Cairo – a travel article

In Kipp Report, Published journalism, Travel on February 13, 2011 at 8:54 pm

From world heritage sites, to some of the region’s most insistent tourist touts… welcome to Cairo.

Originally published on Kipp Report, January 2010

“I don’t know what you are looking for, but I have exactly what you want,” is the cry of tourist-tat touts in Cairo’s Khan Al Khalili bazaar. The spiel has a nice ring to it, but crudely carved scarab paperweights, papyrus scrolls and Pyramid ashtrays are not exactly what I want. What I’m after on this short trip is a snapshot of the bustle and history of Egypt’s capital city. And there are plenty of people waiting to tell me what I want.

I buy some knickknacks and grab a cab. These are black and white and ancient, or white and new and metered. If you are taking an unmetered taxi, then the standard rule applies: agree a price for the journey before you get in. A little haggling at the start will save you a lot of shouting at the end.

And that end will be a long way off. Cairo is not famed for the fluidity of its traffic. On a Friday morning during prayers you may get from the airport to a town-center hotel in reasonable amount of time – perhaps half an hour – but at any other time you’ll be in Cairo’s almost perpetual rush-hour. The traffic is constantly bumper-to-bumper, and occasionally closer. There are few cars in the Egyptian capital that have no dents, dings or battle scars. Allow at least an hour to get between any two points, and more if they are far apart.

I allow two hours to get to the Pyramids at Giza. Expect to pay around EGP100 to reach the most must-see sight in a city where there’s a lot to look at. It’s off-putting to find the Pyramids are in a rather ordinary suburb of the city. They are on a raised plain, though, which mercifully means that from most angles my holiday snaps are more Old Testament than old tenement.

The taxi ride to the Pyramids is considerably more expensive than the average fare within the city – usually between EGP 5 and EGP 10 (AED3.40 and AED13.50). However, for the extra money my driver waits for me at the Pyramids, and tries to scam me on the way.

There are too many scams in Egypt to list, and they mainly involve being told what you want. In this case, I’m told I want to be taken to a papyrus museum where a guide will show me how traditional paper was made. This costs nothing. Then I am given the chance to buy some papyrus as a souvenir. The price falls fast as I walk away. As I succeed in extracting myself from the “museum” papyrus-free, my guide looks miffed towards my driver, and my driver will look apologetic towards my guide, and slightly bitter towards me, for depriving him of his cut of the profits.

The touts are out. I might be looking for a glimpse of history, but they are keen to persuade me that what I want is to give them my money one way or another. Within minutes of leaving my taxi in the car park, paying my EGP60 (AED41) to get in to the Pyramids, and setting off to wander around, a potential guide accosts me. “You want camel ride?” he asks.

“No thanks,” I say.

“Maybe later?”

“Maybe later,” I agree.

“My name is Ahmed. You take my photo so you remember me later,” the man suggests. I take his photo.

“Now I take your photo,” he proposes. I acquiesce, and let him take my camera. He is wearing robes, I am wearing trousers; if he runs away with my camera, I can catch him.

He takes my photo. “Now over here,” he proposes, and moves me around so when I hold up my hand it looks like I am touching the top of a Pyramid. By this point, Ahmed has also given me some new headgear to wear – an oily rag that smells a bit of sweat. This is starting to look like a scam.

“I’m not going to give you any money,” I say.

“No, no, that’s fine,” says Ahmed, cheerily.

Two minutes later – I will never know how I got there – I am sitting on a camel with Ahmed taking my picture. Then it gets a little awkward. I keep up my refrain of, “I’m not going to pay you,” and Ahmed keeps agreeing. But when I ask to get down, he suggests that although he, of course, doesn’t want money, perhaps a little baksheesh for the animal might be appropriate. I argue that it might not be. But I am on a camel and he is on dry land. And he has my camera. But I have his camel. Neither of us knows how to work the controls of the other’s property, but we are in a stand-off.

I manage to persuade Ahmed to fold his camel to the ground by agreeing to pay my baksheesh when I am down. “Very little,” I say. He is OK with that.

