Jul 15, 2014

CAIRO: Tips to travel to Cairo

1. To go or not to go?

I traveled to Egypt this past June and honestly I had many doubts and fears about traveling alone, as a woman, in Cairo. The fact that most of my family and friends were terrified by the idea of me traveling “alone” to Egypt didn’t help at all. Many other friends and dancers had been there before and they all reassured me that it was safe, and I would be ok. However, still many of the details of “Where to stay? How to get here or there? What to bring? Where to go? How…?” among many other questions kept me wondering… To go or not to go?

It was my everlasting love for a culture that is not my own, yet I respect and study for many years now, and my passion for oriental dance that pushed me into saying YES, I WILL go to Cairo.

IT IS SAFE TO WALK THE STREETS. I wondered around many public areas without feeling “threatened” at any point. If I ever had any doubt what direction to follow, I would always find someone local willing to help me. People in Cairo, from my experience, want the tourists to feel as welcome as possible. They want you to feel at home. And they really do believe so. So don’t be surprise if when you walk into a store looking for some goods to buy, the owner will invite you some drinks at no cost, coffee, water, juice, with the hope that you feel comfortable.

IT IS SAFE TO TAKE TAXIS. You may want to avoid the black ones since from what I could see and from what many people have told me, are usually in bad conditions. There are plenty of white registered taxis all around, so there’s no trouble in finding one. You can either bargain the price (if you have an idea of the cost) or look for a taxi with a taximeter. Also, be aware that not all taxis have AC, so if you just can’t stand going on w/o AC make sure you ask the driver if he has it or not. I personally didn’t take a taxi alone, but many of my lady friends did, even at night, and they never felt “threatened” or uncomfortable at any point either.

YOU CAN USE YOUR NORMAL CLOTHES. I respect the culture, and the way people are raised in this country, and hence decided to avoid wearing mini skirts or tops when walking on the street. This doesn’t mean I had to go shopping a whole new set of clothes before going to Cairo. I just packed some long jeans, t-shirts, scarfs. It’s a different case scenario if you are inside a building you already know or you know the people attending. For example, during the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival I stayed in the Mena House and inside, I did use short dresses a couple of times. It is NOT mandatory to cover your head/hair/shoulders at all times, most tourists don’t. In many places (like when going to the pyramids) I did cover my shoulders from time to time in order to protect my skin from the heat. You will have to cover your shoulders when you go into the mosques. So make sure you bring a scarf or a cover-up if your shoulders are not covered when going to one.

So my answer is... TO GO. My days in Cairo were absolutely wonderful, so please, do consider visiting this amazing country if you have been, too, wondering around.

2. Airport “supplies”

I have to thank my wonderful friend and world-recognized photographer Denise Marino for most of these following tips. If it wasn’t for her, it would have taken me many visits to Cairo to figure them all out.

MOBILE WIFI. Many places have free wi-fi, but many other places charge for it as well. In my case, I stayed in the Mena House many days. In here, the wifi can get pretty expensive especially if you are in a budget. So I highly suggest getting to “Mobinil”, “Etisalat” (This is the one I used and was perfect) or “Vodafone” and asking for a mobile wifi device. These look like USBS and you can recharge them at any time. You have many options to choose from (different prices as well) and it works perfectly fine once you get it on going. Highly recommended!
* To get to these stores, go to your right after you picked up your luggage and crossed the security exit.

CELLPHONE CHIP. I did not get one this time, but next time I will for sure. They are very cheap from what I was told. It is very convenient especially if you are meeting with other friends or traveling in a group and you get separated.

SMALLER BILLS. For tips, taxi, small goods, etc, you always want to have smaller bills. It may be hard to find change if you are taking a taxi and there’s no one around with smaller bills. Save yourself this trouble. Also, make sure the bills you get (whether it’s at the airport or anywhere else) are not ripped or too old. Some places may not accept them.

3. Basic Arabic words

I learned them through experience, but I highly recommend learning these before you travel! Although basic, these words can go a long way in your attempt to communicate/shop around Cairo. Also, I suggest that when you take a taxi, you have the direction of destination written in Arabic. This will facilitate the experience (You can kindly ask any local that speak your language for this favor).

Hello = Marhaba
Min Fadlak (m)/Min Fadliki (f)= Please
Shukran = Thank you
Assif = Sorry
Ismee Rosa = My name is Rosa
Ana = Me, I
Enta = You

Why = Lain?
Who = Meen?
When = Mata?
Where is… = Wain?
How much is this? = Bikam hadha?
What is the discount? = Kam il khasem?

Naäam = Yes
Laa = No

Mabrook = Congratulations
Jalas = Finished
Meshi = Ok
Yallah = Go, let’s go

4. What else to keep in mind?

ICE. Many people repeated me time after time to avoid accepting ice cubes in any of my drinks. The water most places use to make ice cubs may not be completely clean or purified, and hence it may upset your stomach. I decided to just avoid ice completely.

FRESH FRUIT/VEGETABLES. Now, this is a bit controversial. A lot of people told me they got sick after eating fresh fruit/vegetables served in restaurants or hotels (including the Mena House) just because these may not be completely clean. On the other hand, I did saw many people eating them too and not getting sick. So I guess it all depends on your stomach. I played safe at all times in that aspect, and hence just didn’t eat fruits I did not peeled myself or vegetables in public restaurants.

PRICES. When shopping don’t jump into the first option. Now, although this is pretty obvious, I say it still because I almost did it myself. The prices are considerably cheap to what you find in other countries and you may jump into the first option you see. I highly suggest walking around, and especially going inside stores. I was able to buy a darbuka for a great price after looking into many places. The first prices they gave me were good, but I was able to find better. Do not be afraid to bargain, the sellers will always ask you what price you are willing to give for the good. And they mean it, they want to find a fair balance for both parties.

TRAFFIC. Be patient. There are about 3 stop lights in Cairo, and one of them doesn’t work (or so I was told). The local drivers know their ways, and although you may not be familiarized with this type of driving and/or traffic, you just have to be patient. Also, don’t be afraid/concerned if your taxi driver will stop many times (mine stopped around 10 times the first time) on the way to your destination. Not all the streets are well known and many do not use GPS. So they just ask along the way to make sure they take you where you want to go.

SUN. June is a very hot month in Cairo. I am not really familiarized with the weather the rest of the months but if you happen to travel around this time as well, make sure you bring sun protection. Also, I recommend bringing a cap or a scarf (to protect your head) when going to the Pyramids or when walking under the Sun in general.

LANGUAGE. When going to shop, don’t be surprise to find sellers speaking many languages. The moment I walked into Khan El Khalili, I was surprised by how many people talked to me first in Arabic, then Spanish, English, Portuguese, Italian… ! I don’t believe the language to be a huge barrier in this country. Even if you don’t speak Arabic at all and the person you are trying to interact with doesn’t speak your language, body signs can go a long way. Remember that.

*These advices are based on my personal experience and do not intend to offend anybody. If you have any suggestion about what to include here, or want to point out anything that may not quite stick to the truth, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Upcoming post:  Where to stay in Cairo? (Includes a great interview) Stay tuned!

Khan El Khalili

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