Hieroglyphs in the Sun – Chapter 8

Posted by: Maria Atalanti

Published on: 18/06/2024

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Journey to the Land of Nubians

The days passed among ancient temples, unknown names, and new gods. They had finally reached Aswan, the last destination of their journey. Sophia didn’t know if she was wiser now, but she was certainly richer in experiences. After all, that was her goal when she decided to make this trip. To color her life with experiences, to be able to call herself a traveler.

On the last day, a boat trip to the land of the Nubians had been organized for them. The Nubians are an ancient tribe that lived in the area between Egypt and Sudan. During the period when the Byzantine Empire flourished, commercial relations developed between the two peoples until they were Christianized before finally, at a later stage, converting to Islam. They are darker skinned than Egyptians, with curly hair and delicate features. According to their guide, their economic situation is much better than that of Egyptians because the land they inhabit is fertile and they certainly receive many tourists.

This area is better known for the Aswan Dam. This dam was built during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser with the help of the then Soviet Union. Construction began in 1960 and it was inaugurated in 1970. Its creation solved many problems caused by the Nile in Egypt. Now, the Nile’s floods can be controlled, and water can be stored for the seasons when the river’s flow is reduced, with positive effects on agriculture and industry. At the same time, this dam is hydroelectric, producing half of the electricity used in the country.

Of course, such a large technological achievement also has negative environmental impacts. To construct it, monuments and temples in the area where the lake was created were relocated, as well as the Nubian villages that inhabited the region. The infiltration of water into the country’s underground layers changed depending on their proximity to the dam, causing various effects. In some places, the soil lacks essential nutrients because the river’s silt is retained by the dam, while elsewhere, towards the Mediterranean, it allowed seawater to infiltrate the underground layers, with negative consequences.

However, Sophia and her group did not concern themselves with the impacts of the Aswan Dam on the country. They settled into the boat that picked them up, which, to their great surprise, was being driven by children around 14-15 years old, enjoying the beauty of the river and its beautiful banks. Feluccas with locals, presumably heading to work, and other boats like theirs carrying other tourists passed by them.

Sophia and Nefeli sat side by side, but Nefeli couldn’t hide her sadness. Hans had not joined them. He preferred to stay on the riverboat. Sophia tried to console her, saying it was natural for him to want to be alone now and then. Nefeli didn’t comment on her friend’s words, simply trying to hide her feelings.

At one point, they heard cheerful children’s voices singing English songs and saw two children in a canoe approaching their boat, grabbing onto the railing and putting on an impromptu concert. This was their way of asking for tips from the tourists visiting their country. The Cypriot travelers generously offered them tips, and one of the men began singing loudly, while the children looked at him in surprise. Perhaps they thought he wanted to be paid too!

As they moved south, the river’s water was impressively clear. They saw lonely cows grazing on the banks here and there, but there were also spots with rocks and dense herbaceous vegetation reflecting in the water, creating beautiful, symmetrical mirror images. On the surrounding hills, they saw ancient tombs carved into the slopes, a reminder that they were in the land of Egypt.

In the distance, where the desert began, there were settlements in bright colors, dominated by turquoise blue, perhaps homes for local Nubians, or for tourists wanting to experience desert life without modern comforts. To their left, as they ascended the Nile, there were also large hotels for those wanting to live with all the usual luxuries. They learned that Agatha Christie had stayed in one of these hotels and had written one of her novels there. The area was beautiful and promised peace and a rich natural environment for anyone wanting to spend a few days there.

The boat glided between small islands in the middle of the river, steadily approaching the village they were to visit. At one point, they saw a caravan of camels ascending a sandy hill in the distance. It was too far to tell if the travelers were locals or tourists, but it added an exotic touch to a landscape so different from what they knew.

The Nubian village they were going to visit was built amphitheatrically with modern materials, starting at the river level, and featured bright, vibrant colors. Blue turquoise was the dominant color.

Perhaps it’s the characteristic color of the Nubians, Sophia thought. I remember the boats that came to sell their products to us on the riverboat were this color too.

Despite the folkloric colors ranging from blue turquoise to pink and yellow, the village was clearly tourist-oriented. Small shops selling all kinds of products lined both sides of the road leading to the house they would visit. Camels adorned with colorful tassels roamed everywhere, presumably for tourists to rent for a ride around the village.

The house they visited was evidently designed to receive tourists and present an image of Nubian life. Besides the rooms of a typical house, all available to visitors, there was a large area with a makeshift blue-turquoise roof, decorated with colorful tassels and baskets hanging from the ceiling. Here, they welcomed tourist groups and served them tea.

Another interesting and certainly unusual feature was the presence of small crocodiles, some in tanks for tourists to see and one, slightly larger, with its mouth tied shut so people could hold it and take photos with it. Sophia thought the poor animals must have been very frightened by this display they were subjected to.

The floor in the reception area was simple sand, but it was so well-packed and level that one might think it was cement or tiles. The other rooms had variously colored tiles covered with carpets or woven rugs. The walls were painted in bright colors, predominantly blue turquoise, followed by yellow and pink. All the rooms were very clean and tidy. However, the impression given was that this house was not truly inhabited; it was just a successful set for tourists.

