Another perspective on traveling in Egypt: Part 1

Author Eric Soll with the Sphinx.

Part one of three parts.

Recently this publication featured an informative article regarding experiences on an organized tour to Egypt. Some of the readers commented that they too were either taking or planning to tour Egypt in the future.

Some years ago, my wife and I explored Egypt for almost a month. We toured most of the sights that were described in the article, as well as others. Our experience was somewhat different, having negotiated all facets of our travels on our own. I thought our experiences and insights would provide an interesting juxtaposition to the previously published article.

A disclaimer: While it’s been nearly 30 years since we visited Egypt, research indicates that many of our perceptions are still valid. I also advise that those considering such a trip do their own research.

We applied our frequent flier miles to fly into Israel in order to travel to Egypt. For some reason at that time, the air carrier required a ridiculously low number of miles to fly to Israel during the off season. That roundabout method of traveling to Egypt did present some interesting logistical problems while traveling from Israel to Egypt. If the journey went to plan, we would have traveled by two buses from Jerusalem to Cairo.  But it ended up to be three buses.

Arriving at the Israeli/Egyptian border, we cleared Egyptian immigration and customs. There were numerous buses arriving from Israel, and all the passengers were transferred to Egyptian buses to continue their journey to Cairo in a convoy escorted by an armed escort.  We traveled by ferry over the legendary Suez Canal. But our bus experienced mechanical issues on the other side of the canal, and the convoy and the armed escorts left us on the side of the road. A replacement bus was substituted, and our solitary bus was accompanied by police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing late in the evening. Hey bad guys — here we are!

We were hours behind schedule when we arrived in Cairo, so we didn’t have time to scout about for a hotel. We took the advice of fellow travelers, and we all traveled by cab to a hotel that they recommended. Very nice – centrally located, no air conditioning (an issue to be addressed later) and we settled in. Then it was off to locate something to eat.

Having just arrived and with the lateness of the hour, we decided to indulge in some exotic local cuisine — a fast meal at a well-known international pizza chain that we discovered near Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. As we were not quite certain of how the local fare would impact our recently arrived Puget Sound tummies, we decided to err on the side of caution and ordered a pizza with a variety of cheese toppings.  The staff informed us that we could order a pizza with meat toppings, but we declined. This did result in some bemused looks from the staff, as well as interested glances by other patrons. Best pizza we ever had from that chain abroad or in the U.S.

At the completion of our delicious dinner, we decided to explore the downtown area of Cairo. Over the years, we have been repeatedly queried by friends and relatives if we believed we were in danger when we traveled overseas by ourselves. My response has been and continues to be that the United States is probably one of the most dangerous countries to travel about if one stumbles into the wrong area.  There are a few dangerous countries to be totally avoided, as well as areas to be avoided in every country. Pickpockets are an annoyance in some countries where tourists don’t take appropriate precautions. But the chances of being physically accosted or worse is much greater in many parts of the U.S. than abroad.

We were not concerned as we wandered about the downtown Cairo area until after midnight. Lots of folks were out at that time, and no one bothered us. Interestingly, we did encounter personnel armed with machine guns guarding a closed bank.

We observed with interest how Egyptians drove their vehicles in Cairo. No one operated their vehicles in delineated lanes. Thus, where there are two official lanes of traffic, there would be three or four vehicles driving abreast. Traffic signals, especially red lights, were suggestive decorations and usually ignored. But most interestingly, we discovered that at night, most drivers drove with their headlights off. There are a number of hypotheses for this phenomenon.

And as Egypt is not a wealthy country, many people do what they have to do to get about. We observed what appeared to be a family of five riding on a motorcycle.  No side car — just four passengers sitting behind the driver.

