I mistakenly arrived in Egypt thinking that it would be very similar to Morocco. That’s like thinking that California and New York are similar…and having lived in both – I know that’s not true. Sure, the two countries are in Northern Africa, they are both suffocatingly hot, their language is Arabic (with minor differences), they have the same religion, and they even share the Sahara Desert – camels and all…but beyond that – they really aren’t the same. The difference is that Egypt is all about history – temples, tombs, relics, hieroglyphics, and royalty. Because of that, you tend to see more tourists in Egypt and it is a little more developed in general.
I met up with my new Intrepid tour group in Aswan, Egypt near the southern most border of Egypt and Sudan. I had already met one member of the group – my partner in crime and fellow Casablanca/Egypt Air sufferer, Rosaline, from Australia. We stuck together through the worst of times, now we were ready to experience the best of times. It was actually a blessing that I met her in Casablanca – I doubt that I would have kept what was left of my sanity without her. We flew into Aswan and met the other 10 members of the group. I once again was traveling with Intrepid tour company, but this was only for two weeks and it was supposedly more upscale (basically meaning that there were more included activities planned in a jam packed 2 week period). I wasn’t real sure how I was going to like this form of touring as I was really in love with my backpacking tours that I had taken with Intrepid in the past – but this was only two weeks so I could give it a try.
Photo: Landscape of Southern Egypt…lots of rocks!
We got settled into our hotel and happily changed into new clothes…for the first time in 3 days. We met the other 10 people in the group as well as our leader Mohammad. He was from Egypt so could offer us a lot of good information about the country and the culture. Since the group of 10 had already been touring together for 2 days, we came into it as rookies…and had to learn 10 new names. The group members came from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and one other American.
That afternoon we went on a hot walking tour of Aswan. Aswan was really a good place to lodge for the night on the way to the famous temple of Abu Simbel (close to the Sudan border). The Nile River flowed through Aswan and it had a large Nubian population. The Nubians are the old nomadic tribal people who inhabited southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They had fought turf wars with the Egyptians many years ago as well as turf wars with the Nile as it flooded their land. We took a boat ride on the Nile, visited an old Nubian village, rode some camels, and had dinner with the locals at the village. We finished the evening dancing with the local kids before we boated back to Aswan for a good, but short night’s sleep.
Photo: The convoy!
“Ah, breaker one-nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck. You gotta copy on me, Love Machine? Ah, 10-4, Pig Pen, fer shure, fer shure. By golly, it’s clean clear to Taco Town. Yeah, we definitely got us the front door, good buddy. Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy…” The next morning, at the wee hours of 4AM, we joined our first convoy – no, not a camel convoy or a semi convoy – a bus convoy. Since Egypt has had a recent history (within the last 10 years) of terrorist attacks on their tourism industry, the government has tried to put in place programs to improve the safety of tourism in the country. They understand that tourism dollars are a huge piece of income, and you can’t just expect people to come to see the pyramids and old temples and risk their lives doing it. Therefore, they set up with program of convoys to move tourists throughout the country. When the tourists are on the roads in Egypt (outside the large cities), they are to be escorted by security. This would obviously be impossible if they were to let the tourists come and go freely – so instead they came up with the idea of a secure convoy…without Kris Krisstoferrson. Tourists are only allowed to move by vehicle as a part of a convoy. So – if you want to go from Aswan to Luxor – you need to check what time the daily convoy leaves and go in it. The convoy mainly consists of tour buses, minivans, medium size buses, and a number of security personnel in trucks carrying automatic weapons as if they were toys. In addition, you had to go through a number of checkpoints along the way. Security personal would sit in these little huts the size of a closet and watch the caravan go through a town, staring at us as if we were the circus coming to town. The caravans would have up to 80 vehicles in it and when you crossed over into another regional section of the country, you would all have to stop and wait for a new security team to take over and lead you into the next region. You’d get out of the van and wait for a bit trying to get some fresh air and you would have men with automatic weapons walking around you. I know it was meant to make you feel safe as a tourist, however, it kind of had the opposite effect – it kind of freaked me out. Especially considering the men carrying the automatic weapons looked about 17 years old. I saw one trying to untangle the strap on his automatic weapon by dangling it by the strap and jerking it around like a tangled bunch of cords until it came free. All I could think was – I hope to God that the gun has a safety on it…and he knows how to use it.
Photo: Security shack…a common site across Egypt
We joined the convoy to Abu Simbel at 4AM. This was a large convoy and I honestly slept most of the way. It was a 3 hour ride, and at about 6AM, I woke up from my bus slumber and was stunned as I pulled the curtain and looked outside. I had to remind myself where I was for a minute. It was pure, flat desert – brown, rocky (not sandy), and every so often there would be a little conical mound sticking up from the flat like a little mini hill. I hadn’t seen anything like this before. I watched the sun come up and ate my little box breakfast of bread, cheese, and jam (my new favorite combination), slathered on sunscreen, and got prepared to sweat my ass off seeing one of the most magnificent temples in Egypt.
