Several years ago I spent two weeks traversing Egypt as part of a GAP Adventures (of Canada) tour. About 15 of us spent one week along the Nile, seeing the usual tourist sites, then a second week in the desert, going from oasis to oasis by Jeep with Bedouin guides, as far west as Sawi Oasis near the Libyan border.
It was a great group of people, mostly Canadian, who wanted to stay as close as possible to the local population rather than in five-star enclaves. In addition to railroad and Army-escorted bus, our modes of transportation included camels, donkeys, mule carts, bicycles, even a hot air balloon. When we sailed down (up?) the Nile, for example, it was in a traditional sailboat–a felucca–rather than a luxury cruise ship, and we slept on the felucca at night, moored to the bank of the Nile. The Bedouins made camp for us and cooked for us in the spectacular White Desert (part of the overall Sahara). Siwa is the most remote and traditional of the oases, since it was off-limits to tourists until fairly recently. It was a memorable trip.
The group spent one night in Cairo and one night in Alexandria (great seafood!), but I spent a day in Cairo before the group got together and stayed several days afterwards, before heading off to Istanbul. I’ve traveled fairly extensively in China, and some in Southeast Asia, but Cairo has the most distinct image in my memory as “third world.” The noises, the horrendous traffic, the smells, the mass of faces–all shouted, “You are now definitely in that Third World that you’ve always read about.”
As you view the scenes today of the demonstrations and protests, bear in mind that the population of the Cairo metropolitan area (19 million) is about the same as that of Australia (22 million). Cairo is one of the world’s mega-cities. I have traversed more of Cairo by foot than most Western visitors, but even so I realized I was barely scratching the surface of the city. It makes me wonder what is happening today in all that vast urban expanse outside the central governmental and business area. Predictably, and somewhat understandably, the television coverage we get is concentrated in that one area. Even when I’ve watched Al Jazerra instead of CNN, that’s where the cameras were focused.
THE DAY BEFORE
The day before our tour group assembled, I had two goals: (1) To see as much of the city as I could, knowing that the tour group’s time inside the city would be very limited. (2) To buy a sleeping bag for use in the desert and on board the felucca. (I did not realize that the Bedouins would have some used sleeping bags available from previous tours.)
Nobody at my two-star hotel knew where I might find a sleeping bag, so I started walking for several miles through mom-and-pop type business areas. My biggest problem was that, having left the tourist areas, nobody spoke English. They tried so hard to be helpful, but I’m afraid most of my attempted body language–depicting me sleeping in the desert–was as comical as it was mysterious. On the rare occasion where I’d find some young person who understood some limited English, and that person would explain my needs to the other people in the store, the result would be laughter. My translator would explain to me: “Nobody can understand why anyone would want to sleep in the desert!” Obviously I was not in the company of backpackers.
That’s when I got the idea of hiking to the American University in Cairo. More English there, but still nobody knew where to buy a sleeping bag. Finally one of the clerks in the bookstore helped me. He had heard rumors of a store in one of the upper-class neighborhoods that sold tents and sleeping bags. He showed me its location on my map–a big island of the Nile where most embassies are located and where most foreigners live. By now I had done enough walking, so I took a taxi there and back, and found my sleeping bag.
One of the most dangerous things I did in Cairo was on that return trip–I slipped into the front seat of the taxi, next to the driver. Don’t do that if you have a weak heart. At least in the back seat you can drop to the floor, close your eyes, and tell the driver to let you know when you’re at your destination. If you’ve been to southern European cities and thought the traffic was bad there, you ain’t seen nothing.
Cairo has lots of circle intersections, sort of like Washington, DC, except that if you have five avenues and streets meeting at that circle, each of those five streets has a merger of (say) five lanes into two. Yet everyone drives as if he’s the only driver on the road. Somehow they can speed into a space, jolt to a stop, and have just a couple of inches separating them from the cars to the right and left.
Scary as it is, the bottom line is that it works. I never saw an automobile accident while I was in Cairo.
I should explain that you feel you’re taking your life into your hands from that first step into the taxi. There’s no such thing as a new or barely used car in Cairo. They all look like a collection of used parts from various models, welded together–which is what they are. Who can afford to buy a new car? As you go through the kinds of business areas I walked through on this day, you’ll find long blocks filled only with dozens and dozens of shops selling every imaginable car part, or repairing cars (i.e., creating a new Frankenstein monster from all those parts). I did not see a single new car dealership during my adventures in Cairo.
Conversely, when you are crossing a wide street by foot, there’s only one way to do it and have a fair chance of survival: Hide behind a local when running across the street, and make sure they are on the side facing oncoming traffic. They know the rhythm. I know this doesn’t sound very heroic, and it’s not what you would expect John Wayne to do, but I’m alive to tell you that it works.
THE DAY AFTER
After our tour group dispersed, I did my own explorations again.
I started near the Bazaar, walking through a mix of neighborhoods, most of them poor, a few of them lower middle class. At no point was my safety a concern. Everyone was friendly, returning my smiles.
Here, as in the back areas of China, the few people who were able to communicate with me assumed I was German or English (German or Australian in China). It’s hard for me to fit in physically as a native, and you just don’t find Americans traveling alone in back areas. (There be monsters! There be Injuns! There be foreigners!) Sad but true.
I know there are a lot of American kids who travel the back regions of the world, staying in youth hostels and carrying a Lonely Planet guidebook in their backpack. But somehow our paths didn’t cross. I think the Lonely Planet crowd must be more interested in outdoor sights in the countryside. My main interest is as an amateur urban sociologist, seeing how people live in their city neighborhoods.
One place where I was assumed to be American was at the old Jewish synagogue adjacent to the Christian ruins in one remote neighborhood of Cairo. This is a tourist destination, but not in the first tier of tourist destinations like the Egyptian Museum, the Bazaar, or of course the Pyramids. I wonder what that says–if the merchants here just assumed that I was American because of the close relationship between America and Israel.
Some of the memories that remain most powerful, years after a trip like this, are those moments that give you a glimpse of what it is like to belong to a distinct religious minority in an area not used to the pluralism of American society. I’ve learned that when I’m asked, “Are you a Christian?”–whether in Kunming, China, or in an Egyptian oasis–that is not the time to explain, “Well, I’m really an agnostic…” Religion is a serious matter for these people, and more often than not they are just looking for comradely support from people who share their beliefs.
On this trip, I joined a young woman–the only German in our tour group–on an excursion down the shopping street in whatever oasis we were in at that time. She had a particular facility for connecting in unexpected ways with the locals. In one shop the storekeeper made the connection immediately: “Are you Christian?” “Yes.” He immediately got on his cell phone, jabbering excitedly in Arabic, and we wondered what was going on. Within minutes family members started to arrive, and within 15 minutes we were surrounded by most of the Coptic Christian community of the oasis. They could not speak English, and certainly not German, but they would embrace us and look directly at us with a broad smile and misty eyes, open their purse or wallet, and show us their iconic images of Mary and Jesus. It was a touching moment not to be forgotten, and today, as I see the news of pillaging in Cairo by the thugs you’ll find in any society, I can only imagine–and shudder–to think what it’s like to have the added burden of being a minority that those thugs particularly hate.
Here’s to better days in Cairo and Egypt!
Scenes from David Franke’s Egyptian adventure, 2007
Photos by Sylvain Beauregard