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Some travelers are wary of getting mixed up in the volatility of the Arab world at the moment, but it's a shame to miss out on some of most amazing places on the planet. Still, nothing's stopping us from listening in on a birthday trip our contributors Lena Lenceck and Gideon Bosker took down the Nile.

Beguiled on the Nile

By Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, 10/19/2001

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We are embarking on what's advertised as the "Ultimate Egypt" tour as an alternative to plastic surgery and a red Corvette. We figure five thousand years' worth of ruins should give us a pretty good idea of what "forever" is about and put our birthdays into some sort of perspective.

Admittedly, this is a paradoxical venture, because we've chosen to celebrate birthdays - to celebrate life - by visiting tombs, sites devoted to death. In the next four days, we'll be taking the pharaonic river cruise to some of the most impressive monuments to the afterlife that have ever been built. We'll be sailing from the upper to the lower Nile, to Luxor from Aswan.

At noon, the Sahara sun weights us down like a burning blanket. We head for the Sonesta Sun Goddess, one of nearly 300 cruiseships stacked up five or six deep along the Nile . The boxy, four-story paddleboat is clunky, but inviting, sitting out there five boats away from the dock, in the middle of the river, and, as far as we can tell, inaccessible.

You actually have to go through five hotel lobbies before you get to your own. It's like on land if you imaging going through the Sheraton, and the Four Seasons, and the Ritz Carlton, and the Hilton, before you finally get to your own. This gives you the possibility of experiencing several highs and lows on the way as you do some comparison shopping, Your heart sinks as you walk into a much fancier lobby than your own...

Boat envy. A nasty thing.

Our accommodations are an object lesson in the "Nile Paradox": luxurious rooms with too much view, of the Bronx tenement kind. From the windows of the aft cabin we look straight into the sewage disposal system of the MV King of the River. Portside, we're lined up with the honeymoon suite of the Nile Splendor. Modesty drives us topside.

We won't be sailing until morning, so we have plenty of time for a romantic excursion on a felucca, one of those ancient, butterfly-winged sailboats.

Our crew consists of two Nubian teenagers in tan galabeyahs with turbans wrapped around their heads. One seizes the tiller between his thighs and steers us into the current. The other tries to sell us some Lucite pyramid paperweights.

We like the idea of finishing our first full day in Egypt with Elephantine Island because it's a perfect blend of the old and the new: a small step pyramid dating back to the 3rd dynasty, some timeless Nubian villages, and a hideous deluxe hotel.

Unfortunately, we don't get to appreciate the contrast first hand, because for all except three minutes of our three-hour ride we are marooned 400 yards from our starting point, in the middle of the river, where the wind dies a quiet death. And where we become part of the scenery for hundreds of tourists speeding by on motor boats. Precisely three minutes before our time's up, the skipper pulls a long beam out of the bow and poles us back to our boat.

It's mayhem on board the Sun Goddess. We can't tell if this is a party or the Nile version of the Berlitz School of Nubian! Sound: Disc 1: Track 18: (20:06-21:26): Nubian repeat after me nonsensical phrases and utterances-language instruction session--punctuated by laughter from the audience. This is the best section and should be used. I'm ready to call it a night. How about you?

Day two, four a.m. One of the best things about being in Egypt is the morning wake-up call. We can hear the chanting of muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

The boat is beginning to move. Let's go topside and catch the drama of sailaway. About sixty cruise ships are jockeying for position in the middle of the Nile like nothing so much as a fleet of Greyhound buses pulling out of New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal. What's more, they even sound like them.

And how would you describe the sail away of the Royal SONESTA as it makes its historic departure from the Pharaonic capital? I'd say it's about as unceremonious as a bus departure.

We find a quiet spot on deck for the two-hour sail to Edfu, an ancient capital of Upper Egypt with an imposing temple to Horus. The Japanese passengers organize a spirited game of ping-pong while Gideon zens out over the magical scenery:

Gideon's Journal: "The sky shades from the soft, violet of the horizon, to a bottomless blue directly overhead. The air hugs my skin with placental heat. We glide in silence down a green artery that carries the lifeblood of North Africa, nourishing generations of Nubians who still carry their harvest of fish, grain, dates, and oranges on the backs of sullen donkeys and whose herds of buffalo soak crusty hides in shallow, reed-spiked pools at the red riverbanks."
In Edfu we see hundreds of embalmed crocodiles, and on the ruins of the Graeco-Roman temple, bas-reliefs of Roman emperors masquerading as Egyptian pharaohs. This bit of antique dress-up is getting us all in the mood for tonight's "fancy dress ball". In fact, a lot of the people from our boat are skipping the tour so they can shop for costumes, right here at the kiosks outside the temple complex.

We're waiting to get our costumes on board ship.

