Saturday, October 27, 2012


You cannot visit Egypt without traveling along the Nile River. The mighty empires of Egypt's past, all travelled along this mighty waterway. Their most important temples, are located on the banks. Local Egyptians today still use it as a way of life. Nubians still fish from the waters and sail using hand made sail boats.

One of the most beautiful places to spend time relaxing on the Nile is in the southern town of Aswan. Here the mighty Nile meets huge granite rock formations, which divide the Nile and make for a beautiful setting and stunning Nile experience.

The granite rock formations in Aswan have been sought after for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs had their workers cut the huge blocks that they used to built their temples and pyramids, from these granite formations.   Most of the blocks used to build the giant Pyramids of Giza, were cut from this area, and transported hundreds of miles down the Nile.  An impressive feat, when you see how large the blocks were.

Before the construction of the High Dam, just south of Aswan, which created Lake Nasser, this section of the Nile river was more turbulent. Flood waters racing down the Nile from the head waters of a wetter part of Africa,  washed into the huge granite boulders and created huge rapids. Today this section is a calm and relaxing place to be transported by felucca or small motorized river boat up the Nile to experience Nubian villages and soak up their culture.    Ancient hieroglyphics can still be seen carved in the granite as you pass though towering granite walls. 

It didn't take long for tour companies to cash in,on this spot on the Nile. Huge river boats the size of small cruise ships are docked up along the bank.  They depart just below the granite formations and take tourist for multi night river cruises to the town of Luxor.

Usually these boats are full of cruise line passengers, but since the revolution, recent attacks on embassies, and a decrease in safety for tourists, these huge boats are sitting empty. Their paint cracking and peeling away, their railings rusting. Tourism in Egypt is 1/20th what it normally is.

So when tourism increases and people return to the banks of the Nile and you find yourself  in Aswan don't jump on the modern cruise boats, with swimming pools on their decks and restaurants beneath. Hire a local to sail you towards Luxor on a homemade felucca, which has been in their family for many years. You might travel a bit slower, pushed along by the warm winds of the Sahara, but
 you will spend the days soaking up the sun, the nights camping under the stars, entertained by song and dance, still served three meals a day, and you still have a swimming pool. The entire waters of the Nile.

For the next two nights that exactly what I will be doing. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Eid-ul-Adha 'Festival of Sacrifice'

Today I walked around the town of Luxor, photographing one of the most interesting festivals I have ever seen.  Though it was hard to watch, is was about as authentic of an experience I have ever seen.  

 Eid-ul-Adha ('festival of Sacrifice') is the second most important festival in the Muslim year. This year it starts on October 26th and runs for 3 days.  It is in remembrance for Prophet Ibrahim, who agreed to sacrifice his own son, when he thought Allah, instructed him to do so.  As a sign of obedience to God, Ibrahim went along with it, but just before he was to kill his own son, Allah stopped him and presented him with a lamb to sacrifice instead.

Today Muslims around the world begin the day heading to a mosque dressed in their finest clothing.  Later they begin sacrificing cows, sheep, and goats as a remembrance to this occasion.  After butchering them, everyone joins in a big feast.  No one is supposed to go hungry on this day. Even the poor are given a third of the animal.

While in countries such as England and the USA, the butchering must be done at a slaughterhouse. In most Arab countries,  they slaughter the animal in the streets outside their homes.   So many animals are killed that the streets actually run red, with blood.   For some people this might seem cruel but when you think about how most animals are treated in developed countries. Packed into small pens in the hundreds, never to taste natural grown grass or get to wonder about free,  these animals have a great life.

The day began early for me, as prayer coming from the mosque next to my hotel, was louder and longer than normal.  I got up and began walking around meeting the locals.  I witnessed the festival two years ago in Morocco. In a beautiful photogenic mountain town.  They were more private about the sacrifice and most instructed me to leave  or not take photos.  But in Luxor, the families were happy to invite me to stay and photograph and video the slaughtering.   Some even invited me into their homes for lunch.   

Any other time, watching a big animal like a cow get it's throat slashed open and bled to death, in the middle of a dirty street, would be hard to watch.  But watching  how important this meant to the entire family, kept things in perspective.  This festival was more than just a feast, it's foundation is to help charities and to help feed the poor.  Even the stray dogs and cats get to feast on left over bones and scraps.

It didn't take much effort for the butcher to kill the sheep, most could be carried over the persons shoulders and then just killed in one cut of the knife.  But the huge bulls, tied up outside houses were more difficult and went down with a fight. It took a team effort.

