Food For Thought

18 11 2008

“What a large table!”                                   (near Aswan, Egypt)

Some of my greatest travel memories involve food. Not that I am a gourmet or even a gourmand, it’s just that a taste of local cuisine so often provides you with the best taste of the culture and life. Although we all enjoy the familiarity of comfort food from time to time when away from home, it’s when we abandon that safety that we have our best experiences.

 

In Egypt we joined a small group for a visit to a local Nubian village for a traditional dinner one evening.

 

Our small motorboat cruised up the Nile away from the bright lights of Aswan. Dogs barked as we passed small villages and young children ran to the bank to wave and shout. The stifling heat of the day was quickly dissipating and the light breeze from the water was a welcome reprieve, especially as we had all forsaken our baggy and dusty cotton sightseeing clothes for slightly-more presentable attire. After a while we stopped on the shore, climbed out and made our way up a sandy bank.

 

No sooner had we crested the top than the village came into sight. Although almost dark, much of the town was gathered around the edges of a large open area to watch a hotly contested football match. The shouts and excitement of the game were immediately lost upon entering the labyrinth of narrow alleyways that dissected the town. We wound our way along the sandy paths and through the white-washed buildings, illuminated only by the soft light from open doorways and shuttered windows. Our small group slipped through practically unseen, easing past the shadows of the villagers along the narrow alleys. The smell of cooking and the muffled sound of laughs and conversation filled the air.

 

We finally stepped into a small dimly lit courtyard surrounded by high walls, climbed a series of steps in the corner and reached a whitewashed rooftop. The sky was a black-blue and splashed with a million stars. The relief from the heat of the village was instantaneous and we quickly realised that the rooftops formed a second village full of activity and flickering light. We crossed the roof and climbed a few more steps, ducking beneath a low archway. On this second roof we came across a little old lady bundled beneath blankets in a well-worn metal-framed bed. Feeling awkward and intrusive, we averted our eyes and attempted to speed through unnoticed…but she smiled warmly as we passed.

 

“It’s cooler on the roof, so they wheel out granny’s bed every evening to help her sleep.” our guide explained.

 

We finally reached our destination. It was another whitewashed rooftop, surrounded by a low wall that overlooked the town’s terraced upper tier. The floor was covered with colourful carpets and cushions with a large silver tray and tea set in the centre. We slipped off our shoes and the home’s owner greeted us warmly. He handed us each a small glass of sweet tea and gestured for us to sit on the pillows.

 

The owner’s family brought out a wide array of bowls filled with salads and cheeses, fig-leaf wrapped rolls, rice and small samosas, flat breads and sweet pastries. The guide explained what each dish was as the family looked on proudly and happily. Shyly, we each made our way forward and collected a few items expressing our thanks as we did. The food was fresh and delicious and we soon relaxed and began devouring the wonderful feast. With the help of the guide and the children’s basic English, we chatted with the family and learned about a life so removed from our own. The family host a small group of no more than a dozen travellers once a week or so. It provides them with some extra income but perhaps more importantly it gives them an opportunity to mix with people from all over the world. Their warmth and friendliness humbled those of us who shut our front door and ignore the phone every evening and barely even recognise our neighbours at home.

 

Eventually it was time to leave. We bid our farewells and played follow-the-leader past sleeping granny and back through the maze of rooftops and alleyways. The football pitch was now deserted and pitch black and we eased down the bank to our small boat for the journey back to Aswan.

 

As we neared the city we slipped past brightly illuminated Nile cruise ships and luxury hotels and caught glimpses of their fine-dining rooms. Their guests sat in abject comfort, sipping their chilled wine and eating their gourmet food. Their stomachs may have been as full as ours, but we were all confident that memories of our dinner would still be satisfying us for years to come.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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