Uncategorized

Careening Around Cairo, Egypt

149529_462982548750_3159565_n

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.

imageedit_12_4644205540
The entrance to the Hellmouth

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.

Nothing happened.

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.

155900_462980463750_7298631_n
Looking down and thinking we probably should have just taken the stairs.

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!

156679_462975008750_3247033_n
The view from our window. I think that building on the right is the courthouse.

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.

76555_462980118750_5942835_n

That first night is a blur of fairy lights and stray dogs and music and food and sensory overload.

154615_462979838750_7818857_n
Cardog, close relative of Catdog.

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.

156789_462991173750_4453799_n
A golden oldie

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:

149150_462977588750_494898_n
How embarrassing

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.

154239_462978513750_7456405_n

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.

77142_462979708750_3943247_n
You would hardly nose-tice. I’m sorry, that was terrible.

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).

77098_462981038750_5148792_n
Letting sleeping dogs lie

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!

0 thoughts on “Careening Around Cairo, Egypt

    1. I hope you go! It was amazing. I really loved the two other places we visited but unfortunately it doesn’t seem safe enough to go back yet…

  1. I’ve travelled extensively in the Middle East. If you want fun, try Saudi Arabia for their dress code.

    Oh, no. Wait. Not fun. The other one. If you want to boil, try Saudi. Shorts are forbidden, even for men. I spent the whole month wearing a suit (was there for business). IN JUNE.

    My general travel advice for most of the Middle East now is “avoid”.

    1. There is something endlessly frustrating about putting on too many clothes when it’s hot enough outside to fry an egg on the pavement!

      I think I’ll give Saudi Arabia a miss……

      1. To be fair, it wasn’t as bad as Qatar when the air conditioning broke. Then it was hot (~57C) AND 100% humidity. Sleeping was somewhat difficult for a week or so!

  2. This is my dream vacation. I’d love to visit the Giza necropolis, followed by a Nile cruise. I hope that you post about the Luxor part of your vacation, too. πŸ™‚

  3. You transported me to Cairo. Always did wanna see the pyramids so that’s still on the bucket list. And I completely get the discomfort with too much clothing. Even though I come from a similar culture, the covering yourself up bit gets a bit much after a while. Esp when you’re on a pony, in the middle of a desert.

  4. Great read! I totally want to go there now. I have not traveled much outside of the U.S. and not much inside of it either. I am missing out! I look forward to the next half of your adventure πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Kristen – Egypt is definitely a place I’d go back to. There’s just so much to see and when you think about how old it all is and that people lived and loved and worked and played around these massive structures it’s just mind-blowing!

      1. Sounds amazing! I have to travel quite a distance to see or feel anything like that where I live. But you make me want to pack up and go now!! For now, I will live vicariously through you.

  5. Holy Shit (sorry for swearing) I almost stopped reading when I saw that lift because I was actually terrified but I had to make sure you survived!!!!
    I had a scary experience in Cairo also, I was pushed into a tomb, thankfully not as scary as that lift though!!!!! I wish we had gone horseback to the pyramids that sounds AMAZING!!! Thanks for sharing!

      1. A ‘tour guide’ trying to get some money for a photo, he pushed me in, I can laugh about it now but at the time It was rather frightening! Haha maybe I will post about it! Egypt was definitely an experience!!

  6. Wow it looks like you had a really interesting holiday. Egypt sounds like a very fascinating country. I’d love to travel there when things calm down politically. The sphinx looked amazing. I really think I’d struggle with the stray animals and the mistreated horses though. That’s something that really upsets me as an animal lover. xx

    1. Yes it’s extremely distressing. The stray dogs didn’t upset me so much since they all seemed to get fed and wander in packs, but some of the horses and ponies were skin and bone, and on our ride back a good distance away we saw a man BEATING his horse really violently which nearly made me cry. It’s hard to stomach when you can do nothing about it.

      1. Oh that’s so sad! I love horses. They’re such intelligent and gentle animals. There’s people like that everywhere though. I got my pet cat from the RSPCA and I was shocked at how he’d been treated! How people can treat a living creature like that I just don’t understand xx

  7. What a wonderful story, I love the picture you’ve painted so well describing your adventure. I liked how you said you felt like Lady Godiva haha love that reference. Wonderful photos too I can’t wait to go and visit.
    Alsoo I can’t wait to read about your Luxor adventure 😁😁😁

  8. I buy some local clothes and wander around feeling a bit like I’m taking part in a theatrical production.

    That is an outstanding description of human folktales, mythology, and superstitions Quinn. BRAVO!!! And then you go on describing to a perfect tee the utter ridiculousness of a patriarchal society… and one NOT exclusive to Egypt and the Middle East either! πŸ˜‰ Nevertheless though, applause to you for respecting their ancient cultural traditions as a guest/visitor.

    That’s actually my preferred way of eating abroad, mostly because it exposes you to things you might otherwise never have tried…

    LOVE the Explorer attitude Quinn! Many bravos for you Ma’am! πŸ˜€

      1. Hahaha! You crack me up Quinn. πŸ˜‰

        May I email you a brief explanation privately for that and THEN you decide? It may not be appropriate here; not sure. <3 πŸ™‚

  9. Now, every time I hear the song A Horse With No Name, I will think about you on a runaway pony galloping through Egypt. πŸ™‚

    And honestly, I though you were just fibbing about how wretched the elevator was until I saw the picture. You trusted that thing!? I’m not sure I would have had the guts to step foot on it. Kudos!

  10. The elevator scene description was hysterical. The creepy guy stroking your hair then disappearing into the shadows… not so much. Cairo was not always like this.

Leave a Reply