The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

“You know… If you trust in yourself, you can do anything!”

Sammy’s words echoed round my mind as I looked up, panting, at the Egyptian buildings which surrounded me.

It was a sunny July day in central Cairo. The shouts of street vendors blasted my eardrums; the smell of frying meat on spits and pungent piles of gutter rubbish lingered heavy in my nostrils. I was boiling, sweaty, and despite only being in Egypt’s capital for twelve hours I already wanted to call my mum.

Sat on the grass outside the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, tears blurred my eyes as the Egyptian phone network refused to connect my roaming English sim card to my mum’s in London; a frustratingly regular beep reiterating how impossibly alone I was.

Undeterred, I jabbed at the buttons of my phone, typing text until my fingertips slipped sweatily off the plastic. It felt like I’d made a mistake coming here. Surely I couldn’t handle Egypt alone?

The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

A 19 year old arrives alone in Egypt

As a teenager, years of my mum’s stories about other countries had finally made me realise my own internal drive for exploring. To move, to see, to feel and smell the world from another perspective was an idea which gave me a delicious thrill of mystery, and I’d decided to go to the Middle East during the summer of 2008, in the long stretch of holiday marking the end of my first year of university.

Yet from the moment I landed in Egypt, I knew I was in for a bumpy ride.

Emerging through the exit doors of Cairo’s airport as they opened into the late afternoon sun, a sweaty tangle of eager male limbs and faces surged towards me. My backpack was tugged from my shoulders by a small, surprisingly agile young man: he led me purposefully to a driver lounging against a car door, who spoke smooth words in a language I had no hope of understanding.

On our drive to my hotel I smiled and nodded at the man’s attempts at English, listening sympathetically to a strung-together story about his clever daughter’s expensive ballet classes, and when the car slowed my passenger door wouldn’t open. My driver explained smilingly that I needed to pay him more. Hadn’t he just said how much his little girl’s dance classes were? Didn’t I understand that generous tourists were the only way she could continue to dance?

Eventually the hotel clerk opened the door to beckon me inside, while speaking low and fast to the taxi driver. I gratefully slipped into the building while the driver’s smile began to falter.

The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

A day of Egyptian exploration

My trip through the Middle East was an organised one with Intrepid Travel, but I had one free day to explore Cairo alone – and seeing both the Pyramids of Giza and King Tutankhamen at the Antiquities Museum were top of the list. The next morning, I stepped into the chaotic street and into a different taxi bound for the Pyramids: this one was organised by the hotel and thus much more trustworthy.

Yet as Sammy the driver and I sailed through the streets, my camera intermittently clicking through a gap in the dust-covered window, our conversation somehow landed upon carpets and papyrus instead of the ancient wonders. It was only a small detour, Sammy said.

“There is a beautiful museum of papyrus, and my brother’s friend will make us mint tea!”

An hour later I was back in the front seat, clutching a small cardboard cylinder holding a rolled up piece of decorated papyrus. My stomach gurgled from the three glasses of hot tea I’d been forced to throw down my throat in quick succession while a group of men had rolled out carpets of all colours, sizes and costs onto the floor in front of me; demonstrating their showmanship amongst richly embroidered cushions covered in sequins and the heady smell of invisibly burning incense.

Beneath their extravagance and bravado was my startling realisation: I was a lone British teenager sitting in the back room of a display shop in the middle of Cairo, unable to understand the language of the group of Egyptian men in front of me – neither their words nor the subtext they were clearly employing. Was I in way over my head?

The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

Scammed at the pyramids

By the time I reached the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities later that day, I’d had more than enough. Friendly Sammy had insisted I visit the pyramids on horseback – “My friend’s horses are very good!” – and given me a sad, saddled-up creature who I could have sworn was actually a donkey.

Together with a moody teenage boy on his own ‘horse’, we dutifully trotted to the back entrance of the pyramids and numerous photos were taken of me (unrequested, I might add) while Sammy disregarded ancient Egyptian history in favour of telling me the long saga of a fellow guide who’d married a Canadian woman from one of his tours.

It felt very much like a not-so-subtle hint.

The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

Before we returned to the stables, my grumpy guide stopped our horses at a bustling traffic roundabout to demand a sizeable tip.

“Is non negotiable,” he said nonchalantly, eyes flitting across the heavy vans which careered dangerously close to our snuffling horses. I’d started to sense a pattern in the way Egyptian men ran their businesses by this point, and had to choke back my rising anger while handing over a crumpled note I still didn’t know the exact value of.

