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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Just back: a forbidden stroll around Esna

We weren't supposed to leave the boat. That's what the concierge said. We'd been cruising languidly down the Nile for days, watching the sun sink behind the date palms each evening in a rose-and-lemon sky. I was hypnotised by the landscape – feluccas sailing gallantly by, their masts inflated with an unfelt breeze.
The mud-brick houses that crumbled out of the rocky ridge composed villages that had existed for thousands of years. Children ran along pontoons, shouting "Hello!" and "Salaam!" as they hurled their little bodies into the water. Men crouched on the riverbank, foraging for unidentifiable delights, their galabeyas soaked to the armpits.

We had left Aswan for Luxor three days earlier, just 40 of us aboard a boat that usually carried 250. Nine months after the Revolution, tourists were only beginning to trickle back to Egypt.

I wanted to get off the boat. I was itching to walk among village streets, meet locals, see where they lived, what they ate.

"What's Esna like?" I asked Mahmoud, our guide. We were docking there so that another group could disembark. We had been told to remain on the boat until we reached Luxor that evening. Mahmoud's eyes shone. "I will take you," he said. "Let's go for a walk." We crept off the boat just as the mid-afternoon call to prayer wailed from the mosques, darting across a dusty road jammed with cars and with donkeys plodding under loads of alfalfa, dates and onions.

"Don't you get bored of going to the same places?" I asked over the blare of horns. We passed stalls bursting with scarves and slippers, papyri and shisha pipes. "Never," Mahmoud said with a smile. "To be a tour guide you must be passionate. Besides, if I wasn't a guide I would leave Egypt. It's too hard to make a living as anything else."

I asked where he would go.

"To the English countryside," he said. "With green everywhere. And rain. Last time it rained here there was a big celebration." The downpour lasted less than 10 minutes.

We reached the Temple of Esna and Mahmoud pointed out the scenes that adorned its walls. He knew every symbol, every carving. Here, the Emperor danced before the goddess Menheyet; there, the ram god Khnum dragged a fishing net from the Nile.

We retraced our steps, talking about our lives. We dodged rummaging goats and sleeping Arabs before we eventually realised we'd missed our pier.

We hurried back to our boat, now flanked by others that had docked alongside it, each presumably as empty as ours. We leapt aboard just as the deckhand was untying the ropes.

"I told you not to leave the boat," the concierge said, glaring at us.

We proffered apologies and he soon softened.

"Come," Mahmoud said. "Let's go up and watch the sunset."

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