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Travelling the way of the Ancients

The two Nubian sailors sat at the bow of the small felucca, the sun baking their darkened skin. Jabbering on in Arabic they glanced out over the tattered dock, a small group of tourists approaching, three days on the Nile, typical journey for the seasoned deck hands. The investment long ago in this small felucca had paid for itself in nearly six months. I followed the mass down the make do platform to where the small boat was moored. Small pack shouldered, two small clips dangling in the soft breeze, the sun high overhead warmed the early morning air. Aswan had woken hours earlier, the calls of Ramadan bellowing over the small city at the crack of dawn, it was now 9:00am.

The felucca had a small cabin at the bow of the boat, stretching no further then eight feet by ten feet, the Nubians shared this living space for most of the tourist season I was sure. The remainder of the craft was padded with large cushions wrapped in blankets or sheets. Each of us would eventually pick a soft spot to set our packs and sleeping bags, settling in to enjoy the sun and slow relaxing voyage up the course of the Nile. The few days I had spent in Aswan passed quickly, though it was not an area I’d have to return to. Once was plenty, the dam held a little of my interests, though no Nile Crocs were seen. I was looking forward to pushing of, this group of fellow travelers seemed interesting enough to occupy a few days, I was set.

The fenced main street of Aswan pushed away as we slowly crept from the pier, strong winds up the Nile weren’t that apparent this time of year, thus the three day sail. The water, sparkled, cleaner then I had originally supposed it would appear, stories of the Nile’s filth spread throughout the western world as an Australian bloke and I conferred our findings. A gentle breeze propelled us out into the center of the great river, the far shores concealing Egyptian artifacts from ages past, ruins could be seen slightly off in the distance. I leaned back against my make do pillow and warmed my face in the sun. A mid morning nap needed after a night-spent caravanning around the back alleys of Aswan. My eyes closed and the gentle roll of the small ship rocked me into subconscious. I could spend time with the others at lunchtime.

“You interested in some lunch mate?”

I stirred slightly, straining to look upwards into the bright sun. A large man stood over me; Australian by the accent, he smiled downwards. His silhouette the main striking feature, background light shone almost directly from over head, tropic of Cancer wasn’t far from here. “Yeah sure, is it ready?” I stretched upwards, reaching as high over my sleep filled head as I could. The night’s adventures having caught up, rest spurred them from thought.

“Another ten minutes or so. James.” He stretched out his large hand, introducing himself. I sat up beside him.

“Todd. Where are you coming from?” I asked, typical traveler question, places been, places going, select similar paths.

“Coming up from Ethiopia, Egypt is my last stop, then heading home to Sydney. How about you?”

“Actually just spending time in Egypt, well and a layover of a couple days in Germany. Came down from Sinai, spent a little while in Dahab hanging out with some travelers and the Bedouins.” I responded, eager to share travel stories. Isn’t that why I was wandering anyway?

“I am eventually going to make my way over there, Red Sea has some incredible diving from what I gathered. Hoping to do Mt Sinai and see the Suez Canal after Luxor of course.” He smiled, friendly, traveling alone no doubt, wandering Australians.

“Yeah, I dove out of Dahab for a couple days, just simple stuff though. A lot of life, you’ll be impressed, although can’t imagine it compares with the Great Barrier.”

“Not much does.”

Lunch, more starch then I had ever seen. Potatoes, Rice and Bread made up most of the adequate lunch, traditional Nubian soup added a great deal of flavor as I mixed everything, save the bread, in the shallow bowl. Research had prepared me; the food would taste good, yet be poor in variety. I guess you can’t store much in a felucca. Small bits of vegetables accentuated the broth I poured over the boiled rice. Having subsided on minute rice for the duration of university, well that and Kraft dinner, I was completely satisfied. Middle East food was nothing to rave about from what I had encountered. Less meat and more potatoes and breads then I was used to; I’d get by, open to new experiences, at least the beer was accommodating. James and I sat dangling our feet over the bow of the boat, the water passing slowly beneath us. There was plenty of rice, the soup, however, ran thin on our second helping, foreign soups are always good, or so I thought. Spices from the countless markets in Aswan helped remove any bland flavor the potatoes and rice may have lingered.

