The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
Saint Augustine
Train to Luxor
Are We There Yet?

It was only through the kindness of a stranger that my husband and I arrived as planned in the city of Luxor located in the Nile Valley south of Cairo, Egypt. Without the assistance of the slight young Egyptian man, who knows where we might have ended up. Since neither of us speaks a word of Arabic, I shudder to think what would have happened if the young man had been absorbed in his own problems and not noticed our confusion.

Before boarding the train to Luxor, we spent a few days in Cairo. We were fortunate enough to have a driver and guide to help us navigate the busy streets, give us a private tour of the Cairo Museum and the pyramids, and recommend restaurants and tourist attractions in or near the city.

When we ventured out without our guide, the hostel’s front desk personnel was kind enough to give us a note for the taxi driver that was written in Arabic and included our destination. They also told us how much the taxi ride would cost and ensured that we had a business card with the hostel’s address in both English and Arabic for our return trip.

Given those conveniences and some signage in both Arabic and English, we felt quite comfortable roaming through Zamelek, a well-to-do residential neighborhood where we stays, and discovering the treasures of Cairo’s busy streets on our own. Little did we realize how much that would change once we left the web of security of our hostel and guide and boarded the public train that would take us on an hours long odyssey from Cairo to Luxor.

Our train stopped in several smaller towns and we continued to see signage in both Arabic and English. We fell into easy chatter about the magnificence of the Great Pyramid, our close encounters with cars as we dodged traffic to get from one side of Cairo’s busy streets to the other, the number and variety of minarets we saw in every town regardless of its size, the farmers toiling in the fields or on their way to the market with wagons loaded with alfalfa or other produce and pulled by tired looking donkeys, and the ladies doing laundry in the river just as they have for thousands of years.

Then we noticed that English was no longer included on signs at the train stops. All signs were Arabic only. I wondered aloud how we would know when we arrived at our stop in Luxor if signage was only in Arabic. As we approached our scheduled arrival time, we decided that we would get off at the next large town. Of course, we had no way of knowing how big Luxor would look from the train station.

At the first stop that coincided with our Luxor arrival time, we decided that probably wasn’t our stop since only about five people got off the train and none of them looked like tourists. The train stopped at a couple of other small towns and we continue to talk about how we would know when we reached Luxor. We even retrieved our luggage from the overhead bin and stood in the isle prepared to get off then at the last minute decided that the stop just didn’t seem big enough to be Luxor. As we stood in the isle blocking other passengers, we were keenly aware that our scheduled arrival time had passed and wondered if perhaps we had missed our stop.

Then a young man touched my husband’s arm to get his attention, pantomimed that we should stay put then rushed off toward the next train car. The train pulled out of the station and we continued standing in isle looking at each other in something akin to either puzzlement or amusement. In three or four minutes the young man returned, pointed to his own watch, said “Luxor”, then pointed to the hour and minute on the watch face that our train would arrive in Luxor. He looked directly at my husband nodding his head to get my husband’s ascent that he understood what time our train would arrive at our destination.

Reassured that my husband understood, the young man de-boarded the train at the next stop and we returned to our seats feeling somewhat more comforted that we would end up at our desired destination. Surely enough, at the time pointed to by the young man, the train pulled into a station that appeared to be busy enough to accommodate the thousands of international tourists who visit Luxor each year.

In my international travels, I’ve encountered other strangers who helped me even though we could not understand each other’s language. In this case, I concluded that although the young man apparently spoke no English, he either understood enough English to grasp our dilemma or simply guessed that two African Americans could only be headed to Luxor instead of any of the other towns along the way.

The tourist attractions and the natural beauty of the destination are the most important factor when I select a place to vacation. However, I’ve found time and time again, that it is the encounters with locals that endear me to the place. In time the images of the tourist attractions begin to dim, but the human encounters stay with me long after the suitcase is unpacked and the pictures are filed away.

Our tour of Luxor began on time and with no hassles thanks to the young Egyptian who took a few minutes to help a couple of strangers in a foreign land.
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