Let's go back to Day 3 a bit, it's not quite finished yet.
We'd had a light dinner at Ahmed's (Achmed's), and the girls were shopping (?!) for SIM cards next door. I think they did get a couple of local numbers, and we walked back to pick up our luggage from the hotel. On the way, we stopped at a sweet shop. This again, was very similar to any Bangalore sweet shop, probably on a larger scale with AC and all, but then again, this was a bit more upmarket. There was a lot of the usual stuff - cakes, pastries etc, but also a lot of local stuff, with dates and dry fruits. Normally, I would have tried some of the sweets, but they did not appeal to me that night, so I did not venture to buy any. In hindsight, probably should have - I would have either enjoyed it or written about the experience here. I did pick up a packet of biscuits though - these were similar to the Monaco biscuits you get in India, but with a zeera flavour. I also withdrew a lot of Egyptian money from the ATM to pay the cruise the next day.
So, back at the hotel, we picked up our bags and called a cab to the Alexandria station. RA confirmed the platform and we all hauled ourselves in and took our seats. I did not notice SP walk away towards the AC-1 coach, where we had a lone seat, so once we sorted out our seats, SK and I went in search of SP, and after moving in and out of about 7 interconnected coaches, we found him comfortably in his more luxurious coach. We sat with him for a few minutes, and then returned to our coach to find a volunteer who would be ready to upgrade.
Unfortunately, the co-passengers in our vicinity could hardly speak any English, so we decided to wait for the ticket official. We sat back and were wondering how the AC-2 coach was not only more cleaner but also better lit than the AC-1. It was almost like walking out from an urban setting of bright incandescent light into a murky suburb bathed in the yellow light of a naked bulb. To which SK offered his logic of the AC-1 being dirty as the people who travelled premium were spoilt. Presently the ticket official arrived, and we tried to explain to him that one of our tickets was in AC-1 and we wanted it swapped. He nodded as though he understood and did some calculation, finally he said 12'o clock. We sat exasperated, realising he mistook our question for probably the arrival time or some frap like that.
We tried to pick out passengers to effect a seat-trade, but could not find any suitable candidate. As the night drew in, we settled back. I took a muffler from SM and rolled it into a neck support and stretched back. My sweatshirt was still wet from the rains, so when I saw SK's parka, warm and inviting, hanging over the hook, I did not spare a second in pulling it on! Poor SK was left snuggling in his sweatshirt to keep warm. Sorry, mate, and thank you so much! Say hi to the parka. :)
Day 4 began with a chill in the air, but warm and sunny once we were fully awake. Egyptian Rail serves tea and snacks in small wooden trolleys similar to the airplane trolleys. We had some tea and biscuits, and went to chat with SP in the AC-1. Turned out the coach was too noisy - we could hear some metal splutter like an AK-47 discharge every 10 seconds or so. It was annoying. But the interesting that SP had noticed the night before was that the seats on the train could be swivelled on a pivot so that it could face the one behind. Nice, we thought, and went back to our coach to show off.
I thought rural Egypt, through which the train was running now, was similar to an Indian setting. The railway crossings were similar, people in cars, autorickshaws (Yes! No, I did not notice if they were Bajaj!!) and some pedestrians with baskets waiting on either side. The buildings leading up to a station were similar, with advertisements and graffiti on them. It brought back memories of travelling to Mumbai via Udyan Express.
Luxor was a smaller station than we expected. I was hoping to see something like Cairo, but it was considerably smaller. We disembarked, stretched out and ambled off towards the exit, fending off the 'taxxx'i drivers. SM called our contact in Luxor, and arranged for a pick-up to take us to the cruise. Meanwhile, we lingered at the station, snapping up photos. Saw an Apple logo on a taxi and found it amusing. Clicked it and the driver came up to me asking for 'baksheesh'. He was kidding and strolled off when I said I would delete the photo instead.
