Cairo – Twice in One Year

If someone had told me before my first trip to Cairo that this will become one of my favorite cities in the whole world and that I will want to visit again, I wouldn’t have believed them. To be honest, even now it feels strange to be writing these words! It definitely wasn’t love at first sight.

Cairo by day

Many guidebooks are very kind when they say that Cairo is attack on your senses. To be a tourist in Cairo means finding it difficult even to cross a road! It is not just about the traffic, but life in general in this 10 million city, that seems disorganized, chaotic and takes getting used to. Even for locals! One of my Egyptian colleagues during the pandemic was complaining that she doesn’t get to drive a lot and is worried how would she be able to resume, as being fluent in driving in Cairo takes constant practice.

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From Luxor to Aswan: Nile Cruise

My first trip to Cairo takes place in the middle of the summer. Sweltering hot days in July when one shouldn’t be anywhere near Egypt and definitely not outside their well-conditioned hotel room, if does find themselves there. For me it is a business trip, and I am excited. I have arrived a few days early to meet up with a close friend of our family, who shows me around Alexandria and then arranges for a guide for me in Cairo, as he himself is in Europe during my Cairo stay. Later I also get to meet my other colleagues both local and from the Middle East, but my first impressions of the city are of the guided tour. If that was all I had done in Cairo, I would have likely said that this city isn’t for me.

morning dust in Cairo

Pyramids of Giza

Everyone says you must see the pyramids! And, of course, I want to see them too! They aren’t in Cairo, but in Giza, and it takes a little while to get there. Morning traffic is over, lunch time traffic hasn’t yet started, so the timing is perfect. I observe the blue sky and the smog covered city. It all seems a bit yellow because of the desert dust. The air temperature doesn’t drop 35 Celsius for a single day during my stay.

We are driving past residential houses and I notice how half for some of them, the house is finished, but half isn’t. Many have unfinished final floors, some, literally half the house – the side on the right is done and people live there, but the left one doesn’t even have window frames! Many of the houses also have small houses on the roof – those are pigeon houses. The guide tells me that the pigeons take care of themselves during the day, looking for food, and then in the evening owner calls them and feeds them. They are mostly kept to be eaten. I tried a pigeon in Alexandria, and not planning to do that again, so just observe the tiny houses and try not to think about the fate of these pigeons.

panorama view of Egyptian pyramids

Soon we reach the pyramids where I have to buy the more expensive, tourist ticket. Locals have to pay less. The guide also asks me if I would like to see the inside of the pyramid? It is 20 euros extra and since I am here, I might just as well! The guide snaps a few pictures of me and shows me where is the entrance to the tomb. Soon I am trying to push through the tiny tube of an entrance. An extremely narrow tunnel with low ceiling is the only way to get inside. Everything is sticky. No air. At times I have to climb very steep steps and somehow manage to let others pass by too, returning from whatever is on the other side of this claustrophobic madness. We just about hug with those coming in the opposite direction, so narrow it is.

When I finally reach the end, there is nothing. Nothing! Not even a single wall drawing! Just dark walls and at times, a stench of urine. A guard stands with a lamp and tries to peddle his guide services to someone who has approached him a bit closer. Later I get used to these types of “guides” who first provide commentary, uninvited, and then ask for a tip for it. Even if what they have shared is exactly the same information as written on the poster or first paragraph on Wikipedia or even isn’t true!

I spend just a few minutes, quite disappointed about what I have seen and head back. This will be the one time this is an unforgettable experience precisely there really isn’t anything to see at all. I am very relieved when I am back where fresh air is, even if it feels like coming right in front of a hairdryer.

Camels and riders resting at pyramids of Giza

The start of my story with Cairo isn’t too promising. I want to ask the guide to take a few pictures of me in front of the pyramid but when I see the result of the previous photos, I decide to stick to selfies.

The heat keeps getting stronger, as the day reaches noon, and we pass by the first pyramid. On every corner there are men offering their horse carriage services. On the more steeper roads in the complex the animals can barely move, as the stone is so polished it shines and is incredibly slippery. They get hit by the riders constantly, rushing the horses and camels to go faster. I am constantly rushed by my guide “we don’t have any time left, faster, faster!”

Sphynx and the pyramids in Cairo

Soon I am back in the car and we drive to a viewpoint further out, where pyramids can be seen from a distance. The guide asks me if I would like a souvenir, but I decline, as I usually don’t buy anything. He is disappointed, as likely would have received a commission from the vendor. We quickly pass by the Sphinx as it is time to go to the next sightseeing place. If these are the pyramids, I am not surprised many have said the experience to be disappointing. I mark it in my memory as “nothing too exciting” and I am ready to go to the next place.

animal abuse at the egyptian pyramids

Only the most authentic and genuine things in Cairo

A mandatory part of the tour, it seems, is a stop at the papyrus “ museum”, that is going to have “the real deal, not the banana leaf ones” and turns out to be a regular shop, and perfume store that will have “genuine Calvin Klein perfume, but better”. After the second one I tell the guide to stop taking me to these places, I will not buy anything, so he should stop wasting his time and take me to actual sightseeing places.

