• Smiely Khurana

Visiting Egypt: My Travel Journal

"When I was younger, I heard the word "Egypt" and I thought pyramids, the Nile, and mummies. Then I visited the beautiful country... My whole perception of Egypt has changed. I don’t just see pyramids and mummies now. I see a strong Muslim culture, religion, proud Arabic language, a woman in a hijab on a large billboard, donkeys strolling the street, people riding on the rooftops of cars, markets, and families. I see soldiers and guards standing at every corner. Security checks at every entrance. Women in burkas, hijabs, and some letting their hair flow. I see kids, adults, and elderly that remind me of my own grandparents. I see history and I see a developing country. I see a society of people living, working and socializing on the streets at midnight. I look around the streets, malls, tourist spots, and I see people that look like me. I don’t just see pyramids anymore... I see a lot more." (From my personal journal, dated May 2018)

In May of 2018, for the last leg of my one month trip abroad with my best friend, we made a stop in Egypt. As a kid, I was obsessed with Egyptian history. Everything about mummies, pyramids, kings, hieroglyphics and people intrigued me. So much that I would watch documentaries on archeologists discovering tombs and treasures in my free time and decided I would pursue a career in archeology when I'm older.

Fast forward, that did not happen. I actually went into filmmaking and pursued a very artistic career. During my time in university and living in the residence, I met two incredible people that quickly became close friends: Emma and Jun. One day Em and I decided to book a trip across the world and then meet up with Jun in Cairo, where he had funny enough - spent 12 years of his life growing up. HOW COOL.

I had no expectations going into the country honestly. Travelling around Europe for 3 weeks, I thought it was going to be the usual: sightseeing, checking off bucket lists, trying new food, etc. Not to neglect all the security measures that were taken prior to going to Egypt, including familiarizing ourselves of red-zone areas and potential terrorist attacks that could take place. Nbd.

But the trip was all of the above... and more. Suddenly my eyes opened and I saw a whole other world, different from the one I grew up in. I saw a country where the majority population had skin like mine and I actually felt like I fit in. I didn't even realize how much of an impact this could have on me, considering I never felt out of place growing up. But then the longer I spent there and talked to locals, the more I learned about the society and culture. And realized, how lucky I was to grow up in a place that gives me the freedom to walk out of the house, wear whatever I want to, do whatever, live wherever, and even travel by myself. More on this later...

When we arrived at the airport, we found Jun waiting for us and he called us three an Uber. How crazy is it that Vancouver still did not have Uber, but Cairo was already ahead of the game? We got in the car and I put my seatbelt on... like you normally would. Till Jun informed me that you don't wear seatbelts here. I looked at the driver and he also in fact was not wearing a seatbelt. Oh okay, I thought. *nervously takes seatbelt off* and we start driving down what I think is the highway. I look out the window and turns out, there's no lanes and no rules as to where you drive. How long it takes you to get from Place A to Place B all depends on the driver. If you could squeeze between cars and get ahead, all the good for you. There were also no rules on how many passengers could be seated in a vehicle... or where they sat. People happily were sitting on rooftops of cars, driving 70KM, with no fear or worry in the world! Babies sat on motorcycles in front of the rider, without any helmets on. Arriving a week before Ramadan, the streets were filled with markets, animals and people prepping. All super normal!

When we got to our hotel, we realized the wifi does not work and data is too expensive. So now I've lost contact with the social world and can't see what my family and friends are up to nor update on where I am. I'm not going to lie... I was a little terrified and anxious at first, but I trusted Jun, the talented tri-lingual human that was fluent in Arabic, English and Korean. Making it easy for him to communicate with locals and ensuring our safety and wellbeing! Emma and I also decided maybe it's best we just live in the present and unplug for the week. So that's what we did.

