Cairo March 3-11, 2006 (Without bicycles.)
Arriving in Cairo--Not For the Faint of Heart
Cairo is so, so intense--so much more so than any other city we've visited. After doing the local dance for usually minor undertakings like standing in the arrival lines at the airport; queuing to enter a museum; getting into a taxi; or crossing a busy street; we found ourselves pausing to debrief the experience and gather our wits before going on. That's the kind of pause we usually take a couple of times a year when we've dashed to catch a departing ferry or train or had a close encounter with aggressive dogs or people. But in our first days in Cairo, we were taking many such breathers.
After finding ourselves at the back of the huge mob at the airport passport control even though we started out in the middle of the pack, we approached the lines at the Egyptian Museum the next day like a military maneuver. Our guide book had warned of the gauntlet of 5 lines, including 3 security checks. The fabled huge lines didn't materialize on that low season day, but the protracted entry process and the jumble of antiquated displays that greeted us once in the door still had me heading for chairs. I needed a couple of minutes to compare notes with Bill on what we'd each seen and heard during the crazy entry process without having to shout over the roar inside the museum. Perhaps New Yorkers would take this all in their stride, but weren't not hardened city people.
We'd had a difficult journey by bus and then on foot from the
airport to our hotel upon arrival to avoid the fabled hostilities of the taxi drivers,
but steeled ourselves when we moved to a cheaper hotel after the
second night. The clerk at the new hotel was clear, we should only pay 5 Egyptian pounds
(E£) for the ride, or
just under a dollar ($1 = 5.7
E£). That was more than double what an Egyptian would pay but
that was a fair foreigner's price. But the bellman at the first
hotel quoted us 10 pounds for the journey. We were surprised, but held firm and walked towards the street
with our luggage in tow to negotiate our own deal.
Shouting in Arabic ensued from more directions than we could identify people. The agitated approaching cab driver and the next driver in line who was on foot assured us that 5 pounds would be just fine. Our suitcase was whisked into the front seat by the second driver and we were underway before we fully understand all that had transpired. Our 5E£ price for the ride stuck but we got a final thrill as the driver backed up in heavy traffic to line us up with the eager bellman at the next hotel rather than driving around the block.
Biking into Paris, Athens or Naples takes focus and aggressiveness to
hold one's own, but the challenges the traffic presents to cyclists in those
cities is nothing like what pedestrians in Cairo
confront. Though grateful that I am a hardened jaywalker,
I wished that I had played a "Pedestrian Maneuvers in Cairo" video game
before arriving to learn
the ropes of crossing Cairo's streets. We were transfixed as we watched from the 16th floor of our first hotel and from other vantage points around town at the daring stunts
required by walkers to cross a street, even in front of the primer tourist
destination, the Egyptian Museum.
Four or 6 'lanes' of traffic going each way unfettered by lines was a common obstacle course, with motor cycles, the occasional horse and bicycle going against traffic thrown into the mix. Once across a street, we often joined the sea of pedestrians routinely walking in the far traffic lanes as the piles of garbage and other barriers often made the sidewalks unusable, if they existed at all.
Driving in Cairo would give the legendary Italian drivers a fright, even though they also play a whisker-close game with their cars. Italians, as many European drivers, don't worry too much about staying between the lines, but there is still a sense of "lanes of traffic" on the roads in Europe. In Cairo, the traffic was like a wiggling, swarming mass of insects constantly moving at changing angles and in unexpected patterns on the tarmac. As taxi passengers we gasped a number of times as we felt pinched by the sight of 2 other car's front ends instantly appearing in our peripheral vision and being aimed right at our backseat doors, one on either side.
Despite the thin margins and the incessant honking, we didn't see road rage. Amazingly, the hectic traffic style didn't appear to flare tempers--everyone just seemed acclimated to driving at odd angles and within handshake distances. And a little tap on the rear end by a following car warranted nothing more than an acknowledging wave by our driver.
In less than 48 hours in Cairo we felt like we'd had at least
a week's worth of sensory input. Usually in that length of time I feel like
I am just beginning to figure out how to get around a town but in Cairo I could
have left and felt like I had had a full experience--it's just that intense.
Saqqara, Dahshur & Memphis: Our First Pyramids
Day 3 had us hiring a cab for 6 hours to visit the pyramids and ancient sites in the 'burbs of Cairo. We were still traveling on the broad streets with 4 or 5 lanes in each direction flanked by partially completed, 8 storey apartment buildings and 'what do you know' but there are 2 small herds of goats being fed on a couple of lanes of the roadway. And in a vacant lot that was heaped with garbage, a herd of goats was being 'grazed.'
Donkeys were a common sight in Cairo but the farther we moved from the heart of the city, the greater the percentage of people using them for transport. And as we traveled into the suburbs, more and more men were wearing caftans until they were seen on the majority of the men. They all wore pants or leggings and a shirt or sweater underneath and some hitched up their hems, presumably for a little cooling in the heat of the afternoon. Some adults and children were barefoot, though many wore plastic or leather scuffs like their urban counterparts. Essentially all the women wore headscarves, just as in the city.
