This time last month I found myself en route to an ancient civilization. A boy compelled me to visit Egypt. I had met him at the end of last summer just before embarking to France and though we stayed in touch, we hadn’t seen each other in four months. Of course today tourists are advised to postpone trips to the country, but several weeks ago I couldn’t imagine a more exotic, fascinating place to stage a reunion. I figured: if the spark isn’t still there, at least I will have seen the pyramids!
I had very few expectations before the trip. I had been warned that I would need to dress more conservatively, covering my shoulders and legs. I was a little nervous that my blonde hair and winter white-washed pallor would attract negative attention, but otherwise I was filled with excitement. After obtaining a visa at the airport I met my friend. We took the last two seats on a rickety bus headed to Cairo, men and children standing in the aisles so that women and elders could sit. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to the pretty woman behind me and in a lilting accent, she asked, “Do you know where you will go?” My friend responded politely that he knew the area as I grinned wide. If all strangers proved equally gracious and helpful, I felt confident I was embarking on a pleasant voyage.
The first lesson I learned is, if you plan on traveling in Egypt, research travel tips first. After an overnight bus ride-destination Nuweiba-my friend and I were dropped off by the uninformative bus driver at 6 am in an uninhabited stretch of town. We had to ask for directions to the resort Soft Beach Camp at a Hilton Hotel and after walking for 45 minutes, accepted a ride. Though it is common for any Egyptian with a car to offer cab services, if I had not been with a male companion I would never have ridden in an unmarked vehicle.
After a violent sand storm at the beach, we bussed down the coast. Dahab, a colorful, tourist strip along the Gulf of Aqab, was chock-full of tourist trinket shops, whitewashed hostels, and a slew of restaurants. An employee was stationed outside of each eatery, voicing a steady flow of advertisements: free dessert, hookah, special deals, very nice cushions! My friend and I spent two days lazily wandering the boardwalk and enjoying the liberty with which we could drink a beer at sunset (in major Egyptian cities alcohol is sparse and meant to be enjoyed privately, in accordance with Islamic tradition). The next night we caught a nine hour bus to Cairo and hopped a train to Alexandria.
The relaxed coastal town was my favorite destination. There we ate authentic Egyptian dishes like foul mudammas, a hummus-like paste stuffed with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions in pita and kosheri, a vegetarian mélange of pasta grains and vegetables that is topped with tomato sauce. We sipped fresh juice drinks while wandering the corniche, a broad street bordering the coastline where cars, be forewarned, zip past at breakneck speeds. Colorful dinghies bobbed in the Eastern Port as fishermen hauled the day’s catch. I felt like a real native hailing makeshift buses-vans turned public transportation, with extra seats installed that fold down quickly to allow passengers to pass in and out with ease-with hand signals akin to those of Major League umpires.
During my last night in Egypt we stayed at the quaint Dahab Hostel in Cairo. Good nighttime activities include dinner on cruise ships docked along the Nile followed by a horse-ride into the parameters of the pyramids for a lightshow. In the daytime, visit the Mohamed Ali Citadel, 9 centuries old. The entrance fee costs 50 Egyptian pounds and includes access to the Mosque, the military museum and a sweeping view of the city. When we visited it was swarming with students. They approached us, all reciting variations of the same three lines: ‘Where do you come from;’ ‘Please introduce yourself;’ and ‘Welcome to Egypt!’ Though overwhelmed after taking hundreds of pictures with the excited kids, this was by far the most rewarding experience of the trip.
Overall my Egyptian vacation was enhanced by having a personal tour guide and companion who spoke Arabic. Avoid raw vegetables, always carry your own water and for additional comfort bring eye drops and hand sanitizer. Ladies dress respectfully to avoid unwanted attention. I had been forewarned that Egyptian men are rather predatory. Traveling with a male companion likely deterred such advances; otherwise the most aggressive sexual attention I received was from a 5 year old boy walking past with an ice cream cone in his hand. “Mushka,” he cried delightedly, meaning, “Hot girl!”