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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Egypt, Part III

Part I
Part II

After two days in Luxor, we sailed most of the night to reach Edfu, more or less a midpoint between Luxor and Aswan. We were heading south, toward Upper Egypt, i.e., further from where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean Sea. We ate an early breakfast--the ship had fresh lebneh that was as good as my sister's, i.e., really delicious--and then headed ashore for the Temple of Horus (falcon god), the best preserved of the temples. The Greek rulers built Horus, the first Ptolemy (a general of Alexander the Great) started the temple and Cleopatra's father finished the job a couple hundred years later, so the building's construction spans the beginning of Greek rule to almost the beginning of Roman rule. Horus Temple has three levels of courtyards, the first for commoners, the second for nobles, and the third, the one closest to the falcon god's sanctuary, for kings. The crowds, as well as the architecture, overwhelm you in Edfu, another reminder of the need for tighter regulation on tourism. The Lonely Planet guide suggests that some Egyptian monuments won't be around in another two centuries, due to the constant volume of bodies inevitably bumping and brushing the walls for instance.

Back to the boat. Today was a sailing day, thus the early visit to Edfu. We returned well before lunchtime so the boat could make its way toward Kom Ombo, which means "stacks of gold." Some light rain fell, but nobody seemed to care. A man on shore waded into the water, holding a pair of underwear above his head with one hand and bunching up his gallabia around his chest with the other, presumably to use the facilities, i.e., the Nile itself. We reached Kom Ombo and docked four or five boats away from the shore, necessitating the hop-across-multiple-ships-to-get-to-shore process. We didn't hop quickly enough because by the time we had almost reached the shore, the boat closest to land had departed. Like the rain, this minor setback didn't bother anybody much. The boat on which we were stuck made its way to the shore and we walked the plank to Kom Ombo.

The temple there is dedicated to two gods, Horus (the falcon god and patron of Edfu's temple as well) and Sobek (the crocodile god). Like Edfu, Kom Ombo was also built during Greek hegemony, so the columns are less adorned. Two highlights. One, an engraved representation of the impressive Egyptian calendar, an elaborate chart counting the year's regular 360 days and five feasts. Two, a graph of surgical instruments. The Egyptians performed many surgeries, including, many believe, organ transplants. Probably not successful ones.

The night ended with the gallabia party, a pretty standard happening on Nile cruises (though curiously absent from the novel and movie versions of "Death on the Nile"--probably canceled when people started to get murdered). At gallabia parties, most everybody dresses up in gallabias, Egyptian dresses that both men and women wear. Nicole and I, the day prior, had bought gallabias from a man in a rowboat who rowed up next to our cabin window selling various goods. Nicole got a black gallabia with gold trim and I got a plain grey dishdasha (the less elaborate version common in other parts of the Middle East, and also Dearborn, Michigan, though to a lesser degree), so we dressed up for the party. The camel ride three days earlier had pretty much opened the door to cheesy fun, so we figured why not. You'd be amazed at how many people dress up for these parties. Maybe 3/4 of the cruisers (fairly diverse: Lebanese, Spanish, American, Canadian, Kuwaiti) showed up in full regalia, some even wearing heavy eyeshadow a la Cleopatra. Talk about campy. So we danced, took pictures, drank 7-Up. The group on the boat from Lebanon did some belly-dancing to the catchiest song ever written, Shik Shak Shok.

By now, without access to the internet or any other media, I didn't really know what day it was. Life goes on, even when you don't check the New York Times website every three hours. While we danced at the gallabia party, the boat sailed south to Aswan, our southernmost destination. On the last full day of the cruise, we spent the day in Upper Egypt, in and around Aswan, home of the High Dam and Lake Nasser. Whereas the last three days focused on temples and other monuments of ancient Egypt, Aswan allowed us to learn some things about contemporary Egypt, and (at last!) to enjoy the Nile up close. Among other things, this closer proximity to the water meant Nicole worried about parasites. Have you seen these news stories about parasites in the Nile? Allegedly, they can literally jump onto your body from the river. We remained parasite free, hamdil'Allah and insha'Allah. We started the morning with a felluca (old sailboat) ride around the islands of Aswan. The Nile is wide here and sites like Elephantine Island, for example, are quite beautiful, as you can see many egrets and other birds. Many in Aswan--farther south and closer to Sudan--are of Nubian descent so they look less Arab and more African. Little wind, so at one point, our felluca driver waved over a motorboat and tied on. The felluca driver also insisted we learn a Nubian song and spend part of our time dancing around the center of the felluca. This was easily the most relaxing part of our week in Egypt.

