After just over a month of having my perception of central America and Mexico blown to smithereens, it was time to move on. I boarded the flight from Cancun to Cairo with a heavy heart but a good amount of excitement. The pyramids of Giza had been on my list of things to see for a long time and now I was on my way.
The flight with Turkish airlines was much better than expected, with plenty of room and good food it was a nice flight. The trip through customs was a breeze and then I braced myself for the shysters at the airport. They are at every airport I have been to. It’s to be expected. I take the hit and forget about it. This time was no different and they were primed and ready with the catcalls. I negotiated a price that was still overpriced but not enough to make me feel too cheated.
My initial reaction was that my taxi driver was insane but so was everyone else on the road. I couldn’t figure out if the horn was attached to the brake pedal or the accelerator pedal as it was constantly blaring to zero effect. There was a lot of rubbish lying around. Maybe it was a poor area? I thought at first but as we progressed it seemed to be everywhere. I reserved my judgement until later. Never judge a book by its cover and all that.
I had prebooked my hotel online and when I checked in the guy on reception asked me twice how I would like to pay for my room. Even though the first time he had accepted that I had already paid. An oversight I thought. I had a shower and then went to find something to eat.
I hadn’t noticed the air pollution during the taxi ride but walking down the street was almost impossible due to the number of cars on the road. The smog hung over the city like an imposing Villian watching and waiting. I didn’t realise it at first but it would make for a great metaphor. The oppression was stark in contrast to the lively optimism that I had seen in Mexico. Almost as if a smile was an affront the mood seemed low. With the pollution gripping my throat and stinging my eyes I headed into a restaurant.
The owner was very welcoming and sat me down, took my order and I watched the world go by. First, he brought over a starter I didn’t order and a bottle of water “Very kind,” I foolishly thought and tucked in without consideration. The food was very nice and when my main course came it was wonderful. So much so that I thought that over the next few days I would use the restaurant again. That was until the bill came and items beyond the salad and water had been added. It was $2 or so and I couldn’t be arsed to argue so I paid and left. Now, that proprietor might have made a couple of dollars extra but he lost my business. I put it down to a dodgy owner but over the next few weeks, I found most interactions to be similar. To the point that getting a good deal meant that the person was ripping me off a bit less than another person was trying to rip me off.
I tried not to let it bug me and sought out places that were less underhanded. I stopped in Costa for a coffee. I abhor using places like that but thought it a safe bet… that was until the guy on the till tried to short change me. In the end, I found a few places in the downtown area that could be trusted; La Poire cafe, Eish + Malh, Koshary el Tahrir and La Chesa.
I’ve heard people say “That is the culture. You have to adhere to their customs when in their country!” If it is cultural to try and rip people off then it is a terrible culture. Simple as that. I have travelled around. I expect to be exploited but not constantly.
The following day, I braved the smog and took a walk to the Cairo museum. It is a shame about the air quality because there are some beautiful buildings around Cairo but walking around is unbearable for long periods due to the noise of constantly blaring horns and the life-shortening pollution. Even the random smell of incense that sometimes appears isn’t enough as that is also consumed by the noxious fumes.
The museum was a welcome break from the insanity of the streets. A huge array of artefacts from ancient Egypt displayed from the old kingdom to the new kingdom. The peace to stand and appreciate the beauty for as long as I wanted was also a delight.
On the walk back I couldn’t help but notice the litter lying around everywhere yet the people were well turned out. With nice clothes and haircuts. It’s almost as if the pride of self isn’t transferred to the pride of place.
As I was walking and pondering the litter an Egyptian man fired up a conversation with me and told me he was an artist. He asked if I would like to see his work. “Why not,” I said, I had nothing else on. He described the revolution and pointed out some of the places where it had happened as we walked along. We eventually arrived at what was quite clearly a papyrus shop. He tried to hand me some and said “it is a gift. Egyptian hospitality!” Thankfully I had been done with this trick before in Italy. I refused to take the item and left. Maybe it was genuine hospitality but I was starting to lose patience with the duplicity masquerading as pleasantries.
The following day I took a uber to the Pyramids. I was excited I have to admit. I was even more excited, when, through the smog, I saw the pyramids. This excitement was soon replaced with concern as the car was pulled over and the driver had a very heated argument with some men trying to get him to drop me off in their “ticket office.” I thanked him and tipped him for not stitching me up. There are some good eggs out there.
With my ticket in my hand, I walked into the Giza complex and stood in awe at the Pyramid in front of me. Within seconds I was offered a scarf. Within minutes, I had been offered 5 camel rides and 10 scarfs. I guy tried to hand me a “Free” scarf under the guise of it being Egyptian hospitality…
It is the entrance I thought. It is probably where they hang out. Nope. It is one giant cash grab. It also turns out that “No, thank you” in english is “Keep asking me over and over again,” in Egyptian. Who would have guessed. In the end I put my headphones in and just ignored them being polite had no effect.
I thought “Maybe it’s just the Pyramids,” but no. Alexandria and Luxor were the same if not worse. There it spilt out beyond the sights and walking down the street was like being a beautiful woman on a building site constantly being shouted and harassed. Camel rides, felucca rides, horse and carts, market, constantly. Every day a route had to be planned like a scene from the walking dead. “We are here and we’ve got to get down the street for a coffee. How do we avoid the horse and cart salesman?” I was terrible at avoiding them. In Luxor, I was offered 20 house and cart rides in a one-mile walk.
I have spoken to some women who visited Egypt and most said they felt uncomfortable. Many felt unsafe. All of them said they would not advise their friends not to visit. Especially as a solo female traveller.
The counter-argument I have read many times is that due to the economic downturn in Egypt people have become desperate. I have to say this is no justification. There are many desperate people in the world and they don’t treat tourists like shit. This is cultural. I spoke to a person who visited Egypt before the tourist decline and they said the harassment was the same if not worse. To treat your customers like shit during an economic downturn makes no sense.
The other thing I have heard is “You should do your research before you go!” I am glad I didn’t because I probably wouldn’t have gone.
Beyond the annoyance, I always felt safe. I met people who were cycling from Cairo to Cape Town and the Egyptian police were giving them an escort to ensure their safety. The support was never in question and I felt very welcome. I just left feeling like I was a walking ATM.
I don’t expect preferential treatment in places because I am a tourist. Nor because I a British or white. I just want the opportunity to experience places without being offered a camel ride every second. Ironically, Egypt was the only country so far where I didn’t buy any souvenirs.
The oppression I felt in Cairo lessened somewhat as I headed south but it was still there lingering. Many people I spoke to looked over both shoulders before saying anything even slightly critical. Reading reports about people disappearing and critical journalists getting arrested it is easy to see why. The situation there was made more apparent as we crossed over into a Sudan, a country that seems worse off economically yet I saw more people smiling and laughing in three hours than I had in the previous four weeks.
Despite my annoyance, I found the ancient ruins we visited to be beyond my expectations. Especially the valley of the kings which demonstrated the artistic ability of the Egyptians. A side which I had previously not known about.
And despite the constant badgering of the felucca salesmen, I found Aswan to be a nice place to watch the world go by. (From the inside a cafe!)
I would love to see the places again but much like the restaurant owner who lost my business, I doubt I will ever return. Which is the first time I have ever said that about a country. It is also a shame that the incessant salesmen ruin it for everyone. One afternoon, I was drinking coffee and talking about football with the waiter. The language barrier created a few problems but there was a general understanding. As I left the lad stopped me and showed me his phone. Translated into English were the words “You are our light,” I thanked him and said, “No you are.” Hopefully, his light is a sign of things to come.