with the animals, but also the Nile.

Jess, Me, Matilda, & a Water Buffalo - Photo by Andrew Rushworth

All in all, the felucca journey was pretty calm. Well, except on our last night. A hilarious and loud game of drunken Charades was played and one person went overboard (as a result of the alcohol, I believe)!
The story is that a Brit woke up a Canadian – who promptly threw him into the water. It was a shock for everyone, especially the people on other feluccas around us – I think we woke them up! We were docked, and the victim could swim, so it was all good. That incident definitely made up for the rest of the slow, lazy, and uneventful days.

Most of my time on the felucca was spent catching up on sleep and reading – two things I never feel I have enough time for; so getting the chance to do that was great. I guess it was more like being pushed into it due to the lack of activities on the boat…but it was still great! Felucca’ing was definitely the most relaxing part of my trip.

For 2 days, we sailed onwards to our destination: Kom Ombo

A Tale of Two (more) Temples

8 Oct

Location:

Aswan

Aswan has long been a vital military and trade center, and also a border point. Just south of Aswan is Nubia; and beyond that, Sudan. Although Egypt is technically in Africa, I know a lot of you just thought “Sudan = Africa”. And yeah, it was ridiculously hot. There are two major temples near Aswan – Philae and Abu Simbel.

Philae from the boat(Temple of) Philae is located on Agilkia Island. It is accessible by ferry and was a significant place of worship for Ancient Egyptians.

This complex was actually submerged under the flood waters of the Aswan Dam for a couple of years before it was dismantled and relocated during the 1970s to preserve it.

The complex consists of the Temple of Isis, Temple of Hathor, and Kiosk of Trajan; but ask me which one is which and I wouldn’t be able to tell you from my pictures (sad, I know!) – but you can always google it :).

Roman ColonnadeThe pictured colonnade was a Roman addition (obviously Roman, huh?).
As with other temples, there are a lot of reliefs – the ones at Philae are quite well preserved.
The blue-ish picture (below) of me was taken in a room where a priest would make sacrifices and supposedly gain power – it used to have a gold door, so you know it was definitely special.
Philae used to be a colourful temple, but is now the colour of sandstone – as most temples are in Egypt….

The principal deity of Philae was Isis (Goddess of motherhood and fertility). Some images of her in the complex were defaced by Coptics who hid in temples during times of persecution. You can see Coptic crosses left by the early Egyptian Christians in the temple.


ReliefsPhilae Entrance to Hypostyle HallPriest's Room

Sidenote: if anyone knows how to make or where to get Kosheri/Koshari in Toronto, let me know. Because it is the best vegetarian food I’ve ever tasted. And it is related to this post because our group tried this dish in Aswan.

—–

Abu Simbel was a long drive away from Aswan. Well, it seemed long – maybe it’s cause we had to leave in the wee hours of the morning to be a part of a convoy. The reason they travel so early is because the vehicles may not be able to handle the afternoon heat – so we had to allow plenty of time to travel there, sight-see, and travel back before the sun was able to fry vehicles (and us, I guess).

Abu Simbel was also saved from dam flood waters by a frantic international effort in the 1960s (note: a LOT of temples and historical buildings had to be saved from the dam(n) flooding of the Nile).
The two temples of Abu Simbel were originally carved into the rock of the Nile valley by Pharoah Ramses (Ramesses) II.

Abu Simbel - Great TempleThe Great Temple monuments were dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Harakhty, and Ptah, as well as to the deified Ramses himself. This temple can be seen on the $1 Egyptian pound note (LE).

Four 20m statues of Ramses guard the entrance to the Great Temple. From left to right, they represent him through his ages – from young to old. As you pass through a hall containing columns and various rooms depicting reliefs of his military superiority (some coloured), you eventually come to a room located furthest back from the entrance. In here are rock cut sculptures of the gods mentioned above in seating position (L-R: Ptah, Amun, Ramses II, Ra-Harakhty).

Here’s where the architectural facts get interesting: the temple was positioned in such a way that twice a year, on October 22 and February 22, the rays of the sun would penetrate this sanctuary and illuminate the statues – except for the statue of Ptah, who always remained in the dark. It is thought that these dates represent the King’s birthday and coronation day respectively, but there is no solid evidence to support this – though the significance of the dates is agreed on.

Abu Simbel - Small TempleThe smaller temple is dedicated to Hathor – a goddess who personified the principles of feminine love, motherhood and joy – and was built for Ramses’ wife Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti) who was one of the Great Royal wives.

The statues of Ramses and Nefertari are equal in size – which was not common in Egyptian art.
Traditionally, statues of queens that stood next to those of the pharaoh were never taller than his knees. This exception indicates the special importance (and love) attached to Nefertari by Ramses.

