Egypt – Before you go

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There is a fantastical dreamland that the mind of every little child inhabits. In this land, anything is possible. Fairies gallivant under trees, wood-nymphs can grant boons and anybody could own a Pegasus and fly around the world. When my 6-year old mind first saw the Pyramids in a history text book, what magical fantasies it wove! I imagined that such a mighty structure could only have been constructed by an ancient race of magical people with secret powers. One day, I would visit the Pyramids and also become a part of this elite race.

As I grew up, the spell that Egypt cast upon me never waned. Very much a woman now, I recently visited Egypt with my husband. The tour guides explained to us how the Pyramids of Giza were built; exactly in what way the colossal statues of Abu Simbel were carved. And yet, a part of me, the part that still believes in fairy-dust and talking animals insisted that there had to be more to this than plain math and architectural superiority. Such is the magnificence of Egypt!

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Chicken and Mushroom limestone formations – White Desert

From the busy streets of Cairo to the utterly uninhabited Black Desert, Egypt’s demo-graphical and geological diversity will astound you. Rumors of social unrest did not deter us from planning our trip to Egypt and it should not stop you either. What you will experience is several ancient wonders in relative isolation, something that would have been impossible even 10 years ago. With the right tour agency to guide you and a lot of prudence, you can easily enjoy what I consider to be one of the best preserved gems of history.

HOW LONG DO YOU NEED TO VISIT EGYPT

2-3 days: Cairo

4-6 days: Add Nile Cruise (choose the route based on the rest of your itinerary)

7-9 days: Add Aswan & Abu Simbel

10-13 days: Add Alexandria and Siwa Oasis/Bahariya Oasis/Black & White Desert

14+ days: Add Sharm-El-Sheik/Dahab/Hurghada (check on current political situation before making your decision – Your tour agency can help you with this)

HOW TO DRESS

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At Al Azhar Mosque – Cairo

Most tourists dress for comfort in Egypt. Egyptian authorities do not impose dressing guidelines like some other conservative countries like, for example, Cambodia or Vietnam. However, I personally think it is prudent to cover knees and shoulders while out and about in Egypt. This is because, despite being exposed to tourism since the early 1800’s, the locals still indulge in leering and cat-calling when they see women dressed in “western attire”. While it is true that sometimes, just being white-skinned can warrant you some unwanted attention, I think it’s best to do our part to blend in. For outfit ideas when traveling in Egypt, check out the links below.

1) An Egyptian Monochrome

2) Dungarees – Fierce and Beautiful

3) The Making of a Dream

MONEY

Technically, the Egyptian Pound is the currency, but it was really hard for me to procure Egyptian Pounds in India. This is not really a big problem, because the US Dollar reigns supreme in Egypt. USD is accepted and even preferred everywhere. I would suggest carrying most of it in an international travel card and a small amount as cash. Once you get to the airport in Cairo, you can exchange about 300 dollars into Egyptian Pounds that you can then use exclusively for tipping. Use the USD for everything else. You can use your travel card as a debit card for most purchases. Find out what the transaction charges and ATM withdrawal charges are before you go from your bank.

You can also exchange USD into Egyptian pounds in several exchange outlets all over Egypt and the exchange rates pretty much stay constant.

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VISA

Indians need a visa to enter Egypt and while in theory, this is supposed to be a very straightforward experience, mine was a completely different story. I would advise applying for an Egyptian Visa through a travel agency, simply because the embassy keeps coming back for multiple details and an agency can handle all these queries easily for a very reasonable fee.

Theoretically, applying for your visa fifteen days ahead of your trip is sufficient, but please don’t believe the PR. We applied 30 days in advance and received our passports back quite literally the evening before our trip. The last few days were spent in nail biting frustration. Every follow-up we made directly or through the travel agency were met with placid bureaucratic standard responses (euphemism for you know what!)

Eventually we did get our visa and as they say, all is well that ends well. However, you have been forewarned. Apply for your visa well in advance and you will not spend the day before your flight wondering if you should pack your bags or not. 😛 We used Madras Travels & Tours for our visa process and they definitely bent over backwards to help us out.

