Overland Egypt: Notes for Women Traveling Alone

There is much in the news to make a person nervous about traveling to the Middle East. Wars and terror, images of destruction and heartbreak. It’s easy from a cozy living room on the far side of the world to paint an entire region of the world with a broad brush and make assumptions about villages on the other side of the planet based on a forty second news segment.

I received numerous warnings from well meaning loved ones as I prepared to take off for Egypt this fall, alone, as a woman. Everything from, “Don’t fly Egypt Air, their planes fall right out of the sky!” Not quite true; it was a Russian jet that crashed, the Egyptian one was hijacked to Malta. To, “Are you SURE you want to go there alone as a woman, is it safe? Aren’t you worried?” “I’m packing my burqa,” I smiled in reply, “Though I don’t expect to need it. Things will be fine.”

Getting to Know the Locals in Cairo

Shop in Cairo's charming shops
Sitting, this afternoon, on the deck of a dhabyia, cruising down the green ribbon of the Nile river, camels and water buffalo lining the river banks, children shouting welcome from row boats, and and the afternoon sun casting long, peaceful shadows across the polished wooden decks, I’m feeling like next month’s trip to Chicago carries a greater risk than this one.

Earlier, Mohammed explained the realities to me over a third cup of tea in his father-in-law Said’s papyrus shop on the third floor above a bustling market street in Old Cairo:

“Since the revolution, it has been very hard. My family, we had four shops in this souq. Four! We employed many people, fed many families. Now, we have only this one. Barely enough to support our own family, and even this is faltering. The year before the revolution, there were 15 million visitors to Egypt. People who came to see the pyramids and the museums, to dive on the Red Sea and to cruise on the Nile. This year, the first year that tourism is improving just a little bit, we have 5 million.”

“I did the math, my tea glass and the state of tourism the same: Two thirds empty.”
I did the math, my tea glass and the state of tourism the same: Two thirds empty. I rolled the ball to his tiny nephew, playing about the hem of his mother’s dress, and determined to purchase two papyri instead of one.

The story has been the same everywhere I’ve visited. Of course this is the end of low season, but even so the numbers are abysmal. The temples of Komombo and Edfu were almost entirely empty. The halls of the Egyptian Museum held silent space between footsteps, and everywhere people are going out of their way to make me welcome. Arab hospitality is famous, of course, but this is something just a little more. Every driver has asked me to tell you that Egypt is safe, and they’ll be happy if you come.

“This is not Belgium!” one guide chuckled, “Things here… very safe!”

Of course, it’s still Egypt, which means arriving with a healthy respect for Muslim culture and a higher than average tolerance for chaos is essential. As a woman, traveling alone, I made a few extra arrangements: staying in a nicer place upon arrival in Cairo while I got my feet on the ground, hiring drivers and guides to teach me along the way, and packing with more sensitivity to the culture than the climate. (Egypt in September is hot, like 100-108F hot; warmer the further south you go.)  While it’s tempting to hop around the country by air, dropping into each region for a whirlwind tour, I’d encourage you to go more slowly, perhaps see a little less, but experience a little more, traveling overland, the old fashioned way.

On the Ground in Cairo

taxi in Cairo
Hiring a cab from the airport should cost about 100 EGP ($12 USD), a private driver more like 150-180 EGP ($17-$20), depending on your bargaining skills and the hour at which you arrive.

The metro is under construction, what is available is efficient in terms of time and chaotic in terms of experience. A ticket costs 1 EGP.

Cabs are ubiquitous and you will be solicited constantly with honking and offers. It goes without saying that costs should be negotiated up front. Do not expect to see a metered cab (or the cabbie to use it if it’s there.) If your Arabic, like mine, is abysmal, it’s not a bad idea to carry the name of your lodging, and the address, written in Arabic on a piece of paper. This increases the likelihood of your getting home with less drama once you’ve gotten good and lost in the spice market.

“Don’t be afraid to get out and walk. Yes it’s hot. Yes the traffic is madness, but it’s not any worse than Hanoi.”
Don’t be afraid to get out and walk. Yes it’s hot. Yes the traffic is madness, but it’s not any worse than Hanoi. The “trick” to crossing the multi-lane streets is to find a local who is crossing, preferably a grandmother, and shadow her. She’s likely to motion you forward and gesticulate passionately at the mad drivers. In places where you’re quite sure you’re a target, you’ll be completely safe with a grandmother for a shield. There is an ancient Egyptian traffic god who protects them and the motorway parts like the Red Sea for Moses when they step off of the curb.

Stop and have tea in the dusty tea shops. Contrary to all of the warnings, allow the friendly “guide” who offers to show you around to carry you off to his cousin’s inlaid box factory, and his brother in law’s kofta shop and to the very top of the mosque to watch the sunset during the call to prayer. Expect to tip him for his troubles, of course.

See the obvious sites, the Egyptian Museum, Giza, the mosques and the citadel, but in the evening, just walk along the Nile, let the sweat cool on your skin in the moonlight and soak in what has always been the unconquered city.

Getting to Aswan, Luxor, and Monuments in the South

pyramids and monuments at Luxor
Yes, of course you could fly, and many people do. But if you’re interested in keeping your feet on the ground and moving more slowly then the overnight train is an affordable, comfortable, and safe option. The easiest way to book your tickets is online, three or four days in advance, through the Watania website. Pay attention and be sure you book “foreigner” tickets because the fine is heavy for traveling on the cheaper “national” ticket. Expect to be sequestered in the “foreigner’s car” and treat it as an opportunity to meet a few other people who are as intrepid as you are.

