Thursday, August 23, 2007
Pharaohs, Convoys and Old Men With Guns
There are more photos to come in another Egypt blog and once we have time to upload more, but you can see what we have uploaded so far (which isn't much) at our photo site.
As I’m writing this we have only spent about 11 days in Egypt and we have yet to decide what we think about Egypt as a whole. But I can share with you our thoughts, comments, experiences so far. First off, it’s hot!!! Not just a little bit hot or kind of hot, but hot! So hot I thought our limbs would fall off from melting muscle and ligaments. But luckily it’s a dry heat. [Troy, “whatever the hell that is supposed to mean, hot is hot!”] One day Troy’s watch said it was 117 (47 Celsius for our European friends) and that was in the shade. We thought his watch was going to break (or melt, whichever came first). Funny thing, our first morning in Cairo when we stepped outside our hotel the word “pleasant” actually escaped my mouth. I needed to give it one more hour before things really heated up.
Second, we definitely feel safe here. There have been a few times on the public bus that we got really scrutinized by the police but other than that we are ok. When Egyptians ask us where we’re from, we say America... hoping it’s the right answer. Luckily these people can differentiate between Americans and Bush such as when they say they like Americans but not Bush. We have met people that have travelled to countries where the locals do not like anything that have to do with America including Americans. We duly noted those countries. [Troy, “I was talking to our dive leader on our diving liveaboard last night and she said as little as three years ago, tourism dropped off so bad because of the start of the Iraq war the locals could not feed their families. They blamed America and Americans for this so you could not be an American here.”] It is also interesting that a few people on the dive boat, who dive the Red Sea frequently, told us this is the first time they have dived with American’s in Egypt.
Third, we are finding independent travel is not as easy as in other countries. Since we are not with a tour group we have to figure things out on our own or try to get help. One frustrating thing here is finding out which bus or train to get on. There are no signs or announcements (ok, there are announcements but they’re in Arabic so they don’t count). We would ask various people to make sure they were all giving the same answer. It boiled down to a matter of faith and trust that we would get on the right train in the right direction heading to the right destination. We didn’t like this knowledge being out of our control.
We do find it cleaner then India which probably isn’t saying much since almost every country is cleaner than India. The people are friendly, take no for an answer and actually walk away if you don’t buy what they’re selling. We do love the occasional old man dressed in his galabiyya (Egyptian robe) riding his bicycle down the road with his ancient AK-47 slung over the handlebars. Not sure what he plans on doing with it just as long as it doesn’t involve us. We just smile when he smiles at us and wave when he waves.
To start off our trip we flew into Cairo very late and had an awesome – free – huge suite at a JW Marriott. Sadly we only stayed there the one night and were off the next day to take an overnight train south to Luxor. The train was not nearly as nice as the suite. But it did have bunk beds and we were able to get some sleep before the train pulled into Luxor at 6am and dumped our asses off at the train station. That first day, after a short nap, we headed to the Luxor Museum and the Mummification Museum which was very interesting because they had a few mummies of pharaohs (Egyptian kings) and animals as well as tools used in the mummification process.
The following day we visited the Temple of Luxor and the Temples of Karnak; built in 1390BC and 1960BC respectively. Most of the temples we visited were built by the pharaohs to show their power and wealth. They were also built by the pharaohs to worship gods, stealing from other pharaohs work and often outdoing other pharaohs in the grandness of the temples to basically show “I can worship God Horus better then you!” Very third gradeish! The Temple of Luxor is one such temple with the walls decorated with hieroglyphs and scenes depicting battles, religious celebrations and festivals. I don’t know what I loved more about this temple, the huge stone statues of Ramses the II or the “undercover” security guard with his snub nose machine gun.
The Temple of Karnak is located 3km away from Temple of Luxor and at one point had sphinxes that lined the 3km road between the two temples. Today there is only a handful left. The Temple of Karnak is so large it can contain 10 cathedrals. This was the most important place of worship in Egypt during 1590-1290BC. The first pylon, or gate wall, is not complete so we are able to see the left over mud and brick mound used in the same way that we use scaffolding today. It was used to stack the enormous sand stones and shows how the walls were built to such heights. In the Great Hypostyle Hall are 134 papyrus shaped stone pillars that measure over 70 feet tall. It is very difficult to get a grasp of their size and their mass quantity because you are just an ant among this stone forest.
