Maybe we shouldn’t have taken the camel tour.
We really should know better by now, after fifteen years of travelling with children. When it comes to exploring dusty, smelly, and crowded places, some of our kids don’t do so well. Actually, to be completely truthful, not just the kids.
The problem is that in theory these faraway lands always sound so exotic. Like Zanzibar. Doesn’t it immediately make you think of spices and sailing ships and mysterious Arabs of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights variety, with loopy earrings and a scimitar tucked in their belts? So you embark on a tour through Stone Town and expect to be transported to this magical fantasy of yours. Except you won’t. Because your senses are assaulted by the mounds of dirt you trip over, by the dust shimmering in the oppressive heat, and by the choking smells wafting all around you. You immediately wish to be anywhere else but here, and the only reason you don’t say it out loud is that your kids have already said it out loud fifty-three times. There is nothing to do but put on a chipper face and suffer through not only the heat and dust and dirt but also the whining about the heat and dust and dirt. If you’re a parent, you will agree that the latter is by far more punishing than the former. You tide yourself over by taking a bazillion pictures, which, when you look at them six months later, look stunning.
So we looked at someone else’s stunning pictures of a recent diving trip to the Red Sea and decided to go there during the kids’ midterm break in July, to put yet another African country on our family map. The one at the very opposite end of the continent we’ve come to love. Nothing sounded better than getting away from the freezing mornings and mid-winter doldrums of Joburg than forty-plus degrees of desert heat in Sharm-el-Sheikh. To get there we were going to pass through Cairo, and immediately we decided we’d have to spend a few days there first. Cairo sounded – you guessed it – so exotic! Noisette’s father spent three years as a prisoner of war in North Africa after WWII – a fascinating story all on its own that I will write about one day – and his occasional nightly escapes to Cairo from his camp in the desert (he always returned to camp, having learned earlier that true escape was futile) to take in the freedom and magic of a big city are part of family lore.
Maybe anything looked good after the drudgery of the desert. Maybe it looked much better at night. And maybe in the space of 65 years a few details got lost. He certainly made it sound charming and sparkling and pretty, what with music and lights from all the boats on the Nile floating through the balmy night air of 1947 Cairo. The smell of Turkish coffee emanating from the souk was probably added on by my own imagination.
In any case, setting eyes on Cairo one early July morning in 2012 was a bit of a letdown. Cairo is brown and dusty and dirty. Making Johannesburg, after two months of winter and no rain not exactly a lush paradise either, appear positively green and clean in comparison. And Joburg doesn’t even have a river flowing through it, let alone one as big as the Nile. You are somewhat removed from all that dirt and noise in your nice hotel – have I told you that we are snobs? – but only to a certain extent. Because from your 18th floor vantage point, high above everything else, you can see down on all the other rooftops and you briefly wonder why all the buildings are unfinished, until you realize that they are indeed finished but that finishing, in Egypt, doesn’t entail removing all the building rubble. They simply leave it there when done. It looks like bombs have recently hit.
We had two days in Cairo. One for the Egyptian Museum and one for the pyramids. Noisette had had a lively email conversation with the hotel to select a few different tours for us, but of course when we showed up at the front desk, ready to go on our city tour, nothing was arranged. But not to worry, that’s where Hassan came in. We didn’t want to wait two hours for the official tour guide to show up, so the hotel arranged a private car and driver for us, for the sum of LE 600 per day (Egyptian Pounds, similar in value to ZAR).
Hassan, the driver, was all smiles. His yearning, he assured us, was to make us happy. He hustled us all into the car, plunged himself into Cairo’s crazy traffic, hand firmly on his horn, and chatted away calling me and the girls “my queen” and “my princess” and asking our plans. Our plan was to visit the museum this first day, and perhaps the Citadel as well, but it was soon evident that Hassan had other plans. His yearning, you see, was also to make the most of his newfound source of income, and a quick calculation no doubt showed him that the pyramids would be a more profitable enterprise for him than the museum. So he convinced us that today was the perfect day to see the pyramids, even though we hadn’t brought water or hats or sun screen. Maybe we can be excused for only half-listening because we were too busy gaping at Egypt’s version of minibus taxis in the form of VW buses passing us left and right, all of them with open boot, excuse me, bonnet (to provide much needed cooling for their poor screaming engines) with absolutely no regard for the concept of lanes. In fact, none of the streets had any lanes printed on them, no doubt because no one adheres to them anyway, so why bother with the paint.
