Guidebook writing has been my bread and butter for a decade, but a lot of what I’ve learned about how to travel–how to ensure a good trip, or salvage a seemingly bad one–has no place in a guide.
This is my collected wisdom (or at least the contrarian part of it). It’s looking like I’ve got about eight of these bad boys for you. Enjoy–and travel well!
Go to the bad part of town.
Right, you don’t want to get pistol-whipped in some ghetto in Caracas. But in most parts of the world, the neighborhood your guidebook warns you against is actually not terribly crime-ridden, and it’s the most interesting part.
Rich parts of cities all look the same—Gucci and Vuitton and ladies-who-lunch. Hipsterized areas, with their Edison bulbs and wood paneling and handmade this-and-that, are a little better, but still suffer a bit of sameness.
Bad parts are where the variations really come in. Who are the immigrants to this city? Do people drink in the middle of the day? What’s that song blaring from all the corner stores? Are the nice things a culture says about itself still true?
“Bad” is relative, of course. Amsterdam’s “bad” part—the Bijlmer—is absurdly nice, a ghastly Le Corbusier-inspired mini-city that’s been rehabbed. Its history reveals some inconsistencies with the Dutch regard for tolerance, but it also shows the practical, problem-solving side of the culture.
Cairo’s “bad” neighborhood of Shubra is just very shabby—but not terribly dangerous. The threatening-sounding City of the Dead is really a surprisingly mellow place, with un-dead stuff like a post office and power lines.
If you’re worried about crime, take the relative view. If you’re an American reading this, you probably already deal with crime rates the rest of the world thinks are intolerable. And you’re less likely to be a victim of touristy crime (pickpocketing, scams, etc) if you go where the tourists aren’t.
“Not to get into salt-of-the-earth cliches,” Peter chimes in, “but you meet nicer people in middle-class and poor areas.” And the point of travel is to meet people, right?
Ah, just as the blog was almost happening in real time, I found this in my Drafts folder. A little treat from the winter Egypt trip. It all makes me a bit nostalgic. They have bad taxidermy here in Beirut, but not so much of the other attractions.
Downtown Cairo is one of the world’s more nonsensical shopping districts. Every other store is selling shoes. The ones that aren’t selling shoes are selling either lavishly embroidered galabiyyas or somewhat shocking lingerie. If you wander off the main streets, you wind up in an area where all the shops sell prosthetic limbs.
I didn’t want to take a picture of the lingerie, because it seemed like too much of an obvious conversation-starter for any random dude on the sidewalk, but here’s something nice for the gentlemen:
It’s gotten a little crazier since the revolution, as the police aren’t out to keep the sidewalk vendors in line. They’ve gone nuts downtown. It makes it very hard to walk, but I have to give props to the guys who sell men’s clothing on Talaat Harb at night. I saw one stand in the middle of traffic, forcing cars to stop, while he unpacked a bale of made-in-China Versice jeans. Occupy for ad-hoc capitalism!
More prosaically, it’s easier than ever to buy a headscarf. And women are wearing them double- and triple-ply, carefully selected to match their outfits. Haven’t seen such color-coordinating since middle school. Or felt so totally uncool.
Competition has forced shop displays to get more outlandish. Or at least that’s how I’m rationalizing something like this:
And this might be explained by the fact that it was getting close to Halloween. Or maybe not.
I read a while ago (I believe in Max Rodenbeck’s great Cairo: The City Victorious) that when Cairo was at its peak in the early 20th century, the most elite downtown shops would display, for instance, a single perfect shoe. Now the strategy is reversed. When in doubt, put as much out on display as possible.
But when a shop is so bursting with love, as this one is, how can you not love it back? Same goes for Cairo, you see.
It’s a great list, but in the heart of the Middle East, you’re dealing with dry heat and more-conservative modesty norms. So I thought I’d share what I usually pack for a Middle East trip. Let’s begin with a parable:
I once saw a Russian woman in hot pants at the Pyramids. First, I had an urge to grab her ass. Then I got heatstroke just looking at her.
Moral: There are two very good reasons to keep your skin covered in the Middle East. First, of course, is it’s just polite, and even normal people like myself (er) can respond strangely to the sight of naked flesh if they don’t see it often. Second, that sun will kill you.
I tend to spend most of my time in cities, so I want to look dressier, rather than sporty. But most of my wardrobe can adapt fine to a day in the desert or a hike up Mount Sinai.
1. Long-sleeve, button-front silk shirts.
I used to pick these up at thrift stores all the time, and I still do occasionally find one, but I have less time to comb the racks. I haven’t found a reliable first-hand source for them yet, but I always keep an eye out.
Silk is really sturdy and super-lightweight. It dries in a second, if you do a sink wash, and it’s hardy enough to handle whatever they do at the drop-off laundry. Buy dark colors, so it’s not see-through, and/or patterns (to hide stains).
