To be completely honest, I'd never even heard of Aswan before this trip. When I read about it on our itinerary, I found it was in the extreme south of Egypt, and basically the last outpost before hitting Sudan and venturing into the eastern Sahara desert.
Our overnight train from Cairo pulled into town around 10:00 am. After a quick shower at our nearby hotel, I took a quick stroll around the city. It was noticeably warmer than Cairo - to the tune of mid to upper 30's Celsius. There were a lot of people outside though - having tea in little cafes, puffing on ornate water pipes, or simply standing against a door frame watching people go by.
I meandered by the little park across the street from our hotel. As you can imagine, there wasn't much grass, but the kids kicking around a half-flat soccer ball didn't seem to mind. Just past the park was the Corniche (fancy name for the sidewalk along the shore), and beyond it, the Nile. Large, multi-decked river boats were anchored up and down the east side of river. 4-5 layers high and about as long as a football field, they looked like small floating apartment buildings complete with umbrellas and lounge chairs on top. They were pretty nice too, sporting names like "River Gem", "Triton", and "Nile Star"; some being run by hotel chains such as the Hilton.
At 1:00, we met in the lobby to go for a Felucca ride. Again, I had no idea what this meant before reading about it in the trip dossier. Turns out feluccas are sailboats - small, flat boats with beautiful triangular white sails. We boarded one reserved just for our group and took it across the Nile to a small dock where we were greeted by a couple guys. They led us up a sandy trail to a little tree-shaded area where six kneeling camels were resting. "Here are your camels," the first guy said.
Now you may be thinking, "Sweet! Camel ride!" I was too when I saw it on the agenda. I mean, when do you get a chance to ride a camel? It's a different story when you're face to face with a big smelly camel. First of all, they are not attractive animals. You may have seen them in a zoo or some other place before. Those are pretty much the runway models of camels. Real, working Egyptian camels are pretty ugly, and are usually surrounded by a swarm of flies. Second, they smell really bad. I'm not sure what the bathing schedule is (or if one exists - probably not) for these beasts, but they were in dire need. Third, they aren't always in the best of moods. Unbeknownst to me, camels growl, and growl loudly. They sound really pissed off - not that they don't have a right to be - They are in the middle of the frickin hot desert with a big, uncomfortable looking saddle strapped to their back, and are getting the crap beat out of them by dudes with sticks. I'd probably growl too.
Anyway, we were told to saddle up for a ride through the desert. Alrighty then. I picked out the biggest of the sand taxis and proceeded to mount up. Since they are kneeling, and basically lying on their legs, it was pretty easy for me to throw my legs over the top of the saddle and hop on. Ah, but that's the easy part. The camel then has to stand up, which ends up happening back-legs first. You lean way back, and hold on for dear life. Once all the way up and semi-stationary, you realize that you're a good way off the ground. The option of bailing doesn't seem so plausible once you're 8 feet off the ground. I'll admit I was a little scared. Oh yeah, and then you actually start moving. The ride wasn't exactly smooth - and I was pretty sure I was going to slide off either to the left or right for the first 10 minutes of the ride. However, after a while, I got the hang of it. I even figured out how to steer the bad boy. About 15 minutes in, I got brave enough to bust out the camera to snap off a few shots.
The ride was actually pretty nice - we passed through the caramel-colored desert - over rocks and sand. We passed by an old monastery hidden by a set of large rocks. There were about 4-5 guys behind us, some holding sticks, some just making noises like someone trying to imitate a squirrel, which is apparently the camel noise for "go faster". I don't know what these guys are getting paid to follow behind smelly camels ridden by tourists through the hot desert sand, but I sure as hell wouldn't want that job. Our ride lasted for about 30 minutes from start to finish. Something I'm really glad I did, but am not sure I'd do again unless I had to.
Our felucca had sailed up river to meet us. They really are quite beautiful - and seemingly a perfect fit with the scenery. We boarded again and sailed up the Nile - the wind was behind us, but against the current. We meandered around Elephantine Island (apparently named for the ivory trade between Egypt and Sudan) in the middle of the river where we saw some hieroglyphs carved into the side of some large, smooth boulders. We then turned back north and went down the Nile, which as it was against the wind, meant we had to tack. For those of you with as much sailing knowledge as I, tacking is a way of making forward progress against the wind. You basically sail in a zig-zag pattern up the river. It takes a really long time, but it's pretty cool. The scenery was absolutely spectacular. It's strange to see the beautiful deep blue water of the Nile (which is pretty cold by the way) against the bright green of small bushes, flowering plants and palm trees which are all dominated in the background by the tan sand of the desert.
