In the middle of the giant, sprawling city of Cairo is Old Cairo, an old, walled city from the Middle Ages. It is now filled with shops, restaurants, mosques, coffee shops, and markets. According to our guide, it is the place where Egyptians feel most at home. There, in its coffee shops, the famous Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz wrote his books.
The architecture of Old Cairo is different than that of the West. There are minarets, intricate geometric patterns, domes, and other patterns that make it feel foreign, especially for those who have traveled little. This was definitely true for me and for my daughter. I had not traveled outside of the United States in 25 years. My daughter had never done so. It was night time, and the city was teeming with people. This is generally true in Old Cairo, but this was Ramadan. They had fasted all day, and now it was time to enjoy some conviviality with family and friends. Old Cairo was full to the brim. You may recall a scene in a movie where there is a car trying to escape or move in the midst of a crowd of people. That’s what it felt like.
After having traveled two days to get to Egypt, we were tired, and the experience of Old Cairo was a bit overwhelming. We got checked into our hotel, and we sat outside. Our guide said, “Do you want to go for a walk?” We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know how safe Egypt was. All we knew was what we had read in reviews of Egypt’s safety, including the ominous warnings from the State Department. So, we were cautious. We walked around and were greeted by many people. Our guide said to us, “No one is going to harm you in Egypt.” We arrived safely back at our hotel without incident.
That night, I went up on the roof where the restaurant was. They had no alcoholic beverages in Old Cairo. I did not yet know to order their delicious juices. So, I ordered a Sprite and went out on the small veranda that overlooked the city. I saw the people. I saw the whirling dervishes. I saw the festivity. From up on top of the hotel, it felt much more peaceful. I was there in Egypt! Continue reading “How Three Foreign Cities Began to Feel Like Home”
Should anyone even think about traveling to Egypt? Isn’t it the Middle East? Isn’t it dangerous? Those were usually the first questions I got when I decided to travel to Egypt.
I was talking to one woman about going to Egypt with us. She is experienced in international travel. Her daughter lives in Germany. But when she read what the State Department said about traveling to Egypt, she was a bit concerned. The State Department gave Egypt a level 3 warning: reconsider travel. Why? Because of Covid (at the time) and terrorism. Then, I looked at Germany. I realized that it was on the same level due to terrorism and Covid. I was rather shocked by that because almost everybody would consider Germany a safe place to visit. You can find all sorts of dire warnings about most countries.
Our guide met us at the airport, and we made our way to old Cairo. We entered into the traffic of Cairo, and we had never seen anything like it. Forget about lanes, distance between cars, and crosswalks. 30 million people live in and around Cairo, and it felt like they were all pushing and shoving to get into the road we were on.
In my town, we can get a little bit of traffic because of the tourists. This occurs primarily on one road in the middle of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. In Cairo, traffic is like that one road everywhere, only worse. Here, people stay in their lanes and follow relative order. There, forget about lanes. Forget about crosswalks. Forget about following two cars behind. Even on the highway with no one around, they stay a couple of feet behind an accompanying car.
There was a woman who was part of some of our tours who had traveled all over the world. She had even been to India which is notorious for its bad traffic. She said she had never seen worse traffic than what she saw in Cairo.
Traffic in Other Countries
The good thing about experiencing such terrible traffic on my first international trip was that everywhere else seemed not so bad. Bogota is a city famous for its bad traffic. After a day there, I had learned a new word, trancón. It is a word rolos (people born in Bogota) use to describe the traffic. After being in Egypt, Bogota seemed relatively orderly. It was really not bad at all. I could feel comfortable driving there.
In Guadalajara, I felt like I could easily drive there. And Cartagena. And Spain. But probably not Santo Domingo.
In Santo Domingo, I learned another word that is similar to trancón. It is tapón. It is the word for a plug or a cork, where things move down to a smaller place and you can’t get through. These tapones can last for hours.
They not only drive like locos, but the streets are crowded with cars. This is not always because of the traffic. It was more that several cars are trying to drive on roads that seem to be made for horse carriages rather than cars, especially large ones.
One great thing about Santo Domingo is that, though the traffic is overwhelming, there is a way around it, or rather over it. You can take a cable car or teleférico over the city traffic. It also gives you an amazing view of the city. It’s like viewing the city in a helicopter. You see the homes of the rich and poor, the rivers, the downtown in the distance, and the mazes they call streets.
The thing that makes roads in the Dominican Republic especially dangerous is all the motorcycles. They daringly move in and out of even the tiniest seam in the traffic. It’s often better not to watch. We stayed at the home of a cousin of one of our friends. This cousin actually lives most of the time in NYC. When he is in the DR, he attempts to drive in Santo Domingo. He told me that he had actually got in a wreck with a motorcyclist in Santo Domingo. It was not his fault, but it was traumatic. The motorcyclist died because of the wreck.
