We were told that there would be plenty of time in Luxor for some extra activities and given some options. B and F were slightly annoyed that these weren't included in our package. The hot air balloon ride was tempting but at US$150 it a little too expensive so we decided to do a bit of research.
Advice for travellers
I started this list after the balloon incident but as it could be useful for people planning a trip to Egypt, I'm putting it here before the rest of the story.
- If you're cost-conscious, book everything on the ground and be prepared to negotiate.
- If you can't be bothered to spend too much time planning, go with a package and don't complain about the price later.
- Bring enough US Dollars or Euros or British Pounds as some operators do not accept Egyptian Pounds.
- Trains can be delayed for as long as six hours so be prepared for this.
- The one Arabic word you'll find most useful is la, which means 'no'.
- Have enough small-denomination notes or coins on you at all times (as mentioned in Cairo and Giza 2009).
- Be aware of the postcard scam (described later).
The balloon problem
After a lot of strategising and some initial problems with the phone, we received a quote from Magic Horizon for US$95. My strategy was to:
- call every operator on my list (which was about six entries long)
- let each one know that I was calling other operators
- mention that I will call back the operator offering me the cheapest price
- ask for each operator's lowest quote.
This strategy was described by Daniel Finkelstein at Times Online. I'm not sure it worked as well in our situation, since all six operators could have been sitting side by side as I spoke to them.
As we found out later, it was common for one operator to run two brands: an official one, which you can find in listings, that works with tour agencies charging a higher price; and another one that was free to charge a lower price. Apart from the names, there's no difference between the two versions. Even the balloons they used had the same colour and design.
We made a booking and sent F to break the news to Mahmoud.
F: He had a look of shock.
There's more to the story, but I'll put it in the comments so as not to bore everyone.
Just before dinner, Mahmoud took us to Luxor temple. B was awe-struck by the towering columns.
Mahmoud: This is nothing. Karnak is 15 times bigger.
As usual, F inspected the dessert table before joining the dinner buffet queue. I asked her why she did that.
F: So I can determine how much of the savoury stuff I'll be having.
As was now the practice, we were joined later at the table by our Japanese friends Yuka and Kayoko.
Up we go
A mini-van picked us up at 4.30am and took us to a small boat, on which we would cross the Nile to the West Bank with two Canadian ladies. There was a table on the boat with some bread waiting for us, and we were given coffee while waiting for the balloon captain to come. When he arrived, he was dressed like an airline pilot and treated by all the staff like a minor god. Without him having to say a word, they took his briefcase, served him coffee, handed over a checklist, lit his cigarette.
Getting to the balloon grounds shortly before daybreak, we watched as all the balloons of the various operators were fired up. One by one, they came alight, giant lanterns against the sapphire sky as the sun crept up the horizon. It all felt a little unreal.
Sharing the hot air balloon with us were the two Canadian ladies and a professional film crew from a Polish-Egyptian archaeology expedition team - big men with heavy equipment. We enjoyed views over the east and west banks. As we were about to land, some ten or so locals on the ground came running to the balloon and grabbed hold of the basket, running along as we hovered over them and taking us down for a smooth landing. We stood in the basket and watched as they fought the deflating balloon and eventually rolled it up.
The captain then asked us to show appreciation to the ground crew. By that, he did not mean applause. I don't think the men were officially employed to help land the balloon so the tips were probably all they got for their work.
Listening to Mahmoud's stories as we walked through Karnak Temple, Hatshepsut Temple and the Valley of the Kings, it occurred to me that, to be a successful Egyptian king, a great deal of deception was required. When you ascended the throne you had to cook up a story linking yourself to the gods and get people to carve it on the walls for all to see. You had to plan for your afterlife almost immediately, employing trickery and misdirection to keep the burial chamber hidden.
When F remarked about the well-preserved state of some of the coloured wall carvings, Mahmoud replied that the walls were covered with a layer of wax and cobra venom. Unprotected grave robbers (or archaeologists) coming too close to the walls would die of the venom, and this was known as the Curse of the Pharaohs. I have not been able to verify this story.
I asked Mahmoud how the thieves managed to climb up the obelisks to steal the gold. He gave me a look of contempt.
Mahmoud: Maybe they used ramps.
Me: Maybe they used a ladder.
Restaurant to avoid
As we'd already checked out of the boat, we were given a choice of going back on the boat for lunch, or another restaurant called Maro. We chose Maro for something different.
Do NOT ever go to Maro. If your are planning to visit Luxor with a tour group, make sure Maro is not one of the meal stops. I cannot emphasise this enough. The food was terrible, the place was dirty, there was no service at all and the manager was rude. B and I suspect that we got food poisoning from the food there.
In the evening, B and I went out for a walk and were hounded on every street with offers of horse carriage rides to the bazaar. Shops were all closed on Friday, they said. Friday was a special day for tourists at the bazaar, they said. No hassle, they said. I'm not hassling, they said, as they continued to hassle. The price kept changing, from 5LE to 2LE and then 1LE and when that didn't work, 1LE to go there and back.
It wasn't just the horse carriage drivers either. As we walked along a street of shops, (which contrary to the carriage drivers' claims weren't closed), sipping our cans of Coke, people greeted us in different ways:
- "One-dollar, one-dollar!"
- "Chine? Ja-pun? Korea?"
- "No hassle!"
- "Hey, look!"
- "Neeh-Ow!" [That is, nihao, which means 'hello' in Mandarin, pronounced to sound like a donkey's bray.]
- "Miss Coca! Mr Coca!"
F avoided all of this by holing herself up in an internet cafe. We later found a real 'no hassle' shop, Habiba, which, as it turned out, was run by an English lady.
A man approached me asking for help with reading an address written in English. Then he said he needed to write a postcard to the address, in Australia, congratulating his friend who had just given birth. B walked away immediately while I helped him write. He said that to thank me he wanted give me a present and invited me into his shop to select the colours for a cartouche, which he would be drawing for me. I tried to decline but he insisted he had to. Shortly after following him in, I received a call from B, telling me that it was a known scam. I walked out.
F was supposed to join us after her internet session but we received a text message from her about helping someone in a shop. I rang her and said it was a known scam and to get out as soon as she could. When we eventually met her, F said that the man needed to send a postcard to Japan congratulating a friend on a new baby. She managed to get her free cartouche from him before walking out though. It wasn't a very good cartouche.
No harm came to us apart from some time wasted so it wasn't all that bad but it was too much of a coincidence for this not to be a scam so just be careful or simply walk away when someone asks you write a postcard for him.