Survival tips for tourists visiting Egypt, Cairo, Giza and the Pyramids
In March 2010 my parents, my Sister and myself visited Egypt for the first time. Having a great interest in ancient Egypt, the pyramids and the Pharaohs, my Sister and I decided to go on a day trip to Cairo in order to visit the pyramids, the Cairo museum, the pyramids and the Sphinx. We quickly learnt a few things we wished we had known before we undertook this trip, and I hope that by sharing our experience and these survival tips with you, it may ensure other people are prepared for what ended up being an exhausting day that in many ways we felt had not been worth the hassle we had endured during the excursion.
Firstly we were actually staying in Taba, which was about a five and a half hour drive to Cairo and of course Giza, (where the pyramids are located). This involved our having to ready by 04.20am in the morning in order for our driver to collect us. We were going on a private day trip so there were only the two of us in one car along with a driver, and ultimately our guide. The disappointments began after we were finally collected, twenty minutes late, and by a driver, who although very pleasant, spent a further ten minutes praying, (I kid you not).
By now we were half an hour late heading for our destination, and after about an hour's drive our driver felt the need to stop for a further rest stop in a roadside cafe. My Sister decided to use the toilets in the cafe, and this was an unforgettable experience for her, as she literally came back gagging from the horrendous state of the toilets and strongly advised me not to use them myself.
We drove on for some time before we came to the outskirts of Cairo and had to suffer the whole ring-road experience of traffic crawling along, no marked lanes and every vehicle blaring their horns every few seconds. I have to say that never in my life have I been on a 'motorway' where I saw donkeys pulling carts, people pushing wheelchairs along and apparently suicidal adults and children trying to sell you anything from inflatable spidermen to boxes of tissues through your car windows. It seemed saying 'no' was not an option as they followed the cars along knocking on the windows again and again, clearly assuming that if they pestered you long enough you would succumb and buy something from them simply to get rid of them.
Me at the Pyramids
As we passed through the outskirts of Cairo the first thing that struck us was that the whole place looked derelict, most of the buildings being half built with no roofs, and cables poking up through the unfinished supporting walls. It was a mess, and as the driver explained this is because firstly only finished buildings require the owners to pay taxes (therefore most choose to leave the buildings unfinished and live in them anyway), and secondly the parents usually live on the ground floor, and each son builds the following floor for him and his family, (goodness only knows what happens if the family in question only end up having daughters).
As we drove on, horribly aware that we were taking our lives in our hands being in any kind of vehicle on the road based on the alarming way everyone seems to drive, (a kamikaze attitude seems to prevail), we also rapidly became aware that the whole area was covered in a thick smog of choking fumes, (much later we found out that a day in Cairo was the equivalent of smoking an entire packet of cigarettes, no wonder I coughed all the way home!)
My Sister Hayley at the Pyramids
The Cairo Museum
We eventually arrived at our first stop, the famous Cairo Museum where we were introduced to our guide. He took us through the gates and informed us that we would be required to leave any cameras or camcorders with the staff of the museum in order to collect them on our way out. He told us not to give the man on the desk any money as the service was free, although it was fairly obvious the guy on the desk was not impressed by the lack of any signs of our tipping him. We knew that most museums do not allow cameras in this day and age, but still felt a bit wary of leaving our valuables in the care of complete strangers.
By now my Sister wanted the toilet again, so our guide said that he would get the tickets and meet us by the camera confiscation centre in 15 minutes. We followed his directions to the cafe and traced the toilets within. On my life, not only were we charged about one Egyptian pound each to use them, but we were each issued with about five sheets of toilet paper to take in with us, (God help us if we had wanted to pay more than a water call). This was my first experience of an Egyptian toilet outside of the hotel in Taba, and I was horrified. Honestly, we should have been charging them for us to use it, not the other way around. They stank to high heaven and were so filthy you were loathe to wash your hands in case the taps had anything on them, (never mind the door handles).
