Keep your cool in Egypt

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Despite the political turmoil, Egypt is still a great place to visit. The historical sights alone make it a holiday destination like no other. But the culture clash can be quite alarming. Christy McConnell shares eight tips for would-be travellers.

I was standing in a sacred place in Luxor, trying to grasp the fact that the temple I was looking at was nearly 5 000 years old – and that it had taken 3000 years to build. No modern building has taken longer than a few years to construct. “Aweinspiring” is not a powerful enough word for the historical structures and the stories that go with them in Egypt. This country, although in the throes of what seems constant turmoil over the past year, is a destination you have to visit if you get the chance. The opportunity presented itself to my husband and me just two months after Mubarak was ousted in 2011. We spent nearly two weeks in the country, being both inspired by the history and challenged by a very different culture. The trip was worth every cent and then some, but there were a few incidences that, had we been more prepared, would have made our experience much more enjoyable. So here are a few tips to help you keep your calm. Speaking of tips, everyone in Egypt who helps you in any way expects a tip! But more on that later…

Tip 1: Resist temptation

We found ourselves in a carpet store outside Cairo one day, umming and ahing about a carpet that cost about the same as our entire trip to Egypt – and we were actually considering buying it, for a brief manipulated moment. Our guide had brought us to the store after having taken us through the temples at Memphis and Saqqara.

Take note: The guides will take you to their friends’ stores, where they receive commission on everything you buy. If there is a specific item you’d like to buy, do your homework on prices and shops before you leave for Egypt. ( has excellent user-based information about this.) The carpet guys (and the papyrus guys and perfume guys) are good salesmen; their hospitality is overwhelming: “Here, sit down in front of this fan… Let me offer you tea. No pressure! Just look! No pressure!” And then, after you’ve cooled off and drunk your tea, and the salesman has had his assistant lay out a tapestry of carpets, the pressure begins. Followed by more pressure. Then the calculators come out. Then you somehow get lured into throwing out a crazy price that you might be willing to pay and just like that, you’re hooked. I was sitting there wondering how on earth the salesman had managed to bend our will like this, but there was the price – displayed prominently on the calculator for everyone to see. So there we sat with our empty tea cups, after spending an hour in the store and putting our toes on many different carpets, secretly trying to finagle our way out of the store without hurting anyone or breaking the calculator. We managed, but I felt as though I had betrayed all the hard-working salesmen and the little children downstairs who were “helping” to make the carpets “after school”. I suppose that is how they want you to feel! The lesson: Don’t go into a store unless you are prepared to buy something, or unless you know you can work your way out of a room without getting steamed up. It’s difficult, trust me. And, most importantly, if you do plan to buy, note that the bargaining is part of the game. Take at least 70 % off the first price they offer you – that is the real price.

Tip 2: Get a guide

It’s a good idea to find a guide when touring Egypt, but finding the right guide will make all the difference. If you don’t mind the odd embellishment (or blatant fabrication), then any old guide will do. However, my husband and I are both researchers, and it was frustrating when different guides gave different stories about the same pharaoh or historical site. By the end of the trip I realised how subjective the telling of history is, especially in Egypt. History really is based upon the person doing the telling. Unfortunately it is hard to find the “right” guide once you are in the country, so you need to do some research before you leave. If you use a travel agency, request a tour guide who is a qualified Egyptologist with a post-graduate degree.

Tip 3: Cairo traffic sucks

Getting to Egypt isn’t the hard part; it’s getting around the country, with its unfamiliar terrain and customs, that can be tricky. Cairo is a fantastic array of chaos – imagine the way some South African taxi drivers use the roads, then picture an entire population driving like this. Lanes and traffic lights are only suggestions. It’s certainly not the place for a relaxing holiday! If, like me, you have little tole – rance for busy shopping centres and long hours in the back of a minibus, my advice is to spend two or three days in Cairo then do a Nile cruise or head to the Red Sea. Even if you don’t see the pyramids, you can still have a good time in Egypt.

Tip 4: Book a package tour

I wouldn’t go with a package deal for my second trip to Egypt, because now I know what I do and don’t want to see again. But if it’s your first time to Egypt, the assistance of a tour company is invaluable. Make sure you understand the details of the package before you touch down and be prepared for lots of optional “additions” to the trip you’ve already paid for. For instance, we had paid to see a few main attractions as part of our package, but the moment we arrived, one of our guides presented us with a list of extra activities and excursions. If we wanted to do any of them, we would were told we had to decide immediately and pay in cash. It’s a bit overwhelming to be faced with something like this before you even exit the airport! Again, do your research and decide what you’re interested in. Many of the extras are shameless tourist traps, like the ubiquitous “Sound and Light” shows at all the major historical sites. Rather use your spare time to explore under your own steam. Ask the staff at your hotel for advice and how to rent a taxi for a few hours – just agree on a price before you get into the taxi!

Tip 5: Do a Nile cruise

We took an overnight train from Cairo to Aswan, where we boarded a cruise vessel. The train ride was fun, but if you don’t like noise, confined spaces and really bad food, spend the extra money and fly to Aswan instead. It was a four-day cruise from Aswan to Luxor. On the boat, the food, the service and the sights were fantastic. It was also the only time during our travels that we didn’t have to worry about tipping everyone. We spent the days relaxing around the pool and ambling through magnificent ancient temples when the ship docked. This is Egypt at its best; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Tip 6: No bare skin

Dress modestly. It’s okay to wear your bikini on the beaches of the Red Sea tourist resorts, but when you’re in Cairo or any of Egypt’s other inland town and cities, be respectful of local customs and wear clothing that covers your arms and legs. This is especially relevant if you want to walk the streets or see any of the stunning mosques.

Tip 7: Nothing is free

If anyone hands you a scarf or a hat and tells you “for free” – it is not free. Don’t touch it unless you want to pay for it. In fact, if someone says he wants to give you a gift, it may be a good idea to just ignore him and put your hands behind your back. Seriously. If a guy at the pyramids asks if you’d like a picture with his camel, you are going to have to pay for it.

Nothing is free. If you keep this in mind you will be okay. Decide who you are going to tip and fix an amount in your head, otherwise you’ll find yourself dishing out baksheesh left, right and centre. All the money you saved to buy that expensive carpet will dwindle to nothing before you know it.

Tip 8: Go now!

Tourism is one of Egypt’s key industries. The political problems and the tragic soccer riot in February have scared off the visitors and ravaged the country’s economy. As a result, flights to Egypt and tour packages are at alltime low prices right now.

Don’t be fooled by news hype: The problem areas are urban and localised, in certain parts of Cairo and Alexandria. In the rest of Egypt it’s business as usual.

When we visited, the popular and famous attractions weren’t packed with people like they usually are, which made for pleasant sightseeing. We never felt at risk; in fact, we felt safer in parts of Cairo than we do in many parts of South Africa. Children roamed the streets and the people we met were helpful and accommodating.

I’m not suggesting you put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation, but doing something like a Nile cruise, away from Cairo, will give you the chance to experience Egypt without having to battle your way through crowds – for a very good price.

Egypt encompass everything a great holiday should be: learning, relaxing and a little adventure. I hope you’ll enjoy the country as much as I did.

Originally Published in Go Magazine, April 2012


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