Travelling Hopefully

11 March

Although my flight to Cairo wasn’t due to leave Heathrow until 2pm, I decided to drive down the night before and stay in a hotel near the airport. A good offer meant that I paid little more than I would have done for parking alone. 

This led to a relaxed morning, although I still ensured that I arrived at the airport by 10am. I had been checking and rechecking the entry requirements for Egypt, and these assured me that anyone with at least two doses of a Covid jab did not need to take any Covid test to enter the country. I wanted extra time just in case this had changed and I had to rush off for a quick swab up my nose or down my throat.

My papers were checked when I dropped off my check in bag (5 kilos below the limit!). I had a coffee and later lunch after going through security. At the gate, once again everyone’s paperwork was checked to ensure that we could enter Egypt. ‘No booster?’ the woman asked me. ‘You don’t need a booster to enter Egypt,’ I responded rather than tell her about the terrible reaction I’d had to the first two jabs. I have no desire to subject myself to any more.

I’d managed to not wear a mask in the airport, along with around 25% of all other passengers. I did put one on to board the plane, as required. During the flight, it was noticeable that many people either took theirs off or pulled them down to just cover the mouth. At one point the stewards did remind us to wear masks, but once the lights went off so did masks and no one checked.

The plane departed around 90 minutes late. Around five hours later we landed at Cairo. Then began a long process of entering the country. At the first check point, we each had to pause in an arch and a sensor checked our body temperature (presumably to ensure that we didn’t have a fever). Our Covid paperwork was checked yet again, and we had to complete and leave behind a contact tracing form. 

Then immigration. A local guide met us here, directing us to the counter to buy a visa if required (I had already obtained mine electronically). The queue moved very slowly, but in the end the woman glanced at my passport and eVisa and I was in.

I collected my case, and the group gathered together. Our guide informed us that our group totalled sixteen, and five had already arrived. We boarded our coach, and headed to our hotel. Passports were collected and photocopied. Finally after midnight Cairo time (2am British time) my assigned roommate and I were in our room and able to collapse into bed.

12 March 

We were due to board the coach and leave at 7am, as the pyramids were an hour’s drive away and the site opened at 8am. This meant at 5.45am rise to give me time for breakfast and organise everything for the day.

Grey clouds greeted us as we drove through Cairo. We had a rather burly police officer on the coach ‘for our protection’. 

Our guide explained why so many buildings looked unfinished: Tax is not charged until all works have been completed. We passed some interesting large graveyards as our coach driver avoided other cars, vans, and horse drawn carts. I could see no lines marking out the lanes on the wide roads, and people waited at the side for minibuses to pick them up.

As we approached the pyramids a brief spell of rain made us grumble. We could stay at home for weather like that! I was glad to have brought my waterproof coat, which also provided some warmth as we left the coach. We paid for trips to the toilet and headed off to see the pyramids.

Our guide explained the history of the pyramids. The largest, the Great Pyramid, was built as a tomb for the Fourth Dynasty Pharoah Khufu, around the 26th century BCE. The sides used to be covered in limestone. Four subsidiary pyramids stand nearby, three popularly known as the Queens’ pyramids.

We were freed for our own explorations. I headed off around the side of the pyramid. Various men tried to engage me in conversation in order to offer themselves as guides, but I shook them off politely but firmly. Dogs wandered around the site, and camels and horse drawn carriages assembled to offer transport to tourists.

We drove on to a hill above the pyramids. A number of us paid for a short camel ride to a viewpoint, where our camel drivers took photos of us posing. Of course they wanted tips afterwards, but the advised amount was only the equivalent of a pound.

Our next stop was to view the Sphinx. We felt she was much smaller than we’d expected! Pigeons had settled on her head, which felt somehow disrespectful.

A visit to a papyrus shop gave us access to clean toilets and some retail therapy. A woman explained how the paper was made, and we were set free to explore their wares and negotiate for a good price. 

Then we had a choice. We could return to the hotel, or we could pay for an afternoon visiting several more sites, although this would cost £50.00. Most of us opted for the excursion. The skies had mostly cleared but a wind picked up as we drove to Saqqara, the City of the Dead. The archaeological area is vast and we only had time to visit a few sites. One was a rather crumbled pyramid, with the option of going inside. This meant carefully going down a steep ramp, and crouching very low as the passages were half even my height. 

The burial chamber was covered with hieroglyphs and images of stars on the ceiling. A man inside shone his torch for us and provided some explanation. Afterwards he wanted a tip. I had no small notes, so I declined and walked on past. A couple members of our party offered large notes and asked for change. The man took their large notes and offered small amounts back. For example, one chap gave him 50 Egyptian pounds (around £2.50), expecting around 40 back. But he was only given one US dollar. Our local guide, when he heard about this, went to talk with the other guide, and managed to obtain a bit more.

