Egypt has been the hardest place for me to blog about. Partially because I don’t want to sound negative and partially because I don’t want to discourage other travels from exploring this fascinating country on their own terms. That being said, it’s about time I share more about my personal experience there.
I am (funnily enough) frequently asked if I have ever hated a place or had a bad time during my travels. Of course I’ve had plenty of “bad times.” Even the best laid plans go awry at some point. Every trip has its own unexpected challenges, which is why I blog publicly at all. I want to share how to put a trip together so when things do go awry you can just roll with it. And hopefully you’ll even avoid a few issues by learning at my expense (I know, tough life being a travel guinea pig).
As for hating a place, I really hated Bangkok at first. The combination of being cranky, jetlagged and getting hassled by vendors on Khao San Road is enough to scare any traveler on their first day in Thailand. But I went back again and again and came to love the city (and haggling over prices). Other places I really didn’t like? Egypt. But you know what? I still enjoyed myself, learned a lot and knocked some major items off my wanderlust bucket list.
At the end of my trip in Egypt, I returned to Giza from Luxor for one last night. I wasn’t much looking forward to being back in Giza but I had one last thing I really wanted to do before I departed. Ride camels. After hearing countless stories from other travelers about how they were scammed (“Come take a picture with my camel, go ahead get on her, that’ll be 50 EGP, let me just take you for a quick ride…” 200 EGP later…) and asking plenty of others how they successfully booked a camel ride, we decided the best option was to ask the family running our B+B to book on our behalf. We explained to them (thanks to my Dad’s patience) how important it was to me to use a stable and company that treated their animals ethically. They said they knew just the family.
In the streets surrounding the Giza pyramids complex, hoards of horses and camels are tied up while men call out their prices and services. If you didn’t know any better, and I don’t, you’d think the animals were left to live there indefinitely because they are surrounded by dirty hay and manure. The sidewalks resemble makeshift stables.
Late in the afternoon we were met outside of our B+B, just across from the Sphinx, by a man who had walked over from his real stable with three camels. I was so relieved because once you have a guide in Egypt, the other “guides” (read: men hawking bogus services at you) tend to back off a little. And given the streets are teeming with such men, it was the sort of protection I liked.
His camels were not what I expected. They more closely resembled the dirty camels tied up around Giza than the large, healthy, clean camels I saw in Petra. I immediately started having my doubts and I honestly think I only got on because I was more afraid of what the man would say if I canceled our ride. I also, selfishly, really wanted that camel ride I had imagined when I booked my trip to Egypt. Now all I could think was too bad I hadn’t dreamed of riding a camel in Petra instead.
Our guide was nice and as we made our way through side streets then out into the desert he explained that men were buying camels at cheap prices in hopes of making money from giving tourists rides. In reality they couldn’t afford the cost of care so animals were left to starve in the streets.
The animals we passed along the way were so skinny and dogs were picking the remains from the few horses we saw that had already starved. I felt sick to my stomach. Even the families with stables were struggling to make any money off of tourism. As a result, all the other riders we crossed in the desert were Egyptians riding horses that needed exercise.
When we did make it to the desert, the sickening scene of the streets disappeared and opened way to an endless sandy landscape. I still felt a little uneasy but the view of the pyramids and the hazy sunset were beautiful. This was more like the experience I had imagined.
After a peaceful hour in the quiet of the desert, we got back to our B+B just before the sun slipped below the horizon. I had an early flight to catch the next morning and desperately needed sleep.
I’m still not sure how to reconcile my feelings about our camel ride. I enjoyed myself out in the desert but witnessed a really ugly side to tourism on the way there. I want to learn about all sides of tourism when I travel, not just the positive, but I’m not sure how to help this situation if there is even anything I can do. I tell myself that paying for a ride was contributing money so the stable can buy more food, and our camels weren’t starved, but I’m afraid partaking in a ride given the circumstances in Giza couldn’t possibly be ethical at all. I don’t know…
I’ve heard the good and (plenty of) the bad about Egypt. The world wonders. The scams. The history. The filth. In a sense it’s all true and every traveler has their own reason for loving or hating Egypt. With any luck though, I’ll go back with someone who loves the place and get another view of this destination from their perspective.