Saturday, August 25, 2007

Murchison Falls

From Kampala we organized a 3 day trip to Murchison Falls National Park in the northwestern part of the country. Murchison Falls is the location where the mighty Nile River squeezes itself through a tiny gorge just 6 meters wide, and is surrounded by forests and grasslands replete with wildlife.

The drive to Murchison was long, made almost intolerably long by our driver-guide, who's driving speed might well convince you he were 95 years old. When we finally arrived at the Kaniyo Pabidi Forest just inside the park entrance, we were itching to move our legs. After a short hike, we came across the forest's healthy chimpanzee population. We got to view several males in the trees above, munching away at branches and occasionally calling out to one another. As the afternoon wore on, the chimps got more active and at one point were jumping from limb to limb, throwing fruit down at us below. Clearly they were tired of being gawked at for the day, so we moved on to view some black and white colobus monkeys playing in the tree tops far above. It was amazing to spend time with these creatures not so unlike ourselves and it made for a great start to our safari.

The next day we took a ferry across the Victoria Nile and went on a wildlife drive on the north shore. Our viewing expectations were pretty low since the wildlife population was drastically reduced during the chaos of the Iman years - hungry soldiers from both Uganda and Tanzania relied on the game meat for sustenance - but we were pleasantly surprised. The first animals to greet us were a family of baboons on the river bank, putting on all sorts of antics. As we got further into the grasslands, we came across huge herds of grazing animals - hartebeast, Ugandan cobs, gazelles, dik diks and African buffalo. We also saw several giraffe, a herd of elephants and many amazing birds of all shapes and colors.

Later that day we took a boat ride along the Nile up to the falls, which allowed us to see hundreds of hippos floating in the water, with just their nostrils and eyes protruding above the surface. We also saw several crocodiles basking in the sun, and other animals coming to the water to drink.

The captain dropped us at the base of the falls and we hiked up to the top where we got a chance to experience up close the awesome fierceness of the world's most powerful waterfall. It was breathtaking and just a little bit frightening.

On the way back to Masindi where we stayed the night, our driver agreed to take a detour to Lake Albert. We stopped at the point where the Albert Nile emerges from the lake in the sleepy fishing town of Wanseko. We also got to experience some late night wildlife, like the honey badger that ran in front of our van! Randomly, we spent the night at a restaurants listening to an expat open-mic night featuring American folk songs, Irish jigs and Cuban sonatas.

It was a great trip. I'd recommend our tour operator, Mamaland Safaris, and our driver, Tony to anyone looking for a budget trip to Murchison.


Kampala is the capital city of Uganda, and as far as African captial cities go, it's a pretty mellow place. It's much smaller and more approachable than Nairobi, and we decided to take a few days to slow down and relax there.

There is a huge Indian influence in Uganda, and Kampala is no exception. Despite the important role they played in developing the country commercially, all Asians were forced to leave the country by Idi Amin. (Rent "The Last King of Scotland" ASAP if you haven't seen it yet to learn about the other crazy things this dictator did.) They have since been asked by the goverment to return with the promise that confiscated property would be given back. Although I am sure many have stayed away given the trauma they experienced being terrorized and kicked out of their homes with nothing, there seemed to us to be somewhat of a reemergence of the Indian population and culture.

I mention this because it seems like the majority of our time in Kampala was spent enjoying the plentiful Indian restaurants around the city. Somehow we passed day after day just wandering around, reading the paper or talking with locals in the coffee houses, catching up on the blog, and of course, eating lots of dosas and samosas.

Kampala is known for it's night life, and although we didn't hit any of the big clubs, we did enjoy a night out at the Musicians Club 1989, a weekly event in which local musicians get together to play. I can't say it entirely quenched our thirst for live music, but at least it wet it!

We also got to catch the Simpsons Movie, which was playing at the local mall. We almost forgot we were half way around the world that afternoon...

