A train deposited Iain and I in Aswan four hours behind schedule. A crowd of soldiers in combat uniforms guarded the platform, torso sized shields in their fists. A large group of convicts had been transported in the train that had taken us overnight from Cairo.
“We must hurry now,” said Omar, who strode through the station lobby, looking back to see if we were keeping up. “The bus to Aswan Dam will be waiting for you.” We had somewhat reluctantly booked a week long trip from Aswan to Luxor, including a night in a felucca on the Nile and visits to various ancient sites. Police escorted convoys have become compulsory for tourists travelling between the two cities because of Egypt’s recent terrorist attacks. It is difficult and time consuming for independent travellers to join these convoys, and most surrender to a package tour. And so it was that we became two among a group to be shepherded along this over-trodden tourist trail. Already it felt against the grain.
We followed behind Omar closely, my backpack weighing down on a hungry, exhausted body. The ‘Tourist Breakfast’ on the train had been obscenely overpriced; we avoided it. Sleeping sitting up had only been as comfortable as, well, sleeping sitting up. A meal and a shower were foremost in my mind. And there would be enough time for both, Omar promised, even if lunch was a takeaway eaten on the bus.
At the station exit, he stopped, and turned to face the passengers still making their way from the train. “Excuse me, lovely hotel, three stars, attached bath…Excuse me ma’am, I have a lovely hotel, three stars… ” Hotel business cards were fanned from his fists at each white face which hurried toward the exit, their heads shaking. We watched him for a moment, stunned, as he continued to solicit business from every tourist that passed, until eventually Iain spoke.
“I thought we were in a big hurry to catch this bus,” he said, annoyed, as we stood, laden.
“Yes, this train is four hours late. It is a government problem,” Omar said. He glanced at his watch symbolically, but continued to flag down every disinterested tourist in sight for the next five minutes, determined to pack more bodies into the bus.
Two minutes in the hotel shower had to suffice, after which we ran down the stairs to buy a takeaway kebab from the stall across the road. But there was Omar, outside our hotel, clapping his hands like seal, shouting “Hurry, hurry, the bus is leaving!” It was two in the afternoon and viewing the Aswan Dam had become less essential than putting something in my stomach. I told Omar as much. “No, no,” he insisted, “You can eat anything when you get there, there are many places.” So into the bus we were piled, toward the Aswan Dam, Iain cursing our package tour decision under his breath.
An hour later we arrived at the most unspectacular site I have ever travelled to see. A kiosk stood on the side of the road, beside the dam, selling nothing but crisps, chocolates and mineral water for exactly five times the price of anywhere in Cairo I’d been. I was livid. But there was another site to be seen that day, our offhand tour guide told me, so I opted to wait until there, where surely Omar’s array of restaurants would materialise.
The Temple of Philae stands on Aglikia Island, which we reached by boat after another hour’s bus ride. It was dedicated to Isis, who, according to legend, found the heart of her slain brother Osiris on Philae Island, where the temple was originally built. The damming of the Nile had made submerging Philae Island inevitable, and the temple was relocated to nearby Aglikia Island.
Our tour guide was an annoyingly fast-spoken man, of the belief that he speaks English well. His monotone, rote-learnt mythology blurbs were either difficult to make out, or completely incomprehensible. Any request for clarification was met with impatience, annoyance, and a hasty repetition of the last sentence he had uttered.
“This columns was made in Roman era, with the hieroglyphs representing the magic words, symbols and spells of the ancient Egyptians.” But every hieroglyph we encountered represented “the magic words, symbols and spells of the ancient Egyptians.”
He led us from section to section of the vast temple structure, sparing a couple of minutes in each to rattle off unintelligible ‘facts’ or Egyptian myths before clapping his hands for us to follow him into the next area. Pausing after the crowds had dispersed – to snatch a glimpse at any of the fascinating history that lay before us – was not included in his ‘tick each temple off the list’ program.
We left, our hunger replaced by infuriation as smug men quoted unreasonable first and even second prices for a packet of Marie biscuits; the only edible item on the island.
Iain wolfed down his breakfast the next morning – having overslept slightly – so as to be ready in the lobby for our felucca trip at “9am sharp”, on Omar’s instruction. Omar strolled in at 9:30 and led us the few minutes down the street to the felucca dock; an extra journey for him, he reminded us, because the rest of the group had been left there after their trip to Abu Simbel that morning. We had declined the 4am departure to drive two hours in convoy, each way, to see this temple, much to Omar’s annoyance. “All the tourists go Abu Simbel,” he said in disbelief.
