It's time for us to sail the river Nile and nowhere is it done better than in Aswan. Down here in what is known as the Nile's First Cataract, the water is much cleaner and the scenery is postcard-pretty. After a five minute walk from our hotel loaded with our day packs and sleeping bags, we got into our felucca - Egypt's traditional boat with broad canvas sail. While there are now faster motor boats and bigger river cruise boats for visitors, we are very happy to sail on a boat that solely relies on wind power - our home for the next two days!
Our felluca is manned by two Nubian crews - Mohammad and his brother Mustafa. Mohammad is hoisting the canvas sail as the wind kicked up and we were set to go where the winds will slowly bring us to. No one's complaining about the pace: since the time of the pharaohs, sailing on a fellucca has always been an environmentally-friendly way to travel.
The marriage of a blue sky and a white sail made a perfect nautical look . . .
. . . as I lay there on the padded deck completely absorbed reading a book while my feet were caressed by the winds. We all declared this was the most relaxing part of our Egyptian journey.
After zigzagging our way, we arrived at a quiet cove on the West Bank of the river and had lunch prepared by our felucca crew: a simple affair consisting of flat bread, tomato & cucumber salad, gibna beyda - soft white cheese made from goat, kofta - grilled ground meat peppered with spices, and fuul - mashed beans with spices and olive oil. We dunked bits and pieces of everything into the bread resulting in a pleasant medley of flavors and textures - the lightness of the cheese went well with the tartness of tomatoes and the heaviness of the mashed beans.
Sailing further on, we stopped by a sandy hill on the West Bank and walked our way up barefoot. The view from the bottom of this sandy hill reminded me of the huge sand dunes in Morocco's Erg Chigaga. Before the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1971, the yearly flooding of the Nile brought silt to the banks which made it very fertile for farmers to cultivate. Now that there's no more silt, farmers have to use fertilizers.
From the top, we could see why this part of the Nile is called the First Cataract. There's about six of them all the way down to Sudan. Cataracts are shallow sections of the Nile with numerous boulders and some rocky islets where the water turns to rapids.
In antiquity, these cataracts impeded sailing along the southern length of the Nile. From source to mouth, the Nile is 4,184 miles long but only about 900 miles is actually in Egypt (the country that has benefited the most from the river out of the 8 other countries where the river pass through). Perhaps in the future, if I can't possibly see its entirety, at least seeing where the river start would just be as good.
Before going back down to the river and to our felluca, the setting sun cast long shadows of ourselves in the sand. It may sound cheesy but what the heck, there will always be cheesy moments in a trip and taking our picture right there is just one of them.
Our felluca stopped for the night in Sehel Island, a big island in the Nile just south of Aswan, to visit the Nubian village where Mohammad - our felluca captain - lives with his family. In ancient times, this part of southern Egypt along the Nile down to northern Sudan was an independent kingdom called Nubia. In the 1960s during the dam's construction, most of the low-lying Nubian villages were abandoned as the waters of Lake Nasser kept rising and many Nubians resettled around Aswan.
The Nubians are typically darker and taller than the average Egyptian but what truly makes them unforgettable is their hospitality and friendliness. We listened to their traditional music with its undulating rhythm accompanied by ululations from their women. Soon after, we all found ourselves dancing to the beats of a douff - a shallow drum.
Meanwhile, the girls in our group couldn't help but put Nubian culture literally in their hands with a henna tattoo done by one of the village women. For a fee, of course.
Our dinner came served in several bowls but not after the ladies of the house made a dramatic entrance bringing them in their usual way on a large tray balanced above their heads. There was no table which is typical of a Nubian household - we simply sat on cushions on the floor while eating traditional dishes. We had vegetable salad, goat kofta, stewed potatoes and some others that I really couldn't remember. It was filling but not really the kind of dishes that I will look forward to eating so soon in a New York restaurant.
After eating and dancing, we walked back through the village and into our felluca. The exposed sides of the boat were already covered as we settled in for the night and into the warmth of our sleeping bags. Someone snored loudly but it certainly wasn't me (I'm glad I had my ear plugs on!).
I awoke the next morning after sleeping straight for 9 hours (my longest in this trip!), helped perhaps by the gentle rocking of the moored felluca. My first objective after stretching myself outside was to pee and Waleed pointed at the bushes nearby. Oh, ok. It wasn't as uncomfortable as I initially thought about urinating in a spot that might be someone else's vacant property.
Mohammad's brother Mustafa went into action and fired up his stove to boil some water for coffee and tea. He also whipped up a breakfast of fried eggs with lots of tomatoes that went well with cream cheese and bread. A simple breakfast like that was all I really need and the gentle early morning breeze drove my appetite more.
Local men started the day early by rowing their boats just like this man . . .