The wake from a larger vessel rocked the felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailboat, heaving it against the pontoon it was docked beside. As water entered the hull, the two Americans aboard imagined their mission of personal diplomacy sinking along with their second-hand boat. Ayman Hazem, 25, their Egyptian captain, jumped into action and fashioned a plug out of a bar of soap. Then he called to men mixing concrete on the shore and acquired enough material to fill the hole permanently. The patch on their newly delivered breach held for the remainder of the hundred-day journey from Aswan to Alexandria.
Will Raynolds, 30, and Joshua Maricich, 31, knew what they were getting into when they set out to sail the length of the Egyptian Nile in September 2011. Both had sailing experience back home on the Pacific coast of the United States and had lived in the Middle East for years—Will as an archaeologist studying ancient ruins in Libya, Josh as a journalist reporting from Yemen. (They originally met as Fulbright scholars in Jordan in 2005.) When violent uprisings in those countries brought them to Cairo, they decided a 1,200-kilometer river journey would be a fascinating way to witness the changes taking place in Egypt—and perhaps foster some cultural ties along the way.
Aboard the felucca, which they christened Jasmine in honor of Tunisia’s Jasmine Spring revolt, Raynolds and Maricich moved slowly through the densely populated countryside, docking each night in villages that most Egyptians and certainly foreign tourists pass over on their way to bigger cities. The government assigned them a police detail to travel north of Luxor, an area known for sectarian violence and acts of terrorism. “It was hard for us to accept that security concerns were so dire,” said Raynolds. “In every village, they would welcome us but then warn us about the next village.” After docking one evening, gunshots on shore deterred them from leaving the Jasmine.
A few weeks later, a group of civilians who believed that Raynolds and Maricich may be foreign spies accosted them inside an Internet café in Upper Egypt. Days earlier, three American students had been arrested and deported for participating in clashes in Cairo. Raynolds and Maricich were questioned by local authorities, then released.
One of the reasons the travelers attracted attention in an area rarely visited by outsiders was the American flag flying from the stern. Fishermen cursed them, and in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, two children responded to the U.S. Stars and Stripes by hurling bricks at the Jasmine. More often, however, local residents opened their doors and hearts after spotting the foreign faces. “We put a different spin on what they think they know about America,” said Maricich.
The river journey ended in August, but Raynolds and Maricich are on a new mission: to contribute to a better understanding of Egypt, especially of its rural region and people, through speaking engagements inside the country at venues including the American University in Cairo, as well as in the United States. They also plan to publish a book about their hundred days on the Nile. The Egyptian family whosefelucca they purchased has put four generations on the river, from the times when such vessels were mainly used for trading rather than touristic excursions, and sailors knew every contour of the river’s flow. With the family rocked by harder economic times after the Egyptian revolution, the felcucca they sold to Raynolds and Maricich was the last the family owned. “Getting a taste for some of that knowledge that was handed down,” says Raynolds, “was a privilege.”