Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Week on the S.S.Karim

Monday 21 May 2007 - We arrive at Luxor airport and are greeted by our handsome young guide Ahmed. It is gloriously hot as our little minibus takes us to the S.S.Karim, an ancient paddle-steamer which will be our home for the next week. Usually it takes up to 30 passengers but this week there are only 16 of us; this is because it is the end of the season and starting to get hot. We are outnumbered 2 to 1 by the crew of 32. From Walid the manager down to the boys in the engine room, they are uniformly charming and helpful. Alladin at reception always has a smile and Abdul the 'chambermaid' makes creatures out of towels when he cleans our cabin twice daily. He calls his towel creations 'Egyptian Art'.

We set sail immediately, leaving the heat and noise of Luxor for the cool blue Nile. The boat, built in 1917, is a pure delight of teak and brass and Art Deco stained glass with a big shaded terrace for sipping fresh lemonade. Our cabin is right at the back and we have a tiny but private semi-circular balcony over the wheel. Luckily we dock most nights and aren't kept awake by the wheel's rhythmic wheezing.

Tuesday 22 May 2007 - A delicious buffet breakfast, the first of many. There are sticky buns and cereal, but I choose the Roman option of cucumber, tomatoes, cheese and a freshly cooked omelette. Then a glorious day sailing down the Nile. We are travelling at only three miles per hour, so we can really see the life on the banks of the Nile, unchanged over 4,000 years. Men in their long, loose tunics and turbans cutting alfalfa for their donkeys, boys fishing from a small rowing boat, women washing clothes by the river. It is surprisingly lush. A Roman traveller would have recognized date palms, acacias, papyrus, mimosa and sycamore, but not the banana plants, sugarcane, pampas grass, cotton or mangos.

Ahmed gives us a briefing in the air-conditioned wood-panelled Edwardian lounge. He tells us to be careful of scams. We are rich tourists. Half the population of Egypt is very poor. The market traders will try lots of tricks. They will say something costs '5 Nubian pounds' when there is no such thing as a 'Nubian pound'. They will sell you perfume made with vegetable oil, so that you end up smelling like an omelette. They will try to sell you papyrus made of banana leaves. Worst of all, they will be very aggressive, sometimes even grabbing hold of you.

We arrive at Edfu to visit the Temple of Horus, and sure enough, as soon as we step off the gangplank they are upon us. Boys selling bottled water, men selling postcards and carved Egyptian cats. They reach out at you and shout and wave their goods in your face. Even after we get on the minibus they tap on our windows our yell through the open door. Finally we drive through hot, scruffy streets to the temple. Like all the temples and tombs we will see here in Egypt, it is very impressive. Ahmed tells us lots of interesting facts, some of which I will be sure to use. For example, in Egyptian cosmology, the sky is feminine, the earth is masculine and the moon, too. This is the opposite of the Greek and Roman myths. Egyptian hieroglyphics are fascinating, of course, and the animal-headed gods, and the story of Seth vs Osiris. But what really interests me are the glimpses of timeless Egyptian daily life I see around me.

We set sail again with relief. It is maybe 105º out there but under the awning, making its tiger-stripes of sunlight, and with the breeze from the river and a cold drink, it is glorious. The heat sucks all energy from you and the rhythmic pulse of the paddle-wheel is very soporific. It is evening now, and the banks of the Nile have come alive. Women filling buckets of water, brown slippery boys splashing in the bank and a grey donkey hurrying down a steep slope for a drink of cool water.

Wednesday 23 May 2007 - We passed through Esna lock last night at about 4.00am and now are berthed near the Temple of Kom Ombu, where the crocodile god Sobek is worshipped. Sadly there are no more crocodiles in the Nile, though there would have been in Roman times. This city was important in Roman times because it was midway between the gold mines of Nubia and the Mediterranean. Strabo came here and made notes about crocodiles and their feeding. I must make this a stop in my next book, The Scribe from Alexandria... We see a couple of dusty mummified crocodiles in glass cases and when we get back to our cabin on the S.S.Karim we find 'Egyptian art' in the shape of a crocodile!

We reach Aswan about 3.00pm and we dock next to a row of much bigger riverboats. Aswan was the gateway to Nubia and is now the last town before the high dam. The river is quite wide here and studded with islands. Almost at once a felucca pulls up to take us to the Botanical Gardens on Kitchner Island. A felucca is the timeless boat with a distinctive triangular sail. Like most of the feluccas here at Aswan, the owners are Nubians. The boy at the tiller has lovely features and neat ears, his skin mid brown rather than pale like Egyptians or ebony like Ethiopians. At the end of our trip he picks up a tambourine and sings for us.

In the evening we take a coach and painted wooden motorboat (they call it gondola) to the sanctuary of Isis at Philae, beyond the high dam. The sound and light show is a bit boring. It needs actors! But the temple is impressive at night. And there are bats!

