Journal: Friday 22 October 1999
The 7.00am bus to Aswan was a big mistake. Jenny and I had shunned the air-conditioned ‘Superjet’ as being too touristy and instead, bought tickets on the less expensive but slower ‘Kul‘, or local bus. The tickets cost us LE6 (60p) return for a journey lasting about three hours. Taking our places in the queue (actually more like a free-for-all) we spotted the empty wide seat at the back of the bus which promised plenty of leg-room and headed for this, settling our backpacks and cameras around our feet. The bus was quite full when it set off and making ourselves comfortable among the Egyptian families with their ’luggage’ consisting of carrier bags and cardboard cartons tied with string, sacks of corn and live chickens or ducks in palm-leaf crates crammed into the overhead luggage racks, we sat back ready to enjoy the journey. It didn’t take us long to realise why none of the locals had sat in the spacious back seat which we shared with a lady from New Zealand. I was sitting next to the emergency door and every time the bus stopped or swerved (which was frequently) the seat flew off its base and deposited me on the floor at the bottom of the stairwell. I eventually managed to wedge myself in with my feet up on top of a hatch but after a few minutes discovered that my legs were resting on what seemed to be an engine cover that was burning hot, with vents giving off nauseating diesel fumes. There were no opening windows and the stuffy air inside the bus was stiflingly hot. The engine noise and grating gears of the ancient rattling bus, loud Arabic music and raised voices of the passengers did not make for a tranquil journey. By the time we arrived in Aswan after seemingly stopping to pick up and drop passengers and their animals in every little town along the Nile, we both felt quite ill.
After some fresh air and a restorative cup of coffee near the bus station we were feeling better, so Jenny and I negotiated a taxi to Philae Port for LE20. We were heading for the Temple of Isis, which was moved from Philae to Agilika Island after the building of the old Aswan Dam. At the port, we had to negotiate for a boat to take us to the island and bring us back again, eventually settling on a small motor boat piloted by a young Nubian called Ibrahim. For LE35 he said he would wait and bring us back from the island in two hours. At Mid-day the sun at its high-point was scorching with not even a breeze to ruffle the waves on the river water, but the temple itself was almost deserted. Most sensible tourists had gone back to Aswan for lunch. The sleeping guards and tourist police took no notice of us and we had a lovely hassle-free couple of hours wandering all over the island before hurrying back to the dock and our waiting boatman, who we found also fast asleep under a heap of blankets in the bottom of his boat. Bless him!
Back in town, the taxi dropped us off at the New Nubian Museum which I visited when I was in Aswan with my son a year ago. Unfortunately it was closed when we got there, so Jenny and I walked down the hill to the Old Cataract Hotel for tea – I had told my friend how lovely it was to sit out on the terrace overlooking Elephantine Island, another happy memory from last year. To my surprise, the policeman on the gate wouldn’t let us in, telling us that now only residents were allowed to have tea on the terrace. This has always been a favourite place for tourists and I have been several times before, but no amount of smiling, speaking a bit of Arabic or even pleading would change his mind. Eventually, after baksheesh was produced, he agreed to let us have a quick peek inside the hotel because Jenny so wanted to see it, but he sent someone to come and look for us before our allotted five minutes were up. We decided that we must look even more scruffy and dishevelled than we had thought.
To kill some time we walked through the bazaar along the whole length of Aswan, savouring the flavour of Africa in this southernmost Egyptian town. In ancient times it was from here that emissaries of the pharaohs left on the journey into Nubia, where they could obtain rich sources of gold and Nubia itself was the passage from Egypt to the exotic African lands beyond. Many pharaohs built small temples and fortresses along the banks of the Nile in Nubia and exported ebony, ivory, incense and precious metals and minerals back to Egypt, as well as Nubian slaves. Aswan is still different from the rest of Egypt – a vibrancy and warmth of colour can be found here which really makes it feel like a gateway to Africa. Eventually we found ourselves near the railway station and not relishing a return journey on the infernal bus, we booked first class tickets on the night train back to Luxor.
After a quick bite to eat in one of the many restaurants on the Corniche, it was back to the Nubian Museum, which by 5.30pm was open again and we spent a couple of hours wandering around this wonderful cool place looking at the artefacts and reading the very informative history-boards. There is so much to see here, especially outside in the gardens, that we ran out of time and had to jump in a taxi to get back to the railway station to catch our train at 8.00pm. The first class ticket cost us all of LE22 each (a little over £2.00) – but what a luxury and we both agreed was worth every last piastre!