Ok, we didn't slack the whole time. We did take in one cultural activity with a visit to the former home and tomb of the Buganda kings. Buganda is the largest tribe in Uganda and the king was restored as a figurehead in the early 1990's. We were fascinated to learn that our guide to Murchasin Falls, Tony, actually comes from the royal Buganda line, although this isn't exactly a rarity given that the king traditionally had from 500 - 900 wives! we wondered how he had time to rule the kingdom.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"Probably the best white water rafting on earth"

We saw this quote on one of the rafting guide's shirts, and after tackling the series of class 4 and 5 rapids at the base of the Nile, we'd have to agree! The rapids in Jinja are huge swirling masses of water, something like a gigantic washing machine powered by a jet engine. Unlike rapids we'd experienced before in California or Costa Rica, this is a high-volume waterway so you are not likely to get pounded against the rocks below, but if you do happen to get trapped in one of the massive holes, you had better hope the safety kayaks get to you quickly!

Our raft contained the two of us, 5 ridiculously silly guys from Basque and our guide, Paulo, a beefy Ugandan on the national Olympic kayaking team. They were a fun crew - maybe not the powerhouse of paddlers that we had been hoping for, but going over the rapids was pretty much a game of chance anyways. If you happen to hit the waves at the wrong time, the raft was flipping over no matter what you did! We flipped on more than half of the 12 major rapids we attempted. It was definitely a bit scary being hurled into the air and landing underwater, but it was also exhilarating!

We didn't actually realize how insane the rapids were until we watched the video that had been taken of the trip later that evening. People were being hurled like rag dolls out of their boats and into the raging waters below. One older gentleman got trapped under an 6 foot waterfall and we watched in horror as he struggled to get his head above water and catch a breath until the safety kayaks could get to him. Amazingly he climbed right back into the raft and finished the rest of the trip. I am not sure I would have been as brave!

Jinja is right at the base of Lake Victoria, and is considered to be the location of the source of the Nile River. It's a beautiful area, with lush plant life and many different types of birds. Even if you're not the rafting type, its worth spending a few days here to enjoy the scenery.

Sipi Falls

From Mbale we took a matatu (a shared taxi minibus) to Sipi Falls, about an hours drive north. Sipi Falls is situated at the base of Mount Elgon, the second higest peak in Africa. We never actually got to see Elgon because it was shrouded in clouds the entire time we were there, but we did get to enjoy breathtaking views of the rushing waterfalls fed by its daily downpours and the lush green valley that lies beneath its shadow.
Sipi Falls is made up of a series of three tall waterfalls. We had a beautiful view of all three falls from our cabin at the Crow's Nest, but it was not until we took a hike to them that we could really appreciate their power and beauty.

The first waterfall we reached is the tallest and because the rainy season had started early, the water was surging through it. We tried to hike down to its base, but could only make it part of the way before the mist was too strong to continue. Soaking wet, we continued on to a cave filled with crystals and bats and headed up to the second fall. It cascaded down in a series of drops from the green pastures above, and you could walk behind the largest span into a man-made cave. The third waterfall was equally impressive - it was situated highest up on the mountainside and offered sweeping views of the valley below.

The hike took us through both rainforest and countryside, and gave us a glimpse into the lives of the local people who farm the slopes of the mountain. We got to see the mud huts in which they live, taste the ground nuts they were cultivating on the slopes, and even were able to watch a couple of young boys making banana beer. On the way back through town, we passed the local school, which was hosting a colorful music and dance contest. Everyone we met was very friendly, smiling and laughing when we greeted them in their local language. Even thought Sipi is clealry a poor rural area, it seems as if the people there have developed a locally sustainable existence that offers a sense of dignity and joy.
It was a wet and muddy adventure, and even though all of our clothes were stained with the bright red African earth, it was well worth it to experience this beautiful and magical place. A special thanks to Martin, our local guide on the hike.

