I hated Cairo. I’m just going to get that statement out of the way now because as I sit down to write this post, it’s all I can think. I barely even want to write this post, because I can’t think of anything positive to say (so I’d better say nothing at all…) But of course, that’s not how it works around here. For better or worse, I visited this city and saw it’s sights, and came away with a brain full of anecdotes. Just please bear that statement in mind as you read this post, so you account for the highly negative tone.
Cairo is a city that’s still figuring itself out and struggling with the financial implications of the recent revolution. It’s a city where everyone needs money, and everyone asks for a tip – and I do mean everyone. (I nicknamed Cairo “Islamic Cuba” because the level of scamming felt much like what we experienced in Havana, only with a far stricter dress code for women.) It’s a city that gets right in your face with a dizzying array of sights and sounds so quickly that just a short 20 minute cab ride was enough to overwhelm my senses.
The next seven photos were taken with my iphone out the window of our taxi as we sped through the congested streets from our hotel at the pyramids to our new place closer to the city. The iphone couldn’t focus fast enough to catch most of the things I really wanted photos of, but I think you’ll get the gist.
Political murals and graffiti are everywhere in this town, many of which prominently feature Facebook (my phone was too slow to catch those.)The streets of Cairo are full of busses and cars…and horse drawn carriages…and wooden carts being pulled by donkeys. It’s a melange of transportation. There are also full herds of goats standing in the middle of the road gnawing on the heaps of trash piled everywhere. Seriously.Oh, and you can’t forget about the tuk-tuks, too. Loads of ‘em dodging and weaving and honking their way through the throngs of traffic. And then there are motorbikes, zipping in and out of lanes and adding their high pitched horns to the mix. The honking on the street is literally non-stop, all day and all night. After we had arrived in our hotel room (on the 7th floor) I repeatedly found myself yelling in frustration (through the closed window) at people in the street to stop honking already. It’s an endless, jarring noise that never faded into the background for me.An underpass produce cart. Most of the women we saw were wearing full burqas. Even after two weeks in the Middle East, the women in Cairo were the most uniformly covered I’ve seen.
Where there isn’t a pile of trash, there’s a pile of dirt or rubble.
The guys in the back of this pickup truck were making kissy faces at me as they passed us, and not because I was taking their photo (I only started photographing them after they began.) I think it had more to do with me being a woman wearing Western clothing and having an uncovered head. Though I dressed very conservatively, I couldn’t escape being stared at by men (and sometimes women) on the street any time we left our hotel. I became rather flustered by this – I was covered up as much as I could be without overheating, and the attention made me very uncomfortable. (I hear the staring is even more pronounced in India. I would have hated that.)After arriving at our Western chain hotel, I didn’t want to leave. It was our oasis against the outside world, and I stayed hidden inside for the rest of the day, and spent much of the following one at the rooftop pool. On our final day in Cairo, however, we decided to do a little bit of sightseeing. We had just one or two items on our list of things to see before leaving Cairo, and we enlisted the help of a taxi driver we had met the night before to drive us around. Just as at the pyramids, I felt like we were hiring “protection” for the day – someone to drive us around and keep us safe from the chaos outside the car. This was to be our ride for the day. It felt like we were riding around the city in a tank.
Our taxi driver, a polite older man, occasionally yelled out the window at pedestrians and muttered about how the youth had gotten much worse since the revolution. To us, however, he was over-the-top polite. On more than one occasion he made an unexpected stop to buy us yogurt or rice pudding or juice that we didn’t want. (It was really odd.)
He also created his own itinerary of what we should do for the day, mostly ignoring our initial plan. He first took us to visit Coptic Cairo (where we got ripped off at a restaurant serving falafel.) Then we visited the tomb of Muhammad Ali Pasha, where the ticket taker led us up a precarious route on the rooftop (the photo below) to see a view of the Citadel (the first photo of this post), and then demanded a tip for services as a guide that we never asked for.
Next stop were two mosques in Islamic Cairo, where the woman selling entry tickets attempted to keep John’s change as a tip. A plaque outside one of the mosques claimed that it was one of the most impressive religious sites in the world…at least, it would have been if it had ever been finished. Um, no, you can’t make claims like that about an unfinished building.You are required to take your shoes off before going inside the mosque, and leave them in a cubby at the door. Of course the guy overseeing the cubbies of shoes also wanted a tip.From the mosques you can see the Citadel, our next stop, in the distance.The Mohammed Ali Mosque.Though there is a call to prayer five times per day in Islamic countries, we never saw anyone going to pray at these times. One of the calls to prayers happened while we were inside this mosque, and not a single person was praying.The Citadel is best known for its views over Cairo. They’re a bit obscured, however, by all of the dust in the air. Everything is covered in a layer, and the thick dust cloud just makes you feel grimy. If you look hard you can see the faint outline of the pyramids through the dust.Just beyond that garbage strewn street is the Nile River…also full of garbage. (I’m not even trying to hide my distaste for this city anymore, am I?)
At the end of our whirlwind tour, our taxi driver escorted us to the airport for a night flight to Istanbul. Surprisingly, he was just about the only person we met who did not ask us for a tip (and as such, he was tipped.) Truthfully, I haven’t been so excited to leave a country since we flew out of Cuba last August, and I left with much the same feeling: I have some interesting stories from our visit, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go back. It’s possible that Cairo will become a great tourist destination again in the future, but based on my personal experience I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone for the next few years.