The Felucca and the Flea

GOODBYE, Cairo. Our warm berths in the elderly overnight train were dusted by electric fans buzzing counterpoint to the clickety clack, our windows black against the dark night of Egypt. ``Welcome to Luxor. I am Asad, your waiter.'' He was small and dark in his white jacket, his black mustache bushy and dramatic above his bright, very formal smile.

English-style breakfast. Eggs, bacon and sausage, grilled tomatoes, warm toast, marmalade, and hot tea. Exactly what the Old Winter Palace Hotel has been serving since Victorians first came for health and history. How had the English sausages gotten to Luxor? we wondered. Had they sailed on a felucca to this old religious capital called Thebes in Pharaoh's day? Mary picked at hers as she moved and fidgeted in her chair. Asad, unsmiling now, noticed Mary when he brought more toast. As she brushed back her bangs, her blue eyes twinkled bravely to assure him that the hot breakfast was just the right meal on a scorching morning in Egypt, ancient or modern.

``I can't leave for the temple just yet. I'd better have another bath. Cold this time. I'm just ... scratchy....''

``Eeeeek,'' from the bathroom. The eeeeks began to achieve a certain eloquence, reveal certain information. We had not just clickety clacked on the train all by ourselves.

Mary had acquired a friend. A flea. On her person. The splashing turned triumphant as the relationship was terminated.

And once itch-free, Mary was to find that hoary wonder of the world, the immense Temple of Karnak, stonily impressive. She raced along the long rows of sphinx and we both stared at the colossal columns and the hieroglyphic walls, memorializing immemorial kingdoms. There were marvelous names in the guidebook: Rameses, Queen Hatshepsut, Tutankhamen. They made great lyrics for a song Mary made up, her Egyptian song.

But the sand-stormed ruins were too stark for us that morning in the sunshine. Even the shadows were hot. We could not imagine long-ago trumpets and soldiers and chanting priests and dancing girls and haughty pharaohs.

To avoid other tourists we had come late in the season, in June. We did not want to see overmotivated Westerners, chanting their jet-lagged travel talk, posturing with their palm-size auto focus, their camcorders, and choreographed by guides spieling the wrong language, anyway. No, that had not been our romantic idea as we stood there, sweating in the sunshine and the centuries.

Suddenly, unromantically, a camcorder poked its nose around a column. The steely eye in the viewfinder, catching us instead of a stray pharaoh, turned out to belong to a little lady from Topeka, Kansas. Besides, she already knew that we had been ``put'' at her party's table for dinner, and wondered what Asad might be serving. She and her party were on their way south, to the great dam at Aswan.

``No, Anwar, I'll not eat salad. They say....''

``His name is Asad,'' whispered Mary.

``Whatever. I know this isn't Kansas, but I also know he isn't Egyptian. I expected Egyptians everywhere, especially in Egypt. Our guide says he's Palestinian. Not from here at all.''

Topeka wondered if he could even speak Egyptian, but Mary explained that actually Arabic was the language, as well as some German, French, Italian, and English for the tourists.

``More than I can speak, Mary. Well, Asad, I suppose that Egypt is pretty much like home,'' Topeka volunteered, looking up from her menu. This was Topeka's own dream trip, and she could not help being friendly.

``Oh, the sand is about the same, ma'am. My family lost home. We are Palestinian people.'' Asad smiled an unfelt smile as he tugged at his jacket. It was too large.

Topeka's hand fumbled with her huge reproduction Egyptian necklace she bought in Cairo. Her eyes sought the middle distance. ``Oh dear. This ... is not home, then. Homeless in Egypt. So many homeless.... I am sorry.'' Topeka retreated to the menu and ordered ice cream. Vanilla.

Next morning, all Luxor waved Topeka and her party off on the boat for Aswan. Comings and goings are huge events in Egypt, and Topeka videotaped the bedlam. Egyptian smiles, Nubian smiles, Palestinian smiles, tourist smiles, all the frantic laughter and waving, waving there by the river.

The river's workhorse, the felucca, is a souvenir of the pharaohs. The small sailing boat was doing duty long before Cleopatra ordered her barge built. So, after a busy day and a dull lecture on the Valley of the Kings, we sought out a captain. In the moonlight, our Sudanese, with his crew of one, helped us up the wobbly, slippery gangplank.

After we pushed off, the black water was so flat the current was not visible. The great sail luffed quietly and the slight wake caught the moonlight. Our silent sailors with their timeless profiles and fluttering robes seemed as young or as old as the felucca itself.

We tacked back and forth, back and forth in front of the Temple of Karnak. Flattered and transformed by the moonlight, these oldest of stones revealed to us, at last, the secret processions of slaves with trumpets' loud clangor, soldiers with the double, double, double beat of dateless drums, chanting priests, and dancing girls with crashing cymbals and the glitter of solid gold ornaments, their kohl-laden eyes flashing. Even Pharaoh condescended to cast a turquoise shadow....

Sunny breakfast on our last morning was still English, still hot. Asad told us that the sausages were flown in from London these days. Frozen. He asked us where we were going next. We answered Greece, to Greece on our way home. Then we told him about the flea. He laughed through his smile.

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