It transpires that Aswan is a tourist hotspot. We discovered this when we tried to buy a kofta roll and paid five times the going rate for it. People visit in order to cruise the Nile and visit the colossal tombs at Abu Simbel. We arrived however to catch the ferry to Sudan. For this reason Aswan is also a focus for African overlanders. We arrived in Adam’s home, an overlander’s campsite, hungry and exhausted as had become the norm. We unloaded our belongings into a mud brick hut and were then given the tour by Mohamed, a Nubian who had spent several years working in Cornwall of all places. In honesty we were reluctant to participate in said tour. It had been a long time since we had eaten and we were anxious to start cooking our late supper. Nonetheless we trailed courteously behind Mohamed as he cheerfully explored various huts and facilities. He led us through the kitchen, which was alive with activity. Six Nubian men were performing a complex food preparation waltz. Some rolled rice parcels; others stirred bubbling pots and shook sizzling pans. We surveyed enviously. We would not be eating for an hour at the soonest, even if we could manage to cook without getting tangled in the gears and limbs of this admirable grub machine.
Mohamed herded us into the communal area where a low table was laid for an enormous feast, he explained that they were celebrating the birth a of a baby boy to one of the men. The smiling father earnestly encouraged us to sit with them on the wicker mats and eat, in so doing he proffered a bowl of cabbage leaf domadas. Despite our grumbling stomachs Rich and I tried to politely decline. Our limp refusal was halfhearted however as we were starving and furthermore Bas already had a domada in his hand and two in his mouth. We sat.
The table was overflowing with dishes. Bowls of tahina, bean fuul and chili sauce, roasted chickens stuffed with risotto rice, curried sausage casserole and pitta breads. We ate until we could not move and then crumbled back onto plump cushions. We lounged there completely immobilized and reminisced about old England with Mohamed until, conquered by the warm cannonball of food in our bellies, we retired.
The next day was all business. We had been procrastinating and the time had come for some serious admin. We drained the rear differential and replaced the leaking gasket, changed the engine oil and filter, changed the fuel filter, washed the air filter, wired in the inverter, split charge relay and second battery. Not bad for a mornings work, we were getting better. In the afternoon we went on individual missions for supplies and food for the ferry. My job was a replacement camping gas canister as I had had trouble with this task in the past and was not willing to hand over the baton to anyone else.
I walked out onto the streets of Aswan and could not believe my luck; the first person I asked knew exactly where to find gas, as did the following six people. Strangely all of them brought me to the same tourist market selling the same Chinese-made sunglasses and plastic jewelry. In an effort to escape I crossed a railway bridge to the other side of Aswan. This was like walking into another town all together. All of a sudden tourism was a myth and I was in Egypt proper. I stepped off the overpass and was promptly mobbed, not by churlish tat retailers with a sense of entitlement but by boisterous livestock. Chickens, goats and turkeys waddled and skipped among my feet, grocers shouted their wares and prices. Butchers hacked cuts of meat from hanging hooks and fishmongers lustily slapped their slimy produce on slick steel trays.
I continued asking my question, and received an assortment of more honest, but still ultimately useless, answers. I wandered behind the stalls and came across a handful of aged souk vendors sitting on low plastic stools. They were talking and laughing volubly so they did not notice my presence for some time. At length, with the help of a small biro diagram on the back of a cabbage, I was able to make my request understood. I waited while the wise old merchants conferred. Minutes passed and I became restless to continue my search. Presently the man seated opposite me wearing a black turban and eyes shot with pink stood up in a hurry as if he had suddenly cracked the riddle. He began rifling through his many layers of smock and with a broad grin produced a gigantic spliff. The men lit up and continued their cheerful dialogue. This was getting me nowhere so I mumbled excuses and ambled shyly away. As I retreated, black turban yelled something to me in Arabic and pointed to the other side of road at a man on a motorbike. I approached the man who said to me in English, “you look for gas can, yes?” Dumbstruck, I glanced back at the merchants and then nodded agreement. He jerked his head at the pillion seat of his motorbike and I climbed on.
