FAQ – What Did We Learn in Africa?

Spending almost 10 weeks in Africa was eye-opening. We had a number of incredible experiences and learned so much. Here are a few of the lessons we’ll take with us:

Beware of Bad Reputations

Egypt really does have a terrible reputation among travelers – mostly due to the touts (the people constantly trying to sell you one thing or another), but also the flies, the infrastructure issues, and other inconveniences. 

We knew this going into our trip and expected it to be tougher than most destinations, but we’re very experienced travelers who aren’t super-picky about most comfort issues. And we’ve liked nearly every place we’ve ever been! Plus we love history, which Egypt is bursting with. But even with all that on our side, we really struggled with life in Egypt. The 3.5 weeks we spent there were about 2.5 weeks too long. 

We weren’t alone in this feeling. While waiting for a delayed train (for over an hour) from Luxor to Aswan, we chatted with another couple working remotely from Egypt who’d had their own share of disappointing Airbnbs, harassment from touts, and similar challenges. They hadn’t been there quite as long as us but were very ready to leave (which they were able to do a couple days later; one was American and just waiting to be able to go back into the Schengen area). Online forums are filled with similar complaints.

From now on to other travelers, I’m going to recommend a single week in Egypt focusing on Cairo (including Giza and Saqqara/Dahshur) and Luxor. I don’t regret our time in Alexandria and Aswan but they didn’t add a lot to our Egyptian experience and just prolonged the amount of time we were dealing with difficult Airbnbs, so-so wifi, and daily power outages.

I never got tired of seeing the Great Pyramid out our window.

If someone asked my itinerary advice, I’d suggest one night in Giza in a pyramid-view room on a night when they do the Sound and Light show (it was Wednesday through Saturday when we were there) getting up close to the pyramids the next day before taking the evening overnight train to Luxor (that was an interesting experience and worth the time over flying we thought) to spend two or three nights for Valley of the Kings, Karnak Temple, and Luxor Museum, then fly back to Cairo and spend the last two nights in Zamalek to see the other Cairo-area sights (Coptic area, Old Islamic area, Saqqara/Dahshur, and the Egyptian Museum if there wasn’t time in Giza).

One part of Egypt we considered visiting but missed were the Red Sea beaches, especially the town of Hurghada. I hear it is a great value for snorkeling and other water activities, but there are plenty of other great beach options in the world so I don’t see us going back for that anytime soon. In fact, I think the only thing that would ever get us back to Egypt in the future would be accompanying family or friends who really wanted to visit. 

That said, the pyramids, tombs, temples, and other antiquities were spectacular and worth it and I’m soooo glad we went and saw them.

Prioritize Walkability

One thing we were not prepared for, in Nairobi or Egypt, was how unpleasant just walking around a place could be. In Nairobi, cars rule. There are sidewalks but crossing a street is at your own risk, even in a crosswalk with a clear signal to cross. In addition, everything is behind walls and high fences so there’s really nothing pleasant to see from the street. We were lucky to live on a side street for walking to our grocery store and favorite restaurant and across the main road from the arboretum where we could walk (though even that crossing was always an adventure!), but everywhere we had to Uber. We just don’t like being in a car that much. So in the future, I think we’ll pay much more attention to walkability scores. 

There was so much traffic in Nairobi and with COVID we didn’t want to try the crowded public transit, though we thought the matatus were adorable.

In Egypt the issue was less with the traffic and more with the constant harassment to buy something, but there too our walks tended to be less than pleasant. The saving grace was the island of Zamalek in Cairo, which was a real neighborhood with trees. I don’t think a single person offered us a taxi there (though the clerk at our nearest liquor store did try to overcharge my credit card for a bottle of wine; I caught him when I asked for my receipt; he apologized and gave us the money in cash).

We Don’t Have All the Technologies

A positive lesson was learning to use Kenya’s cellphone payment system. We used Mpesa but there are a couple of others (Airtel is the next largest). I found this to be a brilliant way to go cashless in a place where it was impractical for small vendors to have credit card readers. Money is basically transferred via text message and it was very easy to top up more money. You can even withdraw the funds from your Mpesa account from certain ATMs. There is a very small transaction fee on both sides, but it is less than the typical 2.3% credit card fee that vendors usually have to absorb. 

I don’t see it taking off in the US where credit cards are so prevalent and pay-by-cellphone happens through apps like Google Pay rather than text but I really like the concept and it is always fun to try a new way of doing things. That said, it would have been completely possible for us to have spent six weeks in Nairobi without having Mpesa. Nearly all the stores and restaurants accepted credit cards and it was easy to get cash from ATMs.  


I feel like we both grew a lot in Africa and am so grateful we got to spend some time there. It was the trip I most regretted missing in 2020 (darn pandemic). While we probably won’t hurry back, there are many more African countries that are high on our want-to-visit list. South Africa, Tunisia, and Ghana are probably the current top 3. We used to want to go to Morocco but after Egypt it is on the back burner. As a continent it is largely ignored by digital nomads (the main focus is Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe) but Africa has a lot to offer and is worth spending some time.

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