Day 13, Our Final Day: Petra, One of the New Seven Wonders of the World

The final day of our trip was also the finest.  Sara and I awoke before the sunrise in a small town just outside of one of the recently named New Seven Wonders of the World:  Petra.  We were in Wadi Musa, Jordan, staying at a hotel recommended by our taxi driver from the night before.

The previous day, before crossing into Israel, we had found a little hole in the wall in which to eat lunch.  After looking at the options, I chose to eat crackers and cookies that I purchased at a nearby shop, whereas Sara opted for chicken, rice and bread.  I warned her that we were both getting over our earlier battle with 'King Tut's Revenge', but she claimed to be famished.

Now, flash forward to this morning's debate:  should Sara take our last two remaining Imodiums, or take one now and save the other for later?  Yes, King Tut was back!

The sun was just coming up when we joined Mike and Maya in the dining room and all four of us looked as if we had been run over by something large and fast.  The hotel provided breakfast for us and what a feast it was.  We had a buffet which consisted of a very large bowl of watery yogurt, boiled eggs, bread and sliced fresh cucumbers (?!).

After breakfast, we headed over to Petra.  Our hotel was within walking distance to the entrance, so there was no need for a taxi.  However, we would need a taxi later that evening to get to Amman and our flight home, so Mike began the long process of haggling.  He found a taxi driver and talked him into 45 Jordanian dinars for the trip.  The Lonely Planet suggested 80 was a fair price, so Mike was in top form.  The driver agreed to meet us outside the entrance to the park later that afternoon.

For those of you who cannot quite place what Petra is, remember back to the third Indiana Jones movie, the one with Sean Connery.  Do you remember the final big scene where they ride their horses down a long slot canyon and end at a temple carved in the rock?  That is Petra.  The slot canyon is called the Siq and the temple is called the Treasury.  The whole site is known as Petra and it turned out to be a lot more interesting than we had expected.

Mike had a guide book which detailed several less popular paths that we could take to explore the park without all of the tourists.  Sara was more into just walking down the Siq, checking out the Treasury and a few other sites and then calling it a day.  She reluctantly agreed however that we would follow along and see Mike's sites.

A few hundred yards into the park, Mike found the trail that he wanted to follow.  Instead of walking downhill with all of the other sheep, we followed a nearly unmarked trail up and over a hill to our right.  The terrain was very rocky, with little vegetation, not extremely difficult, but definitely the road less traveled.  As we crested the hill, we became the only ones in the park.  The isolation was almost immediate and complete.  Mike was referencing his book and as we scrambled over and around huge boulders, we felt sure that we were lost.  He kept assuring us that we were most likely going the right way and, it turns out, we stumbled upon a slot canyon that was on the map.  It was the long way around to see the Treasury, but it was definitely free of tourists.

We had the perfect day for our hike through this desert:  highs in the upper 80's, bright and sunny, but enough of a breeze to keep us cool.  The slot canyon had steep, sheer walls that also kept us in the shade for most of the way.  As we walked, we saw evidence of flash floods, trash and debris pressed up against rocks creating barriers for us to traverse, and I couldn't help but wonder what I would do if a ten foot wall of water suddenly appeared in front of me.  There really was no escape, the canyon stretched for miles and we were in the dead middle of it.  It was only two or three feet wide in places, so there was no where to run.

A couple of miles into the canyon, we reached an impasse:  the path was knee deep in water and the only way around was to climb a ledge that was seven or eight feet up and then jump across to another ledge, past the water.  Ordinarily I am not too scared of a puddle of water, but this particular puddle had a certain look about it.  It was a bright green, not mossy or algae infested, but nuclear, like a big puddle of lime Gatorade.  I could just hear my doctor now, "Remember when I told you guys about Hepatitis?  Remember when I said not to go in to any questionable swimming holes?  Well guess what..."

So, we only had two options, go up and over, or go back.  Unfortunately, I suffer from the same affliction that almost every other man has:  I will not go back and retrace my steps unless I am utterly and hopelessly lost, and even then it is a huge battle.  Up and over it was.

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Day 12, The Bomb Scare at the Israeli Border

As Sara and I sat on a curb just inside the Israeli border waiting for our new friends to make it through their interrogation by the border guards, the sirens at the checkpoint suddenly sounded, a female voice barked out commands over the loudspeaker in Hebrew, the border gate slammed shut and a man ran across the driveway, gun in hand.

We had already made it through the checkpoint and were fully inside Israel, but our friends, Mike and Maya, had been stopped and pulled into a little room for further questions.  Mike had warned us that this might happen and that we should continue on as if we did not know them, which we had done.  Now, Sara and I looked at each other and she asked, "So, what exactly did Mike say he did for a living again?"

