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