Published: January 12th 2009September 26th 2008
From our hotel roof top cafe on Pyramid St, Giza. And yes that is the great pyramid in the background!
I am surprised by the number of time the phrase 'I just got back from Egypt' is met with 'Were you scared? Did you feel safe?' or 'Was it dangerous?' rather than 'What was it like? what did you see?' or even a question about the weather. So, for the record: I felt safe. Be not afraid. And please don't believe everything you read in the media about muslim countries. I'm going to preface this blog by saying I don't want to get into any religious or political debates..... but...
I know the mass media would have us believe that every muslim on the face of the earth is a terrorist who wants all of us dead. Apparently they all hate the 'infidels' (that's us) and run around bombing everything 24/7. This is the first muslim country i have been too but I'm here to tell you that from my experience here, it is purely and simply untrue. I loved Egypt and its 89% muslim population. I felt very welcome and very safe. In fact I don't think australians back home are so uniformly hospitable, helpful and friendly to foreigners as the Egyptians were to us. And we are rumoured
to be a pretty friendly bunch.
Now Cairo, being the biggest city in the world, with approximately 24 million souls crowded in together I suppose it can be as dangerous as any city. 24 million people living in one city is mind boggling. That is more than the total population of the whole of Australia. Common sense is always your greatest ally. Anywhere can be dangerous if you do silly things. Hell, I wouldn't wander around the back streets of Northbridge in Perth alone - sleepy little city that it is - at 3 in the morning. I would probably walk around Cairo at 3am though because this crazy city never sleeps. The only thing I was really afraid of was getting run over the first time I crossed the road.
People tell you the traffic is nuts. This is all true. I've been places with crazy traffic such as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for example. I thought I knew crazy traffic. The difference is that in most places it is a kind of Organised Chaos. Here its just Chaos Chaos. I cannot truly do it justice in explaining the craziness of
Cairo roads but the best description might be that it is like the arteries of a schitzophrenic, insomniac giant after too much turkish coffee and a good solid amphetamine binge.
Road signs barely exist, traffic lights are ignored, line markings mean nothing, 3 lanes carry 5 lanes of traffic and all you need on the road is a horn and a steering wheel. The horns NEVER stop. The rules of engagement when driving is Find A Space or Make A Space. Trucks and cars travel along side motorbikes, bicycles, donkey carts, horses, camels and people on foot. In fact, if it has wheels or feet you'll probably find it on the streets of Cairo. When I talk about Cairo I mean generally both Cairo and Giza together. Once upon a time they were seperate cities but now they seem to sprawl together in a way that would be seamless if the Nile did not seperate them.
I'm not complaining about the traffic, please understand. Truthfully I enjoyed all the craziness. So long as I didn't die it was fun. There was that truck that side swiped my taxi on the first day of course. The drivers got out
in the middle of the intersection, cars and donkeys and goodness knows what zigging and zagging all around us. The truck driver yelled at the taxi driver. The taxi driver yelled at the truck driver. There was quite a bit of angry arm waving. A police officer who had apparently been directing traffic -though you couldn't even see him among all the confusion - came over with his AK47 and told them to bugger off. They ignored him of course but after 5 minutes both got in their vehicles and drove off anyway. And that was that: no swapping numbers, calling cops, filing insurance, going to court. But how does anyone learn to drive here? That's what I want to know.
THE EGYPTIAN PEOPLE
Charming. Absolutely charming is what springs to mind.
Now if you only visit the pyramids and the sphinx I would forgive you for thinking they are all scummy ripoff merchants. At every point there is somebody shoving a trinket or scarf or postcards under your nose and crudely pestering you. You feel like a walking dollar sign. It's to be expected, afterall they've been doing it for centuries. Get away from
Lovely relaxing with a cocktail by the pool at Movenpick resort, Giza
all that and you will find the most wonderful people if you care to look. Egyptians have, across the board, the most wicked and playful senses of humour and often quite naughty - like hinting at why Queen Neffertity liked to put her perfume behind her knees for example (I'll leave it up to your imagination).
