Egypt: Tales of the Unexpected, Part II – Cairo, Egypt, Africa

Take me to the Airport for a Hamster

I was quite tired from being on the bus to Cairo most of the evening. In
fact I’d been attempting to get to Cairo most of the day, having been
denied access to an earlier bus in Sharm El Sheik. There was a two hour
to wait until the next bus, which of course didn’t leave for a further hour.

I met a French guy and his Egyptian friend while waiting for the bus.
They had also been denied access to the 2:30pm bus. We got talking a
little and due to either his bad understanding or my bad accent, he
understood I was Dutch (Ollandaise) rather than Irish (Irlandaise). I was
too tired and hung-over to bother correcting him. And besides, I thought
it was amusing, Irish people have the kind of accent while speaking
English that often people think when we say “Ireland” we are saying
“Holland”, odd that it should work in French as well.

The journey was fairly uneventful except a full shakeout of the bus and
ID control for all the Egyptians at Suez. And of course being woken from
a deep and needed sleep to be sold a tea that I didn’t even want from the
bus’s ground hostess. I had only taken the tea as it seemed like the
quickest way to get the guy to leave me alone so I could get back to
sleep. I couldn’t though…

All this left me quite dazed as I arrived in Cairo at 1am. To my dismay
the French guy and his Egyptian friend made a quick escape from the
station. I was hoping they would help me with bargaining for a cab. To
make things worse I wasn’t quite sure which bus station I was at, and
hence wasn’t sure what fare I should be hitting for. The taxi driver that
approached me spoke good English, which set alarm bells ringing right
away. When I didn’t like the fares he was offering, he brought over his
mate the policeman to verify this was the fare. Well it was either that,
or he did it to intimidate me. I ended up paying more than I wanted,
cause I was tired and I wanted to get away from the station and into bed.

I made it to Hotel Dahab in the end, despite the taxi driver telling me
it was no longer good (and by the way, did I want to stay in his friend’s
hotel instead?) and some guy at the door of the hotel building telling me
it was full (and by the way, did I want to stay in his friend’s hotel
instead?). Hotel Dahab was a wonderful, friendly shithole off the main
square Talaat Harb, just the kind of place I love. I had regained some of
my energy, or perhaps fallen into overtiredness, and stayed up chatting
to the night clerk. I learned a new Arabic word “magnoona” � crazy, which
was to be applied to me frequently during my brief sojourn in the country. Unfortunately, I wasn’t used to the city noise and didn’t get much sleep the first night.

I woke up late the next day and got as far as the Egyptian Museum which
was right beside the hotel. I had met some Dutch guys arriving that
evening and they invited me to accompany them on a trip the next morning
to see the (semi) famous weekly Camel Market outside Cairo. But first, a
manager in the hotel arranged for about 10 of us to go to for an evening
of Sufi devotional music in the old town. It was inside a splendid
fortress that we were treated to the music and the whirling dervish style
dancing at once mesmerising and hypnotising.

Fast forward to the next morning and I somehow had a bad feeling about
this cab idea. There was something dodgy in the guy just happening to be
outside our hotel at 5am and offering to help. He also said his “friend”
was a taxi driver and he would negotiate a good price for us. Indeed the
price he was asking to take us to “near” the market was almost too good
to be true. I always think when things seem to good to be true, they
usually are, but the Dutch guys were set on the idea. However, his idea of
“near the camel market” was about 90mins away. In fairness we did get to
the place where the bus left for the camel market but at an insanely
inflated price. There wasn’t much we could do, the price had been agreed
and we had to pay.

Over an hour later and in the depths of the countryside outside Cairo, we
arrived at the Camel market. The sun was just coming up, it was cloudy,
there were camels and white robed men as far as the eye could see. It was
surreal and bizarre and, just like the Bedouin wedding, now that we’d got
here, I was wondering what the hell we were doing. I felt kinda dumb and
out of place. In the back of my mind I wondered how we were going to get
back. We’d come out on a local minbus, which was very good fun but could
hardly be expected to have a regular schedule. I didn’t fancy our chances
on getting a good deal on a cab back to Cairo either.

We trailed a bit at the entry, slightly dazed from the early start. Quite
soon someone came to sell us “entry tickets”, although it really could
have had anything written on it. Well, at least it wasn’t too expensive.
We wandered deep into the market and saw various herds of camels getting
beaten by various owners. We passed some other Europeans and I was
approached my the woman with them.

“Don’t tell me you’re enjoying this,” she said. Not quite sure of how to react, all I could say was, “well, it’s interesting.”

“I’m hating this,” she said. “I really can’t take seeing animals treated like this.”

Somehow it didn’t really bother me. She was German and had been teaching
English in Cairo for two years. She’d been thinking about visiting the
camel market for some time. She said she was glad she came but the look
on her face said otherwise.

I will say the most impressive site besides seeing two camels being fit
into the back of a pick-up truck, was the slaughtering of a goat. It went
from animal to food in approximately 5 minutes. Quite impressive! Not too long
later we decided it was time to go and headed towards the Nile barrages
which lay between the Camel Market and Cairo. One of the Dutch guys had
told me there were some nice parks there to relax in. After the rigours
of the camel market we spent a fairly quiet day strolling through the
park, having tea at a VERY local roadside stall and visiting an amusement
park.