We drove on to view a religious complex and the nearby stepped pyramid. By now the wind was growing even stronger, and several hats were nearly lost.

Afterwards we drove through agricultural land, mostly date plantations with crops planted underneath. Donkeys pulled carts and goat herds huddled just off the road. Little egrets picked through the rubbish piled up alongside water courses.

The next pyramid was called ‘The Rose Pyramid’ as it was built out of pink stone. Nearby was the ‘Bent Pyramid’, an early attempt which had partially collapsed. However the limestone cladding which all pyramids would have had, and had been removed from most of them, still clung to the sides. 

Our last visit was to Memphis, or rather what little remains of what had once been the capital city of Egypt. Our guide explained that most of the city would have been built out of wood, so what was left were the rock carved statues.  

It was now 4pm, and lock up time for the archeological sites. The drive back to the hotel took around an hour, and I dozed off. Once there, I went to my room and downloaded photos. My roommate and I ate at the Italian restaurant at the hotel, washing our food down with local Egyptian wine. 

13 March

We weren’t leaving the hotel until 9am, which made for welcome easy start to the day. Our police guard had changed to a rather smaller man. He might have been able to shield me, but would have found it hard to take a bullet for the taller people in the group.

Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum. Although a new museum is being built near the pyramids, until its completion the various artifacts from around Egypt are in the building erected in 1902. Supposedly masks were required inside, but at least a third of people weren’t wearing them.

The two levels held statues, mummies, and sarcophagi from various eras and areas. Our guide took us on a quick tour of highlights before giving us 90 minutes to do our own exploration. The treasures found in King Tut’s tomb were in a separate room, no photography allowed. I was thrilled to finally see the encasements and the funeral mask, as well as the many items of jewellery which had been buried with him. He even had special finger and toe caps for his mummified remains.

A number of the exhibits lacked any placards, so it wasn’t always easy to work out what one was seeing. The guide had explained to us that the ancient Egyptians believed that people thought with their hearts, which is why the heart was the only organ left in the mummy. The statues of pharaohs were carved with their left foot forward to show that they were ruling with their hearts (the thinking organ).

We drove on to visit one of the oldest streets in Cairo. Whereas stray dogs had wandered around the pyramids, in Cairo it was many feral cats. All rather small but mostly in good shape.

We visited Al-Mu’ez Street, a complex which once served as a hospital and a mosque. Afterwards we had a light lunch, enjoying hummus and other similar dishes with freshly baked pita bread.

The area was filled with shops and, of course, shop keepers doing their best to interest us in their wares. Bartering is part of the culture, although perhaps uncomfortable for the average British person. To show even a flash of interest can result making a dignified exit rather difficult.

At the end of the walk, we visited the Al Azhar mosque. Although we’d all followed the guidance, namely fully covered arms and legs, we women had to go into the women’s enclosure where we were given skirts or dresses to wear over our trousers. We left our shoes behind.

A quick history of the mosque was provided, and we were encouraged to take away free copies of the Qu’ran (in Arabic). We visited the dark interior of the mosque, then made our way out as it was nearly time for their afternoon prayers.

Our last visit was to Azhar Park. This was an unexpected delight. The area had once been a rubbish tip, but has been turned into areas of fountains, waterfalls, and greenery. We enjoyed good views over the city. At least three sets of wedding couples were having photos taken in the grounds. The cost varies from 600 to 1000 Egyptian pounds (so around £30 to £50). 

Cairo has proved to be an interesting city. It’s hard to decide whether it is crumbling or simply unfinished. Our guide told us that there are lot of plans to improve the infrastructure, so it’ll be interesting to see how the city develops in the future. And whether the tax system which encourages buildings to remain unfinished will ever change.

14 March

An early rise again. Our coach left at 7am for the three hour drive to Alexandria. In addition to our police guard on the coach (a new person today), we had a police car to escort us. We had a comfort break about half way, choosing an Egyptian coffee chain over Starbucks.

The drive was rather uninteresting. Mostly scrubby desert with patches of dwellings. Many pillars lined the road, obviously meant to hold advertising billboards except that the billboard structures were twisted remains at the pillars’ bases.

As we approached Alexandria, the Mediterranean sea came into view. The turquoise waters were whipped high by winds, waves crashing against sea barriers. 

Our first stop was to visit the Kom al-Shoqafa catacombs, built in the second century CE. Cameras were not allowed, so I had to resort to using my iPhone for photos. As we walked towards the entrance, our guide explained that the catacombs had been discovered when a donkey fell down inside. One of our group asked, with some concern, what had happened to the donkey. ‘It was taken to a donkey hospital,’ one told her. Another chipped in, ‘Oh, no, it would have been taken to a donkey sanctuary, surely.’ I intoned, ‘His memory lives on through his children.’ 

