Thursday, January 10, 2008

Aswan, Egypt

Even though we felt refreshed after our night on the sleeping train, Eva and I weren’t quite prepared for the in-your-face, tourism centered feel of Aswan. Unlike Alexandria there are loads of tourists in Aswan and many of the locals make their livelihood from selling felucca (boat) rides on the Nile, pashminas, spices or tour packages. We made it to our hostel, Hotel Keylany, unloaded our luggage and set out to explore Aswan.

Our first stop was the Tombs of the Nobles which involved hiring a felucca to take us across to the West Bank of the Nile. Once there, we had to climb a very long series of stairs carved in the rock and covered in sand.

At the top, our Nubian guides unlocked several tombs for us. The tombs are carved out of the stone and were once filled with the remains of former rulers and nobles. Now, almost all of their mummies can be found in museums all over the world, but one room was still filled with baskets of bones.

It was very surreal to be able to be close enough to touch the drawings and carvings that have been there for thousands of years. We were also surprised that our so-called “tour guides” were just some random locals from a nearby village who split the baksheesh (tips) for giving tours amongst themselves.

Yesterday afternoon was spent exploring the city and the Aswan souk, said to be the second best souk in Egypt, after Cairo. We picked up a few more pashminas and debated the pros and cons of consenting to marriage with an Egyptian man. Six million camels is quite a dowry and was almost an offer we couldn’t refuse!

Dinner was at Aswan Moon, a restaurant that is literally a boat floating on the Nile. We were slightly disappointed by the watery lentil soup and the bland fare, but we did finally get to try Om Ali, an Arabian dessert we’ve been hearing loads about but hadn’t actually gotten to try yet. It was also a bit of a disappointment but we haven’t given up on it yet, considering nothing we had to eat there was that great – I guess this place is popular due to location!

We long night sleep which was abruptly halted by a cold shower – our water heater in our room wasn’t working! Luckily breakfast was so delicious we almost forgot about it – crepes, toast, honey, tea, fresh juice and fruit! We packed up our suitcases and headed out in search of a felucca to hire for the afternoon.

We didn’t have to search long as we were literally accosted by a felucca captain less than five steps from our hostel. We negotiated a reasonable 25 Egyptian pounds ($4) an hour rate and spent the afternoon sunning ourselves as our sailboat floated gently down the Nile. Due to poor [no] wind conditions on the return trip, we stayed out a bit longer than intended and had to scrap plans to visit Elephantine Island. It was okay though, an extra hour relaxing on the felucca was nothing to complain about!

When our boat docked, we opted to Al-Madena restaurant for lunch, instead of taking our felucca captain’s offer for a traditional Nubian lunch in his home. I finally got up the nerve to try pigeon - it came served whole and stuffed with rice and I managed to get about three bites of duck-like but gamey meat out of the bird before I cut my losses and focused on finishing the rest of Eva’s cucumber salad.

We returned to the souk after lunch and did some serious spice shopping, picking up some of the best spices Egypt has to offer (according to our salesclerk).

On the way back from the souk, we stopped back at our hostel for the sole purpose of going to the bathroom – from what we can tell, it’s the only place in Aswan that has a toilet with a bowl and a real toilet seat! It’s funny how this trip is making us appreciate those little porcelain luxuries!

Next we trekked up to (our rather paid a cab driver to drive us) to the Nubian House Restaurant out in boonies of Aswan. We were expecting a delicious, traditional Nubian dinner but were disappointed with oily soup and bland okra casserole – needless to say, our opinions of the food in Aswan aren’t very high! In addition, we had to wait almost an hour to get our food which made us nervous because we had a train to Luxor to catch tonight (that’s where I’m typing this entry from right now).

Overall, we’re definitely glad we came to Aswan. Despite the hassling of tourists and the disappointing food, t is very pretty and it was fun to catch a glimpse of the Nubian culture here. The souk was my favorite thus far and the felucca ride was a perfect way to spend a relaxing sunny afternoon. It’s getting harder and harder to even believe that back at home there are mounds of snow on the ground and people can’t walk around in sandals in the middle of winter!

Now, we’re on a train to Luxor and we’ve got just a week left of our fabulous adventure. It’s hard to believe two weeks have gone by already, but we definitely miss our friends and family back at home.

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