Oscar Wilde once said that Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England, and (that) nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made one.
He wasn’t wrong.
When I arrived in the City of Dreaming Spires only three months ago, it was impossible to turn a blind eye to its reputation. I had been well-informed that it was the most beautiful town in England, and the fact that I would be living (quite literally) on the doorstep of the world’s oldest English-speaking university that has educated the likes of Stephen Hawking, Aldous Huxley, and Emma Watson (shout out to the Harry Potter generation) didn’t alleviate the suspense.
All of five minutes after I stepped off the train, I decided that the suspense had been worth it.
I plan to write a lot of blog posts detailing my Oxford experience, but for now, sit back, relax, and enjoy a ‘lil appetiser of what’s to come. Oxford is a fantastical place that you really have to see with your own two eyes, but for now, see what it’s like through my lens…
There is quite possibly nothing more transcendent that Oxford under snowfall
Enchanted by New College (deceptive in the fact that is actually one of the oldest colleges at the University of Oxford)
Half an hour shy of Madrid sleeps the humble Alcalá de Henares. The Spanish city — which translates to Citadel of the river Henares — is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and boasts a rich history which can be traced back to the Bronze Age.
Meandering through the shadowed alleyways, I couldn’t help but feel reminiscent of my time exploring the Italian city of Siena. The centre — Plaza de Cervantes — is positively medieval, and the cobbled streets carry a certain romanticism. The destination has come to be known as “the city of three cultures” owing to its three different neighbourhoods of Moorish, Jewish, and Christian origin.
It is also one of those rare places where there is a lucky dip of tourists and locals. Alcalá de Henares is a university town, so the streets are not only buzzing with travellers, but also the quiet presence of residents. For someone who unwittingly seeks comfort from dichotomies — I am only human, after all — I found this to be a little unsettling.
Crossing the threshold into Alcalá de Henares, it soon became readily apparent that humans do not run this city. Instead, around ninety breeding pairs of storks have claimed the land — and more are arriving every year. The distinct birds throne nests balanced upon every rooftop, their black silhouettes stamped into the skyline. As someone who had never before seen a stork in real life — for me, they existed purely as cartoons swinging clothed babies from their beaks — seeing them for the first time was something of a shock.
Alcalá de Henares has come to embrace the visitors, so much so that the stork population has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. For a place known as the birthplace of the celebrated author Miguel de Cervantes, that’s no easy feat. The stork has become emblematic of Alcalá de Henares, and has created something of a communal identity for its citizens.
I spent that Sunday afternoon roaming the city and practicing my broken Spanish. I sat in Plaza de Cervantes and ordered tortilla de patata, cerveza, café con hielo and vino tinto, whilst above, storks snapped their beaks and scattered twigs from their disheveled nests. My heart may belong to Madrid, but there is something doubtlessly special about Alcalá de Henares.
The storks know it too.
Catch more of my Spanish adventures here – or if you want to get choosy, take your pick out of Barcelona or Madrid 🇪🇸
For me, one of the greatest joys of traveling is the opportunity to expose yourself to diverse cultures and languages, to see how other people live, and to distance yourself from everything familiar and comfortable. It is for those very reasons that places such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America do not naturally draw me.
It is also for those very reasons that without a shred of doubt, I can say that the crown of my travels in 2017 – if not ever – goes to Egypt.
Many things amazed me during my three weeks spent in the capital of Cairo. There were the pyramids, the landscape, the way of life… but perhaps what amazed me most was that there was hardly a (western) tourist in sight.
Why was this? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Here is a country with such rich history that places like Paris pale in comparison. Here is a country where you can easily budget for NZD$15 a day. Why am I – a white, western tourist – such an anomaly?
Cue research. Statistics show that Egypt’s tourism plunged from 11 million in 2010, to 9.3 million in 2015, and then to 5.3 million in 2016. I’m not ignorant; I’m fully aware that Egypt hasn’t escaped disaster over the last few years. This is understandably enough to deter anyone from regarding it as a tourist hotspot. To cite personal experience, I myself have rejected flights with Malaysian Airlines after the events of 2014.
Despite being located in North Africa, Egypt is also a Middle Eastern state, and to hold that label comes with certain connotations for us western folk. I’m not saying that these associations are completely false, but neither am I saying that they should serve as well-grounded rationale to veto the Gift of the Nile. For a long time, Egyptian politics have been anything but stable. We can track how statistics nosedive following the 2011 revolution, whereby autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. This political uncertainty kept tourists at bay.
