Coming to Terms with Cairo

“Mmmuhm, mmmuhm,” the old woman said, blocking my exit through the bathroom door. Her withered hand reached out, cupped, begged.

“Mmmuhm.”

It was 2007, and my friend and I had just arrived in Cairo. It had been an exhausting day of travel that had begun multiple hours earlier at Dulles International Airport and had already seen us spend time walking around London and suffering through a turbulent ride over the Mediterranean. We were tired, jet-lagged, and ready for bed.

Immediately after touching down in Cairo, we waited in a long line–full of people with different standards of personal space–to collect our visa stamps. Then another line of smushed bodies, for customs. And then the baggage carousel, where hordes of people milled about and we waited and waited for the metal ribbon to start turning.

We popped into the bathroom near baggage, not sure how long baggage would take nor how long the drive to the hotel would be. As we walked in, an old woman unrolled a tube of toilet paper and handed us each a few pieces.

The first stall was a squat toilet and the first such device I had ever seen in person. “Oh, nooo,” I thought, my dainty inner monologue firmly shaped by Western sensibilities.

When I saw that the next stall held a “regular” toilet, I was relieved.

But there was still something wrong with it. Buttons and levers were splashed across the cistern like paint on a modern-art canvas.

Which was the right one? I heard my friend’s toilet flush and thought, “Well, if she can figure it out, so can I.” And so I pulled a lever at random.

It was the shower.

As water began dripping from the ceiling, and I stared bleary eyed at the sea of knobs before me, I thought I might hate Egypt.

Finally I found the right button and joined my friend at the sinks. The old woman from before was now standing close to us. We tidied up and began to walk out the door.

She slid in front of it, hand out. “Mmmuhm.”

We pressed on, not understanding.

She would not budge. “Mmmuhm.”

We had not found an ATM yet and had virtually no money on us. My friend fished around for an American bill and handed it to her.

The strange woman accepted the money, then reached her hand out to me. “Mmmuhm.”

“That’s for both of us,” my friend tried to tell her.

“Mmmuhm.”

“I don’t have anything,” I desperately added.

“Mmmuhm.”

Not knowing what else to do, we shoved past her and back into the baggage area. Worry set in that we had broken a social custom, that airport security would soon appear to whisk us away.

As we collected our luggage and boarded our bus, I felt a cold ball of terror coalescing in my stomach. Two weeks we had to be in this unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar toilets and people and manners. I spent the whole ride to our hotel regretting my decision to come and fervently wishing I could just go home.

It can be downright frightening to realize you’ve left your safety zone. Especially when you’re cashless, exhausted, and soaked in mystery shower water.

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A Change of Scenery in Alexandria

By the time I got to Alexandria, one of the last stops on my 2007 tour of Egypt, I was ready for a change. It had been endless days of antiquities and ruins, the hieroglyphs and temples and statues all blurring together in my mind. Alexandria promised something different, something modern. I was so looking forward to it.

Although founded in 331 BC, Alexandria was an important part of 19th- and 20th-century society. It has an active harbor and a lively cultural life with opera houses, trendy cafes, and beautiful gardens. It is an African city with Western sensibilities, a wholly unique experience.

Picture of Alexandria's harbor in Egypt

The harbor

And yet, I felt exposed in Alexandria in a way I hadn’t anywhere else in the country. My friend and I were alone there, parting ways with the tour group for just a few days. And everyone in Alexandria seemed to know it.

Picture of street in Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria

Picture of a building in Alexandria, Egypt

On the streets

As we walked along the city to admire the sights, we were constantly given the impression that we were unwanted. Anti-Western scowl peered at us from the windows of European-style buildings. My friend was shoved into oncoming traffic by a group of passing women. We constantly felt like we were being followed.

No matter where we went, groups of people always seemed to be watching, judging, menacing.

Tired of the wordless harassment, we sought shelter in our hotel. We watched Gothika and Anchorman and anything else airing in English, telling ourselves we’d just take the night off and sight-see some more in the morning.

But it was a struggle to make it to the Library of Alexandria. And even there, at a place of learning, grimaces were thrown our way.

Picture of the inside of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt

Inside the library

Picture of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt

The library

When our tour guide finally picked us up again the next day, we were relieved.

Our hotel in Cairo felt like home. We wandered the local city streets without conflict, without abuse. I don’t know how we had wronged Alexandria, but clearly we were unwelcome. And I have no desire to ever see it again.

