7-9 July 2008: Aswan

The city of Aswan is gorgeously situated on the banks of the Nile at the point of some of the clearest waters. From the balcony of our hotel room, Suzanne and I had a stunning view of the blue flowing waters, the vivid green waterside palms, the canvas sails of the wooden feluccas.

The two of us began our stay in Aswan by exploring the area around our hotel, and we eventually found ourselves inside the large, open-air Nubian bazaar. The experience was pretty much the same as inside Khan al Khalili, but the wide, bricked streets and the reduced number of tourists out in the heat of the afternoon made it a little more comfortable (other than, of course, the heat of the afternoon that most other tourists were smart enough not to go out in). Vendors attempted to draw us in by asking us where we were from, and I confused them terribly by answering, "Ethiopia."

Joining back up with our group at the hotel, we took a boat out to Elephantine Island, home to the oldest extant Nubian village. In ancient times, the region of Nubia consisted in all lands south of Egypt, including Ethiopia. As a result, the commonalities between the Ethiopian and Nubian cultures were striking, in the relaxed pace of life, the conventions and expectations for showing hospitality to a guest, the colorful ceremonies and celebrations. I felt comfortably at home in a way that I had not in Cairo.

We were invited into the home of a Rastafarian-leaning Nubian gentleman who went by "JJ", seemed to know everyone on the island, and could have easily passed for the Nubian Godfather. We drank fresh, chilled mango juice and saw photographs and video from his wedding. One posed photograph showed the groom brandishing a large whip in front of his bride, who faced him with palms pressed together in front of her heart, as if in prayer or plea. Our uneasiness over this picture was only slightly allayed when our guide explained that the whip pertained to a traditional Sudanese wedding dance between groom and best man.

We trolled around the Nile upstream from Elephantine Island, eventually taking to shore at a scenic outdoor café on the riverbank. There, I got my first chance to swim in the Nile. I use the term "swim" loosely in this case, since the currents toward the middle of the river were far stronger than I wanted to really test. But I did have my entire body immersed in the waters of the Egyptian Nile, which was enough to validate the experience for me, anyhow. I saw no crocodiles, unless you count the small one kept in a plastic bucket by the owners of the café gift shop.

After several minutes in the chilly water, I joined the others on shore for shisha and Nubian coffee, which was not quite as bold as Ethiopian coffee but beautifully and piquantly spiced. Then, once we had dried off, we hired camels and rode inland over part of the Sahara to Saint Simeon's Monastery. Sitting atop my tall, white camel named Leon, it was a plodding, bumpy, but rather soothing ride through the vast and desolate stretch of sand. Between the Nile, the Sahara, the camels and the shisha, it felt a thoroughly stereotypical Egyptian experience.

That night, we ferried out to Philae Temple, built to commemorate Isis's sacrifice of love for her murdered Osiris, which restored the waters of the Nile. (Perhaps ironically, considering the temple's mythological origins, the temple was flooded in 1906 after the construction of the first Aswan dam, and it was only through international efforts during the 1970s that it was saved.) We watched a "sound and light show" that walked us through the temple's complex five-thousand-year history and demonstrated the dynamic lines of history, mythology, religion, and politics converging and running through it. It was a vivid reminder of the richness, depth, and intricacy of all the things we were seeing in Egypt, which offered even more beyond the beautiful architecture noted by casual observation.

We returned to the city late at night and, sadly, were forced into supporting the intrusion of American fast food abroad, since the only place to grab a quick dinner at that hour was the McDonald's. Maybe I was just paranoid and self-conscious, but I swear the Egyptians we passed on the street were laughing at the Americans carrying their red and yellow paper sacks of greasy, supply-chained, ultra-standardized, factory-produced fast food.

Aswan had come alive at night, after the harsh sun had plunged below the horizon and given way to the cool darkness and a brilliant starry sky. It was exciting and invigorating for a girl used to being locked indoors for the most part during the night hours.