Lake Nasser surrounds Abu Simbel and stretches from southern Egypt into northern Sudan.
Lake NasserIt’s on the top 10 list of largest resevoirs (artificial lakes) by surface area. Its creation was unfortunately also responsible for wiping out all the Nubian villages. Egypt’s entire Nubian community was forced to relocate. Nubia is said to be the homeland of Africa’s earliest black civilization.

After the Abu Simbel Adventure, we got on a boat. A m___ f____ boat. You know the lyrics…and if you don’t, you should. :)

Temples & Tombs

30 Sep

Location:

Luxor

First thing’s first – we had to say good-bye to our amazing Bedouin guides before heading for Luxor. L-R and even phonetically spelled: Sala/Saleh, Said/Sayeed, Hamdi/Humdi, Salim/Saleem

Bedouin Guides

Day 7 & 8 were spent in Luxor (previously known as the ancient city of Thebes). Luxor is a city that has become completely dependent on tourism and foreigners because it contains many of the biggest and most famous of the ancient monuments.

What’s interesting about Luxor is that the temples are mostly on the east bank (where the sun rises) and the necropoli are on the west bank (where the sun sets). This has to do with how ancient Egyptians saw the world. The administrative, religious, and living areas are built on the east bank because the rising sun is associated with life and rebirth. The necropoli, and associated mortuary temples, are located on the western side because the ‘land of the setting sun’ is associated with death. (Frommer’s Egypt, 2008)

Karnak EntranceIf you’ve ever read about Egypt, you’ve heard of Karnak (Temple)….and if you haven’t, well now you have. It’s the second most visited site in Egypt (second to the Giza Pyramids).

We arrived in Luxor around lunch time and took horsedrawn carriages (which are really common in Luxor) to Karnak in the late afternoon.

Karnak is a large open-air museum and the largest ancient religious site in the world. The reason it’s so big is because many rulers contributed to the site until it was a vast and spectacular collection of ruined temples, chapels, obelisks, statues, and other buildings.

One of most famous aspects of Karnak is the Hypostyle Hall. It has an area of 50,000 square feet with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. When you walk into the hall, you immediately feel small. The columns are gargantuan!

The room was originally roofed and the columns, walls, and ceiling were brightly coloured (which you can still see on parts of the arches and ceiling).

Karnak Ceiling

The columns in the Hall were built and designed in such a way, that no matter from which angle you looked at a row of columns, you would see the same symbol on the same spot on each column. And yes, it IS amazing considering that they accomplished this so many years ago without mass production techniques. I think a picture would probably help here (click for detail):

Karnak Column

—–

Our next day began super early because we had to get to the Valley of the Kings (aka the Valley, VoK) before it got really hot. The VoK is on the western side so we sailed across the nile on a ferry to the west bank where our donkeys were waiting for us. Donkey Donkeys are not as comfortable as camels, but they did provide lots of entertainment all the way to the Valley as people tried to stay on during the bouncy ride.

The Valley of the Kings consists of royal tombs which were constructed for kings and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom. Despite the name, the Valley also contains the tombs of favourite nobles as well as the wives and children of both nobles and pharaohs. As of 2008, the Valley is known to contain 63 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from a simple pit to a complex tomb with over 120 chambers).

The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. All of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed of all their valuables at some point in time, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the rulers of this time. I guess it takes a lot of money and power to have people build you a big vibrant final resting place in chambers made of hard rock.

Valley of the Kings

Admission only allows you into 3 tombs (excluding King Tut’s) and the tombs are closed on a rotating basis in order to protect them and minimize the damage from the effects of visitors. The 3 tombs we chose:

  1. Ramses IV
  2. Ramses IX
  3. Horemheb

Fact: “Ramses” is synonymous with “Ramesses” so you will see instances in books, guides, etc. which refer to either name.
Out of the 3 tombs, Horemheb was my favourite. His tomb was never finished (he died earlier than expected…) so you can see sketching, reliefs (in progress) and half-coloured walls. I’d normally insert a picture of my own here, but photography wasn’t allowed inside the tombs. So instead, here’s a picture I found on Wiki of Ramses IX’s tomb.

Tomb of Ramses IX

The tomb of King Tut (Tutankhamen) is located in the VoK, however it is ticketed separately from the other tombs – I didn’t bother paying to go in as my guidebook said it’s probably not as interesting as the other tombs. And for some reason I didn’t feel like going to see his mummy (don’t worry, I saw mummies in the Cairo museum!)

