So onto Egypt... I was on my way to do something I'd never done before, something I had said I would never, ever do. As we know, "never say never". So I, the traveling snob, took an actual organised tour. And let me say it was most humbling, because it turned out to be fabulous. For a start I want to recommend this Australian company to everybody; Intrepid Travels. They are a company who go everywhere in the world, from the wilds of Tibet to Paris, and they have different classes of trips, from basic cheap to much more luxurious, and there are never more than 12 in a group.
The people in my group who had past experience with them had only rave reviews, and I came away ready to sign up again next time I wanted to do a "sight-seeing" type trip. And that's what this was; I had 8 days and I wanted to see as much as possible of the wonders of Egypt, and I did. Back in the early '70's, at the peak of my hippie days, I spent 3 months on a beach in the Sinai that was then Israel, but is now Egypt. I had however never seen the pyramids or any of the great temples or tombs. It was whirlwind, but we missed not a thing, and we were ferried here, there and everywhere, with all tickets and arrangements taken care of. It wasn't a luxurious tip, we traveled on public transport and stayed in medium range places, but we took trains, feluccas, camels, donkeys, even a hot air balloon... and it was really fun. It also cost less than $800 for everything, except a few meals (and the balloon ride). It would have been impossible to do it that reasonably solo.
It was borderline exhausting, but that was okay because I was on my way to being a slug in England. My main motivation for choosing this route, was that I know how it is for a woman travelling alone in this kind of country. And it isn't that it feels dangerous, I think that it can be just as dangerous in LA, it is always about being aware and sensible. But what you get is an inordinate amount of attention, for being western and female, and when I travel I much prefer to blend into the background, and having just been alone in India for 3 weeks I needed something more hassle-free. Plus my time there was just too short for me to settle in, get the lay of the land and then make plans. And even being with the group there was still the (inevitable) hustling going on, even more than in most places, including India.
In one particularly bad hotel, I had 2 people show me to my room, one holding the key, the other my bag - then 2 hands go out for a tip. At the pyramids one girl in the group was physically hauled onto a camel and then forced to pay, god help them if they'd tried that with me. And of course, this is how they make a living, but it was over the edge of mildly intrusive and into the realm of extremely annoying. And I have friends (women) who know Egypt well and are completely at ease traveling anywhere there, because they are familiar with all the logistics.
Loved, loved, loved the amazing wonders of Egypt, and my life is enriched by having seen them first hand, it is completely awe-inspiring. Except for, and once more I'm going to sound like a heathen, the Pyramids. Of all the places I saw for some reason they didn't "knock my socks off". Of course they are astonishing structures, but all I could think was; this was one person's tomb - what an unbelievable ego? And perhaps also because we are bombarded with images of them (in really good lighting), that the reality doesn't quite match up. And the Sphinx is actually quite small. But Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Valley of the Kings, Cairo Museum; these places were more amazing than I even imagined.
We also spent time with the locals, we had tea with one family who made us watch their wedding video - 2 hours of poor quality film of whooping and hollering, and many shots of people's feet as the cameraman joined in the dancing. The tour- leaders were local people, which is what really makes the difference. And for the record, I adore riding a donkey (I still have a dream of owning "Donkeyote"!), but I will be happy if I never get on another camel again as long as I live..
I could write a mini discourse on the plight of women and certain social injustices... but I zipped in and out in my highly privileged state of being an independent, western female, so easy for me to say. We were invited to a meal at another home, hosted by 3 lovely young sisters, who turned out to be highly educated, a doctor, a lawyer and a teacher. None of whom were married, and I asked them what would happen to their careers when (if?) they marry. And of course the answer was that it would be 100% their husband's choice, just as who they married would be their father's choice.
We also spent time with a wonderful Nubian man, who was quite frank about the suffering of his tribe due to the building of the Nasser Dam and various other stories atypical to minorities throughout the world. They are such striking people, and they still maintain the air of proud and noble warriors. Travelling down the Nile on a felucca as breathtaking, although our trip was cut short because of fierce winds. I can in all honesty say that I was fully immersed in the Nile, as everybody in the boat was completely drenched within 20 minutes of setting sail.