A couple other small feluccas and the odd barge or riverboat, luxury tours sprawled up and down the Nile between Luxor and Aswan for the majority of the year. Cruise ships from the Mediterranean filtered in from time to time, but none were in sight this day. Memories of the Mississippi flooded by as I starred over at a large riverboat, the “Cleopatra” oddly enough. Similar style to boats of the US, large back wheel, 19th century awnings; I looked on amazed at US influence in the world, Coke in hand. Tourists sat sprawled across three levels of decks, seated in sun chair, scotch or imported coffee in hand awaiting their padded bus tour into Abu Simbel no doubt. I couldn’t judge, could I? The sheer comfort of the felucca ride, peaceful, quiet, serene, I’d rather be here, although the sheer lushness of wealth sometimes spoiled my views. It cruised onwards, down towards Aswan. We continued onwards, rocky hills floating by on either riverbank.

James and I sat at the bow of the boat, stretched out, tanning in the sun for the duration of the afternoon. We traded travel stories, downed Stella after Stella, and just relaxed and enjoyed the peace. The Egyptian beer flowed freely as James recounted adventures in East Africa and treks through Ethiopia. Having never been I simply sat and listened. Two American girls joined us after an hour or so, Californians, Kate and Julie. Each of us took their turn, adventures, similarities, comparison, and next destinations, all of us quite drunk as the sun started to fall. The others, about ten, though I can’t at this point remember, sat on the base of the felucca, some read, others played cards, some slept, there wasn’t much of a variety, no room to wander on the small vessel. The Nubian captain had said they could bring 24 and sleep comfortably, I was doubtful. We were fairly cramped in living space as it was.

The boat continued to drift deep into the evening, Stella beer drowning any amount of monotonous boredom you’d find on a small sailing vessel. The gentle breeze did little to increase our velocity, yet it was pleasurable nonetheless. Each of us dangling feet from the bow of the boat, laughing, bonding; I’ve found on each journey taken, friends come easier on the road. Perhaps everyone is out finding themselves through new encounters; perhaps I’m just more reserved and private at home. Anyway, the better part of the day sharing beer after beer had produced another posse of friends. We’d always be together, always just was an intensely shorter time frame on the road. The beer continued to disappear, as did the night.

Day Two

A jaded sunrise, but aren’t they all, eager non-drinking tourists were up snapping pictures from the bow of the boat as I rolled back over pulling the blanket over my head. Early mornings even on vacation were never my forte. Ever the photographer I did own a few sunrise pictures, each shot after a late night party or adventure; the ability to rise early not one I personally could master.

Breakfast was again strangely starch filled, breads and rice, filling but far from energy packed. Thankful for stored away chocolate bars, I’d be fine. Kate and I ate at our usual perch, feet dangling, and the glint of the dawn shining on the calm waters.

“Where are we stopping today?” I asked, morning conversation, a little forced.

“I think Edfu, but I’m not really sure.” She responded, smiling slightly. We sat silent for a little while longer, starring at the water ahead.

“Aren’t we the cheerful morning couple?” I remarked, chuckling

“Well, we’re better then the other two, at least we made it out of our sleeping bags.”

“True” I responded. The boat sailed on as we dozed slightly in the rising sun. An hour would pass before the other two joined us, energetic as we were.

The Felucca pulled in to shore, a small group of young boys sat starring love struck at Kate and Julie in their shorts and bikini tops, western dressed women a definite luxury out here, which was a far cry from the hissing they would get in any larger town. Muslim culture, not the most welcoming of outside customs. The captain shouted at the largest of the group of boys, tossing a rope. We were easily pulled into shore, the docks of the small village a little more rustic then our comfort level would allow. We hopped from the bow; its funny how a spot claimed on the first day seems to last through out the duration of the trip. No one wanted to test our charity, squatter’s rights I supposed, the four of us were pretty much comfortable where we rested. The ground leapt to meet me as my sandals landed with a loud thud, the mud of the Nile banks well baked in the warm climate.

We wandered through the Main Street of the small town, Edfu temple about a ten-minute walk. Pleads of “Bacheese” rang from small children as I walked up to a small stand in search of water. Learning to beg must be the first skill taught to city kids in this country, it was similar elsewhere, just a little more persistent here then I was used too. Their dark skin, soiled, probably applied earlier this morning. I was pretty pessimistic about their actual poverty, their smiles and energy a little stronger then I would have guessed for orphans. I continued past them, as did the others, we’d all have encountered this tenfold in the markets of Aswan. Constant badgering, bargaining, arguing over prices, directions, the Middle East, culture shock to say the least. I was enjoying it and had even figured fair value for necessities in Egyptian Pounds. Sad hound dog eyes went almost unnoticed as I strode through the increasing heat of the day onwards to the temple gates.

