Cairo International Airport is simple but clean & has free wifi! Take note Heathrow, which does not and instead charges you for a wifi service that packed in on you less than five minutes after you've paid for it. The process of leaving the airport is pretty straightforward but before you clear customs you purchase your visa at a cost of USD$15 to receive a visa stamp before queuing to be processed. Despite the fact I landed as a bunch of other flights did the process was pretty quick for a Country that I've been told runs at a much slower pace than one might be used to.
Whilst almost every second car in Egypt is a taxi I did not want a repeat of Mexico and so pre-booked mine via my hotel. Akhem, a rather jovial Egyptian greeted me as I walked into the arrivals area and whisked me away from all the touts who are all over you like a rash pretty much instantly. Yet despite the scams, hassles & hustlers, Egyptians take hospitality seriously and you soon learn to distinguish between the genuine and the "Hello sucker" types. Akhem was a joy to chat with as he drove his Peugeot 504 like he was racing Formula 1. Before I knew it we had weaved our way through the mayhem of Cairo and I was at my hotel.
Approximately 22 million people live in Cairo. Yes... 22 million. Only 34 million people live in Canada!!! As dusk arrived the city sprang to life as everyone and their mother came out to feast & get festive. What a great time to wander the streets and absorb the sights, sounds and smells. The crowds are like nothing I've ever seen before in my life. You basically weave your way in amongst everyone else weaving their way in amongst everyone weaving their way amongst... You get the picture. And when it comes to crossing the street you basically are playing chicken dare and your life WILL flash before your eyes.
Interestingly at Midan Tahrir, there were lots of police with riot shields. The mood however wasn't one that I felt required me to do a quick about turn. There was a peaceful demonstration occurring and relations between protesters and police was relaxed. I am lead to believe it was some form of protest against Murabak, who is currently standing trial for the deaths of peaceful protesters during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. It has been an interesting year for Egypt politically and will no doubt continue to be so whilst the trial continues.
In 3 wonderful hours I was hounded by papyrus sellers, hissed at (I was beginning to
wonder if I was in a city of snakes!), followed by several people at different times trying to become my best friend (this will be one of the "hello sucker" types of hospitality), taken into a scent emporium where I smelt the essences of lotus, papyrus and musk, drank tea with the locals, witnessed the 5th & final prayer of the day and bartered for a headscarf so that I could be respectful & cover my head when I went to look at the Mosques.
And the highlight of the evening? I got about as authentically Egyptian as one can get and partook in the tradition that is the sheesha. I opted for the tobacco and molasses mix that was soaked in apple juice (tufah). A decorated bulbous water-filled glass pipe was brought to my table with hot coals and I was told to enjoy. As I drew back the gloriously fragrant smoke that is filtered through the water, I tried to ignore the fact that I had read that the large volumes of smoke being inhaled into your lungs over the period of an hour equals the amount of tar as smoking about a packet of cigarettes. It was definitely worth temporarily breaking my usual healthy lifestyle for.
Interestingly when asked how long I had been in Cairo I was met with a reply of "and you're still smiling?" I suspect though that as long as you embrace the good, the bad & the ugly of this City there is no reason why that smile ever has to leave your face. Welcome to Cairo!
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