Chaos in Cairo- Part I

Put yer spurs on kids because the horse called Cairo is one wild pony. Is this a city where a person should let their hotel arrange their daily excursions? For dilettante, want-to-be, self-sufficient travelers Bobbi and I shy away from such silliness. When we travel to distant lands we not only want to see the sights, but we also want to dip our toes in the local culture. Our logic is that you can’t learn about the locale if you keep yourself safely ensconced in a tour group. Is not the goal of every seasoned traveler to feel comfortable outside the “guide bubble?” The conclusion I drew from Cairo is that it provides ample opportunity to become a more seasoned independent traveler, but the lessons are hard earned and unless you thrive being acutely vigilante, the guide bubble has its advantages.

A little background is appropriate. Egypt’s revolution, as we were told by our driver, has left a void in government oversight.

Hard times- Giza

Hard times- Giza

Buildings are being built without inspectors; the roads are jammed with unlicensed drivers; and tourist areas have light government presence. In addition, as another cabbie expressed his frustration to us, the conservative government is restricting his personal indulgences….he simply wasn’t feeling like a free man. Is Egypt falling apart? Definitely not. As previously mentioned, our American friend is a teacher at a private school in Cairo. The private schools are doing fine. This means that there is plenty of money being made in Cairo. But while the upper income is surviving, the poor are not. And when the poor are hungry, they look to fertile pastures, i.e. the tourist sector. Unfortunately, the tourist sector is also suffering from a lack of tourists. Hotel occupancy rates are at 5% and the Egyptian museum is only selling 500 tickets per day, rather than the usual 3,000 {statistics gratefully provided by M. Covington}. The situation is grim……enter Bobbi and I.

Cairo airport was pleasant and customs was a breeze. Fortunately, our hotel had provided transportation. We shared a ride back to the hotel with a Canadian woman. The three of us and our luggage packed into a Mitsubishi sedan; a sporty looking car, but short on trunk space. Bobbi and I rode in the backseat with our backpacks on our laps. The ride to the hotel provided our first glimpse of the chaos of the city. Bobbi later confessed that she was glad she could not see over her backpack.

[Side note on the Canadian woman: she recently retired from the Canadian military and she had spent six months in Kabul. The streets of Cairo reminded her of Kabul. Last year she embarked on a solo five month motorcycle trip from England to the Syrian border, where she was turned back due to the civil war. She was on her way to Jordon. She started that trip in February, 2011. She said she had a lot of odd looks from drivers as they passed her in snowstorms. She said it is difficult to find people to go on motorcycle trips with her…..go figure….tough nut, though.]

Transportation in Cairo moves in a fluid free-for-all. Everybody moves without regard for anyone else. Cars pull into traffic when they want, and everybody else just squeezes around. Horns are a necessary and constant method of communication. The highway is simply a high speed- to-no speed anything goes….horse drawn wagons on the far right, semi-trucks everywhere, and 70 mph cars maneuvering in every other possible space. Notice, I did not use the term “lanes.” Lane lines are for standing on, as we noticed when we flashed by a pedestrian who was attempting to cross the highway. Why was a pedestrian trying to cross a busy freeway? get to the other side, of course….. it’s standard practice. Our driver was good, but I still “fake braked” once or twice. On the way to the hotel, we saw one serious accident- a microbus had been T-boned: there were a few bodies being tended. On another occasion, we saw a horse that had been struck. The horse wasn’t dead, but the sight was not pleasant.

View from rooftop terrace of our hotel

View from rooftop terrace of our hotel

The hotel we stayed at is called the “Pyramids View Inn.” The owner, Sammy, grew-up in the house, but just last year converted it to a small hotel. The view from the rooftop terrace, looks directly at the sphinx and the four Giza pyramids….phenomenal. Around 1990, Sammy emigrated to Los Angeles. Being a sharp entrepreneur, he discovered that there were not any local soccer shops for the kids’ leagues. He opened his first store selling soccer shoes, socks and jerseys. In 2008, he had four stores, but was worn out. He sold and moved back to Cairo. He wife and children remained in LA. Currently, Sammy splits his time between Cairo and LA. Sammy told us that his hotel employees are all university educated, but that there are not any available jobs. We learned that our driver used to have his own Webpage design business, complete with an office and four employees. He had lived in Russia and he had been married to a Russian woman. He also spoke Russian, German, English, and Arabic. He is in his early 30’s. Currently, he can only make a living driving his car (the sporty sedan that lacks trunk space.)

the enormity of the Great Pyramid hits home when you stand next to one of the 2.3 million blocks

The enormity of the Great Pyramid hits home when you stand next to one of the 2.3 million blocks

