Egypt – Pitfalls to Avoid, Delights to Enjoy

Every country has it’s aspects you don’t want to miss and every country has it’s share of scam artists, customs and tourist traps you would be happier if you could avoid. Egypt is no different. I can safely say Egyptians are the friendliest and happiest people I have ever met. It is not unusual to be invited for a cup of tea or to dinner by someone you met only an hour ago. However, it is also not unusual to hear many stories of tourists getting ripped off by people they thought were being friendly.

Cultural differences is the reason tourists fall foul of Egyptian ‘scam artists’. Remember that tourism is the main source of foreign income, especially in Upper Egypt, so many unsavoury practices are accepted in Egypt, under the guise of ‘business’. For the most part tourists do not come from countries where strangers compliment them on their hair, eyes, body, personality etc. – compliments on clothing or hair – maybe a little. Nevertheless, the high level of personal compliments passed in Egypt tends to throw many tourists off guard. In Egypt it is quite common practice to compliment each other in very personal ways.. If you get a chance to listen to Egyptian songs and can get a translation, you will see the language is more like something you would find in a Shakespearian sonnet than in a modern western song.

Most of the Egyptians you will meet on holidays will be working in the tourist trade. If they are in the tourist areas – they are working the tourists, though you may not realise it. So, yes, you can be friendly but don’t let yourself get bowled over by the compliments to the extent that you lose your common sense. Be specially suspect of men (sometimes women but not that often) who try to befriend you in the street, they are mostly good-looking and charming but probably up to no good!

If you don’t have your accommodation booked (even if you do) be aware that, at the airport, in the taxi, at the train station everyone knows a hotel they can recommend and take you to. All well and good – they are getting commission for taking you there.

Carpenters at Work, Tomb of Rekhmire by peterjr1961, on Flickr
Carpenters at Work, Tomb of Rekhmire by peterjr1961, on Flickr

Tours – it is normal to be quoted a cheap price by taxi drivers, hotels, tour operators and travel agents – you need to try to clarify additional charges, hidden extras and what exactly is included in the deal. It is usual to be taken shopping or to restaurants on these trips – that is where they make up the loss on the ‘cheap price’ you were quoted.

Apart from Luxor and Karnak Temples on the East Bank, everyone knows about the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and Hatshepsut’s Temple on the West Bank. Less often visited on the West Bank, but equally worth seeing are the two perfect tombs at the Workers’ Village – also known as Deir El Medina; the Temple at Medinet Habu; the Tombs of the Nobles; Tomb of Ay; Tombs of Roy & Shu Roy and the Temple of Sety I. The most wonderful temples in Egypt are those at Abydos and Dendera – both of which you can see on a full-day trip from Luxor. The house in which Howard Carter lived, between Hatshepsut’s Temple and the Valley of the Kings, while excavating the tomb of Tutankhamon, is now open and has an excellent restaurant outside, which is operated by the renowned Winter Palace Hotel.

Citadel and the Alabaster Mosque - Dec 28, 2008 - 07 by Ed Yourdon, on Flickr
Citadel and the Alabaster Mosque – Dec 28, 2008 – 07 by Ed Yourdon, on Flickr

If you are looking for genuine hand-made craftwork you should not miss a visit to the Women’s Centre in Karnak (Luxor) where they make trays, rugs, bags, accessories and a range of clothing. Souvenirs from Egypt include papyrus paintings (there are fakes also but in my experience they last as long as the originals….so depends on how many you want!); essential oils from Egypt are wonderful but make sure you are watching (and not distracted) as the assistant fills your bottle from the same bottle he gave you the sample scent from; jewellery is good value (but only the jewellery which is handcrafted in Egypt) and you need to know your market price of gold and silver, it is sold by gram weight. Traditional lamps and lights are amazingly cheap and beautiful, as are small pieces of mother-of-pearl mirrors, boxes but look twice to make sure you are buying mother-of-pearl not plastic as it can be very deceiving to the eye if you are looking at it for a while.

Traditional Egyptian food which is not that easy to find, but which you should taste if you do find it, would include mulakhia, kosa, addis, bissara, roast sweet potato, black lentil salad, stuffed vine leaves, stuffed cabbage, potatoes stuffed with meat and rabbit tagine

Places to see in Cairo – The Pyramids, Sphinx, Giza Plateau are top of the tourist list – lesser-known but equally important are the pyramid and temple complex at Saqqara; the Pyramids at Dashur and Abu Sir. In Cairo itself you will not want to miss Coptic and Islamic Cairo, Saladin’s Citadel Complex, Khan El Khalili Market and the free Sufi dancing at the Arts & Cultural Centre.

Food in Cairo not to miss would include a take-away meat or chicken sandwich in sesame bread rolls from Falfela in Talaat Haarb St., fine food dining in the Barten Section at La Bodega (booking required); the traditional dishes on the menus at Downtown 34 in Adly St and at Café Riche in Talaat Haarb St – near Tahrir Sq; pastries from the El Abd shops (you can’t miss these shops as there is always a crowd outside them – I particularly recommend their konafa, it’s a melt-in-the-mouth light delight!

Finally, for adventurers looking for the unusual can contemplate travelling from Cairo to Luxor through the Western Oases – this is a spectacular trip involving 4-wheel drive transport, guide, traditional food under starry skies and the thrill of sleeping in the desert – which, for a place which seems deserted (no pun intended!) comes alive at night with all kinds of little creatures and unusual sounds! On a trip to the desert you definitely do not want to be ill – so be sure to take Antinal with you. This is the best medicine for the Egyptian tummy bug!

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