I’m sure that everyone who lives outside of North Korea has been watching, reading or heard about what’s going on in Egypt at the moment. The news, internet and papers have had a constant headlining of story of the violence and tension currently present in Egypt.
Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to travel this amazing country, only several months after the revolution ended and a few before everything started up again. I mention to people when I was there and they are always shocked and say things like, “Wow, your brave.” On several occasions this has come from people who are actually from Egypt themselves. The truth is, while I was there I felt completely safe. Just like any other country, my number one advice is be smart. When traveling anywhere research the dangers, how to stay safe, and more then anything else, use your common sense (unfortunately some people have a little more of this then other.) Oh, it’s 1am and the shortest way back to the hostel is down that pitch black ally? Hm, how about we take and extra five minutes and walk on the main road. An unlicensed taxi in Thailand is offering to take us? How about no, let’s get a taxi from the authorised taxi stand. I mean, it’s only going to cost the equivalent of $3 US dollars anyway. Going to see the sites in Rio, home to thousands of professional pick pockets? Don’t take all your cash and every debit and credit card you own with you. Planning on going out in a foreign city and getting so drunk that you’ll probably forget how to get back to the hotel? Don’t. Take. Your. Passport. (That one is for you Americans.) It’s exactly the same in Egypt to, maybe just on a tiny bit bigger scale. Like when Hilary Clinton flew into Cairo and the locals apparently weren’t that happy about it. Oh, the streets of Cairo are filled with protesting Egypains? Cool, how often do you get to see this anyway? Let’s go check it out, but from a safe distance and with a direct route back to the hotel if things do escalate. There is a risk with everything, you just have to calculate it and judge whether it is one worth taking. So when people say, ‘Oh your game for going there’, no not really. I calculated the risk, saw that everything had relatively settled down, researched which areas where pron to violent protests and stayed the fuck away from them. And I’m so glad I did go, more then anywhere else, I’m glad I went when I did. Really it was perfect timing. Who knows when tourists will be able to safely and comfortably return to this amazing country, full of one of the richest and oldest histories in the world, as well as all the incredible sites.
You have to understand though that this is a country with a completely different culture from what your probably use to, and if you expect to go there and have everything the way you’re use to it then your arrogant and probably American (no offense guys, but the general population is an easy target). Whether you agree with it or not you have to respect that. First of all there is the issue which most effects girls traveling to Islamic countries. Yes, men are going to stare at you, even if you are dressed by western societies standards of very conservative clothing. They will still stare and it won’t be subtle. Yes, it’s disgusting and extremely uncomfortable but there is nothing you can do about it, and unless they do say something (which will probably be in Arabic…or they will just call you Shakira – they have an odd obsession with Shakira and Bob Marley) or touch you inappropriately (which rarely happens) there is no point in really making an issue about it. It’s not just the men that stare, everyone does. Your different and your going to stand out, different people will stare for different reasons though. I found I would receive looks from middle aged and older women full of judgement, for what I’m assuming is because of my shirt sleeves which hung just below my elbows. Scandalous. But again, nothing you can do about this, just dress respectfully. The younger women is their teens to early thirties where a lot more friendly and intrigued. Walking past them in the street they would often catch my eye and smile, some times even get my attention and say hello, to which I would smile and say hello back – it was a nice welcome compared to the stares and hostility of the older members of the community. And the children of course loved our presence more then anyone else. Whenever there were kids around they would act just like any other children would to visitors clearly different to themselves. They would ask us questions, sometimes in what little English they could string together, they would smile and giggle with each other, and on some occasions touch our hair and skin, comparing it to there own.
Easily my favourite picture I took while in the country: A young girl looks down at me from the shadows of a mosque situated high on a overlooking wall. What’s so powerful about this photograph is that she is somehow looking directly at me even though we were so far apart (my camera has an incredible zoom) and there where plenty of other people around.
There is also plenty of other differences from our own society; their eating times – how on earth they have a family dinner at 12am I have no idea. Road rules? What are they? Daily prayers taking place everyday at the same time in side streets while speakers blare the Call to Prayer into every street in Cairo. Oh and security wandering around with giant automatic weapons? Of course there is!
There were definitely signs of The Revolution which had come to an end only six months before hand, especially in Cairo. Our guide, an Egyptian named Sherriff who was extremely passionate about his home country, explained to us how people just tend to do as they please since The Revolution. He used the example of three security guards at The National Museum who were leaning on a wall and chatting, not even attempting to do their job. Sherriff told us that ever since The Revolution six months beforehand, all rules and regulations have been relaxed and the people don’t know how to deal with this. So basically, they just do whatever they want because they’re is no one to enforce otherwise. Their bosses are doing the exact same thing, as are their bosses. In the streets you would see soldiers in groups just leaning on trucks and talking or smoking – imagine the punishment if that was done twelve months earlier?
Then you have the more in-your-face reminders of what took place less then a year beforehand. Next to The National Museum there is a large government building which over looks the museum’s garden – or should I say there was. The building itself still stands tall over the garden which would have been packed full of tourists only a couple of years beforehand, but now you can’t see government workers through the windows doing whatever it is that government workers in Cairo do. Now it doesn’t even have windows. Now it is a burnt out corpse, stained black from the fire which protestors had lit and watched as the flames engulfed it.
Whenever I ask people where they want to travel, what they want to see, a lot of the time the answer is Egypt. Really, who wouldn’t want to see the amazing structures and rich history, as well as the beautiful desert and Nile. Though it is unfortunate that this won’t be possible now for quite some time. Even last year when I went, a lot of the places we visited, we were the only people there. The National Museum as an example again, Sherriff explained that before The Revolution every room and hallway of the building was packed so much that you could barely even walk. Now, our group of seventeen and a handful of European tourists were the only people in the entire museum besides the staff. In 2010 14 million tourists visited Egypt. In 2012 that was down to 8 million, and the very large majority of those seemed to be Italians and Russians in Hurghada on a beach getaway. When we visited Abu Simbel we were literally the only ones there. It was surreal, to not even be able to buy a postcard without thousands of tourists pictured and be standing there completely alone, in complete silence and being able to stare at it’s full beauty without all alone. It was the same with The Sphinx, and the Pyramids where there was only us and a few Russians. Everywhere we went the place was ours. To explore. To admire. To take in. We spent four days cruising The Nile and didn’t see another foreigner. When we docked and our boat was tied to a row of others in which we would have to walk through to reach land, they were eerily empty. From the most basic, to the ones with grand pianos and chandeliers in the lobby, they were all deserted, no one for them to accommodate.
Although it was great for us, the lack of tourists unwilling to travel to such an unstable country has had a devastating effect. In 2008 tourism was the highest provider of revenue at $11 billion USD, and employed 12% of the national workforce. I wonder what has happened to all the guides, the hotel staff, the bus drivers and everyone else who made my trip possible.
With hundreds dead in the conflict already, anyone of those people’s corpses could be laying in a Mosque throughout Egypt. I know that’s a grim statement, but it’s the harsh reality of the situation the country is currently facing. The Egyptian people are a proud race, and are willing to stand up for what they believe in, obviously. Everyday as I watch the news and see the turmoil unfold my thoughts are with every Egyptian. Most urgently, that the killings stop.