Announcing the World Premiere of our Short Film on Egypt 2019!

Announcing the World Premiere of our Short Film on Egypt 2019!

TLDR: The Monsoon Diaries has always been at the intersection of ethical healthcare + travel for a global community. As we continue to provide updates on the ground for COVID-19, we also must take steps to rebuilding a future and life of responsible and affordable travel after COVID-19. This is one of those first steps. RSVP here.


 

Many of you already know that in 2010 I had lost a bet that little to my knowledge at the time prompted a formative experience: my first ever solo trip abroad that would take place in Egypt and eventually lead to the force of nature and travel blog that would later be known as The Monsoon Diaries. Many of you since have been and are now part of that journey.

As we continue to endure COVID-19 and yearn for the return of interpersonal connections again, this worldwide challenge of a generation may be our very next collective formative experience; a hardship that both reminds us to be grateful for the life we had before and encourages us to build a better one for the future. We owe ourselves that much.

Pandemic or no pandemic, we thus stay the course with a tradition: Next Wednesday we plan to commemorate not only my own 10 year anniversary of life, but also the half-year anniversary since 18 strangers met on November 27, 2019 and began a life-changing 8-day trip across 6 destinations in the country that started it all: Egypt.

We will also premiere the long awaited short film recapping the trip, directed and edited by the masterful Raubern Totanes, as well as with the assistance of our brilliant Creative Director, Diana KlattRaubern’s film embodies the unique nature of what it is like to travel with us, lights a fire in us to anticipate the day when we can all travel again, and acknowledges how the tiniest of decisions could lead to a worldwide thing. 

We thus invite you to join us next Wednesday for not only the reunion but also have the opportunity to ask myself and other fellow travelers about our adventures, stories, the pandemic itself, as well as how we will travel safely, responsibly, and affordably again after COVID-19.

 

You’re Going To Miss… Egypt

You’re Going To Miss… Egypt

 

 

Keeping up with tradition I wrote the following in a stream of consciousness Jack Kerouac style — so please forgive run-ons and typos.

 

Press play and read the post with the music . . . 
 
 

 

“Let’s never come here again because it will never be as much fun.”

I said these words once to a girl I chased after to Egypt 10 years ago in a naïve attempt at romance. Frighteningly, I had meant it at the time.

 

 

Falser words were never spoken.

 

 

Because as perfect as that trip was a decade ago . . .

 

 

. . . You were even better.

 

 

You’re going to miss the initial introductions at an appropriately Egyptian themed and group leader’s favorite lounge in NYC, quickly matching the faces to the names of people you’ve only heard of in passing, and not knowing whether they’ll remain strangers you’ll be quick to forget, or become a new family of future friends you’ll hold onto long after it’s over.

 

 

You’re going to miss the trickle of messages in the group chat leading up to the trip, the tease of photos and prior stories in the periphery, and then departure day when a group of strangers congregated altogether at Terminal 4, Gate 4 at JFK Airport to begin a trip of a lifetime.

 

 

You’re going to miss landing to the rush of hailing for cabs, acclimating to the Cairo traffic as you went on an unplanned foray to the Middle East’s oldest market, losing your way and somehow still making it back to a hostel located in the epicenter of the Arab Spring, finally reuniting with your excited and overly nostalgic group leader freshly exhausted from a trip in Yemen but ready to hit the ground running and lead 17 other strangers around a country that changed his life 10 years ago.

 

 

You’re going to miss the frazzled attempt to order sandwiches for your first dinner in Cairo, confused over bread in a confused bakery, buying fruit salad for another traveler dismayed by his cab driver as he arrived late to join the group, and waking up to both unfamiliar ceilings and familiar laughter shared at orientation.

 

 

You’re going to miss the gallivant through the Egyptian Museum, the welcome espresso afterwards to get you ready for the Uber race to Ibn Tulun mosque — Cairo’s oldest — and the tranquility there after the oversized crowds of the Egyptian Museum.

 

 

You may not miss the feeling of being “mosque’ed” out by visits to the crowded Citadel, the calm Al-Alzhar, and the brief look at Al-Hussein . . .

 

 

. . . but you will miss forgetting just how many mosques you’ve seen after finally sitting down for our welcome first lunch together and your first taste of Egyptian shisha at Naguib Mahfouz.

 

 

You’re going to miss the feeling of exploring alternative Cairo — the desolate streetscape of Qarafa and The City of the Dead, playing frogger to skip over a highway into the post-apocalyptic maze-like alleyways of Manshiyat Nasir aka “Garbage City,” the initial pangs of anxiety for feeling like you’ve intruded upon a forbidden neighborhood, only to have those fears dashed away by hundreds of curious onlookers greeting you with a million smiles welcoming you to their home, and then hollering from their balconies only when you’re walking down the wrong way.

 

 

You’re going to miss the gaggle of laughing children dancing and leading you through fascinating streets you wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise, and their joy when you give them money for accompanying you all the way to the jaw dropping cliffside reliefs of Der Sama’an Kharraz aka the “Cave Church” and Cairo’s largest.

 

 

You’re going to miss jumping from one extreme to another, from Garbage City to the Ritz Carlton afterwards, taking it all in while realizing it only has been day one.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up at 4am in the morning to find 16 horses waiting to take you on a ride into eternity, with the sun rising over you as you have some of the most filling breakfast and authentic Egyptian tea, while tears well up in our eyes the same way that peaks of the pyramids begin to reveal themselves above the haze.

