things I wish I'd known before I went to Egypt

Jan 11th, 2010, 09:22 AM
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things I wish I'd known before I went to Egypt

Just back from Egypt. While there, I decided to write this posting. First off let me say that the sites in Egypt are amazing. Seeing the Sphinx and the Pyramid and Luxor temple and Abu Simbal were travel highlights of a lifetime. But, that being said, Egypt is not an easy trip -- and we did it the 5 star way and it was still really tough. So I thought that it would help my fellow fodorites considering a trip to Egypt to bluntly state some things to consider before booking that trip of a lifetime. And for those who want to flame me for this post, please keep in mind my motives are good:

1) Egypt is a poor country - and that means squalor and begging. Cairo especially is a really grimy dirty city with appalling levels of dirt -- and i grew up in Brooklyn in the 70s so to me, that is a LOT of dirt. Trash all over and people living in conditions you never hope to see. Case in point the "city of the dead" which is nothing more than homeless people living in a cemetery.

2) this "baksheesh" you read about is not as charming as it sounds. It's basically begging - and aggressive begging at that. For the entire time we were there not one person could do anything nice for us without then demanding payment. For example, the person who made up our cabin on our nile cruise made a cute swan with the towels. then came by and asked to be paid for it. The police at the karnak temple pointed out a place to take really good panoramic pictures. and then asked to be paid for it. the examples are endless. And if you don't pay - they yell at you. Not pleasant.

3) BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER WITH YOU EVERYWHERE. I can't stress this enough esp for women. You have to pay to the to use the toilet's everywhere and in order to make sure you do - they hold the TP hostage. They will give you a tiny portion if you pay. If you need more you're out of luck. I carried my own TP everywhere but I still paid to use the toilet because of how poor everyone is. But the peace of mind of having my own limitless supply of TP was priceless.

4) mummy tummy is no joke. On this forum and indeed even in the fodors guide you will read that traveler's intestinal upset is mild and will pass in 48 hours. UNDERSTATEMENT of the year. Mine lasted 3 days and was horrid. Especially given (3) above. Travel with CIPRO and immodium PLEASE.

5) sorry to be on a theme here, but the public bathrooms are disgusting. When the fodors guide says the bathroom are basic, that is really just misleading. they are vile.

6) You will be getting up before dawn most days of your trip. It's unavoidable to get it all in and to avoid the worst of the heat and crowds - this is not a sleep-in kind of destination

7) don't buy anything in the bazaar in cairo - in fact, don't even go. I had expected something very exotic and found only a nastier version of china town in NYC. Urine smelling with louis vuitton knock off's and fake alabaster. Skip it.

8) if you are an animal lover - this is a tough place to travel. Animals are treated so badly here, from dogs in the street to donkeys being whipped to horses baking in the heat. It's horrible.

9) don't go in summer. I went in winter and the weather was great but hot in the south. The summer would be murder - not worth it.

10) Women - do not expect to be treated as an equal. On several occasions I was treated as though I didn't exist. One of the waiters actually said to my husband "your wife is lovely what is here name?" while I was sitting right there. And no, that's not respect, it's disrespect.

11) Gay couples - exercise caution. homosexuality is not tolerated well here, so don't be conspicuous for your own safety and comfort.

12) Water becomes a precious resource. At the 4 seasons they gave us free bottled water every day, but they did not on our nile cruise (sonesta st george) and if you don't have bottled water, you can't drink or brush your teeth so make sure you have plenty of cash to buy it!

13) smog in cairo is oppressive, if you have asthma or anything like that take care. My husband's eyes burned every day we were there

14) Not to fodors editors - your guidebook (we've used your guidebooks all over the world) says its ok to wander on your own the streets of cairo. BAD ADVICE. Again, I am from NYC and I would never wander the streets of cairo on my own without a guide. Crazy to give this advice.

OK flame away if you must.
Ivy is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 09:57 AM
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I am relatively new to this form, but have been reading comments and trip reports for a very long time. I am an extensive (thats an understatement) and have been to almost every continent in the world and on different budgets from backpacker to chi chi trips. I just want to make a few comments regarding traveling to different countries...

