Egypt: A place of worldly wonders, erratic happenings, and tantalizing sights and sounds. There would have been no way to prepare myself for what this country could entail. I (naively) figured that due to its large Muslim population, it would be similar to Istanbul, but that expectation was quickly blown out of the water as the four weeks I spent there turned into some of the craziest ups and downs I could experience in such a short period of time. It’s difficult to try and sum up how such a crazy place functions in words, but I will try to highlight the events that stood out the most while in town.
For the first two and a half weeks, I was joined by Milo and Jeremy, who sparked an interest in experiencing what another Middle Eastern country would be like after their fascination with Turkey (and seeing many other parts of the country that I wasn’t able to). We were all in for a culture shock, the taxi that picked us up from the airport whizzed down the highway to Mohandiseen, one of the supposed middle-upper class areas within the city that our friend Michael would be hosting us from. Considering most people don’t know their addresses and it’s difficult to find places that aren’t directly on a main street, we were driven to a McDonalds in the area where we met up with Michael. In the days we were there, we frequented two restaurants many times, one of them being a Syrian-run fried chicken joint (which was some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had), and a small, always busy fast food restaurant. Many moments were spent laughing over awful google translation sessions (when we could steal wifi) as we tried to communicate with the workers about which food we were interested in eating. Some favorites included a delicious curry chicken hoagie with hot peppers and olives and the infamous dish of chicken with rice and raisins all too common around the country. Boy did we eat a lot of both of those.
This arrival in Egypt marked the end of having stable wifi for the next month, which was very difficult to find within the country. One time, we walked around for an hour and a half to find a steady connection, and as is so common in this country, were expected to continuously buy food, drinks, shisha, or other products throughout our stay to continue using it. Unfortunately the friends we stayed with at first hadn’t gotten wifi within their apartment, so we had to ask them many times to open up hotspots with their phone plans for us, and/or walk around trying to find places where we could spend the least money to stay on the wifi for as long as we could. This proved extremely frustrating and problematic, especially when all of us had to contact future work exchanges AND Jeremy had to apply to colleges.
Another factor we didn’t anticipate was the extreme traffic and driving circumstances within the country. It’s as if everyone is trying to be a part of the Indy500 in their old, beat up cars that are barely being held together, consisting of scratches, bumps, broken windshields, and even old German license plates that remain on them. If you want to cross the street, you have to physically thrust yourself into oncoming traffic to make cars stop and risk your life during every moment. Whereas in most countries you’d look right and left to make sure the coast was clear before crossing a street, in Egypt you must look every which direction possible and hope that the driver who is trying to compete in Need for Speed will slow down or swerve around you. Also, it’s not uncommon AT ALL to walk down the middle of the highway.
The first two weeks of being within the country, we explored all over. Before going to the Pyramids, we had heard from a friend of ours that we couldn’t miss the Bab Zuweila Gates in Islamic Cairo, and when another frustrating morning of trying to connect to wifi ended in no success, we headed off to the nearest metro (30 minutes walk away, as there are massive parts of the city not connected by public transportation still) then took the subway close by. Emerging from the packed and sweaty underworld, our ears were immediately assaulted by fast advertisements from loudspeakers on all sides in Arabic for anything ranging from children’s toys to hardware tools. Walking past the chaos, we were then faced with tons of traffic, an overwhelming rush of colors as people raced by on all sides of you, and an abundance of sights, smells, and sounds while nearing the Khan el-Khalili marketplace.
Deciding there wasn’t really a way to garner any less attention for standing out as the only tourists around, we pushed our way into the crammed stalls, one after the next of ripped-off brands and misspelled “fashion” clothes. After about fifteen minutes, many stops to take photos resulting in even more interested and curious looks, and an infinite amount of “WELCOME”’s yelled at us, we were ready to head on the main road to see the Gates before the sunset. This main route was just as crowded as the other streets though, so as we dodged traffic and kept looking at each other in amazement at how profoundly different of a place this country really was, we finally made it through small garment side streets to emerge in front of the towering minarets of Bab Zuweila.
Not realizing the time, we walked inside to be told by the guard that it closed around five PM (it was four fifty at the time of entering), and pleaded with him to allow us to go up into the minarets. He quickly agreed for the price of ten Egyptian pound each (about $1.30), which we happily paid and rushed up the stairs. Having the choice of going up two minarets, I went up one while Jeremy and Milo went up the other. No lights illuminated the insides of the small spiral staircases, so it was necessary to take out my phone and use the flashlight app in order to shine my way up to the first 360 degree deck, and as all three of us emerged at the same time, we were graced with one of the most beautiful views over the oldest parts of the city. The sun was just beginning to set so we were able to relax in awe and watch as the golden and red hues cast their shades over the crumbling remains of Islamic Cairo, with the Citadel off in the distance. Other minarets within the vicinity began to light up for the impeding darkness of the night, and we were left to our own thoughts as it slowly became twilight.
