Cairo and Egypt is more than just the pyramids
By Lucy Mercer-Mapstone
As the plane circled I looked out over a dust-laden metropolis surrounded by rusty sand stretching into the horizon. This city housed a population similar to the whole of my home country, Australia.
The pilot politely informed us that the temperature outside was a balmy 50 degrees Celsius in the shade. As far as I could see, there was no shade.
Welcome to Cairo, Egypt
One of the first things that struck me about the country (quite literally in some cases) was the traffic. Navigating the streets of Cairo was like a big game of Egyptian chicken. Cars swerved in and out at 120kmh using only blaring horns as indicators, paying very little heed to the signs, lights, road rules, and directions.
Crossing even the quietest of streets was a gamble. I found the best way to approach it was to stride confidently out into the traffic and pray to Allah that they stopped. Usually, they did.
That first night, I found my way to a plush restaurant where waiters in impeccable tuxedos treated me to a meal which can only be described as a festival of flavors. Flatbread and dips followed by Algerian couscous, vegetables and lamb shanks – all for the meager price of $A10.
Fresh, Tasty and Cheap Food
Most of Egypt’s food was similar – fresh, tasty and cheap – my favorite kind. Like the Japanese with their rice, Egyptians have a tendency to serve hummus and flatbread with every meal, and after three months it may be a while until I can face that particular delicacy again.
I made the effort to dress for the occasion in my best harem pants, a long loose shirt and a pashmina fashioned as a hijab – the traditional headdress worn by Muslim women. Despite not being Muslim, it’s a good idea to respect the values of the country you are in.
For Muslim men, a woman’s hair is considered to be the most sensual part of the body.
On the days I didn’t don a hijab, my reddish-blonde curls stood out like a vegan in a steakhouse. Similarly, learning a bit of the native language goes a long way with the locals.
A Simple Phrase
When meeting new people or just entering a shop I took every opportunity to practice my Arabic. A simple ‘as salaam alekum’ (or ‘peace be with you ‘in English) went down a treat and meant the Egyptians were much more friendly and willing to help.
Exploring Cairo, there were a plethora of options to entice me. My preferred method of exploration is to simply absorb the culture in the local market place or ‘souk’. I could have spent days getting lost in the maze of Old Cairo, once known as Babylon.
The mass of ramshackle buildings – houses, apartments, mosques, restaurants, market stalls and shops, all in varying degrees of decay, make old Cairo a stunning trip down history lane.
The people were wonderfully friendly and always happy to teach me some Arabic or simply greet me with cries of ‘ahlan wa sahlan!’ or ‘Welcome!’
Islamic Cairo – home to the famous and sprawling Khan Al-Khalili bazaar, also offered a culture-saturating experience. I bought a paper bag full of freshly-fried golden potato and cauliflower crisps and wandered around the food alleys.
While munching on my tasty treats crowded streets unfolded before me, packed with cages of chickens, geese, and rabbits, carts of live fish – still flipping, skinned hanging carcasses, carts piled high with succulent fresh fruit and veg, and rows upon rows of vibrantly colored spices.
Constant challenges arrived in the form of honking motorcycles, the occasional car squirming its way down the alleys, men carrying huge trays of bread on their head, a heated bartering exchange and the constant verbal hisses (for which there a many and varying meanings).
Thrown in on top of all of this, it is common for a Western woman to be greeted with the simple Egyptian suitor offering marriage in exchange for 100 camels
My favorite was a gentleman who ran after me on the street yelling aghast: “Hey, you broke it! You broke it!” and gesticulating at the ground. I, of course, looked around worriedly thinking I had dropped my camera.
Corny Pickup Lines in Cairo
When I looked back confused he grinned and said with eyes swimming with glee “You broke my heart!” Corny pickup lines aside, the men were (for the most part) very respectful of space and physical harassment was rare.
Scattered around this region are many citadels and mosques with towering minarets which, for a small baksheesh (the bribes on which the country runs), I was able to climb to the top for vistas of Cairo – which were particularly stunning at sunset.
