Eid al Adha is a very important festival in the Egyptian calendar. On such occasions in the States, I spend time with family (someone travels, hopefully around the exact day to avoid causing someone else to miss time with family). Normally I don’t condone using the most important holiday to travel away from family. Considering that Eid gave us our Fall Break, however, and that break is the only one we get outside of weekends, I did appreciate the ability to go away from Alexandria and to be served. I do apologize for those who took time from their holiday to work for our pleasure, and am very grateful.
IFSA took us on the second of our two excursions, and showed us another side of Egypt – that of Upper Egypt, between Aswan and Luxor. I must say I was unprepared for the layout of the cities. We also didn’t know we would have time between checking in on our cruiser (think tiny, flatboat version of the Titanic and you’re somewhat close) and leaving Aswan. We also didn’t know that a) Atlanta would be coming as well but on a different schedule, or b) once we left Aswan our time would be strictly scheduled. Once we heard she was on another cruiser, we talked about going and visiting with her but didn’t; later we didn’t get the chance. Shucks.
Leaving Alexandria on Thursday, we took the train to Cairo and spent the night in the apartments. We ran into some resistance to the idea of going out of Midan Misaha for supper, but had a really lovely walk about after taking a taxi to a recommended but closed restaurant. Later, Brannon and I continued to walk around (Ben and Jeanette having returned to rest), and watched a sheep get skinned and gutted and found delightfully smelling spices which turned out to be cardamom and coffee. Cairo is not nearly as intimidating as I remember, and our Arabic skill and confidence has dramatically improved.
We flew to Aswan, over mountains and desert, until we saw Lake Nasser. The manufactured lake is enormous but shows signs of decreased volume. To my eyes the lake and dam are obscene. After checking into and checking out the cruiser (Radamis I, managed by Swiss Inn Resort), Brannon, Ben, and I walked around the really deserted city of Aswan. (That evening all Muslim families exited their homes to mob parks – Aswan came alive!) Chatting with a Christian shopkeeper, we learned more about Eid and about the ongoing process of appointing the next Coptic pope. In Egypt, they’re not referred to as “pope” but as “Baba;” in Istanbul they are “patriarch.” I mention it only as an interesting insight into how the men are viewed. During our walk through Aswan, we also spent some minutes talking to ten or more children who mobbed us when we stopped to watch a cow slaughtering. We bought water before returning at a quarter the price of the on-board bottles. Just before supper we went out again to buy a box for the whole trip, and we found a park, played Frisbee and soccer (guys only), and chatted with more local kids.
IFSA’s Friday schedule onboard included lunch, a felucca ride, supper, and a belly dance show. The felucca ride was seriously a highlight of the whole trip, especially after I realized I had to be careful with my camera (it had one bar of battery left, and I forgot my charger). Brannon took the opportunity to remind me to be in the moment. Once again, I loved the opportunity to be quiet around water, this time with rocks, islands, plants, and colorful Nubian, German, Jewish, and commercial buildings to contemplate, as well as hieroglyphic graffiti, boats, mausoleums, and a sunset. On that ride we met our tour guide for the rest of the trip, an older man named Hassan who spoke deliberately in English though quickly in Arabic. His information was really good, but he often repeated whole stories to emphasize their importance. I found small irony in the oxymoron of “we need to save time” or “we’re short on time” and the time spent in repeated stories.
Meals on board the cruiser were incredible. The staff of chefs and waiters quickly found out that we’re learning Arabic, and thereafter nearly attacked us with proper pronunciation of greetings, dish names, ingredient names, and wished us a good meal. I appreciate their attention to details such like that personalization, but I tend to get slightly creeped out in this culture when older men want to talk to me that intensely. Anyway, every meal was buffet, with salad bar, dessert bar with fruits, bread bar, and a rice/meats array. Except Sunday night, every lunch and dinner was “international buffet,” which meant the rice was plain with a touch of garnish, two kinds of beef were cooked in with sauce or as stir fry, chicken had a marinade, fish had a sauce, and something else, such as roast, liver, etc., was grilled/served in the middle of the array. A creamy soup and blanched vegetables were also offered. I often tried everything I could, kind of stocking up on meat or meaty sauce over rice because I don’t eat meat outside of restaurants. Breakfast buffet included juice, coffee, and tea, breads and croissants, sausages (blenderized hot dog links), omelets made to order, hard boiled eggs, cereal and milk (though no granola), fruits, yogurts, jams, honey, cold cuts and cheeses (oh how I miss Istanbul mozzarella), and fuul. Omelets with fuul on top served with tomato slices followed by jam/yogurt/apricot/fruit bowl mix tended to be my breakfast. Sunday night was “Egyptian buffet;” koshary replaced rice, beef and chicken prepared traditionally, kofta was grilled in the middle, falafel, tahini, baba ghanoog, and hummus were on the salad bar along with the normal offerings, and desserts featured honey-soaked shaved wheat, Egyptian rice pudding (I like Turkish better), and Egyptian kunafa.
