Why did the students cross the road?
Trip Start Sep 29, 2012
36Trip End Jul 01, 2013
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We enjoy our first week at DEAC french institute, thrown in at the deep end with classes from 8.30 till 1pm each day conducted totally in the egyptian dialect. The teachers are lovely, enthusiastic and the place has a great feel to it. The language surrounding us in everyday life suddenly starts to take some sort of shape, as words begin to pop out of market traders' babble and overheard conversations.
We soon catch on to a midmorning break hotspot: a bakery round the corner from the institute that keeps stacked trays of pastries and breads out on the street. Any one of these amazing pastries is yours at the toss of a 1 e. pound coin (10p). Little does our happy baker know how much business we're going to bring him this year. School finishes at 1, and then the rest of the day and night is ours to explore Cairo, after having crashed for a siesta.
So we fill our evenings with adventures through the streets of Cairo and on tuesday night, first we sit out our first powercut on the kitchen floor round the light of our gas hob, telling stories while out in the street little candle lights pop up everywhere in the windows of better equipped neighbours. Then we head downtown to the Nile, to see Cairo by night from the water. Friend Ahmed meets us there and the little crowd of us clamber into a felouka, a type of sail boat about 7 metres by 3, lined with low cushioned benches and manned by a nimble little sailor, and we set sail.
There's a good wind and as we pick up speed and weave our way along the course of the river, the famous voice of Umm Kulthum playing from the little speaker on our boat mingles with the arabian music blaring on other boats, from sheesha cafes, and scooters wizzing past on the shore. Leaning out to look at the water I can't help laughing at the surreality of it all as we talk of crocodiles and the countries of Africa this river has passed through, whilst before our eyes ancient history and modern urbanism clash. Nile boats in mock Pharoah style but with passionate, heavily auto-tuned arab dance music blasting go cruising along, a tribute to the palm leaves that would fan Cleopatra in flashing neonlight-form. Because nothing could ever go 'normally' here, the trip is cut a little short when a police speed boat pulls up beside ours, orders the sailor to drop his anchor before engaging in a fierce little battle over (Ahmed later explains) the sailor's lack of licence. We sit in awkward silence as the guy steers us back to shore.
He seemed like quite a good sailor to me, but what would I know...
Back on land, we walk into the busy centre and Ahmed shows us a great hub where we spend the rest of the night. Loads of open air cafes spill into one, creating the effect of a plaza underneath a canopy of strung up silver ribbons and lanterns. The place is packed and loud with the voices of all the shabaab (youth, 95% guys) who head there to spend their evenings drinking blended fruit drinks of all varieties under the sun (something that this teetotalling nation do very well), talking, and playing back gammon.
Thursday night is the weekend, and we head into town hoping to hit the town with our Oxford group. We've accepted by now that in the hectic bustle of this african captial city, the closest to plan-fixing you can realistically get is to name a vaguely heard of place and a loose time, hope to overlap, and never asume to know what you'll find. However, emerging from the metro at Tahrir Square (which is the city's most useful and functional station) our expectations for the friday night frenzy are surpassed when the first thing we hear is a loud firecracker let off, shorty followed by a crowd of youths bolting from the centre of the square and heading right past us as they run down the road shouting. Uh-oh, it's the preparations for a demonstration tomorrow, and energy is high at Tahrir. A helpful man motions us where to stand, out of the way of the confusion. Jack and Gabriel appear just in time before a very large crowd march into the square from behind us chanting something. We don't stay long enough to count the crowd or work out the chant, and dash back down into the metro to travel a stop away from Tahrir, not quite believing what we've just seen.
One metro station down the line, it's back to the normal animated street scene. By chance, two friends pop out of a subway and join us as we pile into the lift of a funny art deco downtown hotel and ascend 10 floors to emerge at the open air rooftop bar. It's a wonderful place to see the city lights sitting out under the stars, and we enjoy the egyptian beer Stella (not Artois) - massively refreshing. Relieved, I chuck away my bottle of heavily chlorinated local tap water (not over the edge of the roof).