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Just back from 2 weeks in Egypt July 10-24, 2009.

The trip’s superbly organized and engineered by Off The Map Adventures of Kitchener, Ontario.

Here’s the ‘tell-all’ not ‘tall-tale’ experience for my family, friends and fellow adventurers. The 900+ photo DVD journal remains a work in progress, so meanwhile here’s a rambling recollection off the top of my head, sort of, stream of consciousness memory.

The highlight of Egypt was the climb up Mt. Sinai on a camel 7 kms up & 7 kms down (and this from a lady afraid of a 6’ ladder). I’m telling you it was life-changing! We got up at 3 am to hike and view the 5:30 am Sinai summit sunrise. Every one of 19 of us would have done it again even if we’d seen in the daylight what the scale & height of this mother mountain was by day, and not just because Moses received 10 commandments here from God. It was splendid & spiritual if not gut-wrenchingly challenging, particularly since my camel and his Bedouin master did not get along. Experiencing them power struggle on the rocky steep narrow pathway up, while the camel persistently resisted the climb, was spine-chilling. The camel preferred terra firma & grazing to work. What’s wrong with that? I felt treacherously close to edges of steep granite precipices with minor sympathy from the guide who does this trek in his sleep even scaling rocky platforms at the summit with no safety net. Photographing it was life-altering.  My fellow travelers thought me brave, no camel fear, overcoming the heights, sweat and exhaustion. One persuasive Bedouin man whispered in the dark, “Lady, you’re too old to climb this mountain. Let me help you.” Best Egyptian pounds I ever spent. More on this later. (Did you know unhappy camels bare their teeth, bay, and become quite belligerent?)  Second to Mt. Sinai would be the three Giza Pyramids next to Cairo, and thirdly the bewitching Philae Island Temple of Isis relocated to Aglika Island, where we first glimpsed faded hieroglyphics.

We slept on a felucca sailboat overnight on the Nile River under magnificent star-constellations. We watched the big fat cruise ships go by seeing nothing of the flora, fauna, indigenous people or Nile ambience. We were able to get out, visit the Nubians for dinner and breakfast along with leisurely nature breaks. We survived Cairo’s smog, 20 million people, 10 million cars with no traffic lights, then temples, tombs, mosques and granite quarries with average temps between 30 to over 55 degrees Celsius. We also slept on a sleeper train along the Nile (breath-taking in the dark) from Cairo to Aswan then paused at our Island 5 star retreat before crossing the Tropic of Cancer to Abu Simbel near the Sudanese border to Lake Naseer where Ramses’ transplanted Temple greets the morning sunrise.   I did faint once on the plane from Luxor to Sharm El-Sheikh, but thankfully my travel companions revived me and our tour manager ever alert to our safety gave me Hydro-salts. One-by-one, someone succumbed to heat and other natural curses.  The big guy in our 48 passenger air-conditioned bus even once rode back to rest while we templed and tombed on. Wouldn’t trade what we experienced for the world.

Egypt straddles two continents, Africa and Asia. We traversed the Sinai peninsula to the Red Sea discovering its coral reefs, iridescent tropical fish swimming, scuba-diving & snorkelling in the salt turquoise waters. Admittedly I preferred the 4 pools after the heat of Dahab and Sharm El-Sheik where all the swanky resorts are invading the pastoral desert. There was an eeriness to this still silent granite mountainous world by the Red Sea at our Happy Village resort. From this vantage point, we could see the Saudi Arabian Mountains across the Red Sea.

We loved luxurious Luxor (an extraordinarily upscale retreat for Europeans, Germans, and British like the Caribbean is to North Americans). The Sinai peninsula was awe-inspiring with its quiet desert isolation, Saudi and Israel next door. The military presence dotted the sandy highway with armed border patrols asleep at their gates for lack of humanity in the intense desert heat. Siestas in the Sinai? We produced passports, hid cameras to not risk our pictures at numerous check-points, even riding the bus with military escort for security. Most of the army & tourist police are asleep with their rifles over their laps, resting in peace. Such contrast to Cairo’s hustle & bustle.

