Egypt - Round The World Tour 2003 Day 76
Tuesday 27th May
The culture shock that hit us upon arrival here in Cairo has not let up yet. Sights and sounds come at you from every direction and they are as constant as the pyramids themselves. I will find it difficult to find the words to do justice to the experience that we have had here so far but will do my best anyway.
We wanted to see the pyramids on the Giza plateau but there was just one formality that we first had to get out of the way. Students enjoy the benefits of substantial savings in the form of various discounts to pretty much everything here in Egypt. These discounts can be up to and beyond 50% of the cost of regular admission. A student identification card, therefore, is a cheap ticket into every museum, art gallery, exhibition and train. Since we aren’t students, and thus have no ISIC student identification card, we would have to pay full fare for everything – or so we thought. Our ever-friendly hostel manager relieved us each of E£75 and we were told to have our passports and a passport photo each ready. Our driver for the day (he would drive us around town the whole day for just E£80) whisked us off for a twenty-minute ride to the other side of town and we walked into a building touting the ISIC symbol on the front of it. We were to act like students, we were told, and pretend that we had forgotten to bring our student identification cards as proof. Me, at thirty-six years old, act like a student? Who was this going to kid? As it turned out, very little deception is necessary to fool these people as we filled in a couple of forms and were duly issued with ISIC student identification cards that are valid until the end of the year. We just sliced in half the cost of our activities in Egypt.
Off we set, then, in the direction of Giza for a camel back tour of the pyramids. As we departed downtown Cairo, the architecture changed markedly, as congested high-rise city buildings gave way to congested residential dwellings. These dwellings looked very much like blocks of cubes stacked upon one another like Lego bricks. Anywhere from ten to a hundred of these block constructions would form a single building and each of them looked like they were still being built in various directions – almost like little cubes (each representing a single dwelling) being added on every now and then.
Mustafa, our hostel manager, briefed us on how to handle the negotiations with the local tourist company and instructed us, and our driver, to pay no more than E£150 for both of us to sign up for the big, two and a half hour tour around the Giza plateau with a guide. Of course, the local tourist tout gave us a detailed run down of the small, medium and large tours on offer and duly tried to sell us the large tour at just E£80 per person (three people with the two of us and their guide). After playing the game a bit and pretending that we had only brought E£150 in cash with us, the tout eventually gave in and accepted the money. We were took outside and two horses were produced. I asked what the horses were for and was told that these would be our ride through the plateau. Since we had come here for a camel back ride, I protested and the horses were reluctantly taken away again in favour of a couple of Camels.
We had not even mounted the Camels before world war III erupted over a misunderstanding over just which pyramids we would get to go into. There are three large pyramids and six small ones altogether at Giza. When he told us that we would get to go into the pyramids, I assumed he meant one of the big ones, as per his gesturing at a large wooden board with the layout of the Giza pyramids represented, but as he was repeating the schedule to us outside, he referred to the ‘small pyramid’ as being the one that we had signed up for. This would be unacceptable, as we wanted specifically to go into one of the larger pyramids and a rather interesting tit for tat debate developed with the tout claiming that I had insulted his good nature by implying that he had misled us. He wanted to give me my money back but I was unwilling to accept it and I demanded that we get what we thought we were paying for, and so on.
This debate was getting ready to stalemate when the tout went back inside to bring out the large wooden board to explain again what it was that we had previously told us. I was initially reluctant to even look at it, thinking that I was in someway being duped by the tout but it eventually surfaced that the ‘small pyramid’ that he was referring to was actually the smallest of the three large pyramids. Once this misunderstanding was clear, things calmed down a bit but the tout continued to act as though I had insulted him and actually sulked.
After all the excitement died down, the tout then told us that our guide would join us on one of our Camels. Again, this was unacceptable. I told him that we paid for three people and the guide would have to have his own Camel or his own Horse. Again, somewhat reluctantly, the tout arranged for a horse to emerge from one of the alleyways and the three of us were eventually led away by a boy at the front of our two camels.
What a drama! Still, we were off towards the pyramids that were looming in the background, above the various papyrus museum buildings that are everywhere in Giza and this would mark another significant milestone on our great adventure. We were going to see the pyramids, up close and in person at last.
Riding a Camel is no more comfortable than riding an Elephant and our guide assured us that after the ride was over, we would truly be able to ‘walk like an Egyptian’. He wasn’t wrong!
