Stephen

Life in Cairo

View of The Cairo Tower; Tahrir Square.  Cairo.

Time in Cairo is wrapping up after more than two weeks in the city.  You may wonder now…what is it like here?  I have actually written many, many pages already about Cairo, but have condensed it down to the following in an effort to make it interesting and to keep it relevant.

It was fabulous to have a week to spend with my Dad here after spending a few days at the Sara Inn Hostel near Tahrir Square.  My Dad and I stayed at the Marriott hotel at Zamalek.  Zamalek is a part of Cairo located on Gezira island in the middle of the Nile river, connected to town by four giant bridges over the Nile.  Cairo surrounds Gezira on both on the east and west.  The island itself is still a densely settled place with narrow streets and large buildings, but not quite as dense as the surrounding city.  The Marriott itself is a wonderful, comfortable escape from the swirling noise of Cairo.  First, however, you must pass through security.  To do so with a bicycle is nothing short of an epic struggle.

The security screen that defends the Marriott Zamalek from touring cyclists is multi-tiered and requires delicacy at certain moments and aggression at others if it is to be breached.  But you can break through if you approach with a combination of patience and resolve.  I was quite resolved to enter after two weeks spent dreaming about the Marriott.  So, when I spotted its gates, I steeled myself and rolled up to the first line of defense: friendly-eyed guard dogs trained to search for explosives.

I enjoyed meeting the various dogs who searched my bike.  Unfortunately, they seemed to enjoy meeting my bike as well.  Their interest led to a very thorough search of both me and my panniers.  After thirty minutes spent with the dogs, somebody made the decision that there were no explosives on my bicycle.  I was permitted to pass to the next layer of security.

I rolled toward a metal detector and an x-ray machine.  Half way across the parking lot, I was greeted by a bellman, jogging out to meet me – “What are you doing sir?!”  “Checking in.”  “Oh no no no sir.” “I have a reservation.” “What?” “I have a reservation here.” “You do?” “Yes.” “Oh…well, the bicycle must stay on the fence over there.”  “Okay.  I’ll come back soon.” [I then lean the bicycle next to the glass sliding doors]  “No sir, your bicycle has to go out on the fence, not here.”  “Okay.”  “I’ll be back.”

When I returned, the bellman became warmer to the idea of working with me after I gave him cash.  The group of six security guards who were manning the metal detector/x-ray machine did not.  They had, after all been the ones to laugh as a group of six and say, “Bicycle?!  No!” but unfortunately for them – and fortunately for me – it did not matter at this point.  I had spent the past forty five minutes in negotiations with the Bell Captain upstairs as well as my receptionist and her manager.  It was no longer in their control.  Word had come from above – literally – that my bicycle was to pass through security and to be given a place in a luggage room at the cost of ten Egyptian pounds per night.  ($1USD).  All I had to do now was to hang out at the luggage room door with my bike until a bellman showed up to unlock it.  It had now been two hours since my arrival at the Marriott Zamalek…stay on target…stay on target…

As I was waiting for a bellman to open the baggage room, I simply walked up to a different bellman and casually said something like, “I have this bike that I am looking to store – I could give it to you, or if it’s easier I could just take it to the room, what do you think?”  “Oh, just take it to the room, that’s fine!”  Armed with deniability, I rolled the bike into the elevator.  I looked at the buttons on the elevator control panel deliberately for a few seconds, feeling slightly disoriented and confused from my current situation in life.  Then I pushed the “8” button.  The door closed.  The elevator pulled up, the doors opened again, and I made quick strides down the hall to room 803.  I was expecting the guards at any second during this phase of the process, but I made it.  I pulled the key card from my teeth, quickly unlocked my door and made my escape into 803.  I was able to hide the bike there for the next six days, no problem.  Just as the bellman had said.

For me, this is so much of what bicycle touring actually is.  I don’t know if this is what it is for other bicycle tourists as well, but I think that if they tell you different that they are lying.  I often tell people that there is no dignity in riding bicycles.  Because whatever you do, you cannot avoid walking around in bicycle shoes, walking into a café at the end of the day with your helmet on, asking people to fill your water bottles, having all of your strange pieces of gear.  Hanging out on road rides in lycra sipping coffee, or scenes that I’ve had on this tour where I find myself dragging a bicycle box for a quarter mile down a train platform at night.  There are many scenes where you are in your element – out on the open road, where you have space for all of your quirkiness and it seems natural – but there are seemingly just as many places (e.g. the Marriott Zamalek) where you have to fight for it.  But you have to love that too.  The mass misunderstanding is part of the appeal too.  I guess.

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I have only ridden my bike around a couple of times since arriving in Cairo, opting instead for taxis.  Taxis rule the streets of Cairo.  There are all kinds of taxis here from brand new Mercedes to 1970s era cars with 3/4 million miles on them.  Or more.  I do not know what holds these machines together or how they run.  I believe that it may have something to do with the chanted Koranic verses that play looped from worn out tapes on their speakers.  Or perhaps it is the incense that burns in their cabins.  Whatever it is, I do not believe that these taxis could run without anything anything less than constant, substantial help from Allah.

