Only when you reach the Nile after having spent weeks in the desert is when you are finally able to understand its historical and present-day relevance. It is very easy to see that without it, the Egyptian civilization would've probably never had the opportunity to exist (at least not in such grandeur) and Egypt itself wouldn't be what it is today either. The Nile is responsible for the existence of a long strip of fertility right in the middle of the desert, that extends for thousands of kilometers and around which most of life in Egypt revolves. It is by no coincidence then that most of the population of the country settle within a reasonable distance to its shores. As a result of it, this is where we encountered the traffic and the noise again but also the life that it is only possible thanks to it.
It is in just a handful of kilometers that the transition between aridity and fertility occurs. From the total absence of life to overpopulation in almost blink of an eye. Huge plantations of sugar cane suddenly show on both sides of the road. Old men collect them and transport them in their carts pulled by donkeys. At every stop, people come and offer a few of them to us for free. You basically have to pull out the thickest outer layer with your teeth and spit it out before being able to sink your teeth right in the cane to squeeze its delicious juice out of it. Most impressive is the fact that regardless of the heat, the juice remains cold. Even though it is really delicious, it is a teeth-breaking experience and after the painful ordeal I went through in Mongolia that kept me wide awake for a week in a row with one of my molars, the result of the excess of sugar, I decided not to take any chances this time and pass on them.
20 km before reaching Luxor we took a detour to avoid the mad traffic on the main highway and took a dirt road that ran parallel to one of the several canals of the Nile. There we met with the life of the peasants whose life revolves around the harvests that are only possible due to this strip of fertility. They see us in total awe when we pass and they don't hesitate for a minute to invite us to their homes. In one of them, Mohammed, the only man that was able to speak a few sentences in English, explains to us that here (referring to the whole neighborhood) they are all brothers, they are one big family, they all help each other everything is for everyone. They aren't what some might instantly tag as communists to denigrate them, they are simply hospitable people. Mohammed, another neighboor of Mohammed, with his thick brown skin wrinkled by the sun and his crystal clear green eyes poses proudly next to his mother. He is number 10 of 14 siblings. In Egypt, it seems as though 9 out of 10 men are called Mohammed ( named after the great Prophet of Islam). After a few days in contact with people, as soon as we met somebody new we would risk right away calling him Mohammed without knowing it beforehand and most of the time we guessed right. I cannot even imagine how they do in school when checking assistance in a class full of little Mohammeds.
Life is very simple, they are peasants and they are economically poor but there is dignity even when it is rural poverty. They live in houses made of thick walls of mud and very few opennings, they preserve them from the intense heat outside. Entering them is a relief from the unforgiving sun outside. Every single person that comes into the house to see us, wants to take us to his/her home to meet the family. They are all lovely and genuinely affectionate. They indulge us so much that we are left with no words. It is people that give everything to treat their guests, even when they are complete strangers. In each home a big lunch waits for us, refreshments and photos with them.
What it initially intended to be just a short visit ended up being a wonderful half-day break. When we finally left, as we were cycling away, there were dozens of people standing in front of their houses to wave us good-bye until we finally got out of their sight.
The worst place in the world.
Agra has traditionally been by far at the very top of the list of the places that I despise the most in this planet, I thought it to be unsurpassable....until I reached Luxor. With a massive concentration of historical monuments and buildings that date from dozens of centuries ago, Luxor is a true open-air museum, a unique spectacle. One could wander for days visiting extraordinary temples and the impressive tombs of several Pharaohs. Unfortunately though, the whole place is plagued with aggressive sellers, touts and pushers that jump to you like crocodiles after fasting for a year. They are experts in trying to get the maximum amount of money out of you in the least amount of time. Simply walking around town is an unbearable experience. You cannot walk more than 10 m (30 ft) without having someone next to you pushing you to get you to either buy something or do something. No form of “NO”, kind, neutral or aggressive is taken as an answer. They do not accept “NO”and they follow you, the push you, they interrupt you. It isn't a pleasant experience, it takes a lot of patience, even mind control to deal with it. You cannot even hold a conversation while walking for you are constantly interrupted, they become more aggressive with every time they insist. They walk next to you for hundreds of meters if it's necessary and they will even get in your way if you decide to ignore them. There is no real way to deal with them because as soon as one finally gives up the next one will jump on to you. The situation is even worse these days of no tourism when we are among the very few foreigners in town, they all come to us. Apparently, a few years ago, it got so out of control that it became a serious issue and police had to intervene. I have to say that if this is actually true I cannot even begin to imagine what it must've been like before. Battling this situation we managed to visit some of the major temples and monuments and let me tell you that having been able to walk across the hypostile hall of Karnak in person was so much more incredible than having had to learn to draw by hand the whole temple for my History I exam back in university.
It was in Karnak that I finally understood the term “pharaonic” to describe something of colossal dimensions.