Cruising on the Nile

I’ve only been on two river cruises in my life, but they were biggies: the Nile (2007) and the Yangtze (2010). I love slowly drifting along the water, the sights constantly changing, the shore just close enough that if the thing sinks you can swim to land.

Never been on the Nile? Here are some of the things you might experience!

1. German Tourists in Speedos

For some reason (probably because we’re Western), my friend, our two British tourmates, and I are relegated to the German river cruise. Why those Germans felt the need to sunbathe mostly nude in a Muslim country, I will never know.

Picture of riverboat on the Nile in Egypt

Not trying to body-shame the folks on deck, just find it really, really odd

2. Marriage Proposals

Yes, if you are a Western woman touring Egypt you most likely will be approached with offers of marriage. My going rate for the 12-year-old suitor eyeing me in a crowded marketplace was something like 37 camels. Aww, yeah.

But things are a little weirder when the proposals come from someone you are stuck on a boat with for the next several days. And even more weird when you later catch the man in question videotaping you with a giant, 20-year-old camcorder. I know you’re trying to be inconspicuous, sir, but unfortunately your 40-pound recording device is not blending in with the deck chairs.

3. 1910s Accommodations

I mean that in a positive way–the rooms made me think of the Orient Express and old-world charm. Simply adorable.

Picture of the cabin on a Nile riverboat in Egypt

A lotus flower ends the day

4. Stunning Views

Picture of Nile scenery in Egypt

Picture of Nile scenery in Egypt

Picture of birds along the Nile in Egypt

Massive flock of birds

Picture of a mosque along the Nile in Egypt

Picture of Nile scenery in Egypt

Picture of bridge on the Nile in Egypt

Have you been on a river cruise? What was your favorite part?

Keep Egypt Tidy

When I visit Egypt in 2007, it is the first time I have left the West. I expect to confront numerous cultural differences, and I am prepared with shawls to cover my hair and shoulders in a respectful manner, personal items they might not sell abroad, and gallons of sunscreen. The one thing I haven’t been anticipating, however, is the pollution.

Picture of polluted Cairo skyline with pyramids visible in background

Pyramids just visible in the distance through polluted Cairo skies

I once spent a day in Chicago in sandals, and it turned my feet grey. Every time I ride the London Tube for an extended period of time, my nasal passages fill with black gunk. I felt like I needed a tetanus shot after a day in Athens. Point is, all large cities have their fair share of trash and dirt, and so I’m not too surprised to see Cairo’s grubby streets and skies.

Picture of street in Cairo, Egypt

Trash collecting on the sides of a Cairo street

What is surprising is the flagrant littering at Egypt’s most-famous historical site: the pyramids of Giza.

Picture of litter at the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Litter at the Pyramids of Giza – largest pieces noted by arrows

I watch in mute horror as visitors unwrap the plastic from cigarette packs and simply cast the plastic to the sand below. When the pack is empty, it too is tossed to the ground. Finished your water? Chuck it into the Sahara!

Picture of camels and litter in the Sahara outside of Giza, Egypt

Water bottles littering the Sahara – the rest of that stuff is trash, too – I’ve only noted the visible water bottles

There are no furtive glances before the act, simply a careless roll of the wrist as items that won’t photodegrade for hundreds of years are cast aside. The littering is so common, so overwhelming, that the only people who seem to notice are speechless Western tourists. Certainly the guards do nothing, concentrating on those who would mar the pyramids themselves instead of the trash tumbleweeds gathering around the protected site.

I try my best to keep rubbish out of the camera’s view finder, but hints of trash remain in my photos. (Looking through my old pictures for this blog post has made my tree-hugger soul weep all over again.)

Picture of pyramids, sphinx, and litter in Giza, Egypt

Pyramids, Sphinx, and a giant chunk of plastic wrap!

Is the littering just a cultural difference? (I’m reminded of the Mad Men episode where the Draper family flings their picnic trash to the ground, so maybe this was common in the US, too, until fairly recently.) Or maybe it’s indicative of a lack of basic infrastructure-it occurs to me in retrospect that I didn’t see any trash bins at the pyramids, so perhaps littering is just the easiest solution.

No matter the reason, littering was the most-shocking experience I had in Egypt, and it really did distort my view for the rest of the trip. There’s are a lot of things to love about the country, but environmental standards is not one.

What cultural difference has shocked you most in your travels?