The day slipped away from the Valley of the Kings, the last rays of sun passing over the tombs of ancient kings.
We rushed down the street to the two restaurants that fought for our business, trying to out wager each other with offers of free fruit juice, appetizers, desserts. We picked the one with the better kebabs, tender and juicy. Earlier in the day we had taken a feluca ride on the Nile; then spent the hottest hours of the afternoon splashing at the pool in our hotel, a luxury that came with our $7 rooms. Our trip through Egypt was reaching its last days, but before we returned to Cairo, we had one last stop: Hurghada and snorkeling in the Red Sea.
Until this trip to Egypt in June 2004, my international travels had been restricted to Europe—to high-speed rail and rental cars, sidewalk cafes and art museums. Egypt was a revelation. It was mad in a way that made me fall in love with it, all if it, even the incessantly honking traffic and the men who offered Jeff camels in exchange for me and the shop owners guaranteeing that whatever I wanted, they had. Every experience felt new, even ordinary things like bus rides.
Our bus ride from Luxor to Hurghada was to be the first long-distance bus of our Egyptian travels—we’d taken the train south from Cairo—and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the unmarked station—a mere parking lot, really—I asked and asked and then asked again which bus was ours, none of them seeming to indicate any sort of destination. Upon gaining a consensus answer, I handed over our luggage and then boarded the bus, my friends Kate and Ben behind me, Jeff and my brothers Gregory and Mark in front of me. I’m impressed with what I see. It’s clean. The seats look comfortable (and more importantly, are only required to hold the number for which they were built and not two, three, or four extra people). And best of all, there’s a TV. Hooray for entertainment, I thought. It was, after all, going to be a long bus ride in the dark, meaning there would be nothing to look at.
I hear you laughing now. I hear you laughing at the young, naive version of me, the eager traveler who had no idea what she was about to experience. I expected airplane-style entertainment: a movie, that while not awesome, would by at least mildly entertaining, and, of course, headphones or perhaps minimal volume with subtitles. (Okay, up off the floor. Dry your eyes.)
The bus began to roll—out of the station, out of the city, and into the desert that lay between Luxor and Hurghada. The wheels squeaked on the rode. The low rumble of conversation filled the bus. A kid vomited his lunch into the aisle. And then a deafening wail filled the bus. Movie time. Bollywood time to be exact. Three-hour Bollywood madness at maximum volume to be perfectly clear.
I exchanged glances with Jeff, with my brothers, with Kate and Ben. We craned our necks, waiting for the bus attendant to come back and adjust the obviously too-loud television. We waited in vain. (Seriously, enough with the laughing, Mr./Ms. Experienced Traveler.) For three hours, we endured an epic Bollywood film that seemed to combine Snow White and the Wizard of Oz and then inject it with bloodcurdling screams. It was impossible to talk, to sleep—even to think, except to think about ripping your eyes and ears from your head as a means of saving yourself. When the bus finally pulled into Hurghada—late, as all buses are—I nearly fell to my knees in thanks, if not exhaustion. I had been delivered.
But as every traveler knows, the delivery is only momentary. There is always another bus, another TV, another bad movie played at deafening volume. Sometimes for fun (yes, bus torture does distort your idea of fun) I think back about the bad movies I’ve endured on buses and try to rank them, try to determine which one was really the worst. The Egypt one has certainly stuck with me, but in retrospect I’m not sure it was so bad (though yes, very bad) as it was shocking. I mean, can it compare to the time I was forced to watch License to Wed on never-ending repeat? Or the marathon of five back-to-back Jean Claude Van Damme movies, each different from the other only in regards to what country the bad guys came from? Or the fact that more than one bus thought The Condemned (yes, the WWE film) was quality viewing? I’m not sure. All were terrible in their own very special way—a way that has allowed these bus rides to remain clear in my mind while memories of the precious movie-less rides drift away from me like sands on a dune. That’s the funny thing about travel, isn’t it? In the end, it’s not what’s good or what’s bad that makes a trip; it’s simply what’s memorable.
What about you? What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen on a bus?