Egyptians never seem to sleep.  Families come alive in cool nights. The daily loud-speakers call for prayer 5 times per day from 5 am, like a benevolent big brother imploring Islamic worship. Now the Nile is controlled by the Aswan High Dam (Egypt’s modern hi-tech unofficial Wonder of the World), so they no longer pray for rain like the Biblical 40 days/40 nights or Nile floods such as feasts/famines.  Egypt never gets much rain. The Nile’s water flows UP to Upper Egypt which is DOWN from the Delta at the Mediterranean Sea. Without the Nile as its source of life, Egypt would be the waterless Sahara Desert where, except for the Bedouins and Nubians, no people could survive the sun blasting days and cool desert nights. 

Most inspiring were these indigenous people’s simplicity, languages, culture, customs remaining unchanged and somewhat a mystery to even the mostly Arabic speaking Islam/Muslim/Christian Egyptians. Bedouins are descendants of the Ishmaelites who saved both Joseph at the well & Moses in the bullrushers (MarkTwain). They alone traverse countries freely in nomadic tribes still. Valued in war as transmitters to protect war secrets, some tribes roam with flocks nomadically while others enticed from much of their lands (like the N.A. native Indians) are relegated to mudhouses, tent cities in desert conditions, peripheral tourist roles like pedaling camel ride adventures in the sand dunes along the Nile and in the Sinai, gardening or construction jobs.

We visited the very Sinai spots where the 40 years of getting lost took place. Moses was leading the folks to Israel and his followers enjoyed 21 wells keeping them watered. Now only 3 remain. And we witnessed where Moses, striking the rock on a mountainside, fed the people & stopped their wars with Israel, keeping Egypt as its own little country. The six-day war in 1973 won the Egyptians back the Sinai from Israel so now they have this peaceful treaty that keeps both countries safe by armed huts along superhighways through deserts you could almost sand-ski on. Treacherously barren, like Afghanistan looks on the CNN war channel, it is strikingly beautiful with its granite natural configurations, strangely reminiscent of the architecture in the civilized cities. It’s as if the natural landscape provided the architectural inspiration of what’s uniquely Egyptian architecture, both formidable in size and beauty. One wonders if there are still civilizations beneath the dunes, still to be revealed. A moment of comic relief, we saw this run-away saddled riderless camel walking the side of the highway alone, like a car without its driver, strutting in the opposite direction to freedom or wherever his instincts were taking him--too funny from the window and comfort of an A/C bus. The Lone Camel rides again!

We never got tombed out. King Tut-Ankh-Amun’s tomb #62 in the Valley of the Kings is haunting.  I can attest to its reputed ‘curse’ upon experiencing his tiny mummified remains and gold sarcophagus, way more than 6 feet under the earth’s belly following the long airless passageway, where he’d been discovered in 1922. Cairo’s Museum houses his solid gold 235 pound (give or take a few) mask & solid gold coffin inserts, not to mention the 600+ (remaining from 1700) treasures found buried with him to support his safety, comfort, luxury in his eternal afterlife. Could have enjoyed a week among the endless rows upon rows of caskets, mummies, artifacts, treasures, chariots, jewelry, exquisite antiquities in the Cairo Museum.

Egyptian grade 5 history projects fairly leaped to life, mesmerizing, the actual relics from ancient civilizations. Were we really seeing this land from another time period so far away?  Egypt is a uniquely rich third world country full of fun-loving, friendly people living in pride within this other world. Breath-taking and majestic was Dar-El-Behri, the grand Memorial Temple of Queen Hatchepsut terraces, the Karnak Temple with its 134 massive columns, Kom Ombo, Edfu et al.

In Cairo’s Khan-El-Khalili the oldest, largest eastern marketplace, there are bargains galore of teas, spices, cottons, clothes, trinkets where surviving the buying is an art form. Some of my favourite salesman refrains called out to tourists passing by include:

"Canada Dry, No Buy"  "Are you Married?  Will you Marry Me?"  "How Can I take your Money Today?"  "Come in No Hassle No Hassle?" (as you push past three of them shoving replica pyramids, scarves, trinkets, spices, Made in China souvenir Tut heads, while you clutch your $ pouch, camera & passport). The best sales pitch: "I’m married. I just want your money." 

