Sunday, December 06, 2015
Cairo Confidential 2007
Wanna feel like Indiana Jones? Here’s just the place for you ....
A diversion from the norm. Four years back I had the opportunity to go to Cairo. It was part business and some post-conference partying. That was when I still had a 9-5 job. Well, after the uprising in Egypt and ouster of Mubarak, no one should be visiting Cairo anytime soon till things settle down. I am so glad I was there before the whole thing blew up.
The long ride from the airport to the hotel was an eye opener. If you thought the drivers in Malaysia and Thailand were nuts, wait till you get in a car in Cairo. They cannot drive without their horns for sure. Cars slide in and out of lanes like well oiled machines. After ten minutes, I found a way to de-stress myself, just keep looking out the side windows, don't look ahead.
Crossing the roads would be a cinch for Malaysians as we are so used to dancing and weaving through the traffic – Malaysia's national sport? The difference being, its less stressful crossing the roads in Cairo than in KL. At least motorists in Cairo do not accelerate just as they have spotted you trying to cross the road. I have always wondered why Malaysians do that – do we really want to kill or scare the daylights out of pedestrians?
The buildings are in all shades of brown. I asked a colleague why is that and he explained that the buildings were brown, not by design, but as a result of the dust from the desert. Eventually, all the buildings ended up looking the same.
Egypt is an Islamic nation but you can easily find good places to drink yourself silly. Most hotels have a small casino (ten tables or less) but they are opened to foreigners only – still an interesting fact. And it has a fair share of dancing – there's dancing during dinner and at hotel lobbies, people simply break out in song and impromptu dancing in celebration. Extremely refreshing, to say the least.
Walking around on the tourist trail, visiting the pyramids, the sphinx and museums can easily delude one into believing he or she is having an Indiana Jones moment. You almost feel like stealing some treasure or rescuing some maiden.
The first impression, like most first impressions of things so widely talked, written and read about .... is that the pyramids are much smaller than what you had envisioned in your mind. They are barely 10-12 stories high.
The highlight of my trip was the camel ride. Its not the pussy 5-10 minute camel ride, mind you.
When the bus pulled up to this group of 70 camels and their drivers, I thought it was only going to be a five-minute joy ride and photo opportunity. But hey, it was the real deal. Imagine riding in a huge pack of 70 camels for 45 minutes traversing across the desert. Imagine Lawrence of Arabia leading a band of troopers to conquer some tribe.
In the distance you get to see the setting sun and images of the pyramids as well. That was golden. Many of my friends have warned me about the ruthless camel drivers who will try and fleece you for huge tips at the end of the ride. I was prepared for that.
My guide was a boy, probably 15, or 16 tops. The funny thing was he tries his best to “connect” with his customer with his limited English.
Here was the best memory from the trip. He kept asking me “Are you happy?” ... the first couple of times, I gave my polite short answers. When he gave me the same drivel for the tenth time, I lost it. He was like an old zen master disguised as a young camel driver. For the first few times, you'd answer “Yes, I am happy” but when continuously prodded on, you start to ask yourself “Am I really happy?”
You laugh out in sheer frustration, but against such a glorious backdrop you cannot help but marvel at the same question.
Here I was on a camel ride watching the sunset, feeling a bit like Lawrence of Arabia, in the historical land of Moses ... seeing the sphinx and the pyramids in a distance ... If you are not happy NOW, right here, when will you ever be?
But isn't happiness a lot more than just that? Do I have a happy soul? Am I really content? The temporary grandeur and material comforts fade into obscurity. Wow. It was more than just a camel ride (which in itself was excellent). Thanks to my “zen master”, I now “know” that I AM happy.
If you get the chance to go to Cairo, book yourself into one of 3 better hotels on the Nile (the Four Seasons, Hyatt and Sofitel). The room rates have not exploded yet and are about the same as in Malaysia. Funnily, there are about 5 casinos within 5 hotels in Cairo. They are not huge, open only to foreigners. Only 10 odd tables per hotel, but its fun to be in a casino (half empty) with table all to yourself.
Naturally you should go to any one of their museums, its incredible but go to one is more than enough unless you are a big historic buff.
One should also go on a dinner cruise on the Nile. It's frightfully romantic and serene. To think that things existed centuries ago in this exquisite historic city added layers of connectedness and warmth to the experience.
Not all things are wonderful, many of the retail outlets operate much like Petaling Street – you have to bargain like hell. Taxi fares are highly negotiable and many of the tourist destinations will be full of “modern day pirates” – plenty of people dressed in ancient Egyptian garbs wanting to take photos with you for free. But it's never free.
In that sense the Egyptians are actually fighting with Malaysian taxi drivers for the trophy as the worst place on earth to get a cab. Not a place for two ladies, go in a group of 3-4 for safety in numbers.
It was a unique experience to go to one where it is still very Egyptian and very local. I was never one to go abroad and clamour for McDonalds or KFCs but honestly, I found myself dying for some KFC after the fourth day. As it turns out, there is only so much of hummus, chickpeas, kebabs and bread one can consume. Can't wait for things to get better to go back to Cairo again.