thanksgiving in luxor

As the semester comes to an end, the majority of the study-abroad students are preparing to pack up and return to the States. This has resulted in a lot of quick trips around the country as everyone attempts to see everything that Egypt has to offer before they depart. Case in point: my trip to Luxor over Thanksgiving weekend.

Luxor is a city in Southern (a.k.a. “upper,” in terms of elevation) Egypt that is the site of ancient Thebes. Monuments grace both sides of the Nile, with the Luxor and Karnak temples on the East Bank, and the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, and Hatshepsut’s Temple to the West, just to mention a few. For this reason, Luxor is often publicized as being the “world’s greatest open air museum”. A couple of my close friends here are leaving before Christmas, so of course we had to go! My university had Thursday off for Thanksgiving (which was kind of surprising), and we had been debating what to do with the long weekend. Our options ended up being Cyprus, Luxor, or Alexandria. Cyprus was expensive, and Alexandria didn’t have as much to offer in terms of monuments, so Luxor it was!

Some fellow study-abroads had just gone to Luxor and Aswan for the last Eid break, and told us that it was easy to just wing it- so we did! Wednesday night after class, we headed towards Downtown Cairo with no train tickets, hostel reservations, or plans. Alex had stopped by the train station earlier that day to see if he could reserve us seats, but the station was almost completely Arabic-speaking, so we decided to just show up and go from there. I had also heard some rumors about the train system here- something about how tourists (or non-Egyptians) are only allowed to buy tickets for the “Sleeper Train,” a nicer (and more expensive) overnight compartment, supposedly as a result of a history of terrorist attacks on public transport systems. Regardless, we had also heard that it was possible to just get on a train, and pay for a ticket once they bother you about it. That sounded about right- T.I.N.A., after all.

We ideally wanted to ride to Luxor overnight, so we planned on taking a train at around 11 PM. The Cairo Train Station is a mess- it’s outdated and constantly under construction, and almost nobody speaks English. We were obviously the only non-Egyptians there, and were getting quite a lot of curious stares as a result. It was the only time that I seriously thought about covering my hair, more in an effort to fit in than out of modesty. After fifteen minutes or so, a train finally pulled up to our platform. We were a little bit unsure of which train we were supposed to be taking (they offer first class, second class, and “local” options), but knew that this one was headed in the right direction. As soon as the train arrived, hoardes of covered women carrying bags of luggage and new purchases rushed the first compartment, with men in gallabayas and work clothes hurrying alongside them. Apparently, they were intent on getting space in the least expensive compartment, which either had metal benches to sit on, or no seats at all. It was basically a metal rectangular box with cutouts for windows and doors.

We walked along the length of the train, peeking our heads into each compartment to try to figure out if the seats were getting nicer or worse. About two-thirds down the line, we just decided to sit wherever we could find four seats together, and go with it. We hadn’t seen inside any of the other trains at the station, so we had no idea what to compare these seats to- what did first class look like? Were these nice seats? I never really know what to expect- T.I.N.A. The compartment that we chose was an experience, to say the least. It kind of looked like baseball stadium seating…after a major game. The ground was bare, but covered in discarded seed shells, empty tea cups, trash, and…something sticky. The lights didn’t work, the doors didn’t stay closed, the windows were rusted into their half-open positions (and some were broken), and men chain-smoked for most of the ride. The seats were worn, their cushions flattened. The walls were scratched and darkened with age, and speckled with graffiti. Our neighbors were mostly men in gallabeyas and strappy plastic sandals, or black leather dress shoes. Some wore fabric wrapped around their heads as a traditional hat. Younger men boarded and left the train, fashionable in their jeans and logo ridden t-shirts. I really wish I could have gotten a good picture of our surroundings, but I would have felt uncomfortable pulling out a nice camera in the midst of all of this.

We sat for about half an hour before the train actually left, wondering how this journey would go. Various realizations dawned upon us: Margaux questioned if there was a bathroom, and if there was, what it would look like. I realized that I hadn’t looked at my seat before sitting down, but was eventually comforted to find that I hadn’t ended up in anything too unpleasant- just a worn down cushion. The men sitting next to us were endlessly entertained by our presence. One told us that he was a lawyer from Giza, who also worked in real estate. His English was impressive, and he asked us what we were doing in Cairo and whether we liked it. I’m always suspicious of people who are overly nice to us right off the bat, but he seemed like a genuinely good guy. Once the train reached his stop in Giza, he gave his number to Alex and insisted that he call him next time we’re in the area so that he could show us around. After stepping off of the train for a second, he reappeared with bags of water and snacks and handed them to us! It seemed as though he really wanted to make sure that we had a good trip across Egypt, and was looking out for us. It was nice!

