Egypt & Luxury Nile Cruises

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Travel in Style Reviews
TRIP TO EGYPT - NOVEMBER
Teresa, Pat and Jo

It was truly an unforgettable trip with unforgettable sights, sounds, smells, foods, people. We thought the Egyptians were a kind and most cordial lot, with a charming sense of humor. Even though we were recognized as Americans... we were treated with great warmth -- eager smiles, when the eyes met, and sometimes, groups of women wanting to just shake hands and welcome us to their country. We found the men to be exceptionally handsome and dashing… with the longest, curliest eyelashes ever. It was harder to tell about the women, as most of them stick pretty close to wrapping themselves with layers of scarves. Very few burkas, but definitely a majority wear headscarves wrapped tightly around the face and extending down from the shoulders. Also, we noted that the very young dressed much like our own -- jeans and tank tops -- and left their head uncovered, for the most part. They, the young, seem to congregate in groups, most ostensibly chatting while, covertly, flirting mildly. Groups of young men stand around a lot, on the street corners, outside trendy eateries, watching the world go by. They always part most deferentially and graciously when one needs to pass, and they never look threatening in any way. There is a lot of side-to-side kissing, upon meeting -- and that goes for men/men as well as men/women and women/women. Walking arm in arm is very acceptable and natural for both men and women, and often even walking with an arm around another’s shoulders. They are truly a very friendly lot, toward each other and toward strangers. They seem very comfortable with their own bodies and manners.

Our hosts in Cairo, Dennis and Tommy, were eager to show us all there was to see and taste -- and they treated us wonderfully. Because of them, we were lucky to eat at some very ethnic restaurants -- the kind that a tourist either wouldn't know about or would avoid "in horror" if the occasion arose. The Egyptian cuisine is very basic but delicious beyond imagination. We loved every morsel of it. And ate too much of it, of course. The traffic, in Cairo, is a nightmare that borders onto hilarity, for lack of any other form of reaction. Tommy is Egyptian and has lived in Cairo many years -- and he weaves among the throng of cabs and trucks and mini-busses and donkey carts at incredible speed, honking with abandon, missing the side-mirror menace by millimeters... along with everyone else on the road. We did see a couple of red and green lights along crossways (they don't have any yellow lights, I don‘t think) while traveling through the city -- but they seemed to mean nothing to any of the drivers. No crosswalks anywhere -- but then, they are not really needed because everyone crosses anywhere, everywhere, anytime, sometime in small groups but also singly (children included), mothers with walking tots hanging on to them, old geezers being helped along by some kind person. Eventually, we, ourselves, ended up crossing impossibly large squares and boulevards, ducking between cars, holding hands, wide-eyed and crazed like the rest of them -- usually with Tommy on the lead and Dennis exhorting us on, closing up the rear.

Dennis & Tommy made us very comfortable and welcome in their home -- and treated us with great warmth and thoughtfulness. On our arrival in Cairo, around midnight, they picked us up at the airport, bundled all our belongings in two cars, and we were greeted in their home with a bottle of Champagne and "tidbits", served on their lovely terrace. During the next several days, with Tommy at the helm, they drove us to the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum, among other places. Dennis proved to be a most knowledgeable guide as he pointed out places and monuments all along the way with as much historical and cultural background as anyone could ever expect from an erudite professor. Together, they catered to our every wish in order to make us comfortable and to please us. They walked the Khan-al-Kalili bazaar for hours with us, with great patience and grace, giving us every chance to see the gamut of merchandise. Upon any decision eventually made (be it a sweat shirt or a piece of alabaster, or a fancy galabeya)... Tommy would then move in for the kill, on our behalf -- dancing the never-ending bargaining ballet that evolves before any purchase price is sealed. And is he ever good at it! With them, we walked the busy downtown area, getting a real feel for the local way of life. Even our random medical needs were taken care of, through easy access to the pharmacy in their building (and their natural acceptance of Tommy's status of ex-nurse). Pat and I even received a coveted flu shot, which we had so far been denied at home, in the U.S. They both were up and at the ready to give us breakfast, even when our flight plans required a 3 am reveille. And, then, they packed us off in our chauffeured limo, complete with melt-in-your-mouth sandwiches for a later snack -- like when we left Cairo, Luxor bound.