The glimpses of life along the irrigation canal of the Nile
reminded me of some
Nativity scenes, with mud brick buildings augmented with bull rush fencing and
roofing. Water buffalo, goats, and sheep were coaxed along the roadways in 2's
and 3's. Donkeys were the multi-purpose animal as they were ridden for
transport, ridden while hauling a load of fodder or dung, or hauling carts with
rocks, lumber or farm products on board. Many looked too small to be supporting
the weight of their riders. Camels were recruited for some agricultural work and
for guard duty at the archeological sites.
It is apparently the tiny hereditary plots of land that prevents mechanization and so the cutting of cover crops for feed in the fields near Nile tributaries was all done with a short-handled sickle. This lush green feed that grew among the date palms would then be transported in heaps to their homes or villages by donkey.
The experience of seeing our first batch of pyramids was somewhat diluted by the process of getting to them. The hour-long "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" in the taxi out to our first stop, Saqqara, yielded a fascinating look of the barefoot and donkey-backed rural culture. Those were the kinds of scenes we would loved to have seen at biking speed as there was too much for the mind or the camera to take in on a bumpy road at 40 mph. The journey was an onslaught of color and detail, though not much of it pretty.
was heaped along the waterway, dust rolled up on the roads, and slumping mud brick
buildings were interspersed with almost completed looking, 2 storey stone
buildings. Whizzing by at too-fast a clip made the main streets of the little
villages look like the aftermath of a
disaster ready to be bulldozed over. It was the kind of mildly horrifying sight
that is hard to take your eyes off of because it is something you never see. I
longed to stop to explore the village on foot and yet it looked like a place
where, as outsiders, would have attracted so much attention as to have disturbed
the scene itself.
In the Presence of the Pyramids
In contrast to the intricate and colorful farming snapshots, the Saqqara pyramid site was vast and monochromatic, with basically the huge Step Pyramid overshadowing everything else. The strong wind was laden with biting sand and the sun seemed to get suddenly hot. The area was completely devoid of vegetation, despite being only a few minutes away from the well-watered fields we had just seen. The engineering marvels of 4,500 years ago had been striped of their gleaming and protective limestone blocks for millennia, leaving the underlying rock and mud brick exposed to weathering. Now they are rough-sided pyramidal heaps.
The grandeur of the pyramid was diminished by its rough state and other myths dropped away as well: I had thought pyramids like this were built throughout the 3,000 years of Pharaonic history but the gigantic ones were all built in only about a 100 year span; and the iconic camels that helped police the current site weren't even in the area until 2,000 years after the pyramids were built.
We paid the obligatory tips to climb backwards down
the long shafts into the burial chambers at Saqqara and nearby Dahshur. A tinge of claustrophobia lent more
excitement to the adventure than the "being there" did. Looking up at the
peaked-ceiling of one chamber and noticing that several of the massive blocks
had slipped downwards from their original position was a bit unnerving but Bill
felt that a couple millennia of earthquakes should have adequately tested their
The rip-off's and fending off further rip-offs from the self-appointed ticket-takers at the sites and the already looted state of the pyramids left us a little under-whelmed. We of course were happy to see them and to be there, but there wasn't much to do to deepen the experience. There were no signs or labels; no information panels or displays; no 'before and after' sketches or models; and no indication of what was original vs reconstructed, all of which would be the case throughout our trip.
Baksheesh - Our First Arabic Word
Taken at the Tombs
We had our second very irritating Egyptian experience with the endless practice of agitating for money and then more money during our visit at the Step Pyramid. In some ways it was amusing, but being no match for the boldest of the touts was getting expensive and wearing. We paid the 72 pounds ($12.60) entrance fee for the 2 of us and then were drawn over to a second booth to pony up another 40 pounds ($7). We thought it might be a bit of a scam, but decided to risk it for the learning and perhaps sightseeing experience.
It quickly became comical as the "ticket taker" for the second site transformed himself into a guide and we were going to get stuck paying baksheesh--a tip. He had the keys to the tomb rooms so we couldn't get into the places for which we had bought the tickets without him. He rushed us along, urging us to move quickly and be quiet as tourists weren't allowed where he was taking us. Of course, we had our 40 E£ tickets and he was flipping the conveniently placed breakers for the lights, so there was no question--tourists were allowed.
No photos were permitted but wait, our special friend would let us take pictures. "Ka-ching" we heard the price go up. Starting rates for tips in Egypt are about 1 E£ or 20¢, but we knew this would be more. When Bill hesitated, the guide grabbed the camera out of his hands and went "clicking" down the wall snapping photos as quickly as he could. He added to the dramatic production by periodically listening and looking for the guard (which was probably him).
In his rush to pose
with me and to pose me with Bill for photos, he managed to press my breasts a
half dozen or more times. It was amazing, as my body was clearly telling me that
I was being groped but his manner was all-business, like a photography
professional in a hurry. The whole fast-paced escapade had us in giggles until
he hit us up for the 100E£($17.50) tip. Of course, the marketing ploy was
all of the illicit photos he had taken--photos that we hadn't wanted.