Saturday we toured Aswan, showing us a different touristy side of the city. Starting with the High Dam, we heard about the damming projects in Egypt (there are nine dams, the oldest from 1860s) with some “disadvantages” thrown in to counter all the positives. My favorites were as follows (at this point I was seriously skeptical about the tour guide, so understand me as slightly sarcastic here). 1) The creation of Lake Nasser has changed the weather, creating humidity enough for severe rains that are eroding the temples and flooding in the area, as well as in Cairo, Alexandria, and the Sinai. 2) The water table has risen in response to the water, seeping up the stone and weathering them that way as well. 3) Silt is only a small problem, and engineers have found scientific and technological fixes for the build up of silt behind the dam. Also, Egypt apparently gains 10-20% of its electricity through the dam, and Germany is working on building huge solar farms in the desert (a fact I believe was thrown in for the international and presumably energy conscious tourists). According to Hassan, the dam is absolutely and wholly Egyptian as well, although Soviets loaned much of the money (5 million LE in 1962), West Germany designed the dam, and Egypt split the manpower to build it with the Soviets.
One motorboat ride to and from the moved temples on the new Philae Island later, we were in a van en route to a granite quarry where we walked around an unfinished obelisk, then back to the cruiser, waiting for lunch (I swam in the sun deck’s tiny pool) and to cast off towards Kom Ombo. En route to the High Dam we saw a temple from Hadrian’s time (note: Roman Empire) that had been moved to avoid drowning it. Philae Island and its associated temples would be submerged (the actual island is) if they had not been moved as well, about ¼ mile away. Between the temples of Kom Ombo (site of two hospitals and associated dual temple) and Philae, I began to see details that were uniquely Roman in design (a lion’s mane, ceiling structure, colonnade) and began to realize the temples we think of as purely ancient Egyptian with carvings so visible on their fronts aren’t from pharaohs, they’re a product of Hellenized elites or Romans trying to win support from their subjects. Huh!
Casting off was an unusual process, as the cruiser levered itself from the others at the dock, putted into the middle of the river, spun around, then chugged downstream. Besides the turning involved, passengers really felt nothing except a slight change in engine sound. Watching the banks pass and changing scenery was fun, but watching from outside forced you into really hot weather. I alternated between the small deck outside our rooms, inside the cruiser, and in the shade on the sun deck. Soon, I was fighting the setting sun for visibility, but teatime in the form of Moutaz (schedule man extraordinaire) called.
By now, we had gained a few extra members to our group. Besides the IFSA crew, Hassan was guiding a family from New York (parents visiting their son who is studying abroad at American University of Cairo), an Iowan teaching art in Cairo named Marie, and (though they joined us later) a young Egyptian family (doctors with a four year old daughter and infant son). Marie ended up doing most things with us, even sitting with us at meals – we’d integrated her so she wasn’t forced to do things alone. She, in turn, loved us wholeheartedly, and conversations definitely benefitted from having a new perspective. I, for one, learned of a new place to visit in the States: Ashville, North Carolina. We were more restricted from getting to know the others on the cruise, as twenty-some were Colombian and seventy-odd were Jordanian, speaking their respective dialects solely.
We were pressed for time at Kom Ombo, as the site was going to close for the evening. Walking there, we experienced something that became constant: anytime the cruise was close to land, men and boys hawked their wares at us. It was like walking the gauntlet; thank goodness I speak enough Arabic to not only get past these men but also intrigue them as more than a moneybag. Kom Ombo’s standing temple was created again during ‘Ptolemaic’ period, but one highlight was a carving of the bottom half of Trajan (presumably known by text) kneeling to the architect of the first pyramid, deified as the god of medicine. Trajan was Hadrian’s adopted father, again during Roman occupation – I think this may have been an addition to the original temple building. An associated museum of crocodiles was interesting – I have now seen way more mummified crocodiles behind glass than live crocs on TV. Needless to say, I’ve not seen a real croc outside a zoo, and motoring down the Nile did not give us a glimpse of one.
Sunday morning we woke around sunrise to see Edfu temple (Ptolemaic) before breakfast. The temple was part of a large complex including houses of builders and carvers, and we arrived there by horse-drawn carriage. Most of the horses were skin and bones, even though we watched some eat the Egyptian version of alfalfa. I fed our carriage’s horse most of the pear I brought for pre-breakfast. Although the cruise needed to leave by 8:30 am to reach Luxor with enough time for Karnak and Luxor Temples, the Jordanian delegation didn’t arrive back until after 9 am. The result was we had no schedule except one meeting, meals, and a “galabiya party” that day. I used the time for a two-hour nap, studying Arabic, eating, and writing, and watching the cruisers go through locks at Esna. Vendors used the locks to not only stand on the locks, throwing wares to prospective customers on the sun deck but also rowed to oncoming cruisers in hopes of getting to the sitting cruisers first. As I was tucked into a corner of shade, no one noticed me until Jeanette looked to me for help, after which a Jordanian’s successful bargaining entertained me.
