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Walking from the Nile to the pyramids, and the people I met on the way

| 19 comments | Category: culture, travel

Cairo2

Don’t worry, video updates in Arabic are coming soon ;) Today I’ve just recorded the first of many videos to document my time in this country, and it should be on my Youtube channel by Monday (need time to upload HD videos on slow connections, as well as subtitling).

But first, it’s time for another written update about my day-to-day experiences, this time with fun images to brighten up the text-filled post!

By Wednesday, I had been in Cairo for well over a week and had yet to see the Great Pyramids of Giza. I wasn’t in a huge rush, since I’m taking my time here.

There are many parts of the city you can see them from, but I was very central most of the time and surrounded by buildings that would block the view. I wasn’t going out of my way and thought they’d just appear somewhere eventually, but with the day for me to start my Nile travels quickly approaching, I had to at least see the pyramids before leaving.

Rather than get in a taxi to see them and then go home, I made an afternoon of it and decided to walk right up to the gated entrance… all the way from the Nile itself!

It’s about a 9km walk (almost 6 miles), but it seemed appropriate to have at least some kind of a journey to see the only surviving wonder of the ancient world for the first time, and pulling up in a taxi or tour bus would take away a bit of that spirit of adventure for me.

While I didn’t go in (I’ll do that later), the whole point for me (apart from seeing the actual pyramids for the first time) was to see who I’d meet along the way. I made it to the gate to see the pyramids as close as I could for now, and then simply went home. The journey, rather than the destination, was the point of it all ;) And what a day it was! Hopefully this post gets across why I walked through otherwise dull streets and why I’m glad I did.

Game of Frogger

I started from the part of the Nile near the Giza train station, which is a spaghetti mess of roads and bridge overpasses and multiple-lane avenues, without a traffic light or pedestrian crossing in sight.

With enough walking you may eventually find somewhere safe to cross, but these are few and far between. You very simply have to try and go one lane at a time (actual white painted lanes are ignored completely and usually an extra one or two are added by taxis squeezing into every nook and cranny) stepping between cars and looking for your chance to advance.

Hesitation is not an option. When asking yourself “Why did the chicken cross the road?” you don’t want to be that chicken. Just cross it already!

It’s risky business to get across five or so layers of fast approaching noisy tin cans, and almost thrill-seeking in the run-into-uncoming-traffic scene of it all, making you seriously wonder “What do frail old ladies do?” but it’s just run of the mill for many Egyptians. I’ve been seeing it non-stop since I got here.

The whole scene resembles the classical video game of Frogger very well, and looks pretty much like this:

Benny Frogger

Except with way more beeping noises, and with much faster movement so that you can truly fear for your life, knowing very well that you don’t get 3 of them in this game!!

I actually had to cross huge avenues like this three or four times until I finally got to الأهرام Al Ahram, the aptly named “The pyramids” avenue. This was a much less stressful very long straight line almost all the way to the actual pyramids, but not actually ending at them, which made the name disappointingly deceiving. And there wasn’t a single sight worth mentioning on the entire avenue to be honest!

I figured I’d see the pyramids in the distance and they’d just keep getting bigger, but for the whole length of this road they never appeared in view! It was quite a long road too, check it out:

Map 1

Attempting to blend in

I should point out now that I had challenged myself to make it all the way to the gates to enter the pyramids, without anyone approaching me in English. I had read accounts from others of how insisting/annoying touts can be, so I was also looking to not have a negative experience with any of them that I may meet.

Even though all I did was walk to the gate, so I was getting nothing but modern Egypt and all the pros and cons of that, I actually had a great afternoon! And I didn’t have any frustrating or negative experiences with anyone.

There’s a very good reason for this though. It’s not down to luck, but something that I mentioned in the previous post: I had been paying attention to how Egyptians act and was attempting to blend in.

So my hat, “fabulous” shoes, video camera, whacky t-shirts, bright shorts, backpack and any fun accessories I may have, all stayed at home. I shaved my goatee to a moustache, cut my hair shorter, put a jumper/sweater and heavy jeans on even though it was a sunny day, and wore my less comfortable dull black shoes.

While walking, I kept a confident posture, and when I met anyone I would not shake their hand firmly (Egyptians have the least firm handshake I’ve ever come across), but let my arm flop around a bit, and I’d walk fast enough.

