Vlog: Cairo Edition

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.”
Gustave Flaubert

November will be a gripping month for Egypt content, but in the meantime, there’s still plenty of blog posts for you to keep yourself busy. Check out 10 Things that Surprised Me About Cairo, or for something a little more serious, read about my experience navigating unwanted attention and harassment in this eye-opening city. Last but not least, you simply cannot skip my personal favourite… Monolithic Giants: the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

P.S. You might recognise the vlog song from my travel playlist.

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10 Things that Surprised Me About Cairo

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”.

Tip

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.

Representation

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.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be strange if it weren’t for the fact that up to 80% of Egyptian women are believed to wear headscarves. That’s no minority. Presuming that these advertisements are targeting Egyptian citizens, this lack of representation seems a little unusual.

Paris along the Nile

When I first heard this next fact, I burst out laughing. Did you know that Cairo was architecturally modelled after Paris?

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…

Desensitisation

If you travel to Cairo, you will probably see a dead body.

I’m not talking about roadkill. I wish I was talking about roadkill. Rather, I’m referring to the 12,000 human lives that are lost due to crashes every year in this country.

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.

Green

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.

The haze

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

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Open Season: Being a Ginger in Egypt

I arrived in Egypt with little expectations about how I would be treated as a white, unveiled and ‘exotic’ (I use that word liberally) female.

As a student of gender studies – and someone who has an active interest in global politics – I was well aware that the Middle East’s relationship with woman is far removed from what I am familiar with in the west. It was to be the first time in my life that I represented the minority, and that thought both excited and scared me.

The next two weeks would expose me to a side of humanity that very few things could have prepared me for. It disgusted me; not disgust in the sense that I grew reluctant to venture out of the house without completely covering myself – which, FYI, isn’t even enough to stop men who feel entitled to make women uncomfortable in the public sphere – but disgust in the sense that I couldn’t believe people think that this kind of behaviour is actually okay. The argument from relativity suddenly lost its shine that trip.

Over those two weeks, I was subjected to people stopping in the middle of the street and pointing at me, cars honking as I walked down the side of the road, and the making of rude and unnecessary comments in Arabic as I walked past. At one point, I was in the middle of a marketplace when a man riding a motorcycle zoomed past, shouldered me and nearly knocked me off my feet. When I visited the iconic Great Pyramids, I was surrounded by local tourists more interested in taking pictures with me than the actual wonders. It was flattering until they started grabbing me.

Making friends… us gingers gotta stick together.

All of this was just by existing in Cairo and minding my own business. Whilst I did not veil my head, I was dressed conservatively and respected the culture. None of the behaviour was provoked in any meaningful or justified way.

From my observation, about 85-90% of the women I saw in the streets were veiled. It is also worth mentioning that – compared to their male counterparts – very few women even venture into the public sphere. I counted the occasions I saw people who represented tourists, and the number might amaze you: seven. Just seven – over two whole weeks. Egypt’s tourist economy has plunged from 14.7 million to 5.4 million per year, and it is noticeable. Tourists have become something of a commodity, only fueling the attitude towards them.

The irony of the whole trip was that the occasion on which I felt most comfortable in public was when I visited a nightclub. I remember thinking that there is definitely something wrong with a culture where you receive more unwanted attention on the streets than in a freakin’ bar.

I’m not comfortable arguing that it is easier being an unveiled woman than a veiled woman in Egypt, as other travel bloggers have. There are cultural forces at work there that someone like me can’t even imagine, and it isn’t a competition of oppression. I’m also aware that my experience was far more benign than that suffered by other females. I’m just writing this blog post to share my personal experience so that if you are a woman with intentions of visiting this incredible country, at least you’re not walking in blind.

I never once felt unsafe or threatened whilst I was in Egypt. I think a large part of that is because I mentally prepared myself for the attention and was always in good company. But I can wholeheartedly understand why the experience would be enough to deter someone from the Middle East altogether. It’s a shame, because the two countries I have traveled to in this region so far – Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – left me with rich knowledge and positive memories that surpassed my wildest expectations.

You don’t have to lose all sense of identity in Egypt to avoid harassment. Even if you were wearing a niqāb, the chances are, you would still receive some form of it. After all, studies reveal that 99% of Egyptian women have been subjected to misogynist behaviour on the streets of Cairo (what is being called a ‘moral epidemic’).

But what you can do to prepare is educate yourself on the culture and understand that there is nothing you are doing to deserve this treatment. There is nothing morally justifiable about it. It it simply the result of a lack of education, public safety, poverty and dangerous cultural ideas. The only way it can be challenged is by standing up to it and raising awareness about the injustices served.

 All of the photographs in this post were taken at the Mosque of Mohammed Ali in the Citadel of Cairo.
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Monolithic Giants: The Great Pyramids of Egypt

France has the Eiffel Tower. Italy has the Colosseum. And Egypt has the Pyramids.

I don’t know what it is about these Egyptian megastructures that puts them on a tier above the rest. Maybe it’s the fact that they are the last surviving wonder of the world. But what I do know is that visiting this archaeological site has been one of my greatest aspirations for a very long time, and compared to my expectations, my actual experience did not disappoint.

