ASWAN: Abu Simbel At Last

After what felt like minutes, and probably was since I was incapable of deep, refreshing sleep, I was roused by an irritating number of alarms I had set around the room to make sure I roused myself and didn’t sleep all day. I would have very much liked to sleep all day, but that would not have been particularly cost efficient. So, with a glare, I made my way to the Nespresso machine, stepped out onto the balcony for a few moments, dressed, and crawled to the lobby. I’ve rarely been more exhausted in my twenty-seven years. Still, I was brave and daring, and smiled at the man behind the desk who ushered me into a charming little room where he presented me with a breakfast box for the journey south. This was a remarkably chic touch, and I was impressed.

My bill for the day was two Egyptian pounds since I had paid in advance. I had placed a couple phone calls the day before, so I had to pay the equivalent of like a quarter. Isn’t that absurd?

One of the bellhops took my bag and my breakfast bag and ushered me into one of those charming golf carts that whisked me off to the entrance where Abdul and Hassan were waiting again with ridiculous energy for four o’clock in the morning? Do you know the last time I woke up at four o’clock in the morning, reader? It’s when I stayed up that late. There has never been any reason for me to do something so absurd before. Getting up at six is bad enough to go to work. This was hell. But, still, I was on my way to one of Egypt’s most recognizable landmarks, so I didn’t really have any reason to complain.

The journey south is done in convoys for some reason. I assume there is safety in numbers. When one goes through the desert without anybody else, and something goes wrong with the car, well, I can only assume that something will go wrong with you. I mean, you’ll legit probably die if you try it on your own. The cell service isn’t reliable and Aswan is the end of habitation along this route, so you need some kinds of assistance.

Waiting for the convoy to take off, I was surprised to see a number of tour buses half loaded with tourists from Asian nations. They’re the only ones out and about. I presume that they were Japanese since Japan has a long history of archaeological excavations in Egypt. They could be the nouveau riche from China as well. I wasn’t really all that concerned with them. I was thinking, as I so often am, of myself. Years and years ago, back at the dawn of this obsession with ancient Egypt, my father bought me a copy of Life magazine that dealt with the deconstruction of Abu Simbel and how it was going to be put in a new spot. He found it in an antique shop, and I remember being captivated by the images.

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It was such a rewarding thought to know that in a matter of hours, I would be staring Ramses in the face after all these years. While I contemplated the various absurdities of my life, I began nibbling on my breakfast box. It was absolutely vile. I ate the apples that were included. Even though the rest was disgusting, I was touched that the manager had remembered that I was a vegetarian and had given me a dozen — literally — cold sandwiches on awful bread of grilled eggplant. Bless those kindly people.

The journey was long, but I didn’t mind. I dozed. Each time I woke, the landscape had altered. I was particularly captivated with the natural pyramids that abounded in this region.

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The winds whip the sands and rocks into pyramid-esque structures, and I could see immediately why some Egyptologists believe that the man made ones were inspired by these. It makes absolutely perfect sense. I need to do some more research into this subject, but I think it’s a credible idea. People instinctively desire to recreate the world around them. Just look at the cave paintings in France made by prehistoric people. These are naturalistic images, imaginative yes, but hardly out of the ordinary. Perhaps the Egyptians did this with their pyramids?

A number of hours later, we approached Lake Nasser, and Hassan dropped us off at the gate. I was giddy since we were the first ones on the site. We had to stop for tea first, though, since Abdul and I are civilized men. I love tea in Egypt. I don’t quite know what it is. Oftentimes, it’s sweetened mint tea. But at other times, like here at Abu Simbel, it was intensely flavorful black tea. I could drink it at all times and I completely understand why Egyptians are obsessed with it. But enough about tea.

I got my ticket and contemplated running to see Abu Simbel, but then I remembered that I don’t run, so after assuring Abdul that I knew everything about the UNESCO effort to move the monument, he let me onto the path.

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Have you ever visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, reader? As you drive towards them, suddenly you are presented with the profile of George Washington, and the strangeness of the giant stone face preps you for the other three busts. Abu Simbel is quite the same. All of a sudden you see Ramses’ nose, and then as you eagerly move forward, there’s his torso, his legs, and the copies. It’s magnificent.

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Not nearly as tall as I had expected, but equally splendid. The carving is exquisite.

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I couldn’t wait to get inside, but of course this was an iconic photo opportunity and I am clearly unopposed to posing.

