The Less Known Egypt
I must state first that writing a TRAVEL posting regarding Egypt can be very intimidating given the amount of material starting with the country’s prominent position in ancient history up until the current Middle East’s political and religious mayhem. While it is very easy to simply write about the well-known architectural and geographical attractions of the country (e.g., pyramids, sphinx, the Nile), there is a broad variety of lessor known topics that provide the interstitial matter to construct a meaningful picture of this amazing country.
I confess up front that that there is an additional reason for this TRAVEL posting. As you will read, this posting is a nonapologetic, direct statement as to the failure of the Egyptian government to protect the best interests of its citizens and visitors. While my only example is the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) with which I have extensive experience, it is a very critical one as to both the safety of the populace, as well as the long-term growth of the country’s GNP. It is a perspective that few will discuss openly.
Following BACKGROUND below, I will address a number of topics based upon my personal experience and perceptions infused with internet research.
SITES LESS KNOWN
SIDE NOTE: If only for my personal benefit, I wish to present in this posting a deserved, honorable perspective of Muslims in general, as well as Egypt specifically. This is my best tool, unfortunately, to counter the evil prejudices of those that are so ignorant themselves and inclined towards hatred, or are nurtured so by the hatred “learned” from their families and/or mentors.
Over a 3-year period starting in 2012, I visited Egypt 13 times to develop an advanced train control / management system for ENR. The majority trackage of this railroad runs on 2 systems that were introduced by the British in the mid-19th Century during its “Empire” occupation. The remaining part of the railroad operates with a system that is a century old (shamefully, not unlike 50% of the U.S. freight railroad trackage). I managed a small team of excellent consultants, both U.S. and Egyptian, who met the challenge handsomely with the generous participation by ENR and MOT (Ministry of Transportation) personnel. The final product of this project was based upon what I had designed earlier in the U.S. in the development of, now installed, Positive Train Control (PTC) that prevents train accidents due to human errors. The timing of this project started before, went through, and ended after the country’s revolution of 2013. It was that intensive and
extensive set of experiences that legitimizes a number of points I present below as to the people and the current government of Egypt.
While Arabic is the primary language of Egypt, the people are not classified as Arabs, but rather as North Africans. Additionally, Egyptian Arabic differs from standard Arabic by the significant use of colloquialisms given Egypt’s more aggressive pursuit of the verbal arts compared to Middle Eastern countries. As to religion, the people are split 80/15 as Muslim and Coptic Christians respectively with the remainder being primarily Jewish. Their Islam faith is pure and not deserving of the horrific connotations associated with Islamic terrorists - just as I don’t associate with the white-supremist thugs of my country. In fact, Egyptians are very generous people between themselves as well as to visitors. They will approach English-speaking individuals openly to talk about your country, and request you to have a coffee together (they will insist on paying). I also note that I found the people I dealt with had a tremendous sense of humor, more so than with any other country that I have dealt with in my consulting career. As unimportant that some may think that point is, I believe it is a critical characteristic as to the temperament of the culture.
Moving south along the Nile, there is a sharp divide in the heritage of the people of Egypt. From Aswan onward into Sedan, the population consists primary of the Nubian race, one of the oldest human races. Nubians are a true Negroid race whereas, according to DNA, the Egyptians are of Middle Eastern decent, although they are classified as North Africans. Nubians are the source of the “Black Pharaohs” that until a century ago, were rarely mentioned in the history of the country. However, this race shared the stage with the well-known Pharaoh dynasties of the northern portion of Egypt, aka “Lower” Egypt due to the northern flow of the Nile. The Nubians in general are darker, taller, and more statuesque than the typical Egyptian. Unlike the Islam majority of Egyptians, Nubians are Coptic Christians beginning in the 6th Century with the arrival of such missionaries.
I am greatly appalled at Egypt’s government. If you are one with the slightest sense of social justice and responsibility, you have to be. As addressed below, the government is truly not concerned with the safety of the masses if it means making investments that could be otherwise directed for the benefit of the upper class, e.g., Egypt’s military and industrial barons. A primary example for which I am very knowledgeable, is that of the failure of the government to implement a system for managing their trains safely, as noted earlier. The absence of this system continues to result in fatality-intensive train accidents due to human errors.
Under a contract with Egypt, funded by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (TDA), my consulting team designed a system for the entire railroad that would prevent such errors entirely, and that would require less than $100 million in investment. This solution, which I have titled as Virtual CTC (VCTC), would quickly pay for itself by eliminating the maintenance of the current rail management and safety infrastructure, and even without the consideration of the elimination of fatalities.
