So I’m in North Africa now. Egypt to be pedantic. Downtown Cairo to be precise.
Can you see me? Somewhere to the right in this pic.
I’m sitting out front of a small café called Kunst (yes I giggled too ), tucked away off a side alley in the old city. Just across the street from a McDonalds and the ever present Police barricades and clusters of black clad Police in riot gear just hanging about on every corner, sharing a cigarette and waiting for something to happen.
But at Kunst it’s a cruisy mood. From the tinny speaker mounted on the ceiling some arabic folksy tune is blasting away, and the cramped café is full of slinky cats, smoking students and alternative locals sitting around reading, conversing and studying. Possibly discussing the events of the day or politics – my Arabic is non-existent so I am blissfully ignorant.
I’m sipping a half decent Americano (FINALLY) and waiting for a grilled cheese sandwich that was ordered 20 minutes ago. The place is not busy but delays are the norm here so patience is key.
Its well past 4pm: still hot, dry and dusty but the blasting North African sun has just dipped below the hazy smog layer, turning Cairo to gold – an unintentional benefit from a city choking to death on its own exhaust fumes.
It’s a magical time though and the old city changes with the light. A gusty wind ruffles across the nearby Nile, barely shifting the smog but lifting the dust allowing the city to breathe, revealing glimpses of Cairos past glory and crumbling architectural beauty usually hidden under the dust and grime. Exposed now by the shifting spectrum, the city’s alabaster pillars and monuments glow with a rusty translucence, lit by the afternoon sun.
Its been a day for soaking up the atmosphere though, and after the past few days it’s nice to be finally getting over the jetlag, settling in and getting my bearings.
If you’ve never traveled into the Middle East or Africa before, the first 24 hours can be a real culture shock, even more so than Asia. Luckily I had, well before the 2011 revolution that changed the face of the city, destroyed the tourist trade, bankrupted the country and rendered it impossible to get a decent coffee downtown.
Flying into Cairo last Wednesday reminded me of the day 15 years ago I first arrived here on a whirlwind 3 day trip – totally confused about travel, inexperienced with other cultures, uncertain but optimistic. Cairo floored me in a way Bangkok didn’t and I was energised by the ancient city’s hum. 3 days too see it all and no money to do it with . My last visit was memorable by my sheer wide-eyed naivety and the number of times I was fleeced. The pyramids were nice though.
Back then, I’d left Cairo having literally run away from a dodgy Giza horse rental dude and his crooked guide that were intent on taking every piastre I had (he had literally taken my wallet out of my hands at one point , removed every Egyptian pound but a 10 pound cab fare home, and handed it back to me).
My last view of the pyramids were in the rear window of a cab as I bolted from the Giza complex after faking a visit to the toilet, leaving Muhammed the guide unpaid, holding my horse in the sand dunes waiting for me.
Not my finest moment.
This trip so far has been different in that I’ve learned to say NO. In fact that a good tip for anyone visiting Egypt – give a short sharp cranky ‘Shukran’ – basically means No.
Case in point.
Firstly, the hostel offered free airport pickup (awesome I thought) but the day of my arrival this turned into a $10US fare. I said NO and I sent a dot point email and reminded them of the 3 times they said it was free. Problem solved.
“Ahhhh yes sorry of course it is free. No problems”
Then they put me in double room when i arrived on Wednesday night, instead of the dorm room I’d booked…”Thats ok, you can just pay extra” they said…
“NO…” I said “…give me my dorm bed please. I don’t want to pay extra”.
“Ahh yes sorry of course…apologies”…..Sheesh.
BUT ITS ALL OK NOW – after that reintroduction to the Egyptian way of doing business, I was fine after that and could get on with seeing this crazy city.
But since then? Awesome! So far I’ve been held hostage by Egyptian mafia types at 3am, sat through the worst bellydance show on the planet, discovered Koshari, explored Coptic Cairo, Islamic Cairo, New Cairo, Massive mega malls, seen the Magnificent Seven in Arabic, haunted the Egyptian museum, had my roomate harrassed by a group of romeo scammers, and just today realised that everyone here will automatically keep your change if you don’t ask for it.
To be continued when I get decent internet again…I’m exploring Cairo on foot over the next week or so to get a damn good look at this town. Stay tuned. It ain’t gonna be easy as this city is freakin’ enormous.
Oh yeah THE INTERNET SUCKS HERE…