I have compiled this from my travel notes, often omitting irrelevant stuff such as where we ate or slept, who was sick with what, how we organized the getting away from each place, and so on, but adding some afterthoughts and hindsight.
This journey was totally improvised, reservations - except for flights - being a concept totally alien to us. Of course we did some homework beforehand, so as to know the must-sees. Valuable information sources were The Rough Guide on Egypt (UK, sold as Real Guide in North-America; solid value), the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit for Jordan and Syria (Australia; a great classic, although the 1987 edition is aging badly; we met the guy working on the update, so stay tuned), and Le Guide du Routard Egypte, Jordanie, Israel, et Yemen (France; so-so). Descriptions are kept informative enough so that those who have been there should recognize the places, while those who'd like to go there should be able to locate them. This report is not intended to be a crash course on Ancient Egyptian or Middle Eastern history.
By the way, , as it's been too long ago that I was there.
This journey was a shoestring-budget trip, a mattress to crash on and a shower being all that is needed when constantly on the move. Round-trip flights, visas, inoculations, medicine, and souvenirs excluded, we had a daily maintenance ratio of about $12 each, covering accommodation, food, drinks, transportation, and (student) entrance fees. This has to be relativized though, as Jordan is significantly more expensive - about 30% - than Egypt.
All views expressed here are mine, and you are the judge whether they are witty insights, total misunderstandings, or unspeakable truths. Comments are welcome.
Comments are welcome.
Key to Abbreviations:
On Sharia (Street) el-Muski, past Khan el-Khalili, the overtouristed souk, and into its surroundings, we enter a totally different world. This is Marc's first encounter with a medieval, Islamic city-heart: narrow dirt roads, shoulder to shoulder crowds, itinerant or squatting street vendors, music blaring from the tape shops, air filled with incense or spice-scents here, but stench there, garbage being dropped where it occurs, begging cripples, deteriorated houses, the odd car insisting on driving through this labyrinth, men in floating galabias, heavily veiled women, and so on, mark our every step to the Northern Gates and back. The people definitely exhibit a lot of humor and ingenuity. We shortly peek into Khan el-Khalili, facing all the tricks of the hustling sellers who try to help us get rid of our money: leather jackets, gold and silver jewelry, perfume essence (that is often diluted in oil), exotic spices (saffron is incredibly cheap), handicraft (such as mother-of-pearl inlaid cedar-boxes), and (ugly) T-shirts are on sale here for package tourists.
For dinner, we try fatir (Egyptian pizza) at Fatatri el-Tahrir, and like it a lot. At dusk, we walk to the Nile, cross its full width twice on Tahrir Bridge, and stroll southwards along the corniche, past Roda Island, through Old Cairo, on our way to Coptic Cairo. The Copts are orthodox Christians, and form a 7% minority in Egypt. A very congenial atmosphere reigns here, and we simply enjoy the street-life, rather than focus on the various churches or convents. A wedding is being celebrated on a sideroad. Weddings are quite a thing in Egypt. The bride and groom, dowry and gifts are on display, while music, singing, hand-clapping, and the women's ululations provide the auditive background.
Eventually we spot the subway station, and head back to Midan Tahrir, while a young Copt gives us - in fluent French - an enthusiastic crash course on his people and religion.
Riding a bus can be a quite harrowing experience, unless you get on, and leave, at terminals. First, bus-drivers merely slow down at stops. And it's amazing to see even elder people jump on or off. Second, Egyptians have this funny game of trying to board a bus before passengers can get off. It's not uncommon to do so across windows, or where windows should be, so legs are often seen dangling around. Last, these buses must have been operating since the Middle Ages, and you find yourself praying that you won't fall through the floor, into the engine or onto the road.
Riding a taxi is the ultimate experience, transforming Disney World's Space Mountain into a kindergarten attraction. Special taxis, operating within towns, make you feel as if in the middle of the 500 Miles of Indianapolis. Service taxis, operating on fixed routes between agglomerations, tend to speed on the opposing lane, oblivious of the dangers that blind curves might entail.
