The travails of exploring Cairo, Egypt alone before heading to Amman, Jordan
Hello! This is Franziska (Yuanyi) Liu, an international student from China. After studying in the US for five years, I decided to spend one semester studying abroad in Jordan to practice Arabic and experience life in the Middle East. Instead of heading to Jordan directly, I took a trip to Egypt and participated in a service program there.
My four-day trip to Cairo was my first trip to a Middle Eastern and North African country, and it was also my first time traveling alone. I was worried before leaving for Egypt because I was unfamiliar with any real-life experience besides politics in this region. Traveling alone instead of traveling in a tour group went on to provide me first-hand experience with locals and cultures. Moreover, living in a local homestay rather than living in a hotel also offered me more chances to interact with the locals.
Before starting my trip, I did some research on the feedback of some Chinese tourists who had been to Egypt. Most of the feedback centered around one theme: the hustling of merchants, who pressured tourists into spending money unnecessarily. This didn’t surprise me, because East Asians, especially Chinese, were sometimes regarded as the crazy rich who could be exploited. Hence, I entered Cairo slightly apprehensive of how I would be viewed, and stayed cautious all the time.
Throughout my four-day trip in Cairo, the merchants hustled customers like me to a ridiculous extent. My first untoward experience was at the Great Pyramids of Giza: after purchasing the ticket, a man approached me with his employee identification card and told me a free tour guide was included in my ticket since it was my first time to the Pyramids. Forgetting the online feedback that warned visitors not to trust people without identification, I accepted the offer of the “tour guide” because of his employee identity. Then the disaster began.
He took me to the camel ride area (which he claimed that he was not working for), and asked for an exorbitant price of 480 Egyptian pounds for one ride which exceeded an acceptable price from 50 to 100 Egyptian pounds. After the bargaining, he took me out on the camel, and attempted to spend more of my money throughout the camel ride by saying “because you are a good girl, so I only offered this price to you”, “do you want a longer route to another pyramid”, and “I made you happy, and I hope you can make me happy” to make me more offers and extort tips. And this was not the end of the hustling: two other camel keepers approached me after that. When they affirmed that I was Chinese, they started their hustling by claiming their love for China.
My experience of Cairo and Egypt cannot be boiled down to bargaining or hustling, however, because there were always locals who were ready to help me. At the airport, I was not able to find where my Uber was due to the language barrier. Struggling with two bags, I went up to an employee at a coffee shop for help. He not only used Arabic to confirm the pick-up location with the driver, but also carried my luggage for me and led me all the way to the driver. I was concerned at first when he treated me with such hospitality because the online feedback mentioned that those who gave you a hand expect tips in return. This was the first time that I felt online feedback might be problematic at not showing the Cairo populace representatively.
Egyptian hospitality didn’t end there. After arriving near Tahrir Square, a downtown landmark in Cairo, I had trouble finding my homestay. Three Egyptian students offered me help because they were afraid that I was heading towards the wrong direction. They checked the location once again for me, and carried my luggage for me to the homestay. Even after we got there, they were not comfortable leaving me outside the building alone because they believed that I might be hustled by merchants. They waited with me inside the building to ensure I connected with my host successfully. During the time we waited, they reminded and warned me gently of the hustling at the Pyramids and told me about the price that I could expect for the camel ride.
Judging by my own experience and what I had expected, the hustling of merchants definitely harms the image of Egyptian tourism, especially because most Chinese tourists never get a chance to learn about the real Cairo when they traveled to places of interest in tour groups. The kind, helpful Egyptians I met on my way, on the other hand, represented a positive side of the city and they were changing my perception of the stereotypes of Egyptian tourism, a major revenue source for the country.
Additionally, unlike the picture social media paints about the Middle East and North African region, Egypt is safer as a military state post the 2013 coup. Traffic and hustling turned out to be my biggest worries.
Tourists should be more open-minded when traveling to another country because the impression they get upon first glance may not be comprehensive enough. After a variety of ups and downs in my exploration of Cairo, I am grateful to still have the chance to travel alone and have a meaningful experience in another country.
Each week, Globalists will publish Postcards from Syracuse University students exploring other parts of the world. Franziska Liu, a junior studying international relations and Middle Eastern studies, will be one of four contributors this semester.