Tuesday, September 15, 2009

As sweet as Aswan

Walking Treasures: town of Aswan

I made my way down to Aswan in a sun-set train ride through the North African country-side, along busy highways and through dimly lit villages. It was surprisingly comfortable in second class – aircon, huge seats, and attendants serving bread and drinks at breakfasting time.

Aswan is a bigger city than Luxor, and more intimately green. Its main pedestrianised souq (market) stretches some 3 kilometres across the city, and is pumping with local shoppers at 10pm at night. I wonder if the same level of activities during the evenings remain outside of Ramadan. The punters here seemed absolutely energised in the night, many drinking, eating and smoking sheesha at the cafes and juice bars, and others, especially well (but conservatively) dressed and groomed younger men and women, vied through all sorts of items of clothing and accessories, while others were simply doing daily household shopping. Shopping seemed like a big family even here. A big number of children were out and about, even that late in the evening, there were a good number of toy stalls dedicated to them. Lacking in the toxic-looking confessionary that my German kids liked, the youngsters here are the main consumers at the happy-healthy-tropical themed fresh juice bars. There were quite a few junky looking tourist stores selling papyrus paper and badly produced pyramid statues and what not, but the locals certainly out-number the tourists.

Floating Treasures: Mini Felucca trip

To the generations of people that lived and prospered along the Nile Valley, the felucca is an inseparable companion to their lives. Thousands of these basic, small but graceful and elegant sailing vessels line the towns on the Nile in Upper Egypt, traditionally the most important and only mode of transport for both people and goods up and down the Nile and towards the capital Cairo and the delta to the Mediterranean, and these days, they are the backbone of the most important economic source of the region – tourism.

In the morning I hired a felucca captained by Abdula, a very down-to-earth young Nubian guy to take me around the spots near Aswan. Apart from the fact that he was always trying to sneakily get more money out of me by sailing as slow as possible, taking the longest routes (he charges by the hour) and convincing me to stay as long as possible on shore, he’s actually quite likable. He seemed quite chuffed when I told him “You’re a much better sailor than my husband”. In turn, he entertained me with a recommendation of his favourite Nubian cuisine, a lot of reggae humming (the felucca captains here all seem to be obsessed with Bob Marley…) and a political analysis of the lyrics of ‘Buffalo Soldier’.

The African sun seems to be getting friendlier all the time, and this stretch of the Nile is truly stunning. The banks are lined with palms and greenery, framing off the dry desert on the two sides, kids and men of all ages taking a quick refreshing dip here and there, women washing clothes, feluccas, larger motor cruise boats, and occasionally a rare beautiful double-sail dahabiyya blowing in and out. In the middle of the river at this stretch lie several islets, one being a large island called Elephantine, with a few hotels, museums and a little Nubian village. Across the bank is an entire stretch of desert mountain range, where a number of tombs and temples sit at the top. But it was extremely hot and I was over temples, so I asked Abdula to take me straight to where I wanted to go – somewhere green, shady, and full of birds and flowers.

Next to Elephantine is Kitchener’s Island, entirely dedicated as Aswan’s Botanical Garden, initiated by Lord Kitchener in the 1890s. The island reminded me of the majestic treasure island in a Warner Brother’s movie length cartoon I used to love watching when I was a kid, kind of a natural sanctuary that magically grew out of barren brown land, a sort of sumptuous hide away that can take you away from your troubles temporarily and grant you any wish you liked. For me, it was the heat, the beeping of the taxis and the relentless touts of the city that I needed to be freed from . It was a very simple botanical garden, with the main collection being palms, but of the various flowers and climbers were in fact a brilliant minimalist combination, and I absolutely loved the slow pace of strolling and wood pecker watching on this islet environment, being able to see every side of my vision surrounded by a sheen of water.