Welcome to the first entry in what we plan to make a recurring series here on Lives of Wander in the run-up months to our actual departure. I mean, you did come here to read about travel, didn’t you?
What we’ll be doing in our Travel Take Two series is take a second look at some of the trips Jeff and I have gone on together. We’ll recall the highlights—the events that make travel the wonderful adventure that is. We’ll also remember the lowlights—the moments when you want to say screw it and jump on the first plane home. And we’ll see what kind of lessons we’ve taken away from each trip, lessons that hopefully will help us maximize the highlights and minimize the lowlights on our RTW trip.
Destination: Egypt—A 7-day tour through Cairo, Aswan, and Luxor with a sidetrip to the Red Sea. Date: June 10-17, 2004 Travel Partners: My brothers Gregory and Mark accompanied us on this trip. We also spent two of our days with friends Kate and Ben
For me, the most amazing thing about Egypt was that it was just as incredible as I thought it would be. When you’ve spent your entire life imaging a place, you often find that when you get there, it doesn’t live up to your expectations. This was not true for Egypt. I think I spent the entire trip walking around wide-eyed and slack-jawed. So what did I love?
1. The Pyramids of Giza. Completely awesome in person, it was phenomenal to wander around the only surviving ancient wonder of the world.
2. Luxor Temple. We explored this temple at night, when it felt absolutely other-worldly. The avenue of sphinxes glowed, bats flittered around, and robed men would pop out from behind columns looking to get a tip by explaining something or pointing something out to you.
3. Tour of the West Bank—Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Temple of Hatshepsut. It was cool to get to go inside the tombs, and it was nice to have a guide who gave us little history lessons at each site and explained art work, hieroglyphics, and ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.
4. Local food. The steak shish kebabs at Amoun Restaurant in Luxor and the chicken fatta at Cafe Riche in Cairo (each maybe about $2) were awesome.
5. The Egyptian Museum. It was like a huge warehouse of treasures. You couldn’t turn around without seeing something amazing, but the mummies and the Tutankhamun exhibit were the best.
6. Just exploring Cairo. The city was a cacophony of sounds, sights, smells. Wandering along the Nile, hearing the call to prayer blasting out over the city, being out on the streets after dark when it seemed the whole city would come out with huge crowds at sweets and icecream shops, exploring the confusing alleyways of the market, dancing in the back seat of a taxi with a very enthusiastic driver…it was a mad, mad city but in a completely intoxicating way.
7. The friendly people. Almost without fail, everyone we met was friendly. I can’t even count how many times we were told “Welcome to Egypt” from people we simply passed on the street.
8. Getting to travel with my brothers. The combined trip to Greece/Egypt was both Gregory and Mark’s first major international trip, so it was really cool to get to share the experience with them. We’re hoping that family and friends will meet up with us at times on this trip so we can share the adventure of travel with them.
While there were certainly “lowlights,” I have to say that in the big picture all of them were rather minor and had little effect on our enjoyment of Egypt. I think that all of my travel companions would agree that this was a fantastic trip that we’d all be happy to do over.
1. The bus ride to Hurghada. The air conditioner didn’t work for the majority of the trip. A young girl threw up in the aisle. A Bollywood movie was played at absolute top volume and involved multiple women screaming in the most shrill voice I’d ever heard. In general, it wasn’t a pleasant trip.
2. Hurghada. Hurghada was our access point to snorkeling in the Red Sea. While the snorkeling was good (though the waves at our last stop were a little much for me), the hassle of Hurghada was annoying. The town was rather dumpy and quite the tourist trap. No one would give us a straight story when it came to organizing a trip, and the hotel rooms we reserved were not what we were given. We were happy to spend the whole day out on the boat and away from this town.
3. The unexpected stop on the bus ride from Hurghada to Cairo. Somewhere in the middle of the desert, in the pitch-black, our bus stopped, and we (the only non-Arabs) on the bus were made to get off and talk to a soldier with a big, scary gun. It was a bit nerve-racking, but it turned out fine as they just wanted to know where we were going.
