I awoke at 7, packed my bags and grabbed my guidebook to see if I could figure out a better hotel. We had arranged for a full-day tour of the West Bank of Luxor starting at 8:30am and I was determined to have us a new hotel by the time we returned at 2:00 pm. That meant checking out before the tour and toting our bags around the hot desert in our guide’s mini-van. There aren’t that many hotels in Luxor really, maybe a half-dozen that are decent. The Winter Palace is the only one that seems special but they don’t/can’t/won’t take my reservation until around 10am. I call our local travel company and the manager gives me a hard time about leaving the crappy hotel. ‘Internet access is the same (outrageous price) everywhere’, ‘We can change your room to one that doesn’t smell.’ ‘This is the second best hotel in all of Egypt’.
He finally agrees to help us get a new hotel, but only if we pay cash up front. (~600$) I have a choice to trust him and go on the tour with my family, or stay with my money and follow him around town as he works on the reservations. I decide to trust him and we get in the van. Screw modern-day Egypt. We want to see some mummies and Hieroglyphics. I’ll work out the rest when we get back.
HEAT. Heat. heat. Oh my god the heat. It’s 110F when we step out of the van at 9am in the Valley of the Kings. My mind reacts defensively like I’m being severely harmed with a constant low level of alarm. I have to squint through my sunglasses and walk slowly. The thin crowds of tourists and guides compete for thinner strips of shade in which to walk. The air gets pulled from your lungs and your skin dries out and becomes a little itchy. This is all in the first 15 minutes.
Here is where I appreciated our gear the most. Being a gear-head, I decked out the family in ultra-lightweight SPF50 synthetics that were fairly expensive. We don’t regret the cost one bit. We all have proper hats, keens, and polarized sunglasses (Emma is wearing Trish’s back-up pair strapped to her head with a croakie.) We used half a bottle of sunscreen and drank 5 or 6 liters of water in as many hours. Temperature at that level makes one kinda loopy, which is greatly advantageous to the hundreds of trinket hawkers that line the paths of our tour. More than once we almost buy something completely useless for a lot of money. And we might have but for the faint rational voice in the back of our heads whispering ‘Stop, stupid’. The heat is withering and relentless. More than anything we saw today, I will remember the heat.
The West bank of Luxor (formerly Thebes) is where kings, queens and nobles built tombs and temples during the New Kingdom that lasted from about 1800bc – 1200BC. It represents the height of Egyptian Civilization and yet is a thousand years before foreign occupation by Persians, Romans and Greeks. Yet it’s centuries after the great pyramids were built. This civilization is fucking *old*. And they invented everything: writing, the 365-day calendar, bureaucracy, sail boats, paper, irrigation, and apparently bowling. (They are still the world leaders in bureaucracy, particularly the corrupt kind.) The tombs and temples have survived mostly because of the climate, but also because they constructed them to last forever. It’s magnificent. More than once today, I have an emotional, almost teary reaction of being in the presence of something timeless.
These tombs are not labyrinthine, the longest is 200 feet. But the hieroglyphics are astounding. Most of the colors have been restored, which is a good thing. Some of the sarcophagi are still there. All of the artifacts have been relocated to museums. We visit only about 3 of the 20 odd tombs in the small valley of the kings. If it weren’t so hot, you could visit them all in a matter of hours but they only keep a few open at a time anyway. We see Ramses I, IV and IX.
HEAT. Heat. heat. Back into the slightly air conditioned bus we go for a 10 minute drive to Medinat Habu, which is a cluster of buildings dominated by the massive open air Temple of Ramses III. Honestly, I would not have believed the scale if it had been in a hollywood movie. I’m thrilled, but Lily and Emma start to fade. We remind them to drink water. They remind us that they are little. Our guide is nice enough but long winded. It’s better to keep moving.
Toward the back of the temple the family turns around and a temple attendant in a blue Galabaya motions to me ‘secret place, secret place’. I follow reluctantly, unable to say no when he insists and follow him around a corner to a small room with a gate he opens as if it’s a big deal. It looks like every other room we’ve seen. Sigh, I’ve been had. I give him the obligatory tip – almost $2 because I’m out of small bills and he gives me a kiss and tells me he loves me. Um, hmm. That’s what they all say.
