As I sat in the coach that was transferring this handful of tired tourists to our ship at Luxor, I cried. They were tears of happiness. Alone, I had flown here to Egypt to finally visit the country that had fascinated me for years. But I had broken a promise to myself: ‘To never visit Egypt until I can translate the hieroglyphs without the need for a guide’. A naïve promise made by a 17-year-old shop assistant. What could I possibly know about this ancient language?
Exactly ten years later and working in I.T. I had accepted that hieroglyphs were never going to be a part of my skill set, and booked my trip here. My travel buddy and I had parted ways months before, and my relationship had fallen apart not long after. The outlook was gloomy, but my mind still yearned to travel. I had only just mustered the courage to even visit the shops on my own; yet alone another country, but my options were limited and I didn’t want to sit around at home waiting to meet someone.
Stepping off the plane, my body felt as though it were standing in front of an open oven door. The hot air rushed through and out of my nostrils, as if it might char me if I breathed too slowly. I was in awe; ecstatic to have found the courage, and excited by every tiny detail.
A first glimpse of ancient Egypt
The Colossi of Memnon were the first historical structures I saw, standing proud in their barren, dusty land. Locals passed them by as if they were merely bystanders to this game of life. Cars drove on, pedestrians passed without even a glance, yet I turned to stare; my eyes transfixed until I could focus on them no more. I wanted to clamber out. To explore, take photos and absorb it all. My senses were working overtime; tingling for every moment.
“Are you okay?” a fellow passenger whispered.
“I’m just,” I mumbled softly as I rubbed my eyes, “I’m just so happy.”
She looked at me with an expression of slight shock, perhaps not fully appreciating how one holiday could mean so much. It was not just a perfectly formed Kuoni tour; booked for the want of ‘somewhere to go’. For me, this Nile cruise was a great laugh in the face of the depression that had consumed my childhood years. It was a solid stand against the pressure of having someone to travel with, and my first step towards the freedom of independence. I had craved the country for years, and somehow found the strength to turn up when I least expected to. It was dusty, it was stifling, and it was frightening. Yes, Egypt was more than I ever wanted it to be.
Drifting down the Nile
Our cruise ship was small, tidy and much more modest than those which parked alongside us each time we docked. It felt cosy and safe, and even with everyone sat out on the decks, it never once felt crowded. Passengers peered down on us from three floors up on the grand ships besides us, almost longing to escape their hustling and bustling quarters, to relax with us in our much calmer space.
The ten of us who had booked through Kuoni, and originated from the UK were grouped together for every tour, meal and meeting. In our spare time, we naturally sat together to gaze out on the banks of the Nile as we drifted along to our next destination. Subsequently, I never once felt alone and my depressive tendencies hadn’t the chance to creep up on me.
Soup, kings and salesmen
Our first excursion was to the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, otherwise known as ‘hot chicken soup’ by struggling English tourists. Our guide explained that she was one of the most famous female pharaohs, who often wore a fake beard as a symbol of power. Our group listened politely and with interest; asking questions to satiate their thirst for more, and it was then that I realised I was among like-minded friends. I had one ear on our Egyptologist, the other on the sounds around us. I was trying to capture every moment with my new digital camera, whilst reminding myself not to spend the whole week looking through a lens. Egypt was easy to photograph. The light was perfect, the history was rife, and the art surrounded us wherever we went. A photo of Hatshepsut captured her rosy cheeks, almost a reminder that despite her masculine appearance; it was a woman who reined here.
Parched, weary and hungry for more, we moved across to the Valley of the Kings, where we were given a choice of three tombs to visit. Naturally that of Tutankhamun was a must, despite already knowing that it was the most bare, and least impressive out of all the tombs. I split from the rest of the group with a husband and wife; Richard and Laxmi, who had decided to be adventurous and visit a tomb slightly away from the others, which meant a climb up a rickety wooden staircase. The reward was worth it: as the tourists were sparse and the walls rich with paintings and carvings in a simplistic style unlike any hieroglyphs I have ever seen.
After a Kodak-moment stop at the Colossi, we boarded our Nile cruise ship to a welcoming of cold flannels and biscuits. Some retired to their cabins for an afternoon nap, whilst the rest of us sunbathed on the top deck. We nipped into the cool plunge pool every half an hour, and spent the next ten minutes re-applying sun cream. The routine broke when we heard shouts from below. Like small lambs huddled against their mum for warmth, small rowboats clung to the side of our ship. It was Egypt’s answer to the door-to-door salesman, selling everything from rugs, statues and jewellery, to water, Gallabeyas and belly-dancing gear. It seams the locals already knew that ‘Egyptian night’ was about to be thrust upon us, and had timed their sales pitch perfectly. Packages were launched up into the air, and items rained down on us like grenades. As fast as we could throw them back, the salesmen threw them up again. ‘La Shukran’ we shouted down to the hopefuls, rolling the garish top into a ball and aiming for the nearest boat, praying that their goods didn’t end up in the water. Money was exchanged between one small boat and a German tourist on the other side of our ship, thrown back and forth via a dark red velvet pouch. The rest got wind that the other side was more eager to part with their money and quickly paddled around, leaving us to sink back into bliss.
‘Egyptian night’ on our ship became a chance for my elders to dress me up the most daring belly-dancing outfit they could find in the on-board shop. They rifled through the rails with excitement and joy, and my surrogate mum, Rita spent the afternoon with a sewing kit; adjusting the top so that it revealed a little less of me than we bargained for.
The Lego brick temple
Nearing Aswan, our visit to the Temple of Isis was dwarfed by the optional flight to Abu Simbel the following day. The Temple of Ramesses II is still by far the most awe-inspiring place I have ever visited. The precision by which it was built is impossible to comprehend when you think about just how long ago it was created. Not only that, but the fact that the construction of Aswan Dam meant that the temple had to be sliced into chunks and re-assembled on higher ground to save from being flooded, is simply incredible. Searching for seams in this giant Lego-brick temple, I simply cannot believe that this enormous structure has been moved. Abu Simbel is a sight that cannot be missed, and judging by the tales from those who opted for the cheaper coach journey, is worth paying a little extra for to travel by plane.
Lost in Luxor
With each cruise ship following basically the same itinerary, we were relieved to hear that our captain decided to mix things up a little. We visited the temples of Kom Ombo and Horus in an afternoon on our return towards Luxor, when it was a little quieter but also a little hotter. Only the strongest tourists braved the mid-day sun in the name of history, whilst others chose to melt into their deckchairs under the shade of carefully positioned awnings.
Karnak temple in Luxor became the only place where my partner-less trip became a worry, due to the fact that my sense of direction is appalling. The columns in Karnak are huge and plentiful, and as I wandered off to find the perfect photo, I became disoriented by the masses leaning over me. Every turn led to another pillar; each one wide and obscuring my view of the way out. My sense of reason started to diminish as I envisaged the cruise ship leaving without me (it didn’t matter that Luxor was our last stop anyway). My pace quickened, and I near ran into our guide Hisham; who was slightly surprised to see me looking so anxious.
On this Nile cruise there were no last-day-of-holiday-blues where you lie around wondering what to do, and the week was a perfect mix of adventure, relaxation and photograph snapping. Most importantly, this trip taught me that I actually didn’t need to travel with someone in order to have an amazing time, and as a bonus, I became a master of taking self-portraits from exactly one arm’s length away.
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