Crossing the street in Cairo requires taking your life in your hands. For starters, the word street doesn’t accurately describe the wide one-way expressways with no traffic lights or crosswalks that crisscross this sprawling capital of 10 million. As well, there doesn’t seem to be a speed limit or marked lanes.
Yet despite the danger, drivers all seem to know where to go with the help of their horns. Over four days we watched hundreds of Cairenes of all ages sail across four to six lanes of traffic on foot, seemingly oblivious to the cars, trucks, taxis, buses and tuk tuks bearing down on them at break-neck speed.
How do they do it? As our guide Arafa explained, the trick is to put out your hand slightly to signal your intention, then slowly drift into the oncoming traffic confident drivers will stop or at least slow down as you pass. It must work as we didn’t see anyone, local or tourist, get squashed during our four-day stay.
Though we got bolder as the days went on (I was saved a few times by my cousin’s scream), we quickly realized that the least terrifying way to cross the road was to glue ourselves to a local, often a man, once a woman pushing a baby stroller, or draft one of the ever-present uniformed military types to help us get across.
Worked like a charm.
During our stay the city slowed only twice. The first time was at 5 a.m. when we drove in from the airport along a near-empty expanse of shiny asphalt that looked freshly oiled. By 6 a.m. the sun was rising in a ball of fire illuminating the city’s sand-coloured apartment blocks, some crumbling as if made of sand, and revealing the mighty Nile River which flows through the city.
The second time was on a Friday morning, Sunday for Muslims. As locals prayed in one of many mosques, the streets were quiet. Yet the moment prayers ended traffic sprang into action while restaurant owners rushed to prepare food for the faithful pouring out of the mosques, turning streets and alleys into a carnival.
After a few hours’ sleep on rock-hard hotel beds and pillows, which felt like a cloud after our 10-hour flight from Toronto, we headed out into the dazzling sunlight to face a gritty, grotty, smoggy, noisy, meltingly-hot chaotic world with ruined tile sidewalks that made walking treacherous and small house flies that took an instant liking to me.
Military police were also as thick as flies. Every street corner had some kind of military presence and security types lounged in front of buildings and hotels as their colleagues inside screened guests and their belongings with a metal detector and x-ray machine. Some streets were transformed into military encampments guarded by skinny uniformed kids in lop-sided helmets who stood behind a metal shield with a slit holding a rifle. Occasionally a gate would open to let out a fast-moving convoy of menacing black SUV’s with dark windows. Cops also guarded building entrances widened with concrete barrier, forcing pedestrians to walk in traffic rather than across the empty sidewalk before them.
Our first tourist stop was the old Egyptian museum facing Tahrir Square, easily identified by its pink stone exterior. Until the brand new Grand museum near the Pyramids opens, this is still the place to marvel at mummies, sarcophagi and exquisite pieces from boy king Tutankhamun’s tomb, dated 1333 to 1323 BC.
Some of my favourites were the sacred canopic jars, four per person, used to store one’s stomach, intestines, lungs and liver for use in the afterlife. King Tut’s jars were especially lovely, carved with life-like alabaster heads. The heart, believed to be connected to the soul, was left inside the body.
Aside from the pesky vendors and taxi drivers who swore they were official guides, the Egyptians were wonderful. It was fun to share a Hello! and a laugh with a cute guy or share a smile with a woman holding a baby. One afternoon, tired and thirsty, we saw some seats in a park by the Nile and began walking through a wrought-iron gate. While the guard tried to explain why we couldn’t come in an older woman suddenly appeared. In perfect English she introduced herself as Professor Hannah and explained the park was a private university club. She then graciously invited us in and handed some cash to the gatekeeper, who was not pleased!
On we walked for six to eight hours a day, immersed in life on the street, crossing bridges over the Nile numerous times and stopping occasionally for mango or fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. Since espresso machines were few and far between I developed a taste for Turkish coffee, the ground beans mixed with cardamom and brought to a boil with water in a small pot.