A spiral staircase took us down into the catacombs. The series of tombs had been filled with water, which meant no human remains had survived. But the niches for the nobles were quite intact, the carvings a mixture of Roman and Egyptian mythology. The servants had been laid to rest in less intricate tombs down side passages. Another room held horse bones. The best race horses were mummified and buried in the catacombs.

Alexandria is famous for the library which had once stood in the city, sadly destroyed centuries ago. A new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, was built in 2002. After lunch at a café, we had a tour of the modern complex. The library is open to all for use, holding both physical and digital books. Old printing presses are on display. The roof structure was designed to look like eyes, and to provide plenty of natural light. Several art displays and small museums filled the lower section. Again no cameras allowed. 

Our last stop was at Qaitbay Fortress, established in 1477 by the sultan of the time. Having spent most of the day separated from proper photographic equipment, I was suffering withdrawal symptoms and wanted to aim cameras at the wonderful structure. Our guide however was adamant that we were to listen to him first, take photos afterwards. He explained how the fortress itself had housed the soldiers, and showed us what had been the mosque inside the walls.

Afterwards we had time to walk the walls, admire views of the city, and, yes, take photos! I travel with a small dachshund called Gunther, and I like to photograph him in various locales. So I put him down at one location and backed away to ensure I could include the fortress in the shot. A young man walked past, saw Gunther, and nearly picked him up. ‘No, don’t, he’s mine,’ I said frantically, waving my hands. Fortunately the started young man backed away, leaving my dear dachshund alone. I do wonder what story he told his friends about this mad Englishwoman who had terrified him at the fortress.

We checked into our hotel, a rather grand old place with very tall ceilings, dull oil paintings, and an old fashioned wooden lift. The faded grandeur was rather charming.

Before leaving England, I’d discovered that there was a single malt whisky distillery in Egypt. I very much wanted to be able to buy a bottle to take back home. I mentioned this to our guide, and after we’d dropped our bags off in our rooms, he took me and several other interested members to a local drinks shop called ‘Drinkies’. Hurrah, they had the whisky in stock. The cost was around £25.00, so well worth taking a risk on buying it. Our poor guide obviously didn’t want to be inside a place selling alcohol. I commented to a member of our party, ‘He looks as uncomfortable as a virgin in a knocking shop.’

Although the hotel had a decent restaurant, one member of our party was keen on eating somewhere other than a hotel restaurant. We tried a local place recommended by our guide, only to find it was shut. A short walk brought us to an open restaurant, but we were told it was fully booked. So we headed back to the hotel to eat at their place, called the ‘Skyview’ as it was on the top floor and looked out over the Mediterranean. 

The service was rather pretentious, black suited waiters who wore white gloves as they poured your beer for you. My seafood fettuccine had so much pepper on it that I couldn’t taste the smoked salmon. When the waiter asked if everything were okay, I mentioned this, and the dish was whisked away. Soon afterwards a new bowlful was brought to me, this time a bit more edible.

The wind picked up over the evening. Soon after going to bed, my roommate and I were disturbed by the sound of the outside window shutters banging against the walls. Together we wrestled them shut, becoming somewhat wet in the process. But that stopped the concern that they would be flung through the glass window and into our room.

15 March

We were due to leave at 7.30am, but as breakfast wasn’t served until 7am this proved difficult. The time was extended by 15 minutes, which meant I could collect my cameras and take some photos of the view from the restaurant.

A two hour drive brought us to El Alamein. Our guide tried and failed to remember the Winston Churchill comment. ‘Before El Alamein we never had a something. After El Alamein, we never had a something else.’ The true quote is, ‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.’

We visited the museum dedicated to the World War II battles which took place at the spot. Outside there was a collection of military hardware, including a couple of planes. Inside the building were various sections dedicated to the campaigns and the troops. I hesitate to write this, as I realise English is not the native language of Egypt, but even so, for a place which holds an important place in history, you would hope care and attention would have been paid to the explanatory placards. However, spelling and grammatical errors abounded. Sometimes it was hard to even work out what you were being told.  One read, ‘Then churchel had to quit the supreme commander of the British forces from his commanding.’

We visited the burial site for the Allied Forces. The sight of row upon row of gravestones, and the young age of the soldiers, was sobering. Some of the gravestones had no names, only ‘Known to God’. 

Another two hour drive brought us to a restaurant for our lunch. We had grilled chicken with French fries and vegetables, served with freshly baked pita bread with dips. Very satisfactory.

