Checking in & Egypt tips (pre-pandemic travel)

Hello! How are you? I truly hope you’re well and staying safe.

I haven’t blogged in a while, and the reason for my extended absence is simple: I like to keep things cheerful and lighthearted here, but because of everything going on in the world of late, I haven’t felt cheerful or lighthearted at all. Instead, I’ve felt angry, frustrated, terrified, and mostly, exhausted. All the racism and violence and this country’s twisted obsession with guns give me a huge headache and endless heartache.

I always turn to books for solace and wisdom, and these are a few I’ve read over the past year of lockdown.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong is brutally honest. It so accurately describes the Asian American experience.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates feels like a gut punch. It’s a powerful and raw letter from a father to his son about race relations, seen through the eyes of a Black person.

I’m totally looking forward to this new release by my friend Paula Yoo–it’s sure to be a gripping, emotional read:

On the brighter side, vaccinations are rolling out in full force and the pandemic is somewhat in control, at least in my area. It’s such a huge relief to know that the older folks in my life are fully vaccinated. My parents, who are very social, have had a difficult time with lockdown and are overjoyed that they can meet their friends at restaurants again.

As for me, I’m not looking forward to some aspects of “returning to normal.” I’ve thoroughly appreciated the quieter life and the freedom from social obligations of the past year. And the ability to work from home has been a tremendous blessing (though I’m not a fan of five video calls in a day!). I agree wholeheartedly with this Washington Post article and feel like I could’ve written every sentence: Meet the Introverts who are Dreading a Return to Normal.

One thing I am totally looking forward to is traveling again. My household has been in strict lockdown mode for over a year now. Apart from daily walks in our neighborhood, we only step out once or twice a week for groceries/supplies  (which is all fine by me because I love being at home). The furthest we’ve travelled is to Orange County to see our parents, so it’ll be nice to venture further afield, perhaps later in the year, closer to late fall/winter (just to be safe).

Egypt was the last international trip we took prior to the pandemic, and I’d already written a draft of the following blog post when things started changing dramatically in the world. It didn’t feel right to post about travel when the world was starting to shut down. But with the world finally opening up again, it feels okay to post the entry below. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Oh, and I’ll have book-related updates later in the year. Things are cooking! Here’s a portion of a signature block of a contract currently in negotiation. Seeing the word “Author” near my name will never get old!!

Now, for a complete change in tone and content…

TIPS FOR VISITING EGYPT AND THE PYRAMIDS (written prior to the pandemic)

[Note : Our trip was in November 2019, before the pandemic, and this post was drafted just months after the journey.]

I’d been dreaming about Egypt for years and we were waiting for the “right time” to go. Folks warned us about the potential dangers (especially social unrest), but we finally just packed our bags and went. Upon returning from the trip, this was the first question people asked: “Was it dangerous?” We didn’t face a single sketchy situation and simply had a fabulous time. But see the “not so joyful parts” below for clarification.

We booked our trip through Kensington Tours, which specializes in private tours and was given a stamp of approval by National Geographic. During most of our journey, it was just me and The Geno, plus the local guide and driver. The only time we were with other tourists was on the Nile cruise, on the lovely (and completely peaceful and uncrowded) Sonesta St. George riverboat. But all land expeditions were private—I was utterly grateful for the peace and ease, especially when we saw busloads of tourists being shuttled in massive groups from place to place.

It was the second time I’d ever gone on a trip organized by a tour company, and boy, Kensington made everything incredibly easy. No headaches re: transits, visas, etc. They chose the best hotels, had our rooms upgraded, put us on a business class domestic flight within Egypt…wow, what a smooth, seamless trip.

If you’re heading to Egypt in the future, here are some tips.

What to wear for the pyramids

Okay, “What do I wear?!” seems like a teenager’s preoccupation, but it’s not. It’s actually pretty critical if you want a smooth trip. I did some online research about “what to wear” because I really dislike the hassle of inappropriate shoes or cumbersome clothes. I like to focus on what I’m seeing rather than how much my feet hurt or how sweaty I am in my outfit. I knew it was going to be blisteringly hot and really dusty.

What I ended up wearing: long linen pants, linen blouse over a tank top, sturdy sneakers with traction, wide-brim hat. I carried water, sunscreen and a handkerchief in my lightweight Longchamp backpack.

My outfit was perfect for visiting the pyramids on a hot day and climbing into the long, uphill tunnel. Definitely wear closed-toe shoes with traction if you plan to climb the interior tunnel of the pyramid.

This linen outfit was perfect for climbing the inside of the pyramid, as well as exploring the grounds on a hot and dusty day. There are no trees, no shade.

I’m utterly grateful we got to see the great pyramids before things started shutting down in the world.

Warning: the tunnel is not for the claustrophobic or faint of heart. It’s long, narrow, cramped, crowded, steep and super-duper hot. Imagine crawling up a straw tilted at a 45-degree angle. There’s no air circulation in there, and hundreds of people climb up and down in a single-file line. You will sweat. You will smell other people’s B.O. Someone else’s (sweaty/stinky) butt will hover just inches from your face for a continuous fifteen to twenty minutes. You will often have to crouch to avoid banging your head, and if you’re like me, you will have moments of panic that someone near the top of the ladder will tumble down, creating a domino effect with you squashed at the bottom of the pile. HOWEVER, if you persevere, you will be rewarded with a better understanding of how the pyramid was built, and you’ll marvel at the herculean efforts of ancient mankind.

