Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Egypt: Near Death on the Nile

Prices in Egypt are almost always flexible. Ask the price of a hotel room three times before signing in and on the third time it magically drops. One of the fun games in Egypt is to compare what you paid for something with other tourists. Sometimes you find you paid double for a day tour what the guy in the next seat paid - and sometimes half. Almost everything has to be haggled over - taxi rides, chocolate bars, river trips, bananas, falafels, souvenirs, and bribes to guards so that you can climb pyramids while they turn a blind eye.

I love Egypt and hate Egypt at the same time. Usually the hate part is a bit stronger than the love part. The best things get spoilt by enthusiastic touts trying to separate me from my money for things I don't want, like visits to the "Papyrus Museum" (read: tacky souvenir shop). Walking along the Nile at sunset in Aswan, a town in southern Egypt should be a sublimely perfect experience. The rich colours - the dark blue of the Nile, the lush green vegetation on the opposite shore, the yellow dunes and hills behind that, the cloudless light blue sky, and the white sails of the feluccas (canvas-sailed boats) as they silently glide across the river contrast sharply with each other. Ruining this, however, are the touts with their incessant questioning: "Welcome to Egypt, my friend. Where are you from? Where are you going? Take a felucca ride? Good price for you. Why not?" and so it goes on, one tout starting up as soon as I shake off the previous one.

I finally did book a two night felucca trip sailing down the Nile. I teamed up with a French Canadian guy, and we interrogated several felucca captains to find the best price and boat. We eventually found a captain we both liked, and extracted a promise from him that he would indeed be our captain, that our boat would be the "Prince of Love", that our fellow passengers were all girls from Sweden and England and that we would depart at 10am the next morning.

The next morning...we turned up at the departure point at 10am to find the boat had changed, our captain was replaced with a guy in his teens with an even younger assistant captain, the passengers were all male and mostly Australian and we didn't leave until 1:30pm. Then we sailed for half an hour to the police checkpoint on the river at the northern edge of town and and waited until 4:30pm until someone described only as the "big, fat man" could sign our police registration forms allowing us to continue down the river. Luckily someone had a deck of cards handy.

When we did get going it was superb. The boat zig-zagged into the wind down the river for several hours until we moored for the night. We slept on the deck, surrounded by canvas walls put up for the night. By lifting the canvas I could stick my head out and gaze at the billions of stars in the clear sky. At dawn the next day we set sail again, doing nothing but taking it easy all day.

That night we moored alongside another felucca, went ashore, and had a campfire. The crew from both feluccas were Nubians and they tried to teach us some Nubian songs before singing atonal versions of Bob Marley standards. Time passed, all the passengers headed to bed, and we left the crew at the campfire to polish off their bottle of vodka. I should add at this stage that they also smoked a lot of marijuana that day during the sailing.

I got up early the next morning to watch the sunrise while everybody else slept. The assistant captain soon staggered up, clearly nursing a killer hangover, and tried to set us sailing for the day. I helped him pull in the gangplank and as we started to drift down the river he climbed up the rigging to unfurl the sails. I could see he was in no state for it, and scared he might fall I chose to turn away and watch the river. My reverie was disturbed by two noises: a "whoosh" followed quickly by a "thwack". The poor kid had done exactly what I had predicted and fallen onto the deck. He had smashed up his face, teeth broken and sticking through his bottom lip, and wasn't moving too well.

Showing how good I am in an emergency, I stared helplessly for a while before yelling, "What do I do? What do I do?" One of the passengers had some ambulance experience so he got up, barked orders, and did all that first-aid stuff you learn in school but don't remember when you need it.

The boat was freely drifting down the Nile at this stage, right in the path of oncoming cruise ships. The captain got up, looked around, and strangely, started cooking breakfast, leaving us, the passengers to pray that the ships would avoid us. He wouldn't put us to shore, and acted like nothing had happened, certainly not this his colleague might never walk again. After cooking breakfast he then did the unfurling himself and took us to our intended final destination, a couple of hours downstream. When we jumped ashore immediately and fetched help, he complained that we had made a lot of trouble for him.

There is a police convoy system in southern Egypt, which means that tourists have to travel by road between towns in a convoy of vehicles with a police escort at certain times. Official-looking people told us that we had to leave on the convoy, so we left our poor Nubian friend behind. I am curious to know his fate, but I probably never will.

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