A trip to Egypt – part 2

Published on 8/1/2010

It was the day after our exciting night-time adventure at the pyramid and my friend and I were staying on a five-star cruise boat further up the Nile near the city of Luxor.

We decided to take a skiff across the river where we found a group of young boys playing soccer and joined them for a game. They may have been younger than we were but they definitely out-played us. Afterwards, we followed one of the boys as he made his way across the desert on his donkey, back to his village. Both my friend and I loved to climb mountains and there was one nearby that we particularly wanted to try. Our new young friend showed us the best way to get up the mountain but was reluctant to go up there himself. We could understand that there was something at the top he didn’t like, but we couldn’t tell what. So, we said good-bye to him, thanking him for all of his help, and set off up the mountain.

egypt part 2

A little below the summit we found a group of about fifteen teenagers and children. They were dressed in clothes halfway between uniforms and rags, and many of them didn’t have shoes. We couldn’t tell if they were part of the official Egyptian army or some other militia group, but it seemed their instructions were to sit up there and await orders. Hanging out under a tarp with one machine gun between them, they weren’t as intimidating as I think they were supposed to appear.

They were cautious at first but we struck up a friendship of sorts despite the language barrier. We shared some bubble-gum with them that we had brought with us from home, and they even let us hold their machine gun. One of the most fascinating things for me was finding nautilus shell fossils up there. I would have loved to know whether findings fossils from the ocean on top of a mountain was fascinating to them too, but I didn’t know how to ask. The panoramic photo below is the view we had from the top. You can see the village where we started our climb below, and the Nile in the distance.

egypt part 2 panomaric

When we got back down to the bottom of the mountain we found our friend with the donkey again, and he invited us to eat dinner with his mother and sisters who lived nearby. I was worried that we were going to miss our boat but we decided not to worry about it and stayed anyway.

The boy took us to the mud hut they lived in. One of the daughters worked in a larger town about five or six miles away and spoke a little English, but otherwise we got by with gestures and a few words. They had a tiny black and white television with the back missing that sat in the corner of the room. For someone who grew up in the US, this was old technology, but even still it looked strange against a mud wall. I’d never seen old and new contrasted so clearly. I wondered what programs they watched, but again, I wasn’t able to ask.

They shared their dinner with us, and gave it to us generously. I wish I could say it was delicious but it was cucumber and bread cut up on the dirt floor, to be dipped in a raw egg from one of the pigeons roosting in the rafters. I was worried I was going to get sick later, because in the US we eat mostly cooked and highly sanitized food. I wasn’t sure my body would be ready for this. But, I really wanted to share the experience — they were so generous to share their food with us when they had so little for themselves. We ate and sat and chatted with them as best we could manage.

The mother told us how difficult it was raising four children without a father. That much we could understand, although we couldn’t work out what happened to him. Only two of the daughters worked and what they earned had to provide for the whole family. Even they had to travel seven or eight kilometers across the Nile to get to their jobs. Despite not have a man’s income it didn’t seem as though they were any worse off than their neighbors, and they seemed to be a very happy family.

By the time we had finished our evening of food and conversation we had already missed our boat home so they invited us to stay the night. Because they all had to live together in the two-room hut, there wasn’t enough room for us inside and probably, by local customs, it wouldn’t have been appropriate. They gave us blankets and tried to make us comfortable on benches of dried tree branches that were about two thirds the length of my body. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well, but I didn’t care. I smiled up at the full moon, thankful for such an experience, and hoped for many more moments like it. At 6 A.M. the next morning one of the daughters who worked in town across the Nile let us walk with her on her commute so that we wouldn’t lose our way. Our tour group was moving on to another town that morning and we knew we would not have much time to spare before they left. We bought her breakfast and stopped in to see where she worked before rushing to rejoin our group.

For the rest of my trip and my journey home my head was filled with one thought: “How can I keep doing this?” My experience with both the families of the taxi driver and the boy with the donkey had opened my eyes to a new way of traveling. I had gone to Egypt seeking something interesting. I hadn’t even been sure what. I had wanted adventure, but it was the first time I had ever traveled outside of North America, and I was nervous. I hadn’t known if people could be trusted, but the people I met there had taught me what I thought to be true but had never really articulated. That people are naturally curious and kind, and that they are as interested in meeting me as I am in meeting them. I had shared with them as much as I could about my own culture and it had been received with warmth and enthusiasm.

