Temples, Taxis and the End of my Tether

Felucca sailboat on the Nile, Aswan

After a really enjoyable week in Luxor I decided to head further south down the Nile Valley to Aswan. I had booked a rail ticket a few days before departure, but a train collision that killed 32 people north of Luxor had me thinking that my service may be delayed. However, multiple fatality railway accidents are not uncommon in Egypt, and since the network transports hundreds of thousands of people every day, Egyptian Railways seem to be able to get things running again quickly.

I arrived at the station, and boarded what I thought was my train which had arrived about 45 minutes late. A railway official helped me find my seat, and I settled in for the three hour trip. I found out later that it wasn’t actually my train, but the earlier service that was running three hours late.

I don’t know if it was just because I had spent a week in a quiet semi-rural town in Luxor (see Treasures of Luxor), but when I emerged from the railway station into the street at Aswan the hassle and pressure from the transport operators seemed particularly intense. My hotel was within walking distance, and keen to stretch my legs after sitting on my arse for three hours, I declined the offers from the taxi drivers mobbing me and the other newly arrived travellers. I also declined the offers that came incessantly during my 20 minute walk to my hotel. After the gentle train journey, Aswan was hot, the sun glaring, and the noise and constant hassle overwhelming. I was pleased to arrived at the hotel, which was positioned on the boulevard running along the Nile. The lobby was cool and empty, and after checking in I headed up to my room. I had the feeling I was the only one staying in the hotel. Turned out I was.

Later that day I walked to a nearby supermarket, and after grabbing what I needed, crossed the road to a fruit and veg cart in the street. I selected three apples and a couple of tomatoes, and presented them to the grocer. The price he asked for was three times what I had paid for similar goods in Luxor. I repeated the price incredulously; a spontaneous reaction that I was a little embarrassed by. He asked me what I would pay, I told him what I believed to be a fair price from previous experience, which he scoffed at. I walked away.

Each morning during my time in Aswan, I went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. There I would sit by myself, and munch through the generous breakfast that was included in the price of my accommodation. Hot and cold goodies were a great start to the day, and I think my enthusiastic response to the food on the first morning lead to the addition of the extra falafels in subsequent servings. The, with a slightly overfilled tum, I would head out to explore the area.

Hotel breakfast Egypt
Breakfast time at the hotel. Seating room only
Hotel breakfast Egypt
You beauty

One day, whilst walking from site to site, a kid of about 9 years old suddenly appeared beside me, and started singing ‘She’ll be coming ’round the mountain when she comes’. I strode along, with this kid hurrying along beside me belting out the song. I turned to him and said ‘Why are you singing at me?’ He then asked for money.

Unfinished obelisk, Aswan, Egypt
Red granite was quarried in Aswan in ancient times and used for all sorts of things, including Kings’ sarcophagi and building materials for the pyramids and temples at Giza. Considering that it was cut by hand, and in the case of the Giza structures, transported over 800km north by boat, I bet the foreman’s heart sank if he read ‘Aswan Red Granite’ on the building plans.
Unfinished obelisk, Aswan, Egypt
The excavation of this massive obelisk was never finished, perhaps because of cracks in the rock, or because one day the workmen just decided to never turn up ever again

I thought ‘what is it about Egypt and people coming up to you and giving you something you don’t want and haven’t asked for and then demanding money?’ The kid was in pretty good nick and wearing clean clothes, so he wasn’t starving. I didn’t want to encourage the behaviour that is so prevalent in tourist areas – not singing as such, but ‘tour guides’ telling you a few things about a site which you didn’t ask them about and then demanding money – so I shook my head. If you think I’m having a whinge, I can assure you I’m just warming up.

Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan, Egypt
This grand old place is the Old Cataract Hotel. Agatha Christie shacked up in the Old Cataract in 1937, which I assume back then was just ‘The Cataract’. Apparently she worked on her mystery novel ‘Death on the Nile’, whilst at the Hotel. It would have been entirely more mysterious had she written ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ there instead.

Not long after, as I was walking past a couple of houses by the river, a bunch of kids ran out and asked for money. They too were well dressed and chubby-cheeked. I told them not to beg and walked on. Then another two kids ambushed me and broke into song, but I quickly shut them down. What the fuck was going on in this town?