On the way back to Mbale we experienced a record-setting matatu ride, with 22 humans and 3 chickens squeezed into what should have been a 14 passenger van. The chickens were shoved under the seat near my feet and one kept pecking at my ankle. I am not sure what was the most terrifying aspect of the ride!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Abayudaya Community

From Mbale, we made our way to a small village a few kilometers away called Nabagoye, where we looking forward to meeting Danielle. Nabagoye and several other nearby villages are home to the Abayudaya people, a community of African Jews. Danielle works for a Jewish research organization in San Francisco that has been involved with the community for several years and was visiting to to help with several joint projects that are underway.

The Abayudaya people were originally converted to Christianity, but upon studying the bible began to practice a form of Judaism based on the Old Testament instead. In time, they learned more and more traditional Jewish practices, and we felt very lucky to experience this unique blend of African and Jewish influences during the local Shabbat services. It was also rewarding to be able to experience Ugandan village life first hand, from the simple, but tasty meals to the songs and laughter of the local children.

Gil and I volunteered to help out with the opening of an internet cafe in Nabagoye, one of the projects the Community is working. The internet cafe will hopefully generate revenue to support other local projects, such as building a medical and dental clinic and bringing running water to more families in the area.

It was certainly strange to be in a village in Africa working on the internet. While more and more Africans get access to new technologies like cell phones and the internet, many still do not have access to basic necessities, like water and electricity. In fact, while Nabagoye was looking forward to soon being on the world wide web, they at the same time celebrating the opening of a new well and water pump system that had recently been installed. And in great contrast to this technological progress, we were constantly reminded of the challenges that these communities face in simply staying alive and well - several people we had met were suffering from or recovering from Malaria, which made this deadly disease very real to us. Until the very basic needs of food, clean water, and access to basic healthcare are addressed, we're afraid that any progress made otherwise is not sustainable.

The internet cafe was up and running when we left, but there were many problems that had yet to be ironed out, the biggest being the fact that the electricity in Uganda goes off without warning - sometimes for hours, and sometimes for days at a time. The Abayudaya Community is lucky enough to have a partner organization that is committed to working with them for years to come, and also has access to a relatively consistent supply of skilled volunteers, so I am hopeful the project will be successful in time. Still, we could see how easily misguided aid organizations can pump money into local communities without proper consideration of the cultural and economic realities of the situation, not to mention the necessary training and change management support to make the investment truly beneficial over the long-term.

Spending time with the community members and other volunteers was a memorable and enlightening experience and we'd like to extend a big thanks to Danielle and all of the Abayudaya people for organizing the visit for us. It was also wonderful to see a familiar face and hear tales from home - one we'd be overjoyed to repeat, so how about making some travel plans, folks?

And, a big congratulations to Danielle and Gregg on tying the knot!


Although our first destination in Africa was Uganda, all of the flights to Kampala were booked, and so we had to fly into Nairobi. Our flight arrived at 4 am, not the safest time to be wandering the streets of Nairobi with all of your worldly possessions, so we passed a few restless hours in the Nairobi Airport before catching a taxi to our hotel.

Nairobi is a relatively new city and downtown is full of shiny office buildings and shopping centers. Downtown is surrounded by less desireable areas, and you need to be careful walking the streets because there is a relatively high crime rate. After catching up on our sleep, we passed our time there talking with safari operators and looking for camping gear - boring, but necessary preparation for the rest of our trip.

We were meeting our friend from San Francisco, Danielle, at a village in Uganda couple of days later, so we took an overnight bus to Mbale. We had heard travel in Africa would be long and uncomfortable, and the continent took no time breaking us in. The roads are terrible - made of nothing more than dirt outside of the major cities. The bus shakes and rattles incessantly as it navigates the potholes, tossing you up and down in your seat, and sometimes even out of your seat.