There was a lady sitting next to us on the curb, so I asked her what the woman had said over the loudspeaker.  "I think they have discovered a bomb inside the building."  Oh.  Um, OK.

Our original plan was to travel from Egypt to Jordan via a ferry, but our new friends talked us in to taking the overland route through Israel.  It wasn't difficult to convince us, as we are always up for a new stamp in the old passport.

The four of us took a bus up the coast to Taba, the northernmost town in Egypt on the Red Sea, for the crossing to Eilat, Israel.  We were dropped off at the bus station, which was walking distance to both the border and the beach.  Since we had a few hours to spare before we felt it was necessary to cross the border, we decided to walk to the beach and found a nice access road right next to the Movenpick Hotel.

As we walked down this road, Mike told us stories of the recent bombing, right here in Taba.  On October 7, 2004, terrorists bombed the nearby Hilton Resort and killed 34 people.  Up until that moment, the entire area was quickly becoming a popular tourist destination for Israelis and others.  The bomb effectively killed this and the after-effects can still be seen all along the coast from Taba all the way to Dahab in the form of nearly completed resorts that will, most likely, never be finished.  One can debate whether or not this is actually a good thing, keeping the seaside free from development, but one cannot debate the terror felt by the victims that evening and the helplessness felt by the rescue teams standing across the border in Israel, watching the flames.

The irony here is that the Egyptians actually allowed the Israeli firefighters and rescue workers to cross the border that night to help with the disaster relief.  The very act of terrorism, seeking to divide the countries, actually brought them together for one unprecedented evening, when all animosity between bitter enemies was forgotten and they desired solely to help one another.

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Day 11, Laid-Back Dahab After One of Us Almost Gets Left Behind

As the sun came up on Day 11 of our journey through Egypt, we were greeted with incredible views of the desert meeting the sea.  We were in the 15th hour of our 14 hour bus ride and it looked like we only had about three hours to go.  We finally pulled in to Sharm El Sheik, not our final stop, but a chance to get off the bus for a few minutes and stretch.

Since our bus did not have a working bathroom, Sara took the opportunity to visit the Ladies Room at the bus terminal.  She was late getting out of the bus and, consequently, when the bus driver was ready to leave, she was nowhere to be found.  I was getting worried, not for her safety, this was a pretty safe area, but I wanted to make sure they didn't leave her.  I walked up to the front of the bus as the driver was starting it up.  "Excuse me, sir, but my wife is in the bathroom.  Do you mind just waiting a minute?"  He sort of looked at me, but it was obvious he did not comprehend anything I was saying.  I started using hand gestures, pointing to myself, saying, "my wife" and then pointing to the terminal, "bathroom".  No good.

The driver called some friends over.  At first I thought maybe one of them spoke English, but later realized that they really just wanted to laugh at me.  They all stared as I pointed to my wedding ring, "my wife" and then "bathroom".  They just looked and then one of them said something in Arabic and they all broke out laughing.  Needless to say, I was getting a bit frustrated, when the driver sat down in his seat and started to pull away.  The doors were still open, so I jumped down as if to get off of the bus.  He made a motion to stay and his friends pushed me back on.  Geez, what was going on here?  I looked around the rest of the bus to get some help, but I got the quick 'look away' as I scanned the faces in the now mostly empty seats.

The driver drove across the parking lot with me still pointing and now yelling, "bathroom...bathroom...bathroom."  Then a sudden thought hit me.  "Toilet," I yelled.  "She's in the toilet."  He pulled over and stopped at the other side of the parking lot.  Add that to your list of things to learn about a country you are visiting:  what do the locals call the restroom?  Toilet, WC.  Definitely not bathroom.

A few minutes later Sara ran up huffing, "I thought you guys left me."  I just looked at her and shook my head.

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Day 10 1/2, One of Us Stayed Awake on the 18-Hour Bus from Luxor to Dahab

Phil often makes statements such as "... one of us will have to stay home and take care of the baby", or "one of us will have to go on site and take care of this server crash..."  And somehow, when he makes such statements, that unfortunate "one of us" always ends up to be me.  So on this long-dreaded 18-hour bus ride, "one of us" stayed awake to give you the full account of the ride.