Spent a non-Xmas in a Muslim country, which suits me fine... although a lovely Aussie woman on the tour most kindly had a stocking full of goodies for everyone.I made a rather dramatic exit from Egypt. Because of tricky timing, I flew ahead of the group from Aswan to Cairo, hoping to catch my flight onto the UK. And suddenly there is my suitcase on the carousel, with everything spilling out everywhere - literally. The zipper had somehow blown out, and there is nothing quite like trying to gather one's undies up publicly in a Muslim country of mostly men, where what few women you do see are most conservatively covered (to say the least).
Since the flight was already late, I had about 10 minutes to make my connecting flight. I grabbed 2 young men, who proceeded to extort me for 3 weeks wages to help me up a flight of stairs (and then abandoned me with still about half a km further to go). I managed to find one of those plastic wrap machines to temporarily patch up my decimated suit-case, and then in a country where I was assured that no flight was ever on time - missed the only one that actually was.
I have learned during my travels, that certain behaviours can get you out of potential jams. For example, in Indonesia if you are driving the police will occasionally stop "tamu" (foreigners), and make a great fuss about checking your papers. The point of course being to get a little baksheesh, but if as a woman you start crying they get horribly disorientated and often just wave you on. Well, I was actually so frustrated with having missed my flight (and the whole suitcase fiasco), and the fact that I was then going to miss another connection (in London)... and had discount/non refundable tickets, etc, etc, that I did actually (for real) burst out crying at the check-in counter.
As luck would have it I did it in front of a man who practically fell to his knees begging me not to cry, god only knows what his story was but he completely freaked out. Me weeping, him begging, suddenly miraculously they got me onto the next flight out of there. It was to Munich - but what the heck, he would have done anything to stop me crying, and it was in the right direction.
So here I am - in Germany. I just went up to a random ticket counter and asked for some guidance about calling my friend who was picking me up in Manchester (and there seemed not a chance in heaven or hell I was going to get there in time), and the "gods" were with me yet again. Not only did my "Angel from Lufthansa" let me use his phone, he also heard my dilemma through my conversation (I couldn't reach my friend she was already on her way but I did talk to someone else), but somehow he pulled strings to get me onto a Lufthansa flight directly to Manchester that arrived at exactly the same time as the one I as currently missing from Gatwick. And it wasn't even the airline I had my original ticket with, nobody can tell me that there isn't still a world full of kind and caring people out there.
So I actually made it to Manchester on time, after missing a flight, being rerouted through a different country, and on an airline I didn't have a ticket for, thanks to an Egyptian who was completely undone by a woman crying, and a German motivated by selfless kindness. Tell me that every single day isn't full of surprises?
So I was back in Jolly Old England, and re-united with one of my best friends, Melanie. It was New Years Eve the next day, so I immediately saw lots of old friends. In truth it was ultimately a sobering trip, I was there for 10 days and all remnants of a faint yearning to ever live there again vanished. I love that part of the world, but my short absences always result in my being acutely aware of shocking changes. England doesn't feel like England any more to me, and more to the point I so love living in the soulfulness of Bali, I can't imagine trading it for anywhere else.
I had a great time with Mel though, and lots of time to walk around the river and commune with my favourite creatures, the swans, and to take some great hikes. I was also well rewarded for having taken my Uggs on an around the world trip. I would like to shake the hand of whoever designed those life-savers. England in January is chilly beyond words.
After 10 days it was time to "close the circle", one more time around the globe. I stopped in Boston to see friends, Chicago to see daughter and onto Los Angeles from whence I began. And then back to the glorious "Trout Farm", and all my wonderful friends in Santa Ynez.
But in truth I was only there 3 weeks before I headed to Bolivia with John, time enough to unpack, drag my winter clothes out of storage and repack for the highlands of South America.