Book Review of the Week: Frommer's Egypt

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
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As a Special Bonus, Frommer's has graciously donated a copy of Egypt, 1st Edition, to be awarded to a randomly drawn commenter on this article. Post your comments - you might win!   

 

 

One of my favorite places is Egypt - my aunt is an archaeologist, and so we've had stories my whole life of Egypt. Now, our daughter is carrying on the love of Egypt - she's quite the 6-year old Egyptophile. That made this week's book review even more special to us. Frommer has a new guide to Egypt, written by Matthew Carrington.  It is packed full of great things - from itineraries for every sort of traveler to the best of Egypt to an extensive resources section.  I am quite impressed with this new addition to the Frommer's catalog.  We were lucky enough to sit down with Matthew and chat about his new book - here's what he had to say...

 

 

WE: Please tell us about your book, Frommer's Egypt...

MC: Frommer's Egypt is meant to be a complete guide to Egypt. I hope that it not only gives its readers perspective on how to make the most of the
well-known sites, but access to less widely known places and experiences.
Egypt is a funny place: so well known on one hand, with the pyramids and
the temples, but on the other hand its still full of little places that people
have never heard of, and historical quirks and oddities that you would
never know were there unless someone told you. I also hope that it gives its
readers a feel for the happy, jumbled up craziness of the place - the way
that somehow, despite the disfunctionality of almost every individual
system or service, things work.

 

 

WE: What led to your interest in Egypt?

MC: I came by my interest in Egypt by the back door, as it were. Most people
I know first went to Egypt to see the pyramids, or learn Arabic by the
Nile.

I just went there to live, and it was only with time that I really came to
be interested in the sites and the history - it wasn't until two years
after I first went to Egypt that I even saw the pyramids in Giza. But when I did
finally see them, I was blown away!

 

 

WE: Do you still find new places in Egypt? Or are you so familiar with it
that you are busy exploring old haunts?

MC: My time in Cairo does tend to revolve around the old haunts - where my
friends hang out and where the people know me. Cairo's such a huge city
that the only way to live in it for any extended period is to make a comfort
zone and live in it, like a little village inside the city. That said, there's
also a huge amount to explore within the city, and (because of the ever
increasing traffic congestion) it's more and more a city where the only
practical way of getting around is to walk, and that's a great way to
discover new places. Outside Cairo I'm always finding new places,
especially in the slightly harder to get to areas - the desert oases or out on the delta.

If you have a vehicle and a little time, there's always something to
discover.

 

 

WE: Egypt is so full of history - it is easy to get overwhelmed. Do you
have any tips for first-time visitors?

MC: Tips for the first time visitor - arrive with a copy of Frommer's Egypt
under your arm! Really the most important thing is to relax. There's a huge
amount to see, and everywhere you go there's going to be a lot of hassle,
and a lot of people trying to get your attention (and your money). Just
chill out a little, and remember that the place is very safe. Be firm with
the hustlers, but go with the flow as much as you can. If you spend your
whole time dealing with logistics and hassle, you're not going to be able
to enjoy the sites, and believe it or not, things pretty well always work out
in Egypt if you just let them. That's one of the marvelous things about
this country.
 

Other than that, I would say, learn a little about the history and
the context of what you're seeing. Once you understand the function of the
Nile and the significance of the East and West Banks in Ancient Egyptian
religion, suddenly the topography of many of the ancient sites and towns
will be clear and organized in your head (after all, these were
spectacularly well organized towns in the context of their times). The last
thing to keep in mind - and this is just an extension of the last point -
is that the whole country is built on layers of history, and so once you've
gotten your head around the layout of one era, you should have a look at
the timeline and chronology in the guide and see what happened before and after that era because inevitably when you get to the site, you're going to find bits and pieces of these different eras sitting next to each other. And you
know, there's one final tip: don't spend too much time in Cairo. The place
is so crowded, so noisy and dirty, these days, that more than a few days
there can get pretty overwhelming. Get out to somewhere you can get a
little peace and quiet, even if it means you have to split up your time there into a couple of different short stays.

