Sunday, January 31, 2010

I Don't Know How Sucking a Bird Into Your Engine Would Fit With This Analogy.

I once heard someone liken launching a career to flying an airplane, and that analogy was interesting enough I thought I'd explore how it could be related to writing.

1. There is something called take-off velocity. If you don't reach it, you will never get off the ground. You will keep trundling along that runway forever.
When you're trying to break into publishing, you have to work damned hard, at every stage, from the writing itself to the editing, to the querying, to plain old learning, and hopefully someday to promoting your debut. You must strain your engines to their limit at the start of your career, or you'll have no hope of someday soaring.

The one wonderful thing about that hard-scrabble stage, however, is that the runway is as long as you want to make it. Nothing will ever force you to give up.

2. Once you're in the air, you need to keep climbing. All kinds of things can bring you crashing down if you don't reach a safe cruising altitude.
If you stay on the midlist, your publishing house will eventually decline to work with you again. Hopefully, the industry will someday change such that this isn't so ruthlessly true, but right now, it is. Plan to continue working your butt off even after you get published.

3. Once you reach cruising altitude, you can trust in your momentum to help keep you aloft. However, if you shut off your engines, then you are headed for the ground--no exceptions. It may take a long time to realize it, depending on how high you were, but there is no such thing as coasting--only sinking.
Even famous authors don't get to knock out uninspired books for long. A fan base is only as loyal as the quality of the product deserves. Therefore, for as long as you want writing to be your career, you must strive to go forward in your craft, to keep improving and to keep creating books that are great--not simply good or good enough.

Don't shut off your engines until you're ready to land, i.e. retire.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, January 25, 2010


The Rejectionist is rather witty.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Coco Provokes a Thought

Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen.
I don't own a television, so I've only been passingly aware of the whole O'Brien/Leno/NBC kerfuffle, but this statement by Conan O'Brien on his final airing of The Tonight Show resonates with me. I'm particularly impressed someone in such a high-powered industry, holding such coveted job, would include the qualification "and [if] you're kind". My opinion of this guy--whose existence I'm barely familiar with--just rose pretty high.

And now I'm going to be precise: The reason why this resonates with me is kindness is something I hold in great esteem; I think it's a trait more important to human society than intelligence--and I'm already strongly biased toward rating intelligence above all sorts of other impressive human attributes, so for me, that's a big admission.

Words that resonate, whether spoken or written, have power over us regardless of what mouth they come out of. A television host's closing monologue is hardly the place to get your wisdom from, but everyone's brain cherry-picks the things they remember. Thus, the power of words is democratic. If you say something that has impact, which strikes people as being true, they will remember it regardless of who you are.

Here's a sentence that resonated with me when I was just a kid, and which has stuck with me my whole life:
Never believe in anything completely; it's a sign of weakness.
That statement came from the lips of actor Jon Pertwee playing the title character in Dr Who during the early seventies (I watched re-runs of these; I was but a wee lass when Mr Pertwee finished his stint as the Doctor!)

The words read quite harshly on paper; Mr Pertwee's good humour and posh British accent gentled their delivery considerably. Regardless, the statement's condemnation of extremist thinking and its promotion of open-minded, healthy skepticism made a lasting impact on the twelve-year-old JJ--a kid who went on to love the sciences and to consider all religions valid.

Who wrote that line? I have no idea, but his or her words reached through a television screen and made an impact that lasted decades on at least one kid.

It gives hope to all us writers working in obscurity: You don't need to be anybody; you just need to write powerfully. You just need to speak the deep truths clearly.

There is the matter of who the message will resonate with, however. That one line from Dr Who resonated with me because I already considered it to be true; I just hadn't managed to put that thought into words yet myself.

Another person might be very uncomfortable with the idea of never believing anything--such as the claims of their religion, for example--completely. They wouldn't consider that statement a deep truth, and although the discomfort might make them remember the line, eventually their mind would dismiss it as untrue and forget the statement.

And that's the wisdom underlying the truism "You can't please everyone". We all have different beliefs, and thus our brains cherry-pick their own truths. You can write something that resonates powerfully with a lot of people, but the nature of humanity is such that the words cannot resonate with everyone. Therefore, it's not a good idea to get too upset over one person not liking what you wrote, because that's inevitable.


Have you any lines of wisdom from oddball sources that have stuck with you for years? I'd be delighted if you shared them.

Do you agree with my hypothesis that the words resonated because you already agreed with them, or do you think the words shaped what you would come to believe? I'd love to hear what you think.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pet Peeve

One of my peeves: When a venue tries to talk a writer into publishing with them, for no money, on the grounds that "it's good publicity."

Because, from the writer's point of view, it would be equally good publicity if the venue published the work and paid the writer too.

This dubious 'publicity' happens automatically when the piece hits the shelves. The venues aren't offering publicity instead of payment; they're simply offering no payment.

Go ahead and admit your profit margins are tiny and you can't afford to pay me much. Just don't try to convince me you're paying me with something I would have gotten anyway.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, January 18, 2010

Just Me and My Shadow

Ever since I was old enough to understand what that skull-and-crossbones poison symbol means, I've noticed a really peculiar impulse in myself.

Whenever I see a liquid I know is poison, some deviant bit of my brain will whisper, "Drink it."

It's scary. I don't want to die or be sick, and yet I have to consciously curtail this abrupt impulse to drink that seductively sparkling liquid. I've never studied psychology, but I believe this creepy, whispering bit of my brain is named the id.

What makes it relevant to writing (besides being something good and weird to draw on) is an idea I came across in someone else's blog, which I have unfortunately lost the link to now. Whoever you are, I'm so sorry--you're totally brilliant.

The idea they put forward is that everyone has an id, or a "shadow", including your protagonist. Their shadow contains all the bits of themself that they hate and fear most--everything they don't want to face.

Usually, a person's shadow is invisible to them; they don't know the shape of their own darkness. So why is the idea of a person's shadow relevant to how you portray your protagonist? Because there is one particular reaction that does show off a person's shadow:

When we see our id embodied in another person, we are so terrified of it we lash out at that person with an irrational anger. In other words, we most furiously hate the things we are most in danger of becoming.

If your antagonist embodies your protagonist's id, then your protagonist will be almost obsessively motivated to stop them. And what makes that conflict really juicy is your protagonist's worst impulses are those of their shadow, so as your protagonist becomes more stressed, they will have to fight all the harder to keep themselves from becoming just like their enemy.

Their internal struggle will mirror the external one, and they'll be forced to examine those parts of their own character that frighten them most. It's a great way to force a personal growth arc onto your protagonist.


Does your protagonist have a dark side? Is it mirror of their antagonist? Would you or have you ever set up that symmetry on purpose in a story?

Have you seen the shape of your own darkness? Does your brain ever give you disturbing suggestions your conscious mind rebels against? Can you see parallels between the things that makes you angriest and the things you would be capable of doing if you gave in to your worst impulses?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, January 15, 2010

McKoala Presents: The Year of Submission

McKoala, the toughest marsupial in the Eucalypt, has announced her new challenge: The Year of Submission!

If you think you're tough enough, pick up that blood-stained gauntlet; I dare you.

McKoala's post has all the details, but the rules are essentially that everyone starts at zero, and you gain points by submitting at least one short story, poem or article per month to a paying market or contest. Additional points are earned by meeting word count minimums or beta-reading, and submitting a novel zooms you right up to the top!

The downside is if you start slipping in the rankings, you will feel the claws of McKoala's fearsome alter ego, The Koala.

To earn myself sycophant points celebrate McKoala's latest challenge, I have designed some new badges to mark the victims' participants' progress. If you've decided to join us in our merry masochism, then feel free to snag these for your own blog:
(Right-click on the image, then select "Save Image As...")

9 or more points:

8 points:

7 points:

6 points:

5 points:

4 points:

3 points:

2 points:

1 point:



(Why yes, that is a very attractive goblin, isn't it?)

Final images are subject to change at the Koala's whims, because hey, you don't say no to someone who has both claws and a temper, am I right?

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nathan and Me Do That Synergy Thing

I zanged my mental musings out into the universe, and by golly, the universe zinged them right back! Literary agent and author, Nathan Bransford, has a post today about using your on-line time effectively for authorial self-promotion:
It takes time to make a good blog, a good Twitter feed, a good Facebook page, a good book trailer, etc., and if you dilute your time and try to do everything you might end up without a good anything.

Instead: do what you're best at. Don't make yourself miserable doing what you think you should be doing, do what you enjoy doing. Utilize your time where it's best spent[.]
From: The Key To Marketing Your Book: Time Well-Spent

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Quasi-Resolution: Stalk and Kill the Relentless Time-Slurper

Today's "Meaty" post is a bit personal and could be classified as part of a New Year's resolution.

I don't own a television and haven't in over fifteen years. When people ask why, I say that there's so much more to do in life than watch TV.

Sounds lofty, doesn't it? Problem is, the internet munches up my time just as effectively as a television would.

And, like television, it's not that there isn't some fantastic content there--for a writer, the internet may be one of the greatest resources we have. You can learn how the publishing industry works, make contacts and join critique groups, do simple research, and even look up grammar rules.

The problem is knowing where to stop, knowing beyond what point you're wasting your time instead of making an investment in your future. What does Twitter get you, really?

Let me lurch off on a brief tangent. You've probably heard that marijuana isn't addictive, but this is false. THC, the psycho-active ingredient in marijuana, is stored in the body's fat cells. When a person stops using marijuana, their fat cells release the THC gradually, effectively tapering them off the drug so they don't go into withdrawal.

Another indication that THC is addictive--the one that's relevant here--is the fact some people use marijuana compulsively.