Every single place we entered, there was a full airport-security style setup. We go to check into our hotel and had to put our bags into a scanner and then also walk through a body scanner. Every time we go in and out. It didn't hit me at first. But then we visited the Cairo Mall on day 2 and had to go through a similar security check, except here they physically pat you down and get all up in there. They took away my monopod (a gear stick thing to attach and hold your camera on, if you don't know what that is), which I was using to vlog my trip. They were suspicious of this unfamiliar piece of equipment and weren't going to risk letting me take it in. I obliged and they gave it back to me on my way out, but this is when it really hit me. This is real life and not a movie. Things happen here. Back in Canada, I could walk into a movie theatre, aka a big, dark room full of strangers, with a backpack on and no one would suspect or ask anything. But kids here don't have that privilege. This is their normal. *goosebumps*

"It's Day 3, May 14th, 2018. Today we visited Giza to see the Pyramids and walk down the Sahara Desert on camel backs. The heat was nothing like I've experienced before. I felt so sick, couldn't eat anything and had no energy to talk. However, realizing where I am and my 12 year old self is squealing, I sucked it up and took it all in. I am here. I am standing on the sand touching the limestones of the Great Pyramid, which I once admired from photos. Is this real life!?

Locals came up to me and greeted me with big smiles on their face telling me how I look Egyptian and am welcome here any time. It felt nice...like a sense of belonging. Egypt is nothing like I envisioned. We climbed inside a smaller pyramid and it was mind-blowing. It was nice and cool underground compared to the 50 C degree desert heat outside. We then rode camels across the Sahara desert and it was fun for the first 10 minutes. The next 30 or 40 minutes were a little painful. My body was extremely sore and I was having a throbbing headache. I could no longer eat or talk and after taking in as much as I could of Giza, I went back to my hotel room, where I fought a high fever and chills and passed out. Yep, your girl got heat-stroke, but was living her best life at the same time."

Later that evening, we grabbed some dinner to go (I opted out because I was still feeling sick) and visited the Nile River where we booked a Faluka ride. A Faluka is sort of like a big sailboat, which we kicked back in and sailed down the Nile, for about 3 hours or so watching the sun come down. This was probably my favourite part of the trip. Not only could I just lay down and take in the beauty and fresh air, without having to be in tourist mode, but I was able to reflect on life during this time. (let's be real, when am i not) We shared laughs and dance parties with the local kind Egyptian fella that was sailing our boat (is that the correct term?) and truly were present.

Now looking back, I realize I didn't take as many photos of the people, streets and things that stood out for me besides the typical tourist spots. We were midweek into the Egypt trip and Emma and I were dealing with severe stomach and body aches (yes. on top of my heatstroke) We weren't sure if it was the food, the water or just the fact that it's been a month of nonstop travelling and our bodies are finally starting to shut down. I remember we were barely able to walk or talk and had been in bed any opportunity we could get, skipping some planned activities in the meantime. Which also resulted in me only capturing what I could and nothing more. However I made a little fun vlog which captured a lot more and is linked at the bottom of this post!

"On our way back to the hotel after that amazing, breathtaking Nile cruise, I began talking to our driver who we'd been with for a couple days at this point. Muhammad, a very kind and sweet gentleman, super passionate about his country, offered insight into some of the history behind the buildings and great stories of his childhood here. We discussed our life back home in Canada as he's never been out of Egypt and let us know he plans on travelling after Ramadan. He told me about his kids: 2 sons and 1 daughter, all under 12 years old. We had an interesting conversation regarding his daughter and if he would let her travel when she's older. The conversation didn't go as I hoped."

"May 15, 2018: Today we visited a large market that was cramped with hundreds of people. It was also really hot and Em and I were still feeling sick. We sat at this outdoor cafe and ordered some food, where we were greeted and accompanied by some stray cats. Emma began to throw up and she decided to go back to the hotel and rest, skipping the market festivities.

