LUXOR: Driving With Shakespeare

It’s been hard for me to write my blogs about Egypt for many reasons. Of course because I procrastinate. And I live three lives every day. But it’s mainly because I am still not home. In my mind, I’m forever in Luxor, lazily sailing to the West Bank, shuffling through temples, being dined by Debbie and driven by Shakespeare. I’m getting breakfast at the Palace and being treated like a prince, walking through the gardens, hunting down Chicago House, and mapping the streets. I talk a lot about places that are special to me, and I mean it wholeheartedly each time. Paris is my hometown. Turin is my playground. But Luxor is my soul and my essence. It’s intoxicating, and I’m hazy still. I want you to experience the wonder of the Nile and the majesty of the Middle East the way that I did. Egypt was a gift in ways that I worry I’ll never be able to explain. That sandy nation fundamentally shaped me as a child, and as an adult, it has seduced me. Being in Egypt is like being swaddled in cashmere. America is fine, and I adore what she stands for, but I’m forever an expat at heart. I should be bopping between Paris and Luxor. Springtimes in Paris and winter on the Nile. It’ll be my reality someday. Not yet.

I almost don’t want to go over the minutiae of my trip because that might kill the revery I’ve lived in since landing in Africa. But this is my sacred duty to you, and I truly love travel writing, so come along with me to the most magical place on Earth. And just a head’s up, these posts are going to be long, philosophical, sentimental, and stuffed to bursting with me losing my shit over stuff that probably means nothing to you. I get that, but stick with me. I’ll make you all Egyptologists yet.

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I was roused much earlier than I wanted to be roused by the kindly staff wanting to clean my rooms. They couldn’t get through the numerous locks that were hooked to the door, praise Allah, so I was able to avoid being caught sleeping the morning away. In retrospect, I’m glad they tried so repeatedly to get in because it had me up in time to make it to the sumptuous breakfast buffet. Barely conscious, but still thoughtful enough to remember to never order coffee at the Winter Palace (trust me on this, reader), I happily sipped on several cups of Russian Earl Grey tea and nibbled on eggs and feta and grapes and ful medames and fresh orange juice and bread and everything. I filled myself up to the point where I had to waddle back to the elevator. It was fabulous. I rarely, if ever, eat breakfast back home. But life is different in Egypt. I eat a huge breakfast and a huge dinner and nothing at all in between. It works out just fine and suits me down to the ground.

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After relaxing and digesting a bit, I went on a long walk through the gardens. Outside of the majestic sunken pool at Kensington Palace in London, these are the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever strolled through. The tallest palm trees stretch up to heaven, fruit trees of all variety are laden with nibbles, the huge pool stands empty, an aviary full of colorful birds greets you as you pass, a lush corner stands ready for you to smoke shisha, paths wind around bushes and trees and the occasional gardener who goes out of their way to make you feel like a royal guest.

I had to sit down for a moment in one of the subtly placed benches to gather my composure. It was very hot, and I loved feeling the sun scorching me. (I didn’t get a sunburn once on this Egyptian excursion, reader, so you must be very proud of me.) I felt good, and I had to focus my thoughts because I had an overwhelming sense of contentment. This is so different from being happy. Happiness is fleeting, it is an ephemeral sentiment, and it only lasts until your next emotion comes along. Contentment is much more overwhelming. It pervades all of your thoughts. I felt like this from that moment to the day my plane touched back down in Chicago.

It was like remembering something I had long forgotten, that feeling that washed over me in Egypt. I was back home, even though I was thousands of miles from my bed and friends and family. I was an Egyptian. I knew it with the full force of my soul. I knew it from the depths of my heart. As I type this out to you, I know it to be as true as the moment I first realized it. I hope that you all find this place, that moment, the wonderful feeling of being home far from home. It’s addictive and brings you so much peace.

And I had to get out into the world and see it all. I was ready for anything and everything. I didn’t plan on my life changing again so quickly, though, but magic happens in Egypt like few places I’ve ever been.

Walking up the iconic marble staircase that winds up the levels of the Winter Palace, I thought of all the wonderful weeks I still had in Egypt and tried to pick the first thing to cross of my list. A sudden image of Florence Nightingale flashed into my mind, which is a rather peculiar thing. I recalled a book I had read earlier in the year entitled A Winter on the Nile. It’s about a strange coincidence where Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse, and Gustave Flaubert, the famous novelist, both sailed up the Nile the same winter without bumping into each other. Neither of them were famous, yet, and both were actively searching for what it was that they were meant to do with their lives. Florence struggled with the role of women and her inability to pursue her passions, and found solace in Egypt. She still had her existential crises, but she found remarkable pleasure in the small temple of Seti I. It was rarely visited back then, and even at the height of Egyptian tourism, it wasn’t a staple of the traditional Luxor tour. So, I hadn’t been, but now that I had seen most of the sights, I wanted to experience what Florence had.

