With the situation in Egypt this week, it’s been reminding me of the trip I took there (and to Jordan) many years ago. I had a great time, met lovely, friendly people and really immersed myself in the history and culture. I kept a travel journal in the form of e-mails home. Here they are for the first time ever.
Amman, Jordan: Well, I made it. Looks like several of the keys on this arabic keyboard are sticky or just plain useless, so bear with me on the grammatical formalities here.
It was an exceedingly long trip. Made longer by the unscheduled stop in BEIRUT. Turns out a flight got cancelled so they decided to load everyone on my flight and make an extra stop. I got in at 6am local time on Saturday. I had a big nap then decided to venture out. Except when I woke at noon it was raining. Not just raining (in the desert, mind you), but call-in-the-ark raining. Did I mention this is the desert? The streets ran like rivers. Actual rivers. I wondered why the desk clerk at my hotel was laughing when I went out. He knew what was coming.
No one speaks English. Even those that say they speak English. Even many people in hotels. Kinda funny. I was looking for a restaurant and asked for directions in a hotel and the guy couldn’t help me. Couldn’t even find his own hotel on my map, at least not that he could communicate.
I managed to buy myself fresh squeezed-in -the-street juice, but have been largely unsuccessful finding a restaurant. Good thing I’m not hungry yet. Though I did pass a bbq chicken place…. Chicken!
I was also going to head over to a much recommended Turkish bath I read about in the guidebook, but since no one can read maps, I can’t read Arabic, and the streets are actually not labelled, this is proving difficult.
I’m actually giggling to myself right now, so amusing is this place…and me in it. It’s a bit of a trip to be so incommunicado. Good to be out of the old comfort zone once in a while.
Petra was amazing. We got up before dawn so we could be the first ones into Petra, and we were. For awhile we were the only people there at all. It was peaceful and quiet and so stunning. We walked down through a giant canyon called the Siq (sick). It’s hundreds of feet high, and used to be prone to flash flooding. But after a flood swept away a whole group of tourists, they dammed it. Dammit is right.
The walk is about 20 minutes at a slow pace, and at that time of day the rock is pinky-coral. It’s sandstone so very soft, and in many places it’s pitted and pocked. Caves are everywhere. Many Bedoin used to live here.
Soon we came to the narrowest part of the Siq, and through this small fissure, you can just make out the treasury, the best preserved and most lavish building of Petra’s remains. It’s easily 6-8 stories tall, and cut right from the side of the gorge by the Nabatean people. The detail is amazing; corinthian columns, roman friezes, carved figures of women dancing. It was sooo cool. We sat there just looking at it as bedoin nomads came into the canyon on camel, donkey and horse (sometimes even in pickup trucks!) and began to set up shops. Many of them wear traditional clothing; headscarves, long shirts and pants, but just as many wear western clothing like jeans and t-shirts.
We spent most of the day in Petra, just wandering around, looking into caves that look like thieir insides are smeared with candlewax.
The rock here is fascinating, it’s a million shades of pink, peach, orange and cocoa. But the patterns are unforgettable; swirled like waves and fingerprints. It’s easy to see how this place can be captivating.
There’s also so much more to Petra than just the famous treasury. Entire streets with elaborate facades scraped from the rock, homes and even an entire 3000 seat theatre. There’s also a lot of Roman ruins here too, as they came in and took the city, then set up shop here. There’s a Byzantene church, temples and tombs all ready to be explored.
Another highlight was climbing one of the mountains here to see the monastery building at the top–a place once reserved only for priests.
It’s several hundred metres up from the gorge floor via a series of stone steps and gravel cuts. With the sun beating down and the wind rustling the few trees here it was quite peaceful.
At the top, the building the Nabateans teased from the rock was even larger than the ones before–it’s the only thing here and its presence feels like it’s the biggest thing for miles–it totally overpowers you. I stood on what felt like the top of the world and looked around to see the Jordanian desert, and Israel beyond.
The day before we swam in the Dead Sea, and that was something! You couldn’t sink if you tried…just bob on toplike flotsam and the water tingles; almost like it might feel if you bathed in ginger ale. But the water is horrible to the taste and burns any tiny cuts or bites. If you’ve just shaved it can be very painful.
The water is super warm but it leaves a kind of oily feel on your skin. I covered myself head to toe with the mud from the bottom, as it’s supposed to be theraputic. It burns a bit, but once it was washed off it felt amazing. My skin was really soft.
Last night was spent camping in the desert of Wadi Rum with Bedoin nomads. Our tent was simple camel hair blankets fashioned into large tents with cots inside. The air was warm even at night and I was more than cozy in my sleeping bag.
We were treated to a bedonin feast for dinner then our drivers and the bedoin took up a drum, tamborine and some kind of guitar and played music for us around a fire. This morning we rode camels through the desert.
In the morning tomorrow, Friday, we’ll take the hydrofoil across the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea to Dahab, Egypt.
