This is the tale of my fateful trip when I go down the Nile. With Captain Najaf and Salama too…
The overwhelming majority of people who visit the Nubian Nile travel up and down the river on cruise ships disembarking occassionaly to visit temples, museums, and the interesting tourist towns of Luxor and Aswan. One of the popular side trips for the cruise ship riders is a short journey on a felucca. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, a felucca is a small traditional sailboat that rides the current and the winds. There’s no motor or cabins or kitchen or anything like that; just a shaded platform for sitting on, a sail for power and a small gas stove to make tea and lunch. I, of course, have no interest in the cruise ship option. Instead, I want to travel as much of the river as possible on a felucca. Not a day trip, or even an overnight trip but a multi day adventure if I can afford it. Since there are a thousand or so feluccas in Aswan, that’s where I go to find a captain and boat.
It’s a three and a half hour local train ride from Luxor to Aswan but the train is late arriving from Cairo so I have a three hour wait at the train station as well. While waiting, I watch the tea service guy sit down on the next bench over from me and calmly roll a joint. I’m a little paranoid about marijuana smoking in public after my shakedown in Colombia but the tea guy and his three friends don’t seem to be. The situation becomes more unreal when a military train stops and a whole gang of guys in uniform hop off onto the platform all around us. Nevertheless, the four guys on the bench calmly light the joint and pass it around. “Oh shit,” I think, “are they crazy? Am I in the wrong place at the wrong time. This could turn way bad very quickly.”
But it doesn’t. The military guys ignore the pot smokers and no one has a problem. I’m not sure why this is. Cannabis is illegal in Egypt. The pre-revolutionary dictatorship was hard assed about it. Is the new government more laid back about such things? I don’t know. All I know is what I see. And the Egyptian people seem to have a very easy going, non-judgmental attitude towards the various plants and herbs that human beings choose to smoke. If only the rest of the world could be so sane.
I reach Aswan and find an awesome room for only 60 pounds (9 bucks). My fourth floor balcony has a super sweet view of the river. On my first evening there, I only leave the room long enough to eat food and acquire some herbals. I get overcharged on the food but with ten guys on the waterfront trying to sell me weed, I get a good deal on that. Once again, I’m living the dream.
The next day I go on an excursion to the Ramses temple in Abu Simbel. Words cannot articulate the amazing awesomeness of this human creation. Nevertheless, the day lacks the uumph of my other temple jaunts. Abu Simble is three hours south of Aswan, way down by the Sudanese border. Because of its remote location, you are only allowed to go there as part of a convoy of vehicles with military protection. Thus, I have to go on a tourist minibus with 20 other people. It’s not too bad. The people are nice, there’s no guide and I do get to walk around on my own. But it feels too much like a packaged consumer product to me. The sacredness of the experience is missing. Its certainly not a bad day, just not as glorious as some others.
With all the important temples checked off my to do list, it’s time to get serious about fulfilling my felucca fantasy. I’m gonna find a captain, he’s going to be a good one and he’s going to take me where I want to go. According to the guidebooks, I should be able to go as far as Edfu or possibly Esna in 3-5 days for a cost of 500-600 pounds depending upon the number of other passengers on the boat. That would be great except due to the 95 percent drop in tourists there are no small groups around for me to join up with so I will have to go solo which is a lot more expensive. Furthermore, most of the captains I talk to only want to go as far a Cabombo which is only a two day journey. The reason for their reluctance is understandable. The direction I want to go is downstream. After they drop me off they will have to return to Aswan against the current. Not impossible with a good wind and sail but the winds haven’t been good lately. A few “captains” tell me they will take me all the way to Esna or Edfu but they seem more like scoundrels than captains and they tell me the price will be 1500 or 2000 pounds.
Over the course of two days, I have lengthy conversations with many captains. My favorite of the bunch is an older man named Hamada. He’s laid back, friendly, and not pushy or desperate. Unfortunately, he has the smallest felucca on the river and he won’t even consider trying to take it all the way to Esna or Edfu. I do go for a short little sunset ride with him but there’s little wind so he spends most of the time rowing. He’s right, his boat will never make it to Esna. He suggests a three day round trip journey to Cobombo for 500 pounds or an overnite trip to a pleasant beach in the other direction but that is not what I want. “Listen,” he says, as I lay back on the cushions smoking a joint in the setting sun, “other captains may say they will take you to Edfu or Esna, but they probably won’t. You should go with me to Cobombo.” My instinct and good sense tell me he is correct. I should go with him. But my will to go down the river is stronger than my instinct so I don’t.
In the evening time I go to Emy restaurant because the guidebook recommends it as a good place to find captains. I meet a couple of characters who seem friendly and professional. Abdula guarantees me absolutely that his boat will take me to Edfu or Esna. Other captains won’t but his will.
“Are you the captain?” I ask.
“No,” he responds. “I am the boss. I have seven feluccas and many captains work for me. I have one captain, the best captain, who once sailed all the way to Luxor on his own. There is no question he will take you as far as you want to go.”
“But I won’t pay any money until I meet the captain.”