On Thanksgiving, Dennis prepared a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. They invited four friends to enjoy the feast. Very interesting people: one artist (painter), one professor of American Literature at the American University, one retired psychiatrist, and one builder/contractor. Having been up since 3am (when we left Aswan by car on our way to Abu Simbel... and then by plane to Cairo via Aswan) the three of us damsels scuttled off to bed soon after dinner. Cairo citizenry stays up long into the night, it seems, and this -- to them -- was to be just the beginning of the evening. So, everyone was happy.

Floating down the blue-blue Nile, in our Presidential Suite, was a treat in itself, as we were able to watch villages and palm trees, water buffaloes and fields being hoed by hand (so to speak), tiny donkeys trotting ahead, under the weight of unbelievable loads -- all sliding past at snail pace. The staff on board the “M/S Monaco” was outstandingly friendly and kind to us. We were the only three English-speaking people on board. The other 90 passengers were groups of French people. Ours was the only table always decked with flowers, and our waiters would take turns inquiring as to what-all they could do to make things more special for us -- down to performing magic tricks at our table, for our entertainment.

Our boat was one of hundreds, both in Luxor and Aswan. They all look like miniature cruise ships, with varying degrees of elegance. Usually, a central, marbled lobby rises about three floors, with balconied public rooms leading to the various private staterooms. The top floor is usually a spacious outdoor space, usually with a pool, a café/bar, and chaises lining the rails. A lovely place to watch the world go by. Our “M/S Monaco” was especially nice -- and, when in port, like the others, it would often stand three or four deep along the shore -- so that to disembark, one would need to cross at least a couple of other similar boats to reach the gangplank to shore. One morning, when I left the ship for a brisk walk along the promenade, I failed to note the name of the boat closest to the shore, to which I had crossed over from our own. Naturally, the name of our boat had now become invisible from shore (!). As I finished a long and happy 40-minute walk, I realized that I could no longer tell where our boat was stacked up. I confess to a bit of panic, as I paraded up and down the area I thought might be “ours”, trying to recall the shape/color/steepness of the narrow gangplank that joined our neighboring boat to shore -- and mostly in vain. Eventually, a guard who struggled to understand my English, pointed me to next-to-the-last stack of boats, and my worrisome search came to a happy ending. From then on, I learned to be a lot more careful, when I left our premises. As it is, I am not well known for my sense of orientation -- and this was a brand new kind of disorientation! Thoughts of “… and she was never seen again” flashed in my mind, with a new twist.

Some of the colorful bazaars we visited still boggle the mind -- especially the one in Edfu, with carriages and horses competing for space, noise, colors, everything and everyone in a nearly chaotic, constant agitation. I felt like someone-who-was-me had been picked up and deposited in the middle of a fantastic, exotic scenario. Almost like an out-of-body experience.

In Aswan, a couple of hours sailing on a graceful felucca were a special delight for all of us. These large, flat-bottomed sailboats are everywhere. They can carry large groups of people sitting along the outward bench -- though the three of us (and Waleed) were the only passengers, in this case. The one and only sail is very large, rhomboidal at the lower end -- and this lower corner gets casually folded upward when the boat is at rest. Our three handsome Nubian boatmen, clad in their sparkling white galabeyas, were masterful in tacking smartly among the very narrow inlets between the small islands dotting the Nile, jostling benevolently with their colleagues in the competing, crowded flotilla around us. The man at the tiller nonchalantly shifted the rudder between his knees, as he stood erect at the rear of the boat. The man who handled the huge, patched up sail would “do his thing” with the help of a youngster, who, when instructed to do so, would pull hard at the heavy, mostly frayed, rope until his skinny, little body downright flew off the planks of the boat. At this point, while dangling up in the air, he would pull down on the rope by the sheer strength of his thin, ebony arms, ending up in a deep squat on the deck. He did this over and over again, his scrawny body jumping four feet up in the air each time, until the sail moved tidily into the wind. Not a word would be spoken -- just the rhythm of a familiar dance team moving through the ritual.

