Thursday, February 23, 2012

If You've Drunk from the Waters of the Nile...Day Four

We should be having the time of our lives, and we really are. We wanted to go on our own to Egypt this time, and that's what we're doing. But we have new challenges each day. We never know what situations we're going to get into, or how we're going to get out of them. Even the weather's an issue. Yesterday was overcast and the river was as still as glass. No sailboat ride possible, no picture-book sunset. Today it's overcast again, but not from clouds. This is a windstorm, and what looks like heavy clouds is merely dust. My lungs, having to inhale tiny particles, are challenged. I'm beginning to wonder if this is the best climate to heal from sinusitis. But the air is warm and comforting. Yes, we'll rise to the challenges of the day, even though it seems we're getting quite a lot of them.

Each day we encounter crass businessmen. We both feel some tension in wondering how we're going to fend them off or deal with them. I'm beginning to think that all this male attention I'm getting is a strategy. I bet they watch us coming, and in a split second suss out who is their most likely victim. People always ask us where we are from. If it's me who says "Germany", they sometimes say, "But you're not German." They tell me they can tell from my smile - it's American, they say. Always watching, looking for who's most likely to succomb to their perfected sales strategies.

But today it is Peter who wakes up angry. He's angry at Mahmoud, who wants to arrange all our time. He's also angry at Yassir, who has charged us a fortune for the trip to Daraw. And for the trip to the airport - €30.  It probably wouldn't cost near that much in Cologne. These are bargains for our travel group? Pul-le-e-a-se.

Peter has also come up with an analogy. It's true that everybody smiles at us. But crocodiles smile too, as they snatch their victims into their huge gaping snouts. Is this a country of crocodiles? Mahmoud tells us of the murderous government of Mubarek, who had thousands of people killed. If people didn't like something he did and dared protest, he killed them. Now the military is killing people. Is this country, where people smile all the time as they try and sell you more and more, a group of murderers?

Botros, our friendly Coptic driver, meets us promptly at 9 am. Even though Yassir probably overcharged us for this trip, we feel protected by Botros. For one thing, he doesn't speak enough English to be able to rip us off. And there's the fact that he is Coptic. A Christian. He seems so gentle and nice, even if he hardly speaks any English. And he wears western clothes instead of a gallabiya. It does make a difference as to our feeling of security, whether it's founded or not.

It's quite a long drive, and we get a good feeling for rural Egypt. Little farms with people bending over their crops. There are lots of share taxi stops, where we see people waiting to be picked up, or climbing out of packed vans. There's only one two-lane road between Cairo and Aswan, and we're on it. On our left is the Nile, on our right the railroad tracks - the Cairo-Aswan line. When Botros approaches one of the many huge potholes in the road, he just veers into the left lane for a while. Somehow he manages to avoid hitting anyone.

Finally we reach Darwa. Unbelievably primitive! There are chickens running around all over, the houses look like filthy hovels, the muddy paint blending with the mud, and the streets are unpaved. Botros turns onto one of these dirt roads, drives a while on this road, then turns off this one onto another, and then parks at the edge of the road.

"Camel market this way," he says and points us to a side street, where we see a chaotic procession of pick-up trucks, motor scooters, three-wheeled tuk-tuks and various biblical shepherd-looking characters ambling along the road, carrying what looks like staffs or poles. 

Botros walks between both of us, not favoring either of us. Occasionally he shouts, "Attencion! Gamoose!" He keeps switching between English, French and Arabic. We think gamoose means "cow", but we're not sure, because we're not sure what this animal is we keep seeing walking along the road, or sticking out of a pick-up truck.

