Imagine a desert.
Not just any desert, but the most vast desert in the entire world.
Picture a sprawling metropolis rising quite literally out of the desert, yet almost indistinguishable from the sand itself.
Picture friendly people who want to know where you’re from and what brings you to town.
Picture markets, stalls nearly bursting at the seams with any type of good you could dream of. Actually, any scene from Aladdin will suffice.
Envision being at the epicenter of thousands of years of history and rich human culture; where civilization itself began.
Now envision basting yourself in hot oil and laying in a frying pan.
This is Cairo.
If it were up to the West and the internet didn’t exist, the only thing we would know about Cairo are that it was once inhabited by Kings who really, REALLY liked gold, its a hotbed for terrorism and something about there being an Arab Spring a few years ago..
What you won’t find in the news is the vibrance, you won’t see the smiles on their faces, you won’t hear the kindness in their voices. You won’t feel the calm of walking in a city where the majority of people are wearing hijabs; and you’re feeling right at home amongst them.
How it went down:
It’s a long flight. I paid to upgrade my seat to an exit row (behind a bulkhead was my second choice). From NYC (JFK), the flight was 10.5 hours; not the longest flight possible to be sure, but definitely too long to have your knees crammed into your throat (other 6+ footers know what I mean). I’ve previously written about how to book a long layover, and in somewhere as diverse as Cairo, I’d recommend at least a full day, if not more. Don’t forget that you’ll be jet-lagged!
After purchasing an entry visa ($25 US), changing money ($100 US = 1800 EGP) and receiving our luggage, it was off to find a taxi. I knew from research that a trip from the airport to downtown shouldn’t cost more than 100 Egyptian Pounds (and even that was pushing it..).
No sooner do we walk through the exit doors the barrage of offers for a taxi begin. From experience, I know to act as if I’ve been 100x, and continue walking as if I know where I’m going (I don’t..).
“How much?” I ask.
“220 pounds.” He replies.
“Ha, no thank you.”
We go back and forth 3 or 4 times before finally settling on 120 pounds. Now, I know this is certainly too expensive, but keep in mind the perspective of coming from the US where a 45 minute cab ride is incredibly expensive, compared to this (about $7). For me, it’s about the principle; I’m not afraid to spend money for a great experience, but I also will not let myself be taken!
Google searches (cross-referenced with lots of reviews) can reap tremendous savings and wonderful experiences. It is through this technique I ended up finding the Golden Hotel near Tahrir Square in Cairo. The Golden Hotel lies a few blocks from Tahrir Square, the site of the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, and is walking distance to both the Nile River and world famous Eqyptian Museum. Depending on the time of year, you can find a great deal. One night set us back $40 US, and I’d gladly stay there again.
I took the afternoon to check out the area, and was dumbfounded not only by the sheer volume of shops, but how many were closed. Within minutes, I met a gentleman named Marwan, who became my tour guide for the area and mentioned that many shops close early during Ramadan. We walked to a nearby street market where I got to practice my negotiating skills again, this time for a cherimoya (best fruit ever..). As was expected, he finally eluded to his true aim, which was to get me to visit his cousins souvenir shop just around the corner. Marwan the wily Egyptian had duped me with promises of tea and his business card should I have any questions, and next thing I know I’m awkwardly browsing Egyptian memorabilia in his cousins shop. The first time I tried to escape, I was offered 25% off, then 30%; by the time I finally got away, it was up to 50% off – which I also politely declined. Don’t ever let anyone tell you there aren’t bargains to be had in Cairo!
Part of this behavior is spurred by the entrepreneurial spirit, but I’m sure the majority has to do with the present condition and the Egyptian economy. In Egypt, the average person earns just over $3,600 per year, with the majority of the wealth located at the extreme top, with almost no middle class to speak of. To be fair to the Egyptian government, the GDP per person has been steadily and consistently climbing since before 1970, but hardship is still felt everywhere. Like many other places, there is still work left to do.
We were awoken the next morning by a knock on the door. Apparently more jet-lagged than we had anticipated, it was time to check out (noon). I scurried downstairs and was able to negotiate an extra half day and ride to the airport for 540 pounds ($30), which I was quite proud of.
We caught an Uber (yup!) to Giza, which is about 30 or so minutes away. Uber in a place like Cairo is certainly the cheapest way to go, and you save yourself the hassle of having to negotiate a price or demand the driver use the meter (Cairo hack #1,038 – ALWAYS demand the meter).
I wish it were possible to put into words how small one can feel standing in the shadows of something man-made that’s withstood the ravages of time for over 4,500 years – and show no signs of slowing down. All it took were tens of thousands of workers, some brilliant engineering, a hundred-or-so years, and what was likely an ocean’s worth of sweat.
Here is no different from any of the other tourist-sites, and upon arrival we were immediately greeted by Omar – who didn’t hesitate to talk us along a walking tour. It is apparently required to take the ever-so-tacky “pinching the top” picture, which he directed us through, and then into the tomb of Khufu’s grandmother (included in the base price of a ticket).
If you aren’t into confined spaces or you overheat easily, the depths of a pyramid are not for you! You have to crawl backwards (one at a time) down what is essentially just a long plank. It’s insane to imagine what the inside of one of these tombs would have looked like had they not been looted.
The blazing sun was actually welcome once we emerged from the perhaps 75 foot deep shaft. Unfortunately for Omar, he had long worn out his welcome once we figured out he was just peddling us through trying to sell us vastly overpriced camel rides (50 pounds versus his attempted sell at 240 each..). We were finally able to rid ourselves of him, and he stormed off after realizing we weren’t going to be taken.
Key tips for Cairo:
1. Don’t let yourself get hustled!
Everything is a negotiation, and the original price is NEVER the actual price. Do your research. Know that a trip from the airport to downtown shouldn’t be more than 75-80 Egyptian pounds, and absolutely say no when the first driver offers you the trip for 220. No matter what it is, don’t be afraid to walk away. I guarantee you there’s another vendor just feet away! One truly has to admire the hustler spirit of the Egyptians.
2. Don’t be afraid to talk to locals.
You won’t have much of a choice here, because more often than not you’ll find yourself approached. I found most Egyptians to be incredibly kind (something I can’t say about the US), and more than willing to help navigate a menu or offer a suggestion on where to eat or what to see. Virtually everything is written in Arabic, with perhaps only 60% also appearing in English – so again, don’t be afraid to ask!
That being said, don’t forget that everyone, no matter how kind, will eventually have something to ask of you that involves the transfer of money (re: my experience with Omar). Whether they ask you to come see their store, or for a tip, you can politely say no, thank you, and continue on your way. Always err on the side of courteous.
3. Don’t let your assumptions about the Middle East get the best of you.
Have an open mind, and let it cultivate itself. I can guarantee that you’ll shatter almost every pre-conceived notion you once held, and you’ll have a much more in-depth cultural experience to boot.
Imagine the world if we all looked for the similarities that bind us together, rather than the differences that set us apart.