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Letters from Egypt: Tourist Travails

Living abroad means you’re not quite a tourist—you have an address, after all—but you’re certainly not a local. What are you? Our writer reports from several recent trips around Egypt, trailed by scantily clad visitors.

The pyramids, the Great Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings, the Nile Valley—Egypt’s tourist industry dates back thousands of years, so when I get annoyed at the fanny-packed Germans trouncing around my neighborhood or the busloads of scantily clad Italians gawking at Muslims gathered outside mosques on Fridays, I imagine their forefathers here. That lightens my mood, somehow, adding some perspective, knowing this parade is nothing new, and I have my own part in it—I am a tourist, too.

Three o’clock one recent morning found me playing rummy with members of my family who were visiting from northern Virginia, sitting at a table in the café of the tiny domestic terminal of Cairo’s airport. I was a little glazed from a party I had left two hours earlier, and my father still had sleep in his eyes, his hair all mussed from a four-hour nap. Groups of tourists swarmed around us—Japanese people with meal boxes prepared by their travel services and French women tittering at the security guards stick out in my memory. We were all waiting for flights that would take us south, along the Nile, to Upper Egypt—land of ancient temples, Pharaonic tombs, and Nile cruises. My father muttered something about “all the damn tourists,” and I quickly pointed out that we were tourists, too. He looked up at me, suddenly wide awake, and said, “We are not tourists; we are travelers.”

The traveler/tourist complex has been a lifelong thing with us as we’ve moved between our wooded-yet-strip-malled D.C. suburb and miscellaneous developing world cities, stopping here and there in between. But here in Cairo, in my first chosen overseas home, I am still a tourist, albeit a somewhat self-aware one—someone who is seeing all this for the first time but is looking in different places than she is being told to look. It’s on my few trips outside this dusty, raucous metropolis that I have been most tourist-like: shepherded around and plied with everything from bitter, dark Bedouin tea and cheap lighters to husbands and gold collars.

Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan, 4 days and 3 nights

As the runty little men who carried our bags onto our cruise barge at 7 a.m. demanded tips, my head was pounding. All my fears were coming true. I had booked a three-day inclusive package for my visiting family, and as we arrived we were told we couldn’t enter our rooms until noon and that we’d have to pay extra for the tours that would take place that day. I cursed the swarms of typical tourists in the lobby. I cursed the memory of the leaflet my travel agent gave me with color photos of early-’80s people having fun. The ship itself was paneled in wood and filled with gaudy paintings and ugly houseplants. The far-off bank of the Nile shone in the rising sun. Just as I had with the cops at the airport and with our taxi driver, I got ornery with the concierge in my broken Arabic, and he smoothly snarled at me in perfect English, assuring us everything would be fine.

My family went off to breakfast at a nearby hotel, and I went up to the rooftop sundeck, slumped into a cushioned chair, and closed my eyes. When I opened my eyes to a welcome drink—cold hibiscus tea in a champagne flute—I chatted with a way-too-cheery fellow American sitting next to me. My mouth on automatic and my mind dozing, I slowly warmed up. More and more of our fellow vacationers joined us on the deck, and, by the time my family came back from breakfast, I was finally smiling and went off to wander around the relatively small cruise ship.

I first encountered a bathtub-sized swimming pool and then the enclosed bar and lounge, which had menus offering expensive, nuclear-looking cocktails and a parquet dance floor crowned by a dusty disco ball. In front of the huge dining room, I found a schedule of meals—having heard of entire shiploads of people getting stomach bugs on Nile cruises, I was dreading this—and a table display of Egyptian wines, making them look far more appealing than I knew they tasted. And then a tiny tourist shop, boasting a colorful rack of ornate galabiyahs—traditional Egyptian dresses, worn by both women and men. Wandering around alone, I reconciled myself to all these tourist trappings. We had bought into this, and I would enjoy it, but perhaps not quite in the way the people who were selling it to me intended me to.

Soon, we were let into the room I was sharing with my cousin and sister, and we all immediately fell into a deep sleep in the pitch-black cocoon. (I thought I had a comfortable bed in Cairo, but I slept better in that room than I had in the several months previous.) We woke up to four days and three nights of relaxing on the sundeck, playing cards, reading, taking naps in the sun, and proceeding very slowly down the Nile, against the current, taking in its beautiful banks and comparing our own ship, the Admiral, with all the other Nile cruisers.