 

 

You’re going to miss coming up and sitting on the Great Pyramids themselves, group photos by the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser, and playing Indiana Jones by climbing into the Red Pyramid before a lazy lunch over crack bread and then taking the long awaited and seemingly mythical Cairo Metro back to your hostel.

 

 

You’re going to miss the frenetic rush of diving through holes into the maw of Ramses Train Station looking for Platform 9 & 3/4, hearing the story of what had happened here 10 years ago, and still through all the chaos, arriving to your correct train ahead of schedule.

 

 

You’re going to miss turning your wagon into the “barcarpartycar!” on a nearly late night bender and impromptu dance party/karaoke session that was only made sweeter by the fact that you still were able to fit in a full night’s sleep afterwards on the romantic sways of an overnight sleeper train.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up to the continued rocking motions of the railway, looking out to a beautiful morning of southern Egypt, disembarking with all the time in the world to another unfamiliar city.

 

 

You’re going to miss feeling the warm friendly hospitality of a place so far away from the capital filled with Nubian pride, the carefree abandon of Mostafa having marked you for adoration, the first ferry ride over to our new home for 2 days, and the welcoming meal on a balcony overlooking the Nile River.

 

 

You’re going to miss setting off for the optional journey exploring the West Bank of Aswan, raiding a bat colony at the Tomb of the Nobles, the hike up for views from the “Dome of the Wind”, buying bracelets from curious teenage locals, the solitary walk towards a seemingly abandoned monastery in the distance, climbing over a wall to get inside instead of taking the legal way in, being caught anyway but leaving with only a slap of the wrist, then doing the same at Egypt’s second largest cathedral back in town, and finally making the group whole with the latest arrivals of 2 who felt like they’ve been with us all along.

 

 

You may not miss the time where suddenly you’re back to work on your day job, treating a deep hand laceration for one of your travelers, creating a makeshift pressure dressing with the medical team you just formed on the trip, before formally sending him to the hospital to get treated. That was not fun.

 

 

You also might debate whether you’ll miss the 3am wake up call to catch a lonely dinghy across for a 3 hour drive to Abu Simbel, and the spurious naps you tried to take to shorten the arduous journey.

 

 

But you will miss suddenly waking up to tell stories on the van anyway, enticing fellow strangers to join, and then arriving to the temple just to tell a guide off so you can fully take in the awe-inspiring majesty of the Temple of Abu Simbel on your own — a place that has dodged your travel dreams for 10 years until today.

 

 

You’re going to miss the seemingly quicker ride back to Aswan, boarding a ferry that felt taken straight out of Jurassic Park, visiting the beautifully restored Philae Temple and Trajan’s Kiosk, and taking group photos with random local families curious to your presence.

 

 

You’re going to miss satisfying the unbearable cravings for overdue lunch back at the hostel, the relaxed free time afterwards in the West Bank hunting for souvenirs, tea, coffee, and dessert, and the first series of goodbyes to the premature departure of some of the most joyful travelers you’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know followed by drinks, shisha, and soul-churning conversations while overlooking the Nile River.

 

 

You’re definitely going to miss finally “sleeping in” and waking up to a relaxed breakfast for your last meal in Aswan.

 

 

You’re going to miss the comfort of your own private passenger van to your next destination, trolling 2 random men who jump in claiming to be your personal travel agents and satisfyingly wasting their time right before arriving at your destination, your first impression of a much better man named Ahmed who more than makes up for all the doubts you had about Luxor, and the relaxed private felucca ride along the Nile to catch the world’s largest ancient temple at sunset.

 

 

You’re going to miss diving into bartering and negotiating with a ticket man to let us in past closing, the million new profile picture possibilities inside, and then the jaw-dropping visual of the world’s largest outdoor museum at night before saying goodbye to 2 more travelers and realizing that no trip can last forever.

 

 

You’re going to miss the rush of your first hot air balloon experience over the West Bank at sunrise, your balloon pilot’s impromptu comedy set, the thorough breakfast spread afterwards, and the tomb scavenger hunt for all the oddities that include an inexplicable depiction of a kangaroo in ancient North Africa and a pile of castrated man parts, which suggested what could have been otherwise a dull day ended up becoming a little slice of wonderful thanks to Ahmed.

 

 

You’re going to miss the only time you relent to souvenir shopping, only because Ahmed himself was guiding you with his endorsement, the gorgeous alabaster pieces you’re taking home with you, and the hearty lunch afterwards to finish the day right before you were about to hit your temple limit.

 

 

You’re going to miss the lazy late afternoon afterwards, the dramatic dash from a ferry to taxis to the train station, the gall of telling a police office to bugger off, the pleasant surprise of receiving a special memento for the trip from an overly sentimental doofus of a leader who already feels a certain sense of saudade that his anniversary trip will soon end . . .

 

 

. . . and the following celebration together again on the train over mixed mojitos, mint juleps, whiskey sours, all with another overly eager wagon master.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up one more time to the rocking movements of the train, the lazy morning during an expected delay towards Ramsis train station, the baffling restriction of being allowed to buy only 4 tickets at a time for your next stop, the team working together to grab breakfast in the meantime while the rest of us waited at the food court upstairs, and the serene 3 hour train ride towards the sea and relaxing coasts of Alexandria.

 

 

You’re going to miss the ironic hustle of a coastal seaside northern city of Egypt that despite its traffic, the odd visual of 14 very conspicuous backpackers, and after a week of being hustled left and right just for looking different, nobody here bats you an eye.

