I glance at myself in the mirror, critically eyeing my outfit. A flowy green top with a high neck and a light white sweater; no cleavage, no shoulders. My pants are also loose; a dark blue elephant style pant that are so popular in Southeast Asia. They don’t hug my curves and my knees are covered but you can see my ankles. I try to think back to everything I read about how to dress in Egypt, were ankles ok? Unsure, I tug my pants a bit lower on my hips to add a little length. It will have to do.
I turn to my waiting brother who’s wearing cargo shorts, a black t-shirt, and a bright red baseball cap with a bold, white maple leaf on his head. I sigh inwardly. I may be covered up and travelling with a man, but we are still obviously tourists and there’s nothing I can do about that.
“Ready?” I ask him. He nods and follows me out the door and into the bright, sunny streets of downtown Cairo.
When my brother and I decided to go to Egypt we were met with a lot of negativity from friends and family. The words dangerous and unsafe popped up in every conversation, not to mention concern that we would be harassed; me as a woman, even while travelling with a man. Both of us as tourists; walking dollar signs in the eyes of the local people.
As primarily a solo female traveller, I’m no stranger to these types of warnings and usually manage to brush them off. But, I’ll admit, I was a little worried about coming to Egypt. Stories from other women about sexual violence and unwanted attention. Tales from other travellers about being harassed in the streets, constantly asked for money, being taken advantage of and treated rudely. Not to mention that the government of Canada has marked Egypt as a place to avoid all non-essential travel. Egypt was definitely one of those places that I heard more bad than good about. But, it was also a destination that both my brother, Jake, and I had dreamed about visiting together since we were kids, so when the opportunity arose to visit in November of 2017, we grabbed it.
Jake and I spent two weeks travelling though Egypt on our own. We roamed the streets of Cairo and bartered with locals in the markets of Luxor and Aswan. We joined a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings and marveled at the architecture of Karnak temple. We took a million photos at the pyramids and scuba dived with hundreds of tropical fish. Egypt was everything I dreamed it would be. It was undoubtedly one of the best trips of my life, and a huge part of my love for the country had to do with the locals and our experiences with them.
In the two weeks that I spent travelling through Egypt with my brother, I never felt unsafe. I recognize that there was a lot about me that could influence this: the fact that I was with a man, the fact that I did dress quite conservatively, and the fact that we are both gender conforming. But, I still expected trouble. I’ve had enough experiences over the years to know that being with a man doesn’t prevent wandering hands, leers, inappropriate suggestions, and cat calls. Yet as I wandered through downtown Cairo, or the local streets of Aswan I experienced nothing but kindness and respect from men around me.
Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely attracted a lot of attention as obvious tourists. We were led to shop after shop after shop in Cairo, and had dozens of people ask to be our guides. However, a polite ‘no thank you’ did the trick, and while we did end up looking in many of the shops (who doesn’t want a cool souvenir from Egypt?), we rarely purchased anything and that was just fine.
The conversations we did have were warm and welcoming, with the locals proud to give us advice of suggestions on what to see, where to go, or what to eat. Two men in Cairo invited us to join them for coffee to offer some advice, and local Luxor man, who ended up being an impromptu tour guide for a couple of hours around the markets, asked us to come visit him the next day for breakfast.
In terms of my experiences with the men, I never was made to feel uncomfortable. A couple of men on the streets did tell my brother he was a lucky man to have me, and, at one point, Jake made a joke with a water vendor saying he’d trade me for some camels. The man jokingly played along saying I was worth at least four million. It was a comical banter that left me laughing rather than feeling objectified. The most forward man I met was actually a member of our Nile cruise; when he found out that Jake wasn’t my boyfriend, but actually my brother, he brought me a piece of paper with his phone number and email address telling me he hoped I would stay in touch. While it was obvious to everyone that he had a crush on me, he never did more than tell me he was happy to see me and that I had a ‘beautiful soul’. Which, while awkward at the time, was actually kind of sweet.
The only time we really had any ‘trouble’ was in Cairo airport trying to find a taxi to a nearby hotel for our final night before heading back to Canada. Instead of using a verified taxi, we agreed upon a rate with someone inside the airport. The fee was then bumped up unexpectedly for an airport toll, and there was a rude comment at the end about how good a job the driver has been and we should give him money. In the end though, it wasn’t really a problem since the toll was minimal (about $1CAD) and we planned to tip the driver anyways. It was just all more abrupt and more of a hassle than anything else we experienced over our two-week visit.
So were we just lucky? Maybe a little bit, but to be honest, I don’t think it was just luck. Egypt has been suffering since the revolution in 2011. It’s a very tourist-driven country but few are brave enough to venture there. I think that the fact that we did earned us a lot of respect in their eyes. They were thrilled to see us and anxious to show us the best of their home country in the hopes that we would bring back positive stories that would encourage others to visit.
Another huge factor was how my brother and I behaved. We smiled, we talked to them, we treated them with respect; something that, sadly, many tourists refuse to do. I met a couple of tourists along the way who complained about being ripped off and treated rudely, yet as I watched them interact with local guides and vendors, I understood why. Kindness goes a long way and something as simple as saying ‘No thank you’ instead of ‘ go away’ can make a huge difference.
Based on my experience, would I recommend Egypt to a solo female traveller? To be honest, I don’t know. My experience left me feeling like it probably would be ok, but I think I would be uncomfortable to go out on my own. Not because of harassment, but because I would stand out all the more. During my two weeks in Egypt I barely saw any Egyptian woman outside of the local markets and the pyramids- where they travelled with their husbands and families. I didn’t see a single local woman alone, anywhere. Some days I went hours without seeing a local woman at all; something that I have never experienced before. So while, based on my experience, I wouldn’t tell solo females not to go because it’s dangerous, I would suggest that they might find it uncomfortable alone and that joining a tour might be a better idea.
While I recognize that two weeks of travelling to top tourist destinations does not, by any means, make me an expert, I think it’s important for me to share our experiences travelling through a country that is deemed so unsafe and surrounded by so much negative media. Is Egypt perfect? No. Do you need to be wary and watchful? Yes. But would I recommend it based on my experiences? Absolutely!