Cairo

Trip Start May 05, 2008
1
48
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Trip End May 09, 2009


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Flag of Egypt  ,
Thursday, October 9, 2008

When we were young, we both loved the Indiana Jones movies. One character in Raiders of the Lost Ark described Cairo as "City of the Living", and that's a description which certainly seems to fit this city well. It's the largest city in Africa, and one of the largest in the world, with almost 20 million people cluttering its busy streets. We love this city one moment and hate it the next. We love the vibrant atmosphere, with the huge variey of faces and social classes mixing about in the chaotic streets, but we hate the insane traffic and the resulting pollution. We hate crossing the street (it's a life-flashing experience, since traffic lights are a mere suggestion here), but hey it's quite an exhilaration to get to the other side! We spent 9 days here in total, as a result of schedule complications due to us meeting John and Stephanie on their vacation in Egypt. So we got to know the city better than most other places we've been to on this trip...
Of course, we did the obligatory tourist stuff: the Pyramids of Giza and that of Saqqara, both of which are quite impressive, though the experience is somewhat spoiled by the constant barrage of touts trying to sell you overpriced poor quality souvenirs made in China or even more overpriced camel rides. And then there's the Egyptian Museum, which houses some of the greatest treasures in the world, but which does it in 19th century cases with no helpful descriptions. Still, we had fun doing the pharaonic experience with our friends. We also got to visit the 12th century Azhar Mosque, one of the finest examples of medieval Islamic architecture in the world (though again the experience was somewhat tainted by a mosque caretaker who kept on asking for baksheesh every 2 minutes and was unhappy with the generous amounts he got every time).
We don't want to sound like we are complaining, but unemployment and low salaries for those who are employed have created a real problem with the tourist industry here in Egypt. Most Egyptians are very nice people who go out of their way to help you, but unfortunately the average tourist on vacation who only goes to certain touristy spots,  will probably not get to deal with any of them. Instead, what the tourist will get is a seemingly constant barrage of people (touts) who call you their friend, use the same canned jokes over and over again, and who want to get your money in one way or another (and usually not in a fair way either). After a while and thanks to our Moroccan experience, we have learned to distinguish these people and how to deal with them; so our Egyptian experience has improved dramatically. Nowadays, we have learned to laugh at the whole situation, and we understand the desperation leading to this situation (and the deep resentment on both sides resulting from this mini clash of cultures).
There are many experiences which we will remember from this place: the many sheesha pipe and tea houses littering the streets, the vast contrasts between the rich neighborhoods and the slums which lie beside it, the beautiful architecture and the ugly garbage right beside it... but above all the undefinable quality that makes this city a dramatic place to visit. It truly is the heart of the Middle East, and we are just starting to realize how much deeper the experience here can be if one moves beyond the usual tourist trail. One interesting experience we had yesterday was going to a gigantic mall, where upper-middle and rich class Egyptians go. The place felt a world away from the city outside and the people there were very westernized. We had a very cosmopolitan experience, feeling like normal people (as opposed to walking wallets) for the first time in a long time, eating amazing Japanese food and going to the cinema to watch American movies: all in all a very fun day. But it also made us realize us just how deep the rift between the rich and poor is in this country: truly we felt like the Egyptians at the mall were as far removed from the average people we crossed in the street as we were.
Tonight (it's the 27th), we are off to Sinai and Petra in Jordan, for a different Egyptian experience. We will be back here for a few hours before flying to India, so we won't see much then; but we will always have Cairo!
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