In early 2004 I traveled around Egypt for 11 days with $200 in my pocket, and two friends I had met in a kibbutz in northern Israel. I kept detailed journals of the trip, something that I am so glad about now. You can find the story of our felucca right here, our journey to Dahab right here. This is the story of our Cairo, and Aswan and Luxor will follow at some point this year.
I barely remember traveling from Evron to Eilat that time, maybe because I slept most of the way, who knows. The trip itself is absolutely beautiful, especially if you love desert landscapes like I do. This time my mission was Taba to Cairo, with my companions Andrea and Kirsty. We really had no idea what we were heading into and where we would end up, but it was an adventure, and one I will always cherish. The Israeli-Egyptian foot-crossing border was the first time I actually walked across a border before. We ended up getting held in the waiting room waiting for our exit stamps, as two of us had overstayed our visas due to an ongoing strike at the Israeli Interior Ministry. Our volunteer visas had been filed months before, but everything was stuck in limbo during the strike. It didn’t take too long, after about 30 mins we were in Egypt, walking over to the bus station in Taba. I tried Egyptian cigarettes for the first time in my life, replacing Noblesse with Cleopatra for the duration of the trip.
The trip from Taba to Cairo is about 6 hours long, and we got to see the beautiful sunset over the Sinai while we wandered into the mountainous roads on our double decker bus. Serenaded by a loud TV playing Egyptian movies above us, and given our first overview of Egyptian rest stop toilets about halfway into the journey, we finally arrived in Cairo around 10pm. At this point we all looked at each other and said “so which stop are we meant to get off at?!” This was 2004 so no smartphones, and we hadn’t even done any research before leaving, so just decided to take our chances on the second stop. We found out later that we should have got off at the Ramses stop as it is the main bus station, but we were able to get a taxi quite easily once we were off the bus. Quite easily after we had got rid of the swarms of people trying to drag us off into their taxis… I can still see our faces: Kirsty screaming “don’t touch me!!”, and Andrea and I thinking to ourselves “wtf have we got ourselves into here?!” You get used to the crowds and the noise pretty fast, but that first night was an absolute experience. We chose a driver who agreed to take us to The Sultan Hotel for 15 Egyptian pounds and hopped in. The Sultan Hotel was an idea we had taken from a guide a previous volunteer in Evron had left. We had no idea if it still existed and what to expect from it.
Walking, driving, or more accurately, being driven, around Cairo is scary. Or it was at the time, I have no idea if anything has really changed there. There aren’t many traffic lights, and while there are people directing traffic around the major intersections, they aren’t everywhere. Every time you step into the road to cross it you feel like you are hovering a fine line between making it across safely and an inevitable crash with a car/bike/bus/other vehicle zooming towards its destination. Nobody stops for pedestrians, so you take your chances whenever you can and hope for the best. Our first cab ride was an experience: music blaring out of the open windows, balmy air welcoming us into the Egyptian capital, while our driver swerved in and out of lanes, blaring his horn every few seconds. We made it to the hotel in one piece, around 11pm and the city was still in full swing. They say NYC never sleeps, but neither does Cairo. Shops were open wide, people thronged in the streets, and if the sky hadn’t been dark you would have thought it was the middle of the day.
The Sultan Hotel only had two beds available so we went up another couple of flights of stairs, past a very revealing notice in paint stating the “best hotel in Cairo” was that way, to the Vienna Hotel where we bagged a room to ourselves. Bonus? Not so much. You get what you pay for, and we really had no intention of roaming Cairo to find a different place to stay. So the best shithole in the world was our home for the next few nights. We decided to brave the toilet/showers the next day and went out to look for food. I made the decision to go into the first place we found for rice, vegetables, bread, and Egyptian tea. Andrea made the better decision of going for a pizza at a place called Gad, which then kind of became our go-to for the next few days.
I’ve braved many a shithole toilet over the years, some worse than others, and have made it out alive. The Vienna Hotel shower experience was just that: an experience. As I can only assume was to be a space saver, the shower head was right above the toilet, so you really had to make sure you didn’t mind a wet toilet seat and/or just trying to shower over the loo. Maybe the whole point was to shower while actually sitting on the toilet? Who knows. It wasn’t the most sanitary of places anyway, and our main concern was how to keep the toilet paper dry. Unless you are staying in a decent hotel you need to bring your own in Egypt, or be prepared to tip for a piece of TP in a public toilet.
One of my aunts, who had traveled around Egypt more times than anyone can remember gave us a great piece of advice that I still remember to this day: if you need the loo go to a pricey looking hotel, or a Pizza Hut or something similar. Chances are the toilets will be clean and there will be toilet paper if you are lucky. We used that advice when we were walking back to our hotel from Giza (more about that further down).
Now I don’t know if this is even relevant anymore, but at the time you could get an international student card for about 60 Egyptian pounds as long as you presented your own student card from your university. Someone from the hostel took us to the place where you could get them done, and for some insane reason I had my student ID from the year before on me and it still worked. An international student card gave you 50% off entrance to any place of interest, so it was more than worth it. We also got discounted train and bus fares, which was helpful for the rest of our trip.
