Planes, trains, and camels

Part 3 of the report from Egypt. Part 2 here

Getting around in Egypt.

I have always wanted to visit Egypt. My mom visited in 1967, just after the 6 Day War, and she has great stories and slides. There were not many tourists at that time, due to the war. When I started traveling in my 20s, Egypt was a very popular destination, and I kept seeing these demoralizing pictures of tour buses mobbing the Pyramids. Due to the crowds, Egypt was not on my list of places to visit.

Recently, I was at work and Harvard’s Egyptologist came by with some amateur films shot in Egypt in the 1920s by an archaeologist. They were great, and I mentioned I’ve always wanted to visit Egypt. He said, well, you should go! I said, you’re right! We talked about it, and he relayed some recent experiences his student had had, I did some research on my own, thought it looked like a good idea, and I brought it up with Slava, who was game.

Many people were concerned that we were planning a trip to Egypt. The Middle East is so unstable and scary to most Americans. It seemed to me that the fear was outweighing actual danger, which would work in our favor – fewer tourists. The US State Department announced a Travel Warning against Egypt a few days before we left, due to a recent church bombing in Cairo. We decided to go anyway.

The State Department, by the way, has issued Worldwide Caution which, ironically, does not include a warning about the USA, where shit goes down all the time, and against which some countries are now warning their own citizens, in some cases because of possible terrorist attacks. In fact, while we were in Egypt, a gunman killed a number of people at a Florida airport. These days we just are not safe, no matter where we are.

We flew into the Cairo airport via Germany, and were met by hotel touts before we even made it to passport control! We bought our visas in the airport and changed some money. A taxi arranged by our hotel met us outside, which I felt was a much needed luxury – I didn’t want to deal with negotiating with a taxi driver first thing. Our cab was a bit of a junker and didn’t have seat belts, which I quickly decided was an extremely important thing to have. Although the State Department’s Travel Warning is about terrorist threats, far more common are traffic accidents. I don’t know the details about how many tourists have died or been injured in traffic, but the number has got to be greater than the number harmed by terrorists.


Traffic in Cairo is, in a word, mayhem. In a phrase, it is Total Fucking Chaos. As in Addis Ababa, three painted lanes on the street often means five lanes of cars. People constantly beep their horns. The horns are not as aggressive-sounding as they are in the States – they are more like little friendly “hi there” kind of beeps, like a moped has. The beeps mean: “I’m coming through an intersection,” “I’m turning a corner,” “I’m passing you,” “I’m here,” “I’m in car,” “Stop running that red light!” “Our team won!” etc., etc.. Our man in Cairo said there were certain beeping patterns that were meant as specific insults. I wore earplugs to bed because the traffic noise in our 7th floor room was pretty intense. I kind of wanted to wear them all the time!


Crossing the street was a trial. We tried to cross when Egyptians were crossing, and got the hang of it eventually. The cars don’t really stop, so you have to hope for the best and don’t pause. Drivers often ignore lights that turn red. Many intersections were built without pedestrians in mind, apparently, although there are some crosswalks with walk lights. We walked around quite a bit in Cairo, which was great.


The roads were OK – but when they were bad, they were BAD and drivers had to swerve all over the place. Some roads had very effective speed bumps, but they were pretty far between. There are a lot of street lights, which is good, I guess, since so many people drive without headlights at night!


During our walks around Cairo, we found many streets full of dead cars that needed a lot of assistance before they could move again. They were covered in dust. Our last night, we found a neighborhood of mechanics who worked on cars on the side of the road. We saw engines being rebuilt and all sorts of dirty work being done without the aid of heavy machinery. We didn’t see four muscley men pull a transmission out of a car, but there’s no other reasonable explanation for how it got onto the ground. This was a fantastic walk we took – very lively, right near our hotel.

The cars in Ethiopia had been mainly old cars that could no longer pass muster on Western roads – lots of VW bugs, Fiats, and Russian cars. Cairo had more of a mix of models, and they weren’t so old, but we were pleased to see quite a number of old Ladas, our favorite Russian car, out on the roads. Every car had seen some kind of accident. Slava remarked that he would never buy a new car here. It would immediately get into an accident.

We took a few cabs in Cairo, which were very cheap, and Uber a few times as well, which cut out the annoyance of negotiating a fare, but GPS had trouble correctly locating Slava’s phone. We also took the subway, which is fast, clean, and costs 1 Egyptian Pound (5 US cents at the time) no matter how far you go. It’s often very crowded I hear, although we took it on a Friday morning, which was pretty chill. I did, however, get the stare from the riders, which is more uncomfortable in a closed space than it is on the street. It was clean, fast, and efficient.

