Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Drifting Down the Nile

When we arranged our felucca trip at our hotel, we had the option of a one-day or a two-day journey. The trip included the boat down the Nile, meals, a drop off down the river at Kom Ombo, and a minibus to Luxor, with stops at two temples en route. The difference in price between the one-day and two-day trip was only 20 pounds (~$3), but the most we could get out of the guy at the reception was that we'd sail further down the Nile and that we'd have more time at the temples. So we figured two days would be better than one and signed up.

At 11AM, the captain of our felucca arrived, taking us, our Japanese friend Yasuke, and four other guests, to the felucca. I was pleasantly surprised by the nice boat. Boards had been placed across the two benches so that there was a large, cushioned platform for us all to stretch out on. Seeing how we'd be sleeping on the boat, it looked like it would be comfortable and not too cozy for the seven of us. After being on plenty of tours in different countries, I was pleased to see that this looked more like a Vietnam tour than a Bolivian tour.

We crawled onto the boat, under the sun shade (oddly made of a sheet with mice, a skateboard and the caption "Hello Brother's! I wish you both much happines together!, lending itself to a joke I'm sure the Spanish brothers never tired of), as the captain ascertained how much water we had all brought with us (drinks weren't included, and he decided we didn't have nearly enough), whether we wanted beers, and then collected money for these, ice and watermelons. Then we sat, waiting for police permission and other final preparations, getting to know our fellow tour mates.

The strange and barely comprehensible images on the sheet that was part of our sun canopy on the felucca

We were a motely crew; in addition to Tyler, Yasuke and I, the tour included two brothers from the Basque region of Spain and a couple from Brazil. We all were relieved to see that there were seven of us to share the felucca, only to be surprised when the Captain mentioned we would be waiting for four other guests. Now, we had all faithfully read our Lonely Planet guidebooks and knew that eight was really the maximum you wanted on a good felucca tour. And at least the Brazilians and Tyler and I had asked the hotel about the maximum number of guests, to which we had both separately been assured would be eight. I wasn't thrilled but just decided to take it in stride; after all, our whole tour had only cost about $17 each and we were probably getting what we paid for. But the Brazilians were not pleased, demanding that they get a refund. Their logic was that if the boat would be shared by more people, the cost to each of us should be less. The Captain, not wanting to deal with frustrated customers, called the travel agent in charge, who came to the boat to explain that this was a "large" felucca that could accomodate 8, 10, 12 people. Why were we complaining? One thing we've learned about Egyptian men so far is that while they are very pleasant and polite, a fierce anger can rise quickly to the surface if they feel you are impugning their reputation or showing disrespect. Suddenly, the discussion with the Brazilians went south, while we tried to intervene and explain that no one wanted to quit the tour, we just didn't appreciate being told one thing and having something else be the case. In the end, a compromise was reached, we all got 10 pounds back (a little over $1) and we would end up with 10 people on the felucca.

So, potential disaster averted, we waited some more. Apparently police permission never came through until 1:30 or 2PM. Why they had us meet up so early we never really figured out. And the other guests arrived, a woman from Australia, a guy from South Africa on his way home from working in Jordan, and a fellow American from Miami. Finally, a motorized ferry towed us across to the open water. We were finally beginning our journey! But, no. We slowly drifted with the wind back to where we had begun, the captain explaining that the conditions were bad--hot wind and too much sand in the air was bad for the sail. We'd wait until things improved.

The Captain and his son

The two other men working the felucca. They were surprisingly spry for the age they appeared to be, climbing the mast, pulling up the sail, and generally doing the hard labor for the few moments we actually sailed

One of the sailors, high up on the mast, working on the sail

So we waited some more. Remember, we'd been picked up at 11AM, now it was 5:30PM. Finally, we heard the sail getting unfurled and we were going to start sailing down the Nile. And sail we did...for about 30 minutes, to a bank on the other side of the river, Aswan still clearly in sight. Confused, we got off the boat, used the bathroom, and wondered if this was where we were stopping for the night. You'll see, slow progress and confusion were to continue to be a theme of the trip; this was definitely bringing back flashbacks of our Uyuni tour. But the captian finally said we'd go a bit further, it was just that the winds were still bad. Finally, we drifted away from the shore, and then continued to drift, slowly, further down the river. Not exactly what any of us had in mind when we signed up for a sail down the Nile. After a long bout of drifting in the river's current, we headed again for the shore for dinner and our night's sleep.

The whole crew, relaxing on the felucca. With the platform and the sun shade (which we needed), you couldn't really do much of anything except laze about

I slept well in the open boat, so well, in fact, that I didn't realize that during the night we had actually moved the boat further down the shore for a better resting place. Waking at 6AM, on the Nile, the coastline's reflection shimmering in the deep blue waters, I was excited to start a day of what must be serious sailing to make up for our slow progress the previous day. And after breakfast, sail we did, tacking across the waters, the sides dipping low like a catamaran as we zig-zagged across. We all splayed out in the boat, avoiding the sun and napping. The Captain finally gave us a nugget of the information we all craved: we'd sail to an island for lunch and a swim, arriving around 1PM and resting there until about 3:30PM when we'd head to another island for the night. He seemed unconcerned about our progress, so I decided to take advantage of a forced rest after several days of hot sightseeing.

Along the Nile after sunrise

How we spent most our time on the felucca

Unfortunately, Tyler started feeling ill that morning, again having some stomach cramps and the usual traveller's GI disruptions, taking away from both of our enjoyment of the trip. As he sat, we watched others swim (I was a little frightened of bilharzia, which our guidebook had mentioned) and waited to start sailing where we might have some cool breezes to counteract the heat of the midday sun. But 3:30 came and went, as our Captain sat, relaxing on the boat. Around 4:30, he started asking if we wanted any extra supplies--beer, camel meat for dinner--as we were close to town and he could get some. But all of us were anxious to keep moving and declined, so finally, around 5PM or so, we left the island's shore.

And we started drifting again. At this point, all this drifting with the current was a running joke among the group, so this time we started trying to figure out how long it would actually take a felucca to go from Aswan to Kom Ombo, our stopping point. Turns out, you could do the entire trip in 10 hours, with good weather. It was dawning on all of us that taking the two day tour only meant that we went on the same route as the one day trip, only much, much more slowly. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I think the thing that drove us all a little crazy was never really knowing what was going on. On the plus side, it was a nice group of people, the setting was gorgeous, and we were on the Nile, so who's to complain too much. So we proceeded to drift to land that was actually only about 300 meters beyond the island we'd stopped at for lunch, which already had a collection of five other feluccas on it.

We stopped for the night, enjoying our last dinner on the boat, having some beer, and chatting around the makeshift lanterns one of the boatmen made from a water bottle, cut in half, with the cap end down into the bottom half, a candle burning from the inside of the cap. Like the night in India when we drove from Leh to Manali, Tyler started getting bad stomach cramps. This was happening at the worst possible time. We were on a boat, on an island, no "civilization" easily accessible. But he took some medications we had and finally was able to sleep through the night. I slept well again (after Tyler seemed to be able to rest a bit more easily) until hearing call to prayer from about six different mosques all at once at 5AM. Unlike the day before, we set off early this time, all of us half awake as we drifted only a little bit further down the river to disembark at Kom Ombo, happy to get to use a real bathroom and check out some ruins on the way to Luxor.

Our felucca docked for the night

Sunset on the Nile

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