Thursday 24 May 2007 - We opt not to return to Philae in the heat of the day. Instead we go with Steve and Sue to see the Aswan granite quarry and the famous unfinished obelisk. Steve is a stonemason from Dudley and he bounds around the rocks like a kid in a candy shop. 'Why didn't I bring my rock-chisel?' he moans. A quick stop at the Nubia Museum and then an expensive drink on the opulent terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel, where parts of the 1978 film Death on the Nile were filmed. It is bliss, and worth every penny.

At lunchtime I go across the street to an internet cafe. On my way back I am accosted by Egyptian men saying 'Hey, Madame!' and 'Hey, you!' The driver of a horse and cart follows me along the street and won't leave me alone. 'I'm only going one block!' I say, but he keeps following me. Then another man on foot approaches me. I start to run away, back across the street, and almost get run over by a bus! Even though I am dressed modestly in my long black shirt and trousers, I must remember a woman on her own invites attention. Next time I will have to take Richard with me as protection.

That afternoon there is an optional shopping trip to the souk to buy an Egyptian galabaya, the long loose tunic worn by men and women. It will be all right because I am in a group, and Ahmed is along. I bought my galabaya at the quarry so snap pictures while Ahmed helps the others make their purchases. I am epecially pleased with my photo of the water-seller, who clangs two little brass dishes together to announce his arrival. Of course you must ask permission to take a photo first and afterwards given them a little 'baksheesh'. I brought a bunch of US dollars for this purpose.

That night we are entertained by a belly dancer (very tasteful) and a whirling dervish (very dizzy) in the ship's lounge.

Friday 25 May 2007 - Today most of our party got up at 4.00am to make the three hour coach trip to Abu Simbel. Althought it must be stunning, Richard and I opt for later start on a boat trip of bird-watching and plant-identifying in the islands of the cataract, along with a visit to a Nubia village. I am more concerned with getting plant and animal details right and Richard loves birds. There are only about eight of us on the gondola, including a nine-year-old English boy with glasses and a Peter Pan haircut. Our guide introduces himself as Arabi. His father was head gardener at the Old Cataract Hotel and taught Arabi about plants. Arabi became interested in birds around the age of six or seven, and taught himself. He points out the hooded crow, swallows, parakeets and 'loving doves'. He shows us how to differentiate the great egret from the cattle egret. We also see a purple heron and lots of moor-hens, which I guess are from Africa since 'moor' comes from 'Mauretania'. He also sees a galinule, a green bee-eater and a little bittern but our eyes aren't sharp enough. Arabi grew up here and claims the Nile is so clean you can drink from it. He demonstrates!

At the end of our trip I can identify the wattle tree (a kind of acacia), the frangipani, liburnum, mimosa, jacaranda and the flame tree. In the water we see bullrushes, pampas grass and mimosa, with its little pink flowers. My book will be set in May so I make note of everything in bloom.

Presently we arrive at the Nubian village. It is very hot outside, but cool in the Nubian house. Arabi hands the nine-year old a baby crocodile and Richard holds one, too. Richard describes the crocodile as bumpy on the back but with an underbelly soft as a kitten's. I ask him if the crocodile is hot or cool or medium. Medium.

The plastered walls are covered with colourful and primitive designs. Of course, the Nubians used to be mainly nomadic, but since all their land was flooded by the high dam in 1960, they have been re-located to houses in and around Aswan. We are served mint tea and I get a 'Nubian henna' design on my hand. Outside I photograph an old man with his donkey cart, a Nubian family and spice-seller at his stall. The villagers are very poor and even after I give them 'baksheesh' they beg for more.

Everyone is back at the S.S.Karim by 2.00. The party to Abu Simbel were delayed because of a flat tyre on their coach, but luckily it was repaired and they are not bones bleaching in the desert. As we sit down to another delicious meal, the S.S.Karim chugs out into the Nile and we say farewell to Aswan. Now we are travelling north again, back to Luxor, and the current will help us go a little faster. Maybe 5 miles per hour.

In the afternoon we have a tour of the ship and see what goes on below our luxurious cabins and lounges and sundecks. We see the engine room and the pistons and the captain's cabin. The captain is about 22 years old and drives with his knees! His father was a steamer captain and his father before him, so I'm not worried he's so young. Alladin says he knows this stretch of the Nile so well that he never needs to use charts.

Saturday 26 May 2007 - We docked at Edfu late last night. I get up early and see the street come alive. Soon it is full of caleches, the little one-horse carriages which take tourists to and fro. Some horses are well-looked-after, others look very pitiful. We are eating breakfast when the S.S.Karim moves back out into the Nile. It is the hottest day so far, with a haze on the horizon. Ahmed tells us they have not had one single drop of rain so far this year! We sail all day and the big riverboats pass us smugly. But we don't mind. I try to write but the heat makes me sleepy and all I want to do is take a siesta. We arrive at Esna Lock, a town so poor that it seems to have survived a bombing. But even so, the towns here are ten times more colourful that the towns in Libya. We wait on the bank for about three hours before we finally get permission to pass through. Then we are on our way again.

