Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 16, 2017
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Mystic Rivers

The world's ancient waterways make
for spellbinding voyages

There is a magic about a riverboat -- wherever the river, whatever the boat. It has to do with the easy, unruffled rhythm mercifully out of whack with computer chips, jumbo jets, megaships and anxiety attacks.

From a riverboat, the world floats past in three bands: water, shore and sky. Charlie Allnut, the gin-soaked river rat played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1951 film The African Queen understood this romance, and so became one of the great, unlikely lovers in screen history.

A river or two, and you're hooked. Over the years, I've cruised the Nile, the Yangtze, the Amazon, Myanmar's Irrawaddy, the Mekong, the Thames, the Danube and the Mississippi. Each river has its own life. Rivers are as different as lovers. And as intoxicating.

If cruise ships thrive on the concept of ship as destination, a riverboat comes with a destination. Don't go looking for nightclubs, gambling casinos, discos or spas. This is a gentle, intimate, romantic way to travel. A river cruise keeps you in touch with place. You're constantly off the boat exploring. On days of full sailing, the shore is always there, always changing. Whether it's temples on the Nile or emerald jungle on the Amazon, they're there because of the river -- as are you.

The Nile
The most ancient waterway is the Nile. At least 70 boats cruise the Nile, usually on five-day runs between Luxor and Aswan. I found a boat, the MS Neptune, which took 10 days and covered a full 1600 kilometres of river between Cairo and Aswan.

Reaching from snowy peaks in central Africa to the Mediterranean at Alexandria, the Nile is the longest river in the world -- a shimmering blue ribbon undulating between tan deserts. Its images are timeless: feluccas, single-masted sailing craft, fluttering like moths in the peachy hues of dusk. Villages of mud huts, inhabited by peasants and their menageries of camels, donkeys and goats. Naked boys waving to foreign women. Houses painted with flying carpets and Boeing 747s, proclaiming the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Of all the temples and tombs along the Nile, the best are at Luxor -- Thebes in ancient times. Here is Karnak Temple with its forest of sandstone pillars, an open textbook on the art, architecture and pomp of the New Kingdom. But there are also the back streets and markets of today's Luxor, redolent of coriander and camel shit. Buses screech past, passengers clinging to the sides like aphids. Jars of indigo blue and bins of crimson chilies sit side by side under portraits of Hosni Mubarek and Bruce Lee. Across the river in the Valley of the Kings lies Tut's boutique tomb.

The river has time, at least 5000 years of it. This is an Egypt so ancient, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra and the Arabs were latecomers. To cope with time, we need time, and a slow boat gave us that. After a while, things began to sink in and we began to get the difference between Horus and Hathor, Ka and Ba and the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms.

The voyage ended at a Cairo mooring. We confronted Cairo traffic, the real Death on the Nile.

The Amazon
Our smallish Greek cruise ship felt like a chamber pot on the sheer immensity of the Amazon, which is as wide as an inland sea. It may not be as long as the Nile but, in volume, it is the world's largest river, emptying 34 million litres of water into the Atlantic daily.

Edging impenetrable jungle, you sense hugeness, mystery, cruelty, but also something finite and vulnerable. Wander off ship anywhere on the voyage and you're lost forever. You would perish among species of life as baffling to you and I as a computer chip would be to a tribesman with a blow gun.

Riverboats made their way downstream from Equitos, 3200 kilometres up river. Brown children materialized in dug-out canoes to greet the Greek monster studded with bulging eyes and zoom lenses. We swam where the Amazon was as green and warm as parsley soup. Brazilian girls voluptuous beyond their years loped around in tangas, the strings that display those round behinds to tantalizing effect.

After 1600 kilometres of cruising, we reached Manaus, where the Rio Negro flows into the Amazon, black and brown currents flowing side by side for 60 kilometres. Rubber barons made Manaus one of the world's richest cities in the 19th century, a sort of Gay Paree-on-the-Amazon.

The jungle brooded as we navigated Amazon tributaries in motorized canoes, entering a realm of tangled roots and gnarled trees six metres around at the base. We could have paddled another thousand kilometres and seen nothing but jungle, monkeys, brilliantly coloured parrots and endless roots.

The Mekong
Among the world's rivers, the Mekong is siren: the very name is magic. It flows out of China, snaking its way through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam en route to the South China Sea. Marco Polo saw it in the 13th century, possibly the first Westerner to be mesmerized by this ribbon of water that sustains and reveals life in Southeast Asia.

Today, two replicated 1870s riverboats -- the RV Mekong Pandaw and RV Tonle Pandaw -- are voyaging the Mekong. Each carries 60-odd passengers. Their common assets include teak decks, roof lounges with deck chairs, air-conditioned cabins with spacious showers and comfortable captain's beds.