I think it's fair to say that, in recent years, I've used the internet compulsively. I wake up, turn on the computer, and check email, blogs, and favourite websites (I can has Lolcats?) I sit down to lunch at my desk and do the same thing. I spend my evenings web-surfing. El Husbando and I joke about how much time we spend in the same room facing different directions because our computers are against opposite walls.

There's so much more to do in life than peruse the internet.

In 2009, I made several attempts to break myself of my internet addiction. First, I installed Leechblock and set limits on the amount of time I spent at certain sites. That didn't work very well after I learned how to turn it off. My personality is such that I get miffed at a machine slapping me away from something I was mentally involved with.

Certain websites I visited regularly were steeped in negativity (is it wrong to detest Perez Hilton when you persist in reading his site?), and I finally decided to give them up. Barring one relapse, I managed to do that.

Web abstinence thus proven to be one of the few effective techniques for me, just before my vacation this past December, I made a new resolution: I would only Twitter, read blogs, and look at my favourite websites once per day.

I could check email as often as I liked, mind you. I could write my blog posts at will. The fun stuff, however? Only once a day.

And since I was chopping out time-wasters, I also forbade myself from playing casual computer games like Minesweeper and Spider Solitaire.

You would think my enforced time away from the internet this December would help me set new habits, but I still find myself wandering toward the computer with the intention to read blogs or play a quick game. I don't think it's wrong for me to classify this as compulsive behaviour. I'm getting better slowly, but I have noted my withdrawal symptoms.

So one of my ever-nebulous resolutions for 2010 is to keep off the sauce, as it were. I'm only allowed to web-surf once a day unless I'm doing research.

Because there's so much more to do in life. Like write books, read books, draw and paint, do chores, talk to all the awesome people I love, go for walks, take up rock climbing again, learn how to make toffee (it was awesome, by the way), teach my orchids to love me once more, enjoy my job, enjoy the weather, etc., etc., etc...

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, January 04, 2010

Does a Writer Need "Voice"?

Several weeks back, Sex Scenes at Starbucks had a post on "voice". My comment was the following:
I heard a song once with the lyric, "I'm not beautiful like her; I'm beautiful like me."

If your voice isn't flowery, then don't try to make it so. Be beautiful like you, not like someone else, or you'll always be a poor imitation rather than the real deal.

If you're worried about injecting more beauty into what you do, one tactic would be: Rather than going pretty, try going deep.

You can create something that can resonate with a reader--choke them up with emotion--using very simple language. Guy Gavriel Kay does this well. He writes clean and simple prose, but holy crap, he can drill right into your heart.

And the impression he leaves is one of beauty, but his prose remains un-flowery. The trick is he goes deep, and makes sure the emotions his characters feel resonate powerfully in the reader.
Voice is a bit of a nebulous concept. Agents say they're looking for voice; informed readers often cite voice as the one thing that will or won't pull them into a story; an editor at SiWC 2009 mentioned she could fix plot problems and SPAG errors, but if the writer hadn't developed voice yet, she couldn't help them.

But what is voice? It seems to be having the confidence and competence needed to give your written words a particular flavour--a personality. Characters can (and should) have voices that are distinct from one another, and writers develop a voice that's as unique and recognizable as the one that comes from their physical mouth.

I agree with the editor who said you can't teach a person voice. But is voice necessary?

(I think it is, however...) I think some writers get away without one. The only rule for your prose is it should be invisible--it shouldn't ever get in the way of the story blooming in the reader's head.

Does Dan Brown have a voice? His prose strikes me as workman-like, which is perfectly acceptable. Did Stephenie Meyer in the first Twilight book? With the exception of the passages describing Edward, I think her prose was also fairly invisible, and that works just fine.

Also, I've read books where I thought the voice was so distinctive it became intrusive. Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson, and Gossamyr by Michele Hauf, both struck me that way. That's obviously a matter of personal taste, but I think it shows it's possible to have too much voice--at least for one particular reader.

All the same, a great writing voice pulls you in. It gives you enough confidence in the writer's abilities that you're willing to trust they'll do something wonderful to you in this story. And from the writer's point of view, absolutely anything that keeps you reading is a powerful tool in their arsenal.


How important is voice to you when you read a book? Have you ever stopped reading because of (either too much or too little) voice? Have you ever kept reading something that wasn't engaging because of the great voice?

What would you describe voice as? And what do you think goes into a writer acquiring their voice? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, January 01, 2010

Trip Report: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

These posts are mainly for the benefit of my family and friends, but all are welcome to read it. They constitute a trip report for my recent vacation to Morocco, Egypt and Dubai.

Please forgive my tragic misspellings of placenames; I jotted down what I heard, and I'm going to avoid too much fact-checking just to get this up on the blog quickly. Likewise, I'm not editing this too closely, so you're reading whatever I blathered out in that evening after the tours finished.

I will put large blocks of history/trivia in red so that, if you're not interested, you can skip quickly over that material.

Lastly, my husband is quite a bit shyer than I am about having details of his life put up on the internet, so I'll refer to him as "El Husbando" everywhere. Those of you who know his real name can substitute it in yourselves. :-)

Day 15, travel to Dubai

When we left Cairo airport, we passed upward through the thin cloud that covered the city, and from the air, it was pretty obvious that cloud was dirty grey, not white like the clouds higher up.

The Red Sea is actually a very pretty shade of blue. The Saudi desert had fluffy little clouds floating above it, which made it look much less scorched than it would have otherwise. We did spot some green circles of irrigated land.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) have a population of 5 million, with Dubai accounting for 1.5 million. However, 80% of the population consists of foreigners working on visas. There's little unemployment, because if a foreigner loses their job, they have four weeks to find a new one or leave the country.

45 years ago, Dubai consisted of desert and Bedouin tribesmen; its whole amazing cityscape has been built since that time. The city's grandparents grew up in tents; its parents grew up in the first stone houses; its children walk among glass towers. They estimate 30% of the world's construction cranes are in Dubai.

Like Egypt, the work week is from Sunday to Thursday, and Friday and Saturday are the weekend. (Morocco keeps the same work week as Europe.)

After Cairo, Dubai looked incredibly clean and orderly, but we learned it can be a bit too orderly for comfort. For example, you can be arrested for taking pictures of airports, military buildings, government buildings, police buildings, police officers, police cars, and even Emirate ladies (it's okay if they walk into your shot, but don't focus on just them.)

Foreigners can buy alcohol in hotels and pubs, but they may not drink or be drunk in public, with the penalty being up to four days in jail. Also, buying alcohol to drink at home is more effort than it's worth. You have to apply for a liquor licence, and your application must include a note from both your employer and your landlord saying they're okay with you drinking alcohol. Then, you go to one of only two stores in Dubai that will sell you alcohol, and you're not permitted to spend more than 5% of your income on it.

That's in Dubai. Some of the other Emirates don't allow any alcohol at all.

The Emirates are one of the safest places in the world to visit. Crime rates are very low due to a combination of high police presence, strict laws, public cameras, the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) and a policy of deporting any foreigner who tangles too seriously with the law (which is fine, considering other Arab countries have been known to whip or cut off the hands of criminals, with foreigners getting no special treatment in that regard.)

Dubai has the largest shopping mall in the world and the tallest building in the world (and they're side-by-side, as it turns out.) The latter, the Burj Dubai (burj means "tower"), is 818 metres high with 169 floors. It's due to open on Jan 4, 2010, but that date has already been delayed twice, probably due to the economic slowdown. In case you hadn't heard, Dubai is in some financial trouble; it's in debt to the tune of 80 billion US dollars.

We caught our first glimpse of the Burj Dubai at the airport, and my impression of it is, and remains, that it looks almost mythical, like something out of Tolkien. It spirals up to a very narrow point, so it's dramatic in profile. Its glass is blue and its metal silver, and if you're viewing it from far enough away, the tower starts to fade into the colour of the sky a bit, like distant mountains do. Then it looks quite surreal and magical.

The UAE gets its water from desalination plants along the gulf, and Dubai's can produce a billion litres per day. This is a good thing, because Dubai has the highest rate of water consumption per person in the world: about 800 L per day. However, 80% of that water is used for irrigation. The rule of thumb is that the richer the Emirate, the greener it looks. (Abu Dabi is greener than Dubai, by the way.) All the landscaping must be irrigated, and as a further expense, all of Dubai's bedding plants have to be replaced annually. With the temperature of an average summer day being about 45 degrees Celsius, even irrigation won't keep their flowers from frying into cinders.

Dubai first started to grow on the strength of oil money, but that accounts for only 10% of its income now--which is good because they estimate they only have 10 years of oil reserves left. That said, UAE residents own 10% of the WORLD's oil reserves. Presently, per litre, oil is about half the price of water here.

The largest industry in Dubai is now tourism, which accounts for 30% of their income. Due to the economic slowdown, they've suspended construction on a lot of the luxury island building they had planned (you've probably seen shots of the original Palm Island; they were building a second Palm Island, and a World Island, and some other larger Islands.) Dubai currently has 70 km of coastline; the islands would have expanded that by 800 km, and there would have been room for 3 million more people there. With the cost of one of the small World Islands being 6 million US dollars (Germany sold for $45 million US), it's unclear where these 3 million super-rich people would come from.

In fact, there's a lot of things about Dubai that make your common sense say, "WHAT?!" There are 60,000 hotel rooms in the city, and the plan was to double that number by 2012. They are still building Dubai Land, which is a leisure city half the size of Dubai itself, featuring every attraction you can think of including reconstructions of the Great Pyramids and other landmarks of the world. It sounds insane, and we can't imagine how anyone thinks these things will be profitable. Even office buildings aren't profitable right now. Since the economic slowdown, the rumour (no official numbers) is that Dubai's new buildings have only about 20% occupancy.

