Letters from Egypt 6: Our last day in Cairo

After a rather unsuccessful day, we decided to have a more aggressive program the last day in Cairo. We started out early with a subway trip to Coptic Cairo. It seems that very few tourists are using the subways, which is a pity because it is a pretty good system. If they only could have any information in English. We had to trust the ticket guy who said it was LE 2 for both of us.

Sarah takes the subway

Coptic Cairo has a few churches and a museum. It is one of the most ancient Christian sects in the world. The museum was the technically best we’ve seen in Cairo, but not really that interesting in its contents.

We took a walk from Coptic Cairo through parts of Old Cairo. It was quite obvious that not many westerners come here, either. Buildings in this part of town are like the rest of Cairo: Well-maintained buildings standing next to old husks.

There are nice footbridges connecting Old Cairo with the south tip of the Roda island. We walked here and took a quick look at the Nilometer. It’s a really deep hole with a pole in it. The pole was used to measure the depth of the Nile. The area around the Nilometer is a very quiet oasis in the middle (weeell, actually not in the middle) of Cairo. This was the first place this week where we could sit for several minutes without meeting someone.

Footbridge to Old Cairo

Nilometer park

Roda looks a bit nicer than much of Cairo, which means that the frequency of old husks to nice buildings will be slightly lower.

After eating at the Nile Peking House restaurant (a floating restaurant, which sadly didn’t cast anchor before we had to leave), we hurried on to Cairo Tower.

The line at Cairo Tower was very long, and with only one elevator serving this popular vantage point, we had to wait a while to get to the top. But it was worth it. From here, you can see the Citadel, Giza pyramids, Ma’ad (a westernized suburb south of Cairo), and even the Saqqara pyramids. Between Roda and Cairo Tower, we took a lot of pictures.

Roda island from Cairo Tower

In this picture, you can actually make out both the pyramids of Saqqara (to the left), and Giza (to the right)

We still had a little time, so we took another stop by Khal il-Khalili. As we get out of the taxi, we’re greeted by our friend Beter from yesterday. (Seems like more of a coincidence than it is, I think people who work with tourist on an ad-hoc basis tend to stick to one area). He offered us a trip of the Old Islamic Cairo marked “free of charge,” because he’d noticed (couldn’t help but notice) that Sarah had been pissed off about the situation yesterday. As we’re not sure that Beter’s definition of “free of charge” is congruent with our own, and because we were running low on time, we politely declined.

Khan il-Khalili was much quieter this day. Nobody asked to smell my money this time. It had more the feel of a cross between a theme park and a normal mall in the west. I did get a wallet and a figurine suveneer, and I haggled the price down quite a bit too. Seeing how easy it was to bring the figurine down from LE 65 to LE 45, the probably have an insane markup on their prices.

Khan il-Khalili

I think next time, I would like to try the old marked, with the help of Beter.

Then started the real adventure: Train ride to Alexandria. First lesson: Turbini (the express-train) is appearantly not called Turbini in Arabic. Second lesson: Just because a lot of people get off, doesn’t mean this is the last stop (Mahattat Misr). Third lesson: We are overpaying taxies even when we haggle. We figured LE 10 from the station we though we were at (no signs in anything but Arabic). When the driver wanted to renegotiate the price and we hardballed him, he accepted it. Which probably means it was the correct amount. Heheh. Also: The children standing by seeing the spectacle seemed to be cheering for us, so I take that as further evidence that we were in the right when we just walked away.

They say: It’s much easier to bluff when you don’t know you’re bluffling.

We checked in at the Union Hotel and went pretty much straight to sleep.

Next day was a whistle stop tour of the Kom Ash-Shuqafa catacombs, Qaitbey castle, the Fish Marked Restaurant for lunch, the Bibilioteca Alexandrina, and back at the hotel for our luggage. We ran into Norwegians at Kom Ash-Shuqafa, the library and the Fish Marked restaurant. They were probably here for the Ibsen happening, and I didn’t want to seem unpatriotic by admitting that I was not, so I didn’t talk to any of them.

The only thing worth mentioning about the sighs was the fact that the architecture of the library has a few very Norwegian touches. The wood and chrome finish looks a lot like the Oslo airport. This is not too surprising, seeing as how it was drawn by a norwegian architect company.

The Library of Alexandria

Now for the interesting part: Taxis in Alexandria.

