In the Fairmont Heliopolis
TRAVEL THERE: AN EXTRAORDINARY EGYPTIAN ADVENTURE
I just got back from Egypt and I want you to visit this amazing country. You’re not going to believe some of the exciting adventures I had while I was there. I hope that as you read my blog in the coming months, you’ll start planning your own trip in your head. As much as I want you to go, I have always been totally honest with you – sharing the good and the bad. So it is only fair that I start this series by warning you that Egypt is not an easy country to visit. You have to overlook a lot to see what is valuable, but there is great value. In the coming weeks I will rave about spectacular hotels and jaw-dropping sites, but I have to start here, with the not-so-pleasant reality of Egypt today.
Then and Now
This was my second trip to Egypt. The first was in 1996 when terrorism was an occasional, rather than a daily, thing and the only terror incident associated with Egypt was an attack on a busload of tourists in 1990. The world has changed a lot since then. Days before I was scheduled to leave for this trip, bombs went off in two different Coptic Churches. It didn’t stop us from going, but it did give us pause. It shouldn’t stop you from going either, but you need to know what you’re getting into.
The imminent threat of violence was the most obvious difference between this trip and the one we enjoyed twenty years ago. Security was a pervasive presence, everywhere we went – whether we were visiting a museum, an airport or a church. Every time we entered our hotel we had to put all our belongings through a scanner and ourselves through a metal detector. I was glad for the security, but saddened by the need for it.
It was the same thing pretty much everywhere we went and you just got tired of it. Take a romantic walk on the beach and come back to the hotel for a thorough search. By the time you prove you have a right to be there and you don’t have any WMD’s, the romance has dissipated. This adds to the stress of travel and distracts from your ability to really relax.
One evening we accompanied a niece and her husband to a hotel where they stayed on their honeymoon. They wanted to take a walk down memory lane. Our taxi went through one inspection at the gate to the property and we were put through a thorough search at the front door. Then as we headed out to the pool to look around, we were stopped because we were not actually guests at the hotel. We had to go to the front desk, explain ourselves, show them our room keys to a sister property in town and give them a passport to hold before we were allowed into the pool area. By the time we actually made it down there, we had more thoughts about the intrusion of security than we did Maggie and Shady’s honeymoon.
Forget Lowe’s or Home Depot, Shop for Home Improvements Streetside
The threat of terrorism has devastated the country. Tourism has been at the center of Egypt’s economy for a very long time, but they have nothing to take its place and little with which to woo the tourists who actually show up. Yes, they have some of the most splendid sights in the world, like The Pyramids, Luxor Temple, The Valley of the Kings and such, but the hassle associated with visiting them is challenging.
I thought Egypt was the dirtiest place I had ever visited the last time I went. Well, now it is beyond dirty. It’s down right filthy and much of it has been abandoned. Whole blocks of Cairo and Alexandria’s city centers are just empty graffiti-covered buildings, surrounded by piles of trash. Everywhere we went, unfinished new construction showed signs of being abandoned years ago, when their hope of an Arab Spring turned into a nightmare. Don’t plan on wearing the same clothes over and over. A day of touring will render you and everything you are wearing disgusting. You either need to pack more or plan on a budget for laundry.
An Egyptian Family on a Motorcycle
And Then There’s the People
Egyptians, as a whole, are wonderful. They are happy people who want to get to know you and they love pleasing you. They want you to love their country the way they do, but right now they are a little embarrassed – as if you caught them between working in the yard and getting a shower. They’ll point you towards the freshly planted flowers, hoping you won’t notice how dirty and sweaty they are.
However, they are also frustrated and tired. At almost every hotel we observed someone having a meltdown in the lobby and it was usually an Egyptian guest. Life is hard. The economy is impossible. Traffic is horrendous. Everything is harder to do than it should be and after a ten minute walk your white shirt just isn’t white anymore. Still, given the chance, most of them will bend over backwards to accommodate you and try to create a smile.
At the same time, we noticed there is also a trend that distances the female population from visitors. There was a greater number of women completely covered from head to toe. During our last visit, most women dressed very conservatively and the majority covered their heads, often with a bright colorful scarf. Many would be sharply dressed, while sporting a more conservative hijab. There were some who wore the more old-fashioned gallabeya and hijab, but only a rare woman was covered and veiled in black.
This time gallabeyas and hijabs were the norm. Young women wore leggings or jeans with a tunic, but the hijabs were everywhere and they were not brightly colored scarves, but solid blocks of neutral colors. However, women covered from head to toe in black were no longer rare and I noticed most of them also wore black gloves. They were moving shadows with just a sliver of their eyes showing – distant, aloof, unapproachable.
In the Cairo Museum we saw a young couple taking a selfie. The woman was completely covered in black. We wondered at the incongruity of hiding yourself and then taking a selfie. The young man’s outfit was standard casual fare, but she was covered in plain black without even a bit of embroidery. A lot of mixed messages there.
So I will tell you the story of our trip. I’ll remind you of the difficulties from time to time, but I’ll leave it to you to remember that everything was dirty, inconvenient and noisy, whether I mention it or not. Come back next week and we’ll hit the road.