Strange, isn't it, that these people are the most relaxed you can imagine, and yet turn into monsters once behind a steering wheel. At night, many people drive with parking lights only, but switch on their high-beams when encountering cars or other obstacles. We tried to figure out what the rules were for hooting. It's definitely not to say "Asshole!", but rather to say "Watch out, I'm coming!". Many people outside urban areas are totally untrained to coping with traffic, and cross without looking. Some drivers mechanically hoot every n seconds, even in the absence of potential dangers.
Most tourists only come to Cairo because of the museums, the pyramids, and at best a few mosques. But there is much more to it: although sometimes nerve-racking, Cairo is a fascinating oriental city, with still one foot in the Middle Ages. After a while, mosques and palaces all look alike anyway, so just walk off the beaten path and you'll discover a wealth of interesting details. Watch the people, possibly talk to them. Cairenes are very friendly, good-natured, despite the often depressing circumstances. It speaks a lot for them that quarrels actually never get really started, because passersby or friends are always quick to temper bad moods.
We spend the evening with Dina, a friend of mine from my stay in the USA, who has recently moved back to Egypt. She takes us out to the Al Omdah Restaurant, in Mohandiseen, for a delicious kushari dinner (rice, macaroni, lentils, and a spicy tomato sauce) complemented by the usual appetizers (hummus, tahina, and babaghanoush dips, plus torshi, that is pickled carrots) plus some great pastry for desert. All together for a ridiculous price, showing us how badly we have been overcharged so far.
We visit the site only very briefly, as most things are in total ruins, if not closed. Only the famous 60m high Step Pyramid - built by Imhotep - on Zoser's Funerary Complex is worth it, plus the fine views to the pyramids in South Saqqara and Giza. That's where we head to in a taxi. The road goes through a paradisiacal countryside, the Nile "oasis".
A host of camel-drivers assault us while we approach the big three pyramids of Cheops, Chephren, and Mykerinos, but we shake them off with our indifference to their pleas. The Sphinx - under repair - is much smaller (20m) than it looks like on most (carefully angled) pictures. It's hot today, and the crowds are large, so we relax in the shade of the Chephren Pyramid (136.5m), the one with the intact summit, and that actually looks taller than its neighbor. Marc is eventually conned into a camel-ride around the pyramids. Why not? After all, sooner or later you've got to try this anyhow. We have to forget our pledge to climb onto the Cheops Pyramid (140m), not because it's forbidden (some rules have been invented so that baksheesh can bend them), but because it is very steep after all, and we both suffer from vertigo even after the first few steps. Unfortunately, all pyramids are closed in addition. In the early evening, we shoot the few classical pictures. A bus (#901) gets us back to downtown Cairo.
After a Chinese dinner at Fu Ching's, we stroll on Sharia Talaat Harb, where elegant young Cairenes do endless window shopping at the fashion shops. Selling shoes must be the most difficult business here, as dozens of look-alike shops compete for customers.
Islamic society is very safe for women, as rape or sexual harassment are little-known crimes. Women have separate quarters in mosques, subways, and so on, and have priority in queues. They don't seem used to gallantry, and are embarrassed when you hold doors open, or sidestep onto the road to let, say, a pregnant woman pass by.
At least in public, men often treat (their) women with total indifference, if not shocking disdain, at least for Western standards. I guess and hope, though, that in the intimacy of a household, a man shows more respect to his wife, and treats her as more than just a baby-breeder and house-maid?
There is little open courtship, and arranged marriages still prevail in rural areas. But love is a recurring theme in music, poetry, and movies: there is an abundance of habibi (darling) in lyrics. Maybe love is just a pre-marital fantasy, but not an ingredient of marriage, which is rather seen as a social contract to get along with each other? I don't know.
Egyptian women are very beautiful, even if you often have to judge from their eyes only. These eyes...! So one might argue that's one good reason to veil them, as there will be no temptation. OK, but what about the women's perspective on this "solution" to male craving?! And who invented belly-dancing, this highly erotic entertainment? Although it seems that this is rather inauthentic, as developed entirely for satisfying Western fantasies about the Orient. Contradictions?