The Emirates are governed by 7 Shiekhs, one from each Emirate. They vote on who the president and vice president are, but there's an unwritten law that it's always the Shiekh of Abu Dabi who is president and always the Shiekh of Dubai who is vice president. They both get veto power on any decision made.
That evening, we walked along the seawall that edges the "creek", but I'll describe the area better later in this report.

Day 16, Dubai

One of the interesting things about Dubai is we never talked to anyone Arab there; everyone who served us in the hotel, the shops, or on our tours was a foriegner. The only Arabs we spoke to at all were the Customs agents at the airport.

Our tour guide was Sebastian, from Germany, and our driver was Aminham, from Pakistan. We asked both of them individually whether they liked living in Dubai, and rather tellingly, both started their reply with, "Uh..." Sebastian doesn't like it because of the ferocious summer heat and the fact he can't get a beer in the Emirate where he lives. Aminham doesn't like it because he's a driver, and with all the construction, the roads are constantly changing. However, we did meet other tour guides, drivers and an ice cream vendor later in the trip who do like living in Dubai, including one fellow who has been living here with his family since the 1970s.

Driving to pick up the other guests on the tour allowed us to get our first real look at the city. Because it has grown so fast, there are clusters of skyscrapers widely separated from one another, like different city centres in a metropolis, except that in Dubai the effect is caused by someone simply deciding to start building a new office district somewhere. If you look at photos of the Burj Dubai's area as it was being built, you'll see that the region was mostly desert. Now, it's completely built up and shot through with major highways.

We went to see the Burj Al Arab, which is the first 7-star hotel in the world. It's a landmark building you've probably seen pictures of: it's shaped like a giant sail, specifically the sail on a dhow, which is a small boat used for shipping.

There is no such thing as a hotel with more than a 5-star rating, but the Burj Al Arab has such a superlative level of service that the rating is arguably not just a marketing gimmick; it's earned.

The smallest suites are two-floor and 178 square metres, and they will cost you $1,500 US per night. The largest suite is 780 square metres and will cost $15,000 per night. The hotel offers a pickup service from the airport. If you're staying in the cheap suites, they pick you up in a Lexus. If you're in a mid-priced suite, they pick you up in a BMW 7-series. If you're in an expensive suite, they pick you up in a Rolls Royce. And if you're too impatient to be driven, then you can arrange a helicopter from the airport to the hotel's helicopter pad.

The hotel serves the most expensive cocktail in the world, the Triple 7, which costs about $7000 US and comes in a gold-encrusted crystal glass you get to keep. Our guide Sebastian says the Triple 7 is a drink consisting of layered liqueurs--not that he has tried it!

One thing that got Dubai into trouble is that from ocean side of the Burj Al Arab, the building looks like a giant Christian cross. The building's "sail" has a mast, and the hotel's restaurant forms a crossbar on it. Apparently this really offended some other Arab countries, and they wouldn't allow Dubai cars in, because the Burj Al Arab was featured on the licence plates. Dubai has since removed all images from its plates.

The Burj Al Arab is located in an area knicknamed Little Venice, because they've built waterways all around it. It's quite pretty, as is Jumeira beach, which the Burj Al Arab faces onto. We didn't get to see the inside of the Burj Al Arab because it's locked up tight for guests only. The cheapest way to see the inside is to have high tea there, and that costs $375.

We drove past the Mall of the Emirates, which is the one with the ski hill in it. Apparently skiing there is reasonably priced, although the hill itself is a bit small. I believe the Mall of the Emirates is also the one with the water park in it, although if you want to go there and you're male, you need to check whether it's a women-only day. They have a few of those per week so Emirate ladies can take their children swimming. On women-only days, no one male over the age of 8 is allowed in.

Next, we went to a mall that sold Arabs arts, and that was quite interesting. It was very upscale, but we got to see all kinds of beautiful textiles (rugs for walking on, jeweled rugs to use as wall hangings, clothing), carved wood, detailed metal urns and teapots (some several feet high and obviously for decoration only), and ornate brocade-and-silver-plated furniture.

Outside, we got to look at Jumiera beach properly, which has huge waves and white sand beaches. It's very beautiful, and there was a parasailing company nearby that just left their parasails anchored on the beach. We saw a big cloud of sails wafting about like kites there. To our left, we could see the halted construction of the World Islands, and to our right, the finished Palm Island (which just looks like islands from the ground; you can't tell there's anything special about them there.)

We saw Jumeira Mosque from the outside; non-Muslims are not allowed in Dubai's mosques generally, although the historically interesting ones, such as the Jumeira Mosque, do make exceptions. However, you need to make an appointment first.

The mosque is a pretty, cream-coloured building with high square minarets and relatively small domes. It was built in 1979 in the so-called "new mosque" style, and apparently it's a copy of a building in another country. By the way, Abu Dabi, the capital of the UAE, has the largest mosque in the Emirates, and it's also the third largest in the world. They spent 3 billion dollars on it; I suspect it's very nice.

Churches, Hindu temples, etc. do exist freely in the UAE, but they may not display their symbols, such as the cross, on the outside of the building.

Next, we went to the Dubai Museum, which was actually right across the street from El Husbando's and my hotel. The museum has a dhow displayed outside, which is quite attractive. The whole boat is made from moderately dark wood and it has a sail and oars. Dhows with motors are still used to transport spices and other goods all over the Arab world, including to Dubai. We visited a spice market later in the tour, and our guide said the merchants love coming to Dubai because they can just park their boat somewhere and they don't need to worry about theft at all. There's also no taxes on the goods they sell.

At the museum, we saw a traditional Bedouin hut featuring a wind tower. This is a square tower made of canvas with an 'x' of canvas sheets inside it (going corner to corner.) The top of the tower has open sections under its roof, and the purpose of the tower is to catch wind coming from any direction and funnel it down into the house.

The museum is housed in an old fort made of coral rocks and cement made of mud and lime. They've built a newer section under the fort's courtyard, and this has displays teaching a bit of Dubai's (relatively sparse) history. The most cool thing we learned in the museum? Gerbils are native to Dubai! (Or at least its desert.) Also, we were able to buy chocolate bars made using camel milk in the gift store.

After the museum, we took a water taxi across the "creek" (actually a salt water inlet) to the spice souk and gold souk (where "souk" means "market".) There are bridges over and tunnels under the creek, but the water taxis are still one of the most popular ways for people to get across on foot; the boats are cheap to take, about 4 Dirhams, which is a little over a dollar. You sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a little bench in the middle of the taxi, and there's no guard rail, so if the boat tipped for any reason, everyone would wind up in the creek! Still, the water taxis are cute little boats, also built of wood, not metal.

The spice souk was mostly closed for a Shia Muslim holiday; most of Dubai is Sunni Muslim, but the spice merchants are from other countries. We did get to look at the wares of one merchant. He had branch-sized cinnamon sticks, extremely cheap bags of fresh vanilla beans, frankincense, and dried lemons which are used in cooking and tea (and which are beautifully fragrant when you crack one open to sniff.)

Because of the holiday, there wasn't much else to see in that souk, so we moved on to the next. One interesting thing is there are guys hanging around the souks who will invite you into back rooms or even private houses to see knock-off goods and other wares. Our guide Sebastian said it's perfectly safe to go with these fellows, if we were interested. Dubai is indeed a very law-abiding town!

The gold souk was astonishing. It has 300 jewelry shops and is the largest gold trading centre in the world. They buy and sell 3 tons of gold there every year.

The souk had huge, intricate gold necklaces, almost like collars (which is the Indian style.) They had pearl necklaces in all kinds of colours, but the pearls were the size of gumballs. They had rings with gems the size of cocktail ice cubes.

And there was a lot of perfectly normal looking jewelry too, but the more ostentatious stuff was just jaw-dropping. A lot of the gold is given to brides when they get married. This serves as a kind of insurance policy for the women, because in the case of either their husband's death or a divorce, the wife keeps the gold. This provides her an income, if she's left alone, and it also discourages her husband from divorcing her.

We drove back from the tour, and since it was after dark, we saw for the first time that the Burj Dubai flashes from top to bottom. This is done just by lighting the offices in series all along the tower. Later in the trip, we saw that the tower also has lights along its main terraces that flash in unison, and the terraces have spotlights that are slid all over the tower too.

Day 17, Dubai

The morning of our second day in Dubai, I sat by the window and watched a cloud of starlings swooping and flying around the Grand Mosque, which was just past the museum from us. We could also so a bit of the gulf beyond that.

The tour wasn't until the late afternoon, so El Husbando and I went for a bit of a walk to see the city near us. We had a small textile souk near us that we wandered through, and then we walked along the water of the "creek" to see the sights. There were some pretty buildings farther along, but the boats were probably the neatest thing. There is a whole row of restaurant boats anchored beside the seawall, all made of dark wood and varnished shiny. At night, they're lit up with strings of yellow lights; I don't know if that's always done or if it was special for Christmas (in all the countries we visited, the tourist areas were decorated for Christmas and they played Christmas music.)

The tour itself proved to be utterly awesome. We went for a jeep safari into the desert. The jeeps all gather at a meeting point before going out as a convoy, because--as I'll describe--there is an element of danger. On the way to the meeting point, we saw a road sign for a camel crossing! (Note: We have sometimes have moose or caribou crossing signs in Canada, so I found this pretty funny.)

