Cairo and Giza, 2009

The greeters stand inside the arrival gate waiting, before you pass through Border Control at Cairo International Airport. Here, you buy your visa from a row of stalls - or have the greeter do it for you - and then join the queue for your passport check. We followed our man out, where we were introduced to Karim, the tour representative, who took us to the car where the driver was waiting. It was past midnight by then.

First lesson

At Talisman, a small, clean and charming hotel, we spent a peaceful night but in the morning the full intensity of Cairo's chaotic streets hit us: the cacophony of car horns; impossible-to-cross, fast-moving, heavy three-lane traffic; hassling taxi drivers; the dust and the smell.

A man came up to us, saying we didn't need taxis. He claimed to be an engineer from the Ministry of Agriculture. He told us to buy essences only from "government shops". Turned out that there was one just along the street we were on. He showed us in and moved along. We found out later that all shops selling essences had to be registered.

It wasn't the last lesson we learnt that day.

Getting change at the Metro station

It is recommended that you always have small change - typically one Egyptian Pound (LE) and 5LE on you for tipping. As I will describe, there is a tipping culture where the giving of baksheesh is required in many cases.

We found that the Metro station is a great place to get change. A ticket costs 1LE, so you can pay for it with a 100LE note and get 99LE back. Be warned, though, that it can be an overwhelming experience.

You receive your change a tenner (or a pound) at a time, all the while with five people around you, each putting his 1LE on the same counter where your change is being handed over. Always count your change and don't be daunted by the other people around you.

Women-only carriages

There are two women-only carriages and it's not difficult to tell which ones they are. The rest are mixed carriages, but you may find that some contain only men. It is fine for women to enter those carriages.

Citadel from Old Cairo on foot

This is possible but I wouldn't recommend it unless you're feeling adventurous, willing to be covered in a layer of dust and ready to brave crossing the five-cars-in-three-lanes roads. We did it only because we didn't know better. When crossing roads, look out for locals and follow them if possible, or wait until there is a small gap in the traffic and start walking - other cars will then slow down for you.

Taxi fare bargaining

The trick is to go as low as you dare. We found out that 20LE was probably a fair price from the Citadel to Talaat Harb when no driver would take us for 15LE.

Dinner on the cheap

The lady at the hotel recommended Felfela the restaurant, but we found Felfela the local takeout/diner just around the corner on Talaat Harb itself. We had koshari, chicken shawarma, Oriental omelette and a couple of other dishes, for less than 18LE in all, or about UK£2. We saw the staff put the same things on nice plates and send them up to the restaurant. If we'd eaten at Felfela the restaurant, we'd have paid five times more.

At the end of the day, we wandered into some shops near the hotel. B was looking for hair conditioner when she saw some oven mittens. They cost the equivalent of UK£1.

F (our heretofore unmentioned travel companion): Buy it.
B: All the way to Egypt to buy oven mittens?
F: Why not?
Me: Buy it, so I can write it.

She bought it.

Shuttling between Giza and Cairo

In the morning, we were picked up by the driver, Samir, and joined later by our guide Shariff. We'd booked the tour through Best Way Travel. On the way to the pyramids, we passed lots of unfinished buildings.

Samir: If you don't finish building the outside, you pay less tax.

We asked him about the traffic in Cairo.

Samir: I walk one kilometre, easier than cross the road.

For the Egyptian Museum tour with Shariff, we had to take the small streets back to Cairo to avoid the 'rush hour traffic'.

Shariff: In Cairo, rush hour starts from seven in the morning to midnight.

We wanted to see the pyramids again at sunset, but the compound was closed by then. We paid a shop owner some money to use his roof. This money was supposedly "for his boy", the one who led us up. But at the end, the boy asked for more money, saying the 50LE we'd paid was for the boss.

Where to eat in Giza

The taxi driver stationed outside the hotel wanted to take us to Sphinx Street or Pyramid Street and back for 10LE. It was where the tourists ate, he said. We opted to walk and ate where the locals did, in a little town centre between Sharia Fesar and Sharia El Ahram. There were many dining options. B and F picked a shop selling grilled chicken.

You could stock up on provisions - nuts, bread, water - at local prices here, and people were generally friendly.