On one hand, it's not a huge amount of money to us, but given it was the price for the day outing with the taxi driver,
it was a huge fee for 10 minutes of his unwanted time. We struggled with him and between
ourselves over the price for an
uncomfortable amount of time until we were able to extract ourselves from the
This simultaneously silly, aggravating and expensive episode mirrored a small event from the day before. We had stepped into a mosque as our guide book suggested and after looking around for a few minutes, a fluent English speaker greeted us and offered to show us around. There was no escaping him--we knew we were caught in the baksheesh trap. We kept trying to curtail the visit, knowing that the meter was running. Sure enough, our paltry baksheesh was viewed as an insult and really 100 pounds, maybe 200 pounds ($35) was in order for having visited such a fine teaching institution. We disgusted him with settling for 25 pounds, or just under $5. Having been jerked around by him did help us a bit in dealing with the aggressive guy at the tombs but both events were undermining our enjoyment of Egypt and creating conflict between us because of the differences in our price-points.
Out of Our League
Our guidebook warned about baksheesh but we wished for clearer guidelines as to how much is enough as our offers were provoking histrionics. We aren't calibrated for having people get loud, physical and obnoxious when we under tip by their standards. We are more accustomed to contractual agreements where we know the price up front and either decide to buy or not to buy. In Egypt there is no contract and we were easily dislodged when our interpretation of the conventions was challenged. Our problems in setting boundaries with these folks was compounded by their belligerent behavior--behavior that bordered on appearing psychotic by our cultural standards.
In the US if some one approached us with the same intensity for a tip we would assume they were crazy and would do what we could to back out of the situation without getting hit. At each of the subsequent sites we visited on our outing to the pyramids, we rudely deflected anyone who looked like their helpfulness might be a ploy for baksheesh. It didn't feel good to be so armored, so hostile, yet we already felt we'd been amply fleeced twice in 3 days and we were tired of it. I did however give one cute old guy sitting at the door of pyramid tomb entrance a 5 E£ tip just because he didn't do anything for us. He was polite, welcoming, friendly and casually held a dollar bill in his hand suggesting that that was a welcome amount to receive. As we exited I obliged with the equivalent 5 Egyptian pound note--it was my appreciation for him having left us in peace.
Our next stop on the
same day, the
Agricultural Museum, was on 1-tiered pricing--at least to get in the door. Our
taxi cab driver, who insisted on being our guide, and the 2 of us were charged a
total of 20¢ to enter, and that included use of our camera. It served as a
reminder of the heavy penalty tourist's pay for almost everything at other
The rude surprise inside the Agricultural Museum was having to pay baksheesh to be allowed entry into the side rooms off the main hall. After being coached on the proper amounts by our driver (5-10 times the amount recommended by our guide book), we bailed on the museum after ponying up a total of $5. This first museum building was a fright with its dusty displays, some dated from the 1930's. It looked like there might be a half dozen additional buildings in the complex but with the baksheesh meter running on our driver and possibly another dozen or 2 in tips being required to be allowed into rooms, we decided to cut our losses and leave. Had we managed to ditch our driver we would have scouted the free rooms of each building looking for a hidden gem, but that wasn't possible with our driver as an obligatory guide.
The combination of 2-tier pricing and baksheesh left us routinely feeling ripped off. Entry to the camel trading market a few days later was about 60¢ per person when our 2004 edition guide book was published but now it was almost $10 for 2 people and the privilege of taking photos. Only foreigners had to buy entrance tickets.
Our summary of Cairo was expanding from "Intense" to "Being Fleeced." In Europe we had a couple of instances each year where we felt ripped off but the list is short enough that I still have snapshots in my mind of most of the episodes. But in Cairo we felt boxed-in and badgered to fork over significantly more cash than we were comfortable with twice in 24 hours. We were armoring ourselves as we had to constantly be on the lookout for someone shoving something into our hands or towards our chests so we would reflexively reach out a hand and for people imagining themselves as our guides. And those direct confrontations for money came on top of the constant knowledge that we were paying 2 to10 times more than Egyptians for every purchase we made--except the bread.
Apparently even Mark Twain was hassled for baksheesh in his 1866 visit but it didn't make us feel any better about it. By the end of our 3rd day in Egypt we were ready to rewrite the BBC's TV ad promoting Egyptian tourism, which ends with "Every stranger is a friend", we would add "....demanding money."
There must be a name for the wind that our compass indicated was coming off the Sahara our third day in Cairo, as it was wicked. Only a bit stronger than the previous afternoon's wind, it mixed the far off industrial air pollution with its transported grit to form a threatening brew in the air. The air pollution had been visible the previous days but now the brown-tinged blue sky was obscured by a yellow-brown blanket reminiscent of being downwind of a grass or forest fire. Our eyes stung from the pollution and we occasionally had to stop to clear the grit from them even in downtown Cairo. Several local people were wearing dust masks though I longed for serious eye protection.
Back in our room the dust on my clothes was visible, with some of it neatly filling-in the seams on my dark clothing. But Cairo dust didn't shake out--it had an almost oily feeling, presumably from being laced with grimy pollution. It took 3 cycles of washing and rinsing my clothes in the bathtub that night for a gritty ring to stop forming from the draining tub water. I even rinsed my jacket, shoes and hat to free them of the nasty film. The impulse was to hang my clothes outside in the warm air to speed drying, but of course that would have defeated the whole exercise.
