How Not To Travel in Egypt

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…

On my first full day in Cairo, a city of 17 million people, my boyfriend James and I were completely lost. Our taxi driver had been unable to find our hotel, and forced us to get out.

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?

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17 thoughts on “How Not To Travel in Egypt

  1. Great tips. I can see why Egypt is intense now. I’d actually heard of camel tours that go into the desert just to demand more money to take you back. They do that in Morocco too, but I guess it probably happens in all the countries in that area. I’m going to keep these tips in mind when I go there.

  2. Great article. Looks like you learnt the hard way 🙂

    Less #10 – Plan your trip with AlternativeEgypt.com, the only online resource for independent travel in Egypt.

  3. Yikes!
    Yep, Egypt is definitely intense. It’s so difficult to trust anyone or let your guard down – which is such a shame, because there are so many great sights to see! I say now that it was worth it, but at the time I just wanted to throw things at people 😀

  4. I hear that, Mary! The guy’s last comment, about a sense of humor, is the best advice of all. Egyptians love a joke, and if you can keep your sense of humor, it makes interactions a million times easier.

    I lived in Cairo for a while ago, and I always felt a bit like a target. Then I went back in 2007, and it was easier–I was in a better mindset and could smile and laugh more, even with people who were trying to scam me, and just keep walking. It enabled me to have some interaction and not feel like such a shut-down beeyotch…and then because I was smiling, the actual nice and honest people also were good to me too.

    On my first stay, I felt like I was constantly picked on because I was weak or something. But then I realized _this is just what (some, not all) Egyptians do_. There has been a culture of tourist scamming in Egypt for thousands of years, and, oh well, I was a tourist. It wasn’t personal. A tiny mental shift, but it somehow helped me relax a bit more.

    • Zora,
      That’s a great point about not taking it personally. I think as a younger traveler, I certainly felt like they were testing me because I was foreign and female. Also, it is important to smile and go along. It’s like a game you have to play along with, and then everyone saves face or something…

  5. Really enjoyed your post. That 15-hour train ride sounds grueling!
    The money “scam” is not just from the camel guys. I got it from the nice man who helped us find an ATM, from the guys at the temples who would walk me somewhere and point to something I should see and then hold out their hands for money and so on.
    Once you figure it out, you stop getting suckered in. You start to say “no” earlier.
    One of the coolest things about being in Egypt was having Egyptians ask me to be in THEIR photographs. An American in Egypt! A lot of school kids were big into this. We were both interesting to each other.

    • Yes, I agree that you learn how to make your way around, and your “no” reflex gets faster…oh, one interesting side note- being Egyptian doesn’t even matter when it comes to not getting cheated. We met another Egyptian couple on vacation, and they fell for the same exact scams!

  6. Donna Willingham

    I absolutely adored Egypt – I’d dreamt about it since I was a little girl, and I wasn’t disappointed, but you do have to keep your wits about you. I feel I should share with you an amazing course I did while I was in Cairo – Sarah Merron of Fire Dragon Coaching teaches strategies that really helped me focus on getting the best out of myself and others around me, for both my work and personal life. She runs courses all over the world, so it’s a fantastic way to combine travel with self improvement. Here’s the link, it’s definitely worth checking out:
    http://egyptnlptraining.com/

    • Dear Donna,
      Thank you for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed Egypt too. It is one of those destinations that we dream about seeing, isn’t it? Overall, I wasn’t disappointed either, just a bit overwhelmed at times.

      That course sounds interesting!

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