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'Down the Nile': Traveling by rowboat down the world's longest river

Memoirist Rosemary Mahoney describes her 120-mile solo journey down the Nile.

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"I have always resented imposed constraints, hated all the things people said one should and should not do," confesses Rosemary Mahoney in Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff. "A woman shouldn't ... A man wouldn't ... People were always conjuring up a wall and telling you to stay on your side of it."

If there ever were a chance to buck "imposed constraints" by doing something that almost no one else thinks is a good idea, rowing 120 miles down the Nile as a lone female in a tiny boat would be it.

In a country where an unescorted woman may be hassled crossing the street and on a river where grindingly poor fishermen and farmers jockey for space with enormous cruise ships, there is almost no good reason to undertake such a project. Except for one: "the pure love of rowing," insists Mahoney, who writes convincingly of the joy she finds in the surprising power of her own two arms.

Add to that a passion for the Nile. "The Nile was the longest river in the world," writes Mahoney. "It rubbed against ten nations. Some 250 million people depended on it for their survival. It had fostered whole cultures and inspired immense social and scientific concepts." What adventurous memoirist – particularly one seeking a topic for her next book – would not wish to ride on its back?

That Mahoney is adventurous is by now a matter of record. In earlier books she tells of tracing on foot the routes to some of the world's great religious shrines ("The Singular Pilgrim") and serving her Peace Corps years in China ("The Early Arrival of Dreams"). In "A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman," she also tells how, at the age of 17 she offered herself as a housekeeper to Lillian Hellman, the heroine she had never met – an impulse that proved both supremely brave and surpassingly foolish.

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