Egypt - Round The World Tour 2003 Day 75
Monday 26th May
Breakfast this morning was meagre compared to the rest of Africa and consisted of small, elongated roll with a boiled egg, some jam and butter and a cup of tea. The setting, on the other hand, was lovely and quite tranquil. This particular hotel is on the second floor (very low to the ground by Cairo standards) and sports a long breakfast balcony that overlook a quiet, leafy street. It was the perfect place to sit and relax as we slowly ate breakfast and looked through our guidebook to plan our day ahead. It also sits immediately opposed the French embassy and just up the road from the Polish embassy.
During breakfast, we each took another Mefloquine tablet, as has become the route every Sunday morning. Our arrival in Egypt signifies the end of the Malaria zone but the regimen requires that we continue with the tablets for four weeks after leaving the Malaria zone. With approximately another four weeks to go before reaching back home, we will be able to get tested shortly thereafter for the disease.
We’ve learned that the best way to figure out how to get to most out of a given place is to befriend a local. Although there is a tourist guide right here at the hotel (they all have them), I rather get the impression that these are not the best sources of information for tours and such. We thought about what to do over breakfast and eventually decided to simply take a taxi into the middle of town and soak up the Cairo atmosphere for a while. Perhaps inspiration will hit us there.
We had the taxi driver drop us off at one of the main roundabouts in the centre of town after yet another memorable ride. It was wasn’t long (about seven seconds) before a ‘friendly’ local latched onto us and insisted on helping us with what we were doing. We were actually looking for an ATM to see if our bank cards were working and so he lead us around a bit and to a couple of different locations. As I have suspected for some time now, both our ATM cards have become quite ineffective. Perhaps the magnetic strips have demagnetised or something but neither of them have worked in any ATM for several weeks now. Reluctantly, we had to turn again to the credit card to make a cash withdrawal from the hole in the wall. We would incur another €7.50 charge for the privilege so we maxed out the allowance and took out a whopping E£4000 (approximately $680). Some expensive things like the train journey down to Aswan and back will need to be paid for in cash so we will probably spend it all in the two weeks or so that we plan on being here anyway.
Our ‘friendly’ assistant was very eager for us to see his ‘bazaar’, which was ‘just round the corner’, and we reluctantly indulged him since he did help us to locale a functional ATM – which we later realised are absolutely everywhere. His shop turned out to be one in which perfumes (or essences as he insisted that they were) were on sale. We tried our best to look at least a little interested and soon left.
Locals looking to convince you to buy something from them will latch onto you here like flies if given half the chance. As was the case throughout much of Africa, they always begin by asking a benign question and pretending to be nice to foreigners but there is almost always some commercial motive lying just beneath the surface. After a while, we learned to pretend not to speak English. This at least slows them down a little bit.
After wandering around the streets of downtown Cairo for a while, we ended up back at the main roundabout where we began the morning walk and noticed an Internet café that I remembered reading about in the guidebook. We went in and both sat down at a terminal each to catch up on some e-mail. After about thirty minutes or so, Sandy was near completion of composing a lengthy e-mail message when the power suddenly dropped out. Oops! We settled up the bill and handed over E£3 (about $0.5) for the collective hour of time that we had spent.
On a couple of the walls inside the Internet café was a sign advertising a backpackers hostel that just conveniently happened to be right next door. Our guidebook is unfortunately very light on the subject of backpacker’s hostels in Cairo (they feature very much more prevalently in South Africa). We’ve come to realise that these are the best places to stay in for various reasons and I was keen to have a look at this place for myself. The reason that we are particularly interested in backpacker’s haunts is that they are full of other backpackers, such as ourselves, for one thing. Other backpackers that we meet in these places have often been in town for a while already and are a good source of good, reliable, information. You can also buy your own food at the local supermarket and cook it yourself in a hostel and this can cut costs considerably.
We checked the place over and chatted with the manager about tours and hiring a guide with a car for the day to get out and see the sights. We had checked in at a couple of travel agencies around town earlier but it seems that hiring a guide and a car for the day is definitely the cheapest way to go for sightseeing in and around Cairo.
Although the manager at the front desk was obviously a shrewd businessman, we got a good feeling about him and the hostel in general. It’s a fairly new place and would not be listed in the guidebook yet but I’ve come to trust my instincts in these matters and I think we will relocate to this hostel after spending the second night here in the Mayfair hotel. The other main advantage to this new hostel is that it is right in the middle of town and thus is convenient to everything. It also has a rather quaint little balcony that overlooks the square (roundabout). Of course, this probably means that the rooms may be quite noisy but neither of us is really bothered too much by noises in the night anyway so this shouldn’t be a problem. We’ve certainly spent quite a few nights in some very noisy places – such as the two nights we spent in the Parkside Hotel in downtown Nairobi, which was right next to a bustling restaurant and bar. There is also no air conditioning and no on-suite bathroom but these are also not entirely essential to our needs. In fact, sandy prefers not to have air conditioning in the room.
