Hello from the west bank of the Nile River. Betsy and I are in an internet cafe flanking an Egyptian teenage boy who is doing better with his keyboard than we are.
Luxor is an interesting place, for sure. It is as though all the Egyptian kings and queens agreed, oh, say 4000 years ago, to build a most excellent tourist site. It went well for about 20 centuries, and then got buried for about 2000 years. Luckily, someone started digging, and the rest is history (literally). We have been in tombs, among ruins, and, thanks to a hot air balloon at sunrise this morning, over the tops of fields, houses and the Valleys of both the Kings and Queens (they had their own separate valleys for burial--as if dating wasn't hard enough).
The heat is incredible (and if anyone says, "But it's a DRY heat," I challenge you to walk around in an oven and see if it is any less uncomfortable than humid heat). Our hotel, El Nakhil, is small and not very busy (for some reason, sane tourists choose the winter months to visit). Thus we are attended to in a manner that can be a little disconcerting. They know our comings and goings and are very concerned with pleasing us. The hotel itself is at the end of a street that reminds one that this is truly a developing nation and we are not far from Africa. It's what we in American would, not so generously, call a "slum," but every day we walk along this very narrow street and greet the residents and their many children (and donkeys), and you know, it's just life they live--not rich, not poor. It's a village with a hotel at the end. The hotel itself is quite nice--very clean, very simple with some nice decorative touches. The room is air-conditioned (a lifesaver) but the rooftop restaurant can get a little steamy.
Yesterday our host (the owner of the hotel), Mr. Salah, took us to a couple of places here on the west bank, including a mosque, which was an intriguing, mysterious place. He also arranged for a driver to take us to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, but really, without some level of and/or interest in Egyptology, Betsy and I found them a bit repetitive. We didn't, though, go into the tomb of Tutan Khamun, despite the hype, and the one Betsy was keen to see, Queen Nefertari's tomb, was closed (for a private party? No, for further restoration).
Last night we took a cruise on the Nile--just us, our boat captain Mosse and his 13-year old brother Mohammed. He pulled the boat over at some very out-of-the-way place where we found a delightful open-air bar (or some reasonable facsimile), and sat and talked over a Stella beer (authentic Egyptian beer!) while we watched dusk fall on the Nile.
Our hot air balloon ride this morning was very touristy, but for good reason. It's quite amazing to see these places from that vantage point. Our balloon captain, Ahmed, was quite charming and funny with us, but then ripped into his ground crew in a way that made me want to cower (more about Arab conversation in a minute). His cell phone ringtone, by the way, was the Fifth Dimension singing "Would You Like to Ride in My Beautiful Balloon?" Seriously.
When Arabs talk, it sounds, like Al said earlier about his Italian relatives, "like a joyful song or an argument." We have witnessed some pretty harsh exchanges between Arab men here, often as they bicker over us. There is an incredible and annoying culture of "the tout," or those who want your business. It is constant and relentless, and can wear you out. Even in the Luxor Temple today, one of the (armed) guards slyly asked me for some "baksheesh" (small change) after he had pointed me in a direction. Yesterday at the Valley of the Kings, I had to practically wrestle Betsy away from a man who felt he had earned a considerable sum by walking with us up a trail. Unlike American sites, which are so strictly controlled, here there is a culture of the independent entrepreneur. And the haggling is unlike anything I've experienced. We are learning to say, very harshly, "NO!" Otherwise, they follow and get right in our faces. Sometimes I want to scream, "I'm an American! I have personal space and you're in it!!"
It all leads to these weird interactions where someone tries to be helpful, we are suspicious, they become chagrined, we realize they are sincere and then engage, they then realize we are ripe for the taking and move in for the kill, and we then act like the ugly Americans we try not to be, harshly saying "no!" and rudely walking away. Honestly, ten days here has given me doubts that we will ever truly achieve peaceful relations with the Middle East. Our approach to interactions is just so different. And yet, they are so friendly, so reliable, and so eager to engage with foreigners. I think those that truly want to just talk are bothered by the ones who are playing the take-advantage-of-the-tourist game.
The east bank of the Nile is where most of the tourist trade is done--the big hotels, big sites like Luxor Temple, the big souk (market) and we will visit again tonight. To get there and back, we take a ferry across the Nile (which costs about a quarter), and sit amid scowling old men who do not approve of our bare arms, covered young women with children, and covered old women who carry bags, boxes and baskets balanced expertly on their heads, returning from their shopping on the east bank to their homes over here on the west bank.
Here's hoping this blog entry posts without trouble. No pictures, because I have no easy way to post them, but perhaps will in Cairo. We're here in Luxor for another day, and leave for Cairo on Thursday. Cheers!