On the streets of Cairo there is a nonstop cacophony of blaring horns. There didn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to their use. We discovered that this was a 24-hour phenomenon. We made good use of our earplugs while traveling on foot throughout Cairo. Sleeping in our hotel that didn’t supply air conditioning required windows to be opened, thus the earplugs were also helpful. And although the view from the rear isn’t as interesting as in the front, we learned early in our travel adventures that often it is better to obtain a hotel room in the rear and far away from any stairs or elevators to minimize noise from every direction.

Of course, what trip to Egypt is complete without the obligatory trek to the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx. To travel there, we arranged through the hotel to have a taxi driver transport us there for the day.

The cost was modest, and we visited the Giza Pyramid complex and the Sphinx at our leisure. There were a number of interesting incidents. When we arrived, there was an argument between our driver and individuals at the site. Apparently, those individuals wanted to act as our tour guides, and our driver didn’t want them to.  We were glad that our taxi driver persuaded them to desist, as we were not interested in a tour either.

The author at the Pyramid complex.

We wandered about pyramid complex, entered the chamber of one of the great pyramids and viewed the solar boat museum and visited the Sphinx. Walking from pyramid to pyramid, we were pursued by a number of four-legged creatures. Camel drivers were insisting that we absolutely required a camel ride, and they would love to accommodate us. My approach to four-legged creatures is relatively simple. I pet the ones that are friendly, I eat the ones that are tasty and I avoid emotional attachments to the ones that are both friendly and tasty. But my days of riding four-legged creatures were long over, having fallen off a horse as a youth. While it was disconcerting to hike between the pyramids with a camel snout hovering over one’s head, we persevered, and after a while the camel drivers decided to pursue more lucrative economic opportunities.

Next it was on to Djoser Pyramid — also known as the Step Pyramid. This pyramid, older than the Giza pyramids and in some ways more architecturally interesting, was virtually deserted. We encountered only one other individual visiting the site, an attorney from Washington, D.C. He and I engaged in an interesting discussion regarding judges, attorneys and conflicts of interest, issues I encountered now and then in a previous profession before I contracted an incurable case of wanderlust that short-circuited that career endeavor.

We had a wonderful time visiting and getting to know our taxi driver. While touring, we discussed many topics and learned a great deal about his perspective of Egyptian society, and his own life experiences. He was enthusiastic about showing us around, and although the price and time period was established in advance, we had to finally beg off and indicate that we were finished for the day when he suggested yet another wonderful sight to visit. We understood that as the hotel arranged the taxi tour for us, the hotel retained a percentage of what we paid. As a result, even though we were budget travelers, we tipped him an additional amount that was approximately the entire cost of the excursion. It was a memorable day, made even better by our driver, and at those prices — even we as budget travelers on a tight U.S. budget could afford it. Verbal thanks are appreciated, but in a relatively poor country, cash at the appropriate time really demonstrates one’s appreciation.

Another day found us on the Cairo Metro, and just as we reached the exit of the station we had traveled to, we were asked to present our tickets. I still retained my receipt, but my wife had lost hers. This turned out to be a really big deal. We were detained for at least a half hour as we were grilled as to the missing ticket, and there was an animated discussion amongst various Metro employees and security personnel. After a while I became quite concerned, as I thought I was going to lose my wife, and I really loved her (still do). More importantly, she has developed an amazing skill set that would be impossible to replace. For example, when I tell jokes, she has impeccable timing and knows exactly when to groan.

The ignorant tourist defense was proffered but was not successful. After much debate, we were assessed a fine of a few dollars, which we paid to directly to the ranking security individual. While a small amount of money for us, at the time it was the equivalent of one day’s salary for many Egyptians. We, of course, still have the receipt of payment as a souvenir. Word to the wise — when riding any transportation system anywhere, keep one’s ticket close at hand not only when the trip is completed, but until one has totally exited the station.

