‘What am I doing?’ I thought. ‘I can’t believe I left without my boyfriend.’
I was about a ten-minute walk from our hotel. The WiFi had gone out in the building and we had no way to contact our ride to the train station. One of us had to stay behind in case he came by, so I volunteered to make the trek to a nearby cafe where I could contact him. I hadn’t expected to be harassed my entire journey to find an internet connection.
“Hey, lady!” a man leaning out of his horse-drawn cart hollered. “You’re a pretty lady.”
I ignored the catcalls and decided to focus on the steps I was taking. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was the only woman on the streets by herself, let alone the only tourist at all. This was Luxor, one of Egypt’s most popular destinations, but it looked like a ghost town. The multiple souvenir shops that line the main highways were empty, and no tour buses competed for room with donkeys and camels.
It was four years after the Egyptian Revolution had sprung up in Cairo. Since then, Egypt’s thriving tourism industry had slowed to a crawl. What once was the lifeblood of the country’s economy was now reduced to a few brave Brits and Indians who weren’t going to let harrowing social media posts keep them from seeing the pyramids of Giza or the temples in Luxor. We had received our own warnings from friends and family who were worried about us making the trip.
“Is it safe there? Are you sure you want to go?” my mother said.
We were. Egypt had loomed large in my imagination since I was a little girl. I had been fascinated by mummies and women kings like Hatshepsut and Cleopatra. The pyramids had been on my bucket list since I was fifteen. My boyfriend was publishing a graphic novel on the Exodus story. When the opportunity came up, we weren’t about to turn it down.
The moment I stepped outside into Luxor’s chaotic streets, I was beginning to regret my decision. How much research had I really done before arriving there? Did I really know it was safe after the government had changed hands so many times? How smart was it to venture out by myself?
It turns out that Egypt is safe to travel to, but it requires a bit more knowledge than other destinations might. It is not a relaxing vacation — you will be tested in multiple ways no matter what gender you identify as. Tourism has increased dramatically since I made that trip several years ago, and visitors are back to taking snapshots on dromedaries and weaving between the Karnak Temple’s gigantic columns. You shouldn’t let the news dictate whether or not you should go: you should.
The worst thing that happened to me in Egypt was that people called out to me on the street. I never felt truly unsafe or that I was in any danger. I was only angry because it rubbed raw against my principles, and I probably should have sent my boyfriend to run down to the cafe instead. But that experience was what I needed in order to realize that traveling to Egypt requires knowledge, not fear. You need to know how to dress appropriately, how to treat the local people, and how to approach a country in the midst of change.
Egypt is one of the destinations that changed me most as a traveler, and that was because I followed my sense of curiosity — even when others told me that I should be afraid instead. Bad things can occur in any place on earth, and it comes down to making a choice to understand a culture rather than choosing to ignore the differences.
Have you ever been to a location that tested you? Where was it?
Header image by Spencer Davis.