A Lightening Tour: Luxor, Egypt in 24 hours

A Lightening Tour: Luxor, Egypt in 24 hours
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Immediately after getting off the train in Luxor, I was swarmed: taxi drivers, hostel owners, souvenir sellers and cafe owners. I waved them away, called my host, but they followed me thinking that if they waved their hands more vigorously, I might actually buy something. So that’s how I traveled down the street of Luxor: talking on my phone to Ernesto, leading a parade of skinny Egyptian guys, brochure flags a-flying to shouts of “welcome!” And “maybe later?”.

Fighting my way to the café where Ernesto (my host) told me to wait for him, a Finnish woman came to my rescue and shooed my followers away. She asked, “I saw that you needed help. Can I sit and wait with you? I wanted to go shopping but with Ramadan all the stores are closed. They’ll reopen in an hour. Maybe”. I happily made room and we chatted under the shade, covering our juices with our hands to keep out the leaves and bird poop that was raining down from the tree above. She married an Egyptian, owns a café and has lived in Luxor the past four years. When I asked her whether she lived living here, she shrugged. “It’s cheap, it’s where my husband is from and we built a house. I still don’t understand them- they’re always praying, shops are never open when you want them to be but Luxor’s nice. Even during the revolution, Luxor was safe”. I asked her if she spoke Arabic, and she sighed apologetically, “I know a few words. I should learn. Building my house taught me that. I thought I could communicate with the workers and tell them to paint the walls gold- I showed them too. I turned my back and all of a sudden, the interior of my home was bright orange”. I get the impression that ex-pats don’t make too much of an effort to integrate themselves and resign themselves to a chaotic existence. But at least it doesn’t cost much.

West Bank Luxor- much more relaxing than the chaotic city on the East Bank

West Bank Luxor- much more relaxing than the chaotic city on the East Bank

Dripping with sweat, the pale-skinned, redheaded Ernesto eventually arrived, panting and complaining about finding a bus around the fast-breaking time. Since nothing operates as it should during Ramadan (somehow I doubt things operate on schedule, ever in Egypt). We bid farewell and good luck to the Finnish woman, stowed my luggage at Ernesto’s favorite café then headed across the street to the Luxor temple, which they keep open after dark. From a young age, back home in Uruguay, Egyptian culture fascinated Ernesto and all he wanted for his birthdays were books about this ancient civilization. He first came to Luxor in 2004 to study Egyptology, stayed near the Valley of the King with locals and was treated as one of the family. He returned twice since then, and when the government relocated the family out of the hills to new land in the middle of nowhere, Ernesto decided to build a house in the family complex and stay. I asked him whether he planned to stay forever and he replied, “who knows? Moving here just kind of happened. It only cost a couple month’s rent in Uruguay to build this house. I’m here now. Where I’ll be permanently, God only knows”.

Luxor Temple at night- Luxor, Egypt

Luxor Temple at night- Luxor, Egypt

Approaching the temple, I felt instantly dwarfed by the massive structure. I walked backward, trying to zoom out enough to capture the entrance in a photograph. Ernesto gestured for me to walk further back, down a pathway lined with sphinxes, for a more dramatic shot. He claimed that the government hopes to continue this path from to the enormous Karnak Temple Complex, which makes this one look teeny. He explained how ordinary citizens weren’t allowed inside the temple and how the temple got smaller the farther you walked back, because of increasing restrictions about who can access it.

Local Life in Luxor

Our conversations about Egypt continued well after we finished the temple tour and took the ferry to his home on the West Bank. He told me about how his host family lost their tourist shop and source of income when the government relocated them but their hospitality for Ernesto never waned. In their current village, they deal with daily power outages, unannounced water shortages and even the “supermarket” was a sad sight: no bread, no fruits and veggies and you’ll have to battle your neighbors for chicken which sells out quickly after a shipment arrives. However, the family works through these difficulties together and Ernesto was proud to be a part of it.

When we returned to his home, he pulled books out of his Egyptian library to show me pictures of what I would be seeing in my lightening tour of Luxor the next day. I elected to sleep on a mattress the rooftop so the sunrise could be my alarm clock for an early start the next day.

At 6 AM, one of Ernesto’s host family members was waiting with a motorbike to take me on a tour of Luxor’s main West Bank attractions. We rode through the desert, passing countless Alabaster shops, and he dropped me at the first stop: Valley of the Kings. Luxor’s most famous attraction held dozens of Egypt’s most famous tombs, dug into the hillside. When I arrived, it was deserted (apparently, I was the only one smart enough to attempt to beat the heat) and the trains weren’t running yet so the guy in charge gave me a free motorbike ride from the museum entrance to the tombs. With the basic entry ticket, I had access to three tombs, which I chose to be Rameses II, Rameses IV and Siti I.

