Typed up: in a flat in Hurghada, Kamba Net Cafe in Cairo (house music will never die), Cafe de Paris in Cairo, Internet Cafe in Cairo
Posted from: Cafe de Paris in Cairo, Internet Cafe in Cairo
We arrived in Cairo early in the morning. We stood in the wrong line at first, but that was quickly resolved. The correct procedure is to buy your visa sticker at the bank, which is then put in your passport by the immigration officer. Right out of the airport somebody offered to take us to the cabs. We thought he was a cabbie so we asked how much it was. Upon quoting 8 pounds we figured it out, and walked right past him across the street to the cabs. There we negotiated a taxi into town for 60 pounds. That's way too much, and not how it works here.
To take a taxi, first you find one. At the airport they're parked somewhere. In town they're just cruising. Then you tell them the neighborhood you want to go to (eg. Zamalek). If it's OK the cabbie will imperceptibly nod, and if he doesn't want to go there he (never she) will just take off. Get in the car, and as your driving explain exactly where you want to go. Most cabbies speak a little English, but some speak none at all. Once you get there you get out of the cab. Then through the open window (it's always open, it's hot in Cairo and they don't have AC in the taxis) you pay him some money. If it's good then you just walk away. If it's not enough then he'll loudly complain (or so I'm told). I usually pay a few pounds more than it's supposed to because I don't want the hassle and I figure it's good for him. (The average Egyptian makes just 500 pounds ($90) per month.) If you're lucky and find a yellow cab, then there's a meter and AC. In theory they cost more than the black and white ones, but in practice they're cheaper for me (which just goes to show that I pay the black and white taxis too much money). So we've learned a lot about taxis since we got here.
The first night we stayed at Pension Zamalek. It's just a big apartment in a large apartment building. To check in we had to talk to the manager's wife over the phone, because the man behind the counter did not speak enough English. She asked many times whether we were married. We had a big room with AC, and that's really all we wanted. The next day we called Andrea's friend Morad, who picked us up from a MacDonald's later that day and we've stayed with his family in downtown Cairo for almost two weeks.
Morad is the man of the house. His English is quite good and he loves to talk as well as smoke and watch soccer. Amany, his wife, is very nice but because she speaks virtually no English we haven't gotten to know her as well. She reads coffee grounds religiously. (Danielle is going to have a baby and it will be a surprise.) They have a daughter, Merna. She's 6 years old and loves to talk as much as her father. The fact that we cannot understand a word of it does not bother her at all. We play simple card games and encourage her to count in English. Finally they have a dog, Mimi. She's small, white, doesn't get out much and is always very excited to see you. Occasionally one of the street cats (always the same one) will wander in through the window. She was pregnant when we first saw her but has since given birth. Finally there is a house keeper for a large portion of the day. She speaks even less English than Amany and isn't included in family dinners so we don't know her at all.
The apartment is in an older building on the second floor. The ceilings are really high, it's got large windows, large rooms, a large hallway, and big doors. Our bedroom is big, and the bed is a nice size as well. We have a balcony which looks out over a shopping street below. The only thing missing really is AC, and we've mostly learned to cope. At night usually a nice breeze comes through and gets everything to a bearable temperature. Downstairs people sew jeans in shifts, and right outside the door are several stores which ask if we want to buy jeans no matter how many times we've gone by. Just down the alley is a mosque which dutifully sends out prayer calls at least 5 times a day.
Just half a block away is a MacDonald's, which we actually went to fairly often. The reason is Ramadan, which this year was for the entire month of September. During Ramadan all Muslims (90% of the population) do not eat or drink anything while the sun is up. This means almost all cafes and restaurants are closed during the day, except for a few places catering to tourists. So we ate a lot of fast food. It's no better here than anywhere else, and I recommend against the MacArabia sandwich. The best experience was at Cook Door, which is a local chain. We also ate at KFC, Pizza Hut (quite inauthentic), and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.
Because people fast during the day, those who can, sleep. Regular business hours are reduced to about 10am to 3pm. Some stores might stay open a little bit longer, but at 5:40-something, when the sun sets, the evening prayer call starts. At this signal everybody rushes to the already set dinner table and drinks their fruit juice. Then they eat, and praying is done afterwards. The food is usually heavy on starches, so the next hour or two are reserved to get over the sugar coma. Then the day really starts at about 8 o'clock. All stores reopen, and people take to the streets for shopping and socializing. During the day the city is hot and mostly empty looking. At night it's comfortably warm and it feels like a festival is going on. All this makes being in Egypt during Ramadan a mixed blessing. We enjoyed seeing it for a few days, but were looking forward to the end of it.