Muslim women are expected to be virgins at their wedding, but men are not. So guess who's paying the price for all this suppressed sexuality of young (male) Muslims? Female tourists, of course, who have to cope with blunt invitations, fondling, and grabbing (see below). Next, (purely sexual) male homosexuality seems rampant as well, judging from proposals we had to reject. Somebody confided to me that some young divorcees and widows are "available" for quickies. And adultery is not as unusual as one might believe, according to other sources. Lastly, prostitution is very much alive, though usually not on the tourist circuit. After all, a pretty "normal" society, eh?
The afternoon is spent on some souvenir hunting, plus grocery shopping for the forthcoming train ride. After checking out of our hotel, we head for the Ramses Railway Station. What looks like a relic from Death on the Nile times on track #11 actually turns out to be our train to Aswan. Trains are dirt-cheap in Egypt, so we afford a 1st class ticket (LE26, including a 35% student reduction) for the 900km haul to Aswan. The carriage has A/C, and only 1+2 armchairs in each row, but it is very dusty. No overbooking, and we actually leave on time. It's late, and we try to make ourselves comfortable for the night. I manage to sleep on the ground, under the sofas, so as to stretch out fully, while Marc stretches out across our facing sofas. The ride is juddering and noisy, and the mere fact that the seats are not bolted to the floor gives me the creeps when considering the consequences of sharp braking, or, even worse, of a crash...
We make friends with the US couple from across the corridor, Susan and Steve. They've been on the move, all across Asia, for a full year now, escaping the recession, and are fun to talk to. There also is an Egyptian engineer, who is very nice to us, but shy to use his few words of English.
Of course, the train is late, only 3 hours though, but we eventually get to Aswan in the late afternoon. It's still very hot, and the various travelers have no trouble locating hotel rooms in this low season, where heavy discounts are available. After a well-deserved shower to wipe off the dust, we stroll to the Nile corniche, arguably the best in Egypt: Elephantine Island, Kitchener Island, and the various funerary monuments on the west bank offer a great panorama, not to speak about the elegant feluccas (sailing boats) gliding noiselessly over the Nile. Caleche and taxi drivers, felucca captains, and various other con-men are very anxious, if not aggressive, for business. But we soon figure out the correct prices, and sign up at Hotel Marwa's trips for the next few days.
On the west bank, we visit the Agha Khan Mausoleum, where the 48th Imam of the Isma'ili Shi'ites is buried, while his caring widow, the Begum, makes sure that a fresh rose is deposited on his tomb every day. Due to the heat, and the wealth of things to see in coming days, we decide not to hike over to the St. Simeon Monastery, nor the tombs even further beyond, and we get back to our felucca.
On Elephantine Island - so called because of the smooth, round, dark rocks lying around, looking like bathing elephants - we have a look at the Nubian Museum (which features a skull featuring proven traces of live surgery, or trepanation), the Nilometer, and the ruins of the fabled Yebu town. Whoever delivered the building permit for the Oberoi Hotel, and whoever designed this airport-tower-like horror marring the spectacular beauty of the north end of this island, should be posthumously issued a fatwa (sentence of death).
The rest of the day is spent in laziness, and at dinner we meet our two US-ians again. They too are eager for a longer felucca cruise, and we give them the coordinates of Hotel Marwa so that they sign up for the same trip as ours. Just four more people like these two, and we should have a perfectly blended team. Insh'Allah (if God wants).
Another long bus-ride back, but in the scorching sun now. We stop for tea somewhere in the desert where the Tropic of Cancer is supposed to pass. Visiting the High Dam turns out to be a rip-off as we actually have to pay, and as it is not interesting at all, except maybe for the Soviet-built heroic-socialist-realist monuments of fraternity. It is heavily guarded by military commandos and anti-aircraft missiles: a dam burst would wash 45 million people into the Mediterranean Sea. Completed in 1971, this dam created the 6,000 sqkm Lake Nasser, stretching well into the Sudan. Its benefits - regulation of the Nile, electricity, more cultivated land, more harvests, more rain - are said to outweigh its drawbacks - need for fertilizers, appearance of bilharzia. The great losers were the 120,000 Nubians, whose entire land has been submerged by Lake Nasser, and who subsequently had to be relocated, within Egypt as well as to the Sudan (which is bad luck, because of the drought and civil war).
Marc and I get off the minibus at the east end of the Old Dam (1902), and head to the motorboat dock. We split a ride with an elder Dutch pair to get to Philae Island, where the rescued Temple of Isis is awaiting us. This one is especially bewitching.
