Thursday, April 30, 2009

Travel: Aswan -- what Cairo once was

Al Ahram Weekly

Alaa Abdel-Ghani visits the Upper Egyptian city where time often stands still

The moment I leave Cairo, heading anywhere inside Egypt, I am constantly reminded of the hugely successful 1980s Egyptian comedy play Shahed Mashafsh Haga (The Witness Who Saw Nothing). During a courtroom break, star Adel Imam indulges in light-hearted banter with a lowly clerk who tells Imam he has seven children.

"The kids, my wife and I, and my mother-in- law, we all live in one room."

"All in one room?" a bewildered Imam asks. "You leave all the other rooms in the house and stay in one room?"

"Sir," the clerk replies with similar befuddlement, "the house is one room."

That's Cairo... almost. Egypt actually has many, many rooms, but many of them have been abandoned by their inhabitants in search of better job opportunities in Cairo. In the process, they have crammed the capital to breaking and boiling point, leaving behind endless stretches of both greenery and desert, vastness so great and so under-populated you cannot but wonder how totally better Cairo would be if its wall-to-wall people were to spread out and evenly occupy all that empty territory available elsewhere.

This haphazard migration has tilted Egypt heavily in Cairo's disfavour; too much in the capital, few and far between everywhere else. Sometimes, we in Cairo fight back the only way we know how: by leaving it, if only temporarily. I left my wife and three teenage children to brainstorm where this lucky spot awaiting us for a brief holiday would be. They took aim, fired and, bullseye, they struck Upper Egypt. Aswan to be exact.

Even though this was the end of January, during the mid-year school and university holidays, and the two biggest and most famous hotels in Aswan, the old and new Cataracts, were closed for renovation, we still were able to book a hotel when it would normally have taken at least a month in advance to do so. Our tourist office said we were fortunate because the global economic crisis had started to take its toll. More and more people, here and abroad, were deciding to stay home for the holidays to save pennies and piastres.

We weren't so lucky with the train we wanted to take. Berth trains had all been booked; airfare was LE1,300 a head -- too expensive, we thought, for a four-day trip. So we grudgingly settled for a train without beds.

The seats on board the bedless train were comfortable enough, with ample leg room, but this was to be a 14-hour trip, and on such a marathon, even Lazyboy recliners would not suffice. As we pulled out of Ramses Station, we knew the start of this 680-kilometre odyssey would not be a joy ride.

For me, in particular, such a long-distance journey could have serious repercussions. Being a former blood clot victim suffering from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), inflicted by sitting too long in cramped quarters, another clot could not be ruled out. The avoidance of a second unwelcome clot would mean getting up from time to time, doing Jane Fonda stretch exercises, pacing the aisles every once in a while, and drinking plenty of water.

I did nothing of the sort.

It was the start of night and the monotony of the choo-choo helped me to snore off at regular intervals. Besides, it was dark, and although the diesel made stops at Beni Sweif, Minya, Sohag, Assiut, Qena and Luxor, these cities all looked alike because in the dark everything looks the same. Eerie after eerie scene replicated itself -- dusty, empty roads, greyish shuddered buildings a few storeys tall, and the streets lit meekly by rows of weak street lamps emitting yellowish dull light, incapable of doing the task they are intended for.

In Aswan, we stayed at Basma, a four-star-plus hotel (didn't know hotels had plus and minus categories). But just like I never heard of a plus hotel, I never saw a receptionist escort a patron all the way to his hotel room, and from the Basma lobby to our room stood a daunting 119 steps in the middle. But that's exactly what our kindly receptionist did. And because my wife was nowhere to be found when this extreme courtesy was taking place (she was -- surprise, surprise -- scouring the shops nearby), when she finally appeared, the receptionist made the 119-step trip again. But he took the whole thing in stride, literally, and his smile was genuinely friendly.

Basma was approximately a half hour walk from the city centre. Perched atop a hill, the hotel's venue provided those picture postcard views of the majestic Nile. The bad news was that Basma is situated on a hill so steep that drivers of horse buggies cannot take you all the way to the hotel. They have to drop you off once the gradient becomes too acute for the horse. If horses can't make the climb, you can imagine what it must be like for humans.

The Nubian Museum was located opposite the hotel, providing our first official taste of Aswan's history.

See the above page for the full story.

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