Egypt

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I’ll never forget those fish. How they terrorized me with every fin flip. These glittered, finger-sized beasts chased me all the way into his arms. There, we floated in a turquoise sea with a rainbow of plump fish orbiting us. Seagulls whistled above in a clear blue sky, as wet salty hair crinkled with an echo of soft breeze in my ears.

“You made it,” he said as my toes sank in creamy white sand.

“Oh my God! Look at all these colors,” were the first words that came out of the Mahmya me.

I was terrified of fish. The thought of being nibbled on made me curl in chills. “Mahmya,” Arabic for “Protected” had a mysterious ancient air about it. This beachfront camp on the big “Giftun,” pronounced “Giftoon,” island was not what it seemed. On the surface, it’s like any other island beach, but once I became a part of it, it became a part of me.

No one mentions “Mahmya” on their own. I stumbled upon it by coincidence while searching online for beaches in Hurghada, Egypt. The few locals who knew about it paused in a daydream and smiled before saying variations of “you should definitely go.” The staff on the beach spun tales of Pharaohs visiting it in summer and took pride in how it remained undisrupted. Like traveling back in time, everything there was made of wood from the benches and tables to the “Cliff Bar” at the top of a hill on the left side of the beach.

It started with a girl with flowers in her hair, an uncommon sight on Egyptian beaches. My husband and I walked into the water as salty air tickled my nose and I froze. It was clearer than tap water and there were small silver-glittered fish with neon green stripes everywhere. I had never been face to face with one of my deepest fears before. I headed back to shore.

“Excuse me?” A high pitched voice rose from behind me. The pretty brunette with flowers in her hair and a garland around her neck asked me to take a picture of her Hawaiian themed bachelorette party. I took a few of them in the water.

As the girls hovered over the camera, praising the pictures and squealing in cheers like they’d found hidden treasure, I realized I was waist down in the water with fish circling me.

Curbing my fright to avoid an embarrassing scene in front of a hundred Egyptians and tourists on the beach, I decided this was it. Fish or no fish, I would make my way to my husband, who was four meters away. There was something about “Mahmya” that made me feel safe. It could’ve been its name, its lukewarm water, or how its marshmallow sand wrapped itself around my ankles, like telling me to stay whenever I tried to leave.

With no clue as to where my courage came from, I took a step forward. The fish kept a safe distance of about an arm’s length away as I walked, skipped whenever a fish broke the rule and got too close, and finally dived in and swam over to him.

He squeezed me in celebration while I hung onto him in disbelief as the rainbow of colored fish swam around us and the scattered coral reefs, like a ‘Life of Pi’ experience. I had never felt more alive. Only this moment mattered. He and I had been drifting apart and this moment made it all go away. My newfound bravery revived our sense of intimacy and brought us closer than ever. We were happy again and emotionally connected as we surrendered our fate to a sea full of life.

We napped in each other’s arms on a floating deck in the water, basking in comfort like we were one with the sea, covered by a blanket of soft breeze and warm sunshine.

Before we knew it, our ferry called to take us back to the Hurghada Marina. With bitter-sweet sadness, I bid “Mahmya” goodbye as it got smaller in the distance. Playful dolphins made my heart skip beats as they followed us in the sunset. As cliché as that sounds, it really happened. They made sure I’d remember how my fear was the gift that led to saving my marriage.

“Mahmya” helped me get over myself and brought out a brave part of me I never thought existed. A little part of my soul will forever remain there and a little bit of its magic will forever remain in me.

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Landing in Egypt, the total tourist destination that was Sharm El Sheikh did not evoke a sense of bravery or boldness. In fact driving through Sharm El Sheikh was like an American dream of hotels and swimming parks. The sense that we were just passing through, this is what evoked that thing deeper inside of me. I had completely placed my trust in total strangers, knowing that I would have to rely on myself if things went disastrously wrong. I would need to find the resilience to cope and get myself home again. This is what made me stand up and pay attention, that and the curiosity of what was lying ahead.