I thought better of flinging open our room windows as I usually do on any moderately warm day, knowing that our too-cool room air would be displaced by warm, dirt-laden air. Bill kept mentioning "schmutz," a German word for some kinds of dirt. Yes, this felt the like the "schmutz" the Schmidt's had described in the communist era days when low-grade brown coal was burned in the Eastern Germany power plants. "Schmutz" hung in the air and coated their lungs and homes and killed off some of the vegetation. Luckily, Cairo's "schmutz" is probably an intermittent phenomena instead of a way of life as it was in Eastern Germany.
By the end of the day when I began coughing up crud from the insults to my lungs, I was prompted to read our guidebook's comments about environmental issues in Egypt. Indeed, some equate breathing Cairo's air as having the equivalent effect as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The exhaust from more than a million old vehicles using leaded gas combined with unregulated industrial smoke stacks to thicken the schmutz.
A US international development agency credits Cairo's air with the world's highest levels of lead and suspended particles and the deaths attributed to the air pollution are estimated to be between 10,000-25,000 annually for its population of about 7-14 million, depending on who is measuring what. The health challenges are made even greater as some parts of Cairo have the highest population density in the world. Even the always snowy-white egrets we spotted the next day on the outskirts of Cairo looked like they had been dipped in our yellow-brown laundry water.
Fortunately our second "schmutz" day was planned to be indoors, with the bulk of it being spent finishing up our tour of the Egyptian Museum. But even the less than 2 hours we spent on the streets that day was enough to again give my clothes that unpleasant waxy feeling and instantly turned the wash water brown that night. The skies weren't quite as murky and we'd hoped for better experience outdoors, but that wasn't the case.
Which way the winds were blowing appeared to have a huge effect on the air quality in Cairo, as in many places. Our first and last days in the city were framed by mildly pollution-tinted though mostly blue skies. But when the winds came from the south as they did in the middle of our stay, stinging sand assaulted our eyes and combined with that adhering pollution that coated our hair, skin and clothes.
Giza: Touts & Inappropriate Touching
The Giza Pyramid site was a carnival and it hardly honored the sole survivors of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World--some of its pyramids which were the tallest human-made structures until 1889 and the building of the Eiffel Tower. Egyptian tourists outnumbered the foreigners and at times the touts outnumbered the tourists. We had steeled our resolve and were determined not to get fleeced at a site worked by some of the country's top pros. We took a local bus rather than a taxi to avoid being overcharged; dodged the camel-ride-around-the-pyramid vendors notorious for inflating their prices at the end of the ride; and successfully called the buff of a man insisting that he was a ticket-taker. But that was just getting in the door.
Everywhere you turned someone wanted us to fork over money: guys on foot sold envelopes stuffed with post cards; men on horses and camels urged us hire a ride or to pay them to photo their steed; some wanted a tip for standing at a doorway; others just asked us to give them money because they asked. It was clear though, only the foreign tourists got harangued and the Egyptians were left in peace to enjoy the site. And presumably they were paying a fraction of the price for camel rides as most of the riders were Egyptian teens.
We saw one fair-haired man on foot unsuccessfully dodging a
camel-backed tout and intentionally walked over to him to shield him from the
harassment. We talked for several minutes and the camel-man patiently waited. We
took the Scotsman's photo in front of a pyramid, finally bid him goodbye and the
camel-man continued his hounding of the poor guy.
We snickered and snapped a photo of a second gent getting nailed by another camel-man we had deflected. This one slid off his camel and in a flash had the reins in the hand of the unsuspecting man while he removed his traditional scarf and wrapped it around the tourist's head. The man finally protested and extracted himself without forking over the surely-asked for cash.
Evading the touts and watching the varying success of others doing the same became a major part of our Giza experience as we walked between the several pyramids. The touts seemed to pester single people the most and Bill experienced that first hand when I headed off to find a non-existent litter basket. I saw the the guy running to catch up with Bill and then latch-on. The man walked a long way, ignoring both Bill's defecting words and gestures. Bill looked just like the other guys we'd seen in the distance shaking their heads and walking resolutely with their uninvited guest as a committed companion.
The scene of all these hustlers was occasionally broken up by bored kids driving carts or riding horseback periodically engaging in impromptu races over the rocky sand. And rarely a tourist policeman would make a ruckus by shooing tourists off of the pyramids or scolding touts who crossed some invisible line in the sand. These antics added to the 3-ringed circus atmosphere of what might otherwise have been a stately historical sight.
It was at Giza that I had my third round of inappropriate touching. This time it was teenage boys who considered it a fun
game to flick at my breasts or butt with their hands. It took feigned rage
rather than a polite "No" to interrupt the repeating poking. And on just one section
of pedestrian street in the bazaar area a few days earlier I had noticed that
rather than carefully avoiding touching or bumping us as is the custom, some men approaching
behind were managing to jab their elbows into my breast as they walked past. It
happened repeatedly to me though Bill was walking through this area without any contact
as had been the norm, so I am sure it was intentional. I became even more
when I saw a man that had just jabbed me do the same to a local woman as he passed
And on the 'secret tombs tour' at Saqqara, the self-appointed guide seemed convinced that a hand against my chest rather than on an arm or a shoulder was a superior way to indicate where I should be standing. This invasive behavior by young and old men in Cairo was like nothing I'd ever experienced. I'd never been a target for gropers, so had little to compare it with, but that in itself says a lot. Despite it being terribly inappropriate, the touching wasn't so threatening that I feared for my safety. Instead, it seemed like a rude introduction to what must be a national past time of low-grade sexual harassment and abuse, presumably in part fueled by religious doctrine that minimizes women. I spoke with an American woman 8 years my senior who had had similar experiences in Cairo--exactly the kind of problems of which our guide book had warned. (Lonely Planet also warned that women renting a camel should protest loudly and quickly if the camel owner attempted to get on the camel behind her.)