The best thing of all to round up the day? A dip in my budget hotel’s rooftop swimming pool that had the most sensational panoramic view of the Nile with an ‘illegal beer’ I managed to barter. In the evening, I joined a local family in the souq at sunset time to observe breakfast – tables would be lined up out in the streets, and masses of food would be ready, as soon as the call from the mosque began, the elder men would start drinking and eating, and the younger men would fuss about swapping big plates of food from their shops with other shops food, until each ‘family’ pretty much have a big of everything from other families. I eventually settled down with a Nubian dinner of stuffed pigeon, orzo soup, bean stew, rice, salad and moist baked flat bread.

Sinking Treasures: Abu Simbel and Philae Temple

Due to the series of terrorist bombings in Egypt in the last 20 years, most foreigner traveling between the popular tourist trail from Aswan to Abu Simbel must do so as part of an official convoy – ie. armed police guarded processions of vehicles that leaves and returns at specific times of the day. Unfortunately, the one which my bus is on leaves at 4am… The mini buses drove around the Aswan hotels picking up individual tourists, then congregated at a square in town, and descend upon the desert with the armed police vehicles, like a line of ant eggs in the sand - looking bulk and invincible, but quite honestly, just ostentatiously out of its environment.

Abu Simbel is the southernmost main town of Egypt (just 40km from Sudan) and is famous for the magnificent and glorious Great Temple of Ramses II, and marks the geo-political territory of the pharaoh’s territory at the time (the temple was built 1274 – 1244 BC). It was lost to the world for many centuries after the fall of the ancient Egyptian empire, and only discovered in 1810s, with its façade almost all caked in sand, and took another several decades for the sand to be cleared off.
Fate also had it residing upon the volatile Nile, which determined the entirety of Egypt’s water supply. In the 1950s when it was decided that a great dam was to be made in Nubia to conserve water and control Nile’s annual flooding to support Egypt’s growing population, the Great Temple, along with hundreds of other ancient Egyptian ruins, Nubian historical sites and buildings, and not to mention hundreds of Nubian villages and their agricultural land were under threat of destruction. There were no other options for the Egyptian government but to go ahead with the dam, so a huge international architectural effort was made to conserve as much of the historical heritage of the area as possible. The giant statues of the temple was cut up and reassembled into an artificial cliff face some 65 meters above its original height, and the interior of the temple reconstructed and transferred to pretty much the exact appearance as it was found. As a total amateur, it was very hard to tell that such a great manuvour had occurred. The pure size, grandeur and awe of the temple was enough to drop one’s jaw.

Philae Temple, one of the monuments near Aswan where we visited later in the afternoon, was an example of another rescue attempt – stone by stone it was moved up to the island Agilkia where it now rests, otherwise, it would have been completely flooded by Lake Nasser (The name of the dammed catchment after Egypt’s first President). But where these monuments once were, and millions of people once called home, one of the oldest, richest, lushest regions of human civilization is now completely under water. No photographs, memories or laments could ever selvage them. The Nubian Museum in Aswan provides an account of that lost world, and the rescue effort that preserved a very small, but significant enough part of it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Let Loose in Luxor

Day light. A family of taxi drivers swarmed onto the bus and plucked me up and told me that we had arrived in Luxor. The desert night was far behind me, and I found myself in the middle of lush Nile Valley. We were on a busy road next to a stretch of fast floating stream, and the ride into town on a gentle breezy early morning was relaxed an scenic, passing power poles and palm trees, rich green paddies framed by deep purple bougainvilleas, mule carts, cattle, commuting locals and sporadic concrete and mud houses amongst the dusty side lanes.

Typically, the driver and his three young brothers were in fact employed by another hotel in town, and they, along with the hotel owner and two of his staff (that got into the car with me on separate occasions) wasted at least 40 minutes of my time trying to convince me to stay at their hotel, rather than the one that I specifically asked them to deliver me to. They drove me around and around town, pretty much in circles, no matter how much I protested. It was through pure determination and threats of going to the police that I was finally taken to the hotel I originally specified.

I ventured into town after a fantastic breakfast of Egyptian pancakes and a catch-up nap. It felt like I’d finally walked out of the manufactured paradise of Dahab into a real snapshot of Egypt. Just after midday in downtown Luxor, city life was in full swing. Shops and side-walks were set up with fresh produce in cane baskets, or on carts or simply in piles on a sheet of rag, many of them attended by veiled women. Shoppers with young children bartering and filling their arms with bags of food, young people with school bags and books wander and chatter in small groups, old men sitting cross-legged on the side walk leaning on their walking sticks, observing the lives of others.

