On the Road, Egypt: The Sudan


It was hot.  I was the only one aboard.  Anyone else would have found a way to cancel.  Not The Sudan.

Dark wood.  Etched windows.  A tradition of serving royalty with more elegance and refinement than could probably be claimed by all those Highnesses combined.  Reduced, in this heat, to serving little old me.

Walking the quay at Luxor…towering, “mid-century-modern” cruise ships with faux pharaonic columns and Egyptian art sporting rhinestones that would shame Las Vegas.  Not my taste.

Suddenly…sleek, trim, all dark wood and sparkling brass…The Sudan.  Built in 1885 for King Fouad.

As I step aboard two men in floor-length burgundy shirts, with just a tasteful touch of burnished gold trim, greet me.  One opens an antique food warmer to reveal an artfully arranged moist towel to wipe the dust and sweat from my face and hands.  The other offers a refreshing drink, subtly spiced.  I hadn’t always been visible from the shore as I walked through Luxor.  Yet they seemed to know the exact moment when I would return.

After smiles, bows, and well wishes are exchanged, I ascend an ornate wooden staircase that would make a Victorian mansion proud.  It curves graciously, leading me up to the “promenade deck” where my cabin awaits me.  It’s deliciously cool, thanks to one of the very few intrusions from less gracious centuries.  But the air conditioning is delivered through wide mahogany louvers into a trim, 19th-Century cabin of gleaming brass and dark-wood paneling.  I can easily imagine a khaki-clad Egyptologist tossing his straw helmet with neat leather straps on the crisp white linens of the bed.  But the cabin is actually dedicated to Hercule Poirot because this is, in fact, the steam ship Agatha Christie was on when she was inspired by it to write Death on the Nile and was used, either actually or in a model based on it, in its film versions.

Naturally the professionally invisible staff sneaked into my cabin while I was gone to tidy up and leave me a treat to eat.  Dare I follow in the tracks of the likes of Queen Elizabeth to dine in the dining salon.  At least my father taught me which sterling silver fork to use for what.

But no hint of my relative insignificance from The Sudan.  Sympatico, perhaps, in a land where many may feel insignificant compared to thousands upon thousands of years of their own ancestors’ miraculous achievements?

Yet The Sudan’s current achievements are miraculous.

A waiter manages to appear instantly whenever I finish the last bite of a delicious dish.  With consummate elegance, he pauses just long enough to get my tacit approval before removing the dish…always managing a broad, seemingly both spontaneous and sincere smile that hints delicately that there is nothing he’d rather do than remove another of my dishes from the table and that somehow the whole thing…perhaps life itself…is an inside joke between us.

Although The Sudan is currently managed by a French tour company…Voyageurs du Monde, which would explain the exquisite cuisine…they supply an English-speaking Egyptian, who can read hieroglyphics as if taught at his mother’s knee, as my guide.  After showing me the ancient wonders of Luxor, the Sudan steams up for my leisurely, days long, trip to Aswan.  Ancient, well-oiled machinery purrs.  Paddle wheels slap the water quietly.  Luxor slips away and I enter a world from a dream as horses nicker, donkeys bray, oxen low, and children wave and call and run along the Nile’s shores.  It’s all so quiet I imagine I could hear a baby coo in a back bedroom facing the Western Desert.  Two-man fisherman teams…one rowing, the other standing to deploy the net…use the same equipment and techniques I’ve seen depicted in carvings almost 5,000 years old.

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