We bounced over speed bumps and zipped amongst market stalls, skillfully circumnavigating tuk tuks and articulated lorries. After a few minutes of winding lanes I was completely lost and I suddenly had a thought that brought me sharply back to previous memories of traveling. I dwelt on the fact that at that time I was completely at the mercy of this Egyptian stranger. He had only to take me to a group of his mates, somewhere out of town to rob me, or worse. This feeling of vulnerability is a daily concern when traveling alone but I had forgotten about it while traveling as a group. Thankfully, as is often the case, my concerns were not realized. My guide brought me to a small shop far out of town. We crept through a dark tortuous entrance to find a grisled man hunched, smoking a water pipe. My guide spoke to him and the old man pointed to a high shelf where I could see a gas bottle, bright and blue. My heart leapt. I asked to get it down but the old man shook his head. My translator explained that this was because the bottle was empty. Excellent thought I. Well that was a fun waste of time. Deflated I explained that this was not useful to me. My guide seemed more disappointed than me that he could not help, he brought me back to the souk. I was so close but ultimately foiled again. Perhaps in Wadi Halfa we would get gas. *
The ferry was a scrum. It was Christmas day and we were lead up the gangway by our perpetually soused fixer Mahmet. We followed as his momentous bulk swung neatly through the crowd tearing a path. We hurried so as not to be caught and lost in the sweating wall of bodies. On the bridge, a few notes in the Captain’s hand secured us a few square feet of deck to rest on. We lay in the sun, lazily burning and watching while the boat slowly filled. Multitudes passed into the hull during the course of the day, each dragging several times his body weight in luggage. The majority were Sudanese traders and their families. Their luggage was produce and electrical products bought in Egypt to sell in Sudan. Countless items were roughly tied or bagged, then hauled up to the deck. Perhaps the significant proportion of goods that are lost to the depths, as a result of absent-minded handling, is written off by the traders as acceptable losses. Indeed no one batted an eyelid when a man next to me turned to speak to a friend and let loose a rope carrying eight magimix blenders allowing them to fall 20 ft, smash apart on the concrete pier and then bob gently away on Lake Nasser.
The ferry was a sociable experience. The route from Egypt to Sudan runs weekly and was cancelled the week prior to our arrival. As a result it formed a bottleneck for all the travelers heading south. These consisted of two Swiss overlanders, two Croatian journalists, a Canadian family, an English cyclist and a couple of Germans. The last westerner we had seen was in Turkey so this glut was quite a novelty. Furthermore we had to drink any alcohol we had about us before arrival in Sudan where one receives 40 lashes for possession. A penalty we were, needless to say, keen to avoid.
We popped open dusty bottles of beer that had watched our progress from the roof of the Landie since Perranporth. The first drop of Betty Stoggs dragged us back to a Cornish beach and shanty singing on warm September nights. As the ferry pulled us through the still water to Sudan we sang old pirate songs and swigged our ales. The Captain only rarely interrupted our merriment by stepping from the bridge to make his prayers. At these points we would carefully conceal our beer and impose a brief intermission on our raucous shantying. Spirits were high among the traders as well, they were happy to be on their way home. All on the poop deck had a jolly time.
We sang and swapped stories long after the sun had set. We did not understand the naiveté of this behavior until it was time to bed down for the night. More judicious passengers had realised much earlier that a boatload of people occupies a lot more space lying down than they do standing up. As such, on scanning around for a few square feet to lay down our sleeping bags we found none. Rob, our English cyclist from Preston, had flash of an idea. Bag in hand; he darted off for the lifeboats. He strode surely through the marsh of shrouded bodies. In the gloom he aroused frequent sleepy protests when his waivering bare sole found purchase on an unsuspicious face or groin. Sadly Rob’s search was fruitless. Each lifeboat was a snoring can of Sudanese sardines. Rob shambled back disheartened, his feet carefully sparing his earlier victims in favour of a new path of faces and groins. Eventually, we each found a small corner of deck to curl up in and the snug sleeping conditions kept us warm for the few remaining hours before the sun.
To be continued…
* 8/1/13 – We still have not found gas.