If you go during the daytime on a school day, as we did the next day, you'd find yourself among a hundred school children as you walked along the street. They would tag along behind you coyly, saying, "Hello!" and, "How are you?"

The state of our hotel

When we returned to the hotel, F and I decided to snoop around. We came across this sign:

Brother employee, sister employee
Be acquainted with the new emergency exits
You may need them soon.

It wasn't very reassuring.

The general state of the hotel was pretty bad. B had read about cockroaches at the breakfast table. Indeed, F found one right in our toilet, so I wasn't very surprised to see how dirty the breakfast area was. It was a buffet breakfast but the only comestible thing was the bread.

D: What's the name of our hotel?

Helpful people

As there was time before checkout, we decided to sneak off to the pyramids on our own. Along the way we met another 'helpful man' who just happened to own a shop selling essences. Another man followed us 300 metres so he could help us cross the road. That was rather creepy. Firmly, although not very politely, we declined his offer.

As we approached the pyramids, the calls for camel rides, pony rides, horse carriages and taxi rides got louder and more frequent. A taxi driver yelled at us, "Very far to the pyramids for walking." It took us only a minute.

Back at the hotel, the lift was not working at checkout time, so we had to drag our bags down the stairs.

F: I think it's stuck at the top floor. I'll go and shut the door.
B: F is going to fix the lift.

Introduction to baksheesh

Samir picked us up to go to the Khan El Khalili Bazaar. I had to find a toilet to change into long trousers before visiting the Al-Azhar Mosque. I asked a Tourist Police officer who was standing at his post for help. He took me to a toilet and I paid him 2LE as baksheesh. When I got out, he was still there waiting. The toilet attendant asked me for money. I gave him 2LE. The Tourist Police officer asked me for money. I gave him another pound. He asked for more, with a gesture I took to mean "for his partner" at the post. Perhaps he'd forgotten about the 2LE I had given him earlier.

We read later that you just need to pay 1LE if someone does you a favour. If he goes out of the way to help you with something, you can pay 5LE.

Khan El Khalili and around

At Al-Azhar Mosque, we were offered the chance to climb the minaret for 60LE. We said we could only pay 40LE. The man who approached us explained to his colleague that we were students from Singapore and managed to get us the cheap rate. Or at least that was what he told us. He didn't seem like a bad man so I was ready to believe him. Besides, we weren't even students. He told us, in a resigned way, about how Cairo was losing its tradition. He missed the old Cairo.

The bazaar itself was claustrophobic (at least to me). We got lost going in, so we asked a shopkeeper how to get out. I don't think he really understood us. He pointed in a general direction. Then he asked us to pay him.

At Al Fishawi, where tourists (and some locals) go for shai and shisha, we sat and people-watched and marvelled at how this century-old establishment has moved along with the times.

Samir quotes

Back in the car, Samir pointed us to Mussky street market, which was packed full of people. "Not for tourists," he said, and added that it was dangerous even for a local like him to go there.

We mentioned that we went up the minaret. He was surprised. We said we paid for it.

Samir: Anything is possible in Cairo - for a price.

We asked him about the children and about the nice people in Giza.

Samir: In Giza, in Aswan, in Alexandria, the people's hearts are empty [pure].
Me: In Sharm?
Samir: Sharm, no. In Sharm, you say hello, they ask how much? You give money, they say welcome.

The infamous train delays

Karim was at the train station waiting for us. The train had been moved back two hours, and now it was delayed by another. Our tickets were narrow cards with the seat number and other details handwritten in Arabic on one side. As he stood waiting with us, Karim told us that he had recently been engaged. He consulted me for ideas on something special to give his fiancee as a present. I was the worst person he could have asked, but I tried my best to help.

The train finally arrived and we were on our way to Part 2 of our trip, which was the Nile Cruise. We would arrive six hours behind the original schedule. When we got back four days later, Best Way Travel - all credit to them - had switched us to a different, cleaner hotel.

World Cup madness

Egypt was to play Algeria in an important football World Cup qualifier match the day we returned to Giza. The excitement and nervous energy on the streets were tangible. We were going to walk to Giza station for the Metro into Cairo without realising how far it was, but fortunately, a bus stopped beside us, with an attendant standing on the steps shouting "Giza-Giza!"

We hopped on and paid the 1LE fare. All around us as we rode, car horns blared crazy tunes.

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