That evening we checked into our boat for a three day cruise down the Nile River. [Troy, “we were going to get a Falucca boat (local sail boat) but there are no beds, toilets, air conditioning, had to bring your own food, etc, so I chickened out because it was too hot to deal with the rest of that.] This is the best and easiest way to get from Luxor south to Aswan and to be able to see the monuments and sights along the way. But before we left Luxor, we crossed the river to the West Bank and visited the Valley of the Kings. Upon arrival it is quite boring, doesn’t look interesting and we don’t understand what the hoopla is about regarding these mountains of sand and stone. But when you realize this is the final resting place for ancient Egyptian royalty and that there are at least 62 known tombs in the immediate area, then it takes on a whole new level of interest. In the visitor center is a huge 3D model of the area.On the top is the mountainous landscape with the known tombs entrances marked, than underneath the surface are the various tombs and their rooms and chambers. Some are dug quite long and deep into the earth, with dozens of rooms branching off the main hall. It is at this point you get a clear idea of what is going on right under your feet. The Valley of the Kings is where King Tut was buried and his vast treasures were found. A lot people who think of Egypt automatically think of King Tut but the only reason why he is so famous in the modern world is because his treasures were not looted and his tomb was almost immediately lost thus leaving modern man to discover his tomb with his treasures in 1922. He was not a special king, he died young and in fact he had an inglorious burial and his tomb was hastily built.
Just over the mountain from Valley of the Kings is the Temple of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was a woman who ruled Egypt for 15 years and was the longest ruling female leader.Her temple was carved out of the surrounding cliffs and backups to the towering rock face and is just an amazing sight to see. Temple of Hatsheptsut is now known as Deir al-Bahri ever since the early Christians took over the temple as a monastery. Upon arrival the Christians defaced the drawings and carvings of gods and pharaohs that were on the wall because they didn’t want other people to worship pagan gods. We came across this vandalism in a lot of temples that were overtaken by Christians or other religions and/or cultures.
The Nile Cruise was definitely an interesting experience although I was a little disappointed at the music that played during dinner. I thought they would play some authentic Egyptian music or something cultural. No, they played Michael Bolton, Backstreet Boys and George Michael – kinda not the same thing as Egyptian music. Sitting on the top deck in the shade we quickly came to realize that while we were on the Nile River (which you have to admit is pretty cool!), we were also on a floating oven. There was no wind and the boat moved too slowly to generate a breeze so it was just stifling. We ended up spending a lot of time in the air conditioned saloon. We loved the passing scenery which ranged from green and lush right along the river banks to absolutely barren desert just a half a kilometer away from the waters edge. At one point on our journey we parked to wait for our turn to go through the lock. Immediately dozens of hawkers in small fishing boats pulled up to our 3 story tall cruise boat trying to sell us towels, tunics and other clothing items. The funny thing is we are 3 stories up from them so they would start throwing things up at us whether or not we asked for them. We felt like we were at a football game when the cheerleaders would throw mini footballs up into the stand. If you didn’t want something, you would throw it back to them and hope it made it in the boat.
We then headed further south (ooh, lucky for us since it is getting hotter the further south we go) and stopped at Esna and did a quick tour of the Temple of Horus (237BC) who is the God of the Union of Upper and Lower Egypt. We then travelled five more hours and stopped at a small village called Kom Ombo and toured the Temple of Kom Ombo (305BC-50AD). This was the temple of Sobek who is a crocodile god. Inside the temple are three mummified crocodiles which represent pharaonic might. As we’re touring these temples I kept looking at all these Egyptian gods – Horus, Isis, Osiris, Ra etc, I can’t help but think that these ancient Egyptians had very ingenious minds in creating these gods which represented aspects of the natural world. But I guess every culture has their “thing”.
Our final destination on the river boat was Aswan, home to the High Dam which created the largest artificial lake in the world, Lake Nasser. It is 500km long (300 in Egypt, 200 in Sudan) and supplies Egypt with 80% of its power. It is mostly made of sand and rock (not concrete) and has 17x the amount of material used in the Great Pyramid of Giza.
When the dam was built it put dozens of ancient monuments at risk. One temple that was rescued and moved to a nearby island is the Philae Temple on Agilkia Island. Another monument was the Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel but more on that shortly. After we toured the dam (where video cameras and telephoto lenses were barred) we went to the quarry of the Unfinished Obelisk. (An obelisk is a very tall square column with a pyramid on top). Its name says it all. It is literally a quarry where the ancient Egyptians were trying to carve an obelisk out of the sandstone but when a crack appeared, they abandoned what would have been the heaviest stone ever fashioned weighing 1168 tons. There are no inscriptions on the obelisk and there is absolutely no indication what the obelisk would have been used for or where it was destined to go.