I could have easily got a taxi to take me across the river and to the temple, but that didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to be the typical Western tourist. I felt quite fully that I was an Egyptian, even though I don’t know more than a handful of phrases in Arabic. So I decided to try something I was too frightened to try on my last trip here — and thinking back on the things that used to alarm me makes me giggle today — so I broke down some money into much smaller notes for the public ferry and left the hotel for the first time.

The only inconvenience of staying at the Winter Palace is exiting. Immediately, tour guides, boat pilots, taxi drivers, and the poor assail you begging for business and baksheesh. After being a guest for a while, they learn your preferences and your willingness to support them and will leave you alone for the most part, but this takes a solid week. At first, you are fresh meat, and they all wanted a piece of me. I couldn’t shake them, but I didn’t grow frustrated as I did last time. I understand these people more now. I knew what I had to do.

I shook the hand of a man who had taken Hillary Clinton down the Nile. I didn’t believe him at first, since these peddlers will say literally anything to get you onto their boat. But lo and behold, there was a picture of Captain Tarek beaming next to Mrs. Clinton. He wanted to take me to Banana Island and sail to Esna and take me to different sites on the West Bank and guide me to the best restaurants on that side of the city. I listened to his spiel, drank sweet mint tea, and said nothing affirmative. Taking his card like the golden ticket that it was, I got off the boat and made my way down to the ferry.

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I was unreasonably enthused about the ferry. But since it was something that I had never done in my life, I was wary. We are all nervous, I believe, about the things we have never experienced before. I was scared to death when I drove to work for the first few times. I was panicked when I had to navigate Paris before I knew it. I would have rather stayed in my hotel than explore Los Angeles. Fear overwhelms a lot of people unreasonably, and though I’ve had a truly remarkable time, I get this, I’ve felt the same way. Looking back on the anxiety boarding the ferry gave me makes me chuckle in retrospect.

Descending the staircase to the lower level of the Corniche, the name for the walking area along the Nile, I was assailed by felucca captains and ferry boats. They all wanted my business, of course, but I was intent on the ferry. It was not a challenge to find the ferry, either, golds and blues and fantastically inaccurate paintings of ancient Egyptian deities.

I handed £5 LE (just over fifty cents) to the wizened old man who sat before the gangplank. He smiled at me and waved me aboard. I smiled back at him and waited. He shrugged in that Arabic way, and chuckled as he handed me back £4 in change. Tourists only have to pay one pound. The locals pay much, much less than this already insignificantly smile fee. For the equivalent of a dime, then, a tourists can cross the Nile and enjoy a very pleasant five minute cruise over the cool water.

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I quickly grew obsessed. It was so nice to be with the real Egyptians. So many travelers to this beleaguered nation are wary of the people because they don’t take the time to learn the customs. And their inability to speak Arabic paralyzes them. I’ve never been bothered by not speaking the language. You can get by with a blending of English, French, German, and a smattering of hand gestures. It was fantastic to sit on the top deck, admiring the people in their robes of various colors, the youths in their Western garb, the things they were bringing back with them from across the river. They smoked and chatted and made phone calls, and it was just a magnificent anthropological study. And it was even better because if you’re on the ferry, you’re usually just one of the crowd. They know that you know Luxor well enough to take their local transportation instead of a private boat or a taxi, so you’re somewhat respected. And you are allowed to enjoy the blissful ride over the most famous river in the world. And did I ever. I would have crossed the Nile all day and never tired of the spectacle of children leaping off the boat onto the dock before the ferry even is tied down. There are no safety prohibitions like back home, which is oddly charming.

When I touched foot on the West Bank, I was immediately assailed by a barrage of taxi drivers all wanting my business.

“How much for Seti Temple?” I asked several times without getting the kind of answer I wanted, so I walked away. This drives Egyptians insane. A cluster had gathered round, but one finally said something reasonable and we bartered over the price. It was still more than I had hoped to pay, but it was really next to nothing to have him be my driver for the afternoon, so I consented.

Walking along the riverside to his car, I could not have predicted how fond I would grow of this tall, lean Egyptian man in his dusty blue galabeya. He smiled and kept quoting lines from Shakespeare such as, “To be, or not to be? That is the question!” “What fools these mortals be!” “Double double toil and trouble.” I found this running dialogue to be remarkable and asked his name.