Dahab Egypt. It’s the first city we’ve been to here since crossing this morning. Despite dire warnings about the hours of hassle and bureaucracy, we crossed without incident from Jordan. I have to say Dahab is stunning, though it really sneaks up on you. From the road it’s all dirt and dust and crumbling half-finished buildings. I was unimpressed. But I walked out the back of the hotel and instantly my feet hit sand. The town is spread across a large cresent beach here, and it’s just packed with restaurants, small hotels, stores and dive shops. Though we arrived after dark, the lights were bright and inviting. Our group went right away to a beautiful seafood place so close to the Red Sea, I could almost use the water to rinse my hands. And since we sit on cushions on the floor here, that was very nearly possible.
Though it’s low season here there are still a few tourists. Those who are here are stretched out across pillow-couches, sipping mango juice and lazily smoking the sheesha pipes. This place has quite the hippy feel.
Already Egypt is so much cheaper than Jordan. I can’t wait to shop in Cairo…I have so many things I’d like to bring home. The only thing I bought in Jordan was a Pashmina in Petra because things were so pricey. So I’m looking forward to spending my travellers cheques. Tomorrow we go snorkelling in a famous spot here for divers known as Blue Hole. I guess there’s a Blue Hole in Belize too…so I’ll take notes for later comparison. The following day we rise at 2am for a 2 hour climb of Mt Sinai to watch the sunrise. Not looking forward to the wake up call, but the experience is supposed to be surreal…even for the Athiests.
Aswan, Egypt: We arrived by gruelling 13 hour overnight train journey. It was reasonably comfortable–the seats were big. I had taken a sleeping pill and prepped for a good 8 hours when something strange woke me up. I preface this all by saying it really was not as bad as it’ll sound.
I had a sleep mask on and my contacts out but I knew something was wrong. I pulled the mask off and the train car was full of smoke. Something acrid was burning my nostrils. I put on my glasses, ready to make a major dash for it, but I look and all the other foreigners in the car are just sitting there, like this was normal. Since they had been largely awake and I was asleep, I figured they knew something I didn’t, so I sat, but stuffed my stuff into my pack. All of a sudden all these rail guys go running through our carriage to the adjoining one. They opened the door and smoke pours in. Crazy. But again, they don’t seem too alarmed. Someone comes back and asks for anyone who’s a doctor or nurse, and one of our group was. She went off…in the meantime the smoke is clearing, and everything seems ok, though by now the train had come to a sudden halt.
Then a guy comes out to tell us something has exploded on the train. I was ready to jump off, but he goes on to say that it was something in the electrical lights overhead. I looked into the car, and I can see scorched light casings. So I figured he wasn’t shitting us for appearances (ie tourists’)sake.
When the panel blew it shattered one of the overhead luggage racks which (duh!) is made of thick glass. That rained down on one Aussie girl, and cut her up pretty bad. An ambulance and the cops show up, she and her boyfriend are taken to the hospital. We sat there for two hours, while they unhooked the blow-up car and took it away. Then it was as if nothing had happened. ‘Sweet tea? Coca-cola?”
I asked about the victim today, I guess she’s ok…many stitches, and the couple has returned to Cairo for improved treatment.
See…told you it wasn’t so bad. Just a bit freaky.
Aswan is ok. It’s right on the Nile so it’s picturesque. A bit small, but it has a nice market, though I can’t tell you how tired I am today of being hassled by shopkeepers. At EVERY shop, “Hello, Allo, bonjour, vegates….” and so on. Then, “are you looking for a scarf/shirt/alabaster/hat/rug” and if there’s no bite there, “Where are you from? Austrailia/America/Canada/Finland?” Until they hit on something. Once they know it’s Canada I get “Canada Dry, Never Dry!” or “Oh Canada!”, or my personal fave. “My wife is Canadian!” Then there is a long conversation about “where is your husband? You want Egyptian husband?” It’s charming at first, then weary, then just plain annoying.
Yesterday was the best. We went to the Giza pyramids in the morning then the Egyptian museum in the afternoon.
The pyramids are amazing. Really amazing. As the bus is driving along through traffic-choked Cairo, all of a sudden between the buildings, a quick glimpse of something… then it’s covered by another highrise. Then another quick peep, until suddenly there they are, filling my field of view. Cairo has grown so much that, literally, one second you’re in the city, the next, pyramidial desert. It’s really surreal, and doesn’t look at all right.
These pyramids are massive. I mean I knew they’d be big, but they’re really imposing. And beautiful. So precisely perfect, all smooth edges and towering lines at a distance. I had to just sit there and marvel for a while. Up close, it’s just the opposite. The wear and tear and punishing desert wind have eroded their beauty, and they look like just a big pile of rocks. I chose to ponder them from further afield.
And the Sphinx. Soo cool. This massive figure at rest in the sand, lion’s body regal in repose, handsome face relaxed as it watches the city creep ever closer. It’s amazing to think that this site has been here for 5000 years.
OK, I’ve typed myself out. I’m gonna go meet the group for dinner. Early tomorrow, we’re going on a 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel, the massive temples and statues that were actually cut from the rock and moved to avoid the rising Nile after they put up the Aswan Dam. Then in the afternoon and tomorrow night, we’ll be on a Felucca boat, cruising the Nile.
At least I’ll have plenty of water to put out any fires.
Have a favourite Egypt memory? Share it in comments!