Monday, April 20, 2009

We arrived in Aswan four days ago. Took the over night tourist train from Cairo with sleeping cars. When I was a child we took this route then run by Wagon Lits (French Co.) and I had to sleep in a compartment with an elderly French woman much put out by a small American boy asleep in her upper berth. In the morning I found her asleep with a French edition of Readers Digest on her breast.

This time it’s just me and Jesse going to Aswan to see Abu Simbel and take a felucca ride. So we arrived in Aswan in the morning of the fifteenth and soon were taken on the tour of the high dam and Temple of Philae. I have been following developments in Egypt all my life and remember all the press about the moving of Abu Simbel in the sixties as well as the dyking and moving of the Temple of Phylae.

When I was here as a child my mother and I were in a boat on the Nile viewing what could be seen of the Temple of Phylae which was then under water partly due to the Nile flood seasons. While there a farmer approached us from a row boat with his small daughter and offered my mother a baby chick as a preliminary to the negotiations of suggesting that his daughter and I someday marry. My mother was charmed, flustered and amused and gave the chick back with apologies. I’ve always wondered what happened to that little girl and where she is now.

This time we were in a tour bus to see the dam (not the kind of thing I come to Egypt for) and the Temple which I wanted to see how it had been relocated after dyking and restoration. It was actually really well done and a total pleasure to experience with Jesse.

We returned to our hotel and had to arise at two something in the morning to catch the convoy to Abu Simbel. That evening we went on a trip via Nile motor boat (sort of like taxis on the Nile) and went to a Nubian Village to have dinner. Our guide, Ahmed who did all our arrangements in the area accompanied us and as we approached the village a half an hour or more by boat south of Aswan and in sight of the old dam, there was a convoy of camels through the village which we photographed copiously.

So we had dinner which was chicken and rice and tea and a totally charming experience undoubtedly designed to give tourists a more intimate experience in this southern Egyptian area. It was good, it was cheap and it was produced in a really friendly and relaxed manner. I’d do it again anytime with anyone.

He told us to buy extra water and toilet paper and took us out to smoke Sheesha and drink tea with him in a café in Aswan with his friends. It was really great and the guys were really open about talking about their lives. It turned out Ahmed was actually moonlighting as his university education was as a social worker (badly needed in Egypt) and his work as a tourist guide helped him subsidize the other job where his heart lay, but didn’t pay as well.

Back at the hotel we had to be prepared to sleep for a few hours and then get up, stash our bags in the lobby of the Memnon Hotel, a somewhat shabby but otherwise thoroughly acceptable (to me) standard of hotel room, especially considering we were using it mostly for taking a nap and then storing our bags for a few hours.

We rose in the middle of the night to get into a mini bus with a dozen or so other western tourists for the three hour drive to Abu Simbel. You arrive at about seven thirty, they give you a box breakfast which in our case consisted of a hard boiled egg, some of the typical soft white bread roll some fig jam, some cheese (of the Laughing Cow processed gruyere style) and hope it will tide you over. When we got there shortly after seven in the morning after a three hour drive through the desert, there were dozens of other buses and mini vans with western tourists in similar states of sleep deprivation. We even ran into a family group from Idaho we had chatted with days earlier on a tour of the pyramids and Saqqara.

Then by nine we were back in the van and headed back to Aswan where we arrived, were met by Ahmed who took us to the felluca we had contracted to sail down the Nile on for the next two nights. He led us to the boat and introduced us to Ayob (pronounced Ayoob) who owned the boat. He was a spectacular host who was delighted to learn of my affection for Egypt and to learn that my birthday was to follow the next day.

We met our ship mates and were indoctrinated into the protocol and expectations of life on a felluca sailing down the Nile. It took a while for all the sailors to be rounded up and amongst them was an Argentian couple, a pair of men from Colombia, an Englishman, a couple from Australia and Taiwan and also a couple from France and Denmark in another felucca owned by Ayob and a single woman from New Zealand.

We commenced to sail before sunset and drifted down the Nile laconically tacking back and forth to take as long as possible. It was heavenly. We had all paid for an appropriate quantity of beer before sailing so there was an adequate amount of beverages to augment the water we were instructed to have for ourselves. The deck was covered with an endless foam mattress covered with a printed cloth as well as a number of pillows.

Dinner was produced by a first mate and a helper who were also on board. Ayob disappeared at some point and reappeared with some of the eventual members of the passenger list already described above. Eventually we all got very cosy and he was excited by my return to Egypt with my son and it being my birthday and promised me a fantastic birthday. He did not disappoint me.

E eventually we all slept and I awoke at five in the morning to watch the first mate in his prayer ritual kneeling and reciting his prayers. I wished I could unobtrusively photograph him but I knew it wasn’t going to happen and that it would be rude to do so. I went back to sleep eventually instead.

