As each new year approaches, I have at least some idea of where I would like to visit over the coming 12 months, formulating a loose plan of where I’m going to go and what I’d like to see and do. Of course, it doesn’t always pan out according to my initial thoughts because there are so many variables – holiday days from work, the cost of visiting such places, cheap deals to alternative destinations and much more.
But one thing I did have on my list for 2019 was to see the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza – so a trip to Cairo was on the cards. Eventually, I settled on it being part of a two-week, five-country trip which would see me go to Muscat, Oman before Cairo, then on to Beirut, Lebanon (where I am currently), Doha, Qatar and Yerevan, Armenia.
It was what I was looking forward to the most.
Which isn’t surprising, really, as it’s where you’ll find the attraction that was atop my 2019 list – the reason being that the Great Pyramid of Giza is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World still in existence. That fact is something I find fascinating, and that alone was enough to make me want to go.
Before I left, my girlfriend asked me where I was most excited to visit on my upcoming trip, and I answered Cairo. The reason above was reason enough, but Cairo was somewhere I wanted to be better than expected. I’ve read blogs and heard testimonials from people who have previously visited Egypt’s capital and feedback was less than savoury. But the fact that so many people had tarnished its reputation – saying that it’s dirty, its roads are busy and the locals are synonymous with harassing tourists.
But I couldn’t just take their word for it. As someone who wants to visit every country in the world, I’m willing to give everywhere a fair chance, regardless of what others think. I believe that it’s important that we take other people’s thoughts about a place with a pinch of salt and we try them ourselves before deciding how we feel personally about a place, region or nation.
So, what did I make of Cairo?
Where to start? Cairo is a megacity, and with an urban area containing over 22 million people – apparently the eighth largest in the world – within its confines, the phrase “hustle and bustle” doesn’t even scratch the surface.
In addition to what I’d seen and heard from other sources, I had my own preconceptions as well. I know from experience that the Arab World is the global capital for tourist hasslers, and after a trip to Marrakesh last year, which was unpleasant in parts due to the treatment I received from locals who saw me as a walking dollar sign, I was more than wary about the potential treatment I would be receiving, worsened by the fact that I was on my own.
To the complete absence of surprise, as soon as I set foot in the arrivals hall at Cairo International Airport, I was immediately set upon by a guy trying to push a luxury car transfer on me. “I work for the government, I sort you good car,” he said. But I needed to get some Egyptian Pounds, so I ignored him and headed over to the exchange kiosk. I switched currencies and when I turned around he was right behind me, waiting on me like a bird stalking its prey.
I ended up leaving the terminal and heading to another one just to escape the situation. From there, I got a white cab for 300 LE (approximately £13.50), which I accepted without much of a fight because I was tired and I just wanted to get to my hotel. Although my driver spoke poor English he was still on the sell the whole way there, blurting out random Cairo-based attractions at regular intervals and gesturing that he could take me to see them all – for a fee, of course. I pretended I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and this vicious cycle continued until we pulled up outside my hotel.
When I went to pay, I only had 200 LE notes – so I handed over 400 LE in total. Again, the Egyptian driver tried it on again, claiming he had no change, while simultaneously attempting to convince me that the extra 100 LE would make a nice tip. After refusing to leave until I got my rightful change, he managed to “find” a wad of notes in his pocket before finally producing what he owed me. Arrivederci e buonanotte.
Don’t get the wrong idea, however…
The vast majority of the harassment I received during my time in Cairo happened in and around the airport. On the way back through the terminal to leave for Beirut, airport workers who helped point me in the direction of the check-in desks and helped me connect to the free 30-minute that the airport offered both asked for remuneration for their 10 seconds of help (which they are paid for already, by the way).
Thanks to those experiences, I was dreading visiting Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s famous bazaar. But the reviews on TripAdvisor and other similar websites said that it was too good not to miss – but I could read the script from the offset.
Ironically, what I found what quite different.
On the way to the market, outdated Google Maps sent me the wrong way down an almost two-mile route to a dead-end.
I saw no other tourists along the way, and I was definitely off the beaten track. My senses were heightened and adrenaline was helping me to maintain a speedier walking pace, but the whole time the people just left me to my own devices. They stared, of course – I was a blonde white boy wandering around the backstreets of Cairo. But they didn’t gesture towards me or tried obtaining my attention. I was allowed to get on with what I was doing and that, in the hazy Cairo smog, was a breath of fresh air.