While we no doubt annoyed the Metro personnel, some Egyptians were actually pleased with us. As we were wandering about Cairo, a number of Egyptians came up to us and thanked us for how we were attired. My wife wore a long skirt that reached to her ankles with a long-sleeved shirt. I wore long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. We both dress not only appropriately for the country we are touring, but in a manner so as to not attract attention to ourselves. Better to melt into the crowd as much as possible rather than being attired as if auditioning for a GQ photo shoot.

Our policy when we travel — go with the flow and determine what the flow is before we go. And that also applies to appropriate attire.

While we really enjoyed exploring Cairo — with subsequent transportation receipts rigorously monitored — alas, it was time to continue our journey. We were off to Luxor, and we decided to take the 400-mile passenger train from Cairo to Luxor,  which caused the most logistical confusion for us of our entire trip.

What was confusing? Which line to enter to purchase our tickets at the train station. The train station had a number of ticket lines, depending on the genders and ages of the travelers. We waited a few minutes and observed which line the other travelers of different ages and genders entered to purchase their tickets. We finally determined the appropriate line, thus avoiding an international incident.

During the journey, we were treated to Egyptian hospitality. Cairo is constructed on top of a desert, and it is rather dusty. My Puget Sound dust-free lungs were not accustomed to the amount of dust I had recently inhaled, and as a result I had developed a hacking cough.  A passenger a number of seats in front of us on the train walked back to where we were sitting and provided me with a number of cough drops.

Temple Hatshepsut located opposite the city of Luxor.

We arrived in Luxor and obtained our hotel. It was a nice quiet hotel, not luxurious by any standards, but the most pleasant hotel that we stayed in while in Egypt. One of the positive aspects about not staying at international hotel chains are the varied individuals one encounters. We met a variety of Egyptians in the hotel, from employees to guests, and had numerous interesting conversations with them.

Luxor by far was our favorite city. Not only is it a less-frenetic experience than Cairo but there are so many amazing ancient sites to explore — not only in Luxor but also Thebes, which is located on the opposite side of the Nile River from Luxor. We remained almost a week in Luxor, leisurely exploring all the amazing funerary temples, as well as the tombs located at the Valley of the Kings, Queens, Nobles and Workers. These underground tombs were established after the pyramid construction era ended as the resting places for pharaohs and other notables. They were constructed underground in order to prevent looting. While most were inevitably looted (King Tut’s tomb being the most notable exception), the art work and hieroglyphics were not only preserved, but were so vivid that they appeared to have been recently painted. Truly amazing. And the various temples were relatively intact. Some of the temples still maintained some of the original color on parts of them.

We had most of these sites to ourselves. There had been a recent series of terrorist attacks focused on tourists, and the level of tourism was significantly reduced. This was to have both positive and negative ramifications for us during our adventure.

The positive for us was the almost complete absence of other tourists. Both our photographs and the extensive videos I recorded reveal tombs and temples that appear to be deserted. Thus, we could enjoy the sights at a leisurely pace without having to work our way past crowds.

The negative was also the almost complete absence of other tourists. Less tourists didn’t result in any decreased numbers of hotel touts, tour guides, taxi drivers, camel and carriage drivers and everyone else engaged in the tourism industry. As a result, we were everyone’s only tourists, and it made the competition for our business even more intense.

When walking by the outside perimeter of the Luxor temple, which was located a few blocks away from our hotel, there would be a phalanx of taxi drivers. As we walked by, the first driver would ask, “Need a taxi”?  We would respond; “La Shukran” (No thanks in Arabic). We walked 10 feet and another taxi driver asked us the same question. He had witnessed the exchange between us and the first taxi driver, but that did not deter him in the least. That happened repeatedly down the line, as taxi drivers understood that sooner or later independent travelers would require a taxi to tour the Thebes side. Others would engage us in conversation, with the end result of asking us what we were doing tomorrow and if we needed their services.

(To be continued)

— By Eric Soll

Eric Soll lives in Edmonds.

  1. This is an excellent recounting of the Mr Soll and his wife touring Egypt. I am looking forward to the next in the series

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