We sailed on to the Aswan botanical garden - set on another island in the middle of the river. It was big and beautiful, filled with an array of plants, flowers and trees I'd never seen before. Apparently there are many warm-weather plants that only grow in Egypt found right here.
We ended up back at the hotel around 4:00. At 6:00 we met in the lobby to head out for our dinner in the Nubian village. Part of GAP's mission is to put you in touch with the cultures of the areas you're visiting. The Nubians are the indigenous people of this area, and have several villages in the area, the main one being on the west bank of the Nile.
After a quick water-taxi ride to the west bank, we were met by two men standing beside a small old Toyota pickup with benches in the back. It was a nice drive - the sun was starting to drop in the west, and the temperature followed suit. We passed a farming area, filled with small fields which looked surprisingly healthy.
We reached the village after about 15 minutes. It was more like a small town, with every house similar to each other. A lot like going to a planned subdivision in the US. However, most of these houses were painted robin-egg blue, with an occasional white or tan one thrown in for variety. Nearly all were equipped with domes or rounded roofs for air circulation.
We drove through the small, narrow streets, greeted occasionally by the waving child. As we pulled up to our destination, reality crept in for me. Those of you who know me know I'm a pretty picky eater. I'll try anything once, but If I don't like it, that's all she wrote. I was afraid the food would be terrible - or at best really weird, and I'd offend our hosts by not eating, thereby embarrassing myself, our group and the tour leader in some way.
The home was a bit secluded from the rest of the village - at the end of a street toward the southwest corner. To the direct south was a large hill of sand and rock, and to the west was sandy, arid desert - real deal "die if you wander out there" desert. It turns out the house is not really a personal residence, but a house built for catering to this type of event. Still Nubian, just more of an entertainment house than a family house. It was actually quite big - enclosed by a large blue concrete fence. The main area had a sand floor which had recently been smoothed. There were quite a few rooms adjoining the main "courtyard", and we waited in what turned out to be the dining room. There was no air conditioning of course, but it was surprisingly cool - the domes in the ceilings really do their job.
The moment of truth arrived, and dinner was served, making my heart beat faster. To my surprise, the meal consisted of seasoned pasta, chicken, some as yet un-identified sausage-like meat, fried potatoes, rice, bread, and salad. I asked the question, and they said it is indeed traditional (to a point I'm certain - I'm likely not the only picky eater to come through).
After dinner we went out to the main courtyard where we sat on rugs on the sand. We partook in some warm tea, and simply relaxed. Later, we were given the options to try some Shisha - a water pipe with flavored tobacco. Now I've never smoked anything in my life - cigarettes, cigars or anything else for that matter. I figured I'd start hacking like an asthmatic upon the first puff, but I didn't cough once - much to Mayer's surprise. It wasn't too bad at all. Basically just a fancy cigar.
All in all - we had a great time. Good food, good conversation. The hosting family was great, and I'm really glad I did it.
The GAP trips are full of optionals - extra excursions or experiences available on top of the normal included stuff which you may or may not want to partake in. The optional trip to Abu Simbel Temple wasn't really an option for me. It was actually one of the more important aspects of the entire trip. Had it not been offered, I'd have tried to figure out how to get down there.
The temple was built by Ramses II, and features four massive statues of himself on the front façade. It was discovered in 1813, by Jean-Louis Burkhardt, who found just one head sticking out of the sand. Our tour guide explained there were four "miracles" associated with the temple.
The first relates simply to its construction and the immensity of the scale in which it's built. The second is more interesting - at the back of the temple stand four more statues, but this time only one of which is Ramses II. Twice a year, on Ramses II birthday and the date of his death, light shines from the outside directly on his face and his face alone. When you think that the actual day on which birthdays are celebrated change every year, the "miracle" status doesn't seem all that far off. The third is fairly amazing as well. In the 1960's, when the Aswan High Dam was being built, people realized the water which would become Lake Nasser would eventually cover Abu Simbel Temple. So, UNESCO, at the cost of around 40 million USD, cut up and moved the temple to its current location. It's laughable even as I write this. They did it though. You can read more about it here if you want. The fourth miracle was the re-calculation of the second miracle - getting light to shine on Ramses face on his birthday and date of his death. It apparently took several people from around the world to figure this out, which allowed the temple to be reconstructed exactly as it was.
