The guidebooks made it sound irresistible. “See Egypt as the fishermen do. Sail the Nile in a wooden boat. Trail your fingers in the river. Wave at children watering their buffaloes. Watch an ibis rise like the cry of baby Moses from the rushes. Sleep out on deck under the stars.”
Well, it was and it wasn’t. But we can learn from our mistakes.
In Aswan, sailboat captains haunt the corniche. “You want felucca ride?” they ask. Most tourists take to the river at least for an afternoon. But fair numbers opt for longer cruises of several days to Idfu, then catch a bus or taxi north to Luxor. When we were there several years ago, before Muslim extremists had begun attacking tourists, the three-day, two-night trip cost about $50 for a group of four.
Tired from sightseeing, we left felucca arrangements until our last morning in town. Within minutes of stepping out of our hotel, we hooked up with a 19-year-old skipper named Nagah who grew up sailing his father’s produce to market. “Find another couple and we go,” he said. We asked at the lobbies of several hotels but couldn’t link up with any companions. Several other captains recommended bukra , Egyptian slang, we were told, suggesting we wait until tomorrow for more favorable results--a popular concept in Egypt. But we had nonrefundable plane tickets ticking in our packs. Finally, Nagah agreed to carry only the two of us, but for the astronomical amount of $50 per person.
Sigh. Just us and the river. It would be worth every dollar.
Like most feluccas, the Ambo stretched about 40 feet from bow to stern. It was threadbare but watertight. A wooden deck bridged the wide hull, with a rectangular break at midsection so gear could be stashed under the deck. On cold nights, Nagah and his crew could sleep in the crawl space under the bow, but no one would call it a cabin. Like most clothing in Egypt, the mainsail showed evidence of repeated mending. Loops of wire connected the metal centerboard to its handle. But with thin foam mattresses to cushion the deck and a tarp to ward off the sun, we lounged in comfort.
Once aboard, coming about under a steady breeze, we discovered why Nagah hesitated to make a deal: It’s illegal for captains to transport fewer than three foreigners, he confessed. (Probably a precaution to prevent crimes, we guessed.) In addition to the photocopies of our passports, he produced one of a stranger and asked us to lie to Egyptian officials. We refused. When we pulled up to the trash-strewn island of river officialdom, Namoush, Nagah’s teen-age pal and first mate, leaped ashore with the inspection certificate for the Ambo’s fire extinguisher--and presumably some baksheesh. Soon we were under way. No questions asked.
Uneasy, we debated about ending the voyage then and there. But Nagah didn’t strike us as a sinister character. Besides, my Tunisian husband was a brother Arab and a Muslim--and could understand most of their dialect.
Alas, a common language didn’t rule out communication problems. Before we boarded, I had asked about bathroom stops. “Oh, everywhere is a toilet,” Nagah said. I imagined a plethora of grubby marinas with toilets. Silly me. At a very few places where the bank was not too steep to throw down the gangplank, Nagah idled the felucca while we followed the trail of toilet-paper wads.
And then there was our night on the town. A few hours out of Aswan, we let off Nagah’s third crew member, Mohammed, a wiry old salt with splayed teeth and a mangled ear. He asked us if we would like to see his village. “Sure,” we replied. But when we climbed to the top of the bank, we found ourselves ankle-deep in sand, under a parching summer sun. What village? Just down the road, he said. As we started trudging across the Sahara, we saw the windsock of our felucca zipping out into the river. Would we ever see our luggage again?
The village wasn’t near but eventually we caught a ride on the back fender of one of the pickup trucks that serve as buses in rural Egypt. At his stop, Mohammed tried to soothe us by buying warm Coca-Colas in green bottles. Then he insisted we stay for dinner. Behind the wall of his house compound, half a dozen barefoot and giggling children scattered at his command. He showed off his geese and pressed tiny limes into our hands, as gifts. Sitting on a mat on the earthen floor of Mohammed’s room, we ate with bread a delicious okra stew and an omelet fried in a cast-iron skillet. The leftovers, my husband guessed, would feed Mohammed’s wife (hidden in the kitchen) and all those children peering at us through the window.