The taxis of Cairo are rickety, magical machines.  Most of them have meters that are about the age of the taxis themselves.  The meters are there for effect, not for metering.  The system here is to pay your drivers what you estimate to be a fair price at the end of your ride, and if you are right, then you get out, hoping that you did not over pay.  If you are wrong, then your driver will laugh and demand more money.

All of Cairo seems to work on some form of this system.   Consumers and sellers alike benefit greatly from a somewhat relaxed attitude about money, because there is no way to avoid losing small change on a daily basis unless you are also willing to lose your temper on a daily basis.  You must determine which is more valuable – small change or sanity.  It helps to bear in mind that prices here are much lower than the west.  A seller might over charge you by 3 or 4 Egyptian pounds, another might let you get away with  purchasing something for 3 or 4 pounds less than they usually sell.  But in the end it is important to remember that a difference of 4 pounds is a difference of about 75cents U.S., and that a 10-pound taxi ride is a ride that costs less than $2USD.  This is less expensive than some of the subway systems I have encountered in western Europe.  SO – when you visit, remember to detach emotion from your dealings with money, and your experience will be more enjoyable.  Cairo has a subway system as well – the only such system on the African continent according to Wikipedia – though I have not used it.

You will also have a more enjoyable experience when visiting Cairo if you detach your emotions from your likelihood of getting killed in a traffic-related accident.  Cairo is a city of twenty million people (or so) with few traffic lights, and few that do much more than flash in a random or unpredictable pattern.  If they do work, they are viewed as casual suggestions.  Don’t get me wrong – Cairo has a huge amount of infrastructure – great highways, tall buildings, shopping malls, etc.  It also has a huge number of people with fast cars and places to be.  Not the best combination, especially when it also has good roads.

To walk the streets or to ride in a car in Cairo is to experience a spectacular moving weave of traffic.  Pedestrians move between cars, cars move between each other, trucks move between cars, motorcycles move around everything else, and taxis are the most common element in the pattern.  In this system, all of the traffic is moving more closely together than I have seen in another city.

I have never been to a place where people are so quick to risk their lives in order to change lanes or to cross the street.  I have been amazed by how my own comfort level has changed during two weeks here.

Four cars occupy any two lanes in Cairo.   Or rather, two cars, a motorcycle, a miniature van, and a few pedestrians are the typical occupants of a two lane road at any given time.

The weave of traffic is taking place constantly in Cairo.  At times it speeds up or slows down so that drivers can ask each other for directions, hand money to each other through windows (nobody in Cairo has small change, so it is a precious commodity), shout curses at each other, tell jokes, pause to have a fender bender, hit the brakes/gas when they see pedestrians.  Inside the cars themselves, the noise is that of engines, voices, shouting, and, in the background, the constant sound of the verses and the worn out tapes.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPKeJisgQow&feature=related).

I am told that it only grows more hectic as you move east to India.  Well…if that is so, then I am happy to have been primed by Cairo.  I am often very grateful for the nature of this tour.  That is to say that it moves slowly and that it arrives in few places suddenly.  My experience might have been a bit more stressful had I arrived here without being primed by the cities of Europe, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel.

*       *        *

Fashion in Cairo – as well as Turkey, Syria, Israel, and Jordan – is different from Europe and the U.S.  People wear clothing that reflects religion, whether that religion is Islam, Judaism or Christianity.  For info on that…look elsewhere!  Here is a short bit of info though.  Clothing does not seem to change peoples’ behavior very much from what I can tell.  I see people wearing all types of clothing behaving in all manner of ways that you might or might not expect in a big city.  Women in Naqib (black robes with veils) making fun of their friends on the street, eating at restaurants, etc, Men in Keffiyehs (red/white checkered head coverings) going into movie theaters, smoking cigarettes, working on computers, doing all of the normal stuff.

Beyond saying that, I am not your best source of information on fashion – religious fashion, political fashion or otherwise.  There is a lot of information online, and I found many articles on Wikipedia.  It really is worth a visit to the Middle East to see it.

Cairo seems to be the center of an Arabic film world from what I can tell.  When you walk down Talat Harb street, a long avenue jam packed full of shops, cafes, and people, you can find several theaters that show Arabic films.  The production value of the posters is pretty high.  Action films, comedies, horror, drama.  I did not even know that this industry existed, and it is exciting to suddenly be walking through the heart of it.  I may get a chance to see one of the movies before I leave, and will give a report here.  It has been too long since I saw a movie in a theater.  The last was Transformers 2 in Adana, Turkey (in Turkish).

There are minarets everywhere here, and they contribute to the general audio environment of Cairo.  Minarets are tall spires made of stone or brick.  They are often like needles or rockets in proportion, but sometimes they are more squat.  The adhan, or the “call to prayer,” is issued five times daily, in Arabic from minarets all over Cairo.  The adhan occurs at various times, once very early in the morning, once in the late morning, again in the early afternoon, again in the evening, and a fifth time and at night.  Forgive any errors.  Do not quote me on the schedule.  Minarets are the Muslim equivalent of Christian church bells.  I have, however, seen minarets that were not attached to mosques.  Life in a city full of minarets also has to be experienced.  To hear twenty of them sound in unison is quite amazing.

Cairo has a bit of everything.  Some things are neatly divided from the rest while other things mix together more subtly.  I would return here in a second, and hope to do so.  I am glad that circumstances wound up allowing me to lay over here, because Cairo is an amazing place.

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