Back in town, the afternoon was left to us to seek our own entertainment. One of Luxor’s wonderful attractions is the local bazaar. For some reason, the smells and sounds of this town reached deep within me and I was more interested in the life and culture that was here now than the monuments of history. I was surrounded by beautifully crafted wood and carpets as well as the typical tourist items – everything from sculpture to metal work and cottons. I was even able to pick up a pack of Chicklets!
The experience not to be missed, however, is the ‘barter’. Shopping in North America is a bore compared to the vigorous game of salesmanship in an Egyptian bazaar. I walked the 20 minutes from the Winter Palace to the market. Cars and horse drawn carriages for the tourists passed me on the sand covered pavement. People spoke in a close animation, a way I was becoming accustomed to. The people of Egypt were becoming less strange to me and their enthusiasm for life began to seep into my consciousness.
Surrounded by beautiful things, I was attracted to little wooden boxes, inlaid with shell and bone. I ended up with two of them. Before leaving the hotel, we were told to negotiate the price of anything we were interested in at the bazaar. Offer half of the asking and let things take their course…. The animated discussions at stalls took on a new meaning and I was ‘game’.
I wandered into a very small stall full of toys for tourists, fancy metal plates and sculptures. I spotted a piece I liked, asked the price and immediately offered half. The stall owner grinned and then put on his game face. Mock insult and a second price was offered – a little lower than the first. My price came up in relation. We went on like this a few times. The other men at the stalls beside us began to laugh and really egg us on. When we were fairly close in price and the shopkeeper refused to go any further, I paused, put on a convincing frown, looked at the object and turned to walk away. The man who had been observing from the back of the shop burst into laughter and the shopkeeper called me back, lowered his head in a well practiced defeat and lowered his price one more time. I accepted. I am sure I was still paying too much, but it was so much fun, it was worth it!
The deeper I went into the market, the distance between the stalls became narrower. The tourist traps gave way to the orange stands and other practical objects. One of the members of our tour was a plucky lady of 67. She came on her own and had more curiosity and adventure in her than most people I had met. She suggested we return to the market at dusk…
We set out just after sunset. In front of the Winter Palace that evening, the desert glowed, giving the distant dunes the iridescence of a pharaoh’s burial mask. Everything else was a gentle silhouette; falookas drifted gently by as if moved only by the current of the river. Little light remained in the sky by the time we reached the old Luxor market. There were no tourists here. The streets were lit with pale warm lamps and were rough and uneven. The smells and the noises reminded me that I was a long way from home. I felt slightly uneasy as I roamed into the back alleys where the colours seemed to fade in the shadows leaving the entire scene awash in sepia and indigo. My memory after this point was more dream-like, pictures fading into sensations.
A falooka is familiar to many people as they are in the all the brochures. I have been a sailor all my life, but this boat convinced me I would end up a Nile crocodile’s lunch! We were on our way to a small island in the center of the river where they grow 3 inch bananas. As we sailed, at first gently, then with an increasing list it became easy to understand how this river divided worlds. Civilization was one one side of the river; fields, desert and tombs were all that was on the other.
Once we docked on the island, the group was led through a beautiful, lush grove of short palms. A little dirt track led us across a stream into an opening in the trees that looked like a small village. Brightly coloured buildings were scattered inside the clearing and people were carrying stocks of bananas into the middle. Due to the risk of snakes and other exciting wildlife, we were not taken into the orchard. We munched on bananas as the guide told us the story of the island. I don’t like bananas, but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try one. I peeled back the tree riped skin and bit into the sweetest tasting fruit I have ever had. This was not like any banana I have ever had before. I knew I wouldn’t have anything like it again.
On the way back to the falooka, one of the girls bought a bamboo flute. She played the most horrible sounding noise off this thing, but, it amused the local men to no end and their laughing only encouraged her. She played it all the way back to the dock. The sound grew less harsh as it began to mix with the wind and the water which would eventually carry us back to our last night in Luxor.
I was so tired by the time we arrived in Aswan that I chose to sleep through most of our time there. One place I did visit, however, was on the sunset bank. It was a mausoleum built by a wife for her husband, demonstrating her great love for him. The views from this place must have been spectacular before the creation of Lake Nasser, when the river would have been far below.
Two weeks after first landing in Cairo, the journey was at an end. Throughout the trip, so many of the things that had seemed so important at home had taken on a different meaning. I was, at times, in awe, overwhelmed and touched. Sometimes, all at once. The ‘rules’ I had grown up with were so different here.
Before I left Cairo for the last time, I purchased my first ‘painting’. I bought papyrus painted by local people. The subjects were all of wall reliefs from temples around the country. They were created with some of the richest pigments of blue and gold I have ever seen. The men who painted them would have had little idea in most cases what the ancients might have chosen, but, they made the works come alive with their own choices. Their ancient art through living eyes.