Respite amongst the sarcophagi

Escaping my guides and getting inside the Museum of Antiquities was a blessed relief. The air conditioners cooled my sweat and each room was darker than the next, save for the little pools of light around each cabinet.

I stood for what felt like hours in front of King Tutankhamun’s death mask, thinking about this boy who was my age when he died, yet nonetheless ruled an entire country and is still revered over 700 years later.

Tourists in Cairo's Museum of Antiquities

Sitting alone on the grass outside the museum afterwards, I could feel the day’s sense of inadequacy pushing from inside my chest. I didn’t want to cry in the middle of Cairo, but it was hard to stop. Maybe I’d made a mistake? Maybe I simply wasn’t cut out for travelling alone?

The call to prayer erupted from a nearby minaret, and moments later my phone began to vibrate. Clearly me being abroad hadn’t prevented my mum from immediately jumping onto her phone.

OH POOR DARLING! Don’t let the buggers FORCE YOU! I know that’s easier said than done because they all crowd around you and shout and fluster you but try to keep calm and cool and just say NO firmly. I don’t want you to be upset – you’re not are you? Don’t let it get in the way of you loving it all. They’re just poor, and desperate to make as much money as they can out of what they see as rich westerners. Did you love the pyramids and the sphinx and beautiful Tutank. tho in spite of all that – I HOPE SO! And you’ll be with the group tomorrow. Be strong and tough babe! And careful and safe! ATWRABA – I love you so much – mum xxxxxxxxxx 

Don’t let them force me. Try to understand how they must see me: a young foreign woman with enough money to visit other countries, who must therefore have money to spare for them. Mum’s words were bolstering enough that a fresh sense of determination spread through me. If taxi drivers in Egypt weren’t up to scratch then no matter: I’d walk back to my hotel instead.

I delved into my backpack for the crumpled piece of paper I’d grabbed from the hotel reception desk on my way out, emblazoned with a map of the most popular tourist sites in Cairo. The hotel didn’t look too far from the museum…

Taking on Cairo by myself  

Winding my way through streets littered with garbage, scrawny pigeons pecking at the piles, I began to have a fresh appreciation for the city. Moving at a slow pace was doable, and although men occasionally leered at me from doorways I didn’t have to make eye contact or respond.

Of course, in true Flora fashion, I still got completely lost: walking straight instead of turning right as I didn’t want to get my map out and look like a tourist; striding on undeterred, knowing full well that I wasn’t going the right way.

The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

But eventually I asked for directions from an old moustachioed man at a tiny corner store selling chewing gum, and again from a solemn girl pushing a broom along the filthy gutter.

When I finally emerged from a narrow street and saw my hotel, I felt a sense of utter euphoria. I had done it. Nineteen years old, a complete stranger in an unfamiliar and chaotic city, I’d refused to give up.

An Egyptian lesson

It’s been a decade since I touched down in Egypt for the first solo travel experience that truly changed me. In the years since, I’ve faced much more complex situations (and often with much more positive outcomes!), yet my mind repeatedly drifts back to the Museum of Antiquities; to the heat and the muezzin; to a sweatily clutched phone and a slow realisation that I did have the ability to solve my problems by myself.

I didn’t know Cairo. I didn’t much like it either – or people’s attitude, their constant staring, the total chaos – and I’d only been in the country for 24 hours. But somehow I refused to give up in finding my own way home; which meant that, somewhere inside, I had the utmost faith in my ability to succeed.

So when I got back into that hotel room, I impulsively snapped a photo of my manic, sweaty face. I wanted to remember the feeling of what I’d achieved.

The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

That day in Cairo could easily have gone two different ways. I could have let the staring and chaos become so overwhelming that it enveloped me, and I could have decided to never travel alone again. But instead I chose to see the potential in difficulty, and rose to the challenge.

My point is this. When I look at this photo now, I see someone completely surprised by her own internal strength. Someone who faced that thrill of danger and dared to try and harness it.

Whatever difficulties you’re facing, whether at home or abroad, know this: you are absolutely capable. I promise. You have countless untapped reserves of strength, determination and potential. They just might not have shown themselves yet.

The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

Do you remember a turning point in your travelling life? Have you ever felt challenged by a country and successfully held your ground? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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18 Responses to The Day King Tutankhamun Changed My Life

  1. Veronika March 30, 2017 at 9:54 am #

    Wonderful story! I would never ever go to Egypt alone at the age of 19!!! But maybe I should have :-D. I was 30 when I went on my first solo trip (outside of Europe). I spent a month in the Philippines and now I don’t understand why I didn’t travel alone earlier. I think I was scared to leave Europe alone and that fear was a bitch, but I locked that bitch in the basement and travelling is much more better now :-).

