Tuesday, June 4, 2013

So, How Safe Is Egypt? And, Some Travel Tips

The Egyptian flag
A few people have asked me now what it was like to travel in Egypt, was it safe, were there any negative encounters and the like, so I thought I'd give a simple answer and then a longer answer: It's safe for Westerners, and now is actually a very good time to go, since tourism is down due to these kinds of fears, and the Egyptian pound is not as strong as it once was. So actually you can get some real bargains when shopping!

And now for the long answer, along with some other tidbits. Our group had the pleasure of listening to several Egyptians speak about the revolution and the current state of affairs in that country. Really, it's not much different from America on that front. There's some suspicion of government, distrust of the media (propaganda), a genuine desire for democracy, freedom, basic rights, and a stable economy. They feel hopeful--even though everything is not hunky dory at present, the precedent set by the revolution has empowered them. When the people joined together, their voices were heard. The older generation feels that it's now up to the younger generation--those who started a revolution on Facebook and Twitter (imagine!) to keep fighting the good fight. The previously conceived class division of haves and have nots was shattered: the revolution was started by educated youth of some financial means, speaking out in support of all Egyptians.

The reason Mubarak (President from 1981-2011) was ousted is easily understood. For a long time, he was perceived to be a good President. But as he aged, his wife and son started taking over some of the policy decisions, and corruption entered the picture. The son appointed friends to cabinet positions and it seemed likely he was headed to step into his father's shoes. The people felt their concerns were being ignored, and they didn't like the nepotism, bribery, and mishandling of funds. So they took to the streets in protest. After a few days, Mubarak appeared on national television appealing for order and making various promises to improve the situation, and some were willing to give him a chance. But then Mubarak's army began shooting protestors the next day; needless to say that did not go over well, so a full-fledged revolution took place. It hadn't even been planned.

Then came the elections. Well, there were only two candidates: Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (they had been repressed under the Mubarak regime, many of them jailed) and a candidate whose name I forget who'd been in Mubarak's party. One thing that people did not anticipate was how organized the Muslim Brotherhood was. I heard lots of stories about them paying poor people bribes for votes and others speculating that the election was rigged. Morsi also made tons of promises to the people about how their lives would improve, and, of course, none of those have panned out, and now the consensus seems to be that he was just telling the people what they wanted to hear but had his own agenda. The people do not want Sharia law written into their Constitution; they want free and fair elections and a Supreme Court not stacked with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. "The Muslim Brotherhood--they don't represent Muslims," said one person. His point was that Islam stands for peace and that true Muslims respect religious freedom. Although Egypt is largely Sunni Muslim, there are also a fair number of Coptic Christians (and some Jews), and they all get along just fine. Crossing the countryside, I saw many churches and mosques standing side-by-side. When I hurt my knee and room service showed up with a bucket of ice, the attendant said to me quite respectfully, "I will pray to my God that you feel better," and I took that in the spirit in which it was given and thanked him. At no time did I feel criticized or disliked for being a Westerner. In fact, more often than not, when our tour bus blew by any group of people, they would wave "hello" at us and smile.

Any lingering strife in Egypt seems to be between Morsi supporters and those who don't support him. Those who don't support him are waiting for the next election and trust they will be better organized the next time around. Before I left for Egypt, I kept close tabs on the US State Dept news of Egypt and stories in our own newspapers, and there was some to-do about "protests that frequently turn violent" in Cairo. Well, on the bus, we passed by a protest on the way to the Cairo Museum. There were about 40 people standing on one side of the street across from a Marriott Hotel, several blocks away from the American embassy (and, I presume, other embassies and government buildings), and all they were doing was holding signs. So our press tends to overblow stories as well, I think.

In short, I felt safe and welcomed. Consider that tourism is about 70% of the Egyptian economy and that tourism is down, as I said, and in general, Egyptians are delighted to see us. One thing I found interesting was that many vendors seemed to prefer to be paid in American dollars as opposed to Egyptian pounds (one dollar = seven pounds at the current rate of exchange). I expect that's so because they expect their currency to continue to lose value. Dollars may increase in value. So, if you go, bring along lots of ones and fives for tips, along with a credit card, and there's not much need to hassle with exchanging American dollars for Egyptian currency.

