The Craziness That is Cairo

It was after dark when we pulled into a bustling square. One of my companions turned to me and said, “Cairo, dude, can you believe it?” I really couldn’t. I mean, just 10 hours earlier we were in Israel and I was headed to Jordan. But, what can I say? I like to make travel decisions on a whim!

Welcome to Egypt

A sign at the Israel-Egypt border

The van that had shuttled us from the border town of Taba dropped us into this strange environment. We had no idea where we were in this megalopolis but a nice man helped guide us to get to our hostel. “This metro stop is called Al-Shohadaa (“Martyrs”) but before the revolution it was called something else,” he told us (the former station name was Mubarak, which still appeared on many metro maps).

Tahrir Square Protests

The Cairo Metro station at Tahrir Square, seen amidst protests

The walk down the busy 26th of July Street to our hostel was filled with new sights, smells and sounds. It was hard to walk far at all without hearing the jarring zap of the tasers that so many, many vendors were hawking. That’s right, you can openly buy a taser walking down the streets of Cairo…

Cairo Street Scene

A street lined with decaying colonial architecture, a common sight in Cairo

Finding a Cheeseburger

After checking in, we were all hankering for a cheeseburger, something that isn’t so easy to find in Israel, where I’d just spent nearly a month. “You could go to Gad, but it isn’t as good as McDonald’s,” we were advised. Well, if McDonald’s is the gold standard for a cheeseburger, then we were in trouble!

Cairo Roof

The roof of the building my hostel was in, which leaked into the stairway (go figure)

Still, we ventured out, giving Gad a try. And you know what? It wasn’t as good as McDonald’s!

The Gunshots

After dinner, we sat around the table chatting about how unbelievable it was that we were in Cairo and just as someone mentioned how safe it felt, gunshots rang out.  As people pressed their faces against the window, nobody panicked. Heck, nobody was even injured. “It was just two shop owners having an argument,” explained the man at our hostel, as if it were an incredibly routine event.

Actually what supposedly happened was that two shop owners down the street got into a fight and the police fired shots into the air to break it up. You know, just another routine day in Cairo… I still can’t say that I felt particularly unsafe, even if it did give me a bit of a jolt!

Cairo Street Scene

Two men chat outside a Cairo shop

Exploring the Mayhem

What became clear over the next few days in that Cairo is downright crazy! Crazy in a good way though, like Bangkok, which is one of my favorite cities in the world. The traffic is nuts (like, it doesn’t move…at all…), something we learned very quickly when we visited the Pyramids of Giza (and ended up meeting a scammer along the way). And crossing the street is a lot like it is in Hanoi…a real life game of Frogger!

Tuk Tuk

A “tuk tuk” in Giza, just outside the Pyramids

But the Metro was super handy, gliding under the traffic with ease (and complete female-only cars!). We took it to Coptic Cairo, to explore the unique Christian heritage in this devoutly Muslim city. And we took it to Tahrir Square, where people were still protesting (this was just short of a year after the revolution).

Tahrir Square Encampment

Protest tents set up in Tahrir Square in December 2011

There, aside from the protests and the burned out shell of what had been Mubarak’s party headquarters, we visited the Egyptian Museum. Though full of priceless relics of Ancient Egypt’s past (including the contents of King Tut’s tomb), a walk through the museum was like walking through a someone’s dusty attic; disorganized, disorienting and overwhelming, but full of interesting gems.

Cairo Street Scene

A street in historic Islamic Cairo

A stark contrast was Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the oldest continually operating universities in the world, a peaceful oasis amidst the craze outside its walls. A chance to sit and take it all in, paired with the local market next door (not the tourist market), really put things in perspective.

Al-Azhar Mosque

Al-Azhar Mosque

The Mayhem, Understood

As we prepared to head our separate ways, we spent one night out, exploring Cairo’s nightlife. There, upscale Egyptians sipped on drinks and danced the night away. It was the perfect release from the crazy and one of those moments that emphasized, as so many in travel do, that we aren’t all that different from each other, regardless of what you see on TV.