Although our bus driver had been very good, he did misjudge a speed bump. We at the front of the coach felt a judder. At the back, several people were flung upwards. One chap hit his head on the parcel shelf, breaking the skin of his skull. His partner looked quite pale as her back had been affected. 

Our last stop was to the Saint Bishoy Monastery. Most of the buildings are modern, but we did visit the oldest part which had a wooden drawbridge. Should attackers approach the monastery, the drawbridge could be pulled up, and the monks survive inside the building. A kitchen and chapel were built into the walls. 

A modern buildings held the tomb of Pope Shenouda III. The large chamber featured painted ceilings and cases which held religious garments. People wrote messages on bits of paper to leave behind. 

We headed back to Cairo. Traffic conditions, including the state of some of the roads, meant that we reached our hotel two and a half hours later. We headed to our rooms, and I had a shower and poured myself some whisky (from a bottle I’d brought with me, not the Egyptian one). 

16 March

A leisurely start to the day. We weren’t due to leave our rooms until 11am. I caught up on photo processing before packing up and leaving the suitcase outside the room for the porters to collect.

In the lobby, we paid our guide for the optional trips which we had booked. Our departure from the hotel was delayed by waiting for a credit card machine for those not paying with cash.

Around 1pm we set off. The afternoon was dedicated to a food tour. Our guide took us to three different small cafes in which we had local dishes. We also visited a small drinks place to sample four fruit juices. The streets were busy with people, and our guard kept a close eye on us. 

Afterwards we drove on to the old section of Cairo, where we had been on the second day, and had 45 minutes to visit the bazaar. All the shopkeepers did their best to entice us to buy from them, waving t-shirts, dresses, and scarves in our faces. I bought a few small items as gifts, negotiating down to less than half the original quoted price, but no doubt I still paid over the odds. No point worrying about it.

There was just enough time for a lovely lemon and mint drink at a café before we headed back to the coach. Various people tried to sell us stuff as we walked. Once on the coach, the driver squeezed through the small streets, somehow not knocking over any displays. 

Traffic was very heavy. It took us over an hour to reach the train station. Porters took our bags to the appropriate place on the platform for our overnight train to Aswan. The train was due at 8pm. It arrived more than an hour late. 

Our group was booked into cabins in one carriage. We hadn’t been assigned cabins, and were told just to pick one and take our bags inside. My roommate had graciously agreed to allow me to have the bottom bunk, which at this time was still a couple of seats with a table in the middle. Her bag fit into a compartment next to the top bunk, and my bag rested on the floor. The cabin featured a small sink, and the communal toilets were just down the corridor.

Our evening meal was brought to the cabin. Slices of chicken, vegetables, rice, a pudding. Airline food, basically. Fortunately we had purchased large bottles of water at the train station. After dinner, the steward returned and folded down the bottom bunk. A number of us gathered in the corridor to chat, and I looked with some envy on those who had come prepared with alcohol (none for sale on the train). Shortly afterwards we changed into our night clothes and went to bed.

17 March

Despite the train jostling and creaking, I slept pretty well. Roommate and I had agreed to set our alarms for 6am, so we woke to see the early morning light on the fields and houses. The steward took orders for coffee, and informed us that it would be another four hours before we reached Aswan.

As we passed villages, donkeys were very much in evidence. ‘You know what I think of whenever I see a donkey,’ said my roommate. Then she began to sing, ‘Little donkey, little donkey, on the dusty road. Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load.’ And for the rest of the holiday, every time I saw a donkey, this tune went through my head. Very annoying!

Breakfast was brought to our cabin, various breads, cheese, meat slices, and a juice drink. Mist rose from the fields as the sun warmed the land. People started to work amongst the green crops, assisted by their donkeys. There was far less rubbish than we’d seen in the cities, and egrets flew past. 

We reached Aswan around 10.30am. Our coach was waiting for us, and we were taken to our hotel. After checking in, we were given 30 minutes to freshen up before heading out again. My roommate and I admired the view over the Nile from our small balcony.

Our first visit was to the Nubian Museum. The museum holds exhibits from the Nubian culture (as expected) as well as Egyptian, Christian, and Muslim eras. The lighting was rather dim. A large group of schoolchildren arrived, and their excited voices filled the space. They seemed determined to video everything with their smartphones rather than actually look at the exhibits. I saw one teacher clip a boy around the ear in a way which I suspect is illegal in the UK.

I went outside to escape the din. Although there were outdoor exhibits, the paths to these were taped off. No visiting. 

The coach dropped us down to the river. We boarded a felucca, the traditional sailing boat of the Nile. As we were going to be eating lunch during the trip, we were asked to remove our shoes, in line with Nubian culture. Our footwear was dumped into a large plastic bin.