Photo: Me in front of Abu Simbel…check out the scale!
I must admit – I knew nothing about these temples prior to the bus stopping and letting us out. I hadn’t even seen a picture of them before…but I prefer it that way. These days, you see so many things on TV, in books, on the internet – and it sets your expectations, and lessens the experience. But when you show up somewhere and truly have no idea what to expect – it’s fun – and you are never disappointed. I had no idea if this temple was big, small, made of gold, on the water, or had a moat. All I knew is that Ramses the Second had built them here near the border of Egypt and Sudan to warn all of the Sudanese to stay away…this was Ramses’ land.
Within our group of 12 people, we had a couple from Canada traveling with us, Connie and Archie. They were both high school teachers that had been teaching across the hall from each other for years. Connie taught History and Archie taught Geography. How fortunate that Connie was with us – as she provided me my “Ancient Egypt for Dummies” education over the next two weeks. She actually kind of served as our tour guide at Abu Simbel, giving us little overviews of the structure, why it was built, what the reliefs (carvings) meant, and answered all of our questions. Photo: The great Abu Simbel…HUGE!
We entered the temple area from the back where it just looked like a big pile of dirt. However, when we rounded the corner and came to the front, I was struck by the size and grandeur of the temple. It was massive – there were actually two temples – one for Ramses and a smaller one for his Queen, Nefitari. Both had entrances that were lined with huge statues of Ramses himself. I barely was the size of is big toe. Both temples faced out onto Lake Nasser.
We moved on to see a few more temples before returning to Aswan. We had a night out in Aswan that evening after a much needed siesta. I’ve determined that it is a necessity to take a siesta in these hot countries – as it’s inhuman to be outside doing anything during the hours of 1PM to 5PM…temperatures were reaching into the 110+F. If you didn’t take time to slow down and drink plenty of liquids you’d end up with heat stroke. While traveling through Morocco and Egypt I think that every single person that I was traveling with was sick at least once…and I don’t believe that it was necessarily from the food – I think it was from the heat – it’s lethal.
Photo: Hubbly Bubbly contraptions…
Our group went out and had a great dinner of grilled meats and then went walking around the souks. As we walked around the souks, I noticed that there were a number of little bars (no alchohol…this is still a Muslim country). The bars were filled with men – and only men. About 80% of the men there were having a coffee and some hubbly bubbly. Hubbly Bubbly – how can you not love that name?! It refers to the smoking pipes that are used throughout Arabia and Middle East. The pipes come in all sizes, and normally have a long tube that you suck in/inhale the sheesha (flavored tobacco). The tube was connected to a glass bottle/vase of sorts which has water in it. The tobacco sits at the top of the pipe above the vase. You put coals on the top of the contraption and suck the heat through the tobacco, the water bubbles, and you smoke in a flavored taste. The flavors were normally apple, peach, or mint. In a country where alcohol is prohibited, hubbly bubbly, or sheesha, is the national past-time. At the bars, the men would simply sit and smoke and watch the world go by. It seemed odd to me that they would get that much enjoyment out of it – it certainly didn’t provide the medicinal qualities of alcohol or smoking cigarettes – but it must have provided something – as the use of it was just too widespread. I asked our leader, Mohammad, about it and he said that it was similar to our culture going to Starbucks and having a coffee everyday, it was a cultural thing. It also provided a very slight nicotine fix I believe, but it wasn’t like cigarettes. In fact, he also told me that it was used an alternative to smoking – or for people who are trying to quite smoking. The good news is that instead of a yucky cigarette smell occupying the air – there was a sweet, green apple smell wafting through the souks – a much better alternative.
Photo: Mohammad demonstrating the Hubbly Bubbly!
As I sat and watched the myriads of men smoking the hubbly bubbly – I started thinking of it as a similar thing to my need to have a Diet Coke or cup of coffee every day – just a slight addiction, a therapeutic way to deal with the day…we all have our vices. However, with the name of hubbly bubbly, it definitely seemed like the most fun vice. Maybe I should start calling my morning coffee – coffee snoffee, or my diet coke – diet cokey wokey. Nahhh – ok, maybe not – I’ll just stick to the hubbly bubbly. The one thing that was clear to me from the first town I visited in Egypt was that the culture was certainly unique – there would be a lot to discover! 10-4 Good Buddy…over and out!
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice.
Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at Ottsworld.com.com.