Get thee to Egypt!

Now that you’ve read parts 1-11 of the Egypt trip, I’m sure you’re ready to go yourself. Here are some travel tips.

You should go right now! The exchange rate is good for Americans, there aren’t many tourists, and it’s a beautiful and friendly place.

I don’t like tour groups, so my travel style is to travel on my own. Sometimes I go by myself, sometimes I go with Slava or with a friend, often I visit a place where I know someone. I usually plan my trip well in advance using travel books and the internets. This time I didn’t do as good a job as I would have liked, due to some nonsense that was distracting me, including Xmas.

For this trip, Slava & I traveled alone. We got some shots prior to leaving. We arrived Cairo and bought our visas at the airport for $25 at a bank before we cleared passport control – I was glad Slava had brought along some cash! We changed the remainder into Egyptian pounds, which was handy almost immediately. We had our hotel pick us up at the airport, which was a small luxury I felt completely pleased with – the airport is loco!

Go in the winter. We went in December/January, 2016-2017. It was 60s/70s F and sunny during the day, 40s or so at night. This is high tourist season for a reason. Low season is physically uncomfortable, hot enough during the day that it was not on the list of possibilities for us. There isn’t much, if any, indoor heating, so bring warm clothes to wear in the evening.

This goes without saying for any seasoned traveler, but be ready for one or two bad travel days. This will happen to you no matter where you go. Don’t plan your days too densely and you won’t be disappointed.

Read the opening section of your guidebook. There really is helpful information in there! Toilets (paper in the bin, natch), electricity, money, police, etc..

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MONEY MONEY MONEY MUST BE FUNNY

  • Bring some US$. Your hotel might only take cash, as ours did, and may prefer US$ due to the recent devaluation of the Egyptian Pound which has made the local currency seem less secure.
  • Download a currency exchange app to your smartphone. I always use this one.
  • Figure out how to deal with the baksheesh and bartering situation. Everyone wants your money, and you need to decide how you’re going to dole it out. For us, having not traveled much in countries where this is an issue, it took a long time to figure out. In fact, we didn’t feel like we really had a handle on it until the last day we were there. Talk in advance about $$ with your traveling companion, if you have one. Who tips? How much? When? Why? Why not? In fact, try to figure this all out as much as you can before you get to Egypt. You won’t be able to, but at least you will have something to work from.
  • We dealt almost exclusively in cash, except for a few big purchases.
  • Once you get out of the city, ATMs may become less reliable, and they only dispense 2-3000 EP per day, so make sure you’re prepared before you check out of your hotel.
  • ATMs only dispense big bills, like 200EP. You need small bills, like 5s and 10s, for baksheesh. Go into the bank and get change. It stinks to not have change.
  • Although the numbers we are used to in The West are Arabic Numerals, they also use different Arabic numbers in Egypt. Learn them!

SAFETY The likelihood of dying in a terrorist act in Egypt is probably even lower than it is in the USA. More likely is getting hurt or killed in a car accident. People drive crazy, and they drive with no headlights at night! I instituted a policy of only driving in cars that had working seat-belts. I recommend doing this. Of course we broke this rule frequently. We took the local bus, which had no seatbelts (and the door was always open), and twice we rode 3 on a motorcycle, no helmets of course.

TALKING Learn some Egyptian. They speak a version of Arabic in Egypt. Maybe you won’t be able to read it, but you can at least learn a few spoken words. We didn’t have many language problems – we were in touristy areas, and people spoke English, German, French, and are learning Chinese. I brought a little phrase book that I whipped out a few times.

  • Thank you = shukran (response, Af’wan)
  • Oh well / too bad / sorry = malesh
  • Maybe / God willing = Inshallah – I found this one very helpful. If someone is not taking “no” for an answer, use “Inshallah.” “Come back tomorrow!” Inshallah.
  • Hello – Aslam Alakeum 
  • I like the Google translate app – you can use the camera to translate text. Download Arabic to it before you go – sometimes your internet connection won’t be great.

EATING

  • We found most places we ate at, all in touristy areas, had menus in English or staff who spoke English.
  • Try the national soup, Mulukhiya.
  • I didn’t have any trouble eating vegetarian.
  • We had fantastic yogurt and falafel, both breakfast treats.

DRINKING

  • Drink lots of water.
    • I wish I had figured out a way in advance to not drink only bottled water. Some kind of filter? We had to throw out so many empty bottles….
    • Don’t drink the tap water.
    • Don’t brush your teeth with tap water.
  • Drink as much mango juice as possible. Fresh juice is a big thing. Try it!
  • The tea is black tea with peppermint and sugar. Hanging out in cafes and drinking tea or coffee is a national pastime.
  • The coffee is amazing.
  • The wine and beer is acceptable, but don’t drink the booze – much of it is counterfeit! For instance, I tried an Ouzo type booze, but it didn’t cloud with water and didn’t taste particularly good anyway….
  • If you like, pack a flask of your favorite libation. One of our pals there pulled out a flask of vodka on our last night for a farewell toast, and it was really nice.
  • Slava bought a bottle of bubbly at the duty free in Germany on our way in, which we enjoyed on New Year’s Eve. He is so thoughtful!