For a car and driver for the day, the manager of the hostel will charge us E£80 ($14’ish) for Cairo and Giza. For the outlying areas, such as some of the pyramids that are slightly farther away, he charges E£130 ($26.50). We will have to pay the various entrance fees ourselves but we will have the freedom and flexibility to go where we want, when we want and always have a car waiting for us. We will probably spend the next couple of days or so touring around like this before heading out down south towards Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel later on in the week.
For the past several weeks, I’ve had to walk around in the one pair of short trousers that I’ve brought along with me on the trip or in the plastic waterproof trousers that I have for rainy or wet weather. The zip off trousers that I had originally brought along has gone missing (we think we left them behind at the camp-site in Maun, Botswana after washing some clothes in the sink). I’ve been looking for an opportunity to buy a new pair for a while now and we came close to doing so in Arusha, Tanzania but the shops closed down for a rather lengthy lunch break and we missed the opportunity. Since we are once again in a big city, we took advantage of that fact this morning and spent an hour or so looking around. The manager of the hostel had told us where the best place was to look was and I very much enjoyed being the centre attention again at one of the small shopping alleyways where a couple of dozen or more shop owners were vying for my attention. Our hostel manager had also given us an Arabic newspaper to walk with. This would give others the impressions that we were at home here and it would prove an extremely useful tool in our arsenal to prevent touts from bothering us. Once we had the newspaper, the hassling stopped almost 100% - another brownie point for the fellow. As was the case in the curio markets in Nairobi and Victoria Falls before that, once it has become clear that a potential buyer has entered the commercial zone, everyone becomes interested at getting the purchase to take place within their store. An interesting and marked difference with the dynamics of the situation here in Cairo, however, is that all the shop owners cooperate with each other and I was lead around by several shop owners to several other shop owners in search of whatever made me happy. It didn’t seem to matter nearly as much that the purchase was made with any particular shop owner but that at least a purchase was made somewhere in the market. This theme of people helping each other and watching out for each other has surfaced a couple of times already in subtle ways in the brief time that we’ve been here. After looking over the wares of any number of merchants, we finally happened upon one particular shop that had exactly what I was looking for and the haggling commenced once I had verified the fit was right and decided I was going to make the purchase. The hostel manager had told me that the ultimate price I should pay might be somewhere in the region of E£30 (he wasn’t actually too sure) but I ended up meeting the merchant half way with the rather swank zip off trousers at E£50 ($8.5). I might have been able to get him down a little further but I was already weakened by the morning’s walk and it was less than $10 after all and for something I might have paid well over $80 or more for back in America.
Another pleasant aspect of Cairo is that pretty much every person that we have spoken with so far has, at one point or another during the conversation, expressed a genuine interest in where we are from and has personally welcomed us to Cairo. It seems that the people here are genuinely pleased to meet foreigners and we’ve not yet come across anyone we don’t like.
Having given our already aching legs enough of a run-around for the day, we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel to sit and rest for the remainder of the afternoon. We are in no hurry. Cairo will still be waiting for us tomorrow and we have certainly earned a little rest and relaxation after all the travelling we’ve done over the past week. It was only the third taxi that ultimately accepted our E£5 offer for the ride – which is actually the going rate. Finding a taxi driver to accept the offer took all of about fifteen seconds altogether and we were swiftly on our way with little fuss.
As I type, sitting here now on the bed in the hotel room, I’ve got some music playing on the laptop in the background. We’re currently listening to the theme tunes to Star Trek and Sandy just commented on how we miss TV every now and then. Hearing the music, she suddenly thought ‘Oh, star Trek is coming on the TV right now,’ as if we were sitting in our living room, watching the TV and waiting for our favourite programs to commence. The truth of the matter is, though, that there is actually very little from our previous lives that we really miss – with the obvious exception of family and friends. Aside from the odd little bout of homesickness that Sandy has cured from time to time by calling her mother, we’ve both settled in to the life of routine travelling and rarely think too much of our materialistic lives that we’ve been so engrossed in for the past fifteen years or so. Sustaining that financially demanding lifestyle was becoming more and more difficult and it’s that way of thinking that is one of the things I’ve been hoping that this journey will cure us of.