Until, inevitably, company showed up. You're seemingly never too far from someone trying to make a sale or earn some baksheesh. A young kid, maybe twelve, rowed up next to us, grabbed the side of our felluca, and began to sing. He assumed our group was American (though one woman was Palestinian-Lebanese, one family was mixed race Vietnamese/British but living in Kuwait, and one family was Nigerian-Canadian) but he didn't speak English or really seem to know the words to any English-language songs, so he sang "Row Row Row Your Boat" and "Macarena" with gibberish lyrics. Another rowboat also latched on to our felluca with the inevitable souvenirs. One kid in our group bought a dinky little stringed musical instrument (the kind of cheap item you see in border towns and tourist areas in developing countries) and proceeded to tune it, quite effectively, using an i-phone app.

We transferred to a motorboat and headed farther south, passing a couple camel caravans and a herd of water buffalo. Akhmed, our guide, took us to a little African village inhabited by a Nubian community who were displaced when the High Dam was built. In yet another example of the attempts to get the tourist economy to trickle down, villagers there open their semi-open-air homes to tourists. On one hand, it's vaguely exploitative. On the other, it's a rare opportunity for income in a country whose economy is tanking. I don't know how well the tour companies compensate the villages (I'm sure it's not great), but at least something manages to trickle down. The family served us hibiscus tea, dark bread in big round loaves, a molasses-like honey, and mish (a thick, fermented cheese for dipping the bread) and showed off their crocodiles. I figured that people in the village keep crocodiles in the house strictly to entertain tourists, but Akhmed told us that crocs are popular pets among Nubians. They have pits dug into the sand floors of the house, covered with bars of course, and then the young ones are in glass tanks so you can access them. I held a little cute one, Nicole declined due to the salmonella threat.

We also toured a little Islamic school in the village. The school teachers three- to five-year-olds and one of the teachers hosted us, taking us into a classroom and teaching us to count to ten in Nubian. He also took us into one of the live classrooms where a group of kids sang a song. Again, I had mixed feelings about the ethics of this visit. On one hand, they're using schoolkids as entertainment, which certainly has an exploitative dimension. On the other hand, the income from visitors is much-needed and the visits genuinely teach you something--hence, there's some amount of reciprocity. And seeing the kids was tough. I didn't see any other schools in the village and wondered if the kids end their schooling after age five (I didn't want to ask our host for fear the question would sound accusatory). And the flies seemed to be flocking to the face of one little boy in particular. Again, good that something is trickling down, but you'd think, with hundreds of thousands of priveleged tourists from across the globe only a few kilometers away from this village, that a better system could be created. Maybe it's the fault of the government in Egypt, maybe the tour companies who don't come up with more sustainable, community-building business practices, maybe the tourists themselves.

That afternoon, we visited the Aswan High Dam, whose construction led to the relocation of that Nubian village. The dam also prevents flooding, which used to happen annually throughout most of the country. On some monuments and old buildings, you can even see the line representing how high the water used to rise. Up in Cairo a few days later, we even visited a centuries-old Coptic "hanging church," built off the ground to avoid the floods. The Egyptian government doesn't allow video cameras at the dam, and you're not even permitted to use the zoom feature on still cameras. But visiting the dam affords nice views of the structure itself, as well as Lake Nasser, created by the dam's construction, notable as the largest human-made lake in the world. Gorgeous, and I would have liked to have stayed until sunset, but we were off to the last of the many temples we would visit in Egypt: the Temple of Philae.

Yet another motorboat, this one to get out to the island that houses the temple. Boat drivers clunk into one another, competing for a spot on the dock where visitors to the temple wait for a ride. Sean, my AUB colleague who was in our group, was nearly knocked over while boarding as rival boats nosed their way to the dock. The temple is beautiful, though the structure is less remarkable than the island itself. Crosses and Christian altars inside show how the facility was used during the Christian era in Egypt. Fitting that the walls, in only some spots, have been scratched out and re-written with a new belief system and new practices. Egypt's like that, a place that, at least for now, preserves the ancient all the while re-writing new histories, some good, some not-so-good.

We exchanged contact information with most everybody from our group, and got some invitations to visit Kuwait. Who knows? Maybe before our year in the Mideast is over, we'll go there. Also got invited to visit the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, which we definitely hope to do. That night, would have been December 30, the ship hosted a belly dancer, a bit of a letdown after the more interactive gallabia party the night before. And since we didn't leave for the Aswan airport until lunchtime, we had the morning of December 31 to stroll around Aswan and do a bit of shopping. You know, I always said that a cruise had zero appeal to me (and I can't imagine ever doing one in the U.S.), but the Nile Cruise was educational and just completely different from anything I've ever done before. By mid-afternoon, we were flying from Aswan to Cairo, 2010 was nearing its end, and so was our trip to Egypt.

Coming Up: he gave his life for tourism.

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