The body of the boat was flat, and covered with a large cushioned area. We crawled to the edges to take a seat. As we headed out, several young boys kneeling on paddle boards accompanied us, singing away. It seems they were hoping that we would give them money for their efforts.

We travelled out into the river, our journey made silent by sail. Lunch was served. Chicken, moussaka, rice, tahini. Soft drinks and later Turkish coffee were offered. Several people took the steps up to the roof. I decided to remain in the shade.

After lunch, we changed from the felucca to a motorized boat. This took us further along the river, jostling for space with a number of other vessels. I kept a watch out for bird life. Coots, moorhens, and ducks kept out of the way of the boats. A pied kingfisher flew past, distinctive in his black and white feathering. Rocks and reeds lined the shore.

We left the boat to visit the ruins of Saint Simon Monastery, originally built in the 7th century. A camel ride up the hill was included, although some of our party decided to walk instead. I wondered if they had been the wiser ones as my camel rose quickly and bad-temperedly, nearly throwing me off. The young man leading her gave me the rope early on, mostly so he could encourage her from behind, I believe. I took photos with my small camera.

At the top, the camel laid down and dismount was a bit smoother. Our guide led us into the ruins. Not only did we have our usual guard (with his semi-automatic on clear display), we’d picked up a local officer, equally well armed. We were shown the chapel, the cell of the abbot, the baptismal font, and the stables for the animals. The site was due to shut at 4pm, and the local officer kept reminding our guide of that fact.

The camel ride back was even less comfortable. This is the fourth time I’ve been on a camel, and the other three times were easy compared to this. Down the hill, I kept sliding into the pommel, and at one point the camel took a steep downward step and I nearly came off. Looking at the photos, I think the saddle was tipped forwards, whereas on the pyramid ride the saddle was tipped backwards. 

The boat took us further along the Nile. The itinerary had mentioned a stop at a Nubian village to learn about their way of life. I had expected this to be something local and low key. What we actually experienced was tourism writ large. The usual stalls pushing cheap wares lined the streets, cars and motorbikes blared past, and the traditional houses had been turned into places offering drinks. We entered one, and our guide explained that the floors were deliberately lined with sand so snakes could be traced and removed. 

After a drink of hibiscus juice, we had some free time. I wandered through the bazaar, dodging the keen salespeople. The sun was beginning to set, and camels were coming home. The problem with camels is you don’t hear them coming, so suddenly one looms behind you and the rider shouts a warning. I chuckled when one time the warning was issued in German. ‘Achtung, camel! Achtung, camel!’

We boarded the boat the same way we had left, by stepping on another one first. Our last stop was at a Nubian restaurant for dinner. The staff greeted us with song and dance, and led us (still singing and dancing) up to a large grassy area. Most of our party were pulled into various circle dances. 

After fifteen minutes of song and dance, we were led into a tent where we sat on cushions on the floor. Dinner consisted of chopped salad, moussaka, roast chicken, beef sausages, and rice. After our large and late lunch, most of us left large portions untouched. However, we were very pleased that beer was available, and many of us ordered cans. 

Song and dance led us back to our boat. The staff boarded a boat near ours, and stripped out of their outfits to reveal jeans and t-shirts underneath. A short trip on the river brought us back to Aswan, and the coach which took us to the hotel. 

18 March

Abu Simbel day. I had booked the optional excursion in December, and opted for the option to fly to the temple rather than take the coach. The rest of the group took the coach, including my roommate. She rose at 3.30am, doing her best to dress and pack quietly. I got up at 5am, had coffee and fruit, and was down in the lobby at 6am with my bag. A sore throat had developed over the night, but I put this down to the dust and the bonfire from yesterday.

A local representative and a driver were waiting for me. My case was loaded into the car, and I was told that this would be delivered to the ship (for the Nile cruise). We drove over the Aswan dam and to the airport, where the rep obtained my airline tickets for me. I went through security, and had a coffee before boarding the 7.55am flight.

The flight only took thirty minutes. I managed to photograph the temple from the air. After landing, I made my way out, and was met by a representative at the airport. The driver took us to Abu Simbel, where I was introduced to my guide for the temple complex. 

The guide said he worked as an archaeologist in the site. He started the tour by explaining how the complex had been moved up the slope to preserve it when the Aswan High Dam was built, creating Lake Nassar. We walked up the path and down again, arriving at the front of the main temple. 

Abu Simbel was cut out of the rock during the time of King Ramesses II around 1264 BCE. Of the four statues, one was collapsed centuries ago during an earthquake. 

