Egypt - Jordan Trip Report

May 1992

Copyright © 1992 Pierre Flener. All rights reserved.
Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form without written permission.


This is a report of a trip to Egypt and Jordan, undertaken during May 1992 by myself (from Luxembourg) and my best friend, Marc (from Belgium).

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, please do not ask any travel organisation questions to me, 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.

Pierre Flener

Key to Abbreviations:


Day 1: Brussels - Cairo

Marc and I get to Cairo on separate flights, as we ran into trouble with our late attempts at finding cheap tickets: we forgot that low season implies less flights. Immigration and customs are pretty straightforward, though slow. The visa only costs $15, which is a real bargain compared to the $35 the Egyptian Embassy in Brussels wanted to charge us. Declining all offers for a taxi, we ride a minibus (#27) to downtown Cairo, getting off at Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square), the pumping heart of Central Cairo's traffic. It's 11pm, and many budget hotels are already full. They are mostly on the upper floors of office buildings, and after a series of juddering - suicidal? - rides in ancient elevators, we eventually spot a safe haven for the next nights, somewhere on Midan Talaat Harb.

Day 2: Cairo - Islamic Cairo, Old Cairo, Coptic Cairo

In the morning, we stroll towards Islamic Cairo, starting our visit with the Al Azhar Mosque (970), one of the oldest universities in the world, a stronghold of Sunni orthodoxy, and a hotbed of Egyptian politics. From its ramshackle roofs, we enjoy a good view over Cairo. We also assess how much this city suffers from air pollution: one day in Cairo is said to amount to smoking thirty-five cigarettes.

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.


There is a maddening traffic around the clock. A total lack of discipline and global thinking by drivers and pedestrians alike creates one merry traffic jam after the other, turning the streets into an open-air hooting cacophony, where light-shows - oops, traffic lights - are merely decorative. Crossing streets resembles a kamikaze trip, but foreigners soon get the hang of elegantly weaving, lane by lane, across streets. It actually turns out to be quite safe, as drivers are alert, and speeding is difficult anyhow. Donkey or horse-drawn carts are frequent, as well as (motor)cyclists. I saw an old man riding his bike onehanded, while balancing a huge tray of breads on his head, and negotiating in perfect serenity a difficult crossing.

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.

Day 3: Cairo - Old Cairo

We set off where we left yesterday, from Coptic Cairo's subway station. Past Amr's Mosque (641), we stroll along the Fustat, the original Islamic Cairo, which today looks as if the Egyptians had performed some nuclear experiments there, and where the unfortunate sift through Cairo's garbage for edible or recyclable material. On to the Southern Cemetery, which is actually inhabited by hundreds of thousands of poor people. Street-wise kids accompany us, and we teach them English words in exchange for lessons in Arabic. Some adults think we are being pestered by these kids and try to chase them away, although we insist that we appreciate their company. Next, we climb onto the Citadel (1176) with its imposing Mohammad Ali Mosque (1830), for another smog-laden view over Cairo. Across Midan Salah al-Din, and between the Sultan Hassan Mosque (1362) and Rifai Mosque, we head back to our hotel.

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.


British discipline addicts must die of heart-strokes in Egypt. As said earlier, boarding a bus precedes unboarding, and both require considerable skill and strength. Even in banks, or at customs, the unwary are merrily skipped over from all sides, and most clerks don't give a damn whose turn it actually is. So you have to be quite aggressive within queues that actually look more like crowds: the one who shouts loudest will be served next. Don't even consider leaving a polite gap to ensure the confidentiality of your predecessor's operation. Women have absolute priority, if not separate queues, although foreign women have to be assertive to use this privilege.

