Travel diary: Cairo, day one

By: Sandstorm

Sep 04 2008

Category: Middle East

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Sharm el Sheikh Airport is the glossiest, coolest, cleanest and most architecturally interesting airport I’ve ever travelled from.

We arrived early for our flight to Cairo and breezed through a very relaxed security, then the smiley people at EgyptAir put us on an earlier flight for free!

Cool and easy flight to Cairo then things suddenly got very frantic.

Haggled with a taxi driver but still got ripped off and then had a scary but incredibly stimulating ride through the capital in an old, probably unroadworthy Morris Minor through the craziest, most haphazard road system in the world.

Ancient biblical donkey carts share the traffic-choked three-lane highways with Muslims on mopeds, 60s cars and death-dicing pedestrians, against a jaded-looking myriad of cramped skyscrapers reminiscent of 1970s America.

We quickly learned that Cairo folk are blissfully unaware of wing mirros – instead they rely entirely on their horns to tell other drivers they’re there.

It’s frightening but also liberating – they take responsibility for their own lives without being wrapped up in cotton wool like we Brits are.

The centre looked dusty and faded, as though it was great in the 70s but has since fallen into disrepair. But there’s a mesmerising charm about it, and its residents are fiercly proud of their city.

We arrived at the Ramses Hilton and had Turkish coffees and rich, creamy chocolate ice cream in an incredibly plush Garden Court Cafe while we waited for our room.

It was rather a culture shock compared to the relaxed and casual Sharm, but a good one.

We watched as a revolving door of cosmopolitan clients – Sheikhs, diplomats, big players of the Arab world and hip, rich young Cairenes – settled themselves on the opulent sofas with fragrant sheesha pipes.

Our room was small but had an amazing view of the Nile and city, from which we grasped the full extent of relentless traffic hell that is Cairo’s road system.

We also realised there was no way on earth we could cross their roads without dying horribly, so after recharging our batteries we got a taxi to Khan al Khalili, the world famous market.

The driver was totally INSANE and we clung to the handles for dear life until eventually, we stumbled out into the intensely humid afternoon heat and a myriad of noise, colour and bustle.

Bright kaftans, jewelled dresses, intricately woven pashmina’s, freshly baked bread and unusual veg – it was an exhilirating assault on the senses.

The first few stalls seemed to be selling overpriced, rather cheap-looking trinkets and souveniers, but as we ventured deeper and deeper into the bazarre through an ancient maze of arches, we found ourselves right in the heart of the bustling trading floor of the Islamic market.

It was spectacular. We wandered around this magical labarynth, which reminded me a little of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films, for an entire afternoon, stopping to chat and haggle with the good-humoured traders (who’s command of the English language was, in many cases, more exemplary than I’ve heard from some of our natives!).

*I have to temporarily interrupt this article to point out something I found very upsetting. Donkeys are a primary mode of transport for many of Cairo’s traders, who rely on them to pull crippling carts piled high with heavy goods around all day.

I understand how important they are and that many traders can’t afford cars or trucks, but I was deeply shocked and absolutely appalled at the treatment of these poor creatures in the city.

They are forced to wear heavy, stifling leather bridles which must be extremely uncomfortable in the searing heat, and are driven along busy motorways with an unforgiving whip, while drivers swerve to avoid them and beep incessantly.

I cannot imagine how distressing all this must be for the animals, and have been completely stunned by the apparent lack of basic care shown to them by their owners.

When I returned to the UK, I researched charities supporting donkey’s rights in Egypt and discovered the Brooke Organisation – the only organisation in the world which works to carry out welfare assessments, rescue mistreated donkeys and educate their owners on the correct care.

It’s heartbreaking to see these beautiful animals being so terribly neglected – please, please, please show your support and make a donation to the Brooke so they can continue their work. Thankyou.*

Back to the market, though…

It’s easy to get lost in the Khan al Khalili and we did, but that’s part of the experience, I think. We ended up stumbling upon a tiny sidestreet shop selling the most beautiful scarves I’d ever seen.

Here we met an incredibly kind merchant who instantly furnished us with refreshing cups of herb tea while we agonised over which pashmina to buy (a deep purple one with rich golden embroidery).

Unable to locate the much talked-about Fishawi’s, we rounded off our expedition with a lazy lunch overlooking the main square and watching the streets empty for prayer time as the Muslim population flocked into the city’s ancient mosques.

We got back to the Hilton just as the sun was setting and, lacking the energy to venture too far, we dined at Falafel, one of the hotel’s five restaurants.

Dinner was a selection of mouthwatering mezzah’s with fragrant bowls of hot lentil soup, accompanied by music from the Cairene version of The Beatles.

After dinner we headed up to the top floor of the Hilton to the opulent Windows of the World Restaurant and spent half an hour propping up a sumptuous bar and sipping creamy, calorific cocktails.

The place had a glorious ‘old-world’ vibe to it; tinkling jazz piano accompanied by a sultry, smokey voice, elegant couples quietly chatting, an old fashioned and infinitely knowledgable barman and, best of all, panoramic views of a glittering Cairo by night.  

We climbed into bed just before midnight, excited about the following day but craving sleep.

Sleep, however, didn’t happen. At all.

A moment after we switched off the lights, there was a heavy thud at the bottom of our bed – not just the sound but the feeling of something thumping the mattress.

Alarmed, we clambered for the lights and flicked them back on, but there was nothing there. And in case there happened to be someone lurking in the room, I checked under the bed and inside the wardrobe, and after deciding we were ‘secure’ we returned to bed and clicked off the light.

It happened again. And again. And again. As soon as the lights went on, it stopped. As soon as they were off, it started. And this peculiar sound seemed to be getting closer – instead of the foot of the bed, it now felt like our headboard was being thumped by a mysterious fist.

Now, I’m rather cynical about these things. I ran through every rational explanation in my head, as well as a few ridiculously irrational ones (such as ‘When we were at the market, did we accidentally buy something that was cursed?!’) but nothing seemed to account for these bizarre occurances.

We half-dozed with every light on in the room.

Also see Cairo Day Two and 10 Things I Learned About Cairo

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