Following a conversation with the local tourist office (a brave one man show), a travel agency, and some surfing on the web, we were unimpressed and came to the conclusion that it would be best to drive up to Luxor. After a walk through the surprisingly civilized souk, we wanted to take a ferry ride to the two Nubian villages on Elephantine Island. Before the existence of Aswan, the pharaonic-era town of Swenet was on the southern end of the island and thrived over centuries as a trading post. Before we could get on the ferry, however, we had to throw a fit with the young fellow running the ticket office for trying to double our already overpriced ticket. Only after intervention by a local who had been overhearing our discussion and impressed with Katheryn’s tenacity, the fellow gave in and let us on board for the normal (white people) price.
As we disembarked, Mustafa, our new local ally who appeared to be a Nubian village elder, asked us if we were interested in him showing us around his town. Since he did so in a very charming and unimposing manner, we went along with it and we are glad we did. He led us to various picturesque spots off the beaten track on Elephantine Island and explained to us many aspects of Nubian history and culture: the migration of the Nubians from Southern Egypt to Aswan after their villages were inundated as a result of the building of the High Dam in the 1960s; the crocodile heads hung above the doors to keep evil spirits out of the houses; and the weddings festivities (lasting 3 days) that constitute the highlights of the village year. Although living standards in the Nubian villages, consisting mainly of mud-brick houses, are visibly poor, Mustapha calls it "paradise" away from the traffic, concrete, and anonymity of Aswan city on the other side of the Nile. After our tour, he took us to a Nubian House, a sort of social club, for a drink on its rooftop. We were the only guests so we ended up in a long conversation with the young host while overlooking the Nile and lit landmark buildings such as Aswan’s Coptic Church and the Old Cataract Hotel (which used to be one of Francois Mitterrand’s favorite holiday spots). After we said our goodbyes we went to the Aswan Moon restaurant for dinner. While considered one of the better places in town, the vegetable moussaka and kofte we ordered were average at best. We slowly started to realize that Egyptian cuisine and culinary traditions are not terribly interesting. For an ancient civilization like Egypt this is strange and disappointing.
The next morning we were invited for a nice cup of Senseo coffee (popular in Europe) by the owner of our hotel, Abdul, who happens to be married to a Dutch woman. After showing us around in his house he soon started to tell us his life story: how he was “wild” as a young man, but turned his life around when he met his wife (who works for the Dutch Ministry of Justice and with whom he has 2 kids) and rediscovered his religion. He is now proud to respect his wife and God, and, as if to remove any doubts on our part, exclaimed that many women in his country are “victims” of a male-dominated society. We were not sure what motivated this apparent PR stint. While entertaining, it was also a tad suspicious. Afterwards, we went back to the souk to buy some dried hibiscus (popular in local tea) and saffron. At one of the newsstands we learned about the ungracious fall of the longtime Tunisian president, Ben Ali - an incredible development. We then proceeded to the Nubian Museum. While definitely a step up from the Egyptian Museum in terms of maintenance (the museum opened not too long ago), the organization of the exhibit was equally confusing. That evening we decided to have a Nubian-style dinner at the hotel. It was the best meal of our stay in Egypt, which included a tomato-based camel stew and some breaded chicken fillets. We also enjoyed the company of two Belgian couples who were also staying at the hotel.
Day 3 was the big day we’d been awaiting for this leg of the trip. After a quick tour at the nearby Tombs of the Nobles, we drove to the meeting point of the 11am “military convoy” would depart for Abu Simbel. As soon as the convoy took off, it became clear that there was nothing really military about it. We did not spot a single police or military vehicle along the way, and the train of cars didn’t really stay all that much together. Abu Simbel was built by the mightiest of the pharaos, Ramses II (1279-1231 BC). The statues outside and the war-themed reliefs inside the two temples, one dedicated to Ramses II and the other to his wife Nefertari, are absolutely breathtaking. This is the case even when you realize that both where physically moved here (an astounding engineering feat) shortly before the construction of the High Dam to prevent them from being submerged under the water. The 6 hour round-trip by car had definitely been worth the effort. Back at the hotel, we had another excellent Nubian-style dinner with fish as the central ingredient. The Nubians seem to be the only ones in Egypt caring for a meal that not only fills you up, but actually tastes good…
Next Stop: Luxor
A bit later than planned, we were finally headed to Aswan – Egypt's southern frontier town and gateway to Africa. On our drive from Aswan Airport to our hotel, Beit El-Kerem, we witnessed a colorful sunrise while surrounded by a desert landscape. Once arrived at the hotel, which is located at the outskirts of a Nubian village on the West Bank of the Nile, a nice buffet breakfast comprising freshly made pancakes, omelets, falafel, cheeses, local honey, and Egyptian sandwiches, was ready to be served on the hotel’s rooftop. It was pretty chilly to be eating outside this early in the morning, but after Cairo’s chaos we enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere as well as the rooftop views on the Nile river and the Tombs of the Nobles (dating from the Old and Middle Kingdom) carved into a nearby mountain slope. After a satisfying breakfast with some much needed caffeine, we headed into town using a local ferry service to see what our options were for getting on a Nile cruise sailing up to Luxor.