Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bright lights of Cairo

When people have been asking me about Cairo, I have found myself saying repeatedly that it was exhilarating, exhausting, intense, fascinating, and really exhausting. That pretty much sums it up! I'm not easily daunted by big cities, but Cairo was something else.

First off, we spent an hour driving through the city on the way to the hotel. In all honesty, that hour was one of the most enlightening of my life. I saw donkeys and carts on the road next to the most insane traffic I have ever seen, military police swarming every block and huge army murals everywhere, the river Nile, strangely green median strips next to the encroaching desert and thousands of apartment blocks. There were men in Western clothes, others in traditional robes, women in the hajib and women who could have easily been plucked out of parts of London.

The Nile and downtown Cairo

Most of Cairo looks only half built. Apparently, this is because people are able to avoid paying land tax if they do not finish the outside of their buildings. I loved imagining these palatial residences with marble floors on the inside (though probably not) that looked life half-built brick shells from the outside.

On our first night, we had an amazing experience when we were sitting by the pool at our hotel and heard this low hum break out, which grew louder, more distinct and varied and felt like it was coming from every corner of the city: prayers. It was a moment of realisation that we really were in the Middle East.

We only had one full day in Cairo, so we decided to hire a guy to drive us around for £20 each to take us everywhere we wanted to go. If you think that sounds like a slightly dodgy thing to do in the biggest city in Africa, you'd be right. It was an invitation to be scammed at every turn, as we got shunted from one 'museum' (shop) and 'school' (shop) to the next. But we got to do the good stuff too. Firstly, the pyramids at Saqqara:

Yep, there's me getting scammed. But its okay, he only wanted money for his donkey.

Then onto the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Brenton was dying to go the whole hog with the Egyptian experience and approach the pyramids by camel. I was less keen, and my camel, whose name was Michael Jackson, obviously hated me and tried to throw me off every time he sat down.

We chose not to go inside the pyramids as I had a bit of a claustrophobic moment, but we were surprisingly given the option of climbing one of the smaller pyramids. Surprising as it's prohibited, but of course we didn't realise that. We both went up (well I gave up halfway but Brenton went up) only to be told on our descent that we had only been allowed to go up because our guide was friends with the policeman guarding that area, and now everyone needed to be paid off accordingly. We were cogs in a very well-oiled operation.

The corruption of the military police was incredibly blatant, so much so that we actually saw them dividing up their takings in the street. They were all over the place, at least a few for every corner in the city, swaggering around their patch, heavily armed and quite intimidating in their black uniforms and berets.

The final stop of the day was the Egyptian Museum, world renowned (as you'd expect) for its collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts and particularly the bounty from Tutankhamen's tomb. Their collection was amazing but unfortunately, a lot of it was very poorly lit and displayed.

A few other notables: being an Islamic country, you're told in all the guidebooks to dress modestly, i.e. trousers and long sleeves. Yes that's difficult in 35 degrees, but some tourists (and I can't assume as I normally would that they were American because there were none of them!) had a rather interesting interpretation of dressing modestly. For example, spaghetti straps were fine providing they're worn with a headscarf, and hotpantesque shorts also were fine providing they were worn with a long sleeve top. It was a wee bit baffling.

The traffic was seriously, seriously mad. There were thousands of ancient little tin cars on the roads that had been imported straight from the USSR. There were hardly any traffic lights and none of the ones I saw worked. And if you needed to overtake - not a problem! Just drive between two lanes of cars as fast as you can.

As a Western woman, you were also the object of a bit of dubious attention from the Egyptian men, who all refer to you as 'Princess' or 'Queen'. It wouldn't be a country I'd travel to without a guy. They all addressed Brenton about anything serious and I thought their politeness to me was feigned. But maybe that's my own preconceptions playing into it.

All of that amounted to this intense, crazy day that was fascinating and draining and overwhelming. I needed a break in more relaxing destination to recover (continued in the next post: the Red Sea and Sharm el Sheikh!)


Anonymous said...

That was interesting Penny. I loved the photos!A real learning experience going to a country that is so different.As you know, Morocco is the only African country I have been to and to me, in the seventies, it was almost biblical. I had never experienced anything like it. Looking forward to the next Egyptian blog.Love mumx

Anonymous said...

Hi Pen,

Glad you've looked through another window on the world. That's how a vast part of it really is - a daily struggle to survive.
We were always followed around in Morocco, especially in Marakesh, by a squad of kids either begging or offering to show us something - probably their parents' shop where everything was a special price! And everywhere we went, they tried to scam us. That didn't make it any less fascinating, but it does make you think about what they value in life and what's important to them. In fact what needs to be important, so there not much time for the esoteric, is there?
Love Dadxxx

Anonymous said...

Yo Pen!

I've always wanted to go to egypt so this entry was enlightening for me! Look like you have to keep your wits about you though. Haha it reminds me of the time you and mum were scammed in fiji over those wooden stick things. I guess a different perspective is that these people probably need the money more than you it would have been pretty cool climbing that pyramid. I still would have been annoyed though purely because to them I was just another tourist to fool.

This probably isn't helping hey haha? I supose getting scammed is just part of the travelling experience.

Anyway the whole place sounds like another world and a bit beyond comprehension unless you you visit it for yourself so I think one day I'll have to follow in you footsteps. Love the photos...especially the one of you on your evil camel!

Love jeremy