A view from the road near my Hotel, showing the proximity of the Pyramids to Cairo's population and pollution.
Travel Date 25th March-2 April 2008
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Egypt was interesting. I use the word in the same way as the ancient Chinese who cursed their worst enemies with: "may you live in interesting times".
I'll try to be positive and stick to the good things I saw in Egypt. Those included, of course, the ancient sites but also the Nile, Aswan Dam and a few of the people. But I will have to be honest and also refer to some of the negatives.
Egypt is the only country in all my travels where I have used a local tour operator to arrange things. Never, ever again. I did a lot of research and it seemed sensible to use locals who could access good hotels, good cruise boats and good local guides as a package. After some research and many emails I chose Osoris Travel.
Just in case anyone reading this ever considers using them, read my report on Tripadvisor. By leaving the report there I can reduce the negative here. Suffice to say they turned the visit to Egypt that I had dreamed about for a year into a nightmare. To use another ancient and appropriate curse, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest their armpits for all eternity.
Noting that my impressions of Egypt are coloured by that experience, I'll clear the decks with the rest of the negatives now. That way I can concentrate on the positives for the remaining posts. But first, one nice experience.
One of the few nice Egyptians I encountered was a representative of a different tour company who helped me when I arrived at the airport. After an hour, when my own tour representative failed to appear this man helped me, reducing my stress levels enormously. My Egyptian SIM card was arriving with my missing tour representative so I had no working phone. In addition to making several calls to Osoris to try to find out what was happening, he convinced the airport police to allow me to return to the secure side so that I could use the ATM. That's a point worth remembering if you visit Cairo - get your cash out before you go to immigration. There were no ATMs on the other side of those barriers.
An odd thing happened as I returned to the security barrier, manned by police, after collecting my cash. One of the police stood in front of me and said "baksheesh". I was surprised, but I realised that he wanted money. I looked to my good Samaritan to get an idea of the usual payment. He looked embarrassed and had some sharp words with the cop, who then grumbled a bit and turned away allowing me through. When my own tour representative arrived I gratefully thanked my helper. He shook hands, wished me well and never asked for money.
Later I realised how rare he was. Unfortunately he didn't give me a business card and I have forgotten his name. I am forever grateful for that good Samaritan; I never met another like him in Egypt. Nor did I meet many other Egyptians who did not demand baksheesh for a service, no matter how trivial the service was, and who did not aggressively pursue that baksheesh if they felt it was due.
Egypt is the land of baksheesh. Absolutely nothing is done for free. Bear in mind that I have travelled now in many different cultures including the "tipping" culture of the USA, which is such a shock for Aussies, and the poverty and beggars of India and the poverty of Cambodia. But the baksheesh culture of Egypt takes institutionalised tipping and begging to quite different levels. I'll give a couple examples of many.
The traffic in Cairo is incredibly bad and, when it is busy on wide city streets, very dangerous for pedestrians. To cross a road - even at lights - is a death-defying experience for a pedestrian the first few times until you learn the rhythm of the traffic flow. But never fear. Any non-Egyptian who pauses momentarily at a kerb will instantly attract a helpful local who will unhesitatingly guide them across the road. In one case I had a guy try to drag me over when I had no intention of crossing. But as soon as you reach the other side one of two things will occur; either your helper will instantly put their hand out and say "baksheesh" or they will invite you to visit the art gallery (or shop or perfumery or cafe or clothing store or other business) of their relative or friend. If you decline to visit, patient persistence will be applied with sometimes increasingly angry insistence if you continue to decline. More than once I had to pull my arm forcefully out of the clutches of my friendly unsolicited "helper". And sometimes I just gave in and bought some perfume or an overpriced child's gallabiyeh or similar for the sake of peace.
With time and experience I learned how to decline before crossing or, occasionally to accept the help on dangerous crossings and pay the baksheesh. Once, to a cop. After more than a year I've forgotten the going rate for an assisted road crossing.
