My First and Maybe Last Trip to Egypt

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I thought about Mohamed Chaarawi last month. Was he still doing what he loved? Was he even alive? Why did I care?

I don’t know the answers to the first two questions, but I can answer the third. I care because of our trip to Egypt in 2008.

We arrived in Cairo, bumping and bouncing from the airport to our hotel in a minivan that must have been missing its shock absorbers. All the jostling put me in desperate need of a toilet, and the miserable two-hour drive convinced me our driver had gotten lost.

But finally, at long last, we made it. To our dismay, mounds of rubble and dirt rose like an ill-conceived garbage dump beside our five-star hotel. This was explained to us at various times as an effort to build a canal, an effort to fill in part of the Nile with dirt and build a road over a canal, or a plan to build a canal bridge. But as far as I could tell, there was little evidence of a work in progress.

Never mind Cairo and its building projects, though. I raced for the nearest bathroom as soon as our minivan jolted to a stop.

We might have been discouraged over this beginning to our vacation if it had not been for Chaarawi. We met him on Day Two, and he became our favorite guide as soon as he said, “My body has defaults.” Chaarawi was not into physical fitness. His narrow chest sloped toward a spare tire waistline and wide, flabby hips, but his drooping, mournful eyes disguised a surprising sense of humor.

I need to point out here that we were not with a tour group. My husband had cobbled together this entire vacation with the help of Maddie, an Egyptian tour guide he stumbled across on the internet. There were six of us, friends traveling together, and for one heart-stopping moment my husband wondered if Maddie might take our deposits and disappear, leaving us stranded in the Cairo airport. But no such calamity occurred. Our guides showed up on time, our reservations were properly lined up, and we were lucky to have Chaarawi, who convinced us he was the best Egyptologist in Egypt.

Chaarawi entertained us with stories. One of them was the time he went for his army tests and was declared Class A. He saw his career going down the tubes because three years in the army would surely cause him to forget everything he had learned in school. He argued with the army about his classification.

“How could someone with my thick glasses and large stomach possibly be considered Class A? I would die in the desert during one day of training. I could not endure such rigors.”

Fortunately for him and for us, he was not forced into the army but was able to pursue his lifelong dream of being an Egyptologist.

Chaarawi kicked off our grand adventure on Day Two by taking us to the Great Pyramids in Gaza. He didn’t just take us there. He accompanied his gung-ho American group inside to the top chamber, huffing and puffing and sweating along with us as we clambered through narrow, claustrophobic tunnels up 479 feet. We were determined to make it, even when making it meant stooping to a near-crawl, and Chaarawi saw to it that we did. Our reward was to stand inside the main chamber and sing Happy Birthday to Cindy, a member of our group who said this had to be the coolest birthday ever, because who gets Happy Birthday sung to them in the Great Pyramids of Gaza?

Following our pyramid adventure we wanted a photo op with the camels. But it wasn’t just a photo op that Chaarawi arranged. The camels were saddled and ready for us.

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My husband holds my camel’s rope for the picture before getting on his camel.

Camels, if you have never ridden one, are much bigger than you think. The only way for you to get up is for the camel to get down. When I had settled into the saddle my camel heaved itself skyward, lifting me an alarming distance from the ground. The young boy leading it handed me the rope, then walked behind the animal with a switch, which added to my discomfort.

I don’t trust a boy with a switch.

What if, out of sheer mischief, he swatted the animal into a gallop that sent me tumbling in a death drop to the desert floor?

I didn’t have to worry because my camel and boy behaved, but the story was different for my husband. I wasn’t paying enough attention to know what sent his camel into a full-fledged run. All I know is that when I looked up it was moving at an ungainly, ground-eating lope, carrying them further and further away. Slipping sideways, righting himself and clinging for dear life, my husband managed to stay put until the animal came to an abrupt halt, but for the rest of the trip he suffered from saddle sores.

Halfway through our desert ride we were offered cold sodas that we gulped gratefully. Swirls of sand spiraled from endless dunes like mini-tornadoes and men on beautiful Arabian horses galloped past, churning up even more sand. Chaarawi, who had opted out of the camel ride, waited for us near the pyramids.

The next leg of our journey was a little shocking. My husband had decided that an overnight sleeper train billed as the most luxurious rail travel in Egypt would be an exciting way to get from Cairo to Karnak.

The Orient Express it was not.