 When it came time to kill them.   Their front legs were tied together which with some effort knocked them off their feet.   Most of the time it went smooth, other times it looked as if the bull was going to get loose and run free. When the bull, fell over, a group of men jumped and pinned the bull down and slit it's throat, blood spurting  from it's  major arteries and gushing out into the streets. It's amazing how much blood comes from these animals.  The animal struggled for a few minutes, but died relatively quickly.  Even the smallest children ,  seemed to have become accustomed to the tradition.

Woman don't participate in the butchering, but watch from a distance, I'm sure they will have plenty of work later on preparing the meat   Children that are old enough are asked to help with the butchering, as a bonding with the father.   Someday they will lead the butcher of the family animal.

After killing the animal, there was often a blood fight, where people rubbed blood in the face of others.  Non of it was taken serious, but met with laughs like a water fight.   The locals also dipped their hands into the pools of blood and made bloody hand prints all over the street walls.  Making sure all five fingers were visible.  Until the streets were covered in bloody hands, like some elementary school was doing an art project with red finger paint.   I was told it was for good luck.    

Everywhere I walked animals were being sacrificed.  As soon one was done being butchered, I walked down the street to the neighbors to watch them butcher another. Usually each animal was butchered by a different man.   By the time they were done, their clothes were covered in blood.  I got some interesting photos of these butchers. Most were wearing their traditional Islamic clothing.  Some with blood splattered all over their face. 

 I witnessed so much death that, eventually I had to go back to my hotel room to take a break from the smell of blood, warm meat, smelly insides, and swarms of flies.  On the way I had to walk around pools of blood.  Outside each house, where once stood a sheep or cow tied up in the morning when I walked past,  was only a huge pool of blood.

Western society tends to keep certain things covered behind closed doors.   Watching a living animal get killed isn't fun, but anyone who enjoys meat must realize someone has to kill it.

Sun Festival, Abu Simbel

As the horizon over  Lake Nasser begins showing signs of light, singing and dancing abruply begins around Abu Simbel temple in Southern Egypt.  The brighter the sky gets the more energy people seem to get, as if feeding off the light and welcoming the sun. A festival atmosphere breaks out, everyone is giving their all waiting for the sun to break from behind the horizion.

For locals and tourists alike,  they have travelled to this location to witness a special occurance that only happens twice a year.  On October 22nd and February 22nd respectively. During these mornings, the temple around Abu Simbel explodes with celebration, it's a solar phenominon,   where the sun will rise at just the right angle to light up the statues of King Ramses II  in the far reaches of the temple.

Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II,  has his scuptures, build the temple out of sandstone around 1250 BC.  And using his knowledge of the sun,  alligned it so that the sun shined on his statue 60 meters into the temple,  only on the day he was born and the day he became king.  The Sun god was very important to the ancient Egyptians,  so careful planning had to be done to make sure everything was aligned. 

To get to Abu Simbel is an adventure in itself.  A convoy of vehicles meet at a departure spot in Aswan at 12am.   Then all travel together at top speed across the open desert,  accompanied by military escort. Each bus accompanied by an armed officer.  The section of road while controlled by the military has been dangerous in the past. With buses been ambushed,  by terrorist groups.    The trip takes three hours to arrive at Abu Simbel,  which lies on the shores of Lake Nasser,  near the border of Sudan.  While most days the convoy leaves at 4am, today we must arrive before sunrise.

For most tourists like myself,  we are not sure what to expect, but we line up to enter the temple by passing through metal detectors, have our bags searched and told where to line up.   Many VIP from Egypt and around the world show up to this festival, so security is tight.

As the sun finally breaks from behind the horizon,  the line of people are allowed to enter the temple and  get a brief glimpse of the statue of Ramses II before quickly exciting.   Outside the temple, locals are singing and dancing for the Governor of Aswan and other VIPS, new cameras are about,  and everyone soaks up the sunrise,  for about two hours after the sun has risen, before we all  depart by convoy back to the city of Aswan.  

It is one of the most dramatic sunrises I have ever experienced.  



Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Flying into Cairo, is like heading back into time. A cross roads of history, where two different continents converge, and a mighty river flows. This is my fourth time visiting Cairo, but still just as excited experiencing it as if it were my first. While the city lies surrounded by the mighty sands of the Sahara, the waters flowing through it's center, has given it life for thousands of years. Today Cairo is one of the largest cities in the world, harbouring a history as long as the Nile itself.