I was part of a group of girl kite surfers heading a couple of hours away from the airport and out to a lagoon next to dessert where we would spend some epic quality time perfecting our up-winders and down-winders.  The only thing was, I did not actually know any of the girls. In fact, there was only one other girl on my flight, the others were meeting us at the airport in Egypt. And despite every instinct screaming at me that this was probably a con, after all it was just an advert in a magazine that I had replied to, and from that I’d handed these strangers a stack of cash based on a promise.  There was no point worrying though, best to just get stuck in; expect the best but plan for the worst, this kind of mentality often serves me well. But just as planned everyone gathered together and headed to the lagoon. Stopping on route only to stock up on water and snacks. Having no idea what was going to be at the lagoon other than a place to sleep, I grabbed a crate of water and for some reason a huge packet of nuts. (My nearest and dearest would probably say it was because I am nuts!)

The drive was sparse, the landscape so moon like with sand blown into wall shapes everywhere I looked. I’d never seen anything like it and I was magnetised to the window of these death trap vans that could have been driving us anywhere. But again the trust was placed and we arrived a couple of hours later. Arrived that is at a place in the middle of nowhere, the sort of place where no one would hear your screams! And nobody did hear my screams when I saw the brown water tumbling out of the shower onto my head. Well, the only person to hear my screams was the total stranger I was sharing a room with.

This I was dreading, the thought of being holed up with some crazy murderer, or someone who felt the need to get wasted every night and bring other strangers back for the night. Some on the trip were like this, heading off into the night with complete strangers who promised them a wild night. I was all about hours on the water, and that was one trust too far! Sharing the room proved to be a breeze, we were both like-minded and all about the kite surfing.

Minutes, hours and days were wasted on the water; kites flapping, boards skimming the lagoon. I was going right to the edge of the lagoon to see where the water turned from an azure blue to a more threatening dark blue that clearly drew a battle line between the shallow water and the depth of the sea.  Coming in from the water was a joyous mixture of pleasure and pain. I was stoked from the adrenaline of pushing my riding, and pain from the sand temperature having risen over 40 degrees over the course of each day. I was usually so focused on getting on the water I would forget my shoes, going au naturel, which was always to my regret later in the day when I had to endure the top layer of skin being burnt off.

The end of the trip fast approached, no more watching million dollar tankers going right to left on the horizon, no more military men patrolling the area on their camels, smiling at the pretty ladies in their bikinis.  (I thought this would be more frowned on, but they seemed quite happy to watch!)It was then time to pile back into the death trap vans and return to the airport. The defining moment being the sheer numbers who had managed to pick up Montezuma’s belly; and where shrieking out every so often to “stop the van”. Thankfully I managed to dodge that curve ball. Of all things to fear, it was clearly swallowing the water!

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Moonplay in Egypt

We were lounging in a felucca on the Nile River, ripples of eternal water lapping at the sides of this sailboat of ancient design. We were waiting, and some were getting tired of waiting. The tour guide—young, handsome, and rather sexy—and another member of the tour group—also young, attractive, and rather voluptuous—had disappeared together. The sun was setting. Earlier, at mid-day, the sun sent beams like slender arms stretching through the clouds to touch the desert sands. Now, at sunset, the night also reached out, in a husky dark embrace. The wind had already subsided, leaving the sailboat bereft on the river waters.

The wind had died down, but the anger of my fellow passengers had flared up. The tour guide’s disappearance had thrown us off schedule. We were missing the dinner meal which was at this very moment being served back at the hotel.

At last the pair appeared. She stepped into the craft and became anonymous. He was propelled into the boat by threatening looks and mumbled resentments.

The Nubian sailor whose able hands had delicately loosened and tautened the sailboat ropes earlier in the day now settled down to the oars. He threw his back into the task, and, although he was strong and robust, we could see his hands would quickly become raw. The others looked upon the man with pity, but his only response was a shrug and an “En sha Allah” (“As God wills”). The resentment thickened. Some passengers openly spat verbal darts across the vessel in the direction of the tour guide, who took a turn at the oars to appease them. Guiltily.

I settled further back into the hull of the felucca. The night was black as pitch now, but a full moon had risen, an enormous hovering lunar disk which skimmed lightly over a row of date palms that lined the Nile shore. The disk chased us in the boat, slowing and speeding in unison with us. It examined every inch of us with frank curiosity, and even winked at us a time or two. I winked back. We admired each other.

But the others never saw. Anger and resentment directed and restricted their line of vision horizontally. They never looked up. They missed the moonplay entirely.

Want to read more from Terry Lee: Click here for her books: Chalkboard Heroes, and Chalkboard Champions!