For my first days, I definitely noticed that people would glance at me as they walked past me because I’d be standing out as a foreigner or simply visually different. It’s just human nature that the more different something is, the more it gets our attention. If you have weird hair, weird clothes, weird equipment around your neck and walk weird… then you are going to attract attention, plane and simple.

So when I say that I want to blend in, I don’t claim that people will all think I’m Egyptian, especially those looking at photos of me online when they already know I’m Irish – it’s about standing out less here.

This is really easy to do. By making these subtle, yet easy changes, I definitely noticed that nobody was looking at me any more – for the entire walk up that long avenue. And I was totally successful, all the way to the gate that those who did talk to me did it in Arabic. And I didn’t run into a single insisting tout in all the 9km I covered on foot.

So yes, if people are speaking to you in the “wrong” language, or jumping on you as a tourist, it may indeed be entirely your own fault. If you look like a tourist, then don’t be surprised that people treat you like one!

Those I met on the way

The first person I met, some time half way along Al Ahram, was a father who was walking with his daughter to a bus/van stop. He turned to me and asked in Arabic what the time was.

I told him, and I must have hesitated for a second or the accent on my answer must have been very obvious, because then he asked (still in Arabic) where I was from. We actually walked together for almost 5 minutes to where he was going to get the van and had a great chat. He told me he runs a small shop that sells electronics and said that I was more than welcome to join him for tea some day if I was nearby again.

Later on, a bit further up, a couple of teenagers approached me and asked me if I knew where a particular street was – once again in Arabic, so I wasn’t coming across as an obvious foreigner. Unfortunately I couldn’t help them. I had my Google maps enabled smartphone with me, but where I was didn’t look like the best place to take it out and wave it around.

Eventually, almost 2 hours after I had set off, I made it to the part of the avenue I knew to turn on, and still hadn’t seen the pyramids, but knew I was close. A few metres into the next road and then I suddenly saw it for the first time in my life, as it jumped from out of nowhere between two buildings:

20130115_154314

Seeing it this immense for the first time was a huge surprise, and I wanted to take it in and rest for a few minutes. My uncomfortable shoes, and sweating a lot from having way more clothes than I’d prefer for a sunny day like this (but a t-shirt only would have given me away as a foreigner) meant that it was time to just sit and look at it, since I knew things may be more chaotic near the gate.

I found a bench just to the right of where I took this photo and sat down and almost immediately two people come up to me. I kind of saw them come up from the corner of my eye, and I knew immediately that I had given myself away – it was likely from taking out my phone to snap this photo. I tried to do it subtly, but the act itself made me stand out as obviously not a local.

They were both touts, and since I wasn’t in a hurry I decided to just see how this all would pan out.

The first one, a teenager, said hello, how are you in Arabic and then his first question was so curious and unexpected. Are you Muslim or Christian? It’s certainly a unique way to ask your background!

What I am isn’t something I’ll bring up much in this part of the world, so I made it simple (since it was how I was brought up) and said Christian. By now the man had also introduced himself and exchanged pleasantries.

He said that I am very welcome in Egypt and that they love Christians in this country because we are all under the same god. This has been the general message I’ve actually been getting from everybody. It reflects the spirit of Muslim teachings that Christians and even Jews are “of the same book”. For those worried, I can confirm that Egyptians are very welcoming to non-Muslims.

I knew why they were talking to me – they had seen a tourist and wanted to try to sell things to me. With this in mind, whenever the conversation went towards the shops they wanted to show me, I very firmly said that I really don’t have time today. I was sitting on this bench for 20 minutes and then going on my way.

He continued, saying that they will invite me for a tea and chat with “no business”… and then if I happen to like the Papyrus replicas I can buy them, but I’ll only look… only look! But I’ve heard from many sources how hard it is to turn them down once you are in their territory, and I didn’t want to waste this guy’s time, and I didn’t care to see his shop. I told him genuinely that all I want to do today is walk to the pyramids and then go home because I’m a little tired already.

The conversation went to other things, like how I’ve enjoyed Egypt, and the man showed me photos of his daughter and imparted some wisdom that he was like me before, young and single, but now he’s very happy that he has a wife and family and hopes I do too some day. It was a really pleasant conversation.

But it did indeed flow back to him trying to reel me in, and he kept insisting on that tea (which must be drunk on his premises). It’s free!! he insisted, as if the single Egyptian pound (about $0.15) price-tag was what was making me hesitate. I found it a little funny that he said that he’s nothing like the other touts who say “buy buy buy!” and are quite insistent… when I had spent five entire minutes turning down his insisting invitations for that tea.

