Part 4: Navigating the Nile

Salaam Aleikum my friends and followers! I am writing from you from a dusty old computer in Aswan, which works like a charm when not crashing or complaining about its general lack of functioning parts. Since we last spoke, Edu and me have left Cairo, spending the last week attempting to conquer the Nile by boat, going all the way from Cairo to Aswan on the vast waterway. After all, this river is the lifeline for ninety million people, who cling to it for water, transport, agriculture and fishing. How hard can it be to find a ship willing to take us there?

The answer is: nigh impossible. First of all, we thought of buying a boat ourselves, but we soon found out this is impossible without the necessary permits and licenses. Since a couple of terrorist attacks targeted ships in the early nineties, large stretches of the Nile have been off limits to tourist and commercial ships alike. Although this ban has been lifted, the train and road network have since taken over the brunt of the transportation that used to go on the Nile, leaving only fishing boats, cruise ships and the occasional grain ship on the river. Wherever we tried to find a ship going up the Nile, we were hindered by permits, language barriers, hordes of children and well-meaning locals.

We started by taking the subway (the only form of transportation that isn’t affected by the crippling traffic jams) out of town, to a station on the river. We asked around every time we saw a boat on shore, but it seemed no-one ventured further than a few kilometres on the river. Trying our luck on the other shore, we took the ferry where we met Mohammed, who invited us for a grand lunch at the family house. Uncle was called to drop his plans and come over, and since he was a university professor and spoke fluent English, he was of great help. Calling all contacts that might be of help, they soon concluded our quest was rather hopeless, advising us to take the train instead. Undeterred, we took the train to Beni Suef, where we met the amazing oud player Abdullah Elsayad, with whom I recorded the musical duel above.

Next morning we went to the port where we found a felucca (small traditional Egyptian sailing vessel) who was willing to take us to the next village, some 20 odd kilometres onwards, for no less than 800 Egyptian pounds. This is about 40 euros, which seemed astronomical to us compared to the price of other forms of transport: with a minibus the same distance would be about 40 cents. We declined the offer believing we were getting scammed, but we would soon realize traveling any kind of distance on the Nile costs lots of money. Instead we took a bus to a village and another one to an even smaller village, where, we reasoned, we would find poor fishermen who would be more than happy with a days’ work for a reasonable price. Keep in mind that the average job in Egypt pays about 150 euro per month. The village appeared almost deserted as we entered it, but as we progressed the local kids started shouting and swarming around us. Before long the mass of children, all pulling at us and asking our names, made walking almost impossible, and we jumped on the first ferry we saw once we made it to the river bank. After having tea with the ferry man (who, like many others, promised us he could get us on a long distance boat but failed to deliver) we were forced to go back, battle our way through the throng of kids and catch a train to the next sizeable town, Minya.

Minya is a beautiful town where the Nile is lined with endless boulevards, wedding ceremonies and big hotels. We managed to make a deal with a local Felucca man which ultimately fell through (despite translations on the phone by bilingual friends from Cairo) for unknown reasons. We later figured out that the man had never been very far out of his own city even though this was his job, and the 45km stretch of river we wanted him to traverse was basically beyond his knowledge. In addition to this, we seemed to need a permit issued by the naval police, which supposedly gives us permission to be on a certain stretch of the Nile while acknowledging that it is our own responsibility if we capsize, get kidnapped or shot at. Despite multiple attempts, we have never been able to acquire such a permit, always being denied without a specific reason.

We visited a monastery a couple of kilometres away, and on the ferry we met an important-looking man in a suit with a big Egyptian flag covering the hood of his car. He offered to take us back to Minya if we were okay with attending a conference with him. Turned out he was on the campaign trail: elections are coming up and even though their is no legitimate challenge to the incumbent general Sisi, Egyptians compete with each other to show support for the president at various rallies, mostly to look supportive and extend their network. We were presented as Dutch supporters and given special guest status at the regional rally, nodding to speeches and being taken pictures of with party officials and the Egyptian flag.

We fled onwards to Sohag the following day, where, as usual, we were greeted with the greatest support and hospitality. People young and old greet us in the street and want to help us out at every turn. For instance, we asked a random man in the marketplace where we could buy some beer. He instantly beckoned us to his car, driving us manically through the city, honking all the way, to an obscure liquor store surrounded by police who basically wanted to sell us more booze and take pictures with us. Back at the hotel we were stopped when we popped our first beers on the roof by the hotel assistant, who assured us this was not a thing to do in plain sight. He went with us to our hotel room, chugged one down himself and, to the sounds of my guitar music, started inching closer and closer to Edu, culminating in him putting his hand firmly on Edu’s genitals. At this point I took pity and together we convinced him that were tired and going to sleep, working him out the door before bursting out laughing. Legendary hospitality indeed!

Again we tried, through the helpful hotel clerk (not all of them are ball-fondlers), to arrange a boat, and the prices only went up, assuming we could arrange a permit: where the ferry costs five cents, a day trip up the river would go as high as one hundred euros. After a last fruitless morning with the naval police, we finally gave up our ambitions on the river. Apparently the river is not deemed safe enough for tourist (as the tourism sector still hasn’t made a full recovery since the revolution, you are treated as though your had “Fragile, handle with care” written on your forehead). Visiting a church outside the city, we noticed this fear is not confined to the river: the omnipresent police force decided it was irresponsible for us to return to the city by local bus, so after a significant delay we were driven back to the hotel with a armed convoy, two vans with a dozen armed troopers in all, after which the police bullied a taxi driver into taking us onwards for a good price.

Arriving in Luxor at the end of the day, we were finally back in tourist town, and quite happy not to get stared at all day. In one of the few nocturnal bars, we met a Cyrielle Raingou who was a Cameroonian director representing her movie at the African Film Festival. She invited us along to the ceremony next day and despite heavy security, we managed to bluff our way through: she pretended to have lost her invitation, I waved the actual invitation and Edu managed to sneak his way past brandishing nothing more than the empty envelope that contained the invitation! We tried repeating this trick at the dinner/afterparty at the Hilton, but here they actually collected the invitations and we thought the game was up. Cyrielle got through on celebrity status, Edu was stopped and his empty envelope exposed. As he was pretending to be shocked on seeing it contained nothing, the guard was distracted by another guest and Edu simply sneaked past him the moment he turned his head. This left me, waving the wrong ticket while complaining I must have forgotten my invitation at the hotel. Inseparable from my guitar as always, I explained I was a major composer who contributed to the soundtrack of the movie and, after a brief moment of doubt, the official waved me through. With beating hearts we sat down for an amazing dinner at the five star hotel, talking to directors from all over Africa and listening to speeches an performances, mentally high-fiving each other for our audacity.

A few days ago we finally arrived in Aswan, which is end of the line: beyond the high dam stretches the vast and uninhabited lake Nasser, and after Sudan. Tomorrow we supposedly get our visa (provided our visit to Israel went undetected) for Sudan, after which we will finally leave Egypt, an astonishing country which we will never forget!

 

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