This essay was the final project for my Travel Writing course. Misadventures in Egypt gave me the opportunity to write about my trip to Cairo in a way I’ve been struggling with–it’s not the typical blog-friendly read, but it’s honest and I am proud of the result.
The plane had been taxiing for a good twenty minutes. There was absolutely nothing to see out my window—I had never landed to such utter darkness. It was just past midnight in Cairo, but I had expected to see *some* sign of life. The plane was full but quiet—almost as if everyone knew this wasn’t quite right. My mind started to wander and I found myself wondering if we had even landed at an airport. Maybe we weren’t even in Cairo and this trip I had dreamed about for as long as I could remember wasn’t going to even start. We were just going to drive around on this plane until the pitch-black night completely swallowed us.
People talk about bucket list travel, but I can’t say that I’ve ever had a list. Egypt was the only destination I dreamed about. I grew up wanting to be Indiana Jones—I was going to make amazing discoveries and have crazy adventures involving tombs with traps and the occasional mummy. Other places had their appeal, but if I had one place I could go to, it was always Egypt. For one reason or another, though, it just never happened—until we decided to move back to New Zealand. We were living in Scotland with just a few months until our move across the world and had never been living physically closer to Egypt. If we didn’t make this work now, I couldn’t see when it would. Scott and I only had a few days of child-care coverage to work with, (in the form of his mother). But even just four days in Cairo was, in all ways, better than nothing and I felt like my Indiana Jones dream was about to become a reality.
The plane finally came to a stop and the slow process of disembarking began. We felt that jittery excitement of stepping into a whole new world. The crowd of passengers shuffled through the otherwise-empty airport corridors, down a large flight of steps, and entered a cavernous customs room. We knew that we had to get a visa (American dollars; cash; no change) before approaching one of the counters. We looked uncertainly at the kiosks scattered around. That we had to buy a visa on arrival, we knew. That there were multiple options for doing so was news to us. We finally chose the most official-looking of an unofficial-looking lot. The mute agent took our money, slapped a sticker in our passports, and sat back down to the TV in the corner. After waiting a moment to see if anything else was going to happen, we entered a customs line.
At this point in my life, I consider myself fairly well-travelled. I’ve lived in three different countries and visited many, many more. I like to think that I can at least put on the show of competence when approaching a new situation. Despite all that, I’ve never been as nervous as I was walking up to that customs agent. I could see some armed guards lining the walls of the room while others meandered, aloof and humorless, through the people waiting their turn. I almost convinced myself that we had done this entirely wrong, despite all of our research, and were about to be marched to a holding room and sent back home. Of course, this didn’t happen and while it wasn’t what I would call a friendly interview by the official, we were allowed to proceed.
Proceeding to where, exactly, became our next problem. We had booked what we thought was the connecting airport hotel for that night since we were arriving in the wee hours. There was, however, no indication of anything leading to a hotel and no open shops or information desks to ask. We decided to leave the terminal and just see what we could see.
Stepping outside into the desert air for the first time is something I will never forget. It was the middle of the night, which the years had taught us should feel cool, but the dry heat covered us as soon as the doors opened. We didn’t have time to stand and process it at the time, though. The chaos we found ourselves in was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. People were packed in so tightly that we had to almost elbow our way to the road. There were overtures from all sides. Inquiries about our transport arrangements, offers of directions, and “helpful” hands on our suitcase combined to feel like we were in an actual mob that wasn’t going to let us go. Over the din the glowing sign of our hotel rose across the tangle of airport roads and we broke through the crowd to rush to our destination.
The rest of that night was completely unremarkable. In fact, the hotel could have been found almost anywhere in the world—a large room, fluffy bedding, the most amazing shower I’ve ever had…I found myself wondering if my vision of our trip to Egypt was just broken. We woke with the sun and had coffee and pastries in our room before packing up the few things we had taken out and heading downstairs to the car that would take us to Giza.