Gideon and Shopkeeper: "Is this the costume rental for the Pharaoh's Ball? Yes, it is."
The owner is showing us fancy embroidered robes, see-through skirts, and jumbo-sized sequined brassieres, along with headpieces and elaborate wigs.
Lena: "How would I wear this scarf thing?"
Shopkeeper: "You wear it something like this. Elaborate headdress you like an Egyptian. Perfect. Just look at yourself!"
Lena: "Ta-DAH! Cleopatra!"
Party Host: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening. Buenas noches. Por favor. I'd like to welcome everybody for the fancy dress party. This party is made for you and there is a lot of game and prizes for the winners of the game. For the first game, ladies and gentlemen, we need everybody on the dance floor please. Everybody..."
Whoa! It's the "Night of the Living Dead." Every single person in here is a character straight off the walls of the tombs: King Tut, Ramses I, II and III, Isis, Nefretiti, mummies galore!
Host: "Are you ready? Everybody? Ready steady Go. Dance."
In the flickering light of the strobes, the dancers look like figures on tomb paintings. The effect is fantastical, disorienting! The games are timeless, summer camp fare, but with a pharaonic twist: musical tombs, pin-the-scarab-on-the-satrap, and our favorite: wrap the mummy!
Host: "Now ladies and gentlemen, we HAVE to roll the other like a mummy. And you have just five minutes. It is the fastest one and the best looking. You have just five minutes. Are you ready?"
And the winner IS:
Host: "Ramses"
Later that night, we leave the ship for a midnight ride in what our guide calls "The Chariot."

Saturated with packaged experiences, we're hungering for the here-and-now of people living their lives without regard for us tourists. At the end of a twisting side street, we stumble on an Egyptian wedding party. About a dozen young men surround the couple, offering what sounds like moral support to the groom.

Day three. I wake up with a pounding headache and a horrendous racket overhead that sounds like the boat is being taken apart. In fact, it IS. All the structures on the top deck are being dismantled so that we can pass under a bridge. These sailors are using exactly the same technology their ancestors used thousands of years ago to raise and lower the obelisks, the giant blocks of granite, the lintels and statuary of the necropolises on the Nile?

At Esna, where we make our next stop, the walls and columns are filled with bas reliefs still bearing faint traces of color that show the same bucolic scenes we've just passed on the Nile: boys fishing, men herding buffalo, shaping mud into bricks. This anachronistic instant replay does very odd things: it gives you a vertigo-inducing sensation of the vast immensity of time, and the tiny, tiny scale of the spot we occupy in it.

At 1pm we approach the locks that will gradually lower us to the level of the Lower Nile. While we're waiting our turn, we're surrounded by a flotilla of bona-fide "boat-iques", rowboats stuffed to the gunwales with souvenirs, tablecloths, rugs, gallabeyahs, shawls of every color and size. The boatmen put the merchandise into plastic bags and loft them four stories onto our deck.

Ok.Ok. I 'll give it a try. There's one of those pyramid-shaped Lucite paperweights again. Let's see if I can buy one.

Oops! Dropped it!

Day four. Luxor, at last, and our last day on the Nile. As the one-time capital of Egypt at the height of its splendor, it's now something of open-air museum that sits on both banks of the Nile. In this magnificent landscape of golden rocks, the Nile becomes a veritable Styx, the river of the dead. A strange, ghostly sight it must have been to see the funerary boat bearing the royal remains.

But, in one of the recurrent ironies of this trip, we have barely enough time to glimpse the sights, much less stand around imagining what they might have looked like thousands of years ago. We spend most of our time in lines: for camera permits, camcord check-in, entry tickets, metal detectors. Then more lines at the entrance of each tomb, and once inside, we can't see much more than the heads and sweating bodies of other tourists.

It's our last evening on the Nile. The moon is rising and we're entering the Sound and Light Show at Karnak.

Show Narration: "May the evening soothe and welcome you, oh travelers from Upper Egypt. You will travel no further, because you are come. Here you are at the beginning of time..."
Oddly, even with thousands of people crowding around us, with the artificial lights, the bombastic pomposity of the text, and the canned solemnity of the ambience, something truly transcendent is in the air. So powerful is the weight of time in these monumental ruins that one feels palpably at one with all who came before. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in these cities of the dead, we come to realize that, if nothing else, it is the shared fear and awe of the mystery of death that unites us, and in an odd way, makes us timeless.

Day five. As we leave the Sun Goddess, our guide gives each of us a beautifully illuminated papyrus inscribed with our names in hieroglyphic certifying that we had successfully completed the "Ultimate Egypt" tour. Then he slips me a present: it's a Lucite paperweight in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. ULTIMATE. The ancient Egyptians were right: You CAN take it with you, after all!"

From Luxor, this is Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, for the Savvy Traveler.

Show Narration: "Yet, the twilight fell over the city of god, as it falls over all things."

Savvy Resources:

Lena and Gideon have edited a new book of travel stories entitled Sail Away: Stories of Escaping to Sea. Purchase your own copy from Amazon.com, and help the Savvy Traveler in the process!

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