“Habibi – for you, special price, almost free. Look, I give you these earrings. Make myself. Are you married? I can marry! I nice Egyptian man for you.”
His name was (shocker) Mohammed and he was one of the many hawkers in the big bazaar offering me ‘almost free’ things to ‘private tours of special factories’ up to marriage proposals. While I never felt in any real physical danger, wow, the male attention was overwhelming in Egypt. Aggressive and undeterred by how grungy I looked or how grumpy I acted. I like to think it helped me strike a few bargains but . . . unlikely. There was always something cheaper around the proverbial corners in Egypt. But that’s okay. In many other ways, my eight days there had me living and feeling like a queen.
I was in some kind of mood in October, when Hong Kong had really started lowering restrictions on travel, and made a late-night decision to go on a tour of Egypt’s highlights with a travel group that listed first as “best for singles in their thirties.” The dates lined up perfectly with my Chinese New Year holiday, and visiting Egypt has always been a dream of mine – the history, the inventions, the mystery, the Biblical connections, the turbulent present made it all sound very exotic in my mind. With very little thought, I booked the trip, but had the blessed foresight and bank account after three Covid years of no travel to reserve a single-stay room for the eight days and nights of travel, which included an overnight boat on the Nile and two overnight trains.
I had grand visions dancing in my head of all the international hotties in their thirties I’d be sure to make friends with and who knows what else on this magical trip. I obsessively checked the weather and location tags on Instagram for outfits and updated my travel apps and collected all the chargers and chords needed. I was SO ready for something really new to me, never having visited that part of the world.
Imagine my surprise, walking to the first meeting to cover the itinerary and insurance and all the boring stuff, and sitting at a table with people mostly in their seventies. “Huh,” I thought. “Where did my search terms go wrong?” No matter, though, I can make do in just about any crowd. But this was a particularly old one, as I had to set most of them up with Whatsapp in order to create a group for us to communicate. One poor dear had her wallet stolen right out of her nylon backpack within hours of landing in Egypt, probably because her hands were busy with her walking sticks and she was an easy target. This did add a bit of fun drama to our first night, as we were visited by the Egyptian police and interviewed by heavily armed guards for a time. I enjoyed. One man came out of his shop to assure me that this was not normal because there were so many cameras recording everything. Not sure how this improved my feelings, especially when he got a bit forward, but we carried on.
I did love the market, despite the aggro sellers and the sadness of the beggars around. I forced myself upon the couple I thought was closest to my level of chill and we shared some snacks at a cool cafe and made the small talk of people who have traveled a lot to get our bearings. They were British/Irish, she being a brilliant scientist and he taught at a high school so we had some things to carry on about.
I also connected with a really interesting couple, both originally from South Africa – he technically lived in Saudi Arabia on a three-year contract, so they met up in random places around the world to travel together for a week or so at a time, which made them (unfortunately for the rest of us) really randy for each other, with little to no regard for public rules of decency. He was also (apparently) the funniest person on the planet, and she had a really loud laugh. He had a cough that sounded to even the casual ear like a good case of something bad. But they were both quite smart and kind and she was a real hippie so we had some good laughs.
Then there were the divorcees in their seventies, who needed help with iPads and were so happy when I went out to dinner with them or helped them get an Uber. I just hoped someone else would make sure my grandma got to her hotel room each night on a trip, so I was paying it forward and getting some good life advice in the bargain.
There was also the woman who made us late to everything and talked too loud, but was kind and had a sad story that made me have a softer heart to her after hearing it, and a girl in her twenties from Canada, and an Aussie lady that reminded me too much of a best friend of mine I finally asked if they could be related. And this motley crew – not a single hottie in his thirties among them – we were led by Meged, a truly lovely Egyptian historian slash archaeologist with endless patience for our really stupid questions and tendency to forget the schedule the moment he’d told us about it. And I wondered how he could stand to spend 8 days at a time away from his gorgeous wife and two young kids to lead around a bus full of problems but – he loved loved loved Egypt and the economy there is absolutely shite so all of you should go visit and support people like him.
The first real day started strong – we visited the great pyramids and the main history museum of Egypt, scrambling among the heavy rocks pulled by Israelite slaves (or aliens) and placed in precise patterns by incredible mathematic minds (or lasers and aliens) all so that one king could have a kickass burial chamber. I paid extra to wait in a long line and crawl through the robbers’ hole into the middle of the pyramid of Giza and see this king’s chamber, and we sweat and swore and climbed through narrow shafts, shifting against the bodies of others along the way, one of which whispered to me “preparate para sufrir” – prepare to suffer – which was not creepy at all. We got to the center, the unventilated, tiny center, and it was just an empty room. Not even a drawing on the wall. Still pretty wild to be inside the middle of one of the seven wonders on earth.
All the good stuff from inside all known tombs, what’s left after centuries of tomb raiders, is in museums, of course. We spent a few hours (and I could have spent days) looking at King Tut’s treasures, mummified pets, examples of combs, shoes, toys, clothes, and more at the official museum of Cairo. The huge stones covered in hieroglyphics sent me into a STATE I can tell you (remind me to tell you about the time my friends lost me at Stonehenge because I had sat down and was almost crying over it), and there were some other Rosetta-stone cousins that I could have poured over for the rest of the day, and you can just TOUCH THEM! Because they’ve survived thousands of years! So just DO IT!
But we had to eventually leave and board a train to the south! Adventure! So. Like any child brought up on music videos, I thought this was going to be romantic, with like, a special car where you bought snacks and drinks and met sexy strangers. OH NO. It was more like trying to stay alive on a tall bunk bed inside a blender, never leaving your bunk for fear of some kind of death. The toilet situation was abysmal and most of our trip purposefully dehydrated to avoid it, but Asia’s made me and my quads tougher than that.
The journey was about 14 hours and only tourists are allowed on the train for . . . reasons my mom wouldn’t like to read about. But the food was surprisingly good and once the sun came up, the scenery was fascinating. Anytime we were close to the Nile, it glittered green and life, with small boys riding donkeys, men on motorbikes, palm trees, and rows of sugarcane. Farther away from the river was just desert, small pit stops, unemployed sitting on sidewalks and eyeing the train as we passed.
It took me a few days to realize what seemed strange when I looked around – then I realized we hardly saw any women in public life. Not running the stores, not walking on the streets, not shopping at the markets. They’re at home.
Our train took us to Aswan, which is about as far south as it’s reasonable to go in Egypt, and we had a beautiful hotel right on the Nile with a pool, and more importantly, a bar, as Egypt doesn’t sell alcohol in stores, so we were able to have some beers and watch the sun go down together for a few nights.
We visited the temple Philae, which literally is dedicated to a penis that was cut off but somehow was used to procreate with a goddess, and also the burial place of Osiris, with temples to Isis, and some cool structures specifically built for solstices. So there were some fun images on the walls there. I liked all the Roman, French, and British graffiti etched into the walls among the hieroglyphics from centuries of exploration and colonialism. It was also used by Christians at one point, so there were various etchings that were rubbed out, and some crosses replaced them. The obelisk taken from there to (you guessed it) England helped lead to the translation of the Rosetta Stone.
Our last night in Aswan, we visited a Nubian island and a small village, and got to have a traditional dinner at “really important guy’s” house, made by his wife and mother-in-law. They also sang and played drums for us and talked about their history and the traditional practices that remain, as well as their unique marriage – unique because it was from love and not arranged, and for this, he had to pay a double dowry.
Our morning wake-up was a 4am drive to Abu Simbel, which was pretty mind-blowing. Stay tuned.
Also – a camel reading Shakespeare?