Friday, June 25, 2010

Cairo - Crowds and All

If you are crowd-phobic like me, you might think that Cairo's not for you. That's not the case and No Crowds reporter, Lorraine leads the way on surviving and thriving in one of the world's most crowded cities.

The best time to visit is between November and March when the average daily temperature is 25C/77F. Right now the average temperature is 38C/100F so plan now and go later.

Egypt in winter so inspired Gustave  Flaubert that he recalls it started his  ‘literary pot boiling’, and shortly after returning to France he began work on Madame Bovary.  Florence Nightingale, was sent to winter in Egypt by her desperate parents, who hoped  that, seduced by the magic of the Nile, she would abandon her perverse interest in hospitals and find a nice young man to marry.  The magic of Egypt did indeed inspire her, but not in the way that her parents hoped.  She departed for the Crimean War after her return, and into history books as the Lady with the Lamp. (See Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt. By Anthony Sattin.)

So it happened that last February, when Gary had work in Cairo, I happily made plans to accompany him, humming “see the pyramids along the Nile, dum de dum” while I hunted for bargain flights from Dubai to Cairo.  

Egypt Air did the trick and we found it to be an efficient if not luxurious airline option. We spent a long week end exploring the city, visiting the Giza pyramids (who knew they were just 45 minutes outside Cairo?), and eating our meals overlooking the Nile. While I didn’t return to Dubai and begin writing a masterpiece, or head off to war,  I do have some advice for anyone who would like to  enjoy this hyperkinetic city that teeters on the brink of chaos and somehow always manages to survive.

Cairo is the second largest city in the world and second in population only to Mexico City; according to the cab driver who picked us up at the Cairo airport and drove us to the Sheraton Hotel, Towers and Casino. As always, we found that cab drivers are the very best source of local mythology when visiting any city, except New York, where language barriers or attitude seems to prevent any communication.  With help from cab drivers, a group of enthusiastic school girls we met along the way, tour guides, and our own always fallible trial and error method, we learned a little about how to enjoy Cairo. 

#1: To reduce crowds in Cairo, get up early and visit sites in the morning.  You’ll never be alone in Cairo, but early mornings (from 9 a.m. – 11) are somewhat quieter, plus it’s cooler.  Alternatively, the guide books suggest that late afternoon is less crowded, but the infamous daily Cairo traffic build up may well cancel out that advantage.

#2:  Learn to say ‘Halass’ (emphasis on second syllable) which seems to translate as a combination of ‘enough’  and ‘ it’s finished’. This phrase is important, especially at the Giza Pyramids, where raucous vendors pitch camel, horse and buggy rides, and guided tours. If you don’t want to be besieged by would-be guides and other vendors, pretend you are deaf and dumb.  We learned that smiling and nodding ‘No’ just encouraged a renewed, more emphatic sales pitch.

The 4500 year old Sphinx guards the entrance to the Giza Pyramids, and is also known as ‘The Father of Terror’.  It may have been because we approached  the sphinx from behind and from the elevated level of the Great Pyramid, or because of  the oddly peaceful expression on its face, but we both found the sphinx less terrifying and somehow smaller than we had imagined.  However, a ‘sound and light’ show is conducted several evenings a week, and I’m told that the booming voice of the sphinx does the narration.  Though we didn’t make the show, it did occur to me that for those seeking true horror, the show might be just the ticket.
As an alternative, we suggest that if the sun is not too hot, and your shoes are comfortable;  take a walk a little ways into the desert, feel the dry desert wind on your face, and  sense the silence that dominated this Necropolis for the 3800 years during which the Great Pyramid was the tallest man made structure in the world.
#3: Hot, sun baked, hungry and thirsty, we adjourned for lunch at the 100 year old Mena House Hotel at the Giza pyramids. The food is good and the view over lawns and Palm trees to the Great Pyramid is spectacular.  Don’t miss it. 

#4: Stay at a hotel with a room overlooking the Nile – it’s an endless source of fascination though most of the river traffic appears to be recreational, with no sign of the original commercial importance of the river in evidence. We stayed at the Sheraton Cairo Hotel, Towers and Casino, where, despite their advertised 5 restaurants, had only one lobby restaurant open for lunch.  However, our room had a spacious balcony overlooking the Nile and we developed the habit of ordering  room service lunch, which we ate leisurely sitting on our balcony gazing out at the river and listening to the car horns of Cairo.  Our taxi driver described this sound as the ‘song of the city’, and after a while it became a rather pleasant backdrop to our activities.
#5: Unimpressed with the tours (or lack of same) suggested by our hotel concierge, we discovered a web site which offers all kinds of tours and events, world-wide, ideal for the independent traveler who prefers to design their own itinerary as they go, but might need some help.  We used them to book a Nile dinner cruise, which was touristy but fun.  Viator provided an English speaking guide who met us at our hotel, drove us to the cruise ship and escorted us to our table.  At the end of the evening, we were met and driven back to our hotel.  Given the exuberant anarchy of Cairo driving, we deeply appreciated this level of attention.  We’ll definitely consult with Viator again when we’re in an exotic location. 

Our  dinner show consisted of the usual belly dancer, which is not part of Arabic tradition but somehow has become associated with the middle east, and is therefore essential to every tourist floor show. We were pleased to note that Size Zero body type is not much sought after among Egyptian belly dancers; when these ladies twirled, the boat swayed.  We did find the whirling dervish dancer to be terrific, if a trifle dizzying to watch. 

At night the river filled with small brightly lit party boats, festooned with flashing colored lights, each capable of holding up to about twenty people.  On Valentine’s night the boats were gaily tricked out in red flashing neon hearts, each boat occupied  by a couple, who sat together while the boat pilot squired them along the dark river.  Gary and I imagined that it was a big night for proposals, or at least (my cynical nature intrudes here), propositions .

#6: A word about Egyptian wine.  Don’t drink it!  Insipid is the best we can say about it, and unfortunately, it was the only wine we could find on any menu.  While just about any kind of hard liquor can be found in any restaurant or bar, the only wine served was Egyptian, with quaint names like Scheherazade or Omar Khayyam.  If you’re a serious wine drinker, bring your own (I know from grim experience that this weighs down a suitcase and always requires checking it but sometimes it’s the only option). Alternatively, you could try duty free at the airport when you arrive – though we didn’t think to check it out, you might find some marginally better choices.
#7: Finally, get lots of Egyptian small bills, since baksheesh (Arabic for tip) is expected as part of all exchanges.  10% was the recommended amount, and if anyone argues and asks for more, just remember to say ‘Halass’.  A good quick estimate to help get a sense of the currency, is to ask how much a Big Mac, coke and fries cost in the local currency.  Everybody knows the answer to that question.  

Next installment: The Egyptian Museum + The Unfolding Two Tank Scandal

Photo Credit: Gary Ransom


  1. I had several friends visit Egypt recently, and they thoroughly enjoyed it. I recommended they read the books by Chapel Hill (N.C, USA) author, Samia Serageldin, who grew up in Egypt. She provides fascinating perspectives of life in Egypt at various times in its history: "Cairo House", "Naqib's Daughter" and "Love Is Like Water".

  2. Thank you so much for these suggestions. Reading recommendations are always valued by No Crowds readers and we love supporting NC writers as well.

  3. Hi
    Thank for sharing your experiences. We liked the your report and we have linked it to our website (Click the link below):

    Shawa Kuda