After The Valley of the Kings, our group went for an authentic Egyptian meal. And after a break from tombs….we went to visit more tombs.

This time we went to the Valley of the Nobles which was for the wealthy and the high officials who were not of royal blood. Once again we visited 3 tombs:

  1. Ramose – a royal scribe
  2. Userhat – a royal scribe and tutor
  3. Khaemet (Kha Em Het) – a royal scribe

Userhat’s tomb has depictions of winemaking, gazelle hunting, and hair cutting on the walls (Frommer’s Egypt, 2008). These tombs are significantly smaller than those in the Valley of the Kings so our visit was pretty short.

After dragging our dusty selves out of the tombs, our next destination was Habu Temple. It was used for various purposes over time; part of it was used as a Christian church, and a village (Djeme) was built within the walls as well.

Habu WallWall of Severed Dreams

There are gory illustrations on the outer walls of Ramses III killing his enemies and subjugating their lands (Frommer’s Egypt, 2008). There is a wall in particular which is of interest – the “Wall of Severed Dreams” as one of our tour members called it (see picture above on right). It depicts a pile of penises – proof to the king that soldiers had indeed killed their enemies. Because it just wouldn’t make sense for them to count hands since victims have TWO hands…double-counting is a no-no.

Oh yeah, and the huge cylindrical columns usually associated with temples? Well those are reduced to stumps. But there are still nice engravings, reliefs, and colours to be seen.

Habu
Column StumpsHabu Coloured Arch
orus (R) giving life (the ankh) to the King (L) via feedingHabu Wall

How About Some Desert? – Part 2

21 Sep

Location:

Western Desert

After waking up covered in sand and feeling like I had a permanent layer of dirt stuck on me, I was glad to hear that we were heading to some accommodations – with showers! Don’t get me wrong – the feeling of filth was worth it for having the chance to sleep in the desert…but it’s nice to smell and feel clean.

mirageDuring the journey to our next destination, Dakhla, our guides drove off the road into the desert where we saw mirages. It basically looked like we were driving near water…water that didn’t exist. The illusion is unreal. I tried to capture it on camera, so you’ll have to click for a larger image. The top half of the pic is real (it’s an oasis) but the water isn’t.

We ended up staying at Dohous Bedouin Camp in Dakhla for 2 nights. During the days, we swam in a hot spring (and smelled like sulphur after), visited a folk art museum, camel safari’d, and visited an abandoned city made of mudbrick.

El-Qasr El-Qasr: This is a big medieval city made of mudbrick. The picture was taken from a rooftop – and the city stretches as far as the eye can see. El-Qasr was built for defense. For example, there are narrow, short, maze-like tunnels – so that enemies couldn’t enter with camels & horses without being hindered by the height of the tunnels. And the winding tunnels with their blind corners didn’t help either. Oh yeah, by the way: it’s haunted.

The place is abandoned and nobody knows exactly why. It’s possible that people do know what happened, but nobody wants to talk about it. How’s that for mystery?

Our Bedouin guides won’t go into the city…and won’t even go remotely near it at night. Many Egyptians also refuse to enter El-Qasr. There is only one man (and his family) in living in this mudbrick city. Since they are the only people willing to live there, the government appointed them Guardians of the city.

farting spring“The Farting Spring”: This hot spring got its name because it bubbles (kinda like a cauldron). We all know what happens when you fart in water. Hence the name.

We were told by our tour guide to jump into the spring (from approx 3 meters high)…and we were also told it was only knee-deep. Now we all know we shouldn’t jump into shallow water…but I figured the guide didn’t want us to die (too much paperwork to fill out) so I took the plunge.
And sunk into quick-sand for a brief second before getting popped back up by the gas (which makes the bubbles).
It was weird and so very cool at the same time. That’s the only way to describe it.
The good thing is that you can’t actually sink into the sand very deep – some tried to stand on each others’ shoulders – the gas just pushes you back up so you float.

Other Activities & Notes:

  • Sand Tobogganing: Magic carpets work on snow & sand! Each person in the group only went down the dune once… it’s hard work climbing up a dune; and more than once probably wasn’t worth it in that kinda heat.
  • Camel Safari: Camels are sloooow and the safari was a nice relaxing ride. We were in a convoy-like group of adult and baby camels.
  • al-Bagawat: In the Kharga Oasis, there are Coptic Christian Tombs which have biblical paintings on the walls and ceilings. The Chapel of the Exodus depicts mostly paintings from the Old Testament. The walls in the Chapel of Peace are covered in Arabic, Coptic and Greek graffiti, while the formal decorations are of a pure, Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) style.
  • My Health Condition: was bad on Day 5, and the worst on Day 6 – therefore I don’t remember much about al-Bagawat and I spent the 2nd night in the desert sleeping in a jeep.