Day 4: Cairo - Saqqara - Giza - Cairo

"Was it worth the trouble getting to Saqqara?" (it's about 30km south of Cairo), somebody asked me later. "No", I replied, "but the trouble getting there was worth it!". Let me explain why. In order to avoid the scalping taxi-drivers, who might furthermore rush us through the sites, we decide to use public transportation to get to Saqqara. Thus a subway ride to Helwan, the southern terminal, then a minibus to the Nile, a ferry to its west bank (where the sun sets, thus the right side for a necropolis), a stroll to el Badrashein, a minibus to Saqqara village, and a small baksheesh (tip) to the driver to drop us a few km further on, at the gate to the North Saqqara necropolis. This timeconsuming and awkward approach overshadows a thousand times the actual site. Indeed, wherever we appear, dozens of kids cloud around us, and we feel like being the first-ever travelers getting to these places. Many people just want to talk to us, and our few words of Arabic come in very handy. Near the ferry, some women come surprisingly close to us, apparently eager for a chat, but then the menfolk chase them away, probably in a token gesture to preserve everybody's honor? They express disbelief that we might be interested in talking to such worthless creatures...

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.

Egyptian women

Egyptian women are a difficult issue for a foreigner. At first sight, if Western society is over-sexed, then Middle Eastern society is under-sexed. Especially in rural areas, little girls are dressed up like beauty queens, in colorful dresses, until puberty. Then, according to religious beliefs and social standing of their parents, they disappear under the hijab (veil) and heavy black chadors, or simply cover their hair with head scarves. I ignore to what extent women have disapproved, and do disapprove, of this condition. But I have noticed that the more "adventurous" among them, even some with veils, are quite flirtatious when travelers turn their heads at them, and they know very well how to "seduce" a man with a smile, a look, a sexy walk. These things are inherent to women, and can't be bred away by centuries of veil-wearing. It even seems that veils are mentioned nowhere in the Qur'an.

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?

Day 5: Cairo - Egyptian Antiquities Museum; Cairo - ...

We spend the whole morning exploring every single room of the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. It's fabulous, though exhausting, as every object comes in at least twenty different versions. And the crowds are obnoxious too, though some groups are guided by gorgeous young Egyptian women, whose explanations we listen to while admiring them, rather than the objects. Other highlights are the Tut-Ankh-Amon collection, the mummy room, pyramidions, sarcophagi, chariots, and various exquisite statues.

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...

The pros and cons of being from a small country

As a native of Luxembourg, you'd consider that you can happily announce where you're from, because absolutely nobody can pretend disliking the foreign policy of your country. Right so. But, on the other hand, it's amazing how many doors you close by being honest about such origins: most people won't know what or where your country is, and thus don't know where to start the conversation. "Feyn?" (Where?) "Ana min Luxemburg." (I'm from Luxembourg.) "?", and they drop you like a hot potato, turning to the more "interesting" guests from imperialistic powers like the USA, England, France, or Germany. Marc has less problems with Belgium, mainly because of some Belgian soccer stars, so whenever I feel like it will help, I overcome my national pride, and also pretend to be a Belgian. At other times though, you're quite happy to state that you're from Luxembourg, namely when you're stuck in one of these business-oriented discussions, starting with a question about your origins. If the answer is that people from there are good, even when you pretend being from Disneyland, Lichtenburg, or Finmark, and that they have a brother there, then say good-bye.

Day 6: ... - Aswan

We breakfast on our delicious pastry, plus peanuts, and order tea from the steward. The country-side is very interesting to watch from the train, as we go through the fellaheen (farmer) villages, pastures, and fields of the Nile valley. Everything is ingeniously irrigated, and a lush green color dominates the scenery. Many houses proudly feature hadj (pilgrimage to Mekka) paintings, depicting the journey, the seven circuits around the Kaaba, the kissing of the Holy Stone, the praying near the Mount of Mercy, the drinking of water from the wells of Zamzam, the sacrificial killing of a sheep, and other rites.

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.


When crafting signs or pamphlets for tourists, in both an alphabet and a language alien to them, Egyptians often don't bother to ask native English speakers about correct spelling. The results are sometimes very funny phonetic approximations of their intentions. Here's a sample assortment: "buisenes" for "business", "hotle" for "hotel", "pitsa" for "pizza", and so on. Most words seem to be Arabic-to-Latin alphabet transcriptions of what the Arabic spelling would be. But this can't work since some sounds are missing. For instance, the "p" is absent, and often turns into a "b". Especially my first name, Pierre, seems unpronounceable to most. Too bad I didn't know that Boutros (like the Coptic UN Secretary-General) does the job perfectly well.

