Advice for traveling in a tour through Egypt and Jordan?
March 2, 2007 7:36 AM   Subscribe

I will be taking a tour through Egypt and Jordan at the end of April, and am looking for advice in terms of what clothes would be appropriate (I am a married woman in her late 20's, traveling with my husband, father, and brother), what kind of things I should bring or avoid, or any advice that you can give (preferrably if you have been on a similar trip to that part of the world).

The tour has a religious theme with regards to the itinerary (visiting lots of historical religious sites, etc), but I don't think it is religious in, er, spirit.

I've already read that women should try to dress modestly (covering arms and legs), and that western women should wear dark sunglasses to diminish the eye-contact (and resulting over-familiarity) issue.

I am also wondering about the weather at that time of year. Will it be hot? Cold? Should I even consider bringing sandals, or just stick to walking/hiking shoes?

Any other thoughts people can contribute?
posted by Void_Ptr to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I spend my winters working in Egypt. Definitely cover arms and legs, and sunglasses are also a good bet for a woman. I've never had a bad experience with making eye contact, but then again, I'm male. I've only been in December/January, where the temperature comfortable with pants and t-shirt or light jacket during the day, but I've been told that by April it gets very hot. Light clothing (both in color and thickness) is key, and pants or long skirts are both acceptable. I usually wear a lot of wicking synthetic shirts when hiking around the desert, but breathable anything (cotton, linen) should be fine for tourism. You should make sure to carry a scarf to cover your head should you visit a mosque (and you definitely should visit several in Cairo, including the Mosque of ibn Talun and the adjoining Gayer-Anderson Museum and the Al-Azhar Mosque). As far as footwear, I spent several weeks in India in flip-flops and suffered no ill consequences, but maybe it would have been smarter to just wear shoes. I'm also forgetful about the Egyptian proscriptions for footwear. In any case, comfortable sneakers are culturally acceptable, and multipurpose enough for anything you'll do short of hiking into the high desert.
posted by The Michael The at 7:50 AM on March 2, 2007

How about here?
posted by k8t at 8:15 AM on March 2, 2007

I was there the last 2 weeks of April in 2006. It was 70-90 degrees. I was comfortable, but I'm from California. Biggest tip I can give, most important thing, is to bring LOTS OF SUNSCREEN. I was wearing SPF 40 and I still got a tan.

I brought hiking shoes & wore them occasionally but I wore sandals with good support more often than not. I had brought pants but wore mostly long skirts & layers. I never wore my hiking shorts, the skirts seemed more comfortable & appropriate. For shirts I wore layers, usually a sleeveless or short sleeved shirt covered with a thin long sleeve shirt.

I found that there were a few times where I was the only western woman in the room with covered arms and legs and that people really were happy that I respected the culture. My friends were very thankful of it. That said, there was one day that I needed to do laundry and wore a skirt that was just below knee length for a plane ride & when I got back to Cairo the three men who had been with me on the way to the airport all went on about how much they loved the skirt I'd been wearing. They apparently had discussed my skirt at length as they were leaving the airport. I didn't know why they were going on about it and then I remembered that I had shown some ankle. Ahhh, men. ;)

I wear sunglasses while traveling in most countries, so I agree with that. Good to have an option to avoid eye contact if need be.

I was told that the salespeople on the streets in Egypt were horrible. I found that if you learn a few words in Arabic they will leave you alone & go onto the next person. "La'a shukran" is "No thank you" in Arabic. Practice it. Say it. If someone still bothers you, I kid you not... just do the "talk to the hand" thing, downcast your face & shake your head no. I saw one of my guides do this and tried it, and it works. Adding the Arabic is great because they don't expect you to know any Arabic at all so when you say that they are surprised and see you are not just a typical clueless tourist, you know a little more. (And if you know a little Arabic, you also might know that the papyrus they are trying to sell you isn't actually papyrus and that it's worth about 1/3 of what they're telling you.)

I brought a headscarf but I never really wore it. I put it on a few times in mosques but for the most part it was not expected of me by the Egyptian people I met. That said, I am a brunette so the amount of attention my hair attracts is minimal because it's not exotic to an Egyptian compared to if I were blonde or a redhead. I'm planning to go back to Egypt in October with a friend who is strawberry blonde. To call less attention to herself, I've told her she might be comfortable wearing a scarf more often.

The other thing I've found that gets some attention there is if you have green or blue eyes. That is very exotic. I have green eyes with gold in them, and I would say I received very genuine and nice compliments on my eyes from strangers at least 2-3 times a day. It was sweet, really.

When you're in Cairo definitely go to the Khan el-Khalili (bazaar) and check it out. I recommend hanging out at Fishawy for a mint tea or a shisha (hookah). It's been there for around 250 years and is a big part of Cairo heritage.