Birquash Camel Market
The camel market outside of Cairo is the largest in Egypt and was our last big sightseeing undertaking in Cairo. It required hiring a cab to transport and then to wait for us while we nosed around. Many of the camels come from Sudan and it is their last chance for work before being slaughtered. We hemmed-and-hawed a long time before investing the money in the half day trip for something that might be upsetting to animal lovers, but we were glad we went. It was one of those experiences in which you get most of what you are going to get in the first 5 minutes, but it was a chance to shamelessly stare at and photograph a wildly different culture. And to our relief, aside from the hobbling of 1 leg to slow them down, the camels didn't seem to be harshly treated.
Shopping for Food
As far as we could determine, Cairo had eluded the modern marketing offered by supermarkets and we were left to tussle with the 2-tiered pricing practices in the tiny shops. Often we enlist hotel clerks to coach us in the pronunciation of a new word each day, but in Cairo our daily questions were reserved for "What is a fair price for....." Establishing the price of a taxi ride, a bottle of water, or pieces of pita bread before we headed out dramatically reduced the amount we paid and aided us in putting down the ever-helpful exact change. We of course were left to struggle on our own for items we didn't wish to discuss with the staff, like the price for broccoli and pasta.
Much of the produce in the open air markets wasn't priced, but we made estimates for all produce based on the few prices we did see. We strategized a long time before approaching a street vendor about his strawberries but settled on offering 3 E£, the price we'd paid for a kilogram of oranges. Surprisingly, that got us a kilo of berries at about 25 cents a pound.
I was puzzled as to why regionally produced purchases of canned beans and pasta cost so much more than fresh produce, with their prices being comparable to EU prices whereas produce was extremely cheap. My best guess at the end of 3 weeks in Egypt was that the producers of the food are paid extremely little for their products and it is the processing that makes the prices skyrocket. Presumably it isn't all due to direct operating costs but extra fees for the corruption that the indoor production process affords--corruption for which Egypt is notorious.
Public Health & Our Health
Daily we saw examples of institutionalized communal drinking, whether it was a passerby asking others for a drink of water from their bottle or the people lining up at a gleaming stainless steel water dispenser with 3 spigots and 3 cups chained to the device. The brightly costumed men cruising the busy shopping streets were selling a beverage from a big canister under their arms and had a holder for 3 glasses on their other side. And on the backside of a famous mosque, there were the dozen or 2 terracota carafes filled from a bucket from which a passersby could slurp for free--something we saw repeatedly in Egypt.
Our guide book spoke glowingly about eating from the street vendors carts but close inspection of their routines drove us away. One older man with a spherical tin soup pot over a fire on his cart regulated the flow of the various seasonings from their bottles by placing his thumb partially over the open tops. Cheeses and pickled products were casually scooped by hand and customers did their share of dipping from open bins. Flies had free-reign on exposed food stuffs and the only items that received even scant refrigeration were bottled beverages--meats and cheeses were curbside and uncovered. And of course none of the food handlers had any access to hand washing facilities that we could see. (Mosques were the commonly used public toilets and no soap or hot water was available for hand washing at the one 1 visited.)
We fretted all morning the first day we bought pita-like bread for lunch as we tried to sort out how to get the least contaminated product. Most of the bread was spread out 1 layer thick on wooden racks and any that spilled onto the street were deftly returned to the pile. We've come to understand that in most of Europe that dropping bread on the floor or street doesn't usually keep it from being sold, but Cairo's streets were so much dirtier that we couldn't help but cringe. Bored merchants and picky customers routinely fiddled with much of the displayed bread and in some areas dozens of flies trampled the product too.
For our first bread purchase, we finally settled on a vendor in a mostly indoor bazaar area with no circulating flies. The vendor reshaped each piece as he pulled it from his basket but Bill nabbed 4 for us before they had a chance to travel to the ground and back. We had hoped to shop at a bakery, expecting that their bread would have a shorter history of handling, but hadn't found one.
The sight of a hotel bellman holding a room key in his mouth was just another reminder of how different our standards were from those around us. And of course, with the threat of bird flu looming ever larger, Egypt looked like the place not to be if it mutated to a human-to-human transmission strain. We could vividly visualize the flu raging through Cairo with its high population density and lack of what we consider normal hygiene practices of many of the people.