Cairo Street Scene

A collection of stuff on a side street in Cairo

In making my way to the gorgeous train station for my overnight train to Luxor, I had a moment to reflect on the insanity that had been the past few days in Cairo. And I realized something. Crazy, like most things in life, is totally relative. Look beyond the obvious and you’ll see that just about anything can be normal.

Cairo’s Ramses Train Station
Image courtesy of Faris Knight on Wikipedia

Oh, and I never did find a good a cheeseburger the entire time I was in Egypt…

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14 Responses to The Craziness That is Cairo

  1. Maria April 28, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    I suppose crazy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. *grin*

    • Aaron April 28, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

      Absolutely. To each their own. If there’s one thing traveling and living in NYC have taught me it’s that humans are incredibly adaptable creatures. I mean, it’s all relative, right? I’m sure NYC is totally nuts for some people, but it’s totally normal for me!

  2. Sam April 29, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    That train station really is gorgeous! I’m really looking forward to eventually getting to Egypt and travelling around by train as much as possible.

    • Aaron April 30, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

      I agree it was quite a stunning train station! And the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor wasn’t bad at all, though I didn’t sleep at all… (then again, sleeping on moving objects is not my forte).

  3. Jaime April 29, 2013 at 10:35 pm #

    Yup that is Cairo. That is the Cairo I love. Ahh living there for 5 months was not enough to see it all. I miss him… and I miss Cairo more than you can imagine. Thanks for a great post that brought back lots of amazing memories.

    • Aaron April 30, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

      Aw I bet you do Cairo. And 5 months isn’t really enough time to experience any big city at all. I’ve lived in NYC for almost 6 years and have barely touched the iceberg! Glad you liked the post!

  4. Andrew April 30, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    The city sounds a bit insane. I want to see Egypt and the historical stuff and even be on the Nile for a bit, but Cairo frightens me a bit. Not the gunshots, they are only worrisome, but the press and the chaos seem overwhelming.
    So they have already started renaming stations and streets? Interesting.

    • Aaron May 1, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

      Ok, yes, Cairo has gotten a lot of bad press for protests and whatnot lately, but you have to understand that the press tends to be in the business of sensationalizing stuff. Protests were a lot more freuqent when I visited but they’re limited to Tahrir Square, a tiny speck in this giant metropolis which is bigger than NYC! Before I went to Cairo, I met some American students in Bethlehem who had been studying in Cairo who confirmed that you could be down the street from Tahrir Square and never know anything was happening at all!

      And yes, the city can be a bit overwhelming, but so can many places. Bangkok is a great example.

      A court ruled that Mubarak’s name had to be removed from any public institutions, hence the name changes. Not to mention that his name is kind of a “bad word” now. The man who told us about the name change the first night didn’t tell us what the previous name of the station was, but it wasn’t hard to figure out!

  5. Adam May 1, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    Crazy is definitely a good word to describe Cairo. I really liked the intensity of the city. Oh, and the metro was so much fun and I’m really glad I took it while I was there….but I do NOT remember seeing Ramses station and it looks so beautiful!

    And of all the places I saw in Egypt, Cairo is actually a city I could see myself returning to…

    • Aaron May 1, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

      Likewise! I tend to shy away from cities when I’m traveling as they all thend to be rather similar, but Cairo is definitely unique and intense!

  6. Sam @ Travellingking.com May 9, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    Wow Cairo its crazy! This is one place I have always dreamt of visiting!
    Thanks for showing me some of the sites!

    • Aaron May 9, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

      Indeed it is! You’ll make it there eventually! It’s quite the unforgettable city!

  7. 2 Digital Nomads May 21, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    OMG, we miss Egypt so much. We lived there for years and in Cairo near downtown. Great photos.

    • Aaron May 21, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

      It’s definitely one of those cities that’s an acquired taste. I’m not entirely sure I acquired it, but I would definitely like to make it back some day and also check out some of the less touristy stuff Egypt has to offer.

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