A Black Woman Lands in Cairo…
As I arrived back to the States with a gigantic smile on my face and a newfound peace in my heart, I knew that I was bit by the travel bug.
I just completed a 10+ day solo vacation overseas in Thailand and Singapore. The trip ignited a fire within me and opened my eyes to the world. I felt invigorated. I found the secret to my inner peace and I found my sanctuary. It was from that experience that I knew I needed to see more of the world!
When I arrived home, I laid a copy of the world map on the dining room table, closed my eyes, and pointed my index finger to select my next destination. It was Egypt! My eyes lit up with excitement because I have been fascinated with Egypt and its extensive history since I was a child. So I immediately started my research! I read blogs and enlisted the help of some of my closest friends (one traveled to 25 countries and six of the seven continents solo) to help plan my trip. I was nervous because I was told by several people that Egypt can be a sketchy place to travel alone and it’s not as “pristine” as some other countries. This made me even more nervous!
A few weeks after I booked the flight, there was news of a bombing in Egypt, which totally freaked me out. Fear is a very powerful emotion and it can “make or break” you. I can proudly say that my fears did not break me. 🙂
Arriving in Cairo was definitely a culture shock. I researched every article and read every blog I could find to prepare me for solo travel to Cairo. No research prepared me for the stares from people, advances from men, living conditions, crowded streets, traffic, heat, and the language barrier though. One thing I can say is Cairo is not for the faint of heart; either you’ll love it or you’ll hate it.
I ate where the locals ate, slept in a hostel, and shopped where the locals shopped. After the initial culture shock wore off, I enjoyed Cairo and felt at home. I visited the local bazaar, Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, a papyrus factory, rode a camel through the desert and paid a few extra dollars to actually go inside one of the pyramids! Cairo was the first stop on my amazing solo vacation. I traveled to Luxor, Egypt next and met up with a couple from Florida who was staying at the same Airbnb I was staying. As we ate breakfast on the rooftop, I listed all of the countries and cities I visited as a solo traveler, and the girlfriend suddenly gasped when I mentioned Cairo. With a look of admiration and respect in her eyes, she said “If you traveled solo to Cairo, you can travel anywhere. You are hardcore!”
Most blogs painted Cairo to be a noisy city where female tourists are not required to wear a hijab. Modest dress is highly recommended and there’s a chance that single women may receive unwanted advances from Egyptian men. While all of these things are true, none of the blogs described the experience that I had. Not only was I a female solo traveler from the United States, but I was also an African-American female SOLO traveler from the United States. And because of this, and based on the woman’s reaction, I decided to create a list of the TOP FIVE TIPS Black women solo travelers need to know before visiting Cairo. Check them out below!
1. LEARN AT LEAST FIVE WORDS IN ARABIC OR PERFECT THE ART OF PANTOMIME
Before leaving for Egypt, I watched every YouTube video I could find to learn at least ten words in Arabic. I knew as a solo traveler I would need to know some of the language in order to acclimate to the culture.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to speak a word of Arabic before arriving in Cairo. I knew that most people in Cairo didn’t speak English, so I was at a scary disadvantage.
During my five-day visit, the only word I learned and mastered was shukran (“thank you”). All thanks to my awesome tour guide Manar! I did encounter some Egyptians (such as my tour guide and some of the shop owners) who spoke fluent English, but most locals didn’t speak much English.
Manar told me that shukran is a polite way to refuse something that is being offered to you. I was asked to buy any and everything you could think of! Egyptians are definitely great salespeople. There are shops, clothing boutiques and specialty stores everywhere, and as you walk the streets in downtown Cairo, shop owners will try their best to coerce you to step into their shops.
I only mastered ONE word in Arabic and I didn’t have internet access to use Google translator so I had to brainstorm different ways to communicate. It’s pretty frustrating when you want to say something and the language barrier gets in the way. But, I did the only thing I could think of and that was pantomime! I rubbed my thumb, middle and index finger together to ask how much something costs or pointed to things I wanted. My gestures worked just fine and I was able to survive but I would advise travelers to learn at least five words in Arabic such as ‘restroom’, ‘water’ and ‘food’.
