My Date With An Egyptian Princess

Women can be expensive, but $100 for 10 minutes is too much to spend for just about anything. Spas and lawyers don’t even charge that much. Why should a 3000 year old princess get that kind of cash? 

Nefertari is raking it in. 

I’m not talking about Nefertiti, the goddess with a similar name and the Grace Jones haircut. Nefertari was Ramses II’s favorite wife, and he showed his appreciation by building Abu Simbel in her honor as well as an amazing tomb in Luxor. The Egyptians were obsessed with preparing for death. The afterlife was just as important as real life and great preparation was taken to get the tomb full of everything a person would need after they died. Unfortunately, no one really got to see the beautiful tombs, the dead never came back to life and the Egyptian’s flawed afterlife beliefs resulted in uncountable treasures being put in the ground. 

After the Egyptian civilization passed, opportunists (i.e.robbers) noticed that the mummies weren’t using the stuff they had stashed in their tombs, so they pillaged and plundered whatever they could cart off. A few tombs escaped detection, most notably, King Tutankhamun. After being ravished by thieves, overzealous Christians and Muslims decided that pictures and statues of Egyptian gods were blasphemous, so they did even more damage to destroy the offensive materials. It wasn’t until the 20th century that anything was really protected. 

Entrance to Nefertari’s Tomb Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Nefetari’s tomb escaped much of the damage that the neighboring tombs had endured. In 1987, the Getty Institute sent a team of workers underground to restore it to its pristine state. It took nearly six years. Nefertari was entombed in the area near Luxor called the Valley of the Queens. Nearby is the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Nobles. To make things a little confusing, you didn’t have to necessarily be a queen to claim the VIP spot. A son or grandson could also have a spot in the sacred valley. 

Luxor is about an hour flight from Cairo or an 8 hour train ride. There’s no big attractions between the two cities, so most tours start with Cairo, continue with an overnight train to Luxor, then a cruise down the Nile to Aswan or the opposite itinerary. Aswan is the location of the famous Nasser dam as well as a jumping off spot to get to Abul Simbel. There’s lots of stops along the Nile that make the river cruise worthwhile. Longer trips include Alexandria and the Red Sea/Sinai desert attractions. 

A tour is undeniably the best way to visit Egypt.  Having an Egyptian guide with you keeps the incredibly aggressive hawkers off you, for starters. You can learn the history as you travel to world class ruins and you know the price before you ever get started. Traveling on your own is easy enough, but after visiting  Egypt three times, I recommend a tour. On your own, the relentless wanna-be guides and shopkeepers will tell you everything but the  truth and you might end up scammed or in tears. They’ve had a century of practice. 

I showed up without a tour and wasted hours telling wannabe guides “no” and and answering the question “where are you from?” a thousand times. Please note that the question isn’t asked because anyone is particularly interested in you, but rather to gather information about you to make a sale… kinda like Facebook does. 

The really good hustlers speak 7 languages and have a brother living nearby wherever you’re from. Who’s going to check? I’m not insinuating that you shouldn’t communicate with the locals, but my best advice is talk to the people YOU PICK, not the other way around. On a side note, I discovered that me telling them that I was from the Ukraine shut them up immediately. 

My Airbnb on the Nile Photo: Bill Wiatrak

So, back to the queen. We only had a couple days in Egypt since we were using it as a hub for a Sudan and Saudi Arabia trip. We flew to Luxor, stayed on an awesome boat AIRBNB on the Nile and our host set us up with transport. Private boats, private meals and private taxis add up really quick though. Then there’s the $100-200 COVID test. Add entrance fees for each site, and before long two people have burned through half a dozen Benjamins. 

I put Egypt in the same class as Disney. Everyone wants to go there and there’s enough people that will pay whatever unquestioningly, meaning there’s no travel hack. If you use public transport and stay in youth hostels and have a student discount card, you can save some cash but it’s less convenient. You’ll find eating  local places and taking Uber is pretty cheap, but that’s only in Cairo. The Luxor Uber travel hack got shut down almost as fast as it appeared. 

You can’t do all of Luxor in 2 days. There’s temples, tombs and feluccas that could tie up an Egyptian enthusiast for at least a month. So “pick your rides” and start early. We opted to visit Karnak, Valley of the Queens and the lesser-visited Madinat Habu. This involves a boat ride to the West Bank, a taxi for the day and a boat to take us across the Nile to the east bank(to cutoff the driving time across the Nile bridge.) You could eliminate that boat and lose 45 minutes, or do the East bank another day by car, but the boat seemed to be the coolest option. It’s only money, right? Ka-Ching.

At the Valley of the queens our driver dropped us off at the ticket booth and went off to take a nap. That’s when we discovered there’s two tickets for VOTQ. Would you like to see the Valley of the Queens by itself OR would you prefer to visit that AND Nefertari’s tomb? One is $15, the other option is $100 more. That’s right. $100 to visit one tomb with a time limit of 10 minutes. 