The culture of baksheesh (tips) is, for the American tourist, extremely annoying. People go out of their way to do useless things for you and then expect tips. Everything requires tips and they aren’t afraid to tell you it’s not enough. And everything is negotiable including tour packages, pre-negotiated cab fare and restaurant prices. I’ve been here before, I”m a New Yorker, and I don’t mind bargaining to an extent, but it really gets tiresome. I have to gather my conviction every time I walk up to a shop to buy a bottle of water. (I’ve paid anywhere from $1 to $5 depending on my patience and exhaustion level). Even the supposedly reputable tour company claimed we had purchased fewer hours and different days. He made me show him the documentation after which waves his hand and says ‘as you like’ like he’s doing me a favor for being so flexible. And of course he wants a tip for honoring our deal!
There are a few exceptions to that rule, and one small cafe owner across the street from Medinat Habu served us water and ice cream (which the kids scarfed down) without over-charging or bringing us food we didn’t order. Somewhat refreshed, we went to the Valley of the Nobles, a hillside where smallish tombs for the wealthy are completely deserted of tourists. We are all beginning to fade. After that we get dropped of in a gift shop, where the guide presumably gets a fee or a cut of anything we purchase. We bought an alabaster vase for $60, (Stop, stupid) which is probably twice what we should have paid, but half what he wanted at first. At least it’s indoors.
The Temple of Hatshepsut is a huge temple with rows and rows of columns that can be seen for miles. Up close it doesn’t even fit in my video viewfinder. Hatshepsut is the most well known female Egyptian Pharaoh. (Cleopatra was Macedonian and ruled over an Egyptian civilization completely different than the one we see in Luxor.) Hatshepsut took the throne in a power-move over her step-son and was later killed by him in revenge. Unfortunately, the grandeur of the temple and the drama of the Hatshepsut story are lost on us as the 2:00 pm sun has us staggering up and down the hundreds of steps. The guide’s heavy accent, the dark shadows of the columns, the hot breeze that makes your eyes water and above all the blinding white light spins our senses in a psychedelic whirl. We get a taste of the desert religious experience. Who needs drugs?
The tour is over, we head back east. Piling back in the van, the kids pass out but Trisha and I perk up at the good news that we got the hotel we wanted! The bad news is it’s ‘only’ $150 more per night than he quoted us in the morning. And he wants it all in cash, up front. And they won’t refund us the other hotel’s cost. Sigh – sure, whatever. I want my kids in a pool in 30 minutes and I’m out of options.
We arrive at the Winter Palace, built in 1886 as a hotel for adventurous European nobleman and now run by the French chain Sofitel. It’s the hotel where Howard Carter revealed Tut’s treasures for the first time. It’s 50 yards from the Nile riverbank and right next to Luxor Temple, which is one of the main attractions on the east bank of the city. Up a grand set of stairs into a cool lobby, we are greeted with Arabic-Victorian elegance. The hotel features ultra-high ceilings, a grand main staircase, antique persian furniture and (shocker!) guests that seem happy. The extra $150 was for a second room for the kids, so we aren’t cramped. Through the huge garden we wait at poolside a little long for french fries, but no one stands around for a tip and they taste so good after our toughest day of touring. Our rooms are promptly upgraded when they discover our internet doesn’t work. This place is heaven.
Viewed from our room’s balcony with a lukewarm Coke in hand (nothing is truly cold here), the sun sets over the Nile. With darkness we head to a great 2nd floor, open-air North African restaurant through the noisy, crowded main streets of Luxor. Emma and Lily see kids their age with no shoes darting through traffic and it changes their perspective a little. They want to know if those kids are happy? It’s a complicated question to answer. I have just enough cash to pay for dinner (yikes) and we return through the busy streets to sleep deeply on soft sheets.
[Photos by Trisha Creekmore]