Who: Alison Thoet (the author); her parents, Bill and Liz Thoet; and her sister, Emily Thoet, all of Loudoun County, Va.
Where, when, why: I’ve always been fascinated by Egypt — I grew up watching Egyptologist Zahi Hawass on PBS, read all about Tutankhamen and watched the movie “The Mummy” too many times to count. So, when I graduated high school in 2011, my father and I planned to visit Egypt. But the revolution erupted in January and thus made any potential visits inadvisable. So, six years later, our family tried again, and embarked on the trip of a lifetime to a slowly healing country. We traveled the country for two weeks, with our vacation starting and ending in the nation’s capital, Cairo.
Highlights and high points: The pyramids were a dream to behold. A textbook couldn’t compare to seeing — and standing underneath — the Ancient Wonder (the Great Pyramid) in person. Every site and monument in Egypt was beyond what I could have imagined, and the majesty of the three giant pyramids and the sphinx was truly incredible.
Cultural connection or disconnect: What I found to be the most memorable in Egypt was not the great pyramid or another ancient monument, but rather the people. Everyone I came across was kind and welcoming . We had three guides over the trip and an incredibly patient driver. Each one of them showed us a different side of Egypt and a glimpse into the country’s history. And although they started as guides, they wound up becoming our friends.
Biggest laugh or cry: The day we saw the pyramids of Giza, my father, sister and I met a man who offered to take us on a ride through the desert on Arabian horses. The horses were a little less majestic than your typical Arabian, but that didn’t matter because soon we were galloping and racing through the desert with the pyramids at our backs. I am a horseback rider and my father has ridden in the past, but this was my sister’s first time on a horse since childhood. She had a blast, I could tell, but when she dismounted her hands were bleeding and blistering. The next day, she could hardly move her left arm from holding onto the saddle so tightly.
How unexpected: The oddest thing about being in Egypt was the feeling I had that I was a complete outsider. My family and I like to be enveloped in the culture of a place we visit; we rarely take tours, instead opting for a rental car and map to find our own way around. This was not possible in Egypt, so we always had a guide and we always stood out. We looked unlike anyone else and because of that we were stared at a lot. It was not menacing or uncomfortable, just odd.
But never were we looked at more than when we rode the subway. There were usually other tourists where we were, but on the subway we were the sole four non-Egyptian people and we were very much aware of it. Our guide gave us the same advice a New Yorker would for taking the subway there. (Be careful; hold your purse.) But we were not prepared for the stares or separate cars for men and women, for the women’s safety. This was wholly different from anything I had previously encountered. I will never forget entering the women’s car while seeing the doors envelop my father a few cars down in a separate men’s car.
Fondest memento or memory: I must admit, I returned from Egypt with a much heavier suitcase than when I left. I bought scented oils, a painting on papyrus and Egyptian cotton scarves. My favorite purchase, however, is my cartouche necklace. I splurged and bought one, as most tourists do — it has my name spelled out in hieroglyphics.
The ironic part is that I found my name, or close to it, in a cartouche on the wall of a temple. There was a queen with the name “A-L-S-N,” my name without most of the vowels! So, in a way, my personal cartouche links me to someone in ancient history, and that is a pretty great souvenir.
Originally published in The Washington Post