Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Crazy Cairo

I know I said Cappadocia was crazy, but that was in more of a "strange and wondrous" sort of way. Cairo is crazy in a "need to be checked into an insane asylum" sort of way.

We took the overnight train from Luxor, which arrived early in the morning. After haggling for a reasonable cab fare, we were dropped at Midan Talaat Harb, one of the main intersections downtown. Its a traffic circle where six streets meet, but nobody uses the circle, the just drive straight across however they can. Immediately we found ourselves with several new "friends" all of whom wanted to help us find a place to stay. We figured we were being set up for some sort of hard sell or at least would be asked for baksheesh, so we tried our best to blow them off. But, after we realized none of the hotels would let us check in until noon, we broke down and had a cup of coffee with a couple of them at a nearby cafe (aka, some tables and chairs set up in a back alley).

These guys ended up being pretty harmless (and in fact, we'd met Ali at that same cafe nearly every day we were in Cairo...), but for every genuinely helpful person you meet, it seems as if there are several with ulterior motives waiting in the wings - and usually there is a very fine line between the two. It's a very different mentality from the West, and somewhat difficult to get used to, but at least Cairo is a safe city - if you can avoid being overcharged, convinced to buy something you don't want, or hassled into giving baksheesh for no reason, you really don't have to worry about someone stealing you wallet.

Downtown Cairo is bustling - lots of people and lots of traffic. Crossing the street is a nightmare.Remember the game Frogger? If you hesitate for even a second, you can expect to get squashed. Oh, and nobody uses headlights either. We heard its because people think leaving them on wastes the cars battery. So, people use their horn and headlights, or if they are really about to hit you they will flash the lights on if you are lucky. The technique we adopted was to have at least one local between us and the oncoming cars at all times...

The Egyptian Museum, which houses most of the nation's archaeological treasures, was located a few blocks from our hotel. It's huge and overflowing with artifacts - many that appear to be haphazardly placed in the building without regard to reason. The collection has many highlights, including the treasures found in King Tutankhamen's tomb. While we've all seen pictures of his sarcophagus and funerary mask, it's really amazing to view it in person where you can really appreciate the ornate decoration and flawless craftsmanship. As with the temples in Luxor, we had to keep reminding ourselves that this stuff was thousands of years old because most of it was in impeccable shape.

Even more amazing were the mummy rooms. After seeing the incredible structures they built and the gigantic statues that had been built to depict them, it was very strange to look upon the very human bodies of these powerful Pharaohs. Somehow they seemed too small. It felt both grotesque and fascinating to see their hair, their fingernails, and even the expressions on their faces. The museum also housed a collection of mummified animals. People often gave these as gifts to the gods, but also pets were also mummified so that they could join their owners in the afterlife. Our favorites were the gigantic crocodile and Nile perch mummies.

While downtown is bustling, Islamic Cairo is absolutely bursting at the seams! This is the oldest area of the city, and so the streets are very narrow and impossibly busy. One street we walked down was barely passable by two cars, and yet seemed to be the main thoroughfare for the area. There were many times when we, along with the delivery trucks, donkey carts, and tea sellers, just had to wait patiently for a jam to clear up until you could even budge an inch.

The busy streets of Islamic Cairo are lined with buildings that ooze the type of character that only comes after years of use and abuse. There are many mosques in the area, including the 1,000 year old Al Azhar and its accompanying university, the oldest surviving educational institution in the world. We also visited a traditional family mansion built during the Mamaluk period - from the outside it was unassuming, but inside there were beautiful courtyards and colorful living areas filled with rich carpets and pillows and capped by engraved wooden ceilings.

The Khan Al-Khalili market is found in Islamic Cairo as well, and although we didn't buy much, we enjoyed looking through the many tiny shops piled on top of each other and overflowing into back alleyways. We also enjoyed a coffee and sheesha pipe at Fishawi's Coffeehouse, which has been operating for the last 200 years in the same spot and is still packed day and night.

While Cairo is definitely not one the world's "beautiful" cities, if you cross the Nile at sunset, you can almost pretend that it is. It also has several beautiful parks that allow you to escape the hustle and bustle, like the Al Azhar overlooking the city and the Al-Zuhreya gardens that line the Nile. Unfortunately, you have to pay to enter them, so I am not sure how many of the local Egyptians get to enjoy these lovely refuges.

No description of Cairo would be complete without mentioning the delicious cheap eats. There was one sweet shop that we frequented daily, sometimes more than once. The mango, strawberry, melon and chocolate ice cream they served was to delicious and less than 25 cents for a two scoop cone! At one point when we were enjoying a cone, Gil asked me if I would consider moving to Cairo....

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