No country has tested my patience quite like Egypt did.
It was a balmy 115 degrees in Egypt when we stepped off the overnight train in downtown Luxor. M and I were both very excited to be away from Cairo and to get to see the exotic Egypt of our dreams, the Valley of the Kings, the mummies, and the Nile river. After checking in to our hotel, we decided to head over to the famous Karnak Temple for the afternoon. Hearing that it was close by and really wanting to avoid dealing with the pushy cabbies, we decided to walk.
Worst. Decision. Ever.
Knowing that Luxor was like an ancient Egyptian theme park, and the fact that it was so hot it felt like my face was going to melt off, I decided to break all the rules and wear a dress. Rule number 1 when traveling in Egypt as a women, don’t wear a dress that doesn’t cover you from wrist to ankle and looks like a burlap sack.
I thought it we be more ok since we were sticking to the major tourist sites and I picked a dress that covered my shoulders and my knees. Also, the thought of putting on the same pants I’d been wearing for days made me want to cry a little. Egypt was so damn hot that even when I wore light linen pants, I could feel the sweat trickle down my legs and if I were to sit down, I would sweat through the back of my pants in approximately 1.5 minutes offering that nice, “I just wet my pants” look. Too damn hot.
My people are Polish. I have a semi-arctic tolerance for cold in my blood. I wear shorts in winter and I down half a bottle of vodka and still stand. I was not meant for this weather.
A day’s worth of water
Shade hunting in Luxor
By the time we arrived at Karnak, we were so sweaty, hot, sunburned and tired, we were willing to pay 5 dollars for a bottle of water and all we wanted to do was pass out in the shade. It didn’t help that we were harassed constantly by cabbies and calèche drivers (horse-drawn carriages) offering cheap rides for “the pretty ladies;” our moods were tense. We were stared at so much I kept having to check to make sure I hadn’t tucked the back of my dress in my underwear.
In my defense, I don’t think we were harassed solely for the fact that you could see my elbows and shins. M and I were two girls alone traveling in Egypt at a time when tourism had dropped over 80% because of the revolution. People were desperate because so many jobs relied heavily on tourism, especially in places like Luxor. This meant that westerners and tourists were targeted much more strongly to buy things from scarves to water to horse rides.
It may not seem like a big deal, but for two young American women who literally could not walk 1 minute down the street without being called out to about something, it made things challenging, to put it lightly. Inside, I wanted to punch the teeth out of the next chauvinistic jerk who dared to call me Barbie and offering camels for my hand in marriage.
The dress that started it all at Karnak Temple
By the time we got back downtown, both of us were hot, sticky and in really foul moods. As we turned on a narrow street looking for the entrance to Luxor temple, a guy on a horse drawn carriage started following us. He kept calling out to us, trying to hawk a ride on his caleche. After we repeatedly told him no and tried to ignore him, he started saying provocative things to us. This went on for a good five minutes and we had no where to turn off to on this street. As we literally tried to run from him, I heard him yell to me, “hey blondie, nice ass!” Oh, no he didn’t!
At this point I lost it; I was sick and tired of being made to feel cheap and dirty 24/7. Imagine 5 days of constantly being stared at, propositioned and proposed to, and being swindled out of every dime I had. It was ruining our trip! It didn’t help that it was so hot sweat was pouring in my eyes, ruining my make-up and making me look like some crazed panda on steroids. All I wanted to do was visit some temples in peace, is that asking too much? I was done with these touts!
“F*** you, who do you think you are to talk to me like that?” I screamed at him. “No means no! I am not getting in your damn caleche, go harass some other tourists you misogynistic pig!” I then proceeded to go on a mini-tirade about how just because I’m wearing a dress doesn’t mean men can speak like that to women no matter where in the world I was, full-on all feminist women’s college rant, Mount Holyoke would be proud. Who knew my damp blonde hair and perspiring calves were so irresistible and sexy? Stupefied at my squawking and flinging arm motions, he yelled at me in indiscernable Arabic before galloping off.