I was happy to chat to him on this bench, and talked with a smile the entire time. At one point he asked if I would prefer if he left and I said that he’s more than welcome to stay as I’m enjoying our chat, but that I am genuinely not interested in that tea right now. I was here precisely to talk to Egyptians like himself and was happy he sat down with me.

Since there was a little fibbing on his end about the real purpose of the tea “You are now my brother! Sit with me and let’s only share stories! No business… No business!” (the second time in English to really emphasise it), I returned some fibs of my own.

My story was that I’m an English teacher in Cairo, have lived here for several months and have actually already been to Egypt 3 times. I’ve visited the pyramids dozens of times (keeping in mind that I was indeed quite distracted by looking directly at it for the first time in my life), already seen lots of papyrus copies (I don’t have a clue what they look like) and don’t want to buy any.

I was polite but firm. This story, my general attire, and doing so in Arabic made me more convincing as someone who has been here a while, and I talked to him like I’ve heard hundreds of papyrus pitches before.

Are the touts the problem, or are the tourists the ones causing it?

By now the teenager who had been quiet since the beginning, had got the idea and was about to move on, but he said something funny again before leaving; that he prefers me to the Russians. They just say (in English) “No money, no money, no money!”

I can certainly understand why they might want to abruptly “shoo” away touts if all these visitors want to do in Egypt is see the pyramids and leave. This way of travel simply isn’t for me – the entire country is part of the package, and that includes the poverty you may see, modern culture in highly trafficked downtown, the touts who eagerly cater to tourists, and even run of the mill engineers, architects, computer programmers and everything else that isn’t necessarily unique to just that country.

I always feel sad when I see tourists be rude to locals, just because those locals may be a little insisting. Like with advertising in America, the more you ignore something the louder it has to be to get your attention.

I heard that sometimes groups of touts cave in on you (Mark Twain himself complained of the touts in Egypt in the late 19th century!), but if you look like you have more money than common sense and you are walking through a crowd of people who may be struggling to feed their families, even if it’s not intentional you are kind of rubbing it in their faces, and should expect them to see you as just a big bag with a $ sign on it, the same way you may see them as annoying flies buzzing around you when you treat them as such.

It’s so much better when you treat people as human beings – believe it or not, as cynical as you may be, they will reciprocate. We all basically want the same thing, so I prefer to try to relate to people.

The man could see that I was a lost cause in terms of becoming a potential customer. But he hung around for another few minutes without any more tea-pitches. He honestly told me that it’s hard to make sales these days because tourism has been down a lot since the revolution, and he wasn’t sure about the current future of the country.

I’ve felt very safe here and think fear to visit is unfounded (but sure, avoid one particular square downtown if there are large demonstrations), so as he was getting up to leave I assured him that I have a lot of friends that I can tell to come and visit, and I’m very confident that even if there are troubled times now, Egypt will be a popular destination for many people again soon, insha’allah.

He smiled, shook my hand and walked off, and now I felt that I had really earned sitting for a couple more minutes to take in this view.

Walking up to the gate

As large as it was from that bench, it was still not that close. I had another 20 minutes before I’d make it to the entrance itself. I decided not to take out my camera again until I made it there and because of that nobody else came up to me. I continued to be pretty much ignored, as any local would have been.

I started to see some other tourists walking across the road, and they were wearing light clothes with a backpack, baseball cap and Gucci sunglasses and even the way they were walking (poor posture and with their hands clutched to their bags) was just simply far too out of synch with Egypt. A couple of Egyptians tried to get their attention with “Hello! Hello!”

After the avenue, there is a turn into a dusty side road which I took and started to see some camels and men sitting by taxis, and several more shops. I thought the area would have a lot of western restaurants and hotels, but the path I took was actually pretty standard for what I had seen in Cairo nearly all the way to the gate.

Since I didn’t start snapping photos every few metres (a quick search on Flickr would show same point I was standing in, all the way, if I really needed to get nostalgic later), I actually made it all the way to the gate without a single person approaching me as they were doing for other tourists.

This is a stark contrast to all the horror stories people had told me of being drowned by touts who won’t leave you alone. I definitely saw a few people looking like they had nothing to do and perhaps waiting for a good opportunity, but I didn’t look like that opportunity – not even enough to get a glance from what I noticed.

