What It’s Like to be in a Sandstorm in Egypt

April is the time of year when Egypt is most likely to experience khamaseen (sandstorms), but sandstorms can arrive during other parts of the year as well.  I’ve personally experienced these storms on 3 different visits to Egypt over the years, and in 2018 I “enjoyed” the bonus of experiencing two sandstorms in a single visit! Lucky me! My sandstorm adventures occurred on:

  • April 14, 2009 in Cairo
  • February 11, 2015 in Cairo
  • April 30, 2018 in Luxor
  • May 7, 2018 in Aswan

What a Khamaseen Is

The word khamaseen is the Arabic word for the number 50. It is also used to refer to strong winds that blow sand, which are most likely to appear in a 50-day period in the spring between mid-March and mid-May.

Wind speed typically exceeds 25 miles per hour (40 kilometers per hour), and can be as high as 85 miles per hour (140 kilometers per hour), which is about the same as the wind speeds in a Category 1 hurricane. The storm can last for several hours, or even a couple of days.  The one I experienced in 2015 was a 2-day event, whereas the one I experienced in 2018 lasted only a couple of hours.

A khamaseen stirs up walls of dust and sand, filling the air with grit.  It’s fascinating to watch one approach, because it looks like a wall of sand heading your way.

What It’s Like to be in a Sandstorm

Jewel took both of these photos from the same window in Giza on February 11, 2015.

In many ways, a sandstorm reminds me of a blizzard, except that instead of being cold and snowy, it’s hot and sandy.

  • Both can snarl traffic due to problems with visibility.
      • Note the above photos I took of the pyramids and Sphinx. They show what the view from my hotel window looked like at two different times on February 11, 2015 – one before the sandstorm arrived, and the other during the storm.
      • Sometimes, rural roads close until visibility improves.
    • Both can create unsafe conditions that affect transportation.
      • When the khamaseen struck Luxor in April 2018, it stirred up choppy waters on the Nile river, causing ferries to suspend service until the water calmed.
      • Often, airlines will delay or cancel flights when a sandstorm arrives, due to the high winds and poor visibility.
    • Both cause businesses and schools to close early.  Our original plan for February 11, 2015  was to tour two museums.  Both museums hurried us through. They were eager to close so their employees could go home.
    • Both can produce howling high winds that last for several hours. The February 2015 sandstorm lasted 2 days, while the others I experienced lasted a few hours.
    • The strong winds can cause power outages.  That happened at our hotel in Luxor in 2018, causing a 30-minute outage.

    Coping with a Sandstorm

    Photo of Jewel coping with a sandstorm.

    It’s a very bad idea to wear contact lenses during a sandstorm. The grit gets under the lenses and hurts.  Glasses are much more comfortable, and they offer the bonus of protecting the eyes somewhat against the blowing sand.  This is why it’s so important for people who wear contact lenses to take along a pair of prescription glasses when traveling to Egypt. People who don’t need prescription lenses can wear either goggles or sunglasses for this purpose.

    The blowing sand irritates breathing passages, which can lead to allergies, asthma, or catching a cold. I think nearly every person in our group caught a cold after the 2015 sandstorm.  Egyptians will typically wrap a scarf to cover the nose and mouth.  Some even wear a mask over the nose and mouth for further protection.  In this 2015 photo, I’m doing both, with the scarf hiding the mask.

    If planning any kind of travel, it’s best to check whether the activities you want to do are still available, whether transportation is still running, and whether delays are expected.

    Closing Thoughts

    After experiencing several sandstorms in Egypt, I have to admit they’re not particularly pleasant.  However, I don’t worry about the possibility of being in one, and I’m willing to come to Egypt during the khamaseen season.  It’s interesting to take a step back and notice how people who live with this weather deal with it.  There’s always a story to tell if you look for it.


Thunderstorms in Egypt!

Rain is rare in Egypt, because of its location in the Sahara desert.  In my previous visits to Egypt, the “rain” I experienced was similar to what we might call “sprinkling” in my home in the U.S., and it lasted only a short time.  The average rainfall in Cairo for April is 1/4 inch (7 mm) in the entire month.

So, imagine my surprise when we experienced two days of genuine thunderstorms with heavy rain on April 24 and 25, 2018 while I was in Cairo! And then, a week later, a miniature thunderstorm came to Luxor on May 1!

