'It was the most beautiful place I had ever been and I was miserable'
A felucca on the Nile in Luxor, Egypt. Photograph Getty
HOLIDAY DISASTERS: Classics student SARA KEATING was with a friend in a felucca on the Nile when her runs to the riverbank reeds strained relations
I HAD JUST finished my final exams as a student of classics, and was looking for a way to celebrate the years I had spent poring over black-figured amphorae and the details of classical wars.
I had already made the pilgrimage to Ancient Greece – I sought advice from the oracle at Delphi and performed a speech from Medea in the amphitheatre at Olympia – so when a classmate suggested we seek out the grand sites of ancient Egypt, I thought there could be no better tribute to my years of swotting than to go to the land of the people that Herodotus mythologised in his Histories as “the most learned in history by far”.
Egypt was certainly the most exotic place I had ever been. I walked through airport border control, under a sign that promised death by hanging for drug offences, and had my passport stamped for the first time ever. In the arrivals lounge, a sea of turbaned taxi-drivers bobbed about, looking for a fare.
We had booked a hotel for our first few nights in Cairo – an upmarket Art Deco European hotel, where we thought we would find our feet before heading out into the desert and six weeks of backpacker-dom – but our taxi-driver ignored our directions and pulled up instead outside a basic white breeze-block building, insisting that we had to see the rooms he was offering before he would bring us any farther.
Some 45 minutes later, we had been checked in and had met the owner, Mohammed, who said he was married to a woman called Anne-Marie from Armagh, who lived in England, and who he claimed would be arriving at the hotel for the first time any day now.
The hotel was fine. It saved us a fortune and Mohammed was a terrific host, organising various excursions around the city for us, including a visit to the City of the Dead, where, because of the severe overpopulation of Cairo, people live in family tombs. He also organised for us to spend a few days aboard a felucca on the Nile.
It would be impossible to mistake a felucca for a cruise ship. It is essentially a large canoe, and ours was manned by Cpt Hashish, whose withered face and whiskers suggested he was anything between 50 and 100 years old.
He was accompanied by a teenage “cabin boy” who would do all our cooking and cleaning for the duration of the three-night stay. During the day we watched Nubian women doing their laundry on the river banks. At night, we slept in burlap sacks under the stars.
The cabin boy was a pretty good cook, rustling up dishes of bulgar wheat in various guises from a small pantry and a single pot.
Cpt Hashish would hang up his oars at meal times and we would all eat together, using our fingers like our hosts did, and marvelling at the simplicity of a life where cleaning up after dinner merely involved dipping our plates over the “deck”.
By day two, I had what I shall politely call a very squidgy tummy. Our captain promised a cure buried deep in the pipe of his hookah, or water pipe, which he served up to me with a cup of sweet peppermint tea.
Still, I spent much of the next few days asking him to row up to the river bank, where I would run into the reeds to relieve myself, as my travelling companion cursed the fact that we would miss our pick-up at Luxor, where we were supposed to travel on to the Valley of the Kings.
By the end of the cruise, relations between my companion and I were strained. I had lost weight, was severely dehydrated, and was barely able to keep down water: it was also 45 degrees. By the time we left Luxor for the Red Sea resort of Dahab, we were hardly talking, and on our last night I climbed Mount Sinai – which was supposed to be the pinnacle of our trip together – alone.
Standing on the cratered spot where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, I might have been standing on the moon. It was the most beautiful place I had ever been and I was completely miserable. When the sun rose, I descended with the other parties of pilgrims and promptly vomited – altitude sickness combined with the lingering effects of my dodgy stomach.
When we went back to Cairo to fly home, we checked into Mohammed’s hotel for our final few days, where we were greeted like old friends and invited to supper with the old men who dined on the roof every night (Anne-Marie had yet to show up).
After nearly three weeks of stony silence in beach huts and hostel bedrooms, I was never so glad to have the company of total strangers.