Busy, chaotic, noisy, dirty, historic, fast and hot. I loved Cairo. Even removing the Pyramids from the equation I loved it. In a way, it was the perfect city for me - There was enough Arabic everywhere to make you know you weren't anywhere near home, but at the same time enough English scattered about to get around without too much trouble. It had the right mix of authentic restaurants and western-style food; plenty of internet cafes and banks, and a street pattern and Metro system fairly easy to figure out. It was exactly what I wanted it to be and more.
There's way too much to encapsulate into a cohesive story or chronology. Instead, I'll give you some of the most memorable moments from my time there:
- The Approach: Looking out the window of a plane on its decent into Cairo is wonderful sensation - Caramel-colored sand and jagged brown rocks stretch out across the desert floor as far as the eye can see. Long-evaporated river-beds stretch crooked, pale fingers in random patterns through shallow valleys. As we neared the city, small, one story houses grew into apartment buildings and compounds that themselves seemed shaped by the desert. Dark black asphalt lines divided the structures into organized tan-colored grids, with an occasional square of green grass breaking the monotony. It was absolutely unlike any city I've ever seen from the air.
- Immigration: Although in a very nice complex, the immigration counter in Cairo's international airport is not necessarily a well-oiled machine. After getting some Egyptian pounds from an ATM and paying for my visa stamps, I had to wait in line with about 100 other people in the eternally slow lines for immigration. I was, however, entertained by the people waiting with me. It was a complete mixture of races and nationalities, dominated as you might expect by those from Arab backgrounds. The majority of people were in bright, bleached white robes, but black, red, green and gold were also popular. It was actually quite beautiful. Nearly every woman in line had their head covered with a thin scarf, while some wore a black hood exposing only their eyes. A few women were wearing sandals revealing intricate tattoos on their feet, starting at the soles and toes of their feet and working up the ankle, eventually disappearing behind the robes. In many cases, their hands and fingers were marked in the same fashion. It was definitely unlike any airport I'd been in before.
- Traffic: Cairo traffic is amongst the most chaotic I've ever seen (which is saying something after being in South America and East Africa for a while). They drive on the proper (that being the right-hand side - sorry my British friends) side of the road, which made me feel a little better, but the paint used for the divider lines on the roads is apparently visible only to foreigners. Even in the rare times we didn't have someone two inches away from either side of us, we drove with the lines right between our axles. You'd have thought we were in a slot car. In addition, honking is apparently a necessity to keep the engine running, as every driver seemed to hit it repeatedly even when no one was near.
I think I would have felt better had there been only vehicular traffic on the road. Unfortunately, Egyptians feel like everyone and everything has the right to the highways: taxis, trucks, other cars, pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, more pedestrians, dogs, horses, donkeys... it was unreal.
- Nectar of the Gods: I found Mountain Dew! I saw it first in cans, and then curiously enough, in glass bottles, which is a first for me. What made it even cooler was the way the Dew (yeah, that's what true drinkers call it - Elsenraat, Lambert - you know what I'm talking about) logo looks in Arabic.
- The Egyptian Museum: My hostel was actually right around the corner from the museum. Getting there however was an adventure. Four packed lanes of traffic in each direction, with no stoplights in sight. However, people cross it all the time, simply playing a literal game of Frogger with the traffic. The first time I did it, I really thought I was going to get hit - as I stood on a white line with cars going in front and behind me, I tried to remember where my travel insurance documentation was.
The museum itself is amazing, though much different than I thought it would be. To be honest, I was actually a little disappointed. The stately, organized and placid visions I had in my head were quickly dispelled by the chaos of hundreds of people in tour groups pushing their way through the crowded hallways. It was loud - like being on the concourse of an NFL game, with tour leaders trying to give explanations and instructions to their groups above the noise of the other assembly right next to them.
The actual pieces inside the museum were fascinating. On every wall and in every hall, sarcophagi, burial chambers, icons, idols and statues were on display. According to some of the worn, yellowing information cards (many of which had to have been decades old), many of the pieces dated back to more than 3000 years BC. Just thinking about that made my head spin.
An obvious highlight was the Tutankhamen exhibit. Walking into the environmentally controlled room and seeing the famous mask of the young king was pretty special. It looks as if it were made yesterday. The rest of the room is filled with other treasures found buried with or on the mummy of Tutankhamen. In fact, the entire Northern wing of the upper floor of the Egyptian Museum is devoted to artifacts found in the tomb by Carter in 1922. An amazing experience to be sure.
- First View of the Nile: I'll never forget the first time I set eyes on the Nile. I'd read so much about it in school, seen it in movies and television.... But here, now, right in front of me, it was beyond words. Beautiful, broad and blue. I thought about how this one river gave birth to so much life and civilization in the heart of a desert. Take a look at a map of Egypt sometime and look at the population density for the entire country.