“The low number of inbound tourists has affected the economy, which looks to the sector as a crucial source of hard currency.”
Further events have dissuaded the hordes. In October 2015, a Russian passenger plane was brought down on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, resulting in 224 fatalities. In the wake of the tragedy, Russia – a major source of tourists – cancelled all air links with Egypt, and the United Kingdom suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh (the Egyptian resort from where the flight had departed). It is estimated that this decision occasioned a loss of 900,000 British travellers.
In January 2016, two German tourists were stabbed to death in Hurghada, and in December that same year, ISIS killed 27 worshippers at a Coptic church. Just two months ago, an attack on a Sufi mosque claimed over 300 lives… I’m probably not supporting my cause here, am I?
Let’s take a look at the UK government’s foreign travel advice for Egypt. Under terrorism, the government warns, “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Egypt… you should avoid crowded places and gatherings… in North Sinai, there are frequent, almost daily reports of terrorist attacks… foreigners have been targeted.” It’s not exactly the most reassuring news for prospective travellers. There is also a lovely little segment on how the government will not pay a ransom to free British citizens in the instance of kidnapping, but for the sake of encouraging people to visit Egypt, I’m going to leave that bit out.
However, the article does continue with, “The authorities in Egypt maintain a significant security presence across the country, including armed security officers stationed at important sites, critical infrastructure, and road checkpoints… extra measures are in place at tourist sites… (and) the Egyptian government’s counter-terrorism campaign has resulted in significant reduction in the number of terrorist attacks on the Egyptian mainland since January 2015.” That’s a little better.
There is a light amongst all of the darkness; in the first half of 2017, Egypt’s tourism rose by 170% to reach 4.3 million. This has been attributed to how Egypt has upped the ante when it comes to security and other incentives for travel. That number doesn’t even come close to the peak of Egypt’s tourism heyday – and it’s not to say the industry isn’t still reeling – though it illustrates how the country is making a slow but steady comeback.
“… we must move away from a ‘green-light’ mentality on travel advisories, and government and travel companies must devise a methodology to inform consumers as to all risks, actual or potential.”
My advice to you? Travel to Egypt. The threats certainly exist, but if you take the time to educate yourself on how to best navigate things, you will be greatly rewarded. With a non-existent tourist population, you will probably find you have the sights all to yourself. Al Jazeera described visiting the pyramids as “… like walking on the moon… deserted, forlorn and uninhabited”. Don’t believe them? Just take a look at my experience below…
If you consult terrorism statistics for London, you will observe that there have been five separate incidents in the last twelve months alone. With today’s political landscape, it’s unfeasible to be thinking of places as having safety guaranteed. Nothing is sure in this world.
Did I feel safe in Cairo? Yes. Aside from some minor harassment – which you can read about here – I did not for one moment feel that my protection was under threat. I am not encouraging that foreigners should take their safety for granted. In other words, don’t be stupid. Use common sense and exercise caution. Dress appropriately for the culture and understand that you have a responsibility to both yourself and others to behave respectfully. But the fundamentals aside, embrace the incredible opportunity that is Egypt.
I’ll see you there.
Need some more convincing for why you should travel to Egypt? Check out the following blog posts…
One day, I will publish content on time. Today is not that day.
Nevertheless, I have finally gotten around to writing a blog post to accompany my 2017 Travel Recap video that I published to YouTube about three weeks ago. As I wrote, sometimes it takes editing on your laptop for fifteen hours straight to really appreciate the magnitude of the year you’ve just had. In the space of 2 minutes and 52 seconds, I cram my adventures from five diverse yet equally incredible countries into this yearly review.
After the last six months, I have learnt that you should never nurse expectations when experiencing a new place. All expectations do is harbour disappointment – and what would be the point of that?
Stepping off the train at Paddington Station, I immediately found myself transported back to big city life. After shying away from the masses for the best part of three months, I ached to lose myself once again in the faceless crowds. In a city of nearly nine million people – over twice the size of my home country – I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be difficult.
