I didn’t think the question I posed Dr. Google was that difficult or complicated. How far is it from Aswan to Luxor? But I got several different numbers. OK, the as-the-crow-flies distance (as in taking a plane) is 181km (112 miles). But what if you’re going by bus, as our group was, is it 215 km or 238 km? As we discovered, the answer depends on who you are. If the traveler is Egyptian, it’s the shorter distance; if you’re us, strangers in a strange land, it’s the longer one. Huh?
The main road, which I believe is relatively new, passes by several military installations, so access to it is limited to citizens of the realm, who, as we all know, are less likely to pass on vital information to ‘The Enemy’ than a busload of tourists like us who don’t even know where we are. We got to travel on the older road, which mostly winds its way through the countryside, and is used for local traffic, which might include trucks and other slow-moving vehicles. What’s more, we didn’t have Cindy with us to help us amuse ourselves; she and John had scurried ahead to make sure our arrangements for Shabbat in Luxor would go off without a hitch.
Whoever planned the itinerary that had been handed out to us was, shall we say, overly ambitious. There was no way we would have time to ‘visit the great temples of Karnak’ on that Fri. as we were supposed to, unless we had left Aswan before the crack of dawn or pulled a Joshua and made the sun stand still, so we would have a few more hours of daylight before Shabbat.
Where did we go instead on Fri.? Fortunately, Barbara remembered, because I hadn’t. The Tomb of the Nobles. It’s not as if where we went was not of interest – it was – but, quite candidly, seeing so many temples and tombs in so short a period of time, one might be forgiven for having a memory fog. It’s the ‘If today is Tuesday, we must be in Belgium’ syndrome.
What I do remember is the trip afterwards to the hotel. For starters, we were on the ‘wrong side’ of the river, and one thing we learned was why. It’s because the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Some wiseacre would be quick to point out that the same appearance and disappearance of the sun happens all over the world – no matter where you go. What it meant to the Egyptians way back then had to do with life and death, the east meaning the first and the west the other. The temples for and by living pharaohs by definition would be on the east bank of the Nile and the pyramids and tombs for the dead on the side we were on.
So how did we get across? Not just us but our luggage? (Don’t forget we’re traveling from one hotel to another.) The passengers took the quickest route. The bus with our luggage would go the long way – I guess heading to the nearest bridge – and meet us at the Steigenberger Nile Palace, where we would be staying. We again filled two of these antique boats and headed across the Nile.
I could see a number of hotels along the way (that one looks nice; that one looks even nicer; that one looks really nice), and then we arrived at the right hotel, helped off the boat by willing hands, up some steps, into a lobby, up one flight, and then across into the main lobby, where we would be assigned to our quarters. But as I entered the first lobby, I stopped long enough to look around. This is some swell place. Our luggage arrived, we got ready for Shabbat, and we all reassembled in a room on the mezzanine assigned for our use, where we davened and had our evening meal.
I’m convinced that there is at least one person out there asking a relevant question: How does a group of tourists keep kosher in a country where there isn’t even a Chabad House? Well, we did it before with Cindy in Morocco and in Tanzania, so Barbara and I were not concerned about going to Hell or starving to death – equally grim possibilities. Now, it’s true that some people would have a hard time. If you’re the type that will only patronize that ONE pizza parlor in Brooklyn or the ONE steak joint in Jerusalem with the ‘proper’ hechsher, and everything else is treif, then STAY HOME – unless you’re looking for a super-fast weight loss program. But for the thirty-seven of us, including one rabbi, we made do. Bring seven duffel bags of victuals and equipment with you, use local fruits, vegetables, fish, eggs, etc., lots of disposable plates and cutlery, and you’ll do just fine. Plus you’ll need someone named Cindy to supervise the kitchen staff in preparing all the meals, which meant her getting up even earlier than the rest of us.
But even Cindy has her limitations. ‘I thought you said there would be some decent wine this time,’ I complained, after looking at what was available for the evening meal. ‘I brought my own bottle, but I left it in our room because I didn’t think I’d need it.’ At which point, R/P Berman interjected, ‘What good is a bottle of wine if it’s in your room?’ Fair enough. I ran upstairs, found the bottle in my suitcase in the semi-dark room, ran downstairs as those assembled were finishing warbling Eishet Chayil, and handed the offering, a blend from the Har Odem winery, to the rabbi for his delectation. He poured himself enough to make kiddush, and Barbara and I enjoyed some of the rest, leaving an appropriate amount for ourselves Shabbat morning.
