I've spent some time trying to figure out the dualistic nature of Cairo, and in the broader context, Egypt. On the one hand, this place has so much to offer in terms of character, colour and culture. And it has quite possibly the richest recorded history in the world. But on the other, I have never been more frustrated with how a country's tourism industry is run; or in this case, how it's allowed to run riot. The foreigner-scamming exploits of certain quarters almost guarantees that a holiday quickly degenerates into a con-dodging nightmare. And worse still, because these people are everywhere, being harassed and hustled is likely to be your first, and last impression of the country. What a shame. And to think all this could be avoided with a little better enforcement and education.
But let's start with the good bits. Cairo is a truly wonderful place to visit if you're after a different experience. As soon as you step off the minibus from the airport - into central Cairo's oncoming traffic, you know you're in for something special. Other cities have pedestrians and vehicles too, but they usually stay well clear of each other. In Cairo, all forms of traffic meld into one contiguous, writhing organism of metal and flesh. All your senses are bombarded as you keep track of cars and bikes hurtling towards you, against a cacophony of grumbling engines, bellowing horns and the strident cries of street vendors. All while your brain is trying to process the risk equation of getting to the other side of the road.
Going for a walk in downtown Cairo isn't merely exercise; it's an exercise in staying alive. Although I am told that the drivers will try their best not to hit you because of the paperwork it would entail for them. On the flip side, you feel awake, alert - exhilarated even. And that's a good thing, because you'll need all your sensory faculties fully functioning to take in everything the city throws at you. From thousand-year old Islamic architecture to ancient Christian communities to crumbling European-inspired 20th century buildings, Cairo has it all. In musical terms, think of it as listening to a succession of melodies from different eras; only that you don't turn off the preceding track before playing the next one. One would expect chaos, but an improbable harmony of strikingly different themes has somehow emerged.
And not far away, the Giza plateau hosts its daily dose of gawping crowds, as it has done for 4,500 years. Although the visitors these days clutch more GoPros than gilded offerings. As you approach the historic site, one pyramid looms, like an enormous arrowhead, its clean lines and perfect proportions cutting through the chaos of the city which is suddenly left behind. Then a second. And a third. Upon closer inspection, there is an unmistakable resemblance between their positions and that of the three stars on Orion's belt. Some say this was the Pharaohs' earthly gateway to more celestial destinations. Others say it's coincidence. Millennia of wear and tear have taken away some of their lustre - they were once coated in a gleaming limestone shell several metres thick - but certainly not any of their gravitas. And although the cynics will say that they are a glorified pile of neatly stacked rocks, it's worth remembering that there are two million of these rocks, just for the Great Pyramid alone, each weighing between 3 to 30 tonnes. All this assembled without the use of wheels, axles, pulleys or iron tools.
So one could imagine that this would be the climatic episode of the Cairo experience right? Actually no. This is where it all went downhill for me. The Pyramid Experience is just like any other big ticket sight in Egypt. To get there, you have to fight your way through an army of touts who will bombard you with spurious offers, dodgy merchandise and outright lies. "Sorry meester, the pyramids are closed today, but if you follow me..." And once you actually get into the compound, another wave of con artists launch themselves on you. This time posing as ticket inspectors, guards or guides. In my case, the scam was even more elaborate - a nice old man approached at the bus stop FIVE kilometres before the pyramids, offering to hand-hold me there, because he was going the same way. For 30 minutes he kept up a flawless narrative of his wife and kids and his family's history in Cairo, and even offered to invite me home for lunch. Once we got there, the prospect of a "special camel ride for locals" was casually, then forcibly thrust upon me. And when I refused, he had the audacity to ask for a "tip". For what? Lying to me for half an hour?
In another instance, a "nice" young man attempted to befriend me on the street, before showing me around the area, apparently because he liked to practice his English, and he loved to help tourists. Again, the end-game was money, to hell with the deceit and dishonesty. And it seems that everyone, from the official ticket booth operator, to the security guards, to the hotel staff and basically anyone who approaches you on the street, wants a piece of you. And they are prepared to do anything or say anything to get it. Because of this, the experience you have at the major historical sites in the country is practically ruined by the relentless barrage of insincerity and ill-will.
Unlike most of Central Asia or China, where there is an acceptable amount of the occasional jiggery pokery, in Egypt it seems like this is the default behaviour. Thus the best approach is to trust no one, question everything and bargain hard for everything you buy - even mineral water at the roadside stalls. This, as you can imagine, is a terrible way to travel. Which is why I am hell-bent on seeing everything I need to see in Egypt in one trip. Because I really don't want to come back.
Some pictures from my walkabouts. Frankly at times, I had no inclination to pause for photographs because I would be instantly swarmed by the pests. But one must try.
Top: The historic Bein al Qasreen area and its many mosques and madrassas.
Middle: Madrassa and Mausoleum of Barquq. I love how the oil lamps hang from the ceiling. Very Aladdin.
Bottom: The interior of Al Azhar mosque and madrassa. Possibly the oldest university in the world with an uninterrupted history. Students have been taught at this exact spot since 970AD!
Top: Boys with their bikes.
Middle: FC Cairo Junior Team. I was invited to play a game of football with them, in the back alley behind the metro station. It was fantastic fun.
Bottom: A boy looking desperately bored in the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo.