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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Heat, hassle and hieroglyphics!

The trip to Aswan, at the southern end of the Nile, would be a long one! Some 28 hours, to be exact! We had to get up early, and catch the bus back to Marsa Matruh, and from there change, and catch another bus to Cairo. Small problem.......possibly an hour into the 5 hour journey back to Cairo, the air-conditioner broke down! As Kath and Kim would say..........NICE! It so was not! We were hot and sticky, and I was having a good ol' whinge! I kept reminding myself of all the people I had seen on this trip who were so much worse off than me, and it helped me to stay somewhat focused. By the time we arrived in Cairo, I was truly hot and bothered. Having been let of in the wrong spot, we then had to make our way to the train station. Step 3 would be catching the overnighter to Luxor. It would not be leaving until 10.00pm, so we had plenty of time to arrange things, or so we thought.

Aswan or Luxor? Luxor or Aswan? We decided on Luxor. No sooner had we done this, than we met a guy who insisted that we go to Aswan. Yes, Luxor was amazing he said, but Aswan was less touristy and equally as spectacular. Small problem. We had already bought the ticket! Without going into specific details, we were able to change it, but it took a lot of time and hassle. The guy had said that it was too late, that the ticket had already been bought and blah, blah, blah! I had one of the many tourist police help me out, but for a while it seemed that despite my determination, the operation was doomed to fail! Finally, the policeman got me to go into the ticket office, and in what I presume was Arabic small talk, he also got the man behind the desk to change our tickets! What I did next went against the grain of all that I usually stand for! I slipped the policeman a 10 pound Egyptian (about USD $1.40) note. He did not expect it and was truly grateful. Should I have done it or not? This was my dilemma: These people get paid appallingly, and in this case, no money was expected whatsoever. The policeman had spent almost an hour with me, which by the way, he was not obliged to do. I gave him the money, blessed it, and hoped that he would be able to give his family the little bit extra that I am able to afford every day!

The train left at 10.00 pm and arrived the next day at around lunchtime. We managed to sleep somewhat. We shared a compartment with a couple of supremely nice guys, one of whom spoke excellent English. Although thirsty, I drank little, as that would force me to use the toilets (yuk!!) at the end of the carriages. This area was also consistently used by smokers, and was thus engulfed in a constant lung wrenching smoke screen (double yuk!!). Speaking of which, I am amazed by how much they smoke here in Egypt, especially the men. I make no lie about how anal Alex and I both are around cigarette smoke, but avoiding it here has been virtually impossible.

What we did over the next several days, basically consisted of temples, temples and more temples. Oh....and ancient historical sights! Having said that they were impressive and spectacular, to say the vey least! In this case the saying that you need to see them for yourself to appreciate the enormity and majesty, is truer than ever! We actually saw so many, that it would be impossible to describe them all in detail, so I will aim for the highlights. There were also our three nights and two days on a felucca, cruising down the Nile, but more on that later.

The El Salam Hotel (elsalamhotelaswan@yahoo.com) in Aswan proved to be our little piece of paradise. The place was clean, and air-conditioned (and I thought that I did not like nor need air-con..........enter Egypt!)) , and the owners kind, helpful and friendly. It was seriously hot here, and we relied on lots of water and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, to keep us hydrated as well as energised.

Although we stayed on the east bank of the Nile, it was only a short ferry ride across to the west bank. We did not make it across , but the area is home to many of the areas Nubians, who mostly live in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They are easily recognisable by their dark skin, yet Arabic features. We did however make it to Elaphantine Island, a fascinating little Nubian island nestled between the east and west banks. Very easy to walk around, its major attractions are its impressive museum and the Ruins of Abu (the oldest structures which date back to 3000 BC), as well as its two Nubian villages, Siou and Koti. Here it is like time has lay dormant, where the houses are made of mud, the floors of dirt, and where the streets are simply dusty trails. There are no cars on the tiny island. And the Nubians go about their business as I assume they did millennia before we found them.

No trip to Aswan would be complete without an outing to Abu Simbel, which lies at the southern end of the Nile, only 40 kilometres away from the Sudanese border. The easiest way to get there is by taking a tour via mini van, as apart from the colossal temples for which it is justly famous, there is not much else to see or do. Most excursions along the Nile include police convoys, which are really in order to protect the tourists, as there have been several terrorist attacks in several places along the Nile in the past. The police convoys consists of tour buses and mini vans meeting at various times, and all going off together, obviously following the police.