SIDE NOTE: In the U.S., DOT uses $9.2 million per fatality when performing a cost/value analysis for evaluating safety cases. In Egypt, they have no such number to my knowledge, which is consistent with what I believe is that government places NO value in the loss of a sole.
VCTC was never pursued for obvious reasons once one understands the military- industrial complex of that country. As clear evidence of my point, the week before I presented the final results of the VCTC study to ENR executives, there were 2 major train accidents resulting in 45 deaths (including the slaughter of 40 children in a school bus at a grade crossing). We foresaw the possibility of such accidents and specifically designed VCTC to prevent them, (there is no other system across the globe that can do so in a pragmatic way). The result: ENR has yet to consider the implementation of VCTC after 5- 6 years. This lack of action would be considered criminal if it had been a private organization instead of the government. Keep in mind that the U.S. has been giving $1.5 billion annually to Egypt, presumably for military expenditures. In a rational world, it would seem appropriate to cut out $100 million for advancing the safety of Egypt’s total railroad (primarily passenger) for the safety of its citizens. Additionally, given the poor state of its highways when I was last there, a safe and efficient railroad is the best means to grow its GNP.
SIDE NOTE: VCTC is an expansion of Positive Train Control (PTC) for which I was the architect. PTC is now installed across much of the U.S. freight and passenger
operations, via a Federal mandate, to prevent train accidents due to human errors. If you are interested in understanding VCTC further, then you can read about
it at my professional blog: strategicrailroading.com.
UPDATE: March 26, 2021, Train to train collision kills 30 people near Aswan. Without any details yet, the accident is due to human error that PTC would have prevented if it had been installed.
The Egyptian government is essentially a military-backed dictatorship with a façade of democracy. They have elections and there is a constitution, but without a true, free press ... and with limited female rights compared to the U.S ... and certainly no liberties for LGBT. In this same vein, a very common phrase that is used in conversations across Egypt is “inshallah” (ISA) which translates to a passive directive of “(if) God (is) willing.” At the beginning of the revolution, the concept of this phrase was effectively discarded. The people had the power within themselves, at least initially. However, with the military taking control via the voting process, the Egyptian people are now back to a non-representative government without any support to change.
Sites Less Known
There are number of sites that can be of interest for tourists besides the obvious. I offer some below.
The Cairo Tower is second only in height to the Hillbrow Tower in Johannesburg on the African continent. Of course, it provides a full 360 view of Cairo along with a rotating restaurant. It is an excellent way to begin a tour of Cairo by providing a top-down perspective.
RAMSES TAIN STATION
As shown here, the interior of the Ramses train station in
Cairo is an amazing example of the inappropriate use of the pharaonic style for a building that, by law, could not be so dramatically replaced from its historical neo-Mamluk style. However, it is also an example of the priorities of the government to “showboat” the railroad, but at a cost that could have paid for improving the safety of the primary railroad as noted above. As quoted by the Transport Minister in January, 2012 upon the opening of the redesigned station: “Cairo can now boast of a train station that rivals
the best in Europe.” BUT, ENR is the least safe of any railroad that I know of across the globe. The reported LE 170
million for the station was the equivalent then of approximately $80 million. Granted, VCTC had not been designed yet. The only alternatives available at the time were the traditional systems which have cost substantially more, but still more important than bragging rights.
At the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is perhaps best described as Las Vegas at night and the Rivera during the day. It offers great beaches in a very safe environment and with more glitz at night then you really want to deal with. It was interesting to see Muslim women in full burkas (very light material) bathing with a few topless women on the same beach. Personally, I thought the latter were being insensitive to the rule: When in Rome ... This is not the Rivera as to overall mindset of the inhabitants, yet alone the country.
While Luxor’s Valley of the Kings is quite spectacular and absolutely a must- experience, Aswan should not be ignored. Again, it is the center for the Nubian race and has 2 particular visits that interested me: the Nubian Village and the Nubian Museum.
I spent a weekend in the Nubian village. The rooms are rustic but charming, but clearly not for everyone, including the communal eating. When it comes to earth tones, the village is so pleasant with a view of the Sunrise only, given the Village’s positioning on the west bank of the Nile. The owner of village was very “kind” and offered to share a bottle of wine on my patio overlooking the waterways. He then said on departing that the price was roughly $35 in LEs, which was about 3-times the price I was paying for it in Cairo (The Egyptians actually produce some very good wines for a really good price), Oops! He got me. His final words were: “Engineer Ron, when you come back, you must stay at my house” Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice ...
I must say that I really enjoyed this museum. It is well designed, attractive, and informative. And, the museum is open 7 days a week with 2 time slots each day: 9am- 1pm and 5pm-9pm.