Below are pics of the “Other Activities”.

Refer to the “Ankh vs Cross” (3rd) pic taken in al-Bagawat. Note that an Ankh – the bottom symbol – is a symbol for eternal life. As you can see, it looks a lot like a cross…

If you click on the last pic for a close-up, you can see that the painting has been defaced. The faces of figures have been chipped/scratched out. This isn’t unique to this place. In many temples and monuments, you will see that has been done – i.e. by Coptics to Islamic or Ancient Egyptian temples, and vice-versa. Not to mention the many ‘foreigners’ (Romans, Greeks) that invaded/occupied Egypt – they’ve also done their share of defacing.

dunessand tobogganing
Ankh vs Crosscamel safari
al-Bagawatcamel safari
al-Bagawat

How About Some Desert? – Part 1

14 Sep

Location:

Western Desert

For those who haven’t seen my pre-Egypt post, here is the map of my entire journey:

Egypt Encompassed Map For the purposes of my next couple of posts, your focus should be on the West side of the map (left side for those of you who need a hint…)

Day 3 of my journey, our Bedouin guides came to pick us up from Cairo. Our bags were loaded onto jeeps and we set off on a super long drive into the desert. When I say super long, I mean it must have been 7-8 hours of driving, plus about 2 hours added on for pit stops and food. I think my approximations are correct (I’m not sure because I slept through a lot of the ride…it’s a gift I have).

Our guides did all the cooking when we were in the desert. And the food wasn’t too bad at all. I wasn’t expecting much, so I guess it surpassed my expectations. Well, as long as I don’t have to cook it, I’ll enjoy the food. I guess one downside is the fact that the desert is where our meals started to consist of pitas…consistently…constantly – as in EVERY day. Some meals, we’d get a treat and get some other kind of bread! Oh and goat cheese was a huge part of meals too…as were cucumbers and tomatoes. Those were pretty much our staples. And those are pretty much the things I’ve been avoiding as of late.

Along the way to our destination, we stopped for some photo ops. Yup, we stopped in the middle of nowhere. To take pictures of sand, rocks, and more sand. It was really REALLY HOT. But what else do you expect when you visit Egypt in summer? (Crazy tourists…)
Here are our trusty jeeps in the middle of nowhere:

Western Desert

Our destination was the White Desert. Don’t worry, the Desert doesn’t discriminate – there’s also a Black Desert! Don’t ask about a Yellow or a Brown Desert, because I don’t think there are official deserts with those names…but all sand is pretty much brownish/yellowish so those colours dominate when it comes to desert presence (almost like Toronto…!).

It’s kind of obvious why the Black & White Deserts have their respective names.
The Black Desert gets its colour from the black rocks on the conical mounds.
The White Desert gets its colour from a combination of chalk and limestone. It kind of looks like snow, huh?

blackdesertwhitedesert

When we finally reached our destination in the White Desert, camp was set up.
When I say “camp” I mean there was an area where the Bedouins could cook and you could sit to eat (pictured).

Your sleeping area was any spot you could find in the sand – the one requirement was that you must be able to physically see the camp & jeeps from where you are. I guess you can get lost really quickly if you’re disoriented…i.e. when you wake up? – everything looks the same out there.
Photo by Andrew Rushworth

There were no tents.
No poles to pitch.
No tarps to set up.

We all slept under the stars.
On thin mattresses.
Around a campfire.

(Bliss!)

And yes, it definitely gets chilly in the desert – sleeping bags and blankets were very necessary.

The sky was clear and the stars shone brilliantly – the view upwards was nothing short of amazing. You’re just going to have to imagine what the night sky looks like with no light pollution. I’ve never seen so many shooting stars in one night.

Oh, and the moon? It was so bright, you didn’t need a flashlight at around 3-4am. After seeing the moon rise in the desert, I’m going to have to say that it definitely rivals a sunrise or a sunset. The sun’s nice when it glows red, but the moon wears red better.

The only other living things we saw that night were desert foxes. They look like little white dogs (very cute), but apparently they like to steal flip flops? So we had to keep our shoes in the jeeps. Somewhere out there, there is a fox den made of flip flops…

And here’s where I leave you with pretty pictures to sustain you until I decide to type out part 2.

Left pic: These are known as inselbergs (or outcroppings) which are shaped like a chicken under a tree. There are a lot of outcroppings in the White Desert – these ones just happen to be the famous ones.
Right pic: The sun just setting in the White Desert – view from the top of a huge inselberg.
desertsunset