Forget about a vacation, I want to challenge my worldview!
October 14, 2009 2:09 PM   Subscribe

Help me spend 5 non-traditional days in Egypt!

I'm going to Egypt for 5 (3 full, plus 2 mostly full) days at the end of next week. I have no idea what to spend my time doing.

I'm a 24yo single female, well traveled (but don't speak Arabic), and currently living in Istanbul. I have no intentions of visiting the pyramids (et al.) beyond a quick drive-by photo. I don't like most museums, either. Tour groups (unless to some uber-dangerous, hecka cool part of middle earth) are out the question. And I do not want to pay to see anything. What do I like, you ask? Well, a lot. I'd be happy to sit journalling in a small tea shop in some back alley somewhere. Or to while away an afternoon praying in a mosque. Or play football with kids on the street. Or help some women prepare meals for a few days. Or visit a refugee camp. Or...

I'm open to (and would maybe prefer?) getting away from Cairo, although I understand this might be difficult in such a short time. I will not be packing luggage, but carrying everything in a day-pack type backpack, so I'll be fully mobile. I have a specific interest in (semi-professional) photography, but for the right experience/opportunity, I'd leave my camera gear home. I'm willing to get dirty, and I'm not afraid of much. (I'm full of common sense and travel sense, but I've been to some shady places, and I know where my "line" is). I have (almost) zero interest in anything archeology/ruins related. I'm much more interested in experiencing life and culture as lived by lower class Egypt.

I'm also strongly considering heading up to Al 'Arish, and edging as close as possible to the Gaza border, to see how life is lived there, and what impacts the closed border have on life there. I'd also love to volunteer someplace (not one of those "pay to volunteer" scams), maybe the Egyptian equivalent of a soup kitchen.

Finance-wise, I'm not too concerned, mostly because the things that usually cost the most money (hotels, entry fees, guides...) aren't the kind of things I want to spend my time on. In any case, I'd rather spend less money, than more.

As you can see, there's a lot I could do, I just haven't quite gathered my thoughts on this enough yet. Before you mention it, I have been checking out CouchSurfing, but I'd rather have some sort of a plan before I contact anyone.

Any thoughts, advice, personal experiences would be appreciated. Thanks!
posted by hasna to Travel & Transportation around Egypt (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if it's up your alley, but I'd recommend going to the Red Sea coast and scuba diving for a couple days.

It's a 9 hour bus ride from Cairo to Dahab on the Red Sea. Dahab is like Sharm el-Sheikh but vastly cheaper and with a very backpacker friendly vibe. The 'camps' are wonderful places to stay, I spent a month there. There are tons of cafes that line the bay that it sounds like you'd enjoy and the diving has to be seen to be believed. A great place to learn to dive.
posted by pseudonick at 2:20 PM on October 14, 2009

The Pyramids are, on the one hand, a bit of a let down (Giza is built almost right up to them on one side), but I genuinely can't imagine going to Cairo and not seeing them. Your call.

My trip to Egypt involved a trip to Cairo, tours of various backstreet falafel joints, a lunch in the backroom of a neighborhood carpet shop, a visit to the Pyramids, a climb up one of them (it wasn't quite as, er, frowned upon then), a fairly weird taxi ride to Luxor via Suez and Hurghada as the scheduled buses and trains were full due to a public holiday.

In Luxor, I took a felucca ride for a couple of days and rode a bicycle to the Valley of the Kings in the middle of a blazing hot day and had a beer in the outside bar of the Winter Palace. I then caught a train back to Cairo and, from there, a bus through the Sinai to Israel.

I loved it. But I don't know how flash an idea it is to travel round as a young, single female. For what it's worth, the strangest bit was the 24 hour, very roundabout journey to Luxor, and the highlight was an impromptu crash course in backgammon from some engaging old men while puffing on apple tobacco in backstreet cafes in Luxor for a few days. The felucca ride involved the captain taking a massive shine to my (blonde and male) travelling friend, insisting on wrestling him at every opportunity. A very chilled 2 days, but we sailed all of, oh, 5 miles in two days. Without a toilet.

To summarise: if you get really hot on a felucca, don't dive into the Nile for a quick dip. You'll need to be a strong swimmer to get back to the boat, find yourself on an unwanted weight loss program and singularly not enjoy getting lost in the old quarters in Jerusalem two weeks later while needing the toilet and wearing a pair of white shorts with no underpants (that particular story has a happy ending, but only just).