With our friendly boat operator when we went on a sunset rafting trip on the Nile (separate from the main cruise). He reminded me of my grandfather, especially with his chain-smoking and gravelly voice!

The Geno inside the pyramid’s tunnel. Some parts are so narrow and shallow, you must crouch to all fours. It was much more crowded than what you see here — The Geno blocks out the people who are on the ladder above him. I was only a few steps below when I took this shot, so you can imagine how steep the incline was…

[A rather depressing tangential thought: Whenever I visit remnants of vanished empires (e.g., Angkor Wat, the pyramids of Egypt, the pre-Colombian structures in South America), a thought surfaces in my mind: it’s all a chasing after the wind. So many people perished building these structures, so many spent their lives fashioning tombs to fill with golden treasures. And for what? So that tomb raiders could plunder and modern tourists could have cool photos for their Instagram feeds. The futility of such human aspirations is stupefying. All a good reminder that life is fleeting and what we build here on earth is only temporary. What I realize again and again is that love is truly what matters most in the world – not objects or collections or jewels or riches. This is a wise quote from the Bible: “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” (But it sure is fun to look at pretty things and take cool photos!!)]

The best parts of the journey

  • I loved visiting all the places I’d read about since childhood – the pyramids, the temples at Luxor and Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens. So mysterious and eerie and beautiful. The royals of ancient Egypt lived lavishly. Did you know that gold was so abundant that it was cheaper than silver? So we saw lots of gold slippers, gold jewels, gold gold gold everywhere. Too. Much. Gold.
  • At times, we were so deep in the desert that scenes from Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars (especially the planet of Tatooine) came to mind. I felt so far away.
  • We had excellent local guides. Our guide Hala was charismatic and added a true flair to Cairo. Along the sites of the Nile, our guide was an Egyptologist who read hieroglyphics, and could translate the ancient writings on the walls. Very cool.
  • The food in Cairo was exceptional. We had delicious Egyptian falafels, shish tawook, fresh bread, amazing lentil soup, perfectly sweet and plump dates, gorgeous baklava.
  • We loved our room at the Marriott Mena House (with an excellent view of the great pyramid) as well as the Four Seasons in Cairo. I highly recommend both hotels.

A room with an amazing view at the Marriott Mena House.

Our guide Hala was fantastic! Such a treat to experience Cairo with her. We still keep in touch. If you visit Egypt with Kensington, ask for Hala.

The not-so-joyful parts of the journey

  • The stark contrast between the riches of ancient Egypt, and the poverty and corruption of modern Egypt can be troubling and heartbreaking to witness. I had a similar feeling when I went to India many years ago. The poor live extremely poorly in these parts of the world. Sometimes, even though I didn’t want to shop, I just bought something to give away my dollars. I usually didn’t negotiate the price at all, even though negotiation is expected. In the wise words of one of our guides, “Don’t haggle with the poor.”
  • There are many, many, many hawkers who push merchandise on you. They’re just trying to make a living. But when you’ve already spent a fistful of cash and you’re exhausted after a day under the blistering sun, the last thing you want is someone waving yet another wooden camel figurine in your face. If you have a good local guide, he or she will politely and firmly decline on your behalf, but sometimes, it all gets very overbearing, especially for someone who values personal space and peace.
  • My heart ached for the animals. So much suffering. I felt so bad for the poor donkeys and horses and camels, who spent all day running in the hot sun with boxes and people piled on their backs. Truly beasts of burden. If I think about these animals too much, I want to cry.
  • It’s undeniable that there are dangers, though we didn’t experience any. Almost everywhere we turned, guards with AK-47s stood at the ready. At Queen Hatshepsut’s temple along the Nile, we were informed it was the site of the Luxor massacre, when almost 100 tourists were gunned down by men dressed as security forces. The open presence of these assault rifles creates a strange aura, like something terrible is about to happen.

Guards with assault rifles were positioned at every tourist site.

I’m very grateful we had an amazing time in Egypt, especially after so many years of waiting for the “right time” to visit. Would we go back? I’m not sure. I’d love to see the Red Sea and visit an oasis or two in the desert. But most likely, Egypt will be a once in a lifetime journey. That’s one reason why we went through Kensington Tours–for a private, perfect journey for what will likely be our first and last time in the land of pharoahs. What a beautiful, troubling and heartbreaking place.

A last glimpse of the Sphinx.

I kept imagining Sherwin’s face on the Sphinx, and our talented friend & neighbor Claude created this hilarious image — merci, Claude, hahaha!

Here’s a short video to give you a sense of the journey, narrated by The Geno:


Bonus tip: If you stop by Rome for a few days on your way to Cairo as we did, eat at Ivo a Trastevere. My friend and fellow author Tracy Barrett told me it had the “world’s best pizza” and she was absolutely correct. Since she’s an Italian professor and has lived in Rome, she definitely knows what she’s talking about. (I think Ivo doesn’t rank too highly on Internet review sites because it’s a noisy/crazy place and the waiters are so busy it can be difficult to flag them down, but their food is outstanding.) I’ve been fortunate to have visited Italy about a dozen times now, and it’s definitely a place I’ll return to again and again.

As for Egypt, perhaps we’ll meet again someday… “Inshallah,” as the Egyptians say — God willing.

Goofballs in the desert.