Five IIM-A students on a tight budget do a nine day pit-stop in Egypt before heading for their respective exchange terms in Europe.
I stirred awake as the driver of our car struggled once, twice, thrice to switch to fifth gear on the highway. Vague recollections from childhood of my father attempting the same in his old Zen flashed in my mind. We were heading from Cairo to Alexandria, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, for a day trip in a 15 year old Daewoo Lanos (we were promised ‘a brand new model’ by the booking agent). Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the world famous library revived about a decade ago, was naturally the main attraction for us. Unfortunately, we entered just as it was closing for the day and barely got a glimpse of the place. 4 pm, our watches read.
In fact, it’s not just the library which shuts that early. “Everything in Egypt closes by 4 pm,” said our driver in a matter-of-factly tone. Save some offices in the capital, this is true for businesses in general across the country. But after that is exactly when the populace really comes alive, and keeps up the tempo till late after midnight. Walking down the streets of downtown Cairo, one is bound to hear music blaring down every alleyway. Hookah is one of the nation’s favourite pastimes. The similarities with Indian metros is striking – incessant traffic, speeding taxis, crowded streets, nagging salesmen, garbage on the roads, water on the pavements (this not from the sewers, but from dripping air conditioners attached above store billboards). A layer of dust from the surrounding desert lends a uniform brown tan to the city, visible from the air. Still, this is a bustling capital yet recovering from a revolution that captured the popular sentiment not so long ago. Consequently, the presence of the police armed with tanks and loaded guns across city hotspots – whether to maintain calm or as a show of strength – could be fairly intimidating. The entrance to the museum that abuts El Tahrir Square is lined with young policemen, looking barely out of their teens, ready to beat down any kind of unrest. All this doesn’t stop the people from being sociable in any way though. Strangers easily strike up conversations with each other, politics appearing to be the topic of choice. Tourists can happily find their way around as unconditional help (in broken English, nonetheless) is easily available.
A natural outcome of the 2011 uprising was, of course, the significant reduction in the number of visitors to Egypt. A 95% drop in revenue from tourism left the economy reeling. Suddenly, hotel owners, shopkeepers and guides found themselves in a buyers’ market – unfamiliar territory where they began competing with each other to sell their services to the trickle of tourists coming in. Advisories against travelling to most areas still remain in the US and UK, leading to a dearth of visitors from the west. Once familiar with the surroundings, we easily learnt to negotiate with agents and drive down mark-ups (read margins) for everything from package tours to t-shirts. All the guides taking us around spoke, with a touch of regret in their voices, of how things have actually gotten worse after an attempt at reformation.
Naturally, friends and relatives were apprehensive when they heard we were planning a nine day long tour of a country in this state. What’s there to see apart from the pyramids, they asked. In reality, one could argue that Egyptian civilisation reached its pinnacle in the 13th and 12th centuries BC, much after the timeline of the pyramids (3000 BC). Kings like Tuthmos III and Ramses II of the 18th – 20th dynasties deified themselves as they ruled over a vast empire. The spectacular temples at Luxor/Karnak and Abu Simbel in the south (‘Upper Egypt’) characterise their narcissism and excesses in a grandiose manner. The story continued with the riches of young Tutankhamun discovered at the Valley of the Kings that captured the world’s awe. The invading Greeks’ attempts to integrate themselves into the local culture is reflected at Aswan and Alexandria. The Cairo museum is a grand coming together of these periods, demanding a whole day to explore. All of these structures impressed us much more than the pyramids, which I believe are over-hyped and not at all a fair reflection of the country’s rich history. Frankly, the illegitimate horse ride in the desert was more fun than watching the pyramids themselves.
It is interesting to note that the last native Egyptian king ruled more than 2300 years ago, and the region took on a radically different culture after the Islamic invasion in the 600s. Thus, no aspect of Egypt’s richest, and supposedly proudest, aeons actually persists today in this Arab nation (apart from being a source of revenue). Ironic, much? This is in stark contrast to India where the ancient Vedas, epics and other scriptures continue to dominate religious and spiritual thinking.
All of this begs the question of whether a budget traveller is better off spending his or her money elsewhere. We managed to do the trip at ~ US$350 a head (excluding airfare), working out to ~ US$40 per person per day.
Stay: There are tons of cheap hotels one can book through HostelBookers and others in downtown Cairo, if willing to compromise on basic facilities (most offer free WiFi). There’s no better location to really explore what the city is about.
Food: Non-vegetarians have enough options. Veggies (like me) can make do with the ubiquitous koshary or live off pizzas and spaghetti. Do try the El Abd bakery for excellent and cheap croissants and deserts. Dine at Café Riche (which has a dedicated vegetarian menu) and stake claim to be a part of Cairo’s history of revolutions.
Travel: Getting around in Cairo isn’t too much of a problem; most places of interest are either walkable from downtown or a few metro stations away. Local buses tend to be crowded and irregular, and taxis can fleece outright. The adventurous at heart could attempt trips to south Egypt on their own. However, regional trains are almost always full and the special trains for foreigners charge the moon. A seemingly romantic Nile cruise takes time and is also outrageously priced for any distance. Moreover, local touts posing as guides are well prepared to exploit sitting ducks. To avoid these irritations and transaction costs at each stage, I recommend planned tours (offering inexpensive stay, inter-city plus private local transport and genuine guides at select places) as the way to go. Highways are surprisingly smooth and buses cover the distance fairly quickly. Compare rates from the hotel owner and multiple travel agents to work out the best deal.
Safety: We didn’t see or hear of any kind of trouble during our stay. Occasional threats of protest may arise but the news easily spreads for one to avoid such areas. Recent tourists had no complaints visiting even Sinai, which has strong advisories issued against it. People generally recognise Indians on the street and they seem to hold us in some respect, even if it is just for SRK and Bollywood masala flicks. And with the police presence, one cannot deny there is some thrill in being driven in a guarded convoy to the southern border (Abu Simbel) at 4 in the morning.
We did drink the water of the Nile, which by local tradition obliges us to visit again.