A Little Triumph
Our big success on our third day in Cairo came at the outset when we found a bakery. We turned off the fairly clean, main commercial street with its careening, honking cars onto one of the smaller side streets that felt like stepping back in time a few centuries. This first in a labyrinth of grungy narrow streets looked as miserable as an inner city street at the height of the Industrial Revolution might have been. The sights and sounds were so overwhelming that for a few minutes we forgot our mission, which was to find bottled water and bread for our outing to the pyramids. Tiny, grimy shops selling bits and pieces of motors abounded but food was scarce.
We walked the equivalent of several blocks hoping to find 'indoor' bread. One vendor walked passed balancing a rough wooden rack on his head which was layered with pitas and we regretted not nabbing him when we realized that it probably hadn't yet spent much time out as fly bait. We turned around to take a second look on the street and then noticed the marker for food shops we often use in Europe--other people with groceries in hand and this time it was bags filled with pitas. They were all coming from the same direction, so we knew we were close.
We turned down a blackened dead-end alley hoping that the shrouded woman ahead of us was on the morning bread-run. She abruptly turned left into what we feared was a private residential entrance. In an instant we saw a short line of people in a dimly lit room before the oven where a conveyor belt was plopping down pitas. Off to our right were a couple of well-fed looking bakers working the dough. We were thrilled to literally be buying pitas hot out of the oven--bread that had only been handled by 2 pairs of hands since being baked. And better yet, there were no flies in sight. In an instant, one of the sources of food poisoning during our stay in Cairo had dropped away. Buying from the source meant that the price per pita dropped from under 5 cents to under a penny, but that was far less important to us than being spared numerous doses of contamination. We would return to buy bread every day for the rest of our Cairo stay at this back-alley bakery--a backstreet scene we soon came to love for its visual complexity and lively energy.
Acts of terrorism against tourists in the 90's and again in 2005 upped Egypt's attention to security and though highly visible, it wasn't particularly reassuring. Young police men were everywhere that tourists congregated. The perimeter of the Egyptian Museum was guarded like Fort Knox, presumably in reaction to a horrific attack on a parked tourist bus there in 1997. I could believe that there were 100 policemen in 2's and 3's sprinkled around the grounds. Many stood behind chin-high steel plates and all were armed.
The 2 hotels we were in and a few other's I noticed had 2 or 3 police at the entrance. And at 2 different pyramid sites we saw what looked like the elite force of very sharp-looking, very focused men in business suits packing a side arm. Unlike the hundreds of drowsy-from-boredom street police we saw, these guys looked like they knew exactly what they were going to do if a problem erupted. One even rode out to a less-visited pyramid with us in our taxi, waited while we did our tour, and rode back to the boundary of the grounds.
Entrances to historical sites and hotels were all framed by
walk-through scanners like those used in the airports, though they were usually
only decorative. In one hotel, the arriving tour group was carefully directed
around the scanner and at the other we always walked through it but the
beeping was not a signal to stop. At the Giza pyramids, we did as those ahead of
us and took off our back and fanny packs before walking through the scanner. Any
bags that might make it beep were slid around it on the table conveniently
placed along side the scanner and were ignored by
the security folks. At a larger, more expensive hotel the unknown,
people were routed through the scanner and their handbags were often checked, but anyone who was known or looked like a Western tourist was never
The Egyptian Museum was the only place where the security system was working the way it was designed. The walk through scanner was accompanied by a conveyor belt scanner for bags and they did spot my pocket knife and Bill's forbidden camera. (Their system was cumbersome however as they had no signage indicating prohibited items.)
Interestingly, with all the chaos on the streets, petty theft didn't appear to be a problem in Cairo. People counted their money and carried wads of it prominently, and casually left purses and other bags about. We never felt that anyone was trying to pilfer--the touts just shamelessly asked upfront for money. The general prohibition against touching strangers also resulted in a privacy bubble around us that would make pickpockets very conspicuous.
Cairo has an extensive public transportation system that includes a metro, taxis, large buses and small vans or microbuses. We used the large buses for a couple of our bigger journeys to or from the 'burbs but followed our guide book's advise and used taxis instead of the microbuses at other times. The microbus culture was fascinating to watch but unusable for tourists. The first obstacles were that they have no names or numbers on them nor do they follow a schedule. Instead, they have an attendant who shouts the name of the destination. When at one of the unmarked areas where they congregate, the attendants mill around shouting and appear to not leave until they have packed in enough customers.
When the microbuses were on the road, the attendant hung out the open side door and shouted the name in Arabic of their destination to any clusters of people waiting in the streets. Passengers were expected to hop on and off when the bus slowed, though they didn't come to a complete stop. Often passengers debarked from microbuses in the middle of 6 lanes of traffic and worked their way on foot to the curb between the moving cars.
Taxis operated on a similar system to the minibuses. We primarily rode in taxis from hotels, so most of our experience was a very Western one. But out on the streets, locals flagged down every passing taxi. If not full of passengers, the taxi would pull over as the hopeful customer shouted his destination. If it didn't fit with that of the folks already in the cab, the taxi flew off. When there was a match, the lucky person hopped in. I don't know how the fares were negotiated as we were told that a given fare was for 1 to 4 people.