At the jeeps' meeting point, El Husbando and I got a chance to get out and examine what the raw desert looks like. The area had true sand dunes, and the sand was wonderfully fine and silky. It floated away from your fingers like smoke. There were a few taller trees that looked very exotic, and some hillocks where vegetation had taken hold and kept the sand in place. El Husbando picked up something I had assumed was a tennis ball, and it turned out to be a tiny melon, just like a mini-watermelon. Then we realized some of the little hillocks had a hundred or so of these tiny melons buried in the sand, just growing wild. Our guide said they're simply called desert melons, and they're not edible.

They partly deflated the jeep tires for traction on the dunes, and they we got going. This was an amazing ride. The jeeps roar up the hills, jack-knife over the peaks, then nose-dive into the next valley. They slosh side-to-side wildly, fishtailed often, and many times skied down hills sideways thanks to the soft sand. It was wilder than riding a roller coaster; it was more like being in an inner tube in white water. The experience was utterly exhilarating, and I'd recommend it to anyone--but if you're at all prone to motion sickness, you'd want to take a pill beforehand or it could be a very un-fun experience. The jeep ride lasted about half an hour, and we did see some camels grazing in the desert, although we couldn't release our death-grips on the jeep long enough to get any pictures.

After the ride, the convoy stopped beside a big dune and let us all work off our adrenaline by running up and down it. The sand is so silky that for every step you take upward, you slide backward by at least half that distance. I still have that sand in my shoes; it slithered into every little crack and crevice and I haven't managed to bang it all out yet.

The top of the dune was easiest to walk on and gave us a nice view of the desert at sunset. The sand turns many subtle shades in that light, from pale pinks to dusty greens. The sun passed behind a cloud in such a way that we saw a starburst pattern of rays coming out from all around it.

After that, the convoy drove to a camel farm so we could have a good look from up close. Camels are extremely cute! They have huge dark eyes with very long lashes, a droopy bottom lip and the hint of a smile to the way their mouths are formed. They're also wickedly tall beasties.

Finally, we drove to the (fake) Bedouin camp where we would have dinner. There were several attractions there, from falcons you could hold on your wrist, to a henna artist who would put patterns on your hands, to a shisha (also known as a hookah) pipe you could puff while you had coffee and dates (El Husbando said the pipe tasted wonderfully of apples, and the dates were some of the best he's ever had in his life.) They also had sand surfing, where you could ride a snowboard down a dune either on your feet or your butt (I did the latter; I'm a coward.)

And yes, they had camel riding! And yes, I was stupidly excited to ride a camel for 90 seconds. I am dork, and I feel no shame. The camel's gait is a slow hiccup of motion, but what's really exciting/scary is when the camel stands up or kneels down. These creatures are huge, and they have very long legs. Because of all their knees, it's about a five-stage operation for the camel to stand or kneel, and regardless of which direction they're going, it's a huge swoop of motion for the riders, and you're tilted very far off horizontal while it happens. Freaky!

The dinner was very yummy, and afterward we saw a belly dancer in green who was very good at getting the crowd involved. I'm not enough of an expert to say if she was a good dancer, but everyone enjoyed her show a lot. All in all, this tour was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Day 18, Dubai to Vancouver

Our plane didn't leave until 2 AM the next day, so we had all of this day to bum around Dubai at leisure. What we decided to do is go to the Dubai Mall.

El Husbando and I are not big shoppers, so I'm happy to say we both enjoyed ourselves far more than either of us would have expected to. The Dubai Mall is currently the largest in the world. That's in physical size; it apparently has about the same amount of retail space as West Edmonton Mall in Canada.

To our delight, we discovered the Burj Dubai is right beside the mall, so before we went in, we walked right up to its base and took a zillion photos like the tourists we were. The tower is still being constructed, although it's very close to done. At the base of it (beyond where we were allowed to go), the workers form swarms of yellow helmets. I've never seen so many construction workers in one place.

There is a large fountain area in between the tower, the mall, and a smaller mall (built in a more traditional architectural style), and we did stay long enough to see the music-and-fountain display at six PM that evening. That only lasted about 5 minutes, but it was very pretty, with circles of jets spouting huge blasts of water, and also long lines of jets that waggled to create spiral-shaped spouts. With the lights shining from underneath, the water sometimes looked as bright as campfire sparks shooting into the air.

But back to the mall--or rather, the malls.

As I mentioned, there was a smaller mall built in an older style just across the fountain from the Dubai Mall, so we looked in this first. It proved to be a very beautiful building with lanterns made from punched metal and an arched, decorated ceiling. The goods were lovely also, featuring things like lamps with shades made of coloured glass, carved wood furniture, and some beautiful clothing. I saw a loose turquoise dress with a neckline so decorated it was like a breastplate of gold embroidery and jewels.

After that we dove into the Dubai Mall. The bottom level seems to have a zillion chocolatiers, and the second level is where some of the most high-end vendors (Gucci, Dior, etc.) are located. There is a waterfall fountain that's about three stories high with water pouring down a pebbled brown incline and statues in the form of diving men hovering above all its faces. In general, the mall stayed quite quiet and relaxed until the afternoon, so we didn't have to deal with crowds.

With a mall that big, you see all kinds of wares, so I won't describe too much of that, although the section that had Abeyas--the black outer dresses that Emirate women wear--was memorable. Some of them were lovely! The mall has an ice rink and many stores you would have heard of; for example, El Husbando stopped to get himself a Krispy Kreme doughnut, although the Cinnabon store was also tempting him also. (And for family members: On the way back from the mall, I spotted a Tony Roma's!)

One store I enjoyed far more than El Husbando was the one that had movie/book paraphernalia. From The Lord of the Rings, they had the one ring, Aragon's crown, and Arwen's pendant. From Harry Potter, they had Griffendor's sword, Lucius Malfoy's pimp cane, and all the characters' wands.

The gold souk in the mall wasn't as ostentatious as the one we'd seen the previous day, but it was still astonishing because we saw some very high-end jewelry. These are the kind of things you see royalty wearing in their formal portraits!

The highlight of the entire mall, however, was the Aquarium and underwater zoo.

The Aquarium is three stories high with glass sides so anyone strolling by in the mall can see the sharks, fish and manta rays stocked in it. If you pay the very-reasonable entrance fee (about $15 per person), you get to walk through the tunnel inside the aquarium and go to the underwater zoo on the top floor of the mall. Most of your money's worth comes from the latter, but being able to study a shark from inches away, as it glides over your head, is amazing too.

The underwater zoo is a series of aquariums that are open on top and have a glass face in front. Thus, you can lean over to see the animals from above or squat down to look at them under the water. The zoo featured eels, piranhas, turtles, sting rays, river otters, and lots of fish, including a whole tank of tetras, and some things that were literally log-sized! There were animals called water rats that looked exactly like beavers except with rat-like tails. There were also these bizarre fish that had duckbill snouts and swam with their mouths so wide open you could see their ribs inside.

We saw young crocodiles and pufferfish (which have eyes as iridescent and colourful as opals.) There were octopuses and jellyfish, frolicking seals, lobsters, and crabs the size of small dogs (but taller, because of their long legs.) There was a display of penguins, who are so cute and tubby when they're in the water. We also saw water dragons, which are about the size of your hand and look like sea horses covered in branches and leaves. These "leaves" are its appendages, but at first glance, the animal really does look like a floating clump of seaweed.

There was a display of bamboo shark eggs. These were fascinating because the shell is translucent and you can see through. The display showed the eggs at different stages of development. When they're very young, you can't see much, but at the intermediate stage, you can see the shark embryo attached by umbilical cord to the egg yolk, and the embryo is wiggling around constantly, which apparently builds up its muscles. In the final stage, you can see the shark ready to be born, and we were lucky because one egg had already hatched and so there was a baby bamboo shark swimming around the bottom of the tank looking very pale and new.

We did walk basically the entire mall that day, and yes our feet were tired by the end of it.

We left our hotel a bit after midnight and got another taste of what makes Dubai so safe. To leave the country, we first had to go through a security checkpoint and have all our luggage x-rayed just to get into the airport, then we picked up our tickets and checked our luggage, then we went through passport control (note: on our way OUT of the country), then we went through another security checkpoint and had our carry-on bags x-rayed again, and finally we had to go through another security checkpoint and have our carry-on luggage x-rayed a third time to get into the pre-flight lounge.

That third checkpoint was cute, however, because they have some female staff and a little cubicle there. If a woman sets off the security gate, she goes into the little cubicle to have the wand passed over her by the female staff. This is presumably to protect the woman's modesty, but given our flight was going to Heathrow airport and was mostly full of European women wearing slacks and tshirts, it was kind of funny.

The airport itself was rather interesting, too. The section near our pre-flight lounge had a grove of fake palm trees and carpet patterned to look like the ripples on sand dunes. They also had these large bangles of shiny gold metal up above the palm trees, clearly meant to represent suns. When I visited the restroom, I saw a section of the airport that had large, lit-up, shiny silver UFOs dangling from the ceiling.

And many, many hours after that, we were home in Vancouver again, where we also had to go through a lot more careful scrutiny than we expected, thanks to a recent terrorist scare. We had the most amazing, memorable trip, but it was also exhausting and so even getting home felt pretty fabulous.

Trip Report: Egypt

These posts are mainly for the benefit of my family and friends, but all are welcome to read it. They constitute a trip report for my recent vacation to Morocco, Egypt and Dubai.

Please forgive my tragic misspellings of placenames; I jotted down what I heard, and I'm going to avoid too much fact-checking just to get this up on the blog quickly. Likewise, I'm not editing this too closely, so you're reading whatever I blathered out in that evening after the tours finished.

I will put large blocks of history/trivia in red so that, if you're not interested, you can skip quickly over that material.

