LUXOR! Day five

I started bright and early today to make up for lost time. I have decided that Luxor will be on my “re-bucket” list. That is, a list of things I want to do again. It will join Budapest, Prague, Paris, Israel and Morocco as places that I’d like to re-visit.

I made it to breakfast and pigged out on the elaborate spread. I’m not feeling too guilty about eating a lot. As I stated earlier, I seem to be keeping the weight down and now I feel the need to bulk up. There is no chance that I will ever waste away, but I don’t want to be too thin. I’d like to have a bit of meat on my bones. It will be interesting to check my weight at my health club back in Italy.

My driver was waiting for me after I finished breakfast to take me to the Valley of the Kings. We started off and, after five minutes, he explained that we had to return to the Sheraton to pick up someone else who was heading in the same direction. He described this man (as I understood it) to be some sort of education official with the government. I was told today was Election Day in Egypt. Apparently, there was a causal relationship there. I agreed since I didn’t see a problem.

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Entrance to Valley of the Kings. The only photo I was able to get.

We had to drop off the professionally-clad gentleman first. However, we had drive to an area that looked dicey. Turning off the main road (which was in horrible repair) my driver, Adam, stopped on a dusty side street in a residential area and bade me to get out.

“We’ll be back in two minutes”, he said. I hopped out.

I watched Adam drive away down a pockmarked road and looked around. Men stood about aimlessly, watching me. I heard, “Ameleecan” whispered. Kids ran up and down the street, also looking at me. Women peeked out their doors at me. It was already ninety degrees at 9:00 a.m. and the sun was beating upon my brow. The feeling of being watched caused me to sweat more than I normally would have.

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An ancient statue that emerged at the valley floor after Aswan Dam was completed. The residential area in the background has been abandoned on orders of the government because more tombs were found.

I walked across the street and tried to convince myself that Adam was coming back. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but picture the headlines, “American Expat Disappears in Egypt After Stupidly Getting out of Cab”. After ten minutes, Adam returned. I jumped in the car and we sped off.

Forty minutes later we arrived in the Valley of the Kings. Adam told me the tour would probably take about two hours. We agreed I would meet him at the gate to the site and I got out. I jumped into a tram that took me up the road to Valley of the Kings, burial site of King Tut and Ramses.

Admission was only around twelve dollars. Since photos are not allowed, I had to hand my Sony camera over to a dingy little man missing a good number of teeth. Rubbing his fingers together, I understood that I also had to pay. For some reason, I was allowed to keep my iPhone.

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Entrance to Karnac

The booth operator who sold me the ticket recommended the best tombs to visit. There are thirty-one main tombs in Valley of the Kings to see and it is possible to visit all of them. There are other, lesser-known tombs, also. These tombs have not been identified.

I was chagrined to find out that the tomb of Tutankhamun was closed. King Tut is inarguably the most famous of the Egyptian Pharoahs. However, media reports said that the tomb was closed when the beard of a facial mask was knocked off over a year ago. Restorers are still doing painstaking work to repair the damage.

Instead, I visited mostly tombs of Ramses. There were four main tombs and they took about two hours to visit. Even though tours are available to visit all the tombs, I wasn’t interested in the unknown ones. It would have taken more than a day.

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The actual entrance to Karnac

Valley of the Kings is on the valley floor of a mountain range. The entries of each tomb are grand with dramatic stone entrances and doorways. A map shows the directions of each tomb. I found it interesting that I couldn’t even take a photo of the outside of the tombs. I understood why photos inside were not allowed. The constant flash flash flash of cameras causes the delicate reliefs of the hieroglyphics to deteriorate even faster. But no cameras outside??

Upon entering the tombs, one climbs downward. The heat remained intense even though I was inside the mountain. It cooled off a bit, but not much. Climbing back out, I once again found myself drenched.

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Spectacular hieroglyphics in Karnac

The tombs, for me, ranked up with my first visit to Venice, the Grand Canyon, the Sistine Chapel and the Eiffel Tower. Observing them causes one to stare open-mouthed. The hieroglyphics in some tombs had to have numbered in the tens of thousands. They covered the walls. They covered the ceilings. Their beauty was dazzling. The sarcophagus of Ramses was enormous and weighed many tons. How the slaves got it (and others) into the underground tomb was beyond my mere human comprehension.

After visiting the four tombs recommended to me, I took the tram to the gate to wait for my driver, Adam, to arrive. I parked myself under the shade of an enormous boulder and opted to be daring by removing my tank top. Even in the shade I was baking. I waited and waited. Finally, Adam showed up. He had fallen asleep in the guard house.

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Stunning portal in Karnac

We got into his car and set out for the Karnac Temple in Luxor. But before arriving, Adam suggested I might be interested in purchasing some actual handmade alabaster. He just happened to know of a man who had a small shop. His alabaster was authentic. I agreed with a smile.

Adam pulled into the unpaved lot of a man named Jalal. He welcomed me exuberantly. Indeed, such welcomes have been commonplace for me since I’ve been in Egypt. Not only is the country in a recession, but this is the off-season so any tourist is seen as a borderline savior.

Jalal enthusiastically told me how alabaster is mined. He showed me hunks of different kinds of alabaster. An assistant sat on a rug, hollowing out a bowl with a grinding tool. With a comical snap, Jalal had him stand up and use a different tool.

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Wall in the restricted area that my Egyptian police friends allowed me to photograph

“Work”! he exclaimed. The assistant began twisting the tool in a clock-wise direction.

“Stop”! he cried, showing me the assistant’s results.

“Work”! he cried out again and the assistant began grinding in a counter-clockwise direction. Each time, Jalal explained the significance of each gesture.

