14th December – my sister got married. I met a thousand relatives after years (Imagine all the questions coming my way). 15th December – I flew back after her wedding for my annual appraisal and then went out to a classic Red Bull after office party. 16th December – I came home around 3 am after the party and picked up my backpack and my husband to board the Egypt Air flight to Cairo.
Chaotic 2 days. Consider the 2 days prior to the trip as a trailer of what was to come.
Airborne, I tried to overcome the disappointment of not having any in flight entertainment by sleeping all 6 hours, only to be woken up by the Captain’s announcement that the flight was landing in Hurghada instead of Cairo. Cairo was facing some visibility issues. Hello! Was it that cold? We had no clue. With a beautiful view of aquamarine waters of the Red Sea and little islands off the coast, Hurghada landing was a scenic landing to our Egypt holidays.
2 hours later, we landed in Cairo and breezed through immigration. A smiling and loud ‘Welcome’ from the immigration authority was a beautiful deviation from any of the other countries we have entered. Waiting for us at the airport was James Hostel Brothers, a 6 ft leather jacketed chap with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Again – big grin and loud ‘Welcome’.
Driving to the hostel, we asked him how far it was. We had read that Hostel Brothers was located in Downtown Cairo in a street called Talat Harb Street, very much like Linking Road or Hill Road with old European architecture. Nasser replies – “It will take 5 minutes or 1 hour”. Yup! There are other cities like Mumbai where distance is measured in time and not kilometres.
After checking into our rooms, we were immediately kidnapped by our hostel owner Mustafa to get briefed about Egypt. Mustafa checked when our return flight was and immediately took a huge A5 sheet and started writing down an itinerary with dates, cities, details. The only thing that our eyes went to was the 265$ total written at the end of the page. Immediately, we realised how everything was tailored to be a tourist trap here. very politely declining the offer to be a part of a classic Egyptian package tour, we set out to explore.
First thing we did was head to the nearest Koshary place and grabbed a large bowl to eat. A mix of macaroni, rice, tomato gravy, lentils and friend onions, its ‘cheap and best’ food of Egypt. Everytime we had to bargain for a meal in any corner of Egypt, we looked for a Koshary house and ordered a large Koshary. Priced at 5, 6 and 7 Egyptian pounds for a Small, medium and large, its super value for money and delicious. (One of the best places to eat Koshary is Felfela, a restaurant not too far away from Talat Harb square in downtown area).
Walking around Talat Harb street, many of the conmen of Cairo tried to chat with us to convince us to sign up for more package tours. Declining with a ‘La Shukran’ (No thank you), we just booked a cab for the tour of Giza, Sakkara and Memphis. We were surprised that it came rather cheap – for a price of 20$ for the day as against 30$ that most others were charging.
The tin can on wheels that arrived in the morning explained the 10$ difference. Comfort apart, we noticed that our driver was extremely skilled. One hand on the steering wheel and the other hand outside the window to hold the back door in place (it wouldn’t shut), he manouevered the car pretty well through the crowded streets. With amazing skill, he shifted gears with his left hand in a split second before the back door would swing out and he would slam it shut in no time. I stayed away from the door and clung on to the seat just in case.
Anyway, we had only signed up for the car to take us to the Great Pyramids of Giza, the ancient pyramids of Sakkara and the city of Memphis. Beware! Everything in Egypt comes with some things free. And the freebies are not very exciting. Before we reached Giza, we were whisked away to ‘The first official Papyrus museum of Egypt’. Everything is ‘first’ and ‘official’. And, when it says museum, its a shop. After a 2 minute demo on how the papyrus plant is smashed to make papyrus, they offer you tea or Turkish coffee and show you a room full of things to sell. And specially for tourists, everything is at 50% discount. Learning quickly, we told our guide that we did not want to stop in any more ‘first and official museums’ like the perfume museum or the carpet museum like he had planned for us.
After all the debate and tea, we reached the Pyramids of Giza. We expected the Pyramids to be far away from the city in the middle of a desert or something. I guess that’s what we imagined. Little did we know that the Pyramids would pop up at the end of one of the suburbs…. Imagine if you drive down Western Express Highway and then after all the highrises in Goregaon, spot the Taj Mahal. Pretty close to that.
