I have always been a sensitive person. Persnickety if you will. But I learned young that it was up to me to take care of myself. Latchkey kids live responsibly. Charm strangers. Look for exits. I don’t sleep on airplanes. In classrooms and cafes, I point my back against the wall. I want to make sure I’m safe. In case I need to take care of something, in case I need to make a loud noise, I stay alert. Sometimes to my detriment.
The second week I was in Egypt, I joined a tour group with a company called On the Go. The tour was called “Road to Jordan,” because after it’s sojourn through the Nile Valley it took a jaunt through Jordan for the last few days. After staying with Katy Butler for a week, doing a deep dive into the Egyptian Myths, and Mysteries of the Goddesses, I wanted to see the origin places for these myths. With On the Go, I knew we’d move at a breakneck pace, and imagined falling square onto the set of If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium.
The day before I met my group, Katy’s husband Hisham dropped me off at the Oasis Hotel in Cairo. Everyone else had been met at the airport, and I envied the loose connection that could have provided. I wasn’t in the mood to go exploring that night, and couldn’t quite fess up to the fact that I felt lonely. The hotel lobby was clean, but a bit run down. Years of robust tourism, followed by lighter traffic after the Arab Spring, showed in the upkeep. After checking in, I asked about my tour group—where and when I should meet the agents. God forbid I miss the departure. I was met by Mohamed, a thirtysomething man brusk in his dark suit. He gave me an itinerary and told me to meet at 7am the next morning in the conference room. After this exchange, a bellboy pulled my wheely bag past the pools and fountains, through the labyrinthine outdoor corridors of two hundred first floor rooms. I spent that night writing and streaming Netflix. Anxiety and excitement flushing my system, I certainly didn’t sleep more than a few hours.
The next morning, I navigated my way back through that labyrinth to the lobby. Before even leaving my room, I downed my instant via coffee. I knew I’d need to find a place to pee shortly after. I didn’t expect it to kick in right at the start of the tour introduction. In the lobby conference room, from my seat, I watched thirteen strangers arrive at the rectangle of tables lined with standard white velcroed fabric. There I sat in the right room, at the right time, with a low-key stomach ache. I knew we had a busy day, packed with the Giza Plateau (again for me), the temple at Saqquara, and a sleeper train that night to Aswan.
Our tour leader stood in the center of the room and introduced himself as Momo. He told us his name was Mohamed, which we’d soon discover was every man’s name in Egypt. An Egyptologist, he had the energy of an elementary school teacher, and the sass of a college student. He told us that for the duration of our tour, he’d be, essentially, our daddy. Our daddy? Yep. He led us in an icebreaker, and we went around the room introducing ourselves. My name was listed on his itinerary as Alexandra, a moniker I reserve for writing checks and voting. So at my turn, after hearing my legal name, I said I went by Xan. Two people before me had already mentioned their unusual nicknames, Tawny and Lou. At my name, Momo kicked back into laugher and looked at me beffudled. “Really?” he said smiling, “Well, I think I’ll just call you Alex.” Uh ugh. “No,” I said, “no, you won’t.” “Rawr” he replied. In a country where my language is foreign and my presence imperialist, I know to go with the flow. But my name is not, nor has it ever been Alex. I took a deep breath as I thought, this could go one of two ways.
After introductions, Momo clarified the basics of safety to us. He explained that we would be together the whole time. For a country whose historic myths are potent and wonderful, there are far too many current myths about life there. We would not be killed by terrorists. The Arab Spring was a media manipulation in the first place. Different, he reminded us was not worse. Just different. I learned I could wear shorts or t-shirts. As a foreigner, especially with a group, I’d get a pass with my clothing. I wouldn’t be grabbed, or seen as disrespectful. I didn’t need to wear a veil unless I went in a mosque. The worst thing to do on the entire trip was to leave your passport in the lockbox at the hotel. We wouldn’t go back. The vendors would be persistent, but I should wait for Momo’s direction to buy quality gifts and souvenirs. The water was potable. The food was phenomenal, and if we thought about getting sick, we would. At this my stomach churned. God I had to pee. I stepped out to find a toilet, and said a prayer that they would be around today when I needed them.
