Thursday, January 5, 2012


Our stay in Cairo really  began with a taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. We'd negotiated some sort of rate, clueless as to what was fair and struggling to do the conversions and figure out how much money we were actually agreeing to pay. Egyptians don't do taxi meters.

The four of us (Brian, me, Tom/Dizzy, and Sonja) are pretty well-travelled and we have seen plenty of traffic and some driving. We had never seen anything like Cairo. There are something like 16 or 18 million people in Cairo and about 3 stoplights. The cars make their own lanes - 4 or 5 cars across - because there aren't any painted on the street. We drove in some places where you could see there had been lines at one time that were actually painted over in black when the authorities just gave up. We saw some crosswalks too, but they might have just been for decoration. It was the most impressive traffic I've ever seen. The drivers have an elaborate system of honking and flashing their headlights to signal to other cars - what they are signalling I have no idea. It all felt like a video game to me, except at least in video games the drivers have seat belts. I am just glad we didn't rent a car.

We visited Giza to see the famous pyramids and the Sphinx on our first day in Cairo. They were exciting to see because we'd looked at pictures of them our whole lives, but they were actually not nearly as interesting as the other places - temples, tombs, etc - that we visited later on. They were massive, and right in the middle of the city. Each marks a royal tomb, though the tombs of the thousands of pyramid builders are buried on the site too.

The big mistake we made on day one was getting roped into a  tour at Giza by a guy who said he was an official tour guide. The guidebooks all warn you about people trying to hassle you and sell you things, but it's easy to ignore that until you are there and the difference between who is official and who is not, and what's a good deal and what's not, isn't so clear. Being there in a group of four requires everyone to be thinking the same way or the people selling tours and souvenir junk will sense your indecision and talk you into  something. So this guy led us around and did show us some things but didn't have any information you couldn't easily read somewhere. Even as we walked around with him, we were turning down camel rides and horse rides and papyrus bookmarks at every turn. After paying too much for the fake guide we wandered around Sphinx and took in the hugeness of the pyramids. The Sphinx watches over the pyramids and looks kind of small in comparison.

On our second day we walked to the Egyptian museum. Walking was a very intentional group decision, not because the museum was far from our hotel, but because we knew we'd have to cross the street in crazy traffic, that Sonja and I would attract all kinds of male attention, and that various taxi drivers and souvenir hawkers would try to sell us something. In Cairo we didn't want to stay in a tourist bubble but felt a little vulnerable outside of the hotel and the main sights. This wasn't just because we looked different and didn't speak the language, but because there's a system at work that we didn't understand. We weren't sure when it was ok to walk into the street in front of a car and expect it to stop. We didn't know whether the people who talked to on the street were being friendly or trying to get us to buy something. A cab driver told us that he's also a teacher - is he really or did he know that this would make us give him a bigger tip? Even though Cairo appeared chaotic at first, I knew it really wasn't. How else could so many millions of people live so close together?

Walking, despite our fears of crossing the street, was actually a great idea. We saw all kinds of things that you couldn't spot from a taxi window. There were tea shops where men sat and chatted while they smoked a water pipe, there were guys repairing broken down cars in the middle of the street, there were people selling fruit off of donkey carts and fancy cars with tinted windows trying to drive around them. There were women in Cairo whose head scarves had sequins and ruffles, and men who linked arms as they walked.

The Egyptian museum has the contents of King Tut's tomb, thousands of statues and carvings, mummies, and  incredible amounts of ancient artifacts. Its enough to be completely overwhelming and fascinating at once. It also makes you think that our perception of time is off somehow. There were three thousand year old pieces of art close enough for me to breathe on, and it seemed somehow normal. The colors painted on the coffins were still vibrant and the jewelry on display was just like something you'd wear now.

Tahrir Square with the Egyptian Museum in the background
After the museum we headed to Tahrir Square. We'd talked about avoiding it, but then curiosity got to us and we also realized that it's hard to avoid Tahrir Square - it's a big round about right in the middle of downtown just a block from the Egyptian Museum. We had some lunch across the street and watched the action. There were tents and flags flying, some signs and people chatting in groups. There were food vendors set us to sell food to the protesters and a couple of photographers walking around. That's really all we saw, but it was clear that this was an important place and we felt a little bit important about being able to see it up close.

Muhammed Ali Mosque
We spent our last day in Cairo at the Citadel. It's a complex where Egypt's rulers lived from the time of the Crusades until about 150 years ago. It has three mosques, a couple of museums, and spectacular views of sprawling Cairo beneath. I had never been in a mosque before we visited the Citadel. We heard the muezzin's call to prayer every day we were in Egypt, starting at 5am then at 9, 12, 3, and 5. Things kept bustling as usual, but a few men on the street would lay down their mats to pray. The mosques were beautifully simple - wide and open to hold a crowd of believers. One that we visited was from the 1300s and the other from the 1800s.

View from the Citadel

We were ready to leave the smog and traffic of Cairo for Aswan, and the start of our Nile Cruise.

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About Me

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Thanks for coming to my blog. It started as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, and now has become an ongoing project. I'm an American living in Germany and trying to travel whenever I can. I write about my experiences as an expatriate (the interesting ones and the embarrassing ones), and about my travels. There are some recurring characters in this blog, particularly my husband Brian and several of our friends. The title comes from the idea that living in a foreign country means making a lot of mistakes. So the things you used to do easily you now have to try over and over again. Hopefully, like me, you can laugh at how idiotic it feels. If you have happened upon my blog, then welcome. Knowing that people are reading what I write makes me keep going. Feel free to write comments or suggestions for future posts.