If you ever need tips on travelling around Egypt for 10 days with only $200 in your pocket, just ask. I think I still had money left when I got back to Israel. Taba-Cairo-Aswan-Luxor-Dahab-Taba, one Brit, one Colombian, one South African, three girls in Egypt in the early 2000’s with no real plan, money or direction. It lead to some funny, amazing, crazy, weird and interesting experiences.
A felucca is a traditional wooden sailing boat that is still a frequent form of transport along the Nile, especially between the cities of Aswan and Luxor. If I’m not mistaken they usually seat about a 10 people comfortably as well as 2 or 3 crew members, and while we were there it was the thing to “do” if you wanted to travel between the two cities (as opposed to the train that was much faster but a lot less picturesque). We were going to skip it because we didn’t have much money between us and also didn’t want to join another group of tourists we didn’t know and be stuck with them on a boat for a whole night. Turns out our negotiation skills and ability to make friends were pretty amazing because we ended up renting an overnight felucca trip, including crew and meals, for just the three of us at the same price it would have been if we had been 10. I have to say that our friend Jamal had a huge hand in making this happen, as well as providing us with a few other wonderful, off the beaten track, trips that we did during our three days in Aswan (hotel that was affordable and not a dump, Bedouin village with henna tattoos, trip up the cliff to catch an amazing view of the dam). We met him at the station and he really helped us see a part of Aswan that we wouldn’t have seen by ourselves.
The Nile is huge. Really, really huge. You can’t really imagine until you see it with your own eyes – we all know that it’s long, but I never thought about how wide it would be in places. The water of the river laps at the feet of the ancient city of Aswan, my favourite city in Egypt, and the it is full of felucca’s floating peacefully up and down, big white sails stretched taught in the wind. They seemed so tranquil, pleasant, away from the noisy cities (something that one can appreciate after having been in Cairo for a few days). We all liked the idea of spending a night under the stars, listening to the sounds of the water and the wildlife, safe, away from the eyes that were always staring at us, or mainly at Kirsty who just stuck out with her very pale skin and blond hair and terror of being touched by an Egyptian (thankfully she relaxed a little in Aswan and we didn’t have to stop her from freaking out so often). At the same time we were also a little worried… What if Jamal had set us up to be robbed, murdered and dumped in the Nile? What if he actually wanted something more from us? In the end we just trusted that everything was going to be OK, especially as at the time there were special security measures set up for tourists in Egypt, one mainly being that hotels, felucca’s etc needed to register every tourist they provided a service to with the local police. There was even a special tourist police force!*
The plan was to take the felucca up to Kom Ombo, visit the temple and then get a bus up to Luxor. The trip was supposed to take about a day and a night (or 4 hours on the train just for comparison). So we grabbed our stuff from the hotel (we travelled super light, as in one small backpack each: towel, sweater, a couple of t-shirts and underwear, toothbrush and soap), and boarded the boat. We made ourselves comfortable, watched the crew set up and then set off… For about 5 minutes. While we knew that felucca’s are dependent on the wind to move, we didn’t know that too much wind could also keep them grounded. If the local authorities deem that the winds are too high no one can legally transport tourists anywhere via sailing boat. So there wasn’t much else to do, except wait. And wait. And wait. Our captain, Mohammed, decided to take the boat across the river and set up “camp” over there for a while to see if the winds would calm. We already knew that if it was still so blustery when it got dark we wouldn’t be going anywhere on a felucca, but since we had paid for the trip we could at least spend the night on it under the stars, and eat the food the crew prepared for us. We had a “lunch” of salad, cheese and vegetables (with tuna for the non-vegetarians), and relaxed on the cushioned and blanketed boat, got out pens and notepads out and played silly games to pass the time (making lists was one of them, and one of my hilarious lists appears below). One of my best memories with Andrea and Kirsty was laughing until my tummy hurt that afternoon on the boat. While Andrea and I had hit it off immediately on the kibbutz, Kirsty had been a lot harder to get along with. I had never met anyone like her before, most South Africans I had met before had been super easygoing and a little on the crazy side, but she was a lot more sheltered, very opinionated and I didn’t really understand why she was even there with us. But during that trip she actually really let her guard down, opened up a little and showed us what a fun and interesting person she could be. And that afternoon we really made the most out what could have been a disappointment.