We had booked a hotel at the pyramids for the rest of our trip. I wanted to be able to see them from my room and had visions of leaving the hotel to wander the edge of the desert with the pyramids in the background. I also wanted what I thought of as a more authentic experience—I didn’t want one of the major western chains—I wanted a small, locally-run spot with a story to tell. We found a hotel that was all of twelve rooms, included breakfast and dinner, and looked straight out at the Sphinx and pyramids. Our hotel also included an airport transfer, and that was the car we were now getting into.
One of the first things we realized about Cairo is that everywhere is at least an hour away from everywhere else. Any rules you’ve ever known about driving and traffic go out the window from the moment you get into a vehicle. Lane markings are mere decor and speed limits alternate between a Sunday stroll and however fast your car can go. Our driver cheerfully chatted in English, asking us questions about where we were from and what we were planning on seeing in Cairo, all the while darting into spaces left by momentarily distracted drivers and weaving between other cars given half an opportunity. At one point our driver just stopped—not quite on the side of the road—and ran out of the car and into a building without saying a word. Scott and I looked at each other with a what-the-hell-just-happened question reflected on both our faces while car horns blared all around us. Just as we were thinking we should grab our things and head to the footpath, our driver came out carrying two cold, green drinks, got back into the car, handed them to us with a big grin and said, “Egypt welcomes you.”
Our hotel was rather ramshackle and had the faded look of not having had a coat of paint or any sort of update for thirty years. We checked in and were told to put our things in our room and then go up to the roof—and we did exactly that. The hallways were small and dark and the stairs narrow, but we emerged onto the roof and the pyramids were right in front of us, a sudden and impossibly large diorama. There was a wide road in front of the hotel, but the desert with the Sphinx was just across it, with the pyramids in what would be easy walking distance just a bit further. We were directed to a couch and given another cold drink (which turned out to be guava) and some fruit, along with a notebook full of tour options. Now, Scott and I travel in a particular way. We like to wander on our own, making only vague plans, heading to wherever our current whims take us and eating anything that looks interesting. We flipped through the notebook of tours that included a Nile cruise, a trip to the museum, camel rides, all the various monuments…and couldn’t figure out how to tell the manager that we weren’t interested. To put off needing to answer the frequent question of which tours we wanted, we asked if it was possible to order some lunch. We were starving and antsy to have some real Egyptian food. It turned out, though, that we had gotten this entire trip completely wrong.
Egyptian tourism is structured in a way we had never experienced. Each hotel has tour guides it works with and it was not only encouraged, but almost necessary to use them in order to enter or experience most of the tourist destinations. The expectation of tourists at our hotel was that they would have breakfast on the roof, go on that day’s tour (booked through the hotel, of course), and be back for dinner—served while watching the light show. We had thought we would be able to leave our hotel and walk to the pyramids—physically possible, but it turned out not logistically possible.
Lunch wasn’t officially served at the hotel because it was assumed guests would be away on their daily tour. We were offered a scribbled menu that included pizza and chicken—from the Pizza Hut and KFC nearby. We managed to place an order for a mixed platter of something closer to what we thought was local cuisine and couldn’t avoid the tour discussion anymore.
Now, when I say the hotel ran tours, I mean they worked with a driver and personal tour guide—at least for some of the options. Scott and I decided that we would use the tour guide for one day to go to the pyramids, Memphis, and Saqqara. We were confused and thrown off and the manager was oh so very persistent. We declined a camel ride but found ourselves agreeing to a sunset four-wheeler excursion in the desert (a brand-new option—we’d be one of the first to do it!). The manager pointed out that we were going to be there for more days and should sign up for more tours, but we were able to put him off by saying that we would decide later.
It was difficult to leave the hotel. The area we were in was behind guard posts and the other side of the road was the wall that kept the Sahara at bay. There wasn’t anywhere we could wander. The afternoon passed slowly as we watched lines: of tourists on camels being led in front of the pyramids; of tour buses leaving the pyramids; of people with their arm curved over their heads for that popular picture where they’re touching the point of the pyramid. Wherever we looked from our rooftop, there were tourists. Groups of girls, excruciatingly, had photos taken while they mimed the “Walk Like an Egyptian” dance. I found myself despairing that my idea of visiting Egypt wasn’t based in current reality.