    • Flora April 2, 2017 at 10:29 am #

      Locking the fear-bitch in the basement sounds like a very good tactic, Veronica :p I think it takes each person a different amount of time to realise they’re able to travel alone – but I’m glad you were able to reach that point!

  2. Bummelnder Kompass March 30, 2017 at 1:05 pm #

    Nice read! I started my bike trip in Africa from Cairo. It is almost impossile not to get ushered into some tour operating office or souvenir shop there. Their perserverance is astounding. Also the will to “gift” you something just to ask you for a bakshish afterwards is something you have to get used to. Unfortunately for them I travelled alone before and am kind of a numbskull so I enjoyed the tea offered and eventually they gave up.
    But it was still impressive to what an extent this is going on in Cairo. It is quite impossible to enjoy the sight at the big touristy attractions. Fortunately it gets better the further south you go.

    • Flora April 2, 2017 at 10:31 am #

      Wow, a bike trip through Africa sounds amazing! I’d definitely agree that Egyptian persistence is pretty impressive 🙂 I’ll have to visit other parts of the country to see if it differs from Cairo!

  3. Burma travel March 31, 2017 at 3:10 am #

    Good article, I am not committed to traveling alone. Very admire you ……

    • Flora April 2, 2017 at 10:31 am #

      Thanks so much for the support!

  4. Agence de voyages au Vietnam March 31, 2017 at 4:33 am #

    Your post is too good. This makes me admire you

    • Flora April 2, 2017 at 10:31 am #

      Aww, thank you 🙂

  5. Polly April 1, 2017 at 6:32 pm #

    This needs to be in an anthology of travel writing. Seriously – wonderful story, beautifully told!

    • Flora April 2, 2017 at 10:35 am #

      That’s such an amazing thing to say, Polly – thank you so much!!

  6. Sunshine April 2, 2017 at 5:19 am #

    Hi Flora,
    Do you have the facility to communicate apart from these posts which are open to the public as I have something I would like to discuss. You have not done anything wrong or in trouble, rather its someone else.

  7. Megan Dingwall (@PegsontheLine) April 2, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    Such gorgeous writing Flora (as always!). I’ve heard Egypt can be challenging to travel in for all the reasons you’ve described, and to take that on at 19 is impressive. I can see how it would have shaped your future travels and it’s got me thinking about what moments in my early travels had a similar impact on me.

    • Flora April 3, 2017 at 9:09 am #

      It’s interesting to think how our earliest travel adventures might have influenced our current mindset! So glad you enjoyed the piece, Megan – and that it’s led to some introspection for you 🙂

  8. Mark April 3, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

    Hi Flora,
    Thanks for your honest account of your day one in Cairo. It’s always interesting to hear stories like this rather than guides of different places. I’m glad you’re ok and found courage to just walk to your hotel. That’s awesome! Props to you mom as well. She sounds lovely. I always hear lots of negative things about Egypt and can’t imagine what it would be like to visit though I’m sure eventually I’ll make it out there. Safe travels ahead friend!
    Cheers,
    Mark

  9. Stefania - The Italian Backpackerte April 5, 2017 at 4:21 pm #

    I loved this post. It reminds me a little of the first time I was in Marrakech, even though they told me Cairo is a lot more chaotic and annoying. For a moment I was frustrated and thought I couldn’t go through one more day in that city, but then I somehow changed my attitude and my point of view. I think this is one of the best things about solo travel: how you learn that you are absolutely capable of overcoming obstacles by yourself.

  10. Sarah Wilkinson April 24, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

    The fortitude you had at 19! Wow! I am both impressed, and horrifically envious!
    I travelled to Egypt in 2015 as a 25th birthday present to myself, and like you I had a couple of free afternoons and days in Cairo during my tour. I’m not too proud to say that I attempted to get out of the hotel and do things with that time, but was a total failure. I got so in my head about all the attention, the leering, the traffic, the noise.
    I decided on one of the afternoons that I wanted to go and get something to eat. There was a falafel joint at the far end of the road that our guide had shown us, but when I was about half a kilometre from my hotel a cat ran out from behind a parked car and scared me half to death. I turned on my heel, power walked back to my hotel, locked myself in my room and proceeded to have a full blown panic attack.
    After that, there was little hope of me getting to places like Old Cairo by myself.
    I am still a little frustrated at myself for not being able to see more of Cairo than I did, but have every intention of going back to Egypt to fill in the gaps. Whether or not I’ll be strong enough to do it by myself, only time will tell!

  11. south america tours June 10, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

    Great post, your travel was very interesting, your photos are beautiful

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