To see the true beauty of Egypt and her people, you have to get away from the packaged resorts and travel independently. Slow down, be a little spontaneous, take the time to see it properly, let Egypt show herself to you and spend some time with her people away from the resorts. You will not regret it.
Egyptians are in general one of the warmest, most welcoming and friendliest of people I have ever met, and one of the true joys of visiting this ancient and fascinating country is getting to spend time with her people. Far too many tourists miss out on this heartwarming natural resource by rushing around the must see sights on package deals, dealing with the touts and then heading back to the pool in Sharm on their air conditioned coaches.
‘English?’ A young man looked up at me expectantly, it was more of a statement than a question. He had sat next to me on the train from Cairo to Alexandria and I looked up from my book and nodded in response. He seemed pleasantly surprised.
‘I love travelling on the train.’ The young man exclaimed.
‘Why’s that?’ I asked, closing my book and smiling slightly at the size of his grin.
‘You meet so many different people!’ He stated with absolute conviction as if it was a universal truth, before he gave me his name and his hand offered out in friendship.
‘I guess you do.’
What followed was a conversation that was to last for the rest of the journey to Alexandria’s Misr train station, a conversation that saw us exchange stories about our families and our respective lives, discuss politics and religion and share a light lunch of snacks we had both bought for the journey.
I know what you are thinking, but this was not a prelude to a scam. I consider myself pretty worldly and able to spot one most of the time. But the only thing this young man took from me was a good conversation during the time spent on our journey, and our mutually shared lunch of light snacks.
It was a pattern that was to be repeated endlessly throughout my time in Egypt and was absolutely testament to the Egyptian’s reputation as friendly and ebullient people. The problem with this in my opinion is that so many tourists just don’t see this.
All they see is the media headlines of terrorism and unrest. All they see is Egypt’s reputation as being dangerous to all tourists. All they see is rumour, lies and scaremongering. And this is despite the absolute majority of them never even having been to the country, or if they have been, barely exploring it beyond the air conditioned walls of their resort in Sharm El Sheik.
One of my favourite evenings in Egypt was spent on the corniche in Alexandria, a waterfront promenade where it seems almost every Alexandrian gathers in the evening as the temperature cools and the sun goes down. Families spread out along the waterfront with small picnics and street stalls selling cheap food and aromatic roasted nuts ply their trade. I was sat alone enjoying the sunset when a young girl handed me a cup of juice and pointed to her family who were beckoning me over. They were inviting me – a stranger – to share their picnic.
If that isn’t the definition of friendly I don’t know what is. And this was not an isolated incident in my time in this ancient country.
Tourists generally just spend their time being herded around the major sites like sheep, fresh from their air conditioned coaches from Sharm, their only contact with locals are those who are in the tourism trade and the touts and hawkers who immediately pounce on them like vultures. I can get why this can put a few people off to an extent. Dealing with endless touts is bloody tiresome, and even independent travellers like me – for there are a few in Egypt – who as a rule tend to spend less time with the tourist crowds and more time with locals, cannot escape their onslaught completely.
But there is no reason to judge all of Egypt on this single experience.
The major tourist sites in Egypt are major tourist sites for a reason. They are universally popular and famous across the world, they have been for thousands of years. Sites like the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings, Abu Simbel, all of these and more are the reason many people visit Egypt in the first place, so when tourists descend on them at well rehearsed and scheduled times, of course those whose livelihoods depend on tourism are going to be there en masse. They are there because the tourists are there.
I’m not saying don’t visit those sites, they are after all probably a good portion of the reason you have come here, but they aren’t all Egypt has to offer. Spend some time exploring lesser known sites too. Take your time in doing so and simply ‘be’ in Egypt instead of ‘doing’ it.
You will see a whole other side to it. You will realise that not every Egyptian is out to scam tourists.
When your only experience of a people tends to be of mercenary hordes descending on you with armfuls of overpriced touristy crap or chasing you down the street shouting ‘sir, sir, taxi?’ Then of course your opinion is going to be coloured by those experiences. It’s only natural.
And so many tourists leave Egypt without truly experiencing the true warmth and friendliness of the everyday Egyptian.
All it takes is a little effort to get away from the tourism machine that runs throughout Egypt a little bit. By travelling independently through the country you can still see all the major sites and attractions that will have no doubt fuelled your desire to visit in the first place, but you will also see a side to this magnificent country that most tourists never do.
By staying in downtown Cairo instead of Sharm el Sheik, or Alexandria instead of Hurghada you will see local Egyptians going about their daily business, by taking your time and exploring ancient sites more slowly, you will get to see them in a more quiet and serene setting as the organised tours head back to their cruise ships and the touts disperse and regroup for the next lot to come through.
By travelling independently and making an effort to know and understand Egyptian culture, by living among them for a short while instead of merely hopping from tourist site to tourist site, I gained unforgettable experiences of Egyptian hospitality and friendliness far beyond the simple travel trope of friendly hotel staff.
I saw a very real side to Egypt. And you can too.
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