The Gift of the Nile
Travel Stories: For 5,000 years, the slow, timeless rhythms of Egypt's great river have enthralled everyone from Mark Antony to Aunt Phyllis. Chris Vourlias takes a felucca trip to see if he, too, can feel the magic.
09.24.07 | 11:30 AM ET
We’ve been bumping along a rocky road for half an hour. On both sides of us, men hunched beneath the harsh sun work a quilted patchwork of emerald fields. They wipe their soiled hands on their gelabiyah robes and pause now and then: stretching, blinking at the sky, watching the quizzical Westerners waving and clattering by. A donkey clops past, tugging a cart piled high with sugarcane; a mischievous kid perched on top grins as if he’s riding a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He flashes a thumbs-up, his bare feet dangling off the side, and gives his luckless mule a few hearty whacks with a stick. It whinnies and tosses its head and bucks its front legs, breaking into a trot as it’s swallowed by the mid-day heat.
Captain Mohamed has promised us the spectacle of the biggest camel market in Egypt, a riot of Arabian bargain-hunting in the dusty no-man’s land north of Aswan. It’s a chance to see something different after two lazy afternoons drifting along the Nile. He’s moored the felucca between two wooden fishing boats and flagged down a passing truck, which belches a few discouraging puffs of exhaust before wheezing down the road.
At the market men in turbans haggle hard; the camels look on, nonplussed and serene in a way that only camels can be. A guide points out the choicest ones: their humps proud, their flanks padded with muscular flesh. We watch a few get loaded onto flat-bed trucks. They wail and moan and hold their ground; a couple of guys take running starts and slam into their haunches. One gruff buyer punches a fine-looking steed in the neck, winding up for roundhouses that could floor a heavyweight. There’s a murmur of approval as the beast finally gives in, its legs roughly taken out from under it. Nearby old men sit Indian-style in the shade, drinking mint tea and lazily swatting away the flies.
We stop for supplies in a busy town nearby—an anonymous place of poured-concrete shops and women doing brisk business in their flapping chadors. I buy a bag of falafel for an Egyptian pound—about 18 American cents—and we load up on produce: bruised tomatoes, forlorn onions, tubers as gnarled and disfigured as the Elephant Man. One of the girls in our group causes a stir, going braless in a T-shirt that almost prompts a four-donkey-cart pile-up. There are hisses and catcalls; one young guy, his shirt unbuttoned down his chest, tries to lure her to his fruit stand. “I am here. I am here,” he says, his arms outstretched. Dates and peanuts sit in plump sacks around him, tomatoes are piled high, and the scene gives his desperate pleas a pathos that is, I’m sure, hardly the aphrodisiac he intends.
It’s also hard to miss the metaphysical implications at work. I am here. I am here. But where on earth is “here”?
When I arrived at my hostel in Cairo—a no-frills operation overlooking the clamor of Talaat Harb Street—the owner, Atef, invited me into the lounge for a “welcome drink.” It was a toothless euphemism for what was in fact a hard sell: an effort to book me into one of the tours the hotel arranges along the Nile. Atef’s cheerless friends sat puffing sheesha in front of the TV—their sleeves rolled up, their bellies pushing through somber sweater-vests, looking less like a happy-go-lucky bunch of hostelers than a conference of the Arab League. As I sipped my syrupy tea in the smoke-filled room, Atef flipped through a stack of glossy 8x10s.
“There is so much to see, so much,” he said, shaking his head. “You have very little time.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and made cryptic notes on his pad, punching numbers into a plastic calculator. He named a price higher than I’d hoped for, but not enough to turn down. I decided to put my trip—and a few thousand Egyptian pounds—in his hands.
For centuries, Egypt has boasted the most well-worn tourist track in the Middle East, but the task of squeezing its sights into a single trip is hardly for the faint-hearted. A civilization that has waxed and waned for 5,000 years doesn’t fit snugly into a two-week itinerary, and most travelers sign onto whirlwind tours of the Nile River Valley to cover the highlights: the Pyramids of Giza, Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel. It’s a vicious grind of tour buses and desert convoys and merciless souvenir touts. By the end of the first week, one looks with envy at old Cheops, imagining the labors of the men who built it and suspecting they had it easy.
Every day it’s the same parade of tourists in khaki shorts and broad-brimmed hats, dabs of sun cream on their noses. One of Egypt’s joys is treading in the footsteps of Marc Antony and Mark Twain (not to mention Aunt Phyllis from Cleveland and Cousin Richie from Bayonne). But the pleasure soon gives way to the grim truth: in every tomb, in front of every temple, the grooves are worn into the dusty earth that a few million tourists cover each year. Crowded onto the narrow viewing platform beside the Sphinx, queuing to take the same exact snapshot as countless others, I can’t help but wonder whether something vital—namely, Egypt itself—is getting lost in all the shuffle.
Along the corniche in Aswan, where I’ve arrived on the overnight train from Cairo, a dozen cruise ships are moored in the harbor. Genteel old ladies and their stiff-lipped men drink on-deck, as if the days of the British protectorate were as alive and kicking as the queen. A wary man and woman make it as far as the promenade, their pink, nervous faces showing signs of unspeakable trauma as a group of rowdy guys whistle at the passing girls. It’s from here that I arrange my felucca trip up the Nile, hoping to shake off the frantic schedule of wake-up calls and shuttle buses and submit myself to the river’s slow, timeless rhythms.