20130115_163925It seems only a couple of tourists actually walk this way in though because I saw a couple of very comfortable looking air conditioned buses waiting nearby with some foreigners sitting in them, and they had been driven right up to the gate to avoid all Egyptians who don’t have guards’ approval to enter.

As far as I was concerned they missed a very important part of Egypt by getting dropped off here. Then again, they didn’t have as much of a problem as I did to avoid the camel and horse shit! ;)

When I made it to the gate, my “mission” was complete and it was OK for me to go back to tourist mode, so I snapped the right-hand side photo at the start of the article and one of myself with the Sphinx and pyramid behind me. This of course instantly revealed me for the tourist I am and a bunch of people came up to me.

This time they did use English though – which is OK, as they’d be much more experienced with foreigners than most Egyptians and see through my “camouflage” in an instant.

Going with a similar story to before, I said in Arabic that I am just here waiting for a friend, and I’ve been to the pyramids a million times already. This fib meant that I could at least stand and stare for a couple of minutes. Someone with pretty battered clothes came up to me and said that he “works for the government” and is also a guard and can get me in no problem. There were uniformed guards there, so I wasn’t buying this.

I thanked him for the offer, but I’ve been here a million times and am just waiting for a friend to finishI live here in Egypt you see. On he went with a smile. A couple of others would come up and be a bit persistent, but I stuck to my story and a few minutes later it was clear to everyone that I wasn’t going to bite the bait, and I actually had my little space at the gate and the most touristy place in this part of the world, all to myself uninterrupted.

After I had appreciated a view of the sun heading in to set with the fantastic panorama, it was time to go home. I didn’t go inside today because this journey wasn’t about getting any further than this gate.

I walked past all the guys standing by their taxis, out of the dirt road and back to the avenue. I had to wait 5 minutes, but a taxi came by and since I went back into Egyptian mode, I got into the front seat rather than the back, told him where I was going in Arabic, and he activated the meter without thinking twice. The path we took home was different and for the first half of it, I could see the pyramids without interruption. Seemed appropriate that now they are in easy view!

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I’ve had a great time in Cairo, and most of it has involved walking around and talking to random people. I haven’t visited any Ancient Egyptian sites, as Modern Egypt is already giving me plenty to keep me busy!

Now I’m heading off to Aswan and will begin my non-air-travel journey all along the Nile until I reach the sea. Of course, look out for video updates to see how I’m doing :)

I hope you enjoyed this long post – let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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  • http://twitter.com/giuliaccia Giulia

    Wow I never thought of walking all the way to the Pyramids. Unfortunately I have to say as a woman it wouldn’t be so easy to blend in and avoid harassment (maybe wearing a hijab would help, but I am not going to do that!)

    Anyway great job with the conversations you had on the way!
    Shar3 el Haram is definitely a very interesting, authentic experience :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I met an American lady (and a Christian) wearing a hijab, and she did an excellent job of blending in because of that. To be totally honest, if I was a foreign lady in Egypt, I’d just wear one. Not that big a deal. It’s not like the clothing that covers faces, which I do find degrading and hard to get used to. I don’t even notice hijabs any more though.

      Then again my own appearance is of little consequence to me. I am after all sporting this porn tache right now :)

      • http://jadenomadtravelwear.com/ Karen Chow

        I was going to say that about your moustache but you beat me to it! :) I think if I did travel to Egypt as a tourist I would wear a hijab, but not if I went there for work. I definitely try to dress poor when I’m traveling, way fewer hassles. Sounds like a great trip so far, enjoy!

  • djvl

    The moustache actually really works for you!

    I thought it was really interesting when you described how the second man you met asked you about your religion right away. It would be great if you wrote a post devoted to your impression of the effect of fundamentalism on Egypt, or maybe just on your experience in Egypt, from your secular point of view.

    Really enjoying your blogging on Egypt so far!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Fundamentalism is a topic I don’t want to touch with a 10 metre pole. :)

      I had enough fundamentalist Americans on my case with 2 posts being critical about America, so any mentions I have about religion over the coming months are going to be uncontroversial, positive or if vaguely critical, then buried under layers of euphemisms in the interests of self preservation.

      Other people write about these things better than me anyway.

  • David

    I really liked this post! I felt i was there every step of the way. I really like how you convey the reality of life in Cairo. Being from Mexico, everything you wrote in the post rang true to me.
    I am looking forward to the videos!

