Inhuman Swill : Aswan

Death race 2008

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[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

We awoke at 2:45 am today. Well, I awoke earlier to deal with the unsavory consequences of our delicious meal at Makka. Sorry, Ali! I promise my heart will never stray again!

The reason for the early hour was to meet our guide Ahmet at 3:30 am, and thence to meet the Abu Simbel convoy at 4:00 am. Access to Abu Simbel is restricted to certain hours of the day, so buses and cars collect at the entry point to the route in Aswan, then are released to proceed at either 4:00 or 4:30, depending on how many vehicles have gathered.

When we heard the word "convoy," we thought of a rather stately, sedate procession. What actually transpired was a road race. For three white-knuckled hours, Ahmet piloted our van through the desert like the utter fucking lunatic he is, using whichever lane was most convenient, overtaking other drivers, tailgating another van for miles at a distance of a couple of feet at I-shit-you-not what had to be eighty miles and hour or more. I'm sure there were times we hit a hundred. Laura and I were each locked in our own private hells. All we could do was try to keep our eyes closed and pretend to be asleep.

As Ahmet explained once we arrived, he had to drive fast to beat all the other guides, because he has to give us his history spiel outside the temple site because guides aren't allowed to accompany tourists into the temples because of the cacophony that produces and he needs to give us the spiel while it's still quiet on the cafeteria plaza.

Right, whatever. He's still an utter fucking lunatic.

Abu Simbel consists of another pair of temples rescued from rising Lake Nasser. The site, now on the shores of the lake, is 280 kilometers south of Aswan (a distance we covered in two and a half hours) and only 50 miles north of the Sudan border. The temples themselves are amazing, one dedicated by Ramses II to himself, with colossal Ramses II statues outside and inside, and another dedicated by Ramses II to his favorite wife Nefertari, with colossal Ramses II statues outside. Oh, and a couple of Nefertari statues, too.

It was quite startling to think that we saw the actual mummified body on Friday of the man depicted on those statues. Very weird and wonderful.

Another harrowing race through the desert followed this blissful interlude, only this time Ahmet gave a lift to an Egyptian soldier who was fairly careless with his automatic rifle. It was only pointing toward me from the front seat for a few moments before Ahmet sort of resettled it more to his liking, but now added to the thrill of the chase was the expectation that any moment a stray bump would send a volley of lead spraying through the van. Lovely.

We made it back to the hotel, though, shaken and stirred, and now are resting until our evening train to Luxor at 5:45 pm.

[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

Saturday morning we slept in. Conveniently, our train had had some engine trouble during the night, so we wouldn't be reaching Aswan in the south of Egypt until after 11:00 am, which put us over two hours behind schedule. But this was good news for the exhausted lazyheads from Friday, who didn't have to be up at the asscrack of dawn.

In Aswan, at last, after more than fifteen hours on the train, our local tour representatives installed us in the Sara Hotel, a lovely hotel in a dusty, hilly neighborhood that's either half built or half decayed. Our guide that afternoon was a woman whose English was so thickly accented she was hard to understand for a while. (We were spoiled by Shiko's perfect English in Cairo.) She took us to the Aswan High Dam, rattling off facts and figures at a pace that was hard to follow.

After that, we drove a ways and then sailed by fellukah down the waters of Lake Nasser to the island site of Philae Temple. Philae is a temple from the Ptolemaic period, unmistakably Egyptian but with unmistakable Greek influences. It is one of the many temples and monuments that were relocated by UNESCO during the building of the Aswan Dam in the '60s. Otherwise they would have been flooded and lost.

Philae is a temple to Isis, and our guide took pains to point out the strong role of women in ancient Egypt. "Things are not so equal now," she said, the only political comment we would hear her make. (This is contrasted with hale, male Shiko, who took pains to point out to us on Friday how Egyptians still rever women.)

That evening, Laura and I took a shuttle from the hotel into town, where we had dinner at a small restaurant the desk clerk had recommended. Gorged ourselves, to be more accurate. Lamb roasted in vegetables, shish kabab, kofta, white beans, tahini, tabouli, rice, pita, mint tea ... we ate until we could eat no more, and then we ate some more. Sorry, Ali, but until later that night we were considering anointing a new Egyptian restaurant our favorite in the world.

After dinner we wandered through Aswan's souk, the market that extends blocks and blocks in every direction. We had become better at fending off pushy merchants, which is almost all of them, and then out on the main drag we got some more practice fending off beggars and hustlers. Our shuttle arrived at the prearranged location at almost the prearranged time, and whisked us back to the hotel for a few scant hours of rest.

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