Your waiters will pretend they are going to pour coffee in your juice, playfully move to take your plate away 30 seconds after you got it - while asking you if you enjoyed your meal - and then tell you they cant accept your money but you can get in the kitchen and wash the dishes. Basically they're pretty good 'piss takers', as we say back home. And very flirtatious. If you are the jealous type beware!! Sometimes it was a bit letchy and sleazy but for the most part it was done in a jovial sense. And wouldn't you get that at home anyway? If you're a women travelling with a guy its as sure as sunrise that numerous camels will be offered for you (almost always a joke). Often you may be told that all the camels of egypt would not
The Great Pyramid
under the setting sun as seen from our hotel roof
be enough to purchase you and the guy will be told he is a lucky man. Then they'll ask with a wry smile if you have a sister. They joke about almost everything and one of the best pieces of advice i can give a visitor to egypt is to return the favour. I saw many a woundedd look when their jokes met a rude response. If you share a joke or tease them in a good natured way you will make friends fast and people will bend over backwards for you. The same when you are bargaining a price: a joke and a smile will get you further and make the process a lot more fun for everyone. Quote of the trip from a vendor: "Oh! Why you cut my throat with soft knife?!?!"... Hehehehe.
In short the people were absolutely fabulous. In general they are friendly, helpful, hospitable, tolerant, gracious, generous, thoughtful, funny, charming and humble... almost without exception.
Lets go back to the beginning. Because it says a lot, I think, about Egpyt. First impressions do count.
So, I make my way through the passport checks and customs without
issue and head to the entrance looking for my prearranged transfer with no luck. Being a blonde westerner with a slightly lost and useless look about me I gather a modest crowd of taxi men wanting my fare. I am bustled away by a well dressed man in a suit and armed with a walky talky who quickly grabs control (and my luggage) and I follow him wearily out of the airport. When I tell him I have a transfer arranged and where i am staying he waves a dismissive arm “yes yes, your agent is asleep, happens all the time. We take you, and you get your money back from them.” Yeah right...money back. Good one...
I pause, too fuzzy from 24hrs in transit to think on the spot. I look back at the disappointed melee of taxi drivers and, being reluctant to return to the fray to find a phone to call my driver, I consent. All I want is a room and a shower. This seems the path of least resistance. I am expecting to be ripped off and half expect to drive around in circles before being unceremoniously dumped at the wrong hotel. But all
Leigh, Fathy and Jorne
highly recommend The perfume Emporium.
Esam, the well dressed gentlemen, tells me he's a tour guide and speaks good English with a thick accent. We drive directly to Movenpick Pyramid Hotel while Esam gives me a crash course on Egyptian history. I only half process this due in part to my exhaustion and in part to my vague - and faintly ridiculous - anxiety that I may be kidnapped and never seen again. So many peope had been telling me terrifying stories about Egypt before I left home; someones family friends wife kidnapped by masked men whilst walking up the gang plank to a cruise ship, a daughter of my real estate agent being sexually harassed and so on. I was feeling a little paranoid.
Quickly I feel ashamed and guilty for thinking such things and I feel at ease as Esam questions me as to his accent and pronunciation; he generally does tours in german, you see, and is looking to improve his English. He mentions now that it is Ramadan and I tell him that I've read about it and am very excited to be in Egypt at such a special time. Immediately his face brightens and we enthusiastically
Leigh, Ramy, Jorne
We became fast friends.
discuss the cultural and religious meaning behind Ramadan. Especially that it is a time to think of all the people in the world who go hungry all of the time.
Esam begins to poor out his heart, telling intimate details of his overwhelming feelings for people in need, especially impoverished children. He dabs at his eyes while he talks. Strangers with this kind of openness and honesty really make me go rubbery. He tells me he doesn’t know why he has talked to me like this, he would not usually discuss such things but concludes that I have honest eyes and seem like an understanding person. We arrive at my hotel - the right one - he unloads my luggage and says he will call my agent and have them call me. He shakes my hand, tells me what a pleasure it was to meet me and wishes me a wonderful stay. And that was it. Not kidnapped, harrassed or hated at all and already i had been over an hour. My agent calls within 5 minutes of my check in sounding slightly miffed and says he had been waiting at the airport with a sign and was concerned
At the Perfume Emporium
The delicate hand blown glass oil burners and perfume bottles in fathy's shop were beautiful.
for my safety. I’m pretty sure I would have seen him so I think either I was early or he was late. In any event I found out that the amount I paid for the transfer from Cairo international to Giza was a fair price - and i hadn't even haggled. What a wonderful and interesting start to my Egypt trip.
GETTING TO KNOW GIZA
After checking in and dumping bags I had some time up my sleeve before my dutch friend Jorne arrived so I decided to go for a walk. This is something I love to do, just walk out the door and pick a direction. Who knows what you might find? I didn't get very far - about 5mts- before being pounced on by Ahmed the taxi driver. I decided I would take a ride as I left my sunnies on the plane and wanted to buy a cheap pair. We agreed a good price ($20 Egyptian pound -$4AU - for unlimited time) and we drove around in circles in the non-tourist areas looking for a shop with cheap sunglasses. Eventually we found some but the driving around was the best part. It was
wonderful to watch real egyptian life going on and the bustle of the dusty streets. Then Ahmed asked if I'd like to stop at the papyrus museum. The thing you need to know about Papyrus Museums is they are not museums, they are galleries where you buy papyrus art. I suspected that before I went. It was interesting though, they explain the history of papyrus, demonstrate how it is made and explain a couple of the pieces of art. Then its time get down to business and buy. There was one that caught my eye and so I bought the smallest one (after some negotiating of course) and then made my way back to the hotel with my purchase, feeling like a proper tourist.