How can you not go visit it?
To get to Abu Simbel, you have to be ready by 4:00 in the morning, and drive your bus/van to a point in Aswan to meet the convoy. Apparently it's not overly safe to drive by yourself the 280+ Kilometers to Abu Simbel. I asked Mayer why - he said "you never know". Comforting.
At a little after 4:00, our convoy set off, with about 10-15 tour buses, small buses and vans headed south, led and trailed by small black Toyota pickup trucks with the word "Police" painted on the sides. I slept for most of the three hour ride.
Once at the visitor's center, we had a chance to read the whole story about the relocation, which was even more unreal after seeing pictures. We then started the walk toward the temple. A sidewalk led around the right side of a large mound of tan rock. We followed it to a point where we got a good view of Lake Nasser, then continued down and to the left, where we caught our first glimpse of the temple. It was breath taking. The scale is absolutely ridiculous, and succeeded in making its viewers feel small in its presence.
Mayer told us more about the history, and expanded on the four miracles. We then had about two hours to just walk around and explore. I spent a good bit of time taking pictures of the façade, and then went inside to see the inscriptions and pictures ornamenting the walls. Grand stories of Ramses II defeat of the Hittites were portrayed larger than life all around the interior. Many of the pictures in this temple have been reproduced in many forms - Ramses on his Chariot, the slaying of the spies, etc. It was amazing to see the originals - right in front of me.
The convoy left the parking lot outside the visitor's center at 10:00. The heat was already becoming semi-unbearable - a noticeable difference than Cairo or even Aswan. It took a full three hours to get back, but I actually enjoyed the drive. We were passing through true desert. Nothing but sand and rock as far as the eye can see. Occasionally we passed a series of high-tension power towers. I wondered how much that job would have sucked.
The next morning, we boarded a felucca which was our transportation toward the city of Luxor to the north. This day was essentially the opposite of our previous day - nothing planned, nothing to do. Just a lazy day and night on board a boat sailing down the Nile. The wind was blowing from north to south, so we had to tack the whole way, sailing from one side of the river to the other in a long zig-zag. There were a lot of other feluccas on the water, most heading the same direction as ours.
Interestingly, our boat was run by a couple kids (it seemed that way anyway). One was about 20, the other about 16. For as young as they looked, they both had the hands and feet of 60-year olds. They were pleasant enough, though they didn't speak any English. Mayer had to do all our translation, which was a blessing. After about 20 minutes of sailing, it was obvious they knew what they were doing. Mayer said, "Yeah, they were born on a boat". They really seemed to enjoy it as well, singing to themselves, and looking out to the water with calm, expectant stares. The younger one was apparently designated as our cook as well, as he started peeling potatoes and boiling water right on the boat. He had a large scar on the left side of his face running from his mouth to his ear. I wanted to know the story behind it.
We pulled over to a little island in the middle of the river around 6:00 and anchored for the night and had dinner. About five or six other feluccas did the same. To pass the time until dinner at 8:00, Mayer insisted on us singing. He was relentless - I stonewalled him as long as I possibly could. He eventually looked to Marc and Mia, the two Belgians, who ended up giving in and singing something in Flemish. Once finished, he turned back to me. No matter how much mis-direction or subject changing I did, he wouldn't leave me alone. I finally sang the only song I can possibly sing in a karaoke outing - Garth Brooks "Friends in Low Places". Don't ask how I know it - it's just one of those songs that gets stuck in some corner of the brain and is for some reason on speed dial. I belted it out as quickly as possible, which finally appeased our host.
Thankfully dinner was ready, which took the pressure off of us for a second round. Afterwards, Mayer and the young boatman listened to an Egyptian soccer game on a battery operated radio. It was amusing trying to keep up with it in Arabic. We all ended up falling asleep around 10:00, under the stars, and floating on the Nile. An experience I won't soon forget.