Our next stop was the turnstiles where our guide galloped off ahead of us, apparently assuming we could keep up, as he never looked back. Once we trotted as fast as we could after him the staff manning the turnstiles asked us for our tickets, and we were left frantically trying to explain that our guide (who was now about 15 metres ahead of us), was in possession of our tickets, fortunately they believed us and let us through so that we could attempt to fight our way through the crowd to catch up with him.
Upon entering the museum we found our guide (having first had all our bags xrayed to ensure we hadn't smuggled a camera in). He then told us we would have about 40 minutes with him, plus an extra 30 minutes on our own to wander around what clearly required a far longer time. We had not been told the visit would be this short, and went on to be further disappointed when our guide skipped all the areas where the majority of the tours appeared to be gathering (possibly because these were the most interesting things to learn about), and proceeded to waste long amounts of time telling us about relatively trivial things that were only of slight interest, e.g. how impressive it was the similarities between certain hieroglyphics and letters of the alphabet we use today, or how clever it was that two statues virtually identical had identical smiles even though they were hand carved. Not boring information, but certainly not as interesting as finding out about someone like Cleopatra would have been, (a person completely left unmentioned by the end of our tour by the way).
The kidnapper you will read about later!
We finally reached one of the rooms we really were interested in, and this was where the Tutankhamun mask (and other relics) were displayed. Ironically this is where our guide announced his departure and told us he would meet us in half an hour outside, (he never did accompany us into this most crucial of all rooms). We struggled around on our own through this room, and then went on to look for Nefertiti, another room we had trouble finding, and when we did finally locate it, sadly there was little time left to enjoy it. On our way back to the meeting point we ventured into the tiny and crowded gift shop, but didn't buy anything as the place was too packed, too expensive and missing many of the picture postcards we might have been tempted to purchase, (we later found out that over 25,000 people per day visit the Cairo Museum, so no wonder it was so crowded, and no wonder our so called guide preferred to meet us outside rather than take us to the areas of special interest).
Our next stop was for lunch at a nice restaurant, and in fairness the food was very good, but another visit for both of us to the toilets became necessary at the end of our meal, and again we had to pay to use them. We were issued with the four or five sheets of toilet paper by the attendants, and then we went in. Okay, so these toilets were clean, but the problem arose when it came to flushing them after we had done our necessary business, problem, no obvious flush! Having explored the surrounding area carefully I found what just might have been a flush, although it looked dangerously like a tap (faucet). Nervously I turned the tap, and much to my horror a mysterious jet of water immediately spewed from somewhere on the underside of the exterior of the bowl and straight on to my foot. I leaped back in horror, not sure exactly what had squirted on to my foot, and if it included any of the liquids now residing in the toilet bowl.
I exited the cubicle and told the female attendant I couldn't find the flush. She told me it was okay and picked up a bucket from under the nearby sink, entered the same cubicle I had just exited and used the same tap to partially fill the bucket, before using it to 'flush' the toilet!!!! I had to call through to my sister in the neighbouring cubicle and tell her that this was how it flushed, (I am so glad we both only needed a water call).
