Middle East | Egypt – Cairo
Wednesday 7th Jan.
So, on the way again. I was looking forward to all that Egypt had to offer – all that remained was to get there. The seven hour delay between my arrival and subsequent departure from Schipol afforded me a few hours to enjoy the varied delights of Amsterdam in the drizzle. It was great to see the place again. It’s a beautiful city, and definately one of my favourites. There were a few more random dysfunctional weirdos than usual, and some divers were searching a canal on behalf of the police (in the hope of finding what, I dread to think) but other than that it was the same old Amsterdam. I decided not to indulge in anything narcotic, not wishing to lose my perception of time, or engender some hideous paranoia causing me to obsessively check the presence of my vital documents, so I contented myself with wandering the canals and pokey side streets, the buildings of which leaned like a row of bad teeth. It was certainly a better alternative to spending the entire afternoon in Schipol airport.
I returned in good time for my flight, and nursing a beer, got really rather excited about the adventures to come. I would be entering a world where the exotic, the ancient, and the chaos of the present mix to produce a cocktail that makes every moment a new and spellbinding experience – the essence of travelling. everything will be different, and that’s the whole point. There is simply nothing to compare to the anticipation of the unknown, the expectation of experiences you cannot even begin to imagine.
Some hours later, having arrived in Cairo (which from an aerial perspective is an odd patchwork of areas with lights, and even more expansive areas of total darkness) I got my visa, which took all of five seconds, and then passed immigration, into the real world. I’d arranged a hotel in advance, not wishing to have to trawl Cairo for a bed at two in the morning. They’d even offered to pick me up from the airport. Sure enough, there was Mohammed, bearing a sign with my name on it. I said, ‘Salaam Alekum’ and he seemed to take this as definitive evidence that I spoke fluent Arabic. Hmmm. He led me outside to his car, a suitably delapidated conveyance, the front passenger door of which could only be opned from the inside by the application of violent force, and the rear door of which could only be closed by gently nudging a two inch square area next to the handle. Mohammed was clearly a devotee of the ‘drive at 90 miles an hour with no headlights’ school, and swerved maniacally across the carriageway, undertaking, overtaking, beeping, and flashing his lights at anyone who dared to come between him and the sound barrier. It was thrilling for the sheer suicidal madness of it. We did come close to death at one point though, when Mohammed had to employ all his swerving skill upon discovering that we were hurtling at warp speed towards a car that was inexplicably reversing down the middle of the carriageway. We missed it by inches. Apart from the ample possibilities of becoming a road fatality, Cairo looked very promising – an abundance of mosques, minarets and exotic bedlam.
Arriving at the hotel, I boarded a fascinatingly antiquated lift, which bore a sign saying, ‘The elevator is working fine.’ up to the fourth floor. A boy in full bell hop gear showed me to my room, complete with two balconies, a TV, and a twenty foot high ceiling. I crashed out, happy, and pointlessly unable to sleep.
The next day I was woken by the call to prayer. Paradise. After breakfast I headed to Islamic Cairo, and the Khan El Khalili, the main bazaar. The Cairo street experience was everything I’d hoped for – noisy, chaotic, bustling and fascinating in every way. I soon discovered that the method of crossing roads in Cairo is basically a matter of will. You walk out in front of the traffic and hope for the best. It’s quite freeing after a year in a country where jaywalking was frowned upon. Soon after entering the Khan, I got talking to an Egyptian guy called Mohammed, who, to cut a long story short, ended up escorting me around the whole of Islamic Cairo for the next seven hours. He took me to places i would NEVER have seen without him, as well as for tea, sheeshas, lunch, and to various workshops run by friends of his, making everything from rugs, to chicken cages, to glass, to mother of pearl boxes. There was no hard sell anywhere, and he seemed to be doing it simply for the enjoyment of showing me things. The streets of Islamic Cairo were wonderful. Flocks of sheep and goats wandered through the alleys, along with an assortment of donkeys, chickens, goats, ducks, dogs, and mangy street cats. Curious and friendly children were also everywhere. All this in a backdrop of 1000 year old mosques, ancient city gates, and a labyrinth of alleys and narrow, crumbling streets. It was like stepping back in time. The antiquity of the architecture was added extra vividness by the fact that life carried on within and around it in forms not dissimilar to those which must have existed at the time of its construction. At the end of the day, I gave Mohammed some money for his trouble, and he bought me a bag of oranges, and gave me a big hug before we parted company. I’d seen and experienced far more than I could of hoped for, and my first day in Cairo can only be described and magnificent. It was rounded of by a good meal in the company of a very pleasent German guy I met at the hotel. Today the Islamic quarter….tomorrow, the Pyramids!