Thursday, 8 March 2018

Why I won't tell you to go to Egypt

Streets of Cairo

Tour guides and taxi drivers throughout Egypt said "Tell your friends!  Egypt good!  Egypt safe!  Tell your friends - come to Egypt!"

We smiled and nodded. But we didn't mean it.

I will not tell you to go to Egypt.

Truthfully, Egypt is safe. Or at least it seems that way. The unrest following the 2011 revolution has died away. And I never felt as if I was going to be robbed or attacked in our 11 days of independent travel.

I will not tell you to go to Egypt. The sites are amazing, no doubt about it. The pyramids are  spectacular. Abu Simbel is incredible, as are dozens of temples, monuments, tombs and statues. The marvels of an ancient civilization are a wonder to behold.

But Egypt? I've been to more than 50 countries and this is the only one I don't recommend. I won't tell you not to go. But I will not recommend it. Which is very sad. I am not sorry we went and I loved what we saw, but Egypt is a challenge for tourists. 

Every minute of every day you are being harassed.  Not gentle requests or casual questions. Relentless oppressive attacks and "no" is not considered an option.

Tourist on a camel ride
Someone at first appears friendly and just wants to chat, but really, he wants to sell you something, usually something you don't want, at a ridiculous price. There is no humour in these conversations, like the jokiness of a Tijuana street vendor. There is no good-natured back and forth like you might see in Bali or Peru. There is no earnest innocence like I saw in the street children of Cambodia. No. 

Hello, my friend, what country are you from?  Canada? Canada Dry!...My friend, do you need a taxi? A horse carriage? Papyrus? Perfume? A hotel?  Sir? A guide? I will give you good price. Very good price. Best price for you my friend. Why do you walk away? Why are you so rude? I just want to help you!

Every encounter is a negotiation. Nothing has a set price. From the price of a cab, an item in a shop, a bottle of water, the cost of using a toilet. Everything.  Our first and almost last shopping experience is detailed by my husband in his blog. One guy charged me $7 for a small bottle of water and refused to give me change until my husband came into the shop. Another said it was 5 Egyptian pounds to use the toilet, and then suddenly it was 5 each and it wasn't until I demanded he return my money that he let both of us in. One guide told us 150 Egyptian pounds for him to tour us around the Tombs of the Nobles, and when we were done, it was 150 each. We booked a driver from one hotel to the next. The tour was to include visits to as many places as we wanted for the entire afternoon, ending at our next hotel. Just before we arrived at the final stop around 5 pm, another man jumped in the cab, claiming to be the boss of the driver, saying we had taken too long and we had to give him another 150 pounds before he would take us to our hotel.  We booked a cab at the airport from the limo service and suddenly it was another 20 pounds for the parking. You go into a tomb and the "guard" whispers that for a little baksheesh, you can take a photo. If it's not enough, he demands more. A random stranger in traditional dress points out some piece of detail on a hieroglyph and demands you pay him for pointing it out. A guy starts walking beside you, yammering about the site, and expects money.  Another suggests you take a photo of him and expects money for it. Just nonstop. 

Five pounds for this photo
On occasion we saw men almost coming to fisticuffs over a lost fare or a deal gone wrong. I mean, these guys were in each others faces. They were screaming at each other. At one point we were part of a shouting match over who would drive us in their caleche and we had to walk away only to be picked up later by the same caleche where the driver beat his horse and then demanded extra baksheesh for his trouble. The testosterone levels are raging and that seems to be considered normal.

Souk in Edfu
I know these people are poor and they depend on tourism. I appreciate that they may have few other options when it comes to making a living. I know I am a westerner with many advantages and options so I really try not to judge. But I also know my tourist dollar is vital to their economy and it's one reason I like independent travel. By staying in local hotels, eating at local restaurants, hiring local guides, buying local products and supporting local travel agencies we can help infuse money into the local economy. Dozens of countries are in the same situation as Egypt, many of which we have visited. Madagascar, Cambodia, Nepal, Nicaragua and Vietnam are all much poorer than Egypt. We did not witness this behaviour in any of these countries and it seems to me that this aggressive bullying is ineffective over the long term.  We ended up basically buying nothing (and believe me, there were many lovely products to buy and I LOVE shopping!) But the hassle was too much. Looking more big picture, I wonder how many travelers have heard about how tourists are treated in this country and stay away?

Men waiting to sell their goods to the next car of tourists.
Finally, almost all our dealings were with men. We had very few dealings with women. In fact, we did not even see a lot of women. In photo after photo taken along the Nile, in village after village, men and boys were all we saw. Street after street in Aswan, Luxor and Cairo- just men. Maybe if there were women involved, there would be a gentler and more polite approach with greater success. A woman owns the charming Al Moudira Hotel on the West Bank of Luxor and it is wonderful. Suzy was our excellent female guide in Cairo and I highly recommend her.  Women worked in the two excellent Fair Trade, fixed price shops we visited. Other than that, in 11 days, we talked to no women. None. Women rarely work outside the home. They do not work where tourists can see them. No female waitresses, shop clerks, chambermaids, guides, ticket booth operators, drivers or cooks. Are there female lawyers, doctors, soldiers, or engineers? I have no idea. From what we could see, women do not interact with outsiders or men outside the family. In fact, outside Cairo, they are rarely seen. And that is highly troubling.

99% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed and almost half of all Egyptian men believe they like it. Cairo is considered the most dangerous megacity in the world for women. Not one report of sexual harassment was lodged during Mubarek's reign. Now, while women can report this abuse, those who do are treated like criminals and criticized by family and neighbours, frequently dropping charges. The treatment of women, mostly forms of physical abuse, has resulted in subway cars just for women on the Cairo subway.  One of the drivers we met said his wife was the boss of everything in his house. He found it easier that way, he said to my husband with a rueful chuckle.  Like "Women! Am I right?" Is it any wonder he "allows" his wife to run the household? She so little autonomy outside the home.

Women hoped for great gains after the revolution, at which they were front and centre. But that has not come to pass. Centuries of misogyny is hard to overturn. I try not to judge another nation's way of life, but I struggled in Egypt. I was with my husband. I tried to keep my head down, didn't look any man in the eye, and pretended to be invisible. My one attempt to act more like a western woman was to swim in the rooftop pool at the Fairmount Nile City where I was rudely stared at in my modest swimsuit. That is not the kind of country I want to spend time in, nor do I want to support it with my tourist dollar.  

So Egypt. I'm not recommending travel to your nation, despite the ancient wonders and the lovely people who do not work in tourism. It's not a pleasant place for a holiday. It is not a good place to be a woman.

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