Shadow Lines – Cairo, Egypt

Shadow Lines, Part II (6 of 10)
Cairo, Egypt

We finally arrived at the suburban bus station, close to midnight, and by the time the driver had pried open the doors (a tricky exercise involving a tire jack, a small Philip’s screwdriver and a tin of peaches) a motley collection of the great-unwashed proletariat, otherwise known as Egyptian taxi drivers, had surrounded the bus with a siege mentality.

You could almost smell the greed – a bus load of tourists, coming up from Sinai arriving late at night into a bus station which was as close to central Cairo as Egypt is a friendly country to travel in (i.e. not at all), had to be a good earner. Whilst the Koreans and Italians were fighting with a scrum of dirty yokels, I slipped out the back door of the bus, dived through a hole in the fence and jumped into the first taxi I saw.

“Central Cairo, this hotel, this address, twenty Egyptian pounds.”

“No sir, this very far, six hundred pounds.”

Out that taxi into the next.

“Central Cairo, this hotel, this address, thirty pounds. The last driver told me fifty, but his car wasn’t clean.”

“Well, the fare is four hundred Egyptian pounds – but you can pay me what you think is a fair price.”

“I will pay you thirty-five – not a penny more. That is how much I paid last time I was here, and the time before and the time before that. If you get me there quickly I might pay forty. So step on it my good man.”

“Very good sir.”

Of course, I had never been to Cairo before and had no idea where the hotel was, but the first rule of Egypt is that taxi drivers are the biggest crooks on the planet and would happily overcharge their own wives by a factor or 12 given half a chance. In fact, I can’t think of a single redeeming feature of Egyptian taxi drivers. I imagine that they are recruited by 3-point banner advertisements in Sleaze Bag Weekly:

Wanted: Vehicle Operatives
Are you unwashed, dishonest as the day is long, incapable of following simple directions and have a certain moral lassitude when it comes to dealing with finances? Fluent English speakers need not apply. Driving skills and vehicle are not required as this is a great vocational experience for someone who wants to learn on the job.

Or am I getting confused with Enron and Worldcom recruitment campaigns?

By the time we hit central Cairo, the donkey behind the wheel was hopelessly lost and the traffic had ground to a halt. The donkey’s frequent trips to small stores and restaurants for cigarettes and directions did little to keep the traffic flowing, and after the sixth stop I gave up, paid him off and dived out into the night reasoning, that two feet are always better than four wheels.

I had imagined Cairo to be a magical place: the bazaars, the Egyptian museum, the millennia of culture. But – standing on a street corner in the middle of the night miles from where my map said I should have been – was taking a slight edge off my enjoyment, and Cairo was turning out to be definitely more Brothers’ Grimm than Enid Blyton.

I stopped a passing soldier – all bristly moustache and rusty bolt-loading Enfield rifle – for directions. He spat on my shoes, laughed at me and walked off. I just felt like crying. I stopped to ask in a restaurant that was decked out with pretty little fairy lights and had set up some tables on the street. The owner looked at the scrap of paper on which I had written the hotel’s name, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back on me. I felt even more despondent. How does that advertising campaign go? “Come to Egypt where everyone has a smile?”

An hour and three grinding taxi rides later, I finally made it to the hotel that the guidebook recommended. I climbed the twenty-seven flights of stairs to the hotel and immediately understood how Dante felt. Each floor increased the horror. The ground floor had rats; the second floor rats and drunks; the third floor rats, drunks and prostitutes; and the floor directly below the hotel (described in the guide book as, “charming, quaint and good value for money”) was given over to a lawyer’s office.

By the time I had woken up the owner from a drug-induced coma, I had already decided that the hotel wouldn’t be receiving my custom tonight – something to do, I guess, with the monster-sized rats which were scrambling over a pile of unwashed dishes in the corner. I was tired, hungry and desperate for a shower, but there was no way I was going to stay there (unless, of course, it was fantastically cheap). Thankfully it wasn’t, and the owner wasted all of two minutes wondering why I didn’t want to pay Sheraton prices to stay in the Pension Fleabag before he belched loudly, scratched his nuts and returned to his slumber.

I back-tracked down through the levels of hell and headed off in a random direction looking for somewhere better. I realised that I had been awake now for nearly 24 hours and had only eaten a few biscuits in that time. It was hardly turning out to be the best night of my life. The next two hotels were even less salubrious than the first hotel and had the unique selling points of things growing in the shower, cigarette ash all over the floor and enough pubic hair on the sheets to make a hearth rug. I felt tired, drained and despondent.

I jumped in and out of taxis, hoping they would take me to a hotel, but they just seemed to drive around the city honking their horn and taking me to mosques, libraries, and on one special occasion, a half-completed flyover. It was only by luck that I eventually found the New Sun Hotel, which someone in Jordan had recommended to me.

“Okay,” I thought, “the place needs a good clean, but the rooms are reasonably cheap, the location is fine and I’ve had enough of trolling around the city looking for a bed.” I paid a few dollars in exchange for a key, and a few minutes later I flopped on the foam mattress and slammed the door shut on Cairo. I hoped that I would wake up somewhere nice – like Lagos.

Amazingly enough my cell phone gave good reception from the room, and I was able to make a call home.

“Where are you, I have been sitting here waiting forever for you to call!”

“Sorry, its been a long day. Tell you more about it tomorrow.”

“How is it there?”

“Terrible – I miss you too much.”

Sleep didn’t come easy that night.