Let’s see… how to describe Cairo… in a word, Cairo is… tiring… or, if you prefer nouns… a hassle. The city is enormous, the traffic is chaotic, the air is polluted, there’s trash everywhere and everyone is constantly up in your face trying to sell you something (you literally can’t walk down the street for more than 30 seconds without hearing the by now familiar “hey… where are you from?” line most sellers/touts use). Dealing with the day to day stuff of independent travel here was very exhausting. Literally, I found 9 out of 10 Egyptians with whom I interacted to be nothing but scammers just trying to hustle some cash off you anyway they could… and while I understand their motivations (they’re poor, I’m rich, relatively, and they’ll likely never see me again so they only have one opportunity), that doesn’t make it any less annoying. In practice, you can ignore most people all the time and be fine, but sometimes you actually need help (to find something, to go somewhere, etc.) and have to interact with someone to get what you want… and, unfortunately, that almost always proved to be a frustrating experience. Take asking for directions… stop a random person on the street to ask for directions (or, more likely, if you look a bit lost, pretty much guaranteed someone will approach you and ask if they can help… again 90%, maybe 98%, of people that approach you will be trying to sell you something), and that person will, with a gracious display of (seeming) hospitality, offer to show you the way. Nice right? Well, not really… 90% of the time, the person showing you the way, even if he didn’t approach you first (all the while maintaining a nice conversation in fluent English), will lead you directly to their shop to give you the hard sell on some crappy souvenirs or tour packages (read my description in this post to see what I’m talking about). And when you inevitably decline, you will, obviously, not get the directions you were looking for in the first place… leaving you right back at square one needing to ask for directions again… just a huge waste of time and very, even extremely, annoying. I know all of you must be thinking, “why did you keep falling for this?”, and that’s a fair question. It’s easy enough to ignore people when you know where you’re going and what you’re doing, but again, as I said above, when you genuinely need to do, or to find, something, and you’re not 100% certain of where it is, you will actually need somebody’s help, and will have to get that help from someone. Believe me, I tried everything… from asking people working in shops as opposed to people on the street (however, there’s always, always, about four people hanging out in any given shop and one of them will offer to show you the way and the guy working will pass you off to him), to asking policemen (not a good idea because the police aren’t exactly friendly and most did not, or did not want to, speak English) to asking in seemingly nice hotels (the only successful strategy I found, but there’s not always a nice hotel nearby). It was just very hard to avoid these people when you need help with something (a bit easier in the non-touristy areas… but there are few of those places in Cairo where you, as a tourist, would actually end up). And the biggest reason why it’s difficult not to ask random people questions, is that the other 1 out of 10 Egyptians are absolutely amazing… they will take the idea of Arabic hospitality to a whole other level entirely. They will walk you to where you need to go, show you around, take you out with their friends, invite you to their homes and go above and beyond to ensure you are having a good time in return for nothing more than good conversation and the chance to take pride in their city. Unfortunately, after interacting with the other 90%, it’s hard to adjust to the niceness of the 10% without the back of your brain tingling a bit in wonderment of what they might ask you for at some point. And even with that 10%, dealing with the rest of the bullshit from the other 90% of people makes doing anything in Cairo a huge, tiring, hassle.
So are there any redeeming features of Cairo… yes, there are. The goods: Meat… yes, seriously… do you like meat? Well then, Egyptian cuisine is for you… schwerma, roasted chickens, kofka… good, cheap, hearty meat-based dished are everywhere. Juices: fresh fruit juice is also available everywhere… I’m not sure how they make it, but it’s like they just took whole pieces of fruit and blended them down to juice… pulp and all (I’m picturing this guy at the moment), very thick and refreshing (my favorite meal was generally a roasted chicken with a mango juice). Sights: Of course there’s a lot of really interesting stuff to see… from the pyramids, to the old citadel, to the giant markets, to the new park built on top of what used to be the City’s main dump… the Nile, King Tut’s tomb (in the Egyptian Museum), and just general life in an Arabic city… Cairo has a lot of good sights. Shisha: If you like to sit around and smoke some shisha (flavored tobacco smoked through a hookah/water-pipe) you’re in luck, as that’s pretty much all Egyptians seem to do. The people (yes, even after my thoughts above): Very friendly… even the most aggressive touts somehow manage to be friendly and nice… and that tenth guy you meet will (almost) make all the hassle worthwhile. Personal safety: I never felt unsafe in Cairo, even though I was bothered and hassled all the time it never felt dangerous. To add a little extra spice to the usual Cairo chaos, I happened to get there on the day (September 11th) demonstrators protested/attacked the American Embassy in Tahir Square (which was a 5-10 minute walk from my hotel), which added a bit of tension to the air, but, despite my proximity to the protests, I was never threatened or felt unsafe (in fact, people would actually go out of their way to make you feel safe… even the aggressive touts). So Cairo does have some redeeming features.
