Thursday May 19, 2011
With my college exams ending on Monday evening and me flying out Wednesday morning I didn’t have much time to get prepared for this trip. After a full day & night of buying the necessary things, fixing up the bike and packing I was up until 7am and only got 1 hour of sleep before leaving for Dublin airport!
The bicycle was no problem with Turkish airlines but I had messed up the booking. Because I had never cancelled my flight from Istanbul to Amman, my return flights would all be cancelled when I wouldn’t show up for this flight. It all worked out in the end though and I later got a refund for the one way flight to Cairo so saved around Â€100. A good start!
After over 6 hours flying (including a stop off in Istanbul) I arrived in Cairo airport at 1am. I met the hostel driver there and we fit the bike (mostly) in the car. The drive to the hostel was fairly interesting and gave me a good introduction to Egypt. Due to the curfew imposed by the military (between 2 & 5am) the streets were mostly empty until we reached downtown Cairo. There the roads were being controlled by the military who were blocking certain intersections, controlling the flow of traffic and stopping and searching many of the cars passing them. It all seemed a bit on edge. Once at the hostel I booked a driver to take me to the pyramids the next day. Then straight to bed where I tried to get to sleep over the sounds of the call to prayer emanating from the hundreds of minarets dotted around Cairo.
After 2 hours sleep I was up and ready for the pyramids. The drive cost ~Â€30 so quite expensive but the best way to see the 3 sets of pyramids in one day. At 8:30 I was off and the driver for the day, Mohammed, insisted that I must visit this great papyrus museum first. He said it was free so I went along with it. Once I set foot inside the “museum” I realised I had fell into one of the many scams in Cairo. The driver brings you to one or several shops and tries to make you buy things. If you do, he will get commission on anything you buy! Inside the papyrus shop, tea was served and I was shown how papyrus was made, I sat through it patiently drinking the tea and waiting for him to finish. When he was done he handed me an order card and pencil. I handed it back, explained I was a poor student and offered to pay for the tea. They refused payment for the tea but tried to make me feel guilty for not buying anything, these guys were good! But I left guilt free with my pockets still full.
Before the pyramids of Giza the driver managed to fit in another sales pitch. This time with a guy offering jeep,camel and donkey tours around the pyramids. This guy told me it was impossible to see all the sites by foot and I needed to get a tour. According to him I would die from walking in the heat and get hassled the entire time by the “bad men” thus ruining my visit! I told him that was part of the experience of visiting the pyramids and got out of there.
So here I was, at the pyramids of Giza! I had heard of all the hassle experienced inside and was well prepared for it. Once through the metal detector (still in the security building) an old guy asked to see my ticket, no one had checked yet so I showed it to him. He grabbed it out of my hand and started walking off in the direction of the pyramids. I couldn’t get it back off the old man without using force as he had it crumpled up in his fist. Shouting at him to give it back did nothing, he just continued spouting out facts about the pyramids. Another “tour guide” got involved and got the ticket off him and tried to walk away with it. He showed me his (clearly faked) security ID saying he worked for some Egyptian tourism department at the pyramids. I managed to grab the ticket back off this guy as he was trying to lead me away around the back of the pyramids. He seemed fairly annoyed by this. While all this was going on the old guy was still there shouting “BAKSHEESH!” at me. (Baksheesh being the Arabic word for a tip, which everyone expects around here, no matter what they do.) I didn’t think he deserved a tip for robbing my ticket, so shouted back “LA’A” (No) and got the hell out of there, so much for avoiding the hassle!
The rest of the trip went a lot smoother and I spent the next 2 hours wandering around the pyramids and taking a trip inside the Great Pyramid. It felt great to eventually be face to face with the pyramids.
Due to there being so few tourists at the pyramids and in Cairo in general (due to people still reluctant to visit after the revolution & lack of effective policing: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/13/world/middleeast/13egypt.html ) the hawkers were (I imagine) a bit more aggressive than usual. Because there were so few tourists you would be followed for a long time by people trying to sell you things. But in the end it wasn’t too bad and I’m sure it will return to their normal levels of aggressiveness when the tourist numbers return. This is all part of the fun though.
After this I visited the much quieter area of Dashur 45 minutes south of Cairo, home to the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. You are only able to enter the Red Pyramid but it is worth it. I had the entire pyramid to myself due to the lack of tourists. Although the interior isn’t as structurally impressive as the interior of the Great Pyramid I found it much more interesting and well worth the trip down here.
On the way to the Saqqara pyramids another stop was made, this time at a perfume shop. This was the most interesting shop of the trip. They sold lotions to “improve memory” and “increase eyesight”! But the owner was more interested in trying to sell me his famous viagra. Which he assured me was brilliant by using the phrases “like a horse” and “like a machine gun, BAM BAM BAM!”
After this I paid a quick visit to Saqqara taking some exterior shots of the pyramids. It’s not possible to go inside of them and there are only a few open tombs around them so I decided not to enter the site.
After Saqqara we made one more stop at a carpet store where I drank the scorching hot tea as quick as possible to get out of there. I probably should have been stronger and refused these stops but they weren’t too bad and at least the tea was good. Once back in Cairo I paid a quick visit to the Egyptian museum (which was well worth it) before returning to the hostel. My University of Limerick student card had worked at all the sites today so I got them all at half price (International student cards are supposed to be needed but somehow my UL ID was accepted.) Even then it was still pretty expensive and ended up by far being the most expensive day in Egypt.
Back at the hostel I met up with the only 3 others staying at the hostel, 2 German lads and a Singaporean girl. That night we all went out for some felafel followed by some sugarcane juice (made from crushed sugarcane.) Afterwards we headed to a busy cafe down a sidestreet of downtown Cairo and ordered some tea and shisha. This was my first time trying shisha and I have to say it was pretty damn good. Shisha is basically a flavoured tobacco usually smoked through a nargileh or hookah (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hookah) It’s very popular throughout the Middle East and every night cafes are full of locals smoking it and drinking tea and tonight was no exception.
We spent most of the night here chatting, smoking and drinking tea. It was a great introduction to the Cairo lifestyle. After my first day in Cairo I was already loving the place. Most tourists I talked to afterwards had a strong dislike for Cairo but strangely I loved it. It was dirty, it was gritty, rubbish lined the streets, buildings were falling apart, it was completely overcrowded, the traffic was insane and the noise never stopped. But for some reason I loved this combination of organised chaos. And if this was too much there were always the small cafes where you could find peace in the middle of it all and watch as the city rushed by you. I can’t quite put my finger on it but after only one day I already really liked this city.