My Egyptian guide looks at me tapping away at my phone, frantically sending messages back to England which prove not only that I have not yet died, but that I’m healthy, happy and safe.
Photos travel by email, Snapchat and various forms of instant messenger. Hopefully their recipient looks, sees a picture of something I’m clearly fascinated with, or a picture of my beaming face drinking yet another cup of hibiscus tea, and feels reassured that I am, truly, still alive.
I grin back at my guide. He approves of me having regular communication with the folks back home. He thinks I’m too reckless.
This practice of reassurance lacks certainty, but in the circumstances it’s the best I’ve got to offer. I can’t promise that terrorists won’t attack my hotel, that nobody’s going to hurt me, steal my sketchbook from my handbag or start a violent political protest beside me, but I can do my best to keep the up-dates flowing. Even if it’s out of character for me.
It’s all worth it, because I love Egypt.
Although I’m not entirely sure why.
How I ended up in Egypt
In the summer of 2011 I went out of my comfort zone in a manner I wasn’t aware was possible, and for the weeks following my inhibitions took a backseat. It was a first taste of freedom. In the months prior I hadn’t really been excelling at being happy. Too many things were unknown or falling apart. But the taste of achieving the impossible gave me a zap of energy.
I met a young Egyptian man who told me some interesting facts about his country. Interesting facts, like it had once been part of the British Empire. My ignorance astounded him. The conversation began a whole series of Skype calls between us. Typically, each includes my friend being astounded by my lack of awareness of his world. He sends me books and links and tries not to despair.
That summer, I knew I’d fallen into a rut. I knew this needed to change how I was thinking about the world. I needed something to sink my teeth into and Egypt piqued my curiosity. My university offered a series of evening classes, so I spent all of three hours thinking about it before picking the first on the list – Ancient Egypt.
What followed was a crazy obsession.
Books and seminars weren’t enough.
Yet, going to Egypt isn’t something that I could just do. Firstly, everything I knew about it was at least 2000 years out of date. Secondly, traveling anywhere new is scary, and the more different it is, and the further away, the scarier it becomes. Third, just a few security concerns. Planes dropping out of the sky, people being stabbed or shot. Things that you really don’t want to happen to you.
The courage to just go for it
Not unexpectedly, nobody showed any interest in accompanying me. My Egyptian friend invited me to visit, but still, the idea of going terrified me. I put it off. I went to Eastern Europe with my sister. I went to Italy and Iceland. I visited Ireland and counted the days of my holiday allowance, recounted and then counted them again.
And then my Egyptian friend asked again. Did I want to visit? Did I want to see what life was like in a real Egyptian household. Did I want to see his country? Did I want to spend time getting to know him better?
Saying yes was a significant step in this current bout of change I’m inflicting on my life (and everyone in it). Before I quit my job, I’d already decided I was going. I didn’t want to live in one little house repeating the same journey every morning. I want to see the world. I wanted Egypt through an Egyptian’s eyes.
I’d been reading about it for four and a half years.
And so I did it.
I kept expecting to reach a point where I was too afraid. Where I didn’t have the courage. I know what this feeling is like. I know the paralysis, the procrastination, the physical distress of not being able to do something because you’re too afraid. I could almost touch it, I dipped my toe in it, but it always it stayed a step ahead.
But like physically pushing yourself, running, cycling or whatever and breaking though the mental barrier that keeps you from going faster and further, once I’d got past the decision to go, I found I had a power I hadn’t known existed.
The hardest step was booking the flight.
Photo: Luxor Temple. The scene from a Sed festival – a celebration held after thirty year’s of a pharaoh’s reign to rejuvenate his (or her) strength to continue ruling. The king really is shown running and the three marks behind his bum represent the boundary stones that he was expected to run between.