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Published: February 16th 2009
Moon and minaret
Al Azhar mosque, Islamic Cairo
My experience of Africa is limited to two previous visits. The first was to Nigeria back in the early '70s. Photos in the family archives show a smiling, blond-haired boy clad in a grubby T-shirt and naked from the waist down. Unfortunately the blond hair darkened long ago. Fortunately I now tend to wear trousers in public. I remember nothing of Nigeria, the six months that we spent there predating my earliest memory of being alive.
The second visit was to South Africa at the end of the '90s, a couple of weeks in Port Elizabeth where my sister was working in a hotel. She wangled free trips for me to various national parks and game reserves, the resulting slew of dismal photos a poor reflection of the thrill I had at seeing so many creatures in the wild. In particular, I remember the 20 or more elephants playing in a mudbath at Addo, an unbelievable sight when the most I'd previously seen was 3 or 4 standing disconsolately in a zoo. The skills of the guides were enormously impressive too - picking out numerous creatures from what had seemed an empty landscape to my eyes.
Less life-affirming was
Sultan Hussan mosque, Islamic Cairo
the brief tour I had of a township, one of the apartheid-era relics that has survived even to this day. There was a laundry list of infrastructural and health issues that was desperately alarming, given the obvious contrast with the luxury residences in parts of PE.
So with the world economy going down the pan, and a conviction that a 4-year gap on my CV would hardly look worse than a 3-year one (logic which will be worryingly easy to reuse next year in a slightly altered form), it wasn't a difficult decision to name 2009 as my year for giving Africa some quality time. In fact, on the several occasions in 2008 when I was struggling for motivation in South America, the thought of Africa was a spur, carrying as it did an air of novelty, mystery, and challenge that had been missing since China.
Africa constitutes 20% of the world's landmass, 70% bigger than South America, so with last year's slow progress in mind, and the presumption of a worse transportation infrastructure, I knew that a trip round the whole continent would not fit into 10.5 months of McCabe-style travel. Taking into account the passing of
An intriguing mix of pasta, rice, lentils, and tomato sauce
the seasons at different latitudes, the ease of acquiring visas, and the sites that I had a strong interest in seeing, the most obvious route was going to be a north->south trundle down the east coast. As I sit writing this in the middle of February, this is the plan, meaning West Africa will have to wait for another year (though I believe the next one is less than 11 months away.)
With the RG series containing little in the way of pan-Africa guidebooks, and no other alternatives (not even an offering from Dora the Explorer), I've been forced to turn to the wretched Lonely Planet as my default source of information for this trip. This will henceforth be referred to as the WLP, as my previous usage of the LP series suggests that it's highly unlikely I will have cause to mention it without needing that preceding adjective.
With that background, it should be clear as to why my trip has started in Cairo, capital of Egypt and (with its metropolitan area) home to nearly a quarter of the country's population. I remember studying the Ancient Egyptians in school and marvelling at the civilisation they had created
thousands of years ago. The fact that the Great Pyramid of Khufu was the only extant member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World spoke weightily of the ingenuity of that civilisation. The existence of Egyptology, a branch of study devoted only to this one country, was unique. The mythology of jackal-headed gods and promises of the afterlife created a mystique lacking in tales of Henry VIII's wives. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat fleshed out the story further, though it was to be another couple of decades before I realised that the distinctions of Upper and Lower Egypt were a reference to their locations on the Nile rather than which was further north. And it was always going to be hard to ignore the lure of the area of the world where cats were first domesticated (or, as another theory more attuned to the reality of feline decision-making would have it, where cats first domesticated themselves).
My introduction to Cairo was that standard introduction to large cities across the world - a car ride from the airport into the centre. My travels so far have made me realise that bad driving is more of a global standard
Egyptian Modern Art Museum
than the generally law-abiding behaviour seen in the UK, and Cairo was further empirical evidence of that. Lane markings are present for aesthetic rather than functional reasons, and Stop signs and red lights are ignored with the insouciance of a "Crazy Taxi" master. On foot, I adopted the "human shield" strategy to cross the road, finding a local with a similar route in mind and staying down-traffic of them as they negotiated the swerving, beeping, endless stream of vehicles.
Egypt may well be in Africa but it's also in the Middle East, and Cairo triggered many latent memories of my childhood years in Saudi Arabia. In particular, the Arabic numerals came back into my head in short order, the 7 that's actually a 6, the 0 that's actually a 5. Even the bank notes possessed that strange smell that I've never found elsewhere in the world. Sadly that familiarity was only superficial, as the knowledge of Arabic language and culture that I'd acquired aged 6 had barely increased over subsequent decades.