Our next stop is the Egyptian museum. Finally the guide’s talk gets a bit better. I learn that the original museum was built around one of the grand statues and how everyone is waiting for the opening of the new one. It has been “soon, just a few months from now” for a couple of years already, but finally at last it really should be soon, as many of the pieces on display have been moved.

Even more than the famous Golden King’s exposition, I enjoy the drawing of the goddess Nut, it can be seen in the mirror placed at the sarcophagi, her body covered in stars. The jewelry exhibit is also incredible, looking at the 3000-year-old pieces you can clearly see that all new is actually the same old. Many famous jewelry houses have borrowed from the antiques of Egypt in designing their collections.

One would need years just to briefly glimpse at everything this museum has (a lot of pieces are not on display even). Unfortunately, this museum was vandalized during the unrest of 2011, precious items stolen or damaged. But that is hidden from sight- in the museum. One can still see the remnants of the revolution in the streets – massive concrete blocks that haven’t been removed and damaged walls. Our stop at the museum is short and soon it is time to continue heading to the next place.

Cairo Tower in Egypt

We stop at the Cairo Tower and very soon we are at the viewing deck. I am surprised to discover that other people want to take pictures with me, and the guide is joking that probably they think I am some American actress or model, as I am so much taller than anyone else. At least I can see well above everyone! Luckily, there are no massive crowds here.

The Cairo Tower used to be the tallest building in all of Africa but now it remains still the tallest in Northern Africa and Egypt. Egyptians often emphasized they aren’t Middle Eastern; they are North Africans. While I am visiting, the Football Cup of Africa takes place, and it is one of the main topics of conversation wherever I go. On one night we head out to a café to watch a game with my colleagues and get footballer T-shirts as a present from the café owner.

The food is very fatty and there is way too much of it, but it is tasty. My colleagues are surprised I eat so much, as isn’t it too heavy for me? Indeed, isn’t the lightest one I have ever tried, but very flavorful nevertheless!

This is why I am so surprised when having a lunch in Cairo Tower, the food is so bland. It tastes like nothing. The servings are small. While the view is nice, and the platform rotates, so you can stay in the same place and see the ever-changing view, the price tag doesn’t justify the experience. I was under the impression the meal was included in the tour price, so I am unpleasantly surprised when I get the bill. The only tasty thing is the mango juice, which is very different than what I am used to – it is so thick than one needs a spoon, the straw doesn’t help!

views from Cairo Tower

With that my tour is over. While I didn’t enjoy it too much, I still leave a tip, since that is the local custom, and head back to the hotel, to get ready for the evening out – my colleagues are taking me to the El Khalili market!

El Khalili Market

We leave the hotel at the very peak of afternoon traffic. Our car is full, our Egyptian colleagues and colleagues from the United Arab Emirates. Soon we clear the traffic jam and now I get to see the true Egyptian driving style in Cairo! The traffic is still pretty intense and sitting in the front I really get a front seat experience; it is so much that I have to close my eyes at times! Change lanes just because you can? Why not! No reason whatsoever, from left to right, back left, drive in the middle. Ignore any kind of markings. How don’t they crash is still beyond my understanding, because everyone is driving in this manner!

We park the car in a lot not far from the market and now we have to cross the road somehow. The traffic never stops, the cars just honk on those trying to cross. I then remember the advice from the Lonely Planet book on crossing a street in Cairo. Observe and see when someone else wants to cross the street, now, they are your shield, move with them in unison! Luckily, I have a whole bunch of such shields who closely watch me also as we move into the market territory, as markets are markets everywhere, and you get all kinds of people, so my colleagues take care of me diligently.

Visiting El Khalili market in Cairo

El Khalili market is believed to have been established around 970 AD, when the Cairo was settled. It is a popular tourist destination but also remains an active market. You can buy trinkets that are made in China, but also true Egyptian artwork and household items. As we enter into the market, we pass by a crowded mosque and several cafes. Moving into the deeper labyrinths of the market, I feel like it is getting even more hot, despite it being dark. The market is pulsating with the many visitors moving around. I am told that this is still nothing – sometimes it gets so crowded that you have to push through! I suppose, less crowded is a benefit of visiting in summer during the heat.

We sit down in a café on one of the streets and I observe the “natural air conditioner”. Every few minutes a guy comes out from the café with a water bottle and sprays the street. The smell, the atmosphere, I enjoy every moment! Despite the fact that it is so hot and now I am feeling tired too, every moment here is precious and bright!

peppermint tea in El Khalili market in Cairo

Next, we head to another famed place in the market, the El Fishawy, café that was opened in 1797, the year Napoleon invaded Egypt. Surprisingly we get a table right away, despite the fact that this place is extremely popular! Next to us a man from Saudi Arabia, dressed traditionally, listens to a private performance of musicians. I can’t help myself and I film him and the musicians. He just smiles and keeps on smoking his shisha. A woman approaches our table and offers beaded jasmine blossoms, my colleagues notice my interest and immediately each of us gets one around our neck. As later we walk through the market, the bright smell of jasmine follows us everywhere. We don’t stay long in the café, just have a quick glass of cold hibiscus drink and head on, passing the Al Hussein mosque. The views of this mosque are embedded into my memory as some of the most beautiful sights that I have seen in all of Cairo. As we squeeze through the crowds my colleagues worry – don’t I mind the constant intrusiveness of the sellers? Not at all! If someone is offering something to me, I just say la, shukran (no, thank you). This is the night after which I understand – Cairo will always have a special place in my heart!

