Off The Beaten Path

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Timeless Egypt

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The more some things change the more they stay the same. One would think an unsuitable description for one of the most memorable civilizations in anyone’s antiquity. If centuries of intrigue don’t peak your interest then consider the “flash” revolution of January 25 and its still-fragile aftermath. What does this mean when considering travel to a place that has withstood the scrutiny of the ages but could age you in a moment’s consideration of travel?

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A realistic perspective invites the assessment that not much has changed. Think about it…If you’re looking for safe and secure perhaps the Middle East is not the place for your travel. Passion as well as inspiration runs deep here for reasons too numerous to list. But if the truth be told there are few places immune from the world of politics or selective insanity.

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Nothing can prevent a traveler’s impact from the anomaly of first instance, abrupt, unexplainable and stinging. And though this would seem a country yearning to be free, it’s a country that thrives on tourism and must protect its image and those travelling at all costs.

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The point is that awareness is always the best place to be. A query to your tour agent will often result in a mixed bag of perspective. However the State Department also does this for a living and generally has a more political analytical, less independent business financial interest, in perpetuating the world truth from a travel perspective.

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On a site devoted to more objective travel assistance for those concerned about safety and well-being — U.S. State Dept Travel.State.Gov, a prospective traveler can acquire background as well as current travel alert information. Status at the time of this episode reveals a slow state of improvement with the U.S. Embassy reopened and Egyptian Security Services not fully deployed. A recent clash with the military and protesters means that avoidance of large crowds and personal safety planning remains essential standard operating procedure – translation: Demonstrations at Tahrir Square are an ongoing possibility. As one might assume the traditional resort areas from Luxor to the Red Sea to Sharm el Sheikh seem quite intent on making money and for the most part remain insulated from the transitional fray.

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The State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP can keep you up to date with the latest safety and security information as well as serving as an additional point of contact for family in emergency situations. This can provide additional warm fuzzies that rise above how ‘naughty or nice’ your travel or tour affiliations are in the final analysis of their effected trip strategy.

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Security has always been a concern in Egypt. When visited in 2009 there was no advance warning from the trip organizer of the heavily armed guard who accompanied our group everywhere we went. The big man’s presence, as well as that of the Uzi he seemed so comfortable with, were initially alarming but then became a part of the routine, adding to a need to remain aware of surroundings and how fast that dynamic might change. Tourists are so forgetful and there had been prior incident, such as the September of 2008 kidnap of 11 foreign tourists for ransom in the remote south-western desert region near the Sudanese border. Wrong place, wrong time…And sound rationale for continued vigilance and safe-keeping.

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While not Indiana Jones, a persistent opt for the ‘difficult’ over the ‘easy’, prompting “Oh oh” when sudden discovery of self in places and situations require quick-rethinking to a better location. Travelling alone, I was not insulated from insecurity during my late night arrival in Cairo to walk winding underground tunnels, face confusion regarding a seeming elusive airport exit, and survival of a wild ride through the streets of Cairo prompted by the very locals dispatched to assist me.

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Texting my arrival to those who cared, I remained troubled, until soothed by the spectacular. There they were – Pyramids Giza insistent upon consuming the night space with their antiquity, in a city that refuses to sleep. Once I viewed the pyramids, I felt strangely at home even though the equally ancient cargo van had not reached my destination. But the true epitome was that regardless of how I felt, this would not insulate me in a moment’s ‘guard-down’ from the pickpockets or other malcontents who would forever view me as ‘foreign’ and ripe for intrusive action. Awareness of surroundings is an important thing to do at all times of any experience. Case closed.

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Daylight provides a different perspective, softening the element of fear that edges the night. Closely allegianced to Sun and sand are the old and new, and those who came to explore a timeless environment amid the backdrop of those who ‘work’ the day. In between are those in flowing robes of Egyptian cotton with time to sit and talk with tea through the smoke of a Shisha (Hookah). In a competition between the old and new it often looks like the old is winning; with the “same-old” seeming to bookmark the progress of a nation as well as chronicle the tremendous influence of Islam on the pulse of the nation’s daily life.

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Despite years of French and British influence and high-level political intrigue, Egyptian lifestyle remains noticeably traditional. Sure there are the high rises and other perks of modern life exclusive to the “haves” recurrent to any global city. However just a block or two beyond a Cairo main street is a barely paved road shared with beasts of burden, ‘unfinished’ add-ons to property in a city that builds upward not outward, a marketplace scenario where everything’s sold, and beverages a seasoned traveller truly shouldn’t drink, particularly if offered a refreshing sugar cane drink (do you sense a true life testimonial and two week recovery period here?)

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It is there in the pathways of the city, and the towns and the places that line the Nile that you glimpse the real Egypt and the diversity of its people: They are Middle Eastern and they are African, by virtue of location, ethnicities and inclinations. And who they are is not so evident in the political hotbed that reflects the region’s ongoing experience and concern. They are uniquely Egyptian. An historical collective of people with a thirst for freedom that will compel Egypt’s viability as a nation and secure their exception from the cult of personality that reflects a recent political past.

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Stay away or stay sway? Choose option 2 and be savvy. Learn to keep your head when others about you lose theirs and you’ll generally be okay in every situation. (Reference archived: How not to be Ugly or Vas You Ever in Tanzania, July 2010, this blog). Follow your heart and mind and enjoy the ride: By foot, camel, air and boat. Places like Abu Simbel are truly worth the cost of a ticket.

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Someday in the ‘look back’ from my front porch rocking chair (when there are no places left to go), the trip to Egypt will make my “Top 10” of best trips: Best photos, best memories, and things I would not hesitate to do all over again. Why? Because, in the late afternoon quiet of a cool breeze and a boat’s gentle sway, I became Queen Nefertiti, wife of the monotheistic Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten)…Look, this is my fantasy, my role-play.

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Traversing the Nile from Luxor to the locks of the Aswan Dam dressed in a flowing galabya while acknowledging the melodic flow of calls to prayer along the riverside, I was reclined in a chair on the top deck of a luxury river boat, bathed in the glow of an evening’s twilight. The feeling was tranquil and surreal – first that I was alone (fellow travelers were safe from the Sun on the middle deck – napping) but mostly because of a true feeling of ‘other place and time’ as the Sun blended into the horizon to a lone felucca’s backdrop. And unless you can bottle that feeling, there isn’t a well-thought chance I wouldn’t take to be there again.

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Timeless Egypt © Pamela Kelly Phillips, 2011
All photographic images (non-video) are © Pamela Kelly Phillips, PK Phillips Photography, 2009

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