In true British fashion, we were welcomed with miserable, melancholic weather. Cursing my photographic luck, I readjusted my scarf, kept calm and carried on (sorry, I had to). It was the first time I had been reunited with the Metro since my week in Paris, and I wasn’t expecting to have missed it so much. There’s that galvanising feeling of silent camaraderie between passengers that you just don’t experience on buses and trains. Or is that just me? Yeah… that’s probably just me.
“… when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”
Samuel Johnson (1777)
The modus operandi of this trip wasn’t so much participatory as it was observatory. We had arrived for one day only with a very special objective – to see Star Wars – and the rest was really just the icing on the cake. I was quite content wandering around the streets and getting hopelessly lost in the hopes of learning even a little about this beautiful, monstrous metropolis.
We strolled down the River Thames and lapped up the intoxicating scent of mulled wine from the Southbank Centre Winter Market. I had never before encountered such a market culture before arriving in England, and could wile away hours at a time exploring the myriad stalls.
Weaving our way through buskers and tourists alike, we looked up to find ourselves bathed in the shadow of the London Eye. Spoiler alert: it’s freakin’ huge. There are certain landmarks over the world that I have found somewhat underwhelming in size – the Pyramids and Big Ben, just to name two – but this iconic ferris wheel certainly lives up to the hype. Whilst we didn’t join the queues to see London from above, we enjoyed the view from below, and then carried on our merry way towards Parliament.
“London is a roost for every bird”
Benjamin Disraeli (1870)
Without a doubt in my mind, I can say that the highlight for me was the Camden Market. Unlike most people (I imagine), I had never before heard of this place. This fact was met with disbelieving ears, but I digress. Upon arriving, part of me felt like I had been thrown back in the MBK Shopping Centre in Bangkok, with it’s eccentric labyrinthine marketplace. Camden Market has over one thousand shops, stalls, bars and cafés nestled inside, plus spectacular events on the daily. My personal favourite food hubs include the infamous Cereal Killer Café (you know, the one with over 120 types of cereal on the menu) and the Cheese Bar (try the rosemary goats’ cheese, honey, walnut, and rosemary butter grilled cheese toastie! Phew, that’s a mouthful…). This is also a neat place to visit if you’re vegan 🌽
I also discovered that one of my favourite artists – Amy Winehouse – lived and died in Camden. For this reason, a lot of places in this district pay homage to her, such as the striking statue found right in the heart of Camden Market, as photographed below.
The day concluded under the evening glow of Leicester Square. Located in London’s West End, this pedestrianised square is home to some of the city’s most iconic shops. Think M&M’s World and the LEGO Store – but honest opinion? The LEGO Store is slightly overrated, and M&M’s World didn’t even sell my favourite flavour (peanut butter, in case you were wondering). But hey, this trip wasn’t about retail therapy. After digesting that M&M’s could warrant four floors worth of consumerism and merchandise, we withdrew back to Leicester Square and explored the lights and the art and the Christmas atmosphere. London is most beautiful at night.
I will be returning to the Old Smoke very soon. I barely scraped the surface of London, and next time, I want to get my hands dirty. There are so many things to see, so much to do… far more than a day could ever afford. What do you recommend?
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for my London travel vlog, which will be uploaded to the Ginger Passports’ YouTube Channel. Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss out on any exciting updates! I will also be writing about my favourite London café’s in January, so keep your eyes peeled. Last but not least, if any of my readers are based in London and would be interested in meeting up next time I’m around, flick me a message on any of my social media profiles, or else email me at email@example.com – till then! 👋
When I was planning my itinerary for Paris, I would scroll endlessly through travel blogs to find the most beautiful photographs, and then track down where they had been taken. I figured that I was going to be in France, one of the most heavenly countries in the world; why not surround myself with as much beauty as possible?
Aside from the usual landmarks – I’m talking the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe – I began to notice a certain thread between pictures. There was always this one street that travellers – especially bloggers – seemed to gravitate towards. It’s not hard to see why; this narrow street had the most quaint houses, all painted different shades of pastel.
After some sleuthing, I discovered that this dreamlike place is called Rue Crémieux, and that it is located in Paris’ 12th Arrondissement (between Rue de Lyon and Rue de Bercy). When I finally visited the city, I took the Metro across La Seine to Gare de Lyon, and a short stroll later, found myself standing in the middle of the cobblestoned street I had become so familiar with through my screen.