During the planning of the trip, there was no question that we wanted to see at least a little bit of the Sinai Peninsula.  But we had a choice.  The two popular destinations on the Red Sea were Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab.  After reading much on the Internet and our trusted Lonely Planet guide book, we decided to forgo Sharm and go to Dahab, for a more low-key and authentic "Red Sea Experience".  Then there were the two choices of how to get there, a fast ferry to Sharm then bus, or a straight bus ride from Luxor to Dahab.  The price difference was steep, with the ferry route costing more than double.  And the departure time of the bus gave us an extra day in Luxor.  So, with the knowledge that we would have to be cramped up in the bus for 15 to 17 hours, we decided on going the true independent traveler style, the bus.

So to pick up from our last post, we finished our tea and sheesha, walked over to grab two shwarma sandwiches for the ride and headed over to the bus station.  We had learned that Luxor now has a new bus stop near the train station instead of the one that is a half-hour outside of town.  So we confidently walked over to the train station.  However, when we arrived at the train station, there was no sign of the bus stop.  We walked around the station several times and found no signs and no buses.  Just when we were getting a bit nervous, we saw a couple of backpackers sitting in front of an unmarked store right next to the station.  We approached, then realized that the store was in fact, the bus station.  OK, now that we had found other travelers, we felt more relaxed.  I think it's a "safety in numbers" thing...

While we were waiting for the bus, another couple showed up and they looked obviously East Asian.  Then I heard them speaking Mandarin, so I introduced myself.  Turned out they were a Chinese couple living in Holland, heading to Dahab to learn scuba diving.  Just about now, the girl of the second backpacking couple (with whom we have not  yet spoken) showed up in tears telling us how her ATM card was eaten by the machine.  She tried to go to the bank and get it back, but they told her that she will have to come back on Monday...  And this was how we met our new travel companions Maya and Mike, sister and brother, with whom we traveled for the rest of the trip.

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Day 10, Lesser Known Luxor

For our final day in Luxor, Sara and I arranged for a private tour of some of the lesser visited sites on the West Bank.  We had decided to splurge a bit and opted for a van with a driver and an Egyptologist to show us around for a half day.  Our cost for this was about $70 U.S. and it was worth it.

Mohamed, our tour guide, recommended that since we had seen the 'major' attractions the day before, we should see the Tombs of the Nobles, the Workmen's Village and the Medinet Habu.

At our first stop, the Tombs of the Nobles, there was literally no one there.  If you are looking for an authentic ancient Egyptian site without all of the tourists, this should be your first stop.  The tombs were located in between and under current dwellings.  However, our tour guide expressed deep shock as we drove up and then complete amazement as we parked and walked to the first tomb.  It seems that the government's interest in turning Luxor into one big outdoor museum had taken its toll here.  All of the houses had been razed.  There was nothing but barren hillside and holes in the ground going to the tombs.  Mohamed had been there two weeks prior and the houses had all been standing.  He was not sure where the government had relocated everyone, but there was no one around.  No one.  It was eerie to say the least.  At last, an old man showed up to let us into the tombs.  The tombs themselves were beautiful and well-preserved.  We enjoyed our time here, but Mohamed assured us that this was nothing compared to the Workmen's Village, our next stop.

The Workmen's Village was just that, a village filled with the workers who built the tombs for the pharaohs and nobles in ancient times.  It was one of the few areas located on the west side of the river where people actually lived.  People mainly only lived on the east side due to their association of death with the setting sun and, consequently, the west.

Art in ancient Egypt was a strictly regulated activity.  The Egyptians were very, very conservative people and their art reflects that.  Its style remains virtually unchanged over several thousand years.  The only period of innovation was during the reign of Akhenaten, but after his death, it quickly reverted back to the traditional style.

In order to accomplish this, there was a strict routine established and followed for every painting.  First, a group of men would establish a grid pattern on the wall to be painted.  There was then an artist responsible for each part of the painting.  For example, there was one artist for the eyes.  That is all he did, paint eyes.  There was another that was in charge of knees, another for feet, and so on.  You can imagine that this somewhat limited creativity.  The artist would show up, paint eyes on the wall and then go home.  All eyes, all day.  Henry Ford could not have come up with anything more efficient.

We found that the artists really went all out, though, when it came to their own personal tombs.  While the style was still the same, the attention to detail was impeccable.  The colors were still bright and robust, as if they had been painted the week before we arrived.  Once again, if you want to get away from the huge crowds and see some truly stunning work, the Workmen's Village is at the top of the list.  Our guide book warned us that there might be crowds, but we were the only ones there.  Memorable to say the least.

