An early start, 5am, ends our first night of sleep indoors. But after a quick breakfast and tea on a water taxi across to the West Bank of the Nile, we prepared for take-off: hot air balloons over the Valley of the Kings. I was thrilled. It was incredible! Before we started we could see a candy-jar armada floating away, and on the ground were workers and trucks scrambling about. We got to watch as six balloons were prepped at once and I couldn’t help it: Flight of the Valkyries was playing on my mental shuffle.
I have always wanted to ride in an air balloon, since they fly over our apartment in Stockholm... Nej, earlier. Since my Trapper Keeper days with a giant multi-colored balloon photo on the cover. I remember that my aunt had described to me that take-off and riding in a balloon felt like floating, and once the billowing flame had sent ripples up the fabric of the craft fewer and fewer of the ground crew held the frame of the basket. Sure enough, rising into the air seemed the most natural thing in the world. I couldn’t help the backwards impression that the ground was falling away. Anne said it seemed no different than flying in a plane.
|Valley of the Kings (or Queens, or Nobles?)|
We could not take a decent photo. It was slightly hazy and anyway, nothing is comparable to the actual experience of seeing it all. Karnak laid out bellow with its massive 50 acres (0.2 sq km), the crumbling Colossi of Ramses with their ant-like visitors, and the unusual architectural departure from pylons of the tiered temple of Hat-Cheap-Suit. The Valley of the Kings was laid out like a Lego set that we could reach out and reassemble.
As we drifted, I came around and dared look over at the donkeys and workers in the fields below which thawed into wonder as we skimmed the palm trees thanks to a little bit of showing off from our pilot. A farmer curmudgeonly complained at our arrival so instead of putting down on his crop two of the ground crew walked our basket over to a clear spot--lighter than air!
|Our group (minus 3)|
|To give him the t-shirt, or not to give him the t-shirt. So strange.|
There were children begging and complimentary t-shirts, a bizarre juxtaposition. And as we walked to our transport we saw workers uncovering yet another temple. Extraordinary!
The triangular peak of the Valley really does put one in mind of a great pyramid, and so was a fitting place for the Kings of Thebes to choose as a burial: first up high, then digging deep below. Alas, none proved defensible to thieves. They were all robbed. (I wonder if later Phaorohs were responsible, a Dept of the Treasury for the next funeral mask?) Except, one obscure and undiscovered until 1922. All we have is the mere 4,000+ artifacts of that nobody, Tutankhamen. (Seti I would have been a real find.)
The tombs of Ramses I, III and Merenptah were magnificent, and worth descending 140m to explore. Finally, we get to see hieroglyphics in full, vibrant color as they were meant to be seen. Sorry, they don't allow picture-taking in the Valley (camera flashes can deteriorate the paint.) But the in-tact painted walls put into perspective all the the sandstone-colored temples we’d gawked at, most of the paint worn off. With our stately elder egyptologist’s deft descriptions the pharaohs' funeral monuments came alive once more. It’s a feat of the imagination to mentally fill in all the patches and decipher the cryptic characters on the walls. Strangely, I was put in mind of nothing so much as comic books: stories told in panels of mythic super beings...
From high flights of fancy to lowly reality--we took donkey rides down out of the Valley of the Kings, a full 7 kilometers through the desert and villages. Cairo scooter jockeys got nuthin’ on us: try straddling and steering a beast with no throttle and no stirrups as giant honking tour buses whiz by. Once we’d descended the hills things improved after one final harrowing intersection, a donkey sans rider (she fell face-first over the donkey onto the pavement), a painfully sore bottom and steed behind mine amorously attempting to mount mid-gallop. Our pace slowed and we weaved through fields and villages which lead one to wonder, upon seeing the irrigation canals, just how long these stretches had supported life. 8,000 years? More?
Steering is a matter of willpower, but speed (including zero) is impossible. Despite all this, and including one lady from another tour doing a face plant after an untimely pothole for which we couldn’t stop (“Whoa, Donkey”), we made it to a refreshing, delicious, traditional Egyptian meal. And there was beer. It’s amazing how soothing a cushion and a drink can be, especially after looking Death in the eye.
Another water taxi and were free to experience the Open Air Museum of Luxor one last time. I was tired of the unsolicited hassle for taxi’s and advice I didn’t want. (mish ayyiz) So I had to remember to take things easy, chill out and embrace the cultural experience... a mango smoothie aided immeasurably. We ran into our friends in the souk, or bazaar. I was the recipient of some more accidental haggling that resulted in a scarf I did like (bargaining thanks to Mike). We were treated to an unwelcome tour of the bazaar to a part we didn’t want to see...the real souk (not the sanitized tourist version) Beware of anything free, which in Egypt is especially true.
After finding Luxor Museum (new, beautifully curated) and dodging the touts by taking the waterfront, we met for one last meal with the whole tour group. They were an incredible bunch that we’d gladly travel with again. We went for a night cap at the regal Winter Palace, and then the “my kind of scum” dive bar around the corner. Talk about a “union of opposites”! Egypt certainly contains contrasts.