Traveling to Egypt
It is a hot, still afternoon in Egypt, and I am reclining on the floor of a felucca, a white, wide-bottomed sailboat. A gentle Nubian river captain makes me tea and recites one of his poems as we float down the Nile, the city of Aswan appearing on our right, the banks of Elephantine Island blooming on our left.
I can’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed — it’s as if my bones are melting. There is a slight breeze as we float, a breeze that feels sweet juxtaposed with the heat. Until now, my trip to Egypt has been at breakneck speed: I’ve dodged hair-raising traffic in Cairo, risen at dawn to traverse the west bank of Luxor by hot-air balloon, zipped from one tomb to another in the Valley of the Kings.
But the hassles of this trip — the language mix-ups, the cultural confusions, the sexual repression I feel on the streets — are slipping away as I sip tea steeped in mint, listen to the occasional slap of oars on water, and watch the horizon. For once, that’s all I have to do: just watch the horizon.
Other veterans of travel to Egypt will tell you about the awe-inspiring pharaohs’ tombs, the repose of the Sphinx, the beauty of the mosques. I wouldn’t offer a word of argument — everything they say is true — but I wouldn’t trade my afternoon on the Nile for anything.
The Current of My Life
When you float down the Nile, you actually float north. This dizzying fact upends any notion you have of what is the right direction for things: The southern half of the country is known as Upper Egypt, which means, of course, that the northern half is Lower Egypt.
The current of my life has never quite run in the expected direction either. I used to think that adventure and travel were for your 20s, before you settled down. My motto would have been "Backpack to youth hostels while ye may." Only I never got around to that kind of travel when I was younger. Wanting both money and security, I worked all my summers in college, then landed a steady job in Saint Paul; I was vested in a pension plan before I turned 30. But now, in my 40s, I live as a writer in New York City, a midlife woman who not only realizes that her time on the planet is finite but also that she wants to see as much of that planet as possible. Thus, when my friend Craig, a filmmaker and TV producer, announces that he is taking a year off to teach in Cairo, I hear myself promising him that I will visit.
Still, I don’t believe it myself until it is April and I am on a jet beginning its descent into Cairo. No, wait — the sweet-voiced flight attendant has now announced that we are actually landing in Sharm el-Sheikh, a luxury resort area on the Red Sea, because of severe sandstorms in Cairo. Sandstorms? I hurriedly consult my guidebook. Yes, there it is, a plain-faced warning that in early spring, Egypt is hit by the khamsin, hot winds of whipped sand so dense you can’t see in front of you. I do an inventory of my situation: first trip to the African continent; first trip to an Islamic country; I know only one person, and he lives in a city where my plane can’t land. Not to mention, up is down and down is up. I’m oddly cheerful. Who knows what will happen next?
What happens next is I meet Maha, an Egyptian businesswoman who lends me her cell phone and her companionship during a 12-hour day of waiting in the airport and at a hotel. When it’s unclear how soon the sands will subside, we make a pact: We will turn this detour into a destination. We will climb nearby Mount Sinai together. She has just returned from Indiana, where her first grandchild was born; she swore on his safe delivery that she would climb to the summit in thanksgiving. Me, I’ve never been, which is reason enough. So I am a little disappointed when the skies clear and we actually take off for Cairo.
A New Vocabulary
At least I arrive in time for my belly dancing lesson. Oh, don’t make that face. If you knew that a famous belly dancer in Cairo gave lessons in her home studio overlooking the Nile, wouldn’t you sign up?
"Egypt is the central nervous system of the dance," says Liza Laziza, my instructor. She is Iranian and has lived in Cairo for seven years, led by an overwhelming passion for belly dancing that first struck her in London, when she was a young legal assistant.
It’s not unusual to find a foreigner keeping this art form alive: A growing cultural conservatism has led many Egyptian belly dancers to retire. Meanwhile, Liza says, in the rest of the world, interest has grown. She counts Japanese, Dutch, and South African women among her pupils; she also hosts a weekly show devoted to the dance on an Egyptian subscription cable channel.
A beginner must start out simply. The first thing I learn is that my shimmy is coming from the wrong place.
