LUXOR: Stalked

It was so nice to wake up in a palatial room with an excellent bed and clean surroundings. It was like going home. My bedroom in Iowa is inspired by LA’s Chateau Marmont and I’m used to starting my mornings in a sumptuously gilded environment very much like this. My relief was overwhelming. Then I looked out the window and began to weep. After my adventures in the slums, this is exactly the kind of restoration I need.

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Breakfast was another joy. Instead of a weird scrambled egg and falafel, there was a huge selection of cereals and desserts and eggs and sides and freshly squeezed juices. The buffet goes on and on and on. I stuffed myself up and then headed out the door, excited for my first full day in Luxor.

I needed to go to Thomas Cook — a money office here at the hotel — and going down the stairs I managed to do something terrible to left foot. I was distracted by the army of taxi drivers who began shouting at me the moment I stepped out of the hotel’s front door. It was obnoxious. Anyway, I still can’t figure out what happened, but the pain was immense and intense and I was almost sure it was broken or at least sprained. It’s not, so don’t get worried, but I had a lot of trouble walking today.

The bank was wonderful. In Egypt, the ATMs all dispense large bills and most places won’t take large bills because they don’t have enough change. So you have to work to break down everything you get into twenties and fifties. It’s an immense pain. Getting coin or a five is like getting gold. They’re literally worth more than the number printed on them. I don’t understand this. The Egyptian people are quite poor, so I’m not sure why there is such a prevalence of big bills.

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My first destination of the day was the Luxor Museum, which is about a ten minute walk along the Nile. I didn’t think anything could possibly be lovelier, but it ended up being an absolutely ridiculous mess. Anywhere and everywhere you go, taxi drivers and caleche drivers and boat drivers run after you and try to get you into their vehicle. They will frantically scream down at you, “TOURISTS AREN’T ALLOWED ON THIS ROAD!” That’s a bunch of crap, mind you, they just want you to get in. “YOU WANT CALECHE RIDE? YOU KNOW HOW MUCH?” Then when you deny them, they follow you and constantly hassle you. It’s maddening.

I’m accustomed to it now, but every so often, one of these men are so shockingly forward that it’s appalling. They try to sell you drugs and other illicit substances. They offer to take you places that no gentleman would ever go and then make propositions that no upright citizen would ever agree to. They jump down from their carriages and force their business cards into your hands and literally beg. It’s unbelievable. I understand that there are no tourists in Luxor — when I go out, I literally see two or three other foreigners  — but you will never earn my business by annoying me. If I wanted to get in a taxi or a boat or a caleche, I would demand it.

Finally, I made it to the ticket booth of the museum and found myself blissfully away from the parade that had begun to follow me. It was such sweet relief.

The Luxor Museum is everything that the Egyptian Museum in Cairo needs to be. This one is organized, well lit, and there is a detailed information card beside each artifact. It’s informative and relaxing and very engaging. I loved it completely, even though the collection’s size is maybe 1/100 of the museum in Cairo.

My foot was feeling awful and I felt so foolish as I limped up and down the ramps. Thankfully, the great art and statuary took my mind off my pain. The Luxor Museum’s collection mainly comes from a hoard of statues discovered in the Luxor Temple in 1989. These pieces are absolutely amazing. There is a statue of Tuthmosis III that looks incredibly lifelike. I don’t know how long I stood there studying it. A crowd finally assembled behind me, so I reluctantly moved on. The next area was devoted to a few pieces from Tutankhamen’s tomb and to Akhenaten, so I had a fabulous time there analyzing the huge statues of that strange Pharaoh’s head.

There was one more room to see dedicated to writing and to two nice mummies. One is thought to be that of Ramses I. For over a hundred years, this mummy was displayed at one of those freak show museums you get in cities dedicated to tourism like Orlando. This one was in Niagara Falls and had been bought a century ago by the proprietor of the museum. It was only recently that DNA analysis proved that the mummy was of royal birth, so it was bought by a university in Georgia and then given back to Egypt where he was transported to his new resting place with all the honor, pomp, and splendor of a modern fallen leader.

I was reluctant to go back out into the hassle of the streets, but I had to get back to the hotel. Along the way, I stopped by a little shop to buy water and used my limited Arabic to haggle for a price. I managed to get five bottles for fifteen pounds. Not as cheap as a native would pay, but cheap enough for me. The single bottle I took out of the minibar this morning was eleven pounds, so I was feeling pretty smug.

I took winding back roads back to the Winter Palace and thankfully there weren’t many taxi drivers or irksome caleches to slow me down. There were only teenage boys that like to say, “HELLO! GIVE ME MONEY!” A begging culture is one I don’t understand.

