Egypt and the Eternal Nile River plus Jordan Extension
Overseas Adventure Travel
Egypt—a land of mystery--has enticed many a traveler with its long history. Pyramids, ancient tombs, pharaohs, the Nile River, King Tut, Queen Nefertiti—these have all drawn tourists over the decades. Yet, for some reason, Egypt had never been high on my list of places to see. Maybe it was because I felt it was too “touristy”, and preferred to explore more unusual places. In any case, I had already seen many of those more unusual places, and high marks from other OAT travelers caused Egypt to rise on my list. But it was the chance to see Petra as a trip extension that really clinched it. I had originally been planning to go to Chile in March, with an Internet friend. But, when the financial crisis hit, we both decided to postpone that tour—a relatively expensive one—until a later time. So, I asked a friend if she would be interested in this Egypt trip, and she readily agreed.
OAT limits the size of tour groups to a max of 16—which is one of the reasons I prefer to tour with this company. Our Egypt group consisted of 15 people—5 couples, and 5 single gals. One of the singles was only 15 (traveling with her Mom), and she turned out to be a very fun addition to the group. Our group was very friendly and compatible, and we had lots of laughs and great times together. On the boat, we joined with another OAT group of 16, but we continued to take land tours separately. I was especially happy to be in such a small group whenever we ran across the large groups of 50 or more with other tour companies. We had a very knowledgeable and attentive tour guide, an Egyptian woman who lost her husband a few years ago, and now says that her job is her life. She has an advanced degree in Egyptology, and was not only very good at explaining the Egyptian sites, ancient history and mythology, but also very forthcoming about Egyptian society—both the good and the bad. She was certainly among the best tour guides I have had—and I’ve had quite a few excellent ones. Only nine of our group continued on to Jordan. Our guide here was very poor, I’m sorry to say. He wasn’t a regular OAT tour guide (they usually keep only the best), and I’d be very surprised if he gets another OAT tour after the poor marks we gave him.
The hotels we stayed in were all fine—generally 3 or 4 star. They all had swimming pools (although it was too cool in Cairo to make use of the pools there), good buffet breakfasts, mini-bars (which were useful for keeping our drinks and snacks cool), etc. They were larger than, and not as interesting as, the hotels OAT usually uses. My first thought was that, with its large number of tourists, Egypt doesn’t have too many smaller hotels that would be suitable. Upon further reflection, I think it may have been for security purposes. In all our Egypt hotels, we & our bags had to go through a metal detector at the entrance, and all vehicles entering the premises were first circled by bomb-sniffing dogs. Probably only the larger hotels could afford this level of security. Security was present not only at the hotels, but an armed security guard (tourist police officer) accompanied us on the van and walked around with us during all our visits to landmarks. Egypt is highly dependent on tourist income, and wants to forestall any further attacks on tourists such as happened a few years ago. I think we all felt quite secure. I wasn’t happy with the location of our hotels in Cairo, because they were so far from the city (far in terms of time and traffic) that we weren’t able to spend any of our free time in Cairo. My favorite hotel was probably the one in Luxor—the Pavillon Winter Palace. I give it high marks for its beautiful grounds, great swimming pools, and close proximity to the Nile, a large bazaar and other interesting shops. However, our room there was probably the worst of any of our hotels—the furniture was shabby and the rugs were stained. On the plus side, it had a nice balcony with chairs overlooking the beautiful grounds. We spent four nights on a Nile Riverboat which was really special. Owned by OAT, It was smaller and more intimate —with only 16 cabins --than most of the large boats plying the Nile. Our cabin was more spacious than any I have had previously on a boat or ship of any size. The public rooms, sundecks and small pool (although too cool to try) were also very nice.
Many people have asked me about the food. I can only say that it was fine, if not especially memorable. I have a condition called Celiac disease, so I must be very careful not to eat anything containing wheat, rye, or barley. Of course, this eliminated all of the breads from my menu, as well as many of the other dishes which contained breading or sauces thickened with flour—even the beer! Our guide translated a diet card that I had brought into Arabic, which explained my dietary needs, and which I was able to show when necessary. I can only heap praise upon the many waiters and chefs who made sure that I had plenty of safe foods to eat. Our guide had warned us not to eat raw vegetables or fruits which could not be peeled, so we really missed those. However, she said it was safe to eat those items on the riverboat, because it was actually owned by OAT who ensured that it had a safe water supply for washing those fruits & veggies. So we gorged on salads there. The guide of the other OAT group told them that the salads and fruits in the hotels were OK, and many of them became sick during the tour, so I’m glad we were extra cautious. It’s not fun to get intestinal problems, and no one in our group had any such illnesses.
Our Egypt itinerary was, I’m sure, similar to the itineraries of most tours of that length. We had 13 nights in Egypt: 3 in Giza, 3 in Aswan, 4 on our riverboat, 2 in Luxor, and a final night in “Cairo” (actually near the airport). In Jordan, we had 3 nights in Amman, and 2 nights in Petra, and one more at the hotel near the Cairo airport.
