Monthly Archives: April 2013

Done with Egypt!

Wow. After three months of torturous procrastination, I have successfully written all of the main events of my Egypt journey on this here blog. The lifting of pressure from my lazy-ass skull feels amazing, but I have to confess that this is what being an English teacher abroad does to you; slowly but surely, your grasp of time and outside-world obligations begins to get fuzzy and life becomes an endless cycle of throwing old dry-erase pens in the trash and preparing lessons on the finer points of gerunds. Combined with occasional city trips at the weekend and the demands of having to eat food and shower occasionally (occasionally), these things can relegate blog writing to the farthest back burner that can be found on the Great Stove of Life.

So, congratulations to all of you as well. You who stayed with me and waited diligently for this stuff to come deserve a round of e-applause, if you’re out there, and the future will see faster posting for both of our convenience. More adventures are on the way soon, and these shall come with the distinct flavor of Polish kielbasa sausage…

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Getting Luxorious — Jan. 23rd-25th

When I was a boy, I went on a family trip to Las Vegas that included a brief stopover at the glitzy gambling hall in Luxor Casino. As I was already obsessed with ancient Egyptian culture, nothing fascinated me more than wandering below the structure’s immense black glass ceiling and gazing up at the shiny graphite-laden columns that encapsulated the place. The experience set some pretty high standards for what real ancient Egypt would look like, and the subconscious connection between “Luxor” and the word “luxury” was firmly established in my mind.

Alas, I have recently discovered that the authentic Luxor, also known by its ancient Greek name Thebes, is not a glorified nightclub with 2,000 slot machines and 87 card tables for your gambling pleasure—truly tragic news. Plus, the name Luxor doesn’t even have anything to do with high class living—it’s just messed up way of saying “al-qusur”, which is Arabic for “the fortifications”. But the real Luxor is definitely still an entertaining place to spend money, albeit without the strippers and excess booze, and nothing can beat the authentic taste of ancient culture that it offers at its huge amount of funerary sites and temples.

If I had to pinpoint a single place in Egypt where you can best see what all the commotion is about the country’s magnificent history, Luxor would be on the other side of my outstretched index finger. There are enough worthwhile sightseeing options to spend 4+ days in the area, not counting excursions to temples north or south of Luxor along the Nile, so I’ve listed a few of my favorite places to filter this process below:

1) Bewilderingly-enormous Karnak Temple, home to gigantic columns that resemble mini-factory stacks made of sandstone, is an exercise in personal humility as you cower beneath the mighty work of people long dead but still revered for their power. The additions of Thutmose, some of the Ramseses, and other kings over time have given the complex an eclectically-styled sprawl that is quite enjoyable to wander around in. The halls all have different characters, making it a premier destination for those who enjoy architectural history.
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Be sure to get to the site early in the morning, before hordes of cruise ship Russians, Spaniards, and Chinese arrive to blot out the sunshine from your good times. A guide of some sort, audio or book, would also be advisable in order to help you understand the wacky-but-fascinating development of the palace.

2) Hatshepsut Temple is an Indiana Jones film set waiting to happen. Situated under the fiery cliffs of the Theban hills, the site is a graceful testament to one of Egypt’s best pharaohs and one of history’s most powerful female rulers. Queen Hatshepshut ruled alone for 21 years and improved Egypt’s trade relations with other countries, using this peace dividend to spend a heck of a lot of time building grand projects dedicated to gods and, of course, herself. This temple is the result of that hard effort and I highly recommend a visit. The ramps leading up to the temple and its unique geographic setting give it a wonder that would be a pity for a visitor to miss out on.

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3) South of Hatshepsut Temple by a few kilometers, the Valley of the Workers is a seemingly-dilapidated collection of destroyed mud huts, a single old temple, and a few holes leading to underground tombs. Don’t be deceived, though: this place has magic. Just out of sight in the coolness of the tombs’ interiors, you can find some of the most excellent examples of surviving Egyptian art open to tourists. The Valley was home to the artisans of the pharaoh, including his court painters, and the gentlemen who had this title spent plenty of time perfecting their own tombs with vivid reliefs. Thus, in burial chambers of men like Sennedjem, the work is a joy to admire, especially because of the intimacy that the close quarters provide. You’ll definitely be struck by the gleaming yellow on the walls and the amazing freshness of the images depicting daily life in ancient Egypt, which are all original and have not had any restoration. I was induced into a trance of cosmic satisfaction by staring at these images, still bursting with life 3000 years on, for about ten minutes while a turbaned attendant stared at me like I was a bit nuts for spending more than sixty seconds down there.

