Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Overland Through the Desert

Today we drove from Luxor to Aswan. I think that without the 20 or so police blockades we had to go through, the trip would have taken half the time. As it was, we had to drive slow because apparently there are speed cameras and we had to stop every 15 miles or so at a checkpoint.  Yousef would give his name, show his ID, and at some stops, he had to tell them where I’m from. I only know this because after the officer would ask something, he would say Amerique. At one stop, the guy didn't know how to spell 'America' so Yousef said 'U.S."  We all had a good laugh over that.

But at every single stop, he gave them money. It’s still 100% unclear to me why he has to do this. Clearly, the tour buses don’t have to. But like many non-western countries in the world, it’s just the way it is and everyone takes it in stride.  He said he has to pay because he’s not licensed as a tour guide, and if you’re driving a foreigner, you can technically get into trouble… although everyone does it. So even though it’s the norm, the police still expect a payoff to not hassle you. Everytime we would stop, Yousef would joke with the officers in his usually jovial manner, the officer would laugh, and he would pass him his license and some cash. He wouldn’t have to pay anything if he wasn’t carrying a white woman in the car.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen this (ie: Vietnam shakedown of our guide and driver.) And the police were never threatening, always smiling at me. Still, as someone that grew up in America, it rubs me the wrong way that this guy is being forced to pay $20 -- a lot for him -- to just do his job.
Yousef's 25 year-old son came with us for the drive… I guess so he would have company on the drive back. He had just worked the night shift at the hotel where he’s employed. He looks 15. But he was young in the same way that all kids are… he kept putting on a CD with what I can only assume is current Arabic-type music, and after 20 minutes or so, his father would lower it or turn is off! Then a debate would follow.

Every third world country has its animal of choice. In Vietnam is was the strange ox. In India it’s cows and camels. I thought I’d see more camels here, since we’re surrounded by desert. But I haven’t seen any being used for work or transportation. In Egypt, it’s the donkey. They are everywhere: hitched to carts, carrying men to and from town, their legs dangling down and bouncing freely with each jolt, sitting atop huge bales of crops.  But I did see camels one time. We were passing through a town, curiously clogged with traffic despite the fairly empty roads leading in and out. When suddenly, a large truck turned in front of us… and poking out of the top were 30 or so camel heads. (See picture below) What a funny site to just see their heads turning this way and that, while their bodies were hidden below. I didn’t ask where they were being taken… as I’m sure it’s no where pleasant. Camel traders from Sudan bring camels up by foot to Aswan, and then there they go by truck.

Don’t worry. I saw some ancient ruins on this trip as well! Edfu and Kom Ombo. Both temples are magnificently preserved, Edfu’s pylon wall soaring out of the sand, Kom Ombo sitting in a gentle curve in the Nile, one of the many cruise ships parked just a few feet away in a contradiction of time.

I’m surpised when we get to Aswan, the Corniche clogged with traffic like a foreign Miami strip.  And it's a pretty city.  Very clean.  Actually all of Egypt is fairly clean, compared to other places in the world I've been.  Just the buildings are dirty looking, because of all the blowing sand.

My hotel in Aswan is an even a bigger shock. I’m not the only that thinks so; Yousef’s son says it’s very fancy. I tell him it didn’t look half this good online, and he laughs. It looked 3 star at best when I booked it but in person it’s easily 5-star.  I pay Yousef, (adding extra for his good service and payback for the police payoffs, gasoline, etc.) thank him profusely for helping me and keeping me safe, and he high-fives me goodbye.

When I check in, they tell me I’ve been upgraded to a suite on the Nile. O-K. The room is huge, with a terrace overlooking the pool and the Nile, which is packed with feluccas, the local sailboats. Ah, the unexpected surprises of travel.

I hate to say it, but Aswan might be my throw away city. You know the place and feeling.. When you’ve been getting up at 5am for 5 days in a row and traipsing around in the hot sun. You just get burnt out on ruins. Still, I force myself to go out to the souq (after some pool time and a nap.)

I have to say, I expected the shop keepers to be much more aggressive. But they weren’t really that bad.  There were some other westerners walking around, but we were definately in the minority.  Unlike Cairo, almost all of the women are covered here.  But nobody stares at me, so it's nice to feel a little free from that.  (I'm sure the men starred, but after I passed by at least!)   I spent some time in a spice shop, the owner putting small pinches of stuff into my hand to sniff. I buy some dried lotus flowers that they tell me to put in water when I get home and they will expand and spread out with color.  I hope I can take them back into the U.S. 

When I was in a shop packed with alabaster items, the lights suddenly went out in the entire market. As I was wondering whether or not I should be concerned, the shop owner, Ali, laughed and said don’t worry, the lights will be back on in a few minutes. This market is safe. He was right on both counts. He was friendly without being creepy, totally charming and not pushy at all (which helped him make a sale off of me!)

There's nothing like some time in the local market to make me settled into a place.
I hope to take a felucca ride tomorrow. Maybe see the High Dam. But I can’t make any promises.


  1. Love the photo of the camel and the brilliant blue dye!

  2. The camel heads were hysterical... although sad as I suspect they're going to slaughter.

  3. I love that Alis demeanor, described as charming and not pushy helped to make a sale.

    Come on Franny, I know you well. You purchased a houseful of blankets from a man who claimed to know bill murray...who also happened to be high on opium!

    Enjoy some much needed rest in Aswan.

    I love reading this, and now understand how all the folks felt back at home when we were in India....less far away and much like we are together traveling. miss you!