I’m sitting in the open air lobby of an Egyptian hotel at 3:18am Egyptian time. Clarice walked through the huge metal gates between me and the Gizah sidewalk 20 minutes ago – I was relieved to see familiar faces, people from the hotel we stayed at for the first two nights of our trip, waiting for her outside exactly on time. Her flight is at 6:10, and both of us are filled with nerves about separately leaving the country. Her about navigating foreign airports alone; me about remaining in a country that has treated me incredibly well so far, but that has earned a fickle and hesitant kind of trust.
I’m writing because this hotel, different than the first, doesn’t have wifi in the room I’ll stay holed up in today – it only reaches so far, and I’m on the fifth floor. What my room does have is a gorgeous, perfect small balcony overlooking the pyramids and bringing in so much noise from the city. It has two beds, a small shower, a lamp with a burned out bulb, and a television that we couldn’t get to move from a single channel. When the previous hotel realized I would be here for one night alone, the man at the counter, Amir, said, “ahhh, I will book you sunset camel ride, complimentary of the hotel. You will ride through the desert.” And I shrieked with joy, as I haven’t stopped talking about the first camel ride at the pyramids, and I’m also worried about a long day alone.
Egypt is filled with Magic. It’s a reminder of humanity, to be in a place where history doesn’t feel deep enough of a word. If the states has history, Egypt has a story of the world so old it’s impossible to comprehend. There’s no word for what I want to call it.
I’ve been struggling to put my traveling thoughts into words since we arrived: Egypt’s history includes gift shops filled with items stocked decades ago, before the revolution tore up streets and industry. The hotels have chips in the tables and tape marks on the walls – there’s so much evidence of what Gizah used to be. Our tour guide boasted his last large group, 52 people and a photo of them, before the revolution. He brought up Jimmy Carter and how good he was to Egypt countless times – America dictating the success of others. Now, our hotel called this same guide at midnight the night before our desired tour and he was waiting for us at 8:45am, talking for nine straight hours, so much knowledge we slept deep and well processing the Pharos and architecture of ancient times. His tour for two days this week including just him and the two of us: a private party of Egyptian history.
The first time we ventured a Gizah street we both only showed our ankles and our heads- two Americans with hair unique even to Americans. With bodies that Every Other Man in sight asked for with words and gestures. It is possible to travel here as a woman alone, Clarice’s friend who recommended our hotel did it recently, but I wouldn’t. I wonder to what extent my fear of harassment, bred from reading blog after blog of women solo traveling in Egypt, was created and unfair rather than an awareness for personal safety. While our obvious foreign appearance brought much unwanted attention in the street, it also brought admiration from a herd of Egyptian children in Cairo, who asked for a photo and then huddled closely for a selfie that a teenage girl in stylish overalls and a hijab took, arm outstretched to get us and whatever children could squish in quickly enough, an outlier in the surely 100s of photos she took of the hundreds of thousands of artifacts on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
I’m someone who doesn’t lock doors, who is reckless with regularity, but Egypt feels different. We were and I remain largely at the hands of our hotel: an establishment entirely ran by men, only two stepping out of the line of appropriateness (one asks for a kiss, one says an awkward “I love you”). They feed us, book our cars and tour guide, call us in our room at 1:30am to ask if we’d like hot tea, bring us Pepsi and in my case Egyptian cigarettes, and are grateful for the equivalent of a $1USD tip.
A day later I’m sitting at a bar in the JFK airport. I just spent $12 on candy and $7 at Muji (my favorite store in New York). I got off the plane and, once through all the lines, changed my clothes, washed my face, and brushed my teeth. A little girl, maybe 6, in the bathroom said to her mother clearly, “she’s brushing her teeth.” If I had finished before they left, I would have said, I’ve been on a plane for 13 hours.
My final day in Egypt my primary activity was to sleep. All morning, all afternoon. They kept trying to bring and then take away breakfast- I kept opening the door, my head looking like a percupine, Thank you, I’m not done.
At 4:34pm I woke up with a start: I missed my sunset camel ride. I was devastated but groggy, unsure what to do. I changed, patted my hair with water, and relocated to the lobby where I sat, waiting for nothing.
Except: not in Egypt.
I have no idea what happened. I assume the people at my hotel called the people at the first hotel but suddenly a familiar face was in front of me, Are you ready for camel ride?
Despite being 45 minutes late and without contacting them, they knew I was awake and around and had come to retrieve me. I love Egypt. I was overcome with gratitude.
He walked me back to the hotel and put me in a carriage, the driver talked to me, How are you today? It is good weather yes? Have you seen the pyramids at sunset? Are you happy? When do you leave? You are happy?
I love the Egyptian hospitality use of the word Happy.
So happy, I say, this is wonderful.
He takes me through the twin to a side of the pyramids I hadn’t yet been (north?) and a trail of four 4-wheeling German tourists follow. When we are off the city sand roads and into the open desert he waves his hands dramatically, GO! Go have fun! GO! And they race ahead.
We meander up, through the desert to a high hill where the sun is fuzzy and horses are stalled. On the way I see small children riding horses alone, mostly men around me, people happy with the closing day.
At the top he asks, what do you want? To watch the sunset? To ride in desert? Take a photo?
Anything is wonderful.
You are happy?
I am happy.
The 4-wheelers are at the top of this hill, too, and a different Egyptian man-boy becons me on one. I am terrified he expects me to ride, but also: it’s Egypt. Instead, he makes sure I’m on, sits side-saddle beside me, and operates the gas and steers from one side. He girls us down and around sand dunes, gently grasping my shoulder when we’re sideways.
The 12 hour flight home this morning was tolerable. I somehow lost my glasses in a nap, to which my sister said when I landed, I think losing one valuable per trip is pretty standard.
Here is a list of other things I’m thinking about from this trip, that I don’t want off the radar and perhaps will write about tomorrow:
- How amazing Clarice is
- The American tourism industry (as in, Americans in other places)
- Fear and bias
- The individuals we met
- How lost I feel as a human
- The importance of travel