As I head back to the states, there are a few things from the past month that I want to put down in writing. Part of it is so I don’t forget, and part of it is the hopes someone else will find it useful.
Transportation. Before I left for Egypt, one of my Egyptian friends warned me about the drivers here. I laughed him off. Morocco had some pretty crazy roads and after all, I was used to Boston traffic. What could be scarier? As it turned out, crossing the street is probably the situation I’m in the most danger.
Cars, motorcycles, took-tooks, and even horse or donkey-pulled carts all weave and flow around each other with a complete disregard for lane lines and rules of the road. I’ve seen maybe three crosswalks, which were all there for show, as everyone jaywalks inches from cars whizzing past. Drivers beep and flash their lights at each other, not in anger, but as a way of communicating their intentions.
All of the cars I see seem to have marks of some previous accident or disrepair, although I have yet to see an actual accident. It’s pretty impressive, although frightening is just as applicable a word when I’m a passenger in a taxi. Seatbelts are not only not utilized, but also often not present. Even if they are, they are typically coated with dust or dirt; a clear indication of how much they’re used. Taking a taxi is an everyday adventure that I’m not sure I need. The cars on the road are also of questionable ages. While there are brand new cars on the road, there are also cars that look like they will fall apart at a moments notice. There are ancient VW Beetles and box cars that look 30 or 40 years old.
There are also a lot of transportation options throughout the country: car, van, minibus, motorcycle, cart-and-donkey, horse-drawn carriage, hot air ballon, boat (with or without engine), camel, bike, hot air balloon, and more.
Nature. Green space is in short supply in Cairo, although there are small patches in Zamalak and one or two cultivated gardens in Ma’adi. Seasons are also in short supply, and it hasn’t rained once. The sky is always a light blue with an intense sun beating down. That makes it very hot here. In Cairo, the lowest temperature I recorded was 90 degrees fahrenheit, and that was in the middle of the night. In the day the temperature hovered between 100 and 105. In the south in Luxor and Aswan, it got even hotter: past 110 in the day. I’ve been told this is hot even for Egypt though, as the country is currently experiencing a heat wave.
Trash. As sad as it is to admit it, Cairo is dirty. It is dusty and dry, of course, but it is also covered in trash. Alexandria was even worse. Food wrappers cover the streets, sidewalks, and even make their way into ancient tombs. Upon entering a cab, the driver handed my friend a sheaf of advertisements and indicated he should just toss them out the window. People would finish their bottle of water and just drop it. When I encountered a single set of recycling bins, in the even dirtier city of Alexandria, I was so shocked I took a picture.
Most of this is due to the fact that there is so much disposable packaging. The neighborhood markets are filled with brands westerners would find familiar back home, which, while making it easier to adjust, does tend to take away from the ‘foreign country experience.’
Tourism. In pictures and videos I’ve seen of Egypt, the place is crowded. To be fair, it still is with merchants and locals living in the megacity of Cairo. However, there is a distinct lack of tourists. The two revolutions and now the constant attacks from insurgent groups have scared people away. Neighboring countries are not necessarily stable, and even parts of Egypt’s own Sinai Peninsula is under the control of extremist groups.
This has made the tourist locations very quiet. Empty cruise boats sit docked on the Nile, and waterside restaurants are dark. Several of the sites I visited were empty save the guards and who I came with. It has also made people very desperate here. Tourism is, or was, a major part of the economy, and what many people rely on for their livelihoods. Prices are extremely low, and all of the bargaining power lies with the tourists: there are few of them and many people to buy from. While this does make it easier to travel and visit, it’s not a good situation for the Egyptians.
Safety. Honestly, dodging cars when getting across the street is the scariest thing here. Cairo is not exempt from the violence between extremist groups and the government in the Sinai Peninsula though: a week before I arrived the Italian consulate was bombed, and the day before I left a car bomb targeted a security building.
That being said, I think most Americans have an over-exaggerated sense that the country is dangerous. American University, and many other western schools, institutions, and initiatives have moved their programs to Jordan. I was told I couldn’t study abroad in Egypt because of that (which is why I came on my own). However there are still foreigners here. I took classes with students from all over Europe who didn’t display the same fear as in the U.S. There’s something to be learned there.
On a more mundane note, I found the tap water fine to drink.
Food. Fresh juice is not only amazing in Egypt, but it is readily available. It’s just not possible to find the same stuff in the U.S. The most expensive things in grocery stores are imported goods, and it’s possible to eat a breakfast, lunch, and dinner for less than 5 Egyptian pounds (~$0.65 USD) from the streets. I’ve also been told that salted butter is an American thing. Not only can I not find it here, but my European flatmates think it’s the most ridiculous thing they’ve heard of.
People. One of the things that I see again and again is a ‘can-do’ attitude that applies to every aspect of life. It is an ability to make things work, or get stuff done, regardless of the obstacles. If a cafe doesn’t advertise a requested drink, the waiter will still appear with it later, having gone to a neighboring cafe to get it. Or the best (scariest?) example I’ve seen: a family of four on a one-person scooter. People don’t let the details get in the way, or subscribe to a set idea of the way something needs to be done. If something needs to be done, it will be one way or another.
Coming home. This has been an amazing trip and I’ve learned a lot. I would return in a moment, and hope I have the chance to one day. That said, there’s “no place like home” and that’s the United States for me. I’ll be glad to back among the familiar, even if it makes me long for something different again!