  • http://www.facebook.com/fritz.larco Fritz-gérald Larco

    Great post. Thank you for the details during your journey, it helps us be in your shoes!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000704616791 Edmund Yong

    I’m curious how much you spend daily you know for food ? Is’t expensive?

    great job:)

  • http://twitter.com/speaklikeaking Sky Kok

    “Are you Muslim or Christian?” or “What is your religion?”

    You get that question in Malaysia and Indonesia as well especially from taxi drivers. And you are right, you may not want to present the fact that you are an atheist.

    Anyway, nice experience you have in Cairo.

  • http://www.traveluniversally.com/ Suzzane Lobo

    I am amazed by knowing the distance between Nile and the Pyramids, and you covered that much distance on walk. That’s just terrific. I am curious to watch your videos of the walk journey! BTW I have enjoyed a lot the Frogger game! Thanks

  • custom_model

    I love reading about your techniques of blending in, how people react to certain behaviours, and how certain things mark you so obviously as a tourist in different places. Looking forward to reading more about these kinds of things in future posts and future destinations! This kind of social insight is really interesting.

    I’m in Brazil and carry myself in a very confident, non-touristy way, but, I’m blond and in a city where almost nobody else is, so I stand out everywhere, no matter what I do!

    • emk1024

      Years ago, I took a trip to Italy with a teacher who had lived there for many years. On day, he stopped us in the middle of the sidewalk, and said, “Look down this street. Tell me who the tourists are, and who the locals are.”

      After about 20 seconds of staring, the tourists just “popped out” of the street. They moved differently and dressed differently, but the biggest clue was their eyes. Locals look at where they’re going. Tourists stare up at buildings. Locals are bored and busy. Tourists are always a bit confused and aimless.

      Once you look for it, it’s really pretty dramatic.

      • custom_model

        That’s kind of my point; that even when I’m walking down a street that I’ve been down a thousand times, I still look foreign.

  • Alamanach

    This post was awesome. I’ve been on walks like this– not in Egypt, but in other places. It really is the only way to see a country. An air-conditioned tourist bus, by comparison, is like seeing it all from the inside of a sterile glass tube. People don’t know what they’re missing.

    “My uncomfortable shoes, and sweating a lot from having way more clothes
    than I’d prefer for a sunny day like this (but a t-shirt only would have
    given me away as a foreigner) meant that it was time to just sit and
    look at it, since I knew things may be more chaotic near the gate.”

    You do look a little bundled-up. Is it possible to buy a couple of shirts from a local clothing shop to match your mustache? They probably wouldn’t cost much. Also, you mentioned that you cut your hair shorter– I’m curious; did you mean that you yourself cut it, or did you go to a local barber? I ask because this is the kind of pen-in-the-breast-pocket sort subtle touch that I mentioned on your previous post. For ordinary guys like you and me, a haircut is just a haircut, but in truth, an Afghan cuts hair differently from a Thai, who is different from an Egyptian, who is different from a Cuban, etc. If some local barber (one who ordinarily doesn’t cut foreigners’ hair) gives you a haircut, it’s another thing that will work on a subconscious level with people.

    The mustache, the clothes, the haircut (I imagine you’re waving a lit cigarette around from time to time)– you keep this up, and you my find yourself dealing with locals who refuse to believe you’re from Ireland, pigmentation be damned. I bet you $5 you can do it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shaimaa.makhlouf Shaimaa Makhlouf

    WOW…..I’m really happy to see his post …I’m Egyptian & believe it or not I work in that building on the left in your Photo of the Pyramids :-)

    I really hope you enjoy your time in Egypt and yes, people like you are always welcome in our beloved country. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance during your stay in Egypt I’ll be more than delight to help.

  • Najib

    Great experience … Cairo is one of the best tourism sites in the world, Chears =)

  • http://sivers.org sivers

    Ahhh… one of the best travelogues I’ve ever read from you. Thanks so much for this long and detailed version. Really felt I was there. Absolutely love your experiments and insights.

  • Arale

    I´ve been there twice, and you´re absolutely right: there is the other Egypt to be seen if you just give it some time. Wonderful vivid picture of what it is being there…. greetings from Spain

  • travellingforfun

    Great story. Quite a bit of walking but congrats on managing to be in disguise the whole time. Even with a moustache I think the sweat from all the clothes would have given me away