Even the Morsi government is dedicated to making Egypt safe for tourists. Military is stationed at every major tourist attraction, and twice we had to get a military escort for places we were going off the beaten path. Well, I take that back: Abu Simbel isn't really off the beaten path since it is a major tourist attraction, but travelers there still need a military escort because it's so close to the Sudanese border. The other place we went that the military insisted on following us to was the El Fayyum oasis (and town), but I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just a rule. In any case, better safe than sorry, although I will say as we were leaving Lake Moerris and returning to our bus, somebody out in the countryside started blasting the Qur'an from loudspeakers. It wasn't the typical muezzin doing his call to prayer. So, maybe there is a pocket of more radical Islamists in that area. Who knows? In any case, when our bus went back through the town, people still waved "hello" at us.

Other things about Egypt to know (that either charmed me or surprised me): public restrooms are a mixed bag. Some are clean; some are not. You do not flush anything down the toilets; you wipe and toss the used bathroom tissue into a basket. As you can imagine, some restrooms can get pretty rank. By the end of the trip, I was preferring to use the bathroom on the bus, and with a busload of 40+ people using it, that should tell you something. But, when nature calls, nature calls. Expect to tip for using the bathroom. Toilet paper isn't kept in the stalls; you are handed a small amount of paper by an attendant when you enter the bathroom. When you wash your hands, you are handed more toilet paper to dry them with. This is why you tip. But this is just public restrooms: hotels are normal.

Unless you are in a store where prices are fixed, expect to bargain when you buy an item. Your first offer will be highly inflated. Say the seller wants 500LE (pounds) for something. Offer 50. He'll say 300. Offer 100. Then refuse to go over that price and start to walk away. He will chase you and say "Okay, okay." Or, he'll continue haggling and throw in more stuff for free. For me, haggling is a headache. (But I'm an introvert.) I'm pretty sure I overpaid for things a couple of times, especially when I'd get the whole song-and-dance about the seller having five children at home and needing to feed them and so on. Truly, I'm a softie, and it was probably obvious. So I didn't mind overpaying at times, especially if the vendor wasn't too pushy. Consider that 100LE is just $14 and that I make in a month what they make in a year, and it was hard for me to argue too much. I rarely accepted change and just told them to keep it.

When leaving Kom Ombo and the Temple of Sobek, one guy approached me, and I didn't even want what he was selling, but he was so gentle and non-aggressive in comparison to the others swarming around us, I told him, "Put out your hand." I slipped a 200 pound note into it and kept on going, walking down the gangplank to our ship. I heard a "Lady!" called out from the shore and turned to look. There he stood, blowing kisses at me. That made my day!

I also received a proposal of marriage--some of the vendors will flirt shamelessly if they think you will buy something. I said I was already married. He said, "Egyptian men can marry up to four wives!" I laughed, but it's true. One of the temple guards we met had three and joked that he was looking for a fourth. He had to be at least sixty years old.

Which reminds me... after the revolution, when there was chaos due to no government and no police in force, there was a small amount of looting, which is to be expected. (Can you imagine no government and no police in this country? I doubt the amount of looting or crime would be small. Yet order largely remained and the crime rate didn't go up in any significant way.) But the one guard with the three wives got his whole extended family to come out and guard the Temple with him. As for the Cairo Museum, a few thieves did break in, looking for gold and for a substance supposedly placed into ancient mummies called red mercury. It's supposed to have all sorts of divine and healing properties, but according to Zahi Hawass, it's bogus and no such thing exists. Newspapers reported that Tut's death mask and all these other artifacts had been stolen, but Hawass says that isn't so. (And if Tut's mask was stolen, that's a mighty fine copy in the museum now, I hasten to add. It looked real to me.) A few mummies were vandalized along with a few small statues, but the damage was minimal. Hawass (Director of Antiquities under Mubarak, so he's no longer in that position) says that during the revolution, when he saw on television that the Cairo Museum was being looted, wanted to rush there right away, but he wasn't allowed to go. Despite the danger at the time, he went there first thing the next morning, only to be greeted by a chain of Egyptian citizens, armed locked together, standing in front of the museum to protect it from further looting. Emotion entered his voice as he was telling us this story, and I was deeply moved.