The shorelines of the river are of course rediculously developed - tall office and apartment buildings lining both sides as far as you can see up and down the horizon. In addition, large riverboats are anchored along the shores, much like the casino boats in the US. However, it somehow doesn't ruin the experience. Tall, triangular sailed Feluccas calmly floated along, joined by the occasional water taxi or river boat. The hustle and bustle of the city seems to dissipate the longer you're on the shores of the river. It was calming - a little serenity amid the chaos.
- Mosques: I've seen a few mosques in my travels, but never as many as in Cairo. At every turn it seems there's a minaret towering overhead, or a dome glistening in the sun. They are actually quite beautiful. The annoying part for me (and for many others as it turns out) is the call to prayer over the loudspeakers five times a day. At first it's kind of novel, then it's just downright aggravating. The fifth time you're woken up at 4:30 by electronically enhanced Arabic singing, it gets a little old.
- Movie Theaters: Yes indeed, I found a movie theater near my hostel. I was pleased to find they were showing Spider-man 3, which I of course had to see. Strangely enough, right at the mid point the film stopped and the lights came on. For 10 minutes, we sat there with no explanation - a few people got up and headed back into the lobby. For those of you who know me and my peculiarities around the experience of watching movies, you know I wasn't happy. How can you just stop the movie half way through? I found out later that this is commonplace - every theater-run movie is stopped halfway through for a nature break. What?
- Loose Wheel: On our way back from the pyramids, we were crossing a super busy bridge across the Nile when I looked over to see a nice Mercedes Benz actually lose its left rear wheel. I mean the entire thing came off, and was rolling behind it in the trail of sparks the naked axle was making on the road. It was amazing. Reminded me of Ron White's bit on his experience with the Sears Automotive Center. Traffic behind him started dodging every which way, honking like a pack of startled geese. I felt bad for the guy for a minute, and then remembered he was driving a Mercedes, and got over it.
- Fly Catchers: More so than any other place I've been, people in Cairo want something from you. ...All the time. Just walking down the street becomes a test of patience. Owners of every store and shops are trying to talk to you, befriend you and in some cases even grab you to come into their store. They'll usually start by "Hello my friend..." which undoubtedly leads to "Where you from?" Then, they go into the selling part of the routine. It's really, really annoying, and it's pretty much everywhere in Egypt. The amusing thing is that every store sells the exact same thing. Jewelry, papyrus, sand art, perfumes, maps, postcards... all your typical Egyptian tourist stuff. Yet they all stay in business somehow. I need to study this sometime.
- The Citadel: As a part of a tour I was a part of, we visited the Great Cairo Citadel, which turned out to be very cool. Built back in the time of the Crusades, it was full of Islamic history. It was also home to a few small mosques, which our guide took the time to tell us a little about.
Then we visited the Citadel's most famous feature - a huge central mosque designed as a copy of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. I must say it was by far the most impressive mosque I've ever seen, and was on a level of grandeur equal to that of some of the great churches I've visited around the world.
We got to take a tour inside and learn about the how's and why's of its history and current usage. The inside rivaled the outside for beauty, with incredibly intricate paintings on the beautiful domes of the ceiling. Rings of lights seemed to float above our heads, with a massive central chandelier hanging low in the middle of the great room. It was hard not to be impressed.
- Chili's: I found it on one of the riverboats along the Nile. Yes, I know, "how un-authentic and ridiculously American of you". Whatever. After four and a half months on the road, a man needs some chicken tenders and fries. It was awesome - one of the best meals I've had in a long time and a nice reminder of home. And to top it off... free refills! I was in heaven.
- Taxis: First, the average taxi in Cairo seems about one hard left turn from falling apart. I didn't see one that I'd have put money on passing an inspection in the US. And it doesn't take long to see where a majority of the haze of smog over Cairo comes from. Each seems to be burning a 50/50 mixture of gas and oil. Second, every taxi driver feels the need to honk at you if you're walking on the street - even if you're going in the other direction. Apparently they assume that as soon as someone hears the honk, they'll look up, remind themselves they're idiots for walking and run to the cab. It got so annoying for me that from time to time I'd stop and start waving and walking towards them long enough for them to slam on the brakes, and then keep walking. It's the little things.
- Sunset over the Nile: One afternoon I walked down to the Grand Hyatt Cairo which sits right on the river. I camped out down by the waterfront for sunset, snapping a few pictures of the feluccas sailing up and down the river.
I then went up to the top of the hotel, which like its cousin once-removed in Kansas City, has a rotating restaurant on top of it. The view from 40+ stories above the city needs no explanation. At one point, the dying sunlight was just right, and allowed a faint view of the Pyramids.
There's much more to tell, but I don't have the time or energy to do it. Besides, I've probably lost half of you by now anyway. Just know that Cairo is an absolutely amazing place. Once you get past the pollution, the trash and the pushy people, you'll find a city with more history than many nations put together. Oh, and it's also pretty close to these little pyramid things...