Some people love Egypt for its rich and amazing ancient civilization. If you have a tour guide and endless resources, by all means—go ahead! Enjoy the ancient thrills of Egypt as you see fit. But if you are interested in getting to know the street people and enjoying Egypt like the locals do, then consider skipping the major sites.
Many tourists are fascinated and beguiled by the ancient marvels of ancient Egyptian civilization, but forget to realize that modern Egypt dazzles the Arab world with their hilarious comedians, extremely catchy music, and inspiring activism. These are the people responsible for wonderful modern philosophy and poetry. This is the country where spoken word poetry can light flames in the hearts of anyone who hears the Upper Egyptian qasidas (poems).
Whether it’s the screwball antics of famed film star Adel Imam lighting up on TV, or the haunting echoes of the adored Cairo-born songstress Om Kalthoum, Cairo is a fascinating city in the here and now.
Please understand you will hear a lot of shocked reactions from folks back home when they learn you didn’t spend a good 5 hours in the National Museum of Egyptian History. You probably should spend at least 2 hours there, but for goodness sake don’t pay a “guide” to read the English signs to you claiming their history experts. They can’t help that—they don’t know what modern Egypt has to offer.
Directions and Derelicts
Egypt has a wealth of wonderful people, but as a tourist, you will not be seeing these people unless you seek them out. A good rule of thumb is anyone who goes out of his or her way to talk with you or offer you help is actually not helpful and is trying to take you for everything you own.
An older man with a bright henna red beard asked me if I needed help finding the famous koshary restaurant, located in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He gave me very wrong directions and insisted I follow him. I politely thanked him and walked on, but he shouted at me, saying “You don’t trust me! But I am old! I have a beard!” Scary.
Anyway, if you want help, look for people who are minding their own business and who are not actively seeking out tourists. Many foreigners have a bad experience in Egypt because their only experience with Egypt is with some very crude and untrustworthy scam artists.
I Don’t Want a Shukran, I Want a Tip
On my first flight to Egypt, a darling older British man advised me that Egyptians are the kindest people on Earth and that they will help you with anything just for a “Shukran,” which is Egyptian for “Thank you.” This man had been to Egypt more than 15 times, but had no idea he was pissing off the entire Egyptian population for not tipping. Simply put, if someone helps you at all in Egypt, you should tip them.
It’s called “backsheesh,” and even Egyptians are tired of its ways. But it is what it is. Just be aware of it and carry some small bills. In the airport, employees will grab your luggage and you may think they are just doing their job until they extend their hand in earnest. This is uncomfortable each and every time and I have not gotten used to it at all. I just carry 5 pounds around for such an occasion and try to not let anyone help me with anything.
Let’s Talk Food
If you ask an Egyptian where good restaurants in Alexandria and Cairo, can be found, be sure you could end up in a high-end and Americanized restaurant serving “wanna-be” quesadillas. This is exciting for Egyptians, but for us who see these foods every day—not so much.
Those little hole-in-the wall restaurants with a falafel maker outside, or an animal carcass hanging from the rafter—this is the place where you should be eating. Dirt cheap and delicious, but do not drink the water. If you are getting some famous Egyptian koshary (a delicious, spicy noodle dish), be sure to ask for bottled water, or you will end up sucking down the cool table water and spending the next two days understanding that Egyptians do not have toilet paper. This brings us to our next point…
What the Heck is a Shatafa?
Egyptian toilets are not American toilets. Most establishments do not have any toilet paper in the restrooms. I did not know this my first visit, but by my third I was a shatafa pro. Shatafas are like a portable bidet either attached to the side of the toilet, or located within the toilet. When you turn the handle on the side of the toilet, you increase water pressure that sprays from the hose and cleans you very well.
Egyptians usually have no idea Americans do not have a shatafa and are pretty grossed out at the thought of it. If you want to avoid that awkward conversation, just imagine that there will be no toilet paper and you must bring your own tissues, or be overcharged for them in the bathrooms. Also, do not take soap for granted. Some restrooms will not have soap, so I recommend bringing cheap wet wipes with you. Egypt may be a thriving country with enormous, teeming cities, but it is still located in the desert.
The Poor Man’s Sharm
Sharm el Sheikh, or Sharm, as the locals call it, is full of lovely ancient structures and gorgeous beaches. However, it is quite a bit more expensive than Hurghada. If you want an extremely cheap ride from Cairo to Hurghada, you will be crammed in a bus for hours with other Egyptians looking to enjoy a cheap vacation.
This is enjoyable because you get to socialize with regular Egyptian people seeking refuge from the zahma (crowded) streets of Cairo. Not to mention you will meet less scam artists this way. However, the trip is very long. You can book a $100-200 Egypt Air flight from Cairo or Alexandria if time is a commodity. You can stay at a lovely resort for under $30 per night. However, the only Egyptians you are likely to see on private beaches will be the guides.
Hurghada is Egypt’s Little Russia. You will meet many Russians and Germans looking to luxuriate in the sun of the Red Sea, or Bahar Ahmar in Egyptian, on the cheap. This can make for an interesting situation where many locals immediately speak to you in Russian or German. Because the Egyptian food has been Russianized for the occasion, make sure to ask the locals where the good food can be found. A no-name falafel shop off the main street offered deliciously greasy falafel and liberally cut pieces of hot shawarma.
Whether you’re there on the cheap or not, Egypt is an amazing place where modern and ancient civilization brick against each other on every dusty street. Every rich cup of coffee and spicy tray of meat harkens back to a bygone era that Americans just don’t get the opportunity to experience. That in itself makes Egypt a worthy and amazing destination.