The guide had a series of photographs, which he used to explain what I’d see inside the temple, as guides are required to remain outside. Ramesses II wanted to be regarded as a god in his lifetime, and the temple was part of his propaganda effort. Early on in the drawings, he stands lower than the gods and has sandals on his feet. Later, he stands at their level and is barefoot—gods don’t need shoes as they’re in paradise. 

The massive statues outside are nearly equaled by massive statues within the first part of the temple. Carvings on the walls show Ramesses II defeating his enemies. The second part of the temple contains more carvings. The third section, the most holy, has four statues. Light touches three of them (but not Ptah, the god of the underworld who will always remain in the dark) twice a year. Originally this was on the date of Ramesses’ II birthday and the other his ascension to the throne, but by moving the complex up the hill, these have been changed by a day.

Ramesses II had a temple built nearby for his favourite wife, Nefertari. Carvings of her took on aspects of cows, which reflected the goddess Hathor and also  symbolised motherhood. 

Afterwards we walked to the exit, which meant going past stalls. The usual patter and attempts to make a sale took place. I stopped to look at some t-shirts, and became caught. The rapid fire questions of the owner made me lose track of the exchange rate, and only after I’d paid in Egyptian pounds and walked away with my purchase did I realise I’d paid twice as much as I’d thought. Never mind, just a reminder to have one’s top price in mind and stick to it.

I was driven back to the airport, caught my flight to Aswan, and met at the other end. They delivered me to the M/S Esmeralda, the ship for our the Nile Cruise. I was checked in, and went to my room, a porter bringing my bag for me. With great eagerness I went to the windows, drew back the curtains for the view—which was of windows and side of the ship moored alongside us.

The rest of the group returned around an hour later. My roommate and I spent several hours chilling in our room, before going down to dinner. The evening’s theme was Turkish food, with the waiters dressed accordingly. My enjoyment of the food was reduced a bit by my scratchy throat and snuffly nose. 

19 March

Disaster. I woke up at 4am with a throbbing headache, which told me that I was developing a migraine. I have them every three or four years, and not only my head but my stomach is also affected. So rather than join any of the day’s excursions, I stayed in bed all day. My roommate was good at fetching me food later in the afternoon (when I could keep something down), and our guide both visited me and phoned regularly. He offered to get me a doctor, which I told him was unnecessary. I know what I need to do with a migraine, which is basically stay in bed, wait until stomach has recovered, eat plain food (I can recommend bananas), and take ibuprofen when possible. 

Although I missed seeing several sights, at least it wasn’t a long day on a coach, the overnight on the train, or the Abu Simbel day.

20 March

There was an early excursion leaving at 6am, but I knew I wouldn’t be up to that. I stayed in bed, and my roommate brought me bananas and bread. I did manage to photograph the sunrise over the river.

By 9am I was up, and able to join the group for a visit to the bridge. Afterwards, roommate and I went to our room, relaxing and watching the view from our large window. 

Later in the morning we went through the Esna locks. As we did, men in rowboats pulled alongside to sell us towels and tablecloths. They threw these on to the upper deck. If one wished to purchase, money was thrown down in a bag. If not, then the item was returned. As we pulled into the first lock, men sitting there sprung into life, again trying to sell us items. Those who did buy something now have a great tale to tell behind their purchase.

At lunch I joined the rest of the group. Then back to the room to once again watch Nile scenes. Dry hills rose behind clumps of palm trees and buildings. Donkeys and horses were tethered near the river. 

The afternoon offered freshly made waffles, tea, and instant coffee. I paid for a real coffee, which surprised the waiter. He tried to point to the free stuff, but I hate powdered coffee. 

Soon afterwards we reached Luxor and docked next to another ship. Sadly, this meant once again that our cabin’s view was of the side of a ship, rather than across the river. We had a lovely dinner (seafood theme) before retiring to our cabin to pack. My roommate had developed a cough and congestion, which she put down to sinus problems.

21 March

Up at 6.30am. Soon later, someone sent a message on the WhatsApp group to let us know that balloons were floating above the city. I grabbed camera and charged upstairs in my pyjamas. Minutes later, the balloons began to descend through the hazy atmosphere.

Our cases were placed outside the cabin at 7am as required, and I had my first experience of breakfast on board. The restaurant is at water level, and it felt a bit disorientating to be looking at the sea just below the window. 

An hour later we disembarked. Our coach took us first to look at the Colossi of Memnon. These large statues, of the Pharoah Amenhotep III, have stood since 1350 BCE. The local stall holders did their best to interest us in their wares. I photographed a donkey cart trotting past. 

The heat was building up as we arrived at the Valley of the Kings. We admired the 3D model of the area, which showed the sites of the tombs. The model continued to show the burial chambers beneath. The moment a pharaoh ascended to the throne, work began on his burial chamber. The longer he ruled, the larger the chamber. Upon his death, the workers had only 70 days to complete the work, namely the amount of time it would take to mummify his body. King Tut’s tomb is small because his rule was very short.

