Crazy, Crazy Cairo

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I hardly know where to begin.  It is the nature of chaos to have no fixed points like beginnings or endings.  It just goes and goes and goes.  It doesn’t wrap up in a package or logically cohere.  Chaos just is.  And Cairo is chaos.

I arrive there at ten at night.  Like usual, I have no hotel reservation or organized airport pickup.  I have checked the Internet and guidebook and I know a street in downtown Cairo that has several hostels within my price range.  I figure I will go there and pick one out.  The question is, how do I get there?

I barely leave the arrival hall when I meet Mr. Cairo.  He’s hyper friendly with a big missing tooth smile.  “Hello,” he says as he reaches out to shake my hand,   “welcome to Cairo.  My name Ahmed.”

“Hello,” I respond shaking his hand, “my name is Patrick.”

“Where you from,” he asks?

“New York,” I say, “America.”

“Oh, you American.  Very good country.  Welcome.  Welcome to Egypt.  Do you need taxi?”

“I think so.  Unless there’s a bus or something I can take downtown.”

“No bus now.  You take taxi.  I work for fixed price taxi.  Only 90 Egyptian pounds to downtown.  Where you go?  What hotel?”

He walks along beside me as if it is his job to pick me up from the airport.  He’ s an older man, mid fifties – early sixties, with short grey hair.  He’s kind of tall and skinny and the big smile never leaves his face.  When other drivers approach he chases them away with a few choice Arabic words.  Apparently, I am his fish and no one else can touch me.  “I’m going to the Midtown Hostel at 31 Abdel Kalek Sarwat.  I have a reservation.”  I lie about the reservation because I don’t want Mr. Cairo taking me to his buddy’s place.  But his suggested fix price of 90 pounds is reasonable.  The book says a taxi will cost between 70 and 100 pounds depending upon your bargaining skills. Since the exchange rate is 6.5 to 1, 90 pounds is only about 13 bucks for a 45 minute taxi ride.  So I follow him to the fixed price booth.  He fills out a receipt for 90 pounds and gives it to me.  “You no pay until we arrive at hotel,” he says.

“Okay,” I say, “let’s go.”

As we exit the airport, I notice his arm.  He only really has one.  The left arm hangs limply from his shoulder and its only about two thirds the length of his other arm.  I question in my mind whether it might be unwise to have a one armed man driving me into Cairo.  But I’m a great believer in the human capacity to overcome disabilities so what the hell?  Why not?

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We are almost to the vehicle when Mr. Cairo starts negotiating again.  “90 is the price for the taxi company, but it’s ten more to get out of the airport, so a hundred total.”

The taxi is not a real taxi.  It’s not an official Cairo blue and white, it doesn’t have a meter or a sign on top.   It’s a beat up old Hyundai colored strangely purple  with a faded, wrinkled, old orange sticker on the door indicating the name of some business.  If I was smart, I’d abandon this obvious scoundrel and go find a real taxi.  But I’m not.  I can’t. I’m caught in the flow of Mr. Cairo.

I climb in the back seat.  We make our way out of the airport and onto the main highway that heads downtown.  Of course Mr. Cairo’s a smoker, and the car’s a stick shift, and his cell phone rings.   He weaves his way through traffic at about 60, his lights are off for god knows what reason and he jabbers on the phone like there’s nothing happening.  He has got to be the most talented one armed man in the universe.  A zen master Shiva driving god…that’s what Mr. Cairo is.

When he finishes his phone conversation he starts talking to me.  He points out a few Mosques, some government buildings and a big fancy hotel.  He tells me about the absence of tourists in Egypt now.  Ever since the revolution, people don’t visit anymore.  Things were bad under Mubarak.  Too many police, too many rules, too much corruption, too many people arrested.  But at least there were lots of visitors then and good business.  Now Egypt is like a car with no driver.  There are no rules anymore.  The new government is not in control so tourists won’t come.  He then offers his services to me as a personal driver.  He will take me to the pyramids and the museum and all the important sites for only 300 Egyptian pounds per day.  He hands me a pen, tells me his cell number and insists I write it down.