Rue Crémieux is a pedestrian street, so you can lose yourself through your lens without having to worry about getting run over (or – a little more realistically – tooted at by impatient Parisians). Paris is known for it’s Haussmann architecture, but this is a somewhat pleasant exception; the houses give the impression that you have stumbled into a countryside lane, despite being smack bang in the middle of one of the most populous cities in Europe.
Fashion bloggers frequent Rue Crémieux to use it as a backdrop for their photographs – and who can blame them? This street is beyond idyllic, and bloggers have the luxury of choosing just what colour palette they would like to pose before. Whilst I am quite content to work behind the camera, most of the other tourists were making the most of the prismatic opportunity. This street has been likened to Portobello Road in London, and it’s not difficult to see why.
The only downside to this online exposure is that Rue Crémieux is no longer one of Paris’ best kept secrets. Now, it seems that every man and his dog is flocking here (and I suppose I’m not helping on that front, either 🙈). So perhaps be thoughtful and don’t overstay your welcome; I’m sure the locals aren’t too fussed about all the attention.
A year ago — well, a year and one month, to be exact — I told myself that enough was enough. I had been flirting with the idea of starting a blog for years now, but the technical side to things really threw me off. I’m not a complete numpty when it comes to technology, but words such as RSS and permalink could have been part of a foreign language for all I was concerned.
In the end, it was a trip to Southeast Asia in late 2016 that really pushed me to throw the Ginger Passports together. I saw it as an ideal opportunity to generate content and launch my brand. Gritting my teeth, I went the budget route and signed up to wordpress.com (I would later swap over to the more professional wordpress.org), recruited a talented friend to speak code — and here we are: thirteen months later with a blog I couldn’t be more proud of.
2017 was one hell of a year. I mean that in both the best and worst possible sense of that word, but for the purposes of positivity, I am going to focus on the best.
2017 began with a bang – quite literally. I spent my favourite New Years Eve yet in a high rise in the Auckland, curled up with a bottle of Shiraz and watching King Kong (adrenaline-pinching, amiright?). When the clock struck midnight, I ran out to the balcony and watched fireworks cartwheel over the luminescent city.
I began the year how I intended to finish it: with a map in one hand and a suitcase in the other. For the first week of January, we road tripped across the North Island of New Zealand. Beginning in Auckland, we zig-zagged our way down south, making pit stops in iconic places such as Hobbiton. We concluded the journey in Wellington, where we filled several action-packed days making the most of the capital’s cultural scene.
Trying to be all creative and such at Hobbiton in Mata Mata
Stumbling across a painted piano on the waterfront… just your average Wellington shenanigans
Feeling nosy? Get your business all up in my travel vlog of the North Island road trip 🎬
February was a milestone month for me in that it was the first time I published a piece of work on an independent platform.
I had been a follower of the feminist travel blog – Travelettes – for some time by this point, and was eager to try my hand at submitting a guest post. Not expecting much, I wrote an article on navigating the turbulent landscape of homesickness, and voila! How to Get Comfortable with Traveling was published a few weeks later.
This was also a time that I began to realise the value of my home. Foreshadowings of change in the coming months were beginning to creep into my life, and I began to feel a need to explore and appreciate my own city before the opportunity escaped me.
On the hottest day of the summer, I launched my beach review series at Saint Kilda Beach in Dunedin. On what was likely the windiest day, I made the trek up to Lover’s Leap to take in the jaw-dropping views of the Otago Peninsula.
If you ask me what my favourite part of New Zealand is, my answer will irrevocably by Central Otago.
For some reason or another, I decided in March that a Central Otago escape was in order. Drawn by the temptation of vineyards and gourmet cheese, I packed my bags and left the coast behind.
Quite by chance, my trip synchronised with a spontaneous roadie of my friend Becky (check out this interview with her), and one Saturday morning, we decided to go on an adventure up the Remarkables mountain range in Queenstown (the tourist capital of New Zealand). A bottle of mulled wine later, and we decided that skinny dipping in glacial lakes seemed like a good idea.
Central Otago is the most beautiful place on Earth, and no one can convince me otherwise
(Let’s just pretend I didn’t just skip two months, okay?)
If anyone ever tells you that running away from your problems never solves anything…. well, they’re wrong.
Okay, so that’s probably not the best advice to be giving you. But in this particular case, it worked wonders.
