TOURISTS HAVE been enthralled with Egypt since Herodotus first traveled there from Greece in the 5th century B.C. But in an odd sort of way, Egypt is still undiscovered by tourists.
Frustrations are endless in this ancient land, where hotels are in short supply, the bureaucracy is top-heavy, and many things are done in the same way they were 5,000 years ago.
The best way to prepare for travel in Egypt is to remember the Alcoholic's Prayer: "Oh God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Egypt is cheap, if you live there. But it's difficult to go tourist class if you're just visiting. Generally only the top hotels live up to American standards, and with limited time at your disposal, it may be best to rely on rather expensive experts or prepaid tours. In any case, here are some tips on how to survive in Egypt -- and love it.
On the whole, make sure you plan ahead. You can't get a hotel room on short notice though you will certainly get a lot of headaches. If prepaid tours aren't everyone's cup of jasmine, their advantages in Egypt are clear. You'll avoid the total confusion of going through passport control at their airport, the bafflement of changing money into pounds immediately (dollars are illegal in Egypt), and the near-impossibility of finding transportation to your hotel unless you know the ropes.
Telephones are almost useless in Egypt, except at the major hotels in Cairo, and then it is easier to put a call through to the United States than to the center of town. Phones there haven't worked for months, and The Arab Contractors, Egypt's largest company, has been reduced to using its telephones for interoffice communication only.
So people spend hours in traffic to deliver a message that would take three minutes by phone. And such traffic. To begin with, since Cairenes drive with their horns, there is a blaring cacophony day and night. Horns are necessary because there are no rules. A favorite game seems to be to cut off another car at right angles, thus risking sudden death.
The buses are old and exhaust-belching, and are so crowded that people hang out the windows. Of course there also are many donkey carts and horses, not to mention the flocks of dirty sheep the fellahin drive through the busy streets.
If you can manage, relax and enjoy it all -- the cars, the carts, the animal life and the temming humanity that make this such a lively city. Anyway, once you arrive where you are going, your Egyptian hosts will be most understanding and will insist on your spending a relaxed half-hour taking sweetened tea or sugar coffee before you get down to the business at hand. It is very bad form to refuse an offer of hospitality.
If traffic isn't your idea of fun, the next best way to communicate is to take some letterheads or business cards along, write notes to people you want to reach, and dispatch the notes with a cab driver. Under no circumstances should you drive in Cairo yourself. Hire a cab at $25 to $35 a day (like everything else in Egypt, the price depends on your ability to bargain), get Avis or Hertz to find you an English-speaking driver, or have a cab wait at $2- $3 an hour.
In Cairo there are only a few, overbooked deluxe hotels: the Nile Hilton, the Meridien and the Cairo Sheraton (all with pools), in that order, with Shepheard's lagging far behind. Many people believe that if you take anything less than those, you can't use the bathroom. That's not totally true. Those who have lived in the city for any period of time have managed to find a number of alternatives.
Outside Cairo, in opposite directions, are two deluxe hotels, definitely in the Hilton class. If it's rest you're after, Mena House Oberoi ( $41), across from the pyramids, is superb. Balconies overlook the pyramids and there's a big pool. Only catch: It's 45 minutes from downtown in that bad traffic.
In Heliopolis, near the airport, is El Salam, Cairo's newest hotel ( $41). Opened just months ago, it is Miami Beach posh, with a pool and every comfort, except that it's an hour from downtown Cairo and almost two hours from the pyramids.
As for eating, be careful of Pharaoh's revenge, the local version of turista. Bring along medication and take it at the first indication something's wrong. In general, drink and brush teeth with bottled water, available at all hotels. Don't eat vegetables that haven't been cooked or peeled; avoid ice in drinks except at top hotels, and never, never eat anything sold on the street. This visitor avoided getting sick during a whole month's stay, others get sick in a day -- no one knows why.