As it turns out, people in Alexandria speak much, much less English than Caireenes. My feeble attempts at “bititkalleem ingleezee” were met by shrugs and at the best with a “swaya” (a little). And “swaya” in Alexandria means something other than “swaya” in Cairo.

Our trip from the library to the hotel was the most entertaining one. A young driver stops (and this is outside a major tourist attraction, mind you), we try and communicate destination and price, and with the help of a few friendly (but sadly, just as inept in English) stranger, we agree on LE 10 and start off. After about 2 minutes down Al-Corniche along the Mediterranian cost, we realize that he doesn’t know where we’re going. I get out the guidebook phrenetically and look up the word for “stop” again. Sarah is able to write down “Union” in Arabic (well, more or less. She wrote “oonion”, but he understood it).

Another nice thing to know about Egyptian taxi rides: If you go the wrong way, it seems like the passenger should pay for the extra ride. The driver wasn’t too happy with the price, even when I gave him an extra one. He smiled, gave me the finger and held up two fingers. We both chucked and I gave him another one. I like that: Communication by friendly insult.

And now for the really big adventure: We had stopped by the train station in the morning in hope of scoring a ticket on the Turbini back to Cairo, but they were all full (I think, communication wasn’t too easy). But according to the guidebook: No need to worry: The Superjet (Subrjeet) buses go directly to the airport, and they only take 2,5 hours.

Only they don’t. The ticket clerk was the best english-speaker we’ve met in Alexandria, and he informed us that, “no five hours”. Oops. Our plane leaves in exactly five hours.

At this point in time, I felt a certain desperation. Being stuck in a city with very few english-speakers, our arabic being horrendous, even when we page through the phrasebook like madmen, with five hours until the plane.

But things have a way of working themselves out in Egypt. With the offer by taxi driver Ahmed from Wednesday to take us to Alexandria for LE 200, we figured it was possible to do the reverse, with just a bit of luck.

Being desperate, we accepted the first offer that came along. Seeing our confusion, a man who obviously preys on tourists approached and asked if we needed a taxi. We told him we wanted to go to Cairo airport, and after a bit of discussion with a driver, they offered LE 300 to Cairo airport. Under the circumstances, I would be happy to accept it, but one of the reasons I came to Egypt was to haggle. So I say, “well, I think we’d do it if you said LE 200, but we’re going to check out our options a bit more first”. This tactic reduced the price to LE 250 very quickly, and we were on our way with Omar the driver, after a small discussion about reasonable baksheesh for the helper. We suggested five and he accepted, but only having a ten, he decided to keep the rest. (This is actually the first time an egyptian has not honored a deal)

A few things I learned on the Cairo Delta Highway: 1. Just because there are painted three lanes on the road doesn’t mean you can’t have five, 2. you can get the 220 km from Alexandria to Cairo in 2 hours, and through Cairo to the airport in another 1 hour. 3. a Lada can keep 110 km/h for this period of time.

Cairo Delta Highway (seen from a Lada moving at 110 km/h)

We also learned a few things about Omar the driver: 1. He likes to listen to tapes of Islamic chants, 2. he speaks a little English, and 3. he drives like a fricking madman. I started counting the number of maneuovers that you never would see in Norway (or the US), but I quickly lost count. Instead: 8 times he did something I think no sane person would try, and 5 times, I was certain that “this is it, we’re all gonna die now”.

But I promised I’d give him the extra 50 he wanted as a tip “if he got us to the airport alive” (I reminded him of this when he had to back off an exit ramp into the highway). But we got there in good time, alive, and Omar got a LE 50 tip.

The plane to Sharm il-Sheekh and car drive from Sharm to Daahab (where I’m writing this) was fairly eventless. And I hope Daahab will be equally eventless. So this is probably the last letter from Egypt.

Johannes in Dahab

I’d though I’d leave with a few observations of Cairo from the airplane: The city is a patchwork of lit and unlit areas. We have driven through some of the unlit areas, and they seem to be one of three categories: Areas with no streetlights, areas with no electricity, and areas that are so ruined that nobody lives there. In many of the areas, you will see the green lights of the minarets, though.

Secondly, from the plane you can see the smog. It hangs like a cloud over the whole city, maybe half a kilometer high. They say that living a day in Cairo is the equivallent of smoking 30 cigarettes. I think it must be more.

The black cloud of Cairo (on a clear day)

Copyright © 2006 Johannes Brodwall. All Rights Reserved.

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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