Egypt. Land of vast grandeur, diversity and beauty, with god knows how many UNESCO World Heritage Sites; a place that I was sure would bring out the Indiana Jones in me. It’s also the home of a thousand scams, millions of scam artists and con-men, and smooth-talking tricksters that could rival the best I’d encountered in Mumbai, Pushkar, Agra and Delhi. Some say the last great thing Egypt did was build the pyramids, and the country, very much like the great pyramids themselves, has been in a miserable and ever-worsening state of decay ever since. I was about to find out for myself. First stop – Cairo.
I flew SQ – very comfortable – in fact, I slept all the way. The cocky-looking young European businessman playing with his ipad next to me didn’t seem to want a conversation anyway. Transferred in Dubai, where I changed most of my Sing dollars and most of my American dollars into Egyptian pounds, and I also got some Jordanian diners. A good move, as it turned out, as all the tour groups on the flight got their money at the airport in Cairo, forming long queues that I was able to avoid.
Flying into Cairo, I was aware that I was in completely alien territory for me. Sure, I’d been to Africa before – but Eastern Africa. Now, we were flying over endless sand seas, terrain I am more unfamiliar with. A new region to explore. After Egypt, I would be heading to the Middle East. A new ‘continent’ awaited (well, it’s difficult to really think of the Middle East as part of the Asian continent anyway). I was coming now into North Africa however, historical, cultural, predominantly Islamic. I made a mental note not to get a hotel too close to a mosque if I wanted a decent nights kip. There is an old sense of nostalgic romance I associate with Cairo. Michael Palin was here – but more importantly – so was Indiana Jones, fighting Arabian swordsmen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, rescuing the Ark of the Convent on his journey. Judging by the people on my plane, I wasn’t the only one who felt like this – there were a lot of Indiana Jones hats on the heads of elderly gentleman.
Immigration was quick and painless, and I was very surprised to see a chap with ‘Windsor Hotel’ standing waiting for me as I walked out. He spoke no English, but at least I managed to say hello to him in Arabic ‘salam’ and then ‘shuk-ram’ (thankyou). My attempts were warmly received, but then he started babbling away at me in Arabic in the car, and when he realized I couldn’t respond, he put the radio on as we left the airport. It was The Verve’s ‘Lucky Man’, and I felt very much like one. ‘King of my Castle’ followed. We got stuck in mid-morning traffic, so the journey to Downtown Cairo took around 45 minutes through the chaotic scenes of dusty vehicles, dust-choked donkeys, suicidal cyclists and burkha-clad women playing chicken in trying to cross the street. Here I was in this energetic, shambolic metropolitan jungle of mosques, markets and palaces, home of over 20 million people. A bit like being in a sandy Jakarta.
I’d booked 2 nights in the Windsor Hotel, an archaic place, dripping with nostalgia. I was ushered into the foyer and to reception, narrow and with antique furniture strewn around seemingly at random. A photograph of Michael Palin in the hotel bar was on the wall. He’d stayed here during the filming of part of ‘Around the World in 80 days. I felt instantly at ease. If Palin’s stayed here, then it can’t be that bad.
The receptionist / manager was a busy man. Every few seconds came the trill of a telephone, and he had to put wires into the correct place on a switchboard to answer it, transfer the call etc. I thought it was great. ‘Faded charm’ were words I’d read used to describe this place. It’s certainly got that. The manager, sensing me newness to Egypt, began trying to plan my whole trip around Egypt for me, giving me suggested itineraries, arranging sleeper trains, hotels – basically trying to sell me an organized, sub-standard tour for a rip-off price. Organised is not a word I like my trips to be. Useful, certainly, but not for an independent travel-loving chap like me. I told him I’d consider his offer. I then got in the oldest elevator I’d ever seen, which required the services of a gloved lift attendant, and was taken to my room by the bell-boy. I walked down the musty, dark hall and opened the door of room 29, into a dim room with antique furniture, an antique phone, and an antique shower, It certainly had ‘faded elegance and charm’. I wonder if Palin stayed here.
Tipped the bell-boy 1EP, to which he sullenly remarked ‘do you know what this is worth in US: 20 cents.’ ‘Sorry, I don’t have any more small change’, I replied. ‘OK, mister, no problem.’ He said, forcing a weak smile. The first of many sulky, money-minded Egyptians I was sure. I explored the antiquated room, hung out on the balcony for a bit, then popped down to the Barrel Bar and Lounge, a Cairo institution. This was where Palin had hung out. This place was really old-looking – stags heads over the bar, an old guitar hung up, unstrummed for 50 years at least, I’d bet. Perhaps Palin though had played a few tunes to entertain the BBC crew. The old chap at the bar dressed in a waistcoat with a clipped grey moustache looked like Manuel from Fawlty Towers’ long lost Egyptian uncle. He was friendly enough, and even posed for a photo. I ordered a tea and a Spanish omelette, then began planning my day. I tried in vain to get my internet working, but to no avail. The waiter told me the password was ‘default’, but he really meant ‘choose default’, which my laptop, which had practically ground to a halt anyway, didn’t have, and it softly died. Decided on the Egyptian Museum for this day, which Manuel’s uncle told me was walkable from here. ‘Out hotel right. Left second right. First left. Walk walk walk 20 minutes. Nice day for walking.’ Settled then.