The trip from Cairo to Luxor on the first-class train is supposed to take 9 hours, and we ignorantly assumed that this train would be the same. As hour after hour passed, we traveled alongside the Nile as palm trees, desert, small towns, donkeys, and crops whizzed by the window. The train seemed to stop almost every fifteen to thirty minutes, and didn’t move for almost an hour a couple of times. Nobody on the train seemed to be too bothered by this, and we soon realized that we were on the “local” train, which stopped at every stop, and was the cheapest option. People (mostly men) moved to and from compartments, and on and off of the train. Some slept, and many smoked and chatted with their companions. The doors leading off of the train didn’t stay closed, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone either. As the night drew on, the open windows and doors resulted in a pretty cold compartment. We all bundled up and hunkered down in our seats, trying to escape the wind whistling through our open window.

Thinking back, I can’t believe that we made it through the night with pretty cheery attitudes. We passed time by telling stories (I made everyone recount their childhood, including first kiss), bad jokes, and laughing at our surroundings in bewilderment. We traded off sleeping and reading about Luxor in my (always handy) Lonely Planet: Egypt guide book. For awhile, I was pretty sure that we were all going to get frostbite from the cold, but we all survived! It’s kind of nice to know that now, if I really need to, I am fully capable of sitting on a rickety train overnight with no working windows, doors, lights, heat, or air conditioning, surrounded by working-class Egyptians.

At some point, the conductor came around asking for tickets. We tried to explain that we didn’t have any, but the language barrier struck again. After a few minutes, they just gave up and said it was okay before walking away. Later on in the ride, different men returned and asked for our tickets once again. This time, they seemed to understand that we hadn’t bought reserved tickets beforehand, and allowed us to just pay on the train. Our tickets from Cairo to Luxor on the “local” train ended up costing 24 Egyptian pounds each. To put that in perspective: the tourist “Sleeper Train” costs 150 Egyptian pounds, or $30. First class costs about 90 Egyptian pounds, and second class is about 60. 24 pounds is about $5- the cost of an “expensive” lunch here. Score!

For the entire course of the ride, men in all shapes and sizes had been bustling through the aisles, selling food, drink, and various services. Many held giant metal teapots and thin plastic cups, shouting “Shay? Shay?” (tea) as they marched up and down the line. Others sold the daily newspaper, al-Youm al-Masry (Egypt Today), seeds to snack on, chips, and kleenex. Young boys offered to shine shoes. And sometimes, minor arguments would arise over the agreed price of each service. As the sun came up, these “vendors” started leaving small packages of tissue or seeds on our laps in an effort to get us to open them, and end up having to pay for them.

If we had taken the first or second class train, we would have arrived in Luxor at around 8 or 9 AM. So, by the time 10 AM rolled around, we decided to try to figure out where we were. I brought out my handy Lonely Planet book, and tried to guesstimate our distance from Luxor by reading the various train stop signs around us. As we approached each stop, I kept determining that we only had another hour or so to go, only to find us nowhere near Luxor two hours later. We ended up crossing our fingers each time we approached a sign in hopes of it being one of the main cities near our destination.

At around 1 PM, we arrived in Luxor to welcome sighs of relief. We made it! The train station was the complete opposite of the one in Cairo- it was big, clean, structurally complete, and semi-organized. Now onto our next task: finding a hostel! We had heard good things about a place called the “Princess Hotel” from some friends, and it was listed in my guide book, so we flagged down a cab and made our way there. The Princess Hotel ended up being on a side street right off of the main one, in a four-story building surrounded by small shops and houses. Its name was printed in pink on a couple of signs outside the door, and “Allah” (God) was spray painted on the wall outside. We walked up to the desk and asked if they had room for the four of us for the next couple of days, and they did!

Upon meeting the owner, it was easy to see why this place came so highly recommended. The building itself wasn’t exceptional, but the owner was hospitable, professional, and most importantly, honest. He showed us our possible room, negotiated prices (20 Egyptian Pounds each per night, including breakfast, which comes out to be about $3-4!), gave us free soda, and told us a little about the hostel. They also offered sightseeing trips to the West Bank of Luxor for a pretty good price, so we agreed on our room and trip and started getting situated for the night.