It's very hot (40+C) by now. What kind of heroes come to these places in July or August, considering that the difference between 40C and 50C is exponentially worse than the one between 30C and 40C?
Eventually, we head back to Aswan, storming the Aswan Moon's bar for a cold Stella beer. We're down to two meals per day, breakfast and dinner, because organizing lunch is tricky with all those visits. But our bodies easily accommodate to this diet, as it would be difficult anyhow to eat much when the weather is so hot.
In the early evening, we again meet Susan and Steve, on their way to Hotel Marwa for the final agreements on the felucca cruise. We meet Roseanne (Canada) and her boyfriend Alan (Australia), who also sign up for the trip, and who blend in perfectly. Two Germans are announced to complete the team.
After dinner, we meet the Egyptian engineer who was on the train with us: he invites us for some hot kerkadeh drinks (Hibiscus infusion) with friends of his, and helps us on souvenir shopping in the souks. What a nice chap. He is so eager to assist us that he gives us all his addresses and phone-numbers in Egypt, so that we contact him in case of trouble, and he would join us if need be.
The Sea Serpent is a beautifully arranged felucca, complete with sunroof, and mattresses across the planks, under which we stow our backpacks. Captain Hegazi and his aide Mohammad are great chaps, too, speaking English reasonably well. Both are Nubians, well-used to Western ways, and self-effacing, doing their jobs quietly, expertly, and efficiently. Last but not least, they have a tape-deck. The 3-day-cruise costs only LE35 each, plus LE20 each for food and mineral water.
Tacking along, we sail downstream (north), against the wind, which always blows south: this involves a zigzag course, where every zig is a slow crossing of the Nile perpendicular to a bank, and every zag is a swift, long diagonal ride to the other bank. This is of course the ultimate lazy experience. We get to know each other. We read and exchange our books and magazines. We play cards. We doze on the mattresses. We take sun-baths. We listen to our tapes (Nubian, al Jeel, Rai, Western). We picnic on bananas and on sandwiches with falafel, eggs, tuna, feta cheese, and tomatoes. We drink an occasional cool Stella that we retrieve from the Nile-borne basket. Steve ties himself to the boat and body-surfs behind it at full speed during a zag. Everything is completely quiet, except for the Diesel pumps that replace ageold irrigation wheels, and the occasional cruise-boat.
At dusk, we tie up the boat for the night. A great kushari dinner is prepared. It's still extremely hot, and mosquitoes are swarming all over the place. Why didn't I buy a net? The night promises to be a sweatbox experience worsened by those little beasts.
Mid-morning, we dock near the temple complex of Kom Ombo, right on the Nile: what a gorgeous approach. The Temple of Haroeris and Sobek is interesting, especially since leftovers of original paint can be found all over.
The remainder of the day goes by in slow-motion, some telegraph pole being visible all the time. The heat grows oppressive, and the flies are very obnoxious. At dusk, Captain Hegazi estimates that we covered an impressive 20km today, as opposed to the 40km yesterday in 5 hours less time.
When we dock in Edfu at 5pm, we actually almost match our initial schedule, though the local temple complex is closed by now. So only Dagmar gets off, since she has to be in Cairo tomorrow evening to meet her sister. As Edfu itself looks pretty uninviting, Captain Hegazi offers us to sail downstream with him and Mohammad, to some island on the river, and spend the night there instead. Agreed.
So imagine these three women and five men on that felucca: what wild orgies they must be having every night. So, not unsurprisingly, whenever we dock for spending the night, the whole menfolk of the nearest village crowds the banks, sitting on their heels, and staring at us for hours. The girls have difficulties changing their clothes when the nights become cooler, and you can literally hear the eyes pop out of some heads. Same with nature's calls. Jane, a Kiwi, later told me that a fellah once showed her a 1.5m high mud-brick circle where she could relieve herself. Gratefully she stepped in, and in the midst of "delivering" a diarrhea, saw a dozen adult men staring at her. She forgot to ask for baksheesh for this peepshow... Hallas, imshee (stop it, go away)! These things are unthinkable with the local women.
