22 February 2008

Cairo Impressions

Cairo was an amazing experience and a first for all three of us. Not only was it the first time any of us had been to Egypt, it was also the first time any of us had been on the African continent. (That will be hard to do again as GLH has now been on every continent except Antartica!)

And it was also an overwhelming experience. Before we left we did receive some advice from a Cairo veteran, a German woman we know who is currently working on a Ph.D in Egyptology and travels to Cairo frequently for research. She told us to call our hotel and ask them to arrange for us to be met. Just after we came off the plane, we saw our name on a sheet of paper. The hotel representative took charge, helping us to go first to the Cairo Bank window to purchase our tourist visas and escorting us through Immigration & Customs. He then delivered us to a driver who took us to the hotel. It likely would have taken us quite a lot longer to figure out exactly what we needed to do if we had been on our own.

Riding through Cairo we stared in fascination outside the windows. Cairo has roads with painted lanes. There are traffic signs and speed limits, but no one seems to pay the slightest attention to any of them. There may be three lanes, with nice white paint, that would seem to suggest that there should be three lanes of traffic. But why? When with just a little extra chaos and a whole lot of horn beeping you could have 4, 5 or even 6 lanes of traffic.

And do not think that you will see only motorized vehicles. We saw horses, cows, camels and donkeys sharing the road. Even on the highway. At one stage we even saw a pick-up truck being pulled by two donkeys on a highway with a posted speed limit of 100 kph.

And yet, even with all that there are surprisingly little problems. Even though the rules are based on anarchy, everyone seems to know what they are doing and even handle to issues with a bit of humor (our driver explained that the horn beeping was the Cairo anthem) or at least resigned acceptance.

Everywhere you look there are small markets that have been set up alongside the streets and highways. We also saw butchers, who were actually butchering the animals outside and then hanging the meat, unrefrigerated and wrapped only with a cloth to protect it from flies. The sight reaffirmed my vegetarian lifestyle. However, I did not photograph the bloody carcasses of goats and sheep. Here's a benign fruit and vegetable stand instead:

Public transportation is also an interesting proposition. Along the roads you see individuals and clumps of people waiting on the shoulder, or occasionally actually on the road. Multiple private mini-buses will drive along. There are no timetables or routine stops and destinations. People will shout out where they want to go. If the mini-bus has room, which means that it would be possible to squeeze another body inside the space, possibly by tossing them on top of the shoulders of others or having them hang off the outside, then the driver will slow down. But not necessarily stop. People hop on and away it goes.

NOTE: Every tour book we read or person we consulted stated that tourists should NEVER take either the private mini-buses or the infrequent city buses you see. It is not considered safe unless you are extremely familiar with Cairo, can speak Arabic and know where you are going. Even so, we never saw a Westerner on any of the private mini-buses that passed us. The subway is actually considered quite safe and has a large number of Tourist Police, but there is only one line. If where you want to go isn't on the line. My recommendation? Just take a taxi. They are cheap to start and can be even cheaper if you are inclined to haggle.

We arrived at our hotel at about dinner time. And just look at the view we had from our balconies!

Next: Day Trip into the Desert


ChiliLady (currently pissed of) said...

your blog is awesomeness! i love to read it - so I added it to my favourits!
kisses from Austria,

Anonymous said...

Hehe, that brought up some memories of my time in Cairo...

When I was been driven around Cairo by an Egypt driver for the first time, I almost got a heart attack as I constantly expected being involved in some fatal car crash.

Amazingly, nothing happened and I didn't see anyone else having an accident either...

Global Librarian said...

Thanks, Chililady.

Swiss Guy: Our driver did laugh every time we would gasp and/or clutch the door handle in fright!

Lynda said...

Oh so you have been and gone? That was quick - and we have had no sand storms, just the cold.

My Brand New Swiss Life said...

What a great blog post! Takes you there... without risking the potential stomach issues. :)