[ 14:22 monday 12 january – nile palace hotel, luxor, egypt ]
in the second half of 2008 i only managed to take one week of holiday. by december i was gasping for an escape so i set aside the first week of january to run away somewhere on my own. i didn’t have any specific plans but as soon as i got back from berlin i started scouting for cheap flights anywhere in the world. finally on sunday night i found a last-minute package to luxor in egypt departing at ten the following morning. i booked it and started throwing things in bags.
package holidays are the purest antithesis of what i seek in travel. my best experiences arise through having no plans and ready to throw myself into unexpected adventures that present themselves. but in this case the deal was irresistible: a flight plus a week’s b&b in a five star hotel on the banks of the nile for less than the cost of an air ticket. if i got there and hated the hotel i could abandon it and take to the road.
on my first day i wandered into the centre of town, thick with tourists and felluca touts, then crossed over the railway line and set off into the periphery where tourist faces rapidly disappeared and sugarcane fields started to peek in between the houses. i soon had a gaggle of children scampering around me laughing and tugging me towards what turned out to be a little stall selling sweets and plastic chinese trinkets. the lady proprietress was stern and not inclined to negotiation. i bought a bright pink plastic gun with flashing lights and space-invader sounds for about fifty pence then distributed a few small notes to the children to buy sweets.
the next day i decided to take the train up to aswan. tourism is tightly controlled in egypt and visitors can only travel on certain roads and trains. mine was two hours late arriving at luxor during which time four or five regular trains passed through the station, packed with farmers, workers and their baggage. i would gladly have jumped aboard one had this not been prevented by officers of the tourist police positioned at each carriage. finally my train arrived and i stretched out in a reclining seat in first class. over the next few hours it threaded its way up through the verdant fields lining the river, sometimes straying into the edge of the arid desert beyond, whilst mice scampering about the carpet at my feet.
arriving in aswan i had no plan. i’d bought a map in luxor but left it in the train. following my nose to the river i was immediately drawn to a long island in the middle of it. there was was a hideous concrete hotel at the southern tip but it was hard to see what the rest of it was like. i walked along the corniche fending off felluca touts and bowing to the youths complimenting me on my hair. soon i spotted what looking like a pontoon for a public ferry and walked down. after ten minutes a scruffy boat appeared, i clambered into it and we set off.
the crossing was beautiful. for all the irritation of being encouraged constantly to hire a felluca the sight of their white triangular sales thronging the river is achingly lovely. soon we drew up at a narrow steeply-ascending quay on the island hemmed in by trees on both sides. i walked up and found myself in a different world. although the hurly-burly of the city was only a couple of minutes away across the river, i was in a village of mud-brick huts linked by narrow mud pathways with no motor vehicles. the transition was magically unexpected.
i spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and taking photographs. i found what appeared to be an ancient harbour, now landlocked and scattered with rubbish, its massive stone blocks suggestive of a distant period of wealth and power. further along a huge electricity transformer sat in the middle of the bare earth, its ornate steel ribs looking like the carcass of some great mechanical beast. a man came up and explained that a new one was expected soon. at the far side of the island the path descended to the waterside. three boys were paddling themselves across the water on old doors. a lady sat alone looking pensively out over the water. the river was dotted with granite boulders and on the far side the yellow desert rose up to an stone fortress. i learned afterwards this was one of the world’s earliest christian monasteries. i continued to explore. this island, which i discovered is called abu, was the most sublime place i visited in egypt.
the next day, back at luxor, i spent several hours exploring the karnak temple complex. it was over-run with tourists spectacular nonetheless. the place is immense, the result of successive dynasties tinkering and extending over fifteen centuries. i bribed an officer of the tourist police to look the other way while i climbed up a worn staircase inside a pylon that wasn’t open to the public. it emerged onto a narrow ledge from where i had a wonderful view over the complex with the huge statues illuminated in the setting sun. at twilight i pulled out my sound recorder to capture the delicate cacophony as half a dozen distant muezzins struck up the call to prayer. as i was recording a young egyptian came up to me, curious what i was doing. he was ahmed, in the final year of his studies, from a village called diouahara in the fields outside luxor.
we chatted (ahmed’s english was limited) and became friends. ahmed invited me back to his village and led me on a succession of battered pick-ups with benches in the back (“micro buses”) before walking the last stretch between sugarcane fields to reach the village. this was a mixture of concrete and bud-brick buildings intersected by dirt roads where people sat clustered around fires. ahmed led me through narrower and narrower alleyways, sometimes skirting pools of water or leaping across inexplicable pits, until we reached his house. several children were swept out of a fluorescent-lit room where i was invited to seat myself beside a television blaring a lurid arabic soap opera. ahmed introduced me to some of his brothers, ceremonially brought me a glass of water, then swept me onward to meet his friends.
i returned to the village many times in the subsequent days. one evening ahmed’s parents invited me to dinner, which we ate seated around a huge circular tray on the floor. another evening his friend sayeed took me riding on his horse under the full moon. these were my strongest connections with egypt and its people.
yesterday, my final day, i invited ahmed to come with me across the river to the west bank. i rented bikes for us both and we pedaled off into the mountains of the eastern desert to reach the valley of the kings. i wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the tombs, my main interest was the mountain ridge above. it was a steep little climb but reaching the top the view was spectacular. the narrow green swathe of the nile stretched from horizon to horizon, slicing through a world otherwise shimmering white and barren. nothing else conveyed so strongly the sense of this fragile line in which humans could prosper and where such a remarkable civilisation flourished and endured.
: c :