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Travelling to an unknown place is surely exciting but it can also be daunting. There is fear, a feeling of uneasiness coupled with eagerness to know the unknown, especially if one is going to a place which is culturally very different from theirs. The language can be a barrier as can be the lifestyle yet the streak of adventure that is dormant in us tries to push all obstacles aside.

I made a list of the things I needed to organise before dwelling too much on my trip. I always wanted to go to Egypt so when Rafiq, my friend was visiting his family back in Cairo, he suggested that I go with him. It had been my childhood dream to see in person the pyramids, the pictures of which I had only seen on the internet and in some films. I took the vaccinations as my doctor suggested, arranged for travel insurance,  got a global currency card, made sure that my passport was up-to-date, beside other things.

I was to stay with Rafiq at his parents’ place, so I didn’t book any hotel, nor did I do any research of the place. Frankly, I was depending on my friend. My wish was to see the pyramids and the sphinx because they were still fresh in my mind from my knowledge of history.

Everything was in order from my perspective and I was in the seventh heavens looking forward to my jaunt. A week before we were to depart, Rafiq came down with fever and he was diagnosed with chicken pox. My little world came crashing down with my hopes crushed to pulp. I’d already got the ticket a month ago; otherwise I wouldn’t have got the special rate. Cairo was the only place I heard of and got a blurry picture of it from Rafiq. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage on my own; I was counting on him totally. I started debating whether I should venture on this trip or cancel it. Rafiq was insistent that I go and stay with his family. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea but the thought that it would save me some money was alluring and I finally agreed to it.

Rafiq’s brother, Afzal, picked me up from the airport. My keen endeavour to speak Arabic was curtailed with his fluent American English. Cairo was what I’d expected – densely populated, highly polluted and saliently vibrant. I was overwhelmed.

The pyramids and the Sphinx took my breath away – unbelievable to see the famous remnants of ancient Egypt. Standing facing them, I felt I was transported to that era. Next day I flew to Luxor on my own as the urge to experience the aura of the temples of Karnak beheld me. On either side of the River Nile, were spectacular monuments, the sight of which left me in awe. I wished the obelisks would hold the floating clouds over the sun to give some shade. The massive statues of Rameses II with his unusual head gear and beard was something I marvelled on.

The sun blazed and on the way across the river I stopped at a little village. I tried to get the name but it sounded something like Al Ghawar. My broken Arabic and sign language helped me. I also managed to get a bite of pitta bread sandwich. The intense heat sapped my energy and finding a palm tree, I decided to rest. I looked around enjoying the quiet ambience in contrast to Cairo, with passersby smiling and greeting me. One young man approached me and we struck a conversation. My Arabic was creating confusion so I gave up; his English was understandable and he was eager to show me around. We walked down the sandy path with low single storeyed houses on both sides and abundance of palm trees. Little further away some boys were playing football and they asked us to join in. I hadn’t played in a while but the environment was welcoming enough to try it again, in spite of the sand and the heat. With my shoes and socks off, I played with them like old friends. The youths made me relive my younger days.

The hypnotic tranquillity made me feel blissful; here people led a simple, serene, easy life. I thought about my city where life was a rat race, everyone was trying to clamber up at the same time. The thought of going back to it was not something that I was looking forward to. I spent the night at my new friend, Jamaal’s house after having an awesome dinner cooked by his mother and sister.

 

The experience was endearing and worth remembering than the historical monuments that I went to see. Relishing the food and site seeing saw me spend some more days in Cairo. I took the metro to the Coptic Museum and to Khan el-Khalili bazaar where I experimented my bargaining ability. The sincere hospitality endowed on me surpassed all barriers that I was apprehensive about. 

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Cairo’s Tahrir Square is an uninspiring sandbox, lacking any color or foliage. It is surrounded by unloved concrete and internationally-notorious traffic. It is a feeble place to launch a revolution.

But in 2011, Tahrir Square became an Earthly portal linking mortals and the Olympus gods. We jammed drinking straws through the sand and sucked up the liquid freedom that sustains only those blessed to live forever with nothing to lose.

I was a journalism student visiting Cairo in early 2012 just as Egyptians engaged in their first free presidential election campaign.