Day 7: Aswan - Kitchener Island, Elephantine Island

Captain Hassan and his aide take us (for LE10 each) on a half-day cruise to Aswan's landmarks on his felucca called Pyramid. Kitchener Island - "given" to the same-named British ConsulGeneral in reward for his exploits in the Sudan War - features a beautiful Botanical Garden with trees and flowers from all over the world, plus a colorful bird life.

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).


Most Egyptians are without notion of time. No wonder, as little has changed over the millennia, and all that mattered was the Nile's behavior. So it comes as little surprise that foreigners clash with locals over temporal issues. For instance, at the telephone office, when you want to place a domestic long-distance call, the clerk lets you wait for 1.5 hours, and yet tells you happily that he tried once when you enquire about why you don't get the call. Or on a ferry whose departure is being delayed by 6 hours, although it is already boarded, and people have to sit it out in the blazing sunlight, nobody complains. Malesh (never mind). Fatalism is king. Bukra (tomorrow) is another favorite when things don't realize as expected. So don't even ask about times, as Egyptian minutes are very flexible: if they say a walk takes 5 minutes, be prepared for a 30 Western minutes hike; if a physician tells you on the phone he will be right there in a few minutes, you'd better not be in a serious condition. The same holds by the way for Egyptian kilometers: they range anything in between 0.2 and 5 Western kilometers.

Day 8: Aswan - Abu Simbel - High Dam - Philae - Aswan

A short night, as we have to get up at 3:30am. Cramped into a minibus with eight other travelers, we have a boring 3.5hr ride south, across the desert, to Abu Simbel. At the edge of Lake Nasser (created by the High Dam, see below), two rock-hewn temples were here salvaged by the UNESCO in 1968, when the rising waters threatened to drown this monumental site. Ramses II (1304-1237 BC) had these majestic temples erected at the south entrance to Egypt, so as to show the might of the Egyptian nation to anybody (Nubians,...) coming in from there. So the temple complex was cut into pieces, and reassembled some 61m higher. The great Sun Temple, depicted on the LE1 bank-note, has a facade dominated by four 20m high enthroned colossi of Ramses II. The Hypostele Hall and Sanctuary within the mountain are pretty impressive, too. The smaller Hathor Temple of Queen Nefertari, his favorite wife, features two statues of Nefertari, each between two statues of Ramses II himself. We also peek behind the setup, namely the False Mountain. Across Lake Nasser, we can see the Sudan.

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.


Egyptians love (their) children, and they treasure family life in a way long-forgotten in the Western world. In the evenings, you see fathers loading up to five small kids onto their motor-bikes for a ride around town. Children are all over, helping their parents, raising the younger kids, doing odd jobs in the streets, crowding around travelers. Some want baksheesh, pens, or candy, while others try to sell you handicraft they designed themselves, such as dolls made from rags, cobras made from grass, and so on. Those in touch with tourists often have a useful babbling of English, and it can be quite fun to spend some time with them. Indeed, after some smiles and greetings in Arabic, most forget what they initially wanted from you. Some critics say that birth control is a must for Egypt, as its population gains one million every nine months.

Day 9: Aswan - ...

Dagmar and Thomas, the two Germans, indeed complement our homogenous group very well. Just before setting off, we have the crazy idea of taking Stella beer along. This amounts to a major intelligence act in a Muslim country, where beer is mostly available from bars only, which of course sell only at exorbitant prices. But after a long chain of friends' friends, a taxi-driver organizes a crate of twenty 1l bottles, at the reasonable cost of LE5 each, including the various bribes.

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.


