Landing in Cairo felt like entering another world. There weren’t many lights on in Cairo, there was Arabic all over the place (similar to Japanese all over the place in Tokyo), and the airport had a sparseness to it that seemed strange. We met up with Mohamed quite easily, and he helped us through the passport and luggage-retrieval process, which was pretty painless but a bit slow. We then met up with our driver, who took us to our hotel – a long drive, it turned out! Driving through Cairo at night was crazy. Oh, at this point it was like 4:30am. The world was lit up by yellowish street lights that bloomed into the smoggy haze and gave the place an otherworldly glow. The driver drove like a maniac, used his horn judiciously when there was traffic, and used the lane markers as guides instead of rules. There were men milling about here and there, and they would just cross the road arbitrarily, as would cars. It’s an aggressive driver’s dream, to be sure.
This morning we met up with our tour guide and driver at 10am and headed for the pyramids. Our tour guide is a wonderful young woman of 23 who wears the muslim headscarf. She’s definitely religious, doing the five prayers a day, but she’s a lot of fun, and I’m enjoying talking to her about Egypt, Islam, and life. I could see her becoming a friend, not just a tour guide. I promised to send her a DVD of the pictures I take of our trip around the world, as she basically cannot leave the country to visit anywhere without having a husband. And she doesn’t plan to do that any time soon – as she says, she was in love once, and that was enough. She’s also had issues getting any sort of travel visa to the west now, because she’s Muslim and wears the headscarf. Literally. That’s what it said in her letter from the Australian consulate, apparently.
So Cairo is a very modern country, as it turns out, only there’s a lot of unemployment. There are men walking around all over on the streets, and they walk in and out of traffic, cross highways, gather on streetcorners, etc. They try to wave down our van to get a ride. Etc. The traffic here is absolutely bananas, basically a complete free-for-all where the most aggressive drivers and biggest cars win. We got stuck in traffic this evening on the freeway for over an hour, and it was madness the entire time.
Tipping is a big thing, even just giving someone an Egyptian Pound here and there. It’s like the grease that makes everything work. Everywhere there is a small amount of money changing hands. And then there’s the whole haggling thing, and lots of people trying to sell you something. Crazy. Today at the Pyramids I got a ride from a camel owner, which turned out to be really fun, but he wanted 120 pounds each for the three of us; at the end of our ride he said he would take whatever we considered reasonable, and I gave him 240 total for the three of us. Basically $40 for about 15 minutes. I wound up feeling like crap because I undercut him so much even though I enjoyed what we had done. So that was terribly unsatisfying, even though our tour guide later told me that usually 480 was a more common price for three people. She said I had done well. Huh. I also tipped the boy who led my camel a couple US dollars, the boy in the bathroom a US dollar, and the guy selling postcards let me owe him two Egyptian pounds until later, instead of taking my 50 pound note, which means I’ll be giving him a couple extra pounds as well. Wacky. It’s kind of cool to see a few pounds flowing around here and there but I wind up feeling like the money is just draining through my fingers like sand.
I was a bit cautious about the food here but it’s all been great. Well, breakfast was kind of underwhelming, being your standard hotel breakfast buffet with an assortment of items I considered sketchy and was not willing to experiment with. But lunch was some nice pita-like bread with a variety of spreads and vegetables as an appetizer, then some chicken and beef(?) with rice and French fries. Similar food with dinner. Tomorrow we’ll have some falafel. It’s all been very flavorful and given me no digestive issues. Good deal.
In the afternoon today we visited both a papyrus museum/shop and a perfume shop. They were both not-so-veiled attempts to sell us things, and they were pretty good with their sales techniques, I must say. Gave us a “traditional greeting” of tea or coffee when we entered, sat down and talked to us about their techniques etc, then encouraged us to try things and play with things and finally closed the deal pretty adeptly and gave us some extra freebie things so that we’d feel good about our purchases. All in all they were both good experiences, and the people were exceedingly wonderful and friendly. That can be said about just about everyone I’ve met here, they’ve all greeted me warmly and given me a big smile, from folks in the hotel to people on the street to people in the shops and restaurants. Egyptian people seem to be quite kind and enjoy each other’s company. There is a lot of gathering together and sharing drinks or watching television or talking about issues. They seem to also be very family oriented.
I haven’t encountered anyone with issues about the Iraq war that they throw on us; however, when pressed, most people say they are unhappy about both that and the Palestine situation, and some people I’ve talked with have indicated they can’t seem to travel to the US or Australia or other western countries any longer as a result of a crackdown from the western side. To them it seems like we’ve closed the door entirely, alienating the entire Arab world, in an attempt to keep a few bad apples out. All Muslims are now terrorists, apparently.
When I got on the airplane to Cairo last night, I thought it would be funny if they did extra security on me, since I looked Christian (white). But they didn’t. And they even gave me a real metal knife with my dinner.
This evening we were planning to take a boat tour down the Nile, but we got hung up in some very nasty traffic. We missed our boat. Our tour guide scrambled and ended up hiring a small private boat to take us out on the Nile for about 20 minutes; we stopped at a restaurant right along the Nile to have a delicious dinner and smoke a sheesha pipe. Quick thinking on our tour guide’s part created a very enjoyable evening out of a stressful long traffic snarl, and we met some great people and had our own private tour instead. How wonderful!
The Nile river is certainly not what I expected; it’s wide, it looks clean, and in downtown it is flanked by hotels like the Grand Hyatt, the Sheraton, the Four Seasons, etc etc etc. The area is fairly clean and well lit, and it sure looks like just another big modern city! Of course, then you get on the roads and fight it out with the insane taxi drivers, the trucks full of cows or tomatoes, families crossing the street at random right in front of you, and horse-drawn carriages with people’s belongings piled high on the back. Wild. And did I mention the air pollution? Wow! I think I’ll suck on someone’s tail pipe, it’s probably better for me.
All in all our Egypt experience so far has been great; I’ve been playing a game with myself to learn the Arabic number system while here (the license plates are all numbers, which gives me lots of things to practice with), but it’s very clear that if I didn’t have a guide to help me with customs, read the Arabic signs for me, and fight the traffic, I’d be completely screwed. Although I’ve found that a lot of people here speak English (just as in Greece), the society is so different that I’d be just utterly lost. However thanks to our tour guide, so far this quick visit to Cairo has been a lot of fun, and very educational.