12 October – 14 October 2010, Egypt
We’d never really dreamed of visiting Egypt, so when we created our itinerary it ended up in the “maybe” column. During the first six months of our trip we moved at such a rapid pace that we both started to feel a bit burnt out. We were looking for countries to skip and Egypt would’ve likely been axed if it weren’t for the Red Sea’s reputation as a world class diving destination. Once we decided to make our way there, we couldn’t leave without seeing the country’s renowned monuments and temples.
Other travelers warned us that Egypt’s hassle factor is incredibly high. We would have to bargain for everything from bottled water to taxis, and tips or “baksheesh” would be expected for even seemingly inconsequential services like opening doors and giving directions. While traveling we regularly deal with similar situations, but had the sense that circumstances would be more taxing in Egypt. As we landed we tried to maintain an open mind but our resolve was tested only minutes after stepping off the plane. We passed through a security check and when our bags emerged from the x-ray machine, an officer handed them to us and, with a sly smile, asked “baksheesh?” Jason rolled his eyes, the officer’s smile widened, and we walked off without paying, but we realized that we might still be in for a stressful couple of weeks.
Our first stop in Egypt was Aswan, famous for its proximity to Abu Simbel. On the banks of the Nile, Abu Simbel is reputed to be one of the country’s most impressive temple complexes. Since a 1997 terrorist attack foreigners must travel in a convoy that supposedly leaves Aswan at 4 AM. This seems ridiculously early but actually makes sense because it allows visitors to explore the temples before the sun becomes unbearably hot. Bracing ourselves for a long day, we rolled out of bed at 2:45 AM and drove around the city picking up others before finally making our way to the convoy meeting point. The promised departure time of 4 AM came and went as we sat around in the dark waiting for something to happen. Just before 5 AM, our driver climbed into his seat and took off at high speed without turning on the headlights. All around us, other drivers were doing the same. Apparently driving in the dark without headlights is how it’s done in Egypt?
At no point during the three hour drive did we see any police officers, security guards or military. As far as we could tell, the convoy consisted solely of vehicles carrying foreigners. Obviously there may have been police officers somewhere amongst the large convoy but we felt justified in questioning their presence, especially once we had been in Egypt for a couple of weeks. Everywhere we went, we encountered broken metal detectors, x-ray machines that looked like they hadn’t been used in years and armed security guards playing cards and sipping tea. During our travels, we met others who questioned the effectiveness of the country’s security measures. One person in our minibus to Abu Simbel posed a good question. If foreigners really are in danger of being subjected to a terrorist attack, wouldn’t a convoy of hundreds that leaves at approximately the same time each day be an ideal target?
Despite the early morning and the inconvenience of the convoy, we were glad we made the trip to Abu Simbel. The site’s two massive temples are carved out of a mountainside and are a tribute to Pharaoh Ramesses II and his queen, Nefertari. Statues of the pharaoh standing 20 meters tall flank the entrance to the Great Temple, which opens to a series of elaborately decorated chambers. Walking through the temple, we looked up in awe at carvings depicting scenes from the Pharaoh’s victorious military battles.
The most relaxing part of our stay in Aswan was a sunset boat ride down the Nile. Floating on the world’s longest river surrounded by thousands of years of history, we watched as the sun made its way to the horizon. Our captain guided us quietly past cruse ships and other sailboats filled with tour groups. We’d paid extra for the luxury of our own boat but the privacy we gained was well worth the effort invested into negotiating a fair price. The sky grew dark as we listened to the sound of music being played on a nearby boat. Aswan’s crowded streets and the searing heat of the day seemed like a distant memory. For the first time since arriving in Egypt, we let down our guard and allowed ourselves to fully appreciate the moment.