“Expect to be sequestered in the ‘foreigner’s car’ and treat it as an opportunity to meet a few other people who are as intrepid as you are.”
The bunks are clean and firm (two bunks to a compartment). Your ticket (about 80 USD) includes dinner and breakfast; neither of which are spectacular, think airplane food, only Egyptian. The train is advertised to take about twelve and a half hours; mine took more like 14. You’ll wake to desert landscapes, date palms, and mango groves stretching for miles and children lining the tracks to wave as you pass through tiny towns and bigger cities.

The train stops at both Luxor and Aswan. If you have the time, I recommend going clear to Aswan, staying a night or two on Elephantine Island, seeing the High Dam and Philea before working your way back north.

Nile River Cruise
These are the boats to avoid–take a dhabyia instead!

Nile Cruises

A cursory search will turn up a range of options for Nile cruising. In this section I’m going to be unapologetically biased and opinionated. Why? Because, in general, I don’t like cruises or the idea of being trapped on a giant floating hotel with 2000 of my closest friends. In my opinion the only way to experience the Nile is on an old fashioned dhabyia.

These boats are few in number and have the feel of something torn straight from the pages of a Hemingway novel. With a maximum capacity of ten to twelve people, it’s not unusual to be on an entire boat with no more than two or three other people. The rooms are simple, but adequate, and the shaded upper deck is, simply, the most beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

“Yes, the dhabyia are more expensive, but not exponentially so. It’s more than worth it to sit by starlight and listen to your guide retell the stories of the ancients as if they were distant cousins…”
Unlike the big cruise ships, which follow tight itineraries, serve western food, buffet style and are all about economy, the dhabyia are custom experiences, every time. Expect the crew to ask you when you’d like to eat, what you’d like to see, if a swim in the afternoon in the Nile appeals to you (this is categorically impossible from the cruise ships) and if you’d mind if they stop for the afternoon to walk into a mango grove and have tea with the family of the cook, because you’ll be sailing right by. Instead of being moored to the piers in the bigger cities of Aswan and Edfu, you’ll pull up on the green river banks and picnic underneath the full moon on an old sail unrolled by the crew. And you’ll wake with water buffalo peering in your cabin windows instead of eager touts.

Yes, the dhabyia are more expensive, but not exponentially so. It’s more than worth it to sit by starlight and listen to your guide retell the stories of the ancients as if they were distant cousins and to spend the evening dancing and drumming with your crew instead of only seeing them when they are actively serving.

A Final Note to Women Traveling Alone.

solo travel in Egypt--okay for women?
If you aren’t accustomed to Muslim culture, read up on it a bit. When you’re alone, expect to be hassled. It is essential that you pack your sense of humor for that reality. You can decrease the harassment factor greatly by dressing appropriately. And by appropriately, I mean ankle length skirts or pants without a slit up the side, tunic length shirts with at least three quarter length sleeves and a head wrap that covers your neck and shoulders as well as all but the fringe of your hair. If you swim, wear one of your tunic shirts over your swimsuit. Will you be hot. Hell yes. But you’ll also be respectful, and that is very important for international relations between east and west.

The assumptions made about western women are drawn, largely, from media and from unconscious tourists who believe their right to express themselves is more important than local tradition or safety. The choice, of course, is yours, but so are the consequences. I did pack my burqa, and a black hijab, but it has proven wholly unnecessary, even down along the border with Sudan and in some of the less traveled regions of the country.

“I did pack my burqa, and a black hijab, but it has proven wholly unnecessary, even down along the border with Sudan and in some of the less traveled regions of the country.”
Expect the men to be extra “helpful.” A firm, “no thank you,” often repeated, will do the job. Again, patience is essential. Don’t lose your cool. If you’re not married, even a decoy wedding ring will help. I flash photos of my children liberally, thus establishing myself as a mother, which is a venerated position and shifts assumptions.

Packing as lightly as possible will mean that you are, at no point, at the mercy of porters or other “helpful” folks who may insist on an extra baksheesh. All of the usual cautions apply to women traveling alone in Egypt, but you should expect to find Egyptians welcoming, kind, and helpful, if you’re open to the interaction.

Don’t expect to see it all in one trip.

Egypt, like most places, is diverse and multifaceted. I’d like to come back and spend a month diving on the Red Sea. And another month picking my way through the delta up north. I’m actively considering a motorcycle journey that will head south from here down the west coast of the continent. And I’m already asking Mahmoud (my guide) about the possibility of arranging an end-to-end Nile boat trip for my parents and extended family in the not too distant future. Travel slowly, “see” less, but experience more; that’s my advice.

Speaking of Guides:

Hire Mahmoud Abd El Rahem, he’s a freelance tour guide based out of Luxor. Mahmoud has a degree in archeology and worked many years with the folks from a university in Chicago, excavating the valley of the kings. His English is perfect. His depth of knowledge about his country’s history is staggering, and he’s happy to accompany you anywhere in the country and teach you at every site, and around every dinner table you find yourself with him. He says it’s okay for me to share his email and phone number. When you give him a call or send him an email, tell him Jenn Miller sent you.

E-mail: mahmoud.bondoq1212@gmail.com

Phone: +20 10 640 20 204

For those with a bit of mud on their boots, some miles beneath their feet and an immunity to fear-based marketing, Egypt is a beautiful country to visit right now. Since tourism numbers are down, costs are too. You won’t find the pyramids thronged, and your dhabyia may be shared with only one or two other intrepid adventurers. You’ll get those empty postcard pictures of tombs and you’ll find yourself welcomed into homes and families and sent away with the same message to share back home: Come to Egypt, it’s wonderful and safe, even for a woman, traveling alone.
Photo Credits: syrotkin,  eFesenko, John Grummitt, Dima FadeevWitRsyrotkin