Posts Tagged With: Cairo

“But isn’t it dangerous?”

“Aren’t you worried?”

“How are you going to do this?”

“Are you serious?”

And the last, most common question, “Isn’t it dangerous?”

When we told my parents we were visiting the Middle East for a month, my parents took it really well, to be honest. There was a sharp intake of breath, a grimace, closed eyes, and then, “you already bought the tickets?”

Once we assured my parents that yes we looked up travel warnings, yes we read the news, yes we would be careful, and yes we were intent on going, they smiled bravely and said, “Be careful!”

The rest of my extended family didn’t take it quite as well. I got a couple of phone calls begging me to change my mind. I had to remind a couple of people that I was an adult, I made my own choices now, and I wasn’t stupid. And here I am, at the end of the six-month trip, alive and well!

Many of us Americans live in a relatively safe, middle-class bubble and watch the news at night, filled with fire, bombs, wailing children, and first-class apocalyptic rhetoric. If you listen to that, and only that, then yeah, the world is a dangerous place with ISIS headquarters in Cairo, bombs under the Temple Mount, Colombian drug runners setting up shop across the street from UNICEF, Russian missiles pointed toward the nearest NATO countries, and etc., etc.

And there is some truth to it: the Malaysian airplane downed by a Russian missile was heartbreaking. The issue in Syria and the ISIS activity in the Levant is so infuriating I am left speechless at the atrocities committed on a daily basis. There are tragedies around the world that we must face.

But honestly? After traveling the Middle East/Mediterranean for a month and backpacking Latin America for five, I can’t think of one time where I was scared for my safety. There were definitely uncomfortable moments, upsetting times, and frustration, but never a fear over bodily harm. And this is coming from a girl that was completely ignored or mistreated by men because they were machistas. Granted, solo female travelers need to be a bit more careful, but then we have to be careful even in our own neighborhoods sometimes.

I know some people that were terribly concerned over their daughter visiting Colombia because of FARQ and drugs, even though the 1990s were a huge turning point in the Colombian drug war. That, to me, is like saying, “Don’t visit Los Angeles because of those riots in ’92! You know that place is dangerous.”

So, is the world a dangerous place? Yeah, parts, I think. You won’t see me signing up for a tour of South Sudan or Crimea any time soon. But it is also filled with beauty and goodness and kindness. We have had complete strangers offer us directions, give us a place to stay for the night, buy us drink and medicine when sick, and safely see us to our next destination. It’s always smart to use your brain and read a situation, looking for dangerous people or places, and avoid those. I certainly did!

Before reacting to the idea of traipsing off into a war zone, consider these things:

  • The media reports bad news, not good. Sometimes they even exaggerate the proximity or intensity of violence.
  • The world is full of good, well-meaning people. Think about it: isn’t it rather nationalistic and xenophobic to believe our country is safe and kind, while all other countries are dangerous and brimming with criminals?
  • There is danger everywhere, to an extent. There are uncertainties and bad things in every place on earth, and they happen to every human at one point or another.
  • Research, learn about the culture and the political climate, and make educated decisions. We didn’t go to the Red Sea because it does cross territory ISIS patrols, just as we didn’t hike through the Darien Gap into Panama because the drugs do flow through the jungle there.

Safety is great and important, but an over-emphasis on unneeded precautions keep you from living out your adventure!

Categories: Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Egypt travel tips

Spending a week in Egypt has been great, and we’ve gathered a few tips and helpful things along the way. Some were passed on by our tour guide, some were learned the hard way. Here’s a list of things we think you should consider when traveling in Egypt.

1. They will ask for tips (“baksheesh”) everywhere. Except perhaps Aswan. But still, expect to be asked for tips. In most places, tips are appropriate because that is really a part of how Egyptians earn a living. Their wages are too low to depend on those alone. But be reasonable and don’t let them bully you into much higher tips that you think are deserved.

2. Nothing is free in Egypt. And if someone gives you a very cheap price on something, there’s probably a catch. For example, getting a horse carriage ride around town may only be ten pounds, but getting off the carriage afterward will cost quite a pretty penny. If vendors at huge attractions push things into your arms and tell you it’s free, don’t believe them and push it back into their hands.

3. Egyptian museums aren’t the best in the world, so we were glad we had a guide to explain most things to us. There usually aren’t signs or any details at ruins or old temples either, so either have a guidebook or an actual guide. Several people told us that the big Cairo Egyptian museum wasn’t really worth it unless you paid the extra fee to see the mummies, so we didn’t end up going. They are building a new museum with lots of exhibit halls now, but that probably won’t be open until at least 2016. When it’s open, it will be amazing!

4. Egyptians, like many people around the globe, have a very flexible, fluid approach to time. So when someone tells you “ten minutes,” don’t expect it to be an actual ten minutes.

5. Many taxis do not have meters, so it is important to negotiate a price BEFORE you get in the cab. Yellow taxis usually work by reservation only, and black-and-white taxis are more likely to have meters. All others (varying shades of white) have no meters. Often taxis will charge an extra 10 pounds to put luggage in the trunk or to turn the car off at the destination while they help you get out of the car and to the place.