If you can’t find silk, then button-front lightweight cotton shirts are fine. Either way, you want them to be longish–hanging over half your butt, if possible, and the sleeves should be full length. You can roll the sleeves up to your elbows, or keep them buttoned at your wrist if you’re in a very conservative situation, or cold.
2. Skinny ankle-length cotton or nylon pants with pockets. Contrary to Celeste’s advice, I think tight clothing is A-OK. It makes you look more city-fied. And it’s not violating any modesty norms in the ME, contrary to what you might think.
I wasn’t planning on my super-skinny cropped cargo pants from J. Crew to be a travel essential, and now I wish I’d bought two pairs.
They’re very tight at the ankle, so they don’t slide down when I’m using a squat toilet. And the pockets are super-useful. I have other ankle-length pants, in nifty nylon-cotton blends, but they always lose because they don’t have pockets.
Typical capris, which end right below the knee or mid-calf, don’t do it for me. That exposes too much flesh for my taste. Too much sunburn and ogling potential.
And I wouldn’t go for leggings because, well, they’ve already got plenty of camel toes in the Middle East! (Thank you, ladies and germs! I’ll be here all week.)
3. Linen trousers.
OK, this is as close as I get to the typical desert-explorer look. I have a couple of pairs in brown and slate gray. Side pockets look proper enough (though you have to be careful about change falling out in buses). Linen is sturdy, and its rumpled-ness is somehow acceptable in high society, but you can also hike in them.
I just roll them up a couple of inches before venturing into any sketchy toilet situation.
4. Silver shoes.
You can wear the daggiest orthopedic things, but if they’re silver (or gold), you suddenly look like a fashion queen. These Doc Martens totally rocked in Cairo–nice thick soles so you can slog through muck.
It’s a bonus if your shoes are slip-off: easier to go in and out of mosques.
I also just bought these, from Ecco–not slip-off, but I think will do double-duty for low-level hiking.
5. Sports bras and tank tops. The underpinnings. I’m not at all busty, but I do wear a sturdy bra when I go to Cairo. Young dudes in the street are like those detectors for earthquakes–they’re sensitive to the slightest jiggle.
Honestly, this might be slight overkill on my part–I’m making up for my first time in Cairo, when I actually walked around without a bra, which I wish someone had taken me aside and said, “Ahem.” Instead, some crazed dude grabbed my boob and then practically went skipping off down the street with glee. I think he might’ve felt a little like when I saw the Russian chick in hot pants: Must. Touch. It!!!
On top of a sturdy bra, I wear a very thin cotton tank top that’s very long. This guarantees my shirt isn’t see-through and covers up any gaping between button-front shirt and low-rise pants, or if wind from a bus speeding by blows my shirt up. Right now Uniqlo is making good super-long tank tops. I got some C&C California ones years ago that are nearly threadbare now, but that’s OK, since they’re just an under-layer.
Sort-of 6. Ankle-length skirt, with pockets.
Honestly, I have one of these, and I dutifully pack it every time, but I just can’t quite get on board with it. It’s relatively stylish–linen, tailored, with patch pockets. But it’s just outside the realm of my normal style, and I feel a little too much like Sensible Lady Adventurer when I wear it.
But I’m mentioning it because someone once pointed out a very good reason to wear a skirt while traveling: if you ever have to relieve yourself on the side of a road, perhaps with your whole bus looking on, a skirt gives you a little privacy.
So…just putting it out there.
7. Giant scarf.
Totally agree with Celeste on this. Always have one in your bag. I have a bunch of wonderful silk ones from Syria (sigh), but last year I got a giant (18″ x 84″) not-silk one in Morocco that has turned out to be more useful. It’s a little cozier in a/c situations, and slippery silk is tough as mosque-visit headscarf–this has a little texture so it stays in place.
And a really, really big scarf with distinctive colors can dress up a whole outfit. My Moroccan scarf has gold thread in it. With my shoes, it’s like an ensemble!
I’m just developing this, but I have a nice mid-thigh stretchy tunic dress that I really like, so I tried it out with my little ankle-length pants, and presto–I’m covered up and hip-looking. Or, you know, as hip as it gets these days.
By the by, I totally yoinked this look off the streets of Cairo. Another Cairo-cool-girl standby: tight black long-sleeve top, with whatever crazy top you want over it. Only recommendable in winter, though, as having anything up under your armpits means you’ll have to do laundry sooner.
9. One pearl.
Thanks to Celeste, I have a beautiful one, from Kamoka Pearls. As she said when she gave it to me, it’s great travel jewelry. Like everything, sturdy and lightweight, but also a nice touch of bling.
10. Crunchable brimmed hat.
I’m undoing all my don’t-look-like-a-backpacker effort above, but I swear my brain will melt instantly if I don’t wear a hat. Right now, I have a kind of funky plaid one that I got in Thailand, with about a two-inch brim. Before that I had this funny crochet faux-fedora thing.
Do you have your own old-reliable clothing pieces? I’d love to hear them!
Ah, the Pyramids. Last remaining wonder of the ancient world. Monumental tombs for the pharaohs. Engineering mystery.