 

 

You’re going to miss an equally conspicuous undercover police officer following you from the train station, disappointing him when you’re not terrorists at all, paying a kind hostel owner for a room to temporarily store our bags, the delicious taste of French pressed coffee, the leisurely stroll along the corniche from the Death Star of the Alexandria Library to the medieval citadel sitting on top of the remains of the lighthouse.

 

 

You’re going to miss the kenopsia of visiting your ancestral home of your father and grandmother that evokes nostalgia for a life you’ve never had, the side trip that leads you inside the home of a family that now lives there, the paradoxical feeling of chrysalism while smoking shisha on an elevated outdoor platform overlooking the sea while listening to the adhan at sunset, a special box of pastries that quickly overshadowed that special ice cream you had only a few hours prior, the group splitting up for an impromptu “amazing race” to Cairo, keeping up the bad luck that monsoons have with catching the wrong trains, the sudden gasp when you see one of your comrades take a stumble, and the relief afterwards seeing him quickly get up for us to all be finally led to the correct train that will take us one step closer to inevitable.

 

 

You’re going to miss one final early wake up call, this time for 5 hours coasting towards a desert oasis, and a romantic tranquil rest stop in the middle of nowhere for morning coffee/tea and a treasure trove of date-covered-chocolate-covered peanuts.

 

 

You’re going to miss driving from a barren desert to a patch of countless trees that rise above this endless stretch of sand, fresh al dente pasta lunch, and the switch into 4X4 jeeps portending 24 hours that will lead you towards the rest of your life.

 

 

You’re going to miss the starstruck wonder when you lay your eyes for the first time upon gleaming unreal white chalk pillars of the White Desert, realizing that the biggest adventure you could ever take was to live the life of your dreams, the 30 seconds of complete silence to tune into your own frequency, the fresh fine sand between your toes, the best dinner of the trip under the stars, and then the onism you can’t shake off after late night conversations with your new Bedouin friend over travel, romance, and love.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up to the eternity moment of a different night sky filling you with stars and occhiolism, the top of the sun peeking over an alien horizon, our last breakfast together, and fresh warm solar rays painting your face as you confront with the bittersweet reality you may never set your eyes on such a sight ever again.

 

 

You’re going to miss the last lunch together in the oasis, the final long drive back to Cairo, the last dinner toasting to lifelong memories, and the soft looks of those around you with whom you’ve just shared these experiences back where it all began at the very same hostel, and the subsequent goodbyes and final hugs leading to oblivion — a postscript to a chapter that many of us were trying to close for good but didn’t know how. . .

 

 

. . . until now.

 

 

Because you’re going to miss most of all, each other; the company of diverse personalities that waited 10 years to be united by 10 days of camaraderie and wanderlust, and the way we’ll all look back one day and ask yourself: “did we really do all that?”

 

 

“Yeah, we did.”

 

 

So I came here 10 years ago searching for someone, returning a decade later only to learn whatever it was I had been looking for, found me instead.

 

 

A family.

 

 

Because long before we had said goodbye, I was already missing us before we said hello.

 

 

“On the way to the airport now. It’s been real.

2 weeks ago on my birthday I was lying alone on an isolated beach in Socotra Island, Yemen. There was a group of 10 other strangers traveling with me, none of them knowing that it was my birthday; it would be the first time I celebrated “alone” by not celebrating at all. And so that day came and went without much fanfare and I decided I had to be okay with that — There’s a first time for everything after all.

However, as if the universe was dancing to the familiar tune of irony, I felt that the past 10 days have instead become that delayed birthday celebration I didn’t know I was supposed to be waiting for all along.

And as this monsoon already becoming another memory, I’m grateful for having the best birthday I could have ever asked for, feeling like I had been celebrating it the whole time the past 10 days with so many wonderful individual souls from around the world.

As my decade of life, love, and travel fittingly also wraps up the 2010s, it’s only fitting that I close a chapter to 10 years by saying thank you from the bottom of my heart.

To everyone who believed in me early on in 2010 when I started this crazy little thing (and I still remain unsure what to call it exactly), and to those who feel they’ve just joined: Thank you thank you thank you.

 

 

Thank you for the best birthday this hopelessly nostalgic little boy full of both melancholy and wonder could ever ask for.

 

 

- At time of posting in Cairo, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 54% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

They Put A Monsooner On The Moon — The White Desert Of Egypt

They Put A Monsooner On The Moon — The White Desert Of Egypt

 

Once in a while, I’m blessed to write up and release a blogpost that will stand the test of time in my memories.

 

 

This is one of those posts.

 

 

The irony of today rests in the fact that after a decade visiting 180 countries and territories, that it would take me returning to my first ever country — country #1: EGYPT — to finally write these words on my blog: “I have never seen anything or been anywhere like this before.”

 

 

This is the White Desert, a moonscape formed by centuries of erosion and sandstorms and a last minute yet unanimously decided excursion for our last hurrah of the trip. And I don’t know we can place such a perfect dot to an exclamation point of a trip ever ever again. And yet, we may be confusing the actual reason for that very thought, to be the people that came with me.

 

 

But before we get there, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour — first it is not easy to get to the White Desert, and our story today won’t work as well without some bitter to begin with.

Going back a day, I found that this trip obviously has been going too well, as if The Monsoon Diaries always has some bad freaking luck with catching trains.

I always tell of the epic infamous story 3 years ago where on our way to Xi’an from Beijing, I messed up the wrong train station and ended up booking it last minute to the correct one, only for half of us to make it and the other half missing it. This led me to pull everyone who did make it off the train as it was pulling away just so we could stick together, which meant a crash overnight stay in Beijing for 4 hours and then taking morning flights to Xi’an instead to resume the monsoon on schedule.

