December 25, 2015
Merry Christmas! Another 4:30am start. No breakfast box this time though. Fortunately there would be time for breakfast in the hotel, as the Karnak temple tour didn’t start until 10am. It was the same routine. Shuttle to boat, boat to west bank, shuttle to balloons. Except this time when we arrived at the lot the balloons were already being inflated and the winds were perfectly calm. Our balloon was the second to take off. We all huddled up like a group of 5-year-old soccer players around the basket and took turns climbing in. The basket was rather tall, coming up to just below my chest. We packed in like sardines and then a group of men surrounded us, grabbing onto the sides of the basket, trying to control it as we bobbed and bounced off the ground trying to take off.
When we finally had liftoff it was pretty smooth and seamless. We cruised to the west over the mountains and watched the balloons below us become airborne also. We came up on the Valley of the Kings that we had visited the day before and got higher and higher as we sailed over Queen Hatshepsut’s tomb. To the west you could see red mountains and desert and to the east the lush green farmland that bordered the Nile. Little mud houses speckled the horizon and you could see for miles even through the mist that covered the air. Our pilot began rotating the balloon so that everyone would have a chance to see and take pictures, as the sun would appear on the horizon in just a few seconds. There are few things that compare to the orange sunrise and sunset in Luxor.
Our flight lasted about an hour and then we began dropping in elevation. As we lowered we could see the houses below in clearer view. As the sun came up the village came alive. First the donkeys, then the dogs, then the roosters, you could hear everything waking up. We saw the small yards of houses fill with chickens and goats as everyone woke to tend their animals. I watched from above as a goat chased a chicken around someone’s yard. It was adorable. Kids came out of their houses and waved at us from below.
Our pilot startled everyone by yelling to some people on the ground below us as they came running under our basket. We weren’t sure if he was telling them to get out of the way or what was going on. Kids came running through the crevices of the village to meet the men on the ground, everyone waving at us. We thought, how amazing that these kids see hot air balloons fly over their houses everyday and run to come see the people get off. Little did we know, they came running with postcards and maps and trinkets to sell. I commented how amazing the world was that on Christmas morning in America kids would be waking up and throwing tantrums because they didn’t get the latest Xbox meanwhile the kids in Egypt were up at 6:00am to get their hustle on. The men that our pilot had been yelling at grabbed a hold of ropes he threw down and guided our basket away from someone’s farmland and into an open field as it lowered. The landing was pretty bumpy, but nothing bad considering we had signed wavers warning us that the basket might tip over.
Once we landed the pilot instructed us to kneel down inside the basket as the balloon deflated when he opened a vent in the top. It was rather cramped and crazy to watch the massive balloon come down over us. The men ran over and began collecting the balloon and compressing the air out of it. The kids swarming our basket were relentless and one of them even exclaimed, “shit” after no one would buy his map. He did so smiling though, knowing it would draw the attention of the westerners.
We had landed in a random field in the village so our van came to collect us there. We hopped out of the basket and hurried as we were swarmed to the van. A tray for money was passed around to give to the men who had pulled our balloon safely away from crops and into the empty failed. Apparently they just run out to volunteer for this everyday and are not paid by the company, so I contributed 5 or 10 L.E. As an American I couldn’t help but consider how this type of system would certainly not work in the states. What if no one showed up that day? Etc. etc. Our bus then took us back to the hotel where we enjoyed a delicious breakfast and compared our “certificates of flying”, which they had given us when we were done.
We then went to the room, showered, and took about a 30-minute nap before we had to meet the group to go to Karnak temple. Karnak temple will eventually be connected to Luxor temple once the sphinx corridor is complete. Karnak is big and open, the largest temple in Egypt, I believe. A walkway made of rams began this one. It was probably the hottest day yet in Egypt, and we were feeling it. We walked around for an hour admiring the temple but there were more tourists here than we had seen anywhere else, and that meant it was hard to get around. Large groups of tourists taking tons of photos and groups being guided were everywhere. Our main goal was to find the pool, or man made lake, that sat on the outskirts of the temple. We wondered but without luck. Finally we found Ron, the single man from our group, who had already found the pool and he led us there. Though there was not much to see besides the large scarab that was displayed outside. We kept exploring through the temple and near the back we found one of the couples, who warned us of a guard who would hassle you for money to get through. We avoided him until another couple showed up and then, feeling safety in numbers, we went with them over some wooden steps and bridges to the back of the temple.