4. The constant requests for baksheesh (tip). Wherever we went, people called out for baksheesh. I have no trouble tipping people if they provide me with a service, but I find it frustrating to have people ask for a tip for doing something like showing me where a McDonalds is when a) I didn’t ask them to, and b) I have no interest in going to McDonalds. That’s not a service. That’s an annoyance. It’s hard to always say no because you know these people don’t have much money, but just handing out money indiscriminately isn’t the answer.
5. The 25 mosquito bites between my elbow and wrist that I received in one night at the Africa Hotel. Overall our hotels were not so great, except for the New Radwan Hotel in Luxor, which with its pool and air-conditioning (at the crazy rate of about $14 a night) was a true treat.
Egypt was a new experience for us in many ways. It was the first predominantly Muslim country we’d ever visited. It was the first time we’d visited the African continent. It was the poorest country we’d visited. There was a lot to learn.
1. Not all jellyfish sting. Who knew? Until I swam through an entire swarm of them, I had no idea. I guess the big takeaway point here is that what is true at home may not be true elsewhere. Be open-minded. Be daring.
2. It’s important to maintain perspective when haggling over prices. When we were in Hurghada, we were trying to find the best deal on a snorkeling trip. We’d walk into a place that had a price listed on the wall, but when we’d ask at the desk, they’d always say that price wasn’t right and quote us something a little higher. This was really frustrating, and we spent some time haggling, before realizing that we were really arguing over the equivalent of a dollar or two. It wasn’t worth it.
3. Always ask to see a room before you commit to it, and don’t be tempted to book multiple nights before you’ve stayed at a place. It’s good to have a place booked for your first night (especially if you arrive at 3 a.m. as we did in Cairo) but don’t commit to more than one night without having seen the place. In the morning, you can book another night if the place is good, and if it’s not, you can find somewhere else where you can ask to see the room first.
4. Agree on a price before you get in a cab. Most of the world’s cab drivers don’t use meters…or they don’t use them properly. So it’s important to find out how much a trip should cost by asking a local or checking a guidebook and then agreeing on a price before you get in the cab. Oftentimes, the cab driver will try to raise the rate when you get there, but stick to what you agreed, pay, get out, and walk away. Ignore the cab driver yelling at you as long as you paid what you agree. If, however, by some accident you should realize that you actually stiffed the guy, then run back to the cab as fast as you can, pay up, and add a nice little tip to the top to make up for your mistake. (Real life experience speaking here. Ooops.)
5. Eat local. We ate almost every meal at local restaurants and never once got sick. We then went to a McDonalds one day when we were in a hurry and we all got sick. Yuck. (Bonus tip: Carry toilet paper with you at all times in the developing world…chances are the bathroom won’t have any and I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in learning the left hand method so popular in that part of the world.)
6. If you’re only going to have a short time in one place, have a plan for what you want to do. Just exploring and stumbling across things is great when you have lots of time, but isn’t the right way to approach only one day in a place. We didn’t get the most out of our time in Aswan, because we didn’t really have a plan.
7. Bring ear plugs. Those Bollywood films are really, really painful. Ear plugs are necessary if you plan to maintain your sanity.
8. Dress appropriately. When we were at the Valley of the Kings, a tour bus pulled off and a number of tourists got out wearing clothes that were entirely inappropriate—bikini tops and cut off shorts, men’s tanktops, etc. Egypt is a Muslim country, and while no one expects you to wear a burka or shalwar kameez, it’s only considerate to wear conservative clothing. Not only is this a simple matter of respect, it also protects you from unwanted attention and/or harassment. The same is true if you’re visiting a Catholic Church in Italy, a Buddhist monastery in Southeast Asia, or your new boyfriend’s grandma right here in the U.S.
9. “Just close your eyes, pray to Allah, and go.” As we were standing across a huge intersection from the Egyptian Museum, staring at buses that didn’t ever stop but only slowed enough for passengers to jump out of, cars that paid no attention to lane lines, and automobiles that used their horns instead of their brakes, wondering how in the heck we were going to get across, a local man approached us and gave us that advice. He then grabbed us by the hand and led us through the traffic, dropping us off right in front of the museum, then wishing us a good visit and disappearing into the crowd. His advice has stayed with me. Sometimes to have the experience of a lifetime you just have to set aside your fears and go.