Well, after a chill time in Alexandria just as everything felt like it had been going well without any hiccups, the group decided to split in 2, with one taking the 8pm train back and the other taking the 9:25pm. So at 6:45pm the former — a group of 10 — then split into 3 Ubers to pick up our bags  that we had dropped off at Triomphe Hostel earlier in the day, continuing onwards to Alexandria train station.

 

 

1 of the 3 Ubers almost drove to the wrong train station afterwards and the other was forced to hail 2 separate Ubers due to issues with parking as we went to pick up our bags.

Once arriving at the train station, the first Uber group that arrived ended up in the wrong ticket office (the ticket office outside security is NOT for Cairo), before a kind passerby led us to the right office INSIDE the train station for tickets to Cairo. There I was able to buy 10 tickets to Cairo with 20 minutes to spare at 7:40pm

 

 

After reuniting with the other 2 Ubers to get back our group of 10 together, we asked the station master for the platform for our train (Platform #4). There at 7:45pm we were waiting on Platform #4 confused why our train to Cairo looked like it was abandoned and out of service.

 

 

The guy inside that train EVEN SAID it was the right train to Cairo after looking at our tickets. Something felt off but luckily another passerby came by and told us we were supposed to be on Platform #6 after asking for our tickets. At this point it was 7:50pm.

 

 

So we crossed over to Platform #6 where Chyne, who already suffered a laceration 3 days prior and a fall from his horse 2 days before that, stumbled over his bag right on the platform (he’s fine and just suffered a superficial abrasion on his hand). Big yikes!

We quickly picked him up and at 8:01pm boarded the right train (thank heavens it decided to wait for us). I gave that passerby 50 EGP for his troubles and the train departed right afterwards at 8:04pm with train staff amused at how befuddled we looked to them.

 

 

Peak monsooning the way I missed it.

And to top it all off another well dressed “undercover” plainclothes officer began to monitor us. Then I realized that instead of determining whether we were threats, they may be assigned to protect us, especially after what had happened to 17 tourists 6 months ago. Because once we disembarked from our train in Cairo at 11pm, I saw the plainclothes officer motion to a uniformed police officer to personally guide us to the metro outside the train station before letting us on our way back to our hostel.

Faith in humanity restored! And just to be complete, our final and later group from Alexandria arrived without a hitch a few hours later.

The next morning we woke up at 7am and headed out down the street towards Talaat Harb Square, where our driver Ahmed was waiting for us with a 14 passenger coaster.

 

 

And promptly at 7:30am we set off for the 5 hour drive into the the Farafra depression and desert of Western Egypt for Bahariya: We didn’t last very long.

 

 

We reached a lonely but romantic rest stop about halfway into our 5 hour drive.

 

 

Don’t drop the toilet paper!

 

 

And then finally, about 2 hours later we reached the lush green oasis of Bahariya, where human settlements there date back to ancient Egypt and Roman times.

 

 

There we were greeted by the legendary Badry at his home where he served us al dente pasta and vegetables for lunch.

 

 

After lunch we switched vehicles to three 4×4 jeeps and set out for the White Desert at around 2pm, located approximately midway between Dakhla and Bahariya oases. About about 30 minutes into the drive, we first drove through the Black Desert. Also known as Sahra al-Suda, here we saw dozens of sand dunes lay covered by the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

 

 

Then after about another half an hour of driving, we reached the edges of the White Desert. You’ll know it when you see it:

 

 

After taking a few photos and running up and down sand dunes, we then drove about 20 minutes dune bashing and off-roading, cuing classic Indiana Jones music in the background.

 

 

By 4pm we finished up just in time for sunset,

 

 

The White Desert continues to remain as one of Egypt’s best secrets. The scenery here is unlike anywhere else in the world — once submerged by the sea, it now exists as an isolated and gorgeous moonscape with chalk white pillars coming out of the sand, formed after millions of years of sandstorms that eroded calcium rock into these natural sculptures that look like mushrooms or ice cream scoops, or for others, abstract man-made statues you’d find in a modern art museum.

 

 

If you ever find yourself here, please take a moment to give yourself at least 30 seconds to take in all the silence of this place. It was so quiet we could hear the ringing of our own inner frequency.

 

 

As Diana writes: “There are no pyramids here, so we made our own.”

 

 

But even when pyramids fall, we’re still standing.

 

 

As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, we set up camp with the bedouins led by Badry.

 

 

As the stars began to reveal themselves in the silence and with no WiFi to save us, we lost ourselves in stories and the lentil soup, rice, veggies, and barbecued chicken over an open fire,

Perhaps it was the atmosphere, but we collectively dare to reckon this could be the best meal of the trip.

 

 

After dinner, we then broke out Badry’s hookah around our campfire and shared more stories of travel, love, and romance under the stars.

 

 

In the meantime, others set out to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram:

 

 

Since many of us wanted to wake up at around 4am to catch the twilight at its darkest with its stars, most of us then headed to bed at around 10:30pm.

 

 

And then, imagine you wake up to THIS:

 

 

Dancing away a story called life and on a spaceship called Earth, we fulfilled our one rotation around the sun as it rose once more for us gloriously at 6:30am:

 

 

Some were too cold and had to enjoy it from their rug cavern:

 

Where is Ji Won in this photo?

 

Others braved the chill:

 

 

The silence here at sunrise was deafening.

 

 

How’s your Thursday morning been?

 

 

After taking it in and freshening up in pure blissful nature, we began our breakfast and morning tea together at around 7am.

