Category: Egypt

Reminder: All Strangers Are Kin

No, really, this is the last post ever! As most of you know, my book All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World is coming June 14, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Throw me your email address, and I’ll deliver you a handful of essential, entertaining bulletins about the book and events surrounding it. (You can bet there’ll be some really good food.)

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Counterintuitive Travel Tips #7 and #8: Taxis and Sleep

Two final bits of contrariness, both terribly sensible.

Tip #7: Don’t ask the price of a taxi before you get in.

Guidebooks always say “Agree on a price before you get in a taxi.” I think I’ve even written this myself. But nothing marks you as an out-of-towner like asking a cabbie, “How much to…?” This makes the cabbie’s eyeballs flash dollar signs, just like in the cartoons.

So your one job as a visitor is to find out in advance how much a taxi should cost (ask at your hotel, or ask your Airbnb host, or whatever). Then just get in the cab, say hello in at least a loose approximation of the local language and state your destination. Pay the known fare when you get out (or, in known antagonistic-cabbie towns, get out first and hand the money through the window). This is what locals do, and it works!

I don't have any photos of evil cabbies. Instead, enjoy these perfectly sweet triciclo guys in the Yucatan. Maybe taxi drivers only turn bad when they get engines?

Even if you’re in a metered-taxi town, it’s nice to get a ballpark estimate, for peace of mind.

(Why are taxi drivers the world over so prone to unscrupulousness? They are their own strange tribe. May the honest and generous ones multiply!)

Tip #8: Sleep now, not when you’re dead.

A very concrete aspect of Tip #4 (“be lazy”). Again, you’re on vacation – why tire yourself out? Take plenty of naps. Observe the siesta culture, if there is one.

There is nothing more delicious than waking up in a strange place. (Freya Stark, by way of Matthew Teller, says it even better.)

More practically, the better rested you are, the less likely you are to have those little streetcorner meltdowns, where you’re hungry and tired and just can’t make a decision, and suddenly your travel partner is looking like the worst beast on earth, just because he/she is also hungry and tired and can’t make a decision.

One person I know calls this the Death Mope. The Death Mope is easily avoided through adequate rest. (And carrying some peanuts in your bag–another tip of mine. But there’s nothing counterintuitive about not starving.)

Me enjoying Greek culture and avoiding Death Mope. (Not-so-flattering-but-oh-well photo by Peter. I didn't realize till after the trip that my very ugly bra was always visible through the very large sleeves of that dress.)

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #6: The Water

The first five tips (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5) had a lot to do with how to plan your trip (or not plan it). Now we’re getting into the more nitty-gritty on-the-ground stuff.

Drink the water.

I had written a righteous screed about how all guidebooks are just covering their asses when they tell you not to drink the water, and of course you can drink it, if normal middle-class people drink it too.

Then I went to Fes, Morocco, where everyone drinks tap water…and I got sick.

But even so, I believe that tap water is often not so horrible. If people who could afford to buy bottled water drink from the tap, you can certainly brush your teeth with it. You can even swig a bit in the night, when you realize you’ve run out of bottled water. You can have a little ice in your drink.

Peter drinking from the (very large, public) tap in Comitan de Dominguez, Mexico. Later we drank the water in Villahermosa too, sin problemas.

It’s with cumulative exposure that your system freaks out (or mine does; yours may be different–that’s my CYA). I didn’t get sick in Fes until about a week in. My threshold for Cairo tap water is about four days.

Contrary to logic, the worse the water is, the better off you are. If all the restaurants use bottled water, this means your ice is almost certainly made from purified water. Basically, there are very few situations in which you have to do that prissy “no ice, please” thing.

The reason I’m even being so macho about tap water is that plastic bottles are the world’s third-largest evil, after plastic bags and Halliburton, and I feel like a failure every time I buy bottled water. If you’re not feeling like risking it, I really recommend a Steripen. I just got one this summer–it’s fantastic. It has cut down on my water-risk-taking and makes me feel like a magician every time I use it. (But I recommend rechargeable batteries–it was due to battery fail that I was in the unfortunate Fes situation.)

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #4: Be lazy

Tip #3 was “Go where the tourists are”–to which I add:

…But skip the big sights.

Or, more precisely, skip anything that involves standing in line for more than, oh, 10 minutes. Also consider skipping most things that involve trudging around in the blazing sun.

By this logic, you might miss the Empire State Building. Or worse: the Pyramids in Egypt! This is pretty harsh—but going to the Pyramids in 90-degree heat, only to be chased around by camel drivers, is a recipe for hating Egypt forever.

Even after living in Egypt, I only got around to appreciating the Pyramids for the first time ever last fall, when it was a balmy 80 degrees, and thanks to everyone being scared away by the revolution, I didn’t have to push my way past mobs of underdressed Russian package tourists and squadrons of camel touts.

(Theoretically, the “hide in the mob of tourists” logic of Tip #3 should work at the Pyramids, as a way of avoiding the souvenir vendors and camel touts, but somehow the number of hustlers magically expands to match the number of tourists at what feels like a 16:1 ratio in favor of the hustlers.)

Just about the acceptable level of tourists at the Pyramids, fall 2011.

Anyway, you’re on vacation. Why would you spend it standing around waiting to see the Mona Lisa? Those mega-museums and those impressive tall buildings – they’ll be there a very long time. You’ll probably have another chance to see them, on a less-busy day. Right now – enjoy your time off, and just wander.

Unless, of course, you wake up freakishly early because of jet lag, and it’s raining. That might be a great time to go to the Louvre.

(If you’re thinking I’m a terrible cynic about the Pyramids, consider that no less a terrible cynic than Anthony Bourdain went to Cairo and skipped a trip to Giza. Instead, he had a nice boat ride with my excellent friend Hassan.

Hassan is a great guide, and he says the Pyramids drive him and all his clients crazy, and he would love to see the system improved. Here’s my post on the subject from earlier this year. Any advice?)