PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Into Egypt, A Reflection

Except for an unexpected overnight in the Cairo airport, my return to the U.S. was otherwise seamless. As I settle back into my routine, with no other big adventures imminent, I thought I would do one final reflection on travel to Egypt in general, in the event others are thinking of a similar pilgrimage.   

One of the most common questions I got about the trip was “did I feel safe,” and the answer to that is an unequivocal yes. I felt extraordinarily safe. Security there is amazing, as you go through a lot of metal detectors and have lots of pat downs. There are also armed military people everywhere.

Egypt’s tourist industry was profoundly impacted by the Arab Spring as well as COVID, so the government is heavily invested in making it a safe place to travel. Truthfully, except for driving, I never felt unsafe and honestly probably was as safe as I have ever felt traveling.

That is also because of the culture of a largely Muslim nation, with a Christian population that is devout. Attacks on Western women are rare if almost unheard of in Egypt, as is a lot of the usual “street crime” in major cities. Penalties for crimes against foreigners are swift and severe.

That said, you also have to go there knowing that it is an incredibly sexist culture by its very nature. Women need to dress modestly to respect the culture and you have to accept that toxic masculinity is built into the system. It can get frustrating at times.

The people selling things can sometimes be A LOT, and it could be easy to be overwhelmed or get annoyed. However, if you ignore it, or get in on the joke and don’t get irritated, it’s easier to handle. I found the Egyptian people really liked humor and laughter, and so that made overcoming the intensity much easier. There seemed to be nothing subtle about the folks I encountered. (And I know I am taking broad swaths at a culture, but I think these generalities help in preparing to travel there because of the homogenous ethnic culture, separated largely by religion.) Because it is a huge city, and tourist areas can get crowded, go knowing there will be times when you have to give up your personal space.

Although I wasn’t paying for the trip, thanks to the generosity of my cousin, I can safely say it is a very economical place to travel. The dollar is extremely strong against the Egyptian pound right now, so you can stretch it very far. Depending on the level, you can take a four-day cruise for $350 to $400. And you can easily get a nice hotel for under $100. Meals were often dirt cheap, and this is the first time I’d ever sent out laundry while traveling. I had a shirt, socks and pants cleaned for $2. Ubers were under $2. However, build tipping into your budget. You do it everywhere and people in tourism rely on it to survive.

I would also strongly recommend getting a reputable guide for your trip and arranging it ahead of time. I will often travel places on my own but wouldn’t do that in Egypt. Guides aren’t expensive and working with a company can help you do what you want safely. I’ve driven all over the world — even in Turkey — but  would NEVER rent a car in Egypt. You can use public transit and Ubers easily, but don’t expect to get by with English like you might in other countries. Even in places with lots of tourists, charades were often the name of the communication game. For the record, I never mastered acting out. “Does your mint tea have caffeine in it?”

The advantage of hiring a guide is twofold. First, it aids in navigating a huge city and the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of maneuvering in a place when you can’t read Arabic. Second, you learn so much you would never know without a guide. I left Egypt not only better prepared to answer crossword puzzles about Egypt but also feeling of having a much better grasp of the vast and incredible history of the country. I personally am not a huge fan of large groups, but with the proper research, a private guide is not insanely expensive and would allow for some back-door exploration that is at the heart of not just being a tourist but getting to know a place.

In addition, proper research is absolutely vital to traveling to Egypt. It is always possible to run into challenging situations anywhere, but in Egypt I feel having the right references on a travel experience is vital. Because we survived, I am delighted by our ATV experience because it was so fun and made a great story. That said, had this group handled our whole experience it would have been a different story. And the ATV group had some pretty good reviews. I never thought they were dangerous or anything. Just not who I’d want organizing my whole trip.

All in all, I can heartily recommend travel to Egypt. We spent 10 full days there, plus a layover travel day, and I felt I got an excellent “tourist” grasp of the country along with having some downtime to decompress from what can be a pretty intense place to visit. It is safe, affordable and definitely unlike any other place in the world. The people are rightfully proud of their history and heritage, full of laughter and good humor, and straightforward and direct.

I was beyond blessed that I was gifted this trip of a lifetime at a time when I needed something to look forward to. But had that not been the case, it is definitely a place worth your travel dollars. It is an experience you will never forget.

Leave a Reply