"Road to Jordan": Part 1 – Introduction to Egypt and Cairo

Well, it’s been a few weeks since I returned from my 3-week tour of Egypt and Jordan, and I think it’s about time I did some more comprehensive blogging about the experience – broken down into a few short-ish posts.

To begin with, it’s worth doing something of a basic introduction to Egypt from a tourist’s perspective. For starters, I would definitely only recommend visiting the country as part of a tour group because it makes getting around, and gaining entry to sites, so much easier. You see, Egypt, paranoid about the threat of terrorism to its precious tourist income, has overcompensated in terms of security. There are innumerable police blockades, military convoys and general petty officialdom – all of which can frustrate your free movement, at least around tourist areas.

More important than ease of moment, it helps to have a tour guide – ideally a trained Egyptologist – with you all the time because generally in Egypt exhibits and important sites come without information boards or complimentary pamphlets. A good guide will inject meaning into your sightseeing experience, pointing out the little details you are unlikely to notice on your own. It’s a massive waste to have travelled so far only to look at something as “just another temple” because you don’t know any better.


The final good thing about tour groups in Egypt is that for the most part, travel newbies don’t pick this potentially challenging country for their first overseas vacation. This means that you will not be touring with superficial 18 years on a gap year funded by their parents. The men and women on our tour were just that – adults in their mid twenties and upwards. Most if not all of them were veteran tourists, nibbled half to death by the travel bug, with all sorts of interesting travel stories and life experiences they were keen to share. It was great fun being around them, and I fail to see how someone who is vehemently anti-tour groups because it “cramps their individual style” wouldn’t enjoy chatting with, and generally hanging out, with such adventurous kindred spirits.

There are multiple tour companies operating in Egypt (including Contiki and Gecko's). My sister I ended up choosing On the Go for our Middle Eastern holiday, largely because their tour options covered everything that we wanted to see (I didn’t want to just do Egypt) and we got a 15% last minute booking discount – which made what would have been an uncomfortably pricy tour much more acceptable to our budgets.


I can say now, having done this On the Go tour, I would pick the company again any day for my future travels. In my experience, they topped Contiki in every area, especially personalised service. For example, they shuttle tour members from and to the airport, and will even check you in, bypassing queues if necessary. While the On the Go website said that company representatives would only do this if your arrival time was after 7am, on the morning we arrived the guys were there in the airport waiting, cheerful and smiling, well before 6 o’ clock.

Other examples of this personal care included getting medicine for us free of charge when we were sick, and, on our last day in Cairo, our tour guide Sheriff took us to the famous market of Khan el-Khalili. He drove us there in his own car, and despite the fact that he was off-duty. At the market he proceeded to help us find exactly what we wanted, skipping the pain of searching, hassles and haggling, and he even bought us falafels for lunch.

On the Go Egypt definitely For the Win!


Cairo
Frankly I was terrified about our few days in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, and the biggest city on the African continent. Horror stories abound its ugliness, dirtiness and congestion. So let’s set a few things straight. Yes, Cairo is a tangle of towering half-built apartment blocks. Yes, it’s very dirty and dusty (but not at all smelly). And yes, the city suffers from the worst traffic I have ever experienced in my life. Honestly Cairo makes Sandton rush hour look like 3pm on a Sunday in Dorpiesfontein – just cars everywhere, interweaving without any lane markings or apparent street lights.

It was truly terrifying trying to cross the street in Cairo as a pedestrian – much worse than in Rome. Ultimately the best strategy seemed to be to find the most congested part, and make a dash when the bashed-up 40 year old cars stopped in the gridlock for a moment.


Anyway, I was bracing myself for a serious culture shock in Cairo. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel it that badly. Although this reference will only really mean something to my fellow Durbanites, I found Cairo to be very much like Sparks Road… multiplied by a million. So there was litter everywhere, people bustling around in traditional Muslim dress, mosques droning their call to prayer, traffic jams, and quite a bit of shaded greenery away from the main streets.

This said, Cairo has a certain kind of rundown charm, similar to Athens but minus the graffiti. And in fact, after dark, by the Nile especially, Cairo can look quite pretty. What I was quite surprised by though was the almost complete lack of British influence in the city (England occupied Egypt from 1882 until the mid 20th Century), except perhaps for the architecture of the Egyptian Museum.

