Single, American Woman, Seeks Pyramids

CBS News producer Mimi Spillane is seen holding the reigns before her camel ride at Egypt's Saqqara Pyramid, just south of Cairo, in Feb. 2008. Saqqara Pyramid is thought to be the world's oldest.
CBS/Mimi Spillane
This story was written by CBS News producer Mimi Spillane.
One of the good things about living in London is the ease of getting to Paris, Rome, and beyond. Not having to factor in those five hours over the Atlantic makes all the difference.

I've been enjoying this easy travel for almost nine years now at the CBS News London Bureau.

My latest adventure was Egypt - just a 4 and a half hour flight from Heathrow.

I played tourist to the hilt, even allowing myself to be (very) overcharged for a camel ride at Saqqara Pyramid. The stepped structure was built for King Djoser about 4,630 years ago and is believed to be the first pyramid, ever. I won't tell you how much I paid, but the somewhat grimy camel handlers were so impressed they gave me a freebie second ride.

My excuse, and I'm sticking to it, is that, as it was my first sightseeing event of the trip, my bargaining skills weren't yet fully honed.

Travelling as an unaccompanied Western woman in the Middle East is not a completely comfortable experience, but it is certainly doable in many areas.

My usual outfit was not provocative, but it was Western; jeans, long-sleeved t-shirt, jacket, and scarf (around my neck). Men sometimes stared openly, or avoided me altogether, even refusing to sit next to me on a train trip. I didn't take it personally.

Egypt is about 90 percent Islamic. Many Muslims expect women to be married and, if not, accompanied by a male. My outfits were also dictated by the unexpectedly chilly February weather, so my priority was keeping warm and dressing as appropriately as I could with the light clothes I had packed. The jeans were the warmest pants I had.

In many instances my Western appearance didn't seem to bother those around me. Indeed, my slightly... um, roundish face was considered a sign of beauty. The relentless pressure in the West to be skinny and toned doesn't exist in Egypt.

Of course, as with any religion, the level of adherence varies. I was treated with humor and grace by many Egyptians, even on the few occasions I dined on my own. Having spent years travelling to Baghdad, with all the security and danger there, it was an unusual feeling - and a very welcome one - to be able to move around a major Middle Eastern city on my own, albeit with tour guides.

Recent history has forced a lower profile for Western influences. You see it in the little things. For example, on the ten or so flagpoles in front of the Marriott Hotel (an American chain) there is no American flag flying. The sign in my overnight train cabin from Cairo to Luxor inviting passengers to belly dancing and a cabaret in the bar car had a big X through it.

But there was a bar car. For strict adherents to Islam, alcohol is haram (forbidden) - and there was a pretty obvious military contingent on the train.

(CBS/Mimi Spillane)
Any moments of discomfort are hugely outweighed by what you get to see in Egypt. Tombs, thousands of years old, in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor still boast vivid colors in the paintings and hieroglyphics. You can actually touch them. King Tut's mummy is on view - he was apparently buried in a hurry so he's not so well preserved. But the treasure from his tomb is.

There is so much of King Tut's treasure in Cairo's Egyptian Museum that the items sent for an exhibit in London seem barely to have made a dent. The architecture of the remains of Karnak Temple, near Luxor, is astounding. The Pyramids of Giza (at left), near Cairo, are magnificent, of course. You can go into one of them and try to imagine how they were built - which remains shrouded at least partly in mystery. The night-time light show at the Pyramids is eerie, but very cool.

But, without the luxury of a short flight from London, is Egypt worth the long haul over the Atlantic - especially for a woman on her own? Absolutely.