Day 1 CAIRO
We have all seen Cairo on TV, in the movies and in books. Crowded, dirty, noisy and impoverished. Nothing can prepare you for the real CAIRO.
Let’s back up a bit to arrival shall we?
We set down on schedule at Cairo International Airport at 11:00 AM Monday April 19, 2010. The weather is a balmy 90 degrees and climbing. The sky is a blue dusty red as there is red dust in the sky hanging low overhead. Not a cloud in the sky and nothing but sand everywhere.
We deplane and walk about ½ mile through the terminal to the first checkpoint. We have to buy a VISA at the bank and 2 minutes and $15 USD each we have our VISA and are in a very short line for passport control. No issues we walk right through to second passport control. He passes us along to, you guessed it, third passport control and we are good to go.
Now you would think that 3 checks of our passport should ensure our safety. After all Egypt is in the middle of the Middle East conflicts and people from all over the Ahab come into Cairo every day. So you need multiple checkpoints.
Actually they need multiple jobs. There is no employment in Cairo that is not government, shop owner or hustler and we met them all on day one.
So we are declared non violent and are allowed to get our baggage. Forty five minutes later we are in another short line to leave the airport and enter Egypt.
As we get into line I decide to go to the bank and ask for some smaller denomination Egyptian pounds since most of what we have are 100 pound notes (about $20 US). I stopped at three banks earlier on our way to getting our VISA but they claimed not to have any smaller bills. Frankly they did not want to be bothered helping us as they were busy talking amongst themselves.
So at my third attempt I was able to get 100 pound in smaller bills. Remember this is about $20 USD so I still figured I will need more but it was time to leave. Travel Note: trying to get change from a vendor is next to impossible so you want small denomination bills for small purchases. Try hard and try often to get smaller bills or you will be tipping with a 5 pound note more often then you may like.
Ok, back in line and a bit of an altercation breaks out amongst the guards themselves! It seems one guard did not get paid properly or something about money and the only guard not involved waived all of us in line through the door and out of the area. Wonderful security we felt so safe.
So there we were, for the first time in our lives we were in Cairo Egypt. Next problem to solve was getting a cab since we had no transportation to the hotel and have no idea how far away we are.
So with bags in tow we walk past the first five aggressive cab hawkers and settle on a nice English speaking local. He asked where we were going and told him.
Unfortunately there are two hotels of the same name in different parts of Cairo. Great, now what?
Well out comes the reservations and after some discussion with several drivers who all knew where the hotel was, but none of them agreed where it was we settled on a nice local who assured us he knew the right hotel location.
Now the bargaining begins. I ask the price and the cab hawker tells me $130 pounds. “No way, I will pay $70 pounds ($14) and that is all.”
“ No, No, No but I will do it for $90 and I will give you a new cab with air-conditioning.”
Rick is already sweating so he jumps on the AC option and off we go for a cab ride for $90 pounds ($18). We drag our bags along the hot streets and arrive at a relatively new Chevy Aria sedan. A car not available in the US. It is midsized, new and A/C as promised, so with our bags in the trunk off we go.
The driver tells us in broken English it is a 2 hour drive if we take the loop road, no traffic, or 4 hours if we go into center city because of huge traffic. WHAT? TWO HOURS! Where the hell is this Hotel?
The answer is GIZA the city just past Cairo and right at the pyramids. So off we go onto the loop road.
Initially there was no traffic and we were pleased with the choice. Soon however we figured out why. It seems that every entrance to the loop road, except for the entrance from the airport, was blocked by police cars. They stopped every car or truck from entering the highway and traffic was backed up for miles, except we were on the loop road already and doing fine.
Why the police action? Hosni Mubarak was heading into Cairo along the loop road so no one could be on the same road as him! Sweet, just Hosni and me tooling along.
Sure enough here come about 20 large black limos doing 90 MPH in the left lane and wham, Hosni speeds by. Unfortunately soon as he went by an entrance ramp, the police let the traffic flow onto the road, and flow it did.
We went from 3 lanes fully open to 6 lanes of dead stopped traffic. How 6 lanes? Simple small cars. You see even though there may be lanes painted on the road, they are ignored completely. Lanes do not govern the width of car travel; the width of the cars determines how many cars abreast can travel. Since the cars are small and narrow, 6 can easily fit in three lanes.
No speed limits also helps. Cars drive as fast as they can and come to an immediate stop or change lanes or exit the highway (located on the right side of the road) from the left lane; yup they cross 6 lanes of moving or stopped traffic.
So between the mayhem of 6 cars abreast, no speed limits, no concern for other cars or people (we actually saw people crossing the highway not bothering to look at cars, they just walk across the street and cars do not hit them), and overheated cars just stopped in the middle of the road, highway travel is a unique experience.