Lastly, my husband is quite a bit shyer than I am about having details of his life put up on the internet, so I'll refer to him as "El Husbando" everywhere. Those of you who know his real name can substitute it in yourselves. :-)

Day 9, Cairo

We caught a flight at midnight to Cairo and arrived about six in the morning, slightly dazed but still excited.

Egypt has 80 million people. 20 million of them live in Cairo. We were told the traffic in Cairo was some of the craziest in the world, and what we saw certainly was impressive. Lanes are a bit of a fluid concept, and I saw a taxi basically slaloming around the cars in two lanes. He occasionally shared a lane (side by side) with another car.

Horns are used often in Cairo, but they're used for communication, not to express anger like they are at home. The message is usually something like, "Hey, I'm cutting in front of you; slow down," or "Yoo hoo, I'm here where I'm not supposed to be; don't scooch over any further or you'll squish me." The volume of cars is large, but not as large as Bangkok, and the traffic does keep moving (unlike Bangkok.) Pedestrians and other cars are constantly zipping in front of you, but everyone seems quite comfortable with this, and as in Morocco, there seems to be no road rage (despite the fact that everyone drives aggressively.) However, our guide, Riham, mentioned there are 20,000 accidents per year on the ring road that encircles Cairo.

From our point of view, the pollution was actually the worst aspect of the traffic. Gas is cheap, and smog is pervasive. When we first arrived, the whole city looked foggy because of it.

That actually created a rather pretty effect, however. As we drove into Cairo, we passed an area where there were a lot of mosques and mausoleums, and some of them were spectacular. A single one might have several domes and one or two high, thin spires that are about four or five times higher than the domes. Both the domes and the spires were heavily decorated, and as they slid out of the smog/dust, it created a surreal, fairy-tale effect, especially compared to the other buildings, which are often left unfinished so the owners don't have to start paying higher taxes.

It was equally impressive, and very exciting, when we looked over and realized the pyramids had just appeared in the same manner out of the haze above the city.

The sides of the Nile valley rise suddenly, about 50 metres, to the Giza Plateau and Sahara desert. As a result, the division between green spaces and desert spaces is abrupt. The valley floor is lush, and then you drive up a hill and it's stark silver dirt to the horizons. I can see why people fall in love with the desert, however; it's a stunning landscape and feels very clean and wild.

The big pyramid (built for Cheops II) was made with 2.3 million stones weighing an average of 2.5 tons but going up to 15 tons. They were transported 900 km by boat to reach the Giza plateau, and the pyramids were assembled by building sand ramps that the blocks were dragged up. While the pyramids were being built, they would have looked like huge spiral cones of sand.

El Husbando and I did the tourist thing, i.e. we took a zillion photos of pyramids, camels and desert. Then, we paid a small fee to enter the second pyramid (for king Chephron, which still retains a bit of the white limestone casement that used to cover the pyramids' exteriors.) Inside the pyramid are some teeny, heavily sloped tunnels you must hunch down to waddle along, interspersed with a few open areas and followed by the (looted, and thus empty) burial chamber. We saw tunnels to other rooms, but they're closed to the public. It was all very neat!

After the pyramids, we drove over to the Sphinx and the small temple near it. When they say you couldn't slide even a piece of paper between the blocks of the temples, they're not kidding. The edges of the stones are completely straight and fit one to the other with no space between them. It's beautiful work.

By the way, the pyramids were only built in the first handful of Egyptian dynasties, because at that time, the rulers were seen as gods. Most of the workers were not slaves, and you pretty much need religious zeal to erect something as impressive as a pyramid.

Next, we went to the Egyptian museum and saw--well, oodles. The scale of the pieces in there was what impressed me most. The thought of people dragging that much stone around four thousand years ago is astonishing.

There's a lot of the stuff from Tut Anhk Amun's (Tutankhamen) tomb at the museum. We saw the guardian statues that stood in front of his tomb, a gold throne, an ostrich feather fan (very well preserved), a fold-up camping bed, a golden bed for at home, the decorated alabaster box for storing his internal organs (lungs, intestines, stomach and liver; his heart was left inside his body for final judgment), the four gold-plated cedar boxes that nested one inside the other to hold his sarcophagus, and we of course saw the sarcophagus and the famous mask. The mask is 11 kilograms of 22 carat gold; the inner coffin is 210 kg of 22 ct. gold. All this for a boy who ascended the throne at age 9 and died at age 18.

We didn't go see any of the royal mummies because it cost extra, but we did get to see some animal mummies and some non-royal mummies. We also looked at a lot of Tutenkamen's jewelry, his chariot, some papyrus, and a whack-load of other things that are a bit of a blur because we were so tired. I even saw a case of tiny statues of people in various poses that reminded me strongly of the collections people create now-a-days of their Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft figurines.

That evening, we stayed in a lovely hotel that had all the individual rooms at ground level and facing onto gardens. El Husbando commented it was like being in an oasis--not from the desert, but from Cairo. If you stepped out the hotel complex's front door, it was all traffic noise and city again, but inside, it was quiet and green. Near our hotel was also this crazy villa that has to be seen to be believed. It was huge, blue and white, and built like a confection of domes, balconies and spires--Aladdin on amphetamines.

We went to the sound and light show at the pyramids that night, which is where they give you an audio presentation while they shine light, projected images and laser images on the walls of the pyramids, the Sphinx and the temple in front of the Sphinx. The presentation managed to be both cheesy and very interesting, and we enjoyed it.

One of the neatest things happened before the presentation, however. At sunset, mosques broadcast a call to prayer over their loudspeakers. In town, you would generally only hear one mosque at a time, but out in the desert, we distinctly heard one mosque begin the call to prayer, and then other mosques begin to join in. The sound swelled until the whole city was buzzing with the singing, and this went on for several minutes. It was a powerful and lovely experience.

Day 10, Luxor

We were picked up at 4 AM for our flight to Luxor to begin our Nile cruise, although our tours didn't officially start until the next day.

In Cairo, we taxied in the airplane for so long I joked we were actually driving to Luxor, but it's only that the Cairo airport is so huge. Sunrise over the desert was lovely, with a spike of cherry-pink light stabbing over the horizon, then growing bigger. From the air, the division between the Nile and the desert is pronounced. Near the river, the ground is lush. Further out, the green fades a little into brown, and then it ends and you have nothing but desert beyond that. I saw a single road running through the desert, and it was like a line of thread laid across a sandbox.

At the Luxor airport, we saw several air balloons on the horizon, and we've seen several since. I would think that's a lovely way to look at the area. Luxor has half a million people, and the area near the Nile is quite beautiful, with palm trees, reeds and birds, and the desert plateau rising behind it.

Day 11, Luxor

Today we saw the temples of Karnak and Luxor. The two temples used to be connected by a 3 km road, and the city of Luxor (half a million people) plans to rebuild this avenue. The priest used to walk with a statue of the God Amun between the two temples during a yearly festival celebrating the God's marriage.

Our guide, Medhat, has a degree in Egyptology and seems like a rather awesome guy. Because of the degree, we got a lot of history along with our sighteseeing.

The Egyptian civilization started in about 3200 BC. It was all one nation but had two kings, one for the north (Lower Egypt, since it's closer to sea level) and the south (Upper Egypt.) The first of 31 dynasties began when a king finally united the both upper and lower Egypt under his rule.

There are three ages to Egyptian civilization, the old kingdom (when the pyramids were built), the middle kingdom, and the new kingdom (Karnak and Luxor were built during this age.) Only the kings of the new kingdom were called pharoahs; before that, they were just kings. The word pharoah meaning "the great house."

The word Luxor came from the Arab name Al Khosar, which means "palaces", because they mistook the many temples for palaces.

When the Egyptians moved their centre of administration to Luxor at the beginning of the new kingdom, they elevated the local god Amun to the supreme god, but called him Amun Rah to associate him with the sun god Rah, who was previously the supreme god.

Kings had both a temple and tomb. The tomb was for their body, and the temple celebrated the great deeds of their life. They used to be built at the same location, but starting with the new kingdom, temples and tombs were separated to protect the latter from tomb robbers. The priest would make offerings in front of the statue of the king instead of his mummy.

The temples were placed on the east bank of the Nile because sunrise was associated with birth and life, and the tombs were on the west bank because sunset was associated with death. Apparently Egyptians still use the euphemism, "He went into the west" to say someone has died. (It reminds me of the expression Tolkien used to describe the elves leaving middle earth.)

I'll give a little more history of Egypt here: The old kingdom lasted 1100 years, starting in 3400 BC), and Memphis was its capital. The first dark period ended that age. It was a time when they have no records of anything that could be called civilization happening. The dark period lasted 200 years, and to give you an idea of how brutal the time was, at one point, Egypt had 40 kings within the space of 70 days.

When a king finally reunited Egypt, that started the middle kingdom. It ended when the Hexos people invaded from Asia and Egypt was divided again. No one is quite sure where the Hexos came from, but they brought horses to Egypt (and the Arabs later brought camels. The pyramids were made without either.)

Ak Mosa drove out the Hexos around 1570 BC. That began the new kingdom, and Egyptian civilization is considered to have ended when Alexander the Great and the Greeks, then later the Romans, conquered the nation. Egypt didn't have a native Egyptian ruler again until modern times. Interestingly, there were 7 Cleopatras in total, the famous one being the last, and they were all Greek. Cleopatra is not considered an Egyptian queen, although she was queen of Egypt (if that makes sense.)

All temples dedicated to gods (rather than kings) were in fact dedicated to a family group of three gods: god, his wife, and their son.

Karnak is actually a series of temples, and so it's huge and has ten "pylons", which are the flat walls that loom around the main entrance. (Most Egyptian temples have a maximum of two pylons.) Karnak's first pylon is covered in huge etchings of Egyptian gods and kings, and since this was the first time we'd seen that, it had a huge "Oh, wow!" factor for us.