Needless to say, I was ineligible for marriage proposals because I now look like my friend’s mother chaperoning her, so I got "yes Ma’am". Something to be said for,  ‘respecting the previous generation’ of women.  Egyptian sellers value women who’ll spend at the markets & I was in Heaven haggling if not buying, getting the best price, then tipping the seller for the balance. They asked me if I was part Egyptian! Same flattering line as in Mexico when bargaining on the beaches or with the street urchins, ‘you must be part Mexican’. They respect the sport. My suitcase grew distinguished for being the heaviest on tour--well when you’re bringing granite King Tut, Queen Nefertiti & an Obelisk home what do you expect?  I did bring suntan lotion. I didn’t have more tan than before I’d left! We bought bottles of exquisite scents a la Cleopatra’s infamous Egyptian perfumes. I got MINT for its healing powers. It flows through your nostrils, sinuses, chest cavity. Maybe it reminded me of my Scottish grandmother’s routine medical treatment at night, in her lavish use of Vicks Vapo Rub. We even reminisced about the baby boom 60’s & smoked apple tobacco through a giant hooka—shooshie, as it’s smoked in the cafes. Stopped short of buying a souvenir hooka.  My luck I’d be investigated at customs.

There wasn’t a vehicle we didn’t travel in (even to the camel markets) from sailboats, planes, paddy-wagons, tut tuts, buses, boats, trains, subways, taxis, horses & buggies, & lest we forget the camel. I’m sure I’ve left several out. I decided to start a camel-recovery support group post- traumatic stress style after Mt. Sinai and won’t detail all the reasons why here.

My health and safety conscious fellow adventurers came armed with virtual Shoppers Drug Mart supplies of imodium, gravol, tylenol, ciprol, rehydration sachets, first aid kits, every known pharmaceutical aid, whipping out the bug spray for the camels (even though the fine print definitely read North America only).  I, for one, roughed it, drugless and deetless, and survived without inoculation. We rode camels first at the Giza pyramids, super bug-sprayed all areas for the dreaded possible foreign bug creatures like to hide in remarkable places. I did not enter the Great Pyramid of Cheops bowels, being entirely claustrophobic even in open spaces. Seven of our group did brave the airless passageway! We then raced more camels across the desert valleys parallel to the Nile in Aswan with Nubian guides. Coming in first easily, my high-strung camel named LuLu enjoyed beating all the other 19 camels. For 20 Egyptian pounds ($4.), my little Nubian guide had bragging rights being first and a tip! We crossed this desert in a natural sand dune valley by sandier mountains, as if in a Clint Eastwood Rawhide episode, like a cattle drive in the American wild west cowboy & Indian day movie. Roll-em roll-em roll-em...keep those camels roll’in Rawhide! Remember that song?

