With the full moon rising behind the ancient Temple of Luxor, I find myself in what was once the heart of Egypt, far down the Nile on a trip that is taking me around the world.
Arriving in Cairo a week ago put me into a state of culture shock. This is one of the worlds supercities with a population of more than 20 million, and most of the people in Egypt are dirt poor. The city itself is the filthiest Ive ever been in, owing to the fact that it only rains three or four times a year, so theres nothing to wash away the grime. Then theres the insane traffic, with no rules and few stoplights, and temperatures in the 90s. But Im cheered to think that the grunge will prepare me for even scruffier places down the line.
The dress code here was quite jarring at first. Rounding a corner, I bumped into a young couple dressed straight out of the Bible. He had a flowing cotton robe and a beanie cap, and she was covered head-to-toe in black silk with only an eyeslit to peer through. Later, I learned that especially beautiful women choose to wear the all-black outfit, even with gloves, because theyre considered simply too good-looking to be seen in public! Imagine that in America. Every woman in Egypt wears at least a headscarf as a symbol of Muslim modesty.
For the first two days, I walk the streets alone, looking about as inconspicuous as an ostrich. Most of the time, Im the only Westerner in sight.
In America, were taught by the mass media to be scared silly of the impoverished, virtually powerless Muslims. Walking through neighborhoods that few tourists will ever see, I wonder if anyone will hassle an obvious gringo, not to mention an American.
Far from it. Countless people stop to say hello, or Welcome to Egypt, with broad smiles. Over the past week, I must have walked 25 miles through the streets of Cairo and other cities and villages along the Nile and have never had a single cross word or unfriendly encounter. I feel safe just walking around with a friendly American smile and a Hi, how are ya? as my umbrella.
Many people ask if Im an Ozzie, meaning Aussie, or an Australian, those heroic world travelers you find everywhere on earth, especially where prices are cheap. I always respond that Im from Northern Michigan in the United States of America, which gets a bit of a puzzled response. It turns out that there are very few American tourists here - perhaps they stayed away scared silly - although I eventually run into scads of Europeans and Asians.
And of course, Ozzies. There are eight Australians in the tour group I join on the third day, and three of us Yanks. Were traveling with an outfit called Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com) which specializes in cultural immersion. This means dining only in local restaurants, traveling on rickety local buses and trains, and staying in the same hotels down the back alleys that Egyptians frequent. We literally walk like Egyptians, going down the backroads of the remote villages and deep into the cities to places most tourists never see.
Cairo is a whirl of color at night -- tens of thousands of people walk the streets, having a good time. This is a 24-hour city: Men smoke hookah bubble pipes with tobacco flavored with apple and bananas - kids dream at the huge display of dolls in store windows. People dine out on falafel and shish kebab at packed restaurants... I comment to our tour guide that everyone in America is home watching TV at night and no one is out on the streets. He responds that the loneliest, scariest time he ever had was on a trip to Europe when he encountered the same situation - no one on the streets... Agreed!
Needless to say, the sights here are world class - the pyramids, the temple at Abu Simbel, riding camels and donkeys, the Valley of the Kings, and all of King Tuts stuff at the Egyptian Museum to name but a few... but it seems far more interesting just to kick around the backstreets and see the kaleidoscope bazaars, kids playing on dirt streets and goofing off on camels, and guys in turbans riding donkeys piled with farm produce.
We spent the past two days and nights sailing down the Nile on a felucca riverboat after taking an overnight train and a bus to southern Egypt, going 30 miles from the border of Sudan. By contrast to the cities, the riverbank is lush, green and as pleasant as Hawaii.
With a black Nubian captain in a flowing robe at the tiller of our boat and afro-pop music playing from a boombox at his feet -- not to mention the constant halo of flies around my head - I finally felt a sense of Africas soul as we sailed down the Nile. It felt like a dream - slightly unreal.
A felucca is a sailboat about 35 feet long and 14 feet wide with a triangular-shaped lateen sail. We sailed with the current, but north against the wind, so Mustafa tacked the whole way, going zig-zag from one shore to the next, about a mile across the river.
The Nile runs for thousands of miles out of black Africa into the two kingdoms of old Egypt, which was at least 600 miles long, but only a few miles wide. And no wonder, because when we landed to make camp one night, the few small bushes and date palms ended about 100 feet from the shore. Beyond them was a stark desert of rocks and sand which runs for more than 2,500 miles without a single tree or plant, except for the rare oasis.
Huge riverboats full of tourists can be found jostling with little wooden rowboats of fishermen with their nets. Along the banks, farmers ride donkeys and chip at the fields with hoes, just as theyve done for the past few thousand years. Even here on the river, at 4:30 in the morning I could hear the Muslim call to prayer blasting from a loudspeaker on top of a tower miles away - alerting the farmers to jump out of bed and face Mecca on their prayer carpets.
Here, everyone is wearing traditional dress, with all the men in cotton robes. Im envious, because my nylon pants are hot as hell in the 90 degree heat and my t-shirt is a masterpiece of grunge. How nice it would be to don one of those cool bedsheets to keep off the sun and the flies...
My tinny backpack guitar came in handy during the boat trip. I played the warm-up show around the campfire and was invited to sit in with the Nubian drum band in a big dance party for five boats. With everyone dancing around the fire in the desert and husky African voices singing a variation of Shell Be Comin Round the Mountain When She Comes - Ah, ya, ya, ya! I picked out an afro-pop lead and had a once-in-a-lifetime performance thrill.
One downside of going native, however, is that virtually everyone on our boat got either diarrhea or the pukes from the different bugs in the food and water here. My bowels were running like the mighty Nile itself the morning we set sail -- only a good deal muddier. Thank goodness for Imodium...
I hope these travel columns are of use to readers in Northern Michigan. Egypt is very much a land of tourism, just like Northern Michigan. Of course, not everyone is nice as pie: some 60 Swiss tourists were massacred by radical militants 10 years ago here in Luxor, blowing the tourism scene to smithereens in the process and putting many thousands of tourist-dependent Egyptians at starvations door. Shock waves shook Egypt to its core after the massacre and thousands were arrested, along with new precautions, such as the tourist police and convoys to temples. Today, that sort of craziness couldnt happen - knock on wood - because the locals would inform on anyone planning anything of the sort.
In my experience, I would recommend
Egypt as a destination for any American. Yeah,
this antique land is hot, dirty, and you might get the backdoor trots, but the people are nice, its dirt cheap, and the sights are as magical as 1,001 Arabian Nights. I hope youll join me in my next column, when I visit two of the holiest spots on earth to three great religions - Islam, Christianity and Judaism... Salaam!