All temples had mud-brick walls around them to protect them from the Nile flood, but these had to be reconstructed regularly or the water would eventually wash them away. Karnak's was 10 metres high and 7 m wide.

The street leading into Karnak is lined with statues of ram's heads on lion's bodies, and they have a small statue of Ramses II just above the lion's front paws. Then you pass through the pylon and into the chamber of pillars. HUGE pillars. I had trouble taking photos of them because I couldn't zoom out enough. These were also covered in carvings and hieroglyphs, and here we started to see the graphiti of Ramses II.

Ramses II seems like a complete megalomaniac. He systematically went around Egypt and erased other pharoah's names off their monuments to replace them with his own. Luxor temple (described later) had a huge scene depicting his victory in a particular battle. However, he actually lost that battle; he just told everyone he won it.

Ramses was a great king, however. At the time, Egypt ruled the area from Iraq to Sudan, and Ramses ruled for 67 years, dying when he was 97 in a time when the average man died at about 50.

He also had three royal wives when the norm was one, and hundreds of concubines. He had 139 children at least, and, rather ickily, he married four of his own daughters during his lifetime.

Kings are depicted with their left leg forward in statues. They aren't sure why that is, but it might be that soldiers start marching with their left leg. After a king's death, however, he is portrayed with his legs together and his arms folded across his chest. Kings depicted during their lifetimes had straight beards, while gods and kings depicted after their deaths (when they were considered to have joined the gods) had curved beards.

After the hall of columns, we saw an area that originally had 4 granite obelisks, but now only has one. The remaining one is 18 m high and weighs 125 tons. It terminates, as all obelisks do, in the shape of the pyramid to celebrate the sun god Rah.

Many obelisks were taken from Egypt by other nations before Egypt made this illegal. One of the three missing obelisks is now in New York, one is in Istanbul, and the third is one of eight obelisks that are in Rome.

All obelisks were cut from a single piece of granite in Aswan, which is 210 km south of Luxor. To crack the stone out, they chipped a dashed line of holes around the shape of the obelisk, then inserted wood wedges and soaked them in water for 20 days. The wood swelled and cracked the stone. Then they would chip out the sides of the obelisk and repeat the process to crack out the underside of the obelisk.

The obelisk was transported along the Nile, and to stand it upright, they carved a tongue-and-groove base for it to fit into, then created a sand ramp for the obelisk to slide up on. Then they pulled on the top of the obelisk with ropes while undercutting the sand ramp near its base until they had pivoted it up and into its slot.

The remaining obelisk was partly covered up at one point. I'll talk more about Egypt's only queen, Hatchetsup, later in the report, but her stepson went to great pains to erase her from history. He defaced most images of her, but in the case of the obelisk, which is dedicated to Rah, he didn't dare, so he covered it in mud-bricks high enough to hide his stepmother's image.

Our guide showed us how the Egyptians built such beautiful carved buildings. The building was created out of stone, chipped into the right shape with chisels, then plastered with sandstone and lime to a depth of about 20 centimetres. When the plaster was dry, they carved the images and hieroglyphs into it. Thus, the buildings appear to have been made of perfectly shaped sandstone.

Next we saw the holy lake where the high priest would cleanse himself before his rituals, and a large statue of a scarab. The superstition is that is if you walk around the scarab (anti-clockwise) five times, it brings good luck. Six times will help you get married, and seven times will help you get pregnant. I walked around it five times; El Husbando instructed me to count very, very carefully!

We got to run around Karnak for a while, and it was huge, beautiful, and difficult to do justice to in words. The stone is gold and the pillars and roofs rise over you like a cathedral. Smaller buildings are covered in ornate and detailed carvings, and the insides of rooms still show quite a bit of colour from the paint that once decorated the carvings within.

After Karnak, we went to a papyrus factory and saw a demonstration of how papyrus is made. Basically, they slit the reed to its centre lengthwise and unwrap the layers. Then, they squish these to press out most of the water and natural sugars. Then the strips are soaked in water for 20 days or more, and then they are layered together and pressed again. The remaining sugar is enough to stick the strips together permanently, leaving a strong and supple sheet to write on.

After that, we went to Luxor temple, which is smaller than Karnak but arguably more beautiful (so hard to make the call!) We saw it at night, well-lit-up, and it was quite magical. They have reconstructed a portion of the road that used to join Luxor and Karnak, and that section is lined with statues of sphinxes. They all have slightly different faces; the statues aren't identical. The temple itself is dedicated to the god of fertility, Amin Min.

The pylon of Luxor is again beautifully carved and shows horses (remember they weren't common in Egypt), and there are two large statues of kings bracketing the main entrance. Inside is a statue of Tut Anhk Amun (Tutankhamen) and his wife, although Ramses II carved his name over Tut Anhk Amun's.

All of Luxor was buried under silt, and a mosque was built atop it 700 years ago. They knew there was a monument of some kind under the mosque, but didn't think anyone would ever clear it out. In 1869, however, someone started, and 43 years later, they finished. The mosque still stands atop the pillars in one corner of the temple, and is still being used.

The god Amin Min is portrayed with one arm, two feathers on his head, and a huge erect penis. The story is that he was a man who, being one-armed, was left behind by the army when the Pharoah pursued Moses (by the way, no one knows which Pharoah tangled with Moses, although they have a few guesses.) When the soldiers returned, they found many, many of the women pregnant. Rather than killing Amin Min, they elevated him to godhood.

When you enter Luxor you pass through the pylon, which had huge statues, two seated and two standing, in front of it. Most of these remain. Next you pass the statue of Tut Anhk Amun and his wife, and the hall of columns. These are as big as at Karnak, and slightly cigar-shaped (as they were at Karnak.) The open courtyard comes next, and it is surrounded by pillars. These were actually taken apart and reconstructed with concrete bases in 1994 because the ground water was slowly destroying them.

Most temples had a deep canal dug around them, and no one knew why. The local government had drained the one near Luxor and was using it for power lines, etc. They tried all kinds of measures to protect the temple columns from the effects of the ground water, but finally discovered that leaving the deep canal in place was the best way.

An interesting thing our guide mentioned is that when they were reconstructing the bases for the pillars in Luxor, a statue was discovered. When they dug it out, they discovered 3 more underneath it. They kept going and discovered 24 statues in total (these are all in Luxor museum now.) Apparently this sort of thing happens regularly because the priests would often hide things to protect them from thieves. They estimate only 30% of Egyptian antiquities have been found; the rest are still hidden somewhere.

In 61 AD, St. Mark introduced Christianity to Egypt. At the time, Christians were heavily persecuted by the Romans, and many of them fled to southern Egypt. These people often lived in the temples, and in some cases defaced, in others plastered over, the carvings on the walls. In Luxor, there's a section of plaster that has been left on the walls, and you can see a bit of the decorations the Christians painted on it.

This is close to the inner sanctuary, which is a small, rectangular, heavily carved chamber.
Alexander the Great broke, then rebuilt the inner sanctuary (I didn't hear why; sorry.)

After this, we ran around Luxor in the dark for a while, then hopped on our tour bus to go back to the boat for the night.

Day 12, Collosi of Mnemnon and Valley of the Kings

We saw the Collosi of Mnemnon first, which are two large statues that are all that remains of a temple destroyed by earthquakes and floods. They're gold stone, and we saw them on a lovely morning with blue sky and the desert hills behind them, and with hot air balloons drifting down to land nearby. There are birds nesting all over the Collosi. Our guide warned us the vendors in the area were very aggressive, but we didn't have much trouble, perhaps because we were there so early.

We saw some donkeys or burros carrying tourists there also, and it gave me an appreciation for how strong those animals are. They look tiny and cute, and are carrying people who look nearly as big as the animal, but those burros pranced along as daintily as if they were carrying nothing.

The Collosi are 3300 years old, and their name is a mistake. When the Greeks controlled Egypt, they heard the morning wind whistling through cracks in the statues and thought it was the hero Mnemnon (killed by Achilles) whistling to greet his mother, a goddess. Restorations have silenced the whistling, but the name stuck.

Next we drove to the Valley of the Kings, which are located in a dramatic region of desert hills, cliffs and stone. There is a mountain above it all that naturally takes the shape of a pyramid, which is part of why the location was chosen. Also, it was put far from the Nile in hope of protecting the region from tomb raiders, although Tut Anhk Amun's tomb was the only one (of 64 tombs) that was found intact.

There was one pharoah who was a bit of a maverick. At the time, Egypt worshipped over 740 gods, but Ak en Atem decided they should worship only one god, Atem. Temples for his new version of the religion were left unroofed and were open to everyone, not just priests.

The priests didn't like this at all, and Ak en Atem ("Atem rises in heaven", where Atem was the new god's name) moved his capital city to a town north of Luxor for eighteen years, and even had his wife, the famous Nephriti, rule in his place when he left the country for a while.

The new religion didn't last past him. Ak en Atem believed himself the only conveyor of the new religion to his people and didn't leave a high priest to carry on after him. His heir, the famous Tut Anhk Amun was only nine when his father died, and the high priests grabbed the opportunity to reassert the old religious system. They took the boy back to Luxor and made him worship Amun again. In fact, Tut Anhk Amun's original name was Tut Anhk Atem, which means "living image of Atem", the name his father intended.

Tut Anhk Amun is famous only for his tomb being found (mostly) intact. He died when he was eighteen, so he didn't really accomplish much as pharoah.

