by Jane Akshar
To get to my Luxor you have to go through the other Luxor. Some people love the East bank but I find it artificial with loads of hassle. My Luxor is the West Bank. The character of the two places is totally different; it is not a case of the river separating two districts. The East Bank is much more developed and along the Nile there are many five star hotels cheek by jowl. Most of the tourist shopping is on the East, but few of the sites. The West Bank is more rural; hotels are small, family run businesses in the middle of the village. Although there are many alabaster factories and a couple of papyrus institutes, the attraction for the tourist is the masses and masses of sights.
There are loads of ways to get to the other side from the railway or the airport. You can get a taxi round the bridge. That takes a long time as the bridge is 9 km south of town. Also at various times of day the police can be a real pain forbidding tourists to cross. Certainly dont try and cross before 6:00 am unless you are going on a balloon trip. After sunset you will be stopped and quizzed on what nationality you are and where are you going. I still get that, even though I have lived here several years. But it is the only way to get a car across since they closed the car ferry. Funnily enough, there is no problem going back the other way from West to East.
You can also cross by motor boat. Just walk down the Corniche along the embankment and lots of people will offer you a crossing on a motor boat. That is a very pleasant way to get across and you get views of Luxor temple as you cross. Lastly, and my favorite, is the local ferry. I prefer this, as I am extremely unhandy about climbing on and off the motor boats, and always have to have my hand held. On the local ferry I am spared this indignity.
This is where you start to leave the hassle behind. You dont have to fight off the felucca boys, taxi and calalesh drivers any more, you can relax. On the ferry you can chat with the locals. As a woman, I always sit next to other women and they are often carrying babies. This is always a useful topic of conversation even if you havent got a common language. Another mother knows when her child is being admired and friendly smiles are exchanged. You can try out a smattering or Arabic. Walid ou bint, boy or girl, is a good one.
On the ferry there is a man selling sweeties, nuts and other items. Some of these sweets are delicious but definitely not for the calorie conscious. They are laden with sugar. He cuts you off a piece and it is handed over in a scrap of paper, often pages from a book or newspaper. The sugary syrup immediately soaks the paper and you have to eat quickly to avoid being coated in it. There are also savory snacks for sale. Sometimes there will be a shoeshine man. You will see a small child wandering up and down with squares of cardboard and swapping these for a pair of shoes. This is so the customer can put his feet on the cardboard rather than on the floor of the ferry. The shoeshine man will be in a corner polishing away and somehow he always manages to finish before the ferry lands on the other side. The small child then whisks around collecting all the pieces of card, returning the shoes and getting paid. There seems to be a competition as you land that all the men engage in; who can be first off the boat. Somewhere in Luxor they must go and get awarded prizes, only joking, but it is amazing seeing them all rush to get off and gain an extra second.
Landing on the other side you are immediately greeted with the calling cry of the local Tax Tax. Actually it is not someone from the Inland Revenue finally catching up with you but how they say taxi. If you dont want one, a simple La shukran and they go. Welcome to the hassle free West Bank.
Walking up the road to the center of the village, you go past stalls selling various produce. If you are there early in the morning, walk a little way along the embankment until you get to where the taxis and motor boat drivers hang out. There, under an awning made of a scrap of cloth, the men sit drinking endless cups of tea heavily sweetened. A man with a cart serves breakfast. Your seat is a rock, and an upturned palm leaf crate is your table. The most delicious breakfast is quickly served. Foul, the staple of any breakfast, salad, pickles and fresh bread. He pours samna (buttery oil) and you tuck in. No utensils. Just scoop up the food with the bread, crunch on the pickles. A filling start to the day.
A service car arrives and a crowd gets out. How do they cram so many people into these little truck/buses? The men walk past on their way to work carrying their implements. The sun is coming up and the heat is starting. You finish breakfast with a cup of tea, no milk, just sugar. Quickly you betray your roots with waheet sucre, one sugar. If there were any doubts about you being Egyptian they are laid to rest now. Egyptians like sugar water flavored with tea in my experience. My half Arab daughter takes four teaspoons of sugar in her tea!!!
Going up the village you pass the local restaurants, the juice bar (ice cold sugar cane juice is so refreshing), internet cafes; everything and anything is available. Sometimes the shops look less than prepossessing but the food is fresh and totally organic. Ah look, a pet shop, how unusual to have chickens as pets. No, your mistake. These are not pets, this is dinner. Pick your bird and it is killed, gutted and plucked. This is fresh food with a vengeance. Even at the butchers, that cow was alive a few short hours ago.
The fruit and veg man is totally seasonal so no imported and shipped, tasteless, out of season food. It is sun ripened straight out of the fields. Not even organic food tastes this good. The lemons are small and green and make a wonderful drink squeezed whole with some water and of course sugar. Grapefruit is sweet and can be eaten without sugar (unless youre Egyptian). The candy man with his bags walks along the street.
Once out of El Gezera village you get to the main attraction of the West Bank, the sites. You can go round these in a variety of ways, including taxis, A/C mini buses, big coaches, donkeys, bicycles or even walking, if you are very fit. The sites here are different as well. Of course you have the Valley of the Kings which everyone knows about, but there are so many others that no one goes to. Where it is, just you and the temple, and you sit
listening to the call to prayer echoing across the courtyards and muse on the timelessness of it all. Go visit one of the lesser known tombs, where the guardian unlocks it for you, his only visitor that day, and makes you tea. He jokes with you and suggests you become his third, or was that his fourth, wife. It is friendly banter and makes your day, as he guesses your age some 10 years younger. That calls for a good baksheesh.
There is also the opportunity for horse, camel and donkey rides; just short trips round the village or a gallop into the desert. You finished the day on the roof top of a local restaurant watching the Nile and the sun setting, sipping cold beer and wondering if life back home is really worth it. The food arrives. It is a small banquet and totally delicious. You reflect on your West Bank day.
You suddenly realize that you havent heard a child screaming in temper or a parent shouting trying to control an unruly offspring. People seem more at peace and content here. The only arguments seem to be between a crowd of men who look as though they are going to come to blows. Voices are raised and it looks as though a battle is about to break out. It must be a blood feud and people are going to get hurt. You get a quick translation and learn that they are discussing football and not terrorism and you have never felt so safe in all your life. You walk back along the darkened street and people who know call out in greeting and beg you to stop and drink tea.