History lesson! The Giza Pyramid Complex includes the Great Pyramids – Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure – guarded by the limestone sculpture known as the Sphinx. Located in the Sahara Desert on the outskirts of Cairo, the Complex was believed to have been built to house the remains of the Pharaohs (Ancient Egyptian rulers).

“The people of Ancient Egypt believed that death on Earth was the start of a journey to the next world. The embalmed body of the King was entombed underneath or within the pyramid to protect it and allow his transformation and ascension to the afterlife.”

The largest pyramid – Khufu – reaches a height of 138.8 meters, and is estimated to have taken 200 years to build. 200 years! It is also fascinating to learn that the Great Pyramids are precisely aligned with the constellation of Orion, which was associated with Osiris, the Ancient Egyptian god of rebirth and afterlife.

Did you know?

There are actually six pyramids that comprise the Giza Pyramid Complex, not three as is commonly believed. The remaining three (called the Pyramids of the Queens) are much smaller and located in a row behind Menkaure.

  

I had already been in Cairo for over a week before paying a visit to the Giza Pyramid Complex. This meant that I had grown accustomed to the pyramids dominating the horizon every time I ventured into the City of a Thousand Minarets. But as my boyfriend and I approached the gates to the site, I couldn’t help but feel consumed with awe at the monolithic giants towering over us.

I don’t think I’d ever get used to the level of (attempted) security in Cairo. No sooner had we pulled up outside the main gate than did three guards descend upon the car demanding to check us for any weapons or dangerous goods. After asking needlessly if we were married (🙄) they let us through. We parked the car at the foot of Khafre and began to explore.

The pyramids rise grand and resplendent from the cripplingly arid desert. The size of the individual slabs are enough to astound you, let alone the size of the actual structures. Given the sheer volume of security at the entrance, you’d expect the Complex itself to be meticulously patrolled; in reality, there are no barriers or guards, meaning you can climb onto the lower landings of the pyramids and get up close and personal with the ancient wonders.

If I had to choose one thing that left a negative impact on my time at the pyramids, it would have to be people (namely men) trying to scam you. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car before they swarmed upon us, offering deals on tours and souvenirs. One boy even followed us all the way around Khafre, relentless and dogged in his pursuit. If I took a picture of a camel, its owner would materialise out of thin air and demand some sort of payment. If I accepted a ‘free gift’ from a souvenir seller, they wouldn’t leave me be until I returned the favour in some (*cough*monetary*cough*) form. In all seriousness, if I had not been there with my boyfriend – an Egyptian citizen who speaks Arabic – I am pretty damn sure I would have been guilt-tripped or manipulating into losing a lot of money.

Tip

To avoid getting scammed, give a wide berth to people at the Complex who are not official employees. The only people you should be interacting with are those at the ticket booth and those at security (both at the gates and succeeding the ticket booth). Even if they flash you their ‘license’, people claiming that they will show you where to park your car, or that they take the tours included in the entry price (spoiler alert: bullsh*t), or that tickets have sold out and they have the only remaining pass, are just trying to empty your pockets.

But as far as bad experiences go, those men were a relatively insignificant one. If anything, they were amusing. I had the luxury of sitting back and relaxing as I watched my boyfriend’s patience slowly fizzle out like an old firework. It’s worth mentioning some of the good things that happened during my visit, such as the fact that hardly anyone else was there. This can be seen in the solitariness of my photographs, and has motivated me to write a blog post chronicling the deterioration of Egypt’s tourism industry… stay tuned 😎

Before I arrived in Egypt, I had been warned by friends and family members that I would stand out like a sore thumb. I had dismissed their words of caution, but the truth to what they were saying really hit me here. Foreign tourists were something of a rarity, and the fact that I have red hair and the complexion of a white walker probably didn’t help on that front. Many local tourists asked to take photos with me, and one woman physically grabbed me by the material of my shirt and held me still until she had taken a satisfactory number of selfies. My boyfriend had to drag me away from the growing crowd so that we could continue with our sightseeing.

After taking in the marvel of Khafre, I made the executive decision that we would embark on a camel ride. After riding an elephant in Thailand last year, I was bursting to get back in the saddle. (Yes, I realise that camel-riding is probably dodgy. Yes, I plan to educate myself on this topic. And yes, I understand that condemning my own participation only in hindsight not once, but twice, makes me a textbook hypocrite. I’m working on it.)

A few minutes later and we were climbing onto the backs of two camels. You don’t really appreciate just how high it is until you’re up there. I’d read that camel riding is a largely uncomfortable experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s nothing of that sort. Sure, you have to keep one hand firmly clamped on the horn of the saddle to save falling off, but hey, where else is the adventure? Led by a boy no older than thirteen, we padded back around to Khafre, snapped some more photos, laughed at the noises camels make (seriously though, have you heard them?!) and then meandered back to where we started.

The Great Pyramids are the beating heart of Egypt. They have survived for 186 generations and they will survive for many more. Standing amongst these giants was a simultaneously humbling and inspiring experience, and one I hope to recreate again in the future.

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