There's an interesting story about how his tomb was found, however. Howard Carter was digging in the area using the funds of Lord Carnarvon. Carter had found fragments of jars with Tut Anhk Amun's name on them, so he knew there was a tomb to be found, but he kept this very quiet. Carnarvon eventually got tired of paying for excavations that weren't producing anything and decided to end the expedition.

In the last few months before it all ended, Carter found Tut Anhk Amun's tomb with only a few broken jars and some upturned furniture in it. Robbers had found the area. However, there were two statues standing against the wall as if guarding something. Carter made the decision to break down the wall, and behind it found Tut Anhk Amun's tomb with its four nested gold-plated crypts, granite sarcophagus, gold sarcophagus and famous gold mask.

When a king died, they had only 70 days to inter him, so all work on the tomb was halted the day the king died. If the tomb was unfinished, so be it. It took 40 days to mummify the tomb, and the last 30 days were to stock and ready the tomb. After the tomb was sealed, the entrance was covered so the area looked just like the rest of the mountainside. There was nothing left to mark its place.

There was one pharoah, Tutmoses (also know as Gehoty Ness), who left records stating that only he and his architect knew the location of his tomb. This probably meant they killed the workers who built the tomb. However, this appears to be the first and only time such a thing was ever done by a Pharoah. Likewise, human servants were never walled up in the tomb with the king, as is sometimes rumoured. Small statues of servants were included instead.

At another point in our tour, Medhat also noted that while Egyptians pretty much made offerings of anything and everything to their gods, they never had human sacrifices.

Our tour included three tombs, although guided tours aren't allowed in the Valley of the Kings (neither are photos of any sort), so our guide, Medhat, gave us a bit of description of what we would see, then let us loose.

The first tomb was Ramses the 9th, the second was Ramses the 3rd, and the last was Tutmoses the 3rd.

The tomb of Ramses the 9th sloped down into the earth gently, and the beautiful painted/carved hieroglyphs are behind plexiglass so you can stick your nose up very close. The paintings are very detailed, with even the birds in the smaller hieroglyphs having eyes and feathers. The carvings tend to be more detailed than the paint, however, with things like bracelet links and the textures on the outfits carved in.

All the tombs were very well-lit and didn't feel claustrophobic at all except for the fact of being underground.

The tomb of Ramses the 3rd had a similar quality of hieroglyphics in it, but the side chambers were more finished looking, and it had this lovely blue-black ceiling with five-pointed stars painted on it, and a gold-paint banner running down its centre with writing on it.

The tomb's corridor has a kink in it because the workers ran into another tomb as they were digging. The small room at the kink has some very pretty paintings in it.

Before the tomb was a pillared room, with side rooms attached to it, all of them beautifully decorated. However, the large area right in front of the tomb was unfinished because the king had died before it could be. The tomb itself was brightly painted but not carved. There was also a strange smell in the tomb; El Husbando thought it smelled like bread, but I thought it was a burnt smell.

The tomb of Tutmoses the 3rd was really interesting. First, we had to climb quite a few stairs to get into a pretty little slot canyon half way up a cliff that led to the tomb's entrance. Then, we had to climb down into the tomb itself. This tomb was a bit tight in some places; the modern staircases take up enough space that you have to limbo down the steps to keep from whacking your face on the roof. The tomb was also a lot hotter than the others.

After the first set of stairs, there was a big pit with a painted ceiling. I assume this was a trap for robbers. We crossed on a bridge of wood.

After the second stairway down, we got into some beautifully painted rooms, including the tomb itself. This was an earlier tomb, so there were no carvings on the walls, but the paintings were still brilliant and vivid. They could have been made ten years ago.

The tomb itself is a large pillared room with very stylized black and white hieroglyphs, a star-painted ceiling, and stripes of colour along the bottom third of the walls. The sarcophagus is also there. It's made of shiny brown stone and covered in carved hieroglyphs. It's also shaped like a cartouche, which is the symbol of eternity that kings always wrote their names inside. You've probably seen those gold necklaces people wear that have their name written in hieroglyphs inside it--that's the shape of a cartouche. It's a rectangularized oval with little lines extending like wings on the two lower edges of the oval.

On the black and white hieroglyphs on the walls, you can actually see corrections. The images were drawn in red first, then painted over in black. If the person writing in red messed up a little, you can see the faded red beside the black.

After we had seen our three tombs, we wandered around the area to look at the entrances to the other tombs, then headed back to our bus.

Our guide warned us that after the Valley of the Kings, you have to pass through the "Valley of the Shops" to get to the bus. As previously, the vendors weren't quite as aggressive as he described, but we're glad he gave us an idea of what to expect and how to react, or it could have been a very alarming experience. They do get into your face.

After this, we stopped at an alabaster carving store where they put on an amusing little show to demonstrate how the statues get carved (using tradition instruments) and how to watch out for fake alabaster and stone.

Afterward, we went to the temple of Queen Hatchepsut, who was Egypt's only queen (remember Cleopatra didn't count because she was Greek.)

Queen Hatchepsut was a pretty interesting character, as was the matter of how her stepson reacted to her rule. In general, Egyptians would not suffer a queen to rule them, but while Hatchepsut's father had sons, he had no sons by his royal wife, which is why she ascended the throne instead.

Queen Hatchepsut did several things to cement her rule. She first had herself portrayed as a man in most of her monuments, and she secondly said she was a divine conception, that Amun Rah had impregnated her mother.

She married her half-brother, Tutmoses II, which was common in order to make sure the next Pharaoh had pure royal blood.

The pharoah after Queen Hatchepsut was a different half-brother (whose name I forgot to write down) by one of the royal concubines. Hatchepsut kept him in the shadows for 32 years while she ruled, and he only got himself into the royal lineage by marrying one of her daughters (very tangled blood relations, there.) After that, he likely murdered Hatchepsut in order to take the throne, and his hatred of her is pretty obvious by his actions thereafter. He ordered all her monuments defaced, and although he only ruled for 34 years, his records say he ruled for 54, because he counted the start of his rule as the start of Hatchepsut's 20 year reign. In other words, he tried to erase his half-sister/mother-in-law from history.

Hatchepsut's temple is a beautiful rectangular building with many pillars along its front, many (defaced) statues, and a limestone ramp leading up to its entrance. It's made of the local pale gold stone, and it's situated in a spectacular setting. A gentle slope leads up to it, but yellow cliffs rear up behind it with the blue sky above them. It's gorgeous and almost blinding in the sunlight. Hatchepsut imported 31 types of trees to Egypt for their use as incense, and you can still see the stump of one of them in front of the temple.

We didn't get much time at the temple, but did get to run around a bit. The sheltered areas have colour left on the carvings, and the carvings themselves are very beautiful and detailed. Only images of Hatchepsut were defaced, so what remains is still very lovely. We saw temples later in the tour that Christians had done a lot more damage to.

After that, our bus had to sprint back to the boat before it sailed. On the way, we saw these flowering trees growing wild by the roadside that had vivid blossoms--magenta, orange and purple. There was also palms, man-tall grasses and lots of birds. The houses were sometimes unfinished, but one small mosque was very pretty, with gold stone walls, carved cedar doors, and old, old stone mini-minarets.

When we got to our boat room, by the way, the chamber staff had folded our extra blanket and fresh towels into the shape of a crocodile on the bed! It was very cute, as was the towel-monkey we got the next day.

The boat sailed for about five hours, which was heavenly; the Nile is so pretty in the rural areas. There are islands, tall reeds and grasses, palm trees, birds and the sunset (where I may have seen the green flash, but I'm not sure.) We also saw locals doing everything from washing laundry to playing soccer.

After dark, we got to the town of Esda, where we went through a lock that lifted our boat by about six metres. Then we sailed on to Edfu. The lock was such an odd experience. At the start, you're looking up at some fellows walking along the top of a concrete wall ten feet above the deck of the ship. At the end, you're looking down on them, and some part of your brain just can't compute how that happened!

Probably more fun than that was the vendors trying to sell textiles to us just before the lock. They pull up beside the cruise ship in little row boats with their tablecloths, etc. sealed in plastic bags. Then they yell "hello?" up at the boat, and if people appear and show the slightest interest, they throw the plastic bags up onto the deck to be inspected. Their hope is the tourists will decide to keep the items and throw money down in exchange.

El Husbando said the goods were really cheap, and our guide warned us many of the items have been dunked in the Nile more than once thanks to previous tourists having poor aim when they returned the wares. El Husbando also said the guys in the boats appeared to be having too good a time for the exercise to be a genuine attempt at making a living--and we did smell marijuana smoke right before they rowed up.

Day 13, Edfu temple, Kom Ombo temple

Edfu temple has a very impressive pylon with deeper carvings than we had seen elsewhere. You can clearly see from a distance who the god is (Osirus), as well as the features of the god's wife and the king smiting his enemies in front of the god. There are smaller hieroglyphs below the large images.

The king, by the way, is Ptolomy, a Greek. He is portrayed exactly the way an Egyptian king would be, however, in terms of artistic style and how he is dressed.

Above the door of the pylon is the symbol of Horus and Rah unified, which is a sun disk bracketed by two cobras and a pair of blue wings. (Horus and Rah joined forces to kill the evil god Seth, who killed Horus' father Osirus out of jealousy over Osirus' wife Isis.)

The front of the pylon features two grooves where flag poles were erected to fly different colours for the five principle festivals celebrated at the temple.

Edfu is in great condition because the temple was covered in silt. However, Christians did a lot of damage to it. They removed the faces of many of the gods, and later removed the hands and feet (so the gods couldn't chase and catch them.)

The Christians saw a lot of similarities between their own religious stories and practices, and those of Egypt, and to keep their people from melding their beliefs with those of the Egyptians, they tried to erase things they thought were too similar. Thus, in carvings that show the king being cleansed with water (depicted as a trail of ankhs), they chipped out the water, thinking the ritual too similar to baptism.

