Pharaohs With Bagpipes and a Mummy, Too

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Seigle family of Vienna is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

WHERE: Two weeks in Egypt, including a Nile cruise.

WHO: My wife and I, our two children (9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter) and my wife's mother. (Disclosure: My mother-in-law is Egyptian, and a big part of the trip was visiting family members and friends.)

WHEN: June 18-July 2

WHY: To take MIL to visit relatives, but also to show the kids Upper Egypt and take a Nile cruise, which we had not done before.

THE TRIP: Flew into Cairo, then flew to Luxor to board our boat (without MIL), which cruised upstream to Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan. From there, we flew to Abu Simbel, then back to Cairo.

COST: International air was $1,618 per person. The tour package (air, cruise, Abu Simbel visit) through Egyptian Express tour company averaged $1,582 per person for four of us. Grand total, including hotels but not tips or meals: $16,400.

GETTING THERE WAS. . . arduous. From Dulles to Cairo (via Paris), the total travel time was almost 20 hours. Once in Cairo, we slept for 12 solid hours.

HOTEL TIP: In most hotels here, you are billed a 12 percent service charge. Word on the street is that the service charge does not go directly to the staff, so tips are much appreciated.

FAVORITE MEAL: Egyptian Night on the boat. Egypt's local food is quite tasty and includes specialties found in many other parts of the Middle East and Mediterranean, such as stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanouj, hummus and kebabs.

COOLEST ATTRACTION: The great pyramids at Giza. They are an awesome sight that you can't possibly appreciate merely by looking at pictures.

HOT HOT HOT: We were in Upper Egypt a few days after the summer solstice. It's a desert climate, bone-dry and with temperatures hitting 110 degrees, but the shade is surprisingly cooling when the humidity is that low.

BIGGEST ANNOYANCE: A gantlet of vendors gathers at every tourist site, hawking traditional galabeyas (tunics) and other clothing, postcards and cheap souvenirs. They walk alongside you holding things in front of your face, sometimes touching your arm or shoulder.

WHAT TO WEAR: In tourist areas, you can wear the same things you'd wear at home. In the cities, you should dress more conservatively; Egyptians don't wear shorts in public. Women should dress conservatively, but they won't need to cover their heads unless they go into a mosque.

MOST UNDERWHELMING SITE : We each paid about $7.50 to see King Tut's tomb. But the treasures found there have long been in museums. The only thing remaining in the otherwise unremarkable tomb is his mummy, though that was interesting in itself.

MOST SURREAL MOMENT: As our tour boat slowed in Esna, my daughter called our room to say men in boats were trying to throw ropes and tie on to our vessel. Pirates on the Nile? When I walked onto our balcony to see what was going on, I was hit by a plastic bag filled with galabeyas. Men were trying to sell clothing and textiles by throwing them up onto our boat.

SECOND-MOST-SURREAL MOMENT: As we waited for the start of the sound and light show at the pyramids, musicians in Pharaonic attire were playing . . . bagpipes.

BEWARE OF BURNOUT: On our boat tour, we visited seven temples in five days, plus two areas with tombs, the Colossi, the Aswan Dam and the Unfinished Obelisk. After a while, we started asking ourselves, "Which temple are we at today, and do we still care?"

CABBIE CULTURE: All taxis are black and white; don't ride in an unregistered taxi. Expect to haggle over the cost, and set a price before you get in. Expect to pay more if the air conditioning works. Still, taxis are cheap compared with those in the United States.

NEXT TIME: I would visit Sharm El Sheikh and go snorkeling or diving, take a balloon ride in Luxor, take a submarine ride in Hurghada, smoke a shisha, ride a camel at the pyramids, go inside a pyramid (not for the claustrophobic) and drink karkadeh (a red tea made of hibiscus leaves) .

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