Egypt: Goddesses Wanna Have Fun
by Martha Visser
Standing at the base of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, I watched a lone camel bearing its turbaned rider across the desert. After the cacophonous and chaotic streets of Cairo, the silence of the 5,000-year-old pyramids was awe-inspiring. The mystery and allure of Egypt unfolded before me: past and present, adventure and enchantment.
For 12 days, I and 15 other wayfaring women were transformed into veritable "Queens of the Nile" by Wild Women Adventures, a California-based tour operator promising "insanity with dignity" for gals ready to "go global." Incorporating cultural sightseeing along with women-oriented activities, the tour is a perfect opportunity for fun-loving women who "want to travel independently, but not necessarily alone," as co-owner Martha Lindt puts it.
Our group was eclectic, which added to the camaraderie. Ranging in ages from late 20s to early 50s, we were single, married and divorced women ready for a little adventure, without the hassle of traveling independently.
Our guide, Hani Iskander, was an Egyptologist whose encyclopedic knowledge was only exceeded by his good nature. He proved invaluable to us on many levels, but especially in forestalling any gender misunderstandings in the conservative Egyptian culture.
Barefoot and What?
In Egypt, men and women still follow traditional roles, which sometimes puzzled our group of more liberated Americans. Females traveling unaccompanied by a man are still an anomaly, and though we were forewarned to dress modestly, our Western dress and behavior nonetheless excited some comment.
Our itinerary was geared toward activities of particular interest to women. For example, near Giza, we visited the Ebnati Care Society, a volunteer-run orphanage for girls.
The happy, bright-eyed girls seemed to be off to a strong start in life, and we figured we had just met many of Egypt's future wild women--cabinet ministers, writers, movers and shakers. Entertaining us with a compelling rendition of the song "Bingo," they also sweetly offered a round of hugs, and had a chuckle over our Western clothes and mannerisms.
Later, we dined with Dr. Saneya Saleh, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo and a member of the Supreme Council of Women. Dr. Saleh had recently conducted a survey of Egyptian women and their concerns, and not surprisingly, had found discontent. Though women were becoming more proactive, it was evident that the gender delineations were still strict.
Look Out, Imelda
And then, it was time to shop 'til we dropped. The old market in Cairo is a warren of shops overflowing onto narrow, winding streets. There is much glitter of gold and silver, inlaid boxes and furniture, carpets, bright scarves and clothing. As shopkeepers beckon from their stores, you feel as if you are partaking of an age-old tradition-- that is, if you disregard the fact that all modern shopkeepers are multilingual. I personally was addressed in German, Dutch, Swedish and even Afrikaans!
That's when gals with gusto come in handy. The sale begins with the ceremony of tea-drinking and niceties, but then the real bargaining shifts into gear. Unfortunately for us, the seller usually comes out on top, as was the case with one of the women in our group.
Boasting that she had a "knack" for bargaining, she was proud to have bought ten silk scarves in Cairo for five Egyptian pounds, down from the original ten pounds. "I really do bargain well," she admitted. We agreed. Her elation was deflated later in Aswan, when she saw the same scarves for two pounds.
Is It Housetrained?
Spices and jewelry aren't the only treasured merchandise in Egypt, as we observed one morning at the ancient camel market in Darau. As buyers and sellers clad in traditional robes bargained in the large, sandy lot, other men sat on carpets under lean-tos, drinking tea and smoking the shisha (traditional tobacco/water pipe). Here too, sights and sounds had remained unchanged for thousands of years.
We boarded the Sonesta Sun Goddess, one of many luxury liners that cruise between Aswan and Luxor. Feeling like latter-day Cleopatras, we journeyed up the Nile in the warm sun, a cold drink at hand, watching the Egyptian landscape glide by.
The lush, green date palms of the Nile valley gave way to the yellow sand of the vast desert under an azure sky. One sunset illuminated the Temple of Kom Ombo, perched high atop a hill above a bend in the river.
We stopped at the Temple of Horus, begun in 237 B.C. under the reign of Ptolemy XIII (Cleopatra's father). Over time, the structure became filled with sand and rubble, and the village of Edfu was built, literally, on top of it; a literal example of the layers of history.
Hatshepsut Raises the Roof
Our cruise ended in Luxor and its vast and remarkable temple. I was struck by the 13th-century Mosque of Abu al-Haggag built atop the wall of the 4th-century B.C. Great Court of Ramses II. The mosque is still in use, and the haunting call for prayer rang out as we continued through the temple.
However, not all of the temples were dedicated to men. Goddess power rules at the Temple of Hatshepsut. Definitely our kind of gal: by diligent and rather ruthless efforts, Hatshepsut managed to become queen, and later king, too. Finally, by claiming divine birth, she became the only female pharaoh, and ruled successfully for 20 years.
Her terraced and colonnaded temple is an architectural phenomenon. Security here is tight, and we saw many soldiers and armed tour police around the site and up into the surrounding mountains.
Taking the Plunge
After all of this hot sun, a goddess needs to cool off. I snorkeled, for the first time in my life, at Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea--considered one of the best snorkeling and diving sites in the world. Just ten years ago, this was barren desert; today, it's a thriving resort near the spectacular coral reefs at Ras Mohammed National Park. Beaches, park, water--all were pristine.
I hovered over the coral, amazed by brilliantly colored fish of all sizes. But when I realized that what appeared to be a waving, green plant beneath me was, in fact, a coiled up eel of alarming proportions, I quickly sought out my friends. Another unique stop was at the Monastery of St. Catherine, located in the midst of jagged mountains striped green and red by an ancient volcanic eruption. The dramatic setting was heightened by a rare thunderstorm blowing across the desert sky.
Founded in the 4th century by Byzantine monks, the building sits at the foot of Mt. Sinai where Moses is said to have received the ten commandments. The courtyard contains what is believed to be the "burning bush," and the site draws Christrians, Jews and Muslims alike.
On our way back to Sharm el-Sheikh, we stopped for tea in a Bedouin settlement. The Bedouin's traditional, nomadic lifestyle is coming to an end, and they rely more and more upon tourism for survival. Yet you can still glimpse the women tending goats or camels or a lone man striding across the desert.
It is impossible to regard these ancient scenes and structures without pondering on the century about to begin.
For more information, contact:
South Sinai Travel: 79 Merghany Street, Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt; Tel: 011-20-418 7310; Fax: 011-20-290-9189 or 011-20-418 7396. South Sinai Travel can arrange special travel for women, including visits to Egyptian women's organizations, belly dancing lessons and dinner in an Egyptian home.>
Note: Wild Women Adventures discontinued business in April of 2001.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Women's Tours--Egypt".