I was addressed with birthday greetings by most members of the group and the Argentinian and Colombian contingent had defected with some sort of confusion that left the rest of us glad of their departure and sad that they didn’t feel as at peace as the rest of us. Ayob asked me what I really wanted for my birthday and I told him I would love to have some time in a village, I’d love to buy myself a classic standard mans galabya (the mans garment in Egypt) and I would love a traditional Egyptian dinner with Molokia, a specially prepared leafy vegetable dish I recalled hearing about as a child that I wanted to experience. Of course I wanted ayeesh baladi too. Ayob anchored our boat at Darao, slightly south of Luxor and near the village where his parents live and he grew up. A local taxi met us and took us down country roads where he stopped to show me a cow turning a pump I had inquired about. As a child I had seen a device called an Archimedes Screw that allowed a farmer to raise water from a canal to his field by means of a device that consisted of a large screw inside a cylander with a crank to turn it at the upper end. I saw what appeared to be the modern decendent of it but never actually saw one and concluded that cheap gas powered pumps had probably replaced them. By now our group had dwindled to only Jesse and me with the Kiwi, the young woman from New Zealand who at first was only to stay on the boat for one night but decided to stay for two.

In Darao Ayob had also taken us to the home of a man and his wife and children, the mans father had been an artist and made things from the date palm tree. There was a profusion of objects, lampshades and wall coverings, and all manner of other odd and delightfully unexpected usage of the date palm. I bought two small items his father had made and Ayob made a birthday present to me of another object, all of them of traditional Islamic design. Then we moved on to the town proper and sat in a café which is usually a mans province and the three of us sat there while Ayob went off to buy groceries for our dinner and to find me a place to buy a galabya. He came back and told me to follow him and we went to a stall (as were most of the shops) wide open to the street and closed only by means of a metal roll up door, where the proprietor dealt exclusively in garments and yardage. I was shown a traditional garment, the appropriate under garment and pants. I was fitted and I bought them all. Finally we had all we needed in the town, along with dozens of surreptitiously and openly taken photographs.

So we brought our groceries and personal purchases back to the boat and found that we now had company in the form of the passengers of another felucca who were in the midst of a party on the river bank. We joined them and soon found the group seemed composed of the other passengers and some locals who were drumming and bizarrely enough singing some kind of pseudo reggae variation on the American folk song “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” except it had to do with smoking marijuana. Jesse commented to me during this phase that it seemed we had run into the international hippie Diaspora. I got his drift immediately and found myself largly indifferent to this kind of pandering. Aside from all that. It seemed the passengers from the other boat didn’t really care about anything in as much as they seemed to be standing around awkwardly more than anything else. The next thing though changed all that. Ayob came and sat next to me, a man on my left had been singing lustily and to his left were a couple of more Arab drummers. Ayob had been drumming more than adequately but when they finally finished the hippie tourist anthem I asked him if they could sing any Egyptian folk songs, as that was what I really wanted to hear more than anything else.

A moment later in a rapid fire exchange of Arabic and body moves the drum changed hands to the man on my left and they began a real song. The man on my left was a superb drummer and the rest of the men next to him sang and drummed as well. Ayob sang verses and they sang response choruses.

Because I don’t speak Arabic I did not understand the words but Ayob was a magnificent singer and his friends obviously really knew what they were doing as the total effort was absolutely mesmerizing. I realized I was entranced by it because it was a few moments into the song before I realized how absolutely incredible the moment had unfolded to become. Both Jesse and I mourned later that we were so stunned and caught off guard that neither one of us thought to use our cell phones to record even a crude video to share with our friends and it was a moment intensely worthy of sharing. Sorry.

We went back to the boat after that and had a feast of molokya, camel meat, fuul (fava beans) and various mixtures of tomatos, cucumbers, cilantro and sweet peppers on the deck of the boat. All washed down with Egyptian been Stella. That was the best birthday. In the morning we woke up on the boat and after breakfast were taken to Kom Ombo and Edfu Temples before being taken to Luxor. Our new friend from New Zealand decided to join us for the day and we spent it visiting the Temples of Karnak and Luxor. I had looked forward to seeing Karnak again and it lived up to my memories of visiting it fifty two or so years earlier. It is a temple complex so vast and so stunning in it’s architecture and lay out that it defies words. This is one of the most important and visually exquisite treasures available today in world monuments. Words are really inadequate but mentioning that the area comprises a total that equals half the size of Manhatten (according to the guide) and that the capitals in the famous Hippostyle Hall are so big on top that at least fifty men (women and children) could stand on top of one alone. That there is still some visible paint left on the columns after thousands of years, also leaves me speechless.

We were pretty worn out by the end of the day Saturday (only seeing four temples) and after a meal at a corner small restaurant Egyptian style we found a place for a beer and called it a night eventually/.

In the morning we were scheduled to take a balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings and so we rose at four in the morning to take a short taxi and boat ride and another taxi ride to a field near the Collossi of Memnon where we realized there were a dozen plus balloons being inflated for a crowd that stood around in the early dawn. One after another of the big balloons was successfully inflated, the basket attached and the passengers loaded and took off. We photographed all the stages of the process as the sun rose and balloons filled and people got on them and floated away. Except for us. We were last and we were not so lucky. The basket for our balloon turned out to need repairs and so we did not get to float way. Instead we went back to the hotel and ate breakfast, discussed with the travel arrangers the need to refund our money and took the chance for a catching up of lost sleep instead.

After all this our new friend took off on her own, we took a taxi to the Valley of the Kings, the Queens, an alabaster factory, the Collossus of Memnon and around five in the afternoon of what had been a remarkable hot day we concluded the sight seeing in Upper Egypt and headed for a lot of cold beer.

By nine thirty we were back on the train heading back to Cairo and our last full day together. Egypt has exceeded both of our wildest hopes and dreams and the costs have been astonishingly cheap across the board. Just ask and I’ll tell you who to contact.

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