We meet the rest of Malouka’s cast of characters gradually and casually as the day unfolds. Over a family style lunch- platters piled high with fried Nile fish (surprisingly mild and tender) served alongside local veggies in various states of preparation (cucumber-tomato salad, stewed okra in tomato sauce, thin skinned courgettes aggressively sautéed) and accompanied by steaming platters of ubiquitous Egyptian-style rice- introductions are exchanged. Greg and I are one of two couples traveling solo: the other are successful yet unassuming thirty-somethings from New York City. A third couple is same-sex and joined by two female companions, ostensibly to celebrate a recent 50th birthday. Three families are also aboard; a single mom with three children ranging from a teenage daughter to two sons; one nearing completion of university, the second graduated and teaching English abroad. A husband and wife are joined by their twin tweens, a boy and girl, who despite their status as youngest aboard, prove easy travel companions. The final couple, nearing retirement age themselves, is traveling with the family Grande Dame and her sister. At 78, this family matriarch is well traveled and epitomizes southern genteel; her younger sister is just a few years behind. Our generous lunch is followed by trays of tea and fresh fruit, and more tea and typical Egyptian pastries are again on offer a few short hours later. My omnipresent anxiety around what’s for dinner is unwarranted; the food is plentiful and healthy. Our appetites satisfied, we return to our cabin and unpack.
Malouka is one of four Dahabiya’s operated by our cruise company of choice. During the tourist season, these boats ply the waters of upper Egypt for weekly excursions that begin slightly South of Luxor with a disembarkation point at Aswan proper five days later. Propelled by two large canvas split-gaff sails, forward and aft, Malouka has no motor. Instead, she relies on the omnipresent wind which consistently blows from the North. When the opposing current overwhelms the wind, Malouka enjoys the occasional assist from a small flotilla of diesel-powered tow boats that accompany each cruise.
Each boat in our small, boutique fleet houses a single layer of ten cabins at the water line. With eight luxury rooms and two suites, the table is never set for more than twenty guests that are attended to by an able crew of eight. The rooms are comfortable with an eye for casual design, more than adequate, but not luxurious by any means. Our cabin is the first past a common room filled with board games, books in a variety of languages and comfortable seating. We are housed on the port side with two single beds and an en-suite ‘wet’ head three times the size of Journey’s. A set of triple layer windows beg to be opened. A slide of the initial thick glass reveals a secondary window with screen, a necessity during the height of mosquito season. Peeling back this layer I encounter a heavy wooden shutter; a gentle shove reveals the Nile sliding slowly past, the waterline a few feet below. We marvel at the view, quickly unpack our overnight bags and head topside to Malouka’s generous wood decking to soak in the view.
Adorned with ample seating, low-slung settees and ground level cushions line the port and starboard sides. The cushions and pillows are covered in a thick, alternating black and white striped canvas; a bold red and yellow Bedouin pattern punctuates the center. Strong canvas tenting runs the length of the deck, providing protection from the sun and support for a series of crystal chandeliers, which despite their incongruence, somehow accentuate the bohemian vibe. The ambiance is welcoming and unassuming, perfect for whiling away an afternoon spent drifting up the river. Wait a minute…drifting up the river? In case you’ve forgotten your Fifth Grade social studies curriculum, the River Nile runs from South to North and is a contender for longest river in the world, bested only by the Amazon. Surprisingly, the exact source of the Nile is somewhat obscure- some say Rwanda, some claim Burundi. Regardless of origin, the Nile of Upper Egypt is intoxicating and a sharp contrast to the busy waters and crowded shores of Cairo.
The afternoon unfolds in a mesmerizing blur. Long stretches are spent gazing out across the river lost in thought, punctuated periodically by small talk; it is our first serious attempt to unwind. Soon enough, we arrive at our stopping point for the night and are told that another hearty, straightforward meal awaits us on the near horizon. But first, we are enticed ashore with the promise of a sunset walk to a local village. We don our shoes and coats and scoot along the wooden gang plank to shore.
Straining to keep up with barefooted guides, our dusty path is fringed by banana groves to the right and the Nile on the left; we breathe in deep lungfuls of air heavy with the scent of earth, donkeys and river. Our numbers gradually swell as we are joined by members of Malouka’s three sister boats. We will spend each of our five nights tied a discreet distance from one another, close enough for a coordinated departure in the morning, but far enough to retreat into our own time and space. Ten minutes in, Greg asks where we’re going and what we’re doing.
