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Published: December 8th 2010
For my last few days in Egypt I had arranged to ride a felluca from Aswan (the last town before the Sudanese border), back down the Nile towards Luxor. It's something almost every backpacker seems to do, and yes it's horrifcally toursity and kitch, but it seemed like a good way to while-away a couple of days, and was going to be a guilty pleasure before Sudan.
First however, I had a day to kill, and spent it exploring Elephantine Island, a 3 mile island in the Nile facing the town of Aswan (disappointingly home to Nubians not elephants). The day started well, as I drank tea and watched fellucas glide effortlessly past, their triangular sails flapping and flailing in the wind, but as I went to explore yet more ancient ruins, it took a slightly surreal turn. I was actually on my way out of the site when I was collared by the caretaker of the ruins, who wanted to show me all the sights again. Not giving me the option of not going with him, he grabbed my arm and swiftly walked off, as I trailed behind. I was taken around the site I'd already seen, and then
taken to a trench below a reconstructed Roman temple, where there was a small well. Here, he said, some American Christians had come to be Baptised and pray, and suggested that maybe we should do the same? I wasn't particularly keen on having an impromptu prayer session, but he wouldn't take no for an answer, and enthusiastically began...
Standing opposite me, he held my hands together in a prayer position. Then he slowly placed them on my heart, and then upon his heart. Then slowly onto my forehead, and then upon his forehead. All the while with his eyes closed and breathing very deeply (as I kept one eye half open, waiting to see if a film crew would jump out from the shadows). After what felt like an eternity, he open his eyes, smiled a huge smile, and gave me an exagerated, and overly friendly, hug, clutching me to his chest and patting me all over my back and sides. Convinced this was just a ruse to pick my pockets, I quickly checked my back pockets to see if he'd gone for my wallet, but I'd survived unharmed (except for a 40p tip). I was left very very
confused, and headed back to my hotel as quickly as I could.
The following day, and still recovering from the 'prayer meeting', I joined the felluca tour. The tour was supposed to be 2 day and 2 night sailing down the Nile towards Luxor, with 5 other tourists. The maximum the government allow on a felluca is 10. The average is about 8. And perfect would be about 6. By the time we were fully loaded, there were 17 of us onboard - packed in like refugees heading to Australia. And this was just a sign of things to come. Just 10 minutes after setting sail, the river police pulled alongside (looking like carnival monkeys in their roll-neck tops and little sailor hats). They claimed the captain's papers weren't correct, and it was clearly a show for a bribe, but he refused to pay out. As a result, we're dragged back to the dock, and the captain taken off to the police station. After having got just 200m out of Aswan. After two hours of waiting, the captain came back, but his papers had been conviscated until the following morning for 'safety' reasons. Not being able to sail out of the town, we spend the night just a stone's throw from where we boarded - packed in like the refugees we'd become, and with the lights of Aswan glimmering on the opposite bank.
Thankfully things improve on the second day, as half of the passengers leave (their overnight tour consisting of sailing across the Nile and back), the captain gets his papers back, and we finally get to head off. We spend the day we reading, chatting, drinking, and swimming, as the crew tack us upstream, avoiding the huge ferries as they power past, and is finished as we pull up on a golden beach for dinner and a campfire. I'll admit it's kitsch, but it was a fun way to travel down the Nile - taking from left to right, rocking with the waves and the winds, with the sun in your eyes, and not a motor in sight.
The tour over I head back into Aswan, an buy my ticket for the ferry to Sudan. A ferry to leave behind the package tours and 5 star hotels of Egypt. To leave behind the Middle East. And to arrive in Africa. One country down. Now for the rest of the continent...
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