Thursday, February 23, 2012

Beyond the Wild World’s End

By Edith McClintock

The places I’ve wanted to visit are irretrievably linked to books, and romantic suspense in particular, which I fell in love with in middle school. The old-fashioned romantic suspense of Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels, and one of my favorites in those days, M.M. Kaye. M.M. Kaye is better known for the Far Pavilions, set during the British Raj, but she also wrote a series of light mysteries in sing-song exotic spots around the world – the Andaman Islands, Cyprus, Kenya, Kashmir, Zanzibar. I read them all, and wanted to “…go sailing, far off to Zanzibar.”*

In high school, I discovered Elizabeth Peters. I can still remember reading my first Amelia Peabody mystery while crossing the Everglades in the back of my parents’ car on the way to visit my grandparents. I stayed hooked and fell in love with the Vicky Bliss series too, my favorite of which was Night Train to Memphis. And as all fans of Elizabeth Peters know, Egypt is where her heart resides. And for over twenty years, I dreamed of visiting.

My chance came when I was working in Tbilisi, Georgia, last year. I met a Peace Corps volunteer who was taking a month trip to Israel and Egypt around the same time I was completing my work in Georgia. I didn’t know him and had been planning to travel in Eastern Europe alone, but when I heard the word Egypt over a bonfire late one chilly night, I invited myself along.

Two days before we were to arrive in Tel Aviv, and just a few weeks before my flight left Cairo for New York, crowds of Egyptians began to gather in Tahrir Square. My mother called half a dozen times begging me not to go, while my sister posted Facebook messages telling me there was no way I couldn’t go. Disappointed, but making the best of it, we decided to spend more time in Israel and Jordan, always keeping a watchful eye on the news from Egypt.

We were deep in Jordan, staying in a cave in Wadi Musa, when Mubarak finally abdicated. But by then, I’d already switched my flight home from Cairo to Amman. It wasn’t until the morning I was supposed to fly home that we decided to go on to Egypt. We were only a ferry ride away. How could I not go after dreaming of it for so long?

And so we entered Egypt, on a night ferry from Jordan. I was the only woman onboard, which had its benefits as I was invited to skip the entire line of several hundred boarding men. Only to be greeted at the entry with news that the Egyptians were angry at something President Obama had done earlier in the day. Not the first thing you want to hear when entering a country in turmoil.

I won’t give you all the details of our whirlwind tour of ancient Egypt, but suffice to say I took my night train to and from Cairo. We walked through the Valley of Queens alone. We were applauded in the bazaar with cries of, “Welcome tourists! Welcome!” I saw many of the ancient sites from my favorite books, empty of tourists. All grander and more beautiful than I’d imagined while reading.

But we were also the sole targets of every poor, underpaid, or out-of-work street vendor, shop owner, taxi driver, and kid selling postcards, knickknacks, and horse and camel rides. Even the tourism police demanded their cut of baksheesh. There were many sites I couldn’t visit, including the Winter Palace, where workers were demonstrating, and the village of Gurneh, which had been bulldozed. And there was the poverty of Cairo pressed against the massive, barbed-wire wall surrounding Giza, the canals clogged with debris, the dead horses left to rot amongst the trash.

I spent my last day in Cairo, planning to visit the Egyptian museum. I asked my hotel owner, a French-Egyptian woman, how to find the museum.

She raised an eyebrow in disbelief, no doubt despite having dealt with many clueless tourists in her day. “You have heard of Tahrir Square, yes? What has happened there?” she asked.

I said, “Of course,” although I’d never heard of it until the revolution broke out.

“The Egyptian museum is in Tahrir Square,” she added, pulling out a map.

“Oh,” I answered, feeling incredibly stupid. “Is it okay for me to go?”

She smiled, clasping her heart. “You will be proudly welcomed there with open arms.”

She gave me directions to walk; it was only a few blocks. The demonstrations had ended, although more were planned for the coming Friday. But remnants were still there – the tanks and military. And of course the revolutionary trinket sellers, peddling t-shirts and flags. I spent more time in the square than in the museum, watching the Egyptians taking photos with the tanks and soldiers, a moment of peace and hope.

Egypt didn’t live up to my dream, of course, because nothing could. Although in some ways it was better, certainly more beautiful. But it wasn’t a place carefully contained within a book, or time, or focused on the past. A new history was being made. People had died only days before in Tahrir Square, as would others in days to come, but I was glad I’d taken what on my side was a very small risk to see it at that time in history.

No risk at all in comparison to what the demonstrators had faced. And one day, in my dreams, I’ll go back and sail a dahabeeyah down the Nile, and stop at Amarna, just as Amelia would recommend.

*A song for all of you who dream of far off places, by way of M.M. Kaye, as she mentions it in her book, Death in Zanzibar:

“Stowaway,” by Carolyn Leigh and Jerry Livingston

I’d like to go away – be a stowaway,
take a trip on a ship,
let my worries blow a-way.
There are still many treasure islands
that wait to be explored,
and the wide world
is full of wonders for me.
When a ship’s standing in the harbour,
I wish myself aboard,
and I hide ‘til the rolling tide
carries me to sea.
Then I go sailing far off to Zanzibar,
though my dream places seem
better than they really are,
way down deep in my heart.
I keep them as people will often do,
who are stay-at-home stowaways too.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. I'm very happy for you that you had the chance to visit Egypt, even if, because of the circumstances, it didn't turn out to be what you dreamed of. But then again, from books to reality, it rarely is. And as you said, a new page of history was — and still is — being written, and you got a chance to live it. When a window opens up, we have to seize the chance that is given us. Your testimony convices me to read on... and plan my next trip !

  2. It is sometimes bitter sweet how reality fails to live up to our dreams, interestingly enough you ended up seeing, hopefully, a new Egypt when you had planned to see the old one. At times like this I remind my self of the words of Marcel Proust “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”. Probably one of the reasons that Egypt may fail to live up to what the media's version is the fact that so much of ancient Egypt is scattered around in foreign museums.

  3. Really good points, Geets! Wish I could go back and incorporate them into the blog. I remember thinking about the Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian collection when walking through the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. All those gorgeous sarcophagi and whole pyramids sitting in New York.

  4. Great story Edith, and lots of courage. The proof of it was all those empty sites. However, I am glad you had a chance to experience Egypt, even though it was and still is under so much turmoil. I see your are part of the contributors to this site, congrats! all the Best! Pati A.

  5. Edith, I think you went to Egypt at a very interesting time. You had the chance to see ancient history and history in the making all at the same time.

  6. Ooh, I love that Marcel Proust quote, Geets! And Edith, I'll be pumping for you for research info as I continue my current WIP on pre-Arab Spring Cairo. Bittersweet chapter but perhaps necessary. I remember seeing some of your photos and musings on Facebook and thinking what an amazing time you happened to be there, empty streets or not.