Story and photos by Melanie Votaw
Mysterious Egypt: Should You Go?
In Egypt, the ancient meets the modern more intensely than anywhere I’ve been on this planet. Besides the temples and hieroglyphs, you’ll see cars parked next to carriages drawn by horses or donkeys. You’ll see women in jeans walking next to women in full niqab with only their eyes exposed. These kinds of contrasts are only a few of the reasons why Egypt is one of the most fascinating countries I’ve ever visited.
The question on everyone’s lips right now, though, is whether it’s safe to travel there. I wish I could answer the question with an unequivocal “yes.” But less than two weeks after I visited Karnak Temple in late May, a suicide bomber showed up there. Luckily, his efforts were thwarted, but it’s sobering to know that this sort of risk still exists.
The news was heartbreaking because the Egyptians are lovely people whose economy is seriously hurting due to lost tourism business. All I can tell you is that my visit of nearly two weeks went without incident, and only you can decide if you feel comfortable enough to travel there. Certainly, from our own economic perspective, the cost of visiting Egypt is relatively inexpensive. If you aren’t afraid to go, you can get a lot for your money.
A big reason for the success of my trip was GAT Tours, a company that handled every aspect of my customized trip with the utmost professionalism. While I booked my own international flights from the U.S., GAT even managed to get me a slight break on my domestic flights within Egypt. They met me in Cairo and took me to my hotel, where their representative explained everything I needed to know, including tipping recommendations.
For the next two days, I had private tours in Giza and Cairo to see the main sites there – the pyramids and the Sphinx, the Alabaster Mosque and Citadel with its panoramic views of the city, the Hanging Church, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. I also visited Memphis and Saqqara. I especially enjoyed Memphis, which houses an impressive 10-meter limestone statue of Rameses the Great in its museum (lying on his back since his feet are missing).
My favorite part of my time in Egypt, however, was the Nile Cruise. I flew from Cairo to Luxor to meet up with the Sonesta St. George, which traveled for five days and four nights south to Aswan. One of the most luxurious vessels on the Nile, the ship is designed in grand, classical style with ornate gold trimming, chandeliers, and wall frescos. My stateroom was larger than I expected with dark wood furniture, plenty of closet space, an in-room safe, a minibar, and a full bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub. I didn’t have a balcony, but I had sliding doors with a railing so that I could look out at the life happening along the river and even wave at people as they went about their daily activities.
I’m an experienced traveler, but I’ve always avoided cruising. I’m not sure I’d feel the same about a huge ocean liner with thousands of passengers, but I thoroughly enjoyed the relatively slow pace on the Nile with our small group of travelers. The food was delicious, and an activity was scheduled every evening from performances to games. The cruise price included everything except WiFi and drinks, which means you also pay for bottled water.
Each day, we disembarked for a visit to a historic site, including Karnak and Luxor temples, the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the Temple of Horus in Edfu, and Philae Temple in Aswan. We also took a felucca (a small sailboat) ride on manmade Lake Nasser to the south of Aswan, and visited the High Dam – an engineering marvel completed in 1970.
While the historical sites were my primary reason for visiting Egypt, I found myself even more fascinated by the people-watching. Our boat ported at Edfu one evening, and a couple of fellow travelers and I decided to take a walk in the small town. Few locals have air conditioning, so a lot of people were outside on the street into the wee hours of the morning, staying cool while playing backgammon and smoking hookah pipes. The majority of those out and about were men in traditional jellabiyas, so the three of us – two women with uncovered heads and a man in shorts – couldn’t have been more obvious. We were followed, as people tried to get us to buy things from them. The harassment became so uncomfortable that we returned to the boat quickly.
Luckily, our guide from the cruise and some Egyptian travelers went out with us later in the evening, and in their company, we managed to sit quietly at an outdoor table, drinking and smoking hookah.
At dawn most mornings, I went to the roof deck of our ship to watch people beginning their morning activities on both sides of the Nile. Lots of fishermen were out, and some of them waved as I photographed them. One of them yelled, “Good morning, Lady!” I watched men riding donkeys to their fields, children swimming in the Nile, and women in hijab (traditional head covering) washing clothes or kitchen pans. Tiny islands in the middle of the river were dotted with white egrets, and when the sun rose, it looked like a gigantic beach ball with palm trees silhouetted against its glow.
Our last night on the cruise, we were ported in Aswan, so our guide took a few of us to a busy area near the train station with a market, shops, and bars. The number of people walking on the streets was staggering, and the traffic of cars and carriages was chaotic. I could have spent hours watching the people going about their lives.
After the cruise, I stayed on in Aswan for two nights so that I could visit the temple of Abu Simbel and the Nubian Village. Abu Simbel is a three-hour drive in each direction, but the enormous statues built by Rameses the Great are nothing short of magnificent. You should leave very early in the morning to beat the heat, and your car must be scheduled as part of a long convoy that’s allowed to visit the temple each day. It’s not to be missed.
To reach the Nubian Village, we took a boat on Lake Nasser to the bottom of Elephantine Island. Then, we climbed colorfully painted stairs to the Village. The guide that GAT Tours arranged for me grew up in the Village, so he took me to a friend’s house, where the gentleman showed me around his modest but lovely home, complete with a flat screen television. I bought a mask made of goat leather from him, and he gave me a beaded necklace as a gift.
If you go to Egypt, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, all public bathrooms have attendants who hand you toilet paper as you enter. You’re expected to pay for the paper, and these people rely on that money. So, make a concerted effort to keep lots of small currency in your wallet, which you’ll need constantly for tips. Second, many Egyptians are desperate, so you’ll be severely pressured to buy things. Our guide from the cruise advised us to avoid eye contact with the many people who followed us into temple sites. If we gave them an ounce of encouragement, he told us, we would be swarmed, and he’d be forced to call the tourism police to disperse them.
Those issues aside, the people I met in Egypt were universally kind and friendly – even the armed guards outside the museum in Cairo, who smiled and said “as-salaam alaikum” as I walked by with my guide.
If you choose to go, you’ll feel more comfortable with a private guide or a group tour, even if you aren’t traveling solo like me. GAT even went so far as to meet me at the airport when I returned to Cairo from Luxor, and transferred me by car to the other terminal for my international flight. It made everything easier to have someone attending to every detail for me during my stay.
My hope is that there aren’t any more incidents and that travelers will have the courage to visit Egypt. For those of us with wanderlust, it’s a must-see destination.
Gat Tours: http://www.gattours.com/
Sonesta St. George: http://www.sonesta.com/nilecruises/?fa=stgeorge.home
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