Letters from Cairo: Messy, friendly, opportunistic

(The “kobyuutr” on which I am writing this has an arab/english
keyboard, so I will write in english)

We arrived late at night at Cairo international airport, and got a
first impression of Egyptian bureaucracy that has remained. We ended
up standing in lines for a long time, and when we finally were
through, it was 2 am, and we did not feel like dealing with Cairo’s
infamous taxis. So we took a “limosin service” to the hotel. It ended
up costing very little, but the tip ended up being substantial
(“change for a hundred, sir?”, for a price of 66: “here is twenty, is
okay? Thank you, sir”)

The airport is on the far side of Heliopolis (or New Misr (=
Egypt/Cairo)) as it is called by the locals. It is a beautifull area,
with marble bridges and large palaces. The road system was good, and I
couldn’t figure out why cars behind us were honking at the driver the
whole time.

That was until I discovered the essential lesson of Cairo trafic:
Honking is what people do when they drive. It seems like cars honk to
let others know that they are there, to remind pedestrians that they
shouldn’t remain in the road, or taxis honk to get the attention of
potential customers. The next day confirmed it: Being out in Cairo
traffic is about 1 honk per ten seconds or so. Through the whole

Victoria Hotel Lobby

We got in late, so we slept late and decided to do a quiet day. When
going out on the streets of a new city, the immidiate feeling of
helplessness is enormous. All the street signs were in arabic, cars
are honking, and it is generally messy. It turns out that the purely
arabic street signs is sort of a local thing in the Ramses area. In
large parts of Cairo, street names will be given in arabic and english

Helped by the excellent Lonely Planet Guide to Egypt, we navigated
from our hotel, the Victoria Hotel in Sharia Al-Gomhuriyya via Naguib
al-Rikany. Essential lesson: Walking in the street is preferable to
walking on the sidewalks.

Lonely Planet recommends At-Tabic ad-Dumyati on Sharia Orabi (Orabi
street), and we have to agree. The food was good, and a bargain (LE 22
for the both of us), Muhammed was an excellent waiter. Tip: LE 5. From
his reaction: Too much.

After lunch, we continued down Sharia Orabi to Midan Orabi (Orabi
Square) and from there to Midal Talaat Harb, which is a major shopping
street. Essential lesson: Cars don’t pay attention to traffic lights
AT ALL. Essential lesson #2: They usually don’t pay attention to the
ubiquitous traffic police officers, either.

At Midan Talaat Harb, a very effective “fisher” lured us in. Ismail
first welcomed us to Cairo, and when he learned that we were from
Norway, he told us that he had a friend who’d visited Oslo. Somehow,
he redirected us into his friend Baha’s shop. We had a nice chat with
the fellow, who served us tea, invited us for the Eid il-Fitr meal. We
ended up coming out with two bottles of flower extracts (“not perfume.
You know why? No alcohol”) and LE 240 less. Even though we were “had”
the experience was a fun and pleasant one and easily worth the

We continued down to Midan Tahrir, where a friendly person tried
redirecting us into another shop (this one much more rinky-dink than
Baha the flower-extract/papyrus-dealer). “You come with me, government
shop, very nice”. This time we’d wised up and headed another way. In
retrospect, the man had noticed that we’d been trying to take stock of
the situation around Midan Tahrir and seized on us.

Midan Tahrir

Heading straight for the American Univerity, while being trailed by a
papyrus (or more likely, banana-leaves) seller who knew how to say
“God morgen” (good morning in norwegian), we ended up finding out that
the American University Bookstore, which is rumored to have the best
Cairo maps, was closed. We learned a few more things, though: Nobody
understands what I am saying when I say “bititkallim ingleezee”, and
Egyptian policemen are more afraid of you, than you are of them. Also:
Most policemen are fairly young. All have mustaches. (And I mean ALL)

With so much being closed on the end of Ramada, we decided to head for
the Hilton Mall, just by the Hilton Hotel, and right next to the
Egyptian Museum. Crossing Midan Tahrir from the American University
side turned out to be too much for us. We ended up going all the way
down to the Nile, crossing Corrice el-Nil (which turned out to be no
better, and we got separated for 5 minutes as Sarah made a mad dash
across the six lane traffic that I didn’t dare emulate). On the way
there, we ran into Madgee, who’s appearantly the director of an art
museum and a professor at a university. When he invited us to his
shop, Sarah had had enough, and we headed another way. I still don’t
know about him, though.

The Hilton Mall turned out to be absolutely the sadest thing I’ve seen
in Egypt so far. Styled on a (small) American-style mall (plus guards
and metal detector) it had hardly any visitors at all. We had two
juices and a coffee at the cafe and ended up paying LE 66! No wonder
it’s so unpopular.

Outside, we were approached by a taxi driver, and after our previous
experiences with aggressive salespeople, we were politely ignoring
him. But then he offered us a full day trip to Saqqara, Memfis and the
Pyramids tomorrow. This is something we wanted to do (hire a driver
for a day), so it worked out perfectly. Said gave us a good deal, and
will pick us up at 9 am sharp tomorrow. Essential lessons: Aggressive
sales tactics aren’t necessarily dishonest. They can really help if
they are offering what you want.

Said also offered to drive us back to the hotel, but we wanted to walk
some more. The sun was setting as we were walking up Sharia Ramses
towards Orabi subway station. The contrasts of the city are really
obvious along this road. Buildings that are practially wrecks are
standing next to marble buildings and areas that have been leveled.
Trash is littering the street. People are crossing in the middle of
the streets and cars are honking politely as they go by.

Cats by Midan adb al-Minim Riad

After some deliberation, we decided to eat at Gad, a local fast food
restaurant chain that serves arabic food. My navigation skills failed
me (I mistook two streets as we crossed a map section), and we ended
up having to backtrack quite a bit. As it turns out, Emad ad-Din has a
lot of fashion stores. I think it might be sort of alternative, too.
Essential lesson: Two egyptian men holding hands aren’t necessarily
gay. I think. Also: If someone says “welcome,” smile, say thank you,
but KEEP WALKING. ;-). In truth, though: Egyptians are extremely
friendly towards tourists, and most interactions have no hidden

The food at Gad was good and inexpensive, but the service was rather
slow. We ate more than our fill for a total of LE 66 for the two of us
(tip: 7 pound 50 piastre).

Navigating back from Gad at 26th of July Street to the hotel was quite
easy: Walk down 26th of July until you hit Ezbehiyaa gardens, turn
right on al-Gomhuryya and just keep going until you’re there. But my
wife, who’s lost faith in my ability to navigate Cairo’s streets by
foot, asked “don’t you think we should reorient ourselves.” Responds
I, “Do you recognize that hospital across the street?” And we’re back
at the Victora Hotel.

It’s been a fun day. We have really started to get a feel for this
part of the city now. Cairo is a city that always feels very safe and
friendly, although the crowds and traffic can be very confusing. We’re
very much looking forward to tomorrow when Said will pick up us bright
and early for a full day of pyramids.

Cairo smog will discolor you feet if you wear sandals!

Oh, and one more thing: The money feels limp and wet. Strange

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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