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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

There are places that call your name. Though time passes, there’s an eternal yearning or calling, an ancient draw to experience their offerings, culture, adventures and, maybe, ride their camels. Egypt has always been that magical place for me. Not just any part of Egypt, though. I have wanted to ride a camel around the Giza pyramids on the west bank of the Nile in northern Egypt. As a lifelong equestrian, I have ridden many horses for work and pleasure. However, the camel, or the ship of the desert, eluded me. I also wanted to feel connected to an ancient civilization, be awed by it, come to have a sense of how its people saw life, death and rebirth. I wanted to feel the heat of the sun and the grit of the sand, and sway on a camel’s back while gazing between its ears.

In 2011, I almost walked on Egyptian sands, but, with the protests against the Mubarak government, the ship I was on would not dock. In late 2019, I was excited to learn that work would take me to Lebanon the following year. My husband, Jeff, and I again started planning for a visit to Egypt, tacking it onto the work trip. But COVID-19 got in the way. My desire to go to Egypt was not dampened, however. I knew that as soon as the borders reopened, I needed to travel there. I was done waiting. I would not wait for work to take me there. I would stop accepting excuses for why I could not go. Couldn’t afford it, work is too busy, wrong time of year … I was simply going to make it happen.

Like many, I lost loved ones during the pandemic. One outcome for me – and also for many, no doubt – was a reminder that we can’t afford to be complacent; no one knows what’s around the proverbial corner. If I have to ride a camel, the time is now. My body is not going to permit that type of adventure forever. Early this year, Jeff found out that he needed a hip replacement. As we sat in the surgeon’s office in early April, we asked him if Jeff could travel and the surgeon gave us the go-ahead. We booked our trip to Egypt that afternoon for an early May departure. Enough waiting!

When people heard where we were going, they raised an eyebrow and asked, “Is it safe?” As though life is meant to be lived safely! But I am not a foolhardy risk-taker. We consulted our pharmacist about immunization and travel medicines, we had all our COVID vaccines, we bought really good insurance. There were still risks, of course, but I learned something important during those months of lockdown: Life is precious and we need to live it while we can. I am reminded of a quote from artist Edward Stieglitz, “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.”

The camel adventure was planned for our second day in Egypt. Jeff cautiously agreed to try getting on the camel with his sore hip. We knew it would be painful, but he also knew how important it was to me. Jeff, with a well-timed dose of Advil, got himself mounted while my four-legged adventure partner, appropriately named Humphrey, and I eyed each other. I swung my leg over Humphrey’s back and the owner cued him to stand up so we could move toward the location of best photographic advantage. The smile on my face in those photos is unparalleled. Once the photos were done, the grimace on Jeff’s face was also unparalleled. He looked at me and said through gritted teeth, “I need to get off.” The camel boss had to escort Jeff back to the dismounting area, and I was torn between wondering if I needed to go with him, or not.

But the most wonderful thing happened: The camel boss looked at me and asked, “You ride horses?”

I nodded, “Yes.” He threw the rein up to me and said, “It’s just like a horse.”

I was shocked. “Can I go anywhere?”

He nodded and turned his back to take Jeff back.

For the next 25 minutes, I rode with Humphrey on the Giza Plateau. I gazed between his ears at the most spectacular view of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that has survived to the present day. As I made my way back, the camel boss asked if I wanted to go faster. Of course!

He shouted the instructions and, just like a horse, I used my feet to nudge Humphrey on and we went at a pace similar to the trot of a horse. I laughed like a child with joy. I waved at Jeff in the distance while holding the rein in my left hand. In the video he took, it looks like I am having a “Hi-Yo Silver!” moment. But I think Hi Yo Humphrey sounds better.

During my brief time on the plains of the Middle East, I felt its mystery, but also a little magic. Returning home to Canada I continue to feel that magic and mystery, as though it hitched a ride in my heart. Without a doubt, our trip surpassed any hopes and expectations I had. It also affirmed for me that life is about living fully each day, but death is part of life’s package. It cannot be avoided, and the Egyptians embraced that view. They did not fear death but planned for it by living fully. I don’t plan on building a pyramid, but I will “ride my camel” (so to speak) to visit friends more often, volunteer at more community events and enjoy more sunrises and sunsets.

Shelley Goodwin lives in Yarmouth, N.S.