Last spotted in San Francisco, USA on March 28, 2003, 1:23 pm
Who is he? Where is he going? Where has he been? David Barrett / Quinthar
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Unquestionably, the highlight of my stay in Egypt was riding the felucca down the nile. A "felucca", as shown in the picture, is a wide riverboat with a flat, open deck covered in blankets and cushions on which passengers eat, drink, and sleep. The felucca has one large sail, which is strung between two long poles, on two of the three triangular edges. The third edge is left open, and the overall triangle of the sail is adjusted by moving about the two poles, both of which are attached to a third pole, which is the mast. A large tiller is used for steering, from the bottom is an adjustable keel, and under the deck is an exceptional amount of storage space.

We board the felucca between two large Nile cruisers (basically river cruise ships, with restaurants and private rooms), in typical Egyptian style, meaning with a great deal of commotion (rant below). With a push off the dock and a whisper of wind, we're off on our Nile adventure. Of course, the ride wasn't terribly adventurous -- rather, it was long and lazy, exactly what we wanted. On our first night we stopped on the bank next to a large sand dune, near a number of farm fields being tended by hand, with hand-made tools, just as they must've eons ago. There we strip down and enjoy our first dip into the Nile's brisk but refreshing waters. After, with the setting sun, we enjoy a simple meal of falafal and tabouli, with some of the best feta I've had in my entire life (not hard and crumbly, but softer and more mild in flavor). As we lay down to gaze at the stars, we're lulled to sleep by the distant song of a mosque's prayer.
I wake in the early morning, only to find that we've been under sail since even earlier that morning. Of course, once awake, I merely lie back down and watch the banks drift by. One thought that kept coming back -- the same thought I had the entire trip -- is how ancient and unchanged the place is. Despite being prime real-estate in the 5% of inhabital land in the country, it's virtually empty. What few farms do exist are of the most primitive sort I can possibly imaginine, and I can't recall seeing a single tractor anywhere on the Nile.
The second night is much like the first, but this time we port on the bank of a series of carefully-maintained fields of some yet-to-sprout crop. We wander, swim, eat, and then sleep to the pervasive music of the sky as before. Distinghishing this night from the others, however, is the presence of two very large dogs on the coast that seem intent upon our boat though thankfully haven't figured out the gangplank. The precise size of these dogs, or their breed, is impossible to tell: the only way I could actually see them at all is to see the reflection in the still water of their silhouette in the almost-black sky. Like always, not knowing made them all the more fearsome.

Our third day we arrive in Kom Ombo in the morning, where we leave the peace and safety of Captain Cook's felucca for a military-escort minibus driven by an incredibly unfriendly driver. Back to reality.

Now, about the controversy while boarding: some details are left out for simplification, and the precise justifications by some of the actors will never be known, but it went something like this:

Don, Alexandria, and I had been on the same tour for several days, and we had become good friends. Don and I were scheduled, along with three others, to go on a felucca ride for three days. Alexandria was not. Seeing this quandary, one of the passengers, who claimed he owned the boat and was in a position to make decisions (a claim no other crewman disputed), invited Alexandria along for free. After a bit of consideration (after all, nothing free in Egypt is truly free) and our pleading, she decides to take the offer. We head to her hotel, pick up her stuff, and return.
When we return, we find that Monty, Don and Alexandria's tour operator, has also returned with the other guests. Alexandria tells Monty of the boat-owner's offer, and how she intends to take it. At this, Monty flips out.

Again, we are only left to guess at his reasoning, but he says this is absolutely unacceptable, as her tour has her booked doing other things that have already been paid for. She says that this is fine, and that she isn't asking for anything back (she had already paid for everything in advance), and that we could simply re-integrate with the rest of her tour three days later (she was scheduled to go the same place we were going, at about the same time, just by train). But when she addressed him in a corrective manner, he explodes and starts basically yelling at her telling her that no, she's wrong, and that there is no reason to discuss it further.

Seeing things getting out of control, Don and I step in asking for him to calm down, which only further enrages him, and he starts yelling at us. At this point I think he realized he had overstepped his bounds, and after a time did actually calm down to a reasonable tone. He continues going on and on about how all this stuff is paid for, and how it'd cost $30USD for her to go and as such is impossible. Sensing the power of the US Dollar as the lubricant to get us by, as well as generally wanting to do anything possible to spite this man, I pull out two twenties and say I'd be happy to pay for her passage, and that he's welcome to keep the change if that'd speed things up.

Perhaps the veiled bribery was a bit much on my part, as he explodes again explaining how this isn't about money, and how he's a wealthy person that does not care for money (even though he had just spent the past ten minutes lamenting how much he'd be out were her to go). But, seeing as how it was in fact about money, especially in the form of US dollars, he eventually came around to what was in fact a very reasonable request. And of course, we all knew that he wasn't out anything, as he would surely just go get refunds anyway, if he had already paid at all.

Later, when this was all done, he pulled me aside personally and tried to explain, basically, how I should never interfere between him and his client, and how I had personally disrespected him. I'm thinking "Like I care in the least", but I say "Ahh, I'm terribly sorry, I simply saw an opportunity to help, blah blah [please go away and never return you bastard] blah blah." In the end it turns out guy who made the offer was actually not in a position to do so, and was himself almost as shady (excuse me, culturally different) as Monty. Likewise, once placated with money, Monty did uphold his bargain and everything else in Alexandria's tour happened without incident.

Now, we think the source of the problem was that Alexandria dared to speak up against Monty and assert her opinion, something that simply is not allowed in the conservative town of Aswan. When Don and I stepped up in her defense, it only further increased his perceived dishonor of the event. In reality, he had assumptions about which she was asking that would have created real problems, but never bothered to confirm those assumptions or even pay attention when being told (by Alexandria) they were incorrect. But, when told the same thing by a man, with a large carrot held out in front, he was willing to listen. Whether to attribute it all to simple cultural differences or an outright backwards and shady individual, you decide.

Piloting a felucca must be a tiresome affair. While modern sailboats (in my experience) seem to employ the latest in gear-and-pulley technology to take some of the effort out of holding a particular course, the felucca driver is stuck with holding a huge tiller against the wind for hours at a time. To make things more comfortable, our pilot (Captain Cook) rigged up an ingenious knot that allows him to pull in or let out rope with very little effort, and holding the same with almost none. Perhaps the sailors in the audience can benefit from this Egyptian innovation.
Far out of town north of Aswan is a new bridge. Now, I'm a bit confused why they built it such a large distance out of town - all the larger seeing as how so many people don't have cars. When I asked this I was told that this was a convenient place for a bridge. Fair enough, but bridge building is not a new science: I figure it is sufficiently advanced that we can build bridges wherever convenient for us, not for the engineers.

Likewise, seeing as how our felucca had to physically take down our mast in order to get under, I question the wisdom of creating a permanent bridge so low that boats from a thousand years ago cannot go traverse unhindered. Granted, the felucca mast is darn tall. But if you're going to build it once, build it right. I mean, it's not like this is some small tributary river - this is the Nile we're talking about.
One afternoon while stopped along the banks of the Nile, Hamed brought out his lute and played and sang several songs he had picked up over the years. The lute on which he played had a surprisingly good sound, despite having three of its four strings made a taut fishing line instead of a brass wire. At the same time, he gave us a welcome lesson in Islamic traditions, as he was one of the few people we actually saw practicing the religion on our trip.
Most of our time on the felucca, when not eating fantastic food or sleeping under the stars, involved simply lounging around on the padded deck and watching the world drift by. Alexandra is seen doing just that.

Copyright 2021 - David Barrett -