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Cultural Ambassadors Run Amok in Luxor – Luxor, Egypt

Obscenely Bad Cultural Ambassadors Run Amok in Luxor
Luxor, Egypt

We entered Luxor with a bang as the open-backed van that carried my brother and I swerved through the constricted dirt arteries pumping from the center of town and rammed off the side mirror of a hapless parked carrier. The new age hippies sharing our ride snapped out of their hashish comas as a pack of turbaned, bearded men stepped out into the tumbling glass cloud of our wake to jut their palms at us.

“Wow. Aren’t we going to stop?”
“I think we just nailed that guy!”

They looked relieved when the driver chided that he would find the owner of the maimed Nissan later.

The business of tourism must go on, and this is truer in Luxor, where almost nine of every ten Piasters in circulation are injected from abroad, than probably anywhere else in Egypt. Besides, at the time I felt fairly confident that the two drivers either knew each other, or knew enough about the other’s outdated Soviet arms cache to avoid escalating the situation.

Not even a scenario culminating in an RPG duel could hold our imaginations for very long, however. We were dirty and hungry, and the smell of our own sweat mingling with that of our harder-traveling companions had us aching for our destination and the promise of a long absent luxury – a shower. I nurtured my hope for hot water, whispering a sort of mantra into our dog-eared guide book: “Golden Palace Hotel.”

The New Year had arrived unmarked, two weeks earlier, as big bro and I trickled through customs and into the sprawling Arabian metropolis of Cairo. After a short period of introductory folly, we fled the overbearing taxis and evil-eyed papyrus salesman of urban Egypt and made our way by train to Aswan, the more charming and reserved hub of the deep south, where we chartered a Felucca manned by Captain Mohammed Kibley and his first mate.

On the River
On the River

Sailing through the late noon of his life, Mohammed was a skilled and good natured man, but from the moment our feet hit the deck things got weird. We learned that we would be sharing our cruise with an English couple who had probably sucked the life out of ever party they had ever been dragged to. Before we could make sense of the changes, one of them was tucked under a camel blanket in the cabin being smuggled out of the harbor. Apparently the authorities aimed for a jovial numerical arrangement on Nile cruises whereby the passengers outnumber the crew, but only just. That way, in the case of mutiny or foul play, everyone still had a fighting chance. We were hardly blinked at anyway. Breaking the law, as written, seemed to be a convention, but it would have been foolish not to tip our hats to the officials by putting on a show.

A strong wind carried us north while we lazed about on the small wind-powered craft taking in tough terrain, flamingoes, and frequent naps. Mohammed cooked simple and very good meals for us and after the lentils were finished my brother and I would suck on disreputable Cleopatra cigarettes and wonder at the jagged line of agriculture separating Egyptian life from the shimmering desert wasteland.

The powerful joy of river travel was paralleled by a variety of agonies whenever we were foolish enough to stop. The searing heat was sucked out of the barren land at sunset. Our first night of the voyage was spent on the boat, tied off to a tree on the shore. We froze and hardly slept a wink. Big bro stepped down the gangway to answer the call, only to discover the beach swarmed with rats. In the morning we found that he had cut himself badly in the parasitic waters. The deep crescent in his foot infected instantly.

We tacked against the current through choppy, deep blue waters at a fantastic pace the next day with the wind at our backs. The English couple was let off at a small port, and afterward Mohammed brought us to his home. The village was amazing. Children kicked up dust with a soccer ball and scared the chickens in greeting. Wealth was displayed with a second story, tell-tale electric lines, a large family or a small TV. Mohammed possessed all of the above and we were honored with straw mats in the living room and the waiting services of his daughters while he tried, jovially, to warm and asphyxiate us with a fire in the unventilated room. It was an intensely interesting, if not particularly pleasant, stay. That evening everyone gathered in the lower bedroom to stare into the television. It was a comedy, thankfully, and we smiled back at the kids for lack of a common language.

In the morning it was decided that breakfast should be taken in the barnyard. I managed to keep down two hunks of bread and jam from a bowl black with flies as Mohammed watched me expectantly. Smoke and flies are the least of the worries for most Egyptians – I didn’t want to offend the guy. Big Bro, perhaps requiring extra energy for his rotting foot, managed much better. The goats mopped up the leftovers as we headed back to the boat for the last time.

Mohammed left us with a broad trademark smile at Kom Ombo Temple after we complimented him heavily in the ships log. After seeing the ruin, however, we learned from a well-dressed army officer in mirrored glasses that we would have to wait until a guarded convey accrued sufficient human cargo to continue on to Luxor. After waiting for a couple of hours nursing Cokes in cold glass bottles and munching on ketchup flavored potato chips, we nearly missed the departure and had to make a last-minute sprint and to get spots on our accident-bound ride.

Looking back, I’m not sure why it seems so important to explain the vivid scene, still bouncing around in my mind, that followed two nights later: A pack of Australians and Americans standing in the middle of the street, some distracting the cab driver, haggling over the price of the reluctant ride while others, madly giggling, disengaged his emergency brake and starting the car rolling down a gentle grade. I think perhaps it had to do with the psychic malady imposed by one particularly angry and hopeless Egyptian in his mid-twenties and a sense of strong guilt…I suppose a natural self-image of flexibility and thoughtfulness, as well as pride in that image, develops in most frequent travelers. Our pens turn confessional when reality dashes the intentions we expound in our finer moments.

