On the Road in Egypt with Joanie Maro: Top Experiences in Egypt

Editor’s Note: The intrepid Egyptologist and solo world traveler, Joanie Maro, has graciously offered to share her passion, travel tips, and  experiences as a woman traveling in Egypt. Over the next few months, on ArchaeoAdventures’ blog we will be featuring women travelers’ personal experiences traveling in the Middle East and North Africa. You can read these posts on our blog or on our monthly newsletter. If you have not yet subscribed for our free monthly travel newsletter, we invite you to sign up at the bottom of our homepage.

I often call Europe “the wading pool of world exploration.” A city like Cairo isn’t the wading pool. It’s the deep end — and someone turned on the jets. If you can swim, the water is great. I implore you to take the plunge, ladies.

~ Joanie Maro: writer, teacher, archaeologist, and self-proclaimed travel addict

The first question people ask me when I tell them I am going to Egypt is: “Is it safe?” As a solo, 24-year-old woman traveler, I barely look the part of a seasoned African explorer and I am sure my small frame does little to help people’s projections of my safety. Yet, I am confident in the safety of Egypt and my ability to navigate within it. When people ask me this question, I am immediately shocked and sometimes a bit infuriated. I want to yell at them: “Of course Egypt is safe! It’s amazing! Where are you hearing this nonsense?”

Since the revolution in 2011, the country has been struggling to find its feet and rebuild tourism. Egypt still fights international media attention

Enjoying the Pyramids by camel. Photo: Joanie Maro.
Enjoying the Pyramids by camel. Photo: Joanie Maro.

warning travelers of unsafe regions and impending terrorist attacks. While I agree there was a short time when I would not have recommended travel, I can confidently say that, from personal experience, this time is long gone. Any fears you have of Egyptian unrest are unwarranted and I urge you, fellow solo lady travelers, to go and see for yourself just what you are missing out on by not going now. I want to use this post as an opportunity to let you know that Egypt is a safe place for women to travel. Also, I will share some of the amazing experiences that I never would have had if I had listened to the concerns of my American friends and family.

This ingrained fear many western women possess about Egyptian travel was never present for me, because I have always been in love with Egypt. Ever since I could first comprehend having a career, I knew I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I studied Egyptology at university and went on to work actively in the field. The first time I visited Egypt was in November 2014; I have been back twice since then. The country, with its unparalleled geographic variety, ancient and modern culture, and hospitable people, stole my heart. Egypt was a milestone for me in many ways, as I had fantasized about it since I was in diapers and always felt a deep emotional connection. All of my expectations for this vast country were exceeded. However, for ladies who don’t have my background, I will do my best to convince you to visit Egypt and help you let go of any fears you may harbor. Egypt has given me so much; I believe it is my responsibility to spread the word about its greatness.

When thinking about traveling to Egypt the first advice I would give someone in regards to safety, and to get the most out of your trip, is to hire a good local guide and a driver or join an awesome tour group, like ArchaeoAdventures. Keep in mind that, although it is safe, you are going to a non-western country and should adopt Egypt’s traditions and standards as much as possible. Dress modestly, girls, and this isn’t a form of repression – don’t view it like that. Learn how to bargain. Learn some Arabic, you will be surprised how much light you can bring to an Egyptian’s day by attempting to understand their language. Don’t be intimated by stares. If you haven’t traveled outside of the U.S. before, just keep in mind that staring is a general habit of everyone else on the globe. Most of the time it isn’t intended as rude or lecherous. Baksheesh (tip) when necessary, or even when not necessary, remember that the American dollar goes a very long way in Egypt and that the majority of Egyptians make their meager living off of tourist tips. Keep valuable possessions close. I have never had a bad experience with theft, but I never risk it. Don’t be afraid to kill a cockroach in your hotel (usually there is just one and it is all a part of the experience). Lastly, enjoy the ride. Egypt and its people will welcome you with open arms and friendly faces. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be aware of yourself, your actions, and your surroundings. Remember, different isn’t bad it is just different.

Now I want to share some of the amazing experiences I’ve had in Egypt. I can’t imagine a world where I did not have access to these memories, a world where I listened to everyone back home tell me not to go because it was too “dangerous”. But how do I write about just one experience when they are all incredible? I have been to many regions (though not all, yet) in Egypt. I want to write a little about my experiences in Cairo, Middle Egypt, Luxor, and Aswan in particular. I had these great experiences because I didn’t listen to the media-induced fear around Egypt, but I wanted to see the country for myself. Alhamdulillah (Arabic for “thanks be to God”) I did.