We did dilute our cultural immersion by buying first class seats on the 2 hour train ride from Cairo to Alexandria. At less than $7 a piece, it had seemed worth it for the security of our belongings. And when we arrived at the train station and saw standing people pressed against the interior window of a train cars, we were glad we did. Presumably that was a 3rd class and not the 2nd class car, but that was more adventure than we needed at the end of our first week in Egypt. The smear of poop on the toilet seat and the deep standing water on the bathroom floor did however remind me of a memorable ride on a Bulgarian train in 2005.
Istanbul vs Cairo
Istanbul was the only other big city in an Islamic country that we'd visited and we were immediately drawing comparisons between the 2. Hands down Cairo was noisier, dirtier and more frightening to navigate. In Cairo we frequently were shouting at each other on the sidewalks to be heard over the endless chorus of honking horns and the occasional metal-on-metal marketing cry of the butane vendor thwacking his tanks with a wrench as he pedaled his loaded bike. Walking and talking was effortlessly done most of the time in relatively quieter and more orderly Istanbul.
Looking down on the rooftops of Cairo told a different story than in Istanbul. Many of the tired buildings in Cairo had heaps of building debris on the roofs. Bill later read that that Cairo had suffered an earthquake in 1992 and he speculated that the rubble was leftover from that destruction.
Satellite dishes gave a polka-dot appearance to the roof line of both cities but intriguingly, we didn't spot a single solar water heater in Cairo. No hot water in the homes? Tap water warm enough most of the year? Cheap electricity from the Aswan Dam? We never did find an answer. And there wasn't much laundry hanging out of apartment windows or on balconies in Cairo as in most Mediterranean cities, which also made us wonder about how the locals were solving this universal problem.
Litter & Cleanliness
Cairo's residents have that indifference to cleanliness shared by many Mediterranean's that still astounds us. Litter baskets on the streets were rare and most prevalent around a few tourist areas. The locals seemed to pitch all their garbage on the sidewalks and floors without a second thought: a dropped tissue on the floor of a gleaming bank was looked at and then left; a shopkeeper stepped out with a basket full of organic refuse and dumped it on the sidewalk; street vendors stripped their merchandise wrappers and pitched them on the asphalt; a uniformed policeman tore up a sheet of paper and scattered it behind him as he walked; and an art student in the museum casually dumped his pencil shavings on the marble floor.
That "someone else's problem" approach to litter may be tolerable where a crew comes through and cleans it all up at
night but that only happens in the major commercial districts in Cairo and not
where most people spend the majority of their time. Piles of garbage
filled spaces between metal fences and buildings and sometimes completely obstructed
sidewalks. The scrawniest, dirtiest cats we'd ever seen culled the endless piles for
morsels and far out-numbered the handful of stray dogs we saw.
While walking on the outdoor market streets featuring garments, we barely dodged a blood-tinged slurry being swept down the side of the street. Seemingly years' deposits of oil saturated some dirt sidewalks and adjacent streets and made some stretches of pavement treacherously slick to traverse. Less intimidating were the occasional bowlfuls of water being pitched onto the sidewalks and narrow streets to settle the dust as we walked by, but we still didn't want to be wondering how fresh the water was if it landed on us. We didn't find litter to be a way of life in Istanbul, nor were we watching our step so closely for disagreeable muck. Wearing sandals looked like a terrible choice in Cairo, yet few locals were wearing footwear that was any more protective than ours.
One of my very first impressions when in 2002 we arrived in a small coastal town in Turkey and my eyes were flooded with the strangeness of it all, was the sight of metal framed, glass sided boxes displaying bread on the sidewalks. I felt a wave of relief sweep over me as that sight alone reassured me that I had some shared values with this foreign culture. Disappointingly, that wasn't the case in Egypt where bread and all other food stuffs were ready landing pads for the ubiquitous flies and lead-laced air pollution.
The ceaseless honking, the careening cars, the heaps of
garbage, and the various liquids to be sidestepped were manageable in the
pleasant spring time temperatures in the mid-60's and 70's but I could easily imagine
that the mid-summer's 100° weather would
intensify the sensory overload. We visualized that the heat would increase the hostility of
the drivers and ratchet up the stench emanating from the piles and streams of
garbage. No doubt the number of ever-present flies would also rise with the
Ancient Technology on the Streets
As in Turkey, we were fascinated to witness historical manufacturing processes being practiced in tiny workshops that spilled out on the streets of Cairo. One long street was lined on both sides with men in closet-sized workshops hammering away on metal. Furniture-sized copper basins and tin canisters were being shaped between a hammer and post-like anvils anchored to the floor. Two hefty men deftly pulled a red-hot, solid wheel from their scrappy-looking forge and balanced it on a huge anvil pinned in a tree stump before quenching it in a vat of water. Shiny sheet metal was being wrapped around a street vendor's new stall and tin shapes were being cut from sheeting with hacksaws for some unrecognizable project. We stared and stared but declined to take the invited photo-for-a-fee from the copper craftsman however this other pair nodded approvingly when we gestured about snapping their photo.
The number of men blind in one eye that were sitting on the sidelines on this metal worker's street was quite high, leaving us wonder if those reflected occupational injuries in this manufacturing area devoid of protective equipment. (Even the iron forge workers wore sandals and ordinary clothes with no gloves or glasses.)
