We were deep in Jordan, staying in the cave in Wadi Musa when Mubarak finally abdicated. But by then I’d already switched my flight home from Cairo to Amman and Shawn had made plans to meet up with his girlfriend in Istanbul. It wasn’t until the day I was supposed to fly home that we decided to go on to Egypt instead. We heard it was safe again and we were there, so we decided why not? It was only a ferry ride away. How could we not go?
I cancelled my flight out of Amman and we took the night ferry from southern Jordan to the Sinai Peninsula. The crowded, almost entirely male passenger ferry was late leaving Jordan—by about 5 hours—and we didn’t arrive until three in the morning. The middle of curfew. We spent another hour or two wandering the gloomy docks trying to pay our visa and find passport control. Eventually we made it to a hotel in Dahab only to find we didn’t have enough money to move on since none of the ATMs were working and Egypt was strictly a cash economy at that point. (Revolutionary Travel Rule #1: Carry extra cash) Eventually we did find the one bank in town dispensing money, which lucky for us had just reopened that morning.
I won’t give you all the details of our whirlwind tour of ancient Egypt, but suffice to say time was limited and we fully used a mix of planes, trains, and automobiles, spending two nights sleeping on the night train to and from Cairo/Luxor. But this was Egypt, days after Mubarek stepped down, and you’d probably rather read something profound and uplifting, something about the joy and hope permeating the society.
I hate to disappoint you, but I felt little of that. What I did see was the poverty of Cairo pressed against the massive, barbed-wire wall surrounding Giza, the canals clogged with debris, the horses left to rot amongst the trash piled against that same Giza wall protecting one of the most heavily visited tourist sites in the world. Now empty.
Perhaps this was all amplified by a lack of government services during the previous weeks, but I have my doubts. Revolutions don’t happen in a vacuum.
In Luxor we did find the post-revolution benefit of walking through the Valley of Queens completely alone. Of being applauded in the bazaar with cries of, “Welcome tourists, welcome”. But it also meant we were the sole target of every poor, underpaid, or out of work street vendor, shop owner, taxi driver, unskilled tour guide, and kid selling postcards, camels, knickknacks, horses and tours. Even the tourism police demanded their cut of baksheesh. While intellectually I knew Egypt was an economy dependent on tourism and times were tough, it was still hard to like people who saw you strictly as a cash sign.
I write all of this as if I expected something different. As if I went to see something different. But I knew in theory what Egypt was like. It’s no different from the history of ancient Egypt that attracts most tourists—from the slaves who spent their lives building the gold encrusted tombs for their Pharaohs, to their ancestors who spent the next four-thousand plus years plundering them, to the more recent centuries of corrupt, poorly planned tourism built around those same pyramids and tombs. It’s why I was so disappointed to see the village of Gurneh bulldozed. That village of tomb robbers and tourist hustlers is part of the living history of the West Bank of Luxor. To knock it down is like bulldozing the Old City of Jerusalem.
But I think the bigger problem was that I don’t like to travel just to see beautiful temples or museums. I want the whole experience—religion, politics, culture, the ugly and difficult, the boring and inane, even unrest and revolt. And I didn’t have enough time for that. It was strictly see Giza and Luxor and get out. And while the archeology was spectacular and there was plenty of beauty (sunrise on the Nile being my favorite), it was too rushed. I was tired from traveling and lack of sleep and the harassment, haggling, lying, bribing and wheeling and dealing wore me down.
My last afternoon in Egypt I spent alone wandering into and out of Tahrir Square, taking photos of the Egyptians posing with the military in front of tanks, the vendors selling revolutionary flags and stickers and buttons. I wandered aimlessly around downtown, stopping to eat a delicious Egyptian mishmash of grains and beans, surprised how easy it was to wander as a woman alone. In fact, for the first time in Egypt no one harassed me, or followed me, and I finally felt some real pleasure in the country. And it lasted–until an airport security guard asked me for a bribe the next morning.
But really how easy is it to recover not just from a thirty-year dictatorship, but from thousands of years of extreme poverty and poor governance, from a political culture built on scams, bribes and corruption and disenfranchisement of half its population? Will all that change with the overthrow of one man? I doubt it. But I am glad I went. Revolution and all. And one day I probably need to go back.