Leaving the house, the travelers from Cyprus flocked to the small shops everywhere to shop, as it was their last day. Only Nefeli said she was very tired and sat on some steps in the shade.

Sophia, although not wanting to buy anything, walked with Maria, the other teacher in the group, looking at the colorful products stacked inside the shops or hanging outside. They noticed, however, that everything here was somewhat more expensive than in other areas of Egypt they had visited.

Maria couldn’t help but comment:

-Strange behavior from your friend Nefeli. She took it to heart that her son didn’t come. She reminds me of a mother who, when her child went to first grade, sat outside the window during recess so the child could see her and not cry!

-No, no, Sophia replied. Nefeli isn’t like that. Something else must be going on.

-I don’t know, her behavior is certainly odd.

Sophia, feeling uncomfortable discussing her friend, quickly changed the subject.

-Did you notice those school children who came on a trip to the village today? They are so well-dressed and happy! They have nothing in common with the children we’ve met so far.

-Yes, it’s the other side of Egypt. Not everyone is poor, and that’s a good thing. Look at how they climb on the camels and ride around the village!

-They remind me of our children when we went on school trips. Children are the same everywhere!

-If they have the same means, Maria noted.

-You’re right. Poverty steals the carefree nature from their lives.

At that moment, their guide called them to gather because it was time to return. Despite her fatigue, Sophia felt a sadness inside her. The journey would end tonight. She would return to Cyprus and her monotonous life.

-All good things come to an end at some point, she thought. But now that I’ve learned this way of life, I will travel again. This will be my first, but not my last trip. As long as my body can support me, I will travel, she decided.

On the way back, she looked around and tried to absorb the beauty and uniqueness of the landscape.

How strange, she thought. What is everyday life for the locals, is exotic for visitors!

She felt gratitude and thanked God, and Kyriakos, for this trip to this corner of our planet, which had given her knowledge and experiences.

That evening, after dinner, they were given final instructions: they would pack their bags, leave them outside their cabin, and at three in the morning, everyone would be in the dining room to leave for the airport at 3:30.

At one point, as she walked through the ship’s corridors, Sophia thought she saw a blonde woman disappear behind a door. She wasn’t sure if it was the blonde woman who had been following them throughout the trip. But it could have been. The truth was she had forgotten about her since they boarded the ship, but this incident brought her back to her mind.

That night, anxious about having to wake up very early, Sophia didn’t sleep at all. Before three, she was in the dining room, where the staff had prepared coffee and tea. When everyone had gathered and was ready to leave, they realized Hans was not there. Nefeli went to his cabin to call him, but he didn’t respond.

There was a bit of confusion; someone from the staff brought a spare key to open the cabin, but when they went inside, Hans wasn’t there. Neither were his belongings. His bed was made as if he hadn’t slept in it at all. Nefeli had turned pale.

It was clear everyone was shaken by the unexpected situation. They couldn’t delay because they would miss the plane. On the other hand, a member of the group had disappeared. It was something they couldn’t ignore. Nefeli didn’t speak. No one could tell if she was thinking or if she was lost.

The trip leader tried to get things in order. She asked to speak with the person who worked the night shift and asked if he had seen Hans leave.

Half-asleep, it took him a moment to understand, but when he realized who they were asking about, he answered confidently:

-Yes, of course. He left with the group from America. He didn’t seem to be forced. That’s why I didn’t pay attention. I thought he was a member of that group.

Nefeli still didn’t speak, so the trip leader approached her and asked directly:

-Nefeli, things are difficult. We must leave, or we’ll miss the flight. What do you want to do? The police will be notified, and I will immediately inform our embassy in Cairo to send someone to assist you if you want to stay until things clear up.

Nefeli stood up slowly and, in an impersonal voice, answered:

-I will definitely stay. I need to see what happened to Hans. Thank you for your help and everything. I will also contact the German embassy. I think the ship won’t sail until tomorrow, and I would like to ask to stay here until then to talk to the police and see how to proceed.

The trip leader arranged with the ship’s authorities for Nefeli to stay until departure.

Sophia was stunned by this development. All her fears had come true. The mystery hanging in the air, the blonde woman, Hans’s strange behavior. Everything. Her mind raced. She couldn’t keep up with her thoughts. Even she was surprised when she heard herself say:

-I won’t leave. I will stay with Nefeli if she wants me to.

It was the first moment since the incident that Nefeli showed emotion. Her eyes began to tear up, and she hugged Sophia, saying:

-Thank you, thank you very much! All expenses will be on me. And whenever you want to leave, you are free to go.

The organizer was relieved that she wouldn’t leave Nefeli alone. When everyone had left, Nefeli asked Sophia how she had made such a decision.

-I don’t know, Sophia replied. It was entirely impulsive. No one is waiting for me back home. When I decided to take this trip, I wanted to gain experiences to have something to tell God after my death. And He sent me your way to support you in this difficult moment. But you must explain to me what’s going on. Because something is happening, much bigger than what I understand.

-You are right. I will explain. And thank you once again for staying. I already feel the warmth of your presence.

At that moment, someone from the staff informed them that the police would arrive shortly. The two women sat, holding each other’s hands, and waited.


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