The Valley of the Workers is more interesting than this photo Not the best preserved relief, but still pretty good

Sennedjem’s tomb — not my photo (Props to the Great Belzoni)

Though touring these treasures is a treat, be careful to respect their openness and refrain from touching the walls. Every year that tourists visit an Egyptian tomb, that location’s paintings lose a fraction of their beauty due to a microbial fungus emitted from human breathing that eats the paint. So, sticking your grubby digits all over what amounts to be a priceless work of humanity makes you not much better than a destructive microbe!

4) Medinat Habu, my last place to recommend, is simply big. Big walls surround a succession of big courtyards that are hemmed in by big columns. Luckily for you, the only thing that is lacking in size here are the crowds, who steer clear of the place and leave it in wonderful isolation.

Large and Unfortunately Not Free of Charge

Ramses III built the temple in the 12th century for himself, no surprise, and the blocky structure communicates the military prowess he used to crush a series of foreign invasions from the Sea Peoples and various other upstarts. One graphic relief depicts his army counting vanquished foes from Libya by piling up their severed hands and cut-off penises (hope they were dead beforehand!).

IMG_1104 Pretty Cool Right

The area seems to be much less visited than any of the other places in Luxor, like the Valley of the Kings or Luxor Temple, and that is definitely an added advantage to visiting. I bought a white chocolate ice cream bar from a nearby shop and just sauntered around the grounds of this goliath construction for about an hour until closing. So, grab a snack and get wandering!

To Sum Up:
There you have it: four places that deserve your remaining Egyptian pounds before you fly home, head to the Red Sea for scuba-diving, or get lost in the desert to the south. I purposefully left out the Valley of the Kings and a few other popular sights because there is enough information about them elsewhere. Plus, their stuffy crowds and the level of tourist control in these places can be a real put-off compared to the more isolated sights at Medinat Habu and the Valley of the Workers. Karnak and Hapshetsut may get traffic but their charms more than make up for the feeling that you are at an outdoor moshpit in the horrible alternate reality of Mosdridjing.

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Anti-Tout Bootcamp: Egypt Edition

The last days I spent amid the sands of sun-parched Egypt, I was in the tourist capital of Luxor doing two very important things: a) enjoying ancient history to the point of mental illness, like I always do, and b) conducting a groundbreaking scientific study on which strategies are the best for turning away Egyptian hawkers, with me as both the subject and tester. Pursuit A can simply be discussed through pictures and captions, but B deserves a complete exposition for the sake of expanding humanity’s knowledge base and the future well-being of unwitting tourists who will need to cross 500 meters of infested Egyptian boardwalk without breaking down in tears or going to jail for assault. I came close to both, so there’s no need for anyone else to suffer! My paper on the experience will be coming to a scientific journal near you soon, but until then I’ve reproduced the meat of it on my blog for your convenience.

Below are five rigorously-tested tactics to parry the verbal advances of the dreaded Tout, ranked on a scale of 3, estimated for average time consumption by seconds, and accompanied by a helpful explanation. And all of these methods were accompanied by a purposeful forward walking speed, without any unnecessary stopping along the way. If I had stood still, they would still be holding me up today.

Oh, and ground rule number one: TRUST NO ONE.

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“No Thank You”:
 ♠ ♠ ♠ 5 seconds
By far the best way to shut down a tout without a struggle, a simple “no thank you” with a determined stride forward will have you freed up quickly. Giving eye contact to the man will add at least five more seconds to the situation, as he will then think you are instantly more persuadable. Just look ahead, give him the Arabic “La Shukran”, and keep marching. Arabic is the key here—throw in a “Khalas!” (Enough!) if he persists and you’re good as gold.

Silence: ♠ 30 seconds
Maybe not saying anything to a random man who wants to sell you shit you don’t want is your instinctive reaction due to annoyance or shyness, but this tactic really doesn’t work as well as the first, especially if you’re alone. By not talking back, the tout believes you are listening to him — like you’re his freaking psychologist! So he will give you the full run-down of his marginal services and will only leave once he is tired of talking or has gone beyond his general selling turf. Looking at him in the eye will double your wasted time to a minute, easily, because then you really seem sympathetic to his pathetic deals.