The rest of the day is spent on strolling around Luxor: the temple downtown, though impressive, can almost entirely be eyevisited from the outside. One of its twin obelisks is today adorning the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The souks are quite lively and colorful, so that's where we hang around most of the time. Suddenly, in a totally untouristed area, a man invites us for tea. Juma, a Nubian, is a tailor, and insists that he is not interested in money, which is usually a bad sign. He sounds honest, though, and lectures us on his philosophy of life. We accept an invitation for tomorrow's dinner with his family. But at times, he is very weird.
On to the Tombs of the Nobles, set in limestone hills amidst a village. Young girls insist on selling us their dolls made from rags, then on giving them to us a gifts, because they "like" us. The tombs themselves are a heavily underrated destination, and we examine the following with great care: Nakht (#52), Ramose (#55), Userhat (#56), Khaemhat (#57), Menna (#69), Sennofer (#96), and Rekhmire (#100). The artwork includes paintings on stucco featuring earthly life and its continuation in the hereafter. The paint looks so incredibly well-preserved that we almost ask the guardians, who reflect the sunlight into the tombs with mirrors, when the paint last got refreshed.
It's not too hot yet, so we scoot around the Ramesseum (mortuary temple of Ramses II) and Medinet Habu (mortuary temple of Ramses III). Both are heavily deteriorated, so we only view them from the outside, as more spectacular temples are on our program: we've become quite greedy after Edfu. Near a well, we spot some women desperately trying to help their donkeys pull the carts with water-barrels onto the road, but to no avail as the slope is too steep. So we dismount our bikes, and help them. They are very grateful: shokran (thanks), and we move on saying afwan (our pleasure).
Back to Luxor at 11am, we have an early lunch at the excellent New Karnak Restaurant. Then luck is on our side when it turns out that the Luxor Museum is open in the evenings only. Indeed we decide to cycle on to Karnak then, and despite the by now oppressive heat, we're bound to have the time of our live there. There is almost nobody else on the site: it's lunchtime for package tours. For almost 3 hours, we walk in total awe around the magnificence and leviathan grandeur of the Precinct of Amun. The Great Hypostele Hall with its dense forest of over a hundred 23m high, 15m round columns is so overwhelming that we have to sit down to take it all in. This is where James Bond (Roger Moore) and Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) have their titanic fight with the steeltoothed killer in The Spy Who Loved Me. Temples, pylons, obelisks (one in Rome now), courtyards, and hieroglyphics galore. But eventually, many package tours start flocking in, destroying the spirit of the place, and we cycle home via the Avenue of Sphinxes.
In the evening, we pick up Juma at his store, and head to his home for the promised dinner. It's a cozy, clean place, and his 4-year-old son Mohammad is a quite happy and lively lad. We're only shortly allowed to greet his wife, who is self-effacingly preparing the food in the kitchen, while breast-feeding the baby. After the great kushari dinner, Juma proudly shows us his many family pictures, plus photos taken by other travelers he has treated to dinner. But then the discussion again turns sour, around medicine stones, an expensive pomade for Thomas' knee, buying whiskey, and so on. We gracefully withdraw, after complimenting the wife on her great cuisine.
The afternoon is spent in laziness. We then have a look at the interesting displays of the Luxor Museum. After dinner, over a good beer, we bid good-bye to Thomas, who will be leaving early tomorrow morning for the Siwa Oasis.
Templed out, we turn our backs to the Nile Valley, and board a bus at 4pm bound for Hurghada, a beach resort on the Red Sea coast, and our stepping stone to the Sinai peninsula, and new adventures. But we first say good-bye to Roseanne and Alan, who will stay in Luxor for a few more days, and who have been on Sinai before anyway. So our clan of eight is reduced to the original four again: Susan, Steve, Marc, and I. Yalla (let's go)!
