Friday, February 19, 2010

Travel: What Guidebooks Don’t Tell You (Christine Bates)

I've more or less stopped posting travel items but I thought that this one stood out from usual monotonous descriptions that we have all read a hundred times before. It provides a reality check on the sunny outlook of many standard travel guides and points out some of the frustrations and surprises of being a first-time tourist in Egypt.

Two days ago, I left Cairo at dawn under a crescent moon. For two weeks, my husband and I had traveled up and down the eternal Nile like all conquerors and tourists. We learned that our three travel books were an imperfect guide to this complex country with a known history of nearly 6,000 years and a population of more than 83 million. There are many important subjects guidebooks do not cover, which we didn’t understand until we were actually there.

We began our trip in Cairo the night that the Egyptian national soccer team beat rival Algeria for the continental championship called the Africa Cup. All roads were jammed with celebratory traffic. Cars were honking, fans were waving Egyptian flags, and fireworks and flames appeared sporadically among the crowds assembled on the side of the roads.

My husband started coughing immediately — he’s a canary when it comes to air quality. According to a recent World Bank study that ranked the air quality of cities, Cairo is the most polluted city in the world — almost twice as polluted as Beijing with 169 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic liter. Compare this to Millerton’s and New York City’s PM readings Friday morning of 2.5. Tourists with allergies and asthma should limit their exposure to Cairo’s air. No guidebooks mention the severity of this problem.

Neither did any guidebooks mention that visiting many of Egypt’s fabulous, historic sites is physically demanding. One needs to get up at 3 a.m. and travel by bus convoy for four hours to visit Abu Simbel, the New Kingdom temple built by Ramses II around 1250 BC.

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