Whistling like R2D2: ♠ 20 seconds
One day, the sun fried my brain so much that I thought I was a three-legged servitor-bot from Tatooine.  So, how does the average hawker handle modulating whistles as answers to questions? He doesn’t handle them: he becomes confused and the remaining grey matter in his crusty skull lights on fire. Some of his ilk may instantly back off from you, others may look at you like you are insane—let’s face it, you kind of are—but nobody will play along and have a nice old robo-chat with you. Thus, if you’re at the edge of madness and you’re good at whistling or love Star Wars, this is a potential option.

Insulting the Person: Varies Depending on Whether Mother is Mentioned and/or Occurrence of Physical Conflict
Every male tourist out there feels some sort of aggression when exposed to persistent touts, but please gentlemen, just bottle that fury up and tear a pillow apart with your bare hands back at the Four Seasons. You get three per bed there, anyway! Trading insults only happens when you can’t control yourself, which is a sign of a person of poor character, like me. I did this twice on my trip. I mentioned the first time a few posts ago, and the second was after a full day of hawkers asking me if I wanted to buy marijuana. Now, how could this make you crazy? Well, if being profiled ceaselessly for an illegal product that somehow all of your friends avoid being offered doesn’t make you grumpy, just imagine this whispered into your ear about 20 times a day in horrible Eengleesh:

SMOK MAREEWAANA?
HAASHEESH?
DA MAREEWAANA?

DA HAASHEESH?
YOU WAN
HAASHEESH?
SMOK DA MAREEWAANA?
YOU LIKE HAASHEESH?
GOOD PRIGHS HAASHEESH?
YES MAREEWAANA? YES HAASHEESH?

Therefore, it was only natural that I answered one group of offending young hawkers by pointing a finger and declaring “You all smoke too much marijuana.”

They got angry. “YOU DIE!” came from one of the teens, to which I turned around and responded “YOU DIE! YOU DIE!” with a ridiculous accent, flailing my arms about like a fool. Luckily, no fight happened, but I probably just created three new members of a Westerner head-sawing terrorist cell that will be declaring jihad on The Imperialistic Great Satan as soon as they get enough cash for plane tickets to Pakistan. My bad.

The point is this: try not to get in a spar with a hawker. Especially do not mention anything related to Islam or their mothers. In that case, they’ll forget all about selling you that camel ride and probably offer you a neck-choking for free.

Talking About Particle Physics Education: 900 seconds
The final tactic involves taking a hawker and, with full eye contact, hand gestures, and expressions, delivering a riveting lecture on the mysteries of particle physics one quark and boson at a time. You can dive into any aspect of the field you feel is most valuable for a carriage ride salesman; I personally chose a discussion of the Large Hadron Collider and opportunities for international cooperative research on studying particle collision. Well, the fellow was rapt for about ten full minutes, walking a full kilometer with me and trying to add some irrelevant point about “Is very cheap” right when I was pontificating about recent efforts to detect the Higgs Boson at CERN. Once I’d made the basics of the field known, I recommended that he scrap his carriage business and use the cash for a bachelor’s in Physics at an esteemed European university. “With hard work,” I said, “you can even land an internship in Switzerland with the world’s best physicists!”

Well folks, this may not be the best way to shed a vexatious hawker, but if you want some interesting entertainment for fifteen minutes, spread the joy of physics to a tout. If you’re lucky, he’ll be so bothered by your deep questions, he’ll never talk to tourists ever again!

There you have my hard-earned research and all its illuminations for you, ready to be used by any future traveler to this fascinating country. If someone gives the “uhhhh” method a try–after every statement say uhhhh–I’d love to know how that goes, so please message me with any statistical analysis and/or results.

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Rest a While, In Style, on the Nile — January 21st-23rd

If you ask the average backpacker why they drag themselves through absolutely squalid accommodations and transport on their trips abroad, the answer is usually that it saves money. Keeping as much cash as possible in the unpredictably-expensive game of travel is the primary reason why people can be found catching atrocious sleep in 32-person hostel rooms where two of the crowd are having bunk-creaking drunk sex and six are snoring like machine guns. It’s why intrepid Western college students visiting Whereverstan crowd onto dangerously-packed local buses, some mechanical time-bombs bequeathed by previous colonial overlords, for cramp-inducing half day journeys on roads that feel similar to getting a body massage by an enraged silverback. And it’s the motivation for me, since I haven’t struck gold teaching English or finding a bag of Viking gems in my backyard, to go on the rougher side of the railroad tracks when I’m on the road. Skimping on the unnecessaries is not just my modus operandi, by my credo. That’s just a wankerish way to say I really avoid expensive stuff.

