About a year ago, my husband signed on to a team whose mission was to improve the STEM skills (Science Technology, Engineering, and Math) of high school students in Egypt. When the project required visiting a Cairo public school, I agreed to join him when the meetings had concluded. Travel to that part of the world both excited and terrified me. The U.S. Embassy travel-advisory notices were brutally honest and had warned of a "heightened risk of violence" in Cairo due to the anniversary of Egypt's 2011 Revolution, which was the time frame of our trip.

Cairo is both awe-inspiring and disgusting. Piles of trash and rubble are strewn along the roadside. Many of the buildings are burned out or unfinished, with metal rods protruding from concrete support columns, the lower floors unbelievably looking occupied with clothes lines strung along the exterior. Traffic is crazy, congested with buses, packed vans and cars, a truck filled with chickens, or a cart of oranges being pulled by a horse.

However, it was the view of the Nile that took my breath away: a massive body of water in the middle of chaos that was strangely tranquil and hypnotic. From the moment it came into view, it was impossible not to stare.

The drop in American tourism since the revolution has been dramatic. Egypt is 85 percent Muslim and finds itself now at the center of the battle with terror. The eerie, echoing call to prayer begins at 5 a.m. and is a stark reminder to tourists of the religious presence. It's a country of sights and sounds unlike anything I had ever experienced.

The Sakkara and Giza Pyramids/Sphinx were our first stop; the enormous human effort and struggle expended to build these massive structures stopped me in my tracks. The desert sun was unrelenting, but it was nothing compared with the hustle exhibited by Egyptian men dressed in their traditional turban and galabeya (long shirt), looking to be compensated for the ultimate tourist photo or camel ride.

We left the madness of Cairo for a relaxing three-day Nile cruise, where we were able to explore the Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, Philae Temple, Three Tombs of King Tut, the Valley of the Queens, and Edfu Temple. You may be thinking, "Seen one temple, seen them all," but you would be wrong. Each destination was a gem, revealing something very telling about life and circumstances of the king/queen and supporting staff. We saw engraved figures that paid tribute, demonstrated daily life, and told stories of bravery. The carvings were a marvel in their anatomical detail and color palette. The size of the columns and temple walls were so enormous that no picture could capture them.

Reflecting on the journey, it was a trip like none that I had ever experienced - a civilization thousands of years old struggling to speak to a modern world.

Anna Maria DiDio writes from Jenkintown.
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