When I finally got to Khan el-Khalili, I browsed the various shops and stalls, and while most of the traders tried to sell me their stuff, they appeared to take no for an answer, and they weren’t even offended by it. Maybe I had learned from previous experiences and mistakes and had subconsciously toughened my resolve, but on reflection, the Egyptians were by far more forgiving than their Moroccan counterparts.
Then there was my Uber driver, who took me from the lay-by on a busy intersection by Cairo Citadel all the way back to my hotel. Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with Uber, it is an app-based taxi service where the final fare is taken from your card. It’s great for travellers to use in foreign countries because it prevents inflated taxi prices, you don’t need to worry about exchanging cash and the drivers can’t dupe the system.
It’s also ridiculously cheap to ride Uber in Cairo, especially when you consider the distances travelled and time spent in the car. There’s also something to be said about the concentration of my driver, who had to navigate Cario’s nightmare traffic (it’s the worst I’ve ever seen), with roads full of vehicles and poor driving standards. There are lanes, lights and signs which no-one adheres to, and the mental challenge of navigating it all is worth a decent tip, especially when the base fare is so cheap.
When we finally arrived at the destination, I decided to almost double the fare with the tip (which sounds generous, although it was only a couple of pounds). To my absolute bewilderment, the driver refused. I had to push him to take it. If I’d offered any of the several thousand people within a mile radius of me that same money as a tip, they would have snapped my hand off and probably not said thank you. But my man Mostafa seemed to be different – a diamond in the Cairene rough.
How about the cleanliness?
The biggest takeaway I had from the Cairo reviews I’d read was that it is a dirty place. I thought that may have been a little melodrama, but after spending no more than a few hours there, I could tell that it was a wholly accurate assessment.
I checked into my hotel room and, although I was expecting basic, it was filthy, the floor covered in dust, a footprint on the wall and an old pair of sandals that I pointed out to a member of hotel staff as something the previous guest had left behind, only to be told that they were for my use if I so pleased. Just what I wanted, a pair of sweaty, knock-off slip-ons that go from zero to fungal infection in less than five seconds. This was only the beginning.
The next morning I got up and headed over to the River Nile for a morning stroll. Alongside my baptism of fire in the crucible of the Cairo traffic, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of small allotments and gardens lining the Nile’s banks, blooming with beautiful plants and vibrant colours. Interspersed between the gardens, though, would be litter, dirt and disregard. It was like one step forward and two steps back.
Cairo also seemed to be a city lacking in any meaningful sanitation practices. I frequently saw people discarding their litter wherever they pleased with absolutely nothing to inhibit them. There were also plenty of roadside dumps, where litter seemed to gather and significantly worsened the city’s image – not that anyone appeared to care. Few public bins only piled onto the problem.
Air quality is also a factor, with Cairo having the eighth-worst air pollution score in the world according to Numbeo’s Pollution Index 2019. It’s not something that you can only see in the statistics, but also in real time, too. I had to clean the lenses on my cameras several times throughout the day as they accumulated dirt at an abnormal rate, my fingernails would blacken as the day wore on and I’m feeling the effects of a slight cold which I believe was brought on by breathing that air for four days.
The way Cairo is carrying on is nothing short of unsustainable. It is hygienically pathetic, and if you’re big into health and wellbeing, then I doubt it is a destination for you.
I guess that makes it a waste of time, then…
Absolutely not! Almost two years ago I visited Podgorica in Montenegro – a place I refer to as the most boring place I’ve ever visited. But despite the city offering little in terms of attractions and things to do, I still found value. I love travel; I am totally obsessed with it, and if I can justify visiting Podgorica then there’s no way Cairo can be considered a failure.
While I don’t think it proves its critics wrong, it has some of the most significant attractions in the world and some experiences that are simply incredible. Seeing the Pyramids and Sphinx was something I can now tick off my bucket list, the Egyptian Museum had some jaw-dropping artefacts including the mast and sarcophagi of Tutankhamun – which, having learnt so much about it in school, was one of the highlights of my trip – and the view from the lookout point at Cairo Citadel, offered up one of the greatest landscapes I have ever seen.
Cairo didn’t surprise me – if anything I had set a bar for it that it failed to reach. But to feel the energy of a place with so many people, with so much traffic, with so many historically significant monuments was, if anything, a travel success. I won’t be in a rush to go back to Cairo, even if the new Egyptian Museum at Giza is set to open in 2020, because I didn’t love it. But I did the number one thing I set out to do in 2019, and I don’t regret it at all.