After four weeks of packing and moving and after a long day’s flight and hair-raising (if you have it) taxi ride, we felt the need for a little bit of R&R, in this case, rest and relaxation. So, the day after arrival we decided to spend doing nothing, mostly beside the swimming pool.
Now if you know anything about Wilma and Paul you will know that they are not people who are likely to be idle. Well, I say that; this is certainly true of Wilma, but if idleness were to be an Olympic sport Paul would be likely to be selected for team GB!
By the afternoon, however, we were tired of idling and were ready to get into gear and to do something. Somebody suggested a cruise on the Nile. We were told that there will be a relaxing meal, some Egyptian entertainment, and a beautiful time in the warmth of the evening observing Cairo from a cruise ship.
Now, we’ve got to admit that this put us in mind of film based on an Agatha Christie novel, starring, Peter Ustinov or David Suchet. Death on the Nile is certainly not something that we wanted, but the idea of being served a posh meal, on linen tablecloths, on a cruise ship slipping silently down the Nile, did have its appeal.
After an hour-long journey by taxi, in which we enjoyed/endured the same excitement and terror as the previous night, we found our boat and hurriedly went abroad. I had said to Wilma that this really was the celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary: exotic and romantic.
As most of us know, expectations and reality often do not coincide, in fact they often collide. This night was one of those non-coinciding and definitively colliding type of nights! As we entered, any idea of a 1930s, Art Deco dining room immediately disappeared from our imaginations.
What we encountered was something more like greasy café buffet canteen on water! The long tables—the linen table cloths were nowhere to be seen—were crushed together in something like a scene out of Shawshank Redemption. A crowd of people, mainly of oriental descent, were queueing waiting for the buffet to be served to them. Rather than appearing like they had just dressed for dinner, they looked more like they had spent the day being ushered round tourist spots too quickly and being harried by groups of hawkers with greater persistence than the average sand fly.
We were ushered to the front of the queue—an encouraging sign—and given a table a table right beside the buffet salad bar. The queue passed right beside us further reducing the exotic and romantic feel. Being gallant, I joined the queue and Wilma, dressed in her beautiful summer dress, looking lovely, but rather forlorn and disappointed sat quietly and waited for me to reach her so that she could join the queue. The food, as it turned out, was rather good. This table placement actually turned out to be a blessing as nobody else could actually get to the table next to us due to the adjacent queue. Once everybody was served we were left in ‘peace’.
Our illusions of a "Poirotesque" soirée were further damaged by the live music. Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't remember in the film Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot joining in enthusiastically in a hearty rendition of "if you're happy and you know it clap your hands!" I am also slightly vague in my memory of the singer in the dining room of Poirot’s Nile Cruiser, launching in to a version of "My Way" or “What a Wonderful World”! I was more than ready to finish my meal and clamber upstairs to the outside part of the boat to enjoy the warmth of the night and the peace of the Nile.
This turned out to be the most relaxing and peaceful part of the evening. We were ensconced on the port side of the boat and were able to see bright lights of the restaurants and bars lining the Nile. Neon was the preferred chemical alongside the river. Whether they were boats, hoarding or even mosques, neon was it!
Many of the hoardings were modern adverts for every kind of gadget; mostly gadgets average Egyptians could never afford. One especially caught our eye. This was an enormous advert for a Chinese mobile phone company. The two people photographed in the ad, were clearly rich, European in dress, light-skinned, and Western. Their mobile phones seemed to transform them into the persons that we all want to be. Happiness was a simple mobile phone purchase away. This advert sold happiness in wealth, European clothes and goods and Western values.
I was wrenched from my reverie by the boisterous sounds of a tinny species of pop-music. This came from, what one could only describe a series of neon lights on water! Every now and then, one of these slightly crazy-looking, noisy boats went past. Some seem to be inhabited by very few people, some inhabited by too many. There was one where a group of young men were running up and down and doing acrobatics to “la Vida Loca”, using the crossbars of the boat covering as parallel bars. Others seem to have been hired by families who are celebrating either a wedding, or some other family gathering such as a birthday. The unifying factors were colourful, flashing, brash lights, enthusiastic activity and ear-splitting noise. These mobile discos seemed to be competing with each other to give the most intense experience.
My reflections on the evening revolve around expectations and reality. For Wilma and me, we thought we would get a European style, private experience, cruising along the Nile in silence. The experience we had, however, was something altogether more Arabic. It was loud, communal, and wholly different from anything that Europe would have to offer. Our Eurocentric understanding of reality is constantly questioned by encounters with the ‘cultural other’ that we do not understand, perhaps we do not like, but is perfectly valid in its context. For the average Egyptian, happiness is being sold to them in shiny, Western clothes and mobile phones. The reality, as we, and they know, is something quite different.