Mind-blowing. The big kahuna was camelling up Mt Sinai whereby my camel & his Bedouin master frequently power-struggled every few feet or so with me at their mercy. I swear the camel wanted to commit hare-kare & throw himself over the single rock edge precipice just to spite his master, whose little pathetic rope was no match for its weight or my fear. I jested that I climbed higher than the others (none of whom camelled) because I was another 10’  in the air & could see way more than I wanted to see down the granite mountainside, but at least I did get to the top for the sunrise & herbal teas. I believe I left most of my heart & soul back up there comforted by the Bedouin tea. Even made a promise to whoever saved me from going over those granite edges (no evidence of greenery whatsoever to brace a fall & nothing but little crude rocks to prevent the sheer drop down) I prayed for God, Bill, benevolent guardian angels to save me. The sturdy Bedouin guide who told me “Lady you’re just too plain old to climb this mountain” & that “I should listen to him cause he was trying to help me get where I wanted to the summit sunrise view”, also claimed,  “even if I did make it to the top which he doubted, my knees would take a bigger beating coming down”. Hamouda was quite the salesman.  It cost me 85 EP’s up & 85 back. $34. Best money spent all trip. When I tipped him in Canadian bills, he said “Oh ’Bank of Montreal’ money!” These guys aren’t backward. They learn all their English doing business on these inclines & believe me you spill beans together, forever bonded for life after travelling it up & back. Three of us were so close by the summit as we shared our life-stories. I imagined the tale was tall to earn the tourist’s sympathy…quite the conversationalist.  I was almost persuaded to give up my Swiss Army knapsack to Hamouda’s son’s upcoming first school day, but in the light of day, I saw his Tommy Hilfiger suspenders, I realized this 25 year old skilled Bedouin just had ambition and expensive taste. Hamouda promised he wouldn’t use the tip or fare $ for cigarettes but to feed his son & family (his father, wife, 2nd child had all died around him within the last 2 years as well as his usual climbing camel.) He had a heart murmur diagnosed in Sharm El-Sheik for which he needed to go get treatment otherwise die as his father died. He was honestly carrying an older man’s burden, even vowing with the heavy pain in his heart he’d never marry again. My other companion was as sympathetic as I and he’s an Arabic tour guide operator climbing Mt Sinai many times before. We all became fast friends.  When his tears flowed in the daylight, my cynical mind realized Hamouda really was a suffering soul recovering from much personal tragedy---no wonder he plundered the camel to continue against its will and more swiftly. His master needed the $ from these trips even if the camel feared rocks in its way & resisted the mountain climb, being yanked and grrr’d in commanded language after years of breaking him in to these pilgrimages. Every time a camel stood resting at the path side or the rest stops, so would he try to pull in stopping stubbornly to escape his master. It was when he kept turning outside to the mountain’s edge to turn back that my heart pounded & hands gripped the padded knob sweating away in a frozen craw...thinking this is it...this is the end! I kept persuading  Hamouda to slow down & cooperate with the camel & understand that his camel was smart & didn’t want to slip & go over the edge. Nor did I. Perhaps it wasn’t my imagination that my life hung over both their mercy & that gravity was against us both surviving a slide off the mountain cliff. (You see I didn’t get the memo to not take the camel.) I kept thinking there’s no way that this little rope in Hamouda’s confident hand will stop the camel or me, if we go off the hairpin turns or sheer edges. There’d be a granite grave beneath. Miraculously we lived.

My heart still races. In some weird way, I vowed if I ever lived through this incredible journey up and especially down, that I’d make a promise to be happy and never complain again. Just get me home safely, I prayed. This remains a life changing experience. Mt. Sinai really was the trip’s spiritual highlight. We returned to our hotel beyond St. Katherine’s Monastery gates by 10:00 am for breakfast, dazed, exhilarated and disbelieving we’d survived what we’d just seen. Breath-taking beauty, unfathomable bliss. We met Moses’ God and creation in one morning sunrise.

This Egypt trip was packed with adventure, knowledge and memories, worth every penny.

Not to mention the perk when we spent our last night in sophisticated Paris on a Grand Tour open-air bus tour even enjoying the intermittent rains, strolling along the well-manicured cultured streets, celebrating everywhere the art, music, architecture, Napoleon statues, magnetized by the Eiffel Tower on our views from 360 degree angles. We travelled the Tour de France 2009 Cycle Race route 2 days before the arrival of the final Tour de France lap ends up the Champs de Lysee to the Place de la Concord where the Egyptian Obelisk was removed from Luxor to be Paris’s crowning jewel in that celebratory square at the Tour’s finish. Full circle.  Egypt to Paris to Egypt.  Egyptian treasures generously populate almost every cultured country.

Now that I’m part Egyptian at heart, Ontario feels cool to the body, like millions of Egyptians who live in their half-finished sky-scraper apartments, unfinished graveyard homes beneath the ground (avoiding Cairo taxes) near their satellite saucers and make-shift balcony clotheslines, they shiver in 25 degrees Celsius weather and wear sweaters.

Egypt is magnetic.  You should go too! Call Anas,  at Off the Map Adventures 1-800-867-2890.

Posted By: Linda Lou   



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