31.05.2010 - 03.06.2010 40 °C
MONDAY 31 MAY – Cairo
I was meant to arrive in Cairo on 30 May (happy birthday Tim & Grub) but, as you may have read in my last blog, British Airways were having strikes and my flight was cancelled. Instead I said sad farewells to Hel and Charl at 5am and made my way to Heathrow to catch a British Midlands flight which I’d been bumped to. This meant I got into Cairo at 4.30pm. Last year I stayed at Capsis Palace Hotel when I was in Cairo and had got to know the owner, Mohamed, and kept in touch with him since. The joining point hotel for the Intrepid trip (Egypt Explorer) that I was doing this time was, again, the Capsis so I got in emailed Mohamed to ask him to let the leader know the situation with my flights and asked him to organize a car to pick me up at the airport. Cairo airport is a bit of a bun fight. If you’ve never been there before I would strongly suggest organizing transfer. Unfortunately there wasn’t anyone to meet me but that was ok. A young guy was loitering around – he was a slightly shifty looking character and I should have trusted my instincts when he asked if I needed a cab and said no but I was in a rush to meet the group (I knew from Mohamed that they were leaving the hotel at 6.30pm to go to the train station so, depending on my situation and the traffic, I would either meet them at the hotel or the station). We agreed on EP100 to take me to the hotel (which was the fare Mohamed had quoted me). I got into a nice car and before we’d even left the car park he asked me if I’d had my ‘ticket stamped’. What ticket? The ticket to leave the car park? No – I’ve been here before and I’ve never heard of such a thing. Ah, well, that will cost you extra at the gate then. Of course it will. He then pulled a line about this exit fee being EP200 for tourists (which is about AUD$43). I knew this was bullshit and called him on it. He was, of course, indignant and I, of course, knew that he was trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I decided to just leave it be. The traffic was terrible and we were either at a complete stop or he was weaving in and out of the traffic like a serious lunatic. I mean, I know that all Egyptian drivers are crazy but even the other cars were incredulous at this guy. I asked him to go “shwaya shwaya” (phonetic Arabic for “slowly slowly”) but he only sped up. I’m not sure if he was trying to impress me or upset me – I’m afraid he did more of the latter. I was pissed off by the time he pulled up outside Capsis (after having to ask where it was despite telling me at the airport that he knew it). He asked me to wait in the car while he wrote out a receipt for me and that’s when he tried to tell me that I had agreed to 100 UK pounds, not 100 Egyptian pounds and that, for this trip, I owed him 500 Egyptian pounds (AUD$110). Was this guy kidding? I wasn’t born yesterday! I started seeing red and told him to come into the hotel and we could ask them what the correct fare was. He didn’t want to do that, oh no. I ended up storming out of the car, parting with more money than I should have (150 Egyptian pounds) and then kicking myself later for getting ripped off.
I have now learnt not to discuss the fare – find out what is a reasonable amount beforehand, don’t discuss the fare with the driver before you head off or during the trip (they’ll try), give them the money when you get out of the vehicle and walk away without looking back ignoring their pleading. I don’t find this easy to do but, make no mistake, these guys are expert swindlers and will try and put it on in some way (whether it’s big or small). You’ve got to look like you know what you’re doing or they’ll take full advantage of you. And, let’s face it, when the average monthly salary is around the E£600 mark you can’t blame them.
Enough of that. Made it to the hotel with 20 minutes to spare and Wahid (our leader) gave me the key to a shared room so I could have a quick shower and refresh before we hit the road. Met the other members of our very small group, the lovely Lucinda (Lu) and Andrew, a newly engaged couple from Melbourne.
We caught a taxi to the station and had about an hour to wait befor we left. Here are Andrew and Lu on the platform!
Wahid left us on the platform to get some food for all of us (we ate a traditional Egyptian dish called kushari which is made up of noodles, rice, black lentils and dried onions. You can add a tomatoe chili paste sauce to taste). I’m pretty sure he must have found a coffee shop close by to feed his sheesha addiction before our long train ride.
