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30 June 2020

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Living Like a Local – Egypt

A travel diary going beyond the normal when touring the world with tips to immerse yourself in local culture to experience more than the touristy stuff

Off the beaten track… 24 hours in Abu Simbel, Egypt

Nothing beats the smell of fresh bread coming out of an oven, but it is even more alluring when you’ve just landed in a remote village after a red-eye flight and breakfast is beckoning. Street food is at its best when you experience it like a local, and the cuisine is not tampered with to cater for impending tourists in the guise of being local. Our journey to Abu Simbel offered us just that!

FLYING from Cairo to spend a night in the quaint village of Abu Simbel, in the south of Egypt, just north of the Sudan border is the site of the most majestic Temples of Abu Simbel, which happens to be the second most known site in Egypt after the Pyramids of Giza. I reminisce at discussing my Egypt trip with a friend that led to her convincing me that barring it being a long trip to get to this village, it is an absolute must. And she was right.

Abu Simbel offers the most amazing and breathtaking experience of an open air museum of the ancient temples of Abu Simbel, two temples carved into a cliff by Pharaoh Ramses II as monuments to himself and his queen Nefertari. Both these phenomenal structures overlook the majestic Lake Nasser, which was formed when the Nile River was dammed to form the large Aswan Dam. What’s even more spectacular about this historical site, is that the whole structure was moved 200 metres inland and 65 meters higher to prevent being flooded and damaged by the rising river waters from the construction of dams on the Nile.

The audacious project which ran from 1964 to 1968 to move the colossal temples, were immaculately executed, and begs the question, if it had been moved at all, costed around a whopping $40 million, in the 1960’s. In my view, preserving this masterpiece of ancient Egypt was worth every dollar considering that the equivalent value of the money spent on the relocation would be roughly $320 million dollars today.

Now, with our search for real life immersion experiences, that my wife and I love traveling the world for, Abu Simbel offered us a fabulous excursion into an ancient land, where you can walk around the old market, meet and greet the locals and eat street food like an Egyptian, steeped in history and tradition as old as the temples built by Ramses II.

Onto the search for local street food for that welcome breakfast!

After the early morning tour of the great temples, which we headed for straight off our flight from Cairo, our guide gave us an hour to check into our hotel, freshen up and we were ready for the search of simple local fare. We got to an ordinary little “cantina”, and were greeted by the friendly owner and one server. We got to sample the freshest bread from the bakery next door, delicious freshly fried ta’ameya (Egyptian falafel), fried aubergines and freshly sliced ripe tomatoes. The main breakfast act was one of my favourite Middle Eastern/North African dishes, and was absolutely sublime. Foul medames or simply Foul (or Ful) is a stew of cooked broad or fava beans that is served with vegetable oil, cumin, chopped parsley and lemon juice. The long journey and heat of the Egyptian sun was soon overlooked as the heartwarming meal brought smiles to our faces.

The next stop was the local bakery, where our morning bread came from, to learn the art of baking Aish Baladi or Egyptian flatbread, which is made from wholewheat flour. A simple yet nutritious source of carbohydrate that has been a part of the Egyptian diet for centuries, and has a very special heritage since Baladi means traditional or authentic in English and Aish means life, which is exactly how Egyptians have perceived bread since ancient times.

There’s no cappuccino here in the little village, but you can have the freshest squeezed sugar cane juice to quench your thirst. Another favourite made by a Nubian local that would be missed if you stayed in your hotel or did not plan a trip into the village since most people venture into Abu Simbel, just to view the temples and head back to the airport or hop back onto a luxury coach back to Aswan.

This little village takes education seriously and our next stop takes us to a well stocked local library, meet the librarian who gives us a tour of the main book section and the computer room.

Having read about the famous Eskaleh Nubian House, on the banks of Lake Nasser and owned by the popular local Nubian musician Fikry Kachif, we dropped in and had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Kachif. While sharing his life story, he showed us around his splendid establishment, as tour groups popped by for lunch at their popular on-site restaurant.

Our next stop takes us to the local market, where we get to meet the local vendors, speak to children who just got off from school and youngsters tending their family stalls. Happy smiles and contentment shines though in this little village. Before leaving, our guide points us to the jug in his hand and a bank of 4 large terracotta clay pots, containing naturally chilled fresh drinking water. Once again, we get to experience ancient traditions in this quaint village.

Our guide who knows the lay of the land very well takes us to Lake Nasser, where a boat ride is an option. After seeing the fishing boats, I was more keen to meet the local fishermen, who were mending their nets, preparing for the next trip out. Not accustomed to tourists popping by, our guide convinced them that we wanted to understand how the locals lived, and they then gladly agreed to a few photos.

After a short rest back at our hotel and refreshed to go again, we are driven back to the Temples of Abu Simbel for the evening Sound and Light show, which was a spectacular showcase of the majestic temples in a myriad of colour as the reverberating sound amplifies the grandeur of this UNESCO heritage site.

Finally, it was time to have our local dinner at the hotel, where you get to discuss with the chef what you would love to eat as he describes in detail how he will prepare your grilled Balti fish and local beef and vegetable stew with such detail and enthusiasm. You already know that the food will be fabulous, and fabulous it was. Having had a satisfying day filled with adventure and a taste of local life in various forms, it was time to lay our heads on our comfy bed at the charming Tuya Hotel, which again was another opportunity to experience a good nights sleep like a local in true Nubian style.