With every dream, it’s important to find a way to test it before you commit your life to it. That’s how we ended up in Egypt for a month. Brian and I were working with the Disney team, filming our daily show Capture the Story with Me Ra Koh. The VP overseeing the project asked what else we were passionate about. Without even thinking, Brian and I said family travel. For several years, we’d been homeschooling our kids and saving our pennies to go abroad every year, making the world their classroom. The idea of inspiring other families to do the same suddenly seemed like an incredible dream that we could make into a reality!
Her next question gave us a moment of pause. “Have you ever tried filming your family travel adventures?”
Well, no, we hadn’t. But, I was quick to add, we’d documented our travels extensively through our blog with stills and writing. While that was significant, she and I both knew it wasn’t the same as being on camera while traveling. So, with little actual experience, but boundless excitement and enthusiasm for the possibilities, we were challenged us to test our dream.
As a family, we started talking about where we should go. When making big decisions, we have a simple practice of setting a timer for four minutes and we all just listen. No one says anything. During the silence, Egypt kept coming to all of our minds. Who doesn’t want to visit the pyramids?
But, at the time, Egypt was all over the news because of the upcoming two-year anniversary of their revolution. News clips showed rioting in the streets and protesting everywhere. At first glance, it would seem like a dangerous place to take our kids. But we’d travelled abroad enough to know that the news often exaggerates the negatives of what’s happening in a place and doing actual research and talking with people who are on the ground is key.
After a couple weeks of reaching out to people in Cairo and neighboring areas, we learned that the news we were seeing was blowing the situation out of proportion. That distortion of reality was also having a devastating impact on tourism. Egypt’s tourism is a significant part of the country’s revenue and it had fallen by 90%. The country needed help getting the word out that Egypt was still a safe place to visit.
This need stirred our hearts as a family. We knew we wanted to film another side of Egypt so it was time to pitch the idea. I sent out over 40 emails to tourism boards, hotel agencies, and tour companies. I proposed that our family come and show another side of Egypt; the beautiful people, iconic history and culture. One response came the next morning from a tour company based in London that had started their business in Cairo many years before. They were also wanting to find a way to show the world another side of Egypt. This was the perfect partnership. Two weeks later, our family of four boarded a plane bound for Cairo.
I’ll never forget the night we arrived. The tour company greeted us at the airport with warm, welcoming smiles. Our Egyptologist guide, Sam, was thrilled that we’d brought our children. Pascaline was twelve years old, and Blaze was nine. They’d also been reading Rick Riordan’s Red Pyramid series and were excited to talk Egyptian mythology with a real Egyptologist! But as we got closer to Cairo, I noticed one side of the freeway was completely pitch black. There wasn’t a single street lamp, storefront or home with the lights on for miles. I asked our Sam if it was a body of water. His answer stunned me. He said it was The City of the Dead: an ancient burial ground that stretches for four miles with tombs that sit above ground looking like small homes. Some even have gardens out front. Half a million people live in these tombs now, but it disappears into the night after the sun sets. This was my first, ominous indicator that we were in another part of the world.
The next morning, we woke up to the call to prayer. I couldn’t help but a feel a bit on edge. The only other time I’d heard the call of prayer was in movies when something bad was about to happen. Our hotel room had a view of the pyramids, and I tried to take a deep breath. ‘We’re safe.’ I told myself. ‘It wasn’t a mistake to bring our kids.’ But no matter how much I tried to reassure myself, I still had this drumming fear that we should have listened to the news back home.
We came to Egypt with the utmost intention of capturing the beauty and mystery of their people and culture. What country holds greater mystique than the home of the Great Pyramids? And yet, I wasn’t prepared to be confronted with fear.
My uneasiness grew as we ventured into Cairo that first morning. Our guide was ready to show us his country with the biggest smile of pride and joy, yet, I also felt like was a blur from the jet lag. I held my camera steady and photographed Pascaline walking in front of me at a slow shutter speed, trying to capture the feeling of everything whizzing by us.
Sony α99. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM lens. 1/40-sec., f/2.8, ISO 100
The Arabic writing on storefronts, billboards, and road signs served as a reminder that we were in terra incognita. The foreign writing, smells, random bursts of shouting as men shared tea at the corner café, and the repetitious call to prayer throughout the day was overwhelming. When we arrived at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, the kids were thrilled: they were going to see real mummies! I couldn’t help but notice all the soldiers lined up outside. The mom in me had to ask if it was a safe time to visit.
He answered by pointing down the street, “That is Tahrir Square where all the protesting takes place.”
“Wait,” I said. “The news has been showing a much larger area. That’s the famous Tahrir Square?”