I originally planned to spend a couple of days in Cairo to see the pyramids and get my Ethiopian visa in preparation for my overland trip south through Africa (reportedly, the Embassy of Sudan in Cairo will not issue a visa to American citizens at all… the Sudanese Embassy in Aswan may issue a two-week transit visa to American citizens if they can prove they will be exiting the country… hence why I needed to get my Ethiopian visa in Cairo so I could show it to the Sudanese Embassy in Aswan). Luckily, on my first day in Cairo, I managed to meet one of the Egyptian 10%ers. I stopped someone to ask if I was headed in the right direction… and somehow we got into a nice conversation over a glass of tea (this kind of thing is just what happens here). I was looking for a hotel, and he said there were a couple in the area that he could show me (warning bells going off at this point). He made it a point to say he didn’t want anything from me other than for me to have a pleasant stay (still suspicious). He then paid for my tea (despite me saying I’d take care of it) and proceeded to show me a couple of places. He didn’t first walk me to his shop (he was an antiques dealer), he didn’t say anything about his friend having a hotel/restaurant which (coincidentally) was right nearby that we should see, he simply asked me what I was looking for in a hotel and took me to two places nearby that he thought would work (and the second one did). His name was Hossan. We had a good conversation in the time we spent together, and once I checked into the hotel, he gave me his number and said to call him if I wanted to go out with him and his friends. Still a bit apprehensive, I didn’t call him the first night… instead I read up on Cairo and figured out the hotspots where the tourists go out at night to meet some people (I think I’ve said it before, but most Egyptians don’t go out in the sense that we westerners do… they go to cafes where they sit, drink tea and smoke shisha all night… so the only out and about places would be somewhat tourist or expat dependent, and the expat neighborhood was pretty far away, so I figured the tourist scene would be fine). Well… I went to four places… and barely a soul in any of them (there was only one other person in my hotel as well)… which hit on a major theme I’d see in Cairo the rest of the time… there were hardly any tourists there at all (due to all the political turmoil).
The next night, figuring I had nothing to lose, I called up Hossan. He met me downtown and proceeded to take me all over Cairo, famous mosques, the new (and quite beautiful) park overlooking the city, the famous marketplace, a couple of places to eat to try the local cuisine and then over to a cafe in the posh part of town (where he lived) to, what else, smoke shisha and sit and talk. While at the cafe, by chance, a friend of his walked by (he was there to meet someone else who didn’t show up and was about to leave) and we were introduced. Hossan’s friend, Simo, lived in Florida for five years and was married to an American girl (although he was back in Egypt for the month). We all sat around and talked until about 3 AM or so. Hossan offered to show me the pyramids the next morning (before he went to work at noon) and Simo said, afterwards, I could come by his private sporting club and have a swim. I, of course, said yes to both offers. So, I saw the pyramids in the morning, picked up my Ethiopian visa immediately after (I had applied the day before), then hit the Al Ahly Club with Simo for a swim and general hanging out… he turned out to be a very, very cool dude, and I spent the next three nights just chillaxing with him (in the evenings… during the day I was doing touristy stuff). Simo had a very interesting perspective on things because he had lived in America for quite sometime (he loves America by the way… and noted several times that he wanted to help me n Cairo because so many Americans helped him when he was there), so I got some very good insights into Egyptian/Arab culture from a guy who’s an insider with an understanding of American life. Some general observations… like I said before, Egyptians love to sit around in cafes and drink tea and smoke shisha (as most are practicing muslims they don’t drink alcohol which isn’t even served at most cafes)… and this is mainly because any of them that are over 25 are almost always married with children, so they like to just sit with their friends and chat (it’s always 100% male at these cafes… the wives must be at home or out with each other at one’s home because