I was lucky enough to visit Egypt just before things got politically messy.
Scrubs and I arrived in Cairo in 2010 on the last day of Eid. The festive mood was infectious, and even after a long journey it was impossible not to feel cheered by the sight of shiny banners and twinkling, colourful lights strung from building to building. Tinny music and the sound of laughter streamed from open windows as we dragged our bags through the streets of the city.
We arrived at the front door of our hostel, Hola Cairo, feeling tired but excited. The large, heavy wooden door swung open with a loud creak and we were immediately faced with a rather grand (albeit dusty) stone staircase that had an elevator shaft running up the middle of it. If this elevator had been lifted straight from Disney’s Tower of Terror, I would not have been surprised. Dusty and covered in cobwebs, the wrought iron cage looked like it might snap and plummet straight to the depths of hell at any second. ‘Pics or GTFO‘ you say? Don’t worry. This OP delivers.
After reaching out to give it a firm rattle and deciding we were so tired we would rather risk life and limb than walk up four flights of stairs with our bags, we got into the elevator and pushed the button for the fourth floor.
We jabbed at it again. Still nothing. An elderly Egyptian with a scowl carved into the wrinkles of her face happened to walk in at that moment, and she yanked the doors open with more ferocity than I honestly expected from a woman of her stature. She stepped inside, slammed the doors shut, and – without looking at us once – placed a bony button on the button for the second floor. She jabbed at it like she was making a point. She held it down for a good five seconds. Then the elevator shook as if waking from a deep slumber, and up we went.
Despite our misgivings, we did in fact make it to the fourth floor in one piece. Tumbling out of the elevator with the adrenaline rush of two people who have just had a near-death experience, we walked into the hostel to find a bright, clean, modern space that was in complete contrast with the elegant air of abandonment in the hallway.
The charming receptionist gave us “the suite”, which turned out to be an ensuite room with four beds overlooking the busy main street; pretty good for the equivalent of €15 a night!
She also organised a driver for us for the following day, and gave us some advice on where to go for food. Armed with knowledge, we went for a nap and then went back out into the city…
This time we took the stairs.
That first night is a blur of fairy lights and stray dogs and music and food and sensory overload.
The next day, a smiling man picked us up from the hostel and drove us around for the entire day. We visited the Step Pyramid, which is the oldest pyramid known to have existed.
Then we visited the Bent Pyramid, which was the ancient Egyptians’ version of a rough draft. Archaeologists think this was the first attempt at a smooth-sided pyramid. As you can see, it didn’t really turn out to be the perfect triangular Toblerone-shape they had originally envisioned:
Of course, we still had to see the pyramids of Giza, and we decided the best way to do that would be on horseback. Our driver took us to a stable to rent horses (or camels or donkeys – they’re very diverse) where we got absolutely swindled out of an outrageous amount of money, but did manage to procure two healthy-looking ponies. My pony had no name but was lovely and quiet and sturdy, which pleased me immensely because I had only ever been on horseback (ponyback?) once before and I felt this gentle creature would be unlikely to tear off into the sunset at the slightest provocation. This was very good because we had absolutely no safety gear; Egyptians don’t tend to faff about with any of that health and safety nonsense.
A twelve-year old boy with excellent English joined us as our guide and we slowly ambled towards the pyramids. As we moved into a trot, our guide came up alongside me and engaged me in conversation. He asked about our holiday so far (good, great, bent pyramid, lovely food) and then asked if I had ever ridden a horse. I told him that I had once gone on a pony trek, but that the fastest my pony Polly had ever gone on that occasion was a trot, so I wouldn’t exactly be a skilled equestrian. He nodded solemnly, and then without a word of warning he pulled his arm back and smacked my pony’s rump with all his might.
My lovely, quiet, sturdy pony SHOT off as if she’d been fired from a cannon.
Holding the reins so tight my knuckles turned white, I leaned forward so as not to lose my balance. My poor brain, struggling to adapt to this alarming new development, shouted, ‘NO HELMET! DON’T FALL OFF! NO HELMET!’ as we galloped past the pyramids. My feet (in plimsolls; no riding boots at this rodeo) slipped out of the stirrups. A small part of me wondered how likely a spinal injury would be were one to fall on sand at what felt like 150 mph.
