Last night was another night of no sleep. Our police convoy left at 3:30am sharp, meeting up with other busses and police vehicles waiting to escort us to Abu Simbel. All tourists must travel with police convoy in Upper Egypt after a series of terrorist events in the last decade left dozens dead. When Ahmed first delivered us from the airport, he mentioned different scams locals use to get our money, but he assured us that Egypt was safe. The many locals that approached us in a friendly manner also insisted, "do not worry. Egypt is friendly. Egypt is safe." Georgie encourages us to enjoy our surroundings, but to be cautious. "No worries though, Egypt is safe." I would love to believe everyone's faith in a "safe" Egypt, but these assurances are replaced in my mind by actions surrounding me and suggesting otherwise. Everyone walking into our hotels must first pass through a large metal detector. Each ATM in Cairo is guarded by armed policemen. There are barricades on the sides of the roads where guards stand watching behind car-bomb proof metal, just in case. We are unable to travel by bus anywhere on our own beyond Cairo and instead must be escorted by men with large guns. But don't worry, I am assured, Egypt is very safe!
I am amazed at how quickly the scenery turns to desert outside the city. The stars seem to glow as we drive in our convoy, far away from the light pollution reflected from Aswan. There is nothing out here but a road cutting through the desert. It is beautiful. I try to sleep through the three hours it takes to get to Abu Simbel.
We arrive at 6am. It is hot already and I sweat when stepping off the bus. Abu Simbel was created in the 13th century BC in honor of the famous pharaoh Ramses 2. It was almost ruined when the dam at Aswan was constructed, but UNESCO paid millions of dollars to cut the monument into millions of pieces, carve a new spot in higher ground, and carefully reconstruct the whole monument. Today the original spot is completely submerged by Lake Nasser, the largest artificially created lake in the world.
Abu Simbel was everything I had hoped it would be. The early sun cast a yellow glow on the stones, casting soft shadows. Unlike at the pyramids, I was fascinated here. The four statues were massive and in good condition. Upon close inspection you can see graffiti carved in the feet and legs of the statues from travelers in the 1800's. The second statue on the left has partially toppled, due to an earthquake in 27 BC. The head still lies below as it fell. There is a temple between the four statues, filled with hieroglyphics wall-to-wall describing the many accomplishments of Ramses 2. The hieroglyphics covered every inch of space inside. There were many rooms off the main room with more hieroglyphic stories, and at the very back is another statue of Ramses 2. The sun shone through the temple doors and hit his face only twice a year, once on his birthday, the other on his corronation day (October and February). When the temple was moved, they did their best to recreate the effect, but now the sun hits his face twice a year, one day after the original dates.
Next to the temple dedicated to Ramses is a smaller but more ornate temple dedicated to his beloved wife, Nefertari. Outside are six carved figures representing Nefertari as a goddess and Ramses 2 as a god in between.
Ian and I spent about 45 minutes exploring these temples.
The annoying part of traveling by police convoy is that we are on a strict schedule. The convoy has no problems leaving a bus if it is late, and then the bus will have to wait for the next departure. Sometimes there is only one departure per day. That said, we have all been very good about being on the bus, ready to go, with time to spare before the convoy leaves. This meant that we didn't have as much time at Abu Simbel as I would have liked, but I was still happy to have seen it.
We had another three hour ride back to Aswan. Our bus is playing a game with the rest of our police-escorted convoy. It reminds me of the "Indian Trails" workout in high school cross country but much less organized and with less purpose. First a small bus will attempt to pass a very large bus. It will pull into the oncoming lane, regardless of traffic, speed ahead of the bus, then cut back into the right lane so sharply that I think we might take it's back bumper out on the bus behind us. A moment later the large bus we just passed will decide it would rather lead, and the process is repeated. It's rather nervewracking!
We stop at a perfumerie before heading to our feluccas. We see a demonstration of the different "essenses" (NOT perfumes, mind you. These are essences. This fact was drilled into our heads many times.) Many of the essences they showed us we the base of very famous perfumes and colognes. They were also extremely cheap, but I didn't have the room nor the want for them. Instead, I bought two small colored perfume bottles. I won't put anything in them, but they are beautiful, delicate glass and will make nice decorations.
Finally! We were off the the feluccas. Feluccas are traditional boats, with a large common area and very small storage area underneath the platform of the common area. The boat is propelled with wind and sails only (and oars if there is no wind), but there is no motor. We had four to five people working our felucca the two days we stayed on it. Since our group was 36 people, we divided ourselves into three feluccas and basically chased each other's boats around the nile. The boat moves by zigzagging back and forth, so we don't cover much ground, but the whole purpose of the next two days was to relax, not travel a certain distance.
You may notice that I did not list "bathroom" as one of the rooms on the felucca. This is because there are none aboard. Whenever someone needed a bathroom, the felucca would be grounded ashore and whoever needed the "facilities" would scamper off behind a tree, shrub, or sand dune to do their business. There were no bathrooms at all. It wasn't really as bad as it sounds; it was only awkward when locals would see our boat and come curiously to check us out. They are very quiet and can hide rather well, so it was a challenge finding a spot where no one could see
When the wind blows here it feels like a hair dryer warming my skin. The breeze comes from the desert and is heated by the sun-baked sands. It is not refreshing. The breeze coming off the Nile is much cooler, but the wind is a strange sensation of cool bits mixed with warm, a bit like a swimming pool when you suddenly find yourself in a warm spot (not THAT kind of warm spot!).
We got on the felucca at lunchtime. The crew makes lunch at the end of the common area, where they have pots and pans and other things stored. Lunch was very good. Being one of only two vegetarians in the group, I got to eat lots of tuna. There was also chicken, pita, and lots of dips. We had ordered drinks and such before getting on the felucca, and we were free to pull out water, coke, and whatever else was ours whenever we wanted it.
Sailing down the Nile was very refreshing. The common area was completely flat, with a thick matress and sheets, so in order to stay comfortable all the time we had to lay down. There were no seats or beds; we either sat up or layed down in our designated spot. I enjoyed laying on my stomach, watching the Nile drift by.
I realize that people can read my tattoo here. Until now it has been covered up, and at home no one knows Arabic. For some reason I feel exposed, knowing that my shoulder is speaking the same language as those around me.
We stopped near a large sand dune when the wind died down and ended up camping here for the night. It was not the cleanest place, mainly due to the locals bringing their livestock and trying to sell us rides on emaciated donkies and camels. None of us ever paid for a ride, but they always showed up at our stops, patiently asking for rides.
We had dinner on the felucca that night as well. As the sun set, we braved the massive sand dune and admired the views over the Nile. It is really amazing how little green there is along the Nile; only a small sliver of shrubs and palm trees exist naturally next to the river. The fields and things we see are irrigated. It is a very pretty sight, the blue Nile layered by a patch of green, and almost in a direct line behind that the desert rises up.
After the sun goes down the crew builds a bonfire in the sand fueled by random sticks and animal poo. They bring drums that seem to have appeared from nowhere, and sing to us. They encourage us to dance. We are dancing around a fire in the sand dunes, chanting along with singing Nubians, prancing in poop. It's unavoidable. The donkeys brought by the young boys for rides have polluted every foot of the sand. There is so much poop that we unearth new piles hidden under the sand as we try to avoid the bits above the ground. The is nowhere else to go, so we pretend the small lumps are rocks and keep dancing. I am disgusted, but the group seems to love the dancing and music so much they don't even notice.