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!
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).
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…
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!
Still, we ventured out, giving Gad a try. And you know what? It wasn’t as good as McDonald’s!
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!
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Oh, and I never did find a good a cheeseburger the entire time I was in Egypt…