I have $100. Probably most of us do. But if we spent it on dumb things, we would not have it anymore. So, that was the question. Do I need to see this? Will it change my life? As I pondered, an Egyptian woman chimed in- “it’s expensive for us too. We have to pay $25!”

That made perfect sense. 

Tourist price gouging is rampant in Egypt. Even the COVID test is a different price if you’re Egyptian. Think of it as tourist tax. A tax that says “we’ve been doing this for years and dumb tourists pay it”. 

Imagine going to the national gallery of art in Washington and getting in free, but “foreigners” pay $25. It’s not how things work in the USA. Students, old people and travel writers have a different price, but no one is discriminated against because they came from France. 

My Egypt Room Photo: Bill Wiatrak

My house has international themes in each room and one of the rooms upstairs that makes guests say “aaaah” is my Egyptian room. Life sized mummies, sarcophagi, secret rooms and hieroglyphs on the wall make it one of a kind. When I was having it painted, I picked several amazing Egyptian scenes for murals. One of them is half of a painting of the “Judgment of Osiris”. I found it in a book and promptly lost the page or maybe the book. When I visited Egypt years prior I was looking for that painting everywhere. I was told by a guide that the painting i sought was a mural in the  Valley of the Queens but was closed for renovation. I was out of time anyway so I vowed that next time I was in Egypt, I would go to Luxor and find this mural. How long could renovation be anyway? That was 20 years ago when even the Sphinx has a scaffold around him. I was back. Time to fulfill that promise.

“So, do you want the ticket or not? We take credit cards”. I pulled out the picture of the mural from my house- “where is this”? I suspected before I even asked that it must be in the Nefertari tomb. That would explain why the guide said it was closed and why I’d never been able to find it. 

Nefertari’s Tomb Photo: Bill Wiatrak

“It’s in the Nefertari tomb”. she replied. So there it was. If I was at home and someone admiring my Egyptian room said “have you ever seen this mural in real life?”, I’d want to say yes. Not to be cool for them, but to be cool for myself. Knowing I don’t have random art on my wall from a book I can’t remember is worth something. No one has EVER asked of course, but if I’m entertaining someone in the future and they say “wow, that’s cool”,  future me could take a sip of my champagne and tell them how I managed to overcome all kinds of obstacles to visit the special tomb that housed this art.

The Golden Tickets to Nefertari Photo: Bill Wiatrak

I handed the woman my debit card after exhausting the possibility of a discounted press visit or cleaning up some stones after hours and she handed me the golden ticket. We walked up the hill and into the valley. The pharaohs had tried locating tombs far away from the Nile River which has had a feast or famine history as far back as Moses. The Nile did reach the valley several times, but insurance companies hadn’t been invented yet, so there was even more damage than what the tomb raiders had caused. 

I reached the doorway to the queen’s tomb and was immediately approached by the “Nefertari police”. I brandished my ticket like I was VIP in an exclusive night club and was told I needed to wait with the common $25 ticket holders. Well, I never!. There’s a limit of tourists at any given time so that the place doesn’t get destroyed like the Altamira cave paintings in Spain. 

Finally I was told I could enter. I walked down the stairs and the bright colors assaulted my senses. There wasn’t a one inch patch in the multiple rooms not covered with paint or hieroglyphs. Most tombs have several chambers. Objects of value, mummified animals (for food),canopic  jars containing the organs of the deceased and then a room for the sarcophagus. Unlike other tombs I’ve visited, there was no dirty plexiglass covering the walls. The colors leapt off the murals to the viewer. No filming is allowed but filming IS allowed if you pay off the guards. They have two jobs. Guarding and let ting tourists know they’re not going to stop you photographing as long as they get a little “baksheesh” (bribe). It’s the custom of Egypt and anyone who even points out something to you or creates a situation where it looks like they’ve helped you, wants money. I might add also that it’s never enough. If you give too much, you’re considered stupid and there’s an opportunity to get more from you. The best thing to do is have little amounts prepared in a pocket so that it appears you gave them your last bit of cash. Problem solved. “You can’t get blood out of a mummy”. Okay, I just made that up. 

Nefertari’s tomb is the best I’ve seen. The lack of plexiglass and the bright colors make most other tombs pale in comparison. I haven’t seen every tomb in Egypt , but this one’s remarkable. I got my pictures. I shot forbidden video, I paid off the guard but I had one last matter to settle. Where was my mural? 

I’m sure you’ve deduced by now that my elusive quest for that scene ended in failure once again. If I’d been in the US, I would have demanded my money back, but I already know that money in Egypt is like the Nile. It only flows one way. I also took comfort in the fact that I was in the tomb for twenty minutes which means theoretically I doubled my investment. 

After visiting the remaining tombs I wished I’d saved Nefertari for last. The others didn’t have the annoying guards, but smudged plexiglass makes ugly pictures and I left my Windex at home. Was the queen worth it? Yeah. I’ve blown that much on a 4 Queens Vegas slot machine in less time and didn’t even get a TikTok video out of it.