Egypt ... where do I even start? I think this trip, more than any other I've taken in recent history, ignited something in me. I had pretty much zero interest in the Middle East before we left, and to be honest (embarrassingly enough) I don't know if I even realized that Egypt was part of the Middle East. But, from the moment we landed and stepped out of Cairo International, it was obvious. Women covered head to ankle to wrist in long sleeves and head scarves, men wearing the traditional long robe jellabiya, the call to prayer echoing through the street -- it is unlike, and more foreign than, anywhere I have been.
Egypt is not an easy place to travel, and we were some of the only solo travelers we met. Contrary to reports that the country is still devoid of tourists post-Arab Spring, the major sites were full of mostly European and Asian tourists streaming off busses, some of them in tiny shorts and low-cut tops that were shocking to see after days in an extremely modest country. Honestly, after our time there I don't blame tourists for choosing a Nile cruise over navigating the country solo, which is certainly more than possible but can be trying at times.
Egypt is famous for people trying to rip you off, and we certainly experienced this. Everyone was good-humored about it, but after countless people following us and explaining the meaning of hieroglyphics to us that we didn't ask about, then demanding baksheesh (tip--one of the few Arabic words we picked up), we learned to keep our heads down and ignore. This is a country where people are extremely friendly, outgoing, and eager to approach you to ask where you are from -- and they loved Americans -- but it's hard to not believe everyone has an ulterior motive after a few days.
The other major suggestion I have is to travel during the winter -- we were there in the mid April, and it was around 105F by the time we left Aswan. Cairo was bearable, but the more south we got, the stronger the urge to scrap sightseeing plans and lay by a pool. Walking around an excavation site for several hours in the blaring sun with no shade is not a lot of fun, and I cannot imagine being there in the summer.
Despite the heat, the hassle, and the trash lining the streets, Egypt was fascinating by virtue of how different it is from my own culture. It left me with a real fascination with Middle Eastern culture and architecture, and I can't wait to return.
What We Ate
Saj w Shawerma. Located directly across from our AirBnB on the island of Zamalek, the Cairo neighborhood home to the majority of expats and diplomats. This place is super casual (no seats), crowded, and amazing. Chicken & meat shawarma and fries with a curry powder seasoning were £E29 -- about US $1.60. This was probably the best food we ate in Egypt.
Mandarine Koueider. Another gem very close to our AirBnB, this is a Turkish style bakery with delicious cookies and baklava. They charge about US$1.50 for six small pastries. There are several locations throughout Cairo.
Abou Elsid Restaurant. Well-known among the expat scene, this more upscale restaurant serves classic Egyptian dishes, a selection of alcohol, and hookah, which is ubiquitous in Cairo cafes. The grape leaves and roasted lamb with potatoes were especially delicious. We paid about US$20 for a meal for two.
Sunny Super Market. Again, this is located in Zamalek, and was by far the most Western supermarket we saw. They sell lots of imported skin and hair products, as well as fresh pureed fruit drinks which are worth a try.
What We Did
Pyramids. Predictably, we got hugely scammed on our first day in Cairo. We took an Uber from our AirBnB to the site, which is located in Giza, a city which is technically separate from Cairo but for all practical purposes feels exactly the same. As we were driving up to the entrance but before we could see the area where locals entered, a man jumped into the front seat of our car and we were ushered outside and onto camels. As we couldn't tell where the real entrance was, we were easily fooled.
We ended up spending around US$150 for a two hour ride on a camel around the pyramids, which, once you've spent any time in Egypt, will reveal itself to be the huge rip-off that it is. Nonetheless, the ride itself was enjoyable and we were able to approach the pyramids from the desert, which was scenic. I was incredibly sore for about two days post-camel ride -- I do not recommend if you want to be comfortable moving around afterwards, and at the very least bring some ibuprofen.
Al Mu'izz Street. This was my favorite part of Cairo and perhaps all of Egypt. Al Mu'izz Street is part of 'Islamic Cairo,' home to lots of mosques and other examples of Islamic architecture. We paid US$5.50 to walk down the street and enter multiple mosques. We were even shown an ancient water cellar by one of the building keepers. The architecture was stunning, and almost no one else was in the buildings except for women washing the stone floors, lending the whole experience an incredibly peaceful feeling.
The area also has a more local feel than the pyramids, and we stopped to try some delicious baked goods from a street stall, including fiteer, a thin crust, flaky Egyptian pizza of sorts. Obviously the pyramids are a must-see if you are in Cairo, but Islamic Cairo was a huge highlight of our trip.
Uber is easy to use in Cairo and eliminates the need to haggle with a driver over fares, which I imagine would get old fast. It's only available in Cairo of the cities we visited, but it was fast to get picked up. D's bank did try to shut down his credit card after seeing a string of 90 cent Uber charges between Zamalek and downtown, an approximately 15-20 minute drive. Our
Uber from the airport to our Airbnb, a 40 minute drive, cost just US$5.
We picked up a SIM card with 4 gigs of data in the airport for US$10, which we swapped into D's iPhone and used to message people back home, call Ubers, and use Google Maps. The 4 gigs lasted us for the entire trip.
Try to carry small change if at all possible, primarily to pass out the oft-requested baksheesh (five pounds, the equivalent of 30 cents US, is a perfectly acceptable tip in most cases). As is often the case in developing countries, many businesses also are unable to break large notes.
Overall, Cairo is an insane city, dirtier than anywhere I've ever been. Cars seem completely unaware that lanes are painted on the freeway, and we saw horses eating trash, people walking along the highway mere feet from the crazy traffic, and were almost killed multiple times trying to cross the street. It was also endlessly fascinating, easy and cheap to navigate, and filled with extremely friendly and outgoing people (even if they did have dollar signs in their eyes). We spent three days in the city, which I think is a good amount of time before heading further south ...