The streets were crowded, often wet with waste water poured out from shops or homes, small clusters of rubbish and rotten food changing colour and smell every so often left unattended and trotted upon. The soundtrack was one of loud yelling from both men and women, cars and motorcycle horns tooting, the occasional but loud and distressing complaints from a donkey, and the rusty loudspeaker of the nearby mosque reminding the faithful of prayer time. Dusty and unkempt buildings of undefined architectural genres falling against each other, and every block or so there was a space of half demolished or half created building sites, rising and falling between spaces left available from the untouchables of historical and religious significance – the ancient Egyptian Luxor Temple, the grand Mosques and their minarets, the Colonial-era riverside mansions, and the timeless river Nile.

Fantastic rotisserie meal I had for 10 LE (1 GBP) – Quarter Chicken, rice, zucchini & eggplant stew, bread and eggplant dip, small salad (below left) ; The Train (below right)

My nose started bleeding on my way to the train station, these two lovely little girls gave sanctuary to me in their shop and looked after me

Valley of the Kings

This is the quaint and cute Kom Lolah village, just outside Habu Temple

The West Bank of Luxor is rural and quiet, with a few little villages scattered around. Surprisingly this sleepy atmosphere co-exist with one of the most important collections of ancient Egyptian heritage that is left today. Tourists and their buses buzz in and out around them, hardly ever spending a night here or even have a meal here after their quick sight-seeing, so apart from the obligatory souvenir selling which occurs mainly at the bazaars set up on the sights itself, the villagers just keep on living their normal lives like they always had.

In Ancient Egypt, Luxor was known as Thebes, and was the capital of the Middle Kingdom from 2055 – 1650 BC. It is hard to comprehend that one of the greatest civilisations of humankind once thrived here in this now quiet valley, with such advanced architectural technology, language and art that no modern societies today can directly make links with – and then for it all to perish again, just leaving traces of stories, mystical monuments and unsolvable puzzles for us to fascinate and ponder over. Along with another Kiwi traveler (a driller who lived on an oil rig in the Timor Sea), I visited Valley of the Kings – the sacred site of the comprehensive collection and system of royal tombs of Ancient Egypt, and subsequently gained world wide fame (or infamy) in the 1920s Egyptomania, after the discovering of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb and the ‘Curse of the Mummy’ saga which followed. Temple of Hatshepsut was ofcourse glorious and grand, most suited particularly as she was arguably one of the most powerful and capable woman rulers to have lived in both ancient and modern worlds. My favourite though was Habu Temple, a very aesthetically intriguing temple with different parts constructed in different styles as different rulers and inhabitants added/refurbished it through out the ages, until a plague was said to have wiped out the town that thrived around it in 9th century AD.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fahren fahren fahren auf die Egyptian Style

I am sure 11th of September is never a good date to take any public transport anywhere, but anyway here I am. I had missed the same once-daily bus scheduled for yesterday because of a communication mix-up with Day Light Saving during Ramadan, and I am not about to change any more plans. My bus journey will take somewhere between 17 and 22 hours, through desert terrain, across the Suez Canal, and along the Nile till I reach the Ancient Egyptian capital which is now named Luxor.

The staunch, weathered and bemoustached driver has hawk like eyes so piercing and sharp they can slice off a thousand heads. A dainty little love heart cushion hangs above his head next to a prayer poster embroidered with a frilly ‘I love you’. I am the only foreigner and the only woman on this bus surrounded by grumpy fasting men. The large man next to me is encroaching on my ‘air-space’ and kept rubbing his thigh against mine, and every time this happens I twitch and change position within my confined ‘cage’ of a chair. But the man behind me makes things worse by poking his naked toes between the seat and ‘scratches’ my back ‘for me’ whenever he feels like it. Every second passenger that walks past me as they enter the isle makes a glance and a sucking noise as they see me, and all I can do is cringe. I am alert and anxious, but wearily high on Sea-Legs, an NZ made motion sickness tablets that has seen me through many-a bumpy and long 20+ hour trips such as Canberra to Uluru, Sydney to Melbourn on boat, London to Amsterdam, coastal Croatia, Istanbul to Ankara… will I survive this one?