We joined two yawning Australians on the white painted wooden boat, stored our luggage in a hold and sprawled out in the sun, where a mattress covered the wooden deck. Within an hour, a French and a Spanish couple clambered aboard, and we were off along the longest river in the world, to escape all but the Nile’s beauty, and tranquil repose.
Sailing slowly in the felucca, the waters swept softly all around us; the wind nudged gently at the sail, then retreated, leaving us floating inch by inch through the Nile. The current seemed stilled. We passed canoes with solitary fisherman inside and tall minaret’s towers that peeked over thick clusters of slender palms, stretching their necks in the sun. The beige sail swayed in the wind’s erratic breath, winding the boat vaguely in the direction of Luxor, along unhurried curves and bends.
Pages of novels were turned; the chatter on the felucca was soft. This was forced relaxation: nothing could become a chore, or grounds for frustration.
The felucca’s captain began to confirm our itineraries. These varied from couple to couple: some would spend two nights onboard, some one, according to their respective tour company’s package. The young Australians had been booked on for two nights, which vaguely surprised them; they had been unsure what exactly they were paying for. The French couple’s two nights were confirmed, along with one night for us and the Spaniards. But the Spaniards insisted they be sailed to the location of the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris, in Kom Ombo – for which they had already paid.
The captain laughed. Kom Ombo was an hour’s drive away from the point where the Spaniards, Iain and I would disembark the next morning; it could take a day or more to sail that far. Our tour company had arranged for a minibus to transport us to the temple, but the Spaniards’ tour company had promised their arrival by felucca. They would have to pay for their own transport, in our prepaid minibus, the captain explained.
The frizzy haired Spanish woman – the English speaker of the couple – argued with the captain to no avail. Their tour company had promised them a felucca trip to Kom Ombo. The captain repeated, calmly, firmly, that on an overnight felucca trip, this was a physical impossibility.
“They said to Kom Ombo… ” she pressed; a final exasperated moan. But she could argue no more: the captain had spoken.
The Spaniards murmured to one another; the woman could not hide her annoyance at the extra cost of transport to the site. “Cheating… lying…” she muttered amidst Spanish phrases, scowling at the captain openly. The peaceful atmosphere on the boat was far from retrievable.
Silently, we watched the sun set over the pink dusky water. The fertile lips of the river darkened in the shadow, and beyond its banks, the dusty desert disappeared. A flying ‘V’ of Egyptian geese sailed past the setting sun, and the waters froze; a perfect mirror.
The captain – Captain Cool, he insisted we call him – was unperturbed by the hostility from the Spanish woman. The Australians and the French were set to spend a second night, which we could still be sold.
“Tomorrow will be very good,” Captain Cool promised. “We go to camel fair, we dance, we drink beer, very good tomorrow!” He produced a crumpled book containing travellers’ testimonies to the wonderful time they’d had on the captain’s boat.
Captain Cool IS cool! a Brit had written.
The camel fair was so much fun! exclaimed an Australian.
“We get camel meat,” the captain said, “we get beers… You give little extra money for this things. We do not get paid money by the agency – only what tips we get.” He expected me to believe that the tour companies did not provide a per head payment, out of which food was bought and earnings were taken; a lie so pathetic it didn’t deserve challenging. His deceit meant little; we did not want to leave the languid waters.
He dialled our tour company’s number on his mobile phone, and passed it to me. “You say there is only you and your friend on the boat,” he added hastily, and shot an anxious look in my direction.
Another day on the felucca seemed an idyllic substitute to rushed temple tours and salespeople touting for business. But our place in the convoy had already been booked, the tour representative told us; we would have to follow our original schedule.
After some scraping and shuffling at the front of the felucca, supper was produced: a plate of falafel, a pita each and a few cucumber slices; this was to be shared between the eight of us. Everyone tentatively half-filled their pitas with falafel and a few slices of cucumber, so that the paltry meal might be shared by us all. Nobody asked if more was available, we were sure it was not.
“Food is good?” Captain Cool asked cheerfully.
“Yes,” we all nodded; the food’s flavour could not be faulted.
“Felucca is good?” Now he pre-empted us, his head nodding.
Nobody, besides the Spaniards, had any reason to be unhappy, and now we had admitted this; he would remember at the end of the ride when he collected his baksheesh.
Already moored on the Nile’s bank the next morning, we were woken with bread, jam and Nile water tea. We gobbled the breakfast, and clambered onto the shore to perform our morning ablutions in whatever foliage presented itself. Captain Cool stood ashore, waiting. Iain had, ready in his pocket, our tip for the cook and the captain, which he handed to Captain Cool, thanking him. The captain looked down at the notes and counted them.