I have no idea.
I quickly come to realize that the absence of a shared itinerary and vague details around timing is by design; our hosts want us to disconnect from our over-scheduled lives. Though WiFi is available day and night, we are encouraged to leave phones and devices safely tucked away. Initially uncomfortable, by day two I have made a conscious decision to embrace ambiguity and spontaneity, luxuriating in the disconnect. I leave my watch in a drawer and use my phone almost exclusively for taking pictures and videos; I am amazed at how quickly I settle into the daily rhythm set by the crew. I read, I take pictures, I hang out with the crew and chat with the other guests, and I go ashore and come back aboard when I’m told. The hardest decision I made each morning was whether to have a third piece of toast because really, it was just the delivery mechanism for the homemade guava jam.
But for the moment, armed with no more than curiosity to spur us beyond initial hesitance, we dutifully follow the hurried footsteps of our guides.
Officially, we are led by a member of the all Egyptian crew. Unofficially, but no less eager a guide is Jean-Pierre, an animated French septugenarian who having originally signed up for a one-week cruise three months ago, has stayed five months. As we walk through the growing darkness, his animated, heavily accented talk of adventures had on the river encourages us forward. Encountering a sturdy yet narrow palm tree strewn across an irrigation channel, Jean-Pierre scurries across with the enthusiasm of a school boy. We heed his generous advice to simply continue on as our paths will eventually converge. A few moments more brings us to a simple stable housing bleating goats; a series of low outer buildings spill into an inner, dirt courtyard. A simple two-story cement block house buttressed by a low mud brick wall juts out, connecting the structures. The courtyard is illuminated by a single bare fluorescent bulb mounted high on the house; the shadowy dark envelopes the surroundings. Greetings are shouted and inhabitants spill from the door; soon we are surrounded by men, women and staring children. Flimsy plastic chairs are hastily unstacked and a cat darts across the courtyard; we stake our claim on a sturdy wooden bench and wait. As more guests arrive the small courtyard nears capacity. Offers of tea, sheesha and store bought pastries are made; some accept readily, clearly comfortable with this unexpected cultural encounter while others decline, shifting in their seats warily. In short order a teenage girl is presented and a speech is made: we are told the girl has the best grades in her school. A gift is given, presumably a small sum of money and we clap, unsure of what had transpired. The girl is led away and the night’s true entertainment begins.
A popular Egyptian song abruptly erupts from a speaker and music floods the quiet night air. Moments later, accompanied by loud ululations, female members of our party are led from the house; they have been dressed in traditional abbeyas and hijabs and are made to dance. Though somewhat shocked, the audience dutifully claps in time to the music as the women awkwardly attempt to keep pace. In short order, their swaying bodies are joined by the household inhabitants; I assume this is their regular Monday night cultural exchange. As our hosts begin pulling bystanders into the growing throng, the recalcitrant begin edging towards the shadows. As always, I am thankful for the ability to fade into the background. I sit and watch, mesmerized. As the dancing intensifies, Greg and I exchange glances as we sip the last of our karkade tea, silently planning our retreat. The spell is broken when it is announced that we may return to our boats whenever we like. Few hesitate. We immediately stand up, place our now empty cups on the bench, glance around to see if we should pay, and walk away.
The revere soon fades as we plunge back into the inky night. It is a short and familiar walk back along the banana-lined path to Malouka. Guided by the light of a cell phone flashlight app, we say little. As the lights of Malouka approach and we prepare to scramble down the bank and back aboard, I turn to Greg and ask, “How do I even begin to explain what just happened?” Greg just smiles, laughs, and helps me step aboard.
Later that evening following dinner, we are once again encouraged to dance, for it is Christmas Eve. As the stereo is turned on and the crew begins to sing and clap to the music, bodies once again fill a makeshift dance floor. This time I do not fade into the background; I am pulled onto the floor and encouraged to dance with the crew. Soon enough Greg joins and as we twist and turn, a kaleidoscope of movement, I can feel a deep-rooted exhaustion begin to lift.
Spontaneity. Ambiguity. Unscripted. Time aboard Malouka is exactly what this bone-tired girl needed.
If you’re interested in scrolling through all of our 851(!) pictures from our two and a half weeks spent in Egypt, click on the link below.