The skyline lay beneath a mysterious scarf of smog through which emerged the silhouettes of minarets, castles, and forts. Huge sand-colored apartment blocks and buildings dominated the view. Their roofs were fields of rubble scattered amongst which are pigeons are housed, there were millions of prowling street cats, and in some places, a herd of goats. It really was a sit to behold – unlike any in the West.
Escaping the heaving capital I headed three hours north of Cairo to the Nile delta, starting out at Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria.
Strolling the Promenade
One of the world’s most famous port cities, the atmosphere here was much more relaxed. On arrival I took a stroll along the promenade which was a lovely way to spend an afternoon, enjoying the refreshing breeze of the Mediterranean.
Beating the heat wasn’t always easy but the best way was to stop and delight in the selection of juices made right before me – my favorite being a pint of mango juice containing at least three mangoes which was thick enough to eat with a spoon – and cost around 50 cents Australian.
Nile Delta Farmland
One highlight of my Middle Eastern travels was spent touring around the agricultural area surrounding the Nile delta. Vastly different from the dust-laden Cairo, this area was lush and green with fields of date palms lining the roads.
I hired a car and driver for the day which was cheap (after a good old barter) and the best way to explore the area – especially since quite often the drivers are more than willing to drive you a guided tour.
History-soaked Rosetta was the first stop, where the bustling market place was laden with fresh produce, buckets of dried fruit and nuts, and mounds of the famous honey-soaked Egyptian pastries.
The sounds of haggling locals, squawking livestock and the aromas of Egypt fairly smacked me in the face. I was lucky enough to have my shoes christened in the Egyptian-style with the warm blood of a chicken as its head was swiftly separated from its neck.
We drove to the small rural town of Fuwa. Here I walked out along the fields until I came upon a tiny rural village where I was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm and generosity.
The women proudly ushered me into their homes for cups of tea and offers of food despite the fact they had little enough to feed their own families.
The whole village then assembled to take photos with me, talk to me, touch my hair and generally fascinate themselves with this strange white woman who had wandered into their town.
I seemed to be the biggest thing to hit the town since electricity. As I walked around the town I was escorted by hordes of children all dancing and singing and playing with and around me. It was joyous.
After all this extreme tourist behavior I felt a beach break was definitely in order. So heading down to the south of Egypt at Aswan I took a four-day jaunt up the Nile on a felucca.
A felucca is a rustic Egyptian wooden boat shaped beautifully like a pear with magnificent white sails which contrast starkly with the shimmering backdrop of the Nile.
Two Nubian Men
The deck of the boat was decorated in a simple Bedouin style with mattresses and pillows all shaded by a brightly colored awning. The crew – two young Nubian men — were delightful.
There isn’t a lot to do on the rustic wooden boat in the middle of nowhere, so I spent days lounging on the decks sunbathing, building sandcastles on the banks of the Nile, walking around isolated island villages, meeting the locals, shopping for fresh ingredients for dinner (cooked on the boat!) and lazily swimming alongside the boat for hours at a time.
On the third night, we were caught in an amazing electrical storm which turned the skies a brilliant purple split by bolt lightning. The downside of this son et Lumiere show was that although very beautiful, feluccas (like the rest of Egypt) are not rain-proof, and unfortunately we were caught right in the middle of Egypt’s one annual rainstorm.
Sleeping on a Soggy Mattress in Luxor
My last night was spent sleeping on soggy mattresses beneath dripping shade cloths. On the glass-half-full side of things: the bed bugs had all drowned. As we sailed into the port of Luxor I reclined against a cushion on the hull of the boat and reminisced about all my adventure.
I was saddened by the thought of leaving and sure enough, once home I sorely missed the sounds, sights and smells of exotic Egypt – squat toilets and all!
Lucy Mercer-Mapstone is a travel writer who studies degrees of Science and Journalism at the University of Brisbane in Australia–until her next travel adventure.