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Cacophonous Cairo

January 17, 2011

So here I am, back from my week in Cairo, and I am absolutely stumped on how to write about all that I experienced there. Do I write by topic? Do I go day by day? With so much to say, so much that happened, that I heard, smelled, saw, and felt, during that week, how can I ever represent it with any accuracy, in a way that won’t take many pages?

I decided that I cannot. I will just write about it, and if it turns out to be a lot, so be it.

I had, in Cairo, written about our arrival and first night – a comedy of errors, as it turns out, and probably a good representation of some of the things we ran into that week! However, because of computer issues, it did not post, so I will write about it again, now that I am back in a place with a more reliable connection (oy, I never thought I would say THAT about Ukraine!).

By the time we arrived on Friday afternoon, I was pretty exhausted. I had spent two nights without sleep – Wednesday night I took the overnight train to Kiev. I thought this would give me the opportunity to sleep on the train, and maybe nap a bit at Peace Corps HQ. No such luck. Two times I have taken an overnight train, and two times I have been kept awake by snorers (the irony of this time is that I had earplugs buried in my bag, which was under me). So, no sleep on Wednesday, and Thursday at PC HQ I went in for what I thought was to be a 10 minute doctor appointment, which turned into three plus hours. Ah well, it helped to pass the time. Thursday Terry and I had predetermined to take a late bus to the airport and spend the night there. As we had a 7 a.m. flight, our options were to spend half of the night at a hostel, get up at 3 a.m. and take a 4 a.m. bus to the airport, or spend the night at the airport. We chose to save the money, but after no sleep on Wednesday night, that was a rough night.

And while many of you would say “just sleep on the plane,” it is a little more challenging, as I do not sleep in vehicles. Just can’t. A few years ago I got to go to India in World Business Class, where the seats are far more comfortable, and still could not sleep. Ah well. The flights were uneventful (we had a layover in Vienna), and we arrived in Cairo. I got outside and thought “holy cow, it is cold!” Not cold like Ukraine right now or the Midwest in winter cold, but I had thought it would be warmer than it was. So…I ended up wearing the same clothes a lot and layering. On the upside – the sun was shining! Yippee!

Upon arrival to the hotel, I did not have a lot of energy left, so I suggested we fulfill a long-standing promise I made to my sister, and go to the Hard Rock Cafe in Cairo, so I could get her a pin (and so we could have a hamburger). We were put in a cab, and arrived at the Hyatt, where the Hard Rock is said to be.

The first thing I noticed on our approach to the Hyatt was…no sign. HRCs always have a sign to announce themselves. “Hmm, strange” I thought. I also was a bit disconcerted that we had to stop at a security checkpoint, the cab driver had to open his trunk, and armed guards and a dog (drug, weapons sniffing) checked us out. Um?

After we got to the front door of the hotel, we found out that the HRC is no more in Cairo. Wait, what? It is still on the HRC web site (note – WAS still on the web site. I just checked, and it is now gone), and we saw signs all over Cairo for the HRC. Needless to say, I was not thrilled that it had closed, and fairly recently it appears. Couldn’t they have waited until after my visit to close their doors? Didn’t they know that I have made a commitment to someone, and do everything I can to fulfill this commitment? Ah, but they don’t care, it seems. I was directed to Sharm-el-Sheikh, which is not exactly next door.

So…where next? We decided to try a famous restaurant, called Abou El Sid. The write-up had said that you should get there early or have a reservation, because it is very busy. As Egyptians do not eat dinner by habit at 6 p.m., we decided to give it a whirl. After going through three taxi drivers before we found one that was willing to charge a somewhat reasonable rate (we later had more bargaining power when a person from the hotel told us what cabs SHOULD cost), we were on our way to Abou El Sid. Until the taxi stopped. As in broke down. The driver got out and tried to fix it, but it did not start. So we got out and asked how far it was to the restaurant. His response was “walk on this road until you come to the Marriott. It is right next to the Marriott.”

Seems straightforward, right?

Not in Cairo. We walked along, took a wrong road, and got back on the right one. We saw the Marriott, and no restaurant. After stopping at a number of Tourist Police for directions (turn right, as he points left), we finally found it, and were told we could not eat until 10 p.m. (nothwithstanding the fact that there were 10 empty tables in the restaurant). So off we went in search of an alternative, which is described as being located “right around the corner” from Abou El Sid. Ten minutes later we found that restaurant.

Right around the corner, a short walk, right next to, and terms like these appear to be relative terms.

To loop this back to the title of my post – Cairo is loud. Cairo is alive. On our way back from the restaurant to the hotel (we decided to hoof it. After eating, my energy level had improved). While walking, we heard a lot of honking (notwithstanding the signs that have a horn, with the “no” circle on it), people talking, music, calls to prayer, and various other sounds. Cairo is a city that is so alive, and really comes to life after dark, or after a certain time of night (I found this to be true on my last morning, when I took a walk at 9 a.m. and it was eerily quiet). We passed by this fabulous market that appeared to sell mainly clothing, for blocks and blocks. Of course, it was a lot of clothing but also meats, breads, other foods and other items. It was amazing. And it was not a tourist market, either – it was clearly one that is used by locals.

Oh, how my hands itched to take out my camera as we walked! But I did not – on my first night, I just experienced things. There would be plenty of photo opportunities in the coming week!

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