Yule and Me, on the Nile

Guests on the Lazuli can alternate sitting on deck with visiting ancient tombs and temples.
Guests on the Lazuli can alternate sitting on deck with visiting ancient tombs and temples. (By Nils Bruzelius -- The Washington Post)
By Nils Bruzelius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Standing on the broad, canopied upper deck, we felt a gentle grinding beneath our feet as the flat-bottom hull of our dahabiyeh, a near-replica of a 19th-century Egyptian river boat, slid against the east bank of an island in the middle of the Nile.

Several members of the Lazuli's crew, clad in sky-blue, ankle-length robes locally called galabiyas, jumped ashore. Others tossed mooring lines from the low bow and the raised stern. With a small sledgehammer and a rhythmic plink-plink-plink, they drove heavy, yard-long metal spikes into the sandy soil to tie the 90-foot, twin-masted vessel to the riverbank.

Several of us watched the furious bustle. Others stayed curled up with their books or napped on the many couches and sumptuous pillows scattered on the glossy wooden deck. Ten of us made up the entire complement of passengers, four small family groups who had come together from the United States and Canada for a Nile adventure.

It was Christmas night, the sun was setting. We had been told a festive dinner was planned, but we didn't expect what came next.

A sturdy, two-foot-wide gangplank was run out from the bow onto the riverbank. The crew began carrying the sectioned dining table and chairs down from the upper deck where we had already enjoyed lavish lunches, a breakfast and a dinner, and set them up on the flat grassy bank, kept putting-green cropped by grazing cows and goats. Tonight, evidently, dinner would be ashore.

Within minutes, the table was set with linen, china, glassware and tableware. Several of the crew scattered into the nearby palm trees and came back laden with desiccated fronds to pile into the makings of a bonfire. As dusk closed in, we saw our sister ship, a slightly larger dahabiyeh carrying French tourists, slide ashore on the bank about 150 yards ahead of us.

From the galley on the lower deck, the intriguing aromas of Middle Eastern spices rose upward on the prevailing northerly breeze, which earlier had propelled us southward by sail against the river's current. Someone mentioned that they had seen a small boat deliver a butchered lamb to the chef early that morning. Sure enough, now the crew was setting up a rotisserie barbecue on the riverbank.

After a champagne celebration in the salon on the lower deck and a brief exchange of small gifts for the four teens and 20-somethings in our group (the trip itself was gift enough for the parents), the chief steward, Khalil, invited us to troop ashore.

We arranged ourselves at the table, joined by our resident Egyptologist for the trip, Medhat Saad. He had quickly proved himself to be not only a remarkably knowledgeable guide but also a charming and thoughtful man who readily shared his views on culture, politics and world affairs in his deep, sonorous voice. Behind us, the dahabiyeh's lights outlined its graceful shape in the gathering darkness.

As with every other dinner on the five-day, five-night cruise, the feast began with soup, then a choice of two salads. The main course this night was a freshly roasted lamb. Rice or couscous, slightly different every night, and perfectly cooked vegetables complemented the savory meat.

Finally came dessert. Only some of us had room. The night before, Christmas Eve, the crew had offered us no fewer than five tortes and puddings -- astonishingly, one for every two of us. Tonight we were served the delicacies we had not touched the night before, and a couple of new ones.

Just as some of us began to think about heading for our berths, the entertainment began. All nine of our crew clustered by the bonfire, armed with a hand drum and a tambourine, and launched into a 45-minute set of relentlessly rhythmic and cheerful singing and dancing. Saad told us it was traditional music from Esna, home town of most of the crew.

We were already in awe of the way our river voyage had unfolded so far, but our sense of wonder just kept growing.

Away From the Crowds

We had boarded the Lazuli at noon a day earlier in Esna after a one-hour drive from Luxor. There we had spent an almost frantic day and a half trying to see the pharaonic treasures of the Valley of the Kings, the colossi of Memnon, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, and the temples of Luxor and Karnak.

It was all breathtaking; and it was almost all crowded with high-season tourists. Even the road trip to Esna had an edge to it as we traveled in a convoy protected by armed guards, a now-routine safeguard instituted after the 1997 attack by Muslim militants that killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians at Hatshepsut's temple.

But now, on the Lazuli, the pace had changed, starting from the moment we stepped aboard and were handed hot damp towels and tall glasses of exotic juices. For the next five days we alternated stretches of sitting on deck -- gliding past villages, fishermen, farms and astounding bird life -- with visits ashore to a half-dozen sites of tombs and temples, some of them difficult to reach by land. (At one, the quarries of Selsela, we were, astonishingly, the only tourists in sight.)

The trip had had its beginnings about nine months earlier, when my sister told me that her son would be taking a semester off from college to study Arabic. What would we think, she asked, of organizing a holiday trip to Egypt to join him just before his return?

We quickly agreed that a Nile cruise should be the centerpiece of the trip. We'd read about the recent return of the dahabiyehs, the colonial-era river yachts that had been revived as an alternative to the massive cruise ships -- about 300 in all -- that now ply the river between Luxor and Aswan. Compared with those hotel-like behemoths, our vessel was a cozy and luxurious B&B, with a crew of nine who sailed the boat and provided impeccable service.

A Desert Dark and Cool

The past decade has seen a comeback of the dahabiyehs. There are about a dozen on the popular Esna-to-Aswan run today, some restored, some newly built to traditional designs. They can carry from a half-dozen to nearly 30 passengers. Lazuli, with five cabins and room for 10, is typical. It was built only four years before our cruise, but much of the beautifully varnished planking of the decks had been salvaged from earlier uses, and its slender, graceful design is based on 19th-century vessels used by long-ago explorers and tourists.

When the wind came from astern with enough force, the crew unfurled the gigantic, kitelike lateen sails fore and aft. At other times, a small diesel tug towed us upstream. Although the Lazuli has a generator beneath the forward deck to provide electricity and water pressure, it has no other power.

A delightful consequence of this system was that when we were under power, the Lazuli was almost as quiet as when it was under sail. The throbbing diesel of the tug was 30 or 40 yards ahead, virtually out of earshot, and the constant northerly breeze blew the exhaust forward, away from us.

The crew's drumming, dancing and singing picked up in tempo steadily as the wintry coolness of the desert night crept in on our feast. Several of us left our seats at the table to get closer to the fire and to join, tentatively, in the dance. Far from the lights of any settlement, the black sky above was spangled with a startling infinity of stars, and the sparks rose steadily to meet them.

It was a hauntingly beautiful Christmas night, blissfully free of jingle bells and jangled nerves.

Nils Bruzelius is a deputy national editor at The Post.

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