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Egypt: The Pyramids of Giza and the dangers of travelling myopically

A trip to Egypt’s most visited site and a realisation about short-sightedness in travel.

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One  year later and I’m just realising that I never did blog about my stop at one of the most cherished sites in the ancient world.  This is curious given the pyramids were pretty much the only reason I ever wanted to travel to Egypt. Considered the ‘main event’ for many a visitor to the country, the pyramids seem older than time itself. Even the dust feels heavy with history and importance; the grandeur of the structures almost makes you forgive the countless amount of tourists and aggressive vendors about the place.

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When I was growing up, Egypt was often exclusively defined by these pyramids in traditional media, which meant that I, like others perhaps, began to exclusively associate Egypt with the pyramids.  In my mind, that was the only thing “to do” in the country, they were “the point” of going.  So when Liebling initially brought up the idea of travelling there for a little more than a week over Easter last year, I balked: apart from a quick dip around Cairo and a requisite visit to see the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World, what else was there to do with our time?

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I realise now what a silly assessment of the country I had made, for during our 9 days in Egypt we enjoyed so many things besides the pyramids: we took a felucca ride on the Nile, visited the Valley of the Kings, walked around many impressive temples, haggled in thrilling markets, and met intriguing locals as we got lost in bustling city streets. And really, come to think of it, that was just the tip of the iceberg, for we never made it to the Red Sea, or to Mt. Sinai, or to Abu Simbel all the way in the south.

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Why do I tell you all this? Probably because, by the time I finally made it to Giza (on day 8 of 9), it hit me that Egypt is so much more than just the pyramids.  It struck me that my tunnel vision (aka my preoccupation with seeing Egypt’s cultural icon and nothing more) nearly made me miss out the other things the country had to offer. It was only due to Liebling’s insistence that our trip included breaks in Aswan and Luxor.

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One of my favourite writers, Chimamanda Adichie, once did a brilliant TED talk on what she calls “The danger of the single story”, which I will leave you to discover at your own leisure. I won’t go into detail, but at at its heart her speech discusses how the promotion of singular, narrow narratives/images of a country and its people do them an injustice.  In indulging in the single story, she asserts, we erase the diversity and plurality of a place and its inhabitants.

It was with this in mind that I began to think about the dangers of travel myopia:  the short-sightedness us travellers suffer when we align a whole country, city, or region with a single cultural icon and consequently have no interest see(k)ing more.  Sometimes it’s hard to see that there’s more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower, more to France than just Paris.  Years ago, I travelled to  Kenya and Tanzania and found out there was more than spotting the Big Five on safari; three years living in Asia taught me that while the Great Wall should be a priority on your next trip to China, there is a great deal more you can discover within its borders.  (Of course, I recognise a lot hinges on whether your budget and life situation allow for this, but I digress.) See(k)ing more than the stock ‘musts’ of a destination may just surprise you.  I discovered, for example, that Machu Picchu was not the be-all and end-all of my Peru trip: instead, I was fascinated by the sand dunes in the southwestern part of the country, oft passed over by tourists only versed in Peru’s highlights.

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The problem as I see it: when we travel myopically, we only take part in the ‘single story’ of a place.We unwittingly reject the myriad facets of a people and culture; we miss out on seeing other things — having other experiences — that could have made the trip even better. When we travel myopically, we don’t do a destination justice and limit ourselves in the process.

Egypt presented a lesson to be learned and one that I’ve heeded since.

My message to you, then? Go see Giza.  Take a wide angle lens with you if possible so you can capture the immensity of the pyramids and the full breadth of the mighty Sphinx.  Then, if time and money allow, go see all the other sights I listed above and more.  You may find them more fulfilling and interesting than the very thing that brought you to Egypt in the first place.

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Have you ever reduced a destination to a cultural icon or single story? 

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21 Comments

  • Reply
    Stefania @The Italian Backpacker
    April 25, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Very good post on the dangers of reducing a destination to one single thing! I’ve heard this when I visited Munich a few days ago: locals are annoyed that too many tourists only consider it for the Oktoberfest, when in reality it has so much more to offer!

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is also one of my favourite writers, and I love that TED talk, so inspiring! As a matter of fact, I am reading her last book “Americanah” right now and I’m enjoying it very much.

  • Reply
    Katrina
    April 25, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    Well said and great reminder!

  • Reply
    J
    April 26, 2014 at 1:56 am

    I have to admit I had reduced Peru to only Machu Picchu until I realized there was so much more to see in Peru in addition to Machu Picchu. I am currently traveling through South America and Peru is one of the countries I intend to revisit so that I can appreciate more of the country. Great article!

    http://www.goingplaceswithj.com/2014/04/my-routine-in-medellin.html

  • Reply
    Aubrey
    April 26, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Really lovely and thoughtful post. I too sometimes find it hard to separate the picture in my head of a place from the actual reality. The best cure is definitely spending enough time at your destination to see beyond the big draws. Or just giving yourself permission to skip some of those ‘must see’ bits in favor of a day settling into a new city. Fantastic photos as usual, you always get my travel lust going!

  • Reply
    I Say Oui
    April 26, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    I enjoyed that TED talk, thanks for linking!

  • Reply
    adeola
    April 27, 2014 at 3:34 am

    I agree, but then again, the travel industry has to create this myopic view as a way to increase tourism. And once you’ve gone to see that major attraction, you can then spend the rest of the time exploring other parts of the city or country.