In the depth of the night the large man next to me falls so much asleep that his head collapses on mine, so quickly and so violently that it made a huge banging cracking sound as our skulls smash against each other – I let out the biggest scream in my whole life and the bus driver almost drove us off the road. Nothing he can’t handle, of course.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Watch the space

Hi Everyone! I'm having a great time in Egypt, Kathryn's freediving comps are going well, including getting a new NZ national record and a bronze in static, we're all terribly proud!

Apologies for recent slackness - relaxation is getting into the way of things! new posts listed and updates to come!

Recently Updated
Dahab – Sun, Sand, Sea
An Octopus's Garden
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Camp Stralsund Pics
My Simple Past
The Story of Berlin - Part IV

To Be Updated

Burning in Helsinki – and other travels in Scandinavia
Life is but a Dream
May Day '09 - Berlin

Dahab - Sun, sand, sea

The air is debilitating dry and when the hot desert wind blows, you feel particles of moisture being carried away from your skin, and a coating of thin light dust seem to always shroud and crust your entire body. It hasn’t rained for three years.

I am in Egypt for five weeks – first of all to cheer Kathryn on for the Triple Deep Freediving competition (for those of you that remember my last encounter with Kathryn’s sport in Slovenia) do a bit of tripping around Egypt, and hopefully I will do a refresher on my Open Water scuba license and do a few dives at the end of September.

I’m staying with Kathryn in her apartment she got there on and off during my time in Egypt, my rent for the month is a whopping 40 Great Britain Pounds. We share this with an English girl from North Hampton and a Finnish girl (but she only speaks Swedish) from Aland Island (which I know because we sailed past there a couple of weeks ago!!) To get to my base for the next four weeks - Round the corner from the main road, turning left from the pharmacy, at the ugly spray painting and the pile of rubbish turn left, walk past the spacious but dull empty looking one story dwellings, you will find the pink repetitive arch shaped wall, turn left again till you reach the ultimate land mark – a giant dried fish head in the middle of the street, about two steps away from an almost disintegrated carcass of an ill fated goat. Turn left again here and it’s the newly painted white wall, open the already rusted gate, you will find a brand new (though it doesn’t look it) apartment building housing a bunch of foreigners. Fridge full of bottled water, western style seated toilet, aircon in the main room and running fan in the others, canned food, wet-wipes, hippy deck out, and laptop equipment everywhere. It does remind me a little bit of the bizarre expat lifestyle in Bangladesh, this kinda jade pagoda kind of existence, everything a little makeshift, but nevertheless however much of the ‘first world’ one can try and implant into middle-of-no where, ie. the real world out there. Your meager income at home suddenly gives you the power to live like a queen, as you battle through local bureaucracy, and start planning where you will get your next beer.

Dahab is wedged between a magnificent mountain range and pristine coral ocean, the town is a small beach holiday town where its pretty much entirely dependant on tourism, mainly attracting the hippy backpackers and independent divers looking for a bit of peace and quiet, more or less a sanctuary away from the large scale resort towns of Sharm El Shiek or Hurgharda (package tourist towns on the Red Sea that shows absolutely no hint of its ancient civilization, just a modern catastrophe of an over-development of sterile environmentally-destructive resorts full of beer-bellied European tourists looking for their next holiday fling in casinos drenched in cheap beer and perfume). Dahab started life as a Bedouin settlement, and only grew to the size of today because of the popularity of the coral reefs and the Blue Hole – a big 90 meter drop in the ocean that attracts freedivers world over to test their strength and endurance. The atmosphere here is relaxed, chilled, and while still commercial to an extent, everything is small scale and slow paced. The locals are always keen to make a good buck out of the visitors, but nothing like the pushy Thais or Moroccans that I’ve encountered, and they are so used to tourists of every colour and creed (even tolerating bikini clad tourists in the main stretch) that I am rather immuned so far from being starred at or being yelled “Japan! Japan!” at.