Dinner was served on small trays that we held in our laps while huddling in our compartments. The train’s dining car was too smoke-filled (as in blinding, asphyxiating cigarette haze) to walk through and breathe at the same time. For some reason we weren’t allowed to take our dinner trays to the dining car, anyway.

After dinner I opted for the lower bunk in our cramped compartment so I wouldn’t have to maneuver my way down from the top bunk to use the toilet, which was half a train length away. My first bathroom trip ended with my mistaking a mysterious knob for the flusher. When I turned the knob, a jet of water arced out of the toilet and all over my clothes, which were still my pyramid-climbing, camel-riding clothes.

Not having time to shower and change before boarding the train had been a sore point with the women in our group, but our moods lifted considerably when one of the men produced a bottle of wine. I had hoped the wine would help me sleep, but it only induced a sort of apprehensive wakefulness. At first, I lay in the bottom bunk wondering if the beds were sturdy enough to keep my 200-pound husband from crashing down on top of me. Every creak of the upper bunk startled me into greater alertness.

Finally I gave up sleeping altogether, parted the flimsy curtains in our compartment and spent all night gazing at a full moon shimmering on the Nile. Our train arrived in Karnak as a slash of crimson sunrise pushed back the night and faded quickly to a blazing desert day.

Karnak was where our five-day cruise down the Nile began. Unfortunately we were not able to board the boat right away. Five of us wanted to tour Karnak while we waited, but Cindy grew adamant.

“I won’t go anywhere without a shower,” she said.

Remember. We were still in our pyramid-climbing, camel-riding and now also our train-sleeping clothes. Somehow we convinced Cindy that sight-seeing in filthy clothes was better than waiting in utter boredom for a boat to allow us on board. When we returned to the boat three hours later, our cabins were ready, we showered, napped and woke in time to watch the sound and light show at the Karnak temples.

On Day Four we docked in Luxor and rode a hot air balloon. Leaving the boat around 6 a.m. and following some vague directions given to us by a boat steward, we tramped across a vast field to a balloon-launching area and heaved ourselves over the side of a balloon basket that carried our group and 14 others from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the Nile and the Valley of the Kings.

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We floated peacefully over homes that had fascinated me since our arrival in Egypt. From the road these buildings appeared to be unfinished crumbling stone structures with windows devoid of glass or any other covering. Now we gazed inside roofless homes partitioned into areas for sleeping, cooking, and even livestock. Residents slept on the top floor, their beds visible to balloon riders, and one boy, waking up, waved to us.

Several years after our trip, a balloon from this same airfield blew up in a tragedy that killed 19 of 21 passengers. I discovered that concerns over passenger safety had been raised numerous times with multiple crashes reported in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

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We survived our balloon ride and went sight-seeing with our next tour guide, Mahmoud, who was nothing at all like Chaarawi. A well-built, fit and handsome young man, Mahmoud’s religious fervor was manifested outwardly by the livid bruise on his forehead. It was a raw bruise, swollen and dark, that never went away. Mahmoud, a devout Muslim, told us he beat his head on the hard stone floor of the mosque daily during prayer time. We began to notice a lot of men with prayer bruises worn as proud badges of a fervent prayer life.

Following Mahmoud, we were assigned a guide whose name I have conveniently expunged from my memory. This guide introduced himself by showing us pictures of his brand new fourth wife. “I am stallion with four wives,” he bragged, sidling close to the women and ignoring the men. Then, as if claiming stallion status weren’t enough, HE NEIGHED! Yes, the man actually neighed. Appalled, we distanced ourselves from him and were relieved to board the boat and head for another port.

(Maybe in light of the recent unmasking of our American Men of Power as serial sex abusers, I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the guide’s obnoxious behavior. There evidently has been a lot of neighing (or braying) going on in the hallowed halls of fame, fortune and power in the United States.)

Leaving the young stallion behind, on Day Five we were into full relaxation mode, enjoying our Nile cruise from the wide windows of air conditioned rooms or from the pool on the top deck. We played cards on deck, dipping in the pool occasionally, lathering ourselves in sunscreen and drinking wine, beer and lots of water.

A broad sweep of desert stretched beyond the lushness of land beside the river. Water buffaloes with wide curved horns grazed at the Nile’s edge or cooled themselves in the water. A group of women stood on deck in swimsuits watching boys on shore dressed in long robes called gallabiyas. The women waved and the young boys parted their gallabiyas, exposing themselves to the shocked group.