“Shakespeare is my name.” He chuckled, but I persisted. Shakespeare is hardly a common Arabic name. His true name is Hassan and we really hit it off at once. I can’t explain why we should do so. Life is strange, and the people that walk into your life often do so for reasons you’ll never fully understand. So, I got into his car, and he didn’t stop talking all the way out of the village. He talked about girls and cigarettes and his family and Egypt, and I talked about my work and my interests. He was genuinely delighted by my love of his country, and I think that really helped. He passed me a Cleopatra cigarette and we were fast friends.

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At the ticket office, I bought my pass for the Temple of Seti I for £20 and we were off to the site. Like Florence Nightingale before me, I found the temple completely deserted. The guardian was asleep on the sandy floor of the entrance, and seemed genuinely shocked that I was there. He took my ticket with glee and walked me out. I knew from previous experience that he would dog me the entire time, misinterpret the images, and then expect baksheesh. Having learned that valuable lesson, I kept a bunch of £10 and £5 notes in my back pocket to buy favors and get rid of people. I spent most of my baksheesh money on getting rid of guards. I smiled, told him I wanted to walk alone, and shook his hand. He got the message, beamed (as this was surely more than he made in a day) and left me in peace. And I had all of it to myself.

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I wouldn’t have been surprised to bump into Florence or Seti himself. The temple was wonderfully removed from the modern world.

Walking down the entrance lined with palm trees, the call to prayer sounded, and the magic of Egypt descended on me again. Amongst the ruins of a millennia-old temple, the azan began, and I sat and listened, my heart quite overjoyed at the prospect of an empty temple, kindly people, and hours to spend enjoying hieroglyphs.

I was rapturously content from the moment I entered the temple and slowly walked through what remained of the rooms. I climbed heaps of rocks for better views, I scribbled furiously in my journal, I photographed interesting inscriptions, and I luxuriated in solace.

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Every surface was riddled with texts.

Taking a rest, I sat down beside a column and admired the paintings of Seti being blessed by a pantheon of gods. The temple is hardly the best preserved, but it has become one of my favorites because a rather special thing happened in that spot.

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Staring into the inscriptions, I realized that I got the gist. I understood the basics. I couldn’t have translated everything, but my long and intensive self study of hieroglyphs has started to pay off. And when I looked at one of the cartouches of Seti, it said to me, clearly as if it were English or French, “The beloved of Ptah, Seti.” I felt how Champollion must have all those centuries ago when this language finally clicked for him. It’s an overwhelming sense of privilege.

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The guardian appeared and we sat in amicable silence for quite some time, smiling, gesturing, saying nothing. He was a kind old man. I was at peace.

I found Hassan where I had left him and we decided to rest for a while before heading to the Colossi of Memnon and the recently reconstructed Amenhotep statues. So he took me to a dusty cafe next to the Ramesseum that was operated by the Rasul family, who I assume must have some connection to the infamous Rasuls of the 1870s who located the remarkable niche of royal mummies. I was charmed by this at once and agreed to have a beer.

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I don’t drink beer. I don’t smoke cigarettes. But I did in Egypt. And it was marvelous. A big glass of Stella is truly the perfect relief after a day in the heat and sand. I was converted at once. And there is truly something remarkably relaxing about slowly smoking a cigarette. Hassan and I talked about a great number of things, things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but make a lot of sense now. I’ll touch on them later in my series of posts on Egypt. He chatted about life, his love of the world, his belief in the basic goodness of people, his disgust that groups like ISIL exist, his family, and more.

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Smiling, he told me that he had intended to stay home that day, but for some reason, he felt that he had to go drive his taxi. He thought that it was so that he could help me so that we could be friends. At that point, I thought he was just saying something like that because I was his customer, but over the next two weeks, I came to know that Hassan is one of the most honest men I’ve ever met, and one of the kindest, too.

We finished another beer and watched the sun disappear behind the Valley of the Nobles, and I was transported. The sunlight in Egypt is golden. Everything sparkles and shines, and it’s little wonder that the ancient people felt that the skin of their gods was made of gold. I was close to believing that Ra still shone down on the land, that Hapi controlled the Nile, that Nut spread her body across the sky, that Set roamed the desert, and that Isis was flitting from one end of the nation to the next looking for the scattered bits of her husband’s body. As the sun sank, the colors intensified, blood orange and sienna and red, and it was utterly magnificent. The hills were purple, then grey, then black. Then there was nothing but stars in those skies, looking for all the world that it was three thousand years ago and we were ancient Egyptians.

