Remember the Arab Spring? I certainly do. We had booked a trip to Egypt mere weeks before massive pro-democracy demonstrations erupted on January 25, 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. After 18 days of intense unrest, former president Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office. Most visitors cancelled travel plans to Egypt. We decided to go ahead with our March 2011 visit. This post features my photo memories from an extraordinary trip during an extraordinary time.Continue reading
I was going to continue with my Laos series when I noticed that this is my 100th post. To celebrate, I decided to do a post about places that have stuck in my mind and in my heart. It was a tough exercise limiting this to only ten (there are many runners up). I took a broad approach to the word “place” and the list includes countries, regions, and provinces. A few of the places are from visits that happened long before I’d ever heard the word “blog” or even used a computer, and I’m happy to be sharing these “old” favourites. Thank you for reading, for your likes and comments, and motivating me to keep at it. Continue reading
Many visitors to Egypt confine themselves to the pharaonic splendours of the Nile Valley. However, it’s surprisingly easy and undeniably rewarding to venture into Egypt’s White Desert. 500 km southwest of Cairo, the White Desert is an incredible landscape of chalk monoliths carved into whimsical creatures by the relentless forces of sand and wind. The White Desert seduces visitors with its mesmerizing beauty. There’s no better way to experience its magic than on a desert safari.
Tourism has suffered greatly since the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Egyptians are desperate for visitors and they will greet you with open arms. Go now, and your White Desert adventure will be enhanced by the best choice of guides, competitive pricing and blissfully quiet campsites.Continue reading
In the heart of Islamic Cairo, deep in the maze of narrow passages of Khan el-Khalili bazaar, El Fishawy Cafe has been serving tea, coffee, and sheesha to locals and travelers for over two centuries.
We had been mosque viewing, trinket bargaining, and death-by-Cairo-traffic evading for most of the day. We were tired and needed a break. I had read about El Fishawy, one of the longest running coffee and smoke shops in the world, and was determined to lead my family to Cairo’s most famous cafe. Continue reading
It’s not love at first sight with Cairo. The city of over nine million (20 million in Greater Cairo) can be hell for those accustomed to rules, order, and space. Cairo is a polluted, chaotic, traffic-choked mess. But, in a most peculiar way, Cairo’s unpleasantness is part of its appeal. Cairo bursts with vitality. I wouldn’t want to live there, but it charged me, gave me energy, and provided an extraordinary travel experience. Give Cairo a chance; it just might grow on you.
Here’s a lighthearted guide to surviving Cairo, and even enjoying it.
Forget what your mother taught you, and step off that curb:
On our first full day in Cairo, we decided to walk from our hotel to the Egyptian Museum. A nice 30-minute stroll the receptionist told us. Well, it would have been if we hadn’t crossed to the wrong side of the Nile. “Told you it was a dumb-ass idea to walk,” our teenage son said when we finally admitted defeat and piled into a taxi.
We had wasted a couple of hours, but in that time we learned how to become Cairo pedestrians. At the first few busy intersections, we waited, and waited… surely there would be a lull in traffic. The stream of cars is continuous, horns blare incessantly, and exhaust fumes just add to the misery. There are cross walks and traffic lights but no one pays any notice of them.
We watched with trepidation as groups of Cairenes stepped off the curb into the busy intersection, seemingly oblivious to the massive oncoming traffic. Magically, cars did stop—mind you, only inches away from the foot-goers. If you don’t want to stand on the curb forever, you need to take the plunge. Keep pace with the locals and strategically place yourself so there is a buffer of bodies on the side of the oncoming traffic. We survived; that’s all I can say.
Don’t cram the itinerary, and be flexible:
It all looks good on paper: Egyptian Museum in the morning, lunch downtown, Coptic Cairo in the afternoon. As you’ve just read, we got off to a slow start.