Those were the types of dangers we faced in Santo Domingo. Nevertheless, our driver, whom their friends called “Maria Racing,” got us through the maze of roads that were the opposite of a grid and navigated us safely through this labyrinth without even a scratch. She’s used to it. She uses her 12 passenger van to transport students. I asked her how many students she transports. She said, “45.” That’s why she wanted a 15 passenger van. She thought it would be better to take 60 students.
One thing travel has taught me is that people have different tolerances for different things. This is not wrong. In fact, being aware of it can open up new possibilities. For example, I have a 12 passenger van. People often ask me, how many people can I fit in it? I say, “9 Americans or 20 Dominicans.” This may sound offensive, but it’s actually a true statement. I have found that Dominicans and others are simply more tolerant of squeezing together into smaller spaces. Americans are not. They like their space. It’s not bad. It’s just different. I have asked myself, how many preferences like that do I have that I haven’t even thought of?
Driving in other countries can make you appreciate what you have. One way I like getting around is through Uber. It’s a great way to have conversations with locals. One gentleman from Bogota told me about his trip to Peru. I told him about appreciating the clean water in Bogotá and that going to Egypt and Mexico had made me appreciate the clean water in America (more on that in another post). I asked him if he had experienced anything like that. He said, yes. The traffic in Lima (the capital of Peru) was terrible. He said that after returning to Bogotá, he realized it wasn’t really that bad in Bogota, even though he had thought so before.
And that’s what happened to me. Watching the traffic around D.C. from the plane as I re-entered America after my first trip to Egypt, I could not believe how orderly the cars were. I have been in awe of it ever since. I have been to New York City, downtown Gatlinburg, Atlanta, and Charlotte, and I still have seen no traffic that would be anywhere near as disorderly and chaotic as what I saw in Egypt. I’m not trying to be hard on Egypt, which is a country I love and would love to visit again. I’m more in awe of how easy it is to drive around in the United States. It’s a real blessing, and I want to be thankful for it.
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A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to visit Bogotá, Colombia. It was also my first time in South America. This trip was a bit different than my other trips. I did not do as much tourism as I ordinarily do. I was focused on taking care of a few things in my personal life. However, I did get to know the city, and I have a few thoughts for those who are considering travel to Colombia. For reasons I will explain below, this is probably useful for people who are considering traveling to other parts of Latin America as well.
Bogotá and the Tourist Areas of Latin America
There are many parts of Latin America where American gringos can go and enjoy a great time. Latin America is beautiful. The people are friendly. The culture is interesting. The dollar goes a long way. It is often cheaper to travel in Latin American than in the United States. In most of Latin America, you can travel easily with a few precautions like you might take in traveling to bigger cities in the United States, i.e., keeping on eye on your valuables, not getting drunk and wandering around the city, and avoiding the rougher areas of the city.
Based on my experience, Bogotá is just like that except for one qualification. It is very easy to visit, if you know Spanish. In traveling to Colombia, you will not encounter a lot of people who speak English like you would in the major tourist areas of Latin America. It is difficult for me to gauge exactly what it would be like to only speak English there, but it would seem to me that it would be a bit difficult to orient yourself. For example, I took Ubers wherever I went. I had great experiences with them, and I had great conversations with the drivers because I can speak Spanish. One driver told me of the frustration of someone who was not able to speak Spanish. They started to panic, and he didn’t know what to do. I am not saying that you will have big problems, if you do not know Spanish. I am just saying it will be more difficult to orient yourself to what is happening.
So, if you want to travel to Bogotá or the heartland areas of many Latin American countries, learn Spanish to the point you can have a decent conversation or go with someone who speaks it. With this ability, you can easily travel in Bogotá or countless other wonderful places in Latin America securely and without much hassle.
However, if you still want to try and do it, let me give you a few thoughts. Consider going with a company that will organize the whole trip for you. It is not that expensive compared to the U.S., and it will give you a guide throughout the country. If you do not want to do that, you can hire a private transport that will probably have English speakers, but it will cost quite a bit more than an Uber or other forms of transport. You can stay in many hotels where people will speak English. The reason for this is that not only Americans but foreigners from all over the world use English as the means of communication. Consider staying in a hotel that is part of one of the many wonderful malls or commercial centers (centro commerciales). These are the securest places in Bogotá, and you can walk around them freely. They are big and feature all sorts of amenities. Finally, take some tours that will pick you up at your hotel and feature an English speaking guide.
My Experience of Bogotá
If you do speak Spanish or have someone who does, then you can easily move around the city. Let me share a bit of my experience. I really did not know what to expect of Bogotá. I had heard so many stories. I read advice from all sorts of people. Two things were clear: Do not have your cell phone out because people may snatch it, and do not be out at night, especially alone. Continue reading “Visiting Bogotá”