Updated on September 4, 2016
Updated on September 4, 2016
I always feel like I need to write posts that incorporate broad themes, pulling from experiences across multiple countries and the overall experience of being a nomad, etc. I don’t know why I have that mode of thinking, but I’m trying to break that habit and remember that readers may be interested in the isolated destinations themselves.
For instance, I find myself thinking about Egypt a lot. It’s odd, because so much of my time there, I felt like I wasn’t seeing anything. But in hindsight…well…let me explain.
As I’ve discussed before, resorts are not my favorite kind of travel at all. And resorts are the reason why I say that I “felt like I wasn’t seeing anything.” Because…I wasn’t.
As nomads, we have to have phases where we’re not being tourists every day. We have to have stretches of time where we can focus on work. During such times, we try to minimize how often we’ll need to switch hotels. For these reasons, our first few weeks in Egypt, spent almost entirely in Hilton resorts, was functional instead of fun.
But even if we wouldn’t have been working that whole time, I am hard pressed to imagine how we would have filled ten days at remote resorts. Even if we would have done the snorkeling day-trips and stuff, after a few days, how can there be anything left to do on a resort? Do you just alternate between the beach and the pool two times a day for ten days, throwing in a pricey and generic excursion one of those days?
I don’t know. I don’t know how to “resort.”
But the one resort that I would possibly recommend if someone wanted to tack a resort weekend onto the end of an Egypt trip is the Hilton Marsa Alam Nubian Resort, which you can read about in Drew’s review of our Egypt hotels. Why? Because the snorkeling is fairly good there, and during the right season, you can apparently go see manatees.
Luxor was a breath of fresh air for me. Not literally, as Luxor kicks up the all-too familiar dust and commotion of the city. But in the sense that I was so ready to get a taste of the real flavor of Egypt. I was ready to stand at the feet of ancient ruins I’d learned about since childhood and interact with the Egyptian world.
Luxor was amazing and I loved it. The food was delicious, and our walk to our favorite pita stand took us right past the solemn, downtown ruins of the Luxor Palace. (The Shakshuka pita was my favorite.)
My strong impression is that Luxor, (like much of Egypt) is starving for tourists. Tourism has been a part of Egypt for a very long time, after all. And it’s impossible to walk more than 5 feet out of your hotel without recognizing the desperation. Seriously. Count how many steps you take outside your hotel door before someone offers you an extremely cheap tour.
In our case, it was helpful. Because we hadn’t realized that traveling from Marsa Alam to Luxor by taxi requires the driver to carry special paperwork to prove the passengers are not kidnapped (not even joking), so our trip to Luxor was delayed and cut short to just two days. Even the two sites we wanted to see would take up a lot of time, so we knew we had no time to waste.
Not ten steps outside of our hotel room, we found a desperate boatman with an incredibly cheap price for taking us across the river and to the Valley of the Kings in the last two hours before closing.
Now…the desperation is maybe good for getting a cheap price, but it comes with all the predictable fall-backs as well. For instance, on our way back to the hotel from the Valley of the Kings, our taxi ride included an unwanted “free stop” at a soap-stone “market”.
And worse, every security guard has opted to promote himself to freelance tour guide for anyone naive enough to enter without one. That’s us. We almost never hire tour guides, and tend to prefer exploring sites on our own. We quickly found out that was not going to be an option…
Each tomb at the Valley of the Kings is “guarded” by a security guard whose job it is to make sure you don’t climb over stuff. And each security guard makes it his second job to pressure you to climb over stuff, in exchange for a tip. His tour consists entirely of urging you to take the photos you’re not allowed to take with an extremely unbelievable plea for you not to tell anyone that he’s doing you this huge “favor”.
Imagine if you will, a disgruntled me getting quite frustrated with a security guard who is urging me to climb inside of a tomb.
“Come here,” he says, stretching out his hand to help me climb up onto the tomb wall.
“No,” I say, trying not to be too obvious about my annoyance.
“No,” I say, now trying to be quite obvious about my annoyance.
I felt my blood pressure rise significantly as I tried to refuse the security guard’s urges that I should just clamber all over these ancient and fragile ruins he’s doing a terrible job of protecting. The irony was too annoying to be funny.
Your ticket gets you access into 3 tombs of your choice, and by the third one I was wishing desperately that we had just hired a tour guide so these obnoxious security guards would leave us alone. Because each one offers the exact same ridiculous song and dance act. “Do you have a camera? I won’t tell.” Or, “There- a snake. There- a snake. There -three snakes,” as if spotting snakes in the hieroglyphs was my primary motivation for coming to the Valley of the Kings. And the worst part is that you’re stuck in a narrow tomb with this guy, unable to leave him behind without wasting the punch in your ticket. You paid for this. So it’s either escape and waste your visit, or just put up with this tag-along freelance tour guide and do your best to pay attention to the tomb instead of his urges to jump a wall and climb over everything.
