My romantic impression of the Nile had been informed by the paintings of David Roberts, the nineteenth-century Scottish artist who depicted the Egyptian Nile as a lagoonish idyll of soft-sanded banks, mirror-still coves, stands of tasseled reeds, oxen lazily grazing in the shade of slender date palms, barefoot women balancing water jugs on their heads, and sails flushed pink by a tropical sun setting enormously in the distance, which distance was always punctuated by either a colossus, an obelisk, a minaret, or a pyramid. Roberts had depicted the Nile that way because that was the way the Nile looked when he saw it in 1838.
On that first trip to Egypt, in 1996, I boarded a cruise ship in Luxor, steamed southward up the river, and found on the second day out that, without my having registered the gradual change, we had somewhere along the way shed Luxor's modern urban shabbiness and glided into the precincts of a David Roberts canvas. From the luxurious deck of the ship, it struck me one evening that I was looking at an ox, palm trees, sandy banks, mirror-still coves, water jugs on women's heads, pink sails in an archaeological distance. I saw flamingos and storks, soft colors, an explosive sunset, obelisks and minarets, and now and then a ruined pharaonic temple. I saw no skyscraper and only several buildings that could be truly termed modern. But for a few power lines threading in and out of the tops of palm trees, an occasional plastic water bottle bobbing on the current, a motorized water pump, and a handful of water jugs made not of clay but of aluminum, there was little in the rural Nile landscape to suggest that nearly two hundred years had passed since David Roberts visited Egypt. Beyond Egypt's cities, the Nile was much as I had always envisioned it - a rare instance of a fantastical preconception matched by reality.
I was charmed. With a score of middle-aged Spaniards sunbathing on the large deck behind me, I leaned against the ship's railing and watched, entranced, as the Nile slipped by. The wide river and its green banks looked old and placid, inscrutable and inviting, and yet it was all as distant and inaccessible to me as it had always been. Unable to leave the ship, with its planned itinerary and guided tours, I realized I might as well be watching this wonder from behind a glass wall. What I wanted, really, was not just to see the Nile River but to sit in the middle of it in my own boat, alone.
I BEGAN ROWING some ten years ago when I lived on a small island in Maine. Forced to ferry myself over the water, I found that I enjoyed the task. Rowing was a peaceful, meditative activity, and the constant movement - the inherent mobility - of the water was enthralling. Land was stationary and always belonged to somebody. Water, on the other hand, was free. It moved and shifted and traveled. It was volatile, and when aroused it could be unforgiving. I found it frightening and a little bit thrilling to think that the water that throws itself against the coast of Kennebunkport in July might feasibly be the same particular water that laps at the crab-covered rocks in Bombay Harbor the following March. And it pleased me to realize that I could sit in a small boat and propel myself across all this hugely moving water with an engine no more powerful than my own two arms. One day I told the woman who owned the island I lived on that I planned to row across Penobscot Bay to another island two or three miles away. She protested, said it was impossible, made me promise her I wouldn't try. I promised, then did it anyway, and having successfully done it, I wanted to do more, to go farther, to row elsewhere. I rowed wherever I had a chance - in Boston Harbor and Central Park and a lake in southern France. I rowed on the Charles River in a carbuncled dinghy, while the elegant fours and eights speared by like airborne swans. I rowed on the Aegean Sea and on a pond in Oregon.
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney
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