We spent about half of each day being bused to temples and tombs, crowding in with other tourist groups to listen to our guide. I took to wandering around the ruins, picking out different languages and trying to imagine the sites when they were new. The best thing about our guide was that to gather up his group as we were leaving a site, he would call out his own name: “Walid!” My sister and I especially loved him one morning as he walked up the center of a marble walkway, toward the dramatic temple of Hatshepsut. The sun was making the old building sparkle and this man was walking toward it, his arms stretched upward, a water bottle clutched in his right hand, yelling his own name.

Though the days were sunny, they were also chilly, and no one braved the pool, though quite a few of our shipmates sported Speedos and string bikinis on deck. The food was impressive—a full-on buffet with freshly carved meat for lunch, dinner served at our table by a charming, toothless old waiter, and about 10 desserts at each meal, at least two of which were to die for. At night, if we were docked, I would get someone to take a walk with me and try to get into the nearest town, past the tourist strip of shops and vendors standing in our path and calling out to us in different languages—my cousin and I were most often taken for a French couple, which we found pretty funny.

On the ship, the nightlife was an agenda of strange activities. I saw the disco ball in action on the first night, during a show featuring a belly dancer followed by a rather impressive whirling dervish, surreally amazing under the flashing colored lights. One night, everyone got decked out for a galabiyah party—the implied threat was if you didn’t dress up you couldn’t join the fun—and as I was about to make my way to bed, I was dragged to the dance floor by the ship’s engineer, whom my cousin had befriended over the ping-pong table. At that point, I started taking things way too seriously and finally, angered by the forced atmosphere and community, insisted on turning in. I woke to find photos posted in the gift-shop windows of everyone on board trussed up like “Arabs.” Anyway, it looked like they had a good time. But, all in all, I had a pretty good time, too.

Camping and Driving in the Deserts Surrounding Bahriyya Oasis, 3 days and 2 nights

Bahriyya is an oasis about five hours southwest of Cairo. Two four-wheel drives carried us quickly down desert roads, passing occasional buildings. We picked out a chemical factory, a dovecot. We stopped at a rest stop with fluorescent-colored Egyptian scenes painted on the walls—the Great Pyramid, Tut’s mask, a sailboat on the Nile.

The desert itself was a sensory pleasure—sand and rock stretching as far as any of us could see. No people, except for us: a group of Americans studying Arabic with my roommates, a few connected others, like me, and our Bedouin guides. No sounds except for our voices, and, when we were in motion, the gruff engines carving our route through the desert, approximating paths they had made with numerous other groups of tourists.

We spent a lot of time talking amongst ourselves, telling stories in English and Arabic, and then at other times during our trip, we sat entranced as the guides sang haunting and repetitive songs, their voices harmonious in an unfamiliar way. Late one night the oldest one recited and improvised poetry. This, as we sat around a fire, huddled in camel hair blankets, drinking strong tea—a few times stronger than its Cairene counterpart—out of thimble-sized glasses that the youngest Bedouin rinsed out from a large kettle that sat in the fire throughout the night. They encouraged us to dance, and there were always a few who did, wholeheartedly, but most of us shrugged it off. I wondered whether some groups had a higher percentage of dancers.

During the days, with wind whipping sand into our faces, we drove around different parts of the desert. The best moment was at the very top of an incredibly soft sand dune I climbed barefoot. As I slid down a bit, I heard the low thwomping sound of the sand shifting below my weight. The sky was blue, in contrast to the smoggy Cairo sky, which had been even dirtier that month for the agricultural waste being burned. An area with shallow, tan sand dunes, frosted in a layer of tiny black pebbles was called the Black Desert. The White Desert was not the same thing with white pebbles, but instead a pale expanse of much softer, lighter sand with chalky outcroppings, some several stories high. There, we saw a sunset that turned the entire sky a solid pinkish purple. The photos I took in that light look as if they could have been taken on ski slopes. Everywhere there was only sky and sand and rock and road and, sometimes in the distance, green. When I got back home, I excitedly showed my photos to a friend, who laughed and said he had taken the exact same ones on his trip out to the deserts years ago.