We met up with our guide again, galloped after him as he headed towards the car (leaving us to fight off the salesmen trying to sell us souvenirs outside of the restaurant), whilst optimistically hoping we were now heading towards the pyramids...... not so! As we passed the pyramids whilst driving along the main road our guide told us a few details about the building of them before our driver pulled in to the side of the road. The guide then told us that there was a shopping mall we would spend half an hour in. I said, "will we go to the pyramids after that?" to which he replied, "You want to go to the pyramids?". Shocked we told him that of course we did and it had been a major part of the trip for us. He then said he would take us there after the shopping mall before we would be taken to a driver changeover point and then our new driver would take us home. "What about the market?" we asked. Our guide then told us that this shopping mall was the market!! 'Not so' we said, the market we had been promised was 'outdoors and world famous' , not a small indoor shopping mall. Looking confused our guide assured us that the 'famous' market was only ever offered on the two day trip, and was actually the other side of Cairo, a 45 minute drive away. Naturally we were very annoyed, and after explaining several times that we had been promised the 'major market' , our guide finally phoned the representative at the hotel. After a lot of gabbling away in Egyptian to each other and passing the phone to my Sister in order for her to explain again to the rep what he had promised, our guide finally offered us a compromise, and said they would take us to a smaller market after the shopping mall and the pyramids so that we could spend half an hour there instead. This was not a great alternative as half an hour in an Egyptian market is like five minutes in any European market because you are constantly being stopped and asked the same questions, i.e. What is your name? Where are you from? and "I give you very good price". Reluctantly we were forced to agree to this compromise.
Our guide escorted us to the shopping mall where strangely a personal shopper was waiting for us already, (we couldn't help wondering if the guide might be on commission for taking tourists there). As soon as we entered the building we knew it was going to be way outside of our price range, yet when my Sister pointed this out to our guide he simply responded with, "No problem, just look", which missed the point completely as we were there to buy, not to window shop! He left us there for the full half an hour, during which time we discovered that even a simple necklace (minus a chain), was over £156 GBP, and not negotiable or market prices. Of course another half an hour was wasted here, but then we were taken to the pyramids where our guide again vanished.
After several minutes we located him and approached the pyramids. Our not so helpful guide gave us some tips, having first told us a little more history about whose pyramid was whose. His tips involved not talking to anyone selling anything and not to agree to have any photos taken, then he again told us he would meet us in the car in half an hour, before he left us to fend off numerous beggars and salesman trying to get us to accept so called "free gifts" before then asking for money for them. The situation was ridiculous, as we could not even walk three or four metres without another Egyptian approaching us trying to sell us gifts, camel rides, horse rides or whatever. We are not rude people and found it really difficult to bluntly tell them to "F*** off", so we suffered because our guide was not there to shoo them away in their native language. The icing on the cake was when my Sister was approached by a man on a camel asking if she wanted her photo taken with the camel. He assured both of us it was for no charge, but when my Sister pointed out this was what everyone said before demanding money the Egyptian man looked very indignant, straightened up on his camel and said, "Madam, not all of us are like that". Finally reassured my sister agreed that maybe it would be nice to have her picture taken by the camel, but emphasised she had no money on her (just in case). The chap got his camel to lie down, got off it, and then persuaded her to sit on the camel whilst I took her photo.
The Actual Kidnap by Camel Footage! (apologies for the part where you will have to view it sideways, but I couldn't work out how to edit it)
As I took the photos the camel's handler suddenly got the camel to stand up and walked off, effectively kidnapping my sister. To my credit I filmed the whole event on my camcorder, (not sure what else I could do short of trotting off after her). Meanwhile a chap with a horse approached me and tried the same trick, but a little more streetwise by now, I refused the photo, the opportunity to get on the horse and finally agreed to take a photo of the man with his own horse and told him I would email it to him upon my return home (he actually gave me a business card).
Eventually the camel returned with my Sister, at which point she had a confrontation with the camel's owner who then demanded money, and when she reminded him she had no money on her (bar about the equivalent of a couple of English pounds and that he had insisted he didn't want any money), he tried to say it wasn't for him, 'it was for his camel!!!' After more arguing he accepted her small amount of Egyptian money and asked what was in her coin purse. My Sister angrily opened it to reveal a few old euros and a couple of Guernsey coins. The handler said"This is no good to me". My Sister told him to take it or leave it as that was all she had, so he took it and then tried to get her to give him her leather purse as "a gift for my daughter". My Sister told him 'no way' and pointed out she was now getting angry, at which point he let her go and bizarrely called out after her, "Goodbye very nice lady!".
