Cairo: City of Sand and Dust

Posted by in Culture, Travel

ARABIC AFRICA

Welcome to Africa, albeit Arabic Africa, a city of dust, a city of chaos where everything – even for a traveller of over 45 countries – feels overwhelming and daunting. A polar opposite from my own land where no one speaks, here many are curious and friendly or are they? And that’s the initial problem, are these people being friendly or is it a scam for the unweary in operation? How could I possibly tell?

Cairo is my 100th city and I was anxious for many reasons. For one where were the airline offices? I could only locate ‘agents,’ to go to the Pyramids myself or take a tour, how the hell could I get money? No one changes Chinese here and I’d now used up my Euros. How to get back to the airport, it took 45 minutes to make it to the central city and it’s only nine miles away!

It feels somewhere between Istanbul and Manila, the car horns honk even more than in China, everything is so big and the shutters and street lamps are encrusted with sand and dirt. My first choice hostel Dina’s has apparently been closed for years although it still shows up on search engines.

It was utilised by journalists in the troubles of the early part of this decade and was mysteriously closed. Not sure what happened to Dina herself but it was a beautiful hostel. My next choice is Sufi but my mail goes unanswered.

ADRENALIN RUSH

In the rush of reality I am given a lift into central Cairo by a girl I met on the plane. The International Hostel is full so we run downstairs to the Miami as her driver waits outside and is approached by local Police for parking kerbside. Although I’m not too fussed on the room, they do allow me to leave my bags while I go in search of an exchange place. In the end I use an ATM, luckily one of my cards work.

In the morning comes the traditional Egyptian breakfast of stale bread, soft cheese, jam and a boiled egg. I switch hostels at midday and stay for the remainder of my time in Cairo – as always juggling the city sights with planning my route forward, lots of flight planning and running around visiting airline offices. It’s then I notice…

THE GHOST OF AVGEEK PAST

If nostalgia is your thing, then Cairo is very much your town in the ephemera left behind. Something immediately noticeable not just in the crumbling buildings, evocative lifts or cassettes found in sand is the ghost of avgeek past lives here; the old 80s Egypt Air, the Air France Concorde poster and British Airways to name but a few.

You know those odd films you see every once in a while where the character steps off the street in ‘the present’ but the building he (it’s usually a he) steps into is evidently in the past. Well, it’s a bit like that. Amazing that these relics still adorn many travel agent windows.

HOW TO GET TO THE PYRAMIDS

The hostels run tours so they say. This amounts to a driver, an air conditioned car and if you’re lucky a guide or Egyptologist. What I wanted was something all inclusive and most of all to avoid the touts waiting for me at the gates.

I’ve heard you should get the taxi driver to go to the vehicle entrance but according to some I’d spoken to this too has now been commandeered by those intent on shouting at, tugging at or generally annoying you, the visitor.

Second thoughts are of the metro but none of the stations come close to the Pyramids so you still need some form of transport to get there. Then I had the brilliant idea of going around the 5 star hotels to see what tours they have.

Cairo is still reeling from its revolution so all require you to go through concrete barriers and airport style security to enter. You’ll also have to dodge taxi drivers on your way out unless of course you want or need one. Here’s what I found…

HILTON
Typically oil slick concierge who tells me ‘every hotel does the American Express tour’ – they don’t. Nonetheless, this one turned out to be the most reasonable at EGP£655 (about UK£28)

RITZ CARLTON
The most expensive private tour (not the AmEx tour above) $110 (about UK£84) as you can see a huge difference.

NOVOTEL
Across the Nile is the budget hotel, though at EGP153 per night I’m not sure how it can call itself that, so I nip across – not without being accosted by mister ‘hi, where are you from?’ Anyway the hotel is actually in the basement not the grand stairwell which is full of tour agents (ironically enough). The Novotel doesn’t have a concierge, just an even more oily looking travel agent. So back across the river to…

THE INTERCONTINENTAL
Same American Express tour as the Hilton but very different price EGP£1115 (about UK£48). They did however have the nicest of all the hotels and the most helpful concierge who suggested a bus to the Mina House Hotel and that’s what I did.

BUS #900 – TO THE PYRAMIDS

By a stroke of luck the exact bus required is waiting for me at the chaotic station right in front of the Hilton, it costs EGP£1.50 and takes about 45 minutes, perfect! It follows the Nile (more olive than blue) before crossing it and heading out to Giza via the zoo.

The bus is ramshackle, its interior has a digital display at the front but only in Arabic. It is supposed to call at the Mina but never does, it drops me on a corner where I am set on by more guys who say they work for the government and ‘don’t want any money’ and are ‘just trying to help’ which they might be but they are too intrusive as I am trying to shoot pictures.

THE PYRAMIDS AND THE GREEN CAFE

My contact from the plane says Cairo smells of shit but I’d say it’s more urine than the other. This is particularly evident in the small village I enter seeking to avoid unwanted attention. My first stop is at a fly ridden cafe for tea where ants crawl in the sugar bowl. I stop there because it IS authentic, not a tourist show. The dirt road smells of wee and is carpeted with horse and camel manure which add to the overall aroma.

