Cairo, Egypt

Cairo, Egypt
July 28th, 29th, 30th 2010
August 9th 2010

Cairo definitely gave me a culture shock. After being in Europe for a while, upon exiting the airport, I was immediately swarmed with taxi drivers offering their services. I took a shuttle bus to the bus station and was greeted with a fleet of old, junky looking buses that polluted the air very badly. Of course, numbers and letters were in Arabic so I had to get locals to point me to the right place to wait for my bus. I was a bit surprised the locals could understand English (not all of them, but a surprising number). I guess it’s the British influence from when they colonized parts of Egypt.

The bus ride to downtown Cairo was interesting. A guy whom I had given my bottle of water to, got into a huge argument with a lady. It went on for minutes, with the lady yelling very loud in the bus at the man. The bus driver later intervened when he yelled at them to stop and got the lady to change seats (she was sitting in front of the man). She continued yelling at the man from across the bus. They both pleaded their cases to the bus driver, who seemed to be the mediator in all of this. I wish I knew what they were arguing about. I’ve read that Egyptian women wear the pants in most households. I used to think women from Arab nations were submissive and men ruled over them but it’s not quite so in Egypt.

There are no laws when it comes to driving in Egypt. It’s even worse than Malaysia. The dotted lines that mark lanes on roads don’t matter. Cross the streets at your own risk as drivers will look to beat you to the punch. And everyone honks their horns constantly. I can count at least 20 honks in a single minute of being in an Egyptian car, I kid you not.

(Streets of Cairo at 11 pm)

I was dropped off in the middle of Cairo and had to navigate the streets at 11 pm to my hostel. Cairo doesn’t sleep at 11 pm, it only starts waking up then. The streets are packed, the roads are jammed with traffic. Most people wait until night to go shopping and walking around downtown, when it’s much cooler than the day. Street vendors, coffee/tea/shisha shops litter the alley ways and are always packed with locals winding down from the day.

The next day, I set off to find the Indian Embassy with hopes of securing a visa. I was looking at the map in my guidebook when I heard a man comment on the title of it (“Africa”). I look up and see a dark-skinned Egyptian man with dirty looking teeth, smiling at me. I struck up a conversation with him. Omar (see man on left in picture above) spoke fluent English, lived in Chicago for a few years where he met his wife, moved back to Cairo with her where they both work now. He runs a hotel down the street. He told me that I didn’t have to go all the way to Zamalek to apply for an Indian visa since the consular office was just a few steps away, literally. He told me to follow him so I did. He took me all the way to his hotel first, invited me up, then tried to sell me tours. I declined for all of them except a one-way ticket to the pyramids of Giza (he was charging E£ 20, which was what taxis charged if you bargained hard). I told him I’d meet him at 1 pm and he pointed me to the Indian consular office, a few buildings down. I tried to apply for my Indian visa but got rejected as the trip was too far away, I didn’t have proof of flight, and that I wasn’t an Egyptian citizen. No use arguing so I left. I ran into Omar and he said he was heading to breakfast with a friend. I asked him if I could join him, he said ok. Little did I know I may have invited myself into a weird sequence of events throughout the day.

(Omar, left, and his driver friend in papyrus shop)

(Mustafa, papyrus shop owner and perhaps, scammer extraodinaire)

We met Omar’s friend, headed over to a popular local felafel joint called “Felfalel” and bought some takeaway sandwiches. We went to Omar’s other friend’s papyrus shop (I was starting to become wary now) where we ate our sandwiches. The owner, Mustafa, offered to show me how papyrus art was made. I agreed to the demo, after telling him I wasn’t going to buy anything. His reply? “No pressure, no pressure”. I would subsequently hear this phrase pretty frequently throughout my trip in Egypt. The demo was pretty interesting, so was the art on the walls. He insisted I look through his collection and pick something that interested me. I insisted I wasn’t going to buy anything but a piece caught my eye that I thought would make a good gift for my sister and brother-in-law. So I picked that, asked how much it was. The price seemed a bit much but I didn’t know what the going price outside was nor did I know whether it was original or not. I ended up buying it but didn’t feel too good about the purchase. It wasn’t the money, it’s the principle. I do not like overpaying for something. I usually do research beforehand. But I didn’t get a chance to do so.