  • Reply
    Bianca @itsallbee
    April 27, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Totally agree with you. There is a lot more to Egypt than the Pyramids. Bear in mind that I haven’t seen the pyramids yet as I choose instead to go scuba diving around the Red Sea(Sharm) and see Mt Sinai. I am afraid the pyramids will have to wait a while as I now have a few other countries down South of Africa planned before I do North again.

  • Reply
    Kemkem
    April 28, 2014 at 5:16 am

    Agreed. It’s easy to get caught up in the big touristy thing must do, Paris being a good example. Yeah, the Eiffel Tower is impressive, l was more in love with Giverny and Versailles and absolutely loved Marseilles. Good post.

  • Reply
    Caroline Otieno
    April 28, 2014 at 6:45 am

    Such an inspiring account, it is true..I have reduced some if my experiences visiting a place to a single stereotypical account of that place. This is a powerful reminder: http://africanahgirl.com/

  • Reply
    Victoria
    April 28, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    This is such a thought-provoking post Oneika and I’m sure that at some point I must have been short-sighted myself in one destination or the other but I try my very best to be enormously open-minded and let things take their course and show me their wonders. I would say that short-sighted place was Singapore.
    I tried my best but all I could see were other British people and a country that to me, at that time, didn’t seem Asian at all. Ha! I was young and stupid then and at the beginnings of my my exotic travelling career in the 90’s so didn’t know better. I really ought to have a second look some day…!

    On another note, I have been to Egypt and I was lucky enough to have two weeks in which I took a cruise down the Nile and stared at an ancient civilisation. We also flew around Egypt in order to experience the Red Sea. I’ve been to Egypt three times and loved every moment, I only hope that I can go again in the nearest future. 🙂

  • Reply
    Robin
    April 28, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    I agree with this post, but I will say that for me a lot of times it has to do with how much time I’m able to take off. I like to travel more than once a year and I don’t have the luxury to take several two week vacations. Often I’ll just go and see the highlights – if I love the country then I have no problems planning return trips in the future to take in some of the lesser known sights. Overall I think I tend to have a good balance of hidden treasures and major sites on my trips.

  • Reply
    Blue Marble Times | Egypt: The Pyramids of Giza and the dangers of travelling myopically
    April 29, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    […] oneikathetraveller.com – A trip to Egypt’s most visited site and a realisation about short-sightedness in travel. One year later and I’m just realising that I never did blog about my stop at one of the most cherished sites in the ancient world. This is curious given the pyramids were pretty much the only reason I ever wanted to travel to Egypt. Considered the ‘main event’ for many a visitor to the country, the pyramids seem older than time itself. […]

  • Reply
    Lara
    April 30, 2014 at 9:49 am

    This post is so thought provoking and true…I was so myopic about India till I got there…and I must say even for Egypt the pyramids is all it give…thank you for this post.

  • Reply
    Sarah
    May 6, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    That’s what I love about travel: you go to place thinking you will find what you already knew about it and come back with a head full of new ideas and insights.

  • Reply
    Ryan
    May 9, 2014 at 6:56 am

    I love your prospective looking back on this. So many people think of destinations by the “wonders” or the must do’s but sometimes, you discover the other things were more important puzzle pieces of the journey. For instance, I will be going to Italy for the first time, and since I was a young boy it has been my ultimate dream to visit the Colosseum. And I am still excited. But I notice, until I read this, I was still associating Rome with just that. I’m sure I could wander the ancient streets for hours and discover things that fascinate me more! Thank you for this, great observation!

  • Reply
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace
    May 12, 2014 at 1:10 am

    That is definitely true, the main reason I had wanted to visit Egypt was to see the pyramids and in the 16 days I spent in the country, they ended up being the sight I probably enjoyed the least! I loved Abu Simbel, diving in the red sea in Dahab, 2 nights on a Felucca, Khan El Khalili Bazaar and Egyptian Museum in Cairo and Philae Temple. It’s such a great country with so much more to it than the pyramids.

  • Reply
    Alyssa James
    May 27, 2014 at 9:42 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with this! I think it’s easy to focus on seeing one thing and making sure it gets done, and often you can miss out on the spirit of the place. In my recent travels, I’ve realized that if you’re thinking ‘I’ve got to do this’ then almost everyone else visiting is thinking that too! That’s when you end up with crowds of people, annoying vendors and so on and it’s a turn off – it’s how I felt in Prague. The ‘typical’ places are very rarely my favourite in any given country! To get out of it, I just walk around and get lost – it’s awesome!

  • Reply
    Freedman Travels
    July 2, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    […] travel blogger that I like wrote a post a while back about not reducing a place (whether city, country or region) to just a single […]

  • Reply
    There’s more to see in Nazca than the lines | Freedman Travels
    July 2, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    […] travel blogger that I like wrote a post a while back about not reducing a place (whether city, country or region) to just a single […]

  • Reply
    KMunoz
    August 9, 2017 at 1:59 am

    Great one! This is why it annoys me when people say they’ve “done” a country. No!

  • Reply
    Hamid Mostafa
    August 23, 2017 at 4:06 pm

    Great Post .. Egypt has a lot to offer. I am an Egyptian and I admit that at least half of Egypt is still unknown to me 🙂
    If interested, I teach Arabic on YouTube
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGC3Cc5pISxwr-LZ6mhTFBQ

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