Somewhere between Nairobi and the Uganda border we were forced to a stop - where we stayed for the next 6 hours. It had rained, and the rutted dirt road turned to slippery mud that caused a truck to jack knife. The road was positioned on a steep cliff, making it impossible to move the truck in the darkness, so the traffic in both directions backed up for miles until the sun came up. After slowly creeping past the accident and onward toward Uganda, we finally reached the border.

Unlike the other borders we had crossed during the journey so far, the Kenya/Uganda border seemed rather amorphous. There were no fences or heavily patrolled gates, just a stretch of land with a series of run down wooden buildings where you had to fill out some forms and pay money in order to get the right stamps to continue on. There were hundreds of people milling about, selling bananas or wristwatches, offering rides on the back of their bicycle, or trying to exchange your Kenyan Shillings for Ugandan ones.

We had to leave the bus to navigate this chaos on foot and then wait for it again on the other side. In the hour or so that passed, the fear that we'd never see our belongings again definitely crossed our minds more than once. But, the bus finally arrived and we were on our way to Mbale, a rambling town (or the 3rd largest city in Uganda, depending on how you look at it...) nestled in a valley and surrounded by lush green mountains. Mbale has nothing special going for it, but after having to watch our backs every second in Nairobi, we enjoyed just being able to mill about among the people in the busy streets, none of whom looked anything like us. Yes, we had finally arrived!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

I'm building you a pyramid...

While the city of Cairo didn't exist during the time of the Pharaohs, Memphis (about 20 km south) was once the capital of ancient Egypt. Because of this, there are many pyramids and other ruins from the Old Kingdom nearby.

We began our pilgrimage by first heading south to see the older pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur, which provide a nice chronicle of the architectural advancements that led to the perfection of this ambitious design. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara is the earliest stone monument in existence and represents the first experimentation with the pyramidal structure. It's surrounded by a complex of funerary buildings and is within view of several other pyramids that now just look like mounds of rubble.

One of the buildings at Saqqara exhibits some of the oldest known graffiti, dating back to the the time of Ramses II in 13th century BC. This was the first of many signatures and drawings tacked on to the Egyptian works - from Roman soldiers to the early Christians to the first western tourists, it seemed that no one could resist leaving their mark (or trying to damage) these enduring structures.

We also visited the Tomb of Mereruka, the highest official during the reign of Teti. Whereas the Pharaohs' tombs primarily depicted the great accomplishments of their lifetime or images of them joining the gods in afterlife, the decorations in this tomb were focused on everyday activities such as men fishing and dancing, women combing their hair and playing instruments, and children playing games. Although the myraid of pyramids and tombs built by the Egyptians suggest a preoccupation with death, it's clear from this art that they actually relished living and simply spared no expense to ensure that their enjoyment carried on in the afterlife.

At Dahshur we visited several other pyramids, the most impressive being the Red Pyramid, the oldest true pyramid in the world. We descended down its steep and suffocating passage to the inner chambers where we could get a look at the construction from the inside. It was bare, but stunning nonetheless to see the huge limestone blocks stacked on top of one another with a precision we expect would be difficult to replicate today. The other pyramids here reflect earlier attempts at perfecting the design, including the Bent Pyramid, which starts at one angle and finishes near the top at another, and the crumbling Black Pyramid.

On the way back from Saqqara, we stopped in Memphis. Little remains of this once powerful city, but there is a small open-air museum. The most impressive piece is a gargantuan statue of Ramses II, one of many ostentatious remnants left by this Pharaoh.

A few days after this "warm up" circuit, we made our way to Giza to visit the biggest and most famous site in Egypt, if not the entire world. Not surprisingly, we got hassled along the way and so were not in the best moods when we arrived (I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say we ended up getting dropped off at a camel stable about a mile from the actual entrance after appealing to someone for help with logistics...). But, upon seeing the Sphinx with the Great Pyramid of Khufu framing it in the background, all of our anger was suffused with a sense of awe and wonderment. I've heard some people say the pyramids are smaller in person than they had expected, but staring up at their pointed tops piercing the cloudless sky, I would beg to differ. The pyramids are massive, and even if it is cliche, you can't help but mutter to yourself "How the heck did they build those things?"