 

 

WE: Your research for this book must have been fun! What were the
highlights?

MC:  The highlights of my research were probably the Western Desert and
Aswan.

There were a few places out in the desert down south where I've never been
before, and that was really fun. Aswan, on the other hand, is pretty
familiar territory, but it's just one of my favorite places in Egypt to
hang out. It's very calm and very slow paced. You can literally sit there for
days and days and do absolutely nothing, and feel good about it.

 

 

WE: How do you suggest visitors best prepare, interculturally, for
traveling to Egypt?

MC:  Learn a bit of Arabic. Even three words will make a huge difference -
learn to say "hi" and "bye," and "thanks." Even these few words will make a
world of difference - you'll find people just respond to you differently,
and you'll make an immediate human connection that will both transcend
cultural differences and make them a lot easier to negotiate. The other
thing to think about is that social relations are hugely important in Egypt
- I think it's because they don't really have a functional government that
can mediate the way western governments do in all kinds of aspects of our
daily lives. This kind of filters down to a level that you'll experience as
a tourist in the interest that a lot of people will take in you. They'll
want to talk about your job and your family and so on: before they feel
comfortable dealing with you, people want to kind of locate where you're
coming from. Of course, it also means that - because you don't have any
Egyptian social connections - people will think that they can rip you off.
This is unfortunate, but true: that's why you have to be pretty firm about
paying for taxies and boat rides and buying things in the souk.
Understanding where that's coming from, though, can help you work with it.

Get to know the merchant a little, drink tea. Show him pictures of your
kids, parents, whoever. Establish that you are a respectable, family
oriented kind of person (this goes double, or triple, if you are a woman
traveling alone: wear a "wedding ring," carry pictures of your "husband"),
and that you think that he (or she) is as well. Everything will go more
smoothly, and you'll find the rip-off quotient will go way down as well.

 

 

WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

MC:  I could go on and on about Egypt. I have a private rating system for
cultures which is based on how far a random smile will take you.

Some places (I'm not going to name them, but you can probably figure them out for yourself) you smile at a taxi driver or merchant, and they take it as a
sign that you're a sucker or an idiot and treat your accordingly. In Egypt, a
smile will take you farther than almost any place I've ever been. These
people live in conditions that would drive you and me mad, and they're as
resourceful, tough and smart as anybody in the world, but taken as a whole
they have some of the softest, most friendly hearts of any people I've ever
met. I would say "meet them halfway" but really, you meet them a quarter of
the way and you'll find they've already done the other three-quarters.

That's the positive. The negative is that living off foreigners is an
established way of life here and the scams and rip-offs are legion. At one
end of the scale you will be subject, officially and unofficially, to a
dual-pricing system. You will, I guarantee it, pay more than any Egyptian
ever pays for everything. Get used to it. Tip well and smile, and remember
that you're also getting better service, better goods, and better food. On
the other end of the scale, you will be exposed to scams by experienced
grifters who can charm the birds out of the trees. Use your common sense.
Negotiate prices and services before hand, or be prepared for a long hard
(and not always so friendly) fight at the other end.

 

 

WE: Thanks so much, Matthew! I have always wanted to go to Egypt - with your new guidebook in hand, I am very excited to visit! 

 

And, Wandering Educators, Matthew was our Photographer of the Month for March. See his photos here.
 

Interested in purchasing Frommer's Egypt, 1st Ed.? 

Click here and save 20% on your entire online order at Frommer's.

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Please leave a comment on this book review to be entered into a random
drawing for a copy of Egypt, courtesy of Frommer's. Comments left until 11:59pm Monday, December 29th, will be accepted.

You must be a member of WanderingEducators.com (free to join) to leave
a comment, and reside in the U.S. to be eligible for this drawing.

 

 

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