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Two strangers met on the River Nile. They’ve been married for 25 years

<i>Christina Kandil</i><br/>Here's the Kimo moored at Aswan
Christina Kandil
Christina Kandil
Here's the Kimo moored at Aswan

Francesca Street, CNN

Christina Ward had only known Wahid Kandil for six months when he asked her to marry him.

The couple were sitting on a bench overlooking the River Nile one evening, the ancient Temple of Luxor illuminated behind them.

Wahid turned to Christina. “So, are we getting married or what?” he asked.

Christina almost laughed. The question was somehow both out of nowhere and long-awaited.

Since meeting as colleagues on a Nile tour boat, Christina, from the UK, and Wahid, from Egypt, had spent every moment they could together.

“To be able to say I fell in love while sailing down the Nile under the moon and stars sounds very romantic but that’s exactly what happened,” Christina tells CNN Travel today.

Christina had arrived in Egypt in October 1996, spurred on by her self-described “itchy feet.” She was 28 and desperate to see the world, so the six month stint as an Egypt-based tour guide for an adventure travel company seemed like the perfect opportunity. She’d essentially be paid to travel. Plus, she loved Egypt and was fascinated by the country’s ancient history.

As tour leader, Christina was responsible for shepherding groups of 25 travelers on two-week-long trips around the country.

“We’d visit Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada and Cairo and do lots of side trips like riding donkeys at sunrise to the Valley of the Kings, riding camels into abandoned monasteries in the desert, dinner at Nubian family homes,” recalls Christina.

Part of each trip took place on what Christina calls “the backpackers boat of the Nile.”

This was the Kimo, a small tour boat home to a series of bunk bed-filled cabins, where Christina and her charges would sleep while on board, as well as a dining room and a sundeck, where raucous parties would take place as the boat sailed down the river.

On her first night in Egypt, Christina introduced herself to the Kimo’s crew. She wanted to establish a good rapport with her new colleagues. She was especially keen to meet the boat’s manager, 26-year-old Wahid Kandil, as they’d be working closely together. As manager, it was Wahid’s job to ensure everything on board ran smoothly — which often it didn’t — as well as look after the crew, provisions, budget and help Christina ensure the tourists had a good time.

Cairo-born Wahid had previously put a degree in horticulture to use as an agriculture engineer on a large farm in the desert, but he found working on the tour boat way more fun. Wahid enjoyed meeting people from across the world — and he still embraced his love of gardening when he took tourists on side trips to the islands dotted down the Nile, teaching them about local plant species.

On her second evening in Egypt, Christina found herself sitting next to Wahid outside one of the Kimo’s cabins. The two smoked together and “had a bit of a flirt” as Chirstina puts it.

She liked Wahid right away, and later that evening scribbled a line or two about him in her diary.

Wahid liked Christina too, but he was wary. In his time working on the Kimo, he’d noticed a trend — young women would turn up from the UK to temporarily work in Egypt tourism and enjoy a brief fling with a local. He felt like they were looking for Egyptian boyfriends more for the sake of novelty than anything else, so he usually steered well clear of boat romances.

“I always kind of rejected that,” he says today.

But as the days rolled on, Wahid and Christina gravitated towards one another. Sure, they were both busy with the tours — and there was no privacy on the Kimo, so there was “no deep conversation,” as Wahid puts it. But they stole every chance they could to chat and flirt.

Falling in love on the Nile

From day one, Christina loved working as a tour guide. She enjoyed traveling around Egypt, but she especially loved the days spent on board the Kimo.

“Sailing on the Nile is magical,” she says.

One evening, Christina dropped her tour group off for dinner on land in the Egyptian city of Aswan. Then she popped back onto the boat to see if she could catch Wahid. She spotted him, wandered over to say hello, and asked what he was doing later.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Christina says today.

“Yes you did,” says Wahid, laughing.

“Well, maybe I was flirting a bit,” admits Christina.

Wahid said he was around that evening, and so he and Christina arranged to meet up at a nearby hotel bar. But then Christina was summoned back to her tour guide duties, and she ended up being 45 minutes late to the date. She had no way of contacting Wahid to let him know, as neither had cell phones. So, after finishing up work, headed to the hotel as fast as she could.

