Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Day 8: Reflections on Egypt

As I mentioned in my brief update yesterday, Egypt will most assuredly be the highlight of this trip. Here's a picture of Libby on the Nile.

What a day! I'm something of at a loss for words (a rare—let me assure you—condition for me). Here's a shot: Egypt was utterly exciting, exhausting, enthralling, and eye-opening.

Mostly, I think it's a land of dichotomies. In Cairo, you find the splendors of antiquity juxtaposed against a city of squalor and poverty. The touts hawking “trinkets and trash” are some of the most annoying I've experienced in the world... indeed, they're so pervasive and pernicious that they actually ruined the experience of experiencing sites such as the Great Pyramid. You'll find camel “handlers” who'll rip you off (5 euros to get on the camel; 50 euros to get off) and “helpful” uniformity tourist and antiquity policeman (carrying automatic weapons) who'll welcome you and offer to “take your picture” only to demand payment for the service, once rendered. (Note: both of these things happened to people on our tour bus... though Libby and I knew of these scams in advance.) Yet, if you look more closely, you'll find that the Egyptian people are some of the friendliest and most helpful in the world. I witnessed innumerable kindnesses paid to accommodate elderly or physically-challenged visitors.

We also had occasion to interact with Egyptian school children on organized field trips. They'd smile and wave. “Hello,” they'd yell. I'd smile and wave and say “hello” in response. They'd walk by and give me high-fives. “What's you name?” “Paul,” I'd say, “what's your name?” Their teacher walked by and welcomed us to their country, “we hope you enjoy your visit.” It really made me appreciate that while we might live half a world apart with different histories, cultures, and religions, we're not really that different at heart. Here are the school kids at the Great Pyramid:

As I've mentioned, most Egyptians live in poverty. Things that Americans take for granted (such as basic sanitation) are not always available. Some families actually make their way in the world by living amongst garbage in eponymous “garbage” cities, sorting it for recycling and reuse. Others just live in half-finished buildings in garbage-filled slums. It really makes you—or at least should make you—grateful for the wealth, security, and comfort that you have (and let's face it... anybody on an 11-night Mediterranean cruise is damn wealthy compared to the majority of the world's population).

Yet, oddly enough, you can see examples of the “McDonaldization” of Egyptian society and exported American-style consumerism too. In our brief visit, we observed a number of McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, etc. outlets. There's even a TGI Friday's on the banks of the Nile! More surprisingly, The “Desert Road” between Alexandria and Cairo contained a number of “planned communities,” akin to those found in the outer suburbs (exurbs) of America. I hadn't expected this at all. Golf courses, shopping malls, smartly styled homes. All of it wrapped neatly in a utopian package, a sort of Arabian Nights with manicured landscapes. My favorite: “New Giza.” The Egyptian soul sister of “New Tampa” at home.

Egypt is the most “foreign” place we've ever been. It was utterly unique but also oddly familiar. We're still not sure exactly what to make of it. We'll have to return. Until then, I'm comforted by the thought that this experience underscores the reason we travel: while I was worn out last night, I awoke this morning feeling very alive and a part of the world.


  1. Thank you Paul for a wonderfully written update on Egypt. It was a treat to read. Much of what you had noted about the poverty, hassling and scams I had already been aware of, but I'm sure it will be invaluable info to anyone who didn't. Despite everything, we are still looking forward to this port, as we chose the cruise specifically for it.
    By the way, what was the name of the tour you did?

    -Jaynne2001 04/20 cruise.

  2. After much back and forth, we ended up opting for the "Egypt & The Nile."

  3. Ahh! That's the same one we've chosen as well! I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed it :)

  4. Paul, thanks for the update on Egypt. It is always interesting to get your impressions of places I have never been, and probably will not get to visit. An armed convoy, now that makes a vivid impression on an European traveler like me.

  5. I have to agree with the other commenters; the information you are providing in this blog will help us enjoy our cruise. Thank you very much for taking the time our of your vacation to make your posts. Klaus Bender, cruising 4.20.2009.

  6. Your perception and description of Egypt is fascinating. I look forward to talking to you about all of your experiences on this adventure.