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The UCSD Guardian

The Student News Site of University of California - San Diego

The UCSD Guardian

The Student News Site of University of California - San Diego

The UCSD Guardian

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    One Last Trek Despite Discouraging Warnings

    Overlooking the city from the hillside, a Hollywood-style sign in Minya welcomes tourists to the traditionally conservative city’s more urban atmosphere. (photo courtesy of David Harvey)

    Standing in the spotless entryway of my friend’s apartment,
    I stared down at the crisp lights reflecting off the gleaming white tiles. My
    feet were covered in black grime. I had removed my shoes but was terrified
    about leaving tracks. I was itching furiously because of the wicked sunburn
    across my neck and forearms; countless mosquito bites and the strange rash on
    my upper arm added to my discomfort. I could smell, ever so faintly, the soft
    odor of pine-scented cleaning solution over the pungent funk I had accumulated
    over the last three days. The thought crossed my mind, if only for a second,
    that my latest Egyptian adventure had not been worth quite so much trouble.

    It had begun as most of our trips do. I was headed out the
    door, and my roommate Wesley Horne shouted out something like, “What about
    middle Egypt,
    maybe Minya?”

    “Yeah,” I shouted back. “That’s where all the terrorists
    grew up.”

    Minya, as I had learned over the year, was once a thriving
    tourist stop between upper and lower Egypt. Those taking the longer, overland
    route to Luxor and Aswan
    in the south would often stop in Minya because of its beautiful riverside
    cornice, friendly environment, bustling markets and few remaining ancient
    Egyptian monuments. Through the late 1970s and into the 1990s, violent Islamism
    was frequently linked to students of Minya
    , and the town gained a
    reputation for breeding terrorism. These days, according to several sources,
    tourists need constant security supervision. Our trip would be postponed a few
    weeks, until the end of the semester.

    Horne and I had moved out of our apartment shortly before
    school finished and took up residence in a nearby hostel. During the move into
    the hostel, my cab driver tried to take me to the pyramids despite my
    insistence — in Arabic — that I knew where I wanted to go. The presence of
    backpacks automatically signified to the driver that I needed someone to think for
    me, apparently. It took a bit of arguing — in Arabic — to return downtown. Over
    the next few days I got used to the cab drivers assaulting me outside of the
    hostel with offers to take me to the pyramids and the sphinx. If I didn’t know
    any better I would think that this was all Cairo
    had to offer.

    After a few days of being treated like we had just arrived
    in the city, we were both finished with school. On May 29, just before 4 p.m., Horne, Kevin Staight and I met for the
    second time this semester at the Ramses Train Station downtown. The last time
    we had been trying to reach Gaza
    and found ourselves detained by military police in Ismailia,
    75 miles north of Cairo, after
    first being delayed by a train conductor strike. This time we would be heading
    153 miles south along the Nile River
    to Minya.

    Just as it had been during our trip to Gaza,
    we arrived at the station with minutes to spare before the train departed. Now,
    at the end of the semester and after various adventures, we weren’t phased by
    the lack of seats. Staight and Horne, true to form, quickly turned two empty
    baggage racks between cars into makeshift beds. I took a spot on the floor with
    other seatless passengers, some in tan slacks and collared shirts, some in
    flowing gray galabeyas. Forty minutes later, with the train still at the
    platform, Kevin quipped, “Is there another strike?” Minutes later we departed.

    We were expecting a heavy security presence in the city, and
    the numerous uniformed army soldiers on the train confirmed our expectation.
    They were all young and wearing gray dress uniforms with metals and ribbons on
    their lapels. We arrived sometime after 9 p.m.,
    and two of the young men walked with us, chatting in English. They asked where
    we were from and why we would come to Minya. As we passed the tourist police I
    was certain we would get out without a real escort. Instead, we were stopped at
    the door and asked to have a seat in the tourist information office.

    As Horne chatted with the tourist police officer, who was
    trying to push tours and offering to find us a taxi and escort us around Minya,
    Staight and I played with a light-up map
    of the area on the wall. We flipped switches meant to turn on lights and
    highlight sights. The board had clearly been inoperable for decades. The
    officer escorted us down the street to a cheap hotel where we managed to get a
    room for about $10 a night.

    Wandering the path along the cornice, the Nile River provides travelers with a scenic route to Minya in spite of officers’ efforts to escort tourists. (Photos Courtesy of David Harvey)

    The hotel, much like the tourist office, had fallen into
    disrepair. A fountain in the back courtyard was dry and collapsing. The walls
    were filthy and its blue paint was chipped. The hotel was quiet and seemed to
    me as though it was unused. We dropped our stuff in a room on the third floor
    and headed out.

    At the door, the security pressed us on our schedule and we
    repeatedly explained that we only wanted to wander and to see the town. After
    some debate we were able to sign a sheet of paper stating in Arabic that we
    declined security, and felt safe to wander Minya.

    We were expecting a conservative town, much like the Islamic
    quarters of Cairo, but the crowds
    in the streets reminded us more of a university town in the more liberal Luxor.
    At one point, Horne jokingly compared it to Beirut,
    , where nightclubs
    and Westernized dress are in high demand.

    That night at the bar, we discussed the likelihood that
    conservative movements would spring from liberal areas and that our
    expectations of Egypt
    had been consistently shattered since arrival. On our way out, Horne was pulled
    into a hushed conversation with a fellow patron who offered him antiquities if
    he returned at 11 a.m.

    We hardly slept. The room was stiflingly hot and despite a
    full can of bug spray I was eaten alive. Buzzing and itching kept me awake. The
    air conditioner spewed heat. The camel blanket on the bed scratched but
    provided my only layer of protection from the growing bug population.

    The next morning we headed downstairs and were greeted by
    six tourist police in dull, milky-brown uniforms. They were intent on knowing
    our plans. After some debate we managed to sign another waiver, this time in
    English, saying we wished to wander Minya alone and felt safe. We grabbed food
    and headed back to the bar to meet with the black-market antiquities dealer.
    However, our curiosity about the dark, hushed corners of ancient Egyptian
    historical preservation remained only curiosities. He never showed.

    We wandered Minya for most of the day, up onto the hillside
    and through the desert. We walked along the cornice, which stretched five
    kilometers along a lush and wide Nile
    . We wandered through a market
    where we shared tea with some of the locals.

    Around 4 p.m., we
    headed to the train station and started our journey back north. We would have
    two more stops, full of bugs, heat and without showers. In Al Fayoum, just
    southwest of Cairo, we weren’t able
    to shake the police escorts and our trip ended with a damper. Nevertheless, at
    each stop we discovered more of Egypt
    and crumbled predetermined images of where we visited.

    As I arrived at my friend’s apartment where I had left my
    belongings three days earlier, I felt like a wreck. Her apartment was spotless
    and I was anything but. I thought, as I entered the room, that perhaps the trip
    wasn’t worth the trouble, the pain or the effort. But just like our February
    trip to Gaza, it was an experience
    I will remember. It shaped how I look at Egypt,
    the country where I spent the last year studying and that still has so much
    left for me to discover.

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