Our room was literally just that- one room with three twin beds inside, and they brought in an additional bed for our fourth person. We ended up having a bathroom attached to our room (a luxury!), and enjoyed the light pink walls and hot pink lights. This really was a princess hotel. After getting settled, we ventured out to the main road to find someplace to eat a late lunch, and ended up stopping at a small restaurant on the side of the road. After feasting on chicken, falafel, rice, bread, tahina, and salad, Margaux suggested that we take a look at both the Arabic and English versions of the menu to make sure that we weren’t getting ripped off with tourist prices. This is a pretty common trick- the menu in English will have prices that are two or three times the prices on the Arabic menu. Of course, we had been given the higher prices. After pointing this out to the owner, he could quickly see that he had been caught, and offered us another version of our bill, trying to explain how the price of rice was different for some reason or another. We paid what was honestly due, and made our way to our first site of the trip- Luxor Temple!

Luxor Temple was within walking distance of our hostel. We made our way across a street teeming with cars, microbuses, gargantuan tour buses, and donkey-powered carts, and walked a couple of blocks to the Nile River. The temple was impossible to miss- the street led right up to its hypostyle hall and open-air museum. Before arriving in Luxor, I had heard that may visitors hate going there because it’s so touristy, and this is where I started to see where they were coming from. As soon as we got within a block or so of the temple, we were surrounded with choruses of “Carriage ride? Good price!” and the ever-popular, “Welcome to Egypt!”. We were trying to get to the temple for sunset, as I had heard that it was beautiful in both daylight and nighttime, so it was aggravating to have to push past these guys to enjoy the scene. At one point, the local mosques began playing their Call to Prayer, and I just wanted to stand there and enjoy the call while looking at the temple in front of us. Instead, I ended up bickering with men selling various trinkets in an attempt to get them to be quiet and leave us alone. I soon learned that completely ignoring them usually works much better than giving them any of your attention.

In the end, we got to the Luxor Temple and got to wander around the site for an hour or two as we pleased. It is a very impressive monument, starting with an outer pylon flanked by two large figures and an obelisk. The main walkway leads you through a couple of hypostyle halls graced by dozens of columns and figures, and the first courtyard has a mosque inside. Cool! It really was a great place to visit at night. Its lights emphasize how grandiose the place is, and makes it the center of attention of the area. We took a million pictures, and had fun observing the huge tour groups around us. It’s amazing what some people choose to wear in Egypt- short-shorts, anyone? A couple of us are in Egyptology classes at AUC, so it was also pretty cool being able to recognize various gods depicted in the hieroglyphs of the walls, and differentiate between the many sections of the temple. Kjrstin ended up being our tour guide for most of the temples on this trip- it was great!

Outside of the temple, there’s a long walkway lined on both sides by statues of sphinxes (…sphinxi?). It’s in great condition, and apparently leads all the way to Karnak Temple, which is also on the East Bank of Luxor, but a 10-minute drive away!  As we exited the temple, we found a small restaurant with a view of the site and had drinks, appetizers, and shisha. It had been a long day, and we were ready to turn in for the night until we realized that it was Thanksgiving- we HAD to have some kind of dinner! In a half-joking attempt to stay true to our American heritage, we found a McDonald’s down the street and grabbed some burgers and french fries.

The hostel had planned a sightseeing trip to the West Bank for the next day, so we had to be up and ready by 8 AM. For 145 Egyptian pounds (about $30), we got an English-speaking tour guide, tour van, entrance tickets to the sites, and six hours worth of sightseeing- not bad! We later learned that some visitors from a different hostel had paid more than 400 Egyptian pounds for the same deal, which just further proved that the Princess Hostel was a trustworthy place. The owner had even admitted to us that he did get some commission from setting up the trip, but explained that it was still a much better deal than what we would be able to find on our own, and I believe him. So, Friday morning we woke up at around 6:30 AM to get ready for the day and eat our free breakfast on the rooftop of the hostel. It was a pretty silly spot (the view was mostly of the dusty roofs, drying laundry, and satellite dishes of the surrounding buildings) and the furniture looked like someone had raided a 1970’s garage sale, but again, T.I.N.A. We ate our breakfast of pita bread, cheese, jelly, eggs (gross!), and tea while one of the servers treated us to his eclectic choice in music- Enrique Inglecias and Celine Dion! Before long, we walked back down the stairs and waited to depart for the day.

The tour van had picked up guests from a few different hostels in the area, so by the time it got to us, there were limited seats. The driver immediately approached me to tell me that I would be sitting in the front of the van, in between him an our tour guide, because I was “smallish”. I’ll take that as a complement! So, in we climbed, with me squeezed in the front seat between our driver and our tour guide, named Aladin. Fun fact: “Aladin” means “man of religion”. It’s actually pronounced “ala-DEEN,” unlike the westernized version from the Disney movie.
Our first stop brought us to two large statues of sitting figures. The site, like every other one, had a line of small shops set up about ten feet away selling the usual trinkets- Bedouin scarves, gallabeyas, papyrus, and Egypt photography books. We took pictures while Aladin explained that it was especially hazy in Luxor that day because farmers were burning their sugar cane fields after the harvest- we could see trails of smoke billowing up from the fields around us.