We stopped for a Coke and while Sara was in the restroom, I discovered a new scam.  I was feeling a bit run down, so I wanted a big Coke to last a while (Super-Size me).  I asked our waiter how much the liter bottle of Coke was.  10 pounds ($2).  OK, a bit high, but we were in the boonies (literally BFE) so I had no choice.  He delivered it to the table.  I twisted the cap and heard that wonderful 'psht' of a cold Coke opening on a very hot day, caught the wiff of the, well the smell of Coke, and then, interrupting my bliss, got tapped on the shoulder by the manager saying that it was the waiter's first day and it was really 20 pounds.  Not having had my morning caffeine, my head exploded, but I withheld every dirty expletive (where was my potty-mouthed wife when I needed her?).  I calmly paid the extra 10 pounds and drank my Coke in silence.

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Day 9, Luxor’s Valley of the Kings and Then Back Into Real Egypt

Our final morning on the ship began with another pre-6am wake up.  We were docked in Luxor and had toured the East Bank the previous day.  Today we were destined for the West Bank.  In ancient Egypt, the Egyptians buried their dead on the west side of the Nile, due to the setting sun which symbolized moving on to the next world, so all of the tombs, up and down the Nile, are found on the West Bank.

In Luxor, known as Thebes in ancient times, almost all of the pharaohs from the New Kingdom (the last major period of ancient Egypt before the Ptolemies) can be found buried in the Valley of the Kings.  It is important to remember that the Pyramids are mostly from the Old Kingdom, over 1000 years prior to the New Kingdom.  The pyramids were as much of a wonder to the people of the New Kingdom as they are today.

We took a ferry to the West Bank and toured three tombs in the Valley of the Kings.  One thing to remember about ancient Egypt is the extreme conservatism of the Egyptians.  With the exception of Akhenaten, they did not make much progress or take risks in their art for thousands of years.  Consequently, if you see one tomb, you've seen them all.  There is no real need to visit all of the tombs, including paying the extra pounds to see King Tut's.  We opted to visit the standard fare and were quite amazed by the handiwork inside.

What I found even more interesting was watching a current excavation taking place.  I have no idea what they were uncovering, but there were dozens of workers moving buckets of dirt from one area to another.

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Day 8, If You Can Only Go To One Place In All Of Egypt…

Our last full day on the ship promised to be memorable.  We were scheduled to see Edfu, travel north through a lock and end up in Luxor, where we would tour Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple.  It was going to be a busy day and we had to awaken at 5:30am in order to disembark by 6.

Traditionally, cruise ships would contract with horse-drawn buggies to carry its passengers the short distance to the Edfu Temple of Horus.  However, our ship had experienced some mistreatment of its guests by the drivers, so it hired us a bus.  It was a very quick ride over and we entered the complex without knowing what to expect.  After passing through the ticket building, we traveled down the winding path which was lined with 20 to 30 foot tall walls of earth and mud bricks.  Our guide explained to us that the top of the walls signified the level of modern building, while each layer down was evidence of past civilization, culminating at the level at which we were walking, which was over 2000 years old.

As we rounded a corner, the Temple towered in the distance.  Even a few hundred yards away, the size was impressive.  I was struck by the sure feeling of intimidation that the ancient travelers must have experienced when they first laid eyes on it.  We passed through the gates and by the statues of Horus and into the Temple.  This is largely regarded as the most well-preserved temple in Egypt and it was most impressive.

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Day 7, How To Book a Five-Star Cruise For Less, Oh, and Kom Ombo

Sara and I awoke on Day 7 in a nice comfortable bed, groggily stumbled a few yards to the dining room for our breakfast buffet and checked our day's activity list to see what was planned for us.  We were aboard our five-star Nile cruise ship, still docked in Aswan.  The plan of the day consisted of free time in Aswan until 2pm, at which time we would sail to Kom Ombo, a temple located 40 km north of Aswan, right on the river.

One of the goals of this blog is to teach the casual traveler how to save money whenever possible.  Sara outdid herself on this booking.  The first thing that you need to know about traveling overseas is that most foreigners view Americans as fabulously wealthy, with money spilling out of their pockets to be taken at will.  When we are visiting Sara's parents in Taiwan and we need to go out shopping, I am not allowed to walk with Sara's father when he is getting ready to purchase something.  If the shopkeepers see me tagging along, they automatically apply the 'white boy tax' to everything and negotiating a rock bottom price is impossible.  Her dad is a master at getting the best price, but I will ruin it every time if I am seen to be a part of the family.  The same holds true when booking travel.  If you book through an American travel agency, you are going to get gouged.  Sometimes you have no other choice, but if possible, find a few local travel agencies (local to where you are going, that is) and have them compete against each other for your business.  This is fairly easy in today's virtual world and you do not even have to be verbally confrontational; you can do everything by email.  Just make sure it is a reputable travel agency you are dealing with and you should be ok.