Evading the horse carriage guys and the camel guys, we bought our tickets and ran in. What a sight! Nothing prepares you for the Great Pyramids of Giza. Check out some of the pics here to see how magnificent they are. I won’t do much justice to the story as I don’t really remember much about Khufu or Khafre, the pharoah’s who built these pyramids. Better to read out here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pyramid_of_Giza.
Take a guide if you want to hear crazy stories about how the nose of the Sphinx got punched !
We skipped the walk upto the dunes to check out the view of the three Pyramids together or the tour inside the Pyramids. We instead spend time chatting with some camel chaps and local women.
We also managed to adopt a Chinese kid within a few hours. Chinese kid aka Alex shall feature from Day 1 to Day 8 of our trip through Cairo, Aswan and Luxor. An interior design student f
rom Glasgow, originally from China, Alex was a serial photographer, somewhat clueless about where he was going and fairly paranoid that he would get conned. So, we came to his rescue.
Step Pyramids of Sakkara and the so called city of Memphis were fairly disappointing, considering how much we were charged to get in and what it had to offer. What can I say! It was historic. It was nice. But, it felt like an overdose. At the risk of offending Egypt Tourism, Egyptians and other history freaks, I’ll recommend this when it comes to Egypt – If there are 10 things to see, shortlist 3 and do them well. Don’t visit all 10 and get confused and disappointed. Having said that, its a learning after 2 weeks of visiting many pyramids, temples, tombs and more.
Anyway, after a dusty day, we ate more Koshary and mapped out what we wanted to do the next couple of days. 2 days of walking around, Cairo proved as chaotic as Mumbai. Here’s what we packed in….
A visit to the Egyptian Museum is a must to understand all the dynasties and the basics of the civilisation. It also showcases all the golden stuff unearthed from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Unimaginable.
A walk around Khan e Khalli market, which is Cairo’s version of Crawford market, Linking Road, Chor Bazar all rolled into one is not to be missed. Housed in Islamic Cairo, thousands of shops amidst all the mosques and minarets makes the walk very interesting.
Don’t forget to get a tea and Sheesha at El Fishawy, one of the oldest cafes in Cairo.
We landed up visiting Coptic Cairo, which houses the Hanging Church. Its beautiful…. but, again, think about whether you want a half hour metro ride to see one church or a lazy hour smoking a Sheesha.
Apart from Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo, we walked along the banks of the Nile and saw all the lit jazzy cruise ships go by with the over priced dinner terraces. Belly dancers and Sufi dancers on board, we were chased by agents to buy a cruise dinner package. We managed to evade that and head to a local bar for a beer and some Falafel. Must try Stella or Sakkara Gold from Egypt – smooth beer.
Other than sights, I would strongly recommend walking through the downtown area and checking out some of the old bookstores. Going in and out of the little lanes, find newer cafes to drink tea and smoke some Sheesha. 1 Egyptian pound is the price for tea and if a place charges you 3, its time to find one with more locals. If you have the time, visit one of the really down market dance bars to catch some of the locals and belly dancers. Take a couple of metro rides, mini bus rides and gaze at the old buildings. Walk over the flyovers and catch a view of all the satellite dishes above the buildings fade away in the sunset.
For a good laugh, check out the zebra crossings at traffic signals. The little green man (normally static) in the the signal for crossing the street is an animated running green man. Standing on one end of the street, you can see how Cairo people cross the street. A lot like India.. made me feel so much at home.
All said and done, between visiting one of the wonders of the world, avoiding tourist traps and bargaining for everything from food to postcards, Cairo was quite a chaotic start to our trip. I must admit that we have never felt so much at home in any of our holidays before. Right from the honking cabs to the crazy crowds , Cairo gave us a Mumbai welcome to Egypt.
Traveling along the Nile valley from Abu Simbel to Aswan to Luxor and then to Sinai Peninsula, we explored Egypt…. Temples and Tea… Feluccas and Falafels.. Pharoahs and pita bread… We saw lots and ate even more… Egyptian Diary Part 2 shall be uploaded shortly…..