Impressions and Observations of Cairo

Cairo - for a page of photos - click here.

The first thing that hit me about Cairo was the haze. We knew there was a city close, real close but it was hard to make out. We wondered about the parked cars with their windscreen wipers sticking out – it was to make it easier to wipe down the windscreen before driving off. The air was gritty. I made the mistake of taking a lot of white clothing – it didn’t stay that way for long.

The next two impressions were the traffic and the buildings. Cairo has over 10 million people. It’s crowded – especially for someone who lives in a country whose entire population is about a third of that.

But the traffic flows. Drivers seem to have an awareness of the other traffic – and good control of their vehicles – be they cars, vans, buses, bicycles or carts. Part of the awareness is manifested in continual signalling by horn. This isn’t aggressive "get out of my way" tooting but rather, "gidday, you going this way too? Say ‘hi’ to your brother for me" type. In 17 days I didn’t see a single accident. The only road rage I witnessed were two horses that didn’t get on in Edfu. Yes, horses – and donkeys. Working animals. And the bicycles aren’t your NZ 10-speed toys but rather solid work vehicles – riders could be balancing a ladder, or a carpet or a large wicker work basket filled with produce.

And parking. With all those cars there is a bit of a parking problem. Double parking wasn’t uncommon – but apparently illegal. And triple parking was easy to find as well. And they parked close. How close? We saw them parked with bumpers touching for blocks. Apparently, someone is employed to push the cars together. In Mohammed Ali Street we saw a van parked in its own length plus a smidgeon. The locals helped the driver man-handle the other cars until he could fit in then they put the back against the kerb.

To visualize most of Cairo’s housing think brown or brick coloured boxes. Flat roofed. Often the top looks unfinished – and it is. You never know when you are going to add another level for the grandkids. In the better areas they are covered in satellite dishes. In most areas they are draped with washing.

Our hotel in Cairo was the Om Kulthoom in Zamalek - a high class area on an island on the Nile. Our introduction to it was uniformed staff offering karkadey (chilled hibiscus tea). Much of the public furnishings actually belonged to Om Kulthoom and her music played in the lifts and corridors around the clock.

On our first day, most of us were quite chirpy, not at all jet-lagged, and we wanted to get out there. Look about. So we took a trip out to the glassworks. Here we saw workers making a variety of glass containers - from functional perfume bottles and drinking glasses, to purely decorative "easter eggs". We watched the men take glass tubing from Czechoslovakia, heat it, and using a variety of techniques form it into the shapes required. They also coloured the glass, ground it to achieve various effects, gilded it, and then baked it. Every piece was unique as only handmade items can be. Then we got the chance to buy - not only were the pieces unique, the prices were very reasonable and the product was attractively wrapped.

Little did we then realize that this would be a pattern running through much of our tour. We would be taken to various "factories" - the quality of the product would be extolled, we would be told what a great deal was being offered, and we would open our wallets. Why was this happening when, although the stuff was often good, we didn't really need or want it? Yes, there was a limited need for souvenirs. Yes, the Egyptian economy has a heavy reliance on the tourist dollar. But closer to home, the people running our tour were also benefiting. That is not to say we were paying extra because of that (although at least once I heard of a "special deal" being offered if the deal was made without letting the tour leaders know the purchase had been made), but there was mutual benefits happening.

Another aspect was the security. Every hotel, museum, temple, whatever had a metal detector. Some had two. What it took a little longer to notice was that we were checked in and out. Bus load of 25 tourists going to Khan el Khalili. When we arrived - bus load of 25 tourists from Om Kulthoom hotel. We also often had a police escort. Some times we were followed by car and some times one or two policemen sat in the bus. Personally it didn't bother me. It was nice to feel well cared for.

The highlight of Cairo for me was not the pyramids (although that was great) but rather seeing the people. Sitting and smoking a sheesha on the pavement and watching the people go by or wandering down Mohammed Ali Street were amazing experiences.

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