Our cruise down the Nile River from Luxor to Aswan was among the most relaxing and spiritually refreshing experiences of my life. The ancient Egyptians regarded the river as holy for the obvious reason that all activity in Egypt is concentrated around this thin strip of life that carves its way through the desert. Millenias-old temples line the banks and the call to prayer emanates from the small river towns along this flat, lazy stretch of river.
We boarded our Faluka in the morning. It is a moderately sized sailing ship. One of the key features of the Nile, is the prevailing winds always blow south against the current. In order to go south, one simply puts up the sails and to go north one simply floats. The boat is intended to sleep perhaps twenty passengers. The three of us shared the boat with four Australians and our captain, Enrique, along with a friendly crew of indeterminate size.
The first day we took lunch with the men and I’ve finally begun to get the hang of Egyptian colloquial Arabic, which is somewhat different than the classical Arabic I briefly studied at Georgetown. I asked the men of the crew about their families and their impressions of Egypt after the revolution. Against a substantial language barrier, the gist of their responses was “Mubarak bad, democracy good.”
For the remainder of the day we lounged on the luxuriously padded deck of the ship and swam in the swift currents of the Nile. The men assured us there were no crocodiles in this region. In the evening we dined with the ship’s captain and owner Enrique, an enigmatic Harvard man and Paris-based world traveler, who recounted to us tales of his exploits around the world. Hoping for more detail, I asked him in private, “Que faites-vous exactement à Paris?”
He responded simply, “Je vis.”
Later that night we docked outside of a temple on the west bank of the Nile. Enrique proposed that we explore the complex immediately. The area had been the quarry location for the temples at Luxor, with huge slabs of stone cut away. Strolling through the ancient temple by moonlight, the place radiated millennia of spiritual significance. Occasionally Enrique’s phone would ring and he would answer in any of eight different languages to conduct business and then continue his meditative walking. We retired early to our cabins.
The next morning I rose with the sun to encounter the welcome sight of crepes and French press coffee. After nearly three months of surviving on instant Nescafe, I joyfully sipped the early morning away until the other passengers were ready to explore the temple complex again by daylight.
During the day, the temple had a very different feel. With my walking stick and flip-flops I climbed into ornately hieroglyphed caverns and over sand dunes. At the end of the trail a tugboat came to ferry us back to the Faluka.
The afternoon was spent gorging ourselves on falafel and some variant of sorbet made from mango, guava and hibiscus flowers. I quickly lapsed into a food coma. We rose a few hours later for a game of pick-up soccer on a small river island. That evening after dinner, the crew had a sort of celebration on the shore.
Apparently the one lifestyle choice that Arab villagers share with American college students is that Thursday night is the night to party. The men started a small bonfire with discarded cardboard boxes, made a drum circle and sang a few folk songs. I ventured off the boat to investigate and clap along with the music. My companions joined me later and the men invited us all to dance. Then the men asked us to sing them an American song, and of course the first one I thought of was the “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. For a few orgiastically orientalist moments, we belted out lyrics about magic carpets and genies to the amusement of the crewmen and villagers.
The next day we explored another smaller temple complex:
In the afternoon, we enjoyed ever more food, relaxation and seemingly eternal bliss. Swimming again at a small beach on the west bank, I freed a large ox that had trapped itself among the rocks. Again I broached the subject of politics with the men of the crew.
“Will you vote in December?”
One of the men who had a better command of English responded, “yes, I will vote for someone. A man not like Mubarak. Maybe Ahmed Zewail,” winner of the Nobel prize.
We arrived in Aswan late on the third night. Enrique had mysteriously disappeared sometime between our departure from the last temple and landing in Aswan. He did not say goodbye and none of the men knew where he was. We did not allow the disappearance of our guru to trouble us terribly, as we met a car to head for Abu Simbel.