I brought up my conversation with Muhammad to Jun and get his thoughts. He told me it's probably best to avoid such discussions because one western can't change the mentality of someone who's lived 45 years in a society, where certain things are deemed normal. And also to be careful to not upset anyone. He then told me to look behind me, as bells rang and chants began. I looked up to see a mosque. There was one on every corner and 5 times every day the bells and prayers echoed throughout the city, and people stopped whatever they were doing to pray. The one mosque behind us was different however. Men walk inside and the women, most of which were covered head to toe in burkas or hijabs, sat outside the mosque on the ground, praying. That's when Jun told me... some mosques don't allow women inside. So instead they sit in the 50 C degree heat outside. And this is normal so no one sees anything wrong with it.

When I look around, I see women that look independent and happy - shopping and socializing. But then I look closer and see this reality and I am a left a little heart broken. And yet again feel another moment of privilege.

All I want to do in life is to inspire change in the world through my art. Seeing the different worlds people live in and experiencing what they experience is sparking my fire even more. Women rights, equality and diversity needs to be spoken about and I want to see change."

We woke up nice and early and visited the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. I had so many thoughts rushing through my head during this visit. The architecture was beautiful, but didn't seem well-maintained or had seen some unfortunate events (cracks in the steps, stones were damaged and uneven, etc). Muhammad, our driver who joined us to offer history tips (he didn't even have to, but he was so kind) explained why, but I forgot to write down the reasons so I don't remember exactly. However, I took in the beauty of one of the oldest and largest mosques in Cairo, Egypt. It looked out over the entire city.

On our last day, we visited the National Museum of Egypt. It. Was. Epic.

Em and I hadn't slept at all the night before and felt like death the whole day. I was admiring all the artifacts, tombs, statues, and pieces of history, but had to sit down every 10 minutes because I was cramping up with pain I had never experienced before haha - it was a wild time. I also wore my ripped jeans and got a lot of stares from the locals, quickly realizing it wasn't exactly the best choice. That was another thing we had to be mindful of during our trip. We were strongly encouraged to avoid shorts, tanks and anything that may not be suitable for the conservative country. I guess my ripped jeans weren't exactly an exception lol.

We ended the day by visiting the Cairo Mall once again and had some lunch at The Eatery. And lots and lots of 7up for all our stomachaches. It was cool that we got to eat foods from so many different ethnic backgrounds while being in Egypt, everything from Japanese, to Middle Eastern, to American, to Italian. For example, we ate Sushi, Pizza Hut, Pita and Hummus, KFC, Spaghetti/Pasta, Buddha Bowls, etc. And it was all prepared so greatly by local Egyptations, most of which probably haven't even left the country. Mind-blowing.

After we sat by the water (this mall is the definition of epic) and watched the water light show that took place every night, basking in the last full night in Cairo. Having a full moment with my closest friends.

We then visited a shisha/hookah bar and chilled there until about midnight before driving to the airport. A 24 hour plane ride was ahead of us that although we were not looking forward to, were so happy to finally be going home after a month of exciting adventures, meeting new people and gaining stories for a lifetime.

This trip will always be special to me. I came back a different person. I met people, learned new languages, felt a sense of community, and learnt so many stories. I realized how lucky and blessed I was to grow up in a place where I have the choice to embark on whatever I wished, and it showed me what lies beyond my own life. The earth is big, but it's also so small. We are all connected, yet so different. Everyone you meet has a story. It's just the matter of taking a second to listen. Would I go back? Definitely.

Suddenly my desire to see the typical tourist spots has decreased and my heart to go visit developing countries has increased. It's the little gems of places that have the most exciting tales of life. It's the people you wouldn't look at twice, that can influence your entire life. It's the culture, history and traditions that shape us into who we are today and create our tomorrow. What's up next? Wait and see!

Thanks for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever been to Egypt? What place is on your bucket list to visit? Do you have any interesting travel stories? Share them with me! Send me an email or visit me on Instagram and connect with me. :)

Check out my Egypt Vlog - showing a lot more footage of the experiences I talked about in my blog post! And be sure to subscribe to my blog for more posts. Lots of fun things planned during this quarantine time. Hope you all are safe and healthy!



P.S if you want MORE Egypt content... Emma also made a vlog, check it out!


© Smiely Khurana 2020