The hulking empty carcasses of the non-functional cruise ships clutter the shoreline. Brand new big fancy hotels stand empty and unopened. The well designed tourist souk (covered walkway) with souvenir stands, trinket stalls, spice dealers, tea shops and cloth merchants snakes its way through the center of town like a hungry monster in need of tourists to satisfy its appetite. But there are no tourists…or practically none compared to the glory days of the past. I don’t know the statistics, but the number I keep hearing from locals is a 95 percent drop in visitors. Every revolution or transformation in a society necessarily has winners and losers. In the case of Egypt in recent years, the big big loser has been the tourism industry. The Nubian Nile region around the towns of Luxor and Aswan is one of the nicest places in the world to visit. An awesome stretch of winding river through a desert landscape and a shoreline dotted with ancient stone temples. The friendly and welcoming locals have lived well off the bounty of the tourist boom for many many years. Now that the boom has ended, what are they supposed to do?
I tried to take the regular train from Cairo but it was booked solid for several days in advance. The more expensive tourist sleeper train has plenty of space though so I arrive in Luxor on it at 6:00 am. As expected, I am greeted by an overly enthusiastic taxi driver who takes me to a cheap but decent hotel. I spend the morning at the very impressive Luxor temple located in the center of downtown. With its giant stone statues and massive pillars, this site alone would make a trip to this region worthwhile. But the Luxor temple is only a very tiny tip of a very big iceberg.
Around lunchtime, I meet up with flashpacker Tony. He’s a friendly Australian I met in Turkey with the spirit of a traveler and the budget of a tourist. It’s always nice to see a familiar face and have a conversation in English. We catch up over cups of tea telling stories of our respective adventures in this region and then head to the river around sunset for a felucca ride. So many felucca Captains! All with a sales pitch, personality and a burning desire to serve you. How do you choose just one? What’s a fair price to pay? The guidebooks say 30 to 50 pounds per hour per boat and that is the price they all seem to suggest. We meet a seemingly acceptable Mohammed who recommends a two hour sunset ride for 100 pounds. We decide to go with him.
The boat ride is fantastical. Sunset on the Nile! We drink tea, we laugh, we smile and we try to capture with photographs the special kind of sunset light that illuminates the shoreline. It’s hard not to notice the cruise ships docked everywhere. Mohammed says in the heyday before the revolution there were 700 cruise ships running this stretch of water between here in Luxor and Aswan upstream. Now, there are only 35. The tourism business is dead in the water. I try to wrap my brain around the immensity of the economic catastrophe these people are now facing. The cost of revolution is certainly a high one. Perhaps that’s the reason Mohammed rips us off. After the boat ride, he tells us it’s a hundred per person rather than a hundred for the boat. He also wants baksheesh on top of the 200. We pay him the money. It’s no big deal; an extra 20 bucks. But I have to wonder if the dire financial reality turned him into a scoundrel or was he a scoundrel all along.
The following morning, I go to visit the Karnak temple. In a region of the world where superlative adjectives to describe stonework are frequently called forth to the tip of my pen, Karnak is, perhaps, the most incredible. The largest collection of massive stone columns anywhere in the world and the columns are carved with intricate hieroglyphics and full sized pictures. When the desert sunlight shines through enlightening some pillars and shadowing others, the sensory overload is almost too much to handle. How is it possible that human beings created such a place? Something about the combination of sunlight and stonework just seems sacred to me.
Nevertheless, Karnak does have hassle. Not as bad as the Pyramids because there are no camel drivers. Instead, there are Muslim guys in robes that seem to pop up out of nowhere wanting to show you something that you absolutely must take a photo of. This is Karnak, so there’s no shortage of photos to point out. But of course every photo comes with a request for baksheesh. “Please go away. Thank you, but, I prefer to find my own photos.” Then there are the “off limits work sites.” This is a variation on the climb the pyramid routine. Karnak is a very big place. I wander away from the spectacular center out towards the nether regions that see a lot fewer visitors. Every time I find a barrier with a no entry sign there is a conveniently present “employee” who happens to be lingering around. It’s okay, they all tell me, because I’m a nice person, they will let me sneak past the barrier if I just give them a little baksheesh. I’m a sucker for breaking the rules so I let them convince me a couple of times but they never show me anything particularly interesting or special. “Wow, more hieroglyphics, isn’t that nice. How much baksheesh you want?” Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the barriers were all a charade. These places aren’t off limits, it’s just workers joining in the game to squeeze visitors for cash. Anyway, Karnak is a joy to visit. Tour groups give it two hours and I stay all day until they kick me out. I may even go back again before my time in this region is over.
The next day, I go on an an excursion with flashpacker Tony. It’s a three hour local train ride down the tracks to the small town of Al Bayana. From there, it’s another 15 kilometers to the temple of Abidios so we will have to take a taxi. As the day unfolds, it’s perfect illustration of my theories on travel and tourism. The people on the local train are so nice it is almost unbelievable. One man buys me a cup of tea, several offer me cigarettes, many shake my hand and say “welcome” and Tony and I even get to hang with the crowd in the tea bar car amid a spirited political debate. No one asks for baksheesh, no one tries to sell us anything, everyone is just plain nice. How beautiful is this world?