And you'll get used to the prayer call at 3am, don't worry. ;)
posted by miss lynnster at 8:26 AM on March 2, 2007

Good point, lynnster. OP: the only place to buy papyrus is at Dr. Rageb's Papyrus Museum (which is not actually a museum, but a place to buy papyrus). Anything else you buy anywhere else will be banana leaves.
posted by The Michael The at 8:36 AM on March 2, 2007

I don't know where you're from, but if you're American, avoid wearing items with "USA" on them. This is probably more of a problem in Jordan. In my experience Egyptians are fairly American-friendly.

"La'a shukran" is "No thank you" in Arabic. Practice it. Say it. If someone still bothers you, I kid you not... just do the "talk to the hand" thing, downcast your face & shake your head no.

If you're concerned about high-pressure merchants, I've found that just saying "la-a" (no "shokran") very sternly, and with your "game face" (slight frown, brow furrowed) is very effective. It's not seen as rude.

Anyone for a Cairo meetup?
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 8:53 AM on March 2, 2007

When I was in Egypt (Cairo and Luxor, tourist traps) in October with my blonde fiancee, we used to get people trying to sell us stuff everywhere we went. I mean, everywhere. Saying "la shukra" back to them helped, but of course they just focussed on the "pretty lady" next to me.

One time, she walked back to the hotel by herself while I was doing something else - and apparently she literally had to *run* back because of all the sales pitches she was getting.

We're British, so we're not used to that big yellow thing in the sky. We got burnt quite quickly and suffered a little heat exhaustion, even though we stayed in the shade as much as we did.

Don't be tempted by the diamonds and the "cheap" jewellry - it's mostly crap.
posted by badlydubbedboy at 8:55 AM on March 2, 2007

Oh, a firm pair of sandles are handy for letting your feet air/breathe. Although you should expect them to be pretty damn dirty by the end of the trip.
posted by badlydubbedboy at 8:55 AM on March 2, 2007

Also, if you've never been there before... I didn't know what to expect before I went because I'd never been to the middle east before going to Egypt. I was having nightmares & a bit scared because I think I'd been watching too many US news reports (I now see through how much propaganda is in them) & got tired of my dad asking me "So how are you going to avoid terrorists?"

Well FYI, I found far less anti-Americanism in Egypt than in western Europe. People there are happy to show off their country to you. Most Egyptians I met are wonderful, sweet & funny people. (Islamic fundamentalists represent the average Egyptian as well as Christian fundamentalists represent the average American.) In my experience, they embrace the Americans who are coming to experience their country, as it really bothers them that they know most of us are scared to go there (most tourists are French, British & Australian). They're a very proud people. Really learning about Egyptian people & culture was one of the most incredibly life-changing travel experiences I've ever had. I'm even taking an arabic calligraphy class next season because I developed an interest in the beauty of arabic writing & language.

I was there during the bombing in Dahab and to watch the way that the Egyptian people were devastated by it gave me a whole new perspective. Meanwhile, my American friends thought I was in danger... but the bombing had nothing to do with America or with me & it was 600 miles away. The bombing was about problems that have gone on regarding Sinai for thousands of years really, and I listened to Egyptians talk about it. You could see that they have a lot of pride in their country and the bombing broke their hearts.

What I'm trying to say is don't go there worrying about terrorists coming after you and all of that stuff. You will be safe, and most of the problems in Egypt have nothing to do with you. As I said, I found FAR more anti-Americanism in other countries... in Egypt people were excited and fascinated at me being from America. They wanted to ask me questions about California and movie stars. Also, the reality is that there is no crime in Egypt really, especially compared to here (people leave their cars running with the keys inside and wallets on the seat when they go into the minimart!). Be prepared that you will be surrounded by rifle-toting tourist police 90% of the time (they instilled the TP after the bombing at Hatshepsut's temple in 1998) but don't let the guns freak you out, they created the Tourist Police force because Egyptians are overcompensating so tourists know they are making great efforts for their safety. One one hand, it's for show... although if they needed to do their jobs, they would.

Regarding how women are treated, it's a different culture (I've never been more thankful of being a woman born in America -- there are freedoms I never even REALIZED I have, like having a boyfriend whenever I want) but their social mores are not expected of you. They respect that you are western.

I really hope you have a great time.

Oh, one other thing... if you're claustrophobic like I am, you might not make it down to the bottom of the pyramid tunnels. The tunnels are a bit of a nightmare, especially when loads of tourists are going up and down the same tiny passageway. There's no art down there though, just burial chambers.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:00 AM on March 2, 2007

I was in Egypt, Jordan and Syria in August-September 1999. I'm male, and was about 26 at the time. The difference between Egypt and Jordan is great. In Jordan, you will be hassled MUCH less than in Egypt. I echo others - try to wear somewhat conservative clothes - long, loose khaki pants and light/white linen shirts, a hat, and sunglasses are a good bet. As a westerner, you won't be held to the same standards as an Egyptian woman, but it's better to err on the side of caution. If you are with your husband I suspect you will largely be ignored by anyone who would bother you otherwise.

