Remembrance of Things Past in Egypt

For every traveler, Egypt is a trip back to the ancient world. But for Sandra Tsing Loh it was also a journey into a more recent past — the last time she remembers her mother and father being happy together. As she and her sister explore Cairo and beyond, what they really hope to see is a vision of their childhood

by Sandra Tsing Loh
egyptian pyramids image
Photograph: Harf Zimmerman

Meanwhile, overheated, dehydrated, peckish and tired, Tatjana and I are starting to wear on each other. As our schedule did not in the end permit a Nile cruise—our less romantic modes of transportation are well-worn cars, short domestic flights and trains—we take a brief sail on a felucca as a consolation prize. But it is not transformative, and we don’t dispatch my mother to the wind in the single cathartic movie throw I had imagined. This is because at every other place we’ve been to, my sister, grinning, has waved a small plastic film canister at me, saying, “Mama loved that place—I threw a pinch of her ashes there.” This horrifies me; it is like seasoning a curry.

Even more ridiculously, my sister and I snap at each other about finances. If her bible, the Lonely Planet guide, says a cab ride should cost 60 pounds, not 70, she doggedly sticks to that number even when drivers protest, loudly. I claim that it’s just $10 versus $12 and life is too short, but then I order a bottle of ordinary California wine at dinner and am aghast when she points out it has cost us $100. Oh, the horror of arguing about money. It’s as if we’ve come to Egypt to revisit not the glories of our childhood but the miseries of our parents’ marriage.

To amp up the tension, we travel to the legendary and spectacular temples at Abu Simbel by police convoy (it wasn’t the luxurious cruise we had imagined). Because of tourist shootings by Islamic extremists in southern Egypt in 1997, the only way visitors are allowed to travel to Abu Simbel is in groups by minibus or with a rented car and driver. That said, it’s kind of a relaxed journey. The driver plays “Gangnam Style” on the radio, and our affable guide chats with us about his studies in the hospitality industry as mile after mile of barren desert flies by.

Sources, including the Guardian, estimate that Egyptian tourism has dropped 30 percent since the Arab Spring uprising began in 2011, so it is no real surprise that there are none of the usual crowds at Abu Simbel. My sister and I stand alone in the shadows under the peaceful stone gazes of the four massive seated statues of Ramses II, carved in 1257 BC out of solid rock. How curious is it that the less-than-200-year-old Cairo Opera House has burned down but Ramses II’s temple is still standing—complete with 300-year-old archaically hand-lettered graffiti scratched into its walls by French and British soldiers? Just beyond the sandy shore, the Nile is placid, blue, enigmatic.

First published in the May 2013 issue

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