Fuming, I stomped off looking for the entrance to the temple. If only it ended there. Why does it never end there with me?
As we wandering around lost looking for the entrance to the temple, more and more people kept coming up to us trying to hawk something. I suddenly realized M was quiet and looking surly. M only gets quiet and surly for two reasons. She needs to eat or something is bothering her. Since neither of us could keep any food down thanks to the ever present third world stomach bug owing to our penchant for eating street food in Egypt, I had to assume something was on her mind. M is not always one to eloquently express her feelings. So smack in the main square in front of Luxor Temple, grumpy and hot, I asked her to just spill it.
“It’s. Um. Well. I dunno….WHY DID YOU HAVE TO WEAR THAT DRESS? YOU CAN’T SAY THE ‘F’ WORD IN EGYPT!” She blurted out at me.
Oh God. Really? Really? Were we going to have that discussion there? A screaming fight ensued between me and one of my best friends in quite possibly the most central location in all of Luxor. Neither of us had slept in days, we were both so hot and uncomfortable, violently nauseous to boot and in really bad moods. M thoroughly chastised me for not respecting the culture enough to wear pants 24/7 while I tried to defend myself saying we were in tourist city and it was only one afternoon, and I just couldn’t put on a pair of pants. Even looking back now I don’t think I could have worn pants again. It was ungodly hot, and I’ve lived in southern Spain in the summer, and that was nothing compared to this.
We all have our limits but that day in Luxor, I reached mine. I can put up with so much when I am traveling but that hot afternoon in Egypt, I couldn’t take another minute of the hassling.
Sunset at Luxor Temple
And the best part?
Let’s not forget the happy go lucky, ever-present Egyptians who are more than willing to put in their two cents. In the midst of our fight, we realized a circle literally had been formed around us of all the local caleche drivers and touts, and at about every 30 seconds or so, someone would interject something into our argument, like “don’t be angry, you’re in Egypt, be happy!” or the constant “want to ride my donkey? I give you good price.” Eventually, we cried, we hugged, we made up and even let 9 year old Ali let us drive us around the block in his carriage for five bucks for god measure.
And the even better part?
Did I mention that there were virtually no tourists in Egypt when we were there because everyone was afraid they would get tear gassed and caught up in another revolution? This meant that for the next 4 days we were in Luxor, everyone remembered us and knew who we were and weren’t afraid to yell out “hey Barbie, you look happier now, no crying! Want to see my papyrus collection? For you I give special price!” as we walked downtown and around the souks. It definitely made Luxor unforgettable for me.
Please notice how M is holding her purse. No one is wringing that out of her hands!
What to take away from this?
Ladies, suck it up and wear pants in Egypt or toughen up to the harrasing. Don’t be afraid to make a big old scene because I can tell you ignoring does NOT always work. Maybe not drop the f-bomb. Also, be careful with the street food and don’t walk to Karnak temple. It’s a lot farther than it looks on the map.
In all seriousness, it’s important to respect the culture of the country you are traveling too, and the day women wear a dress like mine in Egypt will be the day King Tut’s mummy comes back alive. HOWEVER, the harassment of women in Egypt is a hot topic in the news. It’s a big problem, and it’s not only something foreign women are subject to. I will add that I was just as harassed wearing khaki pants and long sleeve botton-ups as I was when I wore a dress.
Times need to change, and Egyptian women will be the first to say it. I was disgusted by the way I was spoken to in my two weeks I was there, and it negatively impacted my opinion of a country that I otherwise loved. Just mentally prepare yourself for this before going, and if your dream is to visit this beautiful country and you are a woman, it shouldn’t keep you from traveling to Egypt. I will also add I never truly felt threatened when I was in Egypt. Will this experience keep me from traveling back to Egypt or to other similar countries? Not in the least. Will I invest in a portable fan and pay double for air conditioned rooms? You bet I will.
Have you ever traveled to Egypt as a woman? What was your experience like there? Would you be able to travel to a country like Egypt? Have you ever reached your limit when traveling?
The dress that sparked it all