Friday, April 11, 2008

Going to Egypt pt IX

After a long day at the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir el-Bahari, and the Colossi of Memnon, we are lounging on the sun deck of the Hamees, our floating hotel for the next three days. It felt good to unpack, although while we're tied up we keep our curtains drawn, as the busy street running along the Nile is about even with our stateroom window.

On the top deck, the sun deck, we have a wading pool, a bar, a ping-pong table under a shade awning, and dozens of lounge chairs and little round tables. Most of the chairs are in direct sun—fine, I suppose, for the Europeans sprawled in their swimsuits. And they don't seem to be able to get enough of it. The Taiwanese group stakes out the ping-pong table. We resort to dragging chairs around to follow the shade and sipping karkadet and playing senet.

The reception area, some shops, a sometimes smoky bar, and most of the staterooms are in the middle two decks. The lowest deck is the restaurant. The meals are almost all buffet-style (and the one that wasn't was a set course). Come to think of it, all the meals we've had in Egypt have either been buffet or set-course. (When we return to Cairo and try to order off a menu in the hotel's restaurant we realize why this is: the language barrier was too great, and picture menus are apparently unknown in Egypt. It was not our best meal.)

Continental cuisine is the chef's strong suit, and everybody's happy with what's being offered, though we all avoid the fresh salad. And enough Egyptian foods are included in the spread so that I feel like I'm at least getting the tiniest taste of local food. So it's yougurt and cucumbers and tomatoes and falafel and foul for breakfast (for me; everyone else ate muesli or pancakes and eggs).

The cucumbers and tomatoes reappear at lunch and dinner, along with pasta, a couple of meat dishes like chicken thighs or carved turkey, a fish dish, overcooked (German-style?) vegetables, and a large and elaborate table of desserts. Good fucking Christ. Stuck on a boat that serves three buffet meals a day with all the dessert you can eat. I desperately stick to using small salad plates to slow my blimpage.

More language-barrier fun. A couple of times Chef served up a fish dish that was the whole fish, from which he would carve you out a chunk. The Taiwanese were very enthusiastic about this, but could not get Chef to understand that they really wanted the cheeks. I saw one battle of the wills where the woman kept pointing at the head of the fish, the Chef shake his head NO, offer her some side meat, and the woman in turn shaking her head NO and stomping off.

But I spent most of my onboard time on the sun deck, all covered up, playing games and sipping Saqqara beer, or standing at the rail and watching the countryside slide by, sometimes green and inviting, sometimes with the cliffs right down to the Nile with sand blowing into the water. Farmers, fisherman, birds, donkeys, cattle, camels, everyone going about their day while we chugged past in the heat of the day.

One afternoon the Hamees paused in her motoring, waiting our turn to go through the locks at Edfu, when we began to be bombarded with plastic bag-wrapped goods hurled up and over the railing and onto the sun deck. I got up from our senet game to peer down below: masses of rickety rowboats crowded among the floating hotels, and the men and women and children in the rowboats were heaving cheap tourist goods, rugs and shawls and shirts, up onto the boats to the tourists in hopes that they would in turn hurl money down into the rowboats. Nothing doing, pal! I picked up a few of the bags closest to our table and threw them into the drifting rowboats below. Direct hit! Score!

Mostly, though, we relaxed and ate and watched the world go by. We did stop one day and excurse to Kom Ombo, a fine ruin but notable in my mind as our hottest day in Egypt, about 104 or so. Hot enough that I started to droop by the end of our visit to Kom Ombo. Back to the boat for another Saqqara!

[Speaking of hot, it was so hot in Arcata today that I was down to a t-shirt and shorts while delivering mail. That's right! No hat, no second pair of socks, no capilene or hoodie. So how hot is that? 74 degrees—we were roasting.]

Folks out collecting the day's labor from a marsh alongside their village. At this point I was still playing around with my new camera, and you've already heard me say I'm not the world's greatest photographer, but the haze isn't because of me or a wonky color profile.

We heaved a big sigh of relief when we left ultra-polluted Cairo behind, but we ended up trading industrial exhaust for agricultural pollutants—everyone burns their garbage (when they're not dumping it in the Nile) and field stubble. The combination of hot, dry weather and the smell of fires kept the SoCal part of my brain on a constant state of alert. But we couldn't figure out why the air south of Luxor should be so hazy. Until we tasted grit in our mouths and realized the air was also full of sand blowing in off the desert—which you'd be able to see in this photo if the air weren't so polluted.

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