The following early morning we headed further south to Abu Simbel which is 40km from the Sudan border (we just love getting close to these nations that love Americans)! But to get there we had to travel by convoy. Because of the problems Egypt has had in the past few years with terrorism attacks, the government has taken it upon themselves to organize police escorted caravans for vehicles carrying tourists travelling long distances over land. They somehow think by keeping 70 buses all together in one line while travelling 250km across the desert that we are safe and not “sitting” ducks such as we are. We have come to the conclusion that it is just a way to employ the local people and does absolutely nothing for the tourists’ safety. That morning our small group, which consisted of me, Troy our guide and four Singaporeans departed our boat and headed to the edge of town to meet up with the convoy that departs at 4am. After all the drivers check in, off we go. We quickly realize there are no police cars actually escorting us. Our guide tells us that instead of individual police cars, there is security people randomly placed in the tourist buses. I guess they figure they are more use if an individual bus gets hijacked and that we couldn’t possibly get attacked by a rocket propelled grenade. But that’s not something to joke about. Of course, about 30 minutes into the drive our driver has passed most of the other buses and there are no vehicles in site – some convoy!
Anyway, off we go. Our next destination is Abu Simbel and the Great Temple of Ramses II which was carved out of a mountain in 1274BC. Sitting in front of the temple so grandly are four absolutely gigantic sitting statues of Ramses II. Then inside the temple are endless scenes of Ramses trampling and conquering his enemies and showing what a powerful, great and mighty king he was - arrogant bastard. What makes this monument so fascinating is the rescue feat that happened when the waters of newly formed Lake Nasser started to rise. Unesco raised the alarm and countless archaeologists and financial donors from all over the world descended upon this temple to save it. Over a period of four years, the entire temple, including the adjacent Temple of Nefertari (Ramses II wife) was disassembled (which means carved from the mountain side), moved 210 meters away and 65 meters higher from its original place then re-assembled. The temple was cut into 2000 enormous stones that weighed between 10-40 tons each. Each cut was precisely measured and recorded, including the weight of the sand that was lost due to the sawing. The temple was then moved and oriented to face the exact same direction and all the cut stones were re-assembled to within a few millimeters of their original place among each other. After standing in astonishment of this temple, we then headed back to our “convoy” which safely returned us to Aswan.
We had yet to spend any time in the towns and villages because we were mainly on the cruise boat and dictated by their sailing schedule. So after returning to Aswan, we were finally able to ramble along the souq (local shopping street) to see what local Egyptian life is like and to smoke our first sheesha (Arabic water [tobacco] pipe). This is where we found out they like Americans and were very happy to see us. Sure, maybe they wanted to sell us something but for the most part they were genuinely nice to us. We lost count how many times Troy was told he was a lucky man because of me. Troy even had one guy point at me and ask “How many camels?” Not sure if he meant how many camels Troy would sell me for or how many he bought me for but I told him thousands and thousands!
Next stop, diving the Red Sea!
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
French People: They're Actually Really Nice!
Check out Troy's fantastic pictures of France at our photo website. It also looks like this is going to be another long blog so I will try to keep it entertaining and not so boring!
Troy and I are really happy to say that despite what a large percentage of Americans think, the French are not rude, snobby people. For the most part we thought they were helpful, happy, kind, funny and skinny. Although there was the waiter in a small village of Monpazier that tried to stab Hoyt with a few steak knives and also tried to shoot Troy with his bottle opener (probably because they were mangling the French language), but other then that we were happily surprised with the French people. We only hope that when they visit the US they find us to be just as kind, helpful and funny, although probably not as skinny.
The one overall complaint we did have about France is their signage. Everything was in French. Call us picky or anal, but America is not the only country that speaks English. We went to a museum of Natural History and the only thing in English were these small laminated info sheets that covered maybe 1/3 of the artefacts in the museum. Even when we picked up brochures about exhibits, it only gave highlights in English and it was obvious there was a whole lot of info we were missing out on. The one place that we could not believe there was nothing in English was the Louvre Museum. This is not only a world famous museum, but also the worlds largest. Yes, you could rent an audio guide but this covered maybe 30% of the exhibits. All the signs for the remaining 70% were in French. You could maybe figure out the dates but even this was questionable because you didn't know if it was the date the object was found or created. It was very frustrating and honestly, very disappointing. We encountered many other English speakers (not just Americans) that felt the same way about France. But the one thing that shocked us regarding the lack of English signs at the Louvre was where we did find English signage - which was at the Catacombs. The Catacombs is a quarry of disused tunnels that now houses the exhumed bones from overflowing cemeteries from the late 1700's, but more on that later. Hmmm... English signs for art masterpieces or old, gross bones?