I booked a personal tour to Danshur, Saqquara and Giza to see all the pyramids for the next day, then I headed out into the pleasantly cool streets. I was bracing myself for an onslaught of touts in every direction. Nothing. Nobody came up to me to try to sell something. Nobody wanted to be my friend. Amid the chaotic streets I was able to let my guard down a bit. Busy colourful streets, bristling with life, full of character. People selling newspapers, fruit, vegetables, toys, clothes. Throngs of pedestrians, the women dressed in full length black burkhas, and others dressed in clothes surely stretching the boundaries of what is permitted according to the Islamic faith. It was noisy, the traffic was bad, but people still sat in cafes by the fumes, drinking ‘chai’ – tea – and smoking sheesha, men with robes and wispy white beards at tables next to businessmen dressed in sharp suits. It was just as I’d imagined Cairo to be. I walked through a small market, thronged with men and women shouting out their wares to the hordes of shoppers, people laughing, joking, talking, arguing with each other, all under a backdrop of French-style architecture, dilapidated shop fronts, and the spires and stars of Islam. Mangy dogs ran past, old men in filthy brown shawls pulled carts of rubbish, some people barely making a living, others living it up. A city of amazing colour and contrast, easy on the eye and unpleasant in equal measures.
I enjoyed my stroll through the market, and then went down past a girls school, outside which boys hung out in front of their cars, some waiting to chat up a girl, others waiting to catch a few precious moments with their sweetheart before she is whisked into the parental home until day-break. A gaggle of schoolgirls tried talking with me, which seemed to anger little old women who kept walking past whispering angrily. I walked down to the Metro station, which was packed with people. Only 2 subway lines for such a big city. I fought my way off at the station closest to the Egyptian Museum, and walked towards it.
The museum has a lovely polished façade, and is regarded as one of the world’s greatest museums. It is divided into sections, and is a true labyrinth of a place, featuring the famous child-king Tutankhamun’s coffin and mask, the royal mummies, countless artifacts and more historical significance than you can shake a stick at. The entrance is 60EP, and a further 100EP if you want to visit the royal mummies, which I did. A fantastic experience, slightly disturbing. I felt sorry for the mummies. Lying there, forever to be gawped at. It’s no way for the dead to rest. It’s amazing though how well-preserved they are. I could still see lips, skin, fingernails, teeth and hair. They’ve been dead for thousands of years. The mummification process had obviously been a success. I wandered around most of artifacts – truly magnificent. It’s a cluttered museum, and many of the artifacts are dusty and not labeled – which makes it all the more intriguing, and a real voyage of discovery. Looking around the museum, I thought how terrible it must be to be here on a group tour with a guide. People 20 or 30 deep were following little flags everywhere, many looking bored out of their minds, eager to wander off and explore at their own pace. Still, the guards seemed very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. There were groups of Egyptians, other Arabs, Europeans, Russians (noticeable for the girls wearing totally inappropriate hotpants and the men with red or white tracksuits emblazoned with ‘Russia’ – just in case people needed any confirmation), Japanese, and more. My nightmare.
I spent around 3 hours here, completely captivated, and left to go to Al-azhar park by taxi for a negotiated fare of 25LE. On the way, I told him I needed a SIM card, so he set me up with one by taking me to a shop. Sorted. We somehow got through Islamic Cairo unscathed, then up to the park. The park enjoys a strategic location overlooking Islamic Cairo and the Citadel. It was a glorious evening and the sunset was fantastic, burning fuzzily in the dusty, sandy sky, a burning red as it sunk behind the spires of mosques to the sound of the call to prayer, at once haunting and beautiful, coming from all sides. I posed for some photos for a couple of giggling college girls in flowery headdresses with big flirtatious eyes, then wandered around, noticing how peaceful the place was – a great escape from the madness encircling it. Couples sat together holding hands tenderly, though nothing more. No kissing here under the all-powerful gaze of Islam.
I decided to eat at the Citadel View restaurant, and the view of the citadel and the mosques all around providing a magical backdrop for my meal, which began with kobeiba shami, a delicious fried ball stuffed with a load of minced green spinach. I washed it down with a kharroub – a sweet purple-coloured drink. The main course was a mixed grill of kofta and sheesh kebab, chicken and beef, served with oriental rice and chips, and a side of leavened bread. Delicious, but pricey at 150LE. Still, it was worth it. After an espresso, I was ready to go, and bargained with a taxi to take me to the Windsor Hotel for 20LE. I put on a bit more deodorant, then was ready for downtown. It was truly alive here, shops and street sellers, sheesha cafes and coffee shops all open way past the witching hour. This place never sleeps. I had an apple sheesha and a chai at one of the places overlooking the pedestrianised streets that make up the ‘square’. People watching from a plastic stool with a sheesha pipe is one of the great pastimes here. I certainly enjoyed chilling out in the cool-bordering-on-chilly evening air, as people selling all kinds of things came by. Families were sitting smoking together, people were milling around, shaking hands with friends and acquaintances, like an old market town where everyone knows everyone, strange for such a big city. And so I sat with my pipe underneath the old buildings with the French shutters, drawing in the slightly harsh apple smoke, drinking sweet tea, and thinking what an amazing day I’d had.