2. EGYPTIANS WILL BE CURIOUS ABOUT YOUR BEAUTIFUL MELANIN!
I got a lot of attention by not only being a solo traveler, but an African-American solo traveler. A lot of Egyptians would stare at me, especially the men. I think it was mainly out of curiosity because I noticed that Egyptian women either traveled in groups or with their partners, especially as it began to become dark. I didn’t see ANY Egyptian women walking the streets of downtown Cairo after dark alone, so seeing the brown-skinned woman in a hijab (me) piqued their interest.
I’m the adventurous type of solo traveler who ventures for meals and groceries where the locals tend to go. I wore a hijab for the majority of my stay in Cairo, and because of that and my skin tone, most Egyptians would address me in Arabic at first glance. This made me feel culturally accepted because I could actually “pass” as an Egyptian. This allowed me to “hide” in a sense, from the pressures of feeling like an outsider in the bustling streets of Cairo.
Once local Egyptians heard my accent though, they quickly realized that I must’ve been from the western part of the world. Some Egyptians would ask if I was from Africa (although Egypt is actually located in Africa) and I would politely tell them that I was from Canada. I was born and raised in the United States but Manar suggested I tell curious Egyptians that I was from Canada because most people around the world think that if you’re from the U.S. you have plenty of money to spend!
3. WEAR PROTECTIVE HAIRSTYLES
I traveled to Cairo in mid-June so every day the temperature soared well above 100 degrees by noon. The heat in the desert is very dry, but downtown is humid! The heat will sap every ounce of moisture out of your skin and hair. Since you are constantly sweating, your entire body constantly loses water.
I’ve been on my natural hair journey for almost six years and I prefer to wear a big curly twist out. For me, being a naturalista is a full-time commitment because my hair requires a significant amount of daily maintenance. I wanted to enjoy Cairo without worrying about washing my hair, twisting my hair, getting split ends, having to finger comb, or doing deep conditioning treatments.
Protective styling allowed me to enjoy Cairo without worrying about my hair. I opted for long two-strand twists because they’re versatile and super easy to maintain. The only maintenance two-strand twists require is oiling the scalp and wearing a satin cap to bed. Another obstacle I dealt with in Cairo was finding Taliah Waajid natural hair care products!
4. MODEST DRESS/OPT FOR A HIJAB
While flipping through Instagram one afternoon, I saw a woman with flowing hair down her back. She was dressed in a bright yellow spaghetti-strapped sundress, covered in beautiful jewelry, wearing colorful sandals posing in front of the pyramids of Giza. Well with me, I am never dressed elaborately in the middle of a hot and sandy desert in the middle of the day, but everyone is different.
I try to be very respectful while visiting countries where modest dress is required and I also don’t want to create any unwanted attention as a solo traveler either. I also discovered that it was easier to withstand Cairo’s extreme heat and humidity fully clothed rather than being half naked! I opted to wear long-sleeved cotton shirts, harem pants and long loose-fitting skirts. When I walked around downtown, I always wore a hijab because it made me feel more comfortable. And I didn’t get nearly as many stares as I did when I walked around showing my beautiful twists!
The hijab gave me the confidence to walk around Cairo by myself and not feel uncomfortable. It can be a lonely city, and as a solo traveler the last thing I wanted to do was stick out like a sore thumb. Downtown Cairo can be quite dusty, hot and humid. My hijab shielded me from the sun and protected my twists from all that dirt and dust!
5. WEAR SUNSCREEN/SPF 100
Growing up in a household where my mother has discoid lupus, I was taught at a very young age to wear sunscreen and always protect my skin. I’m a huge stickler when it comes to skin care because contrary to popular belief, African-Americans can develop skin cancer. This is not a myth! This is a cold hard fact (a dermatologist shared this with me). So, when traveling to a country like Egypt, you MUST wear sunscreen to shield your beautiful skin from the powerful Egyptian sun. In the US, I’ve used sunscreens as high as SPF 50 but you can actually buy SPF 100 at your local Walmart. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation’s website, SPF 100 provides more protection from sunburn and it helps to better protect your skin from the sun’s UVA and UBA ray. I prefer the spray-on sunscreen because it’s much easier to apply and I know for sure that my skin is evenly protected.
Cairo is a unique city filled with many wonders. From the Pyramids of Giza, Nile River, and the Sphinx, to the delicious food and super cheap hotel accommodations. Cairo has a culture all its own. I hope my tips will help prepare you to venture out and explore the beautiful city of Cairo one day!