Return to the Nile

By Helen Conlon | August 7, 2016

So, who on Earth goes to Egypt these days!? Lovers of history, of antiquities, of architecture. Seekers of adventure, new knowledge, the exotic. Students of life and the human condition. Lovers of the land and timeless truths. Wild Women.

In January, I realized a lifelong dream. I went to Egypt. My challenge in telling people about this is that there is so much to say. Even now, so many memories make me catch my breath, make my pulse quicken, fill me with pleasure. More than once, my amazing Wild Women companions and I would look at each other and declare, “We’re in Egypt!” (One of those “Somebody pinch me!” kind of things.) We who went there together are already planning our return.

 

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It would, I think, be possible to write a book and not say all that I saw and felt. A few reminiscences, if I may…

Hear the delight and awe in my voice as I tell you about my first daylight look at Cairo, seeing, beyond the nearby streets, the imposing silhouettes of the Great Pyramids of Giza against the golden Egyptian sunrise! So much could be said about standing dwarfed by their monumental immensity, daring to climb within to a long hidden burial chamber, marvelling at the incredible engineering…And at day’s end, watching that eternal golden sun set over them, as it has for all those thousands of years.

Cairo itself is a fabulous maelstrom of people, donkeys, horses and camels busy living their lives amid millennia of the artifacts of civilization, from the Old Kingdom to 2016. Dirty, dusty, chaotic, exotic, exciting, unforgettable! I cannot hope to tell it all. (If I say I maybe felt just a little bit like Indiana Jones that will help.) So let me tell you briefly about the Khan el Khalili market.

Covering several blocks within ancient city walls, the market is a myriad of exotic sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Warm glowing lanterns lighting up narrow cobble streets, glittering trinkets, rainbows of scarves and garments, delicious sakhaleb or kirkadé to taste, the calls of vendors, like a corridor of voices (some, most original and amusing). Thank heavens for our amazing guide, Yassmin, who schooled us in bartering techniques and taught us useful phrases, as well as chaperoning us around! Born and raised a country girl, I would not choose to live in Cairo but I do so look forward to going back!

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At the end of the third day, after a wait in the train station, sipping deliciously potent Turkish coffee, we boarded the night train and traveled south to Luxor. That next morning, the change of scenery was striking: hustle and bustle was replaced by quiet dawn over open, green fields and palm trees and finally, Luxor, Thebes in ancient times, the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, home of some of the world’s most magnificent monuments to the human spirit. Mighty feats of engineering, splendid works of art, all symbolic tributes to powerful individuals and to mythical forces that even those titans acknowledged as powerful beyond them.

Of all of these, two in particular are still resonating loudly in my bones: At the Temples of Karnak, I stood transported, seeing with my own eyes, under the brilliant blue Egyptian sky, the magnificent hypostyle, the superb obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut, the ancient stories beautifully etched in stone, the immense scale and breathtaking reality of it all. And then Temple of Hatshepsut, so remote and beautiful, so deeply moving for me. As we crossed the vast courtyard and climbed those stairs, our often lively group fell silent, under its spell. As a lover of wild and solitary places, and of beautiful and elegant architecture, I felt I a very real and personal connection to this amazing woman-pharaoh. There was peace and power about the place that could be felt… Those two experiences alone were worth all that it took to make this trip… But of course there was so much more…

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I am sure we will all cherish the four amazing days we spent on the Nile itself. The dahabiya was glorious, operating fully under sail when the wind agreed, with fresh, cozy cabins on the lower deck and an entire canopied upper deck, of beautiful wood, furnished with comfortable furniture and open to the breezes and the views. At one point, one of my companions declared to all and sundry “ I would like to point out that this is the Nile River flowing at my feet!” We dined together on that upper deck, as everywhere, like queens, treated to wonderfully fresh, local, organic fruits and vegetables and a variety of savoury traditional Egyptian dishes (such as falafels, hummus and tarjins)… to die for!

To me, this time on the Nile was more than just a luxurious cruise. It was a sensory adventure and an education. I felt the power and immensity of this timeless waterway, understood more clearly how it is indeed the lifeblood of Egypt. As a self-proclaimed naturalist, I drank in the grasses and trees, the birds, the free ranging donkeys, oxen and camels, the plantations and the simple and wholesome day to day life of people along its banks. I witnessed the impact that this mighty river has, and has had, on the life of so many.

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Along the way, we stopped to visit a family farm. As was the case everywhere we went, we were warmly welcomed. Invited into the home, we drank delicious kirkadé (hibiscus tea) and, with the help of our lovely guide, Yassmin, had a chance to chat informally with the women of the house, comparing notes, one might say. Two moments stand out above the rest: Firstly, though the young farmer came down to the river to meet our boat and escort us through the vegetable gardens, when we arrived at the house, a receiving line awaited us, at the head of which, in a place of honour, was the matriarch of this extended family, holding in her arms the youngest family member, a one month old. I was impressed and moved by the respect shown her and by the sense of continuity.

The other memory is of walking out into the mango and banana orchards, past two older men stooping to harvest lush, green alfalfa. As the group left, I lingered in the sunny silence, surrounded by all that greenery and the small crystal clear irrigation canals. Suddenly, I heard a sound that I, at first, thought was rushing water, a real puzzle in that stillness. A moment later, I realized that it was a breeze breaking the stillness and rattling through the banana leaves. In that moment, I felt the peace that must be part of such a life, so different from that of the cities to the north, and thought that, yes, though I do have itchy feet, I could see myself living in this richly beautiful country.

I have stood in the Nile, so my fate is sealed. I have absorbed the historic, natural and human riches of this place. I will go back.

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