One week of adventure on the Nile is coming to a close, as are our posts about this fascinating country. Our gallery of photos was bursting at the brim and it is these that has reminded me of a few events and outings that ended up on the cutting room floor as it were. Hence this mop up of “short stories” from the Nile.
The Last Egyptian Del Boy
Most of our posts have included a description of the swarms of hard-sell street traders plying their goods. To be honest they are only trying to make a living and with tourists numbers down it has added pressure to get a sale at every opportunity. This one last buying opportunity was perhaps the most memorable of all.
We were on our coach heading back to the Nile after a very hot and dusty morning exploring the Valley of the Kings when Nabil, Ace Guide (or Ace Wheeler Dealer) said we would be stopping at an Alabaster Shop. We knew something was afoot when Nabil started to give advice on how to haggle. His tip was to offer half of the original price and work from there. Sound advice you may think, but then he added, “If you come and ask me if it is a fair price I will either say “it’s up to you” meaning keep trying to get him to drop or “it seems a fair price” meaning just that.” Problem is I think the code was going both ways and he was probably saying something in Egyptian to say “whack the prices up these tourists are millionaires“.
Now Alabaster is a soft rock that is used for carving and in strong light it takes on a translucent quality. The workshop we were heading for would show us the traditional method of how the pots are carved, followed by the usual hospitality drink and personally escorted trip around the store to spend some money (the whole point of the exercise). The coach took a left onto this unmade sand track into what looked like a very poor village. It had lots of workshops for alabaster goods and after passing half a dozen or so we arrived at Nabil’s recommended one.
At this point we got a bit of a back story about the Muslim owner having made a pilgrimage to Mecca by camel. Plausible I suppose and he certainly looked the part dressed in a traditional gallibaya (loose full length gown) and a scarf on his head similar to a turban. Outside the shop he had two guys in similar gear sitting in the sand. They both had huge pieces of alabaster rock in front of them. The first one was chiselling away with a tiny hammer and frankly it would have taken him about a year to shape the rock into anything near the size of a pot or vase. The other guy had what I can only describe as a pair of forceps and was scrapping away at his large piece of stone to make a bowl shape in the top.
To say they must think we are naive and stupid is the understatement on the year. It was purely for show and made me irritated rather than impressed. We were then led through to the shop which was floor to ceiling shelves of pots, vases and statues of all things Egypt. Only a fraction of which were alabaster and I suspect none made at the workshop itself.
I am sorry to sound so negative about this experience and some of our fellow travellers did haggle to get some deals but they had lost me the minute we got off the coach. In fact, if the coach hadn’t been heading off to collect some other people, I would have stayed on the coach!
To cap it all, Jon is convinced that he heard raised Egyptian voices accompanied by a lot of hand gestures and assumed it was because Nabil was not bringing enough high spending tourists to his door.
Death on the Nile
On a much more positive note, one afternoon we took a small boat trip around Elephantine Island, so called because an aerial view makes the island look like an elephant tusk. As we set off crossing this busy section of the Nile at Aswan, two young boys on paddle boards (with no paddles) grabbed the sides of the boat and started singing to us. They appeared to be doing it just for fun and to hitch a ride. It was a dicey game dodging the boats and the ensuing wash generated but they were loving it.
High above us on a sandy hill was a huge mausoleum. Nabil said it was for Aga Khan III, Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah who died in 1957. His wife laid a red rose on his tomb every day, a practice that continues to this day. Evidently Aga Khan had came to Aswan to have hot sand therapy and had a villa nearby. Sounds more like torture to me.
As we continued in our little boat, we passed the Old Cataract Hotel. The tributaries of the Nile are referred to as cataracts and this hotel stands near one of them and it had a very famous guest. Agatha Christie, the British crime writer, wrote Death on the Nile whilst staying at this hotel in the 1930s. The 1978 film, starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, was released two years after her death. I could certainly see how the views from her hotel would inspire such a story. I did wonder if she too was hounded by shirt selling, ornament selling locals or whether it was more sedate in those days of less tourists and more explorers.
Spice Market Trip
We love a free optional extra and this one was right up our street (market street, of course). Our guide, Nabil, offered to take to us to the local market and to a particular stall that sold spices very cheaply. Of all of Nabil’s little added extra stop offs this one was probably the best. It was an authentic market just back from the edge of the Nile where our, Grand Rose cruise ship was berthed, and at 9pm was a hive of activity. The small shops were squeezed side by side and sprawled out onto the narrow street. It was hard to see any of the goods because there were so many of them but what was nice was that it was mostly, if not all, local.
There were only about 6 of us and Nabil sauntered along until we came to a stall with piles and piles of spices in sacks all around the front. We had the usual quick chat from the owner offering us spices and teas to smell then he explained the pricing which was so much per gram. The weighing was done by hand full or pinch – not a set of scales in sight. The saffron was amazingly cheap compared to the six of seven strands I used to buy back in the UK for paella, etc.
Purchases complete all the men were given a parting gift – a tiny chunk of wood that we were told was Viagra – then we had some free time while Nabil filled his bag with spices which he had promised to take back to Cairo for his wife.
A half an hour stroll around the busy market was enough for us as we are limited on what we can buy and carry but it was a great experience. Apart from the few minutes when Jonno tried to sell me. This guy in his 60s had offered to buy two younger European women with no luck so moved onto Jonno. I think he offered some camels and a Ferrari much to everyone’s amusement. Didn’t he know JWalkers can’t be parted and are priceless?
Fancy Dress Night
One of our mantras is to try and join in everything we can but I am afraid we let ourselves down badly with this one. Nabil announced that there would be a party evening and everyone should dress in a gallibaya. He said these could be picked up cheaply in the markets, street sellers or from the shop on the boat. During our travels we have evolved into what may appear to be a skinflint mentality, we never buy what we will not use. So decision made we would admire everyone else and just go to the party smartly dressed.
We were so impressed by the outfits our group had on. To accompany their outfits the ladies had bought camel bone necklaces, traditional headscarves and Cleopatra inspired make-up, one chap had a full on glittery sequinned gallibaya that should have come with protective sunglasses. They dined in their regalia and then there were a few party games in the bar before everyone gathered on the sun deck for a few drinks, then a few more drinks. No photographic evidence I’m afraid but everyone seemed to enjoy hunting for the right outfit and, if anything, they all wished there had been more games and dancing.
Tips for a Nile Cruise
So that about rounds up the last few tales from the Nile. We still can’t believe we were on the cruise boat for only a week. We had seen so much yet we felt we had plenty of time to relax. If you are contemplating going, do it. Tips are:
- Follow FCO advice
- Be aware of security issues
- Ignore street sellers (unless you want to try your hand at haggling)
- Take US dollar notes for tipping when needed (they prefer notes to a UK pound coin)
- Don’t buy perfume
- Take a photo of each ticket/entrance to a temple so you can identify photos easily
- Don’t trust bits of old tree bark to be Viagra
- Allow tons of time when flying out. There are multiple scanners to get through with luggage
- Don’t try and do “everything Egypt” in a two week holiday
- Have a cocktail at sunrise on the Red Sea………….
- Have a second cocktail just after sunrise on the Red Sea……………….