The ride across the Red Sea Mountains is very boring, and only short stops in Qena and Port Safaga allow some leg-stretching. Once in Hurghada, things become very hectic; actually already on the bus, where hotel touts are desperate for business, and promise incredible luxury for next-to-zero prices. But we stay unirritated, and Steve soon whisks us into a taxi bound for My Place, for which we carry a referral from the Grand Hotel. This place is managed by... a young Japanese, and is incredibly clean for lowbudget standards. However, Yoki is unable to squeeze out four more tickets for tomorrow morning's ferry to Sharm el-Sheikh (Sinai), because it is already sold-out. And the day after is a Friday (the Muslim rest day), so no ferry either. Oh well, so we have the alternative of sticking it out in Hurghada, which doesn't come with great credentials, for two days, or embarking on an 18hr service taxi relay all around the coasts of the Gulf of Suez. Too tired for such decisions, we delay this to tomorrow, and go for a good dinner at Aladin's Lamp.
After a rice and fish lunch on the boat, a siesta on Giftun Island is planned. But Marc and I don't feel like sun-tanning, and we soon remount our snorkeling gear for perfecting our technique in the shallow coastal waters.
Then we head back to Hurghada, but throwing in another snorkeling outing at another island coral. This time, everything is just about perfect. Afterwards we happily trade our stories, bent over the Red Sea marine life charts of Shaky (New Zealand).
Back at the hotel, we wash off the salt, and head out for dinner. Since it is my birthday, I offer a round of Stella beer, and I have to blow out a candle to complete the "party".
The scenery is absolutely spellbinding: rocks are glowing red in the sunset, distant mountain ranges fade into various levels of grey and blue, occasional Bedouin tents with camel or goat herds are scattered across the plains. We talk our driver into a photo-stop. I'm quite happy here, since I prefer these mountains many times over the boring plains of the Nile valley.
Finally we arrive in Dahab, or actually the Bedouin village near Dahab. This is a leftover from old Hippie times, but people here pretend nothing has ever changed. The magnificent golden (dahab) sand beach forms a 1.5km long half-circle, along which campgrounds, bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and souvenir shops cater to the exclusively young guests. The architecture is pretty much as if the Swiss Family Robinson had been living here, and palm trees actually grow through many huts. There is music and food for all tastes. Drugs were freely available until a recent crackdown, but even today keeping your ears open suffices to spot the dealers. Dahab's reefs are well-known for their amazing snorkeling opportunities, while beach-bums, wannabe-hippies, and Nubian rastas hang around all day doing nothing. The local Bedouin are used now to these crazy Westerners, and they offer jeep and camel rides into the desert. Egyptian playboys show up here for the obvious reasons. The legend holds that some travelers have never left this place, and indeed quite a few Westerners are running their own businesses here.
We check into one of these look-alike campgrounds - they are actually composed of mud-brick huts, with two bunk-beds each - and enjoy a good pizza at the... Hard Rock Cafe (where else?).
So at 5pm, we share a taxi with Jane and Nick, two girls from New Zealand, to the St. Catherine Monastery (1,570m). We drop all our luggage, except for sleeping bags, water bottles, and cameras, in the storage room. There are two ways onto Mt. Sinai (2,285m): a long, switchback camel-path, or a short, steep path with 3,750 steps hewn into the rocks by a penitent monk. We take the obvious decision, and steam away. There are food and drink stalls every few hundred meters, with rising prices as you get higher. It's not too hot any more, and we soon arrive at Elijah's Hollow, where we shoot some great mountain pictures, as the lighting is pretty good right now. This is where the camel-path joins the stairs, so now comes the fun part. Some package tourists are on their way, too.
Once on the summit, where a small chapel precariously hovers over the precipices, we enjoy great views all over Sinai. A fraternal spirit reigns over this holy place - after all, Moses received the Ten Commandments here - , even between budget travelers and package tourists. Sunset turns out pretty dull, because of some low cloud layers on the horizon. While the package tourists climb down again, the fifteen travelers who decided to spend the night here, get to know each other. It gets significantly cooler, and we put on our sweaters. At 8:30pm, it's totally dark, and we spread our sleeping bags over the various tiny terraces around the chapel. Some rent extra blankets, just in case. Unfortunately, one of the Bedouins operating the food and drink stalls right on the summit, has been totally spoiled by tourism, and desecrates this holy place by actually shouting at us for buying our tea from the other guy, and by trying to con us into paying a fee for sleeping here. Pathetic. Huddled in our sleeping bags between the two Kiwi and two Danish girls, we crack a few jokes, and trade travel anecdotes in the candle-light, until we fall asleep.