The Egyptian Museum is huge, and shouldn’t be rushed. By the time we finished lunch at a little shawarma place (my son’s top Cairo activity) it was well into afternoon rush hour. I suggested taking the metro to Coptic Cairo. My guys reluctantly followed. As we descended into the bowels of the mega city, sandwiched among the masses, I sensed this was perhaps a bad idea. We finally made it to the station platform. Several trains stopped and we watched with growing unease as people were forcibly shoved into the cars so that the doors could close. “Mom, I’m not going in there,” my son hissed. No argument from me.
Back above ground, we decided it was too late to visit Coptic Cairo, hailed a cab, and made our snail-paced way back to the hotel. “We should walk, we’d get there faster,” I joked. They just glared at me.
Visit or stay at some (relatively) peaceful spots:
Many mosques and churches welcome tourists, and these can be havens of tranquility. Make sure you linger awhile. My son, frazzled by the chaos, loved the peacefulness of the Church of St.George’s and the Hanging Church when we finally made it to Coptic Cairo. The enormous Mohammed Ali Mosque at the Citadel has plenty of carpet space for some quiet reflection.
After a hectic day exploring Cairo, it was a relief getting back to our hotel in Zamalek, a neighbourhood on Gezira Island. If you want some peace, I highly recommend this location; it’s relatively quiet (for Cairo) and still very convenient to downtown. A good option is the Hotel Longchamps, a well-run place with comfortable rooms and lovely communal patios to enjoy a recharging beverage.
Get lost and try something new:
There’s no better place to get lost in Cairo than in the Khan el Khalili bazaar. Deep in the heart of Islamic Cairo, the narrow alleyways are home to shops that sell spices, fabrics, hardware, and just about anything you can imagine. There’s not much use following a map; it’s best just to turn down a corridor that look interesting. I was drawn into a shop selling embroidered leather footstools. Over several cups of sweet mint tea, and much impatient eye rolling by my guys, a deal was struck.
All bargained-out, we relaxed at El Fishawy, a cafe and smoke shop nestled in the bazaar’s labyrinth. It has been in operation since 1773! I’m sure we were an amusing sight for locals (and an embarrassment to our son) as we sat puffing on our mango-flavoured sheesha.
Don’t assume everyone is out to scam you:
There were hoards of men outside our hotel all trying to sell us private tours and transportation services. We had a running joke with one taxi-guide guy who mimicked our “maybe tomorrow” line every time he saw us walk in and out of the lobby. We finally broke down. After much negotiation and itinerary discussion we agreed on a very reasonable price. Omar drove us to several spots and waited patiently while we did our sightseeing. Between attractions, stuck in Cairo traffic, he regaled us with personal stories, and history, and politics lessons. He was charming, funny, smart, and honest. It was a great afternoon.
Sure, Cairo has its share of shysters and you need to be vigilant, but don’t assume everyone is out to scam you. Use some common sense and gut instinct. The small risk you take can turn into an amazing travel highlight.
So…go to Cairo, embrace her gritty and chaotic glory. It may not be love at first sight, but you’ll never forget her.
Read about our visit to El Fishawy , Cairo’s oldest café.
The Red Sea resort town of Dahab is a wonderfully chilled-out spot on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Its clear water teem with fish and coral, making it one of the world’s premier scuba diving destinations. Dahab, and its glitzier neighbour, Sharm el Sheikh, have long attracted experienced divers to incredible wrecks, deep blue holes, and sites filled with large pelagics. But, Red Sea diving isn’t just for experts. Dahab also has plenty to keep the novice diver happy, safe, and bubbling for more. Continue reading
Egypt’s vast Western Desert boasts numerous interesting oases. Arguably, the one that best fits the non-desert dweller’s stereotypical image is the Siwa Oasis. Think lush palm groves, bubbling natural springs, and an alluring old town. Around the oasis lie shimmering salt lakes and an endless sand sea.
Isolated in the far western reaches of Egypt, 750 dusty kilometres from Cairo, it takes time and effort to get to Siwa, but you’ll be rewarded with an amazing, off the beaten path experience. While Siwa has some impressive historical monuments that are worth visiting, it’s really a place to chill out and absorb the oasis magic.Continue reading