You Speak English?: Day 1 in Cairo, Egypt

“You speak English?” the cabbie named Mohammed asked me for the fifth time. By then, I kept trying to throw him off by saying things like “No, I speak Spanish. ¿Hablas Español?” He didn’t get it and would eventually ask again, then yelling “I test you!”

Laura and I got our first real bite of Egypt when we piled on to a shuttle bus at the Cairo airport en route to the car park. People got out of the way and made us both sit down. The boy beside me tried to grab my case, but I smiled and said “No. It’s OK.” Most of the men sitting around us kept staring at Laura.

In the taxi, we hit the road into Cairo around 1 AM. That’s when Mohammed began to prank me.

“What hotel you go to?”
Luna, the one that hired you to pick us up.”
“It’s closed.”
“You lie!” Laura, being intentionally ignored by the man, yelled out that last comment.

I try to get him to quit being annoying by asking him about local music, or explaining why there’s a plastic heart that says “LOVE” in blinking lights on his dashboard. Mohammed just weaves in and out of random lanes with his lights off (he only turned them on when he realized that he might change lanes), joking and calling the other reckless drivers blowing by us at high speeds “crazy.”

At one point on the eight-lane freeway, a car suddenly stops in the far-left lane, causing us to almost wreck. Young, well-dressed people get out of the car, half-apologizing to us, and head to what looks like a wedding photo-shoot by a fountain in the median. Then a VW Beetle, with really nice chrome trimmings, clogs things by driving extremely slow. By now, Laura and I are having problems holding back our screams, and Mohammed just keeps yelling “Crazy!” to the other drivers.

As we start to enter the main part of Cairo, in the neighborhood of Islamic Cairo, Mohammed shows us the El-Hussein Mosque on the right as well as the large Islamic University across the street. He tells us that the Citadel is beyond the school, and that the Khan el-Khalili souk is all along the right side of the road. Amongst the images I see are piles of trash everywhere, people crossing the streets wherever they want to (some even climbing fences), and parts of the Khan still open this late at night under extremely bright lights. Scattered throughout the intense scenes are bored and inattentive policemen set up at random check points or sitting behind plates of “protective” metal. Some of them have machine guns.

We then enter Downtown Cairo, and the cabbie pays no attention to the red lights he keeps driving through. The taxi stops, and the Mohammed parallel parks the car.

“Are we at the hotel?” I ask.
“Five more kilometers,” he replies.
“So why are you stopping?!”
“To get dinner. I am very hungry,” he says pointing to an open food joint across the street.
“So you expect us to wait while you eat?!”
“No!” laughing at us both. “We’re at the hotel!”

By now, Laura and I both are done with this guy and the insane taxi drive, so I’m glad that we can finally check in and sleep. To double check our locale, I look up and see a yellow “Hotel Luna” sign one floor above us (and another on the fifth floor). As I go for the luggage to avoid the baksheesh (tips) that those waiting around will ask for, Laura looks up for the sign and, taking a step back for a better view, trips over a metal parking block.

With a stuffed backpack on, she falls quick and hard. I only see the fall out of the corner of my eye, so run to her with horrific visions of broken teeth and gushing blood. She rolls around and faces me very embarrassed, and with a minor scratch on her chin (and later we discover that she’s bruised her leg). Where’s the luggage, I think. Mohammed has them, so I get mine back, and he’s actually nice enough to take Laura’s up to the lift that sends us to the fifth floor where Hotel Luna is.

We check in, and the man at the reception desk speaks Egyptian-Arabic to me. I speak English back to him, and he apologizes, thinking I’m Egyptian. We get room 26, which is situated right beside the breakfast/reception area. There are only three single beds, so Laura and I think that we’ll try to switch rooms tomorrow.

Earplugs in, expecting large amounts of hotel noise in the morning, in my single bed, exhausted from the flights, delay, and taxi ride, I fall instantly to sleep. I keep waking up, uncomfortable with my surroundings, but eventually fall into a dream where Laura had smoked and kept it secret from me. I’m so upset, that I cry deeply over the disrespect. The next morning, I tell Laura about crying in my dream, and she says that she had a bad dream as well.

That morning, as we eat our complimentary breakfast of three pieces of bread with cheese, jam, and butter, a French couple heatedly discusses their room situation with the front desk. After things cool down, and the couple apologizes to us, Laura and I approach the desk to make a local phone call to Saddia, a coworker of Laura’s, and the morning guy at the desk thinks that I’m Egyptian too! “When I saw you sitting at your breakfast, I thought ‘this man is Egyptian!'”

