April 15-August 2, 2014
We’d already extended our Egyptian visas once in Alexandria, but as my Sudanese visa problems dragged on, we realized we’d have to extend them again. The police/immigration building in Aswan was like entering a fortress. There’d been a lot of violence against the police and military after the second revolution, including attacks on government buildings.
An extra wall had been built around the entrance and tanks were stationed at either end. The first time we saw this it was a little disconcerting, but after so long in Aswan we were used to walking by the tanks and machine guns. After all this external protection, passing through security was surprisingly easy.
We registered our names and passport numbers with the first guard. He was set up at a small wooden desk, behind him was a ramp. Maybe it went to a parking garage at one point, but from the smell now it appeared to just lead to a garbage pile. Because we were foreigners our bags were barely opened and we only had a cursory search.
Even inside, we could see blockades set up on the balconies overlooking the doors and soldiers with machine guns watching from behind the blockades. Okay, it was a little uncomfortable. We weren’t exactly sure where to go, but someone pointed us in the right direction.
What a difference from Alexandria where we had to fight our way through a big crowd to find the correct office. There were only a handful of people and all the windows were clearly marked. We knew exactly where to go. Mohammed processed our visa extension. We filled out a simple form, paid the tiny fee and sat to wait. In about 15 minutes we were finished and could stay in Egypt for another six months. We hoped we would be gone long before these visas expired.
Mohammed spoke excellent English and he seemed to enjoy interacting with foreigners. We had such a nice time chatting with him that we arranged to meet again. Ramadan was going to begin soon and Mohammed brought us some abre, a drink that’s traditionally only consumed during the holiday. It’s thin flakes of some sort of dough that have been dried. They’re then rehydrated in a lot of water with some sugar and maybe some lime juice, according to one’s tastes. Scott likened it to drinking soggy cornflakes, but I liked the unique texture and taste. It’s more commonly found in Sudan where there is also a red version, made with additional spices.
We went out to a local cafe and were introduced to some more new drinks. Mohammed was married with a young son and surprisingly had photos of his wife to show us. Most Egyptian women don’t like to have their pictures taken, as they are afraid that their faces will be photoshopped onto pornographic images. It was hard to talk though because the World Cup was in full swing and the cafe quickly filled up with football fans. France was playing that night, but there didn’t seem to be many France supporters there.
Neither of us was very interested in football before, but as the World Cup started and the young men in the city were caught up in watching the matches every night, we started learning the names of the teams and players. We’d been in the habit to have a cold drink at the Oum Kalthoum Cafe on the main street in the evening, but we were asked to move to the street terrace a few times. We were taking up valuable seats with a view of the television and were obviously not interested in the match.
We discovered many different drinks at the Oum Kalthoum Cafe besides our frequent orders of karkaday (hibiscus). When we saw men, and it was always only men at the cafes, drinking something we hadn’t seen before, we’d ask them what it was. Notably, we tried tamarind juice and something called doum. Doum is the fruit from a type of palm tree; it’s sweet, but with a little tang. There was nothing more refreshing than a cold mint lemonade after a hot day though.
As we met a few other tourists, we enjoyed bringing them to this cafe. The prices were fair; we weren’t overcharged for being foreigners. The waiter began to recognize us, waving and smiling when we simply passed in the street.
One day at our fruit stand we met some French tourists. They’d arrived in Aswan on a luxury cruise boat from Luxor and were exploring the souk a little. We invited them out for a drink later that night and arranged to meet them at their boat since they didn’t know the city.
We arrived at their boat and were ushered on by the security guards. Inside it looked like a floating hotel, with a huge reception area and sweeping staircases. When the four we’d met earlier came out, they had about eight other people with them. Opportunities to leave the boat without an organized tour were rare and many people were excited to have an off-boat adventure.
As we’d waited at the boat, we noticed the Egyptian security guards checking out the young women leaving the boat, giving them long looks up and down their bodies as they walked away. At home, wearing shorts and a tank top wouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eye, but in a country where most women are covered from head to toe, it was as though they were walking around in their underwear.
I was sad that no one on the boat mentioned anything to these young women about their clothing choices. Even walking around in short sleeves, I received lots of looks, although less than when Scott was with me.