Cairo

I always start my trips by arriving at the Cairo airport (as is customary). My friend Mohamed meets me at the airport and my hired driver whisks us

Alone by the Great Pyramid. Photo: Joanie Maro.
Alone by the Great Pyramid. Photo: Joanie Maro.

down the hectic streets of Cairo to the island of Zamalek, what I term the Manhattan of Cairo, because of its western and wealthy ambiance. Egyptian driving can be an extremely frightening experience to the unaccustomed passenger, as the Cairo motorways are the most chaotic I have ever seen. Please, have faith in the drivers; they know what they are doing. I have never been in an accident, nor witnessed one. Sit back, relax, and pretend you’re at an amusement park. After arrival, I immediately go to the corner alcohol shop (yes, you can buy beer in Egypt) and get my customary Stella beer and fresh dates from the street stall down the road. I enjoy these snacks sitting on a curb, watching the people and cars zoom past me at alarming speed and taking in the smell of un-smogged car exhaust and garbage that wafts through the air. Sometimes, I get the opportunity to find a street vendor selling roasted sweet potatoes. They taste of sugar and smoke. I remember the sensual sensory experience that accompanied my first Egyptian sweet potato, an explosion of coal-fire and candy on my tongue. It is these simple pleasures and wonders that really stand out for me.

Every time, I have been to Egypt, I make it a point to walk the streets of Cairo, alone, at night, drenched in the light of the neon signs and surrounded by the noise of a bustling city awakening to the moon. The city breathes life into me with every step I take. While tourists are scarce, there are masses of locals everywhere. The city is absolutely teeming. I have never seen so many people on the sidewalks and I marvel at the waves of multi-colored hijabs I pass with every step. I remember being taken aback by just how fashion forward Muslim women in Egypt were on my first trip. It was my first sign that what the media tells us about Muslim women being oppressed by their religion is wrong. These women, with their thickly penciled in eyebrows, darkly lined eyes, and brightly colored headscarves, clearly have the freedom to be creative in their style. The last thing on my mind when walking alone, in Cairo, at night, is whether I will be safe. I know I am safe. I suppose one could think this is ignorant, but I know enough Egyptians, enough people that have traveled to Egypt, and have traveled there enough myself, to know that you don’t need to treat Egypt with any special care. I often call Europe “the wading pool of world exploration.” A city like Cairo isn’t the wading pool. It’s the deep end — and someone turned on the jets. If you can swim, the water is great. I implore you to take the plunge, ladies.

While in Cairo, make sure to be an antiquarian for a day and visit the literal hoard of ancient artifacts at the Egyptian Museum. I have been there 3 times and still have not even scratched the surface of what is stored there. That’s the beauty of exploring the museum; you can go and conduct your own personal treasure hunt. Also, it is your obligation as an Egyptian tourist to visit the pyramids and marvel at just how huge they actually are. I have had the opportunity to be alone on the Giza Plateau due to lack of tourists, and I will never forget the sound of the warm Sahara wind dancing off the dunes and singing me a song, the soft crunch of sand and rock under my shoes, and the distant cry of a camel, as I stood alone in front of the Great Pyramid, watching the sun set in a blaze of orange and red behind it. If you have the chance, make sure to explore Giza from the back of a camel too. Trust me, the pyramids definitely look better from the back of camel.

 Middle Egypt

The ancient Egyptian’s world revolved around the idea of Ma’at. Ma’at means order and balance. The ancient Egyptians attempted to maintain order

Exploring at Amarna. Photo: Joanie Maro.
Exploring at Amarna. Photo: Joanie Maro.

