Sunday, February 24, 2008

Travel: Stepping off the tourist trail

The Independent (UK)

When hunger strikes, I conduct a quest for koshari in the downtown side-streets. Koshari joints are café-esque, no-nonsense establishments, and I'm served this tasty carb-fest in a stainless steel bowl with a matching beaker of heavily chlorinated tap water. It's a mound of pasta, rice and lentils topped with fried onions and spicy tomato sauce, all for just 20p.

Egypt is refreshingly cheap. It's also sweltering, so when my soles begin to swell I head for the air-conditioned cool of Groppi's. This tearoom is an institution, and I sip Lipton tea in an atmosphere of faded colonialism alongside gossiping middle-class couples and ageing bachelors reading Al-Ahram.

Taking a day to adjust makes me feel I can blend in. On the average street in Cairo, foreigners are rare. Yet despite the repeated terrorist attacks aimed at tourists, travellers are converging on Egypt in record numbers. Last year, the country received nearly ten million tourists, roughly a million of whom were British. But so far I've seen very few of them.

Underground, I remind myself of metro etiquette. The first carriage of every train is for women only. Sometimes I use it; sometimes I don't. But what's remarkable, in every carriage but particularly the first, is that a certain kind of woman has disappeared. There used to be plenty: women who looked like the newsreaders on Egyptian television, or the stars of the popular soaps – smart, with make-up and (the defining feature) carefully styled hair. But many Egyptians are returning to a more fundamental expression of Islam. Hairstyles are out; hijab is in.

See the above page for the full story.

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