We arrive at the market and see a mass of hundreds of men and boys, pick-ups and various animals running around - goats, sheep, cows or water buffaloes, and of course, camels. I am the only woman here, and Peter and I the only tourists. Thank goodness we have Botros with us! As usual, I feel the attraction the men have for me. I don't know what it is about me that attracts them, but I feel their eyes. I hear some men talking together about me - "beautiful" - "beautiful". I try to ignore them. I don't think I'm beautiful, anyway. I feel a tiny bit afraid. I feel like I'm almost alone in a sea of biblical Philistines, protected only by Peter, who's in reality as unprotected as me, and Botros. Then I see a boy of about ten, driving a scooter all by himself. Our eyes meet briefly. He looks so proud to be driving this all by himself. So would my Jon have felt in his position. I feel human fellowship with him. 

Once in a while we come upon a tender scene - a goat clambering onto the leg of a boy, boys carrying baby goats or sheep. But it's mostly machos we see. These things people carry that remind me of gentle Psalm 23 - "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." Well, these rods are sticks, and everybody's beating their donkeys, or cows, or water buffalo, or camel. Gentler persuasion hasn't worked, so now it's time for brute force.

We watch a heart-wrenching scene. Someone who has just bought a camel is trying to coax it it into his pick-up truck, but the camel isn't even slightly interested in being roped onto a truck. The men begin to beat it on the back, while the new owner tries to pull it with a rope into the truck, but the camel won't budge. It has one leg tied up anyway - it won't run away. Then another comes and ties a rope around the camel's hind end and belly. He beats and beats and pulls and pulls. Bit by bit, it slides up slightly further into to the truck to avoid the beating. What a nasty trick! Finally it's in. They quickly snap the back opening shut. We see the same thing happen to a cow and a donkey. 


This is a tug of war, also of our hearts. We are appalled, but also transfixed. Here is something we could never have imagined experiencing. We see a huge piece of fabric strung overhead, supported on stilts, like a pavilion. Carpets cover the sand. People drink tea here and smoke sheesha.  

Young boys keep coming up to us, asking for money, getting in my way with their donkeys when I try to take a picture, so I get them in a picture and then have to give them baksheesh. I have no more coins. I spent them all on getting suitcases carried.

We see colorful wares like blankets, ropes, metal accessories, harnesses, saddles, being sold on blankets placed in the dirt. Just like in Africa. Well, technically we are in Africa. 

A nice scene - we see people feeding donkeys some green branches, others feeding themselves sugar cane. In one section of the market we see dead animals - huge chunks of meat being hacked up. In another section, cloth, but only in white or pale lavendar, which must be for turbans. Still, a man beckons to me to buy, but I don't need any turbans.

A very dusty, windy day and ride home. My lungs don't feel so great. But I watch the houses as we pass by. Really primitive, but I'm beginning to look differently. This time I pay attention to the ways people do something to try and make their homes look nicer. Many homes are graced with parallel a color combination or bricks in different colors. 

We ask Botros to let us off at a bank in Aswan. Even this is an adventure. We need to change euros into pounds, so we have to go upstairs and wait for our number to come on the screen. A woman in a black niqab sits next to us. There is a black string separating the slit for her eyes, so that she can see a little.  Everything is covered - even her hands are in gloves. But her shoes are pink.

Botros and we separate, since he has done his job of taking us to the market. It's midday, and there's a church service we want to have a peek at. The lady at the Coptic cathedral told us that there is a special service to end a three-day fast. The Copts fast before the feast of Jonah, who also had to fast for three days in the belly of the whale. Today they will go to church for a three-hour service, and then break the fast. We see women on one side with children, men on the other. Both women and men have their bodies entirely covered, the women wearing scarves. I'm inappropriately dressed in my capris and short sleeved shirt. But at least I have a scarf along, so I cover my head. A cantor sings rhythmic, catchy music. The church is packed, and the people are serious, paying attention. Many carry little loaves of bread. As with the Muslims during Ramadan, they are allowed to eat after 5 pm every day, so their fast hasn't been too bad. They do show a lot of commitment - you wouldn't find many in Germany or in the US willing to fast for three days.

