aswan: abu simbel

Our last full day in Egypt was a study in extremes, both good and bad. Abu Simbel has been on my wish-list to see since learning about it in university art history class. It did not disappoint. I loved it. We also had a heaping dose of everything we don’t like about the culture here.

First the good. We left early with a box breakfast from our hotel. The early ferries were crowded with teens going to school. The ferry carried at least twice as many people as usual.

The tour guy was waiting for us on the east bank ferry slip. We settled up with him and settled into a nice car, with our breakfast. The drive to Abu Simbel is a bit less than three hours. It’s one highway the whole way, and once you leave Aswan, there is nothing but desert on both sides. There are no cacti or scrub grass like you see in the southwest US. Just flat sand to the horizon. When we got to Abu Simbel, and saw Lake Nasser on both sides of the monument -- the same lake we saw three hours ago in Aswan -- we really got a sense of how huge the lake is.

At Abu Simbel, there was a display of photos documenting the process of moving the monuments from their original location, to save them from being permanently submerged under Lake Nasser. A video (in English) was running, a documentary about the move. It’s an incredible engineering and archaeological feat. It seems almost impossible that it happened and was successful.

If that seems impossible, the fact of the monument and temples themselves seems truly otherworldly. The four seated colossi carved out of a mountain are so outsized, it’s overwhelming. The pedestal on which their feet rests is six feet tall.

Inside, in the temple of Ramses II, more colossi serve as columns. With these, a tall person comes up to their shins, no taller than their knees. The temple is much larger than I realized, with many chambers and little rooms. The reliefs are beautiful. There’s a series depicting Ramses conquering his enemies, with great detail of chariots, horses, people begging for mercy, bows and arrows, and so on.

The smaller temple of Nephertiti is also impressive and beautiful. Only in terms of ancient Egypt could this temple be considered small. The statues outside it are about 10 metres (30 feet) tall. The colossi of the Ramses temple are twice that.

I was thrilled to see this monument, and sad to leave it. I know I’ll never see it again. I feel so fortunate to have seen it, but that is also a little sad, because now it’s over. It’s strange. You want to see something your whole life, and then you see it for a couple of hours, and then you’ve seen it.

* * * *

Now the bad.

Allan is totally sick of the harassment by souvenir sellers and the tourist prices. Today it got really bad, prompting us to have a long discussion about why this happens at all.

Why can’t we walk past a row of stalls or stores without being called to, men blocking my way, putting things in front of my face? Why can’t I look at one piece of jewelry without hearing a sales pitch for seven more pieces? Why do so many people have to call attention to every tourist that walks by? Why can’t local and tourist treat each other with mutual respect?

Coming to a country so different than my own, I took care to learn the appropriate shows of respect -- how to address people, how to dress in public. I was very focused on, as a tourist, showing proper respect to our host country. But the constant hawking, the endless comments, and the crazy prices feel very disrespectful.

At Abu Simbel, we tried to buy two postcards (which we need for two specific people). The seller tried to charge 20 LEs for them. First, “Smile, smile, why do you look so angry? Smile, you are welcome here,” then 20 LEs for a postcard that likely costs five for 1 LE. Then the price immediately drops to 10. It’s not the money. It’s the fact of this happening.

Two minutes later, we try to buy a water and a seller (not the same person) asks for 25 LEs. Water costs 5 LEs. We were so annoyed, we didn’t discuss it with him, we just put it back.

Why is it like this? Tourist and host could be, should be, a mutually beneficial relationship, but the harassment and the hugely inflated prices make it feel completely adversarial.

I fell asleep on the ride back, so I felt kind of gross from that. Then we went to the souq, partly to look for the bookstore again, but mostly to pick up something to eat, preferably something we could bring back to the hotel to eat later.

Every food stall looked dirty and disgusting. You know I am not germ-phobic, nor particularly hung up about cleanliness. I often think people make too big a deal about these things. If you have a healthy immune system, you don’t have to worry about shaking hands, or using a phone that someone else has used. So in that context, I tell you that the thought of eating food from any of these places nauseated me. Literally.

We saw a man making falafel sandwiches for some girls (tourists). One girl refused to take the wrapped-up sandwiches. The man started pulling out the sandwich fillings -- with his hands -- and throwing them back into the containers on his cart.

Everything is filthy. There is so much garbage everywhere. There was no stand or stall or fast-food joint that looked remotely like something we would eat in or from.

To top it all off, Allan tried to buy some bread and pastries at a bakery stall, and the owner tried to charge him 30 LEs for something we know costs less than 10. Allan handed him back the bag, and we walked away. The man yelled after us, again and again and again, as if we were haggling.

I also want to add to what I wrote in a previous post about street harassment, that I’m too old, and traveling with a man protects me from that. Well, not quite. Young guys, walking in groups, say things to any female tourist, or perhaps any tourist with her head uncovered. They act as if they’re supposed to do this -- making a comment, then snickering together like they’re indulging in some naughty fun. It doesn’t happen very often, and it’s usually one comment, no more. But today it added to the general disgust factor.

Photos from Abu Simbel are here.

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