A Nile cruise? Précisément, mon ami.

I have never been on a cruise. Not a day cruise, not a night cruise, not a nothing cruise. Yes, I’ve been on boats (I actually really like boats), but never a cruise. A Nile cruise sounded different. Turns out it was.

Whereas your standard cruise kind of sounds like Las Vegas – or heaven forbid, Atlantic City – on water, a Nile cruise conjures up the gilded elegance of an Agatha Christie story. On a Nile cruise you will be conveyed to and from the ship in a Duesenberg and you will be served poached pheasant under glass on Staffordshire china and sterling silver. Hercule Poirot will be on board, accompanied by his trusty but moderately incompetent friend Hastings (do you ever wonder what’s going on there?). This, of course, means that there will be a murder, although with any luck at all, neither you nor your elegant spouse are the victim or the culprit.

It was with this very modest set of expectations that we boarded our cruise at Luxor, where we would make our way upriver to the locks at Esna, stop for the night at Edfu, and finish our trip at Aswan, site of the famous (or infamous) dam. (The British dammed the river in the late 19th Century, which provided electricity, irrigation, and flood protection. A much larger dam was completed in the 1960s which created the massive Lake Nasser and required the resettlement of people along the river. A number of archeological sites were inundated, although a few were moved to higher ground.)

The Nile, below the Aswan High Dam.

The Nile, below the Aswan High Dam.

Nasser Lake, formed by the Aswan dam.

Nasser Lake, formed by the Aswan dam.

Boarding a Nile cruise ship is not like boarding the Love Boat. You don’t ascend the gangplank with fanfare. Nobody throws confetti or places a lei around your neck. Captain Steuben doesn’t stand at the rail with a big smile and that captainly air of leadership and confidence.

No, boarding a Nile cruise is just weird.

The weirdness of boarding a Nile boat is partly a function of how they are docked, but also of the hard times that the tourist trade has fallen upon in Egypt. Nile boats are docked side by side, not in individual slips. On any given day, six or seven boats will be lashed to the dock, huddled together shoulder to shoulder, like Charlie’s grandparents in that small bed in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The dock at Luxor.

The dock at Luxor.

To get to your boat, you have to walk through a number of other boats. Given the lousy state of affairs of tourism in Egypt, the first several boats we passed through were seriously out of commission, inhabited only by sad-eyed guards whose only purpose was to prevent unauthorized detours, as if anyone would want to do such a thing. Some boats were almost completely inactive; others were undergoing some form of refurbishment borne out of what must be pure optimism. The effect was eerie – with hope in your heart for a pleasant and opulent vacation, you pass through ghost ship after ghost ship, half expecting to see Jack Nicholson peer out from a vacant cabin and announce “Heeeeere’s Johhhnnnnyyyy!!”

Our embarkation, through the derelict Moondance.

Our embarkation, through the derelict Moondance.

Finally, we reached our boat, the Amarco I, which is said to be one of the most elegant of the almost four hundred passenger vessels that plies the two hundred some odd miles between Luxor and Aswan (trips from Luxor to Cairo have been suspended until further notice).

We immediately began adjusting our expectations.

The boat could best be described as slightly chintzy Egyptian modern, whatever that means. There was a lot of gold and baby blue, and if you had an Egyptian great aunt who came into about fifteen hundred bucks, I suspect that this is how she’d redecorate her house. And she might have the same playlist – as we boarded, after taking in the room I realized what was wafting over the speakers. Is it? Was it? Yes! The theme from Titanic, played…wait for it…on the pan flute! A bad omen, for so many reasons.

The Amarco!

The Amarco!

Our room was just fine. It was clean, had a reasonably large bathroom (for a boat), there was a queen bed, and we had a nice big window (turns out everyone has a view), although until we pushed off, we had a very good view of the unoccupied boat next to us.

These boats are not very big. An ocean-going cruise ship is to a Nile river boat as a Hummer is to a roller skate. The passenger capacity is about 110. There are four levels plus the deck above, which has a teeny, tiny swimming pool, some tables, a bar, and some deck chairs. There’s a dining room and a lounge (where the belly dancing show, god help us, would occur on the last night), and a gym with about five stairmasters, two of which were out of order. That’s about it.

