Egypt: Traveling in the Wrong Direction

Life, like the Nile River, flowed against this traveler’s expectations. On a trip to Egypt, she finally realized why she likes it that way.

By Katherine Lanpher
The author rides in a hot air balloon over Luxor. (Photo: Jessica Antola)
Photograph: Photo by: Jessica Antola

The Photos in My Mind

I don’t take pictures when I travel, preferring the camera in my mind. I pack a notebook instead and please myself with the notion that my scribblings will prompt memories more vivid than any vacation snapshot.

Later I pull out my notebook and see: Here is my attempt at sketching the massive stone pillars that forest the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak; here I’ve noted the stone portrait of the goddess Isis suckling the god Horus on Agilka Island; at the Luxor train station, I was fascinated by the stooped elderly man selling tea, who scuttled across the tracks with a steaming tin kettle in his hands.

And, of course, I still have the poem dictated to me by Captain Saleem as I sit on the floor of his felucca, Relax. He is tall, with striking blue eyes set in a dark brown face, both of which are set off by his white cotton djellaba. His first mate, Zeko, occasionally uses the oars — they look more like planks, really — but mostly we glide along the glassy green water. Our course this afternoon in Aswan is to circle around Elephantine Island, named for the ivory trade, though the granite boulders at one end do, indeed, look like elephants. Captain Saleem can’t help but note that I’m writing down everything I see: the two camels with riders, picking their way down a hill in the distance; the motorboats that whiz past, full of tourists.

"You are a writer," he intones. "I am a writer too."

And then he recites a poem in Nubian, laughing when I confess that I have no idea what the poem means. Kindly, he translates. "It is a love history," he says, then clears his throat to begin. "‘You are standing in front of me/but I miss you/I forget myself/and I remember you./Be kind to me just a little bit.’"

I tell him it’s a good poem. We pass a small outcropping of rock, its banks covered with the yellow blossoms of mimosa. The perfume wafts our way.

"Do you know about mimosa?" he asks. "If you are too tired, you sleep one hour underneath the mimosa and you feel better. It’s like medicine, especially in the middle of the day."

Which, I don’t tell him, is how I think of travel: If you are tired in your life, it helps to take a trip, preferably to a place where down is up and up is down. It’s like medicine — especially in the middle of your life.

The What and Where of Travel in Egypt

Getting There

Flights from the United States to Egypt often require a stop in Europe, but EgyptAir has a nonstop from New York to Cairo; by planning ahead, I was able to get a round-trip ticket for $800. (Go to egyptair.com, or call 212-581-5600 or 310-215-3900.) You will need a visa, which can easily be purchased for $15 in the customs area of the airport when you land in Cairo.

What to bring

Pack a wide-brimmed hat, high-SPF sunscreen, and some medium- and long-sleeved linen shirts. A growing number of Egyptian women wear the hijab, or head covering, and although you don’t have to do that, keeping your arms covered in lightweight linen will help you beat the heat and respect local culture.

When in Cairo

Make sure you see the Khan al-Khalili, a medieval bazaar. Visit the centuries-old coffee shop Fishawi’s, and stop by the Egyptian Pancake House for a fateer, a delicate flaky pastry that can be sweet or savory. If you’ve dreamed of waking up to the sight of the Pyramids, then stay in splendor at the Oberoi Mena House, a former royal hunting lodge in the Cairo suburb of Giza. Rooms with "the view" start at $200 per night.

When in Luxor

Take a break from the west bank hubbub at the Al Moudira, a boutique hotel near the tombs, founded by a Lebanese jewelry designer. At the restaurant, order the mezze plates, small dips and salads that traditionally begin a good Egyptian meal. Sumptuous rooms start at $200 a night.

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