The entrance ticket allowed us to enter three of the ‘free’ tombs (free with entry ticket). Other tombs had to be paid for before entering the site. I paid for King Ramses III and IV (at 300 Egyptian pounds, so around £15.00) and King Tut’s tomb (100 Egyptian pounds, so around £5.00). Our guide recommended three of the ‘free’ tombs in particular, namely Ramesses I, Merenptah, and Ramesses IX. 

A shuttle took us to the valley. We found some shade and our guide explained what we were about to see (as in common with other sites, guides are not permitted to do explanations inside the tombs itself). Then we had 90 minutes to explore. 

I began with the Ramses III and IV tomb. It was wonderful to go down inside, and the wall decorations were very well preserved. This was also the case with some of the other tombs, though the quality of preservation varied. The ceilings were also heavily decorated. Our guide had explained that the sky was viewed as another sea (as it was blue, same as water), which was why the dead were transported in boats. 

As warned, there was little to see in King Tut’s tomb, but I wanted to visit it. His mummy, just the shrivelled body wrapped in a cloth, rested inside. It did feel somehow wrong to see him divested of all the wonderful items which had once covered his corpse. Was it morally wrong to have stripped him down to nothing, and put him on view for tourists to view?

After visiting the five tombs, I bought a soft drink in the café and sat down for a few minutes to cool off in the shade. A member of our group was suffering from a very bad sore throat, and I found some cough sweets for him at the shop.

A later look at the weather forecast revealed that the highest temperature during the day was 31C. I kept my water consumption up and my hat firmly in place. Several members of our party had sunburns from the day before.

The air conditioning on the coach was very welcome. We next visited an alabaster factory, one of many in the area. A demonstration, in English, was provided at the entrance. The men chipping away at the alabaster also chipped in to the presentation. When one vase was raised to a hanging light bulb, to show how the light shone through the rock, the men burst into ‘Oh my God!’ and ‘Oh my goodness!’

Once inside, it was the usual haggling time. The shop was filled with alabaster work, both the white and the green, as well as carvings from basalt and marble. Two of us were both interested in small vases, and the price came down the longer we prevaricated. In the end, I bought a small one for £25, plus a small marble carving for a friend. 

Our last site was Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple, which contains the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This female pharoah came to the throne in 1478 BCE. The temple has been extensively reconstructed. Men in the various areas offered to take photos of us, no doubt planning to ask for money afterwards. We declined.

By now, rather hot and dusty, and hungry, we boarded the coach to be taken to a lovely spot for a very late lunch (3pm). The hotel featured a farm and a restaurant. We sat outside in the shade of the trees. I had vegetable stuffed chicken along with hummus, beetroot, and a tomato salad. Sparrows swooped on abandoned plates.

The farm had a number of animals. Camels, donkeys, horses, chickens, and a goat with two very young kids. After lunch, we wandered down to visit the animals. A man encouraged us to pet the camel, who turned out to be very gentle. One of our party enquired as the price of the camel, and was quoted US$1800. 

We drove back to Luxor, arriving at our hotel at 5pm. After such a large and late lunch, I felt no need for another meal. I stayed in our hotel room (which had a balcony which overlooked the busy road and a car park!) and worked on photos. 

22 March

A cooler day, helped by a stronger breeze. Breakfast was leisurely, as we weren’t setting out until 9.30am. The hotel had a lovely terrace facing the Nile, and I ate whilst watching balloons again floating over the city. A pied kingfisher hovered over the river, and sparrows fought over crumbs..

We set off to visit Karnak, the largest temple in Egypt. A three kilometre long avenue of sphinxes used to lead between Karnak and Luxor temples, and a good number of the statues have been restored and lined up again. 

Karnak was built over many centuries, starting around 2000 BCE. The sheer scale was impressive. There was so much of it. Tall walls, columns, side chapels, obelisks, statues, engravings. Our guide led us through the complex, ending at the sacred lake. 

During our hour of free time to explore, I headed off for the viewing area, another member of the party alongside me. When we reached the steps, a rope barrier caused us a moment’s hesitation. Then I stepped over it, and she crawled under it, and we proceeded to the viewing area. The rest of our group, however, weren’t so willing to rebel and stayed below.

After admiring and photographing the view, we two headed back down. Now an official looking person stood by the rope, and we wondered whether we’d be in trouble. Instead, he unhooked the rope, letting it lie flat on the ground, and held out his hand for a tip! We thanked him but didn’t offer him any money.

