My first trip to Egypt was when I was 19 on my school holidays in Britain. It was a tour package which included hotels, the famous museums, camel riding around the pyramids and Abu Hawel (Sphinx), Luxor's attractions, a falucca ride down the Nile River in Aswan, Abu Simbel, all the food and and a comfortable train ride.
The price was very reasonable, but I saved even more when I booked my own flight to Cairo, using Tarom Romanian Airlines, via Bucharest. (Romania was still under socialism then and prices for those kinds of airlines were a bargain.)
I am much older now and this time came to Cairo by myself, avoiding the tourist scene almost completely and really discovering intimately a taste of "real" Cairo.
Able to struggle again using my broken Arabic, travelling by using public transport (Cairo has an excellent and cheap Metro!- The young sporty guys who were on the train were giving hungry looks making the train like a big cruising place! ), wandering around back roads and alleyways, an Cairo neighbourhood called Old Islamic Darassa, and elsewhere- I fell in love with Cairo, and love the relationships I made with the gracious people (sitting and talking together over tea/qahwa) and discovering that not everyone wants "baksheesh", but lovingly hold your hand and guide you through their (frustrating but rewarding) system of things in their city. My short but sweet experience put Cairo in my heart and now I want to return and discover it again and again!
I wandered out from my guest house in Darassa's old back streets hoping to find some sweets to nibble on before trying to go to bed when a bunch of older men were playing cards and watching a game on the telly. One of the men shouted for me but I gestured and pointed in a direction suggesting that I wanted to continue walking on, but they insisted I come in to their man den and join them all for some tea and conversation, smoke filled the room as the sports programme on the TV competed with our small conversations. I also saw a small shop with a showcase of Hummus beans. The guy behind the counter was flirting with me and the other men in the shop were smiling with him. I didn't get any hummus but I do remember all those smiles!
These small encounters and are precious to me and the feelings are unforgettable. Moments like these are the highlights of visiting Cairo and other cities in Egypt and not just the pyramids and tourist saturated places like that. I hope on another trip to Cairo I will be invited to a home and experience Egyptian hospitality like I have in other places in the world.
Featured photo by Ronald Woan via Flickr.
I'm rather embarrassed to write this account of shame, deception and *gasp* getting taken for a ride. Really. Embarrassed.
Dare I say my pride is wounded because of the following experience? Yes, yes I dare say it is. Because I consider myself to be somewhat travel savvy. I mean, traveling to 44 countries has to mean you've gathered some travel know-how, right?
That's what I thought before. That infamous day I set off down the streets of Cairo (yes, nervously) on foot and I had no intention of falling into any tourist traps or spending money on stupid souvenirs. It was the furthest thing from my mind. (Perhaps therein lies the problem.) Shopping-wise, there was one item I wanted to attain: a tiny miniature pyramid. (Which I never did get, by the way.) Anything else was completely uninteresting to me. Or so I thought.
And at one point in my Cairo walkabout I found myself on the wrong side of a very busy Egyptian street. Having lived on a verrrrrry busy street (complete with railroad tracks next door) at one point in my young life, and also having crossed that verrrrry busy street regularly, you know, to get to the other side (my little friends lived over yonder) I would cross that street without any problems. So with the confidence instilled by my childhood in tow, I crossed 1/2 of the crazy street (barely, and getting yelled at in Egyptian in the process - all words that I'm sure were just lovely and fuzzy warm good words) and came to rest on a median in the middle of the six-lane roadway. And I stayed there in the middle for quite a while... because the second half, it turns out, was the hardest half to cross. Every time I thought about setting out for the other side, another mad, speed-demon auto-macchina would come barreling at me out of nowhere, shouting at me and making lovely hand gestures.
And then, just as I was finally going to cross the street in a mad dash, I was distracted by a tall, thin Egyptian man running across the street towards me, from the direction I wanted to go.
He sidled right up to me and say "Hello there! I think you do not know how to cross our Egyptian streets, come I will show you." And with that, he dashed back the way he came, with me following closely behind. There was something shady about him, and being that I had been about to self-rescue myself from my predicament, I tried to quickly thank him and made to keep walking to my destination (the spa-hotel that was now just yards away).
But he kept talking to me. "Whereareyooofrom, yoooarewelcomed, dooyouvork? Wheredooyouvork? Ahhh, theeeseeseaverrrygudcompany." And so on, and so forth. Finally, I found myself a block to the left of my destination, following a few steps behind the fellow, prepared at any moment to make a mad-dash for my life. But as we entered a small store, and he disappeared I realized that he was a schill. His job was to get me into the store to buy stuff. The store was filled with seriously overpriced Egyptian art and perfumes. And when I left the store with a small vial of perfume and a Papyrus with my name written on it in ancient Egyptian (actually it doesn't have my name on it because I wouldn't write my real name down as they'd requested - I made one up, having violent daydreams of credit-card and identity theft) for an exorbitant price. (In dollars!)
Inside the store: The guy's "Sister" who supposedly was getting married
the next day, painting a Papyrus with my name on it in "ancient Egyptian."
Like anyplace else in Egypt, Siwa and its people were just living their normal daily life, during their high tourism season, January/February, when suddenly the revolution started, and the police forces were withdrawn from all of Egypt.
In big cities like Cairo and Alexandria, people were terrified because of the lack of security, thugs were let loose and stealing and killing was something normal, and that brought to the civilians the idea of securing their own homes together, where all people living on the same street would leave their homes at night and gather together in the street with any weapons they can have (sticks, kitchen knives...etc) until the morning.
On the other hand, in the serene Siwa, where all people live together peacefully and they all know each other, they were not afraid of thugs, because simple even if there was a Siwan thug, he wouldn’t harm Siwa (it's the Siwan code, no stealing!) But still, airports were closed; traveling on highways was not safe at all, let alone traveling on a highway like that which connects Siwa and Cairo, through the desert and barely used.
And this was when the Siwan elders and wise people gathered together, along with the couple of hundred tourists there at the time. And they offered them what I have never heard of before except in movies. Siwa offered its guests homes, food and water until its safe for them to go back, and for those who didn't have money they would give them money. And if someone wants to leave, they would safely drive him all the way to Cairo's airport. An office was put in the market that had 3-4 Siwan men who spoke different languages, this was their own made info/help/tourism desk. Where the guests were to come and ask for whatever they needed at any time of the day and Siwans would make sure their guests are feeling welcomed and comfortable.
What really surprised me is that I have never heard of that story before, even though I live in Egypt, but not the TV nor the internet told any of it. I wonder of the couple of hundred foreigners that were here didn’t include any bloggers who could have shared such a story. I was only told the story by the locals and they were saying it as something normal, something that Siwi people would do without thinking.
And that is true :) Those people are nicer and kinder than most of the people I have met in the world...it's all about their simplicity in life, which reflects on their minds and souls, making them very simple and content about all they have. Everyone must visit Siwa and get immersed in the desert and in that culture; it's something you cannot experience anywhere else in the world.