As it turns out, my olive skin, black mustache, and choice of shirts, makes me seem Egyptian a few more times on this trip. But it doesn’t help my case as a Western tourist with baksheesh leaking out my pockets.

Laura and I intentionally make our first day light by just walking about 15 minutes to the Egyptian Museum and spending the day there. Half a block from our hotel, located on Talaat Harb in the Downtown area, we are already confused about which street to take to the museum. So we have to pull out our guide book to look at the map. Out of nowhere, a well-dressed man with intense blue eyes appears and tells us where we’re going. He then tells us that the museum is closed because it is Friday (the Islamic holy day).

“It won’t open until 3:00 and will close at 7:00,” he said. We had been warned about touts by our book, Saddia, and a Cairene who lived in San Francisco, so we chat with the man, knowing that he is setting us up for the pitch. He’s smart, well-spoken, and says the magic words “no obligation to buy anything” so Laura and I go to his shop for mint tea and karkady (hibiscus tea). “I am Bedouin, so having tea with a guest is tradition,” he told us. So, “God willing,” we cross the crazy traffic and go to his fragrance shop.

Inside, we walk through a papyrus art gallery and go upstairs to the fragrance store. He tells a boy to get our tea and we have a seat to chat. I tell him again that we’ve just arrived to Cairo and have no intention of buying anything right now. He in turn insists that it is only Bedouin hospitality that he has to offer. The tea arrives, and we continue the small talk.

After asking him about local music (he has no idea where we can find it) and his flower farm (his photos look like a manicured garden from a chateau more than a farm), he gets three fragrances for us to smell. He puts the oils on us and rubs them in. They smell nice, but we still aren’t interested. He makes the mistake of asking us what fragrances we wear and we both say none.

Then Laura tells him about how people don’t wear perfume because of people who have allergies against the smells. I concur and tell him that I’m allergic to scents myself. So, with the tea gone, the gentleman finally gives up the sale, most likely heading back out to the traffic circle where he found us to get more rubes for his pitch.

So he leads us back downstairs to check out the papyrus paintings with “no obligation to buy.” They’re nice, and the artist could care less about our presence. We thank them and leave, being as nice as possible to our new “friend.” Back on the streets of Cairo, we jump into the chaos of cars, trucks, buses, bikes, and pedestrians, and finally make it to the Egyptian Museum.

It was open the whole time our “friend” said it wasn’t, but no damage was done from the interesting diversion. At least we had a second story to tell about our first day in Cairo.

The museum was amazing. For about four hours, we walked through centuries of artifacts and ruins. I finally, after reading about it as a boy in the 1970s, got to see the treasures of King Tutankhamen. His death mask and coffin where the most amazing pieces (and not in the exhibit I saw in Chicago last year), and seeing all the items from his tomb was nice as well.

Heading back to the hotel, we stop by Fel Fela for a cheap tamiyya (falafel) sandwich. We had to order at the cash register, pay, and then walk to the back of the place to get our order. We where ignored for at least 20 minutes, and at one point, the man working behind the counter threw away our receipts. Laura had to fight for attention to get a soda, and we left there upset, sweaty with stress, and happy to finally be out of there. We walked back towards the museum, crossed the Nile, and at our falafel in a small river park in the Gizera neighborhood.

We watched the sun set, and then headed back to the hotel to rest. The whole time, people stared at Laura, taxis crept behind us begging us to get in, and half-asleep police stood and sat all over. Random people would look at us and laugh, some would yell “Hello, where you from?” We saw people holding hands, so where glad to express ourselves in public a small amount. And the traffic! Honking at nothing, making up lanes and laws, and dodging mule-drawn carts, bikers with baskets on their heads, and people. Just crossing the streets where an adventure and exertion.

That night, staying on a light schedule, we went to a great cafe called Estroil and had mezze (appetizers) and beer (Stella, always Stella in Egypt). Tomorrow, we planned on going to Coptic Cairo and hoped to visit and have dinner with Saddia and her family. Hotel Luna couldn’t change rooms for us, so we pushed two of the single beds together and I fell into a sleep full of visions of ancient kingdoms, modern megalopolis, and distant yells, honking, and business of Talaat Harb.