They started planning for their holiday in Egypt in October. But it would be a clear morning in April when the ten women set out from O’Hare for what seemed like the far side of the moon. No men, no kids, just each other and a place they could peel away masks and duties and just have fun. Egypt, with its chaotic traffic, crowded bazaars and exciting historical meanderings, would prove to be the perfect getaway.
The travel consultant arranged a holiday in Egypt itinerary that concentrated on Cairo and Luxor for the seven days the women could commit to the trip. The costs seemed to work for all the budgets without sacrificing experiences or hotel amenities. Hotels in Egypt meant nights at Le Meridian Pyramids in Cairo that would allow them to wake up each morning to views of the great Pyramid of Giza right outside their windows. In Luxor the hotel choices in Egypt meant the group would retreat to Maritim Jolie Ville each afternoon – just a 10-minute ride from city center by free shuttle bus. The property of comfortable mid-priced bungalows spreads through a 24-acre plantation of palms with plenty of terraces and view spots over the banks of the Nile for timeless sunsets with a gentle glass of wine.
The women: two attorneys, one charity fundraiser, a social worker, a real estate consultant, a travel agent, and four stay-at-home moms, all in mid life, shared a sense of adventure and curiosity. Through their holiday in Egypt they set out to discover some parts of the world they had yet to experience and might not see otherwise.
“This Egypt vacation was not supposed to be a house by the lake or camping with the grand kids. It wasn’t a vacation my husband wanted to take and it was a place that always fascinated me. I knew most of the women I would be going with and felt comfortable with them. We have a great dynamic. It’s a different kind of trip. You don’t have to worry about anyone else and you can just have fun,” said Julia Wade, a nonprofit fundraiser.
About half of the women had been friends for years and when they went to China together the year before they ended up bonding with several of the other women in their tour group. They knew that, in this group of good company, they were bound to have fun, no matter what came their way.
“We had done our research for holidays to Egypt in October. We are not novices at traveling but these were places that take some planning and they are not places we might travel with our husbands and families,” said Jane Grimm, an attorney from Hinsdale, IL. “I think a holiday in Egypt is especially adventurous though. Few of us had had much exposure to Islamic culture. It wasn’t high on my husband’s list and I really wanted to go. This was a group of women I knew I could have fun with and laugh with and I knew we would all behave on this trip – because we would be seeing each other again!”
The holiday in Egypt was packed with purpose and the women wanted it that way.
“Our guides were wonderful,” said Wade. “If we wanted to change something about our trip to Egypt at the last minute, that was fine, but more often it was about packing things into the schedule, not changing them.”
One of those added segues was stuffed into a crowded day of touring Luxor.
Just minutes away from the Valley of the Queens, at the suggestion of their guide, the group encountered a little known village called Deir el-Medina where the people who worked on the tombs lived – and died. It’s an open attraction for visitors but is rarely visited. The women were able to walk around the excavated houses of the workers and see the dwellings in which the villagers lived. On the walls of the tombs there remained exquisite reliefs and paintings in a palette of colors preserving in great detail the daily lives of the common man, rather than the drama of their deities and rulers. It was there the women learned of the lives of these people, which were richly rewarded with grains and supplies for their service to the nobles and royalty. Tomb workers could not leave the valley and were often buried alive in the tombs of their kings and queens. Those who died before their rulers were buried in decorated tombs of their own.
There were other surprising moments for the group of women in Luxor, said one of the participants, Cathi Parks, a mom with a taste for adventure. Sailing up the Nile in a felucca–a traditional wooden sailing vessel — was one of these amazing moments for her.
“The wind died so we weren’t moving very fast, but we really didn’t mind because it was a national holiday and all the people in the city seemed to be enjoying themselves on the banks of the Nile as we slowly drifted past. They were swimming in the waters and having picnics with their families and we felt a part of all that,” said Parks.
There were plenty of highlights in Luxor: the sound and light show at the Temples of Karnak–a dramatic encapsulation of the 1,300-year history embedded in the pylons and complex monuments that lace through the area; the awe of wandering through the tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens.
“Those tombs were beautiful, especially the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut,” (a woman who dared to challenge the traditions of male authority and died mysteriously for it). “But nothing could prepare us for the Valley of the Workers,” said Grimm.
And then there were some light-hearted thrills on this Egypt holiday, such as walking into a teahouse as a formidable group of ten women and ordering up some hookah pipes for a session of “hubbly bubbly” with apple-flavored tobacco.
“We had so much fun! I had never experienced anything like this before. We just laughed and laughed and took a bunch of photos,” added Wade.
In Cairo, other unexpected only-in-Egypt adventures awaited. Oh, there were the camel rides and photos at the pyramids and the must-do experience of crawling up the shaft to the grand gallery in the pyramid at Giza to find the eroded sarcophagus of the Pharaoh Cheops, (2520-2494 B.C.) who built the pyramids at Giza and the Great Sphinx. (The mummies and treasures have long since succumbed to the hands of tomb raiders and archaeologists).
And there were the Egyptian Museum tours, the mosque tours and visits to ancient bazaars that seem to pop right out of the set of Casablanca. There were trips to jewelry factories where cartouches are made, papyrus factories where delicate hieroglyphic paintings are created, and rug factories where deals are done—in fact, after glasses of mint tea, rounds of thick, sweet Turkish coffee and lingering charmed conversation the group dropped some $50,000 in combined sales for intricate cotton and wool hand-woven carpets on this whirlwind vacation in Egypt.
But it was the dinner at the house of their guide, Mahmoud, that made the biggest memory for this group. In true Egyptian hospitality, the guide’s mother and sisters produced a feast for the women one night. Dish after dish, one oeuvre after another, magically appeared from a kitchen the size of a sailboat galley.
“They lived in a typical Cairo high rise building – the whole family in a small apartment. Boys cannot get married until they can afford to buy their own apartment so Mahmoud was 30 but still living with his parents and sisters. Because we were all women, the sisters were able to relax and not wear the veil with us. They were dressed in jeans and cute tight shirts just like other young girls. They were college educated and spoke English so it was really an enlightening time for us. We learned how much they loved their country and religion and that wearing the veil is a choice. How much or how little you veil there is really a personal decision,” said Grimm.
Women’s rights in Islam and the evolution of women’s rights in Egypt were ongoing discussions throughout the trip and something the women in this group were able to see and appreciate for themselves. The adventure took place before the Arab Spring so much of the political backwash that makes travel to Egypt and last minute deals to Egypt so complex were not part of the planning fabric.
“I had recently read the autobiography of Jehan Sadat (the widow of Anwar Sadat and a strong promoter of women’s rights during her time as first lady) and it really came alive for me being in Egypt,” said Wade. “We came away with a much greater understanding for Islam. And we ate pretty well, too.”
“I think the group is becoming as important a factor in this Egypt travel experience as the places we visited,” said Grimm. “We know we are going to have a very good time no matter where we go.”
This article originally appeared in Ensemble Lifestyles before Arab Spring and current political climate.