But would we ever see our luggage again?
We did. Another truck-bus dropped us at Mohammed’s field, where we met Nagah’s father and congratulated him on the birth of a new calf, which we found suckling on wobbly legs. Nagah and Namoush were waiting at the riverbank, smoking cigarettes they’d bought with our deposit.
The wind had calmed, so we sailed gently through a coral-red sunset and into the black, desert night.
Just us and the river and Nagah’s tape recorder. Its batteries were running low, accentuating the wailing refrain of a pop hit. Since he owned only one tape, it became the theme song of our cruise.
About midnight, we anchored near five other boatloads of tourists from Aswan. As part of the deal, we had bought food--kilos of tomatoes and potatoes, cans of sardines. But Namoush preferred simpler fare. Cooking over a propane burner, he boiled, then fried, some macaroni. We sipped some water from our bottle and nestled under blankets to sleep, while the felucca captains played cards and smoked cigarettes in the bow.
We set out at dawn, sipping hot tea from glasses. On one bank, a ferry loaded passengers and camels. Barges carrying gravel motored past us. With a cigarette dangling from his lips, Nagah hooked his knee over the rudder and tried to fix his tape recorder--the picture of dissolute youth. He was bored with the river, he said. Although his father had three wives, he was in no hurry to marry. After compulsory military service at age 22, he wanted to travel. Anywhere.
We moored near the cruise ships at the Temple of Kom Ombo. Empty water bottles, cigarette butts and cracker wrappers bobbed by the hull. Some travelers quit their feluccas here--a thought that had crossed our minds. But Nagah wouldn’t agree to a cut in his fee, so we decided to persevere to Idfu.
The sun beat unmercifully on the Nile. Beyond Kom Ombo, the river widened, and the wind whipped up white caps. Soon our tarp shelter tore from its tie-downs, and flapped violently in the wind. We were heeling dramatically, shipping water over the gunwales. Although Nagah handled the rudder competently, he and Namoush exchanged angry words about the water sloshing over our food and supplies. Namoush bailed with a towel, sopping and wringing.
From the sun decks of the Nile cruise ships, tourists waved--with envy, we imagined, laughing to ourselves. Nagah and Namoush hailed the felucca captains sailing slowly upstream. After the Ambo dropped us in Idfu, Nagah said, the two boys would meander home.
Around noon, we beached on a sandy shore lined with date palms. Lunch? We cut up a watermelon and watched a farmer persuade a reluctant water buffalo to dip in the Nile. Soon the other feluccas coasted in. On one hand, the passengers in bikini and suntan oil embarrassed us, picking unripe dates from the trees and diving into the buffalo pool. Nagah told my husband that half-naked women have no charm--a compliment, I supposed, to my modest leggings and dress. On the other hand, the giddy tourists were having fun. A blond family had rigged a fishing pole. On one boat the captain was singing. On another, the mate prepared fat pita-bread sandwiches and invited everyone (except us) to eat. Unlike Nagah, they seemed to enjoy their work.
When we pushed off, the other captains called after the Ambo: “Wait, it’s too early, the wind’s too strong.” Nagah ignored them. It was rough. We began to worry. Abruptly, Nagah announced that we could not continue because of tricky weather. Instead of delivering us to Idfu, he planned to turn around and sail all the way back to Kom Ombo . . . in other words, to strand us miles from where we were supposed to be.
We balked. We insisted Nagah let us off at the nearest town so we could continue to Idfu (and Luxor) by bus. We mentioned the police. Somehow, as Namoush maneuvered the centerboard, the wires to the handle snapped. Now the Ambo had no keel to steady it. Nagah grounded us on shore. Cursing, the teens tried to fix the centerboard, but their only equipment was a screwdriver and rages. My husband and I decided to leave. After we paid two thirds of the fare, Nagah and Namoush walked us up the bank to a road cutting through a lunar landscape and waved down a truck.
Several vehicles and many hours later, we did reach Luxor.