On Day Six we chartered a small boat that motored us to a Nubian village, where we loaded up on inexpensive jewelry and souvenirs. The Nubians were the most beautiful people I had ever seen with their smooth, black or brown skin and delicate, lovely features. We were invited to visit them in colorful pastel houses, their small kitchens hooked up with electricity so that each home had a fridge and single light bulb dangling from a string. In one home a Nubian woman painted fake tattoos while a fat man sat in a corner smoking a water pipe. Stands of spices, indigo, woodwork and the ubiquitous scarabs were everywhere.

Also ubiquitous were the signs written in English advertising Viagra. “Need Viagra? Come over here,” men called to us from beneath the signs.

Unattended camels roamed the streets, and an unusually aggressive one attempted to bite a young Nubian girl walking beside me. Cindy, Nancy (the other woman in our group) and I scurried to safety behind a thatched hut. We watched our husbands approaching and wondered if the camel would harrass them, but this camel was apparently only ill-tempered toward females.

On Day Seven we joined an armed convoy for the two and a half hour ride to Abu Simbel 40 km north of the Sudanese Border. At one checkpoint en route our guide warned us not to speak English, so we pretended to doze as he told the guard we were Russian tourists. Have I mentioned already that we were accompanied by armed guards as well as a driver and an Egyptologist for much of our trip? I don’t know if this was because we were Americans, or if armed guards were provided for everyone.

Day Seven also meant it was time to leave our boat and take the most luxurious rail travel in Egypt back to Cairo. I took an Ambien this time.

We were elated to reconnect with Chaarawi, who met us at the train station. As much as we wanted to shower, he took us straight to the large oasis, El Fayoum, where we ate lunch in a hotel overlooking a 10,000-year-old salt water lake. Lunch is the major meal and is late in Egypt, between four and six in the afternoon, with a small dinner taken around ten or eleven. I haven’t mentioned how good the food was on this trip, but both lunch and dinner usually included lots of grilled or fried fresh fish (head, tail and all), rice, salads with beans, usually some cooked carrots and pita bread with a variety of dips and sauces. Lightly cooked vegetables, pizza loaded with olives, fresh fruit, dates and flan or custards were also plentiful.

While we ate, the only sign of activity in the salt water lake was a man who stood knee deep in water trying to sell an armful of necklaces to those of us in the hotel restaurant. It seemed a futile endeavor to me, as I didn’t see any interest among the patrons and the man was not allowed on hotel grounds. I wondered if potential customers would need to wade into the lake to select their purchases, but we never got an opportunity to find out.

The last few days of our vacation were packed with highlights: the Egyptian Museum, which has to be one of the world’s greatest with its staggering collection of antiquities; Al-Azhar Mosque, Ben Ezra Synagogue, the Church of St. Sergius where the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and family were rumored to have sheltered during King Herod’s massacre of male babies.

We spent a couple of days in Alexandria, a jewel of a city on the Mediterranean, and tried to absorb the depth and breadth of Chaarawi’s knowledge as he took us, with his words, 5,000 years back into Egypt’s fascinating history. We left Egypt with a great appreciation for its people and culture, and with the certainty that this adventure ranked as one of the best vacations ever.

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This is Chaarawi, who would only allow me to take a head shot because of what he called his “body defaults.”

Two years after our trip, Egypt experienced the Arab Spring, a wave of protests and uprisings that toppled regimes across the Middle East.

Initially hailed as a movement to bring peace and stability, the revolution in Egypt soon deteriorated into chaos and violence. Some cynics now refer to it as the Arab Winter. In the wake of this instability, ISIS and other terrorist groups made inroads and began to leave their deadly footprint.

Last month, 305 worshippers were murdered in a Sufi Mosque by ISIS terrorists.

According to one travel advisory, “Egypt used to be one of the most popular destinations in the world but its tourism industry has been rocked by continued warnings over terror.” The FCO says “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Egypt.”

More and more, our world is shrinking. Those of us who have the freedom to choose can risk venturing abroad or stick closer to home, but even at home tragedy sometimes lurks at the hands of a deranged gunman. You could conclude that no place is safe. People like Chaarawi, who avoided the army to be the world’s best Egyptologist, have fewer choices.

I’m reminded of a nursery rhyme by Robert Louis Stevenson that I read over and over again as a child.

The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

I’m enough of an optimist to believe this nursery rhyme is still more true than not. There is more good than evil, more beauty than ugliness in the world. Our lives can and should be an adventure. But I still wonder about Chaarawi.

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