 

 

During this time, Diana and our very new inductee into the social media team — Raubern — were kind enough to surprise me with a makeshift outdoor interview booth against an epic backdrop, as we all began to realize that we wanted to hold on to our appreciation of this place as long as possible.

 

 

After lingering here for another hour, we slowly hiked 10 minutes towards the famous “chicken and mushroom” formation.

 

 

“You’ll know it when you see it.”

 

 

It has been called anything from “mushroom and chicken”, “chicken and tree”, or “chicken and atomic bomb.” At least everyone agrees on chicken.

 

 

The mushroom and chicken just got served.

 

 

And not just by me:

 

 

Cue the M.I.A. music:

 

 

“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”

 

 

After about 20 minutes here taking our photos, we set out in our 4X4s for other formations, such as the turtle:

 

 

This one is supposed to be an elephant? Because I don’t quite see it.

 

 

And this one I just had for lunch today:

 

 

At this point it was time to turn our 4X4s back home, with a quick stop at Crystal Mountain and locally known as Gebel al-Izzaz: a ridge dotted with quartz, barite or calcite crystals created by a unique geological phenomenon.

 

 

We then took a proper photo stop at the Black Desert, painted dark by ancient volcanic ash:

 

 

By noon we returned Badry’s camp back at Bahariya where we enjoyed our last official lunch together on the trip:

 

 

Don’t forget to bring some dates on your way back.

 

 

And after another 5 hour drive back to Cairo, the group freshened up back where it all started at Tahrir Square Hostel from day 1.

Given that my trips usually end in a completely far off destination than where it begins, to end a trip back where we starts should have some weird serendipitous meaning, a meaning that hopefully may reveal itself to us one day.

 

 

But we’re not finished! The group needs one final dinner together, and so we took the recommendation of many of our local Egyptian friends (even our cab drivers agreed that we were going somewhere special) by dining at the famous Sobhy Kaber, known for its lamb chops and other meat dishes.

 

 

But overwhelmed by the chaos of the place, the group wanted to end such a trip somewhere on a quieter, more humble note.

So we promptly and efficiently returned after dinner back to Tahrir Square Hostel where we kicked back one final time together as a group over local $1 USD hookah watching the world go by at Tahrir Square.

It’s time to say goodbye, for real.

 

 

But it’s never a “goodbye” with us, right? We shall mark tonight desperately clinging onto the infinite possibility of “see you later.”

 

 

“See you later.”

 

 

— AN ENCORE —

The next day, only Diana, Grace, Kasie, Melissa, and I would remain. Since Grace and Kasie had missed the first 3 days of the trip to meet us in Aswan, I had to show them the Cairo as I knew it: we returned for horseback riding by the pyramids at sunrise.

The story that started it all.

 

 

And if at first you don’t succeed with the weather, try try again — the haze from our first go last week had now finally disappeared into this:

 

 

This view never gets old.

 

 

So how much have I changed the past 10 years?

 

 

Afterwards we sent off Grace and Kasie to view the pyramids up close . . .

 

 

. . . while Diana, Melissa and I retired to the bougie breakfast buffet spread nearby at the hallowed former palace (and current Marriott property) Mena House with the pyramids in full display.

 

 

After Grace and Kasie finished at the pyramids, we then took our van out to show them the Cave Church at the top of Manshiyat Nasir (aka “Garbage City”).

There we rendezvous’ed with Priyanka, a girl we had met in our van on the way to Abu Simbel one week ago!

 

 

From there we did our first day in Cairo entirely in reverse — first by walking downhill through Manshiyat Nasir . . .

 

 

. . . and then to Qarafa (aka “City of the Dead”) where a woman invited us into her garden of tombs, not accepting any tips from us for her hospitality, and instead left us all shedding a few joyful tears that felt like she was truly recognized by a vast world that seemed to have forgotten her.

We eventually reached back to where we had our first lunch together at Nagub Mafhouz in Khan Al-Khalili where we kicked back and relaxed. There Priyanka said her goodbyes so she could finish up the last of her sightseeing, and the rest of the group went shopping in the souq for a few hours.

If this post continues to update at the time of reading, it means I’m really trying to prolong this goodbye as long as possible. . . .

. . . this blogpost still in progress at the time of posting: if you’re reading this then that means I’m still typing away in Cairo with Diana, Grace, and Kasie laughing at me. . . .

 

. . . Maybe I won’t end this post formally, just as a symbolic gesture as this being one of the rare moments how I never would want such a trip to end. . . .

 

- At time of posting in Désert blanc, Egypt, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

All Roads Lead To Alexandria

All Roads Lead To Alexandria

 

Going to miss Luxor’s West Bank vibes.

 

 

After an eventful 2 days here, we made a mad dash for the Luxor Train Station across the river.

 

 

Getting there 45 minutes early, I took this time to give everyone a memento silver bracelet of “monsoon” written in Egyptian hieroglyphics that Ahmed was able to arrange for us at the last minute.

 

After all, when am I ever going to come back where it all began with such an awesome group of people?

 

 

We then hopped on the daily overnight 8:10pm Watania sleeper train from Luxor to Cairo.

 

 

And like last time, we began our train bender with another cool ass wagon master. Can’t get enough of this.

 

 

Saves so much time and money!

 

 

We turned in early at 11pm after drinks and a short dance party, waking up to sunrise at 5:30am:

 

 

We arrived into Cairo Train Station about an expected 3.5 hours late at 9:00am.

 

 

While I struggled with the issue of buying the maximum 4 tickets per order at the ticket office for our train to Alexandria (leading me to go from counter to counter buying 4 tickets at a time, much to the chagrin of everyone watching me), a small strike team set out to get breakfast for us outside the train station.