After the cafe I take a right and eventually come across a bunch of boys playing football; one of them is wearing a pink Real Madrid BALE top and I try telling them he is from the same country as me. As I am talking to the boys more guys are asking where I am going and they can help.

Further up the same dirt road I am lining up a shot when out of nowhere comes a horse and this is quickly followed by two camels and their riders who stop to ask me where I am going and they can ‘do ride cheap.’ It takes a while to get rid of them, even with ‘la shukran’ (no thanks).

One guy follows me into a narrow lane as I try in vain to capture more imagery. He says he is a government worker and shows me his badge which he wears like a necklace. When I say I don’t want to ride a horse or camel he switches tack to ‘you like walk?’ I nod affirmative but he gets the wrong idea.

‘Fine, we walk together’ he says. As they are persistent I have no choice but to be a little more curt than I would like to be. ‘You are safe,’ he says, ‘you are in Egypt.’ ‘OPEN YOUR HEART! He hollers as I walk out of sight.

Sadly it wouldn’t be the last of these pests. Obviously my plan to veer away from the main tourist traps hadn’t worked, if you are anywhere near the Pyramids and foreign you are going to be approached. I am a tourist and while ‘not that kind of tourist’ these guys simply do not understand.

Anyone is fair game to them. This doesn’t mean I am averse to meeting locals – far from it, but not those hitting me with a hard sell or can’t take a hint to NEVER interrupt a photographer at work!

TOURISM IN TATTERS

After what feels like many hours I head back to the junction where the bus dropped me and this time take another direction in the hope of another vantage point. Tall buildings mask my view until I come across another ‘helpful’ type. This one offers me a view from the top of his building (I’d guess it comes at a price, I kept walking).

Down another few dusty lanes (more camel poo) and I accidentally stumble into the heart of tourism central. Here I get offered hats, postcards and the kind of tacky figurines you see on someone’s fireplace in England, I’m talking the Sphinx, Nefertiti – that kind of thing.

So back to the bus, there is another way back on the 2002 via Dokki metro station but I walk back to the trusty 900. This time it is more crowded but nonetheless does the job feeling proud to have run the Pyramids gauntlet and survived relatively unscathed – no tuggers or grabbers at least.

The next day is set aside for the Egyptian Museum. Having gone through two sets of security I enter to find a price list with more add-ons than a no frills airline, add extra for the mummy room, more for photography. No wonder their tourism industry is in tatters.

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT AND AN ARABIAN WEDDING

Having decided against the museum I decide on a harmless walk along the Nile but in Cairo you can’t even do that without someone offering you a boat ride which is again declined – not because I’m tight but because I don’t like boats although I would say there was also a degree of mistrust on my part. Saying goodbye to the river I turn inward and u-turn back towards the central city of Talat Harb street and the hostel.

On the way and on the same street as the Geographical society – a building I have already taken a picture of is a building with the symbol of Egypt on it which I photograph. This is run of the mill to me but sends the Egyptian security personnel on the other side of the road into hysteria.

They flag me down while they try and weave through the busy traffic to reach me. Running would have been pointless. The next thing I know they are asking for my passport and I am detained in a porta-cabin which is a de facto police station.

One of them surveys my two shots (above). Then I wait for another one to arrive to do the same. While relatively calm my heart is beating as I wonder what fate awaits me, a fine, a prison cell or God knows what else. They flick back and forth between the two shots and ask why I took them as it’s a sensitive building.

Next they ask where I am from and what hotel I am staying at. After about 15minutes I’m set free. It turns out that they are no more than the average bored security personage in the UK, they simply have nothing better to do. In turn they have murdered my opinion of Egypt, talk about ‘Death on the Nile.’

MIXED MEMORIES

My 100th city certainly proved memorable and a valuable cultural lesson, a simple shot or two can create ructions. It all ends with an African night flight, back to the city from where I came… Guangzhou – though that too doesn’t go without incident. While I wait for my plane at the airport hotel an Arabian horn and drumming signals the beginning of wedding celebrations. A happy and joyous end to a mixed travel excursion.

**TRAVEL TIP
Egypt is a place where ‘all inclusive’ does not exist – beware of ‘service charges’ and ‘taxes’ always in minute lettering which drastically alters the price shown!
**TRAVEL TIP FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS
Be very careful taking photos around the Tahir Square area as highlighted above, the security services can be very temperamental!

PLAYLIST AND CREDITS

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PLAYLIST
Africa – Toto
The Friends of Mr Cairo – Jon and Vangelis
The Nile Song – Pink Floyd
Letter from Egypt – Morten Harket
Pyramid Song – Radiohead
Song of the Pyramids – from the Music of Cleopatra on the Nile
African Night Flight – David Bowie

Photos: KH