Aswan, a Desert Paradise

I step onto the platform. It’s hot. A breeze blows. Hawkers buzz like flies in the heat haze. I wave them away and walk deeper into the exotic land. Outside the station, voices call to me asking if I need a taxi. First they try English, then Spanish, and a smattering of German. I wave them away, threading through the crowds. I do not like crowds, but here they don’t faze me. They are the pulse of life, the essence of travel. I take it in my stride, and my stride takes me towards the Nile, towards my hotel for the next two days.

Aswan is different from Cairo. A constant breeze blows along the Nile rustling the sun bleached palms that line its length. It is an ancient land, nothing moves fast here. It is laid back in the way you might be your first night at a tropical resort. You never quite reach that state of carefree bliss of days lounging by a pool, but your body is natively more at ease than Cairo with its bustling traffic and symphony of horns. Here, life is slower. It’s had thousands of years to settle into the perfect rhythm to survive this harsh landscape. Perhaps it is because of the harsh environment that the breeze, which ruffles my travel worn clothes, feels so refreshing.

I spend my days exploring temples and ruins. I kick up dust as I walk, fragments of history swirling around me. Every where I look ancient carvings, thousands of years old, talk to me louder than the street vendors could ever do. It stirs my soul as much as the food stirs my stomach. Occasionally they both bubble to the surface and I struggle to take it all in.

At midday, when the heat is highest I pay 100 Cairo pounds to a dark-skinned man dressed in white cotton and bare feet. His smile is infectious and character as warm as the sun beating down overhead. We board his Felucca, the traditional sailing boats of the Nile. For the next hour, we skimming down the river spying more ruins, other craft — both large and small. It’s blissfully silent as the current draws us northward until we tack south, sail catches the wind, creaking ropes and wood, a symphony of travel to my ears. Soon, oh too soon, my new friend guides us back to the dock. He smiles again, an unspoken indication that I must return to the busy, bustling streets of Aswan.

I seek the shelter of the bazaars. Nothing is without a cost and I must side step vendors to partake in the shade. The sun beats down relentlessly. The sky a tarnished grey as if the blue itself has been worn around like the ruins I have visited. I smell spices: cumin, turmeric, and mint. Fresh baked bread makes my mouth water. I buy a loaf and tear it off savoring the bland taste as I walk.

Eventually the draw of falafel entices me to rest and eat at a local shop. I sit. The shopkeeper whirls around me depositing battered silver dishes of falafel, fava beans, hummus, pickled vegetables, and friend egg plant. I watch the locals deftly combine the ingredients into pita pockets. They bulge with flavors so delightful I close my eyes frantically attempting to savor them all. As I do, the sounds, previously muffled, assault me. This city is alive. The stones sing to me, sharing their stories, welcoming me as a guest. I take my time with each bite. In Aswan, time is not something to be rushed. It is to be savored. To be enjoyed. To be studied, and unearthed like the ancient sculptures that surround me.

Night falls, the suns oppressive seat is replaced by a warm evening. The streets, buzzing before, now come to life with families, hawkers, and sizzling food cards. Everyone is outside eating in the parks: children playing football, parents sitting on mats chatting about the day. I meet up with some friends in a second floor cafe for Sheesha, the traditional way of smoking tobacco through a bowl and hose, often mixed with flavors like apple or grape. I don’t partake, smoking isn’t my thing, but I feel like I have stepped into the bar scene from Star Wars. It’s exotic, wild, and I love it. Aswan has cast it’s spell over me. It may not have the great pyramids of Cairo, or the Mediterranean of Alexandra. This is the Egypt I was looking for.  I let it drift over me like the smoke, scented with blueberry and mollasis. It’s sweet, sticky. This moment will stick with me too.