Travelling to Egypt was kind of a last minute plan. My best friend (who is half Egyptian) had moved there and it didn’t take long for me to establish a plan to visit, any excuse for a holiday! I went for around 12 days, and my friend, Nadia, had invited me to stay with her and her relatives. I was excited at the prospect of seeing how the locals lived instead of staying in a hotel.
Nadia was staying with relatives in Ismailia, a town roughly two hours from Cairo. She had three cousins there, girls similar to my age, so it was nice to have company as all the girls spoke English.
The first days we went out together, and I noticed that girls don’t venture out alone. Even though most of the youngsters dressed in western attire, the majority of girls wore headscarves.
We spent our time shopping, going to milkshake and dessert cafes, or relaxing at home. It was interesting to see that when the girls were at home they wore regular pyjamas/casual clothes, but the second the doorbell rang there was a rush to pull on their Abaya’s, in case it was a male relative behind the door. In Pakistani culture, even those who are strict in their faith generally don’t cover their hair in front of family members. I did enjoy how family orientated they were though, Nadia’s aunt was more of a best friend to her daughters than a mother, and the family always ate lunch together, discussing each others plans.
After a few days in Ismailia, it became apparent that I wouldn’t been let out alone. Nadia was working everyday, and with the girls at school or college, I was left to stay indoors with the laptop and Nadia’s aunt for company. Unfortunately her aunt’s English wasn’t great, so communication was limited. I longed to go out and explore the streets, but any suggestion of it was politely refused.
Nadia’s father owns a farm not far from Ismailia, so we went a few times there. The lush trees were heavy with dates and olives, and chickens and donkeys roamed around. It was extremely peaceful, with lovely views from the top of the farmhouse. I befriended a donkey, although I think he was in it for the food more than the friendship.
Towards the end of the trip, Nadia and her stepbrother kindly arranged a trip to Cairo so I could see the Pyramids of Giza. Cairo was a mass hustle and bustle of people, cars and pollution. Sellers roamed the streets, horns beeped continuously, and above everything else, the heat beat down on us without relenting. I loved it – until we reached the tourist sites.
We drove first to the Pyramids, and I was expecting to leave the city and travel through desert for a while, but it turns out the Pyramids are literally a few miles out from the edge of the city (the tour guides find the best angle for you to take your pic so you don’t get all the houses and buildings in the background). Once we arrived, we spoke to the operators and agreed on a price, which would be paid to our guides at the end. I should have realised then that it was a recipe for disaster, as our ending point would be in a different place from where the operators were. Horses and camels were bought and I opted for a horse, who came accompanied by a young boy to lead the way. In all honesty, I felt bad for the animal and young boy, both looked exhausted, it was boiling hot, and neither seemed in the mood to trek across to the Pyramids. However, once we started moving and got closer to the Pyramids I couldn’t help but gaze and be in awe of their vast size. Pictures don’t do them justice at all. We walked all around them, stopping occasionally to take pictures, and then came round to where the Sphinx of Giza stood. It was truly humbling to be in the shadow of this great statue, built over 4,500 years ago.
After this part of the tour ended, our guides led us to a perfume shop nearby, and the shop sellers tried their best to convince us to buy the expensive scents. As beautiful as they were, we politely declined and left the shop. This signaled the end of the tour, and I took out the 80 Egyptian Pounds that was originally agreed on. At that point, the tour guide said rather harshly that the price was actually 120. After some arguing ensued, I finally agreed to pay 100. I pulled out the ‘I’m a student, it’s all I have’ card, and he eventually gave in. It wasn’t the nicest way to end the trip, and then to add insult to injury, when I handed my horse boy a tip, he actually tutted and complained loudly that I didn’t give him enough. It struck me after that this trip is a once in a lifetime adventure for some, and it could be easily ruined by the people operating the tours. There was a clear lack of communication between the operators and guides, and it seemed everyone felt it was a free for all to ask for any amount of money. Anyhow, I put it down as part of the experience and decided to put it behind me (after vehemently glaring at the tour guide as we walked away).
Our next stop in Cairo was the Egyptian Museum. It was beautiful on approach, a lovely place to take pictures and meander round for a walk. At the ticket office there were two prices available, one for the Egyptians and another for tourists. Trying to be clever, Nadia’s stepbrother bought three tickets from the Egyptian stand, however as we tried to enter the museum we were stopped by security. They immediately refuted that I was Egyptian, and I was sent back to pay for a tourist ticket (3x the price). They also had their doubts about Nadia, but I think her headscarf and the fact that her stepbrother vouched for her won them over.
Overall, my trip to Egypt was lovely, and it was amazing to spend time with Nadia there, but I found it frustrating to not be able to roam freely. I have always been lucky enough to travel on my own or with friends, so to be confined to the home or waiting for other people to take me out was extremely disheartening for me. Although I appreciated the efforts of Nadia and her family, the cultural expectations that a girl shouldn’t be travelling around alone there was somewhat off putting. I could, however, see the sense in it. As a young girl alone, without knowledge of the language, I would surely have been subjected to unwanted male attention. In the future when I return, which I am certain I will, I’ll make sure to take a companion with me, in order to really get out there and explore what this amazing, history filled country has to offer.