10:12 PM EDT, April 22, 2013
Egyptians have always respected and loved their Nile. They say, “The Nile is our life, our water, our electricity, it fertilizes our land. Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt.” The 135-mile stretch of Nile from Luxor south to Aswan is the most touristed. Three hundred elegant river cruise ships are primed and ready to take their loads of tourists on the four-day cruise. But this terrible third season after the revolution, only about 50 are working…and most of those are sailing with as few as 10 paying passengers aboard.
We hopped a cruise ship for five hours from Luxor to Esna. The manager, eager to please this American journalist, gave us the ship’s best suite for the afternoon. We dined with the tiny group of passengers–Europeans and Aussies, no Americans–lounged around the pool on the top deck, and marveled at the idyllic passing river scenes. While not quite as glitzy as a Mediterranean cruise, it was plenty elegant.
The beauty of this trip for me is having my Egyptian guide, Tarek (who runs “Egypt and Beyond Travel”) working to help me maximize my experience and make sure things go smoothly. We jump ship where it docked for the first night of the cruise, and our trusty van was right there, ready to pick us up.
Part of the fun of having a van is having a driver to joke around with. Muhammad (it seems half the men here share that name) had mint sprigs on the seats and the air-conditioning on. I lauded him as a hero and he said, “Yes, very much” while blowing on his thumb to comically inflate his shoulders and biceps. Having just drunk a Coke, I belched–and then learned that was very rude in Egypt. I said, “It’s in our Constitution. Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘It’s better to burp and bear the shame than not to burp and bear the pain.’” My guide said, “Very detailed.” Later, I sneezed, and he said, “When you sneeze, somebody is talking about you.”
Driving an hour north, downstream, back to Luxor, the road was very slow with police checks (generally just a wave through, locals say they appreciate them for the safety) and speed bumps every quarter mile or so. They have these because street lights are rare, and people live, work, and hang out dangerously along the roadside. It was fun to watch drivers manage without headlights–diligently flipping them on every so often to check the road. They insist on believing that it saves electricity.
Being in Egypt, with people standing around everywhere trying to earn a pathetic living, get a tip, or keep a job, you see a kind of shared poverty. It’s like that all over the developing world. Rather than employ a few people with good pay and high expectations to be productive, it seems that the work and pay is shared with many. And sometimes, it seems work is just created. Toilet paper dispensers have been put out of service so a man can stand in the restroom and hand out a couple feet of TP to each user for a tip. Of course, you’d never pump your own gas here. Stop for gas, and you’re swarmed by boys eager to help. In Luxor at the Winter Palace Hotel, I was actually given a personal butler–Ahmed. With the country empty of tourists, we always got the best room in the hotel…and there seemed to be more staff than customers.