Tuesday 20 January 2009 – Luxor, Egypt
The Emilio tries a bit harder than the Mina Palace (bread, bread and bread) with their breakfasts. Four large stainless pans contain ful, potatoes and another that varies between a sort of warm coleslaw, occasional crepes and other less identifiable items. A fourth holds variously rice pudding or something that looks like processed bran with milk.
One of the surly staff stands at the omelette station which has two pans and two hotplates, but cannot ever handle more than one at a time, as a queue develops for his produce. It does not help that the same spot also dispenses juice, tea, coffee and toast, produced on an antique and ineffectual mechanical toaster that requires at least three laps to produce so much as a hint of toasted colour on the processed white bread that is fed through it.
Thus fortified, we set off this morning in our minibus for a final day on the west bank. Hussein the scarf seller at the main ticket office had invited our party to his home for tea. Apparently having western guests in one’s home is considered a matter of great status, and his family of small children welcomed us (these children were not permitted to run about the west bank hassling tourists, as did so many other we encountered.
Barely any of us either takes sugar in our tea or smokes, so his offered cigarettes were regretfully rebuffed. Apparently his wife could not accept that so many did not take sugar, as the tea arrived sweetened and with the bowl on the side for those who wanted more! I gather the only excuse for an Egyptian not to take sugar is when they are in mourning. However no amount of CT and I commiserating on the passing of our beloved Aunty Mary the previous evening produced any sympathy – least of all from the group.
Today is ‘Tombs of the Nobles’ day – last year’s group managed to visit 13 tombs, we were going for 15. First stop were the tombs of Roy and Shuroy (or as I prefer to think of them, Seigfried and Roy). Roy’s had some spectacular paintings in a fine state of preservation, but with a very low ceiling. Shuroy was clearly a superior person as I did not need to crouch in his tomb in order to view his less well-preserved shrine.
After these, I lost count a bit. There was a lot of business with the tomb ‘guardians’, who frequently exacted substantial baksheesh for their very modest services and associated hassling, so Patricia and Abdul had a busy time negotiating at each site.
These tombs are somewhat scattered across the landscape, and used to be surmounted by a village. A few years ago Dr Hawas of the Supreme Council of Antiquities decreed that the village had to go (it was well known that the residents often looted the tombs that in effect formed their cellars for antiquities that were sold on the black market). The process of moving apparently involved many unkempt promises, a new village somewhere out in the desert, tear-gassing old men who lay down in front of the bulldozers, and considerable new damage to the tombs caused by said ‘dozers.
The tombs have not yet been incorporated into a single site, but that is bound to happen. In a year or two there will be a fence, a parking area for tour busses and a bazaar for the visitor to negotiate on the way in and out. The few surviving ‘hasslers’ from the old village restrict themselves to pursuing the few small groups of visitors, producing from the capacious pockets of their galabayas various ‘artefacts’ wrapped in newspaper which they surreptitiously attempt to interest us in as we pass. The clear suggestion is that these are ancient artefacts; the reality of the ones I glimpsed is that they are ugly and cheap knockoffs that are available in any bazaar stall. But one would need to take extreme care – an Australian visitor was held at Cairo Airport just before our arrival in Egypt with alleged antiquities in his luggage and was facing eight years in an Egyptian prison.
We paused for lunch and a welcome Stella beer at the Ramesseum Guest House – more of the usual fried eggplant, tomato salad, bread, vegetable stew, rice and chunks of grilled, chewy and dry chicken. Having lost count of the tomb count, I was assured at the end of the day that we achieved our goal of 15. I am happy to believe it; there cannot be too many holes in the ground left in Egypt that we have not crawled down or peered into.
We had been invited for dinner to the home/hotel of expat Englishwoman Jane who had established a business renting furnished flats. Her main property, which we visited tonight, was a four storey block on the west bank, with a swimming pool, four three-bedroom flats (quite nice) and a vast canopied entertaining area on the roof. It was here that we enjoyed some Stellas and a very fine, while typically Egyptian, meal – lentil soup, fish tagen, gratineed potatoes as well as the usual babaganoush and salad. Mike and Patricia are considering using the flats on future tours, to do all the west bank sites in a block to save on all the travelling back and forth across the river, which takes about 45 minutes each way. They are also intending to give up the felucca trip after this year’s debacle, which apparently cost them considerably – one of the few elements of the tours they have not been able to streamline and make foolproof. So a few days in the relative peace of the west bank of Luxor would provide a pleasant alternative.
It is forbidden for busses to carry western tourists back to the east bank by road over the Nile bridge, so we were deposited at the local ferry terminal and came across to pack our bags. Like so much in Egypt, this is presumably originally done with the best of intentions for the safety of the visitor, but they have clearly not undertaken a proper risk analysis – a ride on the bus by night versus taking ones chances on the local ferry, dodgy navigation and no way lights.
We had again been told that Visa was OK at this superficially modern, international hotel, which would have been convenient. When we attempted to actually pay the bill, of course nobody’s card could be made to work with the electronic gismos they had at the desk, so we were forced to schlepp around to the Mercure to the auto teller to withdraw cash. The clerk (Mr Grumpy, from my night of changing rooms and getting the air conditioner to work), was also most concerned to verify that we singles were in fact single and not shacked up together in the rooms (or some such vision, which was clearly foremost in his mind). But the price was as quoted (the single price was just US$30 or EL165 per night, so cheaper, as we’d been quoted the double price – so I suppose that’s why he was checking).
We also said goodbye to our Egyptian guide Abdul tonight – we have another guide for Cairo – and he became quite emotional. I will miss him too, he is a good man and a rare thing – an educated Egyptian with a genuine love and passion for his country’s cultural heritage.