For the record, I felt quite safe in Egypt. Not that we did anything silly but it was possible to walk all over – even in suburbs away from tourist areas – without anything happening other than receiving a few stares and having a few lame pick-up lines yelled at us. While theft happens, violent crime is apparently non-existent. And although you’ll likely be hassled by traders at the markets and main tourist spots, there are no obvious beggars in Egypt, unlike South Africa. Instead, everyone seems to have found some little activity – however bizarre, like blessing your car with incense (?!) – for which they feel they can ask for a small bakeesh (tip/payoff) to supplement their meagre income. In every public bathroom, for example, there is an attendant, charging around 1 Egyptian pound (R1.30) to use the facilities.


Of course, this constant extending of the palm for the most random things can get annoying very quickly, and you learn to respond with a curt “La shokran” (No thank you) whenever a supposedly friendly Egyptian wants to pose with you for a photo, or point out something at a temple. It’s an unfortunate situation because I’m sure there are Egyptians keen to show off their country’s treasures without expecting a little bit of extra financial remuneration. However, these locals end up receiving the cold shoulder because tourists would rather avoid the uncomfortable situation of being unable to tip an increasingly irate Egyptian.

On the Go Egypt at least has an intelligent solution to the issue of bakeesh. A tipping kitty was collected from everyone at the beginning of the tour, so we didn’t need to worry continually about tips for the likes of hotel bellhops (it's very difficult to acquire coins and small change in Egypt). As for the “helpful” Egyptians wanting to take us behind the scenes at tombs and temples, well, we were warned beforehand about what they wanted and could decline their offers immediately.

Cairo, and Egypt as a whole, certainly has its challenges for a tourist. However, it’s a place unlike anywhere else on earth, with century upon century of history shaping it into its current chaotic, dusty shape. Ultimately it’s best to accept and appreciate Egypt for what it is – a truly African-Middle Eastern hybrid of a country.

Next up: Cairo sightseeing, shopping and fine dining…

Comments

Anonymous said…
Your blog brings back memories - the only way we ever crossed the roads in Egypt was to ensure we walk next to a local - and the local was between us and oncoming traffic!

We've used On The Go 3x and they're really good - would recommend them to everytime.

Sophia
Pfangirl said…
Hey Sophia, thanks for commenting:) We also adopted the whole "use a local as a shield" approach to crossing roads a few times. But damn, it's terrifying. There hardly ever seems to be a gap.

As for On the Go, it's good to hear that their tours and reps in other other countries are really good. I'll definitely be consulting their brochure and website again in the next few years.
Brandon said…
Oh excellent; I'm glad you're posting this. Your little journal is finally paying off! I've always told myself I wanted to journal while on holiday but it's never ever happened. So I journal vicariously through you!

I found the easiest way to cross the roads is to just go... that's what locals do and usually traffic will stop for you unless you're darting out in front of someone doing 120.

That is so cool to hear that Sherif took you to the Khan in his own car. I remember being impressed when our program manager in China set up a tour of Hong Kong for us on his own time (HK was "on your own" according to the itinerary), but he was still getting something out of it: business for his guide friend. I've got to say I was most impressed with OTG, though still disappointed nobody seemed terribly interested in helping me get to Israel for a day. I arrived at 2am and there was someone waiting at the airport for me. Though I did have to pay for an extra night in the hotel, and the rep wasn't as cheerful ;)

Honestly these days I'm surprised when I -don't- have to pay for the restroom abroad. Even in a lot of Europe there were 50-Euro-cent charges for many public facilities. I was impressed by the number of times I -didn't- have to pay in Egypt! But I did make extensive use of my wagging finger.

Anyway, nice start and I look forward to reading the rest of these!
Pfangirl said…
Thanks for commenting Brandon. You're not the first tour mate to say that they're glad I'm writing this instead of them:)

As for the restroom use, we were charged all over Europe as well, except in museums normally. We're not used to paying in South Africa though, so I thought I'd mention it as a warning for people in countries out there like us who aren't expecting it.

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