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An American Woman Rows Down The Nile

Many Americans explore the world's exotic locales with a group, led by an experienced tour guide. However, some tourists prefer to travel solo, without the safety and the comfort others expect or demand. Adam Phillips introduces us to one such traveler: author Rosemary Mahoney, who rowed a small boat, alone, up 200 kilometers of the Nile River in Egypt.

When Rosemary Mahoney began her love affair with the land of Egypt, she was already well-known as a lone adventurer and an author. She had chronicled her journeys through India, Israel, Ireland, Spain and China and a written a critically-acclaimed memoir. But as she writes in her new book, Rowing Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff, she had no idea how smitten she would be as a rower after her first glimpse of the world's longest river.

"I felt that the Nile would be the perfect body of water to row a boat on," she recalls. "The river is wide, it's gentle, it's flat, it never rains there and it's incredibly beautiful." Mahoney resolved to return to the Land of the Pharaohs, and row a significant portion of the river alone. "And after a couple of years, it happened!" she exults.

But it did not happen until Mahoney overcame several unexpected obstacles. First, she needed a rowboat, and found it was a struggle to convince anyone to sell her one. For millennia, Egyptians have plied the Nile only to fish or transport goods. For them, the Nile was a place for hard work, not pleasure. Second — and even more incredible to the men in this still highly traditional Muslim culture — there was the fact of Mahoney's gender.

"A lot of them told me 'you're a woman! You don't know how to row,'" she says, in a tone of voice reminiscent of the mix of frustration and bemusement one detects throughout her book. "And I said 'Look, I'll show you I know how to row.' And a couple of guys would let me take their boat for five minutes and they were quite amazed that I knew how to do it."

Finally, after nearly a month of effort, Mahoney pushed off from the riverbank of the ancient city of Aswan in southern Egypt and onto the Nile, realizing her years-long dream. She remembers, "The first day I was actually on the river by myself rowing the boat, I never felt more alive. It was so exciting. It was so thrilling to me. I felt so free."

Indeed, Mahoney also felt that she was traveling backwards in time, as well as northward in space. She says that she might see an occasional plastic water bottle floating on the river, and some telephone wires alongside the bank "…but other than that, it's palm trees, banana trees, dates and farms. You see people plowing with water buffalo the way they might have 2000 years ago."

The novelty of these timeless scenes began to wear off after a few days, and the Egyptian people themselves became the attraction.

"I met a little girl in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor, who offered to give me the doll she was carrying as a gift. And I said 'No. You have to keep your doll. That is much too big a gift to give to me!' So instead she gave me the ribbon that was in her hair. And it was just so adorable!" Mahoney also writes of the Christian woman she met who feared that her family's minority status would deprive her child of future education and work opportunities, and the Nubian farmer who invited her to his mud brick home to share a traditional meal with his family.

Mahoney says that her experiences with the people of Egypt run counter to the stereotype some Americans have that Arabs are threatening.

"In fact," she says, "they are very friendly, they are very curious and they are very generous."

Most of the people Mahoney met along the river were men, but to her surprise, often what they most wanted to talk about with her was sex. In much of Egyptian society, it is still taboo for men to discuss the subject of sex openly even among themselves, much less with a woman.

"But I understood that because I am not Egyptian, and I am not Muslim, the rules are different for me," she says. "Just the fact that I could walk down the street by myself and sit in the restaurant alone [set me apart]. Egyptian women would never do this…."

She believes that because of the way Western women often dress -- in jeans and sleeveless shirts — they are seen as 'easy prey' by many in Egypt.

"A lot of men followed me. They wanted me to go dancing with them. They invite you to marry them after speaking to you for an hour." But she hastens to add that, even though there was often sexual tension in the air, "not a single Egyptian man ever treated me in a truly inappropriate way. No one ever touched me. I felt safer in Egypt than in New York." She concludes that although her experience runs counter to the stereotype, it is accurate."

Mahoney's five-day trip down the Nile was not without its moments of genuine fear and confusion. But for her, those emotions were as much a part of a journey as the ancient Nile itself.

"I like to put myself out into the world and see what happens," she says. "For me, it is a desire to live more fully."