We then chilled for a bit in the food court at the train station before boarding one of the half-an-hourly trains to Alexandria.

 

 

We then boarded the 10:00am Train #911 to Alexandria.

 

 

Getting into Alexandria around 3 hours later at around 1:30pm, I stopped for a second to consider how much I’ve changed 10 years ago since I was here. I mean, look at my hair back then.

 

 

From the station we strolled north to Kom el Dikka, literally translating to “pile of rubble.” It’s famous for being home to a relatively well preserved Roman amphitheater, baths, and mosaics:

 

 

From there we turned left up towards the corniche. Unlike the rest of Egypt, nobody batted us an eye except for a “secret” policeman following us to see what this massive group was up to.

 

 

We then dropped off our bags at Triomphe Hotel & Hostel, where we were supposed to stay for the night if it weren’t for a change of plans to return to Cairo tonight (BIG SURPRISE TOMORROW!!!). At this point the secret policeman, who followed us all the way to the hotel, felt satisfied that we weren’t terrorists and then let us be.

 

 

If you need any bit of sightseeing here, then I recommend Kom el-Shouqafa Catacombs, amusingly discovered in 1900 when the ground gave way under a donkey.

 

 

5 minutes nearby stands Pompey’s Pillar, an ancient 25-meter-high granite column constructed in honor of the Emperor Diocletian in AD 297. 

 

 

But reading group vibes, we wanted to experience Alexandria in all its known chillness. So we went directly towards the seaside Corniche and began our walk at Alexandria Bibliotheca.

 

 

Don’t expect anything historic looking of the so-called legendary “Alexandria Library.” While it stands on the same site as the ancient Library of Alexandria, those of you expecting a building besotted by time and conjures up memories of a foregone era of Greco-Roman classical architecture, will be disappointed. This is as modern of a library as you can get.

 

 

From the library Angelica peeled off with Ji Won and Alexandra to see some of the houses that her great grandmother and father used to live in, and the high school her father attended. They even were invited inside a random local’s home to see inside with the help of Angelica’s father on the phone!

 

 

The rest of us otherwise began a leisurely 45 minute stroll along the famous corniche.

 

 

About 20 minutes in we passed by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, honoring the Egyptian military.

 

 

10 minutes later we walked by El-Mursi Abul-Abbas Mosque, built in 1775 by Algerians over the tomb of the famous 13th century sufi saint, Ahmed Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi.

 

 

We then took a brief stop at famous Azza Ice Cream . . .

 

 

. . . and finished our stroll at  Citadel of Qaitbay.

Built in 1480 by Sultan Qaitbay to protect the city from the crusaders who used to attack the city by sea, and of course, it stands on the exact site of one of the original 7 wonders of the Ancient World: the Alexandria Lighthouse.

They even recycled the stone of the ruined lighthouse for its construction. It saw defense of the city against invaders, from crusaders to Napoleon, and remained in military use as late as 1882 when the British bombarded it.

 

 

Satisfied with our primer of Alexandria, we turned in for dinner at the scenic Sidra By The Citadel at the recommendation of my local friend Perry (whom I met years ago in NYC as one of the waitresses at my favorite hookah bar in the East Village).

This place checks off every single box I look for in living the travel dream: an outdoor balcony serving fresh food overlooking the sea, while smoking hookah and listening to the adhan at sunset…and as much as I hate to admit it, with great WiFi.

 

 

We plan to head back to Cairo on the evening train, but with these vibes, I kind of worry we’ll stay here all night and miss the last big part of our trip — which happens tomorrow!

 

— UPDATED —

Alas, this trip obviously was going too well, as if The Monsoon Diaries always has some bad freaking luck with catching trains.

I always tell of the epic infamous story 3 years ago where on our way to Xi’an from Beijing, I messed up the wrong train station and ended up booking it last minute to the correct one, only for half of us to make it and the other half missing it. This led me to pull everyone who did make it off the train as it was pulling away just so we could stick together, which meant a crash overnight stay in Beijing for 4 hours and then taking morning flights to Xi’an instead to resume the monsoon on schedule.

Well, after a chill time in Alexandria just as everything felt like it had been going well without any hiccups, the group decided to split in 2, with one taking the 8pm train back and the other taking the 9:25pm. So at 6:45pm the former — a group of 10 — then split into 3 Ubers to pick up our bags  that we had dropped off at Triomphe Hostel earlier in the day, continuing onwards to Alexandria train station.

 

 

1 of the 3 Ubers almost drove to the wrong train station afterwards and the other was forced to hail 2 separate Ubers due to issues with parking as we went to pick up our bags.

Once arriving at the train station, the first Uber group that arrived ended up in the wrong ticket office (the ticket offce outside security is NOT for Cairo), before a kind passerby led us to the right office INSIDE the train station for tickets to Cairo. There I was able to buy 10 tickets to Cairo with 20 minutes to spare at 7:40pm

 

 

After reuniting with the other 2 Ubers to get back our group of 10 together, we asked the station master for the platform for our train (Platform #4). There at 7:45pm we were waiting on Platform #4 confused why our train to Cairo looked like it was abandoned and out of service.

 

 

The guy inside that train EVEN SAID it was the right train to Cairo after looking at our tickets. Something felt off but luckily another passerby came by and told us we were supposed to be on Platform #6 after asking for our tickets. At this point it was 7:50pm.

