There are mixed reports of tourist safety in Egypt. I visited Egypt in December 2013, just after the Egyptian revolution, and faced no animosity or problems. But there have been isolated incidents in 2014, where some tourists were affected. So, do your research about the current situation in Egypt before you embark on a visit there. And read up on more than one media source. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people, so don’t be fooled by one wrong source!
As I sat in an aisle seat on the Saudi airlines flight from Riyadh to Cairo, I couldn’t help but think that I am going into a politically charged city. Although everywhere on the internet it said that foreigners have nothing to fear in Egypt’s uprising – the effects of which are almost over already as of December 2013 –, there is still a worrying question mark inside me. I look just like a local person, so what if I get caught in the middle of something?
It doesn’t help that the person sitting next to me on the flight, does not speak a word of Arabic. I get past the Kaif-halak (How are you?) and ana-maafi-aaraf-arabi (I dont speak Arabic), but I don’t know anything to say after that. So, we were at a smiling stand-off. Him being an Egyptian, I asked him about the current situation in Cairo. I don’t think he understood, but still, he answered. And I definitely did not understand what he said in Arabic.
It didn’t help any further when I landed in Cairo, and took a taxi to my couchsurfing host’s house. On the way, I saw no less than 4 tanks on the public roads, and had to pass through the Tahrir square, which was also the focus of the political demonstrations in Cairo recently. But the Tahrir square looked nothing like what I saw in the news. There were barely a few people around, and the careless traffic kept buzzing past.
After nearly an hour’s drive – bless the chaotic traffic of Cairo – I reached my hosts place in Nasr city, and instantly almost all my fears were alleviated. Husam Mokhtar is not only one of Egypt’s pioneer backpackers, but he has also set up the first backpacking club of Egypt. The Rahala club has been promoting backpacking travels to people in Egypt, and doing a brilliant job of it. Husam explained how people have been developing irrational fears about Cairo, and how the situation has become completely normal now. In fact, the tanks were on the public road only as a reassuring symbol to the local folks that there was nothing to worry.
Convinced, I made my plans with him for the day. Husam had a car and an off-day, and he graciously offered to travel around a bit with me. I just took 5 minutes to freshen myself, and we were out in the same speed as I had come into his house.
We drove for about 30-40 minutes from Nasr City, before we reached one of my bucketlist item. Or in other words, the Giza pyramids.
Entering into the pyramid complex is like going for a war, because you have to fight away a whole army of vendors and scam artists at the entrance. My host had to pedal at his gas, at almost every street leading to the pyramids, to push away the so-called ‘Ministry of Tourism’ agents standing in the way, demanding that I had to buy a ticket first. There was nothing like that, Husam explained. The tickets for the giza pyramids are bought only at the ticket office, and nowhere else. One of the common scams on this driveway, is for these men stopping you to purchase tickets, only to tell you that you cant drive/walk upto the street, and you have to rent a camel or donkey to go all the way up. Nope, camels are definitely not my thing today!
The pyramids! Finally!
We drove all the way up to the ticket counter, and proceeded to buy entry tickets. I guess my host did not have to buy, or it was cheaper for him being a local, but I had to pay 40 Egyptian pounds to enter the Giza complex. And then, I had the option of buying an additional ticket to enter any of the pyramids. I was told that the medium-sized one (Khafre) was better and cheaper than the larger one (Khufu), so went for that as well, paying another 80 EGP.
Now, there is an interesting stoy about the large pyramid and the medium pyramid. Khafre was the son of Khufu, who had already built the larger pyramid for himself. Being the son, Khafre was not allowed to outdo the father by building a larger pyramid. So, he did the remarkable. He did have a smaller pyramid built for himself, but he built it on higher ground, on a bedrock which already adds a height of 10 meters. So, from any distance, you will think that the Khafre pyramid is taller than the Khufu. Don’t be confused by Egyptian wise-thinkers.
And throughout the walk of the Giza complex, we were again being tauted for camel rides, and buying souvenirs, rather aggressively. I don’t think they tried to talk much to me, because I could speak no Arabic. But they kept tormenting my host, even calling him a traitor for not helping them make a sale. I kept telling what I knew in Arabic – La, Shukran. (No, thanks)
Climbing the pyramids was illegal, although there were some local Egyptians climbing some stretches. But what I could do, with the entrance ticket that I had, was enter the small tomb inside the pyramid of Khafre. We walked crouched for nearly 50 metres, to enter a small ante-chamber hoping to see the tomb. Well, there was no tomb, but there was a hole where the tomb used to be before. Photography wasn’t allowed, but frankly, there wasn’t much to photograph there anyway.
From the pyramid of Khafre, we walked further east after making a quick stop at the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure. To see the great Sphinx!
I have imagined this scene in my head so many times where I was face-to-face with the sphinx. And in all those scenes of my imagination, I was in the middle of an army of tourists. But not today. The sphinx stood lonely on the eastern complex, with only camels and donkeys – and their riders – for company.
At the end of 2 hours, I think I had a bittersweet feeling about the the pyramids. Yes, it was grand, it was huge, and it was a testimony to gargantuan human labour. But there was not much difference between seeing the pyramid in a picture or seeing it in person. Yes, you could pay to get inside the small tomb, but then there is absolutely nothing there. There were camels and donkeys and even chariots around, but they all lay idle in the wake of the revolution, with almost no tourists getting on them.
However, the rest of my day went much better than expected. Although my whole Cairo trip was planned around the pyramids, I found out that there was much more to Cairo than the pyramids. There were beautiful mosques, amazing night markets, and large citadels.
Well, that will be another post.