A different example. In Aswan I decided to buy a few cans of beer to store in the fridge in my cabin. I had not realised how difficult that could be in a Muslim city, not knowing where the bars and liquor outlets were. So I went exploring. Eventually I found a sign saying "Bar" but it appeared to be closed. A local was dozing in front of the door, looked at me, asked "beer?" and grabbed me by the hand. I followed him up some dark stairs beside the entrance. After three flights the stairs got lower and darker and I had to hunch over to avoid banging my head; I started to get a bit nervous wondering what I was doing following this guy into an unknown place in the dark, but I kept going. By now his hand was like a vice anyway. Eventually we emerged into a dimly lit room with a concrete floor covered in several inches of sand. We crossed that and a bar appeared with a couple of bored patrons and a barman. I bought my beer, but I was no longer surprised when my guide of the moment demanded baksheesh. I eventually negotiated down to 12 Egyptian pounds (about $2.50) for the service. It's not a lot of money to us, although it probably was to him, and you eventually get used to it. In this case I probably would not have found the place without him. But you do get tired of the system.
Nothing is for nothing in Egypt.
Incidentally, if you are brave enough to drive in Cairo, you need to be even braver to park.
As I mention in my report on Osoris the Oasis Hotel is close to the Pyramids but over an hour out of the centre of Cairo. The rooms and facilities are excellent, my only real problem with the hotel was the location.
They have a free shuttle into town so I hopped on that as soon as I had settled in and took the hour and a quarter ride back to town.
Cairo is a city of contradictions. There is an old town of Mosques and Churches, I'll write more on that later. Downtown Cairo is like any major modern city; a mix of modern and old, bustling and quiet, busy and sleepy. It was much less crowded and frantic than Delhi but still very different in character and style to European, Australian or American cities. Some sections could have been downtown Paris, obviously catering for the wealthy and for tourists.
Others were for the locals with tiny specialist shops and lots of cafes with men smoking Shisha pipes, with smoke bubbling through the water bowl. This was a little fast-food shop that served a decent lunch; not a Maccas. I did have a wrap at a Maccas later, but that was to "pay" for using the facilities. You start to look for the Golden Arches when you find too many of the facilities at other "good" restaurants look like the ones in the next picture.
I took this picture, through the window at McD's, of the local Police hard at work controlling traffic at the intersection. Every so often one of the many cops would wander into the middle of the road and direct traffic for a minute or two, but mostly they chatted with their mates there, or on the phone, and left the drivers to sort it out themselves. The other picture is of an unenthusiastic pedestrian who was told to "assist police in the course of their transportation".
You may have gathered by now that I was fairly unimpressed with Cairo's Police Force. I didn't have any problems with them personally, something I am very grateful for. I was just surprised at the petty corruption I encountered and the obvious lack of interest in their duties.
This is a local butcher's shop, with carcasses hanging in the sun over the foot-path. Shops like this for various meats were common; this one was typical. Despite getting a dose of the traveller's curse after my first night in Cairo (probably from fruit or veges) I still ate meat dishes in Egypt and never had a recurrence of the problem. I'm not sure if this guy was selling tea or coffee; he looked very similar to the tea-sellers I saw in Istanbul on a previous trip.
In my Osoris report I mention the crowd at the museum in the mornings; this was taken as I waited outside. I have no pictures from inside the museum. In some rooms photos are forbidden and in others the crush was so intense it was impossible to take photos anyway.
The population of Cairo is somewhere between 25 and 30 million depending on who you ask and where they set the city boundaries and whether they count the homeless. A significant proportion of that population lives in tenements like these. Nearly all have an unfinished look to them, as though they are allowing for additional floors to be added as needed, but some of those unfinished buildings are decades old. Possibly they have tax laws like Italy or Greece, where buildings are deliberately left unfinished so that final taxes are not paid. I asked my drivers and guide, but none seemed to know and all seemed surprised that I asked the question. The attitude seemed to be "surely all the world is like Cairo?"
All of Egypt is dominated by the Nile, including Cairo. I'll write later about the river, because Egypt would quite literally not exist if not for that river. This is the mighty Nile as seen from the heart of the city.
Next, the Cairo-Aswan train.