Once evening started settling in, the other hotel guests began returning from their tours and made their way to the roof. Dinner didn’t have choices—once you sat down, plates of food simply appeared before you, most sourced from the nearby takeaway restaurants. We munched our way through the various dishes as we watched tour buses of all sizes start arriving down below. People were packed onto the buses as much as the buses themselves were packed onto the road. Our hotel was right in front of the entrance to the official seating for the light show that was put on every night and the road out front became an unruly parking lot.
In the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, there’s a scene that takes place during the light show at Giza. It was filmed in the 1970s and has not changed a bit—if you’ve seen the movie, you’ve seen the show. The narration, the early synthesizer music stings, the lights, the seating area—everything is identical and you can’t quite decide if it’s tacky or quaint. (We settled on tacky.) When the show ended, we watched in fascination as the mobs of tourists came out of the seating area and somehow found their bus in the absolute sea of buses. I was relieved that even though everything had been super weird so far, at least we hadn’t paid extra for the light show.
The next morning, we headed to the roof for breakfast before meeting our guide for the day. Once again, we sat down and food appeared. This time, however, it felt like there wasn’t any rhyme or reason to what was being served. At least the previous night’s meal had felt like dinner—this just felt like they had gathered all the leftovers they could find and called it breakfast. There were pots of yogurt and pudding that hadn’t seen a refrigerator in days, an assortment of stale breads, potato chips, bits of processed meats and cheeses, and a couple of old hard-boiled eggs. I was so hungry and disappointed in the food so far and really couldn’t understand how I had gotten all of my daydreaming about this trip so wrong—it was feeling like an expensive comedy of errors.
Our guide for the day was a young man who had so much energy and cheerfulness that I was worn out from his greeting. Our driver, on the other hand, looked to be barely a teenager and as morose as our guide was happy. Only then did it fully occur to me that this was it—it was just us, a guide, and a driver. We should have made badges saying “Western Tourist.” Our guide chatted about how the day would work while our driver made his way to the entrance to the pyramids complex. The road leading up to the pyramids that we could see from the hotel was not where we needed to go—the entrance was on the other side of the plateau and it took the requisite hour to get there.
The pyramids were jam-packed full of tourists. Most of them came on the large tour buses and had the color-coded group lanyards of an official group. Once we had paid our way and entered the crowd of people looking for that photo without anyone else in it, our guide became a completely different person. Gone was the smile and instead we got a rapid-fire fifteen-minute lecture on the history of Egypt. I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t know if I was supposed to respond, ask questions, or if I was going to be quizzed later. I was standing next to the place I had wanted to be more than anywhere else for as long as I could remember, completely surrounded by throngs of the types of tourists I had desperately tried not to ever be, and was being given the most dense academic lecture I had ever heard. When he finally finished, the smile returned and our guide extended an offer to take “that” picture. We turned it down.
We were able to wander as long as we wanted and were assured that there was no rush, but our guide stayed right with us wherever we went. We finally decided it was time to go and headed back to the car, where our driver had laid his seat down and was fast asleep. Our guide woke him up with an angry shout and we all got back into the car to make our way to the next destination. As we pulled out, though, our driver completely missed the giant block of stone that was right in front of us and managed to wedge the car onto it with a massive screech of metal. The driver and guide both got out of the car, yelling what were clearly insults at each other. Other waiting drivers came over and laughed uproariously. Scott and I started to exit the car but were told to get back in. It became clear that the plan was going to be to lift the front of the car off the block, so we got out anyway and stood off to the side. I might have been having a ridiculous tourist experience of a trip, but there was no way in hell I was going to sit in a car while it was lifted.
In the end, the car was freed and surprisingly unharmed and so we continued our day. What we discovered as it went on was that what you signed up for wasn’t necessarily what you got. There turned out to be a very structured way of taking tourists around to the sights. We “happened” to pass by a place that showed you how to make papyrus and were shown all sorts of artwork we could buy—including a glow-in-the-dark Elvis that absolutely screamed Egyptian souvenir. Neither the shop clerk nor our guide was impressed that we didn’t buy anything. When it was mentioned that there was another shop that made Egyptian oils, we flat-out said we weren’t interested. The day carried on with long drives, long lectures, a tourist-trap lunch stop, lots of street dogs, and seeing in-person what I had most wanted to see in the world.