At the Pyramids of Giza we rode horses, although I guess you’re supposed to ride camels. We liked the horses anyway, who were well-behaved, healthy, and allegedly named Madonna and Michael Jackson. It was a stressful day, and not being way up on a camel was kind of nice.


We took an Uber car to the night train from Cairo (Giza, actually) to Luxor. It’s the only train tourists are supposed to take on that route. I bought our tix online before I left home so I wouldn’t have to deal with going to the train station twice. We almost missed the train due to some bad planning on my part, plus unexpected New Year’s Eve Eve traffic, but everything turned out OK.


We booked a cabin for two, and it was that old fashioned type with the hallway along one side and the rooms on the other. The car was from the 80s, probably, shabby but clean. Slava marveled that the train was cleaner than our $17/night Cairo hotel! Way more expensive, though. The train left Cairo around 8pm and was supposed to get in to Luxor at 6am, which meant we would miss the scenery, which was disappointing. On the other hand, I didn’t want to spend an entire day on the train. I asked the attendant if he would wake us up before we got to the station, and he said yes, he’d bring us breakfast an hour before Luxor. We woke up around 8 to find the train was running 6 hours behind schedule due to an accident the day before, so we got to see some of the countryside after all, which was great.


We got into Luxor, internationally known as hassle capital of the world, around noon. The hotel was supposed to send a car, but we were late so we had to negotiate a cab out of Hassle City and onto the West Bank. After a million people offered us their taxi services, we haggled and wound up with a decent price and a nice driver, but a car that badly needed a new wheel bearing and didn’t have working seatbelts. Oh well, or as they say in Egypt, malesh.

All day we felt like there were little earthquakes happening. This was the feeling we had from being on a train for 16 hours.

Our hotel was close enough to some sights to walk, so we did. We also arranged to take a camel trip, since we didn’t take one at the pyramids. The hotel owns some camels, and only charged us for the guides, who walked our camels to a Coptic monastery in the desert near the hotel, then through the village and along a canal where they pointed out a little crocodile! We saw many people with donkey carts, and a kid offered us a donkey taxi, which we turned down.


I had planned to rent bikes, but that didn’t happen. I was jealous every time we saw a tourist cycle by, usually with a smile on his or her facd. There was a bicycle repair place next to the hotel that was pretty primitive but seemed to be keeping the junkers on the road. Next time we will rent bikes, and will bring helmets and locks with us.


We took the arrabeya– the local bus – quite a bit on the West Bank. You stand by the side of the road and wait for a little bus that is kind of like a VW bus to come by. The local ones have the sliding side door open. You wave, it stops if it has room for you, you pay 1 EP and yell at the driver to let you out when you get to your destination. Hopefully, you don’t fall out of the bus! The first time, the driver charged us 5EP for two of us, but it was usually just 1EP. You can hire one to go special for you for about 15EP depending on who is negotiating.

Twice we accepted a couple of short motorcycle rides, against my better judgment. Three to a bike is common, 4 or 5 is not unheard of if a few of them are kids. Helmets are not used, and at night lights are not used either! It is also common for cars and buses not to use headlights, although they will flash them in place of a honking horn.


We also took a Tuk-tuk, although they call them something else, one night (15EP from the ferry to the hotel). The Tuk Tuk is a 3 wheeled Asian motorcycle taxi, and they are pretty great. The drivers take care to decorate them with a lot of style.

We took two different kinds of boats across the Nile – a large motorboat taxi called the Dream that was the same style they’ve been using for a century (150 EP for a few hours, just the two of us), and the local ferry (1EP each).


We hired a driver who we met at a party to take us across the desert to the temple of Hathor at Dendera. His van was like the local bus, but new and nice, with working seat belts. He was a careful driver, to boot, who even uses headlights at night! He played us some Oum Kalsoum, “the fourth pyramid” when we got sick of the American romantic tuneage with which he was torturing us. At the party he had said to me, “Liz, do you know what my favorite song is?” No, what is it? “Hotel California.” It’s your favorite American song? “No, just my favorite song.” “I hate the fucking Eagles, man!”


We hired a car that had seatbelts to take us to the airport. We had hired the driver, Tut, to take up to the Valley of the Kings a few days prior, and he gave us his info in case we needed him again. We told him the wrong time to pick us up, but then ran into him again on the road. The driver didn’t have the right papers to take us to the door of the airport (Egyptian bureaucracy!) , so he flagged down an arrabeya to take us and our luggage the last few hundred feet. The usual mayhem ensued at the airport, where we went through metal detectors and our bags were X-rayed three times. The last security check in Cairo was right at our gate, and they had only one machine going, so the flight had to leave a little late. But we made it home without any trouble.

Back in Boston, the drivers seem almost civilized.

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