Inside Ramses IV tomb- Valley of Kings, Luxor, Egypt

Inside Ramses IV tomb- Valley of Kings, Luxor, Egypt

The security guards broke up their pow-wow in the shade to unlock the temples, let me in, give me a personal tour (whether I wanted to or not) and make me crawl in places that were blocked off. All of these tombs had steep ramps to descend down past walls of extensive colorful hieroglyphics into a large room that sometimes held a massive, granite sarcophagus. Besides that, there wasn’t too much to see because tombs’ contents (mummies, jewels and other statues) are all in the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo… but having seen the tombs prior to my museum visit made everything more real.

Moumon temple- free roadside attraction, Luxor, Egypt

Moumon temple- free roadside attraction, Luxor, Egypt

From the Valley of Kings, we motored by Moumon temple (two giant standing pharaoh statues), a free attraction on the side of the road then to Deir al-Madina, which was the village of the workers who built the Valley of the Kings. I enjoyed imaging the ruins as a bustling village of sweaty people coming home from work… upon completion of the temple, many builders were buried with the temple to protect the secrets of construction. I wondered if whether the workers had any idea of their impending fate. From there, following Ernesto’s suggestions, I stopped by the Habu Temple and some royal tombs at Olwet Abdel Qurna (which actually had better hieroglyphics than the ones I saw in the Valley of the Kings). Both of these attractions were cheaper, less-well known attractions but definitely worth a stop if you have the time.

City of Workers- Luxor, Egypt

City of Workers- Luxor, Egypt

Sun Setting on My Time in Luxor

After five hours in the desert heat and the even more exhausting experience of perpetually saying “no” to these security guards, I elected not to venture to the East Bank to see the famous Karnak temple. Instead I met Ragab, a British Egyptian who is building a real estate empire of properties along the Nile. As a Brit, he made a mean cuppa tea and we relaxed on his rooftop, gossiping about his ex-pat neighbors, until it was time for me to board the ferry and take the night train to Cairo.

Overall, Luxor was an experience. An experience of what happens to a beautiful touristic place with a treasure-trove of history when no visitors visit. You have annoyingly persistent people who follow you for 10 minutes, yelling about something that you have no plans to buy. You have horse carriages racing down the streets with rates so low that now the locals can afford to take advantage. You have property so cheap that you can build a house at the price of a couple-months rent. I’ve always thought of tourism as a negative invader that interferes with the traditional existence of a local community but I think Luxor’s survival really depends on it. The worst part is the government combats lower tourism revenue by increasing airport taxes and ticket prices, leaving local businesses to cut prices ridiculously low to stay competitive.   I don’t have a better recommendation but I don’t think it’s a sustainable solution and it definitely doesn’t benefit the people.

Is traveling to Egypt what I expected? The monuments look like they do in the movies, but that’s where the similarity ends. I thought Egypt would be easy because it was touristy and the trip would be a breeze if a tour bus shuttled me from attraction to attraction.   Am I glad I figured out Egypt is more than that? Absolutely because it’s infinitely more interesting! Back in its prime, ancient Egypt ahead of the rest of the world, scientifically, spiritually and architecturally, and now it’s… not. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I think that’s an important lesson for all of us.

“Reading and restlessness- dissatisfaction at home, a sourness of being indoors and a notion that the real world was elsewhere- made me a traveler. If the Internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would all stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake; to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear and sometimes- importantly- to suffer the effects of this curiosity” –Paul Theroux, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari

Song of the Moment: Mohamed Mounir- Fi Ishk El Banat / محمد منير فى ” عشق البنات

If YOU want to go to Luxor: It’s easy to join a tour or rent a taxi for 6 hours or so to hit all the major West Bank attractions. Except for the Valley of Kings, which has its own ticket booth, you buy all of your other tickets at a central stand. Since you’ll be walking up and down steep ramps, sneakers may be a good idea. All these “security guards” will probably offer to take pictures and give you tours- I’m not sure what a good standard tip is but you may want to investigate this beforehand if you plan to take advantage. Students save 50% with the ICIS international student card so I highly recommend getting one before you go- I got one at a travel agency in Luxor here for 100 EGP, a photocopy of my passport and two passport pictures. Most of these attractions cost 60-120 EGP to enter so it pays for itself very quickly.

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