Arriving at night in Cairo, we were whisked through dense traffic by our speed demon cab driver. I gave him a tip, not only because it is customary to do so for everything in Egypt, but because we arrived to our hotel in one piece. We stayed in an older neighborhood in Central Cairo in an even older hotel. The hotel was on the fifth floor and we got to ride up on the elevator of death (luckily for our few days there we only had to walk up once). Our room was simple with two fans (no Air Conditioning...). Once we settled we realized a couple of things: 1. Whoa, we are in Egypt! and 2. It is really hot here. I was whiny because I was hungry so we went to a fast food place, Gad, around the corner from the hotel which was in our guide book. This is when we had our first culture shock: not a thing was written in the roman letter alphabet, not even prices. Everything was in Arabic. (Later we figured out that there was an upstairs sit-down area where they had menus with English). I eventually figured out the system of paying first and then giving the receipt to the correct station. We saw people getting meat sandwiches from a shwarma meat stand outside the restaurant and asked for two. We got our two sandwiches and were delighted with our choice. We would make more visits to Gad and ordered one of each item off the menu by the end of our stay.
Our main goal for Egypt was to be tourists and see the major ancient sites. Though sleepy, we booked a taxi driver for the 2nd day which meant while jet-lagged we would have to get up early. Our hotel manager gave us a rundown on the sites we would see and the first stop was Giza, the home of the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. As we were still trying to wake up during the car ride, our driver pulled up to a camel tour company which he said was the best and fairest. The salesman said that we could rent a camel to see the pyramids for $90 dollars. I knew right then and there that we were experiencing our second culture shock of Egypt: the bargaining. We said no thanks and luckily Amber had read that the cost for a camel should be substantially less. Another salesman then came to rescue the sale. We heard that a horse or camel would help getting around in the hot sun so we had to get to a better price (Later we figured that we didn't really need to get an animal ride to see everything, but it did help us get some great vantage points for pictures). Instead of getting fired up I kind of thought of the haggling as a game. I was trying the wait-for-him-to-come-down-in-price-before-naming-my-price tactic, but I didn't let Amber in on this strategy and she just gave her price, which the horse salesman agreed to. Instead of paying $45 each, we paid $34 for two. (Later I was congratulated by the hotel owner who said it was a good price. He heard some American paid $350 each which made me feel better. That b-school Negotiation class came in handy!)
The horses were skittish and scary to ride, but we enjoyed the views:
Next we visited a famous step-pyramid which was the first known pyramid in the world. Imhotep, the first pyramid architect, became revered as a demi-god because he was so ingenious.
The third stop on the tour was Dahshur, where we went into the pyramid, which was quite a rush. The path into the pyramid was extremely steep down and the air smelled awful (maybe tomb-like?).
We viewed a couple of rooms and made our way back up and out.
The Red Pyramid at Dahshur was the third tallest (behind two taller ones at Giza). Did you know that the Great Pyramid at Giza was the tallest man-made structure until the Eiffel Tower? This stonework definitely put Machu Picchu to shame (sorry Incas!).
It was here where we got finagled into seeing a temple around the corner with a security guard who was obviously trying to make a little extra money with a tip. Here is my new friend:
The last stop was a museum in Memphis, which was kind of boring. But Memphis was one of the first important cities in Egypt, and now there is no trace except for what is in the museum.
Throughout the tour we found security guards who wanted to give us a special tour for a tip. It was almost comical by the end because we were trying to be budget travelers and didn't need someone to show us something that we could see on our own. But this practice continued throughout Cairo. Basically if you have enough money to get to Cairo, people expect that you have money to hand out tips and also buy every little gadget and knickknack with a pyramid on it. It kind of reminded us of the big cities in India in that we were obviously outsiders and therefore nagged for money constantly. I know that it is way to make a living for locals, but it wears you down after a while.
The third culture shock was hearing the call for prayer throughout the day for muslims. One time it occurred during the US v Ghana World Cup match and the guy next to me left his seat to pray on a carpet outside. I respect the religion, but I am not sure I could have been torn away from that soccer match.
Back to the soccer match: I tried going to the American Cafe to watch the game, but they said they were not going to show it. I think they were showing a soap opera or something. The irony. I was then flummoxed on where to go and started walking down an alley (Amber opted to stay home this time), and one friendly gentleman wanted me to have a seat in his coffee bar, but he did not have the game on. But he kindly ushered me to his friend's coffee bar two coffee bars down the alley. I was given a seat and felt that I shouldn't get too rowdy and ordered an Egyptian tea instead of a beer. Slowly more and more Egyptians came into the local joint and everyone was either drinking tea or smoking shisha. When Ghana scored, the place lit up with glee. I realized that I was the lone US supporter in the place. Everyone was cordial and nice, but I could tell that some of the smiles at the end of the match (Ghana won in extra time) were a little mocking - ah, Egyptian sports fans. Despite the US loss, it was a great experience.
One day we went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which is supposedly a must-see. We were little underwhelmed by the organization and that only some signs had English. It seemed that someone got a bunch of Egyptian items and piled all of them into a bunch of rooms at random. I think part of it is a conspiracy to employ more tour guides. We didn't go with a guide and walked around looking at one tomb after another. We both felt that after a while it got redundant. But, the highlight was the King Tut exhibit. It blew us away. No cameras were allowed in so we don't have pictures to share. The number of items found, and their pristine condition was jaw-dropping: golden chairs, multiple tomb rooms, multiple sarcophagi, and of course the famous funeral mask.
Another day we went to the touristy market district in the Islamic section of Cairo. It was neat to see the old mosques and old architecture, but I was not too impressed with the stores all selling the same Egyptian trinkets. I prefer the local markets more, but we missed this area. We went on a Sunday when most stores were closed, and I was happy not being there when everything was open. I would have been stopped by even more salesman to buy something. For the record, I do the no eye contact and no reply method to shoo away touts which is quite effective.
Shisha water pipes:
Word of advice: ISIC student identification cards get you half off admission to pretty much all of the pyramid sites and the Egyptian museum. We saved a ton of money with our (fake) student IDs from Guatemala...
Looking back, Amber and I agreed that Egypt was the most different and foreign place we had ever visited in our travels. We got a great taste of Cairo and Egypt, just what we needed to see a new part of the world. Plus we got to check off another continent for our trip. Now, off to Thailand to relax our travel-weary bodies...at least that was what we were expecting...