Shaey (tea), kerkadeh (Hibiscus infusion), and ahwa (Turkish coffee) are the main drinks. There also is a great variety of fruit juices (lemon, orange, mango, and so on), often served ice-cold. These drinks are very healthy, especially good for your stomach, because best-adapted to local conditions of temperature and hygiene. Tea houses are great hangouts if you want to watch the local menfolk: they gather here for the occasional drink, read the newspaper, exchange gossip, and discuss politics, play tawla (backgammon) or cards, smoke the charcoal-fired sheesha (waterpipe). Egyptians drink tap water, or sometimes straight off the Nile, but foreigners had better stick to bottled mineral water (such as Baraka). Western soft-drinks are very popular, too: Pepsi, Fanta, Sport Cola,..., and some local imitations (Teem, Mirinda,...) dominate the market. Surprisingly Coca Cola is not very present, and the legend goes that they lost their marketshare because of a rumor accusing their drink of containing porcine substances. Alcohol is forbidden by Islam, though readily available: most countries brew their own beer (since Pharaonic and Assyrian times), and produce their own wines, in addition to all Western imports. Heavy-duty liquors are available duty-free to foreign guests during one month, so Egyptians eager to spice up their parties ask you to help them out.

Day 10: ... - Kom Ombo - ...

At 6am, Captain Hegazi unties the boat, and lets it drift with the current. I wake up while he prepares breakfast, and silently slip to the front deck, where Thomas soon joins me, and we enjoy a first cup of tea with Hegazi. We soon understand why he didn't set sail: there is no wind. So we advance extremely slowly today.

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.

Garbage and recycling

Garbage is being dropped where it occurs. Trash cans are rarely found, except maybe on temple sites. Whole armies of blue-coated men are constantly sweeping the roads, removing the accumulating trash, as well as fighting a Sisyphus battle against the sand. Most travelers are extremely conscious about not spoiling the landscape with their trash, for instance by asking their felucca captains not to dump everything in the Nile. But what guarantee do we have that they don't do so after we've turned our backs? You can see many people sifting through the garbage, looking for food leftovers and recyclable material. Yes, Egypt must be a top-ranked recycling nation in the world, as literally everything is re-used or recycled. Dagmar showed us a nice flower made of... chocolate wrappings.

Day 11: ... - ...

Although mosquito-ridden, the night is pleasantly cool, and we all sleep well. Thomas again joins me on the deck, while the boat already drifts downstream. After breakfast, the wind picks up, and we efficiently tack north at full speed, past Silsilah, the ancient quarries for the necropoles.

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.

Western women

Many Egyptian men seem to have strange ideas about Western women. Of course, from their point of view, a woman traveling alone, or in a (mixed or not) group, can only be lose, and thus easy prey. Garb is actually irrelevant, most female travelers conclude: whether modestly clothed from neck to ankles, or in T-shirt plus shorts, they collect the same blunt declarations like "I want to f*ck you". Only boyfriends acting as husbands, or (fake) wedding rings in the absence of a (would-be) husband, can make them look respectable, if at all. They complain about grabbing and fondling in crowded areas. Though it must be said that a sharp reaction usually attracts the sympathy of passersby who scorn the offender. Some young Egyptians got it all wrong by thinking that Western women are at any male's every whim: they asked us how to proceed, and how much money was currently needed to pay a random girl for a quickie. That only prostitutes do it for money, and that sluts are rather the exception, and that it's often love that links sex partners, were totally strange ideas to them.

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.

Day 12: ... - Edfu - Luxor

Back to Edfu at 8am, we disembark, but not after a hearty farewell to Mohammad and Hegazi, for whom we write an enthusiastic letter of recommendation. The Horus Temple complex is superbly preserved, and overshadows everything seen so far, except Abu Simbel. We split a service taxi to Luxor, and all check in at the Grand Hotel, a famous travelers' haunt, recommended to us by the Hotel Marwa staff.

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.


Egyptians are crazy about music. Tape stalls, often selling pirate copies, are all over, and you hear - endure? - the current smash hits many times every day. On our trip, it is Hakim - a proponent of al Jeel, a modern urban music including elements of disco and rap, like Algerian Rai - whose album is best-selling, even among tourists. Lu-lulu-lu-lulu and Lucky-Lucky-Luck (phonetic approximations) are omnipresent in our minds. Few people seem to listen to more classical Arab music, but they absolutely love you for identifying Umm Kulthum, Mohammad Abdel Wahab, Farid el-Atrache, or Fairuz on the radio.