One night, two girls from our camp got lost, and their absence wasn’t noticed until the next morning. When they finally showed up, dazed, accompanied by a guide from another tour company, our guides fought with their escort—a dispute about responsibility and tourism, from what we could tell. And, afterward, our guides seemed somewhat upset with us, blaming us for the girls’ disappearance, for their own loss of face. We ignored their pouts and made room for the girls around the table, listening to their story of walking too far away and being confused by the repetitive landscape. In the end, we fought over price with our guides. But that was after the pictures had been taken, the magnificent stillness, the full moon over what felt like a moonscape.

Daytrip to Alexandria, 12 hours

Alexandria, Egypt’s Mediterranean port, is two and a half hours by train from Cairo. The train spat me and my three friends out just before 11 a.m., and we proceeded down surprisingly quiet streets toward the water as if propelled by some outside force. Back on the train, I had realized I’d forgotten my guidebook, and we discussed going to a bookstore straight away, at least to look at a map, if not to buy one, but none of us really took to this idea. Alexandria’s downtown sits on a convex coast, so the city sprawled around us as we stood at the water’s edge. The sky showed a few gray clouds, and we all hoped out loud that it wouldn’t rain. We stared out at the water, and I thought about all the countries that shared this sea and then looked down at the colored band of trash that created a border between the water and the beach. After a while, my friend Ben took the helm, following his stomach more than anything, and led us on a long walk toward the fish restaurant he’d been to a few weeks ago and had raved about ever since.

Compared to Cairo, Alexandria is small. The streets are narrower and homier, the people are calmer, the air is more still, and—I’m not sure if it’s from being close to the sea—the colors are richer and brighter. Our walk took us to a row of fish restaurants, open to the street. Ben knew exactly which one he wanted, but sadly, its chairs were still stacked and the fresh fish wasn’t yet out. We’d have to come back in an hour—which stretched into several at an outdoor table at a café a short distance away, just across the main road from the water. We played backgammon, drank tea, smoked shisha (traditional water pipe, generally used with an apple-flavored tobacco), and ate oranges.

Returning for our early lunch, at the restaurant’s entry we were greeted by a display of fierce-looking, teeth-baring fish and pretty seashells. Behind this display was a table covered with ice cubes and fresh fish, from which we chose a big pile for our feast. We told them how we wanted each kind cooked and agreed to pay by the kilo. After a bit, our waiter brought them out—three smallish fried fish, a huge one baked with onions and tomatoes, shrimp stewed in tomato sauce, and fried calamari. There were also side-dishes of vegetables and Egyptian dips. We followed this amazing meal with hours of wandering up and down the nearest strip of beach. My friend Marisa and I began collecting bits of sea-worn tiles washed up from old Alexandrian houses. We sat in the sand and watched the city around us as the sky began to go crazy sunset colors, reflecting brightly off of buildings and windows in the skyline. Such a contrast to the beach itself, which was strewn with more colorful trash. Couples sat at old metal chair-and-umbrella contraptions. We sat on the biggest bits of tile we’d found.

Once things had darkened, we found our way to the city’s old market, again smaller than Cairo’s, and, somehow, a bit more exotic. Marisa and I wandered into an apothecary, where we encountered dried sea horses, hedgehogs, and a stupefying array of potions and spices. Exiting the market, we decided that a few beers sitting somewhere warm would be a good way to end the day, and began the search for a place that served them. Our lack of a map suddenly seemed like a big problem.

Stupidly, I mentioned what we thought was the name of a bar to a young man, and soon enough everybody on his block knew we were searching. We were of most interest to a group of young boys, who led us, as if through a maze, to nowhere in particular. Finally ditching them, we found ourselves in an extremely bustling, slightly more modern part of town, pushed between the crowded sidewalks and busy streets, thinking we saw beer at each distant fluorescent sign. Finally, we plowed our way back to a place that I knew for sure existed, in another part of town, and we found a corner table and some cold beer.

After getting lost in a complicated game of cards, we managed to miss our train, the last of the day. There was no way to get our money back, no way to delay our reservation until tomorrow. The uniformed men we got this information from laughed at us. Across the train station parking lot, we hopped onto a minibus and took over the back row. Minibuses are budget travel in Egypt. They seat about 15 people and careen wildly through streets all over the country. I fell asleep, but as we unloaded in Cairo an incredibly short two hours later, my cousin Matt enthusiastically said, “That was really fun, but I think it might have been the most dangerous thing I’ve done in my whole life.” It was a surprising day, delightfully based on gut notions, lacking in tourism. I want to assert: We were simply travelers and nothing else…but then, I have a bit of a complex. And for that I’d like to blame—and thank—my father.