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Published: November 16th 2010
After two days in Alexandria getting used to Egyptian life, drinking tea, learning to like coffee, and eating a lot of falafel, we headed to Cairo. I'd become quite keen on Alexandria, and had heard mixed things about Cairo - 22 million people crammed together in a swirling mass of confusion - so was excited but slightly daunted by the prospect of heading there.
After a three hour train ride, we checked into a hotel (Akram Inn) which is stated as being in a 'great location' in the guidebook. Which actually means it's on the third floor (without a lift), with views overlooking one of the busiest roundabouts in the city, possible the continent. As so began 6 days of car horns, screeching brakes, and revving engines, and lost sleep. It was actually a good location (near the embassies, a metro station, the Cairo Museum, and a few restaurants and coffee bars), but the noise was unbelievable - a relentless crescendo that built up each day until the bedlam of rush hour, and only stopping only for Friday morning prayers. If Cairo can be defined by one noise, it's not the call to prayer, or people selling coffee, or touts
selling papyrus, it's the endless drone of car horns - I thought the Indians loved them, but here it's an entire language of communication, and the soundtrack to the city.
Still, the hotel gave a great sense of life of the city, it was nice and cheap (2.5 GBP a night), and had the highlight of an extremely friendly night watchman, who's lack of English didn't dent his enthusiasm, with every request being greeted with a jolly 'Welcome!' regardless of the hour of day or even the subject of conversation. 'Do you have a spare key?'...'Welcome'. 'Where's my passport'...'Welcome'. 'Goodnight'...'Welcome'.
The first day and a half were spent frustratingly between various embassies. To get a Sudanese visa you need to have a letter of invitation from your government. However the British government don't write letters of invitation. Instead they prefer to write a sarcastic letter stating that they don't write letters, and asking the Sudanese to stop asking for them. And then they charge tourists 30GBP (can't find the pound sign) for the pleasure. Non-letter of invitation in hand, lots of toing and froing, and US$100 lighter off, i finally managed to get a Sudanese visa. It's the first major diplomatic huddle, and to get it out of the way feels great.
One of the joys in those first few days was making it to Al Azhar Park whenever the heat and noise of the city got too much to bare. Like Kolkata, the heat in Cairo defies the standard convention of cooling down after midday, and just builds and builds and builds as the day draws on, owing to the amount of people and traffic around. By 4pm it can be (to my autumnal British setting) unbearably stuffy, clammy and polluted. Making it to the park, away from the noise of the cars, into fresher air, and looking down on the throngs of people was fantastic, topped off my an incredible call to prayer as the sun set over the pulsing city. I could spend a lot of time in the park, and go back three times over the next few days. Cairo's an amazing and fantastic city, with such a buzz and insatiable energy, but a few minutes of rest bite from the baying hoards and massed engines is just what I need each day.
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