And what I found there late at night in the streets leading toward Tahrir Square – what you didn’t see after the cable news crews departed for the day – were sidewalk cafes crammed with the country’s new Founders. Thousands of young Cairenes, women and men, sat next to each other in plastic red chairs debating their country’s future.

As an American schooled in formal Arabic, I struggled to translate the sentences zipping through the darkness and cherry-flavored hookah smoke. But my flashcard vocabulary proved unnecessary. When the girl’s red chair toppled backward as she sprang forward, as she sliced the air with her hands in a final, argumentative exclamation, I translated her: Dignity. Self-confidence. Freedom.

The shame that had frozen these Cairenes in their parents’ homes for decades melted into the sand of Tahrir Square.

But trouble seeped up twelve months after the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood, which initially promised not to run a candidate in the presidential election, unexpectedly changed policy. Every Friday, the Brotherhood’s supporters held huge rallies in Tahrir Square to promote their candidate.

The reformers held desperate counter rallies on Fridays too, and soon a weekly routine set in. The Brotherhood and each reformer party would erect a stage for its candidate. Each candidate got a time slot to give a speech. As the day wore on, the huge crowd’s attention would shift from one stage to another. It was like a battle of the bands.

I watched this from the panoramic view on the second floor of Belady’s café. People would stop by my table take pictures out the window. Mostly rich Cairenes snacked and drank coffee at the tables around me.

One Friday, a young woman came up to me and asked in good English if I would interview her candidate, a leader of a minority party.

She was desperate for media attention, and like a good PR operative, moved on when she realized I was just a student and could not help her cause.

The Friday rallies were peaceful, but dangers rippled beneath the surface. Women were getting attacked. Thieves preyed on the vulnerable.

One Friday afternoon when I was leaving Belady, a surge of people blocked my way out of Tahrir Square. I got caught in the middle of a flash mob. I could not go backward or slide out of the mayhem. I was being pushed from behind and alarm bells went off in my head. Then I realized my wallet had been stolen out of my pocket. I screamed “help!” “Thief!” But the crime was final. I managed to create a scene and barged out of Tahrir Square another way.

But I left Tahrir Square for the last time running back to my room where I could call the credit card company and repair my fractured life.

The young reformers got robbed too. Years later, we know how their revolution played out. Egypt’s democratically elected president was ousted in a military coup. A general runs Egypt now just like Hosni Mubarak did for decades.

If Tahrir Square’s liquid freedom evaporated, then what independence did I gain from that place?

Travel, by definition, is temporary. You go on a trip somewhere and then you return to your daily routine. There is the physical journey of travel and there is the indelible impression it leaves in you years later.

Tahrir Square itself is an uninspiring sandbox. But its indelible impression – branded by the euphoria of cafés and the panic of the stolen wallet – has made me a more independent person each day going forward.

I experienced a revolution and its tragic failure. Now, looking back a couple years later, I realize Tahrir Square infused humility, persistence and maturity in me.

We all face adversity in our daily lives. I believe travel gives us experience to deal with adversity more successfully.

Thanks to Tahrir Square, I have valuable travel experience that will set me free – not tomorrow, not next month, but years from now, when I least expect it.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

 

I haven’t awoken in sub- zero mizzling Cornwall…i have awoken in a large airy tiled room, wrapped tightly in crisp Egyptian cotton…I am 6000 miles away from the sum of my past 23 years and there are no centipedes or scorpions that have wheedled their way in to the fresh folds of my swaddlings. The morning call to Mecca on crackling Tannoy jump starts me from my bed and I run, yes, RUN to the glass- less window and throw open its shutters with as much simple joy as any child. This is the sunrise of a new world, to me, having arrived in the teasing darkness of night. I scan the horizon like a new-born, blinking, breathing emotionally at the sight of the coast of Saudi Arabia and Jordan as their aubergine- shaded mountain ranges ripen with spreading light.

The Gulf of Aqaba stretches before the mysterious land masses, lapping lazily at its shores, full of life, microcosmic and myriad. A mile from the shores of Dahab, a Bedouin fisherman casts his nets from his wooden boat like all Bedouin have for time, and always will, exclusively, according to Sinai law. Below, a Bedouin rakes the foot- printed sands smooth carving suggested pathways, tidying the palm- roofed Arisha, laying colorful rag- rugs and plumping psychedelically woven cushions, ready for early breakfasters and hippy back-packers. Already the salted heat is carried ashore by a subtle and passive breeze. At once, any residual tension and physical pain is but a happily forgotten memory.