“Okay,” he says, “just give me a copy of your passport to register with the police and a very small money deposit; 50 pounds. We will prepare everything for morning. You come meet captain at 9 am and if you like him you can go right away. If you don’t like, I will return deposit. But I promise you will like.”
As soon as I hand over my passport copy, I know it’s a mistake. Abdula seems to transform before my eyes. He drinks the kool aid, swallows the kryptonite and presto chango. His eyes go all beady, he smiles maniacally and starts talking vey fast. Professional likeable businessman no more, his inner scoundrel manifests. It’s not too late to change my mind. But if Im gonna go, I have to go with someone. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen?
I go to the river the following morning, find Abdula and he introduces me to Captain Najaf and his first and only mate Salama. They seem harmless enough and capable and the felucca is a good one. They are older and mature (about 40) and that gives me some confidence. But I’m not really sold until they show me a notebook full of testimonials. At least seven letters from previous passengers with positive reviews of their felucca abilities. Maybe this will work out after all. So we discuss specifics. I will pay a total of 1000 pounds (150 bucks) for a three and a half day journey to Edfu. All the food and drink is included and I will get three full meals a day. I pay 500 now at the start and the other 500 when I arrive in Edfu late morning on the fourth day. If I want to continue to Esna, it will be an additional day and a half for an additional 500 pounds. There will be no extra add ons or surprise hidden charges. Abdula the boss, Najaf the captain and Salama the first mate swear positively, absolutely and repeatedly that 1000 will be the final total price and I will arrive in Edfu in three and a half days.
So I give them the 500 and they tell me we will leave in half an hour after they get supplies. I go back to my room, get my backpack, check out and return to the boat. They are not there so I sit in the boat and wait. A different captain walks by and says to me, “so you go sailing with Captain Rambo?”
“No,” I say, “I go with Captain Najaf.”
“Najaf is Rambo,” he says, “good luck.”
“Oh great,” I think, “just great. Captain Rambo.”
An hour or so later they finally show up but they are not ready to go yet. They have a bag of supplies but they still need police permission.
“But I gave my passport copy to Abdula last night to get permission,” I say.
“Don’t worry,” they say, “it won’t take long. And do you want marijuana for the trip.”
“I have a little, enough for myself, do you guys want some too?”
“Long trip, need lots,” they say, “give us a hundred pounds so we will all be very happy.”
I’m not sure if this constitutes an extra hidden cost but I fork over the hundred and they disappear again. Naja goes to the cops for a permit and Salama goes to get weed. Naja doesn’t come back. Instead, Salama returns with a teenaged pot dealer named Yusef who talks like he swallowed a Bob Marley record. “Yah mon, I smoke in da mornin’, I smoke in da afternoon. Don’t worry bout a thing.”
I am starting to worry. It’s almost midday, at this rate we will never make it to Edfu. And when we finally do cast off, the Captain is still not on board. Instead, Salama is acting Captain and young Yusef plays first mate.
The next few hours are splendid. Yusef rolls a big fat joint, I lay back on the cushions, sip tea and ease my way into the felucca fantasy float. I could do without Yusef’s continuos banter about American women, girlfriends and “fucky fucky.” But 20 year old guys all the world over think and talk that way so it’s not surprising. I am quite happy though when we pull ashore at the police station and Yusef departs and Najaf joins us. Now the journey is really beginning.
It really is quite wonderful meandering down the Nile. But we are only about an hour underway when they try their first scoundrel move. Salama slides over to sit next to me and tells me his great idea. “You don’t want to go to Edfu,” he says, “from there only crowded minibus to Horus temple. Much better to stop at my village and we will get you private car to take you to Horus temple and then on to Luxor in comfort.”
“No thanks,” I say, “I pay to go to Edfu. That’s where I want to go.”
A few hours later, he has another great idea. He wants to stop at a village up ahead to show me an Ancient Greek sculpture that maybe I want to buy. “It is secret because illegal,” he says, “but you will like. Worth lots of money and we will sell you very cheap.”
“No thanks,” I say, “I don’t deal in illegal artifacts.”
The day’s sailing ends about 4:30. The place we stop is a beautiful beach backed up by sand dunes but I am surprised we stop so early. We got a late start and haven’t gone very far. I thought we would continue on into the evening. I was hoping for a moonlight sail. But Najaf and Salama say that is not possible. “Not good wind today. Maybe better tomorrow. Very dangerous to sail after dark.”
Oh well, we have a decent dinner, we smoke a joint and build a fire on the beach. Now it’s time for mild mannered Captain Najaf to transform into Captain Rambo. He begins by asking me about booze. “I am Muslim,” he says, “but I like drink. If you want I can get good drink from the village for us. You want something?”
“No thanks,” I say, “the weed is enough for me for now.”
Next the subject turns to women. And I thought young Yusef was sex crazed, he’s nothing compared to Rambo. Do I want Egyptian wife? He can find one for me. He wants American wife. He already has Egyptian wife but Egyptian women aren’t good at fucky fucky. American women like sex all the time and he is very good at sex. His talents are wasted on Egyptian women. He makes me promise to help him find an American wife. I’m supposed to tell all my friends about him and even post his picture on the Internet. So if any ladies out there are interested, here he is…
I’m not sure how the subject turns to Thailand, but I must have mentioned that I traveled there. “You try Thai massage?” He asks.
