Touring Egypt with Egyptians

Our family recently had the privilege to go on a Nile tour from Luxor to Aswan.  With my parents visiting from the US, one of the sites my Dad wanted to see was the Valley of the Kings.  At first we said it was too far to try, but then Jayson heard our local Orthodox church advertise a trip to Luxor/Aswan, and so we enquired.  Turns out, no one else in the church signed up, but the travel agent, who worships at this location, was able to get us the same good price as he was offering to the Egyptian congregation, and so we made the arrangements for Mom, Dad, Jayson, me and our three little girls to embark on this great tour.

First step was getting to Luxor which is located about 8-9 hours south of Cairo by train.  We debated going by train or plane – big difference in time and price – and in the end, went with the more adventurous route.  We weren’t sure what to expect as we boarded the sleeper train in Ramses station, but we had three sleeper cabins which were quite comfortable and roomy.

Sleeper Car in the Train to Luxor

Since we left town around 8pm, we got our girls to bed as quickly as possible, anticipating a 5am arrival in Luxor.  Then we enjoyed a good dinner before retiring to our different beds.  I don’t think I slept too much and among the adults, we got varying hours of sleep.  The beds were comfortable enough, but the train was really rough.  We stopped and started all through the night, and felt like we were going to blow right off the track at different points.  About an hour before Luxor, we got some breakfast, then woke and dressed the girls before arrival.

We were met in Luxor by a representative from the travel company and taken to a big tourist bus along with about 25 Egyptians.  Our agent in Maadi had told us he had a group of doctors going on the same trip so we would be with them.  After traveling together a bit, we realized that many of us were together in the same train car from Cairo to here.  We went straight to the Valley of the Kings while our tour guide, Mohamed, began telling us about Luxor and what we would be seeing soon.  He usually works with English groups, but of course could guide in Arabic as well.  And so, our little family had our own English translation from him each time he finished his Arabic spiel.

The sites that day were interesting, and the three girls did well despite it being hot and including lots of walking.  We were all enjoying the places we visited, but also curious to get to the boat where we would be living for the next five days.  It wasn’t long before we learned of a complication in this trip.  Due to a workers’ strike at the locks near Luxor, our boat was parked about one hour south of Luxor in the town of Esna.  This meant that we had to drive over an hour after touring before boarding the boat.  And so, the schedule I had worked out for day one was not going to work.  Fortunately, our littlest one was able to nap during the long bus ride, and we all made it till the 3pm lunch when we finally got to the boat.

Exhausted on the Unexpected Bus Ride

By that first evening together, Emma and Hannah had made friends with a young single Egyptian named Mahmoud, who was traveling with his two sisters, parents and grandmother.  He quickly became like an uncle to them and throughout the week I often heard Emma call out, “Mahmouuuud, Mahmouuuud” as we walked around the temple ruins.

Mahmoud, with Hannah our Future Archaeologist

Mahmoud, with Emma our Future Captain

Day two was another complicated day due to the lock strike.  Since we had more to see in Luxor, we now had to drive an hour each way making for a long morning.  Or so I thought.  We were supposed to leave by 8 or 9 am, but by 10am our whole group was waiting in the lobby of the boat as the tour bus we were supposed to ride was having trouble finding gasoline due to a gas shortage.  I don’t know exactly what time the bus arrived to pick us up, because the boat left the port for about half an hour to allow another boat to set sail, and when we docked once again closer to noon, our tour guide was more than ready to get on with the tour.

(Click here for a tour of our Nile cruise boat, and here for a lazy gaze at a pastoral Nile River island.)

During our waiting time, the girls were once again playing with Mahmoud and this gave me a chance to meet him and his family and we had a nice time getting know each other.  I wasn’t sure if I was the only one stressed out about such a late start to our day since the boat was supposed to sail for its next destination at 3:30.  I knew we had two places to tour in Luxor and at least two hours of driving.  How could we possibly do it?  I was relieved to hear the concern of others in the group too, but they said that the sites we were to see, the Luxor and Karnak temples, were among the most important of the tour.  We couldn’t just skip out on these sites.  I quickly tried to refigure Layla’s eating and nap plan as it was obvious she would not be doing either of those things on the boat this day.

Out of the six or seven families in our tour group, there were four young children: our three girls, and a 1 ½ year old boy, Yusuf.  He was traveling with his parents, aunt, and grandparents, and Emma and Hannah really took to him.  By day four, Hannah practically looked like she was in their family as she walked along with them at the sites and played with Yusuf on the boat.

With Yusuf, on the Sun Deck

We also met up with them a time or two in the disco room and the kids all danced together.  On the final day, Yusuf’s dad delivered three black plastic bags to our girls, each one filled with the same assortment of snacks: a pack of crackers, a lollipop, a tube of chocolate, a small cake, some gummy worms and a juice box.  By that point, Hannah was too sick to enjoy any of it, but the gesture was so typical of the generous Egyptians we know.  It never even crossed my mind to buy something small for anyone, and yet, they bought all three of our girls bags of snacks.

Several other people in our tour group enjoyed playing with our girls as well.  One of the daughters in a family of three older girls often played with Layla when she was strapped to my back.

Layla, with One of Many Children Lovers

It wasn’t unusual to find Layla in someone else’s lap on a motorboat ride or as we were waiting in the lobby of the boat.  Even though we were the only non-Egyptians in our group, they welcomed us in and made the trip extra-special for our kids.

Not only were we the only foreigners in our particular tour, we were the only foreigners on the whole boat of three tour groups.  According to one of the workers on the boat, they’ve only had Egyptians riding the boat for quite awhile now.  One evening while I was in line for dinner, one of the servers asked me how I liked the food.  I answered that I thought it was very good, and he tapped the lady next to me in line and said, “See, she is American and she thinks the food is very good!”  I felt very strange when he said that like my opinion is more important than anyone else on the boat?!  But perhaps he was excited about the presence of foreigners in his restaurant for the first time in a long time. Tourism has taken a severe dive since the revolution.

Among New Friends

There were three or four elementary-aged girls on the boat, and after the first or second day, they became friends with Emma and Hannah.  Their time was limited together since we didn’t tour at the same time, but they could see each other on the sun deck or in the disco room.  One night there was a gallabeya party.  A gallabeya is a traditional robe-like dress which is a typical dress for men living in upper Egypt.  Technically the woman’s equivalent for that is called an abaya.  We weren’t planning on mentioning this party to our girls since it wasn’t going to start until 9pm which is two hours past their normal bed time.

However, the young girls on the boat, as well as the older girls in our group, were very excited about this party and asked Emma and Hannah if they planned to attend.  Not only did this mean staying up quite late, but also buying a gallabeya!  Following the lead of those in our group, we purchased a gallabeya for Emma and Hannah at one of the shops during our stop in Kom Ombo.  We later purchased some more on the boat and then some fancy head-ware at the market in Aswan.  Although it wasn’t in time for the party, by the end of the trip, our whole family was properly outfitted.

At dinner, just an hour before the party, Hannah was too tired to eat and decided to go to bed rather than attend the party.  This meant only Emma had a chance to participate, and she had a great time with her friends.

Dressed up for the Party

Dressed Up at Home - Adults have more Inhibitions

We had a wonderful trip and saw amazing sites in the south of Egypt, but probably the highlight of the trip for our entire family was the living people of Egypt, rather than its ancient monuments. You can see pictures of the temples anywhere, but how else could you get memories like these?

Our Touring Party

(Too bad the normally punctual Americans were late for this group shot. Oh well.)

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