We started at the Mekong Delta, known as the River of Nine Dragons because the waterway forks into nine branches as it greets the South China Sea. It was a journey through canals, lagoons, water villages, floating markets, temples and pagodas. Life swirled around us.

At the Cambodian border, the red tape was maddening, taking more than five hours as paperwork was exchanged and passports stamped. I found solace in a form that read: "Passengers may be required to pass through immigration officials."

We cruised on past Phnom Penh to the Upper Mekong. The river turned green and broad as the Amazon. Sandbars appeared like wind-coiffed shards of desert in the stream, temple spires glimmered against a Kodachrome sky, water buffalo immersed themselves up to their necks, fishermen netted dinner from the backs of long-tailed canoes and villagers stared at us like phantoms sweeping through their backyards.

At Phnom Penh, the Pandaw switches to the Tonle River. We entered a realm of floating villages and moored on Tonle Lake. The torpid day ended with a red dusk darkening into an indigo sky studded with fat little diamonds. Next morning, with water levels too low, we transfered to speedboats for the final lap to Angkor.

The capital of a Hindu empire that sprawled across Southeast Asia, Angkor ranks alongside Egypt's Pyramids and the archeology of Greece and Rome in scope and impact. It can drive you batty trying to see all of it. The best preserved of the 100 temples -- and the largest religious building in the world -- is Angkor Wat.

Yet I would rather crawl around Ta Prohm, which remains as deeply engulfed in jungle as it was when European explorers first stumbled across it in the 19th century.

This is the Indiana Jones temple, the lost city of Hollywood imagination, all crumbling towers and corridors, gnarled tendrils wrapped around tumbled stones, huge root systems snaking over shrines, carvings turned green with moss and lichens, sunshine streaking in through towering banyan trees.

Between bouts of temple-climbing, we found creature comforts in the amiable boomtown of Siem Reap. For dinner, we caught a tuk-tuk to Madame Butterfly, a verandaed Cambodian manse. It was the moment to salute this beautiful land, these descendents of the ancient Khmers and the river that brought us here and wish them all peace for the next thousand years.

The Mississippi
When they weren't in uniform -- black pipe hats, fancy black capes, brocade vests, diamond stickpins, frilly shirts -- they posed as farmers and backwoodsmen to sucker the passengers. They were rogues, the riverboat gamblers of the muddy Mississippi.

Now we play Mississippi gamblers aboard a paddle wheeler whose total itinerary follows the great American river system along 19000 kilometres of waterways from New Orleans to as far north as St. Paul, Minnesota.

Aboard the Mississippi Queen with her twin-fluted stacks, seven decks and 70-tonne red paddlewheel, I watched the river under a purple sky. New Orleans resembled a vast, twinkling party. Mark Twain's words, on his first steamboat voyage, came to haunt me: "I was a traveller! A word never has tasted so good in my mouth before."

The stretch of Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is ugly and polluted, its traffic a procession of ocean-going freighters and flat barges piled with everything from coal to hazardous chemicals marked with red flags.

When we entered a sudden, fantastical realm of flashes and sparkles, pools of steam and smoke, and trembling reflections in indigo waters, it turned out to be the 28 square kilometres of Exxon Refinery. Its tubes, tanks and industrial stupas lit like an apocalyptic set from the movie Blade Runner.

In Natchez, Mississippi, passengers swooned at Greek Revival plantation homes, Victorian galleries, Tuscan columns, Spanish arches, vaulted ceilings and damask draperies -- the comforts of American maharajahs. Crew members recalled Lady Godiva of Natchez, a local cocktail waitress who quit on the spot when a gentleman offered to sweep her away on horseback. She ripped off all her clothes, jumped into the saddle and galloped back and forth alongside the boat.

Vicksburg, Mississippi, was our northernmost port of call. Vicksburg National Military Park was the site of the 47-day siege and battle of 1863, which saw control of the Mississippi pass from the Confederacy to Union forces. It is a sprawling chapter of American history peppered with graves. Three-quarters of the 17,000 tombs are marked "unknown." I was taken by the tale of Albert Cashire, a fierce trench-fighter with the Illinois regiment. He turned out to be Jennie Hodges, one of 220 women who enlisted and fought undetected as men during the Civil War.

I also learned something about the Natchez Indians, who were vanquished or sold into slavery by the French in 1730. Their burial mounds provided intriguing information. Society was divided into aristocrats and ordinary "stinkards" -- just like ours.

The Mississippi Queen returned to New Orleans on a morning as grey as a taxman's smile. What awaited was the denouement of the gangplank. This stinkard knew exactly how Mark Twain felt when he wrote about the steamboat's arrival at a Mississippi port: "Before these events, the day was glorious with expectancy; after them, the day was a dead and empty thing."

 

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