Riding the rails in the land of the pharaohs

This week I finally got around to scanning some of the negatives I shot during a 1998 trip to Egypt. It brought back memories of the worst trip of my life.

When I tell the story, friends ask why a relatively sane person like myself, would I ever want to go to a part of the world where I might be accosted by psychotic terrorists and set on fire. The answer is simple, I wanted to see the pyramids which I’d read about in books. We have a lot of books in Kirkland, but no pyramids. 

My wife, Patty, who hates foreign travel, wisely decided to stay home, so I went with my friend Pat from American Airlines.

Patty gave Pat and me a big hug when she dropped us off at the airport. It was her of saying; “I'm glad your life insurance is paid up.”

Luxor Temple

Luxor Temple

The worst part of the trip wasn’t arriving in Cairo at 2 a.m. and being taken by a bandit taxi driver to a bombed out flop house near Tahrir Square where our room came with a straw mattress and a feral cat, or being woken at 5 a.m. each morning by the call to prayer from a loudspeaker three feet outside our bedroom window, or the 120 degree heat (our fault for going to Egypt in July), or Pat and I coming down with dysentery our third day in Egypt.

No, the worst part was the 300 mile train ride from Cairo to Luxor. Most tourist fly. We took the train because we wanted to “see the countryside.”

There are two trains to choose from: the Rapid and the Express. Without looking at the train schedule we choose the Rapid, thinking it would be faster.


The Express makes the trip in a little over four hours. The Rapid chugs along for 18 hours, stopping at every smelly camel market along the banks of the Nile.

Passengers on the Express are well dressed, smell of rose water and expensive lotions, ride in air conditioned luxury and are served by attractive young women. The restrooms are so clean a doctor would not hesitate to perform open heart surgery in one.

Our train, had no air conditioning, wooden benches resembling church pews, a conductor with one gold tooth and a passenger list that included drug-soaked hippies, terrorists, thieves and goat herders (with their goats). The restroom, where I spent much of the trip with my pants around my knees, consisted of a metal bucket in the open air between two train cars.

Nothing takes away the romance of foreign travel faster than sitting on a metal bucket filled with someone else’s feces in sweltering heat on a slow moving train.

Farmers waved at me as we passed by.

Along with other passengers, Pat and I climbed out the window and up onto the roof of the train car hoping to get some fresh air. Not the safest thing to do on a moving train, event is it was only doing 15 miles per hour. We were only up there a few minutes when the conductor climbed onto the roof with us. I figured he was going to chase us off the roof. Instead he pulled out a notebook and began taking drink orders. Rooftop service with a smile.

My friend, Pat, sat in one spot most of the trip with his legs out straight and his arms folded over his chest. With a deep tan, he looked surprisingly like the mummy of Amenhotep I we’d seen in the Cairo museum a few days earlier.

I asked him why he didn’t move. He said; “I’m not sure I can.”

Arriving in Luxor we were met at the train station by a hoard of hotel touts. After some quick bargaining, we selected one who promised to take us to a “first class hotel” and provide counterfeit student ID cards good for discounts at the Valley of the Kings.

Our accommodations turned out to be quite nice despite being named The Shady Hotel, and the fake student ID cards did save us a few bucks.

Five days later we boarded the Express train for the trip back to Cairo. One trip on the Rapid is enough excitement for a lifetime.

My wife met us at the airport and took me straight to Overlake Hospital where doctors pumped me full of antibiotics.