The grandeur of the temples and the sheer immensity of their proportions, the cult-like persistence of the tombs (often tucked away in the most arduous, barren valleys and mountains), the mystery of a culture and sophistication thousands of years old, were amazing and awesome. And so was the abject poverty, very evident at times -- as well as the unending struggle of day-to-day living. The handsome faces etched in pride and, often, fatigue bore the unavoidable acceptance of a way of life. Hundreds and hundreds of "Security" militia at their hundreds and hundreds of tiny posts -- were along the roads, on top of mountains, at every entrance to airports, RR stations, museums, boats, shops, bridges, roadways, parking lots, public gardens, homes. In their lumpy, hot, black or brown uniforms -- armed anywhere from machine guns to merely innocuous walkie/talkies -- they looked dreadfully bored with their many hours of forced inertia (they serve 12 hours daily!) -- mostly always standing, smoking incessantly, biting their cuticles, looking out at the passers by, sometime with a friendly wave or a smile, pleased to be nodded to, eager to return a friendly "hello!". We were told, when we inquired, that "No, the number of the Security forces is not allowed to be known". Also, we learned that most of them come from very poor backgrounds and that they are mostly illiterate. Personally, it this is indeed true, I wonder if they even know how and when to shoot their weapons. Also, I think they are probably so ill paid that they would pretty easily accede to do someone "a special favor" at any hint of a meager tip. Oh, well... not for me to wonder, I guess.

In the Valley of the Kings, when I was “opting out” visiting one of the many tombs (had succumbed to a spell of momentary claustrophobia), I chose to await my little group, sitting in a waiting area sheltered from the hot sun. While there, I watched, amused, as one of the guards, who had obviously been put in charge of feeding their small post, filled a large pot with water from a nearby bucket, poured what looked like a sack of rice in it, dutifully stirred the whole lot with his hand -- round and round -- and set it on a small fire, within a small cave in the rock. I went near him, interested to see more closely what the process was going to be. He was chopping up some onions in the hollow of one hand, adding some tomatoes to the mix, and dropping it in handfuls into the same pot -- again stirring calmly with his hand after each handful. A sort of pilaf, I guessed. As I stood there, he looked up at me, smiled a large, toothy smile, and indicated that I was welcome to partake of their midday meal. I relish thinking back to the courteous, easy charm of his attitude, as he stood there in the arid, rocky valley, among the tombs of pharaohs, no doubt sweltering in his heavy black uniform, fixing their simple meal -- and teasingly, unselfconsciously, gallantly offering to share it with an inquisitive, silly tourist.
Our stay in Aswan was way too brief. Both Luxor and Aswan are very beautiful cities, with wide, extensive, tiled promenades along the river Nile, handsome modern buildings, balmy air, and colorful fronds of flowers bending in the breeze. In Aswan we were treated to a way-too-short overnight stay at "The Old Cataract Hotel" (of Agatha Christie fame), right along the Nile.

Through some still-undiscovered blessing, we were assigned two immense suites -- The "Winston Churchill Suite" and the "Nefertiti Suite". When, at the mere sight of them, we asked, “Why on earth?... “, we were just simply told, with a smile, "We wanted to please you." My "single" accommodation (the Nefertiti "affair"), turned out to comprise a gold & white sitting room, a "dressing room" as big as my main bathroom at home, a white marbled bathroom, nearly as big as my living room, and a bedroom built within one of the two towers of the hotel, pretty much as large as my home. Pat took photos, of course, and insisted on having me sit on the bed, so that the ludicrous size of the room would get some perspective. In the photo, I look like a pimple sitting on the bed. In the bedroom alone, there were 3 double windows, plus the large turret terrace projecting out over the Nile. Pat and Jo’s suite was just as splendiferous, dripping in Murano chandeliers, swags of maroon and gold draperies, intricate screens, cozy sitting room, miles of white marble bathroom and a long terrace overlooking the Nile. After lunch by the pool and a nice rest, we reassembled for dinner in the sumptuous Moorish dining room downstairs. We were told this used to be one of the Farouq palaces (1930?), until it became a hotel -- about which Agatha Christie wrote in "Death on the River Nile" (see same-named movie). Unfortunately, we had to get up at 3 am to join the ubiquitous convoy of cars that would cross the desert, in shifts, on the way to Abu Simbel. (It seems that this is the only way tourist traffic is allowed to cross any long stretch of road, which just might be unprotected by the ubiquitous Security forces). It was hard to leave our luxurious digs, I must admit, especially at what seemed to be the middle of the night.