We walked down to the place where our guide book said we could get a
ferry back to downtown Cairo. The Dutch guys had a vision of a relaxed
cruise back to the centre along the Nile. What we got was a two hour,
crowded downstairs, loud music upstairs, rusting boat which seemed to take
an age to get back to the downtown. The lower deck of the boat was full
of families returning from a day out, Friday being the traditional
day-off in Muslim countries. The upper open deck was full with teenagers
seemingly coming back from a daytime disco. They were continuing their
revelries with very loud Arabic pop music and outrageously good dancing.

Soon the Dutch guys couldn’t take the music anymore and returned the
milder lower deck. I was left alone, which at the beginning wasn’t really
a problem but slowly I became completely encircled by a bunch of youths
and began to feel distinctly uncomfortable. I could always have escaped
to the lower deck but I loathed seeming like I was fleeing and besides
they were just kids. I stuck it out and in the end the few girls in the
group made the others apologise for their behaviour. I wandered round the
upper deck a little but continued to feel like I was getting too much
attention and joined the others below.

The music was still audible even there and there were a few teenagers
dancing on a makeshift stage at the back. No sooner had I arrived than
the people around us were asking who I was, what were the relationships
and where I was from and did I like Egypt. At the time I was pretending
to be married to one of the Dutch guys, it was just simpler that way (not
to mention giving me an air of respectability). Soon some men asked me to
dance but I declined thinking that it probably wasn’t the done thing.
Then a little later a quite timid woman in a veil got up and equally
timidly motioned for me to dance with her. We were in a quiet corner of
the boat and I saw no possible harm coming from a little dance with this
lady, especially as I love to dance. I was wholly unprepared for what
happened next.

The minute I got up to dance the entire lower deck of the boat exploded:
not only were all eyes on me but there was a great outcry of whooping and
cheering and cries of “Yalla! Yalla!” coming from all directions. Not to
mention that quite a few people scattered around the crowded deck stood
up and joined in the general mayhem with their own dancing circles. There
was nothing else to do but get into and revel in my new found stardom
and soon I was getting requests to come and join other groups for a
dance.

By the end of the cruise I had danced with about half the boat, I
was utterly exhausted but completely charmed by the residents of Cairo
who had been offering me food, drink and conversation as well as dancing
all the way back to the centre of town. I was amazed at the general
enjoyment and sensuality of the women’s dancing to the pop music.
Honestly, it’s easy to forget you’re in Africa until you see something like
I experienced on that boat.

With another few days in Cairo I managed to get in most of the tourist
trail including haggling at the Al-Khalili market, being descended upon
by hoards of schoolchildren wanting to touch my hair in the backstreets,
getting ripped off in an elaborate scam at the Pyramids, being greeted
with a “Happy Christmas � Welcome in Cairo” by almost everyone we met and
of course the essential “café” experience.

Being a Muslim country there are no pubs and bars, only prohibition-style
cafés with darkened windows which serve alcohol. A few of us from the
hotel went to check a local café out one night. Inside there were a few
people scattered about the place, most seemed to be drinking alone. There
was nothing approaching a convivial atmosphere in there which was a stark
contrast to the lively coffee stalls in the rest of the town. Due to the
fact that I work in an engineering university, I barely noticed that I
was the only woman on the premises. However, this point did cross my mind
while drinking my fourth large beer. I began to have a mild panic:
if the general population didn’t drink and for sure women didn’t drink in
public, exactly how likely was it that this joint had a toilet for women?
As I say it was only a mild panic, as I knew in the worst case the hotel
wasn’t too far.

The guys had apparently been using a trough-style urinal
at the back of the pub and they weren’t too sure if there was a cubicle.
What followed was one of my most interesting bathroom experiences. So
small we hadn’t noticed it but the relatively unused women’s bathroom was
in fact in the middle of the place, and looked to have been converted
from one of those telephone booths you sometimes find in pubs. I took a
deep breath and a double take on the table of men sitting right at the
entrance to the toilet and went in. I could see most of the pub through
the cracks in the door and decided it was better to keep the light off. I
barely had room to readjust my clothes in this strange telephone booth
toilet. Turns out I needn’t have been embarrassed, the men at the table,
who had two inches of wood between their heads and me peeing, were as
gentlemanly as possible under the circumstances.

By the end of my time in Cairo I had cracked the taxi fare strategy. I
didn’t haggle, or try fractured Arabic, I simply hopped in the cab, gave
the destination with a reasonably good accent and paid a pound or two
over the odds, to avoid complaints. It worked like a dream. If I’d tried
to ask the price and haggle I would have paid the same but it would have
taken me twice the time � in a different league to anywhere else I have
ever been, Egyptians are extremely hard bargainers. So gone were the
days where I tried “Take me to the airport for a hamster?” out on the cab
drivers. This was a turn of phrase the English ex-pats I’d met at the Red
Sea employed, a mixture of Arabic, (the Arabic word for five sounds like
“Hamsa”) and cockney rhyming slang.

For the last two days of the holiday I returned to Dahab, which appeared
ever more the oasis of tranquillity after Cairo, to relax and catch up
with some people I’d met the first time around. I was extremely sorry to
return to a cold and drab European winter, and when I saw a notice in a
Dive shop looking for a receptionist I was, for the first time, regretful
of having a life to go back to.

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