I started the first leg of my spring break with a 5 day visit to Cairo. It was quite different than what I had anticipated, but it was nothing short of memorable.
Myself and Girl arrived about an hour late after a very crowded and very loud flight from Dammam on EgyptAir. It was actually better than what most people had warned us about, considering how cheap our tickets were and that EgyptAir has a less than favorable reputation as a low-cost Middle Eastern carrier. Customs took a fairly long time by Western standards, though it was a breeze compared to Saudi, and after collecting our bags we met up with a driver I had arranged through our hotel. We made a pit stop at the duty free, then walked to his car.
This was the last semblance of normalcy for the next five days.
Our driver, Raouf, was a young twenty something certified tour guide. He spoke a good deal of English, and liked to make jokes and chat about all kinds of things. He found it interesting that we would choose Cairo as a break from Saudi, which, after the drive to our hotel, we began to ponder the same question.
Cairo is a very different place. It’s a sprawling metropolitan area with a population of some 20 million or so permanent residents, and roughly 8 million daily commuters. It has all the workings of a modern city; highways, gridded streets, and metro system, but an infrastructure dating back to the early 1960s and limited resources to spread among an increasing population. For as literate and well spoken as the vast majority of the population is, most people live in relative poverty or very close to it, and it is very much a third world developing country.
Raouf took us on an impromptu tour of the city as he drove to our hotel; winding through alleyways and side streets, careening through intersections, playing frogger in highway traffic to cut from street to street. He got in several fender benders, but in true Cairo fashion he waved his hand out the window and kept driving. He used his horn several times each minute to indicate any number of things; turning, stopping, frustration, or anger. He drove without headlights like everyone else, only flashing his lights on occasion to indicate that he had the right of way. Getting downtown near our hotel took over an hour in rush hour traffic, and it made driving in Saudi seem almost Zen-like. He took the last few turns through an auto-mechanic neighborhood and pulled up in front of a stretch of what seemed to be abandoned high rises. He found a spot a little shorter than his car and eased his way in, pushing the cars to the front and back to make enough space. Once content with his parking job, he turned the car off, put it in neutral, and purposefully checked to make sure the parking brake was off, then got out to fetch our bags. This is how you park in Cairo.
He led us into the high rise with a small man in a thobe passed out in a plastic lawn chair guarding the broken glass doors, and into a lobby that smelled mostly of cat urine and rotting vegetables. He pushed the button for the elevator and explained that you take the left one to the 13th floor, then you take the right one to the 15th floor, then climb the last flight of stairs, and the hotel will be right in front of you. He saw my looks of confusion, and offered to show us the way.
The door of the second elevator.
After a jolting 5 minute ride, and opting to climb the last three flights of stairs instead of use the other elevator, we met the receptionist who immediately, but very politely, asked for the room payment in full. I left Girl in the lobby and repeated the adventure back down the elevator, followed Raouf to an ATM around the corner and then made the journey back up. Girl was not very pleased to have been left with a bunch of strange Arab men sitting in a lobby, but after paying for the room everyone eased up, and we sat with a tea and laughed politely at the ridiculously offensive jokes the men told. Eventually they escorted us to our room, which they dubbed the honeymoon suite, complete with two separate beds, and left. The room was on par with a very trashy truck stop motel from the early 80’s, but the plus side was a full size refrigerator that worked most of the time, and zero evidence of bed bugs. The view was also pretty good.
The River Nile
I should mention that although I didn’t know what I was getting into when I booked the hotel, I did purposefully pick one of the cheapest ones (albeit it still had good reviews). It wasn’t exactly Girl’s idea of a good time, but after a few days out experiencing Cairo, and for only $19 a night (for two people), our hotel room felt like quite the luxurious place.
We spent the next couple days on excursions with Raouf visiting the Pyramids, Coptic Cairo, Old Islamic Cairo, and various other points of interest. They were incredible experiences, but for the lack of actual physical activity, they were exhausting. The people of Cairo are nice enough, but the amount of harassment one city can generate on such a consistent level is amazing. Everywhere we went, even in the middle of the desert sitting on a camel, we found a random man shouting lewd statements at Girl, who would then try incessantly to sell me something. At first it was mildly amusing, but after the second day Girl got fed up and started wearing a veil around her hair and walking a few steps behind me. Between that and the decent amount of Arabic curse words and insults I know (not to mention being able to respond back asking if they’d like me to yell at their mother like that), it drastically reduced the amount of harassment we received, but it was still ever present.
The Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Looked into the eyes of King
Tut's burial mask, then marveled at the mummy of Ramses II.
Statue of Ramses in Memphis.
Walking through ruins in Saqqara.
Mosque of Ibn Tulun.
The caretaker let us climb the minaret in this mosque.
Mosque of Mohammed Ali, located inside the Citadel.
Not nearly as nice on the inside.
Inside a typical Mosque. Not much to expect
and most were in sad states of disrepair.
Egypt is an exceptionally beautiful place, and being able to explore 5000 years of continual history in such an accessible way is truly a once in a lifetime experience. But for as much beauty and wonder that exists there, it’s also an incredibly bleak picture of the human condition. The majority of the streets, well actually the majority of any place we visited, including the Pyramids and many of the important Mosques, are littered with garbage, and are in a poor physical state. Proper sanitation is virtually non-existent in some areas, and where it does its barely more than functional. The Nile can be breathtaking at times and brings about thoughts of glamorous cruises, but sitting on its banks you see the drastic difference. After visiting the many canals, which are mostly used as waste disposal, you see the reality of life here. They amount to barely flowing cesspools, littered with bloated horse and goat carcasses bobbing up and down among the many half naked children picking through waste finding bits of metal to sell to scrap dealers. Sewage lines dump straight from houses yards away from large leaky diesel generators pumping it back into large underground tanks for everyday use. This stretches on for miles down the length of the Nile and its many canals, and as we talked to Raouf about it he barely batted an eye. It’s an everyday part of life here and it’s a very different reality than what one would have expected.
There is still some beauty.
We did see some hopeful things; it wasn’t all disparity. We roamed around many of the open air markets and busy shopping streets off the beaten path of most tourists. There’s a large and fast growing middle class in Cairo, and for the most part people seem to be happy about the ways things are starting to turn around. We walked right through the heart of Tehrir Square, several times in fact (unintentionally the first time in the middle of the night because I was a bit lost and slightly tipsy from cheep beer and sheesha), which wasn’t nearly as dangerous or as vibrant as the media makes it out to be. We talked with the men in our hotel and various people we met along the way about their opinions. They were all happy with the changes taking place and were very hopeful for the future. It’s hard to say if anything of real substance will result from all the drama taking place there, but they’ve seemed to come to a realization that its now in their hands and they have a genuine desire to do something about it.
Tehrir Square. There's a Hardee's just to the left of this picture.
Over all, my five days in Cairo were more than I anticipated them to be. I’m not really sure as of yet if that’s good, bad, or indifferent, but I do know that I got quite a bit more out of it than most people in my situation would have. I visited the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World, ate cheap street food with locals and drank even cheaper beer from sketchy liquor stores in areas of the city most people would never visit. I experienced the importance of the city for Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, and the ever present struggles that all three religions have. Mostly, I got to travel to an exceptionally touristy place in a very un-touristy way (much to Girl’s dismay) and I was able to have a decent bit of fun doing it.