I survived my first overnight train in Egypt without a hitch. The ride from Cairo to Aswan was long but uneventful and the toilet at the end of our car was nowhere near as bad as I expected. So I was feeling cautiously optimistic as we boarded a second overnight train, this time in Luxor, heading back to Cairo. Oh how wrong I was!
The train departed later than the one from Cairo and we were all pretty exhausted from a long day of donkey rides and exploring tombs and temples, so we all crashed almost as soon as we were in motion. I slept from around midnight to 6:00 a.m. and then unfortunately woke up needing to use the toilet. I learned from the prior train ride how to prepare myself: I rolled up my pant legs to avoid any, um, moisture on the floor and grabbed antibacterial wipes and tissues.
I walked into the bathroom at the opposite end of our carriage to find urine all over the floor and, to put it bluntly, poop, all over the toilet seat. I turned around and went back to my seat and told Chantelle I just couldn’t do it – it was too disgusting. After some thought, I realized that Lauren and Khanh were sitting in the next carriage down from ours, so I headed to theirs to see if the toilet might be a little more useable. I got there and saw two Egyptian men waiting to use it – one older and one around my age. Another Egyptian man in military dress came out, carrying a suitcase and the older man went in. As I continued to wait, I noticed urine running out of the toilet and across the hallway where I was standing. I wondered where on earth the military man put his suitcase to avoid getting anything on it. And I realized this toilet was not likely going to be any better than the other one. In fact, it might be worse!
Soon, the younger man started talking to me in English, asking the usual questions: Where was I from? Am I married? Do I have a boyfriend? These seemed to be the standard questions asked of any Western female visiting Egypt, so I had my imaginary boyfriend story pretty well-rehearsed by that point.
After another minute or two, the older man came out of the bathroom saying “so bad, sooooo bad.” Now, if the locals are saying it’s bad, I figured it must be really, really, really bad. Luckily, my new friend Mahmoud (the younger man) told me “this toilet, not beautiful. Toilet this way, beautiful.” Now, if there were beautiful toilets anywhere on this train, I was determined to see them, so I followed Mahmoud to the next car, which turned out to be the first class car. Of course, the first class car turned out to have first class toilets. Well, at least they were first class toilets by Egyptian standards. The one I used was basically the same as a toilet you might find on an airplane, but most importantly, it was clean.
As I made my way back through several cars to my seat, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad. Such a lack of hygiene would never be tolerated in the United States or most any other Western country and I wondered why it was tolerated in Egypt. The situation gave me the impression that the people just didn’t care or didn’t feel like they deserved better. It was a image that would stay with me long after I left Egypt and one that symbolized some of the worst of what I saw or experienced in the country – a stark contrast to so much good.
Note: I visited Egypt in January 2008, pre-revolution. This post was originally published in 2010.