 

 

So we crossed over to Platform #6 where Chyne, who already suffered a laceration 3 days prior and a fall from his horse 2 days before that, stumbled over his bag right on the platform (he’s fine and just suffered a superficial abrasion on his hand). Big yikes!

We quickly picked him up and at 8:01pm boarded the right train (thank heavens it decided to wait for us). I gave that passerby 50 EGP for his troubles and the train departed right afterwards at 8:04pm with train staff amused at how befuddled we looked to them.

 

 

Peak monsooning the way I missed it.

And to top it all off another well dressed “undercover” plainclothes officer began to monitor us. Then I realized that instead of determining whether we were threats, they may be assigned to protect us, especially after what had happened to 17 tourists 6 months ago. Because once we disembarked from our train in Cairo at 11pm, I saw the plainclothes officer motion to a uniformed police officer to personally guide us to the metro outside the train station before letting us on our way back to our hostel.

Faith in humanity restored!

 

- At time of posting in Alexandria, it was 17 °C - Humidity: 67% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Luxor-y Travel

Luxor-y Travel

 

After the first rounds of goodbye to Likhith and Karthik last night, I noticed that Mihaela is already crying realizing that the trip is halfway over:

 

 

Wrapping up 2 days in Aswan, we planned to set out this morning on a 7:30am train to Luxor, arriving at 10:30am in the morn ng. Since it was an ordinary passenger train and not a sleeper, we planned to buy tickets on the car. However, we were informed the night before by both the train station personnel and our hostel owner El-Amin that the train car had been oddly sold out.

Not to fear though, an even better plan emerged out of this trip hiccup: we would be provided 2 private vans to take us to Luxor, picking us up and dropping us off at our leisure.

So we woke up to a wonderful breakfast on the balcony overlooking the Nile.

 

 

After breakfast at 8:30am, we crossed the ferry over to our vans waiting for us on the East Bank.

 

 

Hopping in our vans, we nearly had an uneventful 3 hour drive to Luxor until 2 random men jumped in, claiming to be our “travel agents” and pushing us to book tours with them.

But we saw through their smokescreen from the very beginning, so we collectively trolled them by pretending to be interested, driving them all the way to the West Bank of Luxor, before telling them everything was booked and then asking why they were there. They promptly sulked and walked away: Mission Failed!

 

 

We then settled in our lodgings at Luxor Guesthouse with its fantastic owner, Ahmed. What a vibe:

 

 

After freshening up, Ahmed arranged us a private ferry right outside his guesthouse to take us over to the East Bank . . .

 

 

. . . and we headed out for Karnak Temple (120 EGP), an open-air museum and the largest temple of the ancient world. They shut their doors at 5:30pm so by the time we got there at 4:31pm, the ticket office initially refused to sell us anymore and let us in.

 

 

. . . But I charmed them with a 200 EGP bribe to let us in, and with a 50% discount as we had our student IDs. WINNING.

 

 

One of my favorite profile pictures was taken 10 years ago here on a timer:

 

 

But now I don’t need a timer. I have friends to take one for me:

 

 

 

… I remember the time it got served 10 years ago:

 

 

And on Grace’s insistence, I serve it again 10 years later:

 

 

How about a side by side comparison:

 

 

Still got it!

 

 

It’s good to be back. Other people also got the idea:

 

 

After Karnak Temple closed down at 5:30pm, we took our ferry 10 minutes down the Nile towards Luxor Temple. I was able to snag a VIP section above from all the tourists on an elevated and underutilized platform.

 

 

Then I took them down to the real thing —

I remember writing 10 years ago: “This is the first time my jaw ever dropped.”

 

 

The same holds true today:

 

 

After about an hour here, we then hopped back on our ferry towards our guesthouse on the West Bank, where we had dinner and toasted our sorrowful goodbyes to Neerharika and Andrena.

Then we danced it up with the guesthouse staff in our party room on the balcony!

 

 

The next morning, thanks to Ahmed, all of us booked the famous sunrise hot air balloon tour over Luxor at 6am:

 

 

This would be a first for me! I had attempted to get on a hot air balloon 8 years ago in Cappadocia, but alas the whole thing got rained out then.

NOT TODAY:

 

 

After 50 minutes in the air, we returned back to Ahmed’s guesthouse where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast on the balcony at 8:30am.

Then to make things even better for the day, Ahmed himself offered to take us on one of the best tours of the trip so far, while driving us all around the West Bank — the Theban Necropolis used for ritual burials for much of the Pharaonic period, especially during the New Kingdom.

There are so many but instead of a single convenient ticket, you’ll have to buy tickets for each temple.

 

 

I have to mention I endured a lot of bargaining today trying to get a 50% discount with our student IDs, with partial success.

 

 

Halfway through, Ahmed took us to a much needed tea break at an alabaster shop where they let us chop stone for free over some complimentary tea and coffee.

 

 

As for the West Bank itself, there are countless temples and if you had to choose, we recommend seeing the following in order:

Colossi of Memnon, which are 2 massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. I recommend it because they’re both free admission.

 

 

Valley of the Queens, home to Nefertari and the Great Wife of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Often referred as the Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt, it is restricted to private tours of 20 people max and costs a pretty penny at LE1,200 (with a max viewing time of 10 min). No discounts for students.

Valley of the Kings, the burial place of most of the pharaohs of Egypt of the New Kingdom:

 

 

Your ticket (250 EGP) to the Valley of the Kings gains you access to 3 temples with extra charges for places like King Tut’s tomb (now essentially empty after everything was moved to the Egyptian museum). If you had to choose, our favorites were Ramses III, IV, and IX.

