In a hotel lobby at the red sea resort of Hurgarda terrorists stabbed three tourists. At the Great Pyramids in Giza two policemen were shot dead. A few days earlier, gunmen had fired on Israeli tourists as they boarded a bus.
Maybe I should have been frightened.
Egypt is not like England. People discard litter on the streets. Boys cycle along potholed roads with trays of fresh pitta breads balanced on their heads. They have satellite television and mobile internet and children steering donkeys down the highway.
There’s a mosque in every direction you look and five times a day you’re swallowed by the echoing layers of the call to prayer as they bounce off apartment blocks and chime together.
The air is thick; factories pour pollutants into the air that are outlawed in the European Union.
The traffic is reckless. There are few crossings, few rules and seat belts for backseat passengers are an optional extra. It was with genuine gratitude and relief I held hands with a friend to cross the road.
But I boarded a flight to Luxor alone. My friend and his family in Cairo had warned me to be careful in the south. The people, they said, would not be so nice. I thought of this warning a few days later when the owner of a roof-top café warned me that the people in Aswan weren’t like the people in Luxor. Be careful everyone else is dangerous. I leant back in my chair, felt the warmth of the sun on my face and sipped my coffee. We chatted a while.
It was a peaceful morning. An occasional felucca drifted along the Nile. Three men on the river bank pounded a boat’s rudder in some sort of repair job while children played at the water’s edge.
Maybe, for a young woman, who speaks three words of Arabic and whose face is the colour of printer paper, it’s not a good idea to befriend the locals. Lying about my family, saying they were waiting nearby, became the norm. My phone, with its Egyptian SIM and cheap mobile internet, was used with an uncharacteristic frequency to send reassuring texts, pictures, emails and instant messages back home. I wasn’t taking the risk that my mother would be worrying why she hadn’t heard from me.
But what about my actual experience?
Like the temples with their powerful images of striding kings smiting their enemies on the outside, and the carvings of sweet calves trotting alongside their mothers on the inside, the Egyptian people are not to be understood through only the media’s outpouring of fear.
The students in Cairo were enthusiastic and encouraging in their futile attempts to teach me to belly dance. When I beat an Egyptian man at a game of pool, he pouted, laughed and took it with grace. And what about those pesky tomb guards in the Valley of the Kings, well they swapped their mint tea for a few squares of my chocolate and we chatted for a while about the disastrous state of tourism in Egypt and laughed at the improbability of Leicester City’s footballing success.
Meanwhile those tourists with tense shoulders and a bark of ‘la shok-run’ (no thank you), who refused to listen or appreciate the commerce and artistry around them, they saw only what they expected to see.
Which is sad, because the Egyptians are a fascinating people who want to hear stories of places like England. Places they’ll likely never afford to visit.
It’s true, at times the uniqueness of being a solo European woman seemed overwhelming. Were the Egyptians more interested in my face than the obelisks and colossal statues? I’d expected the attraction to be to my purse, but only one man became grouchy about my refusal to get out my money in the three weeks I was there. Despite me being a tight-fisted Yorkshire lass.
Sometimes, the thought appeared in my mind that I should be more cautious. At the insistence of the train driver, I drove the little train that winds down from the Valley of the Kings. There were no other passengers. It was a short journey. I could have said no and sat in one of the carriages. However, when I searched his face for a motive, I realised he was probably just bored and wanted someone to talk to and entertain. We parked the train outside the ticket office, him smiling widely, me laughing.
He looked quite abashed as he asked for a selfie.
He wasn’t the only person wanting a photo with me. Groups of teenage girls, and their highly embarrassed and apologetic fathers, wanted me to smile at their smartphones. Each girl separately. I smiled. I laughed. I told the fathers it wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t.
After a long day at the Valley of the Kings, I climbed up on to the horse carriage, next to the guy who’d kindly brought me to the sites. Children ran out into the street to wave as we passed through their villages. Young men called out as you might expect, but so did their grandmothers.
We stopped at the local shop for chocolate and cartons of mango juice.
And when the road was clear, I got to take the reins.
About the author:
Catherine Oughtibridge is a digital nomad, writer and professional doodler. She loves meeting people who courageously challenge their preconceptions and embrace a creative life. Connect with her at happenence.co.uk.
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