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Solo Female Travel-Endless Adventures in Egypt
While the COVID-19 virus has blocked travel, it cannot stop avid travelers from both dreaming of the future and thinking back on the best trips of our lives. For me, that means reliving my adventures and missteps as a woman traveling alone through Egypt some time ago. While I have had many “lessons learned” as a solo female traveler since, it would be fair to say that on this trip, I quickly went through a checklist of everything to avoid doing while abroad. It did leave me though with some cherished memories, and I did manage to get home in one piece.
As a child, I scared myself to death watching “Mummy” movies. Over time, reading Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and watching (too much?) James Bond, I was ready to see Egypt for myself. In more recent years, I had studied the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. It began innocently enough with the phrase “Fiih far fi beiti” (there is a mouse in my house). It progressed to joint singing of “Happy Birthday” and to some more intriguing dialogues encompassing contemporary current affairs. However, there was still a great chance to make puzzling errors along the way. Undaunted, I was ready to charge ahead.
Having chosen to join a tour, I arrived on a late Sun. afternoon at the Cairo Airport. I was surprised that no tour guide was there to meet me. Not to worry, I approached a group of tour guides and launched into my best Egyptian Arabic. I was thrilled when the group burst into applauds. Unfortunately, they let me know that my company rep did not appear to be there. Not concerned, I negotiated a taxi ride to the Pyramids where my hotel was located,When I arrived, there was still no guide! (As you may know, the Pyramids are in the Cairo suburbs not in the countryside. One side though is still at the edge of the desert making for great photos.) Somehow, I still felt calmly that I had not traveled 5,800+ miles by mistake! After some time, my guide appeared. He quickly informed me that I was the only one who signed up. That was an intriguing fact since the tour “group” (“my group of one”) was on its own at night! After learning there had been a change in hotels, we drove back in the opposite direction to Cairo’s Zamalek district.
Lesson learned: Get a specific meeting place and contact information for your arrival.
Each day the tour company sent a guide to fetch me. My “group” was combined with another slightly larger group. The latter was made up of a warm and friendly elderly couple from Argentina. We three were taken in a small Mercedes sedan to sights around the city each day. My new travel mates quickly confessed they could not understand a word spoken by our guide. As a result, they asked me to translate the guide’s presentation into Spanish as we went along. I was on solid ground most of the time until we arrived at an ancient temple with large, colorful murals. I really struggled for the right (polite?) words to retell the story of a very, curvy goddess. When no one gasped at the words I used, I breathed a sigh of relief.
One of the major tourist draws in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum. It is the most famous of eight other large museums in the city as it houses the earliest archaeological gems from the time of the Pharaohs. To learn more about its permanent exhibits and history, take a look at this official Egyptian antiquity site. In the early 19th-century, many of Egypt’s ancient art and archaeological treasures found their way to London’s British Museum. This has been an issue of some debate well into the 21st-century.
I don’t mind having dinner alone when I am on travel. In fact, at the end of the day, I like to get dressed up and go out to eat at a top restaurant. My plan met with some mixed results in Cairo. I was very careful to dress modestly with a high-necked blouse, long sleeves and long pants. With the help of my hotel, I made a dinner reservation at an international restaurant. Since taxis were really cheap, I was able to hire a driver to take me to the restaurant and wait for me. That seemed to be common since scores of other drivers were gathered around waiting for their return fares as well.
My second foray for an evening out did not go so well. I had a ticket for the world-famous Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids of Giza. Since there was a café right across from the entrance, it seemed easy. However, as I made my way there, I discovered it was not the custom for women, and especially a woman alone, to drop by for dinner. What did work? I flagged down a cab to go to an international hotel, the 5-star Mina House. By the time I made it back via taxi for the performance, I was pretty frazzled! I threw caution to the wind and accepted an invitation to join two new friends for drinks afterwards. While I do not make a habit of going off with strangers without some thought, fortunately I made it back afterwards to my hotel.
Lesson learned: If you are joining a tour that is “on its own in the evening”, check out ahead what your options are. This is especially true if you are a solo female traveler heading to the Middle East or other areas where women don’t typically go out alone for meals even in the day time. (For example, in Jordan, I had lunch or coffee out but always ate dinner in my hotel’s upscale restaurant. I did notice that even then I was the only woman alone while pairs of women, families and couples were the norm.)
My greatest misadventure in Cairo still awaited me! On my bi-lingual daily tour, I asked to book a horse to ride into the sunset at the Great Sphinx and Pyramids at Giza. My guide made the arrangements. However, when my cab arrived at the base of the Pyramids, the driver was informed that cars were not allowed up the road after 5 PM. After trudging through the sand to the top of the hill, I was thrilled to see a man on horseback leading a horse beside him. I rushed over and asked: “Are you here from the stables of Syed __”? He replied “yes”. However, as we all have learned from travel abroad, “yes” can mean “I don’t know what you are saying”. As the sun set, the only other riders were far away against the horizon on camel back! My guide began to say odd things like “hold my hand”. Then he suggested we stop in the desert in what was now pitch black darkness. This seemed strange to me that the stable would have sent someone who seemed to have a more “romantic” than just the setting sun! . I didn’t have long to try to figure this out. He looked at me and then said “What is this stable of “Syd __??” I quickly realized that this was a case of mistaken identity. I had followed the proverbial “wrong man”!