Ivy, you have made some very good points about things to be aware about when traveling to Egypt. Thank you for your post. However, I think that the points you make should be common sense knowledge when traveling to another continent, country and culture. This is not North America, and as such, the expectations should not be of a North American lifestyle.

You have to expect that there will be beggars, pot handlers, kids asking for money. In many places in Asia, South America, Africa this is quite normal. I have seen it everywhere. I find that not making eye contact, not looking interested, and a polite no thank you (in their language) suffices and they leave you alone. You may have to do this several times a day...but remember this is how they make any kind of living.

The rest room facilities are bad. Come to this realization quickly and it isn't a surprise. Bringing your own toilet paper is a cardinal rule of any frequent traveler. If you want decent restrooms, look out for decent restaurants or malls, or stores. And paying to use the rest room is common place again in many countries. You don't even want to know the worst restroom I have seen...and I used it!

Travelers diarrhea is something that has to be planned for. Cipro and immodium are good advice. YOu can get it anywhere! Even in North America. You can be as careful as can be and still get it. Sometimes you body doesn't adjust well do different foods/preparations in different countries.

Regarding pollution, dirtiness of a city, smogg...its a city of 14 million people. What do you expect??? Manhattan is big, but it ain't Cairo or Manila or Beijing or Bangkok.

I think I will end my soap box. I guess my point is that people go these countries to see all the amazing sites and attractions, but a very important part of traveling is experiencing another culture! And this is all a part of experiencing that culture. It is suppose to be an adventure. Enjoy it, rather than being annoyed by it. If you let these things bother you, it will only lessen your vacation experience.

You can shelter yourself from these petty things in 5 star hotels as much as you want. I prefer to go out and experience it. It sure makes a vacation for me!
doctorjohn is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 10:38 AM
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Hi Ivy -

I hope that nobody will flame you, as everyone is entitled to his/her opinions and point of view, and I think it's important for people to share their honest impressions. I also just returned from Egypt, and I'd like to share some of my impressions on these topics.

We also took the 5* route, in part because the Middle East was such a new experience for us and we didn't know what to expect (we also needed some R-and-R after a very crazy and hectic year). That said, we really did try to get out there and see as much as we could, including the poorer areas of town (especially as we became more comfortable with our surroundings later in the trip -- I have just started a trip report and will be posting more about that in the next few days). I thought it was important and eye-opening to see these conditions, including the City of the Dead. It's so easy, especially when you're staying in a beautiful 5* hotel, to forget about how the millions of people who live there full time conduct their daily lives. I can't pretend that I got even close to a true picture of what it's like to be an Egyptian living in Cairo, and I thought about that a lot as I was being whisked away every night to my luxury hotel, but I think I got a glimpse of it, and I'm glad I did.

I echo doctorjohn's comments above about the begging/baksheesh. I'll post more about this in my trip report. A firm "la shukran" usually did the trick. We had read in advance to expect that people would want to be paid for any type of assistance, so when people approached us at various sites to tell us about a "secret tour" or a great photo op, we said a firm "la shukran" and walked away. In the Valley of the Queens, we enjoyed the contributions of one of the men who worked in the tomb (he went around the tomb with us and talked about all the paintings), and we were happy to give him a couple of LE for the effort.

I agree about the toilet paper -- the two or three squares they sometimes give you is not enough! I too always had extra TP on hand. In terms of the cleanliness, most of the public restrooms we visited (particularly those with attendants), were pretty clean. The ones at Karnak were spotless, and the ones at Abu Simbel were just fine.

I had a light case of mummy tummy one night and found that the cheap and readily available Antinal did the trick. You can get it at any pharmacy for about $1.00 USD. I took one at the first sign that something was amiss, then took another about 4 hours later, and another later on in the day. By then, I was good as new. You can also get cipro without a prescription, and it is very cheap, as well. Interestingly, immodium did not work for me. Antinal was much better for my stomach vice.

