Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Epic Egyptian Experience - 19 January 2011

The next leg of our journey was a 15-hour train ride from Cairo to Aswan. We started at 2200hrs yesterday and the train slowly made it’s way down alongside the River Nile. Unfortunately, the so-called First Class cabin’s windows were hazy with mildew. We could just make out silhouettes of date trees under the moonlight. We were at first disappointed, but we will eventually be cruising down the Nile soon.

The cabin had space for 6 people, but for the first 30 minutes we enjoyed the extra 2 seats. Eventually, a group of French people boarded the train at Giza, taking up the last 2 spots. They weren’t a friendly bunch, I guess mainly because they don’t speak English. But it was late at night anyway, so we just minded out own business and tried to get as much sleep as we could.

I did not get a good night’s rest. The seat did not incline enough to get a good backrest, there was no pillow or support for my head, and the constant droning of the train tracks was more than an annoyance than anything. I decided to keep my iPhone’s player on for as long as the battery would last. Surprisingly, it lasted me the night and still had 50% left.

In the morning, the French group left, and the two seats were then filled up again by newly weds from Jordan. Fortunately, they were much friendlier and kept us entertained in this long train journey. And at last we reached Aswan, home to the famous Aswan Dam and Upper Dam, an hour late. We got down from the train, said goodbye to the couple and to 2 other Chinese girls from the next cabin, wishing them a wonderful holiday…

Only to meet them again on our way to see the Dams and Philae ruins. Although we were in different hotels, our itinerary were organised by the same guides it turns out. The Dams were huge, one built after the other, one bigger than the other. It was not as big as the Hoover Dam, it was not even really unique. Why we paid 20LE for it, I still do not understand.

After the 10 minutes allocated to take photographs, we had to leave for the Philae ruins. The ruins were relocated after the dams were built, when the lake behind the dam was formed. The ruins were more majestic than the ones that were in display at the Museum, and having a guide to tell us a bit more about the history of the place was really better. He told us of the story of the Gods, Isis and Osiris, and Seth, of how Seth killed Osiris and scattered his remains all across Egypt and how Iris had to grow wings to scavenge for his remains. Eventually, Osiris was reformed and Isis gave birth to Horus. Horus then waged war against Seth, and lost his eye in the process. Horus was gifted an eye, which was as powerful as a falcon’s eye. That is why Horus is always depicted as having a falcon’s head.

Our guide also told us the history of the ruins, having 3 different influences incorporated into the ruins; the Greek, Roman, and the Holy Crusade. All of which left their markings on the Egyptian architecture. In modern times, it was called vandalism. The pillars that once bore the hieroglyphics of the tales of Isis and Orisis, now had random Greek writing and crucifixes carved into them. Almost all the faces of the carvings were scratched out, particularly the face of Isis, as it had more male features, so says the guide. Also, the Christians shunned polytheism.

The ruins were as tall as a 3-story building, and to think that they had to cut it up, transport it to higher ground, and reassembled piece by piece. Just like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, only actual size. It was one of many such ruins along the Nile that had been relocated because of the dam.

The ruins were located on an island in the reservoir lake, Lake Nasser. We had to ferry across in a motor-powered boat. The boat ride allowed us to, for the first time of our lives, touch the waters if the River Nile. Maybe it was just my imagination, but touching the water felt different than touching any other water. It was sort of thicker, as though mixed with algae from being stagnant behind the dam for so long. It also looked darker than normal fresh water, supporting my theory. I was so tempted to drink from it as well, but the thought of having gastroenteritis at this point in our vacation stopped me.

We got back an hour before dinner, so we decided to visit the Aswan bazaar. The Al-Khalil bazaar that we went to yesterday was more crowded than this one. Yesterday, we had to traverse the slum areas inside the walled section of Islamic Cairo, through alleys, through mud and dirt. When we finally got there, it was a real busy market place. There were vendors everywhere, even approaching you announcing, “1 Dollar, 1 Dollar!” “Everything 5 Pound!” It was easy to get lost in the bazaar, lost in the crowd and lost in the price wars. Luckily the taxi driver warned us, “Look yes, No buy.” Which was what we did.

The bazaar in Aswan, although less crowded, felt much bigger. The streets themselves were wider and we had more room to navigate through. The vendors were just as aggressive, approaching us, spewing out all their greetings in the Asian languages. Being friendly, they ask where we are from, welcoming us into their stores. When you have nothing to buy, it was easy to just smile and politely say no.

Unfortunately, when I am in a manic mood, there was so much I want to buy. And once I get reeled in, I find it hard to turn them away. So I left with two souvenirs, much to my family’s disapproval. There was a big silence on our way back to the hotel.

I guess I would never be able to survive in Egypt. I don’t like bargaining because I am never good at it, and I am always the one who gives in first. In my defence, the peddlers are still trying to earn a living; I’m giving them charity. My mother told me not to be so soft hearted.

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