The essence of Edfu rose from the barren ground, large Eagle statues perched at the gateway, hoards of tourists the only spirits missed by the stone guardian. Incredible stonework shielded the rising sun, the numerous passageways shaded and cool. We wandered the empty rooms of the temple thoughts streaming back to ancient Egypt.

As I was shooting the typical travelers pics when a group of children ran up to me laughing and screaming in Arabic. Expecting the usual grabs for money, I prepared slightly, shifting, waiting. “Take picture, take picture,” they yelled, all gathering for a moment, smiling, still rambunctious. Surprised, a little, I starred, confused, I had come across this in other cultures, just not here. A usual charge for photos was another way of rounding in tourist dollars. I smiled back, raised my camera, “Smile” I shouted. They yelled once more as I clicked a couple quick frames, and they were off; no begging for money, no thanks, no more notice. They ran down a pathway and around the corner, different encounters.

Day Three

A group of small children played at water’s edge, splashing in the warm waters, bathing perhaps. The colors of their clothes sparkled in the afternoon sun, the bright shades of reds and oranges lighting up the drab sandy background. The marketplaces of Aswan and Luxor shielded the most amazing displays of colors, streaming through the dank alleyways, contrasts captured. One child ran down the bank towards the water, hopping once on the hardened mud before flipping into the river, rolling one complete turn through the air before crashing into the water. A child’s agility always impressive; the others cheered at his success, splashing one another again. We continued to tack towards their direction. Their hoops and hollers grew as our small boat came within ear shout. They yelled greetings, each showing off slightly for the newfound audience, children, their all the same. Continuous flips, dives, hand springs and stands caught everyone’s attention as we tacked once again and started sailing away from the bank. They cheered once again and waved good-bye, their attention back to swimming.

We continued along, the soft breeze of the day keeping the heat from stifling the entire afternoon. Laziness on the felucca was apparent in all, the starch meals, the lack of protein and the hot sun had played out their effects. Each of us sat or laid basking iguanas; the boat sailed onwards. A visit to Kom Ombro, the temple to the Nile crocodile passed some of the afternoon time away. Similar diversion as seen in each town, complacency I supposed, or maybe lack of notice of each unique difference. It blurred, I’d admit it, swallowing as I write, one town the same as another in the world of the wanderer. We were continuing along, back on the felucca before I noticed. The heat increased, slightly, but so do the afternoon breezes.

The afternoon and night passed uneventfully and we were back on track in no time. The last day, I sat, perched at the bow of the ship, James, Kate and Julie enjoying a few final beers as we continued along the slow journey up the Nile.

Day Four

The fact that it was 10:00am did little to drown our enthusiasm. Each of us secretly looking forward to getting onwards, the cramped spacing of the felucca more then I could handle for long periods of time. I’d miss my newfound friends but it was time to move along. We floated onward.

The town of Luxor loomed into view, back again, McDonalds coming into my mind. I had eaten there three times in my last trip through, North American cravings hard to replenish. It was strangely noted that the only times I had ventured into this establishment since high school was traveling, comfortable food even though lacking any quality, was still welcomed. It’s amazing what you take away from places as history rich as Luxor; you’d think there’d be more. Sure I remember Karnak and Luxor temple, but I can still picture that McDonald’s and the strawberry shake I had.

We pulled into the dock, a soft landing, as the boat pushed in gently against the weathered wood. I’d had my pack ready for the better part of an hour, unheard of preparedness on my part; the constraints of the small-overcrowded boat a little more then this wanderer could bear. Again the sun bore down upon us, as we clambered a shore, friends made, connections, email addresses swapped. I declined a farewell beer with the group; thoughts of further escape and travel preps to make took precedent. Relationships, although brief, were appreciated, I just traveled solo for a reason and it was time to leave. I hugged Kate and Julie farewell; they a little more inclined for the parting dramatics then I was. Promises to write and visit were swapped, the distance between California and Eastern Canada seems so much smaller when you perched on the Nile’s edge in the Middle East swarmed by a Muslim culture you’ve never experienced. James and I shook hands; again the email addresses customary to our generation had passed. Another adventure, another day; sauntering from the small dock and turning towards the center of town, I wandered off.

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