Back at the hotel, I decided to take a look at my foot. As I removed my sock, I prepared myself for the worst. It was massively swollen and hurt like hell. Surprisingly, there is no bruise and I was fairly sure it wasn’t broken, so I was somewhat relieved. I thought I’d soak it in cold water for a while, but that’s not really something that exists in Egypt. You turn on the cold tap and alarmingly hot water comes out.

After freshening up, I went down to one of the hotels lounges and wrote some letters. I don’t write letters often enough and people don’t write me letters often enough. It’s so nice to get physical mail, I think. I always mean to resuscitate this dying art, but I constantly fail. Still, it was nice to scrawl out a note on thick stationary emblazoned with my hotel’s name.

On the walk upstairs to my room, I thought it might be best to just stay in. Why ruin my foot, you know? But, then my sensibilities got the better of me. Why should I waste a perfectly beautiful day in a place I’ve wanted to explore since I was a child? So I soldiered on and headed back out of the hotel to Luxor Temple. You can basically see it from the terrace, so it wasn’t too strenuous to get there.

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I loved it the moment I passed through the entrance. It’s a stunning structure, and has been constantly under restoration to its ancient grandeur since the late 1880s, when the French Professor Maspero began his excavations here. There are monumental structures everywhere you look and the massive pillars that line the hypostyle halls are bewilderingly lovely. I had about two minutes to enjoy this, though, before the stalking began.

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I swear there is a conspiracy to prevent me from enjoying myself. I had to shake off three guides within ten minutes. They were endlessly infuriating in their varied attempts to get my money. Finally, I asked one to sit down so that I could go over his credentials. They were about as real as a jackalope. I was still willing to let him try and prove himself to me, but when he couldn’t even phonetically read the hieroglyphic tattoo I have on my arm, that was that. This interview process seems to have stopped the guides, but it doesn’t stop the other groups.

I haven’t figured out this particular scheme, yet, but I don’t trust it. All over the temple are groups of young boys from about 10 to 15 years old. They have very old digital cameras (that I don’t think work) and constantly come up to you and ask if they can take their photo with you. You constantly refuse and this annoys them. I don’t know what they’re getting at or how they think this is going to make them money.

The last scam is the one that worries me the most. In fact, it was quite alarming and rather like being in a horror film. When I travel, I carry a Moleskine journal on my person at all times so that I can take notes about my day and write down questions I might have to look up later. I’ll find a quiet place to sit and scratch out my ideas. I was doing this in a rather desolated room with a fallen pillar and was content to be by myself for a few moments. I heard a slight sound, so I looked up and nearly screamed. Surrounding me was a poor family — parents, children, grandparents — and all of them were staring at me. None of them said a thing. None of them tried to move toward me or away, but having them just a few feet away from my person was incredibly alarming. I have excellent hearing, by the way, so how did they manage to sneak up on me like that? Incredibly shaken, I got up and left. They didn’t move at all. I looked back on my retreat and they were all in the same spot, following me with their eyes.

I’ll get on with a description of the temple in a moment, but I haven’t finished with these strangely silent Egyptians. Whenever I was contemplating a relief or a statue or a fallen obelisk, I’d look up and they’d be off in the distance, standing in a row, staring at me, not moving or saying a word. It was honestly one of the more unnerving things I’ve ever gone through.

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Aside from these irritations that seem to be unavoidable at ancient Egyptian sites, I had a remarkable time here. There is just so much history in this temple. It’s not the largest in Egypt, but I think it might be one of the most beautiful. Inside the shrines and at the top of pillars where the ravages of time and sand and human hands couldn’t reach, the original colors blaze with amazing intensity. I can’t imagine how striking it would be to see the temple in its original state.

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It’s wonderful to wander through the various halls and chambers. There is a huge obelisk here, too, and it was quite a thrill to remember that its twin now stands at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Maybe that’s why I like Luxor Temple so much?

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I’d finally had enough of the hassle, so I walked down to the end of the Avenue of the Sphinxes. In ancient times, there was a 2.5 kilometer road that stretched from Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple. It’s still there, of course, buried beneath the sand and waste and debris from millennia of human habitation. Many of the sphinxes have been stolen or purchased or destroyed, so restoring them is quite a process. The government has decided to restore the entire length of the road, which will be quite something when it’s complete. It has created an uproar in the community, though. As the centuries have passed, people have built homes and businesses and schools and all sorts of things on this ancient road. When the government demolishes these structures to begin their archaeological excavation and restoration, they are going to be removing quite a lot of history that is truly just as important as the ancient ones buried beneath. I’m not sure what my thoughts on this are; I won’t deny that I think it will be a stunning thing when complete. I talked to some longtime guests of the Winter Palace the other night and they weren’t thrilled by the idea. They said it represents a whitewashing of the modern culture in preference to the ancient — something that has been happening a lot in Luxor.

