Return to Cairo

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Friday, July 6, 2007

If we thought sub-Saharan Africa was hot, well, we were right.  It was hot.  And if we thought that Delhi in April was hot, we were right about that too.  But neither place was anything compared with the sizzling furnace that is Egypt.  From the moment we stepped out of the air-conditioned comfort of Cairo's shiny new airport terminal, we've been roasting like pigs on a spit.  Every time we walk outside it's like opening an oven door as the heat hits you in the face, and then climbing into the oven.  July and August are the hottest months in this desert barbeque and any time the mercury dips below 40 degrees is like a cool break. 
Throw in the smog and the manic traffic that Cairo's 16 million sweaty residents create, their close proximity to one another (Cairo is among the world's most densely populated cities) and the jolt to the system that a strange new culture invariably delivers and it is all a bit daunting.  All these things are familiar to us in some form though from our travels, like an amalgam of our previous stops. 
Familiar, courtesy of India and, to a lesser extent, Nepal, is the staring that our whiteness generates.  At least that staring was, or seemed to be, purely curiosity.  Here in Egypt, the men's stares are much more lecherous.  Jane has a bit of a phobia/dislike of the hairy-chested, missing-toothed, moustachioed, bushy-eyebrowed, droopy-eyed Middle Eastern man with the gold chains and chauvinistic attitude that are in plentiful supply here.
It is clearly the result of a society that hides its own women away and is so private about anything sexual that turns these repressed men into horny buggers at the sight of any glimpse of western female flesh.  They usually gather in groups and stand on jaunty angles or lean suggestively against a wall.  Then the droopy eyes latch on to Jane and follow her as she approaches and passes.  Some will look away when I glare back but some don't care and just keep leering.
The bus from the airport drops us at a dusty bus terminal underneath a highway overpass and we are the last passengers to alight.  As Jane is getting off, a moustachioed, bushy-eyebrowed guy with a couple of teeth missing starts to get on.  They pass each other, the man lowers his eyes from Jane's face to her breasts, says something that sounds like "mmm hmm, hey baby" then makes a disgusting slurping sound with his tongue.  This is a bit over the line as far as I am concerned.
"Hey pervert.  Fuck off and get your own wife", I say sternly, getting right up in his face.  He bristles and puffs out his chest in that comically macho way that these blokes have, then makes some kind of crude hand gesture.  It usually takes quite a bit to get me fired up but this asshole does it.  I push him hard in the chest, making him stagger backwards a bit.  He shapes up like he's ready for a fight but sees I mean business and thinks better of it.  Instead he makes another weird gesture, which I'm sure is rude, and steps backwards.  Then he shouts something in Arabic, perhaps declaring a one-man jihad on my ass, and starts to unzip his fly.  I guess this has some kind of manly significance but it's all a bit ridiculous for us.  We just put on our backpacks and walk off, leaving the asshole to play with his zipper and tell his friends how rude westerners are.
Much is made in the West about how repressive Islam is with its rules regarding women wearing head coverings and so on.  But with so many repellent men around, you can hardly blame the women for wanting to cover up to avoid the stares and comments.  I suppose you could argue that if the women weren't so mysterious and modest the men wouldn't have all that pent up frustration and if the woman's social position was more equal the men wouldn't be so chauvinistic.  It's a tricky one for sure.
Despite their predatory stares, most of the men seem very nice as individuals.  Any time we've yelled out "salaam alleykum" (a greeting that means "peace be upon you") or have asked directions, the men have been quite polite and friendly.  Even if the conversation does usually end with an insistent invitation to the guy's souvenir store or travel agency.
I mention the men so much because the people walking the streets of Cairo seem to be about 80 percent men.  The few women that you do see just appear to glide past like ghosts in their all-covering black burqhas, like delegates at a Darth Vadar look-alike convention.  They are always bustling off on some household-related errand while the men lean suggestively against walls. 
The hostel is owned by a man named Assim, who greets us as we step out of the elevator.  With his bushy moustache and eyebrows, droopy eyes and irregular number of teeth, he looks like your archetypal Egyptian dude.  But he has a happy smile and cheerfully shows us around.  Almost every spare bit of wall space is covered with framed internet reviews from satisfied customers that extol the virtues of Assim and his hotel.  He offers us a welcome drink, which the cynic in me might claim is only an excuse to sit us down and tell us about all the tours and train tickets he can book for us.
The number one reason for coming to Cairo, apart from picking fights with dentally-challenged locals, is to visit the Pyramids of Giza.  Arguably the greatest of the Ancient Wonders of the World (and surprisingly not chosen as one of the new wonders of the world, see, the Pyramids and the Sphinx shouldn't really need any introduction or explanation to anyone sophisticated enough to read this blog.  Suffice to say that they are every bit as awe-inspiring and mind-bogglingly unbuildable as you've heard. 
What we do find surprising is the complete lack of infrastructure and user-friendliness surrounding them.  For a start, there is no bus from town to the Pyramids.  Well, there is, apparently, but it doesn't have any signage at the supposed pick-up point and we can't find it for love or money.  So we catch some local bus that drops us on the highway in the middle of Giza town, a long way from the Pyramids.  Then we find some other completely notoriety minibus that reluctantly deposits us on another road within view of the Pyramids.  From here it is a hot and sweaty walk up the hill to the pyramid plateau, again without any signs or directions.  Eventually we get to a shack with two slack-jawed policemen slouching on their wooden chairs and a tottery old metal detector for security.  The slack-jawed policemen disdainfully wave us away towards another shack back down the hill to buy tickets.  Only when we get right up to the barred window can we see the tiny sign that says "Tickets".  The droopy-eyed man behind the bars is decidedly unhappy to see us and feels that selling us tickets is the most unpleasant task he could possibly perform.  Painfully, he rips off two tickets and, in super slow-motion, passes them through the bars and returns to his nap.  
It is devilishly hot as we stroll around the massive pyramids.  Every two steps we are greeted by a voice above us - "You want camel ride?  Yes? Good price, you know how much?  Only ten Egyptian pounds!"  Polite "no thank yous" quickly turn terse and before too long evolve into "bugger off" or "I'll tell you what you can do with your camel, mate". 
As hot as it is, we are still amazed by the outfits that many of the tourists are wearing.  Egypt is a Muslim country and, whether you agree with it or not, women are expected to dress modestly.  This doesn't necessarily mean burqha and hijab (headscarf) but should include trousers or a knee-covering skirt and tops that aren't too revealing.  Yet busload after busload of western women trot out in the tiniest of shorts, barely more than underpants, and flimsy little midriff-bearing tank tops.  As fellow westerners who have made an effort to be considerate and respectful, we are embarrassed to be lumped in with these scantily-clad ignoramuses.
Over our three days in Cairo we manage to get in about five restaurant fights due to
misunderstandings or people trying to rip us off.  Most menus are not in English so we have to rely on the waiter's honesty.  If he tots up the bill and our two cans of soft drink suddenly cost as much as the rest of the meal put together, he can just counter our complaints by pointing at some indecipherable Arabic writing on the menu.  "Look! Look!  It say here - Sprite, ten pounds."  Then there's not much we can do except appeal to the guy's sense of fairness (rarely present) or simply refuse to pay.  
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