 

 

Try to find the inexplicable carving of the kangaroo in Ramses III!!!

 

 

Temple of Hatshepsut, One of the more impressive sights on the West Bank:

 

 

Ahmed’s and our personal favorite, Medinet Habu, a temple built by Ramses III:

 

 

Ramesseum: The fallen colossal statue of the pharaoh that inspired the sonnet Ozymandias by Shelley.

 

 

Deir el Medina, originally called Set Maat (the Place of Truth), the village was built to house the workforce of literate priest-craftsmen for the Royal Tombs. 

 

 

The abundant domestic and written remains here make it the very best-studied Ancient Egypt community to date.

 

 

At this point we were all getting really templed out (this crew lasted up to 4), as expected, so we returned in the evening for a much needed lunch and shisha before catching our 8:10pm Watania overnight train back to Cairo.

 

 

- At time of posting in Luxor, Egypt, it was 19 °C - Humidity: 54% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Life’s Simbel — It’s Abu The People That Make The Trip, Not The Destination

Life’s Simbel — It’s Abu The People That Make The Trip, Not The Destination

 

Credit goes to Ann Wen (who’s not even on the trip!) for the blogpost title.

In our second day in Aswan, we set out for sites outside of the city, beginning with the obligatory tourist pilgrimage to Abu Simbel. This began with a mandatory wake up call at 3:15am for a 3:30am ferry to take us across to the East Bank.

 

 

Our ferry came a little late, which got us a little worried, but after some underslept-caused series of confusions, we were able to get to the other side with 2 trips. We were then met by our 2 vans to take us on our 3 hour journey to Abu Simbel.

 

 

There was a brief 15 minute pee-break in the desert just as the sun began to rise.

 

 

And by 8am we reached the Abu Simbel tourist complex. There was another episode of confusion when after disembarking out buses, a guide approached claiming to have been booked by our hostel. However, after he failed my series of questions (“What’s the name of our hostel? Who was the man that sent you?”), I told him to bugger off. I justified to him that we already had a “PhD-level guide” in the brilliant mind of our very own monsooner, Siavash, who appropiately had split off briefly yesterday to visit the Nubian Museum and obtain this cornucopia of information of where we were going. That worked pretty well and we were left to our own.

Given that Aswan and our hostel do not accept much of credit cards, I was running low on cash to pay for the tickets (255 EGP for adults, 155 for students). Luckily there is an ATM machine on site, and after countless separate transactions of 1500 EGP each — as well as buying cash off of Likhith, Neeharika, and Karthik who were leaving the next day — I was able to have enough to pay for everyone. This was also assisted by the fact that 15 of us brought our student IDs and were able to snag the 100 EGP discount.

 

 

And down we went: Just so you know, Abu Simbel has remained one of my biggest travel misses since my trip to Egypt 10 years ago — it was the thing I really wanted to see that I had missed, and I’ve been yearning a return to see it ever since.

 

 

Well today would be the day I finally have my vengeance.

 

 

 

Carved out of a mountain between 1274 BC and 1244 BC and then lost to the world until it was rediscovered in 1813, Abu Simbel was a feat of engineering —

 

 

Ancient Egyptian architects positioned these temples in such a way that twice a year on February and October 22, sunlight would specifically illuminate the sculpture on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld, who always remained in the dark.

 

 

Due to the displacement of the temple, it is widely believed that this event now occurs one day later than it used to. 

 

 

Scholars have deduced that these foreboding temples at Abu Simbel was originally used to scare off potential enemies intending to enter Egypt from the south, and had been located much further down the hillside while facing the Nile in the same relative positions.

 

 

Due to the rising waters of Lake Nasser, however, the original locations are now underwater. Nevertheless a massive archaeological effort was conducted in the 1960s where each temple was carefully sawed into numbered stone cubes, moved uphill, and reassembled to where it is today before the water rose.

 

 

The Great Temple of Ramses II was reassembled from a fake mountain built like a domed basketball court. This fake mountain looks like solid rock from the outside. You can follow the pathway inside the fake mountain dome to see how the mountain was constructed.

 

 

There’s also a smaller but similar structure past the main complex, built for the Queen:

 

 

After 2 hours here, we returned the 3 hours back to south Aswan to catch our ferry.

 

 

Daytime motorboat rides to the site costs 150 EGP roundtrip for 1-8 people including a one-hour wait, which is generally enough time to see everything. We suggest taking a picture of this sign to use when haggling with the boatmen who will demand 150 EGP each way, although don’t be surprised if you are still pressed for an additional baksheesh. I gave an extra 20.

It’s a 5 minute tranquil way to Agilkia Island, home to Philae Temple (admission: 180 EGP).

 

 

 

Built to honor the god Isis, this was the last ancient temple built in the classical Egyptian architectural style around 690 BC. Like Abu Simbel, it was moved from Philae Island to its present location on Agilkia Island after the flooding of Lake Nasser.

 

 

Next door is Trajan’s Kiosk, a hypaethral Roman temple and one of the largest Ancient Egyptian monuments standing today:

 

 

 

You can perhaps see the submerged island a short distance away, punctuated by the steel columns used in the moving process.

 

 

One quick impromptu group photo before heading back.

 

 

And by 4pm, we were back at our hostel enjoying a long overdue lunch.

 

 

–UPDATE–

 

No matter how this trip ends, today already feels like a goodbye as we leave Aswan. I have never teared up this many times on a single trip. Mihaela was right. Someone always cries on a monsoon. This time, it’s me.

 

 

- At time of posting in Abu Simbel, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 30% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: mostly sunny