Time stands still in Dahab, legendary for this phenomenon. I experienced it for myself on what must have been the fourth or fifth of my ten day stay- my reprieve, my healing. I had to revive my sparse Español to inquire as to the date and time, not that I cared by then, it was more a curiosity of the effects of said phenomenon and to satisfy the maternal responsibilities I can never quite shake….must not miss my plane home. I almost wanted to put ‘home’ within inverted commas, in the first instance; such was the impact of my first taste of a kind of freedom. So here I am in The NOW, my nostrils filtering, identifying and isolating the constituents of Egypt’s breath- ozone, camels, sand, diesel, incense, textiles.

Dahab, originally a Bedouin fishing village, developed from a few beach huts in to a bustling diving resort for adventurous Europeans and Russians, some never returning to their drab and hectic lifestyles, many setting up diving schools or guest houses, mingling congenially with the Bedouin who are renowned for their nomadic ways and genuine love of providing hospitality. I dress quickly in the lightest and most modest of clothes (that may not have seen the light of day for years), lock my room and descend the tiled stairs via the ‘quirky’ bathroom (with the ancient electric shower with suspicious- looking wires) finding myself in a shaded courtyard that opens on to the front of Sheikh Salem house. I realize this is all about finding myself again. I am convinced I would have eventually totally found myself had I been able to stay as long as is required to do so.

The blue water laps at the edge only ten yards from the house and I stride towards its liquid pull, then standing in its fluid warmth, watch my long toes churn the gilded sand that is peppered with flashes of mother of pearl and coral fragments. I note my breathing. I am breathing! The sun stretches parching rays as it rises and already my skin tingles with joy at the rush of melanin to its surface, my whole body happy at the prospect of a good whack of vitamin D and the alien luxury of no demands, no hassles and no worries. Of course, I am alone, but that is how I usually prefer to travel. I later met a man from Barcelona with his girlfriend from Hong Kong and he cooked us the most incredible Paella (with fresh calamari and shrimp bought from the Bedouin) on hot charcoal. It is truly the most ambrosial meal I have ever eaten to this day.

Great friendships are forged around a fire and a meal between momentary strangers, wherever we may wander on this Earth. I stroll along the water’s edge, measuredly making every moment count. There appear to be a few dogs on the sand, I am not sure at this point if they are wild or pets and if so, to whom they belong and I am wary. As I am walking, a large golden dog (I would hazard is maybe an Alsatian cross- Collie cross- a hundred different varieties) bounds up to me wagging excitedly and sniffs me confidently. I look in to her beautiful hot- coal golden eyes and see welcome and her protective instinctual demeanor. She is immediately named ‘Golden- eyes’ in my mind and I say it to her gently and she wags. Golden- eyes trots benevolently alongside my shoreline stroll. She knows I don’t have food with me and she doesn’t look bony so we assume a genuine silent companionship as I tread though the warm sea. We could walk forever.

About the Author: I am an English studies undergraduate, Vinyl DJ 7 producer and single mother to four handsome, creative sons. I live in Cornwall and enjoy literature, gardening and making music when I am not travelling.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

P2010773.JPGThe sky was inky black, the stars glittering in the perfectly clear, cold morning. At four in the morning, the sun had yet to warm the barren wastes of the Sinai Peninsula. Instead of safely tucked into my bed at the small hotel at the foothills of the mountain, I was bundled into my warmest hiking gear, riding on the back of a camel to the summit of Mt. Sinai. Like the thousands of visitors before me, I decided to make the climb of pilgrims and prophets, of saints and sinners. History held the mountain a sacred religious site to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and I was determined to understand the significance of this place.

The ascent to Sinai begins in a fairly flat, rocky path, which quickly becomes increasingly steeper, uneven and treacherous as the climber must navigate the rough path which winds its way around and up the mountain. In the dark, the top is not visible, and the bottom of the hike is covered in dense fog. Once the climber rises above the fog, the air could not be cleaner, colder, or clearer. It is at this point the path becomes steps, hewn from the rock and cut into the mountainside.

