Things were getting me down and my feet were itching to go somewhere – anywhere – to get away. That somewhere ended up being Cairo. Not my first choice, but it was within my budget and had always been on my list of places to go. Envisioning exotic bustling marketplaces, camel-drawn carts, and the ancient pyramids, I stepped onto the plane with a feeling of excitement. I had with me a small backpack half-full with essentials – a change of clothes, a book, and not much else. I like to think I don’t need much, but what it really comes down to is laziness. I hate carrying things, especially if they are heavy and bulky.
I’ve heard people say that you either love or hate Cairo. In all honesty, and to my dismay, I fell into the latter camp. It was dirty, noisy, and in most parts that I saw, downright ugly. From the moment I stepped out of the airport I was hassled incessantly by men who had the strange idea that I actually wanted to talk to them. “Queen,” they would begin. “You walk like an Egyptian!” I see, I would say. Thank you. I think. “Ah, blondey hair, beautiful, want to take drink with me in my home?” No, really, that’s very kind, but I’d rather not. “Where from? American? English? I have many American friends!” That’s nice. Then they’d make some very disturbing hissing sounds, the meaning of which I thought I shouldn’t dwell on.
I tried everything to avoid them. I ignored them, pretended to be deaf (well, I actually was deaf in one ear due to an infection so that was more an exaggeration than a lie), pretended to be Spanish (unfortunately a couple caught me out on that one and I had to run away before they realised that I am far from fluent in the language), covered my head with my scarf and pretended to be a good Muslim girl (that didn’t work AT ALL), and finally, at my wits end, was appallingly rude to them. Nothing worked. One guy actually followed me for about half an hour and suffered through each of the said methods of rejection before I completely lost it with him and stood in the middle of the street and screamed as loudly as I could. Most embarrassing for me, but it worked rather well since some old lady started yelling at him in Arabic and whopped him with her handbag. He stood there looking a bit stunned as lots of people crowded around him and I made a swift exit.
The thing is, these men are not scary, and I never felt threatened by them – although perhaps it would have been wiser to feel threatened – but they were incredibly annoying. I couldn’t walk alone down the street for two minutes without being accosted, and given that I was rather craving some quiet time, they were unwelcome interruptions. Not that you can get any quiet time in Cairo anyway – this place is undoubtedly the loudest city I’ve ever been to. For me to say that is quite something, since I am not renowned for my good hearing – and for me to say that when I was completely deaf in one ear… well, you get the picture.
I utterly exhausted all the sights that Cairo has to offer. Of course, at the top of my list were the pyramids of Giza, which I headed to after a most uncomfortable night spent in the very cheapest hotel I could find. I was conned by a very persistent gentleman who jumped uninvited into my cab on the ride there and claimed to know the cheapest providers of camel rides around the pyramids. “Can’t I walk?” I asked, not really too keen on blowing hundreds of Egyptian pounds for the pleasure of a sore backside. “Ah,” he said. “It’s much too far!” He shook his head, mumbling to himself. “And in this heat? No, no, no, what a crazy lady you are!” I am normally quite travel savvy in these instances, and have no problem with stubbornly saying no. But I was tired, and the idea of traipsing from pyramid to pyramid by foot was distinctly unappealing. I half-heartedly haggled over the price until I got him down to half and then jumped on a horse (three days on a camel in India had put me off for life).
It’s funny how much more wonderful a sight shared is, when you can look to the person next to you and say: “Wow, look at that!” Sharing it with a guide was not quite as satisfying as sharing it with a friend, with whom you are making memories you will forever recall and reminisce about. But it was perhaps better than being alone at that time: he did have an extraordinary knowledge of the history of the pyramids, an odd tendency to guffaw at random, and a disturbing habit of slapping my horse and making it canter off with me slipping and sliding off the saddle (it seems I am not such an accomplished rider as I thought).
After a tour of the pyramids, he convinced me to go with him to a perfume shop filled from floor to ceiling with bottles of perfumed oils. Here he told me not to buy anything, just to browse and see the prices, for he would show me yet another shop where the perfumes were of better quality and much cheaper. With no intention to buy from either place, I sauntered in and listened to their sales pitch. I don’t know quite how it happened, but I walked out of the second shop 500 Egyptian pounds poorer, and carrying a big box of fragile glass bottles filled with scented oils. After I had given him baksheesh that was apparently far less than his services deserved, we parted company. I was left contemplating the mystery of how I had managed to blow my entire budget in a few hours, and dreading the thought of carting a bulky box back to my homeland.
In the following days I saw the markets, the temples, churches, mosques… I walked down the Nile, took a ride in a boat, and wandered around the Egyptian Museum – a place where I think paying for a guide would be wise. The signs (if there are any at all) are a little bit useless if you know nothing of Egyptology, or just entirely nonsensical: “Limestone stela – although of wretched workmanship, it is not without a certain interest.” And the interest would be..?
There is no doubt in my mind that Cairo is interesting. It is different from anywhere I have been before. There are bustling marketplaces (though they are considerably less exotic than I would have hoped). There is fantastic architecture to be seen, and fascinating history to be learnt. But you can’t see anything without being bothered by somebody; you are never left alone to reflect on what beauty there is, wonder what the lives of its inhabitants are like, or browse shops or market stalls. Sadly, I came away glad to have seen it, and delighted to have no reason to go back.
Pico Iyer once said that one’s perception of a country alters on subsequent visits. I suppose he means one’s frame of mind at the time colours one’s view of a place. I have never disliked a place so much as I disliked Cairo – in fact, I have never disliked a place at all. And that is why one day I will have to go back to Cairo, and see if I’m right to judge it in this light – or whether, perhaps – I was just in a really bad mood.