6. When a temple site says “no photos,” such as Abu Simbel or the Valley of the Kings, they mean it. There are guards in normal clothing patrolling the area, watching for cameras. If you’re caught, they will delete your photos for you, and if you resist, suggest calling the police. If they begin to call the police, it’s usually because they want you to bribe them to put their phone away. So just don’t get in that situation, and enjoy the tombs and ruins peacefully.

Categories: Egypt, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Coptic Cairo

On January 3rd we arrived in Cairo and gave hugs to everyone in our group, then went off in our own taxi. It was strange to be alone after being with fourteen others and a tour guide. We had booked a tiny little hole-in-the-wall hostel on Tahrir Square, which is where the Egyptian Museum and several big-name hotels are.

At 1 p.m. we were picked up by our afternoon tour company. This would have been about $60 total, but we bought the tour through our bank using our credit card points, so we didn’t actually spend any money on this, besides the tip we gave our guide.

Our guide, Soha, took us to Old Cairo to show us the Coptic churches and one of the oldest standing synagogues. This is the same district our other guide took us to a week ago, but a different part of the district. Until now, we had focused primarily on ancient Egypt (pre-Greek conquest) so I realized I had a huge gap in my history of Egypt—besides the politics of Cleopatra, I had no knowledge of old Egypt and even modern Egypt. Soha was kind enough to explain the flow: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, built Alexandria, and left much of the common Egyptian people to themselves. When he died, Egypt was given to Ptolemy, one of his generals. Cleopatra VII was from his line. During this time, the rulers of Egypt were not Egyptian, but Greek. One of the reasons Cleopatra was so popular in Egypt was that she learned Egyptian. At this time, the Greeks called the Egyptians Egypts, which eventually morphed in Copts. So “copt” means “Egyptian.” The Romans conquered Egypt around 30 BC, and Cleopatra killed herself. The Romans ruled Egypt (not quite as nicely as the Greeks did) until the Arabs began coming in around 640 AD. Egypt only took a little over a hundred years to become Christian almost entirely, but it took almost 500 years to fully convert to Islam (around the 10th century).


Above is me inside the Coptic Museum. The woodwork throughout the place is just stunning.

There is great oral tradition that Jesus grew up in Old Cairo, after his family flew to Egypt. Almost all churches and monasteries in Egypt have huge icons and artwork portraying the holy family and claim that they stopped right there along the way. However, it does seem to be a good guess that they lived in Old Cairo (obviously not called that at the time–actually it was sometimes called Babylon), for Joseph could work at one of the Roman fortresses and there was already a Jewish population there. I grew very excited to think about Jesus running down the side streets, playing ball with friends, and growing up exactly where I stood, just two thousand years before.

Ben Ezra, one of the oldest synagogues, was our first stop. We weren’t able to get photos inside the building, but it was beautiful. The columns had been taken from ancient Egyptian temples and much of the interior dated back before the 10th century, though that is as long as the building has been standing. Of course, both Christians and Jews (At different times) had worshipped here since around the 3rd century, but the building was destroyed in the same earthquake that toppled the lighthouse of Alexandria.


Abu Serga everything in it was just so old. Abu serga is named for two saints that were martyred in Syria around the second or third century. The church also claims to be built above the place that Joseph, Mary, and little Jesus lived while in Cairo. During renovations in 1990 they found the bones of another martyred saint. His remains were carefully preserved, wrapped up, and placed in a protective plastic bag and put on display at the entrance of the church.

The coptic cross is quite different from the Roman Catholic or the Greek Orthodox. Its bars are the same length as one another, making it a square. The four ends have three points each, for the trinity. All points added together make 12, for the disciples, and the four decorative spaces in between are for the four gospels. It is one of the lovelier cross designs I have seen.
From Abu Serga we went to another ancient and famous worship place, The Hanging Church. It was so named because it was built atop the ruins of the Roman fortress. Today it is about six or eight feet from the ground. Back then, it would have easily been 15 feet, hanging off the Roman beams. This church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but because St. george is very popular in Cairo, icons of him were present as well. Here I got to speak to one of the priests (who are not required to be celibate) about Coptic Orthodox theology. They are separate from the catholics and Greek Orthodox and even have their own patriarch/pope. The main difference in beliefs from the catholics is their view on the divine nature of Christ. While both believe that Jesus was both God and  man, the son of God, the catholics bind up Christ’s identity much closer with God the Father. Coptics (which just means Egyptian) found a portion of the Bible that said, “give unto God’s which is God’s, to Caesar what is his, and unto me what is mine.” From that, they  believe that Jesus, although he is God, should have his manness emphasized more.this i vaguely remember learning in my early history of the christian church class. Vaguely. The Greek Orthodox differ from both the coptics and the catholics on some issue with the Holy Spirit.
We also stopped in a nunnery for st. George that had a portion of his body as a relic. The massive doors into the chapel were easily from the 15th century, though the building itself was no more than 250 years old.