We made it to the hotel shortly after the accident. The pleasure derived from the hot shower defies description. Afterward, outside of the entrance to our hotel, setting out for a first look of the town, Big Bro and I first glimpsed the high brows and expressionless eyes of a man who looked as if he had been struck several times in the face before he grew proper forearms and learned to fight back. He was trying to making his daily buck the usual way, asking us to let him lead us a restaurant where he was provided a commission, on a per-head basis, for each foreigner he piped in. These offers come at you thick and fast in places where the sale of baubles often constitutes the difference between complacence and disenchanted hunger.

“La shookran,” we replied, “No thanks man, we’re just walking around” and brushed him off, (as the practice goes for anyone wishing to make any headway).

He proceeded with the hard sell, however, and then inquired as to our country of origin.

“F@#$ Americans eh?” He trailed us with blood in his eyes muttering a string of bilingual profanity. Big bro and I were both a bit unnerved – this was not a pitch given by people someone trying to make money and were neither big enough, nor dumb enough to finish a fight in Egypt, and certainly too sober to start one, so we tried to ignore him. My brother earnestly expressed that he was sorry the guy had had that experience with our countrymen and we were eventually left alone.

Still, the encounter seemed to set the tone for our experiences in Luxor, especially since we kept running into our new fan on the only two streets of serious substance. Tourists and their predators run the same circuit. The fear and paranoia was fed by Luxor’s answer to the pizza – an abomination, and large green liter and a half bottles of Stella beer that turned to vinegar on our tongues. Old men propositioned my tender years on our strolls through town, and even our foray to the awing Valley of the Kings left us amorphously disappointed. The ruins were commonplace by now, owing to the lack of depth with which they were studied and my utter hieroglyphic illiteracy. Worse, the disco heralded by the Golden Palace Hotel’s brochure was a well-equipped ghost town and the pool, (despite warnings and our cocky assurances that we were “Maine boys” and knew all about cold), was good only for keeping drinks cool and icing camel injuries. In short, it was more than a well-meaning tourist deserved, and egged on by a gaggle of Australian yahoos it turned out to be more than we would take.

We met the Aussies on our second day in town, on a tour to the Valley of the Kings; four hilarious, good-looking and thoroughly intolerant guys from Perth that were giving a child-hawker needless hassle for having greasy hair. They were slamming down pints and giggling incessantly at eighty decibels when we found them later that night at a pub called Kings Cross, with an American marine, who was attempting, optimistically, to blend in as a civilian. After a local pool hustler allowed me to win a game, Big Bro and I retreated, with our hands on our wallets, past a line of faded red booths to join the booming hedonists at the other end of the checkerboard floor.

We hobnobbed with the South Pacific crew at length and the flow of oxygen to our brains steadily decreased, deadening our inhibitions, and re-awakening the anger that had been accumulating throughout our trip. The stories of each party reinforced and fueled a vengeful group-think and primed us all for the sort of beer-soaked irresponsibility that only modern law and policing can regularly endure and recover from. By the time the staff grew weary and funneled us back into the street we were all ten feet tall and bullet-proof.

We hailed a taxi driver who was foolish enough to think us honest and waved Piasters around demanding that he cram all seven of us into his cab and convey us to the disco.

“It’ll work. We’ll put two up front with you and the rest will form a human pyramid in the back. We’re acrobats. Very talented, I assure you.”

“No. Please, but the disco is closed! It is very late!”

“Nonsense, barely midnight, they’ll open up or start the revolution.”

“What? For so many, you must each give…”

“Fine, fine. Come on they’re waiting for us!”

- Which they were; crammed into the four doors like sardines, straining the already overworked leaf springs. Before long our clown car arrived back at the Golden Palace. The driver was wild eyed and mad with terror as he ran to and fro collecting his pay. As he haggled with the last two Australians he noticed his car fifty meters down the street, rolling for glory, and sprinted after it while we retreated to the Golden Palace disco to wake the DJ up and run up another enormous tab. And we wondered why some Egyptians hated Westerners?

The sick joke of dawn yanked us from the void of recuperation far too soon. The bus to Hurghada, a small tourist town on the Red Sea, was leaving in less than a half hour and my spongy brains were willing us to the depot before the locals could launch a counter-offensive. The fact was Luxor had never been welcoming. It called out to us from the guide book like some stooge operating a carnival game and then coaxed out our worst behavior in a blur of light, sound, and dust. My feelings of cross-cultural inadequacy were to take another hit as I waited for the bus. The English couple from the felucca ride was waiting for the same bus, bright eyed and dressed to travel.

“How’d you guys make out?”

“Ughh…”

“I can smell it on you.”

With that bit of demeaning small talk out of the way we climbed to our seats and promptly fell back asleep.

Three days of snorkeling and dining in Hurghada did much to restore our spirits. On the tedious bus ride back to Cairo, the bus jerked violently over to the shoulder of the road a mere half-hour from our destination. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month in which the Quran was revealed, the majority of Egyptians fast from dawn until sunset. They are supposed to refrain from smoking tobacco as well, and do for the most part. Foremost among the meanings of this custom is the teaching of self-discipline. When the bus came to a stop Big Bro put two and two together: The sun was setting and these people were hungry! The delay suited us; we both wanted a smoke badly. As we lit up and milled around the bus, watching the other passengers prepare their meals, a well dressed man approached.

“Deutsche?”

“Nein, American.”

“That’s too bad, my Russian is much better. Forgive my asking…you did not smoke on the bus before but you smoke now? You are not Muslim, it is ok for you.”

“Yes, we know.”

“Then why?”

“Out of respect.”

“Ah! I see…that is good.”

He shook hands and turned, his well-tailored suit billowing dramatically in the breeze, his thumb and forefinger to his chin, looking contemplative.

You win some, you lose some, I guess.

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