A post three months too late, but watching The Square tonight inspired me to resurrect the draft that had been sitting around for ages.
Reuben and I decided to meet up in Egypt over Christmas. I was apprehensive about the situation there, well sort of. Was secretly hoping I’d get to see a demonstration…but that didn’t happen!
Some takeaways/notes from Egypt…
Just like Colombia, I was met with skepticism when mentioning I’d be going to Egypt. Having spent a total of 10 days in Cairo and Sharm, I’m happy to report that things were quite normal there, apart from the very obvious hit in tourism thanks to the media and travel alerts.
Two days into Cairo, and you could sense the people’s sadness and keenness to restore this beautiful country back to its days of tourism glory. This was noticeable by the rows of closed street carts around Giza & Memphis and by the tone of vendors that were somewhat pleading. At one point, I was in a pyramid in Dashur all by myself. From conversations with various Egyptians, they report that tourism has declined by 90% since the revolution. With tourism being the nation’s main source of income, it has affected millions of people.
What does this mean for us travelers? This is one of the best times to visit Egypt. The hoards of tourists are not present. You have the loving attention of locals who want you to feel safe and happy with your experience. Prices of hotels, excursions are currently very very reasonably priced.
In my first two days in Cairo as a solo female traveller, I was cautious. Not so much about revolts, bombings, but more about being in a large city. I wasn’t sure how I would be seen or approached in a different culture. As the days went by, I began to relax. Having walked around some really dodgy looking streets, talking to vendors, cafe owners, smiling at the friendly locals, I felt at ease. There are certainly other cities in the US where I’ve felt more unsafe. Regarding the current political situation, there were a few incidences throughout my time in Egypt, a bombing at a police station north of Cairo and clashes at the al-Azhar university. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t read the news.
When traveling, I look forward to conversing with the locals. I love hearing first hand accounts from people with backgrounds different to mine and then arriving at a mutual understanding of “I’ve let you into a special place, you get it.” There were some memorable folks we met: Peter, our Coptic Christian contact in Sharm who shared personal accounts of the current political situation, Yasser, my funny diving instructor, Maha, my tour guide who shared a lot about Cairo life with me, and Mohammed, our Mount Sinai guide. Mohammed was my favorite. I think he hated me at first as I kept wanting to wander off from the group by myself, but by the end of it, we were running down the mountain, stopping for tea, sharing Bedouin jokes while the others caught up. He also shared some very sad personal experiences, and I admire him for how he’s been able to move on. He was full of life.
Having a guide
A guide in a vast city like Cairo can be helpful for any first timer. I’ve never done this previously, but with the advice of my brother, I asked for a guide during my time in Cairo. Guides here have to get licensed, i.e. they have to study, pass exams. Maha, my guide was like a textbook. I could literally point to anything anywhere, ask her what the story is, and she’d get into it. In a city insanely rich in history and culture, this is quite helpful to have. She also prepped me before we’d walk into a site, how much to tip, what is a reasonable price, what to do to avoid hagglers, etc. I spoke to other travellers and on a few occasions and they were overcharged, sometimes up to 10 times what I paid. I also noticed different behaviors when vendors saw that I was with an Egyptian woman, versus when I wasn’t.
Food. God, I love Egyptian food. Koushari, fresh grilled seafood in Sharm, bread, Egyptian tangine…. I love carbs, seafood and spices. Koushari surprised me. It is a Egyptian dish where they mix macaroni, rice, beans, vinegar, tomato and hot sauce. Sounds weird and atypical right? It’s delicious.
Getting Padi certified in Sharks Bay was an incredible experience. During the last day our group took a boat to Tiran Island and dived around Jackson Reef. The sights were incredible. My brother and I stayed at Sharks Bay Umbi Diving Village which I’d recommend it to anyone who visits Sharm. It’s the complete opposite of the loud, Russian tourist filled, all inclusive hotels that populate the coast. They have a lovely spot by the beach (with its own jetty) which seemed to be used by a number of pro-diving groups. Food was reasonably priced, delicious and the restaurant was cozy and comfortable, with an accompanying bedouin tent area where you could sit on the floors, smoke shisha and have tea.