Upon arrival in France with my aunt and uncle, Troy and I couldn't remember why we chose France as a destination. But then we remembered our flight to Cairo departed from Paris so that was the only reason we could think of why we chose France. We obviously had no idea what to expect and were not really excited to be here. But we really liked it. We both agreed we would like to visit it again since there is a large portion we never even got near such as the north and south coasts.
Chamonix-Mont BlancOur first destination in France was just across the west border of Switzerland in an area of Chamonix-Mont Blanc which is surrounded by the most beautiful scenery of the French Alps. I have never heard of this area or the mountain range of Mont Blanc but in one word - AWESOME!!!!! The Mont Blanc peak is the highest peak of the French Alps and actually of all the Alps. Our first day in Chamonix (our hotel was actually in a small village called Les Houches) was spent hiking around the western side of the valley, making our way by lift to the top of Le Brevent which is the highest peak of the west valley. From there, we continued on a really easy hike to other lifts that took us up and down the mountain range. The views across the valley of Mont Blanc and the glacier called Mer De Glace, which is the second largest glacier in the Alps, is indescribable. You will have to look at Troy's photos just to see how spectacular it all was.
The next day we took the cable car to the top of Aiguille Du Midi which is 8km from Mont Blanc's domed summit. The cable car ride up was sketchy. I don't know how many people were allowed on the car, but I guarantee it was way beyond it's limit. People couldn't turn around if they wanted. All they had room to do was fart! When we first enquired about the cable car to the peak, the information lady said we would spend a few hours up there. The four of us looked at each other and said "yeah, right!" This lady was not wrong. After 2.5 hours at the top we actually were told to leave before we were ready because we hadn't made reservations to get back down. The cable car guy said "You have to leave now, you can't stay since you don't have a reservation!" Obviously hindsight we could have stayed longer because it wasn't like they were going to leave a few stupid Americans stranded at the summit!
Like I said 2.5 hours at the top was not enough. There were several platforms and levels where we could get views of the surrounding peaks, valleys and glaciers. Not to mention the various mountaineers, rock climbers and Mont Blanc summit seekers! Even though the elevation is similar to Trail Ridge Road in the Rocky Mountains, this mountain range just brings out the "Holy Cow!!!" in people because it is incredibly beautiful with the surrounding glaciers and tons of snow and endless views. I kept saying to Troy "This is amazing! This is incredible! Wow, look at that!" After about the 10th comment he was about to throw me over the railing! Anyways, just look at the photos. "Holy cow" just doesn't do it! I honestly don't remember what we did the next day. I think a hike or something. I have no idea. All I can remember right now is the beauty of the Mont Blanc mountain range.
Dordogne RegionThe Dordogne region is more toward the center of France far away from any coast. It is the center of one of France's wine region as well as home to hundreds of medieval and Renaissance chateaus and castles. Some of the villages we visited to see these castles was LeBuge, Limeul, Belves, Monbazillac, Lanquais and Domme. Of course since we were in France in prime tourist season, we had to fight the traffic and crowds to see some of these beautiful monuments. One of the great benefits of having a car (or my aunt and uncle having a car, we just tagged along) is that instead of getting to these towns by public bus, we were able to cruise the French countryside, discovering old, hidden villages.
We did spend one day going from winery to winery doing wine tasting’s. These were nothing like the wine tasting’s in Napa that are a little stuffy and are quick to make you feel like you don't belong there and have no idea what you are doing. One winery was on the land of a family home and the host was an older woman who didn't speak a lick of English (and of course, we didn't speak a word of French) but she was so kind and accommodating and tried her best to communicate with hand signals and gestures. The hosts at a few of the other wineries spoke a little more English so we were given a pretty good education regarding French wine.
Another thing we found out about the Dordogne area, is it is rich in pre-history and Paleolithic artefacts. I never would have used France and Neanderthals in the same sentence but this area is crawling with ancient caves, tools and Cro-Magnon history. The most significant find is the Lascaux caves located outside of the village of Montignac. This is the most famous Palaeolithic sanctuary in the world. In 1940, 4 boys and a dog were wandering the countryside trying to discover caves they had heard were around. The dog fell in a small hole and after the boys dug down several feet they came across a series of caves over 700' in total length that contained cave paintings that dated over 17,000 years old. This find reminded me of how the Terracotta Warriors in Xian, China were found when the farmer stumbled across them after digging a well.
