After a lovely stop over in Bristol, I returned to Heathrow and prepared for round two with Alitalia. It passed without incident and as I approached Cairo, I realised how excited I was to be going to Egypt. I had been slightly dismissive of it in the run up, seeing it as a tag on to Ethiopia, fuelled by an assumption that Egypt’s tourism consists solely of the Brits abroad holiday crowd. Whether it was the book on Cleopatra’s life I had read in Argentina, or a sleep deprived high, I got off the plane with a spring in my step and it didn’t stop until long after leaving Cairo.
It might well have been the taxi driver, but Cairo smelt different. More likely it was the smog driven, dusty air which cloaks all of the buildings and indeed my lungs, and hinted at interesting times. I crashed out at 4am in the morning and awoke to the call of prayer a couple of hours later. My room was more rustic than the last few months. I had to move rooms due to bed bugs and then I managed to make fire in the second one when plugging my fan into the extension lead. Oh and the lift was great too. Made in 1874 and it looked every bit its age. Caroline – you would have loved it!
After falling back to sleep again, I arose at midday and ventured to the Egyptian Museum. It’s a cliche to say that the city was alive, but few truer places can such a term be attributed. There were people everywhere. Some were sat in little cafes smoking shisha and enjoying coffee or tea. Shop owners sat outside their bits and bobs shops watching the world go by as people swarmed around the streets and the roads. Smells I have never smelt before wafted out from the local eateries and there was noise everywhere – mostly from the car horns. It felt very Asian.
And that brought my first problem – remembering how to cross a road. It’s not a problem that I’ve had since Indonesia. Pedestrian crossings in Cairo resemble target practice. No one stops. In fact, compared to the rest of the road, they seem to speed up! After a slight confused pause, I remembered! Cower behind a local and use them as a safety barrier. The advice from Vietnam rang in my head – keep walking at a steady pace, do not stop and whatever you do do not turn back. It works and it’s amazing how quickly you get used to crossing multi lane highways without a second thought, but those first few were slightly never-racking.
The museum itself is like a store cupboard for world famous artefacts. Information is at a minimum. So much so that it was only when I was leaving that I realised where King Tut’s main room was. Whilst you’re not always sure what you are looking at the collection is mind blowing. In particular the detail on the sarcophaguses were incredible.
The next day, I found myself stood on the side of a road underneath the highway with two women either side of me in niqabs. I had turned down the taxi option to visit the pyramids and the metro and instead opted for the bus. The problem was that I wasn’t to sure where to catch it from. I found a group of locals and hoped for the best. Then the second problem came. I knew the bus number, but the numbers on the busses were in arabic. Fortunately, they are not to hard to learn and within five or so minutes I was pretty good at recognising the numbers.
After a while and feeling like giving up, I strolled over to the other side of the road where I met an opportunist tout. You get a lot of these in Cairo. They can be a tad annoying, but they can be helpful. To earn my trust, he showed me to another street where my bus was. Of course then he tried to sell me a camel ride, but by that point I had my transport and was off in the direction of Giza.
The bus didn’t quite end up where I expected. The bus driver called me to the front and pointed forward and signalled towards the door. After a few minutes walking, I stopped and asked a security guard where the pyramids were. He rightfully didn’t understand. I then switched to the arabic for pyramid and he smiled. Pointing to the left, I turned and saw the pyramids straight in front of me. This might add evidence to some peoples complaints that the pyramids are smaller than they expected. But no, it was just me being stupid. The pyramids are huge!
Whether it was because I was there in the afternoon, or a lack of tourists after the last few years of terrorist incidents, I was pretty much the only western face there, but by no means the only face. The pyramids are a complete circus and in some ways all the better for it. Horses and camels are flying about everywhere, traffic wardens and security are blowing their whistles at every available opportunity as someone does a Michael Jackson dance (complete with hat) on top of one of the more well known temples. People on the whole seem to have misinterpreted the ‘do not climb’ on the pyramids sign. It was bonkers and when I wasn’t being talked to by every tout and seller with a different London phrase, I just sat back and enjoyed.
The pyramids are spectacular. I went inside the largest one, which whilst you can’t go very far, does bring home the incredible achievement of fitting it all together. I would love to go into detail on the theories on how it was all done, but there wasn’t any information – they kind of speak for themselves. After quite a bit of walking, looking at the different pyramids, I ventured down to the Sphinx, which was pretty cool although not as impressive as the pyramids. I think it probably is to do with the way you approach it, which makes the reveal a little anti-climatic.
Leaving the sight, I managed to find the bus that I had originally hoped to take. I befriended the driver and we had a cup of tea on the side of the road. Much hilarity ensued as I tried to tell him where I wanted to go. Of course Egyptian museum doesn’t translate well into Arabic. Milan Talaat Harb, the sight of the Egyptian revolution, did though and his nod was enough to tell me that it was worth the risk of getting on the bus and hoping he understood. As soon as I finished my tea, we left.
Cairo bus drivers really look out for you and after an hour or so he shouted out my name and showed me the way to go. I had taken the time to learn thank you in Arabic and this sent him into a frenzy of joy. It’s weird that in South America, the idea of taking a bus would have required me to do quite a bit of pre planning, but in a country where I have little hope at all of communicating it just seems so much easier.
On my last day in Cairo, I went to the Islamic quarters. The walk there was magical as the city was utterly chaotic and there were people everywhere, in every form of dress, many carrying all number of things on their heads. It was wonderful walking the narrow streets, shoulder to shoulder with so many others, looking at what was for sale. Every once in a while, I’d go into a mosque and join most other people in sitting and taking a breath whilst enjoying the silence. The mosques here seem to function more as a resting/sleeping place rather than a place for prayer.
I could have stayed in Cairo for many more days, but with another big city on my horizons I decided it was best to make a move. Plus my head was spinning. You don’t get much of an opportunity to take a break. It’s funny how you can travel seventeen odd hours across the world and find a culture which is very European and travel only four hours to find one utterly alien. Apologies for the length. As you might have guessed. Cairo was great!