Immediately upon entering Karnak, a man approached us and showed us his Egyptology license. The man had a compelling pitch, but I wasn’t ready to jump on it until he said this: “Without a guide, the security guards will all approach you and…”
That was the only convincing I needed. For $5 we had a wonderful tour with a man named Saad Gamal, whose contact information I’d be happy to share for anyone who wants an extremely knowledgable guide to not only share fascinating stories about Karnak and the hieroglyphs’ meanings, but also ward off the security guards. (His email is (kinggamalsaadtawfik (at) yahoo (dot) com) and I have his phone number as well for anyone interested. I really do recommend him. He was very sweet and informative.)
So worth it. Hiring a tour guide in Luxor was the difference between an enjoyable experience and a frustrating one.
Of course, even outside of the sites, a tourist is constantly getting pitched in Luxor. It’s hard to know how to respond, because people really are just trying to get work. I don’t appreciate the lies- “I work at your hotel and I just happen to be going to the market to buy spices at the spice market that’s only open today!” Hearing that every day was annoying. But I certainly can’t blame anyone with an honest pitch, even if it is persistent and repetitive. The annoyance I might feel from getting offered a boat ride every five steps must certainly be dwarfed by the annoyance of buying a boat during a time of ample tourism and being stuck with it during a time of desperately low tourism.
One young man gave us the pitch for his evening boat ride, and once we declined, his tone changed to something not unlike shame. He told us in somewhat broken English that he doesn’t want to pressure us or ruin our evening, (he could tell that we had been enjoying looking out over the Nile and were now looking uncomfortably eager to move on) and that in another situation, he wishes we could just hang out and be friends. I knew exactly what he meant. He knew the constant pressure was exhausting. He knew we didn’t want to have yet another conversation about how we had already ridden a boat across the Nile, or that we weren’t interested. But he had a boat. And he needed to make it worth the ownership. Until he could find something that didn’t rely on tourists, it was his survival. We assured him we understood. We shook hands, and he went along his way.
Beautiful as Luxor is, it has a sadness of desperation. This is not a good time for tourism. But people have already purchased their boats and their horse carriages and camels.
Cairo is a chance to experience a significant taste of Egyptian history without the feeling of starvation for tourists. Cairo is a big city- it has other industries to hold it up and the sting of declining tourism is not so raw here.
I really enjoyed Cairo. Maybe in part because I have friends who live there, so I got to sit on the dusty roof of an apartment and look out over the city. Or maybe just because it was something new for me. I haven’t done all that much traveling in the Arab world, so it had a bit of novelty to it.
At the pyramids, there are a lot of camel rides to say no to (even if you say yes to one of them,) but otherwise it’s a place where you can relax from the pressure a bit.
Speaking of the Pyramids of Giza, I’ll share some thoughts on the monumental site.
There are some famous sites for which a visit will improve your insight- fill in some of the dotted lines and give you a clearer picture of the site’s significance or context. I felt like Machu Picchu was like this, for instance. By visiting the ruins perched on the peak of a mountain, you get a palpable insight into how remote it is- what a challenge it must have been to build.
The Pyramids of Giza were not like that for me. Much like the Parthenon, I felt like visiting the site did not uncover any of its mystery, even climbing up the side of one of the pyramids a small way didn’t feel like interacting with it.
Which leads me to my rather unqualified recommendation. I can’t 100% recommend paying to go inside the pyramid because I didn’t see what that was like. But I can give it my partial recommendation simply for the fact that visiting the pyramids without going inside felt incomplete. I wouldn’t even really say that I regret not going inside necessarily. But I think that going inside would add a sense of exploration and interaction that would add insight into this historically significant structure. It would help it feel as significant as it really is.
In conclusion, I definitely enjoyed Cairo and Luxor far more than any of the remote resorts that we visited. And despite feeling more overwhelmingly pressured at this destination than any other, I still really loved seeing for myself sites that I’d learned about since childhood. And I enjoyed meeting the people and eating the street food, as usual.
Over all, I really enjoyed Luxor and Cairo. I don’t necessarily think it’s the kind of place I’d go out of my way to return to as might be true for places like Myanmar or South Africa, but I’m so glad I got to visit.
When going after resorts, go for the Hilton Marsa Alam. But make your onward travel plans a few days in advance to give time for the travel paperwork required for your taxi driver.
When visiting Luxor, consider hiring a tour guide, even if it’s not your norm, just to keep out the INTENSELY aggravating harassment from the security guards. They will harass you if you don’t have a guide. I guarantee it. Even if you make it through without paying any of these extra “tips”, you’ll still have to deal with the constant pressure. So take it from someone who never hires guides- in Luxor, just hire a guide. Let me know if you want Saad Gamal’s phone number, or hire someone else you meet who can show you an Egyptology license. I think we paid $5 for an hour and a half of Saad Gamal’s time, and he was very well-informed.
In Cairo, if you’ve built up the Pyramids of Giza as a trip of a lifetime or something, pay for the entry inside the pyramids and let me know what you think. Was it like the tombs at the Valley of the Kings? Did it make the experience more meaningful and robust? Was it educational? I’d love to know what I missed. The Pyramids were kind of more of a checklist destination for me more so than an object of life-long fascination, so I’m ok with having just seen the outside. But I really am curious as to whether or not the tomb entry is worth the price?