When I came back, I scanned the tables at these people who would become, I guessed, my siblings? I felt grateful that I’d arrived earlier and didn’t have to contest with jetlag. I sat next to Pat, a fit Canadian woman in her mid fifties, wearing chacos and hiking shorts. When we first sat down, we had taken bets on the countries of origin for the other travelers. Her competitive edge rose up as I lost each time. I hoped I’d like these people. I eyed a pair of girls at the other end of the room who looked like they came as friends. I later learned they didn’t know each other at all. Dressed in all black, Sari was a young travel agent who came from Australia to see how she’d recommend this trip to her customers. Suzanne’s accent sounded American, but in our icebreaker, I learned she came from Toronto. With straight blonde hair, and perfect makeup, she could have passed for a sorority girl. I was blown away to learn later that she was within a year of my own age. Our group consisted of four couples, and five single women besides me. We had tapped out fingers and sipped our coffee through the presentation, unaware of how close we’d get in the next couple weeks. On this English speaking tour, I was the only American.
But, I was not the only in any other way. People don’t go to Egypt the way they go to the Hawaiian Islands. As I’d soon discover, I wasn’t the only pilgrim here.
This day was going to be herculean. I hadn’t slept the night before, and likely wouldn’t sleep on the sleeper train. Momo huddled us into the small passenger Taftaf bus to navigate the busy streets of Cairo and Giza. “Family” Momo said as we arrived at the Giza Plateau, “Welcome to the Amazing, the Phenemenal, the Great Pyramids!” And they were still great. Even though I’d been staying across the street for a week, I still felt a lump in my throat when I came close. I listened to some travelers complain about the heat, and buy Keffiyehs to protect their heads. Dino held a umbrella up above his wife Angie to keep her cool. Wow. I couldn’t have scripted that kind of thing. But there we were, in the land of the old gods, again. I’d already found myself there in a horse-drawn carriage, and on horseback with Katy and Hisham. But this time, I joined the rest of my “family” on a pokey lumbering camel. Lou, in her black and white elephant print pants, panicked as her camel came up, and asked to get down immediately. But the young men guiding the camels didn’t give a hoot. Fortunately, she laughed through her fear, and made it the entire journey. By the end, the laughter had grown more authentic.
The rest of the day took us to Saqqara, a Papyrus Museum and the train station. We learned that Saqqara, the step pyramid in Memphis, is the oldest of Egypt’s pyramids. Underground, the ancients build 11 spaghetti-like pathways tangled in a fake-out to would-be tomb raiders. I was warned by Katy that the Papyrus Museum would be overpriced and have limited choices. But we were on a tour, and like a teacher chooses books to teach, a guide chooses places to take the guests. In the museum, our tour group gathered around a demo table to learn how papyrus was soaked, smashed and pressed into the paper-like substance which was then painted with intricate designs of the myths, the landscapes, or the common Arabic phrases. Before heading to the train station, Momo took us to a restaurant where we’d eat family style, share chicken shwarma, falafel, salad and coke or hibiscus juice.
And this was just day one. When I finally sat down alone on the bed of my sleeper train, I was exhausted. The attendant lowered my bed, and the old train rattled like walls in a low grade earthquake. Like with airplanes, I have yet to fall asleep on a public train, sleeper or not. But there was a door, and the whole car was my new “family.” I was invited down to the end, where a six pack of Egyptian beer and a bottle of Rum had appeared. But I couldn’t. I laid down and listened to the MRI volume of clanking. My limbs felt useless, and settled in for another sleepless night of horizontal audiobook haze. We had eleven hours until we got to Aswan. I took out my sleeper headphones, and flipped on my copy of Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneerwoman. And despite the persistent loud rattling in the room, the unfamiliarity, the strangers I had collected a mere eleven hours prior, for the first time ever, I slept.