I love the vast majority of countries I travel through. But I will never go back to Egypt. I have mentioned Egypt a couple of times already, and recently somebody asked in the Comments what exactly turned me off. So I’ve decided to stop alluding and explain.
A fairly good start with a group tour
In late April 1997, I had been travelling through Asia for four months, when I joined a small organized tour in Cairo. The 10-day tour was interesting and went mostly well. I got to see all the major sights: the Pyramids, the Luxor and Karnak temples, as well as Abu Simbel in the south (my favourite). The tour also included a 2-night cruise on the Nile with stops at minor temples. It was horrendously hot, but it was dry heat. We had to travel in convoys whenever we took to the highways, since Egypt is not a very safe country even at the best of times.
I got sick on the Nile cruise, along with a third of the passengers. While I was hugging the side of the boat one night, puking overboard, an Egyptian crew member said to me “It’s because you drink alcohol”. Between heaves I gave him my best flame-thrower look and said “I didn’t drink any alcohol, Sir. It has to be something you fed us.” And then a thought occurred to me: “You don’t use Nile water to cook, do you?”. And he replied “Of course. The Nile is clean”. I wish I could have puked on him. (In the end, I came to suspect the water-diluted flavoured drink they served us when we came on board).
Despite this unfortunate episode, and the fact that our guide was a flirtatious air-head, I was able to appreciate the amazing antiquities. I met interesting travellers, and took lots of pictures. So far, so good. Nothing out of the ordinary for an adventurous traveller.
The solo part
After the tour was over, my plan was to spend a week or two on my own, and see more of the country. Alexandria sounded exotic. And then there was the Siwa oasis in the Western desert. And the Sinai peninsula, across from the Red Sea, with its own list of attractions. After that I was going to Israel, then Turkey, and into Europe, wrapping up a 6-month round-the-world trip.
But as soon as the group left and I found myself alone in Luxor, everything changed.
Within a minute of leaving my hotel in the morning, I was accosted by a young man with bad teeth who walked alongside me and tried to persuade me to have a drink with him (at 10:30 am? In a Muslim country?). I finally managed to shake him off, only to have another one glue himself to me. Buying a bar of soap in a corner store resulted in more flirtation and invitations for drinks.
Trying to bargain down a taxi to the normal fare was exhausting and utterly impossible. The taxi driver I hailed to return from the Sound and Light show at Karnak wanted to take me to a discotheque. And, when I made it clear that he had me confused with a different type of woman, he became so ashamed that he wanted to give me the ride for free. Nuts all of them.
I started leaving my hotel later and later in the morning. Looking left, looking right. Walking fast and trying not to get run over when crossing the street as another one of these buffoons latched onto me. I continuously heard cat-calls behind me (which in Egypt sound like hideous hisses). When I turned around of course everything looked normal.
And before somebody suggests it, let me assure you that I was not dressed provocatively. I was wearing baggy pants, a baggy T-shirt with sleeves to my elbows, no make-up, no jewellery, and I had my hair in a pony tail. But apparently, a lone Western woman was all the provocation they needed.
The waiter at the restaurant where I returned often for lunch or dinner wasn’t harassing me but looked thoroughly sorry for me (“You’re alone? Where is your family?”). But at least I could eat in peace. Another restaurant (or was it the same one?) tried to cheat me but I caught it because I had taught myself to read the numbers in arabic.
I couldn’t sit on a park bench and open a book without some guy stopping to try and sell me a camel ride. A “student” wanted me to translate a letter for him. Oh and by the way, his cousin had slept with an Israeli girl! (Good for him.)
One day my Walkman’s batteries died and I stopped in a nearby shop to ask where I could buy batteries. The guy ran out without a word, was gone for over 15 minutes, and then returned with a pack of batteries that he tried to sell to me for twice the price that he paid. (I knew this because I had seen the price of these batteries previously). The goddamn post office double-charged me for stamps! They glued them to the postcards without giving them to me first. My suspicions were confirmed when I got home and looked at the postcard I had sent a friend.
The desk clerk at the hotel called me one evening in my room and found some pretext to get me to the front desk so he could chat me up. The conversation turned a little weird. I went back to my room, hooked the door chain and put a chair against the door.
The final verdict
All of this happened in the space of a mere five days. One morning I woke up with a start and I knew what I had to do. I was leaving Egypt. And I was leaving my round-the-world-tour. I was going home. I was completely, utterly, disgustingly FED UP.
I did meet two nice locals in Egypt: a lawyer in a first class train car, and the lady travel agent who got me an air ticket out of the country within two days. Gotta love her.
Would I come back to Egypt one day to see Siwa and the Sinai? I wasn’t so sure. Six months later, a busload of tourists was shot near one of the attractions I had visited with the group. “Nah, probably not” I thought.
The world has many many beautiful safe places with friendly locals. Those are the ones I want to return to!