It was a long flight - about 18 hours total - and much to my dismay I discover that although British Airways has beautiful planes, they have about 4" less leg room than North American Airlines. For me that's a disaster!

We landed in Cairo at about midnight and were immediately set upon by drivers eager to take us to our hotel. Our initial reaction was pretty defensive, but actually needing to get to our hotel, we finally relented to one extremely persistent man and he led us off to his minivan, assuring us he knew where our hotel was. There were two other large and imposing men in addition to the driver, and in our sensorily impoverished state, we started imagining any number of undesirable scenarios, most of which ended with us penniless and stranded in Cairo.

After about 30 minutes driving around the general area, examining our maps, the drivers finally managed to find our hotel and we arrived uneventfully. Pam had this to say about the Gresham Hotel:

"The hotel itself was a bit of a shock. I was completely dismayed by it. It's on the 3rd floor of a creaky 100-year-old (at least) building. I sincerely thought the old elevator wasn't going to work, or that with all our luggage, it was going to plummet & kill us. But we hauled everything up alright. The room is... grungy, with old broken down furniture. The bathroon is frightening. The shower is a square of porcelain in a corner of the room. The head is 4' high and it only dribbles. There is no hot water."

I thought it had character. Although I'll admit, my long hair was starting to suffer from not being properly rinsed. That shower was like being peed on.

The Gresham is located in downtown Cairo on "Sharia Talat Harb" - "Sharia" being Arabic for "Street" - and a stones throw from "Midan Talat Harb" - "Midan" = "Square".

Sharia Talat Harb
Midan Talat Harb

These pictures, remarkably, make the city seem much more beautiful, than I'm sad to say it was. In the picture of the square, you can see one corner is covered with bright yellow sand. In some method that wasn't immediately apparent, the sand is prominently used in construction and large piles of sand were all over the place, often blocking the sidewalks and even the entrance to our hotel. Something else to note in the pictures... the background very quickly fades into grey after only a block or two. That's an indication of the pollution. Cairo has a very significant smell - a mix of refuse, spice, water pipe smoke and exhaust that is beyond memorable.

I will give Cairo safety though. Even at 1:30 in the morning, the night we arrived, we went out to find a phone with the guy from the hotel, and the streets of downtown Cairo seemed perfectly safe. This is in a large part due to the number of police. Every downtown street has at least one policeman on EVERY corner and one at the center of the block. So every block has at least 6, heavily armed (machine guns and all) police officers and in addition, every large hotel and bank has another 2 guards stationed at the entrance. So once you get used to seeing the machine guns and not seeing the police themselves as a threat, you get to be quite comfortable wandering around the city.

Traffic is well deserving of comment. Being a pedestrian in Cairo requires timing, coordination, and the realization that at every moment your life is in your own hands. There are no crossing lights - you cross when and where it's possible, even if it's 5 "lanes" (for they don't really exist other than in the mind of the individual driver) of traffic moving at anywhere from 30 to 80 kph.

I'm not even sure that Egypt has traffic laws. There certainly didn't seem to be any. At stop lights, a major road looks like a bowl of car spaghetti. There are anywhere from 3 to 6 cars across in any give place, and all pointed in different directions as they prepare to change "lanes". Weaving in and out of the cars are peddlars selling snacks, drinks, and cigarettes and children begging.

There may be no laws, but there certainly are conventions for the use of car horns. They are actively used as signals to other drivers - probably more so than signal lights. Egyptian traffic is an absolute cacophony of car horns that is near deafening. If I never hear another car horn in my life, I would be thrilled.

Taxi's are fun. We pretty much stuck to private taxis, although there are a wide variety of them, decreasing in price but increasing in complexity of use. As a tourist, you have no trouble getting a taxi in Cairo. In fact, you usually have to expend a great deal of effort to fight them off. If you're travelling short distances within Cairo you guestimate how much you owe the driver and hand it to him as you get out of the cab, hoping that he's not going to disagree. Some cabs actually have meters, but they are never used. On longer trips out to some of the sites, you usually haggle the price before hand.

