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Noura Seif, left, and Mariam Salah take a ride on Nile Taxi on May 28. / Sarah Lynch for USA TODAY

CAIRO - Mariam Salah threw her head back and laughed when water surged over the side of a speedboat as she and a classmate zipped down the Nile River recently.

This wasn't the pair's typical way to get from a southern Cairo suburb to the heart of the capital. But with a main road crammed on a recent afternoon, they opted to trek by boat.

"I like it so much - the nice weather, no blocked streets," said Salah, 22, zooming past the Nile's banks as a captain steered the speedboat. "We usually take the road every day, and this is much better."

Egypt's Nile - celebrated, feared, embraced and revered for thousands of years - has been the lifeblood of civilization here for more than five millennia, connecting the depths of Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, inundating fields with rich, vital floods and serving as the main avenue for movement.

Now, Nile Taxi is reinvigorating an old practice of using the river for transport by offering speedboat taxi rides to commuters on the ancient waterway. "More than 50% of the time, it saves more than 50% of the time," said Magdi Kirollos Ghali, Nile Taxi's co-founder and CEO.

Cairo's traffic is time-consuming, frustrating, costly and deadly. According to a recent World Bank report, congestion in the capital wastes about $6.5 billion annually - a hefty sum in a nation where three years of political turmoil has led to a crumbling economy.

The issue appears to be a government priority. Last week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said commuting by bike could save the state money. He then led a horde of bikers on a nearly 12-mile ride - the average daily distance covered by Egyptian commuters. And this week, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said one main focus of forthcoming security efforts will be easing traffic, the state news agency MENA reported.

The entrepreneurial spirit here is strong, with 71% of Egyptian respondents in the 2014 ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey agreeing that people in this generation are more likely to start a business than in previous generations.

Other examples of start-ups in Egypt include a mobile phone application (Bey2ollak) that lets users exchange information on road traffic patterns while Pie Ride shuttles passengers heading to the same place in a shared car. Tawseela is a private bus service that seeks to offer "the most relaxing productive, fun and enjoyable journey on the streets of Cairo."

But Nile Taxi - whose founders have worked in the maritime business for years - looks to the river, which is a reminder of Egypt's magnificent past and is still central to life here today.

"It's rational that you'd take it because it saves a lot of time," said Louis Kirollos, Magdi's son, who says the river should be used more for transport. "It's also an emotional experience."

The Nile, which flows from south to north, shares its waters with 11 countries, entering Egypt through Sudan. From the city of Aswan in southern Egypt, the river is passable by boat for hundreds of miles heading north, which was key to the 5,000-year-old unification of Upper and Lower Egypt and made the waterway central to trade and transportation in antiquity.

"The Nile in ancient Egypt was indeed the major highway," said Mariam Ayad, associate professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. "It was very easy to travel up and down the Nile and required little effort compared to other waterways."

Until the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the mid-1900s, mineral-rich floods swelled over its banks, feeding abundant fields and leading to the rise of an accomplished civilization. Ancient temples and stunning historical sites still stand near the river's banks.

"The Nile was the cardiovascular system of ancient Egypt," said Egyptologist and tour guide Ahmed Seddik. "Without it, Egypt would cease to be Egypt."

Today, 95% of Egyptians live within a few miles of the Nile, which is the country's main water source. Agriculture is a major sector of the economy thanks to canals that sprout from the river. Before it fans out to form the Nile Delta and empties into the Mediterranean Sea, the waterway cuts directly through the capital, giving the city an advantage over those in other developing countries, say experts.

Just after sunrise in Cairo, rowers in racing shells glide along. At sundown, colorful party boats blaring music set out. Throughout the day, feluccas, traditional boats made of wood, set sail. Poor fishermen heave tattered nets from rowing boats. The occasional cargo ship hauls goods for construction. Slow ferries transport passengers. And every so often, a water skier braves the polluted waters, which also host tourist cruise boats.

Nile Taxi costs the equivalent of about $4.20 a person a ride, which isn't accessible to most. It is considered a treat by some others.

As wind whipped her hair, Noura Seif, 29, said she would probably take the shuttle again when traffic is unbearable. Speeding down the river toward a dance class she takes in a neighborhood farther north, she yelled over the engine's roar, "It's a very fancy way to get there!"



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Nile River: Egypt's artery in more ways than one

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