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Area woman returns from Egypt

February 1, 2011

The background of Lydia Marlene Stewart's cell phone is a photo of her standing in front of centuries-old pyramids in Egypt.

The photo was snapped during her 16-day tour of the country, which ended just days before political unrest erupted from Egyptians demanding changes in their government.

When Stewart, of Claremont, sees images of the violent protests calling for 30-year ruler Hosni Mubarak to step down, she hurts for the country that she said was a lifelong dream to visit.

"They were preparing while we were there," Stewart said of the Egyptians. "They were preparing for their revolution."

She now recognizes the signs of the impending revolution, but when she was a tourist along the Nile River, she felt safe and welcome.

"In retrospect, I look back and see the signs," she said. "But I had the greatest time of my life."

Stewart traveled to Egypt with the Vergilian Society, a tour group for those interested in the Classics. As a teacher, Stewart has always been interested in the ancient world and its history. She currently works as a online Latin teacher for the North Carolina Virtual Public School and University Christian High School.

Stewart joined about 15 other people on the trip, none of whom she had met before they arrived in Cairo in late December.

Stewart said the Arab world doesn't celebrate the birth of Christ on Dec. 25, as Christians do in America. Instead, the holiday is celebrated around Jan. 6, which is known in America as Epiphany.

"You know that is was a holiday," she said. "I think they were waiting before it was over before starting the revolution. ... We didn't know of the impending revolution. Everyone else did."

Stewart and her tour group didn't see any other Americans while they visited Egypt. Their group was flanked with body guards and armed escorts at all time, and their tour guide spoke English and Arabic.

And although she retrospectively recognizes the signs of revolution, Stewart doesn't regret immersing herself in Egyptian culture while she was traveling.

She found herself adapting to local customs, such as wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants and a head scarf, but it wasn't because she felt ostracized or uncomfortable as an American.

Stewart found the clothing comfortable and practical with Egypt's sand and windstorms. The weather was about 70 degrees and sunny while Stewart traveled in the country, but she needed extra protection from the sun's intense rays.

Her tour group visited all the quintessential Egyptian landmarks, including the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx and the Cairo Museum. They also visited lesser-known sites that, as a Classics teacher, Stewart fell in love with.

She visited Philae Temple along the Nile River, which is where Cleopatra and Julius Caesar became man and wife.

"To be in the same room that they had been in — I could feel it," Stewart said.

But her journey wasn't limited entirely to ancient relics. Stewart brought along her Blackberry mobile phone, computer and iPod, which allowed her to communicate with her students and family back home in North Carolina.

Stewart said almost every Egyptian had a cell phone, and they were always on the phone as they walked from place-to-place.

Her experience with Egyptians was overwhelmingly positive. Stewart said they loved it when she tried to speak a few words of their language, and they always smiled when she told them she was from the southern part of the United States.

Although the country continues to struggle with unrest, Stewart hopes Egyptians can be united and find a ruler.

"It was really cutting it close," she said of her trip. "But my memories and my thoughts of experiences there are all extremely positive."

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