I have a dilemma. As dilemmas go, it’s not huge, but it’s my excuse for being a slacker on the blog front these last two weeks. I want to tell you about my week in Egypt over Easter, but every time I think about Egypt, I feel kind of sick. Maybe I’m allergic to Egypt now. I feel bad saying that, but I swear it’s true. Suffice it to say, I’ve definitely had nicer vacations.
My travel philosophy is to arrange things yourself — the flights, hotels, train tickets, restaurants, sight seeing — the whole shebang. Yeah, it’s a lot of time and hassle even with a superb guidebook or two or three, but I think you learn a lot about a country when you figure this stuff out on your own. Traveling independently doesn’t mean you have to travel low-budget (i.e., feel free to book expensive hotels or restaurants), but it makes it more likely that you’ll have serendipitous interactions with locals and learn new ways to get things done.
That said, based on my week in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, if I were to return to Egypt, I’d take back everything I just wrote in the above paragraph and go on a packaged tour. Really. I’d get shuttled around like a sheep and I’d love it. I’d even accept all those breakfasts, lunches and dinners of bland, carb-heavy “international” buffets (or whatever it is those tours serve you). Because overall, I didn’t think the Egyptian restaurants and street stalls we tried were so super fantastic, and the frustration and exhaustion we felt every day outweighed the usual benefits of traveling independently.
For the record, because I’m feeling defensive, I’ve traveled in China, India and Thailand and had a marvelous time in all three countries, so I don’t think my dislike of Egypt stems from being unused to travel in the developing world.
So, without further ado — CAIRO, the things Jon and I learned:
- Always count your change. Even at gleaming places at the airport. Our first taste of Egypt was when the guy at the Cairo Airport Hudson News ‘accidentally’ gave us 84 LE change instead of 94 LE.
- Take taxis. With minimal negotiating, it costs just 10-15 LE (£1.17-1.75) to get from Point A to Point B anywhere in Cairo. The trick, though, is that once you get in the taxi, the driver usually has no idea where he just agreed to take you. When this happens, just tell him to stop and pull over. There will always be another taxi honking and pulling over to ask where you want to go. Rinse and repeat until you arrive at your destination.
- No matter what your guidebook says, forget about taxi meters. The one time we had a guy use the meter, he’d clearly messed with it because the fare zoomed up to 10 LE after just 2 minutes in the taxi.
- Don’t negotiate a second time. In our experience, 75% of the time, after agreeing a price, a vendor or taxi driver would ask for more, as if we hadn’t already agreed on a price. We didn’t get angry and we smiled a lot, but we never backed down. That said, you can see how this gets exhausting when you do it 20 times a day.
- Keep lots of small bills so you don’t end up with sellers claiming they can’t give you any change (which will happen 100% of the time if you don’t give them exact change for whatever you just negotiated). Small bills are also important for baksheesh, which really is paid everywhere from bathrooms in even nice restaurants to the temples you’ve already paid admission to get into.
- Rent a felucca at the dock across the street from the Cairo Four Seasons hotel. For 60 LE (£7), we took an hour-long cruise on the Nile at sunset. It was just us and the two felucca sailors. Peace and quiet, the ultimate luxury in Cairo.
- Hire any regular taxi to do a full day of sightseeing to see the Pyramids. For 150 LE (£17), our taxi driver agreed to take us all over the place from 8 am to 3:30 pm, so we were able to reach relatively-distant spots like the tombs and pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur, in addition to Giza. Our driver spoke no English and had no idea how to get to Saqqara (he ended up asking about five different people for directions), but we were so grateful he didn’t take us to his cousin’s carpet/alabaster/perfume factory that we were glad to add a 50 LE tip at the end of our day together.
- While we’re on the topic of the Giza Pyramids – don’t pay the extra 100LE per person to go inside the Great Pyramid. Not only do the guards hassle you about having a camera (time for more baksheesh), but also there’s nothing to see inside. Just a cramped, dark box. If you’re really eager to see the inside of a pyramid, try the Red Pyramid in Dahshur, which is free with a little baksheesh to the random dude squatting in the entrance. Be warned that in all pyramids, the climb is pretty stuffy and strenuous
- Visit some of the mosques in Arabic Cairo. I thought Ibn Tulun mosque and Al-Azhar mosque were highlights and well worth a visit (though we did get dropped off at random mosques by taxi drivers who would claim we had arrived at Ibn Tulun mosque – maybe we were pronouncing the name wrong, but it took three different taxi rides for us to finally arrive at the right mosque). Although Ibn Tulun is quite empty and Al-Azhar quite busy, both served as quiet refuges where we could sit and relax undisturbed.
- And lastly re: Islamic Cairo, I didn’t really enjoy the much-hyped Khan El Khalili market. Give me the Istanbul or Marrakech souks any day over all the aggressively-peddled tat we saw in Khan El Khalili. I wasn’t tempted at all to buy anything.
TRAINS, the things we learned:
- We’d heard from several friends and read in several guidebooks that trains were *the* way to travel from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan and back. But while the overnight trains weren’t horrendously dirty, they were chilly, very dated and not exactly clean. And don’t get me started on the food. If I could turn back time, I’d look more seriously into flights, especially from Aswan back to Cairo (which was a 14-hour train ride). Train tickets were flat-priced at $60 each way, whether you were stopping in Luxor or going straight through to Aswan. And you had to pay in USD.
- Don’t bother trying to reserve your overnight train tickets in advance. The on-line schedules are inaccurate; the office with which you communicate is awful at responding to your questions (as indicated on Seat61); and last but not least, once we arrived in Cairo and tried to pick up our tickets at Ramses Station, we learned that through some cock-up by the reservations office, we’d have to return the next day for one half of the tickets we’d reserved. The ticket window wouldn’t let us just cancel that reservation and order new ones on the spot, which made me feel like we were penalized for having tried to book in advance. INSTEAD, get your hotel (stay at the nicest hotel you can afford, no joke) to handle the tickets for you. You’ll pay a small extra fee (50 LE baksheesh to the courier and concierge), but it’ll be worth it.
- Try the best you can to avoid uniformed “officials” like the police and train agents. When we were waiting on the platform for the train from Aswan to Cairo, a policeman insisted on taking our ticket and refused to give it back until we’d given him baksheesh. It was pretty awesome. We watched him do it to every foreign-looking person on the platform. And then at 3:30 the next morning (it’s an overnight train), the train porter in our car woke us all up and practically shoved us off the train, claiming we had arrived at Cairo Ramses station. You can see what’s coming, right? It wasn’t Cairo at all. It was Giza, a solid 30 minutes away from Ramses station. We had to bum rush him to get back on, at which point he shrugged, changed out of his uniform anyway and called it a day. Seriously, the guy just kicked out all the passengers so he could end his shift early. Nice.
In summary, if you want to come home happy and relaxed, don’t travel independently to Egypt. See the sights, which are generally amazing, but see them with a package tour or some other insulating agent. This advice goes against everything I believe in, but I guess it’s true that you should never say never.