I completely disagree about the bazaar -- I would say don't miss it for the world! Even if you only spend a few minutes, it's such a unique and fun experience. If you're not interested in shopping, it's at least worth stopping at El Fishawy for some tea. I do agree that there is a lot of junk in the bazaar, and we didn't buy all that much there, nor did we spend a ton of time there. We did buy a gold cartouche at a place that was recommended by our guide and by Debbie with Casual Cairo (she posts here and can give specifics in terms of who to ask for there). The prices were fixed and the selection and quality were beautiful.

I agree about the water -- we purchased water on several occasions from various places (roadside stores, a gas station near our hotel), and it was generally much cheaper than the water at the hotels.

I also disagree about wandering the streets of Cairo. Near the end of our trip, we wandered around quite a bit (on our own), and we never felt that we were even remotely in danger. I think there's a big difference between poor/destitute conditions and dangerous conditions. From what I understand, there is very little street crime in Cairo. I felt much safer there than I would wandering through some of the neighborhoods near my home in Los Angeles. If I return to Cairo, which I truly hope to do sometime soon, I would spend even more time walking around and exploring the area. I thought the people we interacted with were just wonderful, and we came away with a very positive view of the Egyptian people.

I hope you don't take this as a "flame," because I don't mean it that way at all. One of the highlights of this forum, for me, is that we get to experience different opinions and viewpoints from travelers who take the time to post here.

abby97 is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 11:04 AM
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Obviously, Ivy, you're entitled to your opinion. But like abby and drjohn, my experience was different. We went what I would call the "4*" route -- meaning we stayed, for example, at Le Meridien Pyramids rather than Mena House or Four Seasons, but still pretty upscale. We were on a private tour (us, our two young adult children, and two other 20-somethings). Even a private tour was unusual for us as we are supremely independent travelers. We take a taxi when called for, but are very comfortable on public transportation (when traveling, at home, the only public transportation we use is BART, and that's only once-in-awhile). I say all this to give some insight into "who we are".

All of that said, I think people who read your post simply have to understand that this was one person's individual experience, and does not serve as "general fact". For example, we, as I said, were a party of six. Three of us had no mummy tummy at all, and three had some diahrrea for one evening/night. We traveled with toilet paper, seat covers and Purel. We used the purel often before eating, but the tp and seat covers mostly went unused, because they were unnecessary. We were only in one restroom I would consider downright gross. "Don't go to the bazaar"? I can't even imagine going to Cairo, or any similar city, and skipping the public market. By the way, we didn't buy a thing (except for papyrus, and that was elsewhere). I loved the "window" shopping. We also went to the markets in Aswan and Luxor (yes, we love markets). The first time we went to Khan al Khalili, we were on our own (the day before the rest of our group arrived and our "tour" began). We took a taxi there and back from our hotel. We thought we'd be ripped off on the fare going back (after all, we were "hostage"), but in fact, that driver charged us half of what the first driver charged (and both were pre-negotiated). The thing we found most annoying (but honestly comical after awhile) were the shopowners attempts to get us in their stores.

I could go on and on, but I just wanted to say to others that Ivy's experience is her experience, and it doesn't begin to mimic MY experience. How you view it depends on YOU.
sf7307 is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 11:31 AM
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Good points made by all!

You are right in that everyone's travel experiences are there own. No bashing here.

I just want everyone to remember that your ON VACATION!!! You're suppose to have fun, see amazing attractions, experience new things. Don't sweat the small stuff. Look at it as part of the adventure. And as the boy scouts say...BE PREPARED!!

Regarding people pestering you or begging for money or hawking this to you... I'll leave you with this...I was in Cuzco, Peru, walking around the city square and all these people come up to you trying to sell you something. One guy comes up to me and says one of the most original one liners I have ever heard from a hawker. He says "buenos noches amigo...How can I rip you off today??" I found it so hilarious that couldn't help but buy a toque from him!! It's these experiences that you remember forever...just as much as the amazing sites.

