Another perspective on traveling in Egypt: Part 3

The author’s cruise ship docked in front of temple Kom Ombo on the way to Aswan.

Part three of the Egyptian travel adventures of Eric Soll and his wife Kathy. You can read part one here and part two here.

The process of obtaining a cruise in Egypt was very different than the numerous ones we have taken elsewhere. When we asked if we could view the vessel — no problem. It was docked with many other ships near the temple of Karnak, a couple of miles away from our hotel. Rather than travel by taxi to the river cruise boat, the travel agency representative took us in a private van that made continuous circular trips around the area and charged customers for the trip. The cost was about 15 cents. We have observed that less-affluent countries are very creative in providing informal inexpensive transportation options for their citizens and budget travelers.

As a result of the lack of tourists, numerous vessels were tied up to each other as they were not in use, and there was not enough room to dock all of them directly to the pier. To view the vessel we were considering, we had to traverse two other vessels that were tied up between the dock and our river boat. After touring the vessel, we returned to the agency, paid the $140, and were informed what time to arrive at the dock for the cruise. We did not obtain a receipt with the particulars of the cruise. I don’t think they even wrote down our names. The staff recognized us as we board the ship. We were informed by the ship’s staff that in no way could we inform the other passengers of the price we had paid. No worries, as most of the tourists were from Spain and most didn’t speak English. For all our meals, we were placed with a few English-speaking tourists from Hong Kong, and we had a great time visiting. We also toured the sites together at the two temples that we stopped at along the way. We dubbed ourselves the “English Speaking Table.” We were the only last-minute additions to the cruise.

Author Eric Soll and his wife Kathy in front of the Temple of Horus.

An interesting issue arose when we docked at our first port to visit the local temple. We waited with the rest of the passengers for the transportation by horse-drawn carriage to the temple, but we were informed that we didn’t get transportation and entrance paid to the temple as part of our package. No problem, as we paid $70 each, we got a great deal, and perhaps that part of the agreement had not been communicated to the ship’s staff. We would arrange our own transportation to the temple and pay the entrance fee on our own. Five minutes later, the staff member returned to us, profusely apologizing and explaining that indeed, transportation and entrance fees were included. We traveled in our own carriage with a convoy of horses and carriages to the temple and entered the site with the rest of the river boat’s passengers.

We discovered that when one bargained and reached a price acceptable to both parties, the deal was the deal. Didn’t matter if the agreement was advantageous to the tourist (which almost never happens) the going rate, or higher than the going rate (which occurs much of the time). That agreement was scrupulously adhered to by both parties. And it didn’t matter if the deal was reduced to writing or not. The only time I have heard that the price increased after both parties agreed was when tourists wanted to return to terra firma at the end of a camel ride, only to discover that the cost of the ride had increased and had to be paid before the camel knelt to let the tourist exit said mode of transportation.

The cruise was a great deal of fun, and my fondest memories of it was rising just before sunrise, before anyone else was awake, and going on the top deck. There, I could view the sun rising and enjoy the calm as the river boat continued its voyage on the Nile River. As we had previously experienced, calm in Egypt was in limited supply, thus we really enjoyed that time with only a few people about.

We arrived in Aswan and obtained a hotel. The grand high-rise hotel facing the Nile had certainly seen better days, but it had a great view of the Nile River on a floor that precluded most of the traffic noise from reaching us. The hotel was quiet and clean enough as there were only a few tourists staying there. We explored most of Aswan by foot and obtained a tour to one of the local temples that had been relocated to an island with higher elevation. That relocation was due to construction of the Aswan Dam and the subsequent flooding behind the dam and in the area.

Overlooking Aswan from across the Nile near the religious ceremony the author and his wife experienced.

While exploring the opposite side of the Nile from the hotel, we encountered an elderly gentleman on a path we were both taking. We conversed as well as we could, and he inquired if we had children. We indicated that we didn’t, and he appeared to be rather concerned about that missing part of our family. Apparently, he was a cleric and suddenly we were the focus of an impromptu religious ceremony, arms raised, providing us with a special blessing. He assured us that we would have children. It didn’t work.

We then arranged for a ride to visit Abu Simbel. Many tours fly there from other cities, but we arranged for transportation by van and traveled with other independent travelers. Abu Simbel is approximately 170 miles south of Aswan, near the border of Sudan. The area between Aswan and Abu Simbel provides an entirely new meaning to being in the middle of nowhere — flat, totally desolate and no vegetation. I even observed a mirage when we stopped to stretch our legs. No bathrooms along the way, so a strong bladder was a plus.

Abu Simbel with few tourists.

We traveled in a three-van convoy. I don’t think we encountered a single oncoming vehicle both traveling to Abu Simbel and returning to Aswan. The three-van convoy had an interesting way of traveling. The lead van drove on the wrong side of the road, the second van followed on the correct side of the road, and the third van followed while driving on the shoulder of the road. Thus, all three drivers had a good view of the road ahead. It was somewhat disconcerting at first, but I was comforted by the absence of oncoming traffic.

Abu Simbel was a fascinating place to visit. The temples were relocated as a result of Aswan Dam construction and the resulting lakes that were formed to the south. As a result, the area behind the largest temple isn’t what it appears to be. After touring the temple, we were able to enter the rock hill that the temple was built into. But it isn’t a rock hill, it is an artificial structure covered to appear to be a hill, and I felt as if I had just entered the old Kingdome — a vast empty concrete chamber behind the temple. It was a very strange sensation as the area appeared to be totally natural from the outside.

Abu Simbal with the faux rock backdrop.