I rarely saw women out and about…that, layered on the fact that the wages are not very high for most Egyptians jobs… and tea and shisha are dirt cheap while drinking and dancing are not… plus, as wives are generally met through family connections, arranged marriages are still the most common way to get married here, there’s no real places for young people to mingle and meet each other… even when I was looking into clubs in Cairo all of the nice ones would only allow men in when they were accompanied by a date). Speaking of marriage, Simo noted that (being an Islamic culture) most wives are virgins (or are pretending to be) when they are married… so his favorite quote was that marrying an Egyptian woman was like buying a watermelon… it could taste like honey, or it could taste like pickles, but you’ll never know until you buy it (he was not a fan of Egyptian women). I got a sense that Egyptian/Arabic culture is very concerned with money and exterior appearance… a good night out is spent walking around the mall (we did this one night in Nasr City, a very, very nice suburb of Cairo… in a mall that was so large and nice it would put 99.5% of American malls to shame). Everybody likes to show off their brand names on their clothing and bright/blingy accessories are everywhere (as an aside, I remember sitting with a Kuwaiti guy in Sharm El Sheikh who was showing me pictures of his three cars… a lamborghini, a ferrari and a maserati…similar idea at work, just with more money). Nobody we spoke with understood what I was doing traveling… “You must be spending so much money? Why on earth are you doing this? Please fly to Dubai or Qatar right now and apply for a job… you’ll make a killing and can go back to America in two years with suitcases full of money.” Or, more commonly… “just go back home and get back to work?” I know all my traveling can be classified as a “first-world problem”, so I could understand their perspectives as most Egyptians (even the well-off ones) are relatively poorer (monetary-wise) than most Americans. These guys were all very concerned with getting enough money to buy a house and support their families and how they were going to make that happen. So they were just baffled that someone who has an American passport (they would all kill for one), and the (almost) ability to go do anything he wants to work wise, is “wasting” money traveling. “Why would you want to see Africa they said… they’re (meaning black Africans) going to hate you, and aside from South Africa and Equatorial Guinea, the continent is shit.” Despite our differing opinions, we had a series of very good conversations, and Simo made me really search myself for the answer to what I was doing with this trip, and what am I trying to accomplish, and thinking about what I want to do next. I would actually call it a pivotal moment in my travels, the realization that both my time and resources are finite, and although I love seeing all these new places, I don’t know if I’m going to be one of those people who wants to travel forever (in the traveling sense, not the living overseas sense). I would actually go home from our conversations and stay up until about 4 AM writing and thinking about myself and what he said… powerful stuff.
In retrospect, those conversations did transform some ideas I had about what I wanted to see and do on this trip… they made me focus a bit, especially on what I want to see over the next couple of months. No more just seeing stuff simpley because I’m “supposed” to see/do those things… just do the things I want. Those conversations also reawakened my thoughts about what comes next… I’m not going to get on a plane to Qatar or Dubai tomorrow to go look for work, but I’m going to start thinking about those next steps (my previous thoughts had really just been focused on clearing my head and doing new things), and, now, wherever I am, I’m going to start tracking down people doing interesting work there to see why/how/what they’re doing. One immediate impact was that I discharged my idea of over-landing Africa from Cairo to the Cape, not that I don’t think that it was a good idea, but in really thinking about what I wanted to do, I realized there were a lot of places on that route I didn’t really want to see. So I picked the one place I did really want to explore… Ethiopia… and bought a ticket from Cairo to Addis Ababa for the next day. Done and done with Egypt… onto sub-Saharan Africa. So, despite the fact that I never really want to ever see Cairo again, going there turned out to be a good thing for me.