There is other damage from the Christians, too. They lived in the partially silted-in temples, and so there is smoke damage from cooking fires on the ceilings.

Edfu temple was created during the Greco-Roman era. Egyptian civilization is considered to have ended when Alexander the Great and the Greeks conquered it, but in order to keep Egypt passive, the Greeks and the Romans after them worked very hard to convince the Egyptians they were not there as conquerers but to worship the Egyptian gods. Thus, a lot of beautiful and impressive temples to the Egyptian gods were created during this era.

You can tell which temples were made during the Greco-Roman era because the capitals on the pillars are quite ornate. The Pharonic temples have very simple stylized capitals representing papyrus or lotus flowers. The Greco-Romans ones combine the papyrus and lotus blossoms on one capital, symbolizing the unity between the north and south of Egypt.

The high priest spent 12 hours a day on rituals, but only during daylight. During the night, no one was allowed in the temple--not the high priest, not even the king (who was considered a high priest at any temple he visited.) To make sure the priest got out in time, he fastened a chain to his leg in the morning and wore it inside the inner sanctuary. If he fell down dead while inside, the other priests could drag him out at sundown.

It's hardly noticeable, but the temple's floor slopes upward, and its roof downward, as you approach the inner sanctuary, as if the whole temple is focusing on that room.

There is an altar for sacrifices outside the temple, but only an offering table inside the sanctuary. At Edfu, the table is made of very shiny granite that almost looked metallic.

At the sides of the temple, there are small rooms for storing incense, perfumes and offerings. In one of these, there was a beautiful painting of Nuut, the goddess of the sky, on the ceiling. She is always portrayed bending over, so that she almost forms a rectangle (and thus fits on a square ceiling nicely) because she is reaching for her lover, the earth, who she was separated from by her disapproving father.

The outside walls of the temple depict the stages in the struggle between the god Horus and his uncle Seth, who is shown as a hippopotamus. Our guide went through the whole story with us, and it was very interesting, but I'll spare you all that!

Afterward, we sailed on to Kom Ombo, which means "mound of gold". It was used as a gold trading post by the Greeks, but it had a bit of a crocodile problem. Thus, the temple of Kom Ombo is unique: it's a double-temple. One side of it is dedicated to Horus, and the other to Sobek, a crocodile god who was considered evil but was hopefully going to be appeased by the worship.

Kom Ombo has the largest sugar plant in Egypt, but it's a dirty factory because they burn the sugar canes for fuel. As a result, the area smells like a campfire.

We walked from the boat up to the temple just at sunset. A lot of the temple walls and even the tops of some of the pillars are missing because the place was used as a sandstone quarry by the locals (the Parthenon in Athens had a similar problem.) One cool thing that results from that, however, is that you can see the grooves for the tongue-and-groove construction that kept the big stones of the temple together. Our guide Medhat noted that, just on the foundation stones, the grooves were a little bigger than the tongues. It was thought this was done to help earthquake-proof the building.

The double temple is very interesting, but some of the coolest things at Kom Ombo were also some of the plainest structures. They have a deep well that was not a well; it was a Nile-o-meter. The well was connected to the Nile, and the area's tax level was based on the maximum height of the river during flood season. In years when the flood was either too high or two low, both resulting in failed crops, the farmers paid no taxes.

Occasionally baby crocodiles made their way into the Nile-o-meter, and because the temple worshipped the crocodile god, the priests not only fed these trapped crocodiles, they also fetched the body of any crocodile that died in there and mummified it, then interred the body in a small (about the size of two compact cars) building shaped (very approximately) like the head of a crocodile.

Beside the Nile-o-meter was a small well that the priest would pour water from the Nile into, to allow sediment to settle out of it. Once clear, this water was poured into a long channel to drain toward a pool where the high priest could cleanse himself before performing his rituals. On the way to that pool, the water passed through about 20 filter points where it would travel through clean linen and fine sand to clear out the last impurities.

Between the two sanctuaries for the temple was a small crypt with an opening to the sky. At sunset, the high priest would wander among the local people who had gathered near the temple to hear the god Horus' medical advice. In this way, the high priest would get an idea of what was ailing certain people, and then he would go down to the crypt and call out the god's advice. Because no one could see him, it was taken as a bit of a miracle.

One of the unique things about the temple at Kom Ombo is that it shows the Egyptian calendar. There were three seasons: flood season, agricultural season, and harvest season. The Egyptian year had twelve months, each consisting of three ten-day weeks. This means every month was 30 days, and the year was 360 days long. However, at the end of the year, the Egyptians also celebrated five festival days for the birthdays of certain gods, so their year was 365 days long really. (By the way, their new year started with the Nile flood, which always happened in the second to third week of July.)

The calendar carved on the wall of Kom Ombo is fairly easy to read if you know the hieroglyphs for the numbers. The start of the month shows what season that month falls in, and the last day of the month is labelled with the symbol for "ba'ah", which means "finished" or "it's done". Beside each day, the calendar shows what sacrifices should be made on that day.

Another interesting thing carved on the temple walls is a panel showing various surgical instruments. These include scalpels and scissors, and also a needle instrument that was used to drain excess fluid from a newborn's head if it had swelled in the womb and was making birth difficult. Apparently modern doctors use an instrument not too different than this when the same situation occurs today. All the instruments were depicted beside a carving of Emo Hotep, who was a great architect and surgeon who was elevated to godhood, and who is also known by his Greek name Asclepius.

After Kom Ombo, we dodged the shops and went back to our boat to sail to Aswan.

Day 14, Philae temple, high and low dams, Aswan

The word "Nub" means "gold", and the Nubians were active gold traders. They have darker skin than most Egyptians, as well as their own language (which they don't like to teach outsiders) and culture. In ancient times, they were one of Egypt's more challenging enemies. Most Nubians live in Aswan now because when the high dam was built, it flooded their traditional homelands. The Nubians weren't happy with this, obviously, but accepted it with compensation from the government.

The dam also would have submerged 23 temples, but the government rescued all of them. The temple on Philae island was relocated to Ajelica island by being separated into 47,000 pieces and shifted. The most expensive part, however, was reshaping and landscaping Ajelica island so that it resembled Philae island.

When the god Seth killed Osirus, he split the body into 13 pieces and scattered them all over Egypt. Isis hunted for the pieces, and the legend says she found the last piece on Philae island.

For unknown reasons, the Christians defaced the carvings on the left side of the temple but didn't do much to the right side. Also, inside the temple, there is a carving of Isis nursing the god Horus, and the Christians thought this too close a parallel to the story of Mary and Jesus, so they didn't just deface Isis' face on that carving; they gouged that chunk of plaster right out of the wall, leaving a hole about ten centimetres deep.

In fact, the temple is the oldest Coptic Orthodox church in the world, as the Christians carved an altar into the wall of the hall of pillars and used the room for religious ceremonies.

On the left side of the open courtyard of the temple is an innovation which is only seen in temples from the Greco-Roman time: A divine birth house. This was a separate area where the rulers would celebrate their birthdays, but the "divine birth" name refers to the birth of Horus by Isis. The pillars are capped with Isis' face, which features cow eyes and ears, because the Egyptians thought cows had very beautiful eyes, and Isis was the goddess of love and supposed to be beautiful.

One of the fun things about the temple is that there were mistakes made on purpose in the carvings. This only ever happened in temples during the Greco-Roman times, and it was done to ensure the king of Egypt (a foreigner) still had to ask the high priest for help in doing the rituals; he couldn't rely on what the walls depicted.

We took a short boat ride both to and from the island, and on the way back, our guide Medhat joked that "the Nubian duty-free shop is open," because our Nubian boat owners let a few of their friends come on and sell necklaces. These were actually quite pretty and very reasonably priced, and in general, we enjoyed shopping around the Nubian vendors because they weren't aggressive the way vendors in other towns had been.

Next we went to a showroom for perfume, aromatherapy and massage oils. Aswan has a good climate for growing flowers and plants, so the region has become famous for these oils. They crush 220 pounds of flowers with wooden presses to get 4 or 5 tablespoons of oil. This oil is kept in alabaster jars underground for 3 months, just as the ancient Egyptians used to, to remove the last of the sediment.

After we were done there, we drove across the old dam (British dam) to get to the new dam (Russian dam). The old dam was constructed to control the Nile flood, but it never did an adequate job. The new dam does, and the old dam is now used to generate hydroelectric power.

The second president of Egypt after the revolution was in fact the first elected president. His name was Nasser, and he initiated the project of building the new dam. The lake that formed behind it is now called Nasser lake, and it is the largest man-made lake in the world.

The high dam is 40 m wide at its top and 980 m (almost a kilometre!) wide at its base. It took 11 years to construct and is 17 times the volume of the great pyramid at Giza.

All crocodiles on the Nile are now confined up-river of the high dam. It's against the law to kill crocodiles, but Medhat said they made an exception a few years ago to get rid of a monster that was 12 m long (about 40 feet) and had eaten two fishermen and their donkey in one sitting.

Finally, we took a faloukah ride back to our cruise ship to check out. A faloukah is a sailboat, and one of the sailors pulled out a drum and had us sing along to a traditional Nubian song on the way.

We flew back to Cairo for one night before heading to Dubai. The drive to the Aswan airport did provide one memorable moment, however. We saw the sunset over the desert through a field of high voltage electrical towers. The dust in the air turned the sky a delicate shade of pink while the sun looked peachy-yellow. The desert mirrored these colours, and the combination of spidery electrical towers and sand dunes looked alien and amazing in that light.

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