Returning to Aswan, the van stopped at the Aswan Dam for a view. No photos were allowed, and we took that admonishment very seriously. We have been to a number of countries where photos of military or other sensitive installations are not allowed, and punishment for doing so can be severe.  Thus forewarned is forearmed.

It was time to plan our return to Israel and obtain our flight home. Rather than returning to Cairo and then to Israel through the northern Sinai, we decided to return via the southern route of the Sinai Peninsula and enter Israel through Eilat, which is on the southern tip of Israel and then make our way north. We took a six-hour bus ride from Aswan to Hurghada, which is a diving resort located on the Red Sea. I did not anticipate the seas parting for us, so we planned to take a ferry from Hurghada to Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula.

During the journey, one of bus personnel offered snacks to the passengers. How nice of the bus company to offer complimentary snacks on a long ride, just like on the airlines. Then we noticed the other passengers had not taken any snacks, and some of them were staring at us. We discovered that the snacks were not complimentary but were for purchase. And by Egyptian standards, somewhat expensive. When offered anything in any country, always ask if there is a charge before you indulge, even if you believe it is complementary.

We arrived late that evening, so we overnighted in a hotel in Hurghada, wandered about the town the next morning, and hiked to the port when it was time for the ferry to leave for Sharm El Sheikh.

What was noticeable at the ferry that crossed the Red Sea to the Sinai was the notable police presence.  The authorities inspected everyone’s passports and luggage. It was akin to leaving one country for another, although the Sinai is a part of Egypt. This was the first time traveling within Egypt where passports and luggage were inspected. One can assume that when we were in Egypt, there were significant problems in the Sinai. Currently exploring the Sinai other than Sharm el Sheikh is not recommended by the State Department for either tourists or American officials stationed in Egypt.

The ferry was somewhat decrepit, with diesel fumes permeating most of the ship. It was the only time I have felt queasy on any ocean-going vessel. My stomach thanked me profusely when we reached the port of Sharm El Sheikh.

At Sharm El Sheikh, we located the bus traveling to Dahab  While Sharm is an expensive resort, Dahab had the reputation of a small, laid-back, backpacker and hippie town. It had a population of less than 6,000 people. That was the place for us! We arrived relatively late and obtained a very basic hotel room for $10. We later found out that the going price was only $5. That is how it goes. We obtained what we desired at the price we were willing to pay without the proper information as to the going rate. We simply educated ourselves to hotel prices early the next day and moved to a more upscale hotel for a few dollars more and paid more or less the prevailing price. Probably more.

The author in front of the couple’s “groovy” restaurant in Dahab.

Dahab at the time truly had the feel of a hippie hangout that was suspended in time. There were rows of restaurants right on the Gulf of Aqaba. They consisted of a number of low-lying tables, cushions on the floor, lots of colorful wall and tie-dye hangings, mood lighting and local music blaring. A far-out groovy place to have meals and hang out, can you dig it, man? We settled on one restaurant we really enjoyed and had our meals there. After a few meals, the staff recognized us, and we had some interesting discussions with them. Of course, we took photos of all of us together as well as video of them wishing us well. And on the path outside of the restaurant right in the middle of town, there went a camel and rider off for the day, and not to service the tourist industry. There was a great view of the Gulf of Aqaba. What could be a better way to decompress after more than three weeks in Egypt on the go?

One day we arranged to join a tour for a snorkeling adventure at the world-famous Blue Hole. The tour consisted of some borrowed snorkeling equipment, and a ride back and forth in the bed of a pickup truck with some other snorkeling enthusiasts. We had a great time viewing the sea life, and I convinced some German tourists not to get within inches of those pretty, very friendly Lionfish lazily swimming about since they can provide the unwary (such as German tourists) a very painful sting. I later did my best Mark Spitz routine when a sea snake came swimming right at me. Their bites can either cause pain or death depending on the species, and I wasn’t going to stick around and inquire which species it was.

It was a relaxing few days, but alas it was time to return to Israel, Ben Gurion  Airport, and home. We really enjoyed Dahab, had our last meal at our restaurant, and bade farewell to the staff.  Unfortunately, a few years later Dahab was bombed by terrorists, and ultimately 23 people lost their lives and many more were injured.

We traveled by bus to the Egyptian-Israeli border, went through immigration and customs for both countries and walked to the parked Israeli bus that traveled between the border and Eilat. Of all the differences between the two countries, I immediately noticed that the dogs in Israel were often purebreds, well fed and groomed, unlike their Egyptian counterparts.

To those interested in visiting Egypt, I would highly recommend it after checking safety warnings through the State Department’s website, as well as other sources. I would also recommend reviewing one’s level of comfort when considering travel in a somewhat exotic — and what appears to the uninitiated visitor to be an occasionally chaotic — environment. We found the country fascinating and the people warm and friendly. It is a relatively poor country, so the cities may appear to be less affluent than what many are accustomed to in the States. Some may discover the poverty disconcerting. Tourism is a major part of the Egyptian economy, and your visit will help eliminate the grinding poverty that still exists. Others may be concerned how animals are treated. There are currently a number of animals clinics that have opened in cities such as Luxor that cater to animals at no cost to the owners. They have official visiting hours for tourists and provide ways to donate in person or on the internet. If one believes that Egypt is too intense to visit on one’s own, then travel with a tour. Hopefully you will have interactions with Egyptians other than the ones that are trying to sell you something, and that would be to your benefit. And tours are also great fun, as you are traveling with individuals from the U.S. and other countries who have similar interests as you do.

We hope Egypt will resolve their political and security issues, as the country truly is an amazing place to explore. Many Egyptians are really very hospitable, and we always felt at home while we were there.  But always remember — hold on very tightly to your bus or train ticket until you have departed from the station.

— By Eric Soll

Eric Soll lives in Edmonds.

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