Although seeing the pyramids, etc. was not something I had breathlessly anticipated, who could not be impressed? On our first day in Cairo we first visited Saqqara, where we saw some of the oldest tombs and pyramids—including the Step Pyramid. It is thought to be the first pyramid in Egypt of the 108 which have been discovered to date. Later that same day, we visited the famous pyramids of Giza. Although I had seen many photos of them, I was still surprised at their size—and at how close they were to a congested city suburb. A few of us paid extra to crouch our way down inside a claustrophobic tunnel in the pyramid of Khafre to the burial chamber. There wasn’t much to see other than an empty sarcophagus, but the idea of being inside was thrilling. Another interesting thing here was the Solar Barque. It is thought that this boat was used to transport the mummy of the pharaoh across the Nile to its resting place, and was then buried to provide transport for the dead pharaoh in the afterworld. It was amazing to look upon this large cedar vessel and realize that it was over 4,500 years old!
We saw many other temples and tombs—so many that I’m having trouble keeping them straight (thank goodness for my photos). One of my favorites was Abu Simbel, with its huge statues of Ramses II. This was an optional tour, which entailed short flights. The entire temple complex had been moved from its original site when the Aswan dam flooded the surrounding area. That they could have moved this temple and reconstructed it so faithfully was amazing. Another favorite was the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. The sheer size and number of the pillers, buildings and statues in this complex was astounding—especially considering that the only people allowed to enter it at the time were the pharaohs and the high priests. The Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, where many of the pharaohs and their families were originally buried was also very impressive. We had to pay a little extra to enter the tomb of King Tutankhamen, but I thought it was well worth it. Although the tomb itself was smaller and not as elaborately decorated as the others, it contained the actual mummy of King Tut. All the other mummies of the pharaohs were in the Cairo Museum, but King Tut’s was considered too fragile to move.
We didn’t visit a lot of museums, but those we did visit were all worthwhile. The highlight was the Cairo Museum, with room after room of statuary and other objects recovered from the temples and tombs. The treasure trove from King Tut’s tomb was especially interesting, as well as the Mummy Room with several dozen mummies of ancient royalty. This antiquated museum with no climate control is really not a good resting place for all its treasures, and a new museum is now being built. Other favorites were the Luxor Museum, the Nubian Museum in Aswan and the Archeological Museum in Amman, Jordan. It contained the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the oldest statues ever discovered. 6500BC!!
Other highlights of the trip were our cruise down the Nile, a camel ride through the desert to a Nubian village, a hot air balloon ride near the Valley of the Kings, riding through the crowded night market of Luxor in a horse-drawn carriage, an early morning walk in the back alleys of Esna (where I felt I saw a little of the "real "Egypt), wandering through the bazaars in Cairo and Luxor, interacting with school children at the botanical garden on Kitchner’s Island (Aswan), a sunrise outdoor breakfast on the banks of the Nile, and, in Jordan, bobbing in the Dead Sea, walking through the old Roman city of Jerash, riding in 4-wheelers in Wadi Rum (the desert area where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed), and walking through the amazing city carved from sandstone cliffs called Petra. As I mentioned earlier, this was my main purpose in booking this trip, and it didn’t disappoint.
Egypt has many treasures—but it also has many problems. I don’t want to go into detail here, but my impression is that inflation is high, salaries low, housing and food expensive, medical care sadly lacking. The middle class is disappearing while the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer. Women are oppressed and suppressed. Political corruption is rampant. The current president, Mubarek, is intensely disliked by most of the people, but there are no term limits and he has been in office since 1981. He appears to be grooming his son to succeed him, which would result in a pseudo-monarchy.
The Egyptian people with whom we had the most interaction were the street vendors, who were very aggressive in their attempts to make a sale. I have been in other countries with aggressive vendors, so they didn’t bother me too much, and I often enjoyed sparring with them. However, many others in our group were intimidated, and did not buy as many souvenirs as they might have otherwise. When they learned we were Americans, the most common reaction was “Obama, Obama”. It was nice to have such a positive reaction to our new president! Of course, the vendors and all those who were looking for baksheesh (tips for any type of little service) were very friendly. We had contact with very few “regular people”, but those few—children on Kitchners Island, residents of the back streets of Esna—were all friendly enough. I was sorry we didn’t have any real contact with Egyptian women other than our guide.
Jordan was an optional extension to the Egypt trip, and one that I would highly recommend. It was quite different than Egypt. It is also a Muslim country, but is ruled by a popular king. The people are better-educated and have a higher standard of living--so souvenirs were a lot more expensive. The Jordanians were more reserved, and some in our group even felt some hostility. We met some educated young women at a home-hosted meal, and learned a little about the place of women in society there. They definitely don’t have the freedoms of American women.
All in all, it was a great trip. There were some things in our itinerary we would have changed, and we felt a little shortchanged with our Jordanian guide, who was definitely not up to OAT standards. Compared to tours I have taken with other tour companies, though, I would still rate OAT as far and away my favorite.
I will be writing a long, detailed report of my trip. If you would like to receive this report, and/or links to my photos, please let me know. Also, if you have any questions, or would like my customer number which will get you (if a first-time traveler) a discount on any OAT trip (double the usual amt for the Egypt trip if booked in the next couple weeks), please Email me at [email protected] Kami
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Egypt and the Eternal Nile River plus Jordan Extension