Cairo was a hot, smelly slap to the face. It was the first place outside of Europe that I travelled to. When I chose Egypt, I was thinking of all the ancient sights that I wanted to see and didn’t give much thought to the modern-day country.
So my sister, L, and I booked onto a backpacker style group tour with a well-known operator.
As we ventured out of our hotel on the first day I wondered if I should have started somewhere slightly more familiar. The July heat, noise and hustle and bustle were all quite an assault on the senses for a novice traveller. I was used to the fairly organised business of London but Cairo was a different creature entirely. Donkeys and carts jostled for position with cars on the dusty roads and drivers honked their horns incessantly. Adding to the atmosphere, the call to prayer sang out across the city frequently and almost everyone hurried off to worship, even in the middle of serving us lunch (which of course we didn’t mind!). Being two unaccompanied, pale women, we attracted some stares and a few comments from some of the younger men. We put our heads down and ignored.
The first day we headed for the Citadel which we had seen on our journey from the airport. From the terrace we were able to take in views across much of the city. There were minarets and satellite dishes everywhere. A thick smog hung over the buildings, there being no breeze. The air was stifling and we were sweating despite walking slowly and keeping to the shade as much as possible. Happily, it was so hot that any patches evaporated quickly but still, I felt less than glamourous.
In the afternoon we visited the Egyptian museum, chock full of antiquities and far too big to take in on a single visit. We spent a good while trying to track down the Rosetta Stone, only to discover that the museum housed a replica and that the original was in the British Museum back in London.
As we wandered about the streets, L and I noticed that there were very few women and families, but this changed in the evening when the temperature was slightly more bearable. The pavements were thronged with people shopping, eating and socialising. That evening we met up with our group, all young travellers like ourselves, and out we went for food.
L and I had been pleased to discover that vegetarian food was not difficult to find in Egypt and we quite happily survived on falafel, tahini and pitta. I was still scarred after a year of living in France and being unable to eat in practically every restaurant. We also managed to stay dry for the entire two weeks as beer was not readily available. This wasn’t actually as bad as it sounds.
The Pyramids and the Sphinx
The next day we were excited to cross off one of our bucket list destinations: the pyramids at Giza. Our first glimpse of Khufu’s ancient tomb was of the pyramid rising in the distance above the glinting, modern buildings of Cairo as we wove through the congested streets in a battered taxi. The city was now pressed up against the site which L and I still found magical.
We were delighted to find that there were few other tourists there; a positive reason to travel off-season. The heat prevented us from queuing to go inside one of the pyramids; a regret and a negative to travelling off-season. We also declined a camel ride, wanting instead to find some shade.
Whilst at the pyramids, a member of the tourist police obligingly took a photo of us. He then asked for 10 Egyptian pounds. We paid him, but his superior saw us give him the money which was evidently a mistake as he stormed over and demanded that the policeman give the money back. There ensued a furious argument with much gesticulating, shaking of guns, and finally what appeared to be a resignation, with our photographer tearing his badge from his shirt and throwing it at the feet of his superior. As we surreptitiously backed away the argument did seem to resolve and the badge was picked up.
We were pre-warned, and therefore not disappointed, to find the magnificent Sphinx facing fast-food restaurants. We turned our backs to the city and everything modern and tried to forget that it was there.
In the afternoon we headed to Khan-al-Khalili for some shopping. Mindful of the attention that we had been drawing, we had persuaded one of our companions to accompany us to the markets. Having a male friend with us ensured that the banter stayed good-natured and we were all able to have a joke with passers-by. Bartering was less successful. Hampered by our innate (British?) reserve, it is not something that came to me or L naturally but we gave it our best shot.
That evening, our time in Cairo was up and armed with snacks and backpacks, we headed to the train station. We boarded an overnight train with our group to travel to the other end of the country, to Aswan.