Blurred days in Cairo

Words by Simeon Gready - December 2014

If you remember – the first big city stop on this Cape-Cairo public transport adventure was Windhoek in Namibia, which I had described as one of Pico Iyer’s ‘Lonely Places’: those that “don’t fit in; [that] have no seat at our international dinner tables.”

I often thought back to that beginning point of the trip during my time in Cairo. 7 weeks had passed since, and there was no doubt that it had been the most immensely fulfilling 7 weeks of my life, though my face had become significantly more strained, my beard had grown to a scruffy ginger mess, and my back and shoulders had tightened. Gratifyingly and endlessly, I had learnt lesson after lesson.

That fulfilment hadn’t quite settled in as I navigated Cairo, however. That proved to be a different lesson altogether.

Given my state of fatigue, Cairo was a rough ride. It was busy, noisy, hazy, a myriad of one-way streets leading into roundabouts shaped around bronze statues of unsmiling men. Tacky jewellery and clothes shops populated every one of these streets, and I considered it an achievement that I managed to purchase not one single souvenir or article from these shops, given the force with which you were encouraged to ‘look.’

Some context must be given here: Egypt, and Cairo itself, was rising out of what you could call difficult international circumstances. As of December 2014 the uprising of the Arab Spring had ended – General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had settled in as President of Egypt and relative stability had been restored.

Before the Arab Spring, Cairo had certainly not been a ‘Lonely Place.’ It was a centrepiece of the tourist map, a humming metropolis, a historical voyage where one could experience the Pyramids of Gaza and the mask of Tutankhamun. There was big money in the tourist industry, and lots of jobs. The Arab Spring drastically halted that momentum. Tourism dropped right off, and so did the jobs.

As such, Egypt’s uncertain emergence from those tumultuous years brought hope of a re-emergence on the global tourism map. This hope had been ongoing for a short while as I arrived – and, with it, a sense of desperation from those determined to make it work.

This sense of desperation played out forcibly on those that did travel there. I had been given a taste of the hassle and the agitation in Aswan, but that did not prepare me for Cairo. On almost every street corner, I would be greeted, in a friendly manner of course but one that soon turned to despaired vigour and intensity when I would not accompany my new friend to their shop.

Admittedly, this must also be taken in the context of my own disillusionment. It was true that I was quite exhausted by this point of my journey; home comforts were less than a few days away, and on my mind, and my budget had been run down to pennies. I was fortunate to have family friends to stay with in Cairo, an older couple with which I spent a couple of quiet evenings when I could not entertain the thought of exploring the streets any more.

On the other hand, I was also tinged with a sense of sadness given that my trip was almost at an end. It had passed quickly, with moments of incalculable triumph and joy, and moments of sodden despondency. I had perhaps done Cairo a disservice by leaving it to the end (not that I had a choice in the matter), when I was without zealousness.

This is not to say I did absolutely nothing with my time in the city. I visited the National Museum, and drank bold and bitter coffee on the Nile. I spent my pennies on street food, donor kebab after donor kebab, which was money very well spent. I walked down Midan Tehran Street at sunset, in downtown/central Cairo, the centre point of revolutions.

I covered the city via the underground Metro system, which, compared to the cities I had travelled through on the way up, was incredibly well organised and easy to use. I got lost amongst the poor signposting, admired the countless Egyptian flags on show, decompressed at coffee/shisha bars, and listened to the call of prayer on a Friday afternoon.

I visited the Pyramids of Gaza, riding on horseback over the sand dunes, having paid for a forced and aggravated tour. The whole experience struck me as rather strange, as the pyramids sat on the edge of the heaving suburb of Gaza. Impressive though they were, I could never rid myself of the nagging thoughts that I had visited the pyramids only out of obligation to the great structures.

I toured Islamic Cairo, with its crisscrossing alleyways leered over by tall stone colourless buildings, brightened by high-strung washing lines. This was my favourite day in the city, a treat for the senses with its wafts of spices and cooking meat. Stray cats and dogs sifted through rubbish bins, scooters beeped and swerved around tight cobbled corners, and flies descended on everything in the midday heat. I spent some time in the central mosque, with its red carpets, smooth white pillars and unobtrusive chandeliers.

And with that, my Cape-Cairo public transport journey was abruptly complete. I caught a lift to the airport, and was soon on a flight to Amsterdam. On that flight, I made a note of all the individual journeys on different modes of transport that I had taken in order to get me from Cape Town to Cairo, and around those cities in between. They amounted to the following:

16 x Bus

30 x Taxi

26 x Minibus Taxi

3 x Train

7 x Boda Boda

5 x Tuk Tuk/Bajaj/Rickshaw

17 x Metro Rail

1 x Double Cab Bakkie

1 x Truck

1 x Camel

1 x Ferry

1 x Plane