How My Egyptian Childhood Memories Inspired My Love of Travel
Written by Jaillan Yehia
This is the most personal post I have ever written. It’s about how Egypt was the original inspiration for my love of travel.
That’s because Egypt is in my blood but also as the first foreign destination I can ever remember journeying to, it’s ingrained in my memories.
As a child I can remember drinking Coca-Cola from small glass bottles sold from crates by the side of the crazy Cairo roads, and it being so hot that you’d barely make it one block down the dusty street before you were thirsty and ready for another.
I can almost taste the food cooked with ghee, and the desserts made in my grandma’s kitchen: almond basbousa oozing with honey, and hot and steaming piles of buttery sweet sharia, full of soft vermicelli and juicy sultanas.
My grandma lived in a beautiful old villa in Alexandria. Seen through young eyes it seemed a sprawling great maze of corridors and dark rooms but if I could see it now it would probably be laughably small. It’s funny how your memory plays tricks on you. She had a permanently disorientated cockerel in the backyard who crowed all night but never in the mornings. Who knows why she kept it, maybe she was too soft-hearted to get rid of it; Egyptians are a sentimental bunch. Then again it was probably too old for the pot – they are a practical people too.
Back in Cairo the bazaar of Khan el-Khalili called out to me; and even at that tender age the endless shopping possibilities stirred up unbearable excitement as I became lost deep in its bustling lanes, the smell of leather goods all around and the twinkle of metal lamps winking at me.
I marvelled at mummies in the Egyptian National Museum, buying a copy of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile just for its beautiful cover and wore brightly coloured silk galabiyas, which would then stick to your chair in the heat.
Respite was to be found in huge air-conditioned indoor shopping malls which remarkably closed for siesta in the middle of the day, but remained tantalisingly open well into the night. And those nights – always more alive than the languorous and sleepy days, with all energy conserved for balmy evenings spent buying gold trinkets from souks and eating ice cream cones while walking and people watching.
And the people watched me back – at a local fairground where Arabic music floated on the air, I was a key attraction as a rare blue-eyed child in a country where most windows to the soul are brown.
I may not have looked very Egyptian but my skin thought it was; before years of European winters taught it otherwise I tanned in mere moments and could read books all day by the beach at Hurghada sitting on a swing, back to the midday sun with no thought of lotion. And at night the warmth of the Red Sea and the bright moon conspired to invite me to take midnight swims, undercurrents be damned.
In those days the Egyptian pound was so weak that instead of being given small change in shops you’d be handed an assortment of penny sweets, which for a child was like something out of a dream.
But for nightmares I turned to the pyramids, I remember more than anything the day I went inside to be shown the tomb where one pharaoh, feeling that his time had come, had simply lay down and waited to die. That sort of spooky story stays with a child for life.
Yet in my life, since then that day, I’ve never been back to Egypt. My childhood love of travel may have been inspired by Egypt but I have never experienced the country as an adult.
At home in London I seek out all things Egyptian, from belly dancing classes to piles of baklava (the first of these is not assisted much by the second), from performances of Aida to plates of koshary – but it’s not the real thing. So that’s the big reason why I want to go back – to see it all through grown up eyes, and maybe soon I will get the chance!
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