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Trapped In Travel Purgatory

Photo taken from the ferry by Carola during the crossing of Lake Nasser from Wadi Halfa to Aswan

Egypt, Aswan 11 – 17/07/2012

Day 398 of our journey. We were finally in front of the ‘Arrival Hole’ (sic!) to Egypt, but more than 2 millennia late. The ancient egyptians had long disappeared, leaving behind a lot for the rest of humanity to wonder at, and for their 7th century invaders to profit from.

After more than 24 hours in the gut of the most horrific mess of a ferry in the entire Africa, we were at our wits end. We crawled out, together with our 500 fellow inmates, dirty, puffy eyes, smelling as if we had spent the night in the sewer. Here’s how the ferry crossing had played out:
First the lucky few who had booked first class cabins weeks ago claimed their place on top of the food chain. The rest of our sorry asses would kill each other to squat on every inch available on the upper deck, on hallways and under deck. We gazed at our Yamaha through the window.

Within minutes, toilets started to reek, so breathing become difficult in the seedy underbelly of the ship. But we haven’t even left the port yet. We were unaware that this trip was the prologue of our worst experience in the entire Africa.
First, our passports were confiscated by the crew. They would return them to us when we would arrive on the other side. The passports were chucked along 500 others in a cardboard box, so you might think it would have been tricky to fish them out again. But we were only four foreigners on this ship, us two, plus Carola and Joe. Remember that daytime temperatures have been hovering around 50 Celsius. On the ferry that required constant relocation. Moving from under deck to the upper deck, we could witness life unfolding: mothers breastfeeding babies people would accidentally spill soup on (actually at least Ana did), fathers rearing their progenitors with a good beating, men peeing, women gossiping, people fighting for the one meal included in the ticket, then snacking on nuts and seeds they would later sleep on. The smells and sites are difficult to describe. But the worse of all was the constant noise. For the over 24 hours we were on board of this mess, people did not stop talking, or to be accurate, shouting. First we were too excited and hot to sleep, but finally we had to concede we were too exhausted to sit on the benches and keep being the center of attention. Men were on one side of the ship, we were on the other, with women and kids. Arguably, it was noisier in the women compartment. But they were also kind and beautiful, so we could admire their exquisite henna tattoos while sipping on tea.

In the meantime, in the central hallway, on the WC doorstep, two women had laid out a veritable boutique, selling anything from trinkets, scented oils, incense, and food. We went on the upper deck, where 150 men were praying. We were impressed, but we will had no place to sleep on. Nighttime found us in an intense debate with the crew, who kept changing their mind about where we were allowed to squat. Around us people laid on top of each other and our bags, without being bothered. Finally, after a lot of begging, it was agreed that we can lay our mattresses on the deck. It was so windy that we had to wrap scarves around our heads and stuff our ears with TP. It was not quiet, but it was fine. I cannot imagine what the two men who keep chatting all night by our side had to share. Maybe their lifetime story, or an entire movie trilogy.
In the morning Joe tried to unfold back into normality. He has been backpacking since last October from San Francisco across Latin America. In Cape Town he had found a companion in Carola, a Berlin native. As much we we enjoyed the company of the Sudanese, the four of us felt trapped in the same purgatory, united in misery, like inmates in a prison, plotting an escape. Long time travelers, we had a lot of experiences and opinions to share. We were the last onboard to receive our passports. Visas are not a problem for this super touristic country: 15 bucks at any port of entry. The good news about Egypt stop there. Because to bring their vehicle into the holy land of the pharaohs, one must endure all the trauma of humanity since the time of the pyramids. It would take us a couple of days to be convinced that we would never be allowed to take our bike out of there without a Carnet de Passage. As we didn’t carry one, for very valid reasons, the Saudi Club would issue one for us. I cannot even think about the costs we had to negotiate without popping a vein. When egyptian mafia will be through with us, we’ll be as broke as a newborn baby.
Those who travel with their own Carnet can easily avoid the utterly useless Aswan fixers. They do nothing you cannot do yourself. After a ping-pong of phone calls to Cairo, Hurghada, Aswan and Sudan, we had to concede the fight was over. After telling us about the 72 hours transit Carnet, the club people changed their mind, and refused to issue it. It simply wasn’t profitable enough for them. Because, my friend, that’s what Egypt is all about. Money.

‘I Love your Money”

So fixer for us it was. First he drove us four to town. From the rooftop of our hotel we had a superb view over the Nile and the Elephantine Island.