The Plight of Women
Interestingly, the constraints on women were of a different mix in Cairo than in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey. Men and women touching and holding hands was a common sight in Cairo, though not in Istanbul. And we saw Cairo women of all ages leisurely sitting on public benches, something that seemed the exclusive privilege of men in Turkey. But of the capital cities, a much higher percentage of Turkish women seemed free to set their own dress code than in Egypt. Almost all of the local-looking women in Cairo wore tightly wrapped headscarves, regardless of whether they were modestly dressed in flowing gowns or sporting skin tight jeans and sweaters. In contrast, many of the local-looking women of Istanbul were without headscarves.
I was disappointed to see that many of the little girls in Cairo were covered from head to toe, with only their faces and hands exposed. In contrast, almost all of the young girls in Turkey sported modern attire when out of their knee-length blue school dresses.
With all of the rules confining and separating Islamic women from men, I was dumbfounded to see men discussing the fine points of bras with women at the middle-of-the-street sales tables. Women staffed some retail shops, so I would have expected underwear to be a woman-to-woman transaction here, but it wasn't. I was also surprised to see that there was a market for sexually provocative lingerie and negligees, and young men sold these items as readily as headscarves. These were flirty garments we didn't see marketed as ordinary wares in Turkey.
The touts in Turkey were easier to spot and were often downright straight-forward about their hustling. Usually they were selling carpets and usually they wanted to know where you were from and if you wouldn't join them in their shop for a cup of tea. Some even stuck to their promises not to launch into their sales pitch in exchange for the conversation.
But in Cairo it was harder to sort out the hustle and it came from all directions. I took a risk when one man offered his assistance when I was assessing whether to use the public toilet on the street or not. He recommended against it and led us to a nearby historic mosque to use the toilet and visit the various associated buildings. He wished us well and went on his way. Once inside a man we previously deflected on the street as a hustler tried to charge us $14 to view the premises. Our guide book didn't mention a charge and I doubt that the man on the street was in collusion. I was allowed to 'pee for free' and we went on our way.
At the other previously mentioned mosque the uninvited 'host' started showing us around part way through our visit and then asked for payment of $17-35. After these 2 experiences we decided that we'd seen our last mosque in Egypt. Donation boxes were out at the largest mosques in Istanbul but it was strictly a donation and we were never hassled for tips.
We cautiously replied without slowing to the number of vendors who chimed "Welcome to Cairo" or "Welcome to Egypt," not to encourage touts but not wanting to be rude. But we regretted feeling the need to close ourselves off to so many Egyptians because of the constant hustling and we hadn't felt such a need to shield ourselves from the retailers in Turkey.
Call to prayer blaring out of the minaret loudspeakers in either country didn't trigger a stampede to the mosques but the call in Cairo prompted some men to stop to pray where they were. Never in Turkey did we see a man praying anywhere but at a mosque, but in Cairo we frequently witnessed public prayer. Usually a prayer rug a little larger than a door mat is used for the prayer routine, but anything goes in Cairo. We saw men on odd pieces of cloth, cardboard or nothing at all on sidewalks, shop floors, and in a shopping mall when it was time to pray. At the train station and in the lobbies of office buildings green plastic matting was unrolled to create a sacred space. The men settled into their routines, some that looked abbreviated, and ignored customers and the bustle around them. In one Cairo hotel we noticed a sticker on the night stand pointing the direction to Mecca, something we never saw in Turkey.
We weren't in Cairo long before we started noticing men with ash colored marks on midline of their foreheads, usually about the size of a quarter or larger. We wondered if it was some sort of tattoo for those who made made the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca, as all faithful are suppose to do at least once. I finally found someone fluent enough to ask my question and he said "No, they pray too much." The prayer sequence involves pressing the forehead to the floor repeatedly and for some of the zealots it appears to cause permanent skin damage. This was a presumed badge of honor that we hadn't noticed in Turkey.
On to Alexandria
A week in Cairo gave us time to see the Nile, the longest river in the world; to visit the choicest sights of interest to tourists; to partially adjust to the sensory assaults of the intense traffic; and to become enchanted with the excitement in the backstreet scenes but then it was time to move on to Alexandria. Alexandria is to the west of Cairo and right on the Mediterranean whereas Cairo is inland in the Nile Delta. From Alexandria we would travel along the Med a little farther west then dive southwest to the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert or the Sahara. Looping back towards Cairo would entail an off road desert trip to the Bahariyya Oasis to complete our interior look at Egypt. The historic areas of Luxor and Aswan in the south were reserved for our next trip to Egypt.
Where We Are Now 4/14/06
We rejoined our bikes in Italy as planned and are actually riding them after their 4 month rest in a storage locker. Our ploy in going to Egypt worked and Europe had warmed up by the time of our return. We were met with 60° temperatures in both Berlin and Florence and only 3 weeks before Berlin's highs were hanging around freezing.
Quite unexpectedly, we hopped a ferry from Livorno, Italy in Tuscany to the French island of Corsica to the west last Sunday, April 9. We are thoroughly enjoying our spur-of-the-moment route change of riding around the Corsican coastline, the roads of which are never flat nor in a straight line. The varied terrain, interesting vegetation and many sea views are making for delightful riding but of course, more about that later.