Sunday, December 05, 2010

Cairo - it's not as crazy as people say...

Cairo was everthing and nothing I expected it to be. I kept hearing how crazy the traffic is, how loud it is, how intense it is.. but it's really not as "in your face" as people say, at least from what I can gather from two days of being here. The traffic is exactly the same in Rome or Athens. With the exception of the call to prayer, It's equally loud but does not exceed New York. Sure it's hard to cross the street in places, but if you just find someone who is crossing the street at the same time, it's not a huge problem. I'm staying in Zamalek, the embassy district (pic above) - with french architecture and old, tree-lined streets. There are THREE boutique cupcake shops within 5 minutes of my hotel. Bookstores and coffee shops share the street with food markets and shisha (hookah) pipe places. Cairo is old and new - traditional and completely cosmopolitan in parts. The only thing that really gets to me is the air quality - it's so horribly polluted here, there is a constant haze in the air - and there is a lot of chain-smoking. Every taxi driver I've had chain smoked in the cab while I tried to breathe out the window. I blow my nose and it's black.

I went to see the pyramids. They were allright. The people hanging out there were really annoying. Every minute someone would come up to you, try to get you to ride a camel (no thanks), a horse, asking what's your name, where you from? I have started to say I'm from Australia or Germany or Mexico just to mix things up. Aside from the people, the pyramids were kind of cool for about 45 minutes but then I was ready to move on. It was pretty amazing to see them in person (they are enormous), but temples in Mexico and Petra in Jordan were much more fun to me for some reason. I'm not really an ancient monument person so much as a culture person - city-explorer, walker, talker, delicious food-eater, music-listener and atmosphere soaker-upper. I would sooner spend two hours trying to find and eat in a good restaurant than spend the day in Giza at the pyramids. But I'm happy to have seen them.

There is a restaurant near my hotel called Abou el Sid that is just fantastic. I suppose it's a little touristy because I met Americans in there, but there were plenty of Egyptians in there, the food is Egyptian and just amazing. It is dark and so full of atmosphere with middle eastern music, people smoking sheesha, beautiful lamps and design. Because I had no reservations (it's popular!) I sat at the bar where I had fuul, falafel, tzatziki and the second night Fettah, which is tangy rice with veal, sort of an egyptian risotto. Friday I sat next to a fun couple from Oregon who are avid divers. We had been to a lot of the same places, including the same hotel on a tiny island off Nicaragua. They had also just taken an intrepid tour. We had a lot of the same views about travel. Saturday I sat next to Chris, cinematographer from NYC who is working on a documentary about an underground rock music scene here in Cairo, and one about the Swell Season. He was such an interesting guy that I invited him along with me that night to meet up with my friend Trisha's friend Ellen, her boyfriend Amr and his friend Gindi.
Abou El Sid:

The remnants of my dinner that I was too busy to photograph because I was talking to the Oregon couple! Note the bowl of fuul is scraped clean and the falafel has sesame seeds on it here:

Travelling solo is fun because if you want to be social, you can be. If you want to just read your book in a bar, you can. I frequently do both. I tend to meet more people solo or with girl friends than I do when I'm part of a couple. I've travelled a lot as both. Maybe it's because I don't have someone else there dominating the conversation. I don't know, but I love the luck I've had on this trip with strangers opening up to me. Everybody has a story to tell!
Ellen so nicely came to my hotel and we all went to a local bar, Bodega. I should have taken more pictures, but I have one on facebook. Ellen is going to the American University at Cairo and is doing some interesting humanitarian-type projects and studying. Her boyfriend also went to the University and finished his military obligation. It was nice to see a familiar face from home, meet two fun Egyptian guys and have my new dinner friend along with us. It was a nice evening.
Now let's talk about my new obsession, Kushari!

When I was in Dahab, I met a Canadian woman who raved about a place called Abou Tarek. They had some kind of local dish and I didn't know what she was talking about at the time. They serve only one thing, Kushari. It's a mixture of tiny macaroni, spaghetti, chick peas, some sort of lentil, ground meat and fried onions on top. There is a garlicky vinegar and spicy tomato sauce to go on it. It is delicious!! It is nowhere near my hotel and I made a point to go there two times in two days. I think I can replicate it somewhat when I get home:

The real star of Cairo (according to me) isn't the pyramids, but just the city itself and all the fun contrasts. We have young veiled girls talking in front of a victoria's secret-type shop:

Sparkly shoes which I have actually seen women in full veiled robes wearing:


Young guys just hanging in groups on the street laughing just like they would anywhere:

I walked all the way home from downtown yesterday, and all the way from Islamic Cairo (a section of town) today. Street signs aren't usually in English, but every once in awhile you come to a traffic circle and you can figure things out. I was not expecting the fancy French architecture!

Sometimes you'd think you were in Europe, if not for the arabic:

I stopped on the nile at the Sofitel for some mango ice cream. Check out that hazy sky:

View from my balcony. I had a great hotel that really was a complete bargain. (and clean!!). I recommend the Hotel Longchamps to anyone coming to Cairo. Nice people, good breakfast, I picked well at the last minute! It had a real Parisian feel to it.

Here's a fish shop next to a fruit store in the neighborhood:

Street signs even looked European. In Zamalek, anyhow. In other parts of town you just have to walk in one direction and hope you eventually figure out where you are:


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your blog and your photos of Egypt. Travel Safe. David from the diving Oregon couple who you met at Abou El Cid on Fri. night :)

Trisha said...

I can't wait until you make that new dish - I'll gladly be your tastetester :)

Suvi said...

I miss Cairo!! And, kushari is totally amazing! Lori and I found a place too and think is is the best comfort food ever. I love reading about the trip through your eyes!