We leave the highway and enter downtown.  Jamm packed traffic, swarming people, bright lights, honking horns.  Sensory overload.  Humanity concentrated.  Too many people for a space this size.  When we stop at lights, people approach the window selling and/or begging.  Mr. Cairo speaks to them in Arabic and they go away.  We pull up next to a real taxi and Mr. Cairo sticks his head out the window to talk with the driver.  He seems like he is asking directions.  I hear the name of the hostel.  The driver points and directs and explains.  But if Mr. Cairo’s been a driver for 20 years like he says, how can he not know this main road address in the middle of down town?  But apparently, he doesn’t. He drives around the block and then stops to ask someone else directions.  We drive some more and then he asks some more.  People keep directing him with elaborate hand gestures and lengthy explanations.  But Mr. Cairo can’t seem to find the way.  I swear to god, we drive around the same block three times.  I recognize the buildings.  I have a sneaky suspicion he is doing it on purpose.  It’s some kind of charade or performance to squeeze me for more cash.  He goes the wrong way on a one way street.  A cop stops him but he points at me in the back and the cop lets him through.  He stops at another light and gets out of the car.  I’m sitting in traffic by myself in the back seat while Mr. Cairo runs up and down the street looking at building numbers.  When he finally returns he says, “okay, almost there, only few more blocks.”

In truth, it’s six more blocks but we do find the address.  I get out of the car with my backpack and Mr. Cairo gets out with me.  I hand him the hundred pounds.  He takes it, smiles real big and says, “but what about baksheesh?”

“I thought you said fixed price,” I say.

“No,” he says.  “Fixed price is for taxi company.  Cairo crazy place, confusing place.  I do good job to find your hotel.  You pay me baksheesh.”

So I give him ten more.  But that’s not enough.  “Ten pounds is nothing,” he says, ” I find your hotel.  It not easy find.  I do good job.  Give me twenty more.”

I give him ten more but that’s it. I paid a total of 120 pounds (almost 20 bucks) for my taxi ride.  I guess I’m not a good negotiator.  He shakes my hand again, says welcome and thank you and offers to be my personal driver again and then he hands me over to the doorman before he gets in the car and leaves.

The doorman follows me down the hall and into the elevator.  He too, wants baksheesh but I won’t give it to him. Unfortunately, the hostel is full and I have no reservation.  But there just happens to be a guy from another hostel there in the lobby.  He offers me a room at his place for 25 U.S. dollars.  That’s about ten dollars more than this place so I’m going to have to look around.

“Okay,” he says, “I will give you room for twenty.”

“For 20 I’ll look.”  I follow him down the elevator and across the traffic congested street.  We go around the block and into another building.  The room is not great.  Right behind reception and no windows but it will do for a night.  I check in, close the door and go to sleep

The next morning, the friendly woman at reception tells me I can have a newer, better room at noon for same price.  It’s only 9am so I take the opportunity to go look around.  The downtown area is like a spiderweb spun by a spider on drugs.  It’s a maze of interconnected alleyways streets and roads.  There is no grid or pattern whatsoever.  It’s almost as if they designed it to be as confusing as possible.  But I use the hostel as a fixed point and walk in roughly regular rectangles always returning to the fixed point. I orient myself to the major thoroughfares and after a few hours I more or less know my way around the immediate vicinity.  I see about fifty other hostels while walking so I’m prepared to move if necessary.  But upon returning to the hostel, they offer me a very nice room for the same twenty bucks so I decide to stay.