beautiful Egyptian mosque

After my last day of work in Cairo, before I head off to my flight, we head to a dinner. We talk about music in the car, and of course, the famous Egyptian singer Amr Diab is mentioned. I came across one of his songs still in my childhood, in a Buddha Bar selection. It is a nice coincidence, when I suddenly can’t remember the name of the song, and not a minute passes and it starts on my colleague’s car stereo! Everyone is surprised, as it is not a well know song of his, but it is my favorite.

We are having dinner in a beautiful ornate hotel. Enormous flower bouquets, high ceilings, and of course, a security check before entering. How big is my surprise when coming back six months later to Cairo, after my Nile cruise, I happen to be staying at the exact same hotel!

Return to Cairo

I am confident on my second trip to Cairo. I have a list of things to do and show to my husband, for whom this will be the first introduction with Egypt.

camel in fron of the pyramids of Giza

Second time at the pyramids in six months? Why not? This time around we are heading there without a guide, in an Uber. I am ready to give pyramids a second chance, but not the guide. I don’t have high expectations, but this time around I love my visit there! We walk as fast or as slow as we want to, it is much cooler and I finally start to see why the pyramids have inspired so many! When there is no rush, I suddenly notice details I had missed before, and I feel like I could spend the whole day here! We decide to head out to the further observation point on foot, and at least half the way we get constantly hassled by the camel and horse riders. After the tenth offer, we put on sunglasses and ignore them. Here I see how well the guide worked as a buffer against such types. The men don’t like it that we don’t want their services and constantly try to end up in our shots, and when we do start taking pictures purposefully of them, start demanding money, of course, we don’t give any. They also try to guess which language we are speaking, but never succeed. When finally, we reach halfway to the viewpoint, they leave us be.

pyramids in Egypt

The far viewpoint doesn’t have that many sellers of various things. I hear many Americans and then my ears pick up some Latvian that makes me want to disappear. Somehow this isn’t the first time when I hear people using such foul language in public abroad, thinking no one understands them.

We decide to head to the Sphinx directly from there, crossing the sand. Finally, we are alone! The more I am here, the more I understand that my dislike of the pyramids the first time had nothing to do with them and everything to do with the guide.

The sunset time is approaching rapidly when we leave the territory. As we exit the gate, a new wave of perfume and papyrus sellers approaches us, and we head into the fast-food restaurant opposite the gate. This place has the best view in the world! Exactly in front of the Sphynx. This is where we wait out the time for our Uber to arrive not to have to listen to the sellers.

Familiar Places

We start the next day with the Egyptian museum where I already know all the best sights, and then head to Cairo Tower. This time around there is a massive line, and when we reach the top, it is past the sunset already. But we aren’t too sad, as we still have a visit to El Khalili, this time with a colleague of mine and her sister.

seller of bread in Cairo

Both of women are visibly uncomfortable at the market and worry if someone isn’t bothering us too much and ask us if this isn’t annoying. But here the attention is different than at the pyramids. If you say no, the sellers move on. The market is much emptier than it was during the summer. We almost don’t go to El Fishawy, as someone has marked it on Google Maps permanently closed. It was open since the times of Napoleon, and now closed? I don’t think so! The place is of course open, and I mark it as open in the map for other visitors to benefit, likely, a competitor has done so to divert the traffic their way.

having tea in El Fishawy

We are sitting in the outdoor part this time and sellers approach us here much more than inside – books, toys, all sorts of goods at our table! But we still enjoy the moment. The evening is becoming cold, and my jacket is exactly handy, and this time we drink peppermint tea, perfect for the weather.

lamp sellers in el khalili

When we are done with the market, it is time to head back to the hotel and the restaurant I visited in the summer. There is also a shopping mall right next to the hotel, and we decide to go check it out. Again everyone has to pass through security. There is a movie we would like to see, so we buy tickets to a cinema in the shopping mall. We are surprised when we also have to buy our own, disposable 3D glasses! And, you can only pay in cash. The seating is also strange, the best seats are occupied by a walkway that has lights on it that don’t get dimmed during the show, so we constantly see a reflection in our glasses! At least the movie is in English, and we enjoy most of it, just at the very end it seems that someone is smoking indoors. A true local experience, nothing to say!

El Khalili market in Cairo

In Conclusion

Twice in Cairo clearly is not enough, and after the second one, I definitely want to visit it again. The crowds, the prayer calls in the mosques, the chaotic traffic and the hospitable people, who have shown me the unique parts of Cairo have also made me fall in love with this city! Was it love at first sight? Absolutely not! But everyone will find something to make their heart beat a bit faster in this extraordinary city and want to come back again!

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