Religion does play a really major part of life, and is really everywhere. Prayer calls are heard several times a day. People whose job prevents them from going anywhere, like security guards, will pull out a mat and pray right there. Many people will have a dark spot on their forehead from praying on a (presumably dirty) prayer mat. It feels like they wear this as a mark of pride.
Of course all the women wear at least a head scarf. Some wear full veils, and a few go so far as to wear gloves, and even a strip of cloth in between the eyes so nothing is visible but the eyes. Having said that, many girls wear brightly colored scarves, sparkling clothes, and tight fitting T-shirts over tight fitting sweaters. The dress code here is different, but it does not at all feel like anybody is not able to express herself. Household TVs are commonly tuned to one of the religion channels which tend to show nature imagery while playing songs in the background. I assume they're excerpts from the Koran but I don't know that.
Religion is also very much part of one's identity. While watching TV Morad will know for each actor what country they're from and what their religion is. When filling out our visa extension I was asked what my religion was. Talk about plans is peppered with "Insh-Allah" (God willing). I think this strong religion is also largely responsible for how safe Cairo is. Every source says it is safe for a women to walk alone through Cairo in the middle of the night. There aren't many cities where that's true.
The first few days were spent just trying to relax a bit from a busy end to our Kenya trip. Our days consisted of sleeping in a bit, eating one brunch meal, wandering around or doing a chore, eating a big meal at iftar, occasionally go somewhere or just relax, snack a little and go to bed between midnight and 2am. We only did 2 really touristy things. First we visited the Egyptian museum. There are tons of artifacts in a building that is busy and not air conditioned. Most of the pieces are not behind glass or ropes, meaning you can walk around them or even touch them if you choose to disobey the rules. From the wear patterns on the stone it's clear that plenty of people do. It was neat to be able to get right up to statues, sarcophagi etc. and walk around them to see some of the fine detail. It's amazing that thousands of years after they were first created, some still have some vivid colors remaining. We also enjoyed the remarkably lifelike eyes that some of the statues had. They were made from clear quarts, and had pupils from some other kind of rock. Even with all that, it did feel a bit like endlessly more of the same. I'm sure that somebody who knows their ancient Egyptian history wouldn't see it that way, but I'm not so lucky. We left after we finished the first floor, to come back some other day for the second one.
The other major attraction we visited was the pyramids at Giza. It was a cool experience, but not as amazing as I would have hoped. Maybe the most interesting thing is how close they are to Cairo. In all the pictures it looks like they're in the middle of the desert, but in fact you can see them in between concrete high rises from the main road. We did a camel/horse ride (switched halfway through) to see them, and that was a bit of an adventure. Riding a camel is pretty neat. They're huge, and you have to hold on pretty tight when it stands up and lies down. Our camel had some cool patterns shaved into his head too. Very "Attack of the Mutant Space Camels". It was hot that day, and sunny, and of course there's no shade.
We took our ride, saw the pyramids from a distance, saw some tombs, and then got a chance to walk up to the pyramids and touch them. That was the only part where it really felt like we were there. The rest of it we felt like we were looking at a picture in the distance. It was neat to see something so old that's still in pretty decent shape, considering. (The building behind Morad's place in Cairo is in a lot worse condition.) We took a distance shot of the sphinx, and we were out of there. Maybe we could have done more, but with the heat we were more than ready to leave. A very hot cab ride later we just did nothing for the rest of the day, and I think it took Danielle until the next day before she really recovered from the weather.
The pyramids trip was organized by Alex, a friend of Danielle's sister. He takes care of ex-pats and tourists for a living, so he knows everybody and everything we might care about. In general his prices are a little bit higher than what you might be able to negotiate by yourself (if you're good at it), but you can be sure that what you get is something good. Kind of like Macy's. You can e-mail him at email@example.com or call him at 0123393544. Everybody who's in Egypt for more than a few days should really get a sim card. Cell phones are everywhere, and we've used ours a lot.
In the evenings Morad would take us to see some of Cairo. We saw Attaba, which is a ridiculously busy shopping center, with some very nice mosques right in the middle of it. We went to Old Cairo but all the mosques were closed for Ramadan. (Closed to visitors, that is. During Ramadan they're reserved for praying.) He took us up a mountain neighborhood where we had a great view of the city lights, while we tried sheesha. We saw quite a few things, and it was nice to have a guide to steer us through the crowds.