Midway through 2017, I was not a happy chappy. As special as my home country of New Zealand was to me, I just wasn’t prepared to invest in a short-term future there. I was nearing the last semester of my degree, and needed to be thinking about what I was going to do once I walked out of that exam room for the final time. During June, I really worked myself into a state over this, and — against the wishes and logic of nearly everyone I knew — I resolved that unhappiness by buying a one-way ticket to Spain. You could say I was quite literally running — flying? — away from my problems.
I landed in Madrid a week later and I never looked back. I fell in love with Spain in the same way you might fall in love with someone who saves your life. The language, the culture, the people… I was starving for change, and took everything in my stride.
As chance had it, I arrived in the Spanish capital the same weekend of World Pride, and had the unmissable opportunity to march down Puerta del Sol with three million other supporters. 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the first LGBTIQ pride parade in Spain, so it was a particularly special event indeed.
There’s nothing like a bit of ELO
After falling for Madrid, I bought a train ticket south to the Mediterranean paradise of Andalusia. I delighted in tastes of Málaga, Granada and Seville before bidding a short adiós to Spain and flying to the City of Love.
Just east of Málaga… those beautiful moments before I was reduced to a sun-burnt lobster
As I wrote on the blog, Paris is… well, Paris. And as Anne Rice said, “Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history… as vast and indestructible as nature itself”. One of us definitely nailed it.
To me, Paris was always one of those places where the idea surmounted the reality. To elaborate, I never actually thought I would make it there. Not in any macabre way or anything – it was just that Paris always seemed so far away and distant, as though belonging to someone else’s dream. To stand in her very midst was a surreal experience.
Because nothing screams Paris like the same photo taken by every tourist ever
I didn’t think it possible to consider any part of France to prevail over Paris, but that was before I stumbled upon Nice. Nice – the Mediterranean heel of France – drew me for reasons I cannot fathom. Perhaps it was the landscape reminiscent of Andalusia, or the local culture that made it so effortless to feel not on holiday, but at home. All I knew was that when I left – with my pockets full of truffle oil and lavender sweets – I almost felt homesick for a place I barely knew.
If you had asked me at the beginning of the year where 2017 would take me, I would not have said Egypt. Not because it didn’t intrigue me – quite the opposite – but because it existed in a completely different world that was incompatible with all safe intentions of the independent, female traveler. And yet – much to the joys of my mother and father – I found myself spontaneously stepping off the plane at Cairo airport in the early days of September.
Cairo was all I wanted it to be and more. I ticked the touristic activities off my bucket list – think Pyramids and Citadel – but I also had the opportunity to explore a more authentic side to things such as markets. Staying with locals certainly didn’t hurt, either. I was also treated to some classic street harassment, which was neither appreciated nor altogether surprising. If travel has taught me one thing, it’s that you can’t pick and choose the positive aspects of a culture.
After over three months of living out of a suitcase, I eventually made it to my final destination: the United Kingdom. There, I began my final semester as an undergraduate on exchange in England.
It was relaxing to be able to focus on my studies for a wee while without another trip looming on the horizon. As invigorating as I find travel, it does mean sacrificing the little things. Like routine. And gym memberships. And a proper bed.
It is now mid-December, and I have itchy feet again. My restlessness has me trawling through budget flight search engines, keeping an eye out for deals. My camera has sunk into the depths of my wardrobe, and the Ginger Passports feels naked without fresh content three times a week.
I’m not choosing to think of 2018 as the beginning of something new. I’ve learnt that seeing starts and ends to things isn’t always healthy, and can pre-empt failure if intended plans don’t exactly take shape. Rather, January 1st will just be another day. I won’t set goals for the next twelve months, nor will I foster expectation. My blog – and myself – will grow at our own pace, and enjoy what life has to offer on this side of the world 🌍
Cruising around the winding roads of Provence on a tempestuous Sunday in mid-August, I was introduced to several idyllic villages.
The thing about the southeast of France is that everywhere you go is blindingly beautiful; but after a while, you struggle to separate the different places in your head. There’s so many… Gordes, Les Beaux and Saint Rémy, just to name a few. You can’t blame a girl for feeling a lil’ overwhelmed. However, there was one village that really cemented itself in my memory.