Islamic tradition calls this the Walk of Penitence, where sinners find a cleansing of their sins in each strenuous step. I, however, did not make it to the famed steps. As my desire was to make the climb to the summit in the early morning to see the sun rise over the mountains, I began the climb in the dark and tripped on the rocky path only an hour into the climb. My ankle was sprained, and I was devastated, thinking I’d have to turn back- until a miracle appeared in the form of a small Bedouin boy and his hulking, stinking camel.

“Cheap camel! Cheap ride! We know the way!” he called to my friends and I. Agreeing to meet my group at the top, I found myself precariously balanced on top of a camel, making our way up a path so steep and narrow I felt sure we would fall. I pitched forward onto the beasts’ neck, and held on for my life. But each step the camel took was sure, and as we ascended the mountain, I fell into the rhythm of the its rocking gait. As we moved upwards, I marveled at my surroundings- rocky ridges and natural chasms, all against the stunning backdrop of a moonless sky, stars twinkling. We passed a Bedouin camp where men, women and children gathered around a fire, waiting for the sun to rise to begin a day of selling trinkets to climbers.

We passed other boys with their camels, on their way to the base of the mountain to offer rides to tourists (or accident prone climbers like myself!). The boy sung softly to the camel, guiding us up pathways I thought impossible to ascend. And finally, as hues of soft yellow and orange touched the horizon, I was at the top. I parted with my friend and his camel, and met with my friends, watching the bright rays of sun burst across the clouds, illuminating the jagged rocks around us. I was on an island, surrounded by an endless sea of floating clouds and jutting peaks. The air was frigid, and I couldn’t tell if I was breathless from the thin air, or the view. I then realized though the bright sunlight was magnificent, my true moment of clarity and peace was in the dark, on top of that camel, journeying upward into the unknown. My pilgrimage was more about the journey than the destination- and what a journey it was!

About the Author:  Shamra Smith is 25, and lives in Washington. She just earned her Master’s degree from University College Dublin, in Ireland, and enjoys running, swimming, hiking, reading and writing.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Egypt 2012My first glimpse of Egypt is from a dewy ship balcony at dawn. Sunlight peeks through lavender clouds and drizzles onto the blurry coast; a peaceful entrance into what is supposed to be a country suffering social upheaval.

We dock in Port Said, which hosts what is by far the eeriest silence I’ve experienced in a city. From our buses, which are escorted by what looks like the city’s entire police force, we pass boarded stores, a closed Pizza Hut and tall, empty apartment buildings.

The few cars that dot the cross-streets wait patiently for our parade of tourist buses and armed police as we speed through the city. It seems strange that our hosts are so anxious about getting us out of this quiet place. I know their reasoning; Egypt has just overthrown its government. Nothing is safe. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine Port Said housing violence.

Soon we’re on the highway. People emerge from their two-room farm homes, readying themselves for a warm spring day. Children run up to the road to wave at us. Miles later, the local military replaces the city police. They sit languidly in their truck beds, their AK 47’s resting in their laps.

We make it to Cairo just as the sun begins its Western descent. Square sand-colored buildings rise from the earth, accompanied by intricate mosque towers that dust the sky.

Our bus crosses a high bridge, which reveals heaps of trash covering the roofs of some of the more run-down buildings. A rusty, broken air conditioner lays abandoned on top of piles of rotting cardboard, plastic bags and newspapers disintegrating into dust. Just past the bridge looms a beautiful, intricate mosque, its white domes gently lifting to the heavens. This dance between destruction and elegance seems an integral part of Cairo.

Blocks further, we drive by nearly fifty people carrying signs and picketing against one of the presidential nominees. On the other side of the road, citizens supporting the nominee protest against them. But they immediately stop their shouting match when they see our bus convoy. They wave, take pictures of us and flash peace signs.

It seems that wherever we go in this city, locals stop what they’re doing and wave at us with the same wide smiles. Is this really an area where Muslims despise westerners and want them to leave, as we’d been told countless times by the news anchors? Or are they happy to see visitors in their struggling city, where all day business owners wait in empty shops and restaurants, hoping for just one customer to enter?

I ponder this as we make our way toward the Giza Plateau. We ascend a low hill that gives us a wide view of the city. Miles in the distance, two shadowy pyramids stand waiting for our arrival.