Student cards in hand, fresh Turkish coffee and croissants in our bellies, we made our way via service taxis to Giza to finally see the pyramids that I had dreamt about since I was a child. I was the first to see the tip of one on the horizon, and couldn’t sit still. All I wanted to do was be there, touch the stone, stare at them in amazement. We did however have to grant the man from the hostel a little time first, as he presented us to one of his tour guide friends who offered us a tour of the pyramids for 100 Egyptian pounds. None of us were really interested in being guided around, so we declined politely and made our way over to the Sphinx. In my memories, and in the photos I have of those moments, everything is golden: the sun, the sand, the glow around the edifices. We walked and walked, marveling at the sheer magnificence of everything, looked at hieroglyphs, even entered one of the pyramids, but it was a little claustrophobic and stuffy to stay in for very long. We then went up to the KFC, bought coffees and sat there eating our bread and cheese while looking over Giza. Sand, horses, camels, tourists, and these amazing creations from thousands and thousands of years ago.
There is something very strange about realizing that you stand on ground, near architecture on the bones of architecture, which was developed millennia before. The world opens up wide, you feel so tiny and powerful at the same time, clashing feelings that tend to overwhelm and leave you lost for words. The same emotions collided within me when I visited the ancient city of Akko (Acre) in Israel, and the Dead Sea. It’s the feeling I get whenever I watch Aztec blessing dances being performed. We are tiny dots in the grounds of thousands and thousands and millions of years of earth, a nothingness against a past of civilizations both gone and still here despite everything they have had to endure. It’s an incredible feeling that borders on sadness. What are we doing to preserve rather than destroy and recreate?
We left Giza elated and pensive, with no real idea on how to get back to the hotel unless we paid for a taxi. So we decided to walk, not thinking that we were actually about 10 miles from the center of Cairo. We also didn’t have a map, but thankfully our communal sense of direction was pretty accurate and we ended up walking the right way. So many people stopped to talk to us, smiles, questions, conversations. We walked along a massive main road, stopped at a luxurious-looking hotel to use their toilets, and then at Pizza Hut for a bite when our legs started to protest. In the end we found an official looking person by the road side (he ended up being part of the tourist police force) who agreed to flag down a taxi and negotiate a decent price for us. We asked the taxi driver to drop us off at the Egyptian Museum and then got lost trying to make our way back to the hostel, although we did end up finding baklava, which made everything OK again. Baklava always makes everything OK! So does koshary by the way, the filling and delicious Egyptian street food that we discovered in Cairo and ended up seeking out in every other location we visited.
After a much needed sleep we planned our second day in Cairo, getting the night train tickets to Aswan purchased first so that we didn’t have to worry about it later. At that time trains and buses filled up fast, and we had really left it until the last minute, something that became the main theme of our trek through Egypt really. We left our bags at the hostel for the day, and got tickets for the 12:30am train at the station, once we realized that you had to get the tickets on platform 11 and not the main ticket office. Our plan was to visit Coptic Cairo, tour the Egyptian Museum, and then see where the day lead us.
We made our way to Hanging Church in the Old City, within the quarter known as Coptic Cairo. We decided to use the metro to save time and money and while it was easy enough to navigate, we didn’t feel that comfortable squished up against so many men. We actually didn’t understand why there were no women in our car, until one of us noticed on our way out that the first cars were actually designated as “women only”, so we made a mental note to use those cars on the way back. Something that we all thought that the public transport in our home cities could benefit from (Grenoble, France, Bogota, Colombia, and Johannesburg, South Africa). I unfortunately decided to omit this part of our trip from my detailed journals, and only have some blurry memories of walking through the peaceful area and admiring the churches, learning more about Coptic Christianity.
We then made our way back to the Egyptian Museum and through the hordes of visitors by the entrance. The museum houses over 5,000 years of history and it would literally take days to see it all. We decided to make our way around the building by starting with the first floor, then the ground floor, and then the mummy exhibit, foregoing the Tutankhamun exhibit, which I now regret. There was so much to take in: coffins, jewelry, pots, artefacts, artwork, tablets with hieroglyphs, statues, stones, stories… I loved the statues of Akhenaten, so handsome in stone, with an interesting history. As I walked through the museum I could only imagine the absolute joy of discovering ancient history, researching a life lived thousands of years before. I left the museum feeling full, but empty, thirsty for more knowledge, more visual aspects of these people who left us so many riches to discover. We visited the mummy exhibit before we left, amazed by how well preserved these corpses are, some with fingernails and hair still present. It appeared as if some had died extremely violent deaths though, their appearance was pretty gruesome. I do wish that we had used the money for that exhibit to see Tutankhamun’s though – I think we missed out.
It took a while for our eyes and minds to adjust back to modern day bright and bustling Cairo, and we walked back to the hostel in reflective moods. We had a few pizzas at Gad, and then slowly made our way to the station where we had coffee and sat around on the platform for a few hours until we were able to board the night train to Aswan.
Cairo is enormous and I don’t think we even had time to scratch the surface of the city. It is overwhelming and noisy and confusing, but also friendly and warm and full of millions of stories. We could have made our lives easier by keeping a map and important points of interest on hand, but I think that our wanderings helped us discover things that we may not have seen if we had followed an itinerary. I will most definitely go back one day, with a little more money and a little more time, to rediscover the pyramids, and learn more about the layers of Cairo.
We traveled to Aswan on the overnight Express train, in 2nd class. At the time we had no problem buying tickets for this route, although there were tourist restrictions on traveling 3rd class, which we circumvented on our way up to Luxor from Kom Ombo by just buying on the train. Since 2009 there are stricter government regulations on which types of trains tourists can travel on, but easy ways to get around them if you are on a budget and/or not interested in travelling in a deluxe sleeper train. I found this information very helpful.