I spend my afternoon orienting myself to a larger section of downtown.  I find my way to Tahrir Square; the place where all the action went down during the revolution.  It’s quiet today with only a few tents and a small crowd in front of the main government building.  Nevertheless, I feel the force of transformation hovering in the air.  During the course of my wander, I meet about 15 people who welcome me to Egypt.  A few are like Mr. Cairo with a tour to sell or a shop to drag me into.  But most just want to shake my hand and say hi.  Is this, perhaps, the friendliest city on the planet?

In the late evening, I return to my hostel and a find a pleasant surprise.  Three young Egyptian guys are smoking hashish in the lounge and they invite me to join them.  Criticize cannabis if you will.  But I can honestly say that many of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in my life have involved smoking joints in foreign countries with friendly locals.  They don’t speak much English but I luckily discover that one of them speaks Spanish.  I am fairly fluent in that language so a rather extended exchange follows.  I tell them about my unusual traveling life.  My story encourages them to open up about their own lives.  They are in favor of the revolution.  The corrupt, dictatorial Western puppet government of Hosni Mubarak is gone and now the country is led by a true representative of the Egyptian people.  They have much more freedom now but there are still serious problems.  Thanks to international media coverage, tourists have stopped coming here.  In the last 2 years there has been a 90 percent drop in the number of foreign visitors.  Since tourism is a major part of the economy, a lot of people here now have serious financial problems.  Will the crowds of visitors ever return?  That is the question that everyone seems to be concerned about.

The next few days are more of the same.  Swarming humanity and lots of friendly people welcoming me, shaking my hand and trying to sell me stuff.  I go to the big museum and meet another Mr. Cairo in the ticket booth.  It’s 60 pounds to get in and I pay with a hundred.  Mr. Cairo gives me the ticket and then starts pointing at my camera to tell me I can’t bring it inside.  Of course I know this because there are big signs everywhere and a booth to deposit cameras.  But the ticket man distracts me with his warning and explanation so I neglect to notice that he doesn’t give me my change.  I realize this later when I’m wandering among the 3000 year old massive granite sculptures.  “That cheeky bastard.  He pulled a fast one on me.”

The museum has incredible stuff, lots of it.  I spend over four hours daydreaming among the 3000 year old masterpieces.  I stop and visit Mr. Cairo of the ticket booth on the way out.  I ask politely if maybe he forgot to give me my change. He recognizes me immediately, smiles guiltily and slides over the 40 pounds.  He shrugs his shoulders, points at his head and shakes it thereby expressing, “oops!” very clearly.  “No problem,” I say, “I’m sure it was an honest mistake.

The only real problem I have is on the third night there.  I’m walking amid the swarm of people trying to capture this impossible scene with my camera when three young men stop me and ask me to take their photo.  They give me a bad vibe.   They seem hoodlumish with western clothes and tough guy attitudes.  But it’s a crowded street so I’m not concerned about getting attacked .  I oblige them by snapping a photo and showing it to them on the screen.  But then, they want me to pose for a photo with one of them and give my camera to another to take the picture. No way, I am not handing my new camera to a hoodlum on a crowded street.  “I don’t think so,” I say politely and start to walk away.  They become angry and offended that I don’t trust them.  One of them grabs ahold of my arm to keep me from walking away.  He grips it very tight and won’t let go.  “Oh shit,” I think,”this might go bad.”

But it doesn’t.  An older Muslim man with full head wrap and jellaba sees what is happening and interrupts.  He separates the hoodlum from my arm and lectures him about harassing tourists.  I thank the man and continue on unharrassed.

That’s the thing about Cairo.  It’s one of the most chaotic cities in the world but it also seems incredibly safe.  There’s 20 million people there so no doubt it has its share of hoodlums and scoundrels.  But the overwhelming majority (95 percent perhaps) are super kind and friendly and more than willing to help you out.  You are never alone in Cairo.  The genuine assistance of another human is always close at hand.  So go to Cairo, I say.  Don’t be afraid.  The people there will welcome you warmly and they really need the business.  Besides, there’s so very much to do.  Tomorrow, for example, I’m going to the great pyramids of Giza.

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