If you keep an open mind and open yourself up to new experiences, things will be whole lot more fun and interesting!!
doctorjohn is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 12:02 PM
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DoctorJohn, there is no way I'll forget I'm on vacation!!! lol Can't wait for a break with work.
MissGreen is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 12:36 PM
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I'm sorry you found your visit to Egypt so disappointing. My experiences of a couple of years ago were very much the opposite. I found it to be one of the most fascinating and interesting countries in the world, and I have done a good bit of foreign travel. You simply must keep your mind open if you are going to leave the United States. Don't expect conditions to be the same - they simply are not, and that is what makes foreign travel so rewarding. One should travel to see and to experience other cultures, the good and the bad of them and to accept them for what they are. Yes - other countries have their problems, but so do we. Forgive me for saying so, but you come across as a spoiled tourist of the kind that give American travelers a bad reputation. If you don't like what other countries have to offer, just stay home.
CUBANANCY is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 12:40 PM
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and the flaming begins - thanks for not letting me down CUBANANCY! God forbid anyone on this forum should actually not like a country without getting called names for it like "spoiled"
Ivy is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 01:03 PM
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Ouch! Let's not be harsh!!

Let's be constructive here. Can anyone elaborate on how much was the standard for tipping? For example tipping guides, drivers, waiters etc??? We might as well make good use of this topic
doctorjohn is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 01:51 PM
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Points well taken, but have to wonder where else have you traveled in so-called "3rd world or developing countries?"

Bangkok, Siem Reap/Cambodia, Burma, Turkey, most African countries... often very poor, lousy living conditions, children in tattered clothing, dirty streets, smelly alleys, nasty looking pets/animals, even nastier toilets, designer knock-offs, cheap souvenirs, and on and on?

While I have yet to venture to any South American countries, from friends/family who have, the same issues abound, as I would expect.

Hey, even on our first visit to a border town in Italy (years ago) coming from France which was so clean, surprised at the dirt and not very friendly people, hole-in-the-ground toilets, no TP, beggers, etc.

Lest we forget the downright run-down and poor neighborhoods here in the States where people still don't have indoor water or toilets.

Regardless where, neither myself nor travel partners ever had tummy problems, though were always prepared just in case.

I too grew up in Brooklyn, and but for some ghetto areas we'd drive thru, hadn't experienced such squalor as you mention.

Granted none of these depressed countres/areas are pleasant to experience, why it's important to know where you plan to visit ahead of time.

Years ago I learned that when you hit the road, you're "not in New York anymore" and certainly not in Kansas! The reason for travel!

doctorjohn - Tipping: I use the same guidelines no matter where I visit and give more or less depending on service. Always based on what I feel it's worth. And, do my utmost to learn a few words in the local language - hello, please, thank you, good morning/night, excuse/pardon me, how much, too much, yes/no, and most important - where's the toilet!
sandi is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 02:43 PM
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Sandi - excellent point. This was my first "third world country" (I never found Italy to be problematic! or anywhere in the states for that matter!). I've been pretty much everywhere in Europe and to Australia and all around the US but, this was my first in the mid east or africa. So yes, this was a change from what I am used to in terms of travel. I felt like, in cairo, I was vacationing in the south bronx. Now, with that being said, I DID enjoy my trip. My OP never indicated otherwise. My OP is to give the blunt worst case scenario to anyone considering a trip to Egypt because, after all, this forum is supposed to be where we help one another. But the trip had major high points, Karnak, Luxor, the nile, Phillae, our wonderful guide, the food (mummy tummy notwithstanding).
Ivy is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 04:40 PM
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<<1) Egypt is a poor country - and that means squalor and begging. Cairo especially is a really grimy dirty city with appalling levels of dirt>>

Yup. It's a city of almost 18 million (greater Cairo area) and with incredible poverty and an average rainfall less than 1" per year - so water is at a premium (the Nile just isn't that clean!).
<2) this "baksheesh" you read about is not as charming as it sounds>>

I've never heard anyone refer to it as "charming." It exists. Some people get overly annoyed by it. Others learn to deal with it.

