How to slow down in Cairo?

Dee is a writer and a photographer, currently living in Cairo. On her Vanilla Papers blog, she explores a different Cairo, writes about slowing down and living mindfully. She believes that travelling slow and getting to know other cultures can really change our lives.

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“Slow travel means quality over quantity. It means following your gut, forgetting the notions of what you ‘must see,’ and following your passions. It’s about making even the huge tourist destinations feel immediate and personal.

And it’s about keeping that spirit of discovery alive when you come home.”
— Dee / Vanilla Papers
Photo: Mika Elgendi

Photo: Mika Elgendi

Photo: Mika Elgendi

Photo: Mika Elgendi

We had a talk about Cairo and she gave us incredibly valuable tips for visiting the city.

I love the fact that you write about meaningful slow travel and slow life. Even though people love using these terms, I am sure that most of them don't know what those mean. Can you clarify the term and tell us what the slow travel means to you?

I love how slow travel is becoming more popular and how more people these days want a meaningful and authentic experience that goes beyond a rushed bus tour. There's also a backlash against all those posed Instagram shots of beautiful bloggers in beautiful locations, setting impossible standards as to what travel should look like. People want reality. They want to make connections with local communities, and go home richer in their understanding of the world.

That being said, there's no strict definition of slow travel. It's an offshoot of the slow food movement that began as a protest against the rise of homogenized fast food. But it can be interpreted in a few different ways. For some people, it can mean a slower pace and a looser itinerary. For others, it's more about sustainability or about immersing yourself into local life and taking part in everyday activities.

Travel shouldn’t be about where we’ve been, but about what we’ve taken away from the journey.
— Dee / Vanilla Papers
Photo: Mika Elgendi

Photo: Mika Elgendi

What makes a slow traveler different?

There are a few points that slow travelers will often have in common: we like to take our time and get to know a place, we're mindful of our impact on local communities and on the environment, we want real interactions with locals and their culture. But we're all unique and we've got different approaches.
For me slow travel is mostly about the rejection of materialism. With the rise of social media, travel has turned into something aspirational.

It's a status symbol. People count how many countries they've visited, and their Instagrammable photos become trophies that are later displayed online to impress friends.

Travel shouldn't be about where we've been, but about what we've taken away from the journey.

What is your connection with Cairo?

Cairo is a very underrated city. Most visitors come through here as a stop-over on their way to the ancient Egyptian temples. They'll visit the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum and the old bazaar, but their stay in Cairo won't often last longer than a couple of days.

I've lived here for six years as an expat, and I'm still exploring this city and doing walking tours into neighborhoods I've never seen. And that's what I love about Cairo: there's always something to explore, and the culture is rich enough to always keep things interesting.

Mena House - Cairo.jpg

When looking at your Instagram stories and reading your blog, it seems that you enjoy the city very much. What makes you happy about living in Cairo?

I've seen a lot of downtown Cairo, and I love that part of the city and the architecture that blends European and oriental influences. I love the old villas in Garden City, where you'll find narrow streets lined with thick succulents and bougainvillea and where it's quiet enough to hear the birds chirp. I love the art galleries in Zamalek and the small cafes in Maadi for a slow afternoon over beer or coffee.

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Lot of foreigners are hesitant to try local food in Cairo. Do you love it?

Yes, I do love the food, though the flat bread took me awhile to get used to. It's healthy, and a lot of food is vegetarian and cheap: falafel (also called taameya here), babaganoug with insane amounts of garlic, the pasta-heavy koshary for when you need a quick and filling meal. Cairo has great street food.

If there was a place worth seeing that only locals know about, what it would be?

Narratives on Cairo often revolve around the same kinds of stories and motifs: traffic and noise, a misunderstanding with a taxi driver, a narrow alley in Islamic Cairo with a minaret, tea with mint, a stretch of desert with the pyramids.

Tea - Cairo.jpg

Giza and the Khan el Khalili bazaar are brilliant places to visit, and I'd definitely recommend seeing all of that. But if you want a well-rounded picture of the city then two days here just aren't enough.
If I had a friend visiting, I'd take them to Giza for a day, and maybe end with a cocktail at Mena House overlooking the pyramids. I'd spend half a day (starting early in the morning when the crowds are thin) at the old bazaar at Khan el Khalili, including stops at some historic mosques.

Mena House - Cairo.jpg

Then I'd take them to Zamalek to visit a few art galleries, or do some shopping at the fair trade shop for some authentic souvenirs. Maybe a felucca down the Nile in downtown at night, or a walk through the City of the Dead to see the street art.

City of Dead - Cairo.jpg
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City of Dead - Cairo.jpg

There are cafes here full of shisha smokers, but there are also rooftop bars with great local beer and Arab rap bands. And visitors are often surprised to see another side of Cairo that exists beyond the usual photo opportunities.
People on Instagram sometimes tell me they had no idea there's Starbucks here, or how there are modern skyscrapers or apartment buildings along the Nile.
And the fact they're surprised tells me we still have a long way to go if we ever hope to get over the stereotypes and orientalism, and show this region in a real and human light.

What special place in the region puts a smile on your face?
In the summertime, anywhere with a good A/C or on the Nile corniche with a cold drink.. or outside of Cairo on the Red Sea. During the rest of the year, in Zamalek in one of the cafes on the sidestreets or on a sailboat for a few hours on the Nile.

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Lake Qarun - Cairo.jpg

 What makes you sad there?
Poverty is difficult to navigate. I don't believe that the poorer neighborhoods are any more real or authentic than the middle-class districts, but I sometimes see poverty turned into something exotic or nearly spiritual, when it's portrayed as a "simpler life" that's somehow supposed to be purer and happier than our Western money-driven societies. There's nothing romantic about poverty and it's not there to remind us to count our blessings.

It's also heartbreaking to see stray dogs and cats roaming the streets. In the meantime, pet shops sell expensive breeds of kittens and puppies that people often get as pets instead of adopting the street animals who need care.

How can someone prepare themselves for the trip to trip to Egypt/Cairo?

There are a ton of tour groups that will show you the highlights around Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. But if you want to get off the beaten path and have a more authentic experience, it requires a lot more research and planning.

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There isn't much online that will tell you about navigating Cairo beyond the obvious tourist attractions.

My advice is: do your research. Read blogs, browse the local websites and see what's going on in the city and what real people are doing for fun, find a nice Airbnb with a host who'll give you pointers on where to go. There's a ton to see here beyond Giza and the bazaar, and lots to discover beyond the clichés.

Wadi El Rayan - Cairo.jpg
Wadi El Rayan-Cairo.jpg