The manager was waiting for us when we arrived back at the hotel and told us to go take a shower before our four-wheeler ride. He was clearly used to running every aspect of his guests’ visits, but we needed the shower and I was rather overwhelmed with the day and so we did as we were told. I had forgotten that we had agreed to the evening ride and wasn’t sure what it was going to entail. I had grown up in the mountains of Pennsylvania so four-wheelers themselves weren’t new to me, but nothing at all had felt normal for two days and I just didn’t know what to expect.
We came downstairs at the designated time to see two four-wheelers parked out front. There was a discussion going on between the hotel manager and the teenager who would be taking us as to whether we needed our passports or not. In the end, they decided we didn’t, but the conversation didn’t do anything to make me less nervous about what we were about to do. Scott and I were told to each get on, but the teen hopped onto the front of mine before we left. He directed me out of the front road and into the depths of Giza.
Now, I’ve talked about the insanity of the car situation in Cairo. What I hadn’t mentioned was that there’s also people weaving in and out of the same traffic on foot at all times and because we were so close to the tourist area of the pyramids, there were camels, donkeys, and horses as well. Throw in two tourists on four-wheelers tearing—at their guide’s insistence—through winding back streets and you have what felt like a chase scene in a movie. Maybe this was going to be my Indiana Jones moment—not a desert exploration like I had thought, but a frantic race through a maze of a city.
I was in front with Scott behind me. My rider would either point me to a turn or reach for the handlebars and make it himself. We wound our way further and further from the hotel, but also away from the desert where we were supposed to be. I would occasionally glance behind to make sure my husband was still there and at one point caught the tail end of what looked like a water bottle being tossed at him by a woman. We rode and swerved and just kept going until there was one last turn and suddenly we were at a gate to the desert. The armed guard looked us over as the teen jumped down confidently to, we assumed, tell him what was going on. The conversation took longer than was comfortable, but in the end we were waved through and were finally on the sand.
The desert felt empty—the emptiness that I had craved at the pyramids. No tourists, no locals. Just the three of us on two growly vehicles pushing away from the city. I had the momentary thought that we could just keep going—we could go far enough out that everything that screamed “tourist” would disappear…and then was rushed back to the present when our guide grabbed my handlebars full-on and turned us toward the giant sand dune.
I’m going to die in Egypt. I’m going to die in the desert and everyone was right and what is going to happen to my kids and oh my god this is going to hurt so much…it was the only time in my life that I thought there was a very real chance that this was going to be the end. The four-wheeler sped up the dune and flew over the top. I closed my eyes and waited for the landing.
The four-wheeler continued on and the teen who had taken control of my vehicle let go with a big grin. “Fun, yes?”
We tore through the desert and up and down dunes until the sun started to go down. Our guide led us to a plateau with a clear view of the pyramids. They seemed so far away and quiet. There wasn’t a hint of the throngs of chatter from earlier in the day and not a bus in sight—the pyramids were majestic, not tourist fodder. Even the city had disappeared—we were surrounded by desert. I felt peace and contentment for the first time since arriving in Cairo. I finally felt like we had gotten it right.
Our trip to Cairo was short and as surreal an experience as I’ve ever had. It was full of disappointment, confusion, pure awe, and beauty. We went inside pyramids, explored the souk, and were nose-to-glass-to-nose with Ramses. We ate amazing food and some of the worst I’ve ever had. We discovered that I can’t bargain worth anything and that if there’s one thing you should bring with you, it’s toilet paper. Most of all, though, we discovered that sometimes if you take a chance on a ridiculous tour add-on that wouldn’t normally be your kind of thing, you may just end up with one of the best memories of your life. It’s now three years on from our trip and there are times when we reminisce, shake our heads, and wonder if some of our memories really happened. If, however, you were to ask me where I want to go most when travel opens up again, my answer would be Egypt.
To read more about my trip to Cairo, please check out Visiting the Egyptian Museum.
To read another example of my essay writing, please check out A Bus Story.