In honor of the fact that one year ago, I was sailing up the Nile, I'm posting a snippet of a story I wrote about my trip. It's not done, it's not perfect, and the characters are confusing, but here it is. (For a bit of context, this section describes El Gouna, the wedding, and the last night of the trip.) Happy Anniversary, Yasmine & Josh! And much love to all Egypets...
From our balcony at the Ocean View Hotel in El Gouna, we could see Saudi Arabia
, a grey-blue mass floating beyond the man-made lagoon’s rock walls and the Red Sea
. I didn’t know it was Saudi Arabia
until Meredith told me. She was much better at geography than I was, but I was better at it than some of the other people on our trip—at least I knew that Egypt
was in Africa
. (Before I left New York
, I had checked the atlas, just once, to make sure.) We could also see Wang and Rich on their balcony, up and to the left, resting their arms on the ledge, looking at us.
“Hello, ladies,” Wang singsonged, followed by his infectious laugh. Rich, his roommate and sidekick, waggled his fingers at us and grinned.
“Hi boys!” Meredith trilled, the words taken by the wind. I waved, rolled my eyes, and went back inside our room, where I stretched out on one of the twin bed’s scratchy sun-bleached blankets and waited for our luggage to be delivered. I smoked, because a cigarette was the closest thing to food I could find, and because I was lucky enough to be in Egypt
, where I could smoke anywhere I liked. Two days later, Mer and I would sing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” in our bathrobes to Wang and Rich as a thank you for a love poem they had dropped down onto our balcony. It was written in pencil on a small piece of graph paper and featured a drawing of a unicorn.
This was the relaxing bit of our two-week trip, which included three days in Cairo, a three-day private cruise up the Nile from Aswan to Luxor, five days at El Gouna, a Red Sea resort, and a final two days in Cairo. In Gouna, there were no early-morning tours or lectures, just beaching and drinking and waiting for the reason we were all in Egypt--Josh and Yasmine’s wedding. At El Gouna, we had to deal with something that we had completely forgotten how to deal with: unstructured time. Ahmed, our brilliant and beautiful tour guide, had left us to return to Cairo
and prepare for his wedding. When he told us he was engaged, six girls blinked almost imperceptibly, including me. Our other tour guide, Omneya, the one that made the single men blink, turned off her meter and accompanied us to the beach, torturing the boys by wearing a bikini and telling them about her apartment near the airport and that she was studying music in graduate school. Without Ahmed and Omneya telling us what to buy at Khan Al-Khalili (and how to buy it), or how long to stay in the museum, we were lost. Meredith and I missed the tours, the stories of the goddess Nut giving birth to the sun each day and the heretic sun-worshipping king Akhenaten and the slashes ripped across his likenesses after his death. Now, our time was spent figuring out if we should sit by the beach or by the pool, and whether 12:30 PM was too early to order a bottle of Sakkara
with our lunch. We always decided that it wasn’t. We napped in the sun, pale bodies slathered with 45 sunscreen, newly-purchased Naguib Mahfouz books perched on our faces.
By this point in the trip, all 30 of Yasmine and Josh's friends were comfortable with each other, the friends from college, the DJs from DC, the web designers from San Francisco, and Yasmine's brother Sherief's guests from New York, of which Mer and I were two
. We’d run into each other down by the marina, in the gift shop of the Ocean View, or returning towels by the pool, and embrace as if we had known each other forever, or at least had spent a summer at camp together, crowded around firepits in the dark, telling each other secrets.
The night of the wedding, I dressed in my never-worn green chiffon halter dress, pleased that I had lost five pounds as I lay in bed the entire day, suffering from what Omneya called the “Pharoah’s Revenge.” Earlier, Erik, one of Josh's friends, had knocked on my hotel room door, having heard of my illness, and had offered Meredith, my de facto nurse, a Japanese root that smelled and looked like dung. I had swallowed it as if it were a truffle-covered lobster tail and washed it down with a bottle of Baraka, praying for the dirt and dung to clean me out and make me better. Now, lightheaded, I zipped my dress, pushed my earrings through my earlobes, and dusted gold powder onto my eyelids. I was in a dream, dirt on my tongue, everything in slow motion. I was going to make it to the wedding. I had to; I had promised Wang and Rich a dance each. Not to mention William, the three-year-old. It was going to be fun—well, as fun as a wedding can be for a dateless 31-year-old who had spent the last five hours puking.
And, like everything else we had done in Egypt, it was fun. The ceremony unfolded sweetly under a rising moon, the reception outdoors, around an Olympic-sized pool. Immense palm trees were lit dramatically in reds and oranges, a few shades darker than the bride's pale gown. Pots big as manhole covers were stuffed with lilies and starflowers and swirled in the pool, nudged along by the wind rushing off the Red Sea
. Photographers crouched; chefs tonged falafel and lamb onto waiting plates. Champagne
was gulped by Josh’s friends and sipped by Josh’s parents. The Egyptian aunties glittered. Fatima
, the mother-of-the-bride's best friend, wrapped in coral silk, told stories to eager clusters of guests, her husband’s hand ever-present on the small of her back. Yasmine and Josh looked at once the most exhausted and the most beautiful I imagined they would ever look. Sherief was beaming and handsome, the prince. He started dancing the second the band sounded their first note and didn’t stop until the last guest was gone. Meredith flitted, filled with whiskey and merriment, one minute twirling on the dance floor, one minute whispering in the ear of a Bulgarian drummer. Rich, sickly like me, poor dear, munched on a roll and giggled next to me for most of the night. “How you feeling?” he’d ask every so often. "Better," I said with each sip of iceless gin.
A wedding cake was presented on pillars by five smiling waiters. The DJ played "Ain't Nobody" and I had to get up and dance. I picked William up and whirled him around. Mer and I danced together like old ladies. Wang and I did an interpretive dance to that song from Dirty Dancing
that’s always played at weddings. Someone even attempted the lift. Healed by the gin and champagne, the dung pill, and the night, I was okay. I danced, fingering the hem of my dress so it would explode when I spun around. Everything was going to be okay.
Our last night in Egypt, Rich sat next to me on our midnight felucca ride on the Nile. About 20 of us, fresh from a weepy Egyptian feast at a fancy Cairo restaurant, were seated along the wooden walls of the boat, passing cans of beer and joints in lazy circles, mirroring the full moon overhead. The felucca driver wore a brown galabaya and a dusty white turban. Sherief had said something to him in Arabic, and we had climbed aboard. Nothing else was on the river.
There was a guitar, and so we sang. The couples touched each others’ hands, squeezing just enough to imprint the memory of this night into their lover’s palm. The uncoupled devolved into their beer, their hash, into their private grief, wishing they held something besides liquid or fire in their hands. Rich whispered, “I’m cold.” I gave him half of my pashmina. The guitar filled the interior of the boat and rung out over the water. I was grateful. For this night, for the guitar. For Sherief, for Meredith and Wang and William. For Fatima
. For Rich. For Josh and Yasmine. For Egypt
. For my life, a continent away, but under the same moon.