Day 13: Luxor - Theban Necropolis - Karnak - Luxor

In order to beat the crowds and the heat, we ride our rented bikes to the Nile in order to catch the first locals' ferry at 6am. Once on the west bank, we cycle across interesting fellaheen street-life to the student ticket office, just across the Colossi of Memnon. These are 20m high, heavily withered twin statues sitting amidst corn fields. We purchase tickets for the Tombs of the Nobles only, but first cycle out to Deir el-Bahri where we view the famous Hatshepsut Temple from a distance, because it's under heavy restoration, and the two upper levels are closed.

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.

Package tourists

Package tourists were our big plight. I know many people whom I can't imagine going to a place like Egypt without a fullyorganized tour. So such tours apparently serve their purpose, because Egypt is rightfully a top tourist destination in the world. But it remains a mystery to me how these people can go home afterwards, and pretend having seen Egypt. Shipped around in A/C buses, trains, and boats, bedded in 3+* hotels, driven like flocks of sheep across museums and sites, with no time to linger over details and no option to decide on their own priorities, dropped into the most throat-cutting souks, dined on inappropriate Western cuisine, how can they pretend enjoying it, or even knowing anything about contemporary Egypt? Indeed, most look incredibly bored, and don't even listen to their guides: I overheard a guide differentiating two deities in some tomb, and testing her group in the next tomb, but nobody could distinguish both gods anymore. Some seem more interested in the lonely widow, who in turn has a crush on the guide, who actually has an eye on somebody's beautiful 17-year-old daughter running around in provocative mini-skirts and tight T-shirts. Package tourists should be given more freedom, and somebody should hand them a pamphlet on money-spending (see below), modest dressing, and so on, which they have to pass a test on in order to be admitted on the tour.

Day 14: Luxor - Theban Necropolis - Luxor

Up early again, we walk this time to the Nile ferry. On the other side, we hail a taxi to the Valley of the Kings. The three most famous tombs (Ramses VI, Seti I, Tut-Ankh-Amun) are closed: malesh. So we decide on Ramses III (#11), which is said to be a fair consolation price when Seti I is closed. Almost 30m long, this over 3,000-year-old tomb features the classical excerpts from the Books of the Dead. Our next choice is Amenophis II (#35), one of the deepest tombs, and hence with suffocating air. This 3,500-year-old tomb has a right-angled layout, and even features defences against grave-robbers, such as a pit and a false burial chamber. The quartzite sarcophagus is still there, and other than the original mummy, nine others were found here: they got stashed here as their original tombs turned out unsafe. The last pick - we bought three wildcards - is Horemheb (#57), which is quite interesting due to its unfinished state: indeed, the deeper you proceed, the more the paintings actually turn into stick-figure drawings, showing how the artists proceeded in their decoration work.

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.


There must be a law stating that tourists are not allowed to walk. Indeed, it gets very annoying if you have to explain a zillion times a day that you don't need a taxi, caleche, or felucca ride: la, shokran (no, thank you). Also, many locals can't understand why a traveler would just like to wander around in untouristed areas - namely to precisely get in touch with those who are not spoiled by mass-tourism - and they very eagerly explain to you that you are way off the path to temple so-and-so.

Day 15: Luxor - Qena - Port Safaga - Hurghada

Today is souvenir shopping day, because it's our last opportunity for quality stuff at reasonable prices, and from a decent selection. It's quite easy to haggle some dealers down by 75%, showing how stupid some tourists must be to ever let them try such exorbitant first bids. At the same time, Marc shoots a lot of closeup pictures of the street-life in the souks, asking for permissions of course.

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.


Egyptians are crazy about movies, too. And they produce their own films, which they export to all of the Arabic-speaking world, just like their music, thus making the Egyptian dialect understood everywhere. Precious few movies ever make it to the West, mainly because of the mediocre quality of these assembly-line mass-productions. We've watched a few in hotel lounges, but I regret not having actually gone to a movie theatre in order to observe the crowds. Advertised with aggressively painted huge posters, these movies are kitschy soap-operas, with displays of incredible luxury and with worn-out classical plots. They are sometimes musicals, with some famous singer playing the main part. It's not uncommon that some actors are involved in the making of several movies at the same time, thus hopping from set to set. Action movies are quite popular, too (such as imitations of Rambo), though some stuff is actually imported from India. Amateurish play and low-budget special effects make the nonunderstanding Westerner smile at these movies. Western movies make it to Cairo, though heavily censored.