After the demonstration, Jalal motioned for me to enter his shop. His English was quite good, even though he kept apologizing for it. Upon entering I found a store lined with alabaster and limestone pieces–dogs, cats, bowls, platters and Pharaohic heads.

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Intact Pharaoh statue in Karnac

He told me to place the pieces I wanted on a table. I found it funny that he was expecting multiple sales. I chose a small, simple vase and a tea light holder that would showcase various textures with a candle inside.

Jalal seemed to be unimpressed with my choices. I was a wealthy American. Surely I wanted more? But I insisted my choice was final. He then motioned for me to sit down “like Arabs do so we can discuss price”. His assistant brought me a Sprite.

As with most of the shopkeepers and merchants I’ve met, the economic situation in Egypt is always invoked as a means to elicit sympathy and get a higher amount. When I asked him the price, he responded with nineteen hundred pounds–roughly $240. I gulped.

I took out the tea light holder and asked him the price of the small vase. He was crestfallen. Again invoking the Egyptian recession, he told me “Ameleeca Number One”. I replied that I only wanted to spend about fifty dollars, something he found unacceptable.

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Another off-limits area I was able to access.

Eventually we agreed upon a price of a flat one hundred dollars for both pieces. I calculated the price a good friend had paid for an alabaster vase and reasoned it was a good deal. Handing him the money I was enchanted as he kissed the bills and touched them to his forehead. I asked him why.

“To thank Allah for the money and for bringing you to me”, he said. At that moment I probably would have forked over the extra $140.

Jalal did ask if I would tip his assistant, a young student who is his apprentice. Five pounds (roughly $.60) seemed to do the trick. We went outside and Jalal shook my hand heartily. “Come back soon”, he chirped. I got into the car with Adam.

As we backed up, Adam pointed out a number of men leaving the bowels of the mountain behind the shop. These men, Adam explained, were workers who started at five o’clock in the morning to work for an foreigner on an archaeological dig. Apparently, more and more excavation is occurring because more tombs and antiquities are being found.

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These amazing statues were also in the off-limits area.

Adam took me then to Karnac where I toured the grounds for two hours. The ruins of this magnificent temple complex are comprised of balustrades, a lake, chapels, columns and obelisks. I had only been vaguely aware of this grand compound.

Walking through the grounds was unforgettable. Every doorway, every corner provided a new and interesting view. The obelisks were magnificent from many different angles. As I walked, I found yet more statues and more walls of the compound.

Unfortunately, the punishing heat (104 degrees under the glaring sun) was wreaking havoc on my camera. After three photos, it died completely and I gave it a proper burial in the camera case. I turned to my iPhone.

Even though my iPhone couldn’t zoom, it still took good photos. But it, too, was suffering from the extreme heat. I found myself turning it on and off to prevent spontaneously combustion.

As I walked around, I found myself away from the majority of tourists. I saw an area in the distance that seemed undetected. Walking towards the area, I noticed it was blocked off. However, one entrance had a steel barrier that was bent and lying on the ground. I took this as an invitation to enter.

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Yet another item I was able to photograph in the “dead zone” courtesy of the Egyptian police.

By this time, I was once again shirtless, a daring challenge to conservative Muslim sensibilities. Baring my shoulders was sexual enough. I was waiting for someone to tell me to put my clothes back on.

After entering, I saw a policeman in his unmistakable white garb with a black belt, black shoes and black holster concealing a handgun. I watched him as he walked into another courtyard and then gingerly continued on.

My bravado was rewarded by some stunning views of ruins that were truly off-limits. At that moment, two different policemen walked through a doorway. They called out to me. I was busted.

Motioning to me, they indicated that I needed to put my shirt back on which I did quite quickly. They then motioned for me to follow them. Was I on my way to an unknown dungeon?

No.

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Gargantuan pillars in Karnac

They asked where I was from. When I said, “America”, they smiled and responded simultaneously in sing-song fashion, “Ameleeca Number One!” I relaxed.

Motioning for me to follow them, I was taken into a restricted area. With a finger to their lips they showed me ruins with magnificent carvings on the walls. They gesticulated for me to take photos.

I was only with these gentlemen for a few minutes. Not wanting to take up a lot of time, and uncertain of what might ultimately happen, I feigned battery death and they nodded.

Rubbing their fingers together, I understood. I handed over fifty pounds to them and another elderly gentleman who joined us, upset that the policemen were cramping his style by taking away tour guide dollars.

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Rows of statues in Karnac

I smiled as I handed over the fifty pounds, roughly seven dollars, and motioned that they were to share it. They nodded and shook my hand heartily. “Ameleeca Number One”!

I responded with “Egypt Number One” which broadened their grin.

Walking away I felt almost dirty, yet strangely exhilarated. I had broken the law in Egypt. I had bribed two Egyptian policemen. And I had lived to tell about it.

I was only a step away from being Bond, James Bond.

After leaving them far behind I once again whipped off my tank top. Sweat was pouring off me and the blue of the shirt was darkened by copious amounts of perspiration. The fabric clung to every contour of my torso. I reasoned it was better to have the blistering Sahara sun bake my flesh; it was far less uncomfortable.

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Stunning display during the light show at Karnac

I was unprepared, however, for the Egyptian men who subsequently wanted photos taken with me. I thought by their motioning that they were telling me to put my shirt on. Instead, they were beaming that this foreigner was ballsy enough to walk around shirtless. I obliged.

After leaving Karnac, Adam brought me to the hotel. I took a short nap, soaked up yet more sun and ordered a hamburger from room service before meeting Adam yet again for the light show at Karnac which was spectacular.

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Another shot during the light show

Tomorrow I get up early and leave for Cairo. I wish I had opted to spend the majority of my time here. I definitely want to return to Luxor. There is more to see and do here than in Cairo.

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