Back to the hotel, then later in the afternoon for yet another adventure, on the falouka with Mahmoud. We have tried to call it off by calling his cell phone, but it doesn't work. We show up promptly at 3:30, but don't see Mahmoud.  Then he suddenly appears out of nowhere. I hear a hotel employee talking about us. "Alemani," he says.

Mahmoud greets us and brings us to a boat, where two men are waiting. He has brought two of his Nubian friends along. One of them operates the boat, which I learn doesn't belong to him. Being with Mahmoud is like being with my brother Rod. You never quite know what will happen. The wind is very strong, and the boat leans low in the water several times. Are we going to fall into the Nile? I wonder how expert a sailor this guy is, but he doesn't seem perturbed.

Mahmoud tells us that his friends have had no business for months, that he wanted to share this with them. We seem to be the big hit among the wheelers and dealers of Aswan tourism. We are finding out that everybody knows all about us. He tells us about everybody at the hotel, and he must tell everybody at the hotel about us - or they spy on us, telling each other about our daily business. Mahmoud now tells us that Yassir asked him this morning how much Mahmoud is charging for the trip Kalabcha. So now Yassir knows why we're so slow to pick up on his "special offers for his special guests". He realizes now that we're getting a better deal from Mahmoud.

We enjoy the ride, and the huge elephant-like rocks are still there, the charming egrets still wading in the water. But the mood isn't magical, like it was in October. Now we listen to horror stories from a man we're not sure we can trust, and his English is just good enough to make us wonder sometimes exactly what he's telling us. We pass an unfinished hotel next to the Mövenpick, on Elephantine Island. Mahmoud tells us that Mubarek's son owns this hotel, half of the Mövenpick and half of the Isis Island Hotel as well. And he lets us know that the entire hotel staff of our hotel is talking about us. How does he know so much? He gossips about lots of people - we pass a boat and he says, "They're from France, staying on a boat for three days." Or "That boat is owned by an Englishwoman. Her boyfriend put a flag of Bob Marley on there because he's into reggae." Mahmoud tells me about a rich Belgian woman he knows who lives somewhere nearby. "She want to marry me," he says. "But she's an old lady - she's 60. I don't want to marry an old lady." Does he know that he's talking to an old lady?

Just as I think we're finally going to finish our trip - LE30 an hour, remember? - we turn out again and head for the Nubian village on Elephantine Island. We find ourselves in a Nubian home up on the roof, drinking hibiscus tea, while the owner shows us Nubian artwork he has for sale. He has a live crocodile in a covered aquarium up there! Downstairs, we see people sitting on cushions on the ground, also a small Ipad or notebook on a low table. This house has electricity and running water, but the way these people live reminds me of camping - it all feels very primitive. We leave the house and walk along dark dirt alleys, passing kids playing. They stare at us. We catch a glimpse of a turquoise-walled store stocked with something or other. We see garbage burning like ghostly bonfires in the night.

We come upon three large houses at the edge of this sandy village. These houses belong to Europeans. This one belongs to a German who got healed at the same spa I'm going to. In gratitude, she built the house and and moved into the upper floor with her husband. The masseur lives downstairs. An Austrian built another, and a Spanish person built the third. How could any European live there among the sand and garbage, in the midst of squalor? This village is so rough, so unfamiliar!

We leave Mahmoud LE100 for our time, but he won't accept the money for himself. We have to give it to the falouka captain.  So now, we have no idea how much he is getting for our ride, and how much he is going to share with his friends.

Back in the security of our hotel room. We've survived another adventure on our own. As unfamiliar as everything feels, there's a thrill to the adventure. We've successfully completed another day on our own in a land that is still unknown, even though we've been in Aswan once before. It is becoming more familiar, though, - and precious - day by day.

1 comment:

From A Travellers Desk said...

I read your story line by line. My experience in that North African country is nothing compared to yours. I really like how you tell your story. Very interesting and full of suspense. I really do not know what will happen next ~ just like Rod.