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I vaguely knew what to expect when I stepped inside, but it still absolutely floored me. It’s almost too beautiful, reader. Unlike other temples that I’d been to, this one is literally carved into the living rock — well, it’s been moved now since the whole construction was raised, but you get what I mean — and to be inside the same rooms that Ramses and his priests would have walked is such a remarkable thing. In addition, because of it’s obscure location, after it was abandoned, sand filled the temple up completely. So, instead of being hacked to pieces by Christians, the paintings and carvings inside are still fairly well preserved. Instead of pillars, there are giant statues of Ramses on either side of the entrance leading into the various rooms. They were FABULOUS. Another fabulous feature is the fact that a wonderful group of animals calls this place home. Abdul refused to go into a couple rooms because of them, but I wasn’t afraid. Going into one of the rooms, I woke up dozens of bats, and it was just delightful to have them swoop past me for higher environs, squeaking adorably as they flew inches from my head. It was such fun for me. Abdul didn’t understand my delighting in this. He didn’t understand several of my animal interests.

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I took a couple of pictures but they were terrible so I quickly gave up. Annoyingly, one of the guards caught me. Damn. He demanded my phone and insisted that he was going to take it to the head of the Aswan police. This was unsettling, and if it had been my first trip to Egypt, I probably would have broke down in a flood of tears. I have, however learned better.

“They are bad pictures, brother.” I said soothingly.

“Aiwa, yes, but it is not allowed. You must remove them.”

“Aiwa, aiwa,” I replied, “but maybe I can give you something?”

His eyebrows lifted as I waved a ten-pound note. “Not enough.”

Tough bugger, I thought, then shrugged in the Arabic fashion. If you go, you’ll pick this up. It’s essential. I pulled out another ten. “They are very bad pictures.”

He snatched the note, “Very bad,” and then walked away, smirking at me. Oh well, I was out a pittance. I had good fun with it all, even if all my pictures were truly as bad as I insisted they were. The two here were the only remotely acceptable ones.

I found Abdul out by the entrance and he had a good laugh that I had been caught and was glad that I knew how to handle myself and baksheesh since it made his job easier.

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We looked at some delightful hieroglyphic typos, and at the temple dedicated to Ramses’ beloved wife, Nefertari, and then Abdul left me to roam through the temples at my leisure, which I did for a good long time.

IMG_3160.jpgIMG_3152.JPGAfter so long, it was fabulous to wander through the rooms and build a mental map. And it was just a delight to stand on the shores of Lake Nasser, look out across the water at where Sudan was, and daydream about the wonders of Meroe. Just think of all the other treasures that are waiting to be sifted from the desert sands! I was rather swept up with a great love for the world that overwhelms me at times. Living is my favorite thing. It’s not always grand or good, but there are moments, reader, like this, watching the waters ripple, when it’s divine.

It was time for the convoy back, and Abdul had that devilish look on his face again, so I knew that something was going to happen when we got back to Aswan. He wouldn’t tell me much of anything, but Hassan is easier to break. They were going to get me something called Nubian sand treatment. This told me absolutely nothing, but I was mightily intrigued. I’m up for anything at least once.

The drive back was equally long, but it was just so beautiful to watch the desert flash by, to see those natural pyramids, and then to finally see a real mirage. They’re fabulous reader. All of a sudden, there’s an entire ocean out there where there was a desert. It’s on the horizon, and it’s bizarrely real, though of course it isn’t. It’s just a trick of the light, but how it works is a mystery to me. None of my pictures can show what it looked like in person. I looked up several scientific explanations, but it just seems too remarkable to be real. Of course it is, though. The world is just so fabulously strange.

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A couple hours later, the first traces of civilization returned and then Aswan came into focus. Instead of heading straight there, though, Hassan took us to what is known as the Nubian Village. This is were the last stand of the ancient Nubians lives, allegedly, and I don’t know how true this is, but it was a moment I am never going to forget.

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The streets weren’t built for vehicles, they were narrow and spiraled awkwardly, but Hassan knew where he was going and we stopped in front of a house painted an intense blue. It was beautiful and a Nubian woman opened the door to his knock. She was delighted by our presence in her home and demanded we sit and drink hibiscus tea, which I of course had no trouble doing. I am obsessed with the stuff. I need to learn how they make it.

She left to do something, I didn’t know what, because I didn’t know exactly what we were doing. Abdul seemed beside himself. He crooked a finger at me, hurried over to a door in the room, and held it open for me. Reader. I am not sure I can tell you the mix of sensations I had in that moment. Basking in sunlight that poured through a window was a fully grown crocodile. It was huge. Primordial. And just sitting there. My heart raced, but I couldn’t look away. We were probably twelve feet apart, and it was humbling to see my body reflected in its massive, black eyes, it’s mouth wide open, teeth ready to snap shut. I thought it was stuffed at first, but Abdul chuckled, stomped his foot, and I could see its eyes rotate. Reader, you can’t imagine that feeling. I love crocodiles so much, but I never thought I would meet one quite like this.