We also visited 2 different people. First we visited Morad's cousin, who lives in a nicer apartment. He works for a big oil company and has visited the United States several times. Evidently while Morad was talking to him he must've mentioned that I'm an atheist because we had another good discussion about people's beliefs. I say another because I'd already had a similar discussion with Morad. Their view is basically that everybody believes in the same god but in different ways (Christian, Muslim, Jew). Atheism is a new concept to them, as is evolution. The most interesting thing is that they perceive there to be proof of a creator around them, while most Christians who I've talked with say that one day god spoke to them or they had another similar, not verifiable, experience. My talks about religion have been very civil, very interesting, and I'm happy to say that almost everybody (on any side) is quite tolerant and happy to hear about others' beliefs.
Second, we visited Amany's grand mother. She lives on the other side of the economic scale, on the first floor in a small apartment with no windows. She made coffee on a small kerosene stove, while I had a coke that was bought outside. Because Morad was not with us, we had a hard time communicating but we made it work. Then she read Danielle's coffee grounds and through a big round of charades we eventually learned that: 1. We are going to have a baby. 2. We are going to buy a house in Cairo. 3. We are going to start a business here. 4. Money will come to us from America. Amany had read our coffee grounds earlier, and made similar predictions. I didn't ask how this meshes with her Muslim beliefs, but I did think it was interesting. A lasting image for me was to watch Amany use her cell phone to illuminate the coffee grounds enough that she could read them when we were somewhere dark.
I think the Internet here deserves its own paragraph. It's fast. :-) I've been able to upload higher res versions of quite a few of the pictures I've taken, and I'm all caught up on movies. Once I'm 100% caught up I'll let you know, but there are some much more detailed images of our safari up for viewing already. Contrary to what our guidebook says, there are Internet cafes everywhere, and typically you get at least 25KB/s down and 5KB/s up. At restaurants that westerners frequent (McD's, Cilantro, ...) wireless networks are often installed (as well as wonderful AC).
Something else that deserves a paragraph is traffic. While it's not quite as crazy as Nairobi, this is not a place I'd be comfortable driving. There are lane markings, but they are ignored by everybody. When the traffic is dense, there are as many lanes as will fit in the space, which is usually one more than is marked. When traffic is moderate, people are wherever they feel like. Pass cars on the left, the right, pull around them, it's all good. If you're stopped somewhere and can out-accelerate the guy in front of you when there is temporarily more space, more power to you. The only reason Egyptians put on a seat belt is if they spot a police officer ahead. Head lights are only used "when necessary." That doesn't mean only at night. It means only if it's night and you're on a bit of road where there aren't any street lights, bright store fronts, or other vehicles with their lights already on.
As you've already read, we decided to stay in Cairo for a while. This is kind of how that happened. We were waiting to meet Alex at Cilantro. Danielle mentioned, as one of does in every place, "wouldn't it be great if we can spend some more time here and learn the language?" "Well," I replied, "Why not?" We were both at the point where we feel a little bit done seeing a new place every few days, and Cairo seemed nice. Then when we met Alex he mentioned that his real income is from finding ex-pats apartments. A day or two later we told him that we'd like a place, and 2 days after that we'd found one we liked at a decent price. (We only viewed 5 places, but we didn't want to spend the time to do a "proper" apartment search.)
Letting Morad and his family know what our plan was did not go over well. They seemed very offended that we wanted to get our own apartment instead of staying with them for 2 months. We tried to explain that, culturally, we just feel better if we're in our own place and not imposing on people (no matter how much they say we're not imposing). I don't think they really saw our point of view, but they did eventually accept it as an American strangeness. After that initial discussion they never brought it up again and have been nothing but supportive.
That brings you kind of up to speed on our first almost two weeks in Cairo. There are lots more impressions and little things I want to share, but in the interest of catching up on my blogging that will have to wait. I assume Cairo isn't going to change that much while we're here so there will be time for more rambling later.
Workouts: 9/19, 10 rounds of 10 burpees: 49s, 1:14, 1:33, 1:34, 1:40, 1:47, 1:46, 1:53, 1:56, 1:23 for 15:34. 9/23, 3 rounds of 40 x 10 lb one-handed db swing (switch hands on each swing), 20 lunges. 2:00, 2:18, 2:09 for 6:27. 9/29, 5 rounds of 4 clap pushup, 10 jumping squats: 23s, 28s, 35s, 57s (because I was doing regular squats), 37s for 3:01. I'm not working out every other day, but at least I'm getting something in.