"It’s with the knees, not with the hips," Liza says, demonstrating how a quick pulling back of the right knee sends her right hip bone into a movement of punctuation.
She stands behind me and makes a tuk-tuk noise to remind me to move my knees, not my hips. She ties a scarf festooned with coins around my hips, the jingling sound tracking my steps. She traces the moves for me, adding to my dance vocabulary — the figure eight, the shoulder shimmy, the hip drop. An hour later, I’m still trying to roll my hips in a figure eight when my lower back adds its own accent move. Ping! I can feel the muscles snapping, a familiar twinge that has invaded my workouts before, and with that my lesson is over.
I wonder how Liza has managed these moves for so long. She gives her age as 40 and says, "As I grow older, the dance in me gets better and better. I feel like I’m in my element."
The Timeless Tourist
A day or so later, the element I’m most worried about is fire, specifically the belching flames that are powering the hot-air balloon carrying a dozen of us over Luxor, what was the site of ancient Thebes.
We are 2,000 feet in the dawn air and climbing. Every now and then, a loud whoosh from the bellows signals the advent of a blast of air so hot that we cower on the floor. But then the wind picks up, our flight straightens out, and we cautiously put our heads back up.
The sun is a yellow disc rising in a red and pink sky, and we float over a vista that I imagine looks much as it must have millennia ago. The land closest to the Nile is checkered green and yellow, dotted with clusters of palm trees. Boys chase sheep and goats across a field.
And then, with a breathtaking abruptness, the desert reclaims its hold on the landscape, the green suddenly replaced by ocher; another kind of beauty emerges: fissures and patterns etched in the sand by the wind. In the distance rise the broad beige strokes of the Theban mountains. We pass over a portion of the ruins of the Ramesseum, the temple erected by Ramses II. It is this colossus that inspired the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write "Ozymandias," his sonnet to power long forgotten.
Shelley wasn’t the only 19th-century notable to follow the same itinerary I have. Mark Twain, Florence Nightingale, and Gustave Flaubert were among the travelers who flocked to see the wonders that were being unearthed in Egypt in their time. It’s easy to seamlessly slip into a daydream in which I am one of their troupe. Like many of those people, I have now climbed down into the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, crisscrossed the souks of Cairo and Aswan, and walked through the temples of Luxor and Karnak. And like them, I find myself increasingly inured to the constant demands for baksheesh, the small tip for any service, and the hectoring cries of men desperate to sell the scarves, the scarabs, the papyrus goods in their arms.
Both Nightingale and Twain complained about the never-ceasing crowds of souvenir hawkers. I think of them both when I make my pilgrimage to the Sphinx one morning, struck by the familiarity of the image — who hasn’t seen a picture of the Sphinx? — and the piercing cry of the vendor nearest me, pushing his bottles of soft drinks: "Ice! Ice! Ice! Cold Fanta! Cold Fanta!"
It is like standing in front of the Mona Lisa and discovering a baseball-game peanut seller at your elbow. But nothing, really, can dim the serene beauty of the Sphinx; I feel both recognition and a sense of peace.
"Oh," I say, "there you are."
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
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.
When in Aswan
No visit is complete without a drink on the terrace of the Old Cataract hotel, an Edwardian jewel that overlooks the Nile and probably hasn’t changed much since Agatha Christie wintered there. A standard room, at $283 a night, also nets you an over-the-top, elegant breakfast.
If you’re traveling in the wrong direction, you need the right kind of guidebook. Here are three of my favorites, a memoir and two novels. They won’t tell you how to find a hotel, but they will tell you how to find Egypt.
Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, by Rosemary Mahoney, is a brilliant account of Mahoney’s quest to do exactly as her title says. She rows solo down the Nile in a small boat in a country where women and tourists are supposed to be passengers, not skippers.
The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany, was a sensation — both for sexual and political frankness — when it first came out in Egypt in 2002. You won’t get to peek into the windows of many private homes when you’re in Egypt, but this novel affectionately reveals the intertwined lives of the inhabitants of a once-elegant apartment building in downtown Cairo.
The Map of Love, by Ahdaf Soueif, is a juicy historical novel, set during the nationalist struggle in Egypt in the early 20th century. It traces a cross-cultural love affair that will reverberate for generations.
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2007/January 2008.