Allow me to introduce you to Roussillon
Often nicknamed the French Colorado, Roussillon can be found in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (well, that’s not a mouthful at all) and has gained prominence due to its abundance of ochre quarries. (For those who don’t know, ochre is a pigment found in the earth that has gorgeous red hues). These deposits give the neighbouring landscape of Roussillon a surreal look that is slightly reminiscent of Mars, and has also inspired the motif of the buildings.
There is folklore behind this ochre. Local legend has it that – during the Middle Ages – a young woman called Séramonde became engaged to the Lord of Roussillon, Raymond d’Avignon. However, because Raymond preferred to hunt than serenade his fiancé, Séramonde fell in love with someone else. When Raymond found out, he killed her beloved and – unbeknownst to Séramonde – served her his cooked heart to be eaten. When she became aware of what she had done, she threw herself off the cliff. The earth was stained red from her blood, and so coloured the ochre. Gruesome, huh?
The afternoon I spent meandering around the narrow, medieval alleys of Roussillon was a very happy one indeed. The commune is built atop a small rise, and a momentary hike to the summit rewards you with jaw-dropping views out over Park du Luberon. A particular highlight of my visit was relishing a lavender gelato cone (yes, you heard that right) whilst basking in the glory of the ochre hillside.
The art galleries dotted throughout only add to the painter’s palette that is this French village. Artists will welcome you inside with open arms to proudly show you their work, and you will find it irresistible to walk away without feeling inspired. Although the price tag of the paintings may exceed your budget, another way to support the artists and bring home a little of Roussillon is to purchase a print. I myself couldn’t say no.
If you have the opportunity to visit France, make it a priority to explore Roussillon. There is simply no other village like it. Whether you are drawn to Provence’s beauty, character, gastronomy or wine, there is something in Roussillon for everyone.
Before I launch into a mini rant about how much nostalgia creating this vlog bought back, I would like to formally apologise for being absent the last three or so weeks. Aside from adjusting to life in England (where the f*ck is the sun?!), I have been doing a lot of thinking in regards to this blog. As we approach the Ginger Passports’ first birthday (🎉), I have been reviewing the direction I am taking with this project. Over the last year, I have focused on creating aesthetic content that both summarises the places I have traveled to and hopefully educates my readers on some of the issues relevant to these areas. Falling into that last category are my more political posts (most notably, my defence of cultural appropriation) which have certainly struck me as a more meaningful and fulfilling purpose for this blog. Because of that, I am aiming to incorporate more of these types of post in the coming future. I would also like to explore a more journalistic side to my writing – but I won’t reveal anything more just yet! Make sure you follow the Ginger Passports on Facebook and Twitter to make sure you don’t miss any updates.
Okay! Now that that’s over and done with, let’s return to the resplendent, confused beauty of Cairo…
“Egypt is a great place for contrasts: splendid things gleam in the dust.”
The more you get to know a place, the more you get to learn its many quirks. As a city I only held pigeonholed ideas about – think camels, mummy’s and sexual harassment (*cue dry laughter*) – Cairo was just waiting to surprise me.
Road lanes? What road lanes?
The very first thing I discovered was that Egyptians have absolutely no concept of road lanes (or road rules, for that matter).
When I was picked up from the airport at 2am and driven across the city to Giza, I genuinely feared for my life. People were treating the highway like they would Gran Turismo, and the blatant disregard for the law – and common sense – was mind-blowing. If you’re not quite grasping the sheer terror of driving amongst people like this, bear in mind that highways in Cairo can have up to eight lanes. And a donkey or two.
Pass the mango
I’m no stranger to mangoes. They’re one of my favourite fruits, and I have had the pleasure to try them from many different corners of the globe such as Thailand and the south of Spain.
But the embarrassing truth is that, prior to Egypt, I had never eaten a fresh mango on its own. I know, I know. Such the traveller. I’ve only ever had mango if it was in the form of a smoothie or dollop of sorbet. Even in Southeast Asia, I didn’t think to buy some from one of the countless street food stalls.
On my very first day in Cairo, I tried a real mango. Woah. It was like all of the taste palates on my tongue had just been reborn. It was so juicy, so sweet… I don’t think I can ever return to preserved, tinned mango every again. It turns out that Egypt is actually known for it’s mangoes, which – according to Fruit Link Co. – are “a tropical delicacy with no equal”.