through vanquishing chaos in every aspect of their lives, from art to politics. Without the maintenance of order, or Ma’at, the ancient Egyptians believed that the universe would cease to exist and that chaotic forces would reign. The evolution of this black and white ideology is easy to see when you take in the geography of Egypt, and nowhere is this clearer then in Middle Egypt. The land is a stark contrast between the fertile Nile valley and the barren Sahara desert. Juxtaposed directly next to each other, the black Nile silt ends abruptly with arid sand. It was an incredible experience for me, as an Egyptologist, to stand at the birthplace of such a fundamental ancient belief system and watch in the distance as the Egyptian desert melted away into the sky. Further away from the Nile, I recommend you visit the site of Amarna in present day Minya. Amarna is the ancient city of the so-called heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten and his revolutionary new religion. It was at this site that I learned just how accommodating and kind the Egyptian people are. I visited the site for the first time this past April, and there were 0 tourists. It was a particularly scorching day and by noon my guide, Hamdi, and I were exhausted. One of the site guards invited Hamdi and I over to his shelter. The roof was thatched palm fronds and the walls were mud brick. Through a resulting conversation I learned that this man worked a total of 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, to make the equivalent of 100 USD a month. He had nothing to give to me, but yet he invited me back to the shade of his shelter and offered Hamdi and I some cool water to drink, a few berries to eat, and a break from the sunlight. This is, across the board, the Egyptian way. They are a very hospitable people and I wish they could be known for that and not for terrorism.

Luxor

I have only been to Luxor once, so far, and it holds many wonders in its grasp, like the feeling of being embraced by the golden cliffs of the Valley of

With Samar at the Valley of the Nobles. Photo: Joanie Maro.
With Samar at the Valley of the Nobles. Photo: Joanie Maro.

the Kings, the rural towns and the screech of a donkey cart, dirt roads lined with papyrus, and ancient temples that tower over you with such fierce majesty that you can’t help but be intimidated. However, for me, the highlight of this trip was when I met my female guide, Samar, a woman who transformed my life and my confidence. I did not feel insecure by not having a male guide, being a woman myself, in fact, quite the opposite. Samar was a proud, fierce, protective, and opinionated woman. She adopted me immediately as her little sister, friend, and confidant and I squeezed every ounce of knowledge she possessed out of her, knowledge of her people, of her country, and of their history. Having knowledge of a Muslim country imparted on to you by a young Muslim woman is a rare opportunity that few people receive. She made me realize that these women, who don their hijabs and conservative clothing, are not repressed, not in the slightest. They are lionesses and deserve to be seen by the western world as such. I will never forget the week I spent with her in Luxor. From that point forward, my experience as a woman in Egypt was empowering. Samar inspired me to be more like Egyptian women. I hope all you future travelers will be too. Make sure to get to know your female guides as much as possible and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Welcome, as I did, the enlightenment they are sure to pass on to you.

Aswan

Most people, as they should, go to Aswan to marvel at the grandeur of Abu Simbel, where Ramses (II) the Great built a colossal sandstone temple. I

Abu Simbel. Photo: Joanie Maro.
Abu Simbel. Photo: Joanie Maro.

woke up at 3am and took a police convoy down to this southern temple. Don’t be put off by the term police convoy, ladies, you are safe and secure. Enjoy the vast expanse of arid desert that connects Egypt’s southern frontier to the Sudan. Back in Aswan; take a felucca ride to Elephantine Island keeping an eye out for the Middle Kingdom tombs that pockmark the cliffs of Qubbet el-Hawa. Then watch the sun set behind the sand dunes as a thousand diamonds appear on the Nile surface. During my first time in Aswan, I made it a point to stay present and mindful every step of the way, it is in the small moments, like watching the sunset on a felucca, or the sunrise as you enter Abu Simbel, that you find the true majesty of Egypt.

Those are just a few of my experiences in Egypt that I have the pleasure to share with you in this post, and, trust me, there are many more. I hope that I inspired you ladies to travel to Egypt or helped to alleviate some of the anxiety you may have of Egypt not being safe. I must say one more time — I urge you to go, ladies, to travel to Egypt. Please, let the spirit of adventure into your soul and drink in every ounce of wonder that Egypt holds in its cup. It holds a lot of wonder. And it tastes amazing.

unnamedAbout The Author: Joanie Maro is a writer, teacher, archaeologist, and self-proclaimed travel addict. She has worked abroad as an English teacher and archaeologist in numerous countries throughout the Middle East, Europe, and South America. Joanie has only ever been completely sure about two things in her life. First, is her complete unfailing love for Egypt, both modern and ancient. Second is her lifelong ability and fondness for writing. She is excited to finally be able to combine these two passions to create this blog post for ArchaeoAdventures.

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