One other thing about Cindy, as we had learned from our experience in Tanzania, she is without a doubt a zemirophile. Her idea of a good time on a Friday night is get those assembled to join with her in belting out ‘the standard repertoire.’ Now I’m not suggesting in any way that there is anything wrong with that approach. It just isn’t my way of doing business. You might say that I’m a confirmed zemirophobe. I figured long ago that after going through100 versions of Y-a Ribon, in all its variations and permutations, I was done. I would rather participate in a fresh conversation than a tired rendition. But it’s hard to hear one’s neighbor’s elucidation of a weighty matter over the sound of Yom ze mechubad being churned out across the table. So you do your best.
Speaking of which….. The schedule for Shabbat morning was coffee, davening, kiddush, lunch, etc. And so I wondered, is it possible to get some coffee at kiddush after we finished davening, preferably not Instant? The person to whom I was wondering was, of course, Cindy. She turned to John, the logistics guy, and wondered to him. Could the staff bring up some coffee from the restaurants below? (They certainly weren’t making the coffee just for us…)
Let’s have another cup of coffee…
One of the amenities we didn’t have was a Torah scroll, and so we couldn’t perform the mitzvah of a proper public reading Shabbat morning. But, as R/P Berman explained, we could do the next best thing and listen attentively as he read the proper parsha from a humash, followed by one of the guys reading the appropriate haftarah, which happened to be his bar mitzvah portion.
We finished davening and moved a few feet to the table where we would be having a kiddush. And yes, there was fresh coffee. Moreover, there was whisk(e)y. The rabbi had thoughtfully brought along some Wild Turkey bourbon, to complement the Glenfarclas Scotch that came with me and the small bottle of Jack Daniels I had purchased in Duty-free in the airport in Amman, all of which was to be shared with anyone who was interested. (We were without any herring, but you can’t have everything.) And yes, there were a few takers. There I was, standing with a cup of coffee in one hand and a glass of Scotch in the other, having a wonderful conversation with two of the fellows. What were we talking about? I had to think about it for a few minutes, and then I remembered, or at least I think I did. The Big Lebowski.
I was explaining to my rapt audience of two that, on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh or whenever else I was so inspired, I would make cocktails for the little band of regulars who show up to our apartment in Ma’ale Adumim after davening. Hands down, everyone’s favorite mixed drink is a White Russian (made with vodka, Kahlua, and real or fake milk). I explained that the WR was rescued from the obscurity that befell many other cocktails of its generation by its prominence in the Coen Brothers’ cult movie. And yes, the two guys sharing my Scotch knew! The Dude abides. Finding kindred souls at a kiddush on very foreign soil is a most welcome surprise, which calls for a little more coffee and another dram of whisky. And then I spotted John the logistics guy standing by his lonesome off in a corner, waiting for what he would have to do next. I had to thank him; without his help I would have had only one hand holding a drink. I sidled up to him, bottle in hand. Are you a drinking man?, I inquired. Did I get a response! It was the least I could do.
We had lunch, and then it was time for some time-honored Shabbat R&R. With my excellent hearing, I could hear the pillow in my room calling my name. it didn’t sound like the pillow back home, but I could hear it just the same. I’m coming; I’m coming.
Some of the group were going to meet later in the afternoon for a brisk stroll around the neighborhood. No thanks; we’ll sit this one out; we’ve been on the go all week.
After our naps, we were just going to sit and veg. Barbara decided to sit by the hotel pool, while I headed out to the little balcony outside our room. I had finished the batch of miscellaneous articles I brought to read, and therefore I was giving my full attention to a novel, The Palace Walk, which I thought was appropriate for the occasion. As everyone (???!!!) knows, that’s the first part of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo trilogy, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (So if anybody asks you to name ‘two Egyptians who have won the Nobel Prize,’ you’ll blow them away by knowing the answer.) Our balcony overlooked an inner courtyard with several restaurants serving a late lunch to other guests. There are few things more relaxing than watching other people relax, so that’s what I did: read my book and watch the folks below. Until it was time for mincha, a third meal, maariv, and saying good-bye to Shabbat. Sufficiently rested, we would be getting on a bus for an evening out. I didn’t know it at the time, but that evening and what came the next day would be super-interesting and some of the highlights of our journey. But that’s for next time. You’ll have to wait.