Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Heatwave memory shard

The river Nile. A felucca trip because that’s what you do in Aswan, or wherever we were, when you’re about 22. A captive market for the captain, also about 22. We met some people in a restaurant who also needed people to travel with, we tried to bargain with him. Two litres of water each a day, he said. Three, I said.

It was blazingly hot, Nubia in August. An insane time of year to spend four days on a tiny boat. Another felucca more or less kept pace with us, full of party backpackers having screaming fun, leaping off the boat in their shorts and bikinis when they got too hot, splashing each other. We were the sun-and-disease-aware kind of backpackers. We lay on deck under shade screens and sweated, for fear of bilharzia. There was no toilet on board, so we had to make a request to the captain to moor up every time anyone needed to go. Not now, he would say, until eventually he found a place he was prepared to stop, where we would scramble ashore and run across land as hot as fire to find a spiny bush big enough to shelter behind.

I hated it. I hated the flimsy plank and the morose, jet-black captain in his dirty off-white vest who had packed us in like sardines. But he probably hated us too, it must be more fun to sail a boat full of people enjoying themselves than people (one of us, at least) engaged in a constant balancing act between fear of thirst and fear of an overfull bladder.

There was dope on the boat, part of some sailing down the great rivers of the world fantasy we’d had. But that only made it all worse -- the heat, the thirst, the heat, the pressing need to urinate, the scary, scalding, dark yellow urine that resulted. So I stopped that after the first day, and just read my book, kept my movement and my fluid intake to a minimum, and willed the time to pass so I could escape from this circle of hell and return to civilisation.

But there were two things that lifted that felucca trip out of the ‘one of the top five worst decisions I have ever made’ category.

The first was a stop on the afternoon of day one, where the captain, whose English was sketchy at best, moored up the boat in what looked like the middle of scorched, heat-hazed nowhere and bid us all disembark and follow him. We shortly arrived at a walled compound in a small settlement, which turned out to be his family home. We met his mother, who seemed supremely old but was probably about 40. She was clad head-to-toe in shiny black, which I guess would age anyone. I remember it so clearly because I couldn’t understand how she could actually walk around in that heat covered in that much man-made fabric. I was disintegrating into a stinking, steaming heap in my clean cotton T-shirt and shorts. And then he told us that she had never been out of the village, had never been as far as Aswan (or wherever we had been a couple of hours earlier) or encountered electric light (or, say, an electric fan, or a refrigerator).

So he was quite the big man, bringing these exotic creatures for her to look at every week or so. I can now see there may be a more benign interpretation of the situation, but only if I cast him in the role of Enlightenment gentleman, and it's a bit of a stretch. She was the first woman I ever met whose life was so constrained. I remember her.

And the other thing I remember was the lentil soup. We were on a shoestring-budget, bring-your-own-sleeping-bag trip, but the food was sublime: better, I’d wager, than anything served to the tourists on the air-conditioned mega-cruisers whose wash rocked me in my overheated misery. It was cooked by the (all male) crew on a kerosene stove from dry ingredients, spices and cool-box (but clearly local) vegetables. And the first thing they served, lentil soup with flat bread, was one of the finest things I have ever tasted. I have still never tasted anything close, but I’m still looking. I now think there must have been cardamom, cinnamon and allspice involved, but there was also something lemony, and something fresh and green.

I wouldn’t get on that boat, or anything like it, again for all the tea in China. But when the mercury rises above standard north-European operating temperature, my amygdala does a little flip-flop and I wonder what became of the captain’s mother, and envy whoever is getting to eat that soup tonight.


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