The caves were open to the public for 15 years but when archaeologists noticed the decay of the paintings the caves were immediately closed to the public. An immediate reproduction was soon built, now known as Lascaux II. For the next 4 years after the closure, sculpturists used an old abandoned quarry and built an exact replica of the caves with only 1cm of difference from the original. In the following 5 years, painters came in and exactly copied 90% of the cave paintings. One section of the caves known as the Hall of Bulls is a painting of a bull which measures over 15' long and is the largest paleolition cave painting in the world. I was a little unsure if I wanted to see a reproduction of such a significant find. You have to admit, there is something about seeing the original. But then when I put logical thought to it and realizing there is no way something 17,000 years old could survive millions of visitors a year, I decided to go and see the replica. Even though it was not the original, it was fabulous (I really need to get a thesaurus so I stop using fabulous and amazing).
After visiting Lascaux II, we spent the remaining of our final day in this region in Sarlat which has a spectacular medieval town center and old gas lamps. Troy and I decided to splurge and have a fantastic French meal complete with Foie Gras and Truffle sauce. I don't know what was more entertaining, my aunt's duck which was served flash frozen or our young waiter who laughed at us for mispronouncing every French word we said.
ParisOnto Paris. All of us expected the worse of the Parisian people. Everyone we talked to, including the French, said the local people of Paris are rude, have no tolerance of foreigners and are disgusted when you don't speak French to them. I don't know what Paris these people were talking about but we didn't come across one rude person. There was the occasional waiter who was just busy and didn't have time for chit chat but people actually helped us, answered our questions and drew maps to give us directions to places. Not at all what we expected. We did have mixed feelings about Paris. For as big a city as it is, it was fairly clean but every so often we would come across a dirty diaper, drunks and crazy people yelling and lots of dog pooh.
Our first full day in Paris it dumped rain and was actually a little cold. We decided to make a beeline to the Louvre and got in right away. We thought we were in the wrong line because it was so short and moving so fast. We thought the people in the line ahead of us had some sort of super duper secret Louvre pass that we didn't know about. Ended up that we were just early and that's what happens when the museum first opens. So in we went, got our audio guide and went straight to the Mona Lisa... and took a picture. That was one thing I couldn't believe about this museum. They didn't care if we took pictures. When we went to the Bourghese Museum in Rome, they took our camera from us. So click away we went.
Next up was Notre Dame. This was a stunning church and has the best gothic architecture we have ever seen plus being incredibly old(originally begun in 1163). We don't know what we loved more, the giant 30' diameter stained glass window, the 7800 pipe organ or all the gargoyles surrounding the church. This was one place we actually didn't have to pay to get into, unlike a lot of other monuments. One interesting fact we found it is distances from Paris to every part of metropolitan France is measured from Notre Dame.
Our last day in Paris we spent as what Troy called "The Day of Death". First up was the Catacombs which I mentioned earlier when I talked about English signage. To expand a little more on this place: in 1785, the hygienic problems posed by Paris' overflowing cemeteries was solved by exhuming the bones and storing them in the tunnels of the disused quarries. Along 1.6km of tunnels are stacked, and in a lot of cases thrown, thousands of bones of thousands and thousands of people. It was very creepy and a little unsettling. I don't know what was more weird, seeing femur bones and skulls stacked nicely or ribs, clavicles and pelvis bones thrown haphazardly in piles. Then there were the mothers who, for whatever reason, decided to bring their small children into this place.
Last stop, the Cimetiere Du Pere Lachaise which is the largest cemetery in Paris with over 70,000 graves. We originally went here because this is where Jim Morrison (lead singer of The Doors) is buried. We didn't go to see his grave but to see the people who come to visit his grave. I had heard stories about what fans leave at his grave and about the various people who camp out. I was surprised to see that his grave was small compared to his surrounding neighbours but there were many things that set his grave apart from the others: barricades surrounding it, whole cigarettes thrown on top, the Ozzy Osbourne look alike, two teenagers jamming out to their I-Pod and grown women crying. What surprised me the most were the teenagers. How do they know who Jim Morrison is? He was dead before they were even born. We were happy (for lack of a better word) that we decided to come to this cemetery. (I'm not sure happy is normally used in the same sentence as cemetery.) But this was like an open air museum. The sculptures on graves were scary, cool and amazing. Every so often we would turn around and go "Woah, that's so creepy!" The graves were also old, decrepit and for some reason broken apart. Tops of sarcophagus were tipped over and laying on the side and doors pulled off the hinges of mausoleums graves. It made your imagination go wild thinking about how these graves got to be in this condition.
Anyways, I have gone on way too long about France but in our short time we saw a lot and had way too much to share.
Onto Egypt next!!!!