Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cairo: Sanity Does Not Speak Arabic

We thought Amman was big, but Cairo makes Amman seem like South Windsor. There are six million people in the greater Cairo area, and I think I saw a majority of them during our three days here.

We arrived from Luxor at the Cairo airport and were efficiently whisked by a driver sent by our hotelier (again, a German-owned hotel) to our hotel, a European-style boutique place called the Hotel Longchamps. It's in Zamalek, which is a quiet (relatively speaking) part of Cairo right near the Fine Arts Institute. There are a number of westerners in the area, some of them here for school, or to learn Arabic (as I always tell my students, and my pal Christine Wilson knows, thanks to her daughter, it guarantees a job after college). The hotel is on the fifth floor of an old, kind of run-down building that is long past its glory days, but as one exits the lift (which had no inspection certificate anywhere, I should say), it's like stepping into an era of the fine old family-run hotels of Europe. Not that I've actually ever been to one of those. Just seen them in movies.

Speaking of movies, if you've ever seen a movie depicting the absolute craziness of the urban Middle East: cars swerving in between one another constantly, pedestrians oblivious (or perhaps impervious) to oncoming traffic, people shouting in all's not fiction. It's Cairo. I hear from Betsy's colleagues that it's also Mumbai, but they have the added twist of cows in the city streets.

Yesterday was the holy day, so we were a little limited in what we could do. So we went with Jen (another of Betsy's colleagues) to Coptic Cairo, an area of the city with an old Coptic church and museum. It was quite interesting, learning how this particular branch of Christianity was born, thrived and struggled in Egypt. Egypt to me feels so strongly Muslim that it's intriguing to be reminded that this has not always been the case.

Later in the day, we went to the main bazaar. Upon stepping out of the taxi, we were instantly greeted by this man who wanted to show us all around the various parts of this enormous marketplace. He kept insisting he didn't want anything from us, but apparently, men like this get a kickback of sorts if they can steer tourists to particular booths and tents. We followed him for a few minutes, but as we wound through this maze of alleys and found ourselves surrounded by hanging meat (fun idea in 90-degree temps), rotting vegetables, and the kind of filth that makes uptight Americans like me uncomfortable, we refused to go further. Betsy roughed him up a bit, I'm proud to say, and he finally stalked off, leaving us next to a side of beef that was teeming with flies. We found our way out of the alley maze and over to the more tourist-friendly part of the bazaar, where we had some otherwise pleasant shopping experiences.

Our taxi ride home was typically terrifying, although I have to say that one result of two weeks of this madness is that I no longer flinch in the face of what, on the surface, is an impending disaster. I just sit there indifferent to what I've come to think of as normal driving. Egypt, and perhaps the whole Middle East, is one giant risk management nightmare, but it's made me realize how overly-sensitive I am (most of us are) to potential dangers. At the bazaar, we saw a child, no more than two years old, walking out above the stairs that lead to a tunnel to the other side of the bazaar. His mother sat nearby, unconcerned. I had to walk away, so scared I was that he was about to fall ten feet to the steps below. He was, after all, standing on about 5 inches of sidewalk on the wrong side of the railing, clinging to the rails behind his back. I saw him later on, perfectly fine. I thought, wow, I really need to chill out about danger and risk. But then I remember reading recently about the carnage on these roads, and think, maybe crosswalks are a good idea.

Today's big adventure was a trip to the Great Pyramid of Giza and the slightly-less great (but really pretty good) pyramids at Saqqarah. We had a driver and guide for the three of us, and that made a huge difference. The touts pretty much left us alone when Loyi (I have no idea if that's how it's spelled) gave them a dirty look and some harsh words in Arabic. And our driver's car was air-conditioned, something that is extremely rare here. We had a good lunch at an overpriced tourist-oriented buffet place, but after two weeks of trying to figure out menus and potential health code violations, we were grateful for a clean place and tasty fare.

The Pyramids were as incredible as one might expect for an official Wonder of the World. Loyi was a terrific guide--informative but not too detailed. We definitely got the Reader's Digest version of Egyptian history, but it was enough to help us put Luxor in some context, and to appreciate the enormity of the Pyramids' construction. Those Egyptians--they knew how to get things done. They were like the first Teamsters or something. We did find a room in one of the Saqqarah tombs that had unfinished decoration, and we kind of laughed, imagining the artists, 2700 years ago, thinking, "What's the hurry? We're going to rule for all eternity."

It wasn't eternity, but in their 5000 years or so as rulers of this part of the world, they created some impressive tourist sites.

Well, my days as a walking salt-lick are about over. We will catch a 10 am plane from Cairo to JFK tomorrow, and I should be back in bustling Coventry by 7 pm local time. I'll do one last post from home after I've had a little more time to process all of this. Thanks for keeping me company on this, Lee and Betsy's Most Excellent Middle East Adventure.


TCS said...

What an incredible trip! Thanks for posting these blogs, Lee. The craziness you describe in the streets definitely reminds me of my India trip...and yes, adding cows to the mix makes it interesting. Safe travels back to CT!
- Todd

Sebastian Ivory said...

Have a safe flight back to JFK.