|Felucca on the Nile|
I walked aimlessly down the Corniche tired and hungry, looking for a restaurant, saying my “la sucrans,” no thank you, to taxi and carriage drivers, felluca rides and souvenir vendors. Several large boats were anchored by the Nile, and I decided to go into the Alyssa, a five star ship for several hundreds of people but filled with only a hand full of tourists. The manager and his German assistant were very nice, offered me a cappuccino and showed me around. Everything looked brand new. There was a nice room for massage and jacuzzi, with views to the Nile. Everything was tastefully decorated, unlike many of the large ships I saw – old and tacky. The price was also very reasonable because of the drop in demand, since the January 25th revolution. But they were leaving the next morning at 5am and I had to be at the boat that same evening. Also, after I thought about it, that was not what I was looking for. I knew I had to experience the Nile differently, at least for first time.
I had not checked my travel guide or map and I had no idea where the restaurants were. I thought I would find one on the Corniche, but I didn't as I was walking in the opposite direction to downtown. Along the way, somehow a carriage driver sensed I was brand new in town and got my attention. Before I knew he was calling someone that had a felluca and I found myself negotiating a three day trip down the Nile with two strange Egyptian men: Hamdy, the captain and Hamada, the cook.
Later I found I had grossly overpaid for the trip but in the end I was happy I went. There is nothing like sailing down in this part of the Nile alone (without tourists) eating with local people, feeling the moods of the wind, the breeze, the sunrise and sunset and watching life go by the hundreds of Nubian villages along the way, without having to socialize with travelers.
We started the trip by taking a tour around Elephantine Island, the Botanic Garden and one of King Farrouk's late castles. Then we returned to Aswan, got our permit for the trip, had lunch on the boat and started our sail.
We didn't make much progress the first day as the wind was not very strong, so we moved mostly with the current. The water was so still that it looked like a mirror reflecting the sky. We had long periods of silence. Hamdy was nursing a toothache and was popping a dicloferaz tablet in his mouth every two hours. I was thankful for the silence and being allowed to enjoy nature around me without much distraction, and feel the breeze take away my thoughts. Hamada was always a kind presence, aware of my needs, conscientious in the kitchen, cleaning the boat meticulously and even managing the sails for Hamdy. Around 6pm we set our anchor down and spent the night by the bridge that crosses over Aswan's East and West banks.
The second day it was the opposite. We had very strong winds and we arrived in Kubania, Hamdy and Hamada's Nubian village, in no time. After having a lunch of rice, chicken, salad and bread, we head out to the boat to continue our trip. The wind was still strong. Hamdy controlled the felluca from the rear, making wide zigzags on the river to manage the speed, adjusting the sails ferousciously. The sun changed quickly from side to side with our shifts. At times I thought we were going to capsize, when the felluca turned almost vertical to the water. That is when I saw Hamdy working the hardest during the whole trip.
Hamdy strikes me as the lazy type and I felt he was resenting having to work this hard. He finally said it was too dangerous to continue and that he needed to go to shore. I knew he had the option to set the sails down and just glide with the current but I agreed to it. Hamdy wore me out when he was trying to get his way. He was the dramatic type that overstated his point as if he was playing a part in a theater. He talked much and did little, opposite to Hamada, who didn't say much but did a lot.
At shore, Hamada walked trough date palms and came back with a tray full of them. Freshly picked dates for grazing. Hamdy was happy hanging out but after about an hour I told him the wind was quieter and we should move if we wanted to make to Kom Ombo that evening.
From Aswan to Kom Ombo we passed through many Nubian villages, that reminded me of the backwaters in Kerala, India. I saw people going about their daily lives by the side of the river. Cultivation was made easier after the dam was built, allowing consistent irrigation and also providing electricity for the whole country, but at the same time, it displaced several important temples, such as Philae and Abu Simbal that were later relocated by moving piece by piece. Not to mention the displacement of the majority of the Nubian population who had to move from their ancestral homes.
Many large boats passed us by, altering the waves of the Nile, lulling us even more from side to side. Most of the ships only had a hand full of tourists, making their way from Aswan to Luxor and back. As tourism was affected since late January, the trips from Cairo to Aswan have been temporarily suspended.
We spent the night in an island an hour from Kom Ombo. I felt the energy in this area was somehow very strong and I could not sleep very much. I was also engulfed by emotional turmoil I could not explain where it was coming from, and starting at 4:30 in the morning, hundreds of chants arrived at the boat from all directions, or was that a dream? They were very soothing though, a little different from the call to prayer I am by now so used to hearing since I arrived in Jordan six months ago. I believe it was closer to Sufi, and to me, it felt like Hindu chants. I woke up in a daze, in the middle of confused dreams, not knowing where I was. For all I knew, It could very well be India, instead of Egypt.
By 6am Hamada let the boat loose and we traveled with the current towards Kom Ombo. By 7am we were docked in front of the temple, I offered to to make breakfast that day: onion and tomato omelet with pita bread, jam, cheese and Turkish coffee.
After I visited the temple, (description under a separate post) and returned to the boat, Hamdy and I had another little discussion. We had agreed on a three day sail to Edfu, and he later reneged saying that was depending on the wind, trying to get out of it. He said it was too far away and he definitely was not going, which means, I paid for sailing for three days, got two, and had to find my own way either to Edfu, or to Luxor, or return with him and Hamada to Aswan. I was worn out by Hamdy's drama and since it would be a major hassle and additional expenditure finding my own transport, I decided to go back with them.
On the way back we stopped at a village, Darau, to see an animal fair. Although the village was very interesting, there was hardly any animal at the fair because of a strike/demonstration that day. The community wanted the previous local leader to stay in power while he was being replaced by someone else. When Hamdy and I got back to the boat, Hamada prepared the lunch, cleaned everything, made tea, and we sailed back to Aswan.
Going back against the current was not so bad. In fact, it was easier than sailing down the river, because the wind pushed us faster than the current. Hamdy kept the boat closed off, the way he does when we go to sleep, and that acts as additional sails. So, without having to do anything, we got pushed up the river very rapidly. That suited Hamdy well.
We spent the night by the bridge where we stayed on our first night, and joined a party a a small group of French tourists were having. They were celebrating someones anniversary and passed around cake and all sorts of pastries. That was a good dessert for us. Hamada made his best dinner there. Fatta! Fried pita bread spread on top of rice and vegetables, with a lentil soup on the side that got poured on top of it. It sounds very simple and boring that the dish was absolutely delicious.
The next morning we lifted the anchor, and sailed down to Aswan while Hamada prepared our breakfast of bread dipped in egg and then fried (the Middle Eastern version of French toast), omelet and black tea.
When I reached the Corniche on top of the stairs from where we docked, I looked down to the boat and saw good old Hamada there, looking up. I waved him good bye feeling a soft spot in my heart. I silently thanked him for his delicious meals and caring ways and walked away with Hamdy next to me carrying my luggage.
As I walked back to my hotel, I was not feeling any less dizzy than when I boarded the sail boat three days earlier. In fact, it took me several days to be steady on my feet. I felt lulled even when I stood by the sink to brush my teeth. My emotions were also still jugged in a strange mixture of relaxation, peacefulness and loneliness. It took me a whole day to make the transition from being at the Nile and traveling on my own again. After spending a day resting in my room the next day, I stepped out again, onto the streets of Aswan, in search of food, water, and the local Nubian museum.