We visited the temple of the Sphinx and went into the smallest of the three large pyramids and spent probably a couple of hours altogether wandering around the plateau, partly on foot and partly on Camel. We did our best to avoid the inevitable plethora of touts selling everything from fake papyrus to cheesy little pyramids to expensive bottles of water and soda. Everything we saw was impressive enough but since we’ve seen so much of the pyramids on various natural history and archaeology programs on TV, we already thought like we knew them already and the whole experience was a bit numb. Perhaps we’ve been awe inspired so many times already on this trip that we’ve become a little immune to it all. That’s not to say that the pyramids are not amazing, as they are. They are enormous and certainly worth visiting.
Our guide and Camels took us a couple of hundred yards into the desert to put us on the top of a small hill where we got some fantastic views of all the pyramids in the foreground with the smoggy skyline of down-town Cairo in the background. It was very memorable.
Our guide was an interesting fellow and we chatted about many things, including Islam and religion in general. I enjoyed his company and he seemed to appreciate this.
Having checked another item off the grand list, we went back into town where we rested for a short time at the hostel before having the driver take us to the nearest KFC for a bite to eat. It’s nice to know that culture shock can be cure in any city in the world with a quick trip to the local fast food franchise. Actually, this fact is quite sad but that’s just the way of things nowadays.
It was by now too late in the day to squeeze in a visit to the Cairo museum so we had the driver take us across town to the Islamic Quarter for an hour or so. This area of town is the oldest and boasts some of the finest Mosques and architecture in the entire city. We went into one of the mosques and wandered around a bit. You have to take off your shoes before entering any mosque and we handed ours to the guy at the door who, it seems, was there simply to collect whatever baksheesh (tips) the sporadic tourists were willing to hand out. Even inside the mosque, we were approach by someone who was trying to give us an un-requested guided tour in return for anything we would give. Our tactic of pretending not to speak English by muttering ‘no English’ in a near undecipherable Russian accent is still paying off and we were soon left alone to explore the mosque by ourselves.
With the brief visit to the mosque now out of the way, my next task was to find an Internet café where I could hook up my laptop and upload some more photos. This turned out to be a labour of love and I spent the remainder of the day trying to accomplish this task. Cairo is interesting in that it is very poor and undeveloped on the one hand yet still very modern on the other. The two worlds kind of collide here, as there are poor people and buildings in a sad state of disrepair all over the place, yet you send and receive e-mail over a two hundred and fifty six kilobyte DLS link at almost every corner. There are always several logistical problems with trying to hook up my laptop that I must overcome every time. Firstly, the network configuration at the Internet café must use assigned IP addresses as opposed to DHCP. Second, the configuration must support secure web browsing. Third, they must allow laptops to be hooked up to begin with. I tried one Internet café after the next but each time, one of the three requirements were not met. I eventually walked back to the hostel, having covered probably several kilometres over the course of a couple of hours, and met Mustafa on the street. Although not technical himself, he did suggest one other hotel, the Ramses Hilton, that just happened to be right next door to the last place I walked a half a kilometre back from. After taking a brief pause, off I set again in the direction of the Hilton with high hopes. When I got there, they apparently only had two computers and both of them used dial-up DSL to connect to the Internet. Since my laptop does not have a DSL modem, this was bad news. However, it does have an internal modem and they would let me use the phone outlet in one of their conference rooms provided I pay for the call – at E£3.50 per three minutes, this would be the most expensive option, relatively speaking, but it would at least get the job done. After just about an hour of connectivity, I had succeeded in doing all my computer related chores and off I trundled back to the hostel again.
It was by now well after dark but the streets of Cairo down really simmer down till well into the wee hours and there were people absolutely everywhere. With so many people on the streets and out and about, there is a genuine sense of safety walking around the city centre. As such, I took my time and enjoyed the walk. It was so fascinating just wandering around, watching Cairo tick away, that once I got back to the hostel, I told Sandy that I was going back out again to continue my walk.
I was a bit hungry and Mustafa had pointed me in the direction of a collection of Egyptian fast food outlets. I perused them all before plucking up enough courage to actually go in to one of them and attempt to order something. It turned out not to be so bad after all. I even sat in one of them and chatted with the waiter for almost an hour about the differences between his culture and my own. As has been the case with almost every other country in Africa, I’m starting to feel like we are really experiencing the place on a level deeper than the average tourist does. Since this is all part of our master plan, I remain pleased that we are meeting the objectives of this trip.