Last night, as we got onto the sleeper train of the Egyptian Railways, there was a Japanese man in the end cabin. He asked me to take a picture of him, he had been separated from his tour group.
I woke up this morning to the clacking of the railway, still in the dark, as the train pulled into a station. I checked the time and it was 5:04AM. Getting up to visit the washroom, I found the Japanese tourist outside, holding his 60D, motioning me to the window. “Lots of police, look.” As we peered through the window, brushed opaque with the abrasive grim of years gone by, there stood several guards, lining the opposite station platform. Were they for us? The Japanese man thought so. To protect tourists from terrorists, he said.
Another train, pulled into station, temporarily obscuring our portal with a grunting wall of blackened diesel. The new image for us was a train car filled with metal bars and another guard on the train. A money train? A prisoner transport?
The call to prayer pierced the darkness as we rolled into another station. The other side of the train was similarly unusual, with our scheduled stops punctuated by the occasional logbook exchange by the conductors and station keepers. The train staff continued to eye me with distrust, and I continued my federation with the Japanese tourist, who I found out comes from Nagoya and got an excellent deal on a new Canon SLR.
Our final destination this morning was Aswan, on the southern part of Egypt. Aswan is where the giant dam built by Nasser in the 1960s. Still tired and weary, our converting cabin beds were stowed back into seats and we pulled into the station. Walking out into the sunlight, Aswan was much hotter than Cairo, but also more laid back and with clearer air.
It seemed quieter, but still with a bustle in the streets lining the banks of the Nile.
Our tour guide took us quickly to a spice vendor on the many market streets here named the Souk. We will likely return tomorrow, but the shops here are very much catered to tourists as it is a major part of the economy. As we settled into the town, we quickly went for lunch, eating a strange macaroni, lentil and tomato concoction. Our bus driver stopped in front of the snack shop, where locals were awaiting take away orders for a late lunch and men were having a smoke on the shisha this afternoon.
Our major stop for today was the El-Tabia Mosque, where we visited inside, taking off our shoes and gathering in the central area where follows go to pray. We happened to be there as the call for prayer went out this afternoon, a cleric walking up to the microphone and his voice going out into the streets through speakers outside. In contrast, there was also the large Coptic Church in Aswan, which was similarly impressive, albeit only built this decade.
As the sun set, we ventured out by motor boat onto the Nile. The river is abuzz with traffic, sailboats and skiffs making up the majority, with huge hotel like-objects afloat on the sides. As launches with travelers zipped along, we made our way to the Elephantine Island situated in the middle of the Nile, where camels were waiting for us to ride.
I was already quite tired by the time we got to the camels, but I was immediately rushed on to one with little thinking. Had I had more time to analyze the situation, I probably would have been more scared. But as the sun came down, I found myself enjoying the ride up the side of the hill, camel quietly marching along and the stars becoming visible in the dark sky overhead. Another tourist mentioned as we rode along, this would be exactly the same as it was hundreds of years ago in the desert, though the Nubian camel leader with the incessant Nokia ringtone kind of broke that fantasy quickly.
On the island, there is a Nubian village, where the villagers subsist on tourists visiting their home and having meals in their courtyard. Driven in on the back of old Toyota pickup trucks, we arrived with children rushing up to welcome us. Though the dinner was uncomfortable on the floor, I enjoyed watching the villagers wash up pots and pans in their compound, the hustle and bustle of Cairo hundreds of miles away.