Finally, my Egypt photos from last September! This was the first time I'd been to a developing country and one with strong views on women. I'm very glad that I went but it wasn't a relaxing holiday by any stretch. We went to visit a long time friend of BM who's working over there and his wife. Both of who are so very welcoming and were the highlight of our trip. Because BM's friend works in the diplomatic service, we were able to ask (and more importantly get answers!) about many aspects of Egyptian life and not just the sites we visited.
The whole experience was quite surreal - we got cheapo flights via Amsterdam which got into Cairo very early (I think it was 2am) on the first morning of our stay. On our stop in Amsterdam, we noticed the different Dutch elements in the airport (selling tulip bulbs, porn, diamonds and cheese) compared with Dublin. On the way back - the place seemed so similar to home in comparison!
Arriving that early in the morning meant that by the time we had cleared customs and collected our bags and negotiated the very loud and demanding terminal, the roads were relatively empty. Our rather crazy driver strapped our luggage onto the top of a very small Lada and held it down with some bungy cords and then proceeded to approach the parking exit between the two lanes of traffic. It only got better from there. We sped our way through the Cairo streets as if we were being chased! I spied 120km on the dashboard at one stage. No seat belts in the back and driver didn't bother wearing one either. Flashes of mosques, locals and an occasional odd sight. Driving on the line between two lanes when we approached cars in both lanes ahead of us, and squeezing through. It felt like living an episode of grand theft auto (without the car stealing). Almost immediately, the pollution in the air made my eyes feel red and dirty.
We arrived into a bastion of calm in the form of our friends' apartment and managed to sleep for a few hours. The next day was spent with our friends touring Cairo. Visiting a mosque (al-azhar mosque), I noticed how different it was in both form and function from the churches I'm familiar with - wide open spaces much more suited to hot weather and double use as a space of worship as well as a meeting, gathering and chatting space, not to mention the few bodies that were sleeping in corners out of the hot weather. We also visited the research rooms as the mosque amongst the oldest mosques and teaching mosques. Surprisingly, maintenance of public buildings such as mosques is not particularly highly regarded even if they are well used.
The next stop was Cairo's markets. Our friends brought us to the Islamic markets near the Al-Azhar Mosque. We stopped off for the most amazing lunch (first photo) - the anti-alcohol policies really worked in my favour and for once the non-alcoholic cocktails really did live up to descriptions! Fresh pita bread is to die for, my friends!
Warning: if relatively graphic descriptions are not your thing - skip the next paragraph!
Unfortunately my culinary high was short lived and either a food disagreement or a general ickiness due to the pollution and tiredness made me ill (and only me - my three lunch companions were fine!). It was strange to think that the only real interaction I had with the locals over the course of my stay in Egypt was as a result of me emptying the contents of my stomach into a plastic bag on the side of the street. The stallholders nearby were very sympathetic and offered me seats when it looked like I was ill.
While this wasn't a particularly pleasant interlude for anyone involved - I think my trip would have been dramatically worse for its absence. Most of the time, locals were actively trying to scam us. Both of our tour guides (with just us two on the tour) lied repeatedly by making up answers when they didn't understand the questions or in at least one case, trying to actively cheat us. Our tour guide told us the collective based weaving shop that sold cotton fabric had moved and didn't sell fabric only Tshirts. It was blatant - we even passed the shop later that day and it was in the right place and open!
On walks by ourselves we were constantly hassled - quiet walks with just the two of use along the street just weren't possible without requests for donkey rides, taxis or to show us really obvious landmarks. Apart from my redeeming experience of being ill, it seemed that tourists, especially in tourist areas, were just viewed as walking money and there to be taken advantage of rather than providing a service (that was actually being sought) and being remunerated for it.
That being said, I'm really glad we went. The Sphinx was pretty cool and I'm really glad we saw the pyramids (even if they were more littered than I'd like). We also went on a sleeper train down the Nile and came back up on a cruise ship (all cruise ships regardless of merit have a 5* rating). The range of buildings was awe-inspiring and I'm really glad we managed to catch up with BM's friends before the recent troubles. We didn't get to see many of the locals outside of the tourist services and didn't get to speak to any of them so it was quite a surreal trip and I don't feel like I've been to Egypt, but rather I saw a lot of Egyptian things. I never got an impression of what life is like there which I feel makes connections to places so much easier.