Twilight set in and Jamal came down to see us and talked us into having drinks with him seeing as we were not moving anywhere any time soon. We saw a felucca sail ripped in two by the wind and realised that it was really better to stay put (even though I know that both Andrea and I secretly wanted our captain to just take off and defy the elements). We had drinks and cake at the Aswan Moon, courtesy of Jamal, using our fiancé cover stories just in case he was trying to make a move (he did joke once about coming to sleep with us on the felucca but we laughed it off, and it didn’t seem serious at all – I think in the end he really was honest when he said he just wanted people to go back home with a great memory of Egypt in their mind, not the one of tourists taken hostage or people being taken advantage of).
Back on the felucca we were served a dinner of potatoes and tomatoes, rice , bread and tea (for some reason the food tasted amazing, cooked out in the open like that), and we prepared our “beds” of sleeping bags and cushions up on the deck (Mohammed and his crew slept underneath). No toilets on a felucca, so peeing behind a bush was the only option (not an issue at night, a bit more difficult to find a hidden spot in the daylight), so not really something you wanted to have to do too often… Especially as this was also January, and while winter in Egypt is pretty mild, the nights can be quite cool. And cool it was, sleeping under the stars! None of us slept very well as we could have done with another 10 blankets to be honest, and we were up ready for breakfast by sunrise. And there we were, still in Aswan, a few feet away from where we had started, with perfect winds and a beautiful sun leading the way. We couldn’t afford to take the “trip” again, so Mohammed sailed us upstream to the train station where we managed to get tickets on the daily 9:30am train to Luxor (we still each paid him his E£40, kind of expensive for a night in a boat hotel).
Tourists are only supposed to travel in first and second class cabins in Egypt. There were no tickets left in those cabins. We were strongly advised not to take the E£3 third class tickets, but none of us wanted to stay another night in Aswan, so we talked the vendor into selling them to us. For a 4 hour ride it wasn’t THAT bad, as long as you keep your nose out the window to avoid the stench of the toilet, and sit on a sweater or something as the benches were made of wood. For some reason the policeman in the cabin made us sit on the bench reserved for officials – to be honest we kind of felt like we were doing something wrong, and I started to wonder if we were supposed to be worried about our safety! I only felt unsafe once in our entire trip and that was one evening in Luxor when a guy tried to sell us drugs and then started to follow us, other than that we never had an issue. Lucky? I don’t know (see disclaimer below), but our adventurous attitudes really lead us into some fun experiences. I wouldn’t change a thing if I went back again (although this time I would stay in nicer places where you actually felt cleaner rather than dirtier after taking a shower – there is a reason why I still had change from my $200).
One day I will get that felucca trip in, maybe with my little family, but until then this experience will be forever engraved upon my memory as the trip that never really happened because the wind wouldn’t let us go.
*I travelled around Egypt in January 2004, so I don’ know how much has changed in 12 years.
Note: While Andrea and I were pretty savvy travelers and relied (still rely) on our gut instincts to make decisions, we sometimes put ourselves in situations that could easily have gone bad during this trip. It did lead to some amazing adventures, but I would advise more caution and planning, especially if you are a group of young women travelling alone in a country whose language you do not speak. I imagine things are a little different nowadays, and I honestly wouldn’t want to change anything about our trip (apart from choosing to see the mummies instead of Tutankhamen’s treasure at the museum), but with hindsight, we were not the smartest people on this trip! My Egypt photo album is on Flickr here.
I am so grateful to myself for the extensive journals I have kept over time, as although most of the above comes from memory, I was able to double check names, food, restaurants and sequence of events to make sure I wasn’t making anything up. And I had a great laugh at some of the “lists” we made up! Much more to come on the Egypt front, amidst other countries, places and experiences!
One of the infamous lists and an Aswan street.