This is basic advice for travel to many places, not just Egypt.
<<4) mummy tummy is no joke.

Some people get it. Some don't. We lived there 4 years (me, DH, 2 sons) and never had a problem. My MIL and an aunt/uncle came to visit for 10 days and they didn't have a problem. I knew other people who had a case of mummy tummy every couple of months. Just depends.
<<5) sorry to be on a theme here, but the public bathrooms are disgusting.>>

Yup. Some are just gross. Others are fine. I remember my DH wouldn't let my sons anywhere near the one at Abu Simble. I also remember that the one at the gas station - in the middle of nowhere on the road to El Gouna/Hurghada - was quite decent. Also ran into some horrible toilets in China, Tanzania, Singapore, and - yes - the US. Be prepared for the worst and be happy when you get something better. Of course, this is when having boys is helpful. "Hey, Mom! Dad and I peed on the Great Wall!" (not quite accurate, but it's a good story!)
<<6) You will be getting up before dawn most days of your trip>>

To avoid the heat of the day, this is just a necessity.
<<7) don't buy anything in the bazaar in cairo - in fact, don't even go.>>

Don't know where you went, but after more than 2-3 dozen visits to the Khan (maybe more), I didn't encounter smells and fakes until I ventured onto some of the side streets/alleys. I would go to the Khan right now if I had the chance. I love it! Now.....there was the day we saw a man carrying the dead cow over his shoulders..........
<<8) if you are an animal lover - this is a tough place to travel.>>

This is very true.
<<9) don't go in summer.>>

I agree, but some people have no alternative. It's just have to be well prepared.
<<10) Women - do not expect to be treated as an equal. >>

It is not uncommon to find men who are uncomfortable speaking directly to a women. It's not a sign of disrespect as much as it is cultural/religious. Does some discrimination exist? Sure, just like everywhere.
<<11) Gay couples - exercise caution. homosexuality is not tolerated well here>>

Very true. I've known people to be quickly rushed out of the country when it was feared they had been outed. Again, be prepared for it and act accordingly.
<<12) Water becomes a precious resource.>>

Yup. It's a critical item. But it's cheap, so not a big deal if you have to buy your own.
<<13) smog in cairo is oppressive>>

This is also impacted by the lack of rain. There just isn't anything to remove it from the air.
<<14) Not to fodors editors - your guidebook (we've used your guidebooks all over the world) says its ok to wander on your own the streets of cairo. BAD ADVICE>>

What problems did you encounter? I walked on my own in all sorts of neighborhoods in Cairo. Never had a problem. Never felt unsafe. Now....crossing the streets is a whole OTHER matter!!!

DH and I first went to Egypt when we were deciding whether or not to move there. We arrived at 3 am, our luggage was lost, the people who were supposed to meet us weren't there, and we weren't entirely sure where we were supposed to go. A young man in the Tourist Information booth took us under his wing, called to verify the address we needed, got us a taxi, negotiated the price for us - and off we went.

The lesson we learned on that trip - which we then used for EVERY trip we took (the US, Asia, Europe, Africa - wherever) was simple....if you maintain a sense of humor, you can handle just about anything! Believe me, it has served us well!
Grcxx3 is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 05:18 PM
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I just got back from Egypt and Jordan and want to echo Grcxx3 and sf7307 thoughts.I loved Egypt and about the only annoying thing to myself and my family(as discussed in another thread) was the tipping for everything.

Although we had a mixture of hotels on the trip,none of them were the Four Seasons which I am sure was fabulous.That said,we never encountered any bathrooms that were bad in terms of cleaniness but then I was a Girl Scout in my younger days so am used to anything.

No one in our family got Mummy Tummy but we were very careful with drinks,not eating things like salad,etc.and used Purell religiously.US drugs like Cipro do not work over there. That is why it is very important to get the Antinal for the $1 as it is supposedly a miracle drug for friends who have used it.

The air of Cairo is bad and we even had a mini sandstorm our first day there but you deal with it.Visine and sinus pills worked well.