And pain in my ass.
I’m not the only one to think this. Every tourist I’ve ever met in Egypt has looked shell-shocked when they mention their trip to the Pyramids.
It shouldn’t be this way. Egypt’s second source of income after foreign aid is tourism, and the Pyramids are the number-one tourist attraction by far. They’ve been grossly mismanaged, probably because Zahi Hawass, ex minister of antiquities, was too busy wearing his silly hat on National Geographic specials to care.
Sorry to be so rancorous about such an important and impressive pile of rocks. They are pretty cool.
This photo sums up the problem of visiting the Pyramids. I didn’t want to take this photo. I didn’t even want to be out in the desert where you have to be to take this photo. But some guy with a camel started chatting me up, and because some days it’s easier to smile than it is to snap and draw the line, and that doesn’t even work anyway, I ended up letting him walk with me, and then of course the next thing I know I’m on the damn camel and we’re tromping out to the photo-op spot.
He was a nice guy, this camel guy. He asked me to write a text message to his German ‘girlfriend.’ He tried to get me my Coke for a reasonable price from the guy selling them from a foam cooler. He had lovely eyelashes. And he asked me for a ridiculous amount of money, even though I had never hired him. I knew that would happen the minute he said hello, but like I said, some days it’s easier to smile.
Anyway, this wasn’t a terrible experience, mostly because I didn’t have much at stake that day and I knew what to expect. By duct-taping my rose-colored glasses to my face, I could still enjoy the guy’s company without getting too peeved about this whole camel deal being forced on me. But most people have far worse problems at the Pyramids–like actual jerks who yell and threaten and fight to get more money out of tourists.
This makes it sound like the camel guys (and there are horse guys too) are the problem, and if they just banned them from the Pyramids area, everything would be fine.
Ah, but…two problems:
1) The Pyramids are spread over a big area, so the horse and camel rides are actually useful.
2) The horse and camel guys are from the village next to the Pyramids, and they have exactly zero other ways to make money. (Well, except for the Mubarak regime hiring them to beat up their compatriots in Tahrir Square. That’s how desperate they are.)
Zahi Hawass et al. knew they couldn’t get rid of these guys completely, but tried to control them by erecting this horrific wall between the village and the Pyramids. It looks like a mini-Palestinian barrier fence, and all it does is make the horse and camel guys move up the road to try to nab tourists before they get to the Pyramids.
This starts at the Giza metro stop, where seemingly concerned strangers sidle up and tell you which bus to take to the Pyramids. Then of course try to sell you on horse rides while you’re waiting for the bus. Or they jump in your taxi when it’s stopped in traffic. Or, wait, backtrack: they get the guy at your hotel to sell you a “sunrise tour” of the Pyramids, which means you show up two hours before the site opens, and you pass the time by talking to a guy who wants to sell you a horse ride.
It would be funny if it didn’t drive tourists to breakdowns and rages. The day I visited, I must’ve said ‘no’ about 856 times. And if you don’t say ‘no’, it must mean yes. So, yeah, I was basically date-raped by a camel.
I wish I could just advise people not to go to the Pyramids, as I think they’d be a lot happier with their trip to Egypt. But I know that’s the grumpy outlook. Though Anthony Bourdain didn’t go to them on the Egypt episode of No Reservations.
My friend Hassan is a tour guide, and he happened to be on that episode. He was the one telling Tony all about the Pyramids, so that Tony didn’t have to go.
Hassan has a dream of fixing the Pyramids, of finally solving this problem with the horse and camel guys, who provide a useful service but are the source of so much aggravation. He’d like to help them form a cooperative of some kind, so they’re not all competing with each other, and there’d be set prices. Oooh, and maybe an orderly line! (Sorry–that might just be me getting carried away.)
I’d love to connect Hassan with some people working in tourism in other countries who might advise on how to go about organizing something like this. Or people working in NGOs with this kind of experience. Any ideas? Mexico connections are an obvious choice, as a lot of tourist services in the Yucatan work on this model.
In the meantime, I was heartened at least by how many Egyptians were at the Pyramids when I visited this year. I’ve never seen this before. Then I was disheartened to see them also being hassled endlessly by the horse and camel guys. By the end of the day, they looked as beat as me.
Sorting out the camel and horse situation would be as radical and helpful a change as installing meters on Cairo taxis–which has been done successfully. Cairo taxi drivers are now a delight to ride with. And I bet many of the horse and camel guys would also be excellent ambassadors for Egypt, if they weren’t so desperately fighting for the last tourist dollar.
All suggestions welcome. Have you been to a tourist site that was remarkably well managed? Or poorly managed? This isn’t rocket science–places have solved it, and probably not for too much money. Somewhere as great as the Pyramids deserves a lot better.
I had another collection of funny little items from Cairo scheduled for this week, but it just seems too flip. Instead, here’s a good collection of post-revolutionary graffiti, all from one corner in Zamalek. Fight on, Egyptians.