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Travel Horrors : Our Second Annual Halloween Collection of Scary Stories About Trip-Ups : Travel Horrors: Egypt : Cruising With Nile-ists : It almost became the river of no return on a voyage skippered by disenchanted teen-agers

October 30, 1994|SYLVIA WHITMAN | Whitman is a Hyde Park, N.Y., free-lance writer. and

The guidebooks made it sound irresistible. "See Egypt as the fishermen do. Sail the Nile in a wooden boat. Trail your fingers in the river. Wave at children watering their buffaloes. Watch an ibis rise like the cry of baby Moses from the rushes. Sleep out on deck under the stars."

Sound romantic?

Well, it was and it wasn't. But we can learn from our mistakes.

In Aswan, sailboat captains haunt the corniche. "You want felucca ride?" they ask. Most tourists take to the river at least for an afternoon. But fair numbers opt for longer cruises of several days to Idfu, then catch a bus or taxi north to Luxor. When we were there several years ago, before Muslim extremists had begun attacking tourists, the three-day, two-night trip cost about $50 for a group of four.

Tired from sightseeing, we left felucca arrangements until our last morning in town. Within minutes of stepping out of our hotel, we hooked up with a 19-year-old skipper named Nagah who grew up sailing his father's produce to market. "Find another couple and we go," he said. We asked at the lobbies of several hotels but couldn't link up with any companions. Several other captains recommended bukra , Egyptian slang, we were told, suggesting we wait until tomorrow for more favorable results--a popular concept in Egypt. But we had nonrefundable plane tickets ticking in our packs. Finally, Nagah agreed to carry only the two of us, but for the astronomical amount of $50 per person.

Sigh. Just us and the river. It would be worth every dollar.

Like most feluccas, the Ambo stretched about 40 feet from bow to stern. It was threadbare but watertight. A wooden deck bridged the wide hull, with a rectangular break at midsection so gear could be stashed under the deck. On cold nights, Nagah and his crew could sleep in the crawl space under the bow, but no one would call it a cabin. Like most clothing in Egypt, the mainsail showed evidence of repeated mending. Loops of wire connected the metal centerboard to its handle. But with thin foam mattresses to cushion the deck and a tarp to ward off the sun, we lounged in comfort.

Once aboard, coming about under a steady breeze, we discovered why Nagah hesitated to make a deal: It's illegal for captains to transport fewer than three foreigners, he confessed. (Probably a precaution to prevent crimes, we guessed.) In addition to the photocopies of our passports, he produced one of a stranger and asked us to lie to Egyptian officials. We refused. When we pulled up to the trash-strewn island of river officialdom, Namoush, Nagah's teen-age pal and first mate, leaped ashore with the inspection certificate for the Ambo's fire extinguisher--and presumably some baksheesh. Soon we were under way. No questions asked.

Uneasy, we debated about ending the voyage then and there. But Nagah didn't strike us as a sinister character. Besides, my Tunisian husband was a brother Arab and a Muslim--and could understand most of their dialect.

Alas, a common language didn't rule out communication problems. Before we boarded, I had asked about bathroom stops. "Oh, everywhere is a toilet," Nagah said. I imagined a plethora of grubby marinas with toilets. Silly me. At a very few places where the bank was not too steep to throw down the gangplank, Nagah idled the felucca while we followed the trail of toilet-paper wads.

And then there was our night on the town. A few hours out of Aswan, we let off Nagah's third crew member, Mohammed, a wiry old salt with splayed teeth and a mangled ear. He asked us if we would like to see his village. "Sure," we replied. But when we climbed to the top of the bank, we found ourselves ankle-deep in sand, under a parching summer sun. What village? Just down the road, he said. As we started trudging across the Sahara, we saw the windsock of our felucca zipping out into the river. Would we ever see our luggage again?

The village wasn't near but eventually we caught a ride on the back fender of one of the pickup trucks that serve as buses in rural Egypt. At his stop, Mohammed tried to soothe us by buying warm Coca-Colas in green bottles. Then he insisted we stay for dinner. Behind the wall of his house compound, half a dozen barefoot and giggling children scattered at his command. He showed off his geese and pressed tiny limes into our hands, as gifts. Sitting on a mat on the earthen floor of Mohammed's room, we ate with bread a delicious okra stew and an omelet fried in a cast-iron skillet. The leftovers, my husband guessed, would feed Mohammed's wife (hidden in the kitchen) and all those children peering at us through the window.

But would we ever see our luggage again?

We did. Another truck-bus dropped us at Mohammed's field, where we met Nagah's father and congratulated him on the birth of a new calf, which we found suckling on wobbly legs. Nagah and Namoush were waiting at the riverbank, smoking cigarettes they'd bought with our deposit.

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