Before my visit to Egypt last month, I debated whether or not I should go. I’d heard from various sources that it was unsafe, but the more I read, the more I became convinced that Egypt was as prone to a terrorist attack as India—no more or less. My gut feeling was that I should make the trip. I’m glad I did.
Before I left, a colleague who had been there offered me some unsolicited advice. At Giza, “don’t bother going inside the Great Pyramid” he said, “it’s a waste of time, just an empty room.” He also gave his opinion of Egyptian shop owners—“they are worse than the guys trying to part you and your money at any Indian tourist site,” he said.
In the crowded streets of Cairo, in the busy mosques and ancient temples filled with local tourists, I saw that life in Egypt goes on as normal. Within a few hours of being in the country I recognized what made the locals tick. For Egyptians, it is family that is most important. Everywhere I went I saw parents and relatives with children, infants barely a few weeks old, toddlers, and young children—in restaurants, mosques, on public transport, at tourist sites, in markets, just about anywhere a traveller might go. Every place was filled with chatter—it didn’t look like a country living in fear or under siege. Yes, I did see a lot of security (a good thing against threat) and the tourist police was always around at big-ticket monuments, but the average Egyptian is up and about, and domestic tourism is high.
The early 20th-century writer Aldous Huxley once stated that “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” This resonated with me during my travels through Egypt. Of course we must listen to travel advisories, and I know that governments have the safety of their citizens at heart when they discourage travel to certain areas. But I also know that often the perception of safety is skewed. Paris has had its share of attacks and Brussels was bombed recently. But no directive to avoid Paris or Brussels is likely to be issued. I’ve learned that in many instances you have to do your own research, follow your gut, and go where you think you will be safe.
At the pyramids, against my colleague’s advice, I paid the extra fee to go inside the Great Pyramid, built in 2570 B.C. A long, dark, cramped passageway ascended to the empty King’s Chamber. Though I’d spent time admiring the pyramids from the outside, it was only when I was bending and ducking while climbing the steep ramps inside that I fully grasped the precision with which each of its granite blocks fit together. Sitting on the floor of the King’s Chamber, as I stared at nine huge slabs of granite weighing over 50 tonnes each, the magnitude of the task of creating this structure almost 5,000 years ago hit home.
To think that 2.3 million stone blocks, weighing an average of two tonnes each—and cut using nothing but copper tools—were used to build this pyramid is fascinating in theory. But sitting in the belly of the pyramid, what made my spine tingle was the realisation that I was witnessing first-hand, one of the biggest mysteries on Earth and one of the most mind-bending feats of architecture.
A few days later, with some free time on hand in Luxor, I ventured out to explore the shops around my hotel. At the first store, once the owner learned I was from India, he started up a conversation about life in Mumbai and, of course, Bollywood. Twenty minutes later, I was leaving his shop without buying anything when he stopped me. From under the counter he pulled out a large jewellery box stacked with interesting brass rings and pendants, and asked me to choose one as a gift. I refused, protesting embarrassedly that I hadn’t even bought anything from his shop, nor was I likely to considering I was leaving the next day. He brushed that aside and pulled out a pretty ring with two owls on it. “My gift to a friend from beautiful India,” he said.
Maybe Huxley was right, everyone really is wrong about other countries.
Appeared in the April 2016 issue as “To Go Or Not To Go”.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.