“And for the cook?” he asked, artlessly.
“This is for you and the cook,” Iain replied, confident that we had tipped generously. Such open ungratefulness did not come as much of a surprise: we had encountered greediness and – what was to us – blatant rudeness elsewhere in Egypt; by now we almost expected it.
A minibus drove us the remainder of the way to Kom Ombo, the site of the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris, where we were offloaded about 200 metres away from the entrance. We waded through a row of shouting souvenir sellers: “Fifty! FIFTY!” they screamed fiercely. One man began his hustle with the familiar, “Just look, have a look here,” and proceeded to follow beside me while the last scrap of politeness I had in me persisted, “No thank you… No, no thank you.” I sped up when he didn’t relent, but he too picked up pace, finally flinging the white tunic he was holding in front of my face, forcing me to trail headfirst through it until the garment, and he, were behind me. In your face was literal here.
Dedicated to the falcon-headed sky god and the local crocodile god – sacred crocodiles basked on the river bank here in ancient times – the temple occupies an outcrop at a bend in the Nile; a spectacular location. We wandered through the large temple structure, marvelling at sculpture so elaborate and well-preserved its age was difficult to comprehend. The hieroglyphs – tiny raised stone reliefs, or carved indents – showed bird’s profiles, axes and water bearing women: all intricate elements of a mysterious language, blended with art. In hieroglyphics, a vulture represents the Upper Kingdom: Egypt’s modern day South. Some vulture images we saw carried an ankh in their claws; the ankh symbolises eternity. Hieroglyphics are comprised of a cornucopia of complex symbols; an encoded language still not fully deciphered today.
I stood there, trying with every aspect of my self to imagine the era out of which the stonework enveloping me had come; to visualise the kind of people who had created this magnificence. I begged myself to let go of modern Egypt and its depravity, so I could ponder the Egyptians that came before them, and the tragically lost civilisation of that land.
Our visiting time had been severely limited, and we reluctantly made our way back to the bus, where the driver had rudely ordered the group to meet by eleven o’ clock sharp, in time for the next convoy. We sat in the full tourist vehicle while the driver wandered around outside – talking on his phone, chatting to other drivers – until twenty minutes past eleven, when we pulled away.
At Edfu’s Temple of Horus, a short drive away, Iain and I followed the signs to a toilet, past refreshment stalls where men yelled, “Coca Cola! Coca Cola! COCA COLA!” Their voices revealed confusion: they reformed the syllables, as if to ensure our comprehension. Their annoyance was audible too: we were tourists; they knew we drank this product, but why were we not then purchasing it from them, consuming it, as tourists do?
The toilet block lay a few metres ahead of me, just beyond a wooden sign that read ‘Toilet’. Beside the sign, stood a man who regarded me, announced “TOILET”, pointed in the direction of the sign, and held out his hand for baksheesh.
“25 minutes!” the driver had barked as we arrived at the site, an enormous structure that is considered Egypt’s best preserved temple; it took 200 years to complete. The time allocated was preposterous. We were as furious as the other tourists on the bus, and so had all agreed to meet 15 minutes after the driver’s imposed deadline, anticipating his disrespect for any time of ours he may choose to waste. We whipped around the location, taking in what we could, and returned to the bus, to wait for another delayed departure.
Our Luxor hotel, declared “three star” by our tour company, greeted us with a familiar noise: the beeping of its metal detector as we passed through it. Metal detectors were ubiquitous in Egypt: they were at museums, historical sites, the train station; but their beeping was almost always ignored. We were shown to our third storey room, where a louder beeping thundered through the window: the crazed incessant hooting of Egyptian drivers, which would parp us to sleep for the next two nights.
Besides old, holey linen and grubby carpets, the room had a bath. And despite the heat, this was a most exciting fixture to a backpacker who hadn’t seen the sight of one in months. Iain suggested I relax in a bath, and ran me one. A tub of grit covered water awaited me; the bathtub had not been cleaned. I let out the water, wiped the bath and started again. I supposed it must be the mere existence of this bath, and the hotel pool – identical in its water’s gritty surface – that allowed this run down place its three star rating; upkeep did not factor.
Iain went to a nearby shop to buy us a bottle of water and returned half an hour later, having visited four shops in order to find one charging an honest price. Luxor was chaos, he said. Scrawny horses dragged carts driven by men begging him to have a ride, offering marijuana on the side; a man had strode up to Iain shouting “Excuse me!” and demanded that he write a letter for him, in English. A similar sounding scam was described in our guidebook. Usually, the content of the letter is an anguished tale of poverty and misfortune; it is hoped the writer will take pity. This particular man was not only relatively well dressed, but was certainly not granted Iain’s attention by yelling at him in arrogance.