Day 1. We spent our first day in the guide bubble. Bobbi and I wanted to visit the pyramids at Giza and at Saqqara. Because the pyramids are at different locations and would make for a full day, we decided to opt for a tour group. This would be the first time Bobbi and I had ever joined a tour group. As it turned out, we had a private tour with a guide and the same driver who had delivered us from the airport. Our guide was very informative and took care of all entrance fees, etc….He also kept the peddlers at bay. However, whenever he left us to wander on our own, we were constantly approached with offers for everything a tourist could want….except to be left alone….nobody offered us that. Even while we were on a camel ride, the fellow walking the camel let me know that if I was “happy” with the ride, then I should make him “happy.” I was learning quickly that as a tourist, I was viewed as nothing more than a tube of toothpaste in a sea of smiling faces.[Side note on tipping: Tipping in Cairo is expected and applies to just about everything. A person needn’t tip much, 10% or less in restaurants, and $.25 to $.50 for other misc. For example, the two musicians who started playing drums when we walked through the entrance of a restaurant, or the fellow who sat in front of the ATM machine “guarding” us while we used the machine.]

The private tour took all day, but it was stress-free and very informative. All we had to do was follow the guide around; including a stop at the obligatory souvenir shop where we were shown how papyrus paper was made, with the expectation that we might purchase something. At the end of the day, however, we were still whipped. We think it was because we had the undivided attention of the guide all day. This meant we had to pay attention all day.

All aboard!

All aboard!

Day 2: We spent day 2 being sheparded by our friend, Carolyn. Carolyn is on a two year teaching assignment at a private school in Cairo. Carolyn had invited us to join her with other teachers for an early evening cruise on the Nile. Our timing was truly fortuitous. It was a great day; a day out of the tourist zone….a different world. Everybody on the cruise brought a bottle of wine and snacks. We met wonderful, diverse people, and enjoyed an Egyptian sunset that shimmered off the water. Carolyn then took us to dinner for a local Cairo dish called Koshary. It is served in a bowl and is comprised of noodles, vegetables, and meat (optional). What makes the dish so delicious are the variety of spicy sauces that are drizzled, or poured over the top…..I could live on this dish.

Day 3: Bobbi and I were ready to venture out on our own. No protective guide, no sheparding friend; just the two of us in the tourist zone. This was a day when we gained some seasoning. This was the day when we experienced a “hat trick” of scams within a half hour. ( A hat trick, for you non-sports fans, is a term for achieving a “triple” something in one game, usually in reference to scoring three goals in a hockey game.) As soon as we stepped out of the hotel, we were greeted with the now familiar “Hello, welcome to Egypt. Where are you from?” This conversation starter precedes offers of goods or services. This morning it started with taxi rides, then with postcards and trinkets, then more taxi rides, then camel rides, then tours of the pyramids. Bobbi and I politely responded “no thanks” to these offers. We could have simply ignored the peddlers, but we look at ourselves as being representatives of our country, and it never hurts to be polite.

Just past our hotel- morning walk

Just past our hotel- morning walk

We walked for several blocks taking in the world of Cairo. Because our hotel was at the entrance to the pyramids where horse and camel rides are offered, we were immersed in the smells of camels and horses, hay and exhaust. Our ears were bombarded with horns and hawkers. Our eyes roamed the gritty, dusty streets. Finally, we hailed a taxi and told the driver our destination- the Egyptian Museum. The museum was across town in downtown Cairo. Our driver was friendly and spoke English. His cabbed was metered, so we knew how much the ride was costing us. (We also knew that the ride should cost around 40 Egyptian pounds or roughly $6.00 ) Our driver offered to be our guide for the day, but we told him we only wished to visit the museum. He was informative and opinionated about the new government, and we learned much about modern day Egypt. He drove us by the Citadel and he even stopped so we could take pictures (the meter was running, of course.) I kept my eye on the meter. We thanked the cabbie for giving us such a good ride, and he said, “Of course I treat you like my own brother and sister.”

Finally, after a bit of a “scenic tour” that ran up the meter we arrived at the museum. The fare on the meter read 50 pounds. I fished in my wallet for a 50 pound note, but only had 100 pound notes. The cabbie saw this and said that the 50 pound fare was per person, so he was glad to take the 100 pound note. Bobbi immediately called nonsense on this. I was frustrated that I only had a 100 pound note. (Carolyn had told us that if taxis try to overcharge, you should first get out of the cab, then lean in the window and give them what you think the fare should be and walk away. She said cabbies will never follow you.) But, since I only had a 100 pound note, I had to get change. Hence, my frustration. I gave him the note and said that we would give him 70 pounds because we did get to see the Citadel and had a decent little tour. He said that he would give a 30 pound discount for Bobbi. (The exchange rate is about 8:1, so the extra 20 pounds was $2.50.) After we paid, the cabbie was very helpful about where we should enter the museum, etc…. It was as though the attempted scam was not a scam at all, simply the way of doing business. His goal was to get as much from us as possible, and our job was to give him as little as possible….nothing personal. Not being a thick skinned traveler , however, I took it a little personally. Here endeth part 1 of the hat trick.