We were then taken to the Sphinx, but from a long way off with only 15 minutes to take pictures, (most of which was wasted by the salesman asking to take photos of them and us together on their mobile phones, goodness knows why, we shall probably find our heads photoshopped on to nude bodies on the Internet in months to come). Another waste of time and our guide didn't even leave the car for this part of the so called tour.
The Egyptian who tried the same 'kidnap' trick on me.
We were so exhausted and frustrated by now we just wanted to go back to our hotel, however the small market lay ahead, so we found our car and were taken to the small market to do some shopping. The guide told us we now had 45 minutes to shop and to be back punctually as they would be unable to stop and wait for us. We were taken to the market where the 45 minutes vanished rapidly due to the stall holders delaying us with silly questions such as the "where are you from, what is your name" etc, and claiming they could obtain items we were looking for in two minutes, when even after waiting ten minutes the items had not arrived at their stalls. We left quite angry in the end, and promptly waited an extra ten minutes because our car was late.
The trip home involved a driver change, and this driver was very slow. As we crawled along the motorway yet more people banged on the windows of the car trying to sell us stuff we didn't want, and by now I was coughing constantly due to inhaling the massive amount of fumes the trip had involved. I found it alarming that one woman was pushing an apparently paraplegic lad along the motorway in a wheelchair begging for money. Poor lad must have inhaled a huge amount of fumes if she did this regularly.
If all had gone to schedule we should have arrived back at our hotel about 10.00pm, but actually we returned at about 02.00am, exhausted, feeling ill and bitterly regretting our trip as it simply wasn't worth it, even though the pyramids etc are obviously very interesting. We both agreed that if we had known what it would have been like we would have given the whole trip a miss, but sadly we didn't.
And so to our survival tips if you are thinking of visiting Cairo, Giza, the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids.
Cairo and a view of the Sphinx
The Egypt Survival Guide
1) Before you book any excursions make sure you are perfectly clear as to where you will be visiting during the trip and if necessary get it in writing.
2) Avoid using any public toilets at all costs, because no matter how bad you imagine they will be, believe me they are worse! In case using a toilet may be unavoidable, ensure you carry small amounts of Egyptian money such as Egyptian one pound coins, (nothing is worse than needing a toilet and not having the change to pay for the use of one).
3) Make sure if you have a guide booked and that he or she will accompany you constantly and will not leave you with the problem of fending off the overly pushy salesman and the locals.
4) If you have any breathing problems such as Asthma take an inhaler, a mask, or preferably don't go at all. You WILL suffer in the high levels of smog that lingers over Cairo (population over 20 million according to our guide).
5) Make sure the vehicle you will be travelling in is going to be in roadworthy condition. Although we were lucky, most of the vehicles on the roads we saw would never pass an M.O.T. in the UK and were complete rust-buckets with wing mirrors hanging off, not to mention numerous dents and scratches all over them.
6) Take an Ipod or MP3 player with you, and even if it isn't switched on put the earphones into your ears. This way if the salesmen pester you it leaves you with the option to smile sweetly, point to your ears, and then pretend you can't hear them.
7) Learn to be rude (if you aren't already capable of this). The situation will definitely arise where you will need to be able to push aside your 'polite' instincts and tell the salespeople to "F*** off", or at least be able to completely ignore them.
8) Anyone who tells you that they want to give you a free souvenir gift, camel ride or similar are lying to you. They will ask you for money after, whether they claim to be ill, pregnant or whatever. Refuse the free gifts and walk away or simply ignore the salesman in the first place.
9) Be careful if you take pictures of camels with owners (or similar), they are likely to hold their hands out for money simply because you photographed them!
10) Top tip, get a T-shirt printed in Arabic saying "My name is *******, I come from ******* and thank you for the very good price". If you have room get the additional words "Please leave me alone, I am just looking" added to this, and then if anyone pesters you simply stretch out the T-shirt and point at it so they can read it for themselves.