As for footwear, I usually wore a pair of crosstrainer sneakers/boots. One day in Petra I spent the day walking around in Teva sandals and that was a mistake - feet got sweaty and it was hard scrambling or climbing up some of the trails. I'd stick to sturdy closed shoes. Make sure you break them in before you go.

Try to avoid patronizing anyone who offers you a camel or horse ride through the desert around the pyramids or Petra. I was suckered into it and felt terribly afterwards after the terrible treatment of these animals became apparent.

All this said, the folks I came across in the middle east were some of the most hospitable, kind, helpful people I have ever met in my travels. Yes, in Egypt there will be hawkers trying to separate you from your money, but they are harmless. Learn some key words in arabic (thank you, hello, goodbye, etc.) and it will be MUCH appreciated by the locals. Don't discuss politics, and you'll be fine.

Above all, HAVE FUN.
posted by nomad73 at 9:48 AM on March 2, 2007

I was in Egypt and Jordan the summer of 2000. I would recommend that you bring lots of light colored clothes made of cotton or other fabrics meant for hot weather. And yes to the covering of your arms and legs. You would probably also want to do this because of the sun. Yes to lots of sunblock and do remember to drink LOTS of water. Don't let yourself get thirsty. I remember drinking like 4 liters of water every day and having to pee very little.

Some good walking sandals would be ok, you can bring those and some closed walking shoes, and alter them every other day, since you get tired of the same shoes on trips like that.

What else....oh yes, if you can carry some socks around in your handbag, they could come in helpful. Some religious places ask that you take off your shoes, so you can put on the socks if you don't want to walk around barefoot.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:48 AM on March 2, 2007

Sorry for the tanget but, are you going to Petra while you're in Jordan? Definetly a MUST SEE. One of the most amazing places I've been to, ever.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:52 AM on March 2, 2007

Make a note of how many camels you're offered for your hand in marriage (really). Friends have reported to me being offered anywhere between 300 and 5,000 camels ... Probably helps if you have blue eyes.
posted by Happydaz at 10:39 AM on March 2, 2007

Have you seen Journeywoman?

posted by srah at 10:55 AM on March 2, 2007

Huh. I missed out on the camel thing because I was doing solo travel with Egyptian friends. Darn, I have no idea what I'm worth in camels. :(

Here's a good example of the kind of harmless harrassment I received (self link to a travelogue entry on Travelpod). Much of it was more funny or mildly annoying than scary, although admittedly walking down the street alone I felt more self conscious due to having "Talk to me! I AM ALOOOONE! I want to be your husband!" yelled to me. Never really felt in danger though. When I actually talked to the men who yelled at me instead of freaking out, I found that they were just bored men hanging out on the street & virtually harmless. I told them that my husband was waiting for me in the hotel and I found that their attitudes often changed after that. Uncool to disrespect another man's wife.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:57 AM on March 2, 2007

I was very, very happy in Egypt wearing these skirts (long version) and these (or similar) sandals. I swear by both of them for clamoring around sites and general street wear. Longish-sleeved cotton shirts should be the most comfortable. You don't want to have to constantly worry if what you're wearing is appropriate so just get comfortable, loose casual wear that provides coverage and you can forget about it and enjoy how amazing Egypt is. A light jacket is really handy for layering and pockets.

Try to get change to get Egyptian pound singles as soon and as often as you can. You need these to tip to use the ladies room and they are not easy to get as everyone needs them, not just travelers.
posted by Morrigan at 11:27 AM on March 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I have light hair and eyes. The hassling is either going to bother you or it won't. It didn't bother me. Nor did the steepness and closeness inside a pyramid and I really thought it would. You are going to have a great time. Have some karkadee, fuul and felafel and enjoy. :)
posted by Morrigan at 11:33 AM on March 2, 2007

When we honeymooned in Turkey, my wife wore those hiking pants where the pant legs would unzip just above the knees. Whenever we went into a mosque or a setting were cultural sensitivity was required she would zip the pant legs back on.

Admittedly, Turkey was probably a bit more lenient in that respect (at least in 2000).
posted by smcniven at 12:07 PM on March 2, 2007

Also FYI, they do like American dollars there. There were a few times where it was actually preferred when I tipped in $5 bills. Dollars were actually easier to use in transactions there than in many european countries, which surprised me.

As for hiking inside of the pyramid, YMMV... I'm definitely claustrophobic & there were just way too many sweaty tourists crammed into a 5" high stone tunnel with me for my taste.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:47 PM on March 2, 2007

I meant 5 FOOT. Not 5 INCH. Durrrrr.
posted by miss lynnster at 2:49 AM on March 3, 2007

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