When in Aswan, I asked the aforementioned owner of the Village to set up a small felucca for my personal use. This boat type has a single, triangular sail that requires nearly no knowledge to handle, compared to sloop rigging with 2 sails and the optional spinnaker. The boat’s owner was willing for me take the helm once I listed my 50 years of sailing experience. Larger versions of felucca are available in Cairo, but for touring groups and probably not for individuals.
This most charming temple covered with ancient hieroglyphs was constructed in 380-363 BC and originally resided on the island of Philae. However, given the construction of the Aswan High Dam by 1970, thereby creating Lake Nasser, the temple was moved to Agilka Island near Aswan to prevent it from being permanently submerged. This move was part of the UNESCO Nubia Campaign project to protect much of the Nubian culture.
I definitely suggest that you hire a driver for a day or two while in Aswan to get the most of your visit there.
EGYPTIAN PIGEON HOUSES.
When traveling through the country side you will likely notice conical structures on the roof of houses or on the ground. These are “dovecotes’’ to raise pigeons to serve as part of the daily diet in many parts of Egypt. Reportedly, the most noted restaurant in Cairo to serve stuffed pigeon as part of its traditional Egyptian menu is Abou El Sid.
Personally, the effort to pick through the bones to get to a minuscule amount of meat, wasn’t worth the effort. Actually, my colleague did me the honor of completing the task just as a parent would do for a 3-year old. I understand from my favorite restaurant in Beaulieu sur Mer (see posting Villefranche sur Mer: Without) that this is a traditional food item in France, but with larger birds.
TRAVEL WITHIN CAIRO
In Cairo, there are three types of Taxis, all of which I have no experience in that my Egyptian companion provided for that. Hence, the following is what I extracted from the internet.
The first type is the old black and white taxis. These taxis have no meter, and the price of the trip is usually a known fact by everyone that would wish to use these services. It depends on the length of the journey and the traffic. Simply stand at the side of the road and at the sight of an approaching taxi, point one hand towards the road. The taxi driver will slowly cruise past you. As he does, yell out a district or landmark near your destination (e.g., Al-Azhar), and if the driver is inclined to head there he will stop for you. Solo males should sit in the front seat next to the driver. It is customary for solo females to sit in the back seat.
The second type of taxis are the white cabs which are the revamped versions of the black ones. Several years ago, the government financially assisted drivers in purchasing these vehicles given the condition of the black cabs. These cabs have air conditioning, a meter, and are safer cars. However, when you don’t know the way, then you may see more of Cairo than was truly necessary
The third type of Taxis is the yellow ones. These also have a meter but you can call them by phone through a company and they come to you wherever you are. These are the most expensive ones of course. You can ask the front desk at your hotel to call them for you; its best to call a couple of hours in advance.
While I am quite comfortable in Cairo given my time there, I would not take a bus. It simply isn’t worth the effort to know if you are going in the right direction on the right bus. With that said, there are two types, with one being much more reliable for foreigners. I believe the pictures here of the two types is all I need to say, if you wish to pursue.
I fail you again as to personal knowledge of the Metro lines. But my experience with surface traffic in Cairo suggests that all 3 lines have to be blessings ... and I mean, again, the road traffic can be very, very heavy. Reportedly, the first 2 cars in every train are for women only. This is due to the disregard that many Egyptian men have as to rights and equality of women.
This service is available in Cairo and Alexandria, at lest.
TRAVEL OUTSIDE OF CAIRO
I haven’t had the luxury of time to spend days on a Nile cruise between Cairo, Luxor and/or Aswan. Then again, I am not a cruise enthusiast to that extent. Once outside of Cairo, I expect that the first couple of miles will be representative of the rest of the trip. I could be wrong. Undoubtedly, it will be the most relaxing trip for those so inclined.
If one chooses a Nile cruise between Cairo and Luxor and/or Aswan, then I suggest that the opposing side of that trip be made by airplane during the day. The view of the river as it flows between the narrow lush banks with the desert on both sides is impressive. BTW, when first arriving in Cairo by airplane there will be several kiosks before passport control where you need to purchase a touring visa, most likely $25-30 per person.
Above, I addressed the horrible safety record of the railroad, When last there, the railroad’s roadbed of the primary route between Cairo and Luxor/Aswan was in poor condition. But, that could have been readily improved in the last 5 years, including the possibility of an addition of a limited safety-enhancement system used in Europe. The alternative to train is to use the roadway for that route, and again, it was in horrific shape when last there. If one decides to take the train, then at best I suggest sitting somewhere in the middle which is less susceptible to the danger of head-on and rear-end collisions then the front or the end of the train respectively. This schematic of train routes reflects where the majority of Egyptians live in the country.