We’re surprised to see just how close the Pyramids of Giza are to the rest of the city. Even our hotel is just across the street from the Great Pyramid, giving us a spectacularly eerie view of the behemoth from the pool area. It feels strange to be sitting by a perfectly modern pool fed by a manufactured crystalline waterfall, looking up at this ancient, expansive structure.

After dropping our luggage off at the hotel, we pile back into the bus and drive ten minutes to the base of the Giza Pyramids. Tourists take photos and try to ignore the merchants bombarding them with souvenirs and trinkets.

I get out and look up, overcome with the profound sense of insignificance each visitor meets upon seeing the Great Pyramid. Not only is it towering, but it has existed thousands of years. It witnessed the ancient Egyptians lay chiseled rocks on top of each other as they built the neighboring pyramid of Khafre. It saw countless storms, buried itself beneath the safety of sand, and emerged again in triumph for millions of fascinated eyes to look upon it.

Two Muslim women dressed in simple hijabs look up with wide, wondering eyes. A man with scruffy, sandy blonde hair shades his face so he can see the wonder better. In this ancient, sacred place and at this single moment, it seems that anyone can stand together and revel in humanity’s capabilities. Here, the overthrow of governments, the wars between religions, the hostility and misunderstandings are all forgotten.

This, to me, is one of the greatest human achievements of all: creating something so awe-inspiring, that, if only for a moment, every person can come together in peace.

About the AuthorSarah Long graduated from Tulane University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in English Literature and a dozen books in her head that were demanding to be written. She’s currently working on publishing the first and serves as a freelance editor in the meantime

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HALLE EAVELYN INTERVIEWS MOHAMED NAZMY

Things look bad in Egypt. From the outside, especially from the distant thousands of miles of our proximity in the United States, it looks like the government is so destabilized it may topple. In other words, stay away. But how realistic is this?

I was there in December, leading a spiritual tour group much smaller than expected given the unique opportunity to be in Cairo for the end of the world. My partner Greg recorded a video blog post of us sitting around in the middle of Tahrir Square drinking tea, a highly unexpected little detour that showed us the vast gap between reality and our expectations, especially as fueled by the media.

Our delightful ground operator in Egypt, Mohamed Nazmy, President of Quest Travel Egypt, makes the following observation, “Revolution is the ultimate expression of love.” We have worked with him for over 10 years; Mohammed is a dear friend who has played host to most of the largest names in spiritual writing and travel. He clarifies: “You revolt out of passion to your country, you revolt for peace and you revolt for justice. Throughout history Egypt has been a witness to revolutions, wars and victories.”

Mohamed thinks the revolution is vital, and will continue. “What’s currently happening in Egypt reflects how strong it is, how tough its people are. YES! Strong and tough. These people have a belief, they want to see their country in a better place, and that’s why they are standing still since January, 2011 and will never give up.”

When it comes to politics, the long-time tour company owner sees a larger picture. “We have to remember that Egypt is part of Mother Earth, which is everyone’s asset. We are born into this world with no boundaries, no country limits, no religion and no ID. Egypt is part of what we – humans – inherited; we need to preserve it and keep it safe.” He notes that Egypt consists of forty-one different cities; Suez, and Port Said are only two of them, far removed from all the tourist sites not at all affecting the rest of Egypt. When the US had its recent spate of homegrown violent shootings — Sandy Hook Elementary, the accidental killing of pedestrians near the Empire State Building, the Batman movie premiere — no one suggested that people stop traveling to the East Coast or stop going to see films; yet that is the equivalent of how we are treating Egypt, as tourists abandon the temples of Luxor or the beaches of the Red Sea, normally must-sees for millions of tourists.

Mohamed Nazmy is sending out a plea: “Egypt now needs our love, support and presence. Egypt is calling you, inviting you with love to feel its warmth, to see the beauty of the Nile and to enjoy the Egyptians’ smiles. I am looking forward to ‘Welcome you Home’ and to meet all of you at The Giza Pyramids with all the love and peace to embrace us.”

Spirit Quest Tours’ next spiritual trip to Egypt takes place in September, 2013 aboard the incredible private cruise ship, the Afandina.

Enjoy Halle’s book:

During this sabbatical year in Asia, my husband, George, has inspired me to follow the road less traveled. Over the last seven weeks from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Mumbai (Bombay), we have spent nearly 130 hours on buses and trains traversing and learning about parts of the East and West coasts of India. During the 10- to 20-hour rides, my companions were travel literature by incredibly creative authors.

