Jul 10, 2005
"Have fun exploring" says the Australian tour leader who is leading a tour staying at my hotel. I'm in a totally different mindset. To me the word "exploring" refers to heading somewhere tough, unknown, and way off the beaten path. Not someplace fun and well trodden.
I won't call it "exploring", but the Aswan Souk (market) adjacent to my hotel was lovely. There were olives, grapes, fruit, vegetables, fabric, meat, jewelry, and spices all for sale. The spices were in the most amazing colors - bright red, yellow, and blue. The Souk was only slightly ruined by souvenir shops, postcard vendors, and tattoo parlors. The touts all had their standard questions designed to get your attention: "Where are you from?" "Are you French?" "Do you remember me?"
The waterfront is lovely, but in a built-up Florida sort of way. The massive riverboats sit largely empty. I'm here in the low season. I think that I'd go nuts in the high season. "Felucca, felucca, felucca", call the touts. I believe that the Arabic word "felucca" just means boat. But when it's used with tourists it refers to the small sailboats on the river. And indeed, the tourists pile into them. I don't get it. What's the big deal, it's just a boat? Though, I did see lovely traditional boats in Sudan.
Overall, I'm trying to accept Aswan for what it is. It seems like a very nice place if you're into that sort of thing - holiday vacations, cruises, etc. - it's just not quite for me.
In the afternoon, I run into one of the people that I met at the wedding party the day before. He invites me along to the next part of that wedding that evening. We get a taxi, and drive into total insanity. There are scores of taxis, and dozens of video cameras with bright spotlights. I quickly realize that this can't be only for one wedding. I've been taken to the beauty salon district; full of nothing but beauty salons, and each one is getting ready for a different wedding. Apparently it's an Arabic holiday season, and a very popular time to get married.
I quickly see the bride and groom from the wedding that I'm now a part of. This is the first time that I've seen the groom. He's a short and stocky guy wearing a dark western suit. The bride is now in white. They jump into a car, and are gone.
My guide, the guy who took me down here, didn't really speak English so I started talking to someone else with much better English. About 10 minutes after the bride and groom took off, I realized that the guy who I'm talking to is actually with another wedding at the same salon. I've lost my guide, and lost my wedding. Oh well....
I meet some other tourists in the hotel, and spend the next couple of days doing touristy stuff. Our first stop was Elephantine Island, which contains a Nubian village containing twisty alleys and colorful buildings. The people are friendly. Those who speak English are trying to sell you something - tours, tea, and an absurd attempt to charge us 50 LE for a 100-meter boat ride. Those who don't speak English are simply friendly - one family who spoke only a few words of English invited us into their courtyard, and gave us free juice with big smiles. We get to the other side of the island, and find truly spectacular scenery. In front of us is a big mountain of sand, with the tan colors beautifully reflected on the water.
Our next stop was the botanical gardens on the next island over. We hail down a boat, and haggle down to the very reasonable price of 5 LE. But perhaps we underpaid, as he had us do most of the rowing.
I've been trying to enjoy things, even though they aren't as interesting or authentic as Sudan. But the botanical gardens were just terrible. The ticket booths at the entrance really are reminiscent of Disneyland. Inside, there is nothing at all of interest - or at least of interest to any of us - just some trees. We've had nothing to eat since breakfast, so we head over to the restaurant. The prices are almost the same as a theme park in America - $2 for a coke - $4 for an ice cream. That's way more than we were going to spend in a country where you can get a nice meal for $1. We decide to cut our losses, and head back to shore.
Another day, we decide to check out the big sand hill across the river. We haggle for a felucca to the east bank. The boat guide lies, lies, and lies to us, but we eventually get the price down to 20 LE. Later we learn that there is a passenger ferry for 1 LE, which will take you across the river.
When we leave the dock we come across a gate charging 20 LE to see some tomb. We have no interest in the tombs. We just want to climb the hill. So, we start walking around the fence. The fence ends, we find some stairs, passing by the tombs. This is the area that we were supposed to pay to enter, but the Egyptians were too lazy or cheap to build more than half a fence. The stairs are covered in sand and rocks and it's hard work climbing them. Eventually, hot and sweaty, we reach the top of the hill and take a rest beside a small temple. There is an amazing view down upon Aswan across the river from us, a village with all of the roofs done in blue on this side of the river, the Nile of course, and desert stretching out behind us. At sunset there is a prayer call, and the voices rise up beautifully to us from all directions.
Our plan from the beginning was to sand surf down the hill. But now that we're at the top of it, it seems impossibly steep. All of the sand seems pretty soft, so I take the first jump. Jump and slide. Jump and slide. Fantastic fun with an amazing view. For anyone visiting Aswan, I recommend giving it a try.
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