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

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