After conducting a requisite photo shoot (some travellers we had met a week earlier warned us to wear presentable clothes since we would likely be showing these photos to others for the rest of our lives...), Gil and I decided to maximizing our expenditures on admission fees by dividing and conquering. Gil descended into the inner chambers of the Pyramid of Khafre, the second largest pyramid. They were similar to those at Dahshur, but larger and more complex. Meanwhile, I went to the Solar Barque museum, which houses 1 of 5 wooden boats that was buried with Khufu so that he would have transportation in the afterlife. The boat, which was reconstructed from over 150,000 pieces of wood, was gigantic and seemed incredibly advanced given that it is the oldest boat in existence.

I guess there is not much else to say, except "wow".

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Crazy Cairo

I know I said Cappadocia was crazy, but that was in more of a "strange and wondrous" sort of way. Cairo is crazy in a "need to be checked into an insane asylum" sort of way.

We took the overnight train from Luxor, which arrived early in the morning. After haggling for a reasonable cab fare, we were dropped at Midan Talaat Harb, one of the main intersections downtown. Its a traffic circle where six streets meet, but nobody uses the circle, the just drive straight across however they can. Immediately we found ourselves with several new "friends" all of whom wanted to help us find a place to stay. We figured we were being set up for some sort of hard sell or at least would be asked for baksheesh, so we tried our best to blow them off. But, after we realized none of the hotels would let us check in until noon, we broke down and had a cup of coffee with a couple of them at a nearby cafe (aka, some tables and chairs set up in a back alley).

These guys ended up being pretty harmless (and in fact, we'd met Ali at that same cafe nearly every day we were in Cairo...), but for every genuinely helpful person you meet, it seems as if there are several with ulterior motives waiting in the wings - and usually there is a very fine line between the two. It's a very different mentality from the West, and somewhat difficult to get used to, but at least Cairo is a safe city - if you can avoid being overcharged, convinced to buy something you don't want, or hassled into giving baksheesh for no reason, you really don't have to worry about someone stealing you wallet.

Downtown Cairo is bustling - lots of people and lots of traffic. Crossing the street is a nightmare.Remember the game Frogger? If you hesitate for even a second, you can expect to get squashed. Oh, and nobody uses headlights either. We heard its because people think leaving them on wastes the cars battery. So, people use their horn and headlights, or if they are really about to hit you they will flash the lights on if you are lucky. The technique we adopted was to have at least one local between us and the oncoming cars at all times...

The Egyptian Museum, which houses most of the nation's archaeological treasures, was located a few blocks from our hotel. It's huge and overflowing with artifacts - many that appear to be haphazardly placed in the building without regard to reason. The collection has many highlights, including the treasures found in King Tutankhamen's tomb. While we've all seen pictures of his sarcophagus and funerary mask, it's really amazing to view it in person where you can really appreciate the ornate decoration and flawless craftsmanship. As with the temples in Luxor, we had to keep reminding ourselves that this stuff was thousands of years old because most of it was in impeccable shape.

Even more amazing were the mummy rooms. After seeing the incredible structures they built and the gigantic statues that had been built to depict them, it was very strange to look upon the very human bodies of these powerful Pharaohs. Somehow they seemed too small. It felt both grotesque and fascinating to see their hair, their fingernails, and even the expressions on their faces. The museum also housed a collection of mummified animals. People often gave these as gifts to the gods, but also pets were also mummified so that they could join their owners in the afterlife. Our favorites were the gigantic crocodile and Nile perch mummies.

While downtown is bustling, Islamic Cairo is absolutely bursting at the seams! This is the oldest area of the city, and so the streets are very narrow and impossibly busy. One street we walked down was barely passable by two cars, and yet seemed to be the main thoroughfare for the area. There were many times when we, along with the delivery trucks, donkey carts, and tea sellers, just had to wait patiently for a jam to clear up until you could even budge an inch.

