Five a.m. in Chicago, Saturday, December 19. It’s two p.m. in Cairo, and Luxor, and Aswan, and lunch is already finished. This morning is the one when I know I have finally returned across the time zones, when I awaken feeling refreshed and present, after three nights of trending this way. And already, Egypt feels like a dream to me. It was a more amazing journey than I ever thought it would be.
A week ago right now, I was with nineteen other tourists being guided very capably by Mohamed Ragheb, our Egyptian tour guide with a Master’s degree in antiquities. For our ten days together, he called us “habibi” – a sweet Arabic term of endearment, even though shepherding us was surely more like herding cats sometimes. Last Saturday, we visited the small but nicely preserved temple at Esna, and walked along the busy market streets. I bartered decently for a “Kadafi” scarf made of high-quality soft cotton. It was one souvenir I’d wanted since my arrival the Saturday before. By two p.m., we were back aboard the River Tosca, moving north, downriver, on the return trip from Aswan to Luxor for the return flight to Cairo and Lower Egypt.
Our beloved Tosca was one of only about a dozen active tour ships we saw plying the Nile River. It comes out of a formerly grand tradition, but one that is largely stymied for now. We witnessed hundreds of ships docked and stored, strung together out into the river in rafts of six or eight, their grandness tarnished by disuse.
On Tosca, we were surrounded by a delightful, genuinely friendly, capable crew that outnumbered us two to one. Sixty of the eighty beds onboard were going unused. This, one of the world’s most iconic journeys and once upon a time a “must-do” trip, has fallen out of favor, a victim of the political unrest in the region. Few are electing to risk it. I can’t say thoughts of personal safety aren’t invalid, given the presence of an armed guard on each tour bus and a police escort just behind. My cousin and I agreed that inevitable scenarios of “what if” sometimes played in our minds.
And yet I never felt even a blink of real dread. We knew that the chances of an actual problem were remote—little greater, really, than the chance of encountering violence in many U.S. cities. So this trip sprouted in me an unanticipated sense of importance that, simply, we were there. The tourist industry in Egypt is in a stranglehold of doubt in the minds of foreigners who are casting about trying to decide where to spend their disposable income and free time. Most are electing to skip over this region entirely these days.
This is a shame, really. Without tourists, the antiquities of ancient Egyptian culture could begin to lose priority with the government, making them more vulnerable to the destruction that has occurred elsewhere in the past few years. Without tourists, too, a vital source of income for the everyday people who just want to make a living has been badly constricted. Up to a quarter of Egyptian citizens are affected by the gutting of its hospitality industry. Guides. Hotel staff. Restaurant workers. Drivers. Suppliers of food, materials, fuel. The people who grow the foods to sell to the suppliers, or who deliver it. Their families and friends. The trickle-down effect is palpable. My heart goes out to Egypt, because it is caught, as we all are, in the crosshairs of ideology in a manner which only serves to separate humans who mostly just want to get along. Fear of the unknown has been etched into our collective awareness—and what is travel if not exploration of the unknown?
Our small band of tourists felt pampered by the care we received from our hosts, who were overjoyed to see the first half-decently populated trip for River Tosca since the “troubles” of 2011. We also felt a bit intrepid, somewhat like pioneers, given the emphasis we saw and heard about upon insuring, inshallah, that we had a trouble-free time.
Sometimes, it is important to forge ahead, as Uniworld, the owners of River Tosca are doing, despite numbers that are far from profitable. The international tour company, to its immense credit, retained its Egyptian staff on at least partial salary during the years it has been forced to wait to re-launch this grand old lady of the river. I hope that others will take heart and consider the message it gives, right now, to simply show up in a place like Egypt.
Yes, Egypt is a long way from my home. As I emerge from the fog of jetlag, my photos tell me that, yes, I was there. I ran my fingers along etchings of hieroglyphs that were five thousand years old. I walked in places I’ve known about since first grade. I did the silly photo of putting my finger on the top of the pyramid, and rode a camel. More importantly, I gave my time, and money, and also my encouragement, to a slightly devastated modern culture in return for being able to visit an ancient civilization for a few days. As citizens of the world, we all share these exquisite antiquities. On a much larger scale, I can predict that if they are to be properly kept safe from the madness of the ideologues, we must continue to show up.