Throughout the day, my VIP seat next to Aladin in the van provided me with some interesting conversation. As we traveled from location to location, he enlightened me with his thoughts on Egypt, and told me a little bit about himself before adding that he was coming down with a cold- good thing I was sitting two inches away from him! I learned that he had two small children, Mohammad and Jasmine (get it? Jasmine and Aladin from 1001 Nights, a.k.a. Arabian Nights?) who lived with his wife in Luxor. He had gotten bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cairo University and from a couple of universities in the States in Egyptology and Anthropology, and had been giving tours in Egypt and Jordan for almost twenty years. After I complained of the ruthless men trying to sell us things in the streets, he had an interesting outlook on it- at least they weren’t stealing! I suppose having to work for the money (annoying as they are) and shooing away these guys is better than having to worry about pickpocketing or stealing every day.

Our next stop was the Valley of the Queens, which is where the wifes (and a number of children) are buried in lavish tombs. Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to take pictures (mostly because people don’t listen when you tell them to turn off the flash), so I ended up walking around trying to suddenly acquire a photographic memory. This was the first time that I had seen ancient remains with color still attached- it was amazing! We visited a couple of temples of young children, one of which had the skeleton of a fetus still inside. Aladin pointed out that many children were born with oval, elongated skulls because of the high level of incest at that time, and the drawings on the walls of the temples depicted this as well. Each tomb was covered in hieroglyphs, pictures, and carvings, and most of them had small compartments carved into the walls for extra food or material storage for the afterlife. Too cool! The Valley of the Queens is also the location of Nefertiti’s Temple, but hardly anyone goes inside. Aladin told us that it costs somewhere around 50,000 Egyptian pounds to enter for ten minutes for a group of ten people- that’s almost $10,000! Apparently, it’s a pretty darn impressive tomb, and a fragile one at that.

Next up was Hatshepsut’s Temple, or Deir al-Bahri. This was a funerary complex meant to be used while Hatshepsut (the female King) was mummified- it’s a huge, beautiful stone temple, but would only serve its purpose for a few months! In fact, all of the monuments on the West Bank of Luxor are funerary. If you look at a map of the temples of the West Bank, they actually line up perfectly with the temples on the East Bank, which are dedicated to gods and goddesses. Hatshepsut’s Temple was set back against the grey-brown hills of the desert, with a long ramped walkway leading up to the main entrance. Columned areas extended outwards from the door, and again, most surfaces were covered in hieroglyphs and depictions of gods, kings, and servants. Paying homage to the touristy nature of the area, small motorized carts carried us to and from the monument- Aladin called them “Disneyland cars,” which I thought was a pretty accurate description.

Before finishing up the day at the Valley of the Kings, Aladin showed his true ‘Egyptian tour guide’ colors and took us to an alabaster shop, where he obviously had a deal with some friends who owned the shop. The place itself was great- they demonstrated how they make alabaster goods out of the rough material, and had a clean shop, but it was all pretty overpriced. The men working there were also wearing the nicest gallabeyas I had ever seen (some even had pinstripes and French collars!!), so they were obviously making a pretty good living off of the tourist trade. Soon enough, we were back in the van and off to our final destination.

The Valley of the Kings is basically a valley full of the tombs of 500 years worth of prominent Egyptian royalty of the New Kingdom. So far, they’ve found 63 tombs there, but excavations are still in progress! This is where the tomb of King Tut is located, but the tomb itself isn’t too exciting- the treasures that were found inside are now in the Cairo Museum. We visited a few different ones, including that of Ramses VI, the double tomb with two sarcophagi inside. Only a few of the tombs are open at any one time, and they rotate bi-annually to prevent further deterioration. While most of the treasures inside were robbed long ago, the paint and inscriptions inside the tombs are reason enough to visit. It was amazing to see the Book of the Dead and other hieroglyphs right in front of my eyes, and with the color almost fully intact!

It was a full day of sightseeing in Luxor. We got back to the Princess Hotel at around 2 PM, but were exhausted already. We decided to grab some lunch before hitting up one last sight- the Karnak Temple. Our hostel owner had told us to just hop on a microbus to get to the temple, but we were a little nervous about this adventure. Microbuses are normally only ridden by the locals, and they have no discernible schedule or path. We were told to just stand on a street corner and get on one flying by- sometimes you can hear them yell “Karnak” as they pass- so we flagged one down and climbed on board. The Egyptians inside looked a little confused by our presence, and I’m sure we looked a little confused ourselves. After dropping off the other riders, the driver (kind of) explained that he didn’t normally trek out to Karnak, but he would for us. We gave him a few pounds (ignoring his requests for three times the normal price), and were on our way!