However, local restaurants are perfectly safe. Try them. Fish is especially good in Egypt (even the shrimp is fresh). Mideastern hors d'oeuvres are so good you can make a meal of them. And the local Stella beer is fine, as it should be, since the Egyptians are said to have invented beer 4,000 years ago.
After you've taken in Sakkara and the pyramids and the museum, try the castle, mosques and museums of Islamic Cairo. Then look around for the art deco buildings, which abound. Art deco, after all, came partially from the Egyptian influence, once Tut's tomb was discovered in 1922.
Then head for Upper Egypt (since the Nile flows north, Upper Egypt is the South). Catch a 5 a.m. plane to Abu Simbel, and spend an hour or two there looking at Rameses II's megalomaniac tributes to himself. Then fly back north to Aswan and check into the Aswan Oberoi, which many think is the best hotel in Egypt. It is gracious, spacious with a huge pool and balconies overlooking the Nile.
The sights to see are the beautiful gardens of Kitchner's Island, the antiquities on Epephantine Island and the temples at Philae, which, like Abu Simbel, has been moved to saved it from the waters that rose behind the Aswan High Dam. The dam has become a tourist attraction itself.
Next day, head for Luxor.If you only have one day in Luxor, poor you. Just get there: It's the whole point of going to Egypt.
When you ask anyone from an official to a travel agent to do something, the first answer will probably be "No." Insist -- always politely -- and that "no" could become a "yes." Improvise. If you can't get one of the overbooked flights to Luxor, go to Luxor anyway -- by 15-hour train ride, if necessary. Some who have taken the ride say it's fine and you can sleep well in the berths; others say it is uncomfortable and unclean. Take the chance, but under no circumstances miss Luxor.
If there are no rooms in Luxor, try the Hotel Marsam on the West Bank. It may not be as spotless or as modern as the deluxe watering spots, but it's right in the middle of the most extraordinary antiquities, within walking distance of King Tut's tomb. And it's a gathering spot for artists and locals.
Nearby, there are also extraordinary painted tombs in the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Nobles, not to mention the many temples and monuments that are scattered about. There's even a jewel of a museum in Luxor, beautifully installed with the help of the Brooklyn Museum.
There's a sound-and-light show at the Temple of Karnak, that, while a bit hokey, does manage to bring the splendor and mystery of pharaonic times dramatically alive. If you're staying at the Winter Palace Hotel, chances are your room will overlook the Temple of Luxor.
The Winter Palace is a grand hotel in the 19th-century manner with formal gardens, a dirty pool and a general air of neglect. But if you stay in the new wing, you'll have an airy room ( $27 double) with balcony. The Etap Luxor, down the street, is a new, gaudily overdressed hotel, but service seems smooth and you may prefer it, at $26 for a double. The Savoy Hotel is slightly seedier at $22 a double.
Food in Luxor hotels is terrible, fullunch tourist fare. Try the local restaurants along the Nile, or cross over the West Bank for lunch.
Remember to keep change handy for tipping. Everyone wants tips for everything. There's no entrance fee to many of the tombs, but the guard will expect 40 or 50 cents from you once you're finished. And when in doubt, bargain. It's expected in most places -- in fact, it's part of the fun. Street peddlers will start out asking $7 for a necklace you'll eventually get for $1.
For shopping and bargaining in Cairo, head for the colorful Khan el Khaili bazaar. Two shops where you can't bargain are this writer's favorites. In the Hilton Hotel, Mousky Chic offers hand-blocked and hand-silk-screened caftans and beautifully designed jewelry. Prices aren't really much higher than at the bazaars, and the quality and taste are well worth it. For antique copper trays, carved furniture, Bedouin jewelry and simply artistically interesting objects, try Senouhi, 54 Abdul Khalek Sarwat on the fifth floor.
Then wander about. You're sure to find somthing interesting. CAPTION: Illustration, The Land of the Pyramids Is Beautiful, Teeming With Time... and Full Of Frustration For the Unwary Tourist; Picture, Cairo's morning traffic; Christian Science Monitor