Driver's will never tell you that they don't know where you want to go. Often, they'll ask directions from other cab drivers while they're speeding down the bypass at 80 kph. The worst experience we had with a driver was trying to get to the Sphinx for sunset and the Sound and Light Show:

"We left at about 7:30 thinking that we'd get there in time to see sunset and the the show. Unfortunately, we seemed to have gotten a mentally handicapped cab driver.

"Alright, to be fair, the man didn't speak English at all and yes it's easy enough to get confused between "The Sphinx" and "Sphinx Square". But once we arrived in Sphinx Square and that was clearly not where we wanted to be you might have made the connection to THE Sphinx. No. So we explain... "Sphinx". He responds, "Sfinkes?" (the word's the same in Arabic except for that little "es" bit) "Yes, Sfinkes." "Sfinkes?!" "Yes! Sfinkes!" and a shrug like, "I don't know WHERE the hell these foreigners want to go." So we try another tactic. "Pyramid. Sphinx." (appropriate gestures) "You know. Haram. (the Arabic word for Pyramid) Giza." "Haram?! Giza?!" "Yes!" Shrug. He calls for help - some passerby that speaks a little more English. We explain. Our saviour explains. The driver flashes a black-toothed smile, and takes off. FINALLY, we think. No such luck. It took a total of four more "saviours" to get us where we wanted to go - one of whom spoke no more Enlish than the driver and tried to speak to us in Arabic, another who was in the car next to us while we were travelling at 80 km/hr, and the gas station attendant where we had to stop for gas! At one point we even pulled out a map of the Giza plateau and started pointing. At least he didn't have the gall to start quibbling over the bill."

Pam's and my interest in Egypt is primarily pharonic, so I'm afraid that we don't have a lot to say about Islamic Cairo, although it is certainly one of the highlights of the city. We really only made one excursion to this area to visit the famous (or perhaps "infamous") Khan al Kalili Bazaar.

Minarets in Islamic Cairo
Khan al Kalili Bazaar

The minarets in the picture above are part of a mosque across from the Khan al Kalili, but I'm afraid I don't know which one. I suspect it's one of the more famous. Although they're beautiful, given all the things to see in Egypt, the mosques just weren't one of our priorities.

The Khan Al Kalili is one amazing place. Mazes and mazes of narrow streets winding around and around. It's so hard to navigate in fact, that we became sort of "trapped" in a single section, going around and around in circles, a little dismayed at how little of what we were looking for was around, until we realized that we had only seen about a sixth of what was there and broke free with the help of a map.

It was interesting to contemplate the sub-culture that exists in this place. It seemed obvious after a while, that there is a great deal of communication going on between the vendors - as we continued, more and more they seemed to know exactly what we were looking for and became more and more accurate at guessing where we were from. I'm quite sure that by the end of the day, everyone in the bazaar knew exactly what we bought and didn't buy and exactly for how much. On this first day of shopping and attempting to haggle our way around a few bargains, we got taken for quite a bit. But what can you do? That's the name of the game.

Although Islamic Cairo wasn't exactly our thing, we did take them time to wander up and down a few streets to try and get the feel of Cairo. Cities are more like living entities - they have their own characters and idiosyncracies. Smells, sights and sounds. We were not disappointed - despite the garbage, the crowding, and the pollution, there were some pretty spectacular sights:

The Nile in Cairo
A Cairean Sunset

On the left above is the view of the Nile from near the Nile Hilton. On the right - one of Egypt's spectacular sunsets. Whether it's due to the pollution, the sand in the air, or the magic of Africa, I don't care. The sunsets we saw in Egypt were the most amazing I've seen anywhere.

Our final image of Cairo, I think, was the most amazing. Our flight back home was very early, and our taxi trip to the airport was at dawn. Mist covered the city as we sped through it's nearly deserted streets. The minarets and the domes of the city's mosques were barely visible in the pre-dawn glow, jutting in and out of the mist. Cairo at dawn is a vastly different place than Cairo at midday and Cairo at night. A visit there would not be complete without experiencing them all.

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