The next day Jorne and I went for that walk I'd planned on taking the day before and it was the best choice we could have made. It was hard work fending off the taxi drivers for the first half a km but after we'd got through it and out of hotel central we could happily negotiate our way through hectic traffic and footpaths, past the police stationed every so often with their AK's -
Ramy and Jorne
having tea and shisha on the streets of Giza
i must say that I always find people brandishing machine guns somewhat disconcerting - and we were struck by the friendliness of the locals. The resounding hello's and I love yous from children, the open smiles of passers by and strangers saying "welcome'' as they went past. We crossed the road without dying and turned the corner onto a side street and then another. And then we met Ramy.
RAMY, FATHY and THE PERFUME EMPORIUM
Ramy stopped us and we talked the usual average small talk for a while before being invited to his cousins shop. This scenario is not so surprising, it happens a lot in egypt. You are constantly approached and ask to visit somebodies brothers or cousins or uncles shop. This felt different and we wanted to go so we followed him down an alley and into an oasis of plush red carpet, polished wood, delicate colourful glass and they sweetest smells imaginable - The Perfume Emporium. I am so glad we did. The conversation flowed in easy animated fashion and Fathy (pron fatee) was the epitome of gracious host. It is traditional egyptian hospitality to be offered a drink upon entry to a
shop. As the saying goes 'It is easy to choose but hard to refuse. I say definitely go with the turkish coffee, but not 3 in an hour. I learnt it gives you heart palpatations. Fathy disarmed and charmed us in equal measure with his cheeky sense of humour, attentive professionalism and style. The store has been in the family 35yrs and the quality was wonderful. Fathy was not pushy at all and eager to explain everything clearly. The price was fantastic - at least half what you pay in the touristy perfume factories without the hassle of bartering furiously.
Please while you are in Giza, go and visit Fathy at the Perfume Emporium. I can't recommend it enough; the highest quality service and 100% perfume oil not cut with alcohol - you can get your favourite designer scent or something traditionally egyptian. Fathy conducted himself in such a genuine, honest way and after business was over we chatted some more. He gave us great advice on all manner of things Egyptian and in parting told us that sometimes you do business with people but they feel like friends. He invited us to come back to his store to visit
The pollution is so bad the white on the birds is soot coloured. The downside of 24 million people and almost as many vehicles...
as friends before we left. Ramy escorted us outside, hailed us a taxi, bargained us a price and we made plans to meet with him that night.
That night we went out with Ramy. He picked us up from the hotel and took us into Giza. We watched the sound and light show for a while from the gate for free and after marveling at the laser light show against the pyramids and the sphinx for about 15minutes we'd had enough and were glad we hadn't paid admission for the full show (on Ramy's recommendation). Ramy took us for egyptian tea and shisha at a local coffee shop. Again it was great to get out of the tourist hub and see real life going on. You see that Cairo and Giza are awake 24/7 and life in the evening, especially with ramadan, is a lively affair. Every coffee shop streetside is full and curls of smoke hung with men smoking shisha and drinking coffee. We didnt see a single westerner - in fact when I think about it, I seldom saw one more than 200mts from a hotel or tourist attraction either day or night. Is it because people are scared to venture out? Only taxi or tour bus from one site to another and nothing else it seems. I say: get out there and meet the people, it's what makes traveling to new places truly worthwhile and adds a new dimension and depth to your experience. Plus the prices are fantastic. A coffee from the cafe at the hotel would set you back 50 egyptian pound (10 bucks!) whereas 3 teas, 2 bottles of water and shisha for gthe 3 of us at the local coffee shop cost 10 pound (2 bucks...woohoo!) and we had a great time talking with Ramy about family, politics, religion and life in general and we could tell we had made a real friend. Ramy drove us back to the hotel and invited us to his home for ramadan breakfast (at 6:30pm) when we return to Cairo from Sharm El Sheik. Of course we accepted. How great - and all because we walked off the tourist strip. We went straight to bed dreading getting up at some ungodly hour to fly but looking forward to arriving in Sharm, the red sea and diving.