“When I walked in, he had a face like absolute thunder,” says Christina.

Wahid was standing by reception, writing a note for his would-be date, which he intended to leave with the staff.

“It was quite an angry note,” Wahid says, recalling that he’d written: “Nobody’s ever stood me up like this.”

But when Christina explained her tardiness was out of her hands, Wahid relented. The two went inside together and found a table on the bar terrace. They were at the Old Cataract Hotel, a five-star establishment on the banks of the river, famous for being the spot where English crime writer Agatha Christie wrote her detective novel “Death on the Nile.”

“It was a really beautiful terrace — very romantic, looking over the Nile,” says Christina. “It was just amazing.”

“But very expensive,” adds Wahid. He didn’t tell Christina at the time, but the cost of their multiple drinks and snacks ate up a significant proportion of his monthly salary.

Still, at that moment, he didn’t care. He was just happy to spend time with Christina — especially because their conversation that night moved beyond the boat-based, flirtatious back and forth to something deeper.

“That was the first time that we really talked about a wide range of things,” says Wahid.

They discussed their thoughts on family, faith and their life goals.

“I think it clicked that we really get along very, very well,” says Wahid.

“It was a late night,” says Christina.

The next day, the two were back to work on the Kimo and the glow of the night before slightly faded when they had a bit of a workplace “power struggle,” as Christina puts it.

Wahid planned an unscheduled boat stop and Christina questioned the logistics of the decision — she was worried the tour was running late.

“I’m standing there going, ‘You can’t do this!’ So we ended up having a little bit of a power tussle, which is quite funny,” she recalls.

It was a little heated, but still light-hearted. It was obvious that, even when they were arguing, Christina and Wahid enjoyed each other’s company.

Still, neither of them thought that the burgeoning relationship would go anywhere.

From Christina’s point of view, her time in Egypt had an end date and therefore so did her relationship with Wahid. After working in Egypt, she planned to spend six months as a tour guide in Turkey.

“I thought, ‘This is just my first trip. This is just six months in Egypt, and I’m going on somewhere else afterwards, so this is just a temporary thing,'” says Christina.

As for Wahid, he had other pressures weighing on his mind. Shortly before Christina came into his life, Wahid’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer. This news had upturned his world, leading him to question every part of his life.

“My mum obviously was a very part important of my life,” he says. “I was quite torn at that time. It was very rough.”

When he first learned of his mother’s illness, Wahid was in a new relationship. While he knew it didn’t make sense, he’d come to associate this girlfriend with his mother’s diagnosis, and subsequently ended things between them.

“It’s a superstition, if you will — she’d brought this plague into my life, I thought she was bad news, so I kind of ignored her, ghosted her, and that was it,” he says. “And then Christina came, and I fell for her.”

At first, Wahid didn’t tell Christina about this very recent ex-girlfriend. But of course Christina eventually found out, and she felt misled and angry.

When this news leaked, the couple happened to be on board another ship on the Nile. The Kimo had unexpectedly broken down, and so the adventure travel company had chartered some cabins on a large, luxurious cruise ship.

Feeling hurt and betrayed, Christina ignored Wahid for the rest of the day and focused her attention on the cruise ship’s manager, with the aim of making Wahid jealous. She succeeded, with Wahid panicking he’d lost Christina forever.

As they argued over what had happened, both Christina and Wahid recognized for the first time that their feelings for one another ran deep. Their respective jealous reactions spoke volumes — this wasn’t just a fling. This was real.

“That was probably the catalyst and the turning point,” says Christina.

From there, both Christina and Wahid decided: “This is serious, and we’re going to take this further.”

Committing to marriage

That’s how the couple came to be sitting by the Nile in Luxor, talking about the prospect of marriage.

By then, Christina was certain she and Wahid would share a future. But there were a lot of unknowns in this equation. Where would they live? What would their families think? Should they wait a bit longer before jumping into commitment?

“I didn’t say yes, didn’t say no — I ummed and ahhed what to do,” says Christina.

She questioned whether she should go back to the UK for a while, to “logically remove myself and see if this is the right thing to do.”

But when it came to it, Christina couldn’t bring herself to go back.

“I just knew I couldn’t leave Egypt without him,” she says.

