Everything People Told Us Was wrong Wrong WRONG!
Cairo Travel Blog› entry 1 of 9 › view all entries
Having never left the continent before I found myself filled with a wondrous trepidation while waiting for the EgyptAir ticketing agents to report for work at JFK airport. It seems that while they ask their travellers to arrive 3 to 4 hours prior to their flights, they don't request the same of their employees. Jess and I puttered about the airport buying last minute must-haves at the various shops, until the last Air Jamaica flight left and Egypt-Air was able to flip the booths to their branded signs and monitors. Shoulda went to Jamaica, Shoulda went to Jamaica, Shoulda went to Jamaica, pounded in my head as I waited in the ever-growing check-in line. No one seemed to know whether the 'electronic' tickets that Priceline had provided us would be good enough to get our boarding passes or if they had to be exchanged at a different ticket window in order to board.
We went through security and browsed in all the duty free shops, just to browse. I'd been taking the anti-smoking drug Chantix for almost a month so the giant faux-packs of Marlboros holding five cartons each were of no use to me; likewise, it is not recommended that you drink on Chantix so the half-price booze was also verboten. We passed the time wondering about Egypt, dreading the length of our 11 hour flight, and trying to get last minute 'American food' at the Brooklyn Brewing Co's little Terminal Cafe. I had a not-so-good-but-better-than-dorm-food pizza and Jess had chimichangas of which she ate half a Chimi and left the changas to rot.
Jess having to wear a head scarf, cover her shoulders, not show 'leg', not go off alone, watch our purse/wallet was all BS. It's better safe than sorry, true, but take it from me, a lot of what you hear about travelling in Egypt is sour grapes from suckers or fear-mongers. For most men and women it is crystal clear that you are a "westerner" as such, you are almost never held to the conservative standards of the Egyptian people. The one caveat there being Mosques. We only entered the Mohammed Ali mosque on our last day, but we were pleased to know that a head-scarf would not be required.
Throughout our travels in Cairo and Alexandria, I was amazed time after time at how welcoming, friendly and open the Egyptian people were with us. I can't say enough for their society. There's little to no crime or violence; only the smallest iota that Poverty spawns. They are not a rich people but they are generous. The poorest Egyptian would offer you food, shelter or clothing if you needed it. Which comes to one important tip, whenever offered anything, refuse at least once. It is a part of their customs that they be very generous and you may be taking something from someone who has little or nothing.
The most important thing to remember when travelling in Egypt is to simply not be a sucker. Do things at YOUR pace and on YOUR Whim. People will constantly be offering you things at the tourist places. There will be plenty of opportunities to ride a camel or take a photo of one. You don't need three tchotchke pyramids for $5 pounds. You can buy them at the airport on the way out.
The average policeman that you see on a street corner makes $60 pounds a month. That's a little less than $12 American Dollars, a month. $144 a year. His meals and lodging are provided by the police, but his take home, before taxes is $144 a year. This is why they take bribes.
So when someone starts wrapping a headscarf around your head, and handing you a stick to hold, and wants to take your picture, remember that picture is going to cost you; however it doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg.
Generally, we found that with our friend we paid about 50-75% less than a Tourist on their own would have paid. Likewise, we still paid about 50% more than an Egyptian would have paid. It's a poor country, things are really cheap. A cab ride that costs 5 American may sound like a deal to anyone who has ridden in a cab in Manhattan, however, THIS IS NOT MANHATTAN, this is Cairo. If you're going from one section of Cairo to another it's generally a $4-15, maybe $20 POUND ride, TOPS. As a tourist, the cabbies will tell you everything is $20 or $50 Pounds. It is not. If you're taking a cab from one tourist spot to another expect the fares to be inflated.
When it comes to paying where no price was established, Egyptians will yell, they will chase and harangue and hassle, but they will very rarely do anymore. Allah does not abide physical violence, theft, or robbery. If you have a dispute with a cabbie or a street merchant, seek out the nearest Tourist & Antiquities Policeman, they are EVERYWHERE, and they will ALWAYS side with you. Tourism keeps that cop's bribes flowing, a dirt merchant does not.
Keep as many small bills as you can get your hands on, break the $100 and $50 Pound notes that the banques and ATMs give you at reputable restaurants and businesses.
As much as you want to, don't buy the bread hawked by little boys with giant pallets on their back. Many of those little loafs are cooked on the engine of old pickup trucks running off Leaded Gasoline. Stick to reputable restaurants and hotels their kitchens have a much higher chance of being safe, nothing worse than ruining a great vacation with a case of dysentery.
I had the luxury of being taken care of by a friend, whose business got us through customs, picked us up at the airport, and put us up at my friend's company owned apartment, likewise, they dropped us off again when our time was up. Doing this on your own without a guide or a local ex-pat, may be intimidating but it is well worth it. The people are friendly and nice, the sights are breathtaking and the dollar is king. The only person who can ruin your time in Egypt is you. Remember if you run into trouble, throwing money at the problem is an excellent solution.
Most of all, the best thing I can tell you, is take some time at night, maybe over dinner or before bed, to just mentally go over your day either with yourself or your travel companions, you'll be surprised how many things you missed in the moment due to the chaos of the city.