After we docked and before supper, Brannon, Ben, and I ventured out, thinking we’d explore Luxor. We soon realized we were far from the city, and in an attempt to get directions got distracted talking to three boys from the nearest village of Raffa. We learned names of the plants in the closest field, the guys rode an emaciated donkey and “wrestled” with the boys, we took pictures, ate just-picked green clementines, received flowers and peppers, and almost left when the boys started talking about a gun…when it was a cap gun, we stuck around just long enough to agree it was cool. What was even cooler was the fact that we eventually understood every point the boys made and could communicate back relatively easily. Later, we met and somewhat befriended an English-speaking Nubian who toured us around his village, showed us the beginning of a wedding party (I’d been attracted to the sound and suggested going back into town, which is how we met the man), and took us into the countryside until we decided we should return for supper. The guys were totally happy with such events; I was also happy about the change in decision-making power and experience, except the fact that I was pretty much relegated to the role of follower. I barely was looked at three times by the Nubian man, and the boys talked to me when Brannon or Ben couldn’t figure out what they were saying. Therein lays my paradox living in Egypt: I either go out alone and risk harassment or I go with one or both guys and don’t get the opportunity to use my Arabic. Urg.
Monday was another early morning. We went to the Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, Valley of the Queens, Colossus of Memnon, Temples of Karnak, and the Luxor Temple. At each place, Hassan told us to put on “camel faces” to the vendors to save time, but they continued to aggressively hawk their wares. It didn’t help that every place and nearly every stall had the same things nor when vendors walked a distance with you, progressively lowering prices from 50 to 1 LE or so in two minutes.
We spent from 6:30 am to 1:15 pm straight between sites; by the end we were seriously lagging. I’d made a couple sandwiches of Egyptian pita, cooked peppers and onions, and kofta, as well as snuck out an orange, but no one else really had food. On cruise, where lunch was not included in our package, the buffet cost 92 LE. I stuck with my sandwiches, until the airport, where I bought peanuts and Pringles, then had a schwerma for dinner in Cairo. It wasn’t until Cairo that I realized, thanks Moutaz!, that midday in Upper Egypt was in the mid-30s˚C! No wonder I was dehydrated after drinking nearly three liters of water.
While getting on the plane to Cairo, I ended up chatting delightedly with a woman from Indiana, who had spent 21 days in Israel, Jordan, and Egypt with a group of friends. Again, this encounter encouraged me, as her wry humor supported my decision to study abroad. That she knew Luther excited me, as she gushed about the campus like everyone who knows campus. She emphatically recommended spending a couple nights in Wadi Rum, among the Jordanian Bedouin. I wasn’t able to visit Wadi Rum over January, and I’m kind of looking for destinations off the beaten track for November and December.
The upshot of this vacation is exhaustion, which a long sleep last night in Cairo definitely helped. I got a lot of history and language etymology (some of which I suspect were false) from Hassan. I know that I can separate the different periods of history only because I studied Egypt under pharaohs as a child, and am a Classics minor. The average tourist, given the same tour, would think all those temples came under the same culture, whereas so much had changed between the construction of Hatshepsut’s temple, somewhat toward the end of the last pharaonic period and the synthesis between the Roman and Egyptian pantheons in temples saved from Lake Nasser. I kind of wanted a better timeline, so I could place the carvings, paintings, and architecture of the sites into a mental typology (that’s my archaeological training coming out). Brannon was super temple’d out by the Temples at Karnak, and (partially to Superstorm Sandy hitting the East Coast of the States and resulting worry about his parents, but also due to other things) Ben walked home from the train station today for personal time. Moutaz was really excited to be with his family today, as soon his sister will take his new nephew back to Kuwait. Jeanette is, as always, relieved about any opportunity to rest. On the flip side, I really appreciated seeing another side of how Egyptians live. Outside of Cairo and Alexandria and the hubs of other cities, Egypt is a different place. Clothing, linguistic markers, available education and careers, even basic opportunities are very different. Ben put it this way when talking about our walk through Aswan: “We just did the stereotypical walk through a third-world country; dirt streets, no women, livestock killed in the street, mobbed by kids.” Seeing the difference between rural Raffa and Cairo made me realize living in Alexandria has been shaping my view of Egypt on a level analogous to assuming all Americans are New Yorkers.
Streamers adorn light posts above our heads at a parking lot near the train station at Sidi Gaber – streamers in preparation for Eid.
If families can’t afford to sacrifice a whole sheep on Friday of Eid, one option other than receiving a donation from a wealthier family (part of the reason of sacrificing on Friday of Eid is to give out portions to the poor) is to buy smaller quantities of meat or meat slaughtered before Friday. The week leading up to Eid saw a ton of labor at all slaughterhouses in Alexandria and Cairo that I saw. Once killed, drained, and skinned, animals hang like this in front of the butchers’ shops. This is why I don’t eat meat outside restaurants.
Not only did I witness all sorts of methods of hauling meat around the city after death but I also witness the craziness of bringing tons of animals into the city. Sheep were housed in crowded corners near butchers, seemingly unaware of their fate. A cow running loose in Roushdy about ran into one of our Arabic TAs! I also saw a skinned bull carcass laying in the rather unsanitary bed of an Egyptian pickup truck. Last thing about the sheep – in Egyptian cuisine, the fatty tissue at the base of the tail is prized as cooking oil, though many educated Egyptians recognized verbally to me the artery-clogging nature of their food.