Day 16: Hurghada

Over breakfast, we decide to stick it out here in Hurghada, and to try everything the town has to offer. So this first day is for beach-bums. The public beaches are pretty uninviting, so we drive out by minibus to the private beaches around the Sheraton Hotel. Of course, we first try to sneak into the superior beach of the latter: twenty minutes later, we're kicked out from the north end of their beach, and another half an hour later, somebody else kicks us out from its south end. So we pay the cover charge for the Shellghada Beach, which gives us an equal amount of credit towards drinks and pizzas. The whole day goes by in total inactivity.


Most Egyptians are Muslims, and often proud to be so. Egypt is a secular state though, and the Sharia (Qur'anic Law) is not directly applied. You actually see precious few devotees kneeling down for prayers in the streets, at the five daily prayer-times announced by the muezzin. This Allahu Akbar (God is Great) chant can be very overpowering, depending on the voice and your immediate surroundings. It contains all the mystique of the Orient. Too bad it's recorded on tapes today: I've spent nearly 4 months total in Muslim countries, and have never seen a muezzin calling from a minaret. Attendance in masdjids (mosques) also is much lower than I expected, as street-life goes on in total indifference. Except on Fridays (the Muslim rest day) and Ramadan (the fasting month), where most businesses close down, and where green carpets are rolled out in many public places (such as the Ramses Railway Station in Cairo), transforming them into temporary mosques.

Day 17: Hurghada - Giftun Island - Hurghada

More action today. At 8am, we're picked up and crammed with other travelers into a minibus heading for the port. We embark on a large motor-boat and set out for Giftun Island. We throw anchor off its beach, near some island corals. Susan explains to Marc and me how to use our snorkeling gear, and soon we jump into the water. For us beginners, it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to learn breathing through the snorkel, plus keeping the mask watertight. So this first experience kind of turns into a flop, especially because of the high waves, which mess up even more expert swimmers' outings. Nevertheless, we get a good first glimpse of the amazing submarine life with fish and flowers of all imaginable colors and sizes.

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".


Egyptian cuisine is excellent in terms of appetizers (already mentioned) and deserts (especially the gorgeous pastry), but I don't like the main dishes too much, except kushari. Indeed, you've got to like chicken, kufta (grilled ground meat), and kebab (grilled meat) a lot, because there isn't much other choice, and they are often very greasy. Staple food like bread (the Egyptian-Arabic word, eysh, also means "life", and that says it all), fuul (beans) in all variations, falafel (patties of fuul beans mixed with spices), or shawarma (the same thing as Turkish doner kebab or Greek gyros), makes for great snacks. Restaurants come in many variations, though most are very basic places, if not mere cookers mounted on bicycles. Many hotels think they do you a favor by including a dull continental breakfast in the price. Most Egyptians are vegetarians, though not by choice. It is a pity that a lot of good land is wasted on growing food for cattle, so that the rich can eat meat, while this same land could feed so many more (poor) people. Indeed, Egypt has to import food to cope with its galloping population increase.

Day 18: Hurghada - Sharm el Sheikh - Dahab

The ferry (LE60) is quite small, but not too crowded. Departure is being delayed by only one hour, and we meet Ed, a sensational Californian retiree who loves to travel solo around the Middle East. Once past Shedwan Island, the Red Sea becomes pretty rough, and our little boat sways precariously. Faces turn green, discussions stop, people disappear downstairs, others crowd around the toilets, as the ship slowly prowls forwards. Very few people are unaffected, but we eventually cruise into Sharm el-Sheikh's harbor. Again, this is not a place to stay (too expensive this time), so all travelers split service taxis in groups of seven, heading for Dahab.

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?).

