Egypt is not a country I lived in as an expat but it made a strong impression on me and I couldn’t leave it as Cairo, Egypt is the best example of a destination you can’t miss, that will blow your mind but in the same time leave you with a sour after taste of culture shock.
Not a great memory
I must admit that my only trip to Egypt didn’t leave me only good memories. I travelled there as part of a group and some of our members got some trouble getting through customs at the airport, they were held for questioning for hours (some of them) only to be allowed through. Not the best start to a holiday or even a work trip.
Then I was very disappointed by many people we had to deal with. It was clear from the start that all they were interested in was money! Everything had a price, it’s like we were being extorted all the time! I mean what kind of relationship can you establish with people when you see that every smile is fake, every greeting is forced, every favour has a price?
When I travel, I love to meet people, to learn about them, their culture, their traditions…. and in Egypt I was left with a sour taste, a feeling that it was all fake!
And to top it all, we were unable to go back home as planned to due that volcano eruption in Iceland, remember that? The huge cloud of ashes grounded millions of passengers all around the world, including us! OK so you can’t really blame Egypt for that but after a bad start and quite a few disappointing experience, it was all too much.
Not to miss if you go to Cairo
Of course it wasn’t all bad, we also met some genuine people and got to see a few amazing things. For a start we took a trip to the pyramids of Giza (what’s the point of going to Egypt, hey?) and it was quite something, I mean just the size of them, wow. But here again the money extortion scheme is in place. When you go to the ticket office (yes you have to pay to see the pyramids) there are signs in Arabic explaining the 3 different fees applied to visitors:
- Egyptian price
- Student price
- Non Egyptian price
So you can be sure that tourists pay wayyyyy more than the others. We found a way to save money by sending students (with student’s cards) and members of our group who were Arabs to buy all the tickets. Sad though!
If you go to Cairo, you have to go to Khan-El-Khalili, it is the biggest Souk in the world (i think), it is absolutely huge and you can be lost in there for hours. It is really beautiful and a fun way to spend an afternoon or a whole day even. Just be careful with your belongings and avoid speaking English! (see tourist extortion scheme above… yep, again).
Finally, a cruise on the Nile is always a pleasant way to spend some time. Everything is available from a 30 minutes boat ride to a full cruise that lasts weeks. You’ve got the traditional feluccas or the more modern boats… have a go it’s quite fun.
Learning Arabic in Cairo
There are many schools and institutes specialised in Arabic courses for non-Egyptians, which can be tailored to your needs and this is a great way to pick up the language. I know a few people who have done just that and not only they learnt Arabic fast but they actually enjoyed living in Cairo. I guess once you become a part of the city, you can appreciate it better.
One of the most shocking facts about Egypt was the behaviour of way too many people with regards to us. Of course I’m not going to generalise but it is a fact that as a white skinned, English speaking, British national you will be seen first and foremost as a milking cow.
Let me tell you what happened once: we went to Khan-El-Khalili with a few members from our group. We are all British with different ethnic backgrounds: Asian, European, Arab… One of the men in the group, with a very Arab look, was interested in buying some perfume and he was taken into a shop. He stayed there for up to an hour, the people inside simply wouldn’t let him go without making him buy as much as possible.
Outside the stall, some Egyptians were working the crowd, trying to get more and more people inside the shop to buy perfume. They also got round to talking with us and asked us about our friend inside. Stupidly we let slip that he was British (they had assumed he was of Arab decent), the guy ran inside shouting in Arabic :British! British!
I’m sure by now you can guess what happened to our friend: he was kept even longer and the prices went up.
If you plan on going to Egypt the Web is full of tips and travel inspiration.
However, if you want to truly discover the city and its people my advice is to keep as low a tourist-profile as possible. Avoid moving around in groups of English speaking people and anything else that would tag you straight away a tourist and therefore a “cash-machine”.
I’ve read many accounts of people’s holidays in Egypt being ruined by the money scams and tourists traps.
The solution? It is really up to you how you want to go about it but there are now quite a few projects in Cairo, run by locals, which allow you to discover the city. And i don’t mean touts, or “tour guides” i mean people who really care about you and really want you to see beyond the tourists spots. One of those is called Egyptian Sidekick and it’s not just me saying they are awesome, just check out their Trip Advisor review page.