As to the trains in the Delta and along the Mediterranean coast, they are relatively safe in that the traffic volume is quite low and the trains are not operating at a high speed. The North/South route uses the technology noted earlier that has been in use for the last century.
If you are looking to rent a car for traveling around Cairo, then DON’T if you are easily intimidated. Cairo drivers have no problem in ignoring the lanes along with a lack of traffic lights. They always squeeze in one extra lane, even though it doesn’t exist. You have to be aggressive and have the maximum amount of collision insurance to be comfortable. If you are driving in Cairo, and you need to park on the street, then you will likely notice an individual in many blocks not really doing anything it seems. This individual is your next best friend while your car is parked. That individual is there to move your car around by pushing and directing it to a parking spot once it becomes available. You take your keys and leave the car in neutral without the parking brakes applied. When you return to your car, you offer a “bakshees” of several LEs. (The current exchange rate is 16 LEs to $1). On this point of bakshees, you should keep a bundle of LEs in your pocket in that everyone expects a tip for any service performed.
The use of car horns is constant, a symphony in itself. After several trips I figured out the message of each type of horn sequence. One beep means that you are being made aware by a driver that he is approaching your space, Two beeps means that you are messing with his/her space, so back off. One time I was there with my Egyptian colleague driving and the horn was “beep, beep, beeeeeeeeeep”. I asked Ahmed: “What was that?” His response, “Oh, that was my cousin.”
When in Cairo, Luxor, or Aswan, just hire a driver for the day. You will be much more relaxed at the end of the day: Trust me.
The point of safety will of course be on your mind .... unless you are familiar with traveling in cities where political actions are underway. For example, I would not be concerned to travel in U.S. cities that have had seemingly endless protests, some deadly. Normally, such activities are occurring in a relatively small portion of the city only. Cairo suffered similarly during its revolution where the major activities were very localized. Actually, I find Egypt to be very safe everywhere with the exception of the NE portion of the country. This is another reason to hire a driver if you have any hesitation to travel in the cities.
The following is a pot pourri of points that may be helpful in your travels in Egypt.
Egypt Air is a fairly modern fleet. However, beware that no alcohol is served, which can be a bit daunting for some of us for a 12 hour nonstop to/from JFK and CAI
Never offer your hand or a hug, and especially not a kiss on the cheek to a Muslim woman, even good friends. They must initiate.
Be careful of crème-based patisseries, unless from a fashionable cafe. A great deal of the milk in Egypt is not pasteurized.
All bacon and sausages offered in restaurants will be beef.
If taking pictures of individuals on street offering goods, whatever, it is best to
ask for their permission.
Upon arriving in Egypt, you can purchase wine from a few State-owned stores
up to 2 liters, I believe, at a reduced price. The one such store I know is in the
major, modern shopping mall: City Starz.
You can buy wine at some major food stores with one also in City Starz.
Cigarettes are about $2, perhaps even less with the great devaluation of the
LE relative to the $ in the last several years.
The answer when asked as to how you are is “ana quiest” spelled
phonetically. Practice that phrase, I suggest. I first starting saying “ana Christ”, until Ahmed said that I was saying “I am Christ”. Again, the Egyptians have a great sense of humor, and my linguistic skills became an inside joke with my Egyptian colleagues.
If you check luggage when flying into Cairo, you can expect 45 minutes to an hour before it shows up in baggage claim.
Learn how to say “NO choc-ren” phonetically. Which is “no thank you’. You will use that phrase frequently in Egypt as you will constantly be confronted with people wishing to assist you for the most of simple tasks, especially at the airport.
You will get use to the 5 times a day that the Mosques broadcast prayers. Well, maybe not. Again, Egyptian Muslims are very strict as to their religious practices. I have had meetings so interrupted by my Egyptian colleagues regularly, but with total respect by both parties.
Have your hotel or travel agency set up a driver to meet you at the airport.
Ask your hotel if the water is safe for you, and then don’t use it anyhow.
Don’t eat salads unless you have assurance from the restaurant that the food
was washed in “safe” water.
Take pills with you that can handle any major GI issues that may occur. In all
my visits, I never had an issue because I did take the necessary precautions. But also, I spent much of my life swimming in Lake Erie and surfing on Lake Pontchatrain.
There is so much to discover and enjoy about Egypt. You will find that the people are lovely to interact with. In general, they are steeped in their Islam faith, and more Christian in their practices than so many Christians that I know in my other travels, including the U.S. Keep in mind, that outside Cairo and Alexandria, the masses are poorly educated and may seem difficult to deal with due to their likely lack of English, but not in a harmful way.