Sunday 27 May 2007 - Today is our big hot air balloon day. We are off the boat by 5.10am and a coach takes us to the riverbank. From there we pile onto a jolly painted gondola which chugs us across to the West Back. Because the sun sets to the west, the West Bank is always associated with death. Our pilot Amr is on board the ship. He tells us the drill and I notice he's wearing a Blue Peter badge. That's all right then.

The balloons are in a field, about half a doze of them. One or two are already ascending, with only the sporadic hiss of the flames. Twenty of us pile into a sturdy basket divided into four sections. What surprises me is the terrible roar and heat of the flame as it heats the air. It's so hot I feel my hair might burst into flame. And the balloon itself is so fragile, just silk. But soon we are rising and although I cringe every time the flame blows it is an amazing sight. We cruise over the valley of the nobles and the barren mountains of the West Bank. The other balloons float around us, some higher, some lower. At last we start our descent. On the road below is a red truck full of about eight men. They are looking up at us and I realise they are our landing crew. We go lower and lower, so low that I fear we'll clip somebody's roof dome or get tangled in the phone wires, but finally we come down for an 'English-landing' (three bumps) and the crew swarm over us, holding down the basket and deflating the balloon. I can't say I enjoyed the experience. But I'm glad I did it.

The Valley of the Kings is also to be endured, rather than enjoyed. The heat is ferocious and it's packed with tourists though it's only 8.15. A Disneyland style-train takes us up to the entrances, but this place is like a stone quarry, with no shade and the lofty stone walls pound back the heat. It is not even cool inside the tombs, as you might expect. 'This is not crowded at all,' says Ahmed, as we pile back on the air-conditioned coach. 'You should see it in February and March.'

We endure one more blistering monument, the tomb of Hatshepsut, then run for the cafe and a cool drink. I am sure the temperature is nudging 110º.

Later, after lunch and a siesta, Richard and I walk down some of the backstreets of Luxor. Again we are struck by the poverty, but Egyptians are always cheerful and friendly.

Monday 28 May 2007 - The next morning I get up early as usual and see the balloons rising over the opposite bank. The Nile is like a mirror. They are breathtaking. Today we visit Karnak and Luxor Temple. We see the tallest columns in the world and an obelisk that was once tipped with electrum so that when the sun shone you could not look directly at it. Steve the stonemason buys three little alabaster statues for about £5: an ibis, a cat and a sphinx. Quite a good deal. But when he gets on the bus he discovers they are wax. The expert confounded!

We sandwich a papyrus factory between Karnak and Luxor. I get to see how the Romans would have made their most popular writing material. After Luxor Temple we go back to the boat for one final delicious meal, then sadly take our leave.

For me the worst part of the holiday was the aggressive sellers. In Morocco the police make sure the stall-holders do not accost you (as they used to do only a few years ago). If only the Egyptian government could enforce the same rules.

The things I enjoyed most about Egypt were:
Bats at Philae
Bird-watching around the Aswan islands
Lemonade at the Old Cataract Hotel
Getting my hand hennaed
Life unchanged along the banks of the Nile
Hot-air balloons (from the ground!)
Hieroglyphics of ducks, owls, and bees
The papyrus factory
'Egyptian art'
Tasty food like felafels

But the best thing of all was the S.S.Karim itself!

P.S. For more stories of my research in Egypt, Italy and Greece, get From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina: Travels with Flavia Gemina


  1. Anonymous4:23 PM

    Wow! That sounds amazing! I wanna go tto Egypt now! :P
    Secrets of Vesuvius was very good so I can't wait for 'Pirates'.
    Shock horror.. you are abroad so I actually saw a film before you!: World's End. I'll wait til you review it to make my judgement public :D!

  2. Yes, Egypt was amazing and now I have a souvenir: Tutenkamen's Revenge! Argggh! Roo, I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but after enduring Pirates 1 and 2 there is NO WAY I am going to sit through World's End. So you can give me your review!

  3. Anonymous5:11 PM

    Hi Caroline,

    Hope you had a nice holiday - It sounded exciting. After my summer school exams, I'm going to Italy for a week and then I've got a Paris trip which is fun so adios.

  4. Ciao and Au revoir, Ashir! Have a great time.

  5. Hi Caroline,

    We are doing the same trip as you this May, couple of queries you might be able to help us with. Can you plug in hairdryers etc on the boat and whatis the best currency to take for making purchases. Have really enjoyed reading your blog

    Kind regrds
    Sarah & Caroline

  6. Hi Sarah and Caroline

    I can't remember about hairdryers. I think there are some on board, in each bathroom.

    As for currency, I took lots of $1 bills to give to people as tips. They like pounds, too, but don't know what to do with coins. So it's a fiver or a tenner. You can get Egyptian currency quite easily there. The boat will change some. Remember to take a couple of CREDIT cards, rather than debit cards. They don't like those.

    There are cashpoints in Luxor and Aswan and the welcome desk on the S.S. Karim will also change money.

    Bon Voyage!