Anyway, told Omar I’d meet him for that one-way taxi ride to the pyramids. Went back to my hostel, asked the guy at the desk if I overpaid, he said most probably I was ripped off since all the fakes on the street were at most E£ 20 or much less. Anyway, feeling slightly mad, I went to meet Omar. I told him about my feelings about the whole thing and he was absolutely disgusted that I accused him of taking me around to get ripped off. He was adament that wasn’t his intention but I continually expressed my doubt. Omar had earlier asked me if I wanted to make an ISIC card (international student card, used by students to save 50% on most museums in the world). He took me there, escorted me inside, insisting this was a legit office. The people there refused my attempt at applying for one without documentation that I was a student. Ok, legit enough. If it had been fake, I’m sure they’d let me apply, fork over E£ 90, then give me a fake card. Not that it would have been a problem since most museums probably can’t tell if something is fake or not at a glance.

Omar was continuously trying to prove his innocence and again, he took me to a popular papyrus art shop on the Giza strip and asked me to look at the prices. Yeah, I paid half of what the going rate was for an original. The question was, was mine an original? From what I was told about the difference between a real papyrus art and a fake, I later determined mine to be of original papyrus. But there’s more to this which I’ll come back to later…

Omar’s friend, the driver, dropped us off at a random intersection on Giza, citing that he had to go pick up more tourists. Earlier in the day, Omar had said that I was going in a group but when I showed up for my ride, it was just me. Yeah, talk about suspicious. Anyway, I follow Omar who takes me to some residential alleyway where another of his “friends” (or possibly business associate) invites me in for some tea. He seemed nice enough but of course, I knew what was coming. He started trying to sell me his camel tours and the prices were a bit steep, US $135 for the priciest option. I knew everything was overpriced but I felt cornered. In hindsight, I should have just walked out of there, even if I didn’t know where the hell I was. I wanted to ride the camel on the desert, I wanted to visit the pyramids, but I wasn’t about to be ripped off again. My hesitance led this man, whose name I forgot and who apparently sold Arabian horses to rich American businessmen, to drop his prices even further. In the end, I agreed to the mid-range tour. I didn’t know if I was getting ripped off or not to be honest because once again, I didn’t do enough research beforehand of prices. The tour included a 3-4 hour camel ride to the pyramids/Sphinx, a guide, no baksheesh paid to corrupt tourism police patrolling the deserts, entry fee to Giza.

(My guide and his young apprentice)

(Me and my ride)

I set off on my camel, with the guide and his apprentice on horses, and made the entry into the desert. It was cool, at the same time, underwhelming. Camel rides are slow, and nothing that exciting to be honest. But I’m in Egypt, I’m in the desert, I just HAD to do a camel ride. If I were to go back, I’d get a horse. If only I knew how to ride horses…it’d be amazing to ride full speed across the desert, which some of these kids working the tours could do, while controlling another horses by their side.

(The pyramids of three kings, and their wives)

The pyramids looked real cool. I wish I had gone closer and touched it, I wish I had gone inside, which some ppl said they did, but I didn’t. But no problems, I saw them with my own eyes, and I was satisfied. The place was packed with tourists of course. My guide, who also spoke fluent English, took excellent pictures. It is rare to find people who can take a proper picture. Apparently, his mom worked in television so that’s where he learned about composition. Who am I to doubt him?

