Cairo Day 1

Sun, 29 Jun 2008 16:43:48 +0000

Eilat to Cairo Index Alexandria Day 1

Since it's a Friday, I didn't expect to see much today. And indeed, it turned out to be a fairly useless day - partly because I almost fell for a scam.

I must have slept pretty badly last night. The noise from the street was terrible, even through earplugs. It's not just the car horns either. There are people yelling their heads off. At least some of it seems to be the marketing strategy of the people selling clothes and stuff in the streets. I can't imagine why anyone would be wandering along, minding their own business, hear someone a couple of hundred metres down the street yell "t-shirts", and think to themselves "hey, yeah, I wouldn't mind buying a t-shirt right now, let's walk over and see what they're like". But apparently people do indeed do that, and I could slap them for it.

But I got out of bed in time for breakfast at 7:00. I was ready for the usual Arabic breakfast of bread, condiments and tea, but this one was even worse than usual, with only a couple of small hotdog buns.

I was weighing up the Egyptian museum and the Pyramids. I decided the Pyramids either had to be very early or very late, and that it was easier to find the museum first. So I went off there. I had just found it off in the distance when I was accosted by a friendly old Egyptian man who spoke English. I should have known better than to talk to him, and I would have if I'd read the Wikitravel page more thoroughly. I don't know, he just seemed to be genuinely helpful and not trying to sell me anything. He was talking about his relations in Sydney and his family of farmers up the Nile, and didn't seem to be making it up. He gave his age as 62, which also added to his credibility. Of course he told me the museum was closed until the afternoon: a classic lie that I should have picked up on. But it was plausible, since it's Friday. He was very hard to detach, and I had concluded that he was just a proud Cairo resident who wanted to show me the city. He led me round several blocks, pointing out interesting mosques and buildings, before we eventually ended up at his shop, a perfume shop. I got tea, we chatted, and eventually the bottles came out and I was forced to listen to how great the perfumes were. It was only when the different size bottles in which I could buy my perfume were laid out in front of me that it was 100% clear that the whole thing was just an elaborate ruse to get me into the store. Damn.

I wasted half an hour on that nonsense. I was also a little worried about how I could escape without forcing the guy to lose face, which could be dangerous. The door to the shop had been closed, a very dangerous sign. But I was lucky, because the door opened and in walked another western "customer". Obviously they wouldn't start trouble with another potential mark in the room, so I made my excuses and left, fast. If I had been any sort of man, of course, I would have stayed and defended the next sucker against the scam. But I really wanted out of that place, and felt that it was every man for himself.

I was cursing myself for my stupidity, and still am. The one thing I can take from it is that I have innoculated myself against future scams, that could be more dangerous. The lesson is clear: any local who is both friendly and English-speaking is trying to take your money. Get away from them. It may be that, somewhere, there are English-speaking locals who genuinely want to help. Tough, they should mind their own business. You should smile, and ignore them completely. What a mean old world it is.

Anyway, at least I knew where I was, and I walked back to the square and on to the museum: fending off several similar attempts to waste my time along the way. The museum was obviously open and doing a roaring trade, so I went in.

The museum is packed full of ancient Egyptian artefacts, for the most part very poorly labelled. Apparently they're building a replacement museum out at Giza, and I hope they're doing a good job. I don't know why, but Egyptology doesn't actually interest me all that much. Maybe it's been too overhyped. So what with that, and the bad labels, I really just wandered around randomly looking for the odd interesting artefact.

I took lots of photos, and this led to the second spot of bother of the day: you're not allowed to take photos. There are no signs making that clear. I'd actually taken quite a lot before a cleaner spotted me and dragged me to a policeman.

He took my camera, and I was really worried about what he might do. The simplest solution is to delete them in front of him, which he might accept. Worse would be if he tried to do it himself, since he might delete the whole card (I have a backup, of course, but I don't update it every day). And worst of all would be if he confiscated the entire camera. I should have guessed what would actually happen: "you give me tip." Sigh. I said "twenty", trying to keep it as ambiguous as possible (maybe I meant I'd taken twenty photos). He said yes, and we wandered away to another, quieter part of the museum where I could slip him the twenty and he could give the camera back out of sight of whoever saw the original confrontation. And there it was. My first ever bribe. Thank you Egypt, for providing me with truly novel life experiences.

Again, I suppose it was a bit of a moral failing to give in so easily. Foreign travellers do a lot of damage by encouraging corruption. But I like that camera, (my leaving present from Amazon, no less) and there's no doubt I would have lost it completely if I'd refused to pay up. I don't think the museum management have a crackdown on corrupt guards uppermost in their minds, hence the lack of "no photography" signs, so there was nowhere to escalate to. Eradicating corruption really requires an organised, united front, and that's impossible with the fragmented tourist community. It's a cop-out, but I think change needs to come from the Egyptian people themselves, and from legal organisations. There's nothing practical that individual drifters like myself can do.

