When our kids were 14 and 16, we wanted to give them an educational winter break. So we decided to spend Christmas vacation in Egypt.
As we made plans, we talked to an Egyptian doctor who was working in El Dorado, and Dr. Robbie was extremely helpful. His family still lived in Cairo, and his brother-in-law was an attorney admitted to practice before the Egyptian Supreme Court.
In order to really see the antiquities of ancient Egypt, a trip up the Nile to Aswan and then down the river to Luxor was a must. No tours for us. We had lived in Libya so we knew the ropes.
On Dec. 22 we left El Dorado in a small plane I had rented because of icy roads. We took off for Little Rock with sleet pounding the windshield, and a white-knuckle hour later, we landed in time to catch our flight to New York. Then after an overnight flight to Cairo, we stepped out into warm sunshine.
At customs we were in a long line when a well-dressed Egyptian approached us and asked, "Are you the Mason family?" "Yes," I said. He was Dr. Robbie's brother-in-law, and he said, "Just follow me." We walked around the long customs line as he waved to the customs agent.
Our time in Cairo was highlighted by a day spent in the Egyptian National Museums where we marveled over the bust of Queen Nefertiti. Dr. Robbie's brother-in-law took us to see the pyramids, where he requested I wear a suit and tie. We looked as if we were going to a state funeral, but just a word from him to any of the workers and guides was enough to move us into any place we wanted to see.
A trip to an old bazaar and a few days of very different food were giving our kids a terrific educational experience; they seemed to relish the adventure.
On Christmas Day it was on to Aswan to stay in the Cataract Hotel where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Nile. After settling in, we headed to the Nile River where, after a little haggling, I rented a felucca, a small sail-motor boat the Egyptians use to take short trips to where the ancient tombs and temples are located.
The river was clear and the boat ride was fun. As we docked in front of a very long set of steps leading up to several ancient tombs, Lara, our artist child who had seen hundreds of pictures of Egyptian art, jumped off the front of the boat and, as our mouths dropped open, ran up the hundreds of steps to the tomb. She was excited.
We came back to the hotel and had Christmas dinner in the Agatha Christie Dining Room where the kids kept asking, "What are we eating?"
"Camel," I said. They thought I was kidding, but I wasn't.
A couple of days later we headed down the Nile to Luxor, the ancient capital of Egypt, and the temples of Karnack, then across the river to the Valley of the Kings. We would need transportation to see all the sights, and Dr. Robbie had told us to bring some small U.S. dollar bills because dollars were eagerly sought. With that in mind I started checking cabs at the airport until I found a cab driver who spoke English.
"How much to take our family around Luxor and to the Valley of the Kings, in American dollars?"
A few minutes and $20 later, we had a cab and driver for a day. That turned out to be the best $20 I have spent in a long time. His first suggestion was:
"We should stay on this side of the river in the morning and go to Karnack Temples because the tour buses go over to the Valley of the Kings in the morning and come back at noon."
He was right, and the next day we had Karnack almost to ourselves. I can still visualize the long row of granite lions leading into the temple area. Then at noon, we headed for the Valley of the Kings, when we came to a small village.
"This is a tomb robber's village," our driver said. He said for centuries the villagers had made a living robbing the ancient Egyptian tombs.
Minutes later, a man ran up to the car and waved the head of an Egyptian statue. It was about five inches tall, and I thought it looked real, but our driver said, "It's a fake. It has been buried to look old." I told the man I wasn't interested, and after he tossed out a several hundred dollar figure, I was ready to get rid of him, and I waved a $20 bill.
"I'll give you $20 American," I said
He acted insulted and said $250 was his bottom price.
I told our driver to go, but the man with the fake head ran along beside the car until we stopped at an intersection.
"Here," he said. "For $20 American."
We drove off with me holding a "fake" head, thinking I had just bought a trinket to take home. When we returned to El Dorado, a friend who is an archaeologist took a hard look and nodded. "It's real."
Then it was on to the Valley of the Kings, the highlight of the trip. We ventured into tomb after tomb. King Tutankhamen's was breathtaking. Our flashlights turned out to be a valuable addition, since some tombs were lit by young boys with mirrors shining light into dark spaces.
But the highlight, or as Vertis put it, the low light were the tombs that were not open to viewing. However, our cab driver took a few dollar bills and presto! closed tombs were opened for a private tour. Then one of the guards told the cab driver a newly opened tomb could be seen, but we would have to crawl into the lower chamber where there were still mummies. We did for a few more dollars, and when we raised up in the lower chamber it was a sight I haven't forgotten.
Hundreds of years ago robbers had looted the tomb, and since many ancient mummies were wrapped and put there with precious jewelry on their bodies, the thieves had ripped off the gauze wrapping. After taking anything of value, they had thrown the wrapping and bare skeletons into an adjoining chamber. It was a ghastly sight. That's when Vertis left, but both kids started taking pictures.
Our kids, who are now middle-aged, still talk about that tomb. So does Vertis, but her comments aren't exactly fit to print.
The two weeks we spent in Egypt gave our kids a hands-on educational experience that would be hard to duplicate. It was a history lesson, but so much more, because of all the interactions with the Egyptian people. Truly a trip of a lifetime.
Email Richard Mason at [email protected]
Editorial on 12/22/2019