Then the drama: Marc turns out to be extremely weakened, plagued by sensations of cold, fever, headaches, nausea, muscle sores, and dehydration. I immediately walk him down, acting as his sherpa. At Elijah's Hollow, he opts for the camel-path again, because there is no way he could concentrate on more steps than the ones so far. In hellish slow-motion, we eventually arrive at 8am at the monastery, where I put him to bed in the storage room, so that he can sweat it all out, and I provide him with plenty of water.
At 10am, while he sleeps, I head to the monastery proper (337 AD), which is only open in the mornings. I meet Susan and Steve there, who come today just for the monastery, not for the actual climb onto Mt. Sinai. We visit the Greek Orthodox basilica with its spectacular gold decoration, wood carvings, and icon collection. "It's beautiful" Steve says to the young US-monk at the doorway, and this one almost snaps back: "It's not beautiful, it's miraculous." OK, OK. The monastery also features Moses' Well (where Moses met his future wife Zipporah), a descendant of the Burning Bush, and a Charnel House. The latter is quite spectacular with its heaps of skulls and bones - the cemetery is too small - , plus the all-dressed up sitting skeleton of St. Stephanos, the whole display being submerged in a suffocating putrefactive stench.
Back to Marc: we catch the 1pm bus to Dahab, check in at the Hard Rock Cafe's campground to which Susan and Steve have moved in the meantime, and eventually decide to locate a physician. He diagnoses a gastro-enteritis and hands over tons of medication, all together for an incredibly low LE10. Health services are actually free for Egyptians.
Even if souvenirs or other items seem dirt-cheap, that doesn't mean that you should not bargain over them, as you are likely to be overcharged many times. If you don't haggle them down, which is actually almost considered an insult, you leave the impression that all Westerners are rich and don't care about money. This makes life unbearable for the budget traveler who wants to pay Egyptian prices, not tourist prices. Ana mish sayyeh (I'm not a tourist)! And it turns those who do business with tourists into greedy money-monsters, screwing up their personalities.
Beggars, cripples, and homeless people usually easily survive on the sole donations made by Egyptians (zakat is one of the five requirements of Islam), and rarely seek out tourists. Those who do often don't need it, and are crooks, or spend your money on cigarettes anyway. Some children have learned that simply asking for baksheesh works well in touristed areas: but if a father sees that they make more money than himself, and in a much easier fashion, he will actually send them out to do so, preventing them from going to school. Mafish fulus (there is no money)! Other kids ask for pens or candy, but again you'd better refrain from donations, so as to prevent a dependence Egypt could well do without. The meaning of baksheesh has significantly changed with time: originally, it was a gift to the guest by the host, then it became a gift to the host by the guest, nowadays it's mostly a tip for lesser services, and soon it will be mere alms.
Eventually, they tell us to board one of the bus-shuttles covering the 500m to the ferry. Easier said than done: after two failures to get even remotely close to a bus-door, we imitate the locals, elbow-push our ways through, and board across windows. It's pathetic: it's plain obvious that the ship won't leave until everybody is on it, and yet people insist on beating the Guiness Book filling record with every shuttle. Moreover, why can't we just walk to the ferry? Oh well. Once there, we're kindly asked to drop our backpacks on the parking deck, and to climb to the passenger decks. We have to abandon our passports as well. The A/C Pullman seats are already taken, so we climb onto the upper deck, and sit down on some boxes on the west deck, where the shade is. During the next 3 hours, it looks like they also want to figure out how many people will fit onto the ferry. A lot! A long column of trucks, loaded with zillions of sheep that are to be sacrificed in Mekka, enters the ferry. Meanwhile, the sun has turned around, and our choice spot selected for a morning passage, turns into a baking oven. But nobody cares, nor complains. Fatalism. Eventually, only 6 hours late, the ship leaves.
We swiftly cruise north. There is no wind, and we have to abandon our positions for a more shaded one next to the captain's bridge, where a small Italian package tour-group has found refuge as well. The Gulf of Aqaba is closing at the horizon, and we enjoy the rare opportunity of seeing four countries at the same time: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, in clockwise fashion.
End-of-Part-I. This travelogue continues in Part II: Jordan.