I stroll along the waterfront where the captains are gathered. They’re soliciting with narrow, suggestive eyes, the very word “felucca” sounding like an indecent proposal. As the men wheel and deal, making boastful promises about ships that often look less than sea-worthy, I can’t help but be taken in by the spirit of it all. A few lazy clouds drift over the Nile, their shadows rippling and folding across the surface. Barefoot fishermen haul in their catches from a dirty patch of shore. I watch the cruise ships docked with their great engines groaning and feel that some crucial spirit is being betrayed. Would Antony have seduced Cleopatra from the deck of the “Viking Premiere”? Could Tutankhamen take a gin and tonic aboard the “Royal Ruby,” while a keyboardist banged out “Summer of ‘69”?
Captain Mohamed—lean as a matchstick, his blue gelabiyah ruffling in the wind—shakes my hand and gestures to his boat, moored and bobbing on a gentle swell. He has a broad, mischievous grin, his teeth like the ruins of an ancient temple. We negotiate the terms of the trip, striking a deal for two nights aboard the felucca, leaving from Aswan in the afternoon and arriving in Edfu two days later. From there, after a tour of the Temple of Horus, a van will be waiting to whisk me to Luxor. Including meals and the cost of the van, the whole trip will cost about 22 bucks.
We’ve been drifting since just after sunrise, a few birds gliding above us or swooping to skim the river’s surface. The captain works the rudder in a dreamy trance, his eyes lost in the distance, his mouth pulling on the cigarette he’s rolled with nimble fingers. On shore a couple of barefoot kids scoot between the palm trees. The sun is broiling, the light dancing over the waves that ripple from our prow. We pass row boats coasting beside us; the fishermen slap the water with an oar—“waking up the fish,” the captain tells us, erupting with a marvelous burst of laughter. Far downstream, the thrumming of a steamboat engine recedes. Ahmed, the first-mate, prepares our lunch, slicing onions and tomatoes in a narrow band of shade cast by the shifting mast.
It’s a cozy fit on the boat—“a floating living room,” as one of the passengers puts it. Cushions cover the deck, and there’s just enough space for us to sit in a circle over our bowls of falafel or, come nightfall, scrunch up in our sleeping bags toe to toe. Ten of us are on board, a motley collection of travelers with beat-up backpacks and well-worn stories that have acquired the dull sheen of countless retellings. We talk until we’ve exhausted the usual questions—Where are you coming from? Where are you going?—and then settle into a silence broken only by the lapping waves. Hours pass. We hunch over books and journals, rearranging ourselves with the sun’s movement. Some of us seek the shade; others strip down to shorts and bare chests and recline under the fierce rays, shoulders bronzing like a breast of chicken in a skillet.
The Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt “the gift of the Nile,” a civilization that thrived amid its dusty, sun-scorched surroundings, thanks to the river’s life-giving strength. In an arid region whose climate and soil are equally inhospitable, the Nile’s waters flowed and flooded and poured into precious tributaries, irrigating the fertile fields that sustained the land. The banks that straddle the river are still impossibly lush, even as the water itself has become a breeding ground for bacteria. Plastic bags and bottles bob on the surface above gray, darting fish. Women carry their household sheets to the riverbank to be laundered, then fill their teapots with murky water before trudging back to their homes.
It’s late in the day when we moor beside a small pasture of grazing cows and donkeys. Cheers and laughter drift from a field nearby, where the locals are playing soccer. Captain Mohamed checks the time on his wristwatch and pulls out his cellphone to make a few calls. Some in the group head to the bushes for a bathroom break. The tooting whistles and hoarse cries from the field are proving too much for the rest of us to resist, and before long, a few of us lace up our sneakers and decide to investigate.
It’s the sort of moment that’s made for TV—a group of bright-eyed Westerners eager to bridge the cultural divide through the magic of sport—but we’re quickly humbled. Never mind a bunch of barefoot villagers playing a ragtag game of soccer: These guys are in matching jerseys and fancy footwear, pulling deft maneuvers and gesturing wildly at each call. There’s a referee blowing his whistle and directing the flow of play, a gravity about him that suggests the donkeys swishing their tails on the sidelines could just as well be 100,000 rabid fans in Wembley Stadium. When they wave for us to join the game, we quickly lose our nerve. It proves to be a wise gambit, since most of the players eventually wind up limping off the pitch.
On the sidelines, one of the Americans gets accosted by a scruffy young kid with dry, cracked lips: He wants to wear Paul’s designer shades. Another kid comes over to join us, brandishing a jagged farm tool with a strange, juvenile menace. It’s exactly the sort of moment they don’t highlight in the felucca brochures. But a few wisecracks and snapshots lighten the mood, and when Paul—a muscular triathlete with massive biceps—challenges a scrawny 10-year-old to arm wrestle, there’s a roar of laughter as half a dozen kids pile on, throwing their bodies at his unflinching shoulder.
Ahmed cooks a vegetable stew for dinner, and as we settle into our bowls, the sun begins to dip beneath the palms. For a few minutes the whole sky is ablaze; broad bands of purple and pink and blue color the horizon. The river is dull and opaque as the light retreats. One by one, from the minarets silhouetted against the evening sky, the calls to prayer begin to wail. It’s a powerful, resounding chorus that surrounds us, as if the voice of God had chosen this ancient river as the vessel to carry His word. Soon the song of the muezzin dies down; birds are chattering in the trees onshore, a few stray dogs bark and race in circles.
In the morning we’ll be up just after sunrise—a quick tour of the temple, a minibus to Luxor, baksheesh for everyone—but it’s here, rocking on the Nile as the stars ignite the sky, that Egypt shines with pure, unblemished light.