Some places take hold of your imagination and capture you from afar, conjuring curiosity and wonderment over oceans and continents. Since school days, Egypt has been that magical place for me.
It was the pyramids that initially seized my imagination. I had so many questions about them. Who built the pyramids? Why did they build them? Was it true that the pyramids were built by aliens?
As the ninth of 13 children, we did not have much. It seemed impossible that I would ever have the resources to see Tutankhamen’s treasures, the mighty Nile River and the Great Pyramid of Giza. But I made it happen, by studying travel and tourism and eventually working for Princess Cruises, where I have been fortunate enough to take some life-altering journeys.
My very first cruise was to the Amazon in 1989. Joining me on that trip and the 21 cruises that have followed, has been my mom, Hermelinda. Now 82, she has called our yearly cruises the education she never got. My mom grew up poor and was never formally educated; she never dreamed she would get to experience the wonders of the world first hand, and gain an extensive education in history, seeing the actual places where great events occurred. I have had such pleasure sharing that process with someone I love, and I treasure the opportunity to travel with her.
By the time we went to Egypt in 2008, mom and I were seasoned travel pros. We’d been to each of the seven continents, including Antarctica. I’ve found she is up for anything. No itinerary is too much for her. When the opportunity to take a Mediterranean/Aegean cruise came about, with Egypt a centerpiece of the itinerary, I rushed to book it. Egypt was special as we were both fascinated by that part of the world. The sophisticated ancient culture suggested by the pyramids and their magnificent contents drove our desire to go there.
Our cruise started in Rome but I couldn’t wait until we arrived in Alexandria, where we would board a motor coach and head to Cairo for two days of exploring some of Egypt’s most important sites.
Our first day in Cairo was highlighted by a trip to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. This is where King Tut’s most valued possessions, those he hoped to take with him to the afterlife, are kept. I had read about the boy king since childhood and remember my excitement when the riches from his tomb were displayed in the United States.
While I couldn’t see Tut’s treasures during any of the U.S. tours, seeing them in Egypt more than made up for it. Once at the museum, we headed straight for the Tutankhamen area.
I was curious to see the sarcophagus and detailed gold mask that rested over his bandaged head and shoulders. The gold mask, made of almost 25 pounds of pure gold, is unbelievable to see. It’s said that it was made in his likeness. The red quartzite sarcophagus is equally splendid, as is the solid gold inner coffin that actually contained his mummified remains. The everyday items, inlaid chests, statuary, gem-studded swords and carvings that were deemed essential for the afterlife were fascinating to see.
There is so much more to see in this museum, and we took time to admire some displays of beautiful, precious jewelry, stone carvings and hieroglyphic writings. I’m quite fascinated by hieroglyphics and got a cartouche of my name using those symbols at a jewelry shop in Cairo.
Meanwhile, my mom continued her usual travel shopping—she always buys something for every member of our (very large) family, filling up an extra suitcase every time. And, as we both collected memories, my mom also collected a few rocks. She picks up stones from every destination, and has built a three-foot wall in her garden, surrounding a Virgin Mary statue with the rocks she has brought home from around the world.
The next day, we got up early for a breakfast cruise on the Nile. I could sense an energy there that was like nothing I’d felt before. There is something mystical about this land. On board the boat, I let my mind wander momentarily, wondering what Cleopatra saw as she sailed along the Nile.
I was getting more and more excited as next we would tour some of the pyramids, which are what really attracted us to the destination.
First we visited Sakkara, an ancient burial ground that was the necropolis for the citizens of the ancient city of Memphis. At Sakkara is the well-known step pyramid of six ascending levels, which was built for the pharaoh Djoser during the 27th century BCE—older than King Tut, who came along in 1341 BCE.
Next stop was Giza, the most incredible destination of all. The tour bus dropped us off at an overlook where you can see the site’s three pyramids and the sphinx in the background. We stood there in awe, admiring that postcard view. It was a hot day, but the walk was short to the pyramids themselves.
At Giza stands the Great Pyramid, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, built for Pharaoh Khufu around 2560 BCE. Standing near the Great Pyramid, I felt this energy in a tangible, tingling way. I had never connected with a place like that before. Something in the way these structures were built feels powerful and dynamic to me.
Next to me, my mom took notes in her little journal. Throughout this trip—any of our journeys for that matter—she takes notes in her journal. She doesn’t write much, just phrases and words that will jog her memory. Her job when she returns home is to report to the grandchildren about what she saw and that is quite a task as she has more than 50!
During those last moments at Giza, before we had to return to the bus and ultimately Star Princess, we drank in the majesty of the pyramids. Of the many pictures I took that day, none do them justice. You really have to be there to experience and feel the energy of this wonder of the ancient world.
In addition to the ancient wonders, I also found myself fascinated by the local culture. We visited during the holy period of Ramadan, so while we were enjoying the local cuisine, our guides were fasting during the day. We saw many people setting up tables outside to serve the evening meal where they would break their fast.
But most of all, when I remember our visit to Egypt—indeed all of our travels—I feel so proud of my mom. I recall how when I asked my mom to go with me on that first cruise to the Amazon in 1989, she worried that the ship might sink. After that experience, I could see the light bulb going off in her head. Travel was wonderful for her, after a hard life raising 13 children, often desperate to make ends meet. Travel has changed her life for the better.
Now, before each trip, typically a few months in advance, I call my mom to tell her what destination I’ve booked. From there, she starts conditioning, walking a little bit more each day, to prepare for the sightseeing ahead. We get excited, and it’s the excitement that keeps her young, I think.
Someday, with the passage of time, our adventures will no doubt be closer to home. But for now, we love exploring the world. In fact, we enjoyed Egypt so much, we had to return on another voyage a few years later—again, just me and my mom.