Needless to say, Hercule Poirot was nowhere in sight. Neither were the dottering but elegant dowagers I had anticipated encountering. Instead, we found a lobby full mostly of Spaniards of various ages and dress codes. One fellow astonished us over the course of the trip by wearing the same pair of paper-thin chartreuse cotton lounging pants to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This garment provided the poor fellow with very little support and what seemed like barely any protection against the elements. I do hope he applied sunscreen down below just in case.

We checked in, had lunch, and our trusty tour guide Bob took us back out for more touring in Luxor. We returned to the boat for dinner, then realized that the boat didn’t actually start sailing until the following day after lunch. (Someday, I will start reading my itinerary.) This is a bit strange, if you ask me. What’s the point of sitting on the plane if it’s parked at the gate?

Once we pushed off the following day, though, the magic kicked in. The weather was warm and sunny, and we joined our Barcelonan travelers (there were groups from a few other places, but the boat was at least half Spanish) up top.

Not so bad after all.

Not so bad after all.

We had secreted aboard our bottle of duty free gin and drank illicit gin and tonics (although I ordered a beer for appearances) and watched the shore of the Nile slide by.

Floating up (not down) the Nile.

Floating up (not down) the Nile.

It was just a bit magical. The other guests, with the possible exception of the funny pants man, seemed perfectly nice. The food was pretty good, and we emerged from our voyage digestively unscathed, which always seems a worry on these petri dish-like contraptions, particularly in Egypt, where drinking a glass of tap water is an instant weight loss program.

Yes, this wasn’t so bad after all. Hercule Poirot never showed, but fortunately, his services weren’t needed.

I got a guy in Luxor…

Something came over us a few months ago, and we decided to go to Egypt. Needless to say, Egypt hasn’t exactly been a top destination for western tourists for a while. But things seem pretty good right now, and we decided to give it a whirl. Janine has been talking about wanting to see the pyramids for years and we were in the neighborhood, so we decided to stop by for a visit.

Once we decided to come to Egypt it became clear that we had to take a Nile cruise. I mean how do you go to Egypt and not go on a Nile cruise? The trip began with two nights at a hotel in the town of Luxor, after which we were to embark on our river boat. The travel agency described the place as a four and half star hotel, but it turned out to be closer to a three and five eighths star hotel. It was fine, but it had the slightly gamy air of a Graham Greene novel. They keep the lights in the lobby off during the day (to save electricity?), the wifi only works in the lobby, and there was a general sense of semi-dubiousness about the place. No matter, we were staying in a hotel in Luxor, on the mighty Nile! And it had a very nice view of the river. So there’s that.

Three and five eighths stars, but a nice view.

Three and five eighths stars, but a nice view.

We were met at the airport by an interesting fellow who called himself Bob. Bob? Really? Yes, he insisted, even his wife calls him Bob. He says that people started calling him Bob when he was a teenager because of his love for Bob Marley. He wears a polo shirt with the name Bob embroidered in hieroglyphics. He’s about my age, he’s about the same height as Janine and he has a slight build, a close cropped beard, and stylish glasses.

As in Turkey and so many other relatively poor countries, you can sometimes be skeptical about people’s motives. Someone offers to help you and then asks for a tip. I really can’t blame people for trying to make a living, but it can be hard to get around without being hawked at. Sometimes the hawking is quite respectful, but other times it’s less so. In the car on the way from the airport, Bob wanted to know if we were interested in an extra tour on our free day. Why, we wondered, did they put a free day on a tour when they know very well that the guide will suggest more? My guess is that it’s because that’s just how it’s done. Bob had a bunch of suggestions, none of them cheap. But we had come all this way and figured we should try to see as much as possible. Could we just add it to our tour cost? Nope, he wasn’t able to take credit cards. I was starting to wonder how this was going to go.