Day 19: Dahab - St. Catherine - Mt. Sinai

In the early morning, Marc and I split a taxi to Dahab town, with Ed. We catch the bus to the St. Catherine village, in the middle of Sinai, while Ed heads north to Nuweiba, on his way to Jordan. Our ride is spectacular again, as we slowly gain elevation. Long sandy plains stretch out between the mountain chains. At 11am, way too early for our plans, we are at our destination. Only a handful of travelers get off, all sharing the same ideas. So we settle on the terrace of a cafeteria, and slowly get ready for the ascension. Two guys just come down from the mountain, and volunteer us all the relevant information. A late and filling lunch gives us the needed energy burst.

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.

Important archeological find

Remember Mel Brooks' irreverent movie on world history? Well, in a niche way off the path, I stumbled over a stone-plate with Hebrew inscriptions. I had them deciphered by an expert later, and they turned out to be those infamous lost Five Commandments. Here's what they say: Too bad these got lost.

Day 20: Mt. Sinai - St. Catherine - Dahab

A short night, as by 4am, many loud and obnoxious German and Italian package tourists start flocking all over the summit, not caring about our sleep, and literally sitting down on our blankets, not to speak about inadvertently kicking us while climbing all over us. Our choice spot on the east terrace is becoming nightmarish. And the greedy Bedouin nearby doesn't stop shouting "coffee, tea, milk" at every newcomer. We soon abandon our position, and huddle on some rock. Eventually, the sun rises, above the low cloud layers, and an Israeli group engages in some Hebrew songs.

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.


Most people, especially package tourists, have no clue about what money is worth in other countries. For instance, the average Egyptian worker earns LE4 a day. Small wonder that baksheesh for little services is a welcome complement to such meager salaries. But it is frightening to observe the vicious circle created by mass tourism. On the one hand, it creates jobs and attracts much-needed money. But on the other hand, the whole economy is messed up, not to mention the mentality of some Egyptians, when foreigners start literally throwing money around. This behavior attracts contempt of the locals, to which the tourists react with scorn, and it becomes difficult to escape these stereotypes.

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.

Day 21: Dahab

Another lazy day of playing beach-bums and snorkeling, while Marc slowly recovers from Pharaoh's Revenge. At the spectacular reef at the north end of the bay, we spot many new varieties of fish. Here's what you experience when you swim out. When stepping into the lagoon, you're about knee-deep in very clear and warm water. The ground is a mixture of stone and sand, but dangerous because of sea urchins, so you'd better start snorkeling right away, unless you are even more afraid to scratch your chest. As you proceed forwards, you swim through schools of damselfish that are flitting about, and encounter starfish, sea slugs, clams, anemone fish, clownfish, butterfly fish, blennies, and so on. Next comes the reef flat, not much deeper actually, with cutting corals, anemones, damselfish, angelfish, parrotfish, snappers, and others. All in amazing colors. Finally you get to the reef crest, a sheer drop-off whose depth you can't fathom, where yet other varieties of fish await you. The water is deep-blue, and the individual sunrays exploring the depths give a surreal feel to the whole scenery. Susan even encounters some Napoleon fish, which are larger than herself, as well as a water-borne LE10 note. I didn't swim out further, but a submarine pillar often follows where you can watch more fish without needing diving gear. Beyond that, you might encounter sharks...

Day 22: Dahab - Nuweiba - Aqaba (Jordan)

In the early morning, seven travelers split a service taxi from Dahab to Nuweiba. They are Susan, Steve, Marc, and I, plus Shaky (the Kiwi), Mark (Canada), and John (UK). The harbor turns out to be flooded by people: Egyptians returning to their jobs in the Gulf States, and dozens over dozens of buses filled with pilgrims. Yes, the hadj season (annual pilgrimage to Mekka) has started. There are huge waiting lines, in the already blazing sunlight. But some friendly military policemen take us in charge, and whisk us through some back-door into the ticket office, where we have to pay $25 cash each. But at customs, in a shaded hall, we have to wait like everybody else, although nobody bothers to check our luggage. Emigration is pretty straightforward, too. We are asked to wait in a huge hall until the ferry is ready. It's 9am, and departure is scheduled for 10am. Of course, with this mess, we're not too optimistic about accurate timings.

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.