Egypt's People Made Our Visit Pleasurable!

Many visitors to Egypt fly into Cairo, visit the Egyptian Museum and the pyramids at Giza; fly or take take the overnight sleeper train to Aswan; ride in the 'tourist' convoy of buses to visit Abu Simbel and the temples of Ramses II and Queen Nefertari; and then board a fancy cruise boat. They ride for two or three days to Luxor where they take tours of temples and tombs on the west side of the Nile and visit to the great temples of Karnak and Luxor right in town. Then it's back to Cairo and on to Alexandria where they admire the Bibioteca, visit the museum and marvel at the clear air and sweeping coastal cityscape. If they choose, a visit to the Suez Canal is possible and with more time they may extend to a stay in one of the Red Sea resorts.
The average tourist stay is 10 days.

Our stay was different. We stayed for 43 days and followed the route above fairly closely, omitting the Suez Canal and Red Sea beaches. We spent at least a week each in Aswan and Luxor, longer in Cairo and Alexandria.

As we traveled we found that our mood had ups and downs. We have spent a fair amount of time analyzing why, in this land of such wonderful history and culture, we experienced 'downs' that is, days when Egypt was more wearing than fun?

In the beginning first days in Cairo, we came to realize that we had landed in a very different place than we had experienced in the past several years when we have lived in Netherlands, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and the USA - all rich countries. The last developing countries we had lived in were Mexico where the GDP per capita is $15,100 and Turkey where the per capita GDP is $14,600, while Egypt's is $6,500. All three countries have significant portions of the population living in poverty but somehow we felt more of the people's pain in Egypt.

As we continued our travels we discovered that, for an empathetic person, it is especially difficult to have fun in Egypt while so many are suffering. From the first day, we heard stories from people about how the transition following the revolution was impacting their lives due to the downturn in the economy. We met:

  • a lawyer who made more money as a taxi driver;
  • an engineering student who was driving a taxi to earn money for tuition, but riders were so few he'd have to drop out soon;
  • a caleche driver who said he had not eaten for two days and neither had his horse;
  • or the shop keeper who offered us a nice shirt for only LE5 (US$1.00) because he had not sold anything all day.
    Our hearts went out to these people. We truly felt their distress and frustration at having their livlihood be out of their control, but knew that there was little we could do that would make much of a difference.

    As lifestye travelers on a budget who prefer to walk as we explore a city or town, we didn't care to accept the offers of the caleche (horse carriage) drivers but perhaps we should have just to pay them enough to feed their hungry horses. Or we could have just given a few pounds to every driver except there were way too many. To be honest, we were sometimes put off by the lack of grooming and care evident in the horses. Feed does cost money, but grooming your horse is free!

    In small ways we did do what we could to help. We did take the mobile number of the taxi driver engineering student and called him when we needed a driver. We followed the guards at the archaeological sites to special places and to note the inscriptions they pointed out, paying them a few pounds to supplement their meager salaries, but this was wearing. We left tips in cafes even when a service charge was included. Hopefully this little bit helped.

    The economic downturn had another impact on us that we did not anticipate - empty cafes. Often we were the only diners in a cafe and we missed the warmth of people around us chatting, the opportunities to meet fellow travelers or locals, and the people watching. It was in Alexandria that we finally discovered a few cafes with good crowds and thoroughly enjoyed the experiences.

    Another factor that wore us down was the cold. Winter in Egypt can be downright chilly but buildings are rarely heated and many cafes are open air with no interior dining space. Even most of our hotel rooms didn't have heat so there was little respite from uncomfortably low temperatures. We immediately caught bad colds! To make matters worse, Egyptians are smokers and there is no such thing as a nonsmoking area. Sometimes we saw men sitting at a table with a no smoking sign on the wall puffing away. While in Cairo the polluted air further added to our respiratory discomfort.

    And then there was the necessity to bargain. Some people love to bargain but neither of us delights in this way of doing business. We appreciate price tags on items for sale and do not enjoy being quoted the 'visitor' price instead of the local price and having to threaten to walk away to get the right price.

    The reasons that a trip to Egypt was on our wish list were all about the deep history and culture as well as the opportunity to be in a country where contemporary history was being made. Our explorations of the temples, tombs, and museums brought us face to face with an ancient people whose artistic, engineering and spiritual development was amazing for the era when they lived.

    But exploring, comprehending and truly appreciating this was hard work! We could not settle for the quick visits that most visitors make but found that the longer stay we chose was more mentally and physically demanding than in other places. There was always the challenge of keeping focus while being pestered to buy books and post cards, or the constant invitation to come see this special inscription and pay baksheesh. Figuring out the logistics of the visit was also difficult, as information on how to get around and where things were was hard to come by, so we often were forced to hire cars to take us from place to place. While not expensive, this added a further complexity to our travels. We have explored archaeological sites and museums around the world, but Egypt's were the most challenging.

    Reflecting on our experiences, we have concluded that for most visitors, the '10 day visit' will remain the norm. In such a visit they are somewhat insulated from 'the real Egypt' that we saw and for many this is OK as they will remember Egypt for the historic sites they have visited and the nicer hotels and restaurants they have eaten in, and not had their experience 'tainted' by less pleasant aspects.

    Yet, it is good that there are many like us who enjoy the 'different' place that Egypt is, and are tolerant of it. They will meet the Egyptian people who offer their open friendly welcomes, their eager willingness to assist visitors, and their warm hospitality. It was these endearing people who made it possible for us to travel in their country and feel happiness and a sense of enjoyment just often enough to make it a pleasurable and memorable experience.

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