Nothing could prepare us for the Great Temple of Ramses 2 and the Temple of Hathor. These temples were carved out of the mountain on the west bank of the Nile between 1274 and 1244 BC. The former temple's imposing statues are majestic. As you come around a corner, there they are, four bigger than life statues of Ramses 2. I would imagine that the view from the Nile, especially in bygone years would have been spectacular. What did the ancients exclaim, as they sailed past? The temple of Hathor, is dedicated to Queen Nefertari and is really just a smaller version of Ramses' own temple. Inside both temples are a series of rooms and chambers, many with exquisite sculptures and drawings, and hieroglyphics on the walls. In some areas the paint work is still intact. On the way back, we stopped at a few other sights including the High Dam and the Unfinished obelisk , which is the largest known ancient obelisk in the world. Our stop at the Isis Temple Complex on the island of Philae involved getting a ferry to the tiny island, whose entire space is dedicated to the temple, which once housed the cult of Isis and her subsequent worship. The space was serene and tranquil, and it was perhaps due to the very fact that it was not overrun with tourists that made it so striking.

It was from Aswan that we organised our felucca trip down the Nile. This is almost a rite of passage amongst the backpacker set. Feluccas are the small sailboats you can see going up and down the Nile. There are no toilets or showers, and multi- day trips consist of lazing on the deck, and watching the world go by. Toilet stop? Pull up onto shore and duck behind a bush or tree? Showers? Why do you think that baby wipes were invented? It was on this trip that we met Stephanie and Sebastien, a great Swiss brother and sister whom we would then spend the next week travelling with. We were so lucky, as there were only the four of us, as well as the captain, Ruby, and cook/helper, Rambo (Ramadan). Needles to say, we had a totally stress free, complacent and relaxing time. It was excellent for Alex and I as we were almost forced to take a much needed break.

After leaving the felucca on day three, a bus had been organised to pick us up. We stopped to see both the Temple of Kom Ombo as well as Edfu, and then it was another hour and a half on to Luxor. We had seen so much that we truly wondered if we could take in any more!

As far as being hassled went, it happened all over Aswan, especially in the market paces, and continued on in Luxor! It drove me to distraction, and I almost lost it on several occasions. On other occasions, well.......I did lose it! Like Aswan, there is so much to see and do in Luxor, but by this stage, I was wanting to see it and get out, as I was finding it difficult to control myself and my tongue. Stephanie and Sebastien were great to have around, as we could laugh and cry together over the things that annoyed and bothered us. There was much more laughing than crying though. Seb, I do not think we will EVER forget the Australians that took the camel ride at the Pyramids of Giza for 1500 Egyptian pounds!!! (Sorry guys, in -house joke!)

In Luxor, we visited the famed Valley of the Kings. Set in amongst its scorching cliffs, are a series of valleys containing a multitude of ancient burial sites; the majestic domain of the pharaohs who once lay there in great sarcophagi, awaiting immortality! Some 62 tombs have been excavated, but not all belonged to the pharaohs. Also, most are actually not open to the public. The famous tomb of Tutankhamen was actually the most recent discovery, by Howard Carter in 1922. Alex and I had to wait a while to enter it, as a British crew were filming for the Discovery Channel. Unlike, the other tombs, which are chambers with several sculptures and countless depictions , King Tut's tomb has been cleared of the breathtaking riches that it once contained. Having said that, the fact that he still lies lies in there in his gilded wooden coffin, gives the place a special vibe and atmosphere.

We also visited the Valley of the Queens, in which there are some 75 tombs. Only 3 were open, and to be truthful, they pale in comparison to the alley of the Kings. The temple of Hatshepsut, was also astonishing. It is partly rock-cut and partially freestanding. As it rises out of the desert, it seems to merge with the adjacent limestone cliffs. Again, and again, I kept asking myself the same question that has run through my head a million times in this country.....HOW did they do it?

Karnak Temple was the last temple we saw in Luxor, and I must say, it was good timing! We had all reached temple saturation point, and were all finding it difficult to concentrate! It really was spectacular, but we were all a little too over-it to properly appreciate it! So, along with Steph and Seb, we decided that it was time to go to Dahab, on the Sinai Peninsula.

Up until now, I have mostly been able to keep illnesses and the revenge of the gods at bay. I have not been traumatised by Bali Belly, Montezuma's Revenge, nor with Guatemalan gut. I am not sure whose revenge it was, but I copped it in Luxor! My guess is that the culprit was falafel that had been fried in used and reused cooking oil! The result was several trips to the bathroom over several days. It was my turn first, and then it went through the others....one at a time! But, we all lived to tell the tale!

Next: The Sinai Peninsula - Diving & snorkelling in the Red Sea and climbing Mt Sinai.



"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." - Martin Luther King Jr.





Ombi

(Photos: 1.- Great Sea of Sand, Siwa Oasis. 2.- A felluca sailboat, near Aswan. 3.- Landscape near Aswan, with the mausoleum of Aga Khan in the background 4.-Nubian house facade,Elephantine Island 5&6.- Abu Simbel. 7.- Philae Temple, main entry. 8.- On the felucca, L to R: Alex, Ombi, Rambo, Stephanie, Ruby and Sebastien.....cruising the Nile. 9.- Philae Temple, Aswan. 10.- Light! Taken in one of the chambers of the Ramses 2 Temple in Abu Simbel. 11.- Fresco, Philae temple.

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