Sam laughed and then shook his head with frustration. “Yes, we know. But as you can see it’s even smaller then Times Square. The news around the world is making our protests look much bigger and even dangerous. That’s why we need to show another side of our story. Egyptians are not protesting for chaos and turmoil. We feel our culture being threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is not the Muslim Brotherhood. It is an ancient culture of pride, and we’re protesting to have a democracy like America.” As we walked into the museum, I saw my need to have translations of Egypt’s ancient history and the history being made in the present.
A couple days later, we were walking on to a ferry and passed a woman dressed in a black niqab covering her head with only small window for her eyes and a black burqa covering the rest of her body.
Sony α99. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM lens. 1/800-sec., f/2.8, ISO 100
Again, I felt my stomach tighten with anxiety. I often hear Brian tell people there is a big difference between feeling safe and actually being safe when traveling. Every day of our trip was proving that we were safe in Egypt, but I still felt on edge. And this feeling started to rob me of enjoying the people.
Egyptians’ laughter is loud and contagious—my favorite kind. Their hospitality reminds me of my experience with Italians who somehow get you to stay hours longer and eat way more than you thought humanely possible. And the Great Pyramids, Valley of the Kings, Coptic Churches, the Citadel—all their rich, ancient history—is like no other. But when you feel afraid, you can’t fully sink into any of these beautiful experiences.
Sony α99. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM lens. 1/60-sec., f/2.8, ISO 2500
I started to process what I was feeling with Brian. And I realized that I had been conditioned to feel fear. The only time I had seen women fully covered in black or heard the call to prayer or even seen Arabic writing, was in Hollywood movies when there was a theme of lurking chaos, threats and terrorism. Without realizing it, my limited exposure to these cultural details had developed an unknown prejudice within me. Once there, Egypt was confronting my naivety, inviting me to see another side.
Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness.” Growing up with a Korean father and experiencing people treating him with prejudice and bigotry always made me more sensitive to other cultures. And yet, there was room for me to still grow. I had never been confronted with the Middle East in such a personal, up-close way. The deeper we travelled into Egypt’s culture and villages, the more I found Twain’s quote to be true.
Sony α99. 85mm f/1.4 lens. 1/2000-sec., f/1.7, ISO 200
Our family was invited to visit a Nubian classroom along the banks of the Nile River in Aswan. Nubians are one of the earliest civilizations in Egypt, having their own culture, diet and way of life. Their men take pride in cooking dinner and then entertaining the family with singing and playing drums after. That’s a culture I could get used too!
The small Nubian school was simple with abrupt openings in the walls for windows. Worn tables, chairs and desks were scattered in open rooms. But around the corner we could hear the happy kids: class was in session. The children were almost shouting in unison the letters of the alphabet. We walked in and right away I noticed that the teacher was fully covered in a black niqab and burqa. The heat alone that day was stifling; I couldn’t imagine how she felt being covered in black. I watched my kids to see if they thought it was odd to have a teacher fully covered with a single opening for her eyes. But they didn’t skip a beat and sat down next to the kids.
Sony α99. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM lens. 1/80-sec., f/2.8, ISO 1600
As we filmed the class, I watched the teacher hold the children, rally them with a joyful voice to practice their letters and numbers, and giggle when one of them made a mistake. Even though she was fully draped in black, I felt her kind spirit permeate the classroom. When the class was over, she came to me and thanked me specifically for coming. Her eyes, the only part of her that I could see, were so bright and full of life. I wanted to cry. This woman taught me so much by inviting me into her world. She unknowingly gave me a space to experience her culture. And even though we were from two different worlds, she had as much of a desire to bridge the gap as I did.
As we left the school, walking past the colorful doors of Nubian homes, grazing goats, and children laughing and playing with a single ball, I knew this trip was challenging me more than I ever expected.
Sony α99. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM lens. 1/640-sec., f/4.5, ISO 160
Our travels to Egypt were confronting my unknown prejudices and challenging me to be a better, more thoughtful person. Wasn’t this the dream I wanted to share with other families? My family’s dream was taking shape. Our Egyptologist guide poured his knowledge into the kids, bringing history alive as he translated the hieroglyphs in tombs and explained their ancient religions. I watched my kids drink it in and want more.
Sony α99. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM lens. 1/250-sec., f/2.8, ISO 200
As parents, we knew this was an incredible gift—a history lesson that no book or class could ever give the kids. We would be processing this trip as a family for the rest of our life. Even a few years later, we learned more about what our kids were thinking when we walked into that Nubian classroom and saw the teacher. I could never attempt to make up what went through their mind. You can watch for yourself in our Adventure Family episode: Shocking Teacher Teaches Us. Blaze’s thoughts at the time will make you laugh and breathe easy that Egypt is much more than you could ever imagine. And I’m happy to report back that Egypt’s tourism is getting stronger and stronger as people from all over the globe continue the pilgrimage to stand before the Great Pyramids and discover an ancient civilization as well as the modern culture and people whose lives are shaped by the ancient world.