Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier

Wanderings in Cairo & down the Nile

Nile, Egypt, Intrepid Travel, backpacking, backpackers, Planet Backpacker
Trips down the Nile are easily arranged in Cairo. This cruise offered through Intrepid Travel included camping on the shores in the desert and a lively campfire scene, dancing and drumming with the Nubian crew.

Travels With My Wife

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   The events of the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 have prompted many travelers to question the wisdom of venturing into Mideastern countries that have undergone considerable turmoil, including Egypt.  However, I spoke with several backpackers in the spring of 2012 who expressed few concerns about visiting Egypt and were eager to make it a stop on their itineraries.
  By 2014, however, the newly despotic government, which had replaced the old despotic government, was busy imposing death sentences and life imprisonments on dissenters.  Thus, the traveler has to determine whether to support such tyranny with a visit, not to mention weighing the potential hazards.
   Following are some thoughts from a visit to Egypt in 2007.  The country is heavily dependent upon tourism and visitors are likely to get the royal treatment, although the legendary hassle of Egypt's marketplaces is probably a few notches more intense too... -- bob downes

Kickin’ in Al Qahira
Oct. 18, 2007
Cairo, Egypt

  I’m as inconspicuous as an ostrich, walking around Cairo. I march around for a few hours and am the only Westerner in sight. Where are all the tourists? This is supposed to be one of the biggest tourist attractions on earth, and has been for 5,000 years.
   After a visit to the Egyptian Museum, I discover that they are all in tour groups traveling in buses that zip straight back to their hotels. They haven’t the luxury of walking the streets and staying on a trash-ridden lane full of plumbing supply shops like the digs of my hotel. I track them to their lair in the Hilton, walking through the lobby and a metal detector to get to the Nile. That’s my brush with the tourist world -- they are pretty well insulated against Cairo, except for what they see on the bus.
  No one gives me a hard time walking around though, and lots of young people say hi and “Welcome to Egypt.”  One young guy tags along with me for a mile or so because he wants to practice his English.  
   “Be careful of the dodgy people who might try to take advantage of you,” he warns.  “Not everyone is nice, like me.”
  Yeah, yeah.
   But I cringe is when I see a movie theatre playing The Kingdom, starring Jamie Foxx as part of a team of scared-silly American FBI agents who shoot it out with some uppity Arabs in Saudi Arabia. Some young men gesture angrily at the movie poster, and I tip-toe on by, unnoticed behind them... I hate that kind of macho shit that feeds xenophobia in America -- and hatred of us overseas.
   It’s a shock to see people dressed like out of the Bible. I round a corner this morning and here is a young man in a full length robe with the cap of a devotee, accompanied by his girlfriend in a head-to-toe black bedsheet with only her eyes showing through a narrow slit. It’s like a scene from the bar in the Star Wars movie... The women in black take care to make up their eyes with extravagant care -- it’s the only way they can show off their charms.
   Later, I learn that especially beautiful women choose to wear the all-black shroud -- even adding gloves -- because they are considered simply too good-looking to be seen in public.  Imagine that attitude in America or Europe.  
   But many women in traditional dress are gathered in front of the store windows full of Western clothes on manikins which are bereft of shawls -- obviously, these are infidel manikins. Also, there are many sexy lingerie shops (what kind of kink goes on under those robes?) and just a jillion shoe stores. This makes sense, since shoes are the only apparel that’s allowed to peak out from under their dowdy robes.
   The women take care to wear hijabs decorated with bangles and bright colors, but these scarves don’t do anything for their looks. Yet there are many young sweethearts showing affection and hugging each other down by the Nile, so Egypt doesn’t seem to be prone to all of the nasty hardcore Muslim stuff, like you hear about in Saudi or Afghanistan.
   In fact, I walk by a mosque and hear the call to prayers which is issued from a loudspeaker five times a day -- including around 4:30 a.m. Although I don’t speak Arabic, I can easily translate the message: “Get your ass to pray-ers, all you sinners and de-vout be-liev-ers!!! It’s time to say your p-r-a-y-e-r-s!!!!” I don’t see anyone diving towards Mecca in the park next to the mosque, however. Being no fan of organized religion, especially one where people have to be reminded five times a day to say their prayers, I find this ambivalence quite cheering.
   I wonder how long this women’s cover-up thing will last because the TV here is packed with a great many American shows with Arabic subtitles -- including the likes of Desperate Housewives. There are also plenty of sexy hip-hop music videos on the tube. And many of the Western women tourists have a habit of showing off their generous bazzooms in halter tops, which must surely be a scandal here. Perhaps it’s no wonder the Muslim radicals are so freaked out about our encroaching culture. Give it 20 years and I’ll bet the veil and hijab will be goners.
  As for the guys, they are uniformly skinny and dressed in Western t-shirts and jeans.  Most look bored out of their skulls, working at menial jobs.  My modest hotel must have a staff of 40, with most of the employees moping around without much to do.
   Then there’s the Tourist Police -- guys in white uniforms and black berets -- many sleeping in their cars on the job -- looking as bored as can be or zoned-out in the 90-degree heat. Funny, but for some reason, all of the metal detectors and guys with submachine guns in the tourist zones aren’t making me feel all that safe.

A Friendly Smile

   In America, we’re taught by the mass media to be scared silly of the impoverished, virtually powerless Muslims. Walking through neighborhoods that few tourists will ever see, I wonder if anyone will hassle an obvious gringo, not to mention an American.
   Far from it. Countless people stop to say hello, or “Welcome to Egypt,” with broad smiles. I feel safe just walking around with a smile and a “Hi, how are ya?” as my umbrella.  
   Many people ask if I’m an “Ozzie,” meaning “Aussie,” or Australian, those heroic world travelers you find everywhere on earth, especially the scruffy spots where prices are cheap.
   “Are you an Ozzie? An Ozzie, yes?”
   “No, I’m from northern Michigan in the United States of America,” I say, which gets a puzzled response. It turns out that there are few American tourists wandering the streets here, if any, so the people don’t seem to know what the “United States” is. “It’s America,” I say, and they nod.  The folks on the street know about America.
   What is dangerous here, however, is the murderous traffic. Cairo’s streets are mired in a fierce gridlock with hundreds of Fiats and buses fighting to get through the intersections, leaning on a symphony of horns. You just walk straight into the oncoming traffic and weave through the cars. No one seems to be getting run over, however, and the only one I see scooting a bit more than the rest is yours truly.

Egypt, Nile, camels, Planet Backpacker, backpackers
A camel market on the eastern shore of the Nile makes for a trip back in time to what might be the Biblical days. A good camel will set you back $800 (far less if you care to make the 40-day trip riding through the desert from the Sudan), with racing camels starting at $20,000. In the Sinai, it's said that camels can still be traded for wives.
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