A Precarious Encounter on the Nile

by Judith Mackay

During a cruise down the Nile River, a traveler and her fellow tourists watch as a small boat pulls up alongside theirs. What could these strangers want?

It’s day two aboard MS Mayfair, cruising south from Luxor to Edfu. This morning, while exploring the sun-scorched, vegetation-barren Valley of the Kings, it felt hotter than the nearly hundred-and-ten-degrees Fahrenheit, despite the fact the hour hand hadn’t yet ticked past seven. Back on board, however, as the blood-orange sun begins to set below the horizon, and a faint breeze stirs from our vessel’s forward propulsion, I almost forget about the searing heat. It’s mid-October, and from now until February, Egyptians consider this their winter season, which is perennially sunny and warm.

If I think in Celsius, it doesn’t feel as hot. It’s only forty-three degrees. Back home in London, Ontario, the mercury is dropping nightly to single digits, turning the green leaves to vibrant hues of reds and golds. But here, cruising the Nile, the lush landscape of the Nile Valley bordering the country’s river from top to bottom is eternally swathed in green. The Nile, the longest river in the world and shared by 11 countries, flows northward through Africa and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The river bisects the Western and Eastern deserts, where little naturally grows, and if not for the Nile, all of Egypt would be barren. The Greek historian Herodotus toured the country in the fifth century BC and called Egypt “the gift of the Nile.” His declaration is as accurate today as it was then. The Nile is the lifeblood of Egyptian civilization.

It has been a long day, but I’m revived by the breeze as I ready myself to indulge in afternoon tea and a few shortbread biscuits on the open upper deck with a few of my travel companions. This isn’t the usual way I explore a foreign country, adhering to a regimented, tightly-scheduled itinerary, escorted on and off a boat or motor coach, and traveling with security guards, their long rifles peeking out from beneath their suits. But here, metal detectors and constant security sweeps are necessary for our safe journey through Egypt.

As I settle in on one of the wooden daybeds draped in long billowing curtains, I savor all the sensorial delights of the moment. A small group of passengers gathering on the Port side of the deck catches my eye because something has clearly caught theirs. They’re intently focused on something immediately below them in the water. A crocodile, perhaps? Rare, but not impossible. A growing cacophony of noise rises from the river’s surface three decks below, and I immediately jump to the conclusion we’re being attacked by terrorists. The Nile was once the main artery of trade and travel during ancient times and is still the best way for travelers to experience this part of the country. Why, I mused earlier, don’t Egyptian Nile cruises extend the river’s length like excursions of bygone eras? I learned from our guide that since the 1990s, Nile tours have been limited to a small section between Luxor and Aswan because Middle Egypt, the area north of Luxor and south of Cairo, is often threatened by terrorist attacks. We’re more than a day south of Luxor at this point, but I can’t help my over-active imagination from fearing the worst.

Finally, I cave to my curiosity, moving closer to the railing to investigate. A large square object flies vertically up from the water as I step forward. The projectile hovers briefly at my eye level before landing on the wooden deck with a thud. A bomb? A grenade? I inch closer to the railing and peek over the side of the boat. It takes me a moment to process what’s happening below. I see two Egyptian men, dressed traditionally in long white tunics, standing in their small blue motorboat. They’ve tied their tiny vessel to ours and are now traveling alongside us at our cruising speed, and their boat dips and flows to our rhythm. We’re moving at quite a clip, and now so are the two men. I’m impressed by their ingenuity, fearlessness, but fear for our safety. Is this a pirate attack? They look up at us, and we look down at them. They’re yelling at us in Arabic, but they start speaking English when we don’t respond.

Unexpected guests on a cruise down the Nile River

My eyes dart to the package on the deck before I glance back at the two men. They’re straddling the arching wooden hull of their boat, painted in the same indigo blue used in the tomb paintings I saw earlier today. I watch, captivated, as the surreal sight unfolds before me. They unfurl something I initially mistake as a flag. Are they protesting our presence on the waterway? We are interlopers, after all. I’m here on a visa and well aware it can be revoked. They pull the rectangle piece of fabric taut between them, and with final recognition, I’m flooded with relief. They are showing us a tablecloth. They’re not terrorists, they’re traders, and they’re determined to make a sale.

The starting price is twenty American dollars. “Too much,” a woman beside me shouts over the railing.

The tablecloth is bordered by indigo blue lotus flowers that grow abundantly in the Nile wetlands. It’s Egypt’s national flower and rich with the symbolism of creation, resurrection and renewal. Like the water lilies back home, the lotus flowers open with the rising sun and close when it sets. The fragrant blue flower is considered an aphrodisiac, as depicted in tomb paintings.

Another familiar sight from the Nile adorns the cloth. Several species of geese and ducks, some resting and some in flight, complete the pattern. The tablecloth is a work of art, and I shift from observer to active participant. The men quickly roll up the cloth and toss it into the hull of their boat. That tablecloth, I realize, quintessentially represents Ancient Egypt, and I have to have it, but how?

The sweltering sun over the Nile River

Before I have a chance to step back from the railing, they hurl another bomb onto the deck, mere feet from me. I can’t even begin to work out the physics of their throw, let alone the constant accuracy of their aim, but both are impressive. The bartering begins, and after some lively bantering back and forth, we agree on ten American dollars for the tablecloth and a dozen matching napkins. The next challenge is to finalize our transaction, but in what way? Another bundle hits the deck. My purchase has arrived. One of the men tells me to put my money into the delivery and throw it back to him. Impossible. However, with a little good-natured goading from my travel companions, I tuck my money into the package, take aim, and toss it down to waiting hands. He pulls out my bill, inspects it, and gives me a thumbs up. We’re good. He hurls my purchase back to me. This time, I lean over the railing and catch it. Our transaction is complete, and I embrace my gift from the Nile.

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