“Yes,” I say, “Thai massage is very nice.”
“Was it woman massage or man massage?” He says.
“Woman massage,” I say. “Why?”
“Because I give very good massage,” he says as a devious grin stretches across his face. I’m not sure if this is some kind of sex proposition but it kind of seems like one. It’s funny really. All I want is a peaceful ride down the river on a sailboat. And Rambo and Salami are offering me booze, sex, drugs and illegal artifacts. No doubt about it, they are certainly prepared to satisfy all my tourism wants and needs.
The next day is truly wonderful; the perfect fulfillment of my felucca fantasy. There’s a nice wind and we ride its magical power back and forth, zig zagging across the river. We do get a late start and we do stop early and this concerns me a little. But thanks to the weed and the wind and the water, my mind is in a tranquil place so I have accepted the fact that this little journey is going to go wherever it goes and I am fine with whatever happens.
The night is delightful. We build a campfire and sit around it. Instead of Rambo’s sex and booze talk, I listen to Salama sing beautiful Islamic songs and explain what they mean. Arabic is an intensely spiritual sounding language but the meanings are pretty much the same as all worldly religions. God is great. If we pray five times a day, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t hurt and don’t have sex without marriage, we will join God in heaven when we die. And Salama really does pray five times a day. Rambo doesn’t but Salama does. He prays on the boat, in the early morning, in the evening and at night. I am impressed by his sincerity and dedication. It is extremely unlikely that I would ever convert to Islam. Nevertheless, I think it is fascinating and beautiful that so many millions of people around the world find peace and fulfillment through Mohammed’s message.
The next day is a bit of a fiasco. Against my better judgment, I let the two scoundrels convince me to make a “brief stop” at the camel market so we can pick up a “camel steak,” and celebrate a traditional Bedouin feast in the evening time. Out of the goodness of my heart, I agree to pay for the “feast.” Yippee.. I even get to go with Najaf into the village to see the camel market. The camel market is not interesting. A bunch of Sudanese guys in robes treat camels in a manner that I think isn’t very humane. The two hour stop is not brief by my definition and it costs me a total of 150 pounds. At one point, Najaf leaves me in the back of the pickup truck taxi for an hour while he goes to look for stuff. I won’t even mention the crazy guy who tosses a rock into the back of the truck with me and the brouhaha that follows afterwards. I think it’s a hand grenade and almost have a heart attack. But alas, we do eventually return to the boat.
It’s afternoon by the time we reach Cabombo. We stop there so I can visit the very amazing temple dedicated to Sorbek the crocodile god. My friends have already eaten their feast by the time I return to the boat and they serve me mine. A chunk of chewy camel meat about as big as a hotdog and some soup and rice to go with it. What a deal for 150 pounds. No matter, we continue down the river on our afternoon sail. It’s not a long sail though because we reach a beautiful island that is “just like Gilligan’s island.” We are not anywhere near Edfu. Actually, we are barely past Cobombo and this is as far as they want to go. But I don’t argue. It is an amazing place and I more or less expected this conclusion on the very first day.
But wait, there’s more. After dinner and a campfire, we set sail again. I finally get my night sailing and it is glorious. But we don’t go down the river towards Edfu, we go back up the river and stop at a garbage covered beach on the outskirts of Cobombo. “Much better place to camp,” they tell me.
The next morning, I awake to see a dirty beach and lots of locals involved in various riverside activities. In a rather gruesome way to start the day, I watch five men lead a camel to the water’s edge and then proceed to slaughter it before my eyes. They slice its throat and it makes horrifying sounds as it bleeds out in the sand. It really is a cruel world but I too am a carnivore. While this is going on, Salama serves me breakfast. “What Patrick? You not hungry? Why you not eat?”
After breakfast, my trip is over. A motor boat shows up to take me across the river where I can “catch a train to Luxor.” I can go back to Aswan on the felucca with my friends and only pay for food if I want but now it’s time to pay the other 500 for my three and a half day journey to Edfu. If I was a tough negotiator, I wouldn’t pay them because I didn’t reach my destination. But with the dead camel lying nearby and trapped on a boat in the middle of nowhere, my bargaining position is not so good. Besides, considering I am traveling with a thousand dollars in my money belt, a new iPad and camera and I didn’t actually see them register my passport with the police, it could have turned out a lot worse. All things considered, 1000 pounds (150 bucks) is a fair price for the adventure I had. It’s less than I earn for a single day of stonework back home. I even tip the scoundrels a hundred pounds just for the laugh. When they ask for a testimonial, I write, “nice trip, good food, very interesting..” I only hope the people who read it appreciate sarcasm.
At the end of it all, just for icing on the cake, I don’t get taken to the train station. The motor boat guy ferries me across the river and puts me in a share taxi pickup truck. But the truck only goes to some random crowded market in the middle of some unknown town. There’s no train station in sight. As I stand in the street, surrounded by strangers asking me in Arabic what I am doing there, a satisfied smile stretches across my face. “Wow! That was some felucca ride.”