It would be a few years and many more adventures before I started to get a clear picture in my head of what CouchSurfing would look like, but at the end of my time in Egypt, I knew this: I owed my adventure to the people I’d met. Interacting with real, everyday people had made what could have been just a vacation into something inspiring and life-changing. I decided right then that I would always make it my mission to find real, personal interactions with the people of the places I visited.

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A trip to Egypt – part 1

Published on 7/1/2010

In my last blog post on the Couchsurfing vision, I touched on the story of a trip I took to Egypt back in the spring of 1998. I’d like to tell you more of that story now, as I think it’s a great example of how one experience might just change the course of your life.

Tourism is an important part of the Egyptian economy but after a deadly attack on tourists in late 1997, it was at a serious low. Tour packages from the US were going for a fifth the normal price. I found a group that was traveling to Egypt to show support for the country in this tough economic period. I’d never been to Africa before and I wasn’t going to find a more affordable trip. With instructions from my friends and family to be careful, I boarded a plane from JFK airport, New York to Cairo.

One thousand dollars bought airfare and a two-week stay in luxury resorts in both Giza and Luxor. It also included time aboard a Nile cruise boat and daily excursions to famous sites. As grateful as I was for the opportunity and for the people in my group, I wanted something different. As fate would have it my roommate was a young man from Texas who, like me, was eager to have a more inspiring experience.

Together we would sneak away from our tour group and do our own thing, only rejoining them in time to make it back to the hotel. He was of Iranian descent and looked as though he could be Egyptian. This made it much easier for us to go to the places we wanted. He just had to keep quiet and not let slip his thick Texan drawl.

Normally, the tourist sites would be completely crowded, but while we were there it was a ghost town. This meant we really got to connect with the people who worked there. They had little to do so were happy to talk to us. They even offered us tea while we sat and chatted about what our different lives were like, and how difficult life had become for them since the drop in the economy.

egypt part 1
Our first evening we shared a beer with a taxi driver. In part because of the courage it gave us, we were able to persuade him to help us see the pyramids. I mean really see them. They’re so iconic and full of legend, and I wanted to truly experience them. After a while he gave us the name of a boy whose father was a high ranking guard, and was known to show people around from time to time. We didn’t find the boy very easily, but the taxi driver was happy to drive us around for hours, playing tour guide, until one of the people we asked said they had seen him. Once we found him he agreed to be our guide and told us to meet him at 4 A.M. the next morning. With quite a few hours to kill before our early morning adventure, we spent our time roaming the town on the edge of the desert, under a full moon, and driving around with the taxi driver. He invited us to attend a wedding celebration and eagerly acted as translator as we spent the night talking and smoking hookahs with the old men of the wedding party. When we told them we were going to try and see a pyramid, one of them even gave us some chakra oil to put on special energy points on our body while we were there.

Early the next morning we met our guide in a neighborhood near the pyramids. We had no idea if we could trust him to keep his word, or whether as young tourists, we were an easy target for a scam. My intuition told me that it was worth taking the chance, and that I could trust him even though he was a stranger.

The moon was bright that night. We crawled over a pile of garbage, and a part of the wall our guide knew to be broken, to reach the plateau where the pyramids stood. He led us through the grounds around the eastern side of the pyramid. I could see the hole in the ground where they had excavated the boats that had been discovered with ultrasound a couple of years previously. I remembered the photos I had seen in National Geographic, and I couldn’t believe that I was actually there.

Our guide introduced us to some of the guards and we sat and talked with them for a while. Eventually, after checking out some more of the grounds we had to leave to get back for a 6 A.M. sunrise meditation with our tour group. The group was taken to a large, flat rock about twenty minutes bus ride away, where there was a view of the sun rising behind the pyramids in the distance. I felt really thankful that I had taken a chance and gone out exploring the night before. Because we had trusted the people we met, our night time adventure included a closer look at the pyramids and and lots of fun moments with local people.

As exciting as this time had been, it didn’t end there. Later, my group left Giza and moved onto Luxor. Check back for my next post where I’ll be sharing the story of my time with the people of Luxor, and how they helped make my trip so special.