When we were too hot and tired to keep exploring Nate and I headed back out to find Waleed near the entrance where he said he would be waiting. We commented on how exhausted we were and how the heat and constantly being hassled was draining. When we found Waleed he was sitting on a half wall near the entrance. I sat down next to him and we talked about the temple. There were some families with children sitting on either side of us speaking in Arabic. Waleed who, of course could understand them, overhear them and told me they wanted a picture with me. I agreed and he took a photo as two girls sat on either side of me. They were very sweet! I saw the picture after he had taken it and wish I had gotten a copy. Then the boys caught wind and came running over for photos too. I took several before I was swarmed by school kids, all wanting photos. Waleed stood there while I smiled for selfies and when the crowd got too big Waleed grabbed my arm and pulled me out telling the kids “enough”. As I walked away the first girl who had originally asked for a photo touched my arm. When I looked her direction she said, “Thank you for coming to Egypt.” This was an amazing feeling that I got from most of the locals and one that I will never forget.
Walking back to the bus I stopped in a small pharmaceutical shop to get bug spray so I could #1 stop using Ron’s and #2 have some for the following legs of the trip. It cost me 100 L.E or $12 American. It was more than I would have paid in the states, had I thought ahead, but if the one thing I forgot to pack was something I could still purchase while abroad I was doing all right. Nate didn’t want to use any “because it smelled funny” but instead got bites on his face.
*(Something I reprimanded him for when we got home) I eventually sprayed him with it, against his will.
Once we were back at the hotel our mission was to find some lunch. We left the hotel alone to seek out an Irish pub Waleed had recommended but unfortunately we found it was closed until later that night. Waleed had warned us that drivers would wait outside the hotel to shuttle tourists but that in Luxor they were especially aggressive, and he was right! We were being berated by taxi drivers and shopkeepers during this mere 1 block walk and Nate and I were beginning to panic. Just at that moment we found Ron, our savior of the day, who had also been defeated by the closed pub and we all decided to walk to a corner shop together. Nate was about to buy his famous ice cream, chocolate, soda, combination when Ron mentioned he was going to the KFC on the end of the block. We agreed to go there instead, as it would probably be better than the junk food at the corner store. On our way there we bumped into another couple that were also looking for lunch. We all walked together to Kentucky Fried Camel, about 2 blocks down the road. I planned on getting a side dish or something but upon entering it didn’t look like I had much of a selection. I settled on a rice bowl, which came with chicken and a 7up. I picked out the chicken pieces and ate my spicy rice and soda, Nate gave me his fries as well. It wasn’t a great meal but it filled me up. We took a funny, family, Christmas photo at the KFC before we left. All of us then went together to check out the ice cream and beer selection at the hotel, where I got my caramel gelato.
While Nate paid the bill I went up to check and make sure my laundry had been delivered. It was 2:30 and we had to be ready to leave for the Luxor airport by 4:30 to fly back to Cairo. Luckily they had dropped it off, after failing to do so earlier that day. They even folded my underwear. When everyone met back in the lobby to check out Nate and I posed for a photo with Waleed in front of the Christmas tree. We thought this might be the last time we see him since he was taking the train back to Cairo instead of flying like we were. Earlier in the day Nate and I had gone to the bookshop to get a card for Waleed so that we could write him a short note to go along with his tip. We searched forever to find a card with the Colossi of Memnon on it, which Waleed had told us was his favorite. We gave him $100 U.S each and told him how special he had made this trip for us, how it wouldn’t have been the same without him. Through the whole trip, in addition to teaching us everything we needed to know, making sure we were comfortable and accommodated for, Waleed had spent his own down time having people’s shoes repaired, finding pharmacies to replace lost prescriptions, and going absolutely above and beyond. All of this while his own mother was in the hospital sick.
Landing back in Cairo, the airport felt so familiar because this was our third time flying in/out of it. We took the 1-hour bus ride back to the hotel where we had started, which at this point felt like home. I was exhausted. I had come down with a bit of a cold and fell almost immediately to sleep.