The living standards and economic welfare of this town seems very good compared to a lot of other developing communities I’ve traveled to. While the buildings look very makeshift and as if they are made out of cardboard boxes, but nevertheless uncrowded and well-kept, and the rubbish situation a little concerning, but there is very little sign of extreme poverty. I am not sure if being here during the middle of Ramadan has something to do with it, it would be interesting to see whether this changes later on. I have seen absolutely no homeless people or beggars, the kids all look pretty well-looked after, and there is a very happy and content vibe amongst the locals. The gender divide is a little bit more wider than I originally thought, it could be because this is such a remote and isolated town, conservatism seem to maintain as the norm. Women are of course clad in their burkas, and don’t generally venture out more than 500m from their door. I thought they would at least be a little bit more visible on the streets even if they don’t ‘formally’ work on the shop fronts etc, but the only time we see women are after sunset (and this again, could be the affect of Ramadan) where they hover around their front doors in the dark with their young children and exchange a few words of gossip with the neighbours. They are very friendly to me, probably because I operate more or less alone and without any male companions, they will converse with me in Arabic and let me touch their babies and say hello to their younger children.

Its interesting observing Ramadan in full swing. As I described before, the temperature in the middle of the desert is unbearably hot, even in September. Without a drop of water from sunrise to sunset, the locals mope around lethargically in the heat. The streets are bare and empty during the day, almost resembling a ghost town, except for the herds of goats without minders that rummage through the rubbish that clogs every corner. Unfortunately, by the esplanade’s beach café area, the locals still have to work for the tourists that eat and drink normally during the day, I can see how tiring it is, and how tormenting it is to be around water and food all day. ‘Breakfast time’ at sunset is quite amusing to watch. Kat and I were talking to Massage-Mo (ie. the Mohammad that runs the massage-beauty clinic) just before sunset on the strand, he had his cigarette already clutched in his sweaty hands ready to be lit up as soon as the call from the Mosque breaks out. As soon as the prayer rang out, men would emerge from the shops carrying trays of drinks (milky smoothy type stuff) and cartons of water, and offer it all round, even to us. The men would guzzle them down like drain pipes, and then settle down in circles on tables or on the ground where pre-prepared food would be unwrapped and wolfed down in minutes. Then more food would come out in platters, and then they settle down for cigarettes and shisha. The town becomes a lot more livelier in the evening, but not by much. The touts do become just slightly more boisterous, as the paper lanterns and fairy lights glisten in the bay. Little girl on inline skates rolling about giggling on the esplanade and young men play hand-bat tennis. Beach town lifestyle; roll on the days.

Freediving Competition update

What a difference two years makes – Kathryn’s onto her sixth international competition now, and a World Record (and a new boyfriend) under her belt. I am still fat.

(But my abs must be shrinking automatically just being in the presence of these trim and well toned athletes). Its been an absolute pleasure hanging around here chilling out and watching the competition progress, the trials and tribulations, the equipment failure, the triumph of the human spirit, and a bit of kinky yoga. I even tried out my first ever static under Kathryn’s watch – I did a 2:45 Personal Best (by default, of course) which is not bad for a first one, I am told.

What is now different in Dahab compared to Slovenia is that this is depth rather than length, out in the ocean, in a deep cavity of 90meters. It’s less of a spectator sport than in the pool, but nevertheless exhilarating watching these athletes from an eclectic mix of countries and backgrounds try and smash their own, their country’s and the world’s biggest achievements. I camp out on the beachside café with Middle-Eastern style sitting lounges over looking the reef, serving the most fantastic moussaka and mango lassi, and go for a bit of a dip and snorkel whenever the heat beckons.

The results - our Kiwi Katfish Kathryn took Bronze on first day at Static with 5 minutes 25 seconds, a National Record in Monofin on the second day with 58 meters, and a Gold for overall best achieving team – more on her blog.

But for me – Party! (and another Jeepatastic ride home)