Egypt unpackaged

Posted: Sunday, June 14, 2009

Vacation time has arrived in the east African country of Djibouti once more. For this break, I again had a yearning to go somewhere far off and exotic (not hard on this side of the world), but where?

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Courtesy Of Philip Dierking
Courtesy Of Philip Dierking

As planes from Djibouti only fly to about six places, my options were limited. Somalia or Yemen? Nope, too dangerous. Dubai? Too expensive. Kenya or Ethiopia? Been there already. So this left me with Egypt.

Egypt always has been a goal, but being the rustic and rugged backpacker I am, I always feared the mass tourism and scores of packaged tour buses that flocked there year-round. Thus, I had always left it on the "will-do-when-older" list. However, it was my only option, so despite the recent bombings, and my friends' insistence that I shouldn't even consider going without an organized tour group, I threw my pack over my shoulders and set out to see if it was possible to enjoy Egypt while staying off the tour bus circuit.

Travel Tip 1: Tap into your local resources.

Because the core of back-pack travel is frugality, it is always wise to see if you know anyone on the ground who may have a couch for you to sleep on. In my case, I found I had a former middle school teacher working in Cairo. About $75 saved a night already in hotel prices.

Touching down in Cairo, I quickly realized that the East Africans on my plane were not frequent users of air travel. No sooner had the plane's wheels touched the ground then they had their seatbelts unbuckled and were on their feet trying to get their overhead bags. Meanwhile, the plane was wobbling back and forth while screaming down the runway, accompanied by the frantic flight attendants shouting while trying to sit them back down.

Cairo is an exciting sensory overload. My friend showed me around and too me to all the favorites: the Giza Pyramids (not a let-down, definitely as impressive as all the hype makes it out to be), Coptic Cairo, the crazy Khan Al-Khalil Bazaar (Travel Tip 1.5: Learn to say "no" or at least "half-as much." in Arabic), the Egyptian Museum, and the millions of mosques sprinkled about town. We also saw a performance of the mystical Sufi dancers.

Travel Tip 2: Search for like-minded travelers.

After a few frenzied, incense-filled days in Cairo, I then boarded a night train to head down to southern Egypt. At the station it was quite easy to distinguish the travelers from the locals.

Realizing that traveling with friends is always more fun than alone, I observed the groups for a while then made my move. A few awkward "hellos" and "where are you from?" later, I soon found myself with a new group of travel pals, ranging from Brazilians, to Canadians, to Germans. Mission accomplished. Also let's not forget the next important travel tip.

Travel Tip 3: Night train = transportation and money saved on a hotel.

I arrived with my new friends early the next morning in Aswan, one of the southern-most towns in Egypt, and also in the Nubian territory. The people, buildings, and all-around feel of this region more closely resemble sub-Saharan Africa then its very Arab north. Not to mention that it has a beautifully serene setting right along the Nile River.

First we headed out to view the great Abu Simbel monument, four colossal statues of Ramses II that are carved out of a hillside and stand guard over the tomb's entrance. It seems that in Pharaonic times the craze for kings, like Ramses, was to build enormous temples of themselves. We also treated ourselves to a much-deserved felucca (sailboat) ride along the Nile River at sunset.

By the end of the second day we jumped aboard a local train to head up north to Luxor. I say "jumped aboard" because in Egypt they have trains for tourists and trains for locals only. The officials wouldn't sell us tickets to the local train, which were exorbitantly cheaper, so we decided to be a little audacious and heed to the next rule:

Travel Tip 4: When traveling and saving money, sometimes not all rules need to be followed.

Unlike its flashy cousin in Las Vegas, the actual city of Luxor is much more rustic. That being said, it was a playground of ancient monuments. Smack dab in the middle of the city was the sublime Luxor temple, and not too far from that was the legendary temple of Karnack, at one time the most important place of worship of the Theban Triad. Besides these sites, we also went out to see the Pharaonic burial sites of the Valley of Kings and Valley of Queens, and temple of Hatshepsut.

Later that night we were invited by a sordid-looking group of old Egyptian men to a "street party" around the corner. Initially suspicious, we disregarded this offer. Later however we decided that since we were a large enough group there wasn't really much of a risk, so we jaunted down the alley.

It turned out that one of the men's sisters had just married, so he was throwing a street party to celebrate. Sure enough, they had benches in the street with old men serving tea, old men playing traditional music, while old men performed their traditional hip-gyrating dances in front of us. It was actually quite amusing, not too mention quite an "old man" affair. This experience led me to recognize the following rule:

Travel Tip 5: Not all locals are going to bite.

Time was drawing to a close, so I bid farewell to my travel companions, and with tired legs and a belly full of falafels I raced up north again on another night train (see rule 3) to spend a day at the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, before racing again back to Cairo to grab my flight back to Djibouti.

To my grand delight, I discovered that I had completely underestimated Egypt, and there are reasons why it's one of the "greatest travel destinations in the world."

I saw the incredible sites, made some interesting friends, rubbed shoulders with locals and all for probably about half the price as the folks on the tour buses around me. I found too that by taking a few important steps, any traveler can also add a little bit of rugged spice and adventure to their Egyptian experience.

• Philip Dierking is a Juneau resident working as an International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH) volunteer in the east African country of Djibouti, where he teaches English at the only university.

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