Hope that helps.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:36 PM on October 14, 2009

Oh yes, and Dahab was an experience. It was a filthy backpacker stop, strewn with trash when I went there in '95. I spent about a week there, largely on the insistence of my dope-smoking travelling companions. I can't remember a great deal, but I'm reliably informed it's got a bit nicer. Which would not be difficult.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:39 PM on October 14, 2009

Dahab has indeed gotten much nicer.
Last year there appeared to be some sort of milkshake price/fanciness war which was very profitable for my waistline. The diving was also superb.

I don't know if I'd try to make it all the way there and back in 5 days, though. It's more of a spot to chill out for a while. I think that there will be enough to do in Cairo or Alexandria to last way more than that long. I know that it is the worst safety advice in the world, but you could probably wander around randomly for quite a while before you started feeling like you should be heading anywhere in specific.

If you can make a friend with couchsurfing or the hospitality club, I do not doubt that you will find that your week will end far too quickly. I have not been up around Al 'Arish, but I somehow doubt that you will find the photographic gold mine that you may be hoping for there. [prove me wrong, though!]
posted by Acari at 2:59 PM on October 14, 2009

IF you are serious about what you say: I'm much more interested in experiencing life and culture as lived by lower class Egypt, then DON'T go to Dahab or Sharm el Shaikh. Avoid the pyramids like the plague. All those places are overrun with tourists, backpackers, etc., and all you'll end up doing is experiencing life and culture as traveled by the backpacking foreigner. Which is great, mind you, but only if that's what you are looking for. And it sounds like that's NOT what you are looking for. So, instead, spend a morning walking around the City of the Dead. Not for the architecture, but because Cairo's homeless have set up permanent encampments among the graves. Just hang out and be welcoming of the encounters and respectful of the residents. Pretty soon you'll be swarmed by children who would be happy to spend the day having you join them at their games. And if you're invited to stay for dinner, say yes. I also had really great times just riding the subways from various points around Cairo. The women only cars are perfect, because the people are friendly, and just plain nice. People will share their food with you, and you just have great random conversations. You also end up seeing the "real" Cairo, instead of the tourist spots.

As for Gaza, I remember it was pretty frightening, and I don't know what your "line" would be. It's not dicey, but frightening. So go, only if you'd be okay with whatever might happen. When I was there, which was a while back, you could travel back and forth from Gaza to Egypt with US passport. Not sure what the situation is now. Plus, not sure that you'd have enough time, since it's an all day bus/car ride. Plus, I remember the was one of those, "enshaallah, maybe the bus will come in a little bit, or maybe tomorrow" deals. I remember that when the bus did come, there was a mad rush to get on. I didn't make it on the bus, and ended up hitching a ride with a bunch of folks (and their livestock) in a car with no windows, no A/C, no suspension.

One last thing. As a young single female traveling in Cairo, I usually found it useful to make friends with other women, and ignore the men. And obviously, cover up. I remember women in Cairo were more covered up than the women in Istanbul, and harassment was much more of a problem in Cairo than it ever was in Istanbul.

posted by jujube at 6:50 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ditto MuffinMan & jujube on the care you must take as a single woman traveling. Egypt is a wonderfully complex society but in general -- especially in the poor communities you'd like to see -- it is very conservative as far as women are concerned. For instance, neighborhood cafes are almost always places where men gather (although in the center of Cairo, there will be places where women go -- but not alone). A woman traveler who pushes social boundaries will not open doors; she will signal her different-ness, and at worst send dangerously unintended messages (Western women especially are often seen as loose). I see you live in Istanbul, so you know the Muslim world, but compared to Egypt, Turkey can seem positively western.
Also, I understand and share your aversion to tours, but you should make excursions with a companion, preferably female. (Ditto Acari about perhaps finding a friend pre-trip.)

Having said all that, you might consider:
-- Check out the American University of Cairo's website for events that might be happening when you are there. Students (from across the Middle East) might be interesting to meet and talk to, at an event open to outsiders, and who knows what good ideas they will have for your visit. Or, AUC's desert development center has been involved in the Al Azhar Park in Cairo, a really innovative urban/green park designed in 2005; it was combined with outreach/support to the poor neighborhood that surrounds it. Maybe you could find someone who's been involved to show it off and talk about how it's different from the past, and where it's going. Or, you might find help from AUC women's groups/scholars on how to engage society in the ways you mention (meeting poor women, etc.).
-- On a lighter note, I used to go horseback riding over the desert east of Giza; I'm sure your local hosts would know whom to contact (or, you might google search?). Make sure to go with a guide from the stables. This will cost, but perhaps not too much for your budget. (Just to repeat, horse; these aren't tourist's camel rides-!)
-- The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is soon to be transferred to a big new modern one in Giza (2012?), but I always like to explore the nooks and crannies of older museums before they are gone.
Have a great time.
posted by Bet Glenn at 7:17 PM on October 14, 2009

If you want to see some awesome non-touristic (I mean NO tourists) pyramids, head to Dahshur for the Red and the Bent pyramids. They're about an hour and a half outside of Cairo, and you can negotiate a cab which will wait an hour or two for about E£300 (return). This will also give you a chance to see rural life and small villages along the way.