Luxor was warm, sunny and dusty. We were in interior Egypt, far from the Mediterranean and its effects, and there was a marked difference in the weather. An English speaking guide came with an air-conditioned van to pick us up. A theme song was conjured "The whole thing is that, ke bhaiyya, sab se bada rupaiyya".
Mohamed, our guide for the rest of the cruise, broke ice very easily. He christened us Pharaohs - a name which has stuck and become our group name on Facebook. On our way to the cruise, we saw HSBC and KFC (Kentucky Fried Camels) and Mohamed spoke about the way of life and how the next few days would be like. We passed a few riverside resorts and made our way into the Presidential Nile Cruises harbour, where two cruise boats were moored. We were ushered empty handed into one, and requested to wait in the lounge, while porters carried our baggage into the boat.
Weary from the night's journey, with unwashed faces and scraggly hair, most of us were ready to just sleep off on the sofas, and SM and RA deserve to be thanked for speaking to the boat officials, calmly arranging alternate rooms, and arranging methods of payment. I offered to pay in Egyptian money, and imagine my dismay when the boat official said he would accept only foreign currency!! Thankfully, he accepted cards - so I was able to pay in USD (and get billed in GBP), but from that moment on, I became the local forex guy!
We were offered a glass of hibiscus juice while we settled our payment - I thought it was very refreshing. I even went and had a refill at the bar. It was nearing 1 PM and we were shown our rooms and the dining hall. Lunch would be served every afternoon at 1, dinner at 8 and breakfast the next morning from 8-9.
Lunch was awesome. There was a salad bar with various salads, a soup counter, a buffet spread with a main meat item, with a carver ready to serve it on to your plate, assorted accompaniments and vegetables, and a dessert counter. The maitre'd showed us our tables (these were to be our tables for the rest of the cruise) and took count of the veg, beef and 'no beef' eaters. We devoured lunch like we had not eaten for days!
The lunch did tempt us to go sleep in our rooms, but we had Karnak Temple planned in the afternoon. Mohamed met us in the reception and we boarded our bus to Karnak.
Karnak is the biggest of the temples around and is overwhelming. As we went in, I was in awe of the structures - so imposing, so brilliant, so perfect that it was hard to believe it was done in an era of primitive tools. The colours are still there, even after 1000's of years. It was surreal to imagine the splendour and the richness of the time gone by. The monolithic obelisks, with the stories of unknown kings, bore testimony of an old kingdom whose days are past its glory.
We spent considerable time at Karnak, and headed to Luxor by sunset. Before the Luxor temple, though, we stopped briefly at a papyrus shop, where they showed us how the ancient Egyptians used to make paper. I still think S2K bribed Mohamed to stop at this place. :)
The Luxor temple is not very far from Karnak, legend has it that the Pharaoh built the Luxor temple for his queen. It is said a road connected Karnak to Luxor and it still exists below the city of Luxor, and part of it is being excavated near the Luxor temple. It was dark by the time we reached Luxor temple, and there was a line of sphinxes just outside the temple, standing almost like a guard of honour. I went closer to have a look, and was separated from the group. I'd run out of space on my camera, so I just walked around, looking at the huge pillars, and when I was done, I walked out where I joined the rest of the gang who were drinking some really expensive coffee!
We went back to the cruise in time for dinner, and the show of the night - there was a Sufi Dance and belly-dancing. I'd seen the Sufi Dance in SK's camera and had high expectations, but the one we had on the cruise was nowhere near. I guess it was passable as a new experience, first-timers would have probably enjoyed it. The belly-dancer was a rip-off as well. When S2K shared stage with her, people thought he was the better looking dancer on stage - true feedback!!
RA and I then tracked down a guy with a laptop and managed to empty our memory cards into the hard disk, and after some inane chatter, we went to bed. Biggest learning from this trip: Delete all previous photos and carry empty memory cards.
Tomorrow, we visit the west bank of Nile at Luxor, which is home to the Valley of the Kings, The Valley of the Queens and the temple of Hatshepsut.