The busy streets of Islamic Cairo are lined with buildings that ooze the type of character that only comes after years of use and abuse. There are many mosques in the area, including the 1,000 year old Al Azhar and its accompanying university, the oldest surviving educational institution in the world. We also visited a traditional family mansion built during the Mamaluk period - from the outside it was unassuming, but inside there were beautiful courtyards and colorful living areas filled with rich carpets and pillows and capped by engraved wooden ceilings.

The Khan Al-Khalili market is found in Islamic Cairo as well, and although we didn't buy much, we enjoyed looking through the many tiny shops piled on top of each other and overflowing into back alleyways. We also enjoyed a coffee and sheesha pipe at Fishawi's Coffeehouse, which has been operating for the last 200 years in the same spot and is still packed day and night.

While Cairo is definitely not one the world's "beautiful" cities, if you cross the Nile at sunset, you can almost pretend that it is. It also has several beautiful parks that allow you to escape the hustle and bustle, like the Al Azhar overlooking the city and the Al-Zuhreya gardens that line the Nile. Unfortunately, you have to pay to enter them, so I am not sure how many of the local Egyptians get to enjoy these lovely refuges.

No description of Cairo would be complete without mentioning the delicious cheap eats. There was one sweet shop that we frequented daily, sometimes more than once. The mango, strawberry, melon and chocolate ice cream they served was to delicious and less than 25 cents for a two scoop cone! At one point when we were enjoying a cone, Gil asked me if I would consider moving to Cairo....


Our bus ride from Hurgada to Luxor was a long, sweaty and uncomfortable journey through the punishing desert and we couldn't help but be overjoyed at our first sighting of towering date palms and other lush greenery nurtured by the Nile. Like all major population centers in Egypt, the Nile runs straight through the center of Luxor, dividing the city in two. The East Bank is affectionately known as the city of the dead and was once the necropolis of ancient Thebes. The West Bank is home to today's modern city, as well as several temples used to worship the many Egyptian gods, and is thus called the city of the living.

Visiting Luxor is like stepping back in time some 4,000 years. We had some hesitation about visiting yet more ruins after getting our fill in Greece, Turkey and Israel, but whereas you really have to use your imagination to appreciate the Greek and Roman ruins, the Egyptian ruins come to life without much effort on your part.

As you head away from the Nile and toward the desert mountains of the West Bank, you are greeted by the Colossi of Memnon, a pair of massive statues that once adorned what is thought to have been the largest complex in the area. Their size is imposing and you immediately feel awe and respect for the incredible accomplishments of the Egyptian people.

Leaving the flood plains, you reach the mountains where you come across literally hundreds of tombs that have weathered the test of time, if not the repeated intrusions of tomb raiders. Archaeologists believe that there are many others still buried under the sand, and the government is even trying to relocate the current inhabitants (for the locals have built homes in and around the tombs) from the area so that further field work can be conducted.

We visited several tombs in both the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, where the Pharaohs and their queens and royal children were laid to rest. Building the tombs of the Pharaohs began when they took power and work continued on the underground tunnels until their death, so that the depth of the tomb generally signifies the length of time the Pharaoh ruled. The tomb walls are adorned with hieroglyphs and images, some of which are so well preserved that it looks as if they were created years, rather than millenia ago. The colors of the tomb of Prince Amanherkhepshet, in particular, were so extraordinarily vivid that we couldn't help but think that we were visiting a "reproduction" rather than the real thing. Even where the natural dye paint had faded, you get a good sense of the scenes being portrayed because each image is not only painted, but also carved into the facade. No pictures are allowed inside the tombs to protect the colors, and there isnt realy much to see from the outside, so you will have to take our word for it.

