We met in the lobby of the Aswan hotel at three in the morning. Outside it was dark, and not much cooler than during the day. “Hurry up, hurry up,” shouted the hotel manager. I think he had gotten out of bed especially for us, and wanted to go back to sleep. My wife (at that time my girlfriend) and I, together with three French tourists, piled into a taxi. The taxi driver gave gas, and off we went: to the temple of Abu Simbel. This was a five-hour drive through an unwelcoming, hot desert; and that was the reason why we had to leave so early. We would arrive at Abu Simbel at around seven, visit the famous UNESCO-protected Egyptian temple for two hours, and arrive back at the hotel before the hottest time of the day.
And Aswan was hot. We visited Egypt in late winter/early spring and had both brought a flu along, which quickly developed into bronchitis. In Luxor, famous for its many temples, we had to organize a home visit by an MD, who gave us a large array of drugs to get us walking again. I experienced the temples of Karnak and Luxor through a fever- and codeine-induced haze. We had arrived in Aswan by train from Luxor a few days before and had spent the afternoons in the Old Cataract Hotel, drinking tea and eating sandwiches, convalescing, and escaping from the oppressive heat.
Nevertheless, now we were reasonably fit and ready for adventure. The taxi driver drove like a madman, overtaking other taxis and tourist buses along the way. We had a short stop halfway, just after the sun had come up, which afterwards hung like a burning metal plate above an endless and completely flat desert. I found some dung and saw a few flies, and was surprised that anything could live in this place. Another taxi hiccupped towards us, and over the next half hour several taxi drivers tried to repair its accelerator, but if I recall correctly, they didn’t manage to fix it. I don’t think those tourists ever arrived in Abu Simbel.
We did arrive at the temple, which is both an impressive architectural feat by the pharaoh as well as modern man, since the temple was moved five hundred meters so that it wouldn’t be covered by the waters rising in the gigantic Aswan reservoir. I can’t remember the temple well, except that its back is covered by an ugly dome of modern concrete, and the presence of a large airfield for the richer tourists. We were poor students at the time, traveling with backpacks and staying at three dollar hotels in obscure sidestreets, cheap because they usually were located close to neighborhood mosques. This was Ramadan time, so we didn’t need to set an alarm; the recorded singing of the muazzin and 500 Watt loudspeakers took care of that.
After visiting the temple, we arrived back at the taxi, the driver already impatiently pacing about. We waited and waited for the three other tourists. “Let’s sit in the front,” suggested my wife, “that will be bit cooler.” Finally, the three arrived and climbed into the back. The taxidriver cursed and cursed, but as they didn’t speak English, I don’t think they realized what was happening. He didn’t pay them much respect anyway, as the women wore skimpy dresses, showing a lot of leg and chest, which doesn’t resonate well in Muslim countries. Off we went, burning rubber! This time we had a few more stops as the heat began to take its toll on all of us. First, we paused for tea at a military post (at that time there was considerable tension with Sudan), where we had a chance to chat with the drivers.
A hundred miles north, we passed by an overturned taxi. It looked as if it had careened off the highway, hit the soft desert sand, and had gone topsy-turvy. There were many tracks and footsteps in the sand, but no humans. “Probably helicopter, bring to hospital,” shouted the driver over the hot wind, shaking his head. “Only for good driver. Desert danger!”
The three Frenchmen in the back had conked out from the heat; these taxis didn’t have any air conditioning, and we survived by the hot air that blew in through the the windows.
We arrived at a burnt-out ruin, and the driver let the taxi roll next to a few other parked cars. Tea time apparently. He got out, men hurried towards him. They spoke, and our driver started shouting and cursing. No tea this time, he immediately got back into the cab and we set off again. We continued to race north. “What happened?” I shouted at the driver, the wind blowing away my words.
“Whose father? How?” I thought I had misunderstood him.
“That taxi.” He pointed toward the back with his thumb.
“Is he in the hospital?” I shouted, afraid to press the point.
The taxi driver put his right thumb underneath his left ear and pretended to slit his throat. “Dead.”
“What’s he saying?” asked my wife. I repeated the conversation to her. “Jesus.” We didn’t know what to say, and stayed silent for a while, stealing occasional glances at the driver, who looked straight ahead, seemingly unperturbed, which made the entire affair even more unbelievable. As far as we could understand from the driver, the tourists had indeed been transported to Aswan by helicopter.
The issue is that a trip to and from Abu Simbel followed an extremely straight and tedious highway. There’s nothing to see but tarmac and flat sand. To make ends meet all taxi drivers held multiple jobs; they would drive a taxi in the morning, work in a garage during the day, and sell clothing in the Souk until ten in the evening. Due to exhaustion, accidents were bound to happen.
At the next military checkpoint, my wife and I swapped places. The soldiers already knew what had happened, and shook hands with our driver. He didn’t react much. Up to that point, the driver had occasionally already started to nod off, struggling to keep his eyes open. My wife began to ask him questions to keep him awake. I was struggling with sleep myself. The three tourists, deep asleep in the back, looked like pale meat overdone in a microwave.
Finally, the driver managed to pull open his eyes and sit up straight: Aswan came into sight. Taxis stood parked on the street, the drivers waving at our cab excitedly. News had spread fast. “I am sorry,” we said to the taxi driver, as we gave him a generous tip. He shrugged, and hurried across the street to his colleagues.
“What ‘ees ‘appening?” asked one of the French tourists.
“His father died in the accident in the desert. The overturned car we passed?”
“What? What ‘appended?” Obviously, they hadn’t seen or noticed anything. We didn’t hang around to explain, why spoil their vacation?
My wife and I returned to the Old Cataract Hotel for bitters tea, which no sugar in the world could cure.
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Originally posted 2021-05-30 22:51:00.