SEEING THE SIGHTS

  • Guards. At the outdoor sights (temples, tombs) there are guards. They are the Egyptian men who are hanging around and who immediately join you on your journey, pointing things out, telling you to take pictures, telling you not to take pictures, etc. They are paid by the government, but also rely on tips from tourists. Figure out how to deal with them. You will need to tip them, probably, so just have some dough ready every time. It is not a big expense, and they can ruin your trip to a site if you let them. They are not, however, your enemy, so don’t act like they are. Figure out how to deal with them as soon as you can. We found some of them to be great, others to be a real pain.
  • The guards like to pretend they know things about what you are looking at, but they usually don’t know much. Paid tour guides are not allowed in the tombs. There is almost no printed info at the monuments, so bring a guide book.
  • I liked having binoculars and a flashlight the better to see things.
  • We took to sketching things – sometimes your interpretation is more meaningful when you return than a photo would be.
  • There are metal detectors and guards to check your bags at most sites.
  • The major sites include a gauntlet of merchants – do not make eye contact if you don’t want to buy anything.
  • We didn’t try to see too much in one day. I used to try to cram as much as possible into a day, but discovered a relaxed plan pays off in the end.

WOMEN TRAVELERS

  • Bring a man with you. I’ve traveled alone in countries where I don’t speak the language, but I have to say, I’m not sure I would in Egypt. There is a lot of hassle involved with traveling in Egypt under the best of circumstances, and it rises exponentially if you are a lady alone. That said, traveling with a man as I was, I didn’t meet many Egyptian women, which may have been different on my own.
  • Blondes have more fun. This is true everywhere. Sometimes it is annoying, other time it works to your advantage.
  • Lady products and birth control – bring them with you, they may be difficult to get a hold of outside of the city.
  • Carry a headscarf. You need to wear one if you go into a mosque, and you may feel the need to don one if you’re feeling uncomfortable in public. I think I put one on for about ten seconds, but the scarf was handy when my neck got cold, too.

LITTLE THINGS

  • TP – always carry toilet paper with you. Dispose of it in the bin, not the toilet.
  • SIM card – get one for your phone so you can use the internet & make calls. You’ll need to bring your passport to the Vodaphone or whatever store. You will need to make calls, probably, so just do it right away.
  • Download Uber before you go – we used it a couple of times in Cairo and it was stress-free since it cuts out the bargaining aspect of taxi rides.
  • carry snacks – if you’re like me, you will need them.
  • carry cat snacks – if you’re like me, you’ll want to feed the stray cats!
  • toys for kids – if you meet kids, you’ll want to give them some kind of toy, right?
  • flashlight – power outages, dark toilets, dark tombs.
  • binoculars – see tops of things close up, plus birds! I brought a bird book too.
  • electrical adapter
  • sunscreen
  • stomach issues – bring ginger, pepto, or whatever it is you use when you have an upset stomach.
  • facecloth – bring your own in case your hotel doesn’t provide one.
  • print out your tickets – we had trouble getting into the airport for our flight home because we hadn’t printed or downloaded our tickets.
  • airports are wacky – leave plenty of time.

I’d always wanted to go to Egypt. My mom went for a month in 1967 right after the Six Days War, and she had great stories and pictures. When I thought about going, it was extremely crowded – I would see pictures of 10,000 tourists at the Pyramids at Giza, and it seemed incredibly unappealing. I figured I would go it it ever calmed down, but then it sort of fell off my radar. When it was brought back to my attention recently, one the most appealing aspect was the current lack of tourists.

Egypt has been a magnet for tourists since Napoleon started singing its praises, but the terrorist massacre in 1997 put a stop to that, and it just hasn’t been the same since. This is terrible because the economy has relied on tourist dollars for two centuries – now many Egyptians who rely on tourism are in trouble. The downside to visiting when there aren’t many tourists is you get a lot of attention. Fay told me the temple at Medinet Habut saw 8,000 people a day at its peak in the early 90s – when we were there in 2017, it was probably a few hundred/day. Much more manageable, for better or for worse.

Nearly every Egyptian we met asked where we were from, and when we said America, they enthusiastically said “Welcome to Egypt!” (or “Welcome to Alaska!” if it was hot out), and then told us to tell our friends to come to Egypt. Egyptians want visitors. You will feel welcome when you go.

 

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