“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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.