After a morning of visiting both the Valley of Kings and Queens, we spent the afternoon dodging Luxor’s tenacious touts. “Horse cart, horse cart… Where you going? Have a look… EXCUSE ME!” Men stared as I walked down the street, unrestrained by intentionally modest attire; longing was not their shame.
We returned to a shop where we had deemed the owner decent, after he had sold us a bottle of mineral water for E£4 the day before. “E£6,” he said, as we put the bottle down on the counter. Puzzled, we informed him that he had charged us only E£4, just the day before. He shrugged, and repeated the price of that day’s mood.
The owner of the Nubian Oasis hotel stood silently tallying the calls for beer that resounded from the group of Westerners, of which we were a part. We had met the three couples in that morning’s minibus: a talkative, travelled pair of New Zealanders, an American with a blonde Mohawk and his Australian girlfriend, and a pale, pretty Mexican – born to American parents – with her attractive olive-skinned boyfriend from Columbia. They were joined by three Brits; beer swilling louts, well-assured that they were permitted the chauvinistic discourtesy they indulged in. “Why does he have to fetch us one beer each at a time?” one bellowed, sending the owner down the stairs to the nearby shop, hastening to quench his customers’ thirst. The soft-spoken hotel owner had been cautious with his beer stock all evening, choosing to supply only the amount ordered – and to dart to the shop at intervals – rather than risk the futile refrigeration of his cash flow, in a too empty hotel.
All present had been reluctantly subjected to the drill of a package tour. And all were quite exhausted by the perpetual pestering of this Nile trail’s army of touts, surely among the world’s most belligerent. To walk the streets of Luxor was to become a walking wallet; an easy target for multiple monetary demands, demands made with no pretence of respect. It was on all of our minds. We discussed, protested, and shared stories that could only become comedy, given our presence on a hotel rooftop, high above the madness.
We discussed the scrawny cart horses, continually whipped by their masters, which were ubiquitous, at every temple or site, and on every corner of Luxor’s filth lined streets. We sat, mourning the inescapable sight, venting our shared frustration. The Mowhawked American spoke, a yell: “I’m gonna get a t-shirt printed that says STOP WHIPPING YOUR FUCKING HORSE!” We all laughed; there was nothing else for it.
Iain and I became involved in conversation with the Mexican-Columbian couple, Cecilia and Ricci. Just two weeks before, they had packed up and moved to Cairo without ever having visited Egypt. The gripes about Egyptians had become increasingly loud: the American and the three Brits were, by now, indulging in some hearty Egyptian-bashing.
“We don’t even let them speak anymore…” one of the Brits boasted, “We just start with FUCK OFF!” The other two Brits and the American roared with laughter.
“Let’s fly back to Dahab and leave this dump,” another said.
“Or fly to Petra and be done with Egypt,” the first said. There is no airport in Wadi Musa, the tiny town that had sprung up around Petra. I bit my lip.
Both intelligent and soft spoken, Cecilia and Ricci had come to the country intent on learning Arabic. They had chosen Egypt for the more neutral, widely understood dialect of Arabic spoken in the country. Their new jobs – teaching English and Spanish, respectively – would commence in a week. The tour had been intended as an introduction to Egypt’s ancient culture, and, although disheartened by the tainted ambience of the over-trodden trail, they remained positive; eager to be enriched by their new endeavour.
Egypt is a particularly sad example of a country butchered by tourism, the four of us agreed. Iain felt that because Egypt has had tourists for so long, its people couldn’t imagine ever losing them: tourists can be treated however the Egyptians like. The first tour to Egypt was launched in the 1860’s, by Thomas Cook. The company’s influence became such that from the 1930’s, it was a principle employer in Egypt, involved in shipping, transport and touring operations.
The chartered holiday is central to Egypt’s tourism today: 90% of its nearly 9 million tourists come in on charter flights, and in large groups. Despite the terrorist attacks that took more lives between 2004 and 2006 than in the ten previous years combined, the country enjoyed record tourist numbers in 2005. Playing a huge role is the fact that Egypt is one of the cheapest travel destinations in the world.
Apart from loss of local culture, and a false sense of economic security that the fragile tourist industry promotes, tourism all too often reveals greed and deceit in a country’s national psyche. But still the Egyptology craze grows; the flights only get cheaper.
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