Archive | October, 2010

Off the Deep End, Part 11

17 Oct

By Eric Shipley

Getting to the ancient temples of Luxor and Karnak involved a trip on a sleeper train, something I doubt most people my age have experienced.

Another hair raisingly fast, but otherwise uneventful, cab ride landed us at Cairo’s Ramses Train Station. (Yes, that really is the name of the station.) And, as Lee warned us, we were immediately assailed by Egyptians wanting to “help.” Of course, what they really wanted was “baksheesh,” which is Arabic for “tip” or “bribe,” and they were persistent to the point of being pushy and annoying. It was mitigated somewhat, though, by the fact that they actually did help with our luggage and told us when and where to pick up our train. I even got to practice a little German with a multilingual Egyptian named Hosam, a pleasant fellow despite being a blatant scam artist.

The highlight of our wait was meeting a couple from New Zealand, Nick and Amy. Nick came up to me and asked, with trepidation, if I spoke English. I have never been happier to respond in the affirmative. After spending so much time trying to communicate with people who speak little or no English, conversing with another native English speaker was wonderful.

We watched the trains come and go, hoping desperately that ours would be one of the newer, cleaner ones. We saw several that had to have dated back to the Sixties (or earlier), and they were packed with Egyptians—people were sitting on the roofs and hanging out of windows and doors. Ours, when it finally pulled in, did look newer, and it appeared to be reasonably clean and in good repair. It also was clearly for tourists only, which made us feel a bit guilty, like we were promoting some kind of segregation policy.

A porter in a company uniform showed us to our cabin, and we foolishly thought he wouldn’t ask for a tip since he was an employee of the train line. Ha! He even pointed to the bill he wanted. It was only 10 LE (about $1.50 US), so we didn’t balk, but the constant demands for baksheesh were wearing thin.

Our cabin was clean, if austere, and fairly comfortable. There were two narrow bunk beds, both folded into the wall so that the lower one formed a couch. There was also a sink and a small closet, and we had a large window. We were trying to figure out how to lower the beds when there was a knock on the door. To our delight, we found that Amy and Nick were in the cabin next to ours. And they introduced us to another couple, Karen from England and Tim from Australia, who were one cabin further down. We spent a few thoroughly enjoyable hours hanging out in the narrow hall outside our rooms chatting and swapping stories about travel experiences. For something so seemingly mundane, it turned out to be one of the the most memorable parts of the trip.

Too soon the porter came and shooed us back into our rooms to feed us a dinner of some mystery meat, bread, an unidentifiable side dish, and a fresh orange (which turned out to be the best part of the meal). When we were done, the porter took our dishes and lowered the beds using a removable crank device he had with him. (Ah, so that’s how it’s done.) We were exhausted, so we got ready for bed and tried to catch some sleep. Not as easy as it might sound. The bunks weren’t particularly comfortable, and the motion and noise tended to keep us awake. Sometimes, the train would lean so far to one side that the blinds would dangle several inches from the window. And to make matters worse, it periodically slowed down or stopped, conjuring fears of attack—terrorist activity was more prevalent in the South where we were headed. But looking out, all we saw was desert and the occasional crumbling, dilapidated town.

Mercifully, morning came soon enough. We got cleaned up as best we could, and the porter came by with a breakfast as uninspiring as dinner had been the previous night. Afterwards, we finished packing and watched the scenery until the train pulled into the station. We said our goodbyes to our new friends and stepped off. We had made it. The ancient Egyptian city of Luxor lay before us.

Next: Luxor and Karnak

Off the Deep End, Part 10

5 Oct

By Eric Shipley

The next leg of our Egyptian adventure took us to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. After a cab ride that I’m pretty sure took five years off my life, we came to the high fence surrounding the museum, which is an imposing red brick building that looked to me to have a sort of neoclassical design. And it was fortunate that it was interesting to look at, because we had to navigate multiple layers of security, buy tickets, and stand in line before we actually got inside. I can’t really complain, though. The museum’s collection is fantastic, well worth the wait. And if I were in charge of it, I would probably be even more protective.

A major drawback to the exhibits is that many don’t have labels or signage with explanations. And of the ones that do, the language is often only Arabic. But that doesn’t detract from the awestruck sensation of seeing, and sometimes touching, art, and sculpture, and artifacts as much as 5,000 years old. One thing that was both a disappointment and an annoyance was that shortly after getting inside I saw a sign for the Rosetta Stone with an arrow pointing up a flight of stairs. Having an interest in language, this was something I really wanted to see, so we (Rob and Laura were with Charlotte and me) agreed on a meeting time and spot and I took off. Half an hour later, I’d gotten to see many fascinating things, none of which were the Rosetta Stone. It was then, after I happened to meet up with Rob, that he informed me it is resting comfortably in the British Museum in London. And as I recently discovered on Wikipedia, it has been there since 1802, which leads me to believe the sign maker for the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is either an idiot or has a seriously twisted sense of humor.

After this small mishap, we got back together and agreed, given the size of the museum, that we needed to decide on a few things we really wanted to see. The choices were the royal mummies and King Tut’s treasures. (I actually had seen the treasures before in 1977 when they were on loan to the Field Museum in Chicago, but I was anxious to refresh my memory.)

We had to buy tickets (70 pounds, about $11 USD) to see the mummies, and it wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. There was almost no information about them other than their names. I did find it interesting to see the mummy of Ramesses II, though. I had read about him—he’s generally considered the greatest of all Egypt’s pharaohs—so getting to meet face-to-face was cool (albeit one-sided).

Finally, we got to the treasures of Tutankhamen, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt for only ten years (1333-1323 BC) but is the most famous in modern times because his tomb is the only one unearthed with all of its treasures intact. All I can say is that seeing these treasures in person is an incredible experience. The sheer beauty is overwhelming. I’ve often wondered how Howard Carter (the British Egyptologist who discovered Tut’s tomb) felt when he first saw them in 1922. The detail and craftsmanship is astoundingly intricate, which is even more impressive given that the artists and artisans were working with primitive bronze tools. Photos do not do justice. You have to actually see the perfect smoothness of the gold leaf that is the skin of Tut’s death mask to appreciate it. And photos don’t show details like the delicate, alternating pattern of papyrus and lotus flowers on the feet of Tut’s inner sarcophagus. (There are three, nested inside each other.) One thing that was particularly memorable for me, though, was looking up into the interior of the death mask. There is something indescribable about seeing the inner structure, the part that isn’t supposed to be seen that rested against the face of the young pharaoh (he was only 19 when he died). Perhaps looking at the mask from that perspective connected me in a personal way, but whatever the explanation, seeing Tut’s treasures in person was a remarkable experience.

I remember thinking at the time that the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was the high point of the trip. But there was so much more to come…

Next: Luxor and Karnak