Christina was with a tour group in Cairo when she made the decision. It had been a long, stressful day, and she found herself wishing that Wahid was there by her side.

“I am ‘Miss Independent’ and I’m strong, and I can stand up for myself. But every now and again, I want someone to stand up for me,” she says.

“And so I just walked across to this payphone, picked it up, called him and I said, ‘Right, what date are we getting married?’ And we literally planned it a week after that tour finished.”

Getting married, says Wahid, was a promise that “this is the person you want to spend your life with.”

For both Christina and Wahid, marriage was the start of a new chapter. They decided they wouldn’t live in Egypt, and they wouldn’t live in England either — they’d start afresh, somewhere new.

“We both wanted to start a new life somewhere together,” says Christina. “We just knew we wanted to do it together.”

Wahid’s family were encouraging, telling him he had to do what was right for him — although one of his sisters did voice some concerns.

Meanwhile, Christina called her mother back in the UK. “You need to come to Egypt to visit,” she said. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

When Christina’s mother met Wahid, she knew right away.

“You’re going to marry him, aren’t you?” she said on the first evening of her trip, tearing up.

“She very much had the attitude that East and West — it’s not going to work,” says Christina. “I was angry and upset at first, and then she was stuck on a boat with us for two whole days. That was interesting. But she came around a bit, for sure.”

Wahid jokes he “bribed her” by cooking up some great food.

“Looking back on it, you do realize it’s all coming from a place of love and concern, that’s all,” says Christina.

“I don’t think it was a nasty resistance,” agrees Wahid.

Perhaps more worrying was the reaction Christina received from the British Embassy in Egypt. She recalls contacting them to discuss visas and being immediately counseled against marrying Wahid, with officials saying he was likely using her to get a British passport.

But Christina and Wahid ignored these naysayers and a wedding date was set: April 26, 1997.

They planned to keep the celebrations “small and simple,” but it ended up being a “very big party,” as Wahid puts it.

Christina’s parents and sister flew over from the UK, and Christina’s mother and sister took her shopping for a wedding dress in Cairo.

Wahid’s family gathered for the occasion, and the crew of the Kimo all turned up. Christina’s fellow tour guides coordinated their respective tours to end in Cairo so they could attend too — although this meant a bunch of the tourists coming along as well.

“There were probably about 50 people we’d never met at our wedding reception,” says Christina, laughing.

“All dancing, all partying,” recalls Wahid.

The couple didn’t mind, it only added to the celebratory atmosphere.

“It was a really good party,” says Christina.

“It’s not customary for most Egyptians to have alcohol at weddings,” says Wahid. “However my friends had two bottles of whiskey in one of their cars so we kept popping out to have discreet shots and run back into the reception.”

After the wedding, Christina took Wahid’s last name, becoming Christina Kandil, and the couple traveled to the port city of Alexandria for their honeymoon.

Starting a new chapter

Christina and Wahid set their sights on relocating to Canada together, but the paperwork took longer than they anticipated. In the meantime, the couple settled in Christina’s hometown of Portsmouth, on the south coast of England.

Not long after they arrived, they threw a big party for Christina’s friends who hadn’t made it to Egypt for the wedding. They were thrilled to meet Wahid — they’d heard a lot about him in Christina’s gushing letters over the previous six months.

But Wahid struggled with life in England. He spoke good English, but wasn’t fluent and felt self-conscious about his accent when communicating with strangers.

He also worried about his mother, who was still undergoing treatment for cancer. He’d call home regularly to ask his father and brother for updates.

Around nine months after moving to England, Wahid and Christina returned to Egypt to visit Wahid’s family and friends. When Wahid’s father picked them up at the airport, he had some shocking, sobering news: Wahid’s mother had passed away a few months previously.

Wahid couldn’t believe it. Christina recalls that “his legs literally went out from under him.”

“They were worried that, if he came, they thought it was going to ruin his residency for the UK or something, and they didn’t realize it wouldn’t be a problem. So they didn’t tell him,” she says.

Wahid thinks the decision was less practical and more emotional — an act of protection more than anything else.

“When you are far from your family, they don’t want you to get upset. They want to be there to protect you when you’re upset,” he says.

Whatever the reason, the reality was Wahid moved to the UK and never saw his mother again.