Afterward we visited a Greek Orthodox church. Like some buildings in the area, it is quite new, less than a hundred years old, but many of the accessories (doors, windows, columns, etc.) are thousands of years old. Easily.



Directly across the street from our hostel is the Egyptian museum, built around 1898. It’s old and practically a museum of itself. Behind it, the burned building, was the political headquarters of the party the former president Mubarak worked in.


During the revolution in 2011, as the Egyptian people mobilized, the political party realized that they would probably not survive the unrest. All the documents and proof of the decades-long corruption that riddled the “democracy” of Egypt was in the building, so they set it on fire–the easiest way to destroy it, they thought.

Tahrir Square is part of the central business district of Cairo, and much of the protests went on there. In fear of their history and culture, thousands and thousands of Egyptians went not to protest, but to gather around the museum with the military. They linked arms and stood, sometimes they camped through the night, and encircles the museum in protection. When the building next door was set on fire, the people brought water and tried to keep the flames as far from their beloved history as possible–and it worked. The museum was largely unharmed. Only minor looting occurred during one night, and it was only to minor artifacts.

The Egyptians had forethought to protect their heritage as they protested against the corruption of Mubarak and his personalistic dictatorship. And even though the results, four years later, are not what we had hoped they would be, I still have faith in the Egyptian people. One day they will have a government that serves them, I think, instead of the other way around. This is one step forward on a long road, and they are stepping nearer.

Categories: Egypt | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Land of Sand and Sun

Jordan and I arrived safely Saturday afternoon. We were unable to sleep on any of the flights, so by the time we landed in Egypt we had been without sleep for about 24 hours, with perhaps some catnaps on the transatlantic flight.

Although we had planned to take a taxi out of the airport, we saw a man with our tour’s sign, picking up other people, and we elected to join the group. Haggling over taxi fares and making sure we didn’t get lost was just too difficult on that little sleep.

Our tour has 16 people on it plus the guide, who is Egyptian. About half of the group is made up of Americans, most of which live abroad (such as teaching in Abu Dhabi or Dubai). The rest is made up of a Brit, a Kiwi, and several people who speak English fluently enough to go on an English tour. Jordan and I tend to be fairly independent, so we weren’t completely sure how we would feel stuck with a tour group. However, it has been fantastic so far. We don’t have to worry about any logistics, and we have met some really neat people.

Because this is the Budget Egypt trip (called a “YOLO trip” on the website) we have the opportunity to opt out of several tours, which can save us money.


We drove through Cairo, and I was amazed by all the apartments and buildings everywhere. Around 20 million people live in Cairo. It is the largest city in the Middle East, I believe, and perhaps the second largest in Africa. Our guide showed us a cemetery that dates back to the 10th century. After a natural disaster, many people had to move into their cemetery plot until their home in the city was rebuilt. Each tomb has a courtyard area, and they build a small house there. Still today people live among the “City of the Living and Dead,” and it even has mosques built throughout. Three million people live there now, and it is still growing.

A fellow tour member told us that tourism used to be about 40% of Egypt’s GDP, but the industry has dropped to about 15% of its normal size in the past few years since the revolution in 2011. In fact, several people on the tour chose to visit Egypt now, while things are still cheap, rather than waiting until the rest of the world thinks things are safe again. As we toured the bazaar, it was sad to see so many shops permanently closed due to lack of tourism, and although I’m so glad they got Mubarak out of “office,” it is such a shame that even a hopeful revolution hurts regular people’s livelihoods. It made both of us thankful we picked Egypt, to do what little we could to keep someone’s job secure. So far, we have felt completely safe (although definitely out of our element in an Arabic world) and know that Egyptian police will do whatever they can to make sure tourists spread good reports about their travels.

Although Jordan and I were exhausted and went to bed by 10 p.m., we woke at midnight and again at 3 a.m., though the tour didn’t start until 8, we were ready to go see the pyramids. Jet lag is quite the thing!

The pyramids are not that far outside of Giza (a suburb of Cairo). Many people complain of how close they are to the city, but I didn’t think it was that bad. Perhaps I had been warned enough that my expectations were low. Jordan was thrilled to see the one ancient wonder of the world left standing. There are nine pyramids—three large (father, son, grandson) and six small (for wives and mothers). We were able to walk around them and enjoy the grandness of them. It really is amazing!


Then, (because it was a novelty) we rode on a camel around the complex and a little into the Sahara desert. I got to gallop on one! I almost fell off and I bruise my thumb holding onto the horn so tight, but it was worth it.





On our way to Old Cairo we passed a mosque built by the famous Saladin, whom Jordan admires.

During a brief walking tour of Old Cairo (entering 10th century city gates and walking around 15th century Ottoman buildings) we were able to enter a mosque. The minarets date back to the 10th century, I believe, though the building is a couple hundred years younger. It was absolutely beautiful, and while I have never been an architecture buff I was floored by the beautiful designs and geometric patterns throughout the mosque.


As I write this, we are on an overnight train to Aswan, where we will see other ancient temples and meet Nubians, the other main ethnicity in Egypt.


Categories: Egypt | Tags: , , | 8 Comments

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