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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Return to Egypt 10.XII.2008 06:05
When I was around sixteen, I went to Egypt on a trip to Egypt organised by one of my high school teachers which, quite frankly, I barely remember. Since I'm travelling in the Middle East, I've decided to enter Egypt again, this time as a backpacker and not a package tourist. Although I still remember some things about that trip back in high school, they're not about Egypt itself - it's mostly about hanging out with friends and the stupid stuff we did, not the sites or the people or the culture. To be honest, I don't really count any of he travelling I did as a teenager, because it really isn't the same; you just stayed with your family or group seeing what you were told to see (and not really understanding it even if it was worthwhile), the only thing you got out of being bragging rights about the places you've been. Even though I've visited almost every country in Europe, I don't feel like I've been to cities like Paris, Vienna and Madrid at all; I simply didn't know what I was doing. To be honest, I feel the exact same way about books I read at that age - I read Ulysses in Grade 12, and when I re-read it in university I realised that I could not have missed the point more completely; I get the feeling I'll feel that way again on the next reading.

Visiting anywhere as a package tourist is absolutely horrible, and honestly, I can't fathom why people do it. I suspect it's the feeling of security you get - you never have to find your own transportation or book your own hotel, and there's no worrying about being ripped off because your tour company has already made sure you've overpaid maximally for everything in advance. Moreover, there's the security of being isolated from those unpredictable, backwards cultures that are totally unlike the west. They don't have marked prices or bus schedules or anything - frankly, I don't know how they can live that way. Though that's a bit exaggerated, I honestly think this is why so many travel in tours or not at all - they're afraid of the unfamiliar, of anything that doesn't work exactly the way it does back home, which is a shame because travelling is really, really easy. It's cheap too, because the kinds of rates package tours quote bear no relation to the reality on the ground. Everyone who's 'always wanted to travel' but hasn't for whatever excuse should just try it, even on a quick two week trip, to see how easy and comfortable it is.

The main reason arranging things for yourself, even if it is a hassle sometimes, is the fact that it lets you interact with people on an everyday level. The process of buying your tickets, of getting seated on the bus, and of chatting to the people next to you is a great way to experience a culture in an environment where your tourism is irrelevant, because with the major bus companies you're just another passenger, paying the same amount as everyone else. This is how you learn the little hand gestures and habits that help you fit in with, and feel comfortable in, the local culture, and this is where you can actually have conversations with the regular people. In Iran, as I've written, I met several atheists, a gay guy, a Baha'i and many others - could this possibly have happened in a tour group? Moreover, travelling alone allows me to see sites that others might have no interest in whatsoever and, conversely, avoid things that most people find interesting but I wouldn't - I fully intend to explore some of the less-visited bits of Cairo because I like simply walking in urban environments, a kind of unstructured, pointless activity that many, especially in such a polluted and noisy city, would find extremely unpleasant.

Travelling on a tour bus is like a kind of self-imposed cultural apartheid. You travel in your own vehicles on your own road system. The locals exist for you only in two capacities: as facilitators of your access to sites and photo opportunities, or as performers that offer stereotypical glimpses of 'experiencing another culture,' such as Bedouin dancing shows. They are, essentially, either servants or zoo animals. Frankly, I've never been comfortable with these 'cultural' events, because they feel like you're treating people as the object of tourism, but I guess a lot of people like them because they think different cultures are mostly defined by their clothes, music and other funny habits. It's fun to watch them from a distance, but not to try to function from within them, trying to buy food or get across town with the locals. We want everything to be like it is at home - even though we'll describe our intrepid travels to people back home. The epitome of this are trips to resorts in the Caribbean, which are fine - just don't pretend you've done anything except visit a little slice of Canada with better weather. The isolation from anything local is total; there's no aspect of travel to it at all.

That's why I'm glad to be in Egypt again; although I've only been in Dahab so far, relaxing in the extremely laid-back atmosphere of this little tourist town, I think it'll be interesting to see how different my experiences of the Pyramids, Luxor and Abu Simbel are - and I'll realise just how much I missed the last time I was here. Now, honestly, package tourists fill me with nothing but disdain, with their haughty attitudes, constant complaints about the littlest things, and total cluelessness about the places they're visiting, though they are cash cows for the locals (one interesting thing I've noticed is that for Middle Easterners, this kind of tourism is their dream: they would never go backpacking or alone, but as part of a luxurious tour that involved lots of partying, Western standards, and total isolation from the Chinese or Indians or whoever. I guess every culture's the same.) I'm going to try to take local transport to some of the less-visited temples between the smaller cities, which the police frown upon but I think is possible. Hopefully, it'll be a very different trip from the one I took earlier as I make my way southward down the Nile.

Dahab, Egypt Eg

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