Fortunately we found a refuge to this nightmare called Luxor at Ernesto's house, a remarkable Uruguayan young man, that 3 years ago went for a big change in his life and opted for Egypt, his passion. And there he lives in a small village 13 km out of Luxor where he built his own house and was “adopted” by a local family. Far from the madness of tourism, while he studies Egyptology, his house is an oasis in this hell, and he is is the best possible guide to fully understand the amazing cultural heritage of Luxor. However, the highlight of our meeting as “neighbours” that we are, was to celebrate cooking “asado” the traditional barbecue of Argentina and Uruguay to make justice to our respective origins.
After a few days of resting there we started the last 200 km to Aswan along the road that follows the Nile. Despite having quite a lot of traffic and being mostly populated all the way, we passed by very picturesque villages of mud-houses where local men go to the tea houses to drink tea, smoke shisha and play domino all day.
The villages of this region have that beautiful timeless quality. It seems as though time has stopped when you are there and every day is like a Sunday afternoon. Even so, I have no clue why at a police checkpoint they put an escort on us to follow us very slowly on their truck along 30 km.
Already very close to Aswan, at just about 20 km, the road runs right next to the Nile. It is so beautiful that it becomes irresistible to me. It is one of the longest river in the planet and one of the most historically relevant. At this point its water is deep blue, transparent and it is surrounded by very green palm trees and bushes followed by beautiful yellow sand dunes right behind them. The chromatic combination is exquisite. It was extremely hot and it was one day before my birthday so I didn't doubt it for a second, I decided to take a purifying bath in this emblematic river to say farewell to my 35 years. I plunged into it completely and felt happy and filled with life.
We reached Aswan after 1650 km since we had left Cairo. This is the last point of the country where we can cycle to. From there, the road until the Sudanese border passes through a military area that it's been forbidden for foreigners for years. As a result for this, the only way to get to Wadi Halfa, in Sudan, 300 km away,
is to take the long journey on a boat across Lake Nasser. Aswan has a beautiful promenade by the Nile as well, although the effects of tourism (or lack there of) are also very noticeable here. Dozens of cruises that used to sail on the Nile are standing still rusting in the water. Even so, touts and pushers are plenty and it is hard to have a pleasant walk along the promenade. I preferred to get into the neighborhoods and get to know the most genuine people in this town.
During the day, people choose to stay indoors. I can't blame them, the temperature is already reaching 46 C every afternoon and I seem to be the only masochist walking around town. The most bizarre thing is when we come across people that effusively greet us with a warm “Welcome to Alaska!”. It's really hilarious, we had heard it before but it is particularly in Aswan when they say it very often. The good sense of sarcastic humour of these people is admirable. They welcome us to Alaska knowing very well beforehand that we suffer the heat way more than them.
I can't also imagine why women would like to walk around town fully wrapped in their black negab with this unbearable heat. I just can't understand how they tolerate it.
In Aswan we spent our last week in Egypt, resting, letting my knee continue to recover, applying for the Sudanese visa and waiting for the day the boat sails. We met again with Scott and Sarah who arrive the day after us.
Egypt has been a wonderful surprise to me. It is one of the most touristy place in the world and it certainly has a very negative effect in it, the worst that I have experienced so far. Even without tourists, it is still a big problem, or perhaps it makes it even worse. But these problems are 100% limited to very few specific points, even within a city. It is so easy to avoid them that in the end, for those who travel independently and aim to go beyond the main landmarks of a country, it isn't really a big problem. As soon as you are out of the tourist circuit, people are truly incredible, they are nice, hospitable and they constantly offered us help. We've been invited for tea innumerable times, people have stopped time and time again along the roads to offer us help, food and water. At the ambulance stations, we always had a secure bed and food. When finding houses, it's just a matter of stopping by to say hi and more often than not you'll be greeted with a warm welcome followed by an invitation to stay. They will feed you and take great care of you. I could've stayed in Egypt for at least one more month and it is a country that I wouldn't hesitate much in returning as soon as I had the chance. Leaving my annoyance with irresponsible tourism a bit behind, I must say that it made me very sad to see so many wonderful people suffering due to the total lack of visitors. It is very hard to see it and people continuously bring up their story of how they have seen their economic condition degrade along these last three years of continuous “Revolutions” until losing everything they had. For them, those who have shown us their selfless affection throughout our journey across the country, I wish people lost their unnecessary fear to visit Egypt. The Media as usual focuses on over-exaggerating things that either don't exist at all or that they are so specific to one single spot that it is extremely easy for anyone to avoid any possible dangers. The Egyptians were always the first ones that did everything to assure us that we were in a safe place, that we shouldn't fear and we certainly don't and never did. Even if we were a little scared, I know that Egyptians will get out of their way to keep us away from any trouble. Egypt is exceptionally safe, up to one or two years ago Egyptians didn't even know crime. Today, the situation is so bad, that it did lead to a robbery here and there but they are still pretty much isolated cases. I say it once again and cannot stress it enough: DON'T FEAR EGYPT!. Don't believe all the gibberish and nonsense you watch on TV or what those evil institutions of your own country warn you against. Please go and you'll be surprised with the warmth of their hospitality and the grandeur of its history.