While I have always loved adventure and holidays, I can vividly remember the trip that sealed the deal for me, the trip made me realise I wanted to see the world… the whole, wide world!
Following a disappointing cancellation of a volunteering trip to Gambia in my final year of sixth form (2007), my mum brought my then boyfriend and I a week-long trip to Egypt for my 18th Birthday! Africa was a dream destination for me but i had always been fascinated with Ancient Egypt so to say I was excited was an understatement. However, apart from a family trip to Florida this was my first time outside of Europe and my first time in a developing country. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that we were staying in Luxor, the old capital of Egypt and that was an hour long flight away from Cairo and seeing the Pyramid’s was a must! However, the control freak in me didn’t seem too worried, I found a British lady on the internet who was an Expat living in Luxor and she offered to meet me when I arrived and point me in the right direction for the best tours to Cairo. I put all my eggs in one basket and took the risk that this random lady I had found online would help us achieve a dream holiday.
Arriving in Egypt was one hell of a culture shock!! The lady had pre-warned me not to let anyone carry my bags when getting on to our transfer from the airport and that we would be pestered and asked for a tip. However, this was easier said than done as our suitcases were wrestled right out of our hands in a sea of Egyptian people in long, light cotton gowns surrounding the airport gates. They followed us back to our rickety bus transfer, sticking their arms through the half open windows, opening their hands for money and stoking my long, blonde hair. I felt like we had been ambushed! We arrived at the Hotel around mid-afternoon and we met the expat lady from the internet at the hotel that day. She arranged for our flights to Cairo and private drivers, she was just lovely! I expressed my desire for a special cultural experience and she also arranged for a local Felucca boat owner to take us for a sail along the Nile at sunset. The lady taught us how to say No Thank You in Egyptian which I remember being something along the lines of ‘La Shukran’, we were advised to use this whenever we were being pressured to buy something. We were also warned of the large number of beggars we would encounter on the streets of Luxor, especially young children.
That evening we ventured out on to the streets of Luxor which appeared to get busier as the light fell. The road was filled with honking taxi drivers, horse drawn carriages and many, many Egyptian men trying to sell all sorts of tours and objects. The road wasn’t lined with tourists and lots of fancy shops, bars or pubs like you would expect in a typical tourist destination…. of course, i wasn’t in a typical tourist destination. The men would leer as they walked past me and say “lucky man, lucky man” to my boyfriend. Even the officer sitting in the ‘tourist police’ box had something sleazy to say. We ended up being pestered by one young man impersonating our English accents and talking about English boxing, who followed us the whole way down the street. The thing is we had no idea where we were walking and no where looked even slightly inviting enough to venture inside. Eventually we ended up in a very dark and isolated street with no hotels or recognisable buildings whatsoever and the man eventually convinced us to eat in a terribly dirty looking kebab shop. We ordered anything on the menu, ate what we could and rushed straight back into the calmness and politeness of the hospitality in our hotel. What the hell was that!? i thought to myself, I missed the quaint, cobbled streets of Europe or even the busy entertainment quarters filled with tourists. That night I cried myself to sleep and wondered how the hell I would get through the next 6 days.
By the morning I had pulled myself together and decided to embrace the chaos, the cultural differences and the unknown. Afteral, this is what i wanted to experience, new lands and cultures. I adopted a firm approach with the locals and put ‘La Shukran’ into practice. Witnessing children as young as three or four hanging off the arm of my boyfriend cying “please sir, money sir” was heart breaking but you soon learned you couldn’t give to everyone and they would be back again almost as soon as they left. I began to enjoy looking through the shops full of nik-naks and haggling a good price, scouting out a new restaurant and even finding our own local tour guide on the edge of the Nile. In those six days with help from the lady expat and the local tour guide we saw and did some incredible things, memories of which will stay with me forever.
Still to this day I wonder how we survived the bumpy flight on the smallest plane I’ve ever stepped foot on and not to mention the car journey around the city where no road laws appeared to be enforced and the car horn seemed to be used to initiate everything from words ‘go’, ‘stop’ and f**k you!’ This was a long day and the round trip from our hotel and back was well over 16 hours but it was so worth it! We visited the step pyramid in Cairo which was the first pyramid ever built in the city and then on to the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx. I had this image of the Pyramids being amidst a vast golden desert but as we navigated our way through the compact streets of Cairo, the peaks of the pyramids could be seen rising in the background. The city suddenly stopped and there they were. They weren’t the smooth pyramid I imagined either but a pyramid shape made of worn down, square blocks, rising like steps all the way to the top. Each block was bigger than me and the sheer size of each Pyramid is breathtaking. They make an incredible background to the mighty sphinx and you really do find yourself in awe at the craftsmanship of these architectural wonders. As our day continued we visited the City of the Dead, a slum area where thousands of people live amongst the dead. People have taken up residency alongside, on or above old tombs and mausoleums. The dead and the living co-exist in this eerily, dirty stretch of city. It was so surreal, it was like nothing i could relate to. We also visited the much anticipated Egyptian Museum and I finally saw the death mask of Tutankhamun that I had learned so much about for all those years in school, saw my first real mummified body and a range of incredible artifacts. We visited various monuments and even had time to enjoy a visit to a local Shisha bar before our late night flight back to Luxor.
West Bank of the Nile
The west Bank of the river Nile from Luxor is home to some of the most important archaeological sites in the world including the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and Queen Hatshepsut’s temple. This whole area leaves you wondering how it physically possible that it was all built by hand some thousands of years ago. We visited the tombs at the Valley of the Kings, where all the kings of the past were laid to rest. The tombs were carved out of the rock face and as we walked through them we marveled at the Egyptian hieroglyphics etched into the walls and stepped foot in the tomb of Tutankhamun. We also wondered Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in the sweltering heat. The highlight of our whole trip though, was taking a sunrise hot air balloon ride across the west bank. Floating high in the sky, seeing the sun rise over the ancient monuments was like nothing I had ever done before, peering into the roofless homes of locals and witnessing them sleep felt imposing but charming and feeling the burn of the roaring flames inflating the balloon was exhilarating. We also visited a local banana farm on the west side and took a camel ride with a local family to a small village where apparently Moses was put into the Nile in his basket.
Luxor has a very big and impressive temple on the East of the Nile in town, it’s a prime example of how Ancient Egypt has been preserved by a growing modern-day Egypt as the golden ‘M’ for McDonald’s can be seen peeking through just behind the temple. There are other near by temples and the Temple of Karnak has a spectacular light show which is definitely worth a visit. I loved to watch the Felucca boats sail by from dinner at restaurant’s on the riverside but it was a real treat to get to go in one. The Felucca owner took us on a slow sail across the Nile to the West Bank. There, his wife and child emerged from the bankside reeds with a tray on the wife’s head. She had prepared us dinner! It was such a beautiful and intimate experience. As we are all aware the Nile is the lifeline to Egypt and the Felucca owner was drinking from the river, when I didn’t look too impressed he splashed water in my face and told me to wash mine in it, “go on he said”. I made my boyfriend do it instead!
There are also great opportunities for camel rides through some of the local villages and banana plantations which is another must do for an even closer look at the authentic way of life.
Egypt turned out to be one of my favourite destinations, even to this day. I hadn’t rushed to the safe, beachside resorts of Sharm El Sheikh, I’d put my trust in people I’d never met and I embraced the ‘real Egypt’ as much as I could in a week. After the initial culture shock, I completely thrived being thrown out of my comfort zone and being so terrified on my first night made me a stronger and more mindful traveler. From this day on i knew that the whole world was within my reach and if I believed in it, then I would see it…. all of it!