Karnak Temple is a huge complex containing temples to various ancient Egyptian gods, most notably Amun and Mut. It’s well-known because of how diverse the structures are- apparently, over thirty pharaohs across many dynasties contributed to its temples. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through its courtyards, along with a few hundred other tourists. It really is a huge complex! The first courtyard alone is full of ram-headed sculptures and columns, and it branches off to more hallways on all three sides. After exploring each courtyard for a few hours, we sat at the very back of the complex on a few stone blocks as the sun began to set over the temples. Soon enough, the call to prayer began to play. It was a great ending to a long, but adventure-filled day!

Once we got ushered out of Karnak at closing time, we made our way back to the hostel before heading to dinner. I had wanted to go to a restaurant that was recommended by my Lonely Planet book, but it was in a part of Luxor that we hadn’t explored yet- the other side of the train tracks. We headed in the right direction, confident in my (usually) handy guide book’s vast selection of maps, but were quickly discouraged. As soon as we crossed to the other side of the station, we were the only tourists to be found, a fact that was made obvious to us by everyone we passed. The Egyptians, in an attempt to help, encouraged us to go back to the other side of the train tracks. They argued that there were no restaurants to be found here. My book had promised an “authentic” Egyptian meal at this restaurant, and even pointed out the fact that it was in a “real” Egyptian neighborhood, but it was nowhere to be found. After walking up and down a few blocks, we gave up and returned to the tourist homeland.

While our first choice didn’t work out, I flipped through my book and chose another highly recommended restaurant that was only a couple of blocks away- Sofra! We found it with no problem at all, and were amazed to find how clean and welcoming it was. We sat on the rooftop terrace, and were soon happily munching away on bread, tahina, and plates of aubergine casserole, fattah, and veggies. After dinner, we returned to the hostel, ready for bed after a long day of sightseeing.

The next morning, we woke up early again to catch the 8 AM train. We all had work to do before school the next day, so we grabbed a quick breakfast at our hostel’s rooftop cafe (the cafe wasn’t actually very fast- we ended up shoving the food in our mouths and running out to catch the train), and got to the platform in time. I don’t know why we were so worried about missing the train… it didn’t actually end up showing up to the platform until around 8:45. I had obviously forgotten T.I.N.A. Yet again, we climbed into a compartment and grabbed a seat, planning on buying tickets during the ride. This time, we actually got on the right train- second class. We each had a nice, cushioned, reclining seat with closed (unbroken) windows, spotless floor, and no smoking! It was a (much-welcomed) change of pace from our first train experience.

For a few hours, we enjoyed our nice seats as the train chugged towards Cairo. I had forgotten the other drawback of not buying tickets beforehand, though- some of the seats are reserved. Soon enough, we had a couple of Egyptians pointing to their tickets, and then at our seats. So, we grabbed our backpacks and made our way through a few other compartments, looking for empty seats. The train was packed! Apparently, all of Egypt had the same idea that we did, and most of us were out of luck. The four of us ended up standing in a compartment storing tea, luggage, and a bathroom, along with a few Egyptians. Kjrstin and Margaux sat down on their backpacks, and Margaux pulled out her Arabic book and started doing some homework. Alex and I stood, and luckily had a pretty good view out the window. The Egyptians that we were sharing the compartment with seemed to be caught between confusion and amazement- what were these Americans doing here? …and are they really working on homework right now?

We still had about five hours left to go on our train ride, so despite having “seats” in this compartment, we really hoped to find some real seats eventually. Soon enough, a couple of spots opened up in the first-class compartment. We had paid for second-class seats while we were still sitting in our original spots that morning, but nobody seemed to care where we actually sat, as long as the seats weren’t reserved. The four of us ended up sharing a couple of chairs, switching positions as various spots opened up. At one point, the four of us were curled up into one seat- cozy! Over the course of the next four to five hours, we played a strange form of “musical chairs,” and finally settled into one chair per person eventually. By the time we reached Cairo, we were all happy to be back.

The rest of the night consisted of a quick trip to KFC (we were starving!), a taxi ride back to campus, and much-needed showers. Despite the questionable train rides, I was pretty happy with our trip. We got to see some of the most noteworthy monuments in Egypt, found our own transportation and shelter, traveled like true Egyptians, and had an awesome time doing it. One more thing to cross off my Egypt to-do list!

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