This is how Sara did it.  She googled (or is it Googled) for local Egyptian travel agencies and then emailed them all with relative dates and desired activities.  She developed a strong rapport with one in particular (K.E.T. Travel) and began booking a few things.  She told the agent that we wanted a three- or four-star cruise ship for a three night cruise.  The agent found a nice four-star ship for $285 per person, which included everything (except drinks):  room, food, a guide, applicable buses and boats, and all entrance fees.  It was a good deal by itself, but a couple of days later, the agent emailed Sara with a very limited opportunity to book a five-star ship for the same price.  There is a very famous Swiss hotel chain throughout Europe called Movenpick, that is known for its luxury.  This was their cruise ship.  Needless to say, Sara jumped on it and it was quite a change from our $18 per night hotel from the night before (although I am not bashing that hotel because it was great as well, just different).

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Day 6, Aswan And The Start Of Our Nile Cruise, That Is, If We Can Find The Ship

To bring you up to speed, Sara and I had been traveling through Egypt and we have reached Day 6.  Our story currently puts us in Aswan, in Upper Egypt, which is actually quite far south (since the Nile flows South to North, the southern part of Egypt is referred to as Upper Egypt, while the northern part is considered Lower Egypt).  This is the day that we will board our luxurious cruise ship for a fantastic three day voyage north to Luxor.

We had planned to get up at 4:30 am to catch a three hour bus ride further south to Abu Simbel, a very impressive monument built by Ramses the Great to honor himself.  This would give us enough time to view the temple 'tourist style' (i.e. take a few pictures to prove that we were there and get back on the bus) and be back to board the ship by 12:30.

As things go, not everything worked according to plan.  It seems that the same affliction Sara had had earlier in the trip had now caught up with me.  I awoke several times throughout the evening to pay my respects to the porcelain deity.  Needless to say, 4:30 rolled around and there was no way I was going to get on a bus (with a police escort all the way, so stopping was going to be a problem) for three hours with minimal bathroom access.  We decided to sleep in and called to cancel our ride.

We finally got up and checked out of our hotel, but happened to notice that our cruise tickets did not mention where the ship was docked.  The Nile in Aswan is packed with docked cruise ships, three deep, so we walked up and down looking for ours:  Radamis I.  Nowhere to be found.  We asked several people, but no one seemed to know, so we went back to the hotel to ask if they could help.  The helpful desk clerk phoned a few people and discovered from one that the ship was further south from the hotel.  However, just to confirm, he called another person, who told him that the ship was to the north, but to the south of the train station.  Now, with two competing locations, it was necessary to phone a third person.  Luckily, this person completed the puzzle by assuring us that it was, in fact, north of the hotel, but north of the train station.  This pretty much covered the entire shoreline from the Aswan Dam to Luxor (roughly 111 miles).

Armed with this knowledge, the hotel clerk flagged down a taxi for us and negotiated a five pound ($1) fare to find our ship.  And we were off.

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Day 5, A Day Sailing Beats a Month in Town

Sorry for the delay in this post.  We have been moving our house, so the past couple of weeks have been hectic.

Sara and I arrived in Aswan via the sleeper train at about 10am.  We had booked a Nile cruise, but did not board the ship until the following day, so we had a day in which to relax and explore.

Aswan is the only location in all of Egypt where granite is found.  Consequently, any granite structures carved or constructed in all of Ancient Egypt originated in Aswan.  It is quite impressive when one considers the thousands of tons of granite artifacts found throughout the country.  In fact, the largest surviving Egyptian obelisk weighs over 450 tons.  It is a single piece of granite that is over 100 feet tall.

 

We were a little nervous about our hotel, because it was only $18 per night, including free transportation from the train station.  It turns out the Memnon Hotel was one of our favorites.  First, the people were incredibly helpful and friendly.  So much so that we tried a couple of times to tip them (baksheesh), but to no avail.  They would not accept anything.  Second, the rooms were clean, but more important, they overlooked the Nile, and even more important, they had air conditioning.  I would highly recommend the Memnon Hotel.

One of my little travel goals is to pay at least one visit to McDonald's in every country.  We try to eat as much local food as possible, but I like to stop in to get an ice cream at a minimum, and usually a full meal if it all works out.  I have only missed one country:  Ecuador (I get to count Colombia even though it was technically a McPollo's - it looked just the same).  I would have to say that the Aswan Mickey D's has to be one of the finest locations anywhere.  It is right on the Nile.  You can sit there on the porch and imagine the old Egyptian barges hauling 200 ton granite obelisks right by that very spot while you sip your McCafe, nibble on your McNuggets and surf the Internet on the free McWifi.

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