I wandered back through the temple, trying to make sense of it all. In order to do it justice, I think I needed several hours there, with a good guidebook and map. 

We drove on to Luxor temple, a much smaller site. What made this temple interesting were the later additions. A mosque was built inside, and our guide had to wait until the prayer broadcast had ended before he could speak further. Romans had plastered over some of the walls and added their own paintings. This had preserved the original Egyptian carvings, which emerged when the plaster was removed. Some of the Roman frescoes had been left in place.

Back to the hotel. I did some packing, then went down to the terrace. I ordered a beer and spent time chatting with people from the group. The temperature was warm, not hot, and it was pleasant to sit outside and admire the views.

One of our group had, after breakfast, wandered down to the river and met a man who owned one of the motorised tourist boats. Further enquiries led to an offer of an afternoon excursion on the river for 80 Egyptian pounds per person. Eleven of us decided to book this, and at the designated time of 4.45pm we boarded and set off on the Nile.

Many other boats, motorised or under sail, shared the river with us. We were served fruit and mint tea whilst making our way on the water. Around an hour later, we docked, and disembarked to meet up with the rest of the group. 

Together we walked to a restaurant chosen for us by our guide. Numerous horse-drawn carriages clattered past, some of the horses looking much healthier than others. The buildings and environment of Luxor looked in better condition than Cairo or Alexandria, with a much more relaxed feel.

The restaurant was on the top floor of a hotel. We had good views of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, the Nile, and the hills beyond. Those of us who grabbed the seats nearest the views came to regret our greed as the night drew in and the wind picked up. We became cold, particularly those who had only put on light clothing. The restaurant staff brought out blankets and pulled plastic windbreaks into place.

I ordered a plate of hummus and an Egyptian dish, namely pigeon stuffed with bulgur wheat. Our guide urged me to eat the pigeon as the Egyptians do, namely holding it in my hands and treating it ‘like a sandwich’. That seemed well and good for the neck, but I wasn’t certain how that would work once I reached the wings and breastbone. So I used knife and fork instead.

Unbeknownst to us, one member of the group had bought small gifts throughout the trip, earmarking one for each of us. He distributed these. I was given a whisky glass. Our guide was thrilled with a set of three golf balls, which bore the Union Jack. 

During the previous two days, I’d circulated an envelope for people to put in whatever amount they wanted to give as a tip for our guide. After dinner, I presented this to our guide. In return, our guide spoke warmly of how much he had enjoyed the group.

The bad news was that, in order to catch our 5.30am flight to Cairo, where we would change planes to reach Heathrow, the wake up call would be at 2.30am. We groaned, but as we all knew about the flight times this was not a surprise to us.

We walked back to our hotel. My roommate and I brushed teeth and went to bed around 9pm.

23 March

The wake up call at 2.25am was unwelcome. I used the kettle to make myself a cup of coffee whilst I finished my packing. The alabaster jar went into the smaller camera bag, so I could use it as carry on rather than entrust it to the cargo hold. I zipped up the main bag and lifted it, deciding that it would be under the 23kg limit.

Hot drinks and breakfast bags awaited us in the lobby. I ate the fruit and the cheese sandwich, leaving behind the cakes and small cucumber. At 3.30am we boarded the coach for the half hour drive to the airport.

When I’d tried to check in online the day before, much to my surprise I was already checked in. This wasn’t the experience of my fellow travellers. We went through security, dropped off our bags (mine weighed 21.8kg), went through security again, and had to fill out our name and passport number in the notebook of a chap marked under a sign marked ‘bomb disposal’. 

A small shop was open, and I bought some last minute gifts. Our flight left on time at 7.15am, delivering us to Cairo about an hour later. We went through security and immigration, the latter taking quite some time. Once in the departure area, I spent the last of my Egyptian currency on a bottle of Egyptian red wine. This meant I had to pay by credit card for some water and snacks.

I made my way to the departure gate. Much to my surprise, we had to go through security yet again. My water was confiscated, but the wine was allowed to go through as it had been placed into a specially sealed plastic bag. When we boarded the plane, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had the whole row of three seats to myself.

At Heathrow, I collected my bag, said goodbye to the group, and caught the Hotel Hoppa to my car. Ninety minutes later, I was home.

Later that afternoon, one of the group posted on WhatsApp that she’d tested positive for Covid. I took a lateral flow test myself, and was astounded to also have a positive result! My sore throat no doubt marked the onset of Covid. The cold I’d suffered in January had been far worse. In the end, nine of the group reported positive tests, including my roommate. Like other group trips I’ve taken, we must have passed it on to each other. But as none of us suffered from fevers or aches, we’d all thought it was just a cold!

The whisky survived the trip, but will the parrot let me have any?

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