My hostel, like many in the city, was in a converted mansion with high ceilings and a doorless lift that had no doubt claimed a few limbs
in its time. The cool weather meant that the aircon in my room remained unused, though it was still warm enough to support a population of mosquitos that had the occasional nibble. I was intrigued by the arse-rinsing pipe that jutted up from the bottom of the toilet, with its position putting it directly in the firing line of what I shall delicately call a number 2. Another Middle Eastern reminder came when it turned out that my hostel selection had left me sufficiently close to a mosque that the muezzin's 5:15AM call to prayer was still at a good 80 decibels when it blasted through my window.
Egypt has a reputation for possessing more than its fair share of touts and scammers, and when I hit the streets I encountered regular conversation openers of "What are you looking for?" or "Where are you going" or even "I apologise for the traffic in my city". However these tailed off rapidly the further I strayed from the tourist areas, and in these parts I was more like to receive a shy "Hello" or "What is your name?" or, in the case of one chap, "Welcome to Egypt" in a voice
more appropriate for saying "Do you want to see some puppies?" People have heard of Middlesbrough due to two famous Egyptian footballers playing there (Mido and Shawky), though everyone appears to support Wigan, with their all-Egyptian strike force of Amr Zaki and the on-loan Mido.
There's also the concept of baksheesh to contend with. This covers everything from the Western notion of tipping (e.g. to a waiter in a restaurant) to charitable giving (e.g. to a beggar in the street) to greasing a palm (e.g. to see the inside of a pyramid that would otherwise remain off-limits) to obtaining a service you (as a Westerner) might normally expect to get for free (e.g. when a member of the tourist police in the railway station insists on showing you to the ticket office). This latter aspect can get exasperating, with people actively volunteering to do things for you whether you want it or not, and then demanding baksheesh. Obviously the amounts involved are small so financially it's no hardship but it inevitably leads you to question people's motives.
Though Cairo is walkable, I found it easy to get lost in, due to a combination of many streets not having
New Palace Hotel
street signs, my various maps not containing all streets, and the transliterations from Arabic to English not being standard. As such, I saw more of the city than perhaps I intended. It's busy 24 hours a day, and to make progress around you have to choose to brave either the hordes on the pavements or the craziness of the roads. (One exception is on Fridays, the Islamic equivalent of Christian Sundays, when the quantity of traffic drops markedly.) It seems that the popular way to carry a ladder here is on a pad balanced on one's head - while riding a bicycle. I saw many cats, but most were of the ownerless variety, suspicious, dirty, and unloved.
The street life was similar to that in many of the countries I've visited in the last few years, and I saw shoeshiners, a hawker selling Beijing Olympics shopping bags, and several men standing guard by their height/weight machines. Day and night, cafes have a contemplative population of hookah-smokers. There's a remarkable mix of people in Cairo, with skin colours ranging from as pasty as my own to the darkest shades of brown. Women wear everything from conservative Western dress to full
For the discerning obese gentleman
purdah, with uncovered hair in the minority. The men reminded me of India in the general dullness of their clothes though heightwise they averaged a good deal taller. Apparently, in Egypt's Pharaonic history, moustaches were only popular in the Old Kingdom but they have clearly had a large revival 4,500 years on. Not surprisingly, with the vast majority of the country Muslim, relationships between the sexes are quite different to in Western cultures, with men greeting each other with a handshake and kisses, but greeting women with merely a handshake.
Foodwise, I developed a liking for koshari, a strange mix of lentils, rice, pasta, and tomato sauce that was available everywhere. I'm not much of a tea drinker but the tea I was served at breakfast, even with a request for only a smidgin of sugar, was sweet beyond belief. Clearly accustomed to this reaction from foreigners, the breakfast guy jokingly asked on subsequent days if I wanted one kilogram or two. Apart from the full complement of globalised Western fast food outlets, I saw little in the way of foreign cuisine, though a Chinese restaurant near my hostel had a crowd of Asians near the entrance every time
I passed (though the food was faux). It was odd that, with many locals speaking at least some English, there was very little English on restaurants, whereas in Asia you will often find English spread all over shop and restaurant signs even if the owners speak none.
