My father did his obligatory eighteen months national service in 1951 in Egypt and as a little girl he told me stories of his time as a young man and of ‘Horace” his camel. Consequently Egypt has always held romantic sway and been on my ‘to do’ list. So, despite concerns from my mother, friends, acquaintances, coffee bar barristers and the Canadian Government who I told of my intentions, I apprehensively booked my bucket list dream.
Many in the west removed Egypt from their travel agenda when European and North American governments initiated ‘State of Emergency’ edicts. Consequently the tourism infra structure which was built to accommodate so many is crumbling. So sad.
I am writing these words on The Nile. Our somewhat dilapidated boat which has obviously seen better days is in Aswan and the fifty or so passengers, many travel agents with Collette Tours, have gone to Abu Simel, the famous temple which was moved sixty meters up a sandstone cliff to accommodate the Aswam Dams waters. I elected not to go and consequently am the only tourist on the boat, free to watch the local ferry cross the Nile waters, garbage be collected by a noisy group of gesticulating men and thrown from my boat to another smaller vessel, and listen to the calls to prayer flow from an unseen mosque. Part of my decision to remain is to ensure I will return. By ignoring this site subtly, subconsciously, promising myself I will come back.
Over the course of the last ten days I have visited Cairo, Alexanndria, Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, Giza and cruised down the Nile for almost 300 kilometers. Every day the adventure got better. The pyramids of Giza and Saqqara contrasting to the temples of Luxor and Hatshepsut and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, with smaller lesser known temples of Edfu with its rich hieroglyphic walls and Kom Ombo with mummified crocodiles.
In sharp contrast to the crowds in European museums and North American tourist traps these sites are empty. Whole areas of Karnak temple were mine. Photographs were easily taken without hundreds of tourists in the foreground and there was never any waiting. A tourism industry built for ten times the numbers they are receiving today is hugely advantageous to those who like to feel they are the privileged few.
But there are unfortunate consequences. So many Egyptian small entrepreneurs encircle every venue trying to sell their wares and the westerner runs the gauntlet of table clothes, towels, clothing, statues, figurines, jewelry, parchment and camel rides trying to return to the tour vehicle. Refusing to speak or have eye contact, arms crossed with a brisk stride is the reluctant armor easily adopted. Tipping, albeit small amounts, is expected everywhere, while for the tourist there is a challenge to acquire small change for this to easily occur. Every public washroom is policed by an individual requesting payment in return for a small sheet of toilet paper and the benefit of using a toilet which at some point in its existence flushed and a sink which for a lucky few provides water.
The ‘first class’ train ride between Cairo and Aswam is a challenge, with questionable food, dusty compartments, intermittent air conditioning and washrooms demanding quick escapes. The aged train travels at a pace so instead of being gently rocked to sleep the passenger is bounced and jolted.
All these nuisance experiences challenge the traveler, disrupt our equilibrium, shake up our being, but are short lived. They are an inconsequential price to pay to be alive in this wonderful civilization and to encounter a population who when not preoccupied with obtaining the tourists dollar is polite, respectful and friendly.
I first wanted to come to Egypt when I was ten, I delayed for forty years. When younger I did not have the funds, then family and work commitments delayed the trip until the country became unstable and by all accounts unsafe and ambitions were put on hold until the ‘on hold’ time became too long and action needed to be taken despite the sources informing otherwise.
At no time during my two week trip did I feel unsafe. I chose to travel under the auspices of an organised long established tour company who employed fantastic guides to oversee the itinerary and secure my well being. I should have visited years ago.