Sheesha, as you may know, are the water pipes found throughout the middle east (they are called nargileh in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria). When you order a water pipe you need to specify what mix of tobacco and molasses mix you would like. Most people seem to favour tobacco soaked in apple juice but it’s also possible to order other fruit flavours as well as cinnamon. Some people order their pipe with unadulterated tobacco (like Wahid did in Siwa where one apple sheesha cost E£10 (usually they cost around E£5). The unadulterated tobacco sheesha in Siwa only cost E£1 so he was able to have more bang for his buck). I had a try of Wahid’s plain tobacco sheesha and it was really just like smoking a cigarette (not great) rather than having the wonderfully sweet aroma which is what really makes it such a memorable and indulgent experience. Once you’ve chosen which flavor you’d like, a decorous glass pipe filled with water will be bought to your table. A ceramic vessel containing the tobacco is placed on top of the pipe. The tobacco is covered with tin foil which has a few holes punched in it and then hot coals are then placed on top of the foil. It’s a good idea to get a plastic mouthpiece to cover the pipe’s stem (most of the locals seem to do this too) and then you’re ready to go! Apparently you’re only meant to suck the smoke into your mouth (not into your lungs) but I really don’t know how they do that. It seemed I took it all into my lungs and hardly any smoke came out – whereas the professionals only take it into their mouths and breathe out clouds and clouds of aromatic smoke. When the coals start to lose their heat a little man (well, not always little but generally on the shorter side) who is either a waiter or dedicated water-pipe minder will replace them. It takes about half an hour for a local to smoke a sheesha, they take their time and relax into it, having a chat with other sheesha smokers in the all male domain – it’s a rather indulgent and addictive habit and our Wahid was particularly partial to it!
I was pretty knackered by the time we boarded the train and found our seats. The train left at 8pm and would take approx 13 hours. It was a seater train with padded reclining seats. After a short debrief from Wahid and chowing down on our kusheri I dropped a wee sleeping tab, put my pink pillow in position, drew down the eye shades and chucked in my ear plugs. Do not disturb until Aswan.
1 JUNE - Aswan
We arrived in Aswan at around 9am and walked to our hotel.
Aswan is located on the river Nile in the area traditionally known as Upper Egypt (which was kind of a weird concept for me give that ‘up’ is usually associated with the North and Aswan is in southern Egypt but, of course, the Nile originates in East Africa and flows ‘down’ to Egypt so Upper Egypt it is).
Throughout history the town has undergone several name changes. Originally it was called “Sawet” meaning “trade” before the name changed to As-Suan, Arabic for “market” – it is still an important market town and has one of the country’s best bazaars.
Originally the focal point of the town centred on Elephantine Island. During pharaonic times the island was known as Yebu meaning ‘ivory’ or ‘elephants’. This was because the town was a major area in the trade of ivory and live elephants.
This area of the Nile has a large population of Nubian people. Nubians primarily lived between Aswan and Khartoum, capital of Sudan until the construction of the High Dam flooded their homes and forced them to move to higher ground.
Wahid organized a taxi for Lu, Andrew and I to see the sites – first stop was the dock where we caught a boat to Philae Temple.
Philae Temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis, Philae was painstakingly moved and reassembled after the construction of Aswan High Dam flooded its original island location.
It was a beautiful trip out to the Island and the temple, dedicated to the goddess Isis, was astonishingly well preserved, especially considering that it had also been painstakingly moved and reassembled after the construction of Aswan High Dam flooded its original location.
After that we went to the Nubian Museum – an excellent display which detailed the history of the Nubian people and an excellent exhibition of the major excavation works on the temples and tombs of the region.
After resting at the hotel for a couple of hours during the midday heat, we joined up with another Intrepid group later that afternoon for a trip over to Elephantine Island where we saw the ruins of Nubian houses. It was exciting to be on the Nile with the things you always imagined would be happening, happening!
Felucas, kids playing in the river and above them, on the hill, was the Aga Khans mausoleum and the monastery of San Simeon.
On the Aswan side we passed the famous hotel (currently being renovated) where Agatha Christie penned Death on the Nile.
We stopped at a Nubian restaurant on the other side of the river, at the base of a sand dune. I walked about three quarters of the way up the dune until I realized that I wouldn’t get a view over Aswan from the top. That defeated the purposes of sweating my guts out so I took a photo or two where I was and turned around.
Wahid yelled at me to join him for sheesha and coffee (known here as Turkish coffee – it’s a thick brew with various herbs like cardamom). I had my first go at sheesha and admit that I was very bad at it. I guess you can’t be good at everything, hey?!