My first sightseeing in the city was in Old Cairo, aka Babylon, founded by Coptic Christians. It was here that I saw my first tour groups in Cairo, passing through this small Christian enclave with its intriguing mix of Greek and Arabic motifs. More touristed was Islamic Cairo, a collection of mosques and madrassas including Al Azhar mosque, one of Cairo's earliest and with a name sounding like the Spanish for "at random" - which completely describes the way I stumbled upon it, after another bout of poor navigation. I visited the Sultan Hussan mosque, described as the "most impressive building ever to be built in medieval Cairo" - even though incomplete, it was still exceptional in both its size and the quality of its carvings. It hadn't merited a mention in the WLP.
At the heart of Islamic Cairo lies the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar, which constitutes a horrendous shopping experience
Memories of South America
I also didn't realise that Che Guevara had had a stint in the Congo
even if the goods are worth a second look. Packs of predatory shopkeepers accosted me every 10 yards, and cries of "You're a big boy" and "I know exactly what you need" left me unsure just what kind of business transaction they were hoping to initiate. Of course, stopping and being able to peruse items in peace was not an option, so I hurried through. Still, it was impossible to not be impressed by the command of languages shown by the merchants, as they slipped effortlessly between English, Italian, Japanese, and German, among others.
I had been looking forward to seeing the Egyptian Museum for some time, despite many warnings not to get too excited, and sadly it was indeed rather a disappointment. Even with the loss of a good chunk of potential exhibits to overseas museums, there is an astounding array of source material with which to regale the visitor and illustrate the richness of Egyptian history. Unfortunately the presentation is appalling, with little in the way of information in any language, let alone in a selection of tongues more appropriate to the cross-section of the world's races that seemed to be present on the day I was
Church of St Sergius, Old Cairo
Apparently the Holy Family visited here when they were fleeing from Herod
there (I heard all the usual tourist languages, plus Russian, Korean, and some I had no idea of). Many of the labels were typewritten and there appeared to be only one floor plan, right at the entrance. I couldn't even take a picture of that, as there was a "no photos" policy. Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, has done a great job of self-promotion (in the period I was at home over Christmas, he seemed to pop up on TV every time the word "Egypt" was mentioned) but perhaps he could divert a small portion of the money that the museum receives each day from its thousands of visitors to some basic amendments to his flagship exhibition hall. The shafts of sunlight arrowing through the windows, illuminating lazily drifting dust particles, helped bolster the impression of a building stuck in a timewarp of at least 100 years' duration.
One noteworthy aspect of the museum is the sheer volume of people, many in large tour groups which can easily clog up a section when their guide stops to talk. Thomas Cook started his company doing trips to Egypt, and apparently the first complaints
Hanging Church, Old Cairo
by tourists about the plethora of other tourists were registered well over a century ago. I suppose it's a tribute to the magnetic appeal of Egyptian history. In addition, I was astounded by some of the foreign interpretations of "conservative dress" that all the guidebooks suggest women wear in Egypt.
Wending through the crowds, I was able to find some gems in amongst the general hotch potch. The number of sarcophagi, miniature pyramids, and steles was amazing, the carving and painting detail on them remarkable even if I had no idea what era they were from. There was a particularly interesting section about animal mummification, which included a couple of enormous mummified crocodiles (sadly there are no longer crocs in the Egyptian Nile due to the dam at Aswan hastening their demise on the downriver side) and a description of the role of turpentine enemas in the process. Miniature coffins for dung beetles showed a regard not normally accorded to insects, and I learned that the cat was the sacred animal of Bastet, the appropriately cat-headed goddess of love.
One of the most compelling draws in the museum is the display of artefacts retrieved from the tomb of
Hanging Church, Old Cairo
Tutankhamun, the young pharaoh whose burial chamber escaped the predations of grave robbers for millenia before Howard Carter uncovered it in 1922. The "wonderful things" first seen by Carter in the wavering flame of his candle include large vaults of gold and turquoise detail that contained the matrioshka-like sarcophagi of Tutankhamun. The pharaoh's death mask, one of the most famous sights in archaeology, gazes serenely at a constant crush of tourists. Unfortunately even in the main room of Tut's treasures, some of the labels were handwritten, and I saw one that had made copious use of liquid paper.
Other items that drew my eye were the exhibits relating to Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to make Egypt follow a monotheistic religion, and a copy of the Rosetta Stone - the original clearly belongs here, but it's much better presented in the British Museum.