Slowly, though, I started to relax.
I found the stirrups and my grip loosened as I fell into rhythm with my little pony. I started to enjoy myself. I can’t quite think of another moment when I’ve ever felt as free as I did galloping across that sand with my hair streaming behind me. I felt like Medb or Godiva. It was just me, the pony, and the pyramids.
We rode around to see the Sphinx, who I have to say looks really great for being about 4,500 years old. I mean, her nose might be gone but she really works it.
We made it back to the stables alive and unharmed and handed back our ponies, although some of the mistreatment of ponies we’d witnessed from other stables made us want to ship them all home to Ireland to live out the rest of their days in a nice green field. We finished the day off walking the streets of coptic Cairo, admiring the buildings (Scrubs) and petting the dogs (me).
The thing about Cairo – and Egypt in general – is that there are so many treasures that sometimes they seem almost devalued. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, for example, was like an episode of Hoarders in which the hoarder has been collecting treasures of the ancient world. Pieces that in other museums would be spotlit in glass cases are carelessly tossed in corners. Items are stacked or strewn around with no descriptions or explanations. The mummies are in a separate exhibit and very carefully lit and displayed, but the rest of the museum gives the impression that somewhere there’s a staff member sighing at the latest find and saying, ‘oh great, more hieroglyphics. Just shove that over there behind the door.’
It was truly bizarre.
One memory from our first night that I didn’t mention earlier is that as we walked down the main street, a man walked up behind me and stroked my hair. Not my head – he didn’t pat or stroke my head like a dog – he walked up behind me and ran his palm all the way down my hair. When I turned, he was already disappearing back into the crowd. Many women cover their hair in Egypt, so loose hair is seen as sexual in presumably the same sort of way ankles used to be considered racy in Regency England.
… Which brings us to cultural considerations.
Egypt is a mostly muslim country so when you visit, you have to be respectful of their dress code. This is the case in every mostly-muslim country I’ve visited so far (Egypt and Morocco) and honestly for me it always goes the same way. At first, I don’t mind at all. I almost find it fun! I buy some local clothes and wander around feeling a bit like I’m taking part in a theatrical production. As the holiday wears on though, I start to feel extremely resentful because I am so uncomfortable and warm and restricted. Visiting with a man is especially frustrating, because while they can simply roll out of bed and throw on a comfortable, breezy pair of shorts and a t-shirt, you have to rummage through your clothes for tops that hide your chest, but also reach past your elbows, but also aren’t too tight, and definitely aren’t sheer. You have to find bottoms that hide the shape of your legs and reach down past your knees, but also don’t make you feel like you’re walking in a sauna. I don’t know about you, but when it’s 37 degrees out (that’s 98 degrees for those of you in the Wild West), I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming in layers of loose linen. I want to be unrestricted and suitably attired for adventuring, like Lara Croft without the gun holsters or the breast implants.
Nevertheless, if you’re any sort of decent human it’s not optional. Get yourself a baggy pair of harem pants and a loose blouse. If I were to return (which I would love to do if they ever find their way out of that gnarly political thicket), I would probably also tie back my hair, but wearing a scarf is just a step too far for me. I don’t mind covering my head loosely at certain times but walking through the streets is not one of those times.
Food-wise, if you’re a picky eater, you’re bound to run into a few hurdles in Egypt. Unless you are somewhere that specifically caters to tourists, nothing is in English. You order things and then hope you like them. That’s actually my preferred way of eating abroad, mostly because it exposes you to things you might otherwise never have tried, but I understand that that’s not for everyone. Vegetarians will have a bit of a rough time trying to figure out which foods have meat in them, but hummus, baba ganoush and tamaya (Egyptian falafel) is everywhere so once you get into your groove you should be okay. Tabouleh – a couscous-like salad – is worth a try.
Our holiday didn’t end there. From Cairo, we took the ten-hour overnight train to Luxor….
But that’s a story for another day!