So anyway, I have no photos from the rest of my museum visit. I had a look at all sorts of treasures from Tutankhamun's tomb, saw lots of mummies and sarcophagi and jars of internal organs and so on. The highlight for me was the models of daily life included in the tombs. At first I thought they were rather cute dioramas made by the museum, but in fact they are thousands of years old. Absolutely fantastic.

But I found myself completely exhausted by about midday. I managed to spend three hours in the museum, but I was half dead by the time I left. In fact, I was almost worried that I was coming down with a virus or something, and decided that a siesta in the hotel would be a good idea. I slept for over two hours, more than I'd planned. I must have really been tired. Maybe the beer last night was to blame. Anyway, there was no question of visiting Giza in the afternoon.

Instead I went to the train station to book a ticket. I've decided to go to Alexandria tomorrow morning, maybe do a little sightseeing there in the afternoon. I'll be back to Cairo before long, but I'd rather press on to Alexandria, Siwa and Luxor first and reserve seeing Cairo properly for later, so that I'm not rushing back to Cairo to take my flight to Nairobi. The pyramids will have to wait.

It was a good chance to figure out the infrastructure of Cairo. Cairo has Africa's only metro system, which is fairly good, and extremely cheap. It wasn't all that easy to figure out the route map, but I just asked at the ticket office. So it was fairly easy to get to the train station. Once there, it was time for afternoon prayers, and I was surprised to see one corner of the station decked out with prayer mats and full of men prostrating themselves to Mecca. Rather inconveniently, right outside the ticket office, so I had to scurry past them to get my ticket. No idea if I was committing some kind of sacrilege. And it turned out to be the wrong ticket office anyway. My actual ticket was extremely cheap at just 29 pounds. I hope it's a decent train: the best trains take 2:10 to get to Alexandria, while the worst can take four or five hours. That makes a big difference to my schedule tomorrow.

I'm grateful to BBC News for recently running an article about a phenomenon that's gaining steam in Egypt: men with rough spots on their foreheads allegedly caused by praying so hard and so often. It's obviously bollocks: no-one praying sensibly would get a permanent mark on their forehead from it, it can only possibly be caused by people deliberately smashing their head into the floor in order to get the mark as a public display of piety. In other words, it's just vanity, and a rather worryingly extremist one at that. Anyway, now that I'm on the lookout for it, I'm seeing these marks all over the place. Needless to say, I don't have any photos of the craze to post to this blog, especially not today.

Walking back, I passed a lot of open-air sermons going on. It seems that preachers around town just set up in any open place with room for prayer mats, climb a little pulpit, and let rip. The sermons were very well attended. I wish I understood what was being said. It's safe to assume that the Egyptian authorities would crack down, violently, on anything remotely incendiary.

No beer tonight, partly because it's the sabbath and I want to be on the safe side, but mainly because I'm concerned at how exhausted I am, and want to get a decent night's sleep. Instead I went out to get some felafel. A single felafel with salad in pita cost me a ludicrous EGP 1.50. I had to ask twice to be sure I'd heard right. It's not really a meal, you'd need two, but still. That's about 20 euro cents each. I also got some more Arabic sweets from the sweet shop. I think I'm getting addicted to the ones with nests of wiry pastry surrounding nuts and honey. This much cost me EGP 6.50, and at that rate I could well end up doing myself an injury on these things.

Back at the hostel, I had a little chore waiting for me. I'd written "computer programmer" as my profession when I signed in, and the guy had said he wanted to show me something on the Internet when I had time. I assumed this was the hard sell of a package tour that Wikitravel had warned me about. But tonight it turned out that he wanted me to make an "adjustment" to one of the Internet machines that was broken. Basically someone had screwed with the BIOS settings, setting the CPU frequency to something incompatible with the components being used, and now the machine wouldn't boot. I reset the settings to some sensible defaults and brought the machine back from the dead (and after three days, too: spooky). Took five minutes, and only that long because I tried to optimise the settings after I'd got it working. I probably should have asked for a discount on my room rate for this favour, but honestly I was so pleased with being able to make the world a better place in some tiny way that I didn't feel like it. Does this one good deed make up for my shameful day of bribery and throwing fellow tourists to the perfume-selling wolves? Not by a bucketload, no. But at least the day ended on a positive note.

Eilat to Cairo Index Alexandria Day 1