In the room we noticed how modern islam has become

At night the suuk of Aswan started buzzing.

During the next 48 hours we would experience more embarrassing and unpleasant moments than all of us had had in the rest of Africa and, in Joe’s situation, the Americas. The only remarkably positive event of those days was that, as you can see, our camera came back to life. After pretending for days that the gizmo dramas was behind us, since arriving in Aswan he had been jerking and trying to turn on and off our ever growing collection of damaged goods. Armed with a working camera, we were ready to record whatever Egypt wanted to throw at us. Like shopping for groceries.

We struggled to perform the simplest tasks like buying bread, or tea. Quoted up to a whopping 10 times the normal price, groped (even if the girls were wearing scarves), hassled and even pushed, for the first time in our journey we had a hard time enjoying it. “I love your money’ is what someone literally told Carola, after lots others worked on their own catch phrases like: ‘I can help you spend your money’, ‘You know how much?’, ‘What do you want’, ‘No hassle’ (performed while firmly grabbing your arm), or just ‘Money’. Don’t get me wrong, we are the same people who spent months in Nigeria and DRC, both notorius for not being the easiest countries, and we will continue to advocate that they’ve been both misunderstood. We are talking random, unprovoked act of humanity here. Ancient egyptians must have been quite cool, and the nation that inherited their civilization is not that bad. But there are a lot of ‘bastards’ out there, as James had warned us months ago, and they do no favors for the legendary muslim hospitality. After the wonderful Sudan, this is even more striking. Let’s take the so called ‘teagate’: every man in Egypt, from poor to rich, from shop owner to garbage boy, can be seen at any time of the day constantly sipping tea, either in the men-only ahwas, or in their workplace. The tea, which for example in Turkey is a free token of hospitality, is good indeed. But Egyptians would not share this tea with us, unless we paid for it the price of aged whisky. Slowly we learnt how to avoid being ripped off, so we could sample some local food. Which is less than great, given all the history and favorable geography. Sure, there are kebabs and pigeons stuffed with pilaf, but they sound better than they taste. Salads were never fresh, tahini was bland. The fuul and ta’amyia (lava falafel) are excellent though, so are Sayid’s hand-tossed pizzas, the meat pies and the traditional fast-food, kushere, a mix of carbs (rice, pasta, noodles), with tomato sauce, lentils and chickpeas.

Mind you, while going through all this, our Yamaha had not yet left the Sudanese soil. After exhausting all means of sorting our papers alone, with nothing else better to do, we decided to join Carola and Joe on a trip to Abu Simbel. In 1902 the british built a first dam on the Nile. It proved not good enough, so 6 decades later work started for a second High Dam. The consequences of it are yet to be understood. Sure, it provides water to irrigate innumerable farms and electricity for 15% of egyptian households. But is also impoverishes the soil by depriving it of natural sediments, it disturbs endemic wildlife. Many treasures of the ancient world, along with the entire Nubia, have vanished under Lake Nasser.
The remarkable temple complex of Abu Simbel was saved in a unique international operation. The temple of Ramses II and the smaller secondary temple were cut, then reassembled like a giant puzzle, 100 m back, and 200 m higher, against artificial hills.

After brushing off hundreds of desperate vendors loaded with tourist junk, we arrived dumbfounded and speechless, in front of the four 20 m high colossi that mark the entrace to the main temple.

The unique facade speaks of a pharaoh with an ego like no other. By his feet, statues of his mother and favorite wife, Nefertari.

The interior of the temple is exquisitely decorated with bas-reliefs depicting highly formal, ritual scenes of the pharaoh in the company of the gods and the forces of darkness defeated. It is not allowed to take photos, arguably so that the postcards printed in China and on sale at the ubiquitous hasslers can still have a market.

Evidently, moving the temples has forever altered their monumental and esoteric effect. Imagine that they had been carved into a mountain, so that the sun would penetrate inside only on a certain day of the year (hypothetically the pharaoh birthday). Nowadays they sit isolated on top of an artificial landscape. We kept wondering what it must have been like to discover these ancient buildings back in 1813, when the dunes had reached the knees of the colossi. The adventurers who found them must have been quite impressed, as they felt appropriate to mark their names in stone. After the amazing visit to Abu Simbel we were hurdled back into the 7 vehicle convoy, a ridiculous system to move rich foreigners around the country, that his yet to be exploited by the lazy terrorists.

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