Lesson learned: Always meet your guide at your hotel or at their place of business.
My journey was only half over as it was time to fly to Luxor. When I arrived, I could not resist taking a local horse and buggy into the Old Suq. I was the only foreigner so was met with some interest. Each merchant wanted me to join them for tea and a chat. While I appreciated the warm welcome, I was relieved that most of the questions were the same so I could reply without scrambling for my dictionary.
Shortly after that, I joined my Nile River Cruise. As I lay in my single cabin, I woke in the night and marveled at the sun rising over the Nile. Pretty quickly, I realized I was looking at the overhead light bulb! Apparently, my stomach had decided it was time for pay back from my foray into the old Suq.
Lesson Learned: Don’t throw caution to the wind when you arrive at your destination abroad. Unless you have a strong stomach, watch out. A common mistake is to assume that hot drinks like tea and coffee have been heated enough to overcome traveler’s stomach.
Along with Karnak and the Valley of the Kings, Luxor is the start of a tourist’s journey through Upper (southern) Egypt. Aside from the Pyramids at Giza, this is the site for most of Egypt’s ancient treasures.
The Valley of the Kings provided an introduction to a really intriguing female Pharaoh, Hatshepsut, the wife of Thutmose II. The daughter of Thutmose I, her life coincided with a golden age of the “New Kingdom”. While there was at least one earlier female Pharaoh, she was the only female Pharaoh given a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. While Cleopatra was even more famous in the West, her reign occurred at a later date. As a Ptolemy, she was viewed in history as Greek not Egyptian. The Hatshepsut Temple, nestled into the base of a rock cliff, is striking both for its unusual natural setting and architecture. For more on the “Queen Who Would Be King”, see the Smithsonian’s account of Hatshepsut’s reign. Unfortunately, it was the site many years ago where gunmen opened fire randomly killing and injuring a number of tourists.
Leaving Luxor, our narrow boat made its way to Aswan. While the Nile was narrow sailing southward, it provided a good view of the life on the nearby, surrounding banks. Although the Aswan Dam is on the tourist checklist, I was more interested in two other sites. The first was the Old Cataract Hotel. It is now a 5-star Sofitel resort. What intrigued me was its fabled past in “Death on the Nile”, an Agatha Christie classic. She had lived in Syria and other remote Middle East locations in the early 20th-century during her second marriage to an archaeologist. As a result, her novels were sometimes set in the region from Petra to Upper Egypt.
In contrast, I was also struck by the ancient Temple of Philae. Set on a small island in the Nile, the Temples of Philae were constructed in honor of Isis. Over succeeding centuries, they evolved during the Greek, Roman and Byzantine times to create a unique mix of architecture. Certain of the Philae temples were then converted to Christian churches. UNESCO assisted in rescuing the Temple of Philae after the Aswan Dam was built. Its current location just outside Aswan is an ideal day trip. To add to the atmosphere, we made our way there by boat on a really, really small “felucca” which looked like a page from ancient times.
After the Nile Cruise ended, I caught a flight to Abu Simbel, the storied location of two monumental temples during the reign of Ramses II, “the Great Builder”. The complex is located only 11 miles north of the Sudanese border. Its massive 60+ foot statues dominate the surrounding desolate Sahara Desert. In addition to its archaeological importance, it is known for a 20th-century engineering feat. In the 1960’s, the companion temples were moved to prevent damage from the reservoir that resulted from the construction of the Aswan Dam. The second smaller temple was dedicated to Nefertari, Ramses’ wife. As a modern day solo female traveler, I was intrigued by what I learned. Nefertari was given the special honor of having her thirty-five foot statue be equal in size to that of Ramses’. (Nefertari, while famous, was eclipsed by the even more celebrated Nefertiti. The two are often confused.)
After a full day at Abu Simbel, I made my way back to the airstrip set up a bus ride away. Under a billowy canopy, four hundred of us tourists waited outdoors in the desert for an arriving Airbus. Unfortunately, the next flight only held two hundred passengers so half the crowd would have to wait (and wait?). In short order, a fist fight was barely avoided before the first Airbus arrived. Luck would have it, I found a seat on the first flight. Before I knew it, I was back in Cairo just in time for Egypt Air’s long(!), nonstop flight back to Washington, DC.
Despite my unending missteps, my trip to Egypt remains one of my very top solo travels. I will always remember the warmth of the people I met and the exotic ancient culture that has survived thousands of years.