Then I had a swim in the Nile – now I know that this isn’t necessarily recommended and, in hindsight, it was probably a stupid thing to do (after I later saw rubbish littering the banks and floating through the water. There’s also a lovely little bug which infests the water but I had been told that this was more common past Luxor towards Cairo) but, at the time, I was hot and the river looked awfully inviting. It was such a nice swim and, yes, I put my head under and, no, I didn’t get sick.
The area of today’s southern Egypt and northern Sudan is called Nubia and we were in the heart of the area at Aswan. We made our way to a traditional Nubian house on the Elephantine Island. The house belonged to a cousin of JJ (who works with Intrepid to provide felucca trips in the area). JJ was a great bloke who shared so many stories of his people.
The modern inhabitants of southern Egypt and Sudan still refer to themselves as Nubians. They speak the Nubian language as well as Arabic. Thousands of Nubians from the north were forced to relocate from their endangered home lands to be resettled in Egypt and Sudan. This land has one of the harshest climates in the world. The temperatures are high throughout most of the year and rainfall is infrequent. The banks of the Nile are narrow in much of Nubia, making farming difficult. Yet in antiquity, Nubia was a land of great natural wealth, of gold mines, ebony, ivory and incense which was prized by her neighbours.
Nubia was the homeland of Africa’s earliest black culture with a history which can be traced from 3100 BC words through Nubian monuments and artifacts, as well as written records from Egypt and Rome.
The land of Nubia is a desert divided by the River Nile. For want of water and rich soil, most of Nubia has never been able to support a large population for a long period. However, some of Africa’s greatest civilizations emerged here, centres of achievement whose existence was based on industry and trade. Because they did not write their own languages until very late in ancient times we know these centres and their people largely through their archeology and what the Egyptians and Greeks said about them.
To the ancient Mediterranean world, the land south of Egypt was a territory of mystery and legend. Wealth and exotic products came from there. It was the home of the Ethiopians, whom Homer called blameless and stories about exploration was long impeded by problems of transport and political unrest. In the last hundred years, Nubia has slowly yielded its secrets, its vanished peoples, abandoned cities and lost kingdoms brought light by the excavator and analysis of inscriptions.
In the 1960s a dam was contracted at Aswan. It created a 500 mile long lake which permanently flooded ancient temples and tombs as well as hundreds of modern villages in Nubia. While the dam was under construction hundreds of archeologists worked in Egypt and Sudan to excavate as many ancient sites as possible. The Oriental Institute worked in Nubia from 1960 to 1968.
Nubian people have largely continued with their traditional way of life – usual laws and police do not exist on Elephantine Island and disputes are settled by a Chief who is elected by the people. They have very strict rules for courtship and weddings – much of which sounded like the son-in-law obeying every wish of their mother-in-law. JJ had totally won over his mother-in-law – so much so that he was absolutely certain that his mother-in-law preferred him over her own sons. Although he ate a full dinner with us he didn’t touch the chicken (which was his favourite) because he was heading over to his mother-in-laws after he’d said goodbye to us and she was killing a chook for him to feed him for his supper. He didn’t want her to know that he’d eaten with us already “only a little bit so then I have room for my mother-in-laws delicious chicken”. You could literally see him salavitating (Skye word) over the thought of what was awaiting him.
Dinner consisted of lazeez (delicious) lentil soup and Nile perch – all of us sitting on the ground helping ourselves to food arranged in the middle of the circle.
We sailed back to Aswan and Wahid and I jumped in a cab to go to duty free store. It so happens that we are still able to get duty free in Egypt if you’ve been in the country for less than 24 hours! So we went up these stairs to a weird little joint (it’s not easy to get alcohol in a Muslim country at the best of times) and bought a couple of bottles of vodka. It ended up being quite a good way to do it – buy a can of lemonade and add some vodka for your evening drink. Sure beats beer which is pretty much the only other choice here.
A couple who had just got married where on the street outside surrounded by people dancing around them. They were outside a photography place where they were going to get their pictures taken before heading to the reception to feast until dawn.
2 JUNE - Aswan
The wake up came through at 2.45am and we were picked up from our hotel at 3.15am. We had the option of hiring our own private van which would have cost around E£100 more each so we decided to opt for the shared van and, in the end, we only picked up three other passengers – a couple from the US and a guy from Brazil, Marcelo, who had just spent a couple of months travelling through the Middle East. It was great to get some tips from him.