If you’re a mango fanatic like me, make sure you visit Egypt during mango season (July to November).
The City of Unfinished Buildings
Cairo may be known as the City of a Thousand Minarets, but perhaps a more appropriate nickname is the City of Unfinished Buildings.
One of the things I noticed every time I drove into the centre was the myriad of unfinished apartment buildings. I’m not just talking about one or two of these, either. There were long stretches where I couldn’t spot a single completed building. From a practical point of view, they’re unsafe. From an aesthetic point of view, they’re just plain ugly.
When I inquired into the reasoning behind this, I was informed that there exists something of a legal loophole in that owners in Cairo do not have to pay taxes until a building is structurally finished. Given this, there is little motivation to achieve completion.
If the nickname of the City of Unfinished Buildings doesn’t catch on, then maybe the City of a Thousand Billboards will.
Cruising down the 26th of July Corridor, you are treated to advertisement after advertisement. Airbrushed models smile down on you with their photoshopped, white smiles, marketing everything from Coca Cola to Vodafone to KFC. The oddity? None of the female models are veiled.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Downtown Cairo was transformed into what was at the time called the ‘Paris of the East’. This was because the then-ruler was raised in France and wanted Egypt’s capital to reflect European modernity. This meant that the Downtown area was to be characterised by linear, gridded streets, geometric harmony, and reflect Parisian architecture.
Let there be light… please 🙏
If the lack of consideration for road lanes doesn’t already make driving a near-death experience for you, then the lack of street lamps will. There are so many stretches of highway where there is just no lighting. When you’re zooming along at 100km/h with half of Cairo on your tail, that’s the last thing you want.
I have no idea how you would navigate anywhere if it weren’t for the head and tail lights of surrounding cars – and even then, it’s near impossible to spot potholes or barriers that suddenly jump up out of the concrete. I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents. But on that note…
If you travel to Cairo, you will probably see a dead body.
I remember driving down one of the more remote highways and passing an ambulance. Upon further inspection, I realised that two paramedics were tending to an unmoving body that had been flung from an also unmoving motorcycle. I didn’t have to look too closely to fathom their fate.
It was the juxtaposition between how Egypt deals with this sort of thing compared to the response from my home country of New Zealand that really shocked me. Back home, a crash – even one that leaves no fatalities – will halt traffic, block roads and make national news. Here, it was as though nothing had even happened. If I hadn’t had my eyes peeled, there is a good chance I wouldn’t have even noticed it.
Death has been normalised.
On a lighter note, one thing that pleasantly surprised me about Cairo was the amount of greenery present. For a desert city, this wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Cruising down the Nile along Downtown’s Promenade especially draws attention to this welcome inhabitance of vegetation, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to temporarily forget that I was in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
Coming from a small town in an environmentally-friendly country, air pollution had always been something of an abstract problem. But for Cairo – the city ranked as having the worst air pollution in the world – this is an unavoidable issue.
The effect this has on the landscape is striking. Standing beneath the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel and beholding Cairo’s skyline gave me the impression that I was looking over a civilisation on some distant planet. The horizon is a thick gray as a consequence of the fumes. As it ascends, the sky gradually fades into a dull blue. There are no clouds. There is no sun. There is only the haze.
Egypt is very… Egyptian
What amused me the most about Egypt was just how Egyptian it is.
If that sounds to you like an obvious statement, then allow me to elaborate. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, there are certain icons of Egypt that thoroughly tie into the stereotypes and conventions that the tourism industry thrives off. You know what I’m talking about.
But when I arrived, I didn’t actually expect these cultural symbols to manifest in absolutely everything. Everywhere you look is Egyptian iconography. Sphinx Bakery, Pyramid Gardens, Pharaoh Towers… walking in Cairo is like stepping into a three-dimensional postcard. I found it entertaining, to say the least.
I don’t intend for this blog post to deter anyone from visiting Cairo. In fact, I would go as far as to say that all these little quirks – good and bad – are instrumental in the formation of it’s character.
I highly recommend that you read about my experience at the Great Pyramids of Giza. Furthermore, if you want to learn about what it’s like to be a ginger in Egypt, then this post might be your cup of tea ☕
Last but not least, stay tuned for my Egypt vlog that is currently in the works! Show some love and subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss out on any exciting updates.
All photographs courtesy of the talented photographers at Unsplash