We arranged for an event that night and then a full day’s excursion the following day across the river on the west bank of the Nile. Bob told us that he going to be our guide for the duration of the tour. He’d accompany us on board the boat, sail upriver with us, (We’re traveling upriver, which is south, which is confusing because the Nile flows north and most rivers flow south. Did you get all that?) and guide us around the sites along the way. Bob says that this is how it’s done here. Each group, no matter how large or small, gets its own tour guide.

I should point out that we have done zero homework about the places on our itinerary. I mean zero. Janine knows a bit about Egypt, but as far as I know, the Temple of Karnak is where Johnny Carson kept his turban. Smart people bone up on the places they’re about to visit, but we just haven’t made the time to get even the most rudimentary information about our Nile trip. This puts us at something of a disadvantage. Do we want to go to the Sound and Light show on the first night? Houseboat Dan mentioned something about it, so we figured we’d give it a try.

That night, Bob collected us at the hotel and we drove a few minutes to a cruddy parking lot ringed with souvenir stands. This was not looking so good. We waited by what appeared to be the entrance – two concrete pillars strung with a skinny chain. Finally, someone unhooked the chain, and we were led in the near-darkness down a wide walkway where we could barely make out a colonnade of what looked like some sort of sphinx-y things.

The entrance to the Karnak complex.

The entrance to the Karnak complex.

Just then, music blared from hidden speakers, the sphinx-y things were bathed in light, and the temples emerged under huge floodlights. I nearly wet myself. It turns out that we were at the temple complex at Karnak. Imagine thinking that you’re at a dopey light show when you’re actually at one of the greatest archeological sites on the planet.

The show was an audio dramatization of the story of the temple complex (it’s a complex because the pharaohs kept adding to it over time), complete with very old timey British narrators who sounded like actors in one of those goofy mummy movies of the thirties (with a soundtrack to match).

No matter. We were led from one part of the temple to the next and as we advanced they’d light up this part of Karnak and that, the crazy music would swell, some Edward Everett Horton-sounding dude would talk about Amenhotep or Tutankhamun, and you’d get glimpses in the dark of this extraordinary series of temples with one hundred thirty four columns, the largest of which are more than sixty feet high, which are over thirty five hundred years old. Since we were there in the dark, and they would only light small bits at a time you were left to wonder what the entire place looked like. It was an archeological peep show. Things were looking up.

I thought we were going to a dorky sound and light show. Turns out we were going here.

I thought we were going to a dorky sound and light show. Turns out we were going here.

I started taking a liking to Bob as well. He is full of opinions about almost everything – the travel industry, his fellow guides, politics, sociology, religion – you name it. Ask Bob a question and he’ll answer it with candor and commitment. He can read hieroglyphs like I can read a boxscore. His English is excellent, although he speaks it with what sounds like a German/Egyptian accent, and his interpretation of English grammar can have exciting results. He is unfailingly polite, especially when making anatomical observations about Egyptian art. “Look this god, he got, excuse me, two willies.” “The queen here she got skinny waist and, I’m sorry, little poops” (he meant boobs). He gargles his r’s deep in the back of his throat – “Look at this picture of grrrrrrrrrrapes and ficks” (grapes and figs). If I close my eyes, he sometimes sounds like the Yiddish rabbi played by Gene Wilder in Frisco Kid.

Bob

Bob, reading to us in hieroglyph

He’s perpetually cheerful and energetic and he seems to know everybody. When Janine observed this, he replied, “I know! If I’m running for mayor I’m winning.” Bob hates to wait and he makes sure somehow that we are in the front of the line, first on the trolley, first in the building, whatever. When we arrive at any visitor center, the room with the National Geographic overview narrated by Omar Sharif (I’m not kidding, almost every significant site we’ve visited has a National Geographic video narrated by Omar Sharif) magically opens and is switched on. I have watched him grease a half dozen palms.

He has also procured for us, at various times, wine, water, tonic water, and a pile of limes. At the end of each day, he appears with whatever items we expressed interest in during the day. We will get the bill, and I’m sure won’t be cheap (nothing seems to be), but it will be reasonable.

In short, Bob is the fixer’s fixer. He’s the Pope of Greenwich Village, Egyptian style.