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Our first full day in Egypt began with a boat ride across the Nile at 4:30 in the morning! We were to welcome the dawn from the basket of a hot-air balloon over the Egyptian desert. We’ve always wanted to go up in a balloon and when Sheri found out that we could do it in Egypt, she jumped at the chance. The worst part of the experience was that it was so early after arriving in Egypt. We were still suffering from jet lag and were a bit punch drunk from the international travel experience. But we weren’t going to miss this for anything!

Of course, the balloons are popular and we were part of at least a hundred people on this particular morning. There was an entire field of them going up at once. Watching fifteen feet of flame shoot up into the night is pretty exciting. I took hundreds of pictures on this trip.

The baskets are large and hold sixteen or twenty people at a time, divided into little compartments. The pilot is in the middle surrounded by tanks of propane. The tanks don’t last long and he changes them out quite often. The balloon pilots are actual trained pilots with uniforms displaying their wing pins. Our pilot was very professional. Sheri and I were placed directly next to him and got to watch as he worked his magic.

The flame was directly above us and HOT.

From the balloon, we could see the Nile twisting through the country with a narrow band of green fields on either side. West of us was the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut.

In the hills, we could see openings cut into the rock. Were they ancient tombs waiting to be explored, but off-limits to tourists? It made me muse on what wonders we are not allowed to see?

From our height, we were able to look down onto some of the local houses and businesses. There on the edge of the desert life is clearly harsh and hasn’t changed all that much in 3000 thousand years. There were more carts than cars and more donkeys than bicycles. But even then it seemed peaceful and content. The lack of noise that surrounds us in our normal life was stripped away at that height and it was both exciting and calming.

Even with a pillar of flame above me, I found peace and contentment in the sky above Egypt. Part of the allure of Egypt is what we imagine is there but aren’t able to see. We conjure up cities of ruins under the sea of sand and hold our breath as we round each corner.

But the grandeur we seek is long gone, only the vestiges remain among an impoverished populace that sells access to the illusion. I don’t blame them for it; this is their inheritance. But I am nostalgic for what we’ve lost.

The Nile is such an iconic river it would be difficult to live up to its vaunted reputation. For me, it has been the subject of decades of history lessons, bible lessons, favorite movies, and books. So, of course, it didn’t live up to its image.

The Nile is much narrower and calmer than I ever expected. It is a wonderful small river; clean enough for swimming and fishing. Unlike American and European rivers, the Nile is not very industrialized. In our four days on the river, I never saw a barge or a factory. There was a small amount of trash along the shore, but it was minimal compared to what I’m used to.

I expected it to be much wider. It’s narrow and clean.

I live in St Louis, Missouri, USA, right on the Mississippi, which is an industrialized and sick river. I would never swim or fish from it. Which, made the Nile such a surprise. There has been a civilization along the Nile for thousands of years and you would expect that to show in the river itself, but it doesn’t. It’s as if the river washed all those years away, leaving the land clean and natural again.

The land along the river is extensively farmed but by small family plots. We didn’t see any industrial farming as we see in the US. There was no large farm equipment at all; people still used donkey carts and manual labor to work their fields, just as their ancestors did.

The country is extremely poor and much of the population barely gets by. Many of the homes we could see along the shore were simple and crude. However, everyone smiled and waved. They genuinely wanted us there because tourism is really the only economy in Egypt.

When we scheduled our Nile cruise, we imagined a lone boat making its way along an isolated desert shore. But the ships work the same itinerary, so they cruise as a pack, parking side by side at the dock and allowing passengers to pass through to the shore. It was surprising, but I can see the logic.

The Nile is smooth and navigable, making the trip perfect for anyone that gets seasick. There was almost no movement of the deck.

We were on shore touring the sites in the morning and early afternoon. The boats leave the dock in the afternoon and usually cruise through the night. The observation deck was ideal to watch the procession and the night shores glide by. The air smells different in Egypt, clean and fresh compared to home, with a little hint of sand.

The Hollywood image of the Nile is far from its reality. It is a beautiful river flowing between lush green shores bordered by bare rocky hills behind. The valley of the Nile narrows in places to only a narrow shore before the desert pushes in. Most of the Nile valley is wide and green, extending for miles into the desert, proving that the Nile is still the lifeblood of Egypt and will lead you to adventure.

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