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When I was down there, finally away from the throng and at my ease since I was truly alone and I was nearly certain that no eerily silent beggars were going to appear, I had time to collect my thoughts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the lack of tourism in Egypt and I’ve been trying to come up with some solutions to this very serious problem plaguing their nation. It’s our fault, but it’s their fault, too. We’re all to blame for this mess, but nobody seems to be trying to fix it, which is something that is really bothering me. I will say flat out that there is no reason to avoid Egypt. It’s safe and welcoming and usually friendly. Of course you meet some less than stellar characters, but you’d do that anywhere. But anyway, here is my four point system for the rejuvenation of Egypt:

  1. We must get rid of the beggars and hustlers and sellers at tourist attractions and historical sites. These are called “touts” here and I don’t like that word at all for some reason. I understand that they make their living by selling cheap trinkets to tourists, but this can be done in a way that doesn’t intimidate the shopper. Instead of chasing tourists and shouting hostilely, why not have a cozy little shop — a tent a stall or something? Allow the guests to look at the wares and decide what they want. Of course the vendor can still talk and try and persuade, but there needs to be a move away from the sometimes aggressive haggling.
  2. At each ancient site, have a designated area for guides. These guides should have clear prices for their services and official training. Most of the guides I’ve come across have identification cards that they are very willing to show you, but they obviously come off of a home printer. I’m no fool. A guide can be invaluable, I won’t deny that, but there needs to be a standard of quality and pricing.
  3. Non-flash photography must be allowed in all areas. I can understand why they refuse flash photography, but in this modern era, there is no reason to ban digital cameras or the ever-present cell phone. Our culture lives and communicates through technology and photography and it is absolutely maddening to be unable to share. A photo won’t stop somebody from coming to Egypt.
  4. Finally, something must be done for the people. Egypt is in a prime location to be a world-class superpower, but they do not take advantage of their blessings. Instead, the people rely on tourism and the money that this provides. I am constantly amazed that they just sit back and wait for the tourists to return. Back home, and I’d like to think that in most other places, if something doesn’t work, we’d try to fix it or move on. This tourism slump has gone on for three years. Wouldn’t you try to find a different job? I’ve read that there are no jobs, though, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why the Egyptian government doesn’t initiate a program like Roosevelt did with Public Works Administration. There are so many things that could be done! They could build solar plants and wind farms and the Nile is a constant source of hydroelectric power. They could train the laborers in restoration work and get back to work on the sites. They could build public housing for the people living in poverty. They could start new industries that I can’t even imagine. I just don’t understand why something isn’t being done.

As I stood up from where I’d been sitting by a crumbling sphinx, all the lights in Luxor Temple came on and it was bathed in a soft glow. The change was transformative and absolutely stunning. I wandered one last time through the complex before heading off to find some dinner.

I’d read about a very highly rated restaurant called The Jewel of the Nile which serves a reasonably priced vegetarian dinner. I was thrilled about that. It wasn’t too hard to find, but it was closed. Why it was closed is an absolute mystery to me.

In great irritation, I thought back to the restaurant reviews I’d studied and remembered that another place was supposedly on this same street, so I kept my eyes peeled for Snobs and found it with no problem. I was ushered in like I was the Messiah. And, since there was literally nobody else in the joint, I suppose I was. I can’t understand how anywhere here stays in business.

When I said that I was vegetarian, the chef delightedly told the waiter to tell me that he would prepare me a feast. This alarmed me at first — how much was this going to cost — but their enthusiasm to have me was so sweet that I consented. The waiter went on to tell me that the chef used to be the private chef for the King of Saudi Arabia and his family. I looked it up later, it’s very true. How often has a king’s chef ever made you dinner? Once or twice?

Soon, he brought me course after course and each was very nice. There was a yogurt salad to begin with and it was extraordinarily tasty. The soup course wasn’t extraordinary, but it wasn’t bad. The main course was a tagine of roasted vegetables over rice and it was perfectly good. I had such a nice time and they were all so happy for me to be there. Maybe a little too happy. They basically pleaded for my return. I’ll go back, I’m sure, it was unreasonably affordable for what I received (less than 100 pounds) but I still have other places I want to try.

Fully stuffed, I waddled back to the Palace and soaked in the tub.

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