I made it to my fifth continent this week (Australia and Antarctica remain) as I flew from Istanbul to Cairo for a few days of exploring the largest city in Africa and the Arab world (estimates peg it at nearly 20 million)!
I worried that Cairo would be so big and chaotic that I would feel tense and unsafe and unable to relax, even with my trusty travel companion, Mr. Xanax! A friend in Istanbul said that if I thought that city was chaotic, I hadn’t seen anything yet. But Cairo ended up feeling surprisingly relaxed, completely safe and very friendly. Coming from Istanbul, where the streets are littered with beggars (many of them children from eastern Europe, my friend lamented) and many streets are so deserted at night that they can feel a little sinister, the constant bustle and relatively hassle-free nature of Cairo was actually refreshing.
Cairo seemed incredibly civilized: on numerous occasions, I saw police sipping tea and noshing on croissants while they stood guard on street corners (OK, so in America they eat donuts and eat coffee, but this just seemed so much classier…). Newsstands were everywhere, and everywhere people were reading the papers — whether Arabic- or French-language. Each morning I’d pick up Le Monde from an affable Arabic and French-speaking vendor on Sharia 26 July, his cigarette struggling to stay in his mouth as he mumbled up a storm. One time, when I walked past him later in the day without my paper, he remembered me and asked me where it went (I’d long since read it and tossed it)! And he made a strong sales pitch for other French publications he thought I might like. Caireans try to separate you from your money in many charming ways.
I stayed at the historic palace Cairo Marriott Hotel and spent a lot of time wandering Zamalek, the neighborhood surrounding it (on an island in the Nile) that has long been home to Cairo’s diplomatic corps and many of its wealthy residents. The winding streets were filled with surprises at every turn: big old homes, many dusty, decaying and falling down on themselves but all clearly with good bones, plus the Embassies of Brunei, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and more (none of which I could photograph, thanks to Egypt’s rigid policy of no-photo-taking of any government buildings). There was even a Fauchon outlet next to the Embassy of France! Cafes and tiny bookstores dot the side streets of Zamalek, giving the place a sophisticated (while still very dusty and decaying) feel.
I also did the pyramids, which I’m glad I did so that on future trips to Cairo I can skip Giza entirely and concentrate on exploring the vast city itself. That said, they were impressive and HUGE — but overrun with tourists. If you think the pyramids are out in the middle of nowhere, think again. Photos of them are smartly taken to avoid including the encroaching city and suburbs, which butt up against the Giza Plateau on which the three Great Pyramids and the Sphinx stand. (Impressively, the pyramids can also be seen from downtown towers, in the distance on the city’s western outskirts.) We had a bit of excitement on our day at the pyramids: a man managed to climb all the way up to the top of the second largest pyramid (which has had its top lopped off), and could be seen pacing on top. My guide said a military helicopter would come and whisk the man away (presumably to some not nice jail).
Downtown Cairo was very neat and incredibly European in style. Many streets could pass for Paris, if they weren’t so dusty and grubby (most development and cash in recent years has flowed to newly built sections of Cairo, further from the city center). It makes sense: the Europeans had an enormous influence on the development of the city. Ismail the Magnificent also played a hand in its development, ordering the building of a European-style modern downtown. But interestingly, many streets, with their Art Deco architecture, look like South Beach instead of the Middle East.
As you can imagine, in such a huge city, the streets are lively and interesting with coffee shops and shisha houses doing a brisk business at all hours:
Cairo traffic is the worst I have seen anywhere on the planet. There are no traffic lights (or if they are, they are disregarded) and there certainly aren’t any traffic cops or crosswalks. Crossing any street in Cairo requires one to contemplate his life ending. I didn’t take cabs at all — I walked everywhere — because I was so scarred from the ride into town from the airport. The ride out was even worse: the driver sped through city streets at speeds in excess of 120 kilometers per hour, weaving across many lanes of traffic (but somehow never needing to use his brakes) all while pointing out various sights along the way (“There’s Hosni Mubarak’s house!” / “There’s the October War exhibition.”) I vowed that if I survived, I would never return to Cairo because I really pushed my luck on that ride.
Related: Photos on Flickr