Don't shop in the bazaars? Good thing that you don't fly as an international flight attendant because most of us bid our trips so we CAN shop at these bazaars around the world.Bartering and cruising the various shops is so much fun!

Whether you are in Senegal,India or Egypt clean drinking water is always important!You have to plan ahead on buying it so you don't get caught without.

Wandering the streets of Cairo whether it was in the neighborhood of our 3 star hotel in Zemalak or in the back alleys of Old Cairo was very interesting to our family.In my travels as a flight attendant, I never would walk alone anyplace late at night but Cairo and most of the other Middle Eastern cities would not cause me the slightest concern for my safety as the people seemed to be family oriented and caring...and then there were those who always wanted the tip!You really get a chance to see and meet the people with their culture.Our family was constantly amazed as we traveled through Egypt of the number of people who would ask where we were from or if they could take a picture of us.

I think that everyone takes something different from every city that they visit. Sometimes on my flights home to the US I have passengers that talk about their overseas trips and I wonder if we have been to the same city?

Now if you want to talk about hard and difficult vacations then lets talk about India! My son lived and worked there for two years and the first few days that I went to visit him were for a better word "difficult" but then I adjusted to it and have fond memories.

I think having a sense of humor and the mantra that "this too shall pass" will get you through anything!
dutyfree is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 05:56 PM
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dutyfree - if I wasn't so old.....I'd think being an international flight attendant would be GREAT!!!! Maybe I'm crazy (it's a possibility! ) - but one of the things I LOVED about living overseas was the adventure. Learning to deal with chaos and unexpected challenges was just fun!'s that's "sense of humor" thing!

As for India, my younger son went there for a drama festival thru school when he was in 8th grade. He was in New Delhi, and unfortunately - they couldn't work in the time to see the Taj Mahal. India has never been on my list of "must see" places, but we have friends who live there and they love it. Maybe being there with people I know would help.
Grcxx3 is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 05:58 PM
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Grcxx3-I AM OLD...quietly saying this,"wait for it"-58.37 years of flying and I still cannot hold a Christmas vacation as there are over 900 people senior to me. Go figure!
dutyfree is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 06:05 PM
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WOW! So, you mean at 50.....I still have a chance????? Might just have to think about it!
Grcxx3 is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 06:08 PM
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Hi Ivy Hope you are the one from the Costa Rica Forum )!

I went over your points carfeully and except for # 14 , I knew all the other 13 before I left for Cairo.

I had a great time, every place I went and even though I was hassled for tips and money I took it in stride...because I thought to myself , this is the way some of these people make their living.

You suppose to say "La La " when you do not want to buy anything..there were times when La La did not I said "Larrr- Larrr!!

We perhaps are all rich tourist to them.

There was no place that I went to in Egypt that surprised me by what I saw.....

Others have given their opinion very well ,and I also would not miss the Bazaar, I found it hectic , amusing, excited to be there, but I just cannot recall any smell !

Anyway , I am glad you posted this because it was your holiday and your experience and perhaps your next trip to a "third" world country will be better !

Hi sandi
Hi Grcxx3 ( Time for drinks in Cairo again with Debbie )
doctorjohn ,loved your Peru experience !

Welcome home stay home for a while
Percy is online now  
Jan 11th, 2010, 06:22 PM
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Very true. Even the tourist on the most frugal budget makes much more money than the vast majority of Egyptians!.

Percy....definitely time for another round of drinks! And don't forget scotsgirl! She needs to be included!
Grcxx3 is offline  
Jan 11th, 2010, 07:50 PM
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I would not dream of drinking without scotsgirl !

Good Night
Percy is online now  
Jan 11th, 2010, 08:18 PM
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This is an interesting thread, Ivy, I think because Egypt is the first third world country you have travelled to, you have noticed all these issues. As you travel more you will find that what you say of Egypt is true of many less developed countries. I think it is also fair to say that some of your experiences in Egypt can be encountered in some richer nations too, mummy tummy, dirty toilets, smog, etc are not only in third world countries.
justshootme is offline  

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