SAFETY

I guess this is the most important question that everyone wants an answer to. Is Egypt safe to visit? I would say, largely, yes. This might sound like really bad advice to some people, but being an Indian, I understand pockets of terrorism in a largely peaceful country, probably better than anyone else. For example, in India, there is pretty much an ongoing war in Kashmir, so it wouldn’t be safe for visitors to plan a trip there, but they can obviously visit other parts like Rajasthan or Kerala quite safely.

In Egypt, as long as you use a local travel agency that will advise you on the do’s and dont’s, you are safe. In this regard, I highly recommend Nile Holidays.

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The Khan El Khalili – Cairo

TOUR AGENCY

The important thing to know about Egypt is that you simply cannot tour the country on your own. No booking your own car and driving around, no touring the Luxor temple by yourself with a guidebook. You need to choose a local tour company who will arrange all your transportation, hotels and guides. When I first came to know about this, I was really bummed. I hate tour guides, generically. This is because I like to do things at my own pace, hate being rushed or told what to do and am endlessly curious for information about historical sites, which many tour guides cannot provide. However, in Egypt, we really did not have a choice. But, this enforced decision proved to be one of the best things that happened to us.

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With Mohamed El Aswany – Perhaps the most knowledgeable guide we have encountered in all our travels – At Karnak Temple

Khaled, who runs Nile Holidays was endlessly patient with accommodating our itinerary. He also noticed my keen interest in all things cultural and gave us some of the best guides. Out of all the guides we had, Mohamed Aswany and Mostafa Saleh stood head and shoulders above the rest of them. They are just so good, what with their degrees in Tourism, Egyptology and Archaeology. Plus they are so knowledgeable that they can even teach you to read hieroglyphics, if you are so inclined (Mohamed, Suraj still bugs me by reading hieroglyphs) 🙂

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These guys know the latest political situation and are immediately informed when a particular tour becomes out of bounds. Plan your holiday with them and you will be safe as a snail in its shell and happy as a clam (I know, too many seafood references from a vegetarian) 😛

CROWDS

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Not a soul in sight – Abu Simbel

Crowds? What crowds? Except in Cairo, you will hardly see people anywhere in Egypt. I was shocked when I could quite literally count the number of people in Abu Simbel (around 20 in total). It is really sad for a country that has relied on tourism as a huge source of revenue for many years now, but it is quite literally the dream situation for tourists like you and me. You might not be able to get a picture without throngs of tourists in front of the Duomo in Milan or the Notre Dame in Paris, but you can definitely get one in front of the Pyramids of Giza. It is an opportunity you absolutely must not miss!

TRANSPORTATION

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Road tripping across the White Desert

The tour company that is organizing your local trips and guides will generally take care of the transportation for you as well. Just specify the number of people and they will arrange a vehicle accordingly.

SIM CARD

You can pick up a Sim card from quite literally any store in Cairo. Vodafone, MobiNil and Etisalat are the three major providers, and we chose Vodafone with the Flex plan. We got both data and phone minutes with this plan. Those of you thinking you can make WhatsApp calls back home though, beware. All VOIP calls in and out of Egypt are blocked, so you will need international minutes for this. Or you can make do with messaging and chat.

TIPPING/BAKSHEESH

One of the things that I disliked about Egypt was the ever-present demand for Baksheesh. Not that I am averse to tipping, but it becomes a little annoying when you have to tip, not based on the quality of service you receive, but just because it’s a practice. People can be quite demanding at that. Also, how much to tip is always a question. I would ask the travel agency to include tips as a part of the package and remove the constant speculation. This is for the best.

In case you are wondering who you should tip, the answer is – EVERYONE! The guy that ferries you from your hotel to the mainland which will probably take all of 2 minutes, your guides, your waiters at restaurants, drivers and pretty much anyone who does anything at all for you, that can include picking up your fallen hat! This can eat up a chunk of your money. So, be prepared!

BEST TIME TO GO

Weather-wise, September to April are the best months to visit Egypt. We went in March and it was slightly cold. But, it was great weather mostly and we did not really encounter too many tourists, partly because it was the tail end of the so-called tourist season.

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