The minivan stopped at the checkpoint where the buses would be leaving in convoy. The Egyptians are particularly strict about safety heading down towards Abu Simbel as is borders Sudan – some tourists had accidently crossed the border the previous year and been kidnapped. Our van, while first to arrive, was last to leave (for some reason) but this didn’t worry me as I slept through most of the checkpoint rigmarole. We didn’t end up leaving until around 4am and then had a significant stop on the way (the ride was 3 hours in each direction along a straight road) so we didn’t get to Abu Simbel until around 8am.
We paid our entrance ticket and listened to the guide (who was included in the price of the ticket but who, naturally, required baksheesh (a tip) for his service) – the guides are unable to enter the temples but it was interesting to hear the history of the two temples and how they were relocated to higher ground with the building of the High Dam in the 1960s. We visited the smaller of the two temples first in the hope that the crowds would have thinned by the time we'd finished there.
Our hunch was right and we had the magnificent main temple to ourselves. There were no photographs allowed inside most of the main monuments in Egypt so you’ll just have to imagine the high ceilinged rooms with hieroglyphics and carvings of the Gods covering every inch of wall space. Carved column walkway at the entrance of the temple – it was incredible to think of how these structures could have been built with the equipment (or lack of) that they had.
We had about an hour at Abu Simbel before hitting the road back to Aswan. The drive was through very flat, rocky, hot desert. We had a snooze during the midday heat and then had a wander through the market after it had cooled down.
Dinner was at a great restaurant on a pontoon over the Nile – the first ‘main course’ doesn’t look too tasty though.
3 JUNE - Nile Felucca
I was so excited about today – at last I was going to get the opportunity do one of things I had wanted to all my life… Sail in a felucca. We went down to the docks at around 10am and met Mustafa and Mustafa, our Nubian crew, and settled in to enjoy the ride. Just one thing – no wind and horrendous smog/fog/dust/whatever it was reducing visibility so much you couldn’t see the other side of the bank. There were various ok’s that we had to get (tourist police, river police, etc) and it was the river police who halted our journey and said that we might not be able to go.
We waited for a while at the main dock (where I ate the yummy popcorn that Charl had given me as I left London)
and watched the Nubian water taxis make their way over to the 'mainland'. Note that males and females aren't sitting together - I couldn't find out whether this was by choice or law.
It started getting a bit stinky with all the fumes from the big Nile cruisers going about their business all around us, docked four deep in places, so we sailed to the other side of the river, opposite the river police station, to wait until 2pm, the appointed time that they would tell us whether we could go or not. We had fun while we waiting – watching the water buffalo squidging around in the water next to the boat and watching the river traffic go by. Mustafa 1 (as he became known) was Captain of our vessel but also head chef. He whipped us a delicious meal of falafel and foul (a mixture of mashed up broad beans with various spices and lemon juice) which we put into a pita bread pouch with some salad. Lazeez!
We sailed over to the River Police Station and, of course, the man that we all had to see was having lunch. There were five feluccas who were hoping to sail that day and we all had to wait.
It was seriously touch and go there for a while – praying for the wind to pick up a little bit and blow the haze away. Something must have worked because we eventually got the ok and set off at around 3.30.
If you ever get the chance to have a sail in a felucca you just have to do it. It is a traditional wooden sail boat with broad canvas sails. The boat has a canopy that offers shade and protection from the elements, and there were mattresses covering the deck which we lounged and then slept on that night, under the stars. It has to be one of the most idyllic and peaceful modes of transport. The only time the peacefulness was disrupted was when a Nile cruise boat chugged past leaving a cloud of diesel fumes in her wake but that in no way spoiled the sublimeness of it all.
It was interesting to see how they lower the mast to get under a bridge.
I sat with my toes in the water and had lots of ‘pinch me’ moments. It was pretty hard work, as you can see.
We sailed 25kms and moored at the base of a sand dune. I am now going to talk to you about Mustafa’s babaganoush. He roasted those eggplant on the direct flame of his camp stove and then peeled off the burnt skin. Mashing it up and mixing in some tahini, garlic, lemon juice, mixed spice and then a scerrick of good olive oil over the top at the end. I think it was roasting the eggplant that made it so good – the smoky flavor really made it something special.
Mustafa really took pride in his cooking and experimented with a dish until he perfected it - we were the lucky benefactors of his trials. It was fantastic. I helped him in the kitchen but was pretty useless compared to him!
A beautiful breeze was blowing while the sun set across the Nile.