About an hour or so later at this point, we nervously smiled at the guard who didn’t seem to mind we had totally taken advantage of his “be quick” message, and then decided to traverse a completely different way back to the metro we needed to take for our then-thirty minute walk back to Michael’s. Exhausted and hungry after our crazy exploration into the hustle and bustle of one of Cairo’s oldest and most historic neighborhoods, we were again amazed while walking through crazy bouts of traffic by the necessity to walk in front of and between cars, passengers in the backs of passing pickup trucks, and people balancing foods and bags on their heads while walking through this all, unfazed. Once off the metro, we got an incredible leg workout from the unevenness of sidewalks and going up and down various parts of the road to get back to our street, where we indulged in another delicious chicken curry hoagie to our delights. This all became the norm for the rest of our time spent in Egypt.
The next day, we planned to take a bus from near the Egyptian Museum to the Pyramids, but when almost an hour past by of being told by five people five different locations of where the bus was supposed to pick us up, we decided to spend the day at the Egyptian Museum instead. We wanted to fully seize the day in seeing the Pyramids in detail, so decided we would research another way to get there later on.
The Egyptian Museum is filled with so many relics and ancient artifacts that it is said if you look at each one for 1 minute, it would take you nine months to see everything! Unfortunately we were unable to bring cameras inside, so we don’t have many photos to show you of the exhibits, but go over to Jeremy’s Instagram to see a couple shots from the inside.
Overall, the place was pretty disorganized and filthy, and we all agreed that if most archaeologists saw the conditions that the displays and artifacts were being kept in, they would be outraged. Piles of sand and dust littered the floors, none of the display cases were clean, and everything felt extremely old. Quickly we realized that this was the norm within the country for museums, unfortunately. But there were many enjoyable exhibits as well, and I would say it was worth the ticket price just to see the enormous collections of old jewelry, beads, and scarabs.
Having done a bit more research and finding an alternate route to the Pyramids, we left early in the morning to catch the metro out to Giza, where we would then find a minibus to drop us directly in front of the complex. As we arrived at the metro stop and began to look around for where the buses were, Jeremy locked eyes with a guy who at first we thought was just an ordinary citizen, introducing himself as Muhammad, telling us that he lived close to the pyramids and could bring us there if we’d like since he was heading that way. As he began to tell us about just getting off his night job working as an electrician and was going home to enjoy breakfast with his mother before getting rest for his next night shift, we began to realize that the pieces of his story didn’t fit together very well. He eagerly paid for all of us to go on the minibus, then walked us to a tourist company (with misspelled English signs, a very common occurrence in the city) where he began to explain that the best way to see the pyramids was the “Egyptian Way.”
He continually avoided when I would ask how much this “Egyptian Way” should cost, and instead of us denying what he was saying and going off on our own, which may have been a better call, we decided to stick it out as we were curious as to what this “special friend deal” would include. Although it was through sketchy means, we were overjoyed after agreeing to around thirty dollars each for a three hour camel/horse tour of the complex, and all thought after our tour that the price was well worth it for the incredible experience we had. Entering from a different area not near the tourist entrance off in the desert, we slowly approached the Pyramids which surfaced over the sand dunes and experienced a speechless moment as there was no one around us in this boundless expanse of emptiness. Our guide was very friendly, even when we were unable to tip him well due to being students, and gave us the opportunity at one point to climb up on parts of the second tallest Pyramid! I was able to enjoy the freedom of being on a horse and took moments to gallop off into the distance, but for the most part my horse decided to be temperamental and enjoyed walking sideways to grapevine his way through the desert, which was kind of hilarious.
All in all, seeing the Pyramids in person after many years of growing up learning about Egypt was a dream come true. Being able to physically go up to touch them, see how the sizes differed so greatly (each of the three are varying sizes, and the Sphinx is way smaller than you’d expect!), and horseback ride through the desert while within grasp’s reach of the city were all so surreal. In my next Egypt post, I will talk about our trip to the Garbage City, where all of the trash from 20 million Cairenes is sorted by the Coptic Christian population who organizes the waste on a daily basis.