The Nubian (people indigenous to southern Egypt/northern Sudan) Museum avoided jealousy amongst the staff by doing away with the ‘Employee of the Month’ award and replacing it with ‘Object of the Month’. This month’s winner was a statue of Queen Shanakdakhete and the Prince of Meroe. I did get the feeling that the Object of the Month may well have been last month’s object too, and perhaps the month before that.

Philae Temple is arguably the star attraction at Aswan, and for good reason. The complex is located on an island in the Nile upstream from Aswan’s ‘Low Dam’. The ancient structures are beautiful in themselves, but all the more amazing when you learn that they have all been relocated from another island that was partially submerged when the ‘Low Dam’ was built (a problem exacerbated by the subsequent completion of the more recent ‘High Dam’). To reach the island, you pay too much for a small boat to take you on the 10 minute journey. The private boat operators (who are not connected to the heritage authority which manages the site) refuse to sell you a one-way ticket, so you are also charged an amount for having the boat wait for you. Although there are many boats at the landing, they have a pretty good cartel organised so trying to find a better deal by going boat to boat is fruitless.

Philae Temples, Aswan Egypt
Approaching Agilkia Island, the new home of the Philae Temples

With the money I was charged for the short boat trip, and the unnecessary waiting for me at the island, the operator could have bought thirty litres of petrol for his clapped out outboard. Or taken a first class, airconditioned train three hours up to Luxor, then returned to Aswan on another first class service. Or bought six chickens for lunch and still received change. A fair exchange? I think not. The boat operator also suggested that I should tip the driver.

Philae Temples, Aswan Egypt
Temple courtyard leading to the ‘First Pylon’ entranceway

Although Philae Island was fascinating, it was busy and it appeared that most of the visitors were there just to take photos themselves and their mates. Groups of early 20-something girls packed into the most spectacular parts of the complex, and without any regard for anyone else, embarked on twenty minute photo shoots.

Philae Temples, Aswan Egypt

Young blokes strode around inside the main temple wearing sunglasses with music blaring from their phones, laughing and yelling and taking photos of each other in gangsta poses. Bolstered by their posse, they intentionally blocked the entrances to some areas, adopting poses which they presumably thought would intimidate, and glared rudely. I pushed past them, definitely not in the mood to tolerate rude little pricks. There was no respect for other visitors, and none for the ancient place of worship in which they stood.

Sanctuary of Isis

Having had my enjoyment of the Philae Temple compromised, I headed back to the entry point in the boat. After lunch, I walked back up towards the main road to catch a cab back into town. Whilst on this walk I found a cab parked and the driver having a snack. ‘Taxi?’ ‘Yes – to the Nubian Museum. How much?’ He quoted me four times the amount I had paid to get there in a cab earlier that morning. I laughed out loud, and this time I wasn’t embarrassed by my outburst. ‘Fuck you’ I thought. ‘You know you are charging me way more than that trip is worth.’ Up until this point, I had generally kept my cool while people had attempted to rip me off or defraud me. However by now I’d had enough. I turned my back on him and walked off, while he called out a ‘discounted’ rate.

Philae Temples, Aswan Egypt
There is an old Egyptian saying: ‘Never build you boat landing during a flood’

I reached the main road and started to walk back towards town, keeping my eye out for a cab. Before too long a bloke waved at me from the other side of the street. ‘Toxi?’ I crossed the road and asked if he would take me to the Museum and offered him a fare based on my earlier trip that morning. He then started talking about a ‘standard rate’ or some crap, and asked for double what I had offered. I could feel myself twisting up inside.

Nilometer, Egypt
What do you call a system that measures the height of the Nile? Why, a Nilometer of course!
Nilometer, Egypt
This Nilometer is located on Elaphantine Island, Just off Aswan. It was built around 300-600 years BC, rebuilt by Emperor Augustus, and renovated in the 1800s

I said ‘are you really going to charge me that to take me four kilometres? Forget it.’ and I began to walk off. ‘Oh ok then…’ and he dropped the price a little. I shook my head and kept walking. By this stage I’d had a gutful of every fucking dishonest bastard who was trying to screw me over. ‘Ok then…’ and he quoted me a little closer to my price. ‘No.’ I said. He drove after me.