Finding a place to eat proved more difficult than I imagined, partly because most signs were in Arabic, of course! Like the water, Egypt’s street food isn’t recommended for tourists, which made it hard to enjoy the tasty meat-filled cheese and tomato-topped pizzette I bought for a few piastres.
We decided to play it safe on our first night in Cairo by dining at the Sheraton in a fancy restaurant I’d never choose at home – a US-based Italian restaurant beside a casino. Turns out hotels – all luxury brands have at least one location here – are the only place that allow guests to drink in public.
The first two pages of Giannini’s wine list were Egyptian, starting at about $12 US a glass with reasonably-priced bottles. Foreign wines were offered only by the bottle starting at an outrageous 1,300 Egyptian pounds, about $74 Cdn. Great marketing for local wines, I thought, but it did feel strange drinking in a Muslim country and debating the merits of each wine we tasted with our attentive Muslim waiter.
The following day we found ourselves in a more upscale neighbourhood with a few trees, graceful minarets, stately government buildings, coffee shops and useful places like the hole-in-the-wall tech shop where we had fun buying a selfie stick (for the Pyramids) and new cell phone covers. Of course the salesman didn’t have any selfie sticks in stock but no worries, he called a friend, or perhaps the owner, who arrived by motorcycle a good 15 minutes later, wares in hand. While we waited he found us chairs to sit on and produced an older gentleman who spoke English. Who translated as the guys smoking shisha next door explained how they heat the flavoured charcoal pellets for their hookah pipe.
As we walked toward the city’s main bazaar the many small shops were organized by what they sold. Shops on one street sold only eyeglasses while others sold car bumpers, pressure gauges, luggage, cleaning supplies, plastic toys from China … any consumer good you can imagine has its own area.
Though most women dressed modestly in modern clothes with a head scarf, a number of shops sold shockingly sexy lingerie presumably to wear under their black robes or in the bedroom.
The Khan el-Khalili bazaar itself, located near the mosque of Al-Azhar, dates back to 1382 and has been a commercial emporium since the 1500s. The inner sanctum seemed to be for tourists, with countless small shops selling clothes (100% Egyptian cotton!), crafts, perfumes and souvenirs hawked by increasingly aggressive vendors. Escape was not an option; even when we found ourselves outside we were still hemmed in by never-ending stalls selling more practical items like socks and underwear. It was overwhelming, exhilarating and exhausting. Then nightmarish. After the 3:30 p.m. call to prayer floated down from the minarets surrounding us, every vendor placed a small loudspeaker atop their table of wares blaring what I presume were more prayers, or perhaps a long sermon, each from a different mosque. Add in traffic and honking from nearby roads and bridges and you have Cairo at its craziest, though of course it was just another day for the locals.
We finally escaped the chaos, fleeing to a peaceful street of upscale lighting shops.
On our last day we discovered Cairo’s Coptic Christian churches. To reach them we walked for miles in the heat following a blue iPhone arrow, past hi-rise residential areas, crossing expressways and through narrow alleys with donkey carts and piles of garbage. At last we found a small church with a welcoming guard, who introduced us to a smiling man who gave us a tour in Arabic. Saint George slaying the dragon is a familiar theme. Several major streets later we stumbled on the biggest, most famous churches, surrounded by giant tour buses. We took the subway home, with help from a friendly ticket seller and a surprising number of English signs. None of our fellow passengers seemed the least bit interested in a couple of female tourists.
By the time we crossed the last bridge to our Giza hotel the blazing sun had given way to dusk and the intense heat lifted. In the darkness the city seemed to slow down and grow hushed. Food vendors magically appeared on the bridge, setting up chairs and lights around their carts. Families and groups of friends hung over the railing, watching the party boats below, lit in bright neon, heading out for an evening cruise on the Nile.
Perhaps Cairo and I could be friends.