We had a wonderful guide -- our 25-year-old Waleed Mustafa, who remained with us throughout our travels. He sailed with us, on our same, fancy cruise boat, and managed to have a car and driver waiting at every stop to take us to all the museums/ temples/tombs. He escorted us through bazaars and even insisted on shameful price haggling (which sometimes would last for blocks, with the merchant doggedly following us), on our behalf. Our agent had made sure that we were going to be treated like queens, down to the least of details -- and we sure felt protected and well taken care of throughout it all. Our Waleed had a definite accent snuggled in with his excellent knowledge of English, and at first it took some adjusting to recognize that "the first hole in the timble" really meant "the first hall in the Temple." But eventually we got used to his particular idiom and our looks became less tense as we listened to him expounding on MORE-THEN-ENOUGH information on gods and goddesses and sons-of and daughters-of. While Pat and Jo dutifully learned each an every deity’s name, along with their mythological, nonsensical families -- as well as memorizing seven-plus successions of Ramses-types and their prolific, vengeful progeny -- I have to admit I just waddled along nodding my head, trying to look smart ’nuff. I am pretty sure I didn’t fool our clever Waleed. However, when we left each other, at Abu Simbel's airport, on our way back to Cairo, I believe we were both most sincere and grateful when we all embraced each other warmly and exchanged e-mails.

On one occasion, when meeting up with our boat, near a lock, (having disembarked early in the morning, on our way to visiting the Luxor temples) -- somehow, our limo seemed to “almost” miss the convoy which we were scheduled to join, in order to make our way back to the long line of boats waiting, near Esna, for their turn to traverse the lock. Just the race to join the prescribed convoy is a thing to remember… having asked for “assistance” from a Security patrol we met along our path. They managed to clear traffic like the parting of the Red Sea, in front of us, squawking and squealing all the way. Once we joined the convoy, our driver soon established that we were destined to “lead” the convoy, apparently -- as we weaved between giant busses and donkey carts, overtaking most of them, usually missing oncoming traffic by a harrowing couple of feet. The “end” of the road turned out to be just that, as we plunged sort-of-left, onto a dirt road (a construction site, apparently), bound for our “meeting spot“. We were a bit wild-eyed by then, but it was reassuring to see the giant busses following right along the rutted, dusty road into the wilderness, close behind us. Meantime, Waleed slept through most of it, in the front seat. When we suddenly stopped, it became evident that we were expected to LEAVE THE SAFETY of our car (!), shimmy down a rocky embankment to an even rockier (hidden from view) approach to a wobbly, narrow plank reaching somewhere out-there, onto our awaiting boat (hopefully). Well, I did put up a sizeable fuss about that turn of events, but to no avail. I certainly did not want to be left behind, so we decided to deem it all a “very funny situation” -- and allowed ourselves to be coaxed amiably by Waleed’s reassuring “It will be OK” mantra. All in a day’s touring…The traveling part itself, presented some unavoidable hardships, which we had to learn to deal with. It seemed a small sacrifice for such a bounty of experiences. I have to admit that I returned to my Oakmont nest quite fatigued, this time around. As always, it's good to be home.

December 5

 
Travel in Style Reviews
To: omar@travelinstyle.com
Subject: Re: Just wanted to drop you a line - Thank you once again - Azza & Omar Zaher

Dear Omar and Azza,
Thank you both so much for arranging an absolutely wonderful program for our trip to Egypt and Jordan. We could not have wished for better and everyone we meet was so nice and the guides were a genuine pleasure to travel with. We thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing Nile Cruise and especially the relaxed pace and excellent crew. This was one of the many highlights. As a geologist, the visit to Feynan was especially interesting for me as were the nature walks. Without question you obviously spent a lot of time behind the scenes to make everything so perfect and for this we are extremely appreciative.

The trip was definitely a life time experience for both of us and again thank you so much.

With our best regards
Doug and Ulai
 

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