Until I give it to him. Apparently my idea of very little (pocket change) is different from his (“Just EGP30″ or AED20) and there is a tug-of-war with the camera, before I stomp off feeling foolish, righteous, mean and guilty all at once, and Ahmed stomps off in the other direction, probably feeling much the same.

After the trip is over, I still have the photos Ahmed took, despite his parting demands that I delete them. I’d told him I wouldn’t pay when he was taking them, so I kept them on principle. I don’t like to look at them, though. Being conned on a camel in a filthy headdress is not how I’d like to remember the only remaining wonder of the ancient world.

Instead, I prefer to look back on a mental snapshot taken inside the Pyramid of Khafre. It costs EGP 30 (AED20) to venture in and stoop downhill through a low passage before turning up and emerging in a 14 meter by 5 meter burial chamber. Visitors are asked to leave their cameras with a guard at the entrance, but perhaps because I look like I have just had a run-in with a camel scammer, I get away with promising not to take any photos inside the pyramid.

This is a shame, but not because I want to capture the narrow tunnel, or the limestone chamber itself – which is rather dull and undecorated. Nor would Khafre’s grey granite sarcophagus make a stunning shot. Instead, I want to share with the world – or my Facebook friends at least – the sight of two slightly plump and very earnest Australian women trying to channel their spiritual energy by singing in monotone wails from either end of the chamber. I keep expecting one of them to turn to the other with a lighthearted, “Strewth, Sheila, check out the echo,” but no. Instead they suggest the other one tries it from here, or here, then they both stand with their backs to the wall, arms outstretched, heads raised, and warble, “Ahhhhhhhhh,” as other bemused visitors look on and shake their heads in sympathetic confusion.

That’s not the memory of Cairo I was looking for, certainly. But it’s one I want to keep an awful lot more than one of being hounded for cash on a camel.

Where to stay

If you’re not lucky enough to be staying in one of the big downtown hotels with a view across the capital’s skyline to the Pyramids, it might be worth popping along to the Cairo Tower. This 187m-high television tower was built between 1959 and 1964 in the downtown area of Zamalek, which lies on an island in the middle of the Nile. President Gamal Abdel Nasser built the tower, allegedly with $3 million of funds from the United States. The donation was given – possibly as a CIA-funded bribe – to help develop Egypt’s ragged infrastructure, but Nasser used it to build one of central Cairo’s best-known landmarks as a sign that his country could not be bought. The latticework structure rises from a lotus-shaped base fashioned from the same Aswan granite as the Pyramids. The recently renovated tower is open from 9am to midnight in the winter, and stays open till 1am in the summer. Entry costs around EGP 65 (45 dirhams) and there is a restaurant at the top.

Pyramids sound and light show

In the evening, visitors can see the laser light show at the Pyramids. It gets chilly even when the days are sweatily warm, so it is worth bringing warm clothes or hiring a blanket (EGP 5) to keep yourself from shivering through a barrage of light and cheese. The show is an impressive spectacle – after all, its producers have some fine raw material to work with – but it’s not subtle. As eerie green lights illuminate the landscape, Omar Sharif booms from tannoys, assuming the personality of the Sphinx itself to tell Egypt’s history through that beast’s eyes.

Compared to the daytime, the Pyramids by night are fairly laid back. You go in, sit down, listen to Dr. Zhivago booming lines like, “With each new dawn I see the sun god rise from the far bank of the Nile; his first ray is for my face, which is turned towards him, and for 5,000 years I have seen all the suns man can remember come up in the sky.” Green lasers cast runes and maps on the surfaces of the Pyramids.

From Monday to Saturday, the English-language sound and light show starts at 6.30pm, and translation headsets are available for hire at the blanket booth. On Thursday, the English show begins at 7.30pm. It costs EGP75 (AED51) for adults, although most hotels will happily sell you a package where they bus you out and back if you don’t fancy the hassle of haggling or the stress of getting there on time. If you’re going solo, leave two hours to beat the rush-hour traffic.

Getting there

Emirates Airlines flies from Dubai to Cairo from AED2,055. Visas for many nationalities are available on arrival at Cairo airport for around $15 (EGP80; AED54).


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