Have you ever felt drawn to a certain place? Ever since I was little I have always been absolutely fascinated by Egypt. When I was getting out of the Army in 2008 I knew that once I got out my travel opportunities would be limited if not entirely impossible, so I decided to go to Egypt. I originally asked people to go with me, but no one would go – so I went by myself. It was the best thing I ever did, and my time there reflected letting go of a lifetime of insecurity as well as an unexpected and life changing spiritual journey.
I bought a round trip ticket from Rome to Cairo, Egypt (I was stationed in Italy at the time), I had 8 days and I had absolutely no agenda. I knew I wanted to see the pyramids and as many of the other antiquities as possible – but other than that I had no concrete plans. Now, it wasn’t my first time ‘visiting’ a mostly Muslim country – but obviously my other trips were not as a tourist. I did some serious research before I went so that I could be sure to not offend anyone and so I could get the most out of my trip. That little bit of planning and respect paid off in ways I never imagined…
I stayed at the African House Hostel in Cairo, and I can only attribute finding this place to fate. I was meant to go there, and I was meant to meet the people I did. Without them, I probably would have turned around and gone home – instead – I got to see pretty much the entire country and I got to see and do things that normal tourists don’t get to do. The reason I picked that hostel over any other place was because they advertised that they would pick me up from the airport and take me to the hostel. It’s funny for me to read their website now – it looks as though they have updated the decor (I had Pokemon pillow cases in my room and a picture of Tweety Bird taped to the wall), and that they are marketing themselves much better than when I visited. What I find funny is they had some bad reviews online and I usually don’t stay at places with bad reviews (especially hostels) – however, the fact that I didn’t have to learn to navigate Cairo upon landing was enough for me to ignore a couple of bad reviews. After being there, I will say that the bad reviews were from bad tourists, not because this hostel is bad. If you plan on visiting Cairo – this hostel has my full endorsement!
When I landed in Cairo there was a man waiting for me to drive me to the hostel, once there I had a moment of, “What the hell are you doing?” I met and talked to the men running the hostel and one of them went to get me something to eat while the others asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I had no real idea. I ate my dinner – a falafel from a street vendor – and they told me they would take care of everything for me. They asked how much money I wanted to spend and in what currency, I gave them my amount (in euro’s) and went to bed. While lying there – I started to cry. I have no idea why – maybe I was a little overwhelmed by everything. I had just gotten to my dream destination, things were going well, and I was truly on my very first real adventure. I still can’t explain the emotions that I was having that night. I felt such a deep sadness coupled with absolute joy in even being there, and with the uncertainty of what exactly I was going to do, I think I just kind of lost it. That night I had to most vivid dreams I have ever had in my life and they were filled with crazy symbolism, and played like a movie in my head. A movie I can only describe as what might have been a past life or a genuine view of ancient Egypt. I still ca’t put into words the dreams I had there and I had them every night of my trip. Those dreams though put my mind at ease, and I just knew that I was going to be okay.
When I got up in the morning, I was greeted by breakfast and a plan. Ahmed, one of the men I had met the previous night had come up with a detailed itinerary for me that took me from Cairo all the way to Aswan. The amount I told him the night before was 500 Euros (at the time a little less than $1000).
Ahmed pulled out a map and proceeded to tell me what I would do for the next 8 days. They arranged everything. At every stop of the train, someone would get on board and check on me – my first train ride was about 13 hours long, they reserved three seats for me so I could sleep on the train. When I arrived at any destination there was always someone to greet me and point me in the right direction, get me food, take me to my hotel, or be my personal tour guide. Without them, I never would have seen anything. Being a woman traveling alone, without an escort you are limited in what you can do (without attracting too much negative attention) and good luck getting a beer.
Aside from the antiquities themselves (which I will write more about another day) my experience in Egypt was truly life changing. Nothing puts life into perspective better than visiting a country with such a rich history with people who are willing to share that history with you. Add to that some sort of cosmic connection to the land and people and I can say that nothing I did while I was there was ordinary. I learned about Islam – not from a book, but by paying attention and asking LOTS of questions, I attended a traditional Nubian wedding (I was invited by our boat captain who was also a priest), I camped on a boat along the Nile river with strangers, I made a ton of new friends, I tried new food, I wore a head scarf, I drank some weird kind of tea, I smoked from a hookah (tobacco), I prayed in an ancient mosque, I saw a belly dancing and Whirling Dervish show, I had long conversations with my guides about everything from religion to politics…
The one thing that the ‘locals’ kept saying to me over and over again was that I was unlike any other tourist from the west they had ever encountered. I talked to them, I asked questions, I respected their religion and culture and that extra time I took to learn and respect them made them want to show me everything. I can’t help but believe that I was meant to go there. I have traveled to many places, and almost all my travels include some horror story about getting lost, losing money, and general hang ups and travel frustrations. Egypt was flawless. The connection that I felt to the people and the land itself still leaves me in awe and when I think about that trip – which is still almost daily – I feel like I am missing something. I feel like there was something more that I haven’t quite been able to tap into yet.
I will end this post with a video of the Whirling Dervish dance: