“When you get back to America, please tell them the truth about Egypt!”, more than one person said to me. So here goes…
You won’t have to fear for your physical safety in Egypt. Tourist police are everywhere, guarding against another Luxor massacre; that sort of terrorism is rare in any event. Furthermore, chances are you won’t be the victim of casual violence or street crime either. Perhaps I am being arrogant on account of being male, large-framed, and able-bodied, but I did not look like a native, and I walked through a lot of run-down neighborhoods and never once felt threatened. Egyptians, actually, seem rather docile. They might look at you longer than they would a native, but that’s it; they won’t try to mug you, or attack you for political reasons. Like most people, Egyptians are fully capable of differentiating between a country’s government and its citizenry.
The major annoyance in Egypt will be seekers of baksheesh. This is a Middle Eastern custom parallel to Western tipping, but far more pervasive. It’s as though no one has a real job, or if they do they aren’t paid anything for it, and your task as a foreigner enjoying such a favorable exchange rate is to help out the locals. The toilet cleaner stands by the door asking that you pay him for having done his job. A mosque has some guy at the door who will keep your shoes while you visit, and then ask you to pay him to get them back. Some guy grabs your suitcase and carries it to the hotel desk, or someone opens a door for you, and wants you to pay him for his trouble. Tourist sites are crawling with people just hanging out who will happily show you some detail or other, and then ask for money for it (and it’s never enough – whatever you give them, they want more!). Then there are the people who know English who come up to you on the street. They ask where you’re going, and then invariably tell you that where you want to go is closed now, or too far away, or not easily accessible “since the revolution.” They’ll then offer to show you something interesting – it sometimes is, but it usually entails paying numerous people along the way, and then the guide himself. Or you’ll end up in his brother’s store, getting the hard-sell treatment for tacky papyrus paintings.
Part of me doesn’t mind helping out the locals. At least they’re offering to do something in return for baksheesh; it’s not like they’re just begging. But begging, in its way, is more honest. When every conversation has an ulterior motive, it gets rather depressing – at least to a westerner, and I’m afraid that I ended up being rather rude to anyone who came up to say hello. And while no individual transaction is all that costly, it adds up – and what is more, there is a run on small bills! You always end up stuck with 100 pound notes, and no way of making change.
The other thing about Egypt is that it is rather dingy. That word kept coming to mind as I walked around. Egypt is largely desert, and desert winds blow the sand everywhere – and it never gets washed away, because it never rains. So everything is coated by a layer of dirty dust, that no one can be bothered to remove. Another word that kept coming to mind was half-assed. You’re reminded again that poverty is not simply a lack of money, but a lack of initiative and of caring about yourself and your environment. Why not clean up the piles of trash that accumulate in the streets, or the manure from all the livestock and pack animals? Why not do something about all the feral cats and dogs? Why not drive better, so that every single car does not get dinged up – or do something about the terrible air quality? Why not just fix things properly?
This is why, if you want to visit the country, I would highly recommend getting a package tour from a reputable company where everything is taken care of: food, hotel, all transportation, and all visits to museums and archaeological sites. This might insulate you somewhat from Egypt’s general malaise.