Egypt is a fascinating country to visit– if you do it right. Learn from my crazy travel experience and whatever you do, don’t get caught on an Egyptian train after midnight…
Lesson #1: Ask the concierge to write down the name of the hotel in Arabic
Grimy particles swirling around, I thought back to a conversation I’d had a few days before in Tanzania. I’d met a woman there while we were backpacking through Africa.
Confidently, I’d told her we were headed to Cairo.
She rolled her eyes at me and said. “Egypt is a thousand times more intense than Tanzania. Good luck.”
At the time, I didn’t heed her warning.
Lesson #2: Believe it when someone tells you Egypt is intense.
Standing there on the Cairo street corner, I saw her point.
Just a few hours in Egypt, we’d been riding constant alternating waves of euphoria and frustration.
Our day had gone like so:
8:00 am We had breakfast in Garden of Eden room at our hotel, where we ate fig jam and hard-boiled eggs with pulsing loud techno music.
9:30 am A friendly local offered help with walking directions and then pickpocketed us.
10:30 am Sitting on camels, we were awe struck by the Pyramids of Giza
11:30 am The camel leader took us into the desert and demanded more money
And that was only before noon. Other events of the day followed the same manic pattern.
Lesson #3: Be wary of camel leaders and friendly people
That night after stumbling onto our hotel, we devised a new plan. We begrudgingly booked a cruise down the Nile.
It wasn’t an easy decision. We had challenged ourselves to experience the world authentically, taking local transportation, avoiding tourist traps, and seeking personal connection. A tourist cruise hadn’t been in our plans.
Lesson #4: Book a Nile cruise immediately and don’t feel guilty about it
Stepping aboard the ship the next day, we entered a pristine world. No stress, no showering over a toilet, no chance of being led down a dark alley. Instead, there were ice sculptures and towel animals in our cabin.
We spent 5 days on the Nile. By day, we toured temples and bought overpriced papyrus drawings. At night, we feasted on elaborate buffets. We won ping-pong tournaments and belly dance contests. We even befriended an American professional basketball player who absorbed us into his entourage.
Lesson #5: Bring nice clothes so you don’t feel awkward among your new VIP professional athlete posse
Disembarking the cruise at Aswan, we asked the ship concierge to arrange train tickets back to Cairo that night.
When our train departed nearly 5 hours late at 1:00 in the morning, we shrugged it off. We even laughed about the concierge, who made a nice profit from buying us the cheapest tickets.
But soon into the journey, we realized we were on a commuter train, screeching to a stop and racing forward again. It would now take an eternity to reach Cairo.
Lesson #6: Buy your own train tickets and never trust cruise ship concierges
At each stop, more people boarded the train and fewer got off. Before long, the car was full of Bedouin men in flowing robes carrying huge baskets. I felt dozens of eyes on me.
I noticed I was the only female in the train car. James sat at a distance away and somehow dozed off despite the constant squealing and lurching. The space between us filled with bodies.
Growing nervous, I took off my jacket and fanned myself with a paper. Men towered over me. I couldn’t breathe. The eyes kept staring and each moment that passed, I grew more panicked.
I looked out the window and saw nothing but black lonely desert. When we stopped at a small train station, I had a sudden inspiration to flee into the night. I clutched my bag closer to my body, ready for a quick flight.
Lesson #7: Take a sleeping pill and pay no heed to staring Egyptian men
The wall of enrobed men read my terror stricken face. Without saying a word, they squeezed themselves far away from me. They crowded into every last inch of space, forming an open wide ark around my seat.
We spent many hours frozen in that peculiar scene- me cowering in a corner and the Egyptian men tightly pressed against each other, careful not to invade my tiny domain.
Lesson #7: Trust other people before hitting the panic button
Finally arriving in Cairo 15 hours later, I gathered my belongings and stepped onto the platform.
It struck me that perhaps some countries simply defy independent travel. While many places of the world stretch open, passively letting you traverse at will, others dictate every step you take. If there were a secret to traveling Egypt beyond Nile cruises and organized tours, I sure didn’t know it.
Lesson #8: Don’t come up with lofty travel theories after a scary train ride
We started to walk away from the platform.
Just then, I heard a man’s voice.
“Excuse me miss, you left something on the train.”
I looked at my bag in my hands and then at the man questioningly.
“You left your sense of humor,” he said.
Egypt Travel Tip: Make it easy on yourself and don’t try to tour Egypt as an independent traveler, at least not the whole trip. Arrange organized tour excursions to relieve stress and pay extra money for comfort and security. On my limited budget at the time, I stayed at the Ismailia House Hotel, which was a good value.
My scary Egyptian train ride happened many years ago. James is no longer my boyfriend.
Have you ever been to Egypt? What was your experience?