From the Pharaohs of the ancient world, which constructed the many pyramids, to the Romans who controlled a once vast empire, to conquering Napoleon who decided to give the sphinx a nose job with an artillery shell. Cairo is a bustling Arab city and one of the most important Islamic cities in the world. There is so much to experience and learn while staying in Cairo. Luckily the cabs are ridiculously cheap and the people are very proud of their culture and whiling to share it with you

The cab rides for me are part of the entertainment of visiting Cairo. Good luck trying to drive your own car in the city, so if you want to get out of your hotel you are going to have to use a cab. Getting into one is like getting into a getaway car, of a grave robber who just stole from Hatsheput herself, and desperately trying to void her wrath. They race through traffic, laying on the horn and zigzagging with no fear of hitting pedestrians or other cars. Throw in only a few stop stops, unorganised traffic patterns, and only three stop lights in a city of over 20 million and you get the organized chaos that is traffic in Cairo.

In the four years since visiting Cairo first, the city as gotten even faster, as camels and donkey carts, have been replaced by new cars and taxis. Even brand new license plates, shine on every ones vehicle. Still nobody seems to follow  traffic lanes or traffic laws. What would get you arrested for hazardous driving in the United States is a common traffic maneuver over here.

In between spending time in the Sudan Embassy working on my Sudan visa. I got the chance to see some more of Cairo that I hadn't before. To fully experience Cairo you must get away from the touristy areas, museums, perfume stores, papyrus galleries, and just dive into the culture of the everyday Egyptian. Walking through the streets will unlock and amazing side of Egypt that no tour bus will take you. Egyptians are proud of their history and whiling to share it with open arms, and heart. They will invite you into their homes, serve you food, introduce the family, and make you feel welcome to stay.

Don't visit Cairo without visiting some of the many mosques , be sure to respect their customs, and climb up into the tallest towers,  to get a stunning view of the city. 

Walking throughout the city is another experience of survival.   The same crazy traffic you ride in, taking a taxi you have to avoid if you want to cross any of the many streets.    It's like playing on the highest level of the video game Frogger.    It's something that you have to see in person to fully understand.   You learn to just follow the locals when they make a break for it and try to avoid being hit, like a quarterback avoiding a sack. 

What I love most about traveling is meeting interesting people.  I was invited to dinner by Shahira Amin. One of the most amazing journalist and females I have ever met. In a culture dominated by men, her strength and passion as a woman and journalist,   has changed many lives in the Arabic world.

 Bringing a voice to those who's voice may not have otherwise been heard. Her courage to stand up to leaders of government and stand for what she believes in, has taken her to the most important historical moments in the Arab world in the last few decades. She is the journalist who interviewed  Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive for five years, in Gaza.  

I left her with an inspiration and understanding of pure courage that I rarely experience.  And a reassurance  that there are still great people out there.  

Although I have visited the pyramids of Giza three times, I couldn't visit Cairo without visiting them again.    With the sun setting over Cairo on my way back from picking up my Sudan Visa,  instructed my taxi driver, to head for Giza.

As you arrive into Giza,  the pyramids tower over the skyline.   When I arrived the gates were closed and all of those inside were exiting.  But a local reading my mind,  showed me a back way to avoid the police officers and guards, pay off a watchmen, jump a fence,  and then climb up a sand hill to spend sunset by myself photographing the pyramids as the sun got swallowed up by the Sahara.

I wasn't there to do any harm.  Loot the amazing site, or cause trouble.  But rather, photograph one of the great man made wonders of the world, as the Sahara slowly swallowed up the sun.

There I was atop a tall hill looking out over the pyramids as the sunlight slowly disappeared.   The modern town of Giza,  and ancient empire,  seperated by a towering wall.    It's experiences like this that keep me addicted to a lifestyle, of spontaneous decision making.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Destination Egypt

Looking out the tiny oval window, I watch the world below quickly becoming smaller and smaller as we climb into the sky, until it disappears behind a curtain of white puffy clouds.

With the view gone, I recline in my seat, flip my CNN cap over my eyes. I begin my elbow dance with the two passengers on both sides and settle in for the flight. 

Though I'm piled into this Boeing 737, with like sardines, and accelerating through the sky, inside a object full of moving parts, and hundreds of gallons of highly combustible jet fuel,  I am in a state of peace.   My mind transports me beyond the crying babies, coughing passengers, the stewardesses wheeling carts up and down the aisle.

I don't care, I would be happy to be placed in the cargo hold and be able to sit on luggage.  For when I head off on an adventure, I feel like a king. If someone were to look at my face, during the beginning of every plane ride. They would see a big euphoric, grin on my face.    My legs crunched up in the tight seat, hands folded across my chest like a cadaver, my stiff neck arched backward on the short head rests, and but completely happy and lost in my vast imagination.