April 15-August 2, 2014
As we began to realize that the visa situation wouldn’t be resolved quickly, we started to settle in to Aswan life. Aswan is a big city with about half a million people living there but it felt much more like a small town. The town is centered around the Nile, a small strip of green in the desert. Most of the commerce is downtown but housing settlements stretch far back into the sand.
Our hotel was close to the beginning of the souk. Walking to places was easy. We quickly developed the habit of going out only in the morning and late afternoon. Already hot when we arrived, the days only got hotter. If the official temperature goes above 50°c the government workers get sent home. The government never reported anything above 49°c, even though it was often rumored to be higher.
The souk only became crowded as the sun started to go down. As store owners began to recognize us, the calls of “Hello my friend, come look at my shop,” became less frequent. The first part of the souk was mostly full of souvenir shops, but deeper in were stores that cater to local needs.
A distinctly local speciality was a preserved, fermented fish. We could always smell the stores before we saw them, a foul odor of rotten more than fermented fish. I would try to hold my breath as we passed by. Apparently the fish are stuffed with peanut better and other flavorings and fermented for a year. Every store advertised by placing a clear plastic box out front, full of fermenting fish. Locals claim the fish is quite tasty.
Around the corner from our hotel was a small fruit and vegetable stand. We weren’t overcharged the first time we bought fruit there so we established a routine of visiting every morning to buy fruit for our breakfast. The stand was a family business and was always staffed by either the father or one of his sons. Every morning we added a few new words to our Arabic vocabularly and by the end, we could have a short conversation.
Most of the fruit at this fruit stand was locally grown, wrapped in brown paper and packed in wooden crates. We were in Aswan for the strawberry, melon, peach, fig and mango seasons. I’d tried Egyptian strawberries before and found them to be tasteless and dry. The Egyptian strawberries we ate in Egypt though were some of the best strawberries I’d had in my life. They were sweet, juicy and bursting with flavor. At work, I’d been fortunate to try many delicious fruits, but everything paled in comparison to what we ate in Egypt.
The melons, peaches and figs were just as good as the strawberries and we were sad when each season was over. Our last weeks in Aswan were during mango season. I’d only seen one or two types of mango before and had no idea how many different kinds there were. Every day we’d ask our fruit seller which mangoes we should buy and every few days he would point out a different kind. We tried mangoes that were long and skinny, others shaped like a comma or small and round, and in various colors including green, yellow, orange and red.
They all had a different flavor and texture. Some were as sweet as eating sugar and some were acidic, pairing better with a savory dish than a sweet one. My favorite ones were small, round and yellow. Their flesh was firm, but in my mouth had the consistancy of butter. And the flavor was like tasting the essence of mango, compressed to give the biggest flavor punch.
Close to the fruit seller was the bread depot. There were a number of government subsidized bakeries around Aswan and all Egyptian cities. Daily bread was similar to a pita bread and cooked on a conveyer belt oven. There was always a crowd at the windows, buying the bread as fast as it came off the conveyer belt. One Egyptian pound, about ten cents, bought 20 pieces.
The bread was still hot and needed to be spread out to cool. It was a common sight to look out of our window and see women spreading the bread on any available surface to cool–the hood of a car, directly on the ground. Even the tables at our hotel were taken over for bread cooling. We felt like we were really locals when we started spreading out our own bread to cool off.