With no photos allowed in the museum, I was hoping to purchase a wodge of postcards from the site shop but the quality of them was sufficiently dismal as to make me abandon that idea. I left, feeling rather dissatisfied with what I had seen.
It's easy to forget that the vast majority of
the exhibits in the Egyptian Museum are from much further south in the country, near Luxor. However that's not to say that Cairo, only the most recent in the line of Egyptian capitals, has nothing to offer archaeologically, with the small matter of the Pyramids and the Sphinx to consider, as well as Egypt's oldest capital nearby at Memphis and the world's oldest pyramid at Sakkara. It was going to be easiest to mop these up on a tour, which I booked through my hostel. Sadly, to the hostel, my own interests were a secondary consideration to that of making extra money from me. Hence I was lumbered with a guide I had specifically said I didn't want, I was taken to shops I had no interest in visiting or buying from (including one where the carpets appeared to be made via child labour), I had to state 5 times that I had no wish to see the Pyramids via camel, and finally I was lied to about the closing time of the Giza site (presumably so the driver and guide could get home for the televised Egypt-Tunisia football match). I would have paid extra to cut this guff and
The right way up
have simply the transport service that I'd thought I was getting in the first place. Live and learn.
There wasn't much in Memphis bar a large fallen statue of Rameses II however the necropolis at Sakkara was more interesting. The Step Pyramid of Zoser, the oldest stone monument in the world, towered over a funerary complex containing some tombs whose carvings and painting were still in good condition. This was also the site of a ceremony in times gone by, where the pharaoh would run around in front of his subjects in order to show his strength and vitality.
The highlight of the day was, of course, the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, where I spent 2.5 hours but could easily have filled twice that. The bag-check guy at the entrance seemed to stop his search once he'd found my tub of take-out koshari, as though anyone bringing such a thing into the site could have no evil in mind. I've seen many photos of the Pyramids before in magazines and on TV, but their proximity to the bustle of Giza is one of the first things to hit you when you enter. Especially in the afternoon sun,
taking photos from the west side of the site, it's hard to ignore the extent of the city that stretches behind it, the thick layer of pollution clearly the source of your black boogers and grimy fingernails.
However the site is large, easily absorbing the many visitors it receives each day, so it's possible to get away from the crowds and contemplate these vast constructions in relative peace. The hawkers and camel drivers weren't particularly intrusive, though I was surprised to find that several days of not shaving had given me "a fine Egyptian moustache, sir". Once on my own, I could gaze at the Pyramids - the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the oldest and largest at Giza (weighing nearly 18 times as much as the Empire State building), the Pyramid of Khafre (Khufu's son), with a cap all that remains of its original limestone covering, and the relatively minuscule Pyramid of Menkaure (Khafre's son). Built more than 4,500 years ago, it's mind-boggling that they have survived erosion, wars, and countless visitors eager to clamber over them, to stand virtually intact to this very day. Their image is world-famous, their outline now known by people in countries that the
Pharaohs never knew existed. That's as good a definition of immortality as any.
It was harder to get a decent look at the Sphinx, with restricted viewing areas predictably crammed with people, and the position of the sun casting the Sphinx's face in shadow. It's set in a depression in the ground, thus robbing it of the elevated importance of the Pyramids that it is guarding. Again despite events through the ages, its human face and leonine body are still fully recognisable.
The main natural feature of Cairo is, of course, the Nile. The longest river in the world has shaped Egyptian civilisation through the ages, and the majority of the country's population and most of its conurbations are situated on its banks. At Cairo, the Nile has almost completed its 6,600km+ journey to the sea and it had a weary look to it - I'm hoping to find it bursting with rude health further south.
I had one piece of administration to accomplish in Cairo, namely the obtaining of a Sudanese visa. This first required a visit to the British Embassy to spend 30 quid on a so-called Letter of Introduction, which for Brits consists of
Stained glass window
Sultan Hussan mosque, Islamic Cairo
a photocopied sheet of paper beginning "Her Britannic Majesty's Embassy presents its compliments to the Embassy of Sudan and has the honour to inform them that ..." followed by some guff about how the UK considers a UK passport to be adequate documentation for travelling and hence no Letter of Introduction will be issued. Next, the staff at the Sudanese Embassy proved extremely helpful in assisting me with negotiating the queues/scrums necessary to apply for the visa itself. 24 hours later, and $100 down (which the cashier put in a small suitcase on her desk), I had my visa.
From Cairo I did a side-trip to Alexandria (blogged separately) on the Mediterranean coast, then started heading south.
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