Sheep, Egypt
The guidebooks and tourist websites encourage you to head over to Elephantine Island and have a wander around the Nubian village. I took the ferry over, hoping to circumnavigate the island on foot. Land tenure and terrain made this impossible, so I ended up walking through the village to get to the temple site at the southern end. I felt like an intruder squeezing past peoples’ homes, and a dickhead when I got lost in the maze of narrow streets. This mob didn’t seem to care though

‘My friend my friend….ok ok’ and agreed to my price. I said ‘I’m not your friend and no I don’t want to you to take me’. ‘But my friend my friend your price is ok…’ I said ‘Listen I’m not your friend. Don’t call me that. And no I’m not going to get in your car’. Even though the temperature was well into the 30s, I was so sick of arseholes that I chose to walk to the museum rather than take the ride.

Nobles Tombs, Aswan
A ferry ride to the west bank of the Nile brings you to the Nobles Tombs, where the rulers of southern Egypt were buried. Having the place to myself, I had a great time exploring the many tombs and ruins

After I returned to the hotel, I realised that my patience had run out. Whilst before I was able to shrug off the blatant attempts to rip me off, now I was sick of it and was no longer prepared to play the polite tourist role. If someone was trying to screw me, I was going to call them on it.

Nobles Tombs
Finding carved hieroglyphics in sand-swept ruins never gets old

The constant questions, and they really are constant, whenever I set foot onto the pavement outside the hotel in Aswan as to whether I wanted a taxi or a boat, are people trying to make a living. So although it gets draining, I would always answer with ‘no thankyou’ if I did not wish the service. When the question was repeated a second time, another ‘no thankyou’. However a third time and I was not so polite. Listen, you can judge me for being the rich Western tourist whinging about how difficult it was to travel around Egypt, I don’t give a fuck. Yes, I am fortunate to be travelling in Egypt. Does this mean I should accept being treated like shit and ripped off? I consider myself a reasonable, polite and patient bloke, but everyone has their breaking point, and I reached mine in Aswan.

Egyptian desert
I decided to walk the couple of km’s across the desert from the Tombs of the Nobles to the Monastery of St Simeon. I didn’t have to go far to feel that Aswan City was not just on the other side of the Nile, but a million miles away

Sadly, when you reach this point, you tend to develop a siege mentality. I found myself mentally steeling myself before walking out into the street. You start to approach most situations expecting a negative interaction, and you become hyper-sensitive to the aggravations that have lead you to that point. In addition to the grievances above, I was also sick and tired of being stared at in the street, and having people make snide or cheeky comments as I passed (you don’t necessarily need to understand a language to know when you are being mocked). I have to say Aswan was the most uncomfortable and unpleasant city I have visited in Egypt. I never felt physically threatened, but I certainly felt disrespected.

Monastery of St Simeon
Monks built the Monastery of St Simeon in the 7th century, and it was abandoned in the 13th. Considering its age, the stone and mud brick fortress-like structure (built to keep Bedouin raiding parties at bay) is in amazing condition. The dry, near zero-rainfall climate in Egypt is ideal for the preservation of ancient sites

When it came time to leave Aswan, I caught a cab to the airport. The driver pulled up at a ticket booth within sight of the terminal, and asked if I wanted to walk from that point or pay the charge and he would drive me in. I had a sore back so asked him what the cost was, then agreed to pay the extra. After the conversation between the driver and the ticket officer, we drove on towards the terminal.

When we arrived at the airport, the driver explained that the charge for the car to enter the airport was actually higher than he had previously quoted, as the bloke at the booth said it was more for tourists. Being unable to speak Arabic, I didn’t know if the driver was trying to fleece me or not. Surely he had taken tourists to the airport before. Wearily I handed over the money for the fare and the extra charge, and the driver passed back two-thirds of the change he owed me. I held the notes in my hand and waited. ‘Oh yes…yes…’ he said and handed over the missing note. I was glad to be leaving Aswan.

For more on Aswan click here

If you likes this post, you may also like In the Valley of the Kings, Treasures of Luxor

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2 thoughts on “Aswan

  1. Jim, sorry but Beth and I were laughing out loud at your narrative from Aswan. I know exactly what it’s like, I’ve been to some heavily marketed and promoted tourist hellholes in Asia that are exactly the same. I’m still envious of your Egyptian experience.

    1. Hahaha no worries Steve at least someone found it funny!! I’m happy to report that since my meltdown in Aswan I’ve visited some fantastic places that were hassle free, so my outlook has regained some balance!

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