Personal Journey: A visit to Egypt during the 'Arab Spring'

Standing outside the Egyptian Museum are (from left) Marty Birgen, writer Aimee Johnson, and Julee Johnson.
Standing outside the Egyptian Museum are (from left) Marty Birgen, writer Aimee Johnson, and Julee Johnson. (LORY GUNSALUS)
Posted: July 17, 2011

In January, antigovernment demonstrations erupted in Egypt and other African nations.

As the world watched the young protesters take over Tahrir Square and clash with security forces, my three sisters and I watched our well-planned trip to the ancient wonders of the Nile evaporate. By February, the U.S. government had issued a travel advisory, and our British-based tour group started canceling tours. It appeared that our trip, planned for years, would have to wait.

But in March, we got the go-ahead. Suddenly we were scrambling to change our U.S. dollars into Egyptian pounds and to pack our summer clothes, sun hats, and sunblock. My sisters and I met at JFK Airport for our flight to Cairo via Istanbul, Turkey, to join our tour group as scheduled.

In many ways, our trip went exactly as promised. We were led by Amr El Sharkawy, the Egyptologist assigned to shepherd our group of 12 through the best-known attractions of Egypt. For two weeks, he intrigued us with historical facts and theories, from the pyramids of the Old Kingdom to the mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, a mere 181 years old. We traveled north to the port city of Alexandria and south to the temples of Abu Simbel, along Lake Nasser in Nubia. We saw most of the ancient locations advertised for our tour as scheduled.

But in other ways, it was not at all the tour we expected. We discussed politics with our traveling staff and fellow travelers. Our travel steward, Mohammed, shared his views on the difference between the Egyptian and Libyan peoples and expressed some pride in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's agreement to step down, in contrast to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's refusal. Amr pointed out the "get out the vote" banners hanging from balconies in Alexandria, and our bus driver gave us little Egyptian flags on the day when the Egyptians voted to amend their constitution. When we left the hotel for dinner, we walked around army tanks positioned in front of police stations.

The tourist business, which usually accounts for 12 percent of the country's employment, had taken a big hit. We were the only tourists at the Karnak temple complex in Luxor at sunrise. At the Valley of the Kings, there was no wait at King Tut's tomb and only a few fellow tourists. Viewing almost-deserted tombs and temples was a wonder to us, but clearly a disaster for the many vendors whose incomes rely on the items they sell to tourists. With the number of vendors sometimes exceeding the number of tourists, we often felt besieged as we entered and exited our bus. The shopkeeper who mistakenly called out "free hassle" was spot-on.

Despite that, we found many of the Egyptians to be optimistic and hopeful about their future. When our steward said he was excited by the changes, I assured him the whole world was excited for Egypt. Since my return, I have anxiously watched the news for stories of Egypt's progress. It's clear it has a rough road ahead, and I can only hope for the best for this country and all the people who made my trip to the last remaining wonder of the ancient world so enjoyable.

Inshallah - God willing.

Aimee Johnson lives in Springfield, Delaware County.

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