Hassan insisted that I visit his home and see his house, and I said yes at once. In the past, I never would, I would be too timid or worried or anxious, but I most certainly was not now. He took me on a narrow dirt road that cut through sugarcane fields, took a turn over a small irrigation canal, and then we drove by several dig houses. This thrilled me. It is in these dwellings that the archaeologists came to stay in the Egyptian winter, and where I hope to work someday. Hassan lives very near in a large house that was not entirely prepossessing from the outside. It is tall and the upper level is unfinished, massive quantities of rebar stretch up to the heavens in the dim lighting, but Hassan is very proud of his home.

I was welcomed in as Hassan informed his family that he had company. And then they all filed in like some Egyptian form of The Sound of Music. There were seven children from five to seventeen, and all of them introduced themselves to me in Arabic. I couldn’t do the same, so I just said hello and “salaam.” Lastly, I met Hassan’s wife, who beamed to have me in her home and welcomed me with incredible grace. She was close to giving birth to their next child, but was still actively engaged in maintaining the house, which they had only recently built. She sat me down in one of the rooms and hurried off to make tea while Hassan and I chatted about his home.

It was a chaotic mess, but it has such potential. I mean it has a marble staircase, reader. The ceilings are shockingly high, and there is moulding on every surface. And the best part of all is the location. Forgetting about the tea for a minute, he led me up three flights of steps to the unfinished top level. And there, my breath was quite taken away. The Valley of the Nobles was illuminated and it was stunning. The Colossi of Memnon were visible in the distance. It was shockingly beautiful, and I had the greatest pang of longing in my soul. I wanted to live here. I wanted to be an Egyptian and have this view and this life. I was jealous of Hassan and his family. I would be overwhelmed with eight children, but they were all remarkably well behaved.

The tea was ready and we had the nicest time talking before taking off to the ferry.

After he parked the car and walked me to the ferry dock to shoo away the other drivers and captains, Hassan turned to me and told me quite earnestly that he considered me family already. He told me that sometimes he predicts things that become true and he knew that I would live in Egypt, that I would dig in Egypt, that I would work for universities in Egypt. He smiled and we arranged to visit some more sights the next day.

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On the ferry, I thought a lot about this remarkable meeting. I didn’t know if I should take his words to heart, but I felt the same way. And I was right.

After freshening up in the Winter Palace, I was off to find dinner, which, unlikely though it is, was also an incredibly important event. It was a big day for me. I originally set off for Sofra, but I was unable to find the restaurant, so I let my mental map guide me back to a street I had haunted on my last trip to Luxor that has a number of English restaurants. I remembered the Lantern had a delicious lemon meringue pie, so I took a long walk downtown.

It was so wild. I’ll never get over the busy Egyptian streets. Among the locals, I’m treated like one of them, not like a customer. It’s fascinating to watch the shop owners dole out vegetables and custom clothing and SIM cards and live ducks and cigarettes and everything in between. The streets are jam packed, filthy, but utterly friendly.

And then there was the Lantern, and I felt the same relief I had felt the first time I visited several years before, but this time Debbie was there, and this was such a treat.

“Is it too late?” I asked, worryingly looking at the clock, nearly nine.

“Don’t you worry, darling,” Debbie said in her English accent, and hurried me to a table.

Soon I had a gin and tonic and a lovely courgette soup, both of which I promptly devoured while watching the guests around me. I soon discovered that this is one of the hubs of the expat community in Luxor, and within a couple weeks, I was on nodding terms with all, and first name basis with a handful of others. They were sizing me up at once, but didn’t pay too much attention since it wasn’t likely that I was going to be there long.

As I ate a delicious pasta, Debbie came over to chat, and I was just madly in love with her. She shuffles about her restaurant on high heels, her hair is in a glorious beehive, she can talk until the end times, and she is completely kind. I had to ask about an Englishwoman running a beautiful restaurant in the middle of Luxor, because it was just rather extraordinary. The decor, service, and food were all comparable and oftentimes superior to the nice restaurants we have back in America for a fraction of the price. Debbie had married an Egyptian and decided that they should live in Egypt. They never looked back. I think she has a bit of homesickness, but it doesn’t come through often, only when talking about her daughter who lives in England now for school. I had my pie and promised to come back as often as I could.

And I meant that utterly. When I was in that small restaurant, chatting with Debbie and with Mina, the headwaiter, I really did feel like I was home. And then when the feral cats outside the door greeted me to show off their kittens, I knew that everything happens for a reason and every step I took was the right step to have taken.

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Walking back to the Palace, I was filled with an incredible sense of good fortune. How remarkable it was that I could find such nice people without even trying. How marvelous it was to be in this city where I could see myself never leaving, that felt like I had lived in it my entire life. How grand it was to be alive and healthy and in Egypt. And how fabulous it was to have two more weeks in paradise.

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