Sunday, November 1, 2009


Even in the cloudy mental haze of 3am, I knew I was in Cairo as soon as I stepped off the airplane. It was hot, dirty, and immediately disorienting.

My arrival was uneventful. Miraculously, my climbing gear arrived at the same time I did, despite having been checked to Cairo via Rome, and the fact that I already had Egyptian pounds in my wallet [along with Israeli shekels, Jordainian dinars, Euros, and US dollars…WTF?] made the requisite ritual of purchasing a visa that much easier. As soon as I stepped outside of the airport, Matt was there to meet me with a hired driver from our hostel, a fantastic surprise that had the added benefit of saving me from the hassle of negotiating with the overly aggressive cab drivers.

Downtown, we walked through a dilapidated door, up a decaying staircase [that doubled as an elevator shaft], passed a carpet-seller and what seemed to be the sleeping-spot-of-choice for a number of homeless men, as Matt assured me that our room was nice. He was right; as soon as we stepped on to the 3rd floor the ramshackle building we had entered was suddenly transformed into the relatively* clean and very friendly Australian Hostel.

[*Very-clean-in-Cairo is still rather dirty by American standards. It’s more like India-clean…no, actually, it’s dirtier than that…now that I think about it, in India I was often surprised by the cleanliness of interior spaces in contrast to the filthiness of their exterior fronts.]

Tuesday, after breakfast at the hostel, we went for a walk along the Nile. I didn’t have time to form much of a first-impression of the city, since the sum total of my mental/observational energy was directed towards surviving the re-occurring adventure that is crossing the street in Cairo.

[Coming: Matt note on the art of crossing the street in Cairo]

Drive thru coffee, Egyptian-style.

After a while, we managed to navigate our way to the Egyptian Museum without getting lost [let me assure you…this is a feat, in and of itself] where we took a brief respite from the air pollution and heavy exhaust fumes to see a bizarre collection of Egyptian relics. The museum was super weird; I mean, they obviously have an amazing collection of things…but the various antiquities [spanning several thousand years] are strewn about the gallery space with little perceptible organization and virtually no explanation of what they are or when they come from. With my [admittedly] weak knowledge of Egyptian history, I had the distinct feeling of being in an antique-store-turned-theme-park, but as we saw more and more I really began to enjoy the lack of discernible curation. It was as if the objects were stripped of all historical and cultural context…no longer artifacts documenting some historical narrative, they became simply cool-looking objects.

Let me give you an example…upstairs, passed the Mummies…there is a hall where several rooms are filled with small-ish objects organized by type [as opposed to chronology or geography or associated meaning, like you tend to find in American and European museums] – 46 idols of Ra here, 8 tables of gilded jewelry there, countless coins in another place.

One room seemed to be dedicated to things-written-on-papyrus…no sign, no explanation, just a collection of things-written-on-papyrus. There were large framed pieces with hieroglyphics and cases of smaller tattered pieces showing pictograms and Arabic calligraphy. Only a few had descriptive index cards; one, describing a nearby Arabic text read “rental agreement.” Matt and I looked at each other, confused. Rental agreement? In contemporary-ish Arabic? Sure, we’re not Egyptologists, but this historical document [from an unknown date] didn’t seem to have much in common with the hieroglyphics beside it…well, other than the fact that both were written on papyrus.


Cario has excellent cheap food.

Two examples: Gad, a local chain serving all kinds of snack/street food that is open 24 hrs and seems to be busy nearly all of them. Schwarma on “Egyptian bread” [i.e. pita] costs 5 Egyptian Pounds [or $ 0.92, with the current exchange rate]. And they make this amazing dessert thing out of fried bread, cream, honey, coconuts, and powdered sugar. Very healthy.

I think Koshary El Tahrir only serves one thing, the classic Egyptian favorite after which it is named. Koshary is a mix of macaroni, spaghetti, rice, black lentils, spicy tomato sauce, and fried onions, topped with garlic & chili sauces. At El Tahrir you can get a “small” bowl for £5 or a bigger one for £10. It’s actually a lot better than it sounds, but the other night while eating take-out, I had the distinct impression that I was eating something cooked up by a drunken college boy, after a long night of partying…

Cheap beer, however, is another story.

I know that drinking isn’t such a big thing in Egypt [given that alcohol is prohibited under Islam] but we figured it had to be possible somewhere in Cairo [population 17 million]. After consulting google, we set out in search of a pub called the Fat Black Pussy Cat [ok, I’ll admit, we chose that one mostly because of the name] which was reported to be located within walking distance of our hostel. It took us about 15 minutes to get utterly lost, at which point we strolled into an area that was decidedly less modern and more crowded, than anywhere else we had been. I think I might have been the only female in sight, a fact I had trouble ignoring because of the [literally] hundreds of eyes looking my direction. We played it cool for a little while, but eventually enlisted the help of a cab driver to get us back to Talaat Harb, from where we made our way to a fancy Western-style rooftop bar atop one of the big hotels on the Nile. Although the view was pretty spectacular, we laughed at ourselves for paying £80 [$16] for two Heinekens…roughly 8 times as much as we had paid for dinner. Sure, they were ridiculously overpriced, but I was pretty glad to spend a few tranquil minutes high above the perpetual chaos unfolding below.


Here are some photos of the Khan El Khalili, a large souq [market] in the Islamic district. They don’t really capture the craziness of the place, but at least they give some indication of what it looks like.

1 comment:

  1. That Koshary sounds pretty tasty, actually. Like an Egyptian version of what I like to call "bachelor stew": Throw everything you can find in the kitchen closets into a pot, heat for 10 minutes, and serve with a ladle. :)

    Plus, coming from Boston, you shouldn't be THAT upset about $8 beer - especially when you can't buy a hot dog from a street vendor for the $2 that dinner cost you!