So I intentionally dampened down my expectations on Saturday, preparing myself to be disappointed at the real thing. The flights from Tel-Aviv to Amman and from Amman to Cairo were a humbuggery of the normal indignitities and inconveniences with some beautiful desert views thrown in:
But as the plane descended at sunset into the Cairo airport, Charming nudged me. "The pyramids are out there somewhere." I pulled myself out of whatever daydream I was in, and searched out the window. It was all gold and dust. I looked and looked, blocking out the sun with the shade to get a better view of the ground.
Suddenly, there they were.
One big, and two small pyramids on the outskirts of the thick city.
I gasped. They are real. The sight of the pyramids from the air set up an emotional chain reaction that took me back to childhood and awakened a deep sense of awe and gratitude. Out of this happy well of emotion and exhaustion from the long day of travel, I began to sob. I turned to Prince Charming. "Why do I get to be here? I'm the luckiest. My whole life, I've dreamed of seeing the pyramids. I thought one day I would. I imagined it, but I never really, really, thought I would get to see the pyramids." I cried happy tears again, and nothing bothered me for the rest of the day. Almost.
We Raised Eyebrows
Until a little bump in the road. It wasn't exactly a rip off, but when we arrived at the Cairo airport, we first had to purchase visas for 15 USD each from the Bank of Cairo booth that comes before passport control. The Bank of Cairo there gave us an old fifty dollar bill as change. We raised our eyebrows as high as we could. We hadn't seen an old-style bill in the US like that in a long time. But the bank workers assured us the money was good. It would be accepted. It was good. It was good. They were a little too insistent.
Upon arrival at our hotel, we tried to pay for the taxi the hotel had sent to pick us up at the airport. They took USD, so Charming gave them the fifty dollar bill. They took it to the Bank of Cairo booth in the hotel which looked just like the booth at the airport. Ten minutes later, they found us in the lobby, returning the fifty dollar bill to us. They wouldn't take the bill. It was too old. I couldn't believe it. The bank of Cairo had stopped accepting the old bills. "It will work in your country, but it won't work in this country." So the dudes at the airport bank were unloading old currency on us that we couldn't use until we are back in the U.S. I've never heard of a bank giving out currency that it won't accept back the same day. I'm guessing this is an example of what happens in a country with weak or corrupt infrastructure.
A Welcoming Culture
A man named Peter, the store guard at Vodafone in Cairo says "You are most welcome. You are German?" "American," I tell him. "Ah, good. USA. Very Good!" He gives a wide, warm smile. Of all the palces we've visited in the Middle East, Cairo is where I've felt the most welcomed by residents who seems almost star-struck. Maybe that term is too strong.
Struck with profit-potential may be more accurate. We find that often, when money changes hands, a little bit extra is kept by the vendor. Especially taxi drivers. The consistency of this short-changing is striking. After only three days here we've learned to count change carefully and inspect restaurant bills line by line. Here's a receipt from a recent meal out with some of Charming's co-attendees at his work conference here:
What's a cover charge? Is that not the same as a entrance tax? In the U.S., those fees are usually charged upon entrance to a club, not at the end of the night. But this was a restaurant, not a club. Or, was it? What's the difference? The 12% service charge (tip) is fine, but the 10% sales tax seems kind of steep. Don't worry, the total is in Egyptian Pounds, not in USD.
The restaurant, Sequoia, was on the Nile, which glimmered and added magic to the otherwise hot and uncomfortable atmosphere.
As I walk down the street, the smog is so thick I can taste the air -- it has a grainy texture as it goes in my mouth and down my throat. A particle went into my eye yesterday, partially blinding me for a few steps. It felt like ash from a charcoal grill.
Sidewalks are rare, often broken up with potholes and crowded with parked cars, scooters, and abandoned bags of soggy food. Most of the roads are four lanes, but people drive for miles right on top of the painted divider lines; traffic is therefore serpentine. The lack of sidewalks forces people to walk in the street, adding more chaos to the congestion. Yesterday I saw two cars parked in the middle of a the road for repairs, their hoods open like dead birds' beaks. I walk in a long skirt and long sleeves, despite the heat. I wear my thickest, ugliest shoes.
Cats so malnourished they never lose their kittenish looks roam the streets. The opposite has happened to the street children. Life begging all day on the hot street has made them lose their kittenish playfulness too soon. Nothing curious or sparkling appeared in the eyes of the little girl asking me to buy her new clothes on Sunday. Instead, I saw the same dull, hardened look I usually see in the grown men trying to hustle us into overpriced taxis. (Security advisors say not to give anything to children here, as they are sometimes part of a long con. It's hard to imagine what the con could be, and heartbreaking to see these kids.) Thinking of that girl, I'm reminded of Egypt's shameful superlative, that of all the countries in the Middle East, it has the lowest literacy rate for women.
On the few streets where there are continuous sidewalks, every few meters, cold, dirty water splashes down on me from the window air conditioner units stacked up for stories above on the dingy high rise apartment buildings. One of them on a nearby building fell down. What caught my eye was the man they sent up to investigate. We took photos from our hotel on the eighth floor:
Sights Yet to See
Due to the dubious nature of paying for anything and the exhausting nature of being a female walking alone (Charming is in a conference all day) on the street, I haven't yet seen the pyramids up close. They are far away from the city center. I haven't seen much of anything. When I do, if I have any good photos or sights to report, I'll be sure to update the "bright spots" section of this post below.
I have been doing some guidebook reading, and following suggestions not to make eye contact when walking on the street. Although it's not natural to me, since to me eye contact is a way to offer respect and friendliness, I've tried it here in Cairo, and it's been a helpful way to avoid harassment. Just as I was thinking that very thought yesterday, two men walked by me. One said looked at me and said "So cute." The other said "Milf." It's possible the second man was talking on his cell phones, and "Milf" is a word in Arabic. Very likely.
As is often the case in the Middle East, the hospitality and kindness of the locals shine. Most people here in the city speak English and some French, which means I get called "Madame," and "Madmoiselle," which I find charming. The housekeeper who cleaned our hotel room yesterday chatted and laughed with me warmly and then said "All finished, Madame!" And left without pausing for a tip. In fact, all the service at our hotel, Safir, has been wonderful. This is a great hotel, and although it's expensive, the prices seem fair and no one has tried to rip us off . We've spent some nice times hunkered down in the cool hotel. There's a grand lobby that has beautiful flower arrangements and a piano lounge. There are also a lot of good shark shows on the TV.
I'd like to feel compassion and gratitude towards Egypt because their government situation is so delicate right now and their revolution was mostly peaceful. I'm glad that there isn't open battle taking place on the streets of Cairo. However, I can't deny that deep inside, I feel sad for this culture that peaked so long ago. I hope that democracy and the protection of human rights and civil liberties will be secured and will lead to Cairo's renewal.
Cairo got a lot better after a lovely evening of seeing the Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx with a light show dramatizing some of the history of those structures. In real life, they are JUST AS AMAZING AND HUGE AS THEY SEEM TO BE IN PICTURES.
I also got to fulfill yet another life dream of riding a camel. Woot!