our highlight in Eghpt

I still think we have chosen a pretty good time to travel in Egypt. First of all, we are witnessing history in the making; and secondly, we are enjoying all the spectacular but empty sites, which are ordinarily infested with tourists.

Since leaving Cairo early on July 1, we flew to Luxor, where we stayed at the historical Winter Palace. The beautiful hotel, boasting elegant interior and a large garden, hosted a string of celebrities and world leaders, such as Tony Blair and Sarkozy. It was mostly empty, sadly.

On our second (and the last) night in Luxor, we were caught in a middle of an intense protest. A shop-keeper kindly escorted us back to the hotel.

Then we cruised for three days along the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. The luxurious ship Ramadis (named after a Pharo), capable of accommodating a couple of hundred people, had only 14 passengers, served by 65 staff, including two fully armed men.

We stopped along the way to visit temples, dams and other places of interests. My favorite is Philae Temple, just outside Aswan. The temple, built by the Greek over two thousand years ago, was removed from its original site to this lovely little island Agilkia. The well-preserved, spectacular ruins appear more dramatic against the pretty setting of the island, surrounded by the turquoise water. The sailing yesterday afternoon in the sunset also turned out to be a delicious experience.

Much I enjoy the luxury and the convenience of being picked up and guided around, I am a backpack traveler at heart. Such a tour is too organized for my liking since there’s a lack of sense of discovery and spontaneity.

The highlight for me was our dinner at the home of horse carriage driver by the name Ahmed in Luxor. We met him – rather he approached us – as soon as we stepped of our hotel. We intended to visit the mummy museum, some five minutes’ walk down the road. It would be ridiculous to take a ride for such a short distance, I thought. “You know what?” Ahmed persisted, “Only 5 Egyptian. Cheap, cheap. Only half of your English pounds, right?” He then started the story how poor he is and how many children he has to support. We kept walking and he shouted after us, in accented but fluent English: “Okay, later. Remember my name, Ahmed. Or call me Andy.” I laughed. Andy? A turbaned, robed Egyptian man in his fifties, with uneven silver teeth? His story – a slight emotional blackmailed – stirred sympathy in the girls.

So we hopped on the horse carriage. One thing always leads to another. After the museum, he offered to show us around the town for only 20 EGP. So we thought why not. When Ahmed found out our plan for the evening – going the Sound and Light show at Temple Karnak, he offered to take us there. Why not! Before we returned to our hotel for our afternoon siesta, I came up with a good idea: why don’t we go to his house for dinner? When I travel, I always hope to have some interaction with the local people instead of watching a place from distance. Everywhere I go, I love to visit the local people’s home which usually allows a glimpse into their lives and improves our understanding of a society. Eight years ago, when we had visited Egypt for the first, we made friend with a little girl who sold bracelets in Dahab and enjoyed the best meal of the whole trip at her house. Of course, I am happy to pay. “Do you have a wife who can cook?” I asked. Ahmed’s face broke into a big smile, his silver teeth sparkling in the sunlight. “My wife is the best cook in Luxor.”

In the late afternoon’s golden sun, we set off in his carriage, decorated with all sorts of colour ornaments like little bells and fluffy dices. Ahmed allowed me to sit next to him on the high driver’s seat. Instantly the world became smaller and my soul soared up to the heaven.

Soon we got away from the city center and came to residential areas where the aroma of kebabs and baked bread floated. Soon, the rural scene replaced the urban landscape.

We stopped in front of a four storey grey concrete house where he and his wife live with eight of their eleven children and countless grandchildren. Like anyone in Egypt who works with foreign tourists, he isn’t as poor as he claims but he does have a lot of children, ranging from 7 to 32. (Ahmed himself is 52.) We walked through a traditional carved wooden door and was led into a small room crowded with three sofa – not really sofa but concrete blocks covered with soft cushions. The only other piece of furniture is a table. The white-washed wall spotted two pictures, Ahmed himself with his carriage and his 16 year-old grandson with blond-haired bride in their wedding outfits.

After we sat down, his family members started to stream in and out of the room. His wife came first. She was clad in an old robe, her head fully covered in a black veil, and her teeth in gold. Thick-wasited, she moves slowly and looks a lot older than her 50 years of age. One of Ahmed’s sons turned up and gave us a symbolic hand-shake. My children noticed that Egyptian men don’t offer a firm hand-shake. Or is it just the case with women? The son doesn’t have a job. He takes up piece meal of jobs in the field and sometimes helps out with his father’s horse carriage. Despite of his 12 years of education, his English is poor and he doesn’t quite have his father’s warm charm. Ahmed is actually illiterate. But he has picked up enough English in his forty years as a horse carriage driver.

Some children poked their heads in the door way and the more daring ones came up to us to say hi.

Then three set of meals were brought to the table: tomato salad with coriander and chicken tajin with potatoes. Both absolutely delicious. Only insisted by us did Ahmed sit and eat with us. He said he grew up in the village and never went to school. He feels tired because he alone has to shoulder the family’s financial burden and one of his children got a proper job. Three of his married sons and their families occupy each floor upstairs and the unmarried children live downstairs with the old couple. Three of his married daughters married off to nearby villages.

“How did your children find their partners?” My children asked. Ahmed said his sisters also have a lot of children so some of his children married their cousins, something still allowed in Egypt. It occurred to me that some of Rameses Two’s wives were his own daughters. It struck me how conservative the Egyptian countryside still is. Most of the women we saw in the village wear veils and dress in black.

After the dinner, we did a quick inspection of the house and dashed out for our Sound and Light Show. I would have stayed longer.

It was a short and memorable visit.

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