Egypt: Traveling in the Wrong Direction

Life, like the Nile River, flowed against this traveler’s expectations. On a trip to Egypt, she finally realized why she likes it that way.

By Katherine Lanpher
The author rides in a hot air balloon over Luxor. (Photo: Jessica Antola)
Photograph: Photo by: Jessica Antola

Traveling to Egypt

It is a hot, still afternoon in Egypt, and I am reclining on the floor of a felucca, a white, wide-bottomed sailboat. A gentle Nubian river captain makes me tea and recites one of his poems as we float down the Nile, the city of Aswan appearing on our right, the banks of Elephantine Island blooming on our left.

I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed — it’s as if my bones are melting. There is a slight breeze as we float, a breeze that feels sweet juxtaposed with the heat. Until now, my trip to Egypt has been at breakneck speed: I’ve dodged hair-raising traffic in Cairo, risen at dawn to traverse the west bank of Luxor by hot-air balloon, zipped from one tomb to another in the Valley of the Kings.

But the hassles of this trip — the language mix-ups, the cultural confusions, the sexual repression I feel on the streets — are slipping away as I sip tea steeped in mint, listen to the occasional slap of oars on water, and watch the horizon. For once, that’s all I have to do: just watch the horizon.

Other veterans of travel to Egypt will tell you about the awe-inspiring pharaohs’ tombs, the repose of the Sphinx, the beauty of the mosques. I wouldn’t offer a word of argument — everything they say is true — but I wouldn’t trade my afternoon on the Nile for anything.

The Current of My Life

When you float down the Nile, you actually float north. This dizzying fact upends any notion you have of what is the right direction for things: The southern half of the country is known as Upper Egypt, which means, of course, that the northern half is Lower Egypt.

The current of my life has never quite run in the expected direction either. I used to think that adventure and travel were for your 20s, before you settled down. My motto would have been "Backpack to youth hostels while ye may." Only I never got around to that kind of travel when I was younger. Wanting both money and security, I worked all my summers in college, then landed a steady job in Saint Paul; I was vested in a pension plan before I turned 30. But now, in my 40s, I live as a writer in New York City, a midlife woman who not only realizes that her time on the planet is finite but also that she wants to see as much of that planet as possible. Thus, when my friend Craig, a filmmaker and TV producer, announces that he is taking a year off to teach in Cairo, I hear myself promising him that I will visit.

Still, I don’t believe it myself until it is April and I am on a jet beginning its descent into Cairo. No, wait — the sweet-voiced flight attendant has now announced that we are actually landing in Sharm el-Sheikh, a luxury resort area on the Red Sea, because of severe sandstorms in Cairo. Sandstorms? I hurriedly consult my guidebook. Yes, there it is, a plain-faced warning that in early spring, Egypt is hit by the khamsin, hot winds of whipped sand so dense you can’t see in front of you. I do an inventory of my situation: first trip to the African continent; first trip to an Islamic country; I know only one person, and he lives in a city where my plane can’t land. Not to mention, up is down and down is up. I’m oddly cheerful. Who knows what will happen next?

What happens next is I meet Maha, an Egyptian businesswoman who lends me her cell phone and her companionship during a 12-hour day of waiting in the airport and at a hotel. When it’s unclear how soon the sands will subside, we make a pact: We will turn this detour into a destination. We will climb nearby Mount Sinai together. She has just returned from Indiana, where her first grandchild was born; she swore on his safe delivery that she would climb to the summit in thanksgiving. Me, I’ve never been, which is reason enough. So I am a little disappointed when the skies clear and we actually take off for Cairo.

A New Vocabulary

At least I arrive in time for my belly dancing lesson. Oh, don’t make that face. If you knew that a famous belly dancer in Cairo gave lessons in her home studio overlooking the Nile, wouldn’t you sign up?

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