Egypt receives rain so rarely that a major rainfall is a big event.  Here are some of the consequences that happened in Cairo’s 2-day storm:

  • There are no storm drains, so streets quickly became flooded.
  • Cars stalled when the flood waters overwhelmed them.
  • People didn’t know how to drive on the rain-slick roads.
  • Building roofs leaked, because they normally don’t need to be watertight. I was eating supper at Felfela restaurant with rain dripping on my head! But it was okay, because I was enjoying the sound of the storm.
  • Events were canceled due to rain leaking through roofs.  For example, the Balloon Theater canceled a performance by the Kowmiyya dance company one evening due to rain.
  • Parts of Cairo’s Ring Road were shut down for several hours due to flooding. Many people needed to sleep in their cars.
  • The road closure caused traffic snarls throughout Cairo as people tried to find other ways to get home.
  • Some buildings and bridges collapsed.
  • Trains were delayed.

In Luxor, the “thunderstorm” consisted of one flash of lightning and one brief rumble of thunder, followed by some sprinkling.  Therefore, we didn’t have the above problems that come from heavy rain.  However, the locals were so worried about the storm that they insisted that the members of our group who intended to walk somewhere take a bus instead.

I live in a part of the U.S. that experiences frequent thunderstorms, with heavy rains.  My dad used to call these storms “toadstranglers”. Therefore, I have always taken storm drains, culverts, and watertight roofs for granted. It never occurred to me that other places would forego such infrastructure.  It makes sense, of course.  Why would you need to build watertight roofs and storm drains in the Sahara desert?  I can understand why it might be viewed as an unnecessary expense in a place that gets thunderstorms so rarely.


Airport Moments of Beauty

We usually don’t think about airports as being beautiful places. And, usually they’re not!  But every once in a while, something gives me pause to smile, linger, and appreciate the moment.  Here are some I have enjoyed.

Chicago O’Hare, March 16, 2016

An airline crew member plays the piano at Chicago O’Hare on March 16, 2016.

When traveling to California on United Airlines in March, 2016, I stopped to enjoy listening to an airline crew member play the piano at one of the departure lounges.  I no longer remember what he was playing, but I remember he was a good pianist, and he gave me a smile!

Chicago O’Hare, Polaris Lounge, October 5, 2017

Entrance to Polaris Lounge, Chicago, O'Hare Airport
United Airlines remodeled its international first class lounge in Chicago O’Hare Airport in 2016-2017, and renamed it the Polaris Lounge. This photo shows the entrance to the new lounge. Taken on October 5, 2017, en route to Senegal.

I flew business class on United on my way to Senegal in October 2017.  When I entered United’s new Polaris Lounge on the C Concourse of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, I took a moment to simply appreciate the beauty of the ceiling art. It consists of many twinkling lights, and was designed to give an impression of the night sky.  This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it’s the best my phone could produce.

Lisbon, Portugal, November 4, 2017

I saw this rainbow at the airport in Lisbon, Portugal on November 4, 2017 on my way home from Senegal.

Arriving at the airport in Lisbon, Portugal was actually a very miserable experience for me on my way home from Senegal in November, 2017.  I was already sad to leave my IBM colleagues and new Senegalese friends all behind.

When I deplaned in Lisbon, I had to stand in 2 different passport control lines and go through security before being allowed to go to the gate for my flight to the U.S.  The whole process took well over an hour.  It was a relief to finally arrive at my gate.  The rainy weather outside echoed my miserable mood.  When it was time to board, this rainbow came out, as if to say, “Things will get better from here!”  And they did.  The rest of my trip, though long, was reasonably comfortable and pleasant.

Chicago O’Hare at Christmas, 2017

Connecting through O’Hare on American Airlines on December 12, 2017, I saw these holiday decorations.

When flying American Airlines on my way home from a business trip to Boston on December 12, 2017, I connected through O’Hare Airport.  It was a delight to see that the concourse had been beautifully decorated for Christmas.  Although I was tired from a very intense business trip, it made me smile to see it.

Chicago O’Hare, January 11, 2018

One of my favorite airport sites for many years has been the tunnel at Chicago’s O’Hare airport that connects the B concourse and the C concourse. These two concourses are used by United Airlines flights.

This tunnel at Chicago O’Hare airport connects the B and C concourses.

I always enjoy going through this tunnel when making connections.  Sometimes, if I have a long layover and the tunnel isn’t too crowded, I’ll walk back and forth through it several times just to get some exercise.  I enjoy both the cascading light show and the accompanying background music.