Suzanne and I stopped in a little shop to buy a couple bottles of water. As we were walking back to the hotel, we began to hear offensive catcalling behind us. It started as kissing noises, and then we began hear an Egyptian voice calling, "Hey! Hey! Hey, girls! Hey! Want some company? Hey, girls, want some company?" It followed us for about a block, after which I turned to Suzanne, and I believe my exact words were, "I'm gonna punch this guy in the face. I'm gonna kill someone." We heard the pace of the footsteps behind us quicken to catch up with us, and the next "Hey!" came from just behind us. I whipped around. I was angry. I was ready. It was our tour guide. Our lanky, goofy, mischievous Egyptian tour guide was screwing with us. He laughed and laughed, hugged us, and made fun of the infuriated and indignant expression on my face. It became a favorite joke between us for the rest of the trip. Perhaps nine months of harassment as a foreign woman in Ethiopia has made me just a little bit touchy…

A late night was followed by a very early morning, as we had to join the police convoy at 4 AM in order to travel southward to Abu Simbel. Abu Simbel consists of two giant rock-hewn temples, constructed under the Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BC. Built into the side of a limestone mountain and transferred in the 1960s (again due to the construction of the Aswan dam) to its current waterside location on the banks of the artificial Lake Nasser, it is a massive structure, obviously meant to convey power and invoke awe. An intimidating lineup of four giant statues guards the entrance to the larger of the two temples. But for me, the most incredible aspect of Abu Simbel was the wealth of hieroglyphics adorning the walls in the extensive network of internal chambers (which, unfortunately, tourists are prohibited from photographing).

I had passed out on the back seat on the bus ride to Abu Simbel, which was uncharacteristic of me, as I'm usually one to enjoy watching the scenery flying past me. I was woken up just briefly by the "oohs" and "aahs" of my tripmates on the bus, and I sat up groggily and stared out the back window to see a dazzling sunrise over the vacant desert landscape. For the most part, though, I slept soundly, and seeing all the desolate nothingness through which our path took on the way back, I didn't feel like I had missed much.

Back at the hotel in Aswan, Suzanne and I slept and showered. There was a confusing and rather frightening moment in which an Egyptian man in a possibly uniform polo shirt showed up at our door holding a knife. He made signs and gestures that suggested he was there to fix our air conditioner, but as the air conditioner was working quite nicely, I didn't feel compelled to invite him in. I'm sure he and the rest of the hotel staff of which he was likely a legitimate part had a great laugh at me later, but I sure wasn't going to take any chances.

We spent the next day on the water. It was a day of complete relaxation, a leisurely boat trip on a bright, lazy day that recalled time passed on the lakes at home on beautiful, muggy summer days. We read, played cards, drank cold beers from our cooler, and napped under the canopy of our canvas-sailed felucca. Stopping every so often to swim in the cool water, we inevitably drew a crowd of curious Egyptian boys with whom we threw Frisbee. Good alumni that we are, Suzanne and I made sure to fly our Clemson flag from the stern of the boat. It waved proudly in the breeze and glinted vivid orange under the splendid sun.

At night, we docked at a little sand beach with two other tourist boats. The boat assistants built a campfire, Egyptian drums appeared out of nowhere, and suddenly the quiet beach was transformed into a spirited circle of singing and dancing. We spun, stomped, stepped, clapped, kicked, swayed, and shook to the lively rhythms until guides and guests alike were worn out. We settled ourselves down on blankets around the fire, and the smell of sweet apples filled the air as the shisha pipes were fired up. A demonstration of the traditional "haka" from the New Zealanders launched a sort of nationalistic talent show, in which a song was demanded from the citizens of each country represented there on the beach. I led my countrymen in a rousing rendition of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," which might not be quite as cultural or historical as the hucker, but surely won a special part in the American tradition after its prominent appearance in Top Gun.

We slept on the deck of the felucca. When I awoke the next morning and rolled over on my stomach to peek over the side of the boat, I was greeted by the sun rising brilliantly over the water, lighting up the Nile like fire.


Jorge said...

Hola amigo: quería invitarte que visites el blog que estoy realizando con mis alumnos de segundo año de la secundaria sobre LA DISCRIMINACIÓN.
Tema arduo e interesante.
Seguro será de tu agrado.
Tu aporte será valioso
Un abrazo desde la Argentina.

Cait* said...

I love that you brought Top Gun to Egypt. So. Much.