I have to say to the observer this would never work in the US. Not one finger flips, bad word or single gesture. Just the honking of horns. Lots of horns.
Every driver is blowing their horn to signal their intention to cut you off, stop, push you along or just to tell you they are there. There is no malice in the honk, just a short toot. Not one single accident, how we could not believe because we missed cars by less than an inch and people by even less. The cacophony of horns was constant and from every direction. Somehow we made the trip in about 1:45 minutes and arrived at our 5 start hotel by 2:00PM.
We checked into our room, a pyramid view room that is. Our bell hop takes up upstairs to escort us to our room (5 pound tip) where he shows us the pyramids and explains every facet of our room like we lived in a tent until today. But he was very kind and sincere. We thanked him and off he went when a knock on the door and another bell man comes in with the luggage and another 5 pound ($1) tip.
A quick shower and change of shirt and we are back downstairs with the Cairo Museum our destination.
We need another cab! At the desk they would get us a top flight limo (200 pounds) or a top cab (150 pounds). No thanks we want to go a little lower cost and are told to see the doorman (yup another 5 pound out the door) and we are off to our local A/C assured cab.
This cab is a 1995 Fiat. He has A/C but does not work. Travel tip ask if the A/C works next time. He offers to take us to the Museum for 50 pounds ($10) and we climb in.
This lime green bomb has seen better days but ran well enough to scare the living daylights out of us as we bob and weave in, around and out and into traffic again. Same horns beeping and worse traffic. We arrive at the museum it 3/4 hour so about 3 PM we are in the heart of the OLD CAIRO and in front of the world famous Cairo Museum. Before we go in Rick wants a bite to eat. Big adventure from such a small requirement.
Our driver escorts us to the museum tunnel which he tells us to follow to the museum entrance. He will wait 3 hours for us, NO CHARGE and take us back to the hotel for another 50 pounds. Cool. I pay him the first 50 pounds but he would not take it. I insist and off we go.
Through the tunnel actually gets you across the busy street and in front of the Museum. Remember Rick is hungry so we decide to look for food. First we have to cross about 8 lanes, really 12 lanes of cars, to the other side of the local road to get to food.
We see everyone just walk across, so we try but we hesitated and jumped back on the sidewalk. We try again and like jump frog the video game we make it across, scared but safe.
Now we are in the heart of the old Cairo and OLD it is. The place is a mess. Not dirty just falling apart. This is where the locals live in some level of squalor. Most of the buildings are brick multilevel edifices, but not one has a roof. Every building looks like the top floor has either been removed or never built. There are support beams for a roof but no roof.
Many people built shacks or decks or tents on the roof, but these are open to the elements. Ok we are in the desert so there is little rain to worry about, but there is wind and dust storms.
So we walk a little looking for food and find nothing. Soon the hawkers come. They are friendly but Rick, ever the patient one, finds them annoying. And he lets them know! Now it is ok to refuse the efforts of the hawker but Rick was a little more aggressive, we have to work on that before we get shot, and some hawkers were offended.
Soon we came to another hawker who would take us to a food shop. Actually his food shop, which turns out to be jewelry and papyrus and glass shop and not a food shop at all!
Now Rick is really upset. He wants food not junk, but our new friend assures us we will eat and drink and offers Rick a cold Pepsi and me a hot tea (remember do not drink the water, apparently I forgot more….much more later). Rick is not placated just yet as the shop owner introduces us to his daughter, a glass blower, his brother a Rheumatism Doctor and jewelry maker and his father the perfumer. FOOD REMEMBER FOOD…
The shop owner assures us his daughter will make us a delicious local lunch as it is 3 PM and time for lunch anyway. Rich the ever suspicious is doubtful but I get interested in the papyrus and ignore his famished cry for food.
The papyrus art is beautiful and well done and I choose 4 pieces for 300 pounds, take away the look of shock folks that is only $60 or $15 each. Cheap imitations in NY go for $25 at the Museum of art and besides these come from Cairo (maybe through China perhaps) but I at least bought them in Cairo with Egyptian money so I am happy.
Anyway, we sit down at the shop keeper’s desk and are treated to a delicious meal of three different kinds of beans, onions, peppers, in mild pasta mixed with herbs and spices.
Ricks takes one look and before he says something tastes the meal and says “hay this is good, real good”
Whew a sigh of relief comes over me and I enjoy my meal with my new best friend the shop keeper and his family.
The meal ended, the tea drunk and the papyrus rolled up I offer the pay for the meal and are refused any money saying “I am his American friend”.
Out of the shop we go toward the museum finally and as we say good bye our new “friend” asks for a tip! Twenty pounds later ($5) we are off to the museum.
Now one thing we noticed are uniformed police are everywhere. There has to be 100 offices in, near and around the museum. At the entrance we are searched and pass through a metal detector, which I set off and am told to move along. These guys all have guns, some are machine guns and all have bright dark blue uniforms with Antiquities Police on their arm.
