Sunday, 24 September 2017

Why you should visit Egypt now

When I first got back to London after 10 days in Egypt, I suffered reverse culture shock. It felt so decadent to go to the giant Tesco and see every kind of food and plenty of household commodities in over-abundant displays all ready to be plonked in the generous trolley supplied for my convenience. Toilet paper could be flushed down the toilet. Water drunk from the tap. Rubbish was swept up from the streets and carted away. Everything looked so neat and orderly, and complaining about anything – from late trains to chilly nights (after all, I could just turn a dial and heating would come on in my flat) – seemed too petty.

On the other hand, no one met my eye on the street. Strangers didn't say hello or smile in greeting as we passed. Most of my neighbours don't know each other except maybe by sight and local children don't wave at me. For the most part, everyone here is in their personal-space bubble and that's the way they'd like to keep it, thank you very much. I missed the easy friendliness of Egypt, the wide open spaces, the beautiful landscapes, the differentness.
I also feel like I need to set a few misconceptions right, because Egypt is fascinating, fun and an amazing place to visit. Here's why you should go and the sooner the better:

Safety: I never once felt unsafe. From the moment I stepped on to my Egypt Air flight, where there's more legroom and wider seats in economy than any other carrier I've been on (and believe me, I've flown plenty), was served a delicious vegetarian meal (and that doesn't happen often on an airplane) and experienced high-class, professional service from the cabin crew, all my fears floated away.
Cairo is a big, mad, busy city, but it doesn't feel dangerous or edgy. In fact, I would say New York has more of a jumpy vibe. Yes, you will see guards, police and army personal, especially around places of importance, like the Aswan Dam or the pyramids, but after a time or two, you'll barely notice.

Dress: I worried way too much about covering up or being appropriately dressed before I went, so here's the deal: if you're a woman, it doesn't hurt to carry a pashmina, which you can stuff in your backpack, in case you go somewhere out of the way or small town, just to throw over your shoulders to be respectful of local customs. Mostly though, T-shirts and shorts are fine. Really.

Haggling: Another thing I worried about. Yes, you will be asked to buy many, many things. Scarfs, towels, tablecloths, statuettes, scarabs, necklaces, purses... Here's what you need to do: simply say, 'La shukran' (no thank you) and keep walking. If you can't remember those two words, say them in English – you'll be understood. On the other hand, sometimes what they're offering is actually so ridiculously cheap (two cloth purses for £1?) why not buy them? You can give them as gifts when you get home or stuff your Egyptian money in them while you're there. If you can't stand haggling, I recommend shops (see below) where it's not necessary.

Two other notes if you hate haggling: if you tell him or her what you're after, your guide* (*see below) can do it for you or, if you're staying in a larger hotel or on a cruise ship, the onsite shops will have set prices.

Guides: hire one. If you're taking a cruise, like the excellent one offered by Orbital Travel, one will be provided. But even if you go on your own, you'll get so much more out of your experience if there's someone there to explain it all to you, arrange transportation, take you to the best vantage points and be your conduit to all things local. I had the luck to be guided by two during my 10-day trip, one in Cairo (Sam: and one along the Nile (Elia: and would highly recommend both.

Finally: Go. The exchange rate is incredible right now, so everything is a crazy bargain. The international sightseeing crowds haven't cottoned on yet that it's cool to go back, so it's not rammed. And? You'll have an amazing, trip-of-a-lifetime experience seeing all the stuff you've only ever read about or seen pictures of. Plus, you'll gain an appreciation of Egypt that will stay with you forever. I was one of you before I went – a little nervous, a little worried – and now I'm totally converted and am recommending Egypt to everyone. Really, you're going to love it.

Recommended shops:

For papyrus: Isis 2 Papyrus Museum, Hilton Road, El Karnak, Luxor

For alabaster and statuary" Abo El Hagag Alabaster Factory, West Bank, El Qurna, Ezbet El Ware, Luxor

For rugs: Tohamy Carpet School, Saqqara Road, Saqqara

For kartouches, other jewellery and souvenirs: the onboard boutiques on the Royal Esadora cruise ship

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