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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
By Rosemary Mahoney. Little, Brown, 2007, 268 pp.

Walking the length of Japan, bicycling through Ireland’s nasty winter, following in the frigid tracks of great Arctic explorers: the things travelers do for the sake of adventure—or perhaps for the sake of writing a travel book.

Rosemary Mahoney’s quest was to row on the Nile. Not the length of it, of course, just from Elephantine Island to Qena, in Egypt, “enough to feel that I had traveled, enough to see the river up close.”

In itself, when she finally gets to do it, this isn’t much of a challenge. Mahoney is an experienced rower—back home, near Narragansett Bay, she rows often—and the river does not offer insurmountable difficulties. The challenge is cultural. The river is men’s domain, women don’t captain boats, she is told she will not get permission from authorities, who are cautious about tourists, and she can’t find anyone to sell her a boat. Indeed, most Egyptians she talks to think the plan is “idiotic, pointless, and dangerous.” They seem “to find it inconceivable that anyone at all would want to row a boat on the Nile for no pressing or practical or, above all, lucrative reason, let alone a foreign woman.”

But Mahoney loves rowing. She finds it peaceful, she loves the isolation, she finds the water “enthralling,” and she is determined to make this happen.

Most of the book revolves around her struggle to get a boat. This endeavor takes long enough to give her room to write about Egypt, past and present. She is an excellent writer with a talent for making things interesting, even when little is happening, and she weaves historical information smoothly into her narrative. She creates vivid scenes depicting her encounters, especially with Egyptian men, who come across as an aggressive lot, constantly besieging her, and she draws an incisive and moving profile of Amr Khaled, who seems remarkably decent and thoughtful, and is the only man she meets who takes her quest seriously.

But that quest, I felt, weakened the book. As a framework, it seemed at once flimsy and irritating. The rowing itself seemed inflated as an endeavor. And I have little sympathy for travelers who visit another country, do what isn’t acceptable, and get frustrated or complain when they are mocked or ignored or discounted. Cultures differ, often profoundly, and tourists never cease to have trouble with this.

One of the most interesting aspects of Down the Nile, I thought, was the questions it raised, both directly and indirectly, about tourism. Throughout the book, Mahoney dips into Egypt’s touristic past, quoting liberally from a few earlier travelers, notably, Amelia Edwards, Florence Nightingale, and Flaubert. Their reflections provide a thought-provoking perspective on the author’s own journey and on travel itself: why we go to other countries, what we do there, and what we think we have gained.

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