We also visited the temple of Hatshepsut, one of the few and most powerful female Pharaohs. The sole purpose of the temple was to prepare her body for burial - a long and highly technical process of mummification. While the temple was in remarkably good shape, all of her images had been defaced (literally) by her step son and successor, Tuthmosis III, who tried to destroy her legacy.

The temples in the East Bank are huge and elaborate structures that were built over centuries. The Temple of Luxor is right in the center of the modern city and could be seen from our hotel balcony (which we rarely used because it was so oppressively hot that sitting outside was unthinkable!). Approaching the temple was an avenue lined with hundreds of sphinxes that once extended 3 km to the temples at Karnak and the entryway was adorned with a soaring obelisk. The match to the pair can now be found in Paris, as it was gifted to the French by Mohammad Ali - ask any Egyptian about it and they will tell you what a bum deal they got since the clock tower that was given in exchange has never even worked properly!

We visited the temple in the afternoon so that we could appreciate the ornate reliefs along the inner walls (including one colorful scene of the god of fertility ejaculating into the cup of Alexander the Great...), but stayed until the sun set. The temple was gradually lit up and a cast of eerie shadows descended upon the ruins, making for quite a stunning sight.

Karnak is the other major site in the East Bank. It is a massive complex of buildings exhibiting different architectural styles, since nearly every major Pharaoh contributed something to the place in his or her time. It is said to be the largest open air museum in the world, and since we spent the better part of the day there, we certainly can't refute the claim!

Soon after entering the main temple you arrive at the great hypostyle hall, a forest of gigantic pillars adorned with papyrus-shaped capitals painted red and green. Gazing up at the towering columns you feel very, very small. You also feel miniature when looking up at the Obelisk of Hatshepsut in the next court, the largest obelisk in the world. As with Hatshepsut's other monuments, Themosis III tried to hide its grandeur by surrounding it with walls, but it was clearly a futile effort.

One of the most interesting sites was the Temple of Ptah. After entering through a series of 5 doors, you reach two of the temple's original statues, the headless figure of Ptah and his goddess wife, Sekhmet, the Spreader of Terror. The Sekhmet statue was in fact a little terrifying, as it looked like an alien or some strange mythical beast and was housed in a dark chamber filled with smokey incense and two heavily-breathing tourists who seemed to be in a bit of a trance. Freaky.

In sum, if you can handle the touts and the crowds (which we didn't find to be half as bad as we had been warned), Luxor really is an archaeological treasure that should not be missed.

Sharm El-Sheik and Hurgada

If Dahab is the Kho Phi Phi of the Red Sea, then Sharm El-Sheik is the Las Vegas. While it's home to some of the most impressive reefs in the world, the land surrounding city seems more like an imaginary playland for the rich. Huge hotels cover every stretch of the beach, which means that if want to access the water, you pay dearly (or sneak in... our preferred approach). As there is virtually no budget accomodation in Sharm, we stayed at the Youth Hostel. It wasn't terrible, except for the utterly disgusting free breakfast, reminicent of (but much, much worse than) school lunch.

Along with the megahotels and shopping malls, Sharm was dotted here and there with various amusement-like attractions - a giant water park, life-size replicas of dinosaurs, a huge complex of pastel-colored buildings straight out of Disney's Aladin. When walking around Sharm Old Market, we came across a stucco oasis, complete with waterfalls and palm trees, where we enjoyed some overpriced ice cream and a free magic show. As ridiculous as the place was, it was a fun diversion for a night and if you are a serious diver or snorkeller, I am sure you'd be willing to sacrafice some authenticity to enjoy the spectacular ecosystem of Ras Mohammed National Park.

And, if Sharm El-Sheik is the Vegas of the Red Sea, then Hurgada is the Reno. We only stopped here for a night in transit to Luxor, but it was enough time to get a sense for the place. While this was once THE destination on the Red Sea, it's now well past it's prime and overrun with packaged tourists from Russia and Poland. Still, we preferred it's seedier atmosphere to the fairytale land that is Sharm and probably would have stayed and snorkelled another day if we had the time.