But good news for all of you who would rather be in the sauna drinking whisky at the Ritz-Carlton than stepping on tarantulas in your infested 4 dollars-a-night pension room: a place called post-revolution mid-chaos Egypt exists! What on earth could that mean? Well, right now, you have the unparalleled opportunity to get fantastically low-priced 4-star resort hotel rooms, tours, and other services just by showing up and showing off a bit of hard bargaining. Western tourist traffic has fled from huge tracts of the country due to fears of instability and Islamism, both of which are actually non-issues for tourists, and locals are now desperate for cash. It’s hard to celebrate this all without sounding disgustingly exploitative, but seriously, cut the whitebread scaredy-cat “Muslims are DANGEROUS” bullshit and come to Egypt for your next holiday. You can save money and have a hell-of-a-good-time here. Just be careful about those balloons (Kapadokya in Turkey is better than Luxor, anyway).

My trip was filled with plenty of solid deals, but the best one I walked away with was an awesome three-day, two-night riverboat cruise from Aswan to Luxor. For 150 bucks, the price of one night in many American hotels, I got:

  • All-you-can-eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner—check.
  • Gleaming private bathroom for a stinky backpacker—check.
  • Two double beds (If you want to make a fort, like me)—check.
  • Totally glorious sundeck and swimming pool—check.
  • Unforgettable passage down the timeless Nile with stops at epic archeological sites—check.

It was an un-passable bargain. Originally, I had been planning to hire some soft-spoken Nubian guy named “Honey Bunny”—I kid you not—to take me down the river in his felucca for an indeterminate amount of time until the wind pushed our boat into the banks north of Luxor. Not only was that more expensive than the riverboat option, but without a speedy southerly wind it could have been an abject failure. Nothing would have ruined my holiday more than missing my plane back to Poland and getting stuck on a glorified rowboat with Captain Sugar Hare. Except for dying while trying to get off said vessel.

In all my experiences going from foreign A to foreign B, that river boat interlude was undoubtedly the most luxurious I’ve ever had. I even felt excessive just lying there on my double bed(s), everything clean, no lingering cigarette smells and no wall-stains, so I spent my time on the sun-deck chilling with a groovy English bloke from Yorkshire by the name of James. He was courteous enough to share a few G&Ts with me, and by a good stroke of luck we discovered that we both harbored quite a skeptical streak regarding religion, pseudoscience, and the Evil Powers of Unreality and Antireason. So our conversations were thoughtful and far more interesting than I could have hoped for on the ship, and things got better when we met up with a spritely pair of Argentine ladies, a girl named Sigrid and her aunt, and went out to Luxor for shopping one night. Alas, the cruise wasn’t long enough to disconnect from reality forever, and I had to trudge down the gangplank and bid farewell on the 23rd. Smashing two nights though, nonetheless.

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I may have hyped up the low cost of the trip, but you really can’t slap a price-tag on the ability to make time irrelevant to your ability to enjoy yourself. Even when people are travelling on an average holiday, keeping track of time becomes utterly essential for the day’s progression, transforming itself into a bothersome fetish that blocks your dopamine receptors with its anal-retentive girth. Example:

Marge: “Look Roger, let’s take a quick stroll through that beautiful park—“
Roger: “FUCKIN’ MARGE THE GODDAMN TRAIN LEAVES IN FORTY NINE MINUTES AND THREE SECONDS, IF WE GO AT AN AVERAGE WALKING SPEED OF 2.3 MILES PER HOUR AND THE STATION IS 3 MILES AWAY WE’RE SCREWED WOMAN AGGHGHAHAGHH ***Old white guy mouth-frothing***

That’s why boat trips are awesome: you get on, mindlessly eat food, and then chill until you have to mindlessly eat food again and then chill. Everybody needs a bit of that to stay sane in our hyperactively minute-minded world, so I recommend a lazy cruise down the watery heart of Egypt for any person—no matter your budget—ready to “Turn off time and float upstream” as the Beatles put it. Or downstream, like me!

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