*And I agree with jujube's advice.
posted by gman at 4:07 AM on October 15, 2009

...or I could have fully read the OP's question. It is 7 am here. Sorry. Disregard my advice.

"And I do not want to pay to see anything."
"I have (almost) zero interest in anything archaeology/ruins related."
posted by gman at 4:17 AM on October 15, 2009

Best answer: I do not want to pay to see anything. What do I like, you ask? Well, a lot. I'd be happy to sit journalling in a small tea shop in some back alley somewhere. Or to while away an afternoon praying in a mosque. Or play football with kids on the street.

I'd suggest (so-called) Islamic Cairo. It's an area just east of the more Parisian-style modern city, and has the largest concentration of old mosques in the world - think 12th to 16th centuries, approximately. Only, they're generally just sitting around, decaying in alleys where poor(ish) people live & carry about their daily business.

The northern end (around Khan el Khalili) is touristy, but it doesn't take more than 10 minutes walk to be away from that. You'll still see foreigners around, but it's overwhelmingly just a normal suburb, especially once you step off the main bazaar.

As for journalling in a teashop in a back alley...I spent a lot of time in such places, but I'm a guy. And I don't recall *ever* seeing a woman in one of them, only in teashops specifically aimed at tourists and more middle-upper class Cairenes in the centre of town. That's not to say that you couldn't do it, just that Egypt is not nearly as liberal as Turkey in terms of women hanging around in traditionally 'male' social spaces.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:29 AM on October 15, 2009

Best answer: I'm not sure how I'd suggest you set it up, but here's something that fascinates me.

When I was in Egypt with a small backpacky tour group, we went into the Christian part of Cairo where the garbage collectors live. Islam has some strenuous encouragements to avoid dealing with trash if at all possible; trash has for a long time been dealt with not as a public city utility, but as a private enterprize, being collected, sorted into types of scrap, food/paper/glass/plastic/metal and then fed to pigs and goats, sent to recycling, sold by weight, or recycled in-situ. We went to a mission or improvement-project type place that pulped paper and made it into gift cards and other such things, to be resold in "local woman handicrafts" type establishments of the western world.

What's changed since then is that the government decided that the best way to control swine flu was to kill all the pigs in the city. (genius!) Thus, the whole method of trash control has come crashing down. I would love to know what that tour group now does on day 13 (or whenever that was)...

Unfortunately, I wouldn' t know where to recommend you start if you were interested in heading to that part of town, or how wise it would be to go there without a group. But hey, it's one of the things that always stuck in my mind as the best "not what I expected to see" from that trip.
posted by aimedwander at 12:03 PM on October 15, 2009

Response by poster: I'm back now (way late, sorry!) but I just wanted to give a HUGE thank you to everyone who replied! I ended up taking a combination of UbuRoivas' and aimedwander's advice. I stayed in Islamic Cairo, but not in Khan el Khalili. It was pretty conservative, and so I bought an abaya, and wore the headscarf I had brought with me, and had a much easier time getting around wearing that (jeans and a long sleeved, long shirt apparently wasn't modest enough?)

I spent my mornings and afternoons at the Mother Teresa Missionaries of Charity orphanage right in the middle of Muqattam, where the Zabbaleen (garbage people, as aimedwanderer suggested) live and work. Those toddlers there were SO incredible. So many social development issues, and they were just craving love. I got to feed them, change them, and spend hour upon hour holding them, cuddling with them, and lifting them up to look out the all elusive window.

My evenings were spent walking around Muqattam taking photos and talking to people. A few days I had groups of school children drag me around the city saying "take a photo of that! of this! of them!" giggling and laughing. LOVED them.

At night I went out to eat, and to walk around the city. Being totally covered in all but a veil allowed me to really blend in, and I got a great, authentic feel for the neighborhood.

So again, a HUGE thank you to everyone who replied, whether I followed your suggestions or not. Here's a link to the photos I took while I was there. Not to self-promote, but to let you see what you helped me experience!
posted by hasna at 3:51 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

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