We first have to buy a ticket 60 pounds and have to check my camera at the “safe house” in the garden. Soon we are in the most famous Egyptian Museum (British actually established in 1836 under partial patronage of Lord Cannabin himself) and the home of King Tut, the boy king.
The museum is a little disappointing as I do not think any of the exhibits have changed since opening day in 1836. The interior is dark, cool (tolerable at least), but the exhibits are basically set any which way with small typed 3 x 5 cards identifying the artifact. You really get the flavor of an old time British Museum from the 1800’s.
There are two floors and only about the size of a Toledo movie theater so you only need about 2 hours to see it all, and see it all we did. The best part of course was the Tut exhibit.
Here we saw firsthand all the artifacts I have seen so often on TV and in the books on Tut. The chariots, the throne, the beds the gold everything but most impressive was the boy king’s death mask. Impressive in itself but the mask was presented in a 1900 era cabinet with somewhat poor lighting. But there it was in all of its beauty. It was all I hoped it would be.
Out from the Tut area and through the rest of the exhibits we soon left the Museum at about 5:15 with 45 minutes to ourselves before we were to meet our driver and the death trek back to the hotel.
We walked around town a little, got pestered by hawkers, Rick got fed up so off we were to get back to the Fiat.
Well, the lime green Fiat was washed, waxed and looking as spiffy as a 15 year old car could. Seems like our driver spent the last three hours washing the car, not fixing the A/C mind you, just washing the car.
Back in we go, this time all windows open. I asked the driver if he expects that traffic has improved. “No traffic at this hour we are fine” maybe his idea of fine but not ours.
Another hair raising 45 minute drive through the streets of Cairo and we are back in our hotel at 6:45 on the dot. I pay the other 50 pounds ($10) and of course I have to add 10 pounds for a tip.
I wait for you tomorrow right here” promises the driver. Christ, I hope not!
Anyway back to the room and a swim before dinner.
I change and head down to the swimming pool area, and am amazed at the lush beauty of the landscape, desert remember, and the cool inviting but closes at 6 PM pool. The pool is huge with shimmering cool water and a swim bar and a closed sign.
Disappointed I head to the room for a change of shirt and shoes and a walk to dinner, where we do not know but there is no way we are getting into a cab tonight.
In the elevator we meet a nice British family and ask them where we can go to get a nice local low cost meal?
They first suggest a local restaurant near the hotel on the left, but then decide the Pizza pallor is better on the left of the hotel across 6 lanes of traffic and a 5 minute walk. Rick opts for the Pizza “I am not eating that crap again tonight” and off we go.
This time we have our first traffic light to negotiate the busy street and cross in safety. We follow the directions and nothing. We stop into a hotel and ask for directions and it seems you cannot get there from here.
You have to go across the Pyramid Plaza to get there and it is closed at night or you can walk around and in 30 minutes you are there. Needless to say we head back to our starting point and off to the restaurants to the right!
Now it is nearly 8 PM, Rick is starving and cranky and HOT. Yup it is still 85 degrees and no breeze. We keep walking and who we come across but the owner of the lime green Fiat who, of course wants to drive us. We want to walk but he keeps following us and following us, badgering us to let him drive us because ‘the restaurant is too far to walk”
Finally he leaves us along only to be replaced by another Hawker who promises to walk us to another local restaurant. Damn there is no way to be left on your own in Cairo.
We try as politely as possible to brush him off but he keeps at it and finally after what seemed like an eternity we get to the restaurant. OK it looks clean, well lit and butt empty, not a sole is sitting anywhere.
We come in and are seated with a view of the pyramids. Well if you have x-ray eyes and can see in pitch blackness you have a g at view of the pyramids.
The restaurant serves local Egyptian fare such as fish and meat. There is no menu, first mistake, and no prices, second mistake. Now my stomach is grumbling but is it hunger or the Tea? Only time will tell and I order the Chicken and beef plate which Rick orders a beef sandwich.
Now it gets serious. Our waiter is old but gentlemanly and VERY attentive. He folds your napkin, serves your rolls, pours your drink and is basically a pest of the first degree. Since we are the only ones in the restaurant we get ultimate attention.
Out comes hummus, falafel, beets, and various assorted dishes each more delicious than the last. We have no idea what this is going to cost but here we are eating anyway.
Out comes the main course which was good, filling and well served by the mister attentive waiter. Then, without request, comes a delicious plate of desserts and we are asked if we want coffee.
Amazing food actually, but what will this cost? The answer soon comes as does the coffee 190 pounds ($38). A tip of 20 pounds ($5) and we have a fabulous meal for under $42.
So we walk back to the hotel, are accosted by new hawkers and head to bed. What a first day in Cairo.
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