“I was so looking forward to seeing her,” he says.

From Canada to Dubai

In July 1999, Wahid and Christina’s Canadian visas were finally approved and the couple relocated to Calgary. They were excited, although when they arrived to an unseasonal summer snowstorm, they initially panicked that they’d made the wrong decision.

“But Canada ended up being really, really good for us,” says Christina. “It was fantastic living there, we built a house there and had the kids.”

The couple lived in Canada for nine years, first in Calgary and then Edmonton, welcoming two children, Yasmine and Tariq.

Christina’s mother would come and visit often. Despite her initial reservations, she was happy for Christina and Wahid.

“She would never tell him — but she absolutely loved him,” says Christina. “She’s passed away now, sadly, but she absolutely thought he was a diamond.”

In Canada, Christina worked for an accountancy company while Wahid rose up the ranks at an agricultural consulting company. They were pretty settled, but Wahid felt like he was never quite where he wanted to be professionally. He had periods of depression which Christina tried to help him through.

“I was always the one saying, ‘We have a house, we have a car. We have two wonderful children. It’s enough, it’s okay,'” she recalls.

Then, in the mid-noughties, Wahid was approached to start a company in Dubai. After some more twists and turns, he and Christina eventually invested all their savings into this company. And, following a rocky start, the business took off.

“A partnership”

Today, Wahid and Christina still live in Dubai, which they say works well as a “middle ground” for their two cultures.

“You’ve got the Muslim side of things, so when you’re doing Ramadan, you’re surrounded by everyone who’s doing it. But we’re also so Westernized here as well,” says Christina.

Wahid is from a Muslim family and Christina was brought up Christian. Before their children were born, the couple decided they would bring them up in the Muslim faith, but still celebrate the Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas. They were conscious that as a multifaith, international couple, it was important to be on the same page about their kids’ religion from the outset.

But something Christina and Wahid didn’t anticipate was what it would be like for their kids to be what’s called “Third Culture Kids” — children who grow up in one country, with parents from two different countries altogether. It was only when Yasmine and Tariq became teenagers that their parents realized this was a lived experience they’d never really be able to relate to.

“It’s not easy when you don’t have roots,” says Wahid. “I grew up in Egypt, she grew up in England, and we still have some roots, even if you leave them. But for Third Culture Kids, they don’t know who they are and I think they struggled with that a little bit when they were young.”

In more recent years, Yasmine, who is now 22, and Tariq, who is 19, have been forming and embracing their own cultural identities, learning more about their families and their dual heritage.

Yasmine, who is passionate about cinema, recently put together a short film about Wahid’s mother, the grandmother she never knew. In the film, she imagined what it would be like to go back in time to meet her. For Christina and Wahid, watching this play out on screen was incredibly moving.

“We’re sitting in the cinema, we’re watching it, crying our eyes out,” says Christina. “It’s such a nice legacy to have on that story.”

Yasmine’s film ambitions also include one day making a movie about her parents’ love story. Wahid and Christina might be biased, but they reckon it could make a pretty good film.

After all, as Wahid says, it “was a roller coaster, there were a lot of twists and turns — but I love it, I think it’s meant to be that way.”

“I love it too,” says Christina. “We’ve been through a lot, but he’s my rock. I’d like to think I’m his rock too.”

“You are,” says Wahid.

“If one of us is down the other one pulls the other one through — it’s a partnership,” says Christina.

It’s now over 25 years since Christina and Wahid fell in love as twentysomethings on the River Nile. The couple are both in their 50s, but Wahid insists they’re “still a bit young at heart.”

“We still have a lot of fun, and go dancing and drinking. I feel like we’re still the same age almost — which is a bit silly, but I don’t think we’ve changed a lot.”

“We like each other’s company,” says Christina. She says they love to “sit in the garden, have a few drinks, play cards together — we don’t need lots of people.”

Today, the couple see their unlikely meeting as the basis for the mantra they’ve carried through their shared life: “Everything happens for a reason.”

“We are such strong believers in that, because of how it all started for us,” says Christina. “Looking back on it now, we were both on that path to each other before we even knew it.”

“There were so many reasons for this not to happen,” says Wahid. “But against all odds, it did.”

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