On the way back, he takes me on another detour (here we go again) to a lotus flower essence shop. Apparently “No pressure” was used again, this time by the shop owner. The shop looked legit, full of tourist gifts, and a room filled with bottles of essence. I insisted again on not buying anything but he was desperate to end the day with a successful sale (superstition that the next business day would go well if the last sale went well). He showed me all these copies of receipts of huge sales by tourists, a book with lots of tourist testimonies on how happy they were with their purchases etc. I wasn’t buying it entirely but I wanted to get the hell out of this place (( just can’t stop the bleeding can I?) I was upstairs, in a remote building in who knows where, by myself, surrounded by Egyptian men. I am often paranoid in these situations, knowing full well that if I was very unlucky, I could be kidnapped by Muslim extremists who didn’t like Americans. This reason would be why I constantly tell people I am originally from Malaysia. It’s like an insurance, especially in Muslim countries. As I am typing this, many days from my Cairo experience, I learned that Egypt is not one of those countries I should be afraid of. Most people are friendly no matter where you are from. It all depends on how you approach it. But I digress.

I bought the smallest bottle available, got the heck out, and my guide took me to where I could take a bus back to downtown Cairo. Of course, I had to tip him and his apprentice. Tips, or “baksheesh” is a common theme in Egypt. Learn when and who you should tip. Everyone who does something for you will expect it. Everyone’s hustling. Everyone’s trying to sell you something. The hot spots for this are souks (street markets), and outside train/bus stations, where taxi drivers hassle you and tour/hotel operators badger you about whether you’ve found accomodation or not. The best is to smile, be friendly, but walk past them. I was very unfriendly for a while but I have recently changed my approach to making friends with them. I will say “Hi, how are you?”, “No thanks, already got a place booked.”, “Thanks but I know my way” etc. Everything with a sincere and friendly smile. I learned that these people are just trying to make a living and that they are usually very nice people behind their solicitations and will understand when you say no (albeit incessantly).

The rest of my Cairo experience paled in comparison with my first day. The other major site I visited was the Egyptian Museum where checking out unwrapped mummies of famous Egyptian kings was pretty darn cool. In hindsight, I would start the museum at the top and work my way down. The top contained the mummies and King Tut’s treasures. I think I breezed past Tut’s treasures because I was so damned sick of the museum from all the stuff downstairs. I don’t remember seeing most of it. I regret not paying more attention but oh well…

I got to hang out with some hostel mates. As most Egyptians don’t drink alcohol (religion), we had to walk around until we finally found a shop that sold some beer. We also watched “Inception” at an Egyptian cinema at 12:30 am. The place was packed, and we weren’t allowed in until just before the movie started. Seats were assigned, the cinema was real small, the movie was played with a projector that Americans usually install in their home theatres in their homes (instead of the big projector you get in American cinemas), the audio was quite lousy. They even had an intermission for goodness sake! We were getting to a really good part when all of a sudden, they cut the movie and the lights came on. Egyptian cinema is something else…

(Fuul,ta’amiya,felafel mix sandwich)


(The popular El Abd)

Of course, I have to talk about food. “Felfalel” would prove to be my favorite place as the felafel sandwiches were extremely cheap, filling but most importantly, delicious. If you are ever there, get the “fuul, ta’amiya mixed felafel sandwich”. I also had stuffed pidgeon in a sit-down restaurant. Beware of anyone putting a basket of Egyptian bread in front of you. It is extra if you touch it but they won’t tell you, in some cases, they tell you that it’s free but charge you at the end anyway so pay attention. I had some delicious desserts at a place called “El Abd” which was hugely popular with the locals. It’s always packed, and everyone’s filling up huge boxes with many cakes. Those Egyptians sure love their sweets. Don’t forget to try fruit juices sold in small shops. Freshly blended mango is delicious and so is sugar cane. Also ate a lot of koshary (rice, pasta, lentils, mixed with sweet hot sauce, very cheap and tasty).

Off to Luxor next.

edit : At 1 am, after an 8 hour bus ride from Dahab to Cairo, I am dumped in a bus station that I am not familiar with, whisked off by a taxi driver who was obviously ripping me off but I was too tired to bargain, dumped in a hostel which didn’t get my online reservation and thus, put me in a non-AC room I didn’t ask for while charging me extra (and at 1 am, I didn’t want to go wandering around looking for a bed)…all I can say is…”WELCOME BACK TO CAIRO KEN!”.

Cairo, Egypt Pics