Shutting the door, Abdul gestured to another part of the room where Hassan was nervously sipping his tea — he didn’t care for crocodiles — and there was a pen that was filled with them. There were four or five in here, gorgeous monsters.

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I was so happy. And then the lady of the house emerged holding a baby crocodile in her hands. She beamed as she held it out to me.

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“It will eat you, Bin-ya-meen,” Hassan hissed, pronouncing my name in the most beautiful way.

I didn’t care a bit. What a story! I eagerly accepted the beast from the woman and couldn’t believe how strong it was. Tiny though he was, that little crocodile was nothing but muscle and teeth and scales. It was insane. He writhed in my grip, and I wondered how strong his bite was. Hassan was having none of this as Abdul photographed me and my new best friend. It was a transcendent moment, but then it was time for the second part of our trip.

The woman started talking to me, but it wasn’t Arabic or French or English or anything I understood, so I looked at Abdul. He shrugged and told me to go with her. I didn’t know what he was up to, but like I said, new experiences are a treat, so off I went. In a room with only a small fire to illuminate the place she gestured for me to stand in the center of the room. This was strange. I wondered if I was going to be seduced or something, but I didn’t think Abdul would do that to me. So, imagine my absolute surprise when she started flinging hot sand off the brazier at me. I was completely covered with clothing to prevent sunburn, so little of it hit my skin. This went on for a few minutes and then she nodded happily at me. I told her thanks, assuming that was what she wanted and then Hassan and Abdul and I went up to the roof.

“What was that?”

“Nubian sand treatment,” Hassan said, very pleased, “because you’re sick.”

I had mentioned before that I have Multiple Sclerosis, an incurable neurological disorder, and it was just so sweet that he had a lady throw sand at me because it’s supposed to make the sick well. I could have cried. What a strange hour that had been, but I felt rather blessed and deeply cared about.

The view of the Nile was glorious from her rooftop, and you know what, reader, I did feel well. I felt better than I had in ages. I said this to Hassan, and he nodded sagely. He knows several people in Luxor that have moved for their health. They do better in the desert. He doesn’t know why, but he thinks there’s more to Egypt than just heat and sand. He has visited Europe a couple times, but he missed his country each time, and he mentioned quite seriously that when his plane arrives back in Luxor, he wants to fall to the ground and kiss the sand. There’s something remarkable in Egypt, you all have to go.

I was starving, but we had one more stop to make, the unfinished obelisk at the Aswan granite quarry. Here is where all the obelisks were quarried that were erected in the country. It’s quite a site, even though it’s hardly the most engaging spot in Egypt.

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Still, I had the time of my life scampering up the smooth stones because I thought of one of my Egyptological heroes, Dr. Bob Brier, and his recent book, Cleopatra’s Needles. It’s all about the erection of obelisks and when he talks about their construction, he repeatedly writes about “men pounding for hours,” and I giggle like a child every time. I looked at the leftover dolerite balls around the quarry and had a good laugh.

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Abdul thought I was insane.

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We went to a buffet full of Egyptian salads, which was absolutely delicious and we had a good time talking. I learned more about Hassan and his life. He is, to my surprise, the arm wrestling champion of Upper Egypt. He’s very proud of this, so we watched a number of his videos on YouTube where he was winning. It was adorable to watch him watch me watch him with such pride.

He’s the one in white destroying the competition.

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I fell asleep as we drove back to Luxor on the Western Road. It had been quite a day, but hours later we were stopped because of a huge procession of people. I wondered what it was, but then I saw a bier with a body draped in a cloth, and it was clear that it was funeral procession. I’d never seen anything like it, it appeared that the entire quarter had come out to show their sympathy. It was beautiful and ancient and oddly reminiscent of tomb paintings, even if the modern mourners were in tennis shoes.

I was shocked when I returned to the Winter Palace to find a number of tour buses there, too. The Winter Palace was filling up with tourists, and I was so happy to see them back, but I was instantly annoyed that I had to share what I felt was my private residence. My favorite guy behind the front desk looked overwhelmed, but was clearly thrilled for business as he handed me my key.

I freshened up and made my way back into town to see Debbie for dinner. She had promised me a cheddar and onion tart, and she delivered. Not only that, she is charming and helpful. I told her that I adored Luxor and hoped to live here for my health. She didn’t ask any impertinent questions, but she seems to understand that I am unwell. Many people come to Egypt for this reason, after all, and she asked her husband a quick couple of questions on my behalf. I can get a nice apartment with all the amenities in Luxor for less than $5,000 a year. I was gobsmacked. It’s all so cheap. And I just might. I just might. I probably will.

Then I went back to my palace and fell asleep.

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