Several of them offered to share personal encouragement and enlightenment, from Jennifer Steil‘s account of her year in Yemen, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, to Halle Eavelyn‘s evolution in Egypt in Red Goddess Rising, and then a major shift to family travels with Bill Richards and E. Ashley Steel’s Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids and Nancy Satre-Vogel’s Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World. We hope their books will inspire you to join in our Travel Writing Contest! Do it today! Entries are due by February 14th!

***Wondering what to wear in India? 5 tips from Wanderlust and Lipstick!****

Steil’s book, “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky,” is described on it’s cover as:

...a memoir of the most difficult, thrilling, hilarious and surprising year of my life — the year I spent as the editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, Yemen. It details the challenges of revolutionizing a newspaper in a wildly different culture, as well as the blossoming of my reporters. It is also the story of my own personal growth, and of the unexpected friendships — and a lifelong love — that flowered in the desert.

This book makes me want to travel in Yemen. The New York Times called it “a completely winning account of [Steil’s] adventures as a feminist mentor and boss… A riveting tale of a life’s journey that reads as if it will need a sequel.”

Steil writes about inspiration:

I think it would actually be harder for me not to write than to write. Writing reveals my own mind to me. But it is the people around me and the stories they tell that inspire me the most. It was the stories of my reporters in Yemen, especially the women that inspired me most when working on my first book.

One of the main reasons I travel is to gain perspective. It still astonishes me how different one’s life looks from another country. Every time I had my heart broken, I took a trip to somewhere exotic. It always, always helped. You just cannot wallow in your own self-pity when you get a good look at what goes on in the rest of the world.

Red Goddess Rising follows Halle Eavelyn’s transformation from reluctant spiritual tourist, through the staggering revelation of the truth of her soul, to her new life guiding other travelers though the mysteries of ancient spirituality. Halle’s experiences of Egypt are woven into her vignettes of spiritual realization and growth.

Eavelyn reveals that “Traveling inspires me to write for two reasons: I am able to see the world around me and draw on it for interesting characters, tales, even plots, and it takes me away from my everyday world, clearing a space in my mind that allows my creativity to come rushing in; this is an alchemical combination.

If you are thinking about writing your own travel book, or traveling to write, it’s important to carve out the time to do it. I wrote my first book five minutes at a time whenever I went to the bathroom, because that was all the time I felt I could spare! Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, make the time to write.”

Bill Richards and E. Ashley Steel, Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids, talk about the partnership required as parents and travelers to share the wonders of the world with their children. The book’s jacket describes it as follows:

Wondering how to turn a journey with your kids into an enriching and rewarding adventure? This book is about how to travel anywhere successfully with kids: from planning and drumming up excitement to teaching kids to pack themselves, from enjoying a museum visit to journaling for fun, and finally, from making memories stick to finding opportunities for cultural exploration close to home.

Their favorite travel quotation is by Robert Louis Stevenson: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Steel told me that “Traveling hopefully” is inscribed in her wedding ring! People wonder how George and I can travel together 24/7 for so many months. Richards and Steel motivate me with their choices to voyage on long trips with multiple children and the way they create meaning for each member of their clan.

Nancy Satre-Vogel, author of Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World, asks all of us, “What would you do if you were not afraid?” Changing Gears is the true story of one woman asking herself that very question. What followed was a family journey of epic proportions — a journey of physical challenge, emotional endurance, teamwork, perseverance and tremendous learning opportunities. Would the journey be a dream come true — or a mother’s worst nightmare? Satre-Vogel’s insight from her experiences? “You might fail — in fact you might have a very good chance at failing — but you might not. If you don’t try, you are looking at a 100% chance of failure.”

Reading remarkable travel literature provokes me to contemplate my sabbatical year in Asia. I wonder what will happen next? Where will we go? Who will we meet? What will we learn? I am honored to share the skillful tales and vision from these vagabonds. Look for more inspiration in part 2!

A version of this article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

About the Author: During her sabbatical year in Asia, Lisa Niver Rajna, Huffington Post Blogger, was published in National Geographic and the Myanmar Times. She was recently on National Televison as a science teacher and is a nominee for the National Science Foundation 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. Follow her trip at www.wesaidgotravel.com.