Bobbi and I walked across the street towards the front corner of the museum. When we reached the front corner sidewalk, we were still discussing the cab ride experience and were a bit distracted. We passed a nicely dressed middle age man who was standing on the sidewalk. When he spoke to us I was expecting an offer for a guide. But he simply said that we were walking toward the group entrance and that the entrance for non-group or “single” people was on the side.

We looked over at the front of the museum and sure enough, there were three or four tour buses lined up. We turned and started walking along the side of the museum. Thinking it a bit odd, but still tweaked and discussing the cabbie we walked until we reached the back corner of the museum. About thirty feet down the back of the museum we saw a gate with a man standing in front. (The sidewalk was busy and out in the open so we were not worried about being mugged.) We walked up to the gate and there were guards inside the gate. The man outside the gate told us that the museum was closed until 12:30pm. The time was 12:05pm. He then offered to show us a couple of stores where we could pass the time. We had already experienced this tactic in Turkey, so we declined but thanked him for the offer. We walked away. After we were headed back toward the “group” entrance, the same man caught up with us and pointed down the street where the demonstrators had put up tents. He was very helpful. He told us to avoid that place, but that we could wait for the museum to reopen in the fenced front courtyard of the museum. We thanked him and walked towards the “group” entrance.

When we arrived at the group entrance we slipped in line with other tour bus people and walked through the security metal detector without issue. The front courtyard was very pleasant and people were milling about. We did not see anybody entering the museum, so we sat down and waited for the museum to re-open. After 5-10 minutes we saw people entering the museum. It was only 12:20pm. We also spotted the ticket kiosk. It was then that we knew we had been subject to another ruse. There is no separate “single” entrance and the museum was not closed until 12:30pm. The whole ruse was either to take us to the man’s shop so that we would buy something (this was the typical ploy in Istanbul), or perhaps and less likely, the ploy was to lead us to an isolated spot and mug us. In hindsight, it was foolish of us to believe the man on the corner; especially after the cabbie had pointed us in the right direction… endeth part 2 of the hat trick.

As we waited in line to buy tickets, Bobbi and I inspected each other for flashing neon signs that said “Easy mark.” We were astounded that our day, thus far, had been nothing but cons and hustles. Fortunately, we were now in the museum compound. We stepped up to the ticket window. The price per ticket was 60 pounds ($7.50). We gave the kid behind the glass 200 pounds. The kid slid two tickets and our change under the glass. I grabbed the tickets and turned away. Bobbi grabbed the change and started to turn away, but she also counted the change. The kid had only given us 30 pounds. As Bobbi turned back toward the ticket window to ask for the rest of our change, the kid matter of factly slid a 50 pound note under the glass…..Holy hustles, Batman!….it happened again….Now, one might wonder whether it was an honest mistake, but given the way the kid had the 50 pound note ready, we figured not. If Bobbi had simply walked away without counting her change, as many a distracted tourist does, the 50 pound note would have been a nice tip for the ticket seller……Bobbi and I wondered how much the kid skims per/day…..thus, the hat trick was complete. But, our day was not over….cont’d.


  1. I don’t think I’m up for a continued….you had my heart racing all through this one…I truly bow before you two…I couldn’t do it…after a day in Turkey and being pawed all day & being on high alert, it was too much like hard work….please don’t say something bad happens. I’m breathing a sigh of relief now.

    1. High alert is the perfect description, Clare; it’s HARD to stay on high alert and it makes you feel terrible to always suspect everyone’s motives. As you’ll see in Part 2, I was so done-in by a day of being hustled that I probably incorrectly assumed another cab driver was doing it to us again.

      What WAS interesting, as KC mentioned in passing, is that every one of them still took the time to give us some good advice and warned us of OTHER scams! So I do believe it’s in large part just the way the tourist-hustle works and we don’t know the dance steps. I certainly have been toughened up a bit, though, thanks to Cairo. :o)

      Sadly, at least 60 people have died in Egypt since we left in riots over a death sentence from an earlier riot at a soccer match where still more people died. Not in the area where we were, but still a reminder that the country is really struggling right now, and my heart goes out to them.

  2. I think I’ll leave the international traveling to you guys and my brother! Canada is international enough for me!

    1. Oh, I don’t know, Teresa… those Canuks can be PRETTTTTTTYYYY dicey. :o)

  3. I would say that your Cairo experience was good experience before heading to Africa and “good” as well because you ended your stay safely, with memories of some interesting and fun times while there!

    1. Agreed, on all points!

  4. I read part 1 aloud to Wil and ended with a raspy voice. He’ll have to wait 24 hrs for part 2! IF we can wait that long! Great narration, Ken!

  5. […] is the opposite of Cairo. As you recall, we found Cairo to be rather chaotic [ Chaos in Cairo].  Seoul is not chaotic; even the fish market is organized and calm. The only semblance of chaos […]

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