We hadn’t gone very far, with no pyramids in sight, when we came to our first stop. “The ‘First Papyrus Museum of Egypt’,” Hassan proudly announced. We absolutely had to see this, he informed us, because he wanted us to be completely happy and his conscience wouldn’t bear it if he deprived us of this experience. So out we spilled of the car, and into this venerable institution. Where we were treated like royalty and offered tea and lemon and hibiscus juice (I could see a worried frown emerging on Noisette’s forehead, because the dispensing of free stuff never bodes well for a quick and inexpensive exit from such a place). Where we were shown how papyrus is peeled, hammered flat, soaked, and pressed (in all honesty probably the highlight of our trip as far as the kids were concerned). Where we were then informed that due to the revolution – bless the new president, Mohamed Morsi, who had just been sworn in the previous day – and the disastrous effect it had on tourism, the Egyptian government had decided to give us a 25% discount on all purchases, so that a medium-sized piece of papyrus could be acquired for the very reasonable price of only $40.
We escaped after purchasing the smallest and least kitschy papyrus painting we could find, vowing to be more vigilant about Hassan’s itinerary from now on, but with little luck. He proceeded to show us a lot of Cairo over the next two days in just this fashion. Into the car, murderous drive using every available and not available lane, out of the car at the next must-see location, where he invariably happened to know a guy who wanted to show us around for money, then off to find a money changer to refill our fast-dwindling supplies of Egyptian Pounds. Our happiness was his main concern, he’d tell us all day long, and his other equally big concern was the prospect of a nice big tip from “Mr. Noisette” at the end, the odds of which he tried to improve every once in a while by pulling me, “My Queen,” to the side and whispering in my ear how very much he hoped I was happy and would convey my happiness to Mr. Noisette so that he would give a nice tip.
I found the constant hounding for tips incredibly tiring. The guys cleaning your room at the hotel – and they were indeed always guys, never women – did nothing but hang around in front of your door all day, asking you at every opportunity if you needed anything. When you’d just settled nicely in your bed at night, they’d knock at the door, asking you if you were absolutely sure you didn’t need anything. You’d say “no thank you” and try to push them back out the door, at which point they’d start listing all the things you might need, like ice, more towels, something for the minibar? You’d be on the verge of asking them for a piece of rope to strangle the annoying butler when they’d finally make their exit, only to appear again the next morning bright and early, informing you that the shift was changing and they wouldn’t be here when you’re checking out, hint, hint. When I asked my father in law about this afterwards, he assured me that it was exactly the same in 1947. In fact, not bearing any gifts aka tips was probably the main reason he and his friends were captured the first time they had tried to break out from camp – the village elders they asked to hide them most likely got tired of no rewards materializing.
Nothing much seems to have changed in Egypt.
But we did get to see a lot of Cairo thanks to Hassan and frequent trips to the money changer. It might not be pretty, but fascinating nonetheless. Having our picture taken at Tahrir Square – most likely we picked the very safest week to be there, right after an election that made everybody feel ecstatic and before the military and supreme court started clashing again with the new government – and visiting a mosque, Coptic church, and synagogue all in one day were the highlights of our stay.
And do you know what? We saw at least four more “Official Egyptian Papyrus Museums” along the way. Thankfully, we didn’t stop at any of them.
As for the camel tour – some of us didn’t do so well with that, while some others could have ridden off into the desert for days. Who was who?
Stay tuned, and you’ll find out in the next post. In the meantime, here are some more Cairo pictures.