All in all, the Egyptians are a good, caring, loving people. When I was walking down the stairway to visit the Temple of Luxor, I misstepped and wobbled for a second, and the veiled Muslim woman on the step in front of me quickly reached out a hand to steady me. "Shokran" (thank you) is a word I found myself using a lot.  And I cracked up Housekeeping on the Nile cruiser by asking for a lesson in how to pronounce "Es-salam 'alaykom" (hello). Later on, when one of them saw that my friend Lisa was suffering from a bit of King Tut's revenge, he brought her a cup of peppermint tea, which is very good for soothing the stomach. Point to remember: don't drink the water, and don't eat anything that's uncooked unless it's a fruit or veggie that has been peeled. But that's generally true of any country you visit outside the US.

What else? Ah, yes, traffic. The only rule that seems to apply is direction. Otherwise, there are no lanes. People make their own lanes; needless to say, most cars you see on the road have scratches from being sideswiped. You can also expect to see motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic (the women ride sidesaddle!) and the occasional donkey cart, plus pedestrians crossing even freeways. Cairo is a traffic nightmare. Still, in Cairo, our bus got trapped on a side street because of a car that had double-parked, and at least 6-7 men in the neighborhood came to the rescue to help direct the bus inching forward and back and to look for the owner of the car. At one point they actually picked up the car and moved it forward a few inches. There really is a strong sense of community in Egypt that is sorely lacking at times in America, at least in the heavily populated metropolitan areas. "Don't get involved." "It's not my business." "I might get sued."

And finally, if you visit Egypt, you'll notice that many of the houses stand slightly unfinished even though people are occupying them. That's because there's a law that states if you buy a house and it's not completed, you don't have to pay taxes on it until it's done. So, Egyptians don't like paying their taxes, either. What's not to love about that?

Egypt is so much more than pyramids and temples and tombs and hieroglyphs. (I feel like I'm writing a travel brochure, hmm.) These were my reason for going, but I'm bringing back so much more than that. Another is a greater appreciation for the things we do have here in America: decent hospitals, free K-12 education, good roads, sturdy housing. We take so much for granted, but by comparison, we have so very much. Egyptians and Americans, I think, could learn a lot from each other by sharing the best of each other.

On that happy note, I'll close. 


Egypt Travel said...

Thanks for getting us out of the confusion whether Egypt travel is safe or not. We shall plan a trip as soon as possible.

Joyce said...

It's definitely worth it!

Barb said...

Fantastic blog, you sum up our beloved Egypt to a tee. As an English woman living in Luxor I couldnt have put it better myself. THANK YOU!!!!!

Joyce said...

I really did fall in love with the people. "Heartfelt" is a word that comes to mind. I didn't see any pretension at all and people spoke directly from the heart. Another thing that tickled me was that if you go into a shop, the proprietor will often offer you tea and you are invited to take your time browsing. There are so many examples I could give of people being personable. :)

Travel Tips said...

Nice post, thank you for sharing.........

Travel Tips

Joyce said...

Sure. I guess I should add that I wrote this post about a month before the new revolution broke out, so if I were going now I would avoid places where there is obvious political unrest (lots of demonstrations, etc), but the US State Dept has not forbidden travel to Egypt. To date there have been only two incidents that I know of involving Americans, and both of those persons were smack in the middle of the unrest in Cairo or Alexandria. My advice to anyone wishing to travel there now would be to simply sign up with the US Embassy in Cairo's email list, which sends out travel warnings if something happens, and to just exercise common sense and caution.