When we reach the station, one of our friends from the tea bar helps us navigate through the crowd to the main road. Lo and behold, there are tuk tuks as well as taxis. Lets take one of them if they will go that far. We approach an old man driver that grins enthusiastically. He understands that we want to go to Abidios and he says he will take us but we can’t understand a word about the price. Thankfully, our friend from the train is there to interpret. Round trip to Abidios for 30 pounds. He will wait for you outside and bring you back here. So we hop in the tuk tuk and off we go. Tuk tuk travel in third world countries is too much fun. Everyone should try it at least once in their life. This particular ride is a classic. The old dude cranks the Egyptian pop music to deafening levels as we putter through the crowded, dirty, chaotic streets. We are the only foreigners around and we must be an amusing spectacle crammed into that no bigger than a lawn mower contraption. Lots of people point, wave, shout welcome and laugh. We point, wave, say thank you and laugh as well. It doesn’t go very fast so it takes a while but we do reach the temple. And that’s when the universe transforms from travel world to tourist world.
The temple is amazingly beautiful with lots of pillars and intricately carved and painted 3000 year old hieroglyphics. It’s not overrun with tourists because its a little out of the way but some big groups do occasionally stop here. Accordingly, the place does have a minor case of tourist hassle-itus. The postcard and trinket sellers outside are particularly aggressive. And the pop up Mohammed’s on the inside are omnipresent. I swear to Buddha, these two guys insist on showing me a helicopter painted on the ceiling to demonstrate that Ancient Egypt was an advanced technological society. “Yeah right,” I say, “if that’s a helicopter, I’m an Arabian princess.” But I give them ten pounds baksheesh anyway.
The way back is as much fun as the way there. We even get to push start the tuk tuk when it stalls. The driver is so happy when we tip him an unrequested 20 pounds he practically hugs us from pure joy. We drink tea at a nearby shop while we wait for the train and they charge us the normal local price for a cup. Such fairness is unheard of in Luxor. Then, on the train, I get a real bonus point. The guy I sit next to is getting off the train early. He has a ticket for Luxor but is stopping before to visit family so he gives me his ticket. I know, it sounds like a scam but it isn’t. He wants no money for it and the ticket works so I save 30 pounds. I attribute the reward to karmic payback for the generous bonus we gave the tuk tuk man. All in all, it’s a pretty wonderful day. But the next day is even better.
Actually, it’s the day after. I take a day long break from temple visiting to sit in cafes and write the Pyramid story. So it’s really the following day, my last day in Luxor, that I have the perfect Pat Ryan day. I awake before sunrise, eat a quick breakfast and walk down the road to the public ferry. It only costs a pound to cross the short distance from East bank to West. Once I reach the other side, I rent a bicycle for 20 pounds for the day. It’s a very old and rickety single speeder with a basket on the front but its retro nature provides good character to my day’s adventure. The West Bank of Luxor contains an abundance of impressive ancient archaeological sites. At least ten different places are within 20 or so kilometers from where I rent the bike. The ride is not an easy one with desert heat and hills, but if you know me at all, you can probably imagine the grin which is stretched across my face as I peddle from stone temple to stone temple soaking up the atmosphere.
The area is not completely empty of tourists. I encounter several buses and large groups over the course of the day. Compared to the thousands in years past its not much and spread out over such a large area, it doesn’t seem like many at all. I feel like a lone wanderer in a forgotten land of ancient wonders. There are, of course, plenty of pop up Mohammeds, but they have sort of grown on me by now and I don’t mind giving a little baksheesh for their short routines of person to person performance art. Indeed, I’ve come to believe that visiting temples would be a lot less fun without them. There are big signs outside the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens stating clearly that photography is prohibited inside. But every time I’m alone, the guards would tell me it’s okay to photograph because I am a friend as long as I slip them some baksheesh. I don’t take photos because I’m concerned it might harm the 3000 year old carved and painted hieroglyphics. But I do hand over some pounds when they tell me good stories about what some of the hieroglyphics theoretically mean.
The highlight of the day, perhaps the highlight of this entire trip to Egypt for me is the first and last stop of the day. The Collossi of Mnemnon are the only free site on the entire West Bank. They are located a kilometer or so before the ticket booth and they only consist of two giant statues on the side of the road. I almost fall off the bike when I see them. They are sixty feet tall and roughly the shape of a man and a woman. I say roughly because there is no fine chiseling of specific human features. Instead, they are vaguely human and more like gods. I drop the bicycle and walk up to them. “I want to build one!” Is the thought that comes bursting into my brain. The thought is not irrational. I really could build one (or two). I am capable. They wouldn’t be 60 feet tall. Maybe 20 or 30 feet tall and I’d use smaller rocks. Not giant humans, but giant humanish rock gods; one man and one woman together.
Anyway, I visit the Collossi very first thing in the morning but then continue on my journey. It is a truly spectacular day. I peddle my one speeder a total of about 25 kilometers over an eight hour period and visit six different amazing places (4 temples and 2 groups of tombs) along the way. I stop twice to drink tea in road side shops with the locals. And I also stop twice to chat with Mohammed (smoke weed). By the end of it all, I honestly feel like my appetite for stone appreciation has been satisfied. I am totally content. I ride towards the ferry with a heartfelt grin. Nevertheless, when I’m going past the Collossi again on the way out, I just have to stop for one more look. And that’s when my earlier thought transforms into an inspiration.
As the setting sun lights up the Collossi with a magical glow, the truth becomes absolutely clear. I don’t want to build a couple of Collossi. I WILL build a couple of Collossi. All I need is a big pile of rocks, the right place to put them and perhaps a little payment for my efforts. If anyone out there is interested in helping to financially support such a project, please let me know.