“Don’t be afraid of life! Don’t be, because then you will not live at all” These words are worth repeating.
This was the answer of the Egyptian Bedouin when I asked where was the location of the latest bomb attack that killed 4 people, 3 days before my arrival in Egypt, right there, in Gyza, close to the pyramids.
The whole scene was quite funny and we laugh loud about it on our way back to Cairo: we were a group of 5, a few people from Ecuador were joining us and I didn’t wanna pronounce this question, using the word bomb, in the middle of the street, up high on a camel, and maybe risk to ruin like this other people’s great mood. So I was calling repeatedly Ehab, my guide, asking him to please come closer to me, as he was riding his horse few meters in the front. He couldn’t hear me. Mustafa, who was closer, heard me repeatedly calling Ehab and he kept insisting what my question was. So I tried to be discreet and almost whisper it. He suddenly stopped, turned his horse to me and with a large gesture of his hands and head, together with the most convincing smile, he shout it loud: No, No, No, Nooo bomb, Noo boooms here, Nooo, don’t worry, don’t, it’s safe, look… very safe!
He definitely made us all laugh and he laughed with us.
Mustafa continued his wise thoughts: “If you want to do something, do it, don’t postpone, because you never know.” This “never know” means so much everywhere not just in Egypt because “Never Knows” are happening anytime, anywhere. It took me most of my life so far to feel the truth in these words. This remembered me about the text tattoo of a women I once met in Lagos, Portugal. She was a dive instructor.
“I know when I was born,
I know what’s my name,
I know where I’m from and who I am
And I know that one day I will die
But as long as I’m alive, I shall live”
“I shall live” was what I told myself in the early morning of January 1st 2019, struggling to wake up after that crazy Egyptian New Years Eve feast.
I miraculously managed to have all arranged in Cairo: hotel, driver and guide, so I could take 100% advantage of my short stay in the city, see more and hear more than I could my myself. They were waiting for me in the airport as I arrived. This was one of the only 2 times when I afforded such a spoil: to find my name written on a piece of paper, in the hands of someone waiting for me with a friendly smile, in a far away country, on a far continent.
My first very view of Cairo was from the plane’s window. The dark limestone city was drowning in a cloud of mist, trying hard to breathe on top of it.
But the view that will stay tattooed in my mind is the one from its highest point, from the Citadel’s garden: an 180’ view of this mega city, home to more that 23M people, the most dense city in the world. And right there, looking far and near in the same time, the sharp silhouettes of two pyramids like two arrowheads penetrating that milky mist in the horizon. It’s impossible to project this out of imagination and I can’t possibly describe it as it deserves. It’s impressive and only seeing it can bring the real feel of this wild, intense urban vibe, like a living creature breathing down there, under a loud, constant rumor of car horns. The craziest traffic I ever witnessed rules the streets of Cairo. Ehab, my guide with the most amazing green eyes and the fastest walking person I ever met, was telling me tales of this wonder city. One hold me still, when I asked about his siblings.
It’s a long story, he said. I like long stories, I encouraged him.
And then he told me his family misses one member: his elder brother, who was killed in the revolution, during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. I could sense in his tone how this wound is still deep.
We left the Citadel heading to the city centre by car, and very soon we got stuck in that impossible traffic, becoming part of it. We arrived in the old part of the town, on a small street with ruined buildings on each side. All streets there looked like this. I had the feeling anything could happen there but it did felt safe. A small place to live on a street like this in Cairo costs around 5000 dollars, I was told. For sure life is not “en rose” on the streets where homes cost that much, but wandering there, if you have the guts and don’t mind locals looking and a bit of dust, is something. Ehab probably felt me ready to jump out of the car. He didn’t got the time to articulate his idea, to go for a walk, cause I was already in the middle of the street, taking a deep breath as if I was high in the Alps in Austria. Finally outside, on the old streets of old Cairo!
Ehab buys baked sweet potatoes for me from a young man’s with a stall covered in fire red burning coals that was filling with smoke half of the street. We talk a little, where I’m from? is it my first time in Egypt? as he takes in his hands a hot potato from the fire, splits it in half in his palm using a big machete and encourages me to taste while is still hot. I loved it! We cross a small street market where people were selling fruits or vegetables right there, at the side of the road, on the ground or on improvised tables. I take a photo of a woman from the distance. She was like a black veil fluttering around. Ehab then tells me I should pay attention, some women don’t like to be taken photos and she was protesting too but I didn’t noticed.
A young man leaves an old traditional bakery from a building that looked deserted, with walls once painted in light blue. He carries on his head an improvised 2m long and 2 levels high wood rack full of bread. Arabic bread, puffed up, looking like balloons. He leaves me speechless with his skills. And that’s not all. Next he jumps on a bike and carries on like this, with that on his head, among the cars and people in the street, leaving me stoned. I had to have a pitta bread like that, after seeing this. Ehab again buys one for me with white and black sesame seeds on top, from a stall of three women. They were also dressed in black robes and wear a hijab, but with their faces uncovered. I share the bread with Ehab, it’s crunchy and delicious and unsalty.
I realise later this was all I ate that day until dinner, but who cared about food when I had so much more. We eat pieces of bread while walking, I look around and sometimes take photos. I must have answered at hellos and where I was from countless times. People were looking with curiosity first, smiling to us. I realise I am the only non Egyptian person there.
– Tourists don’t come here, they think it’s dangerous, Ehab says.
– But look around. Since we walked, did you feel unsafe?
– No, not at all…
– People look when they see tourists and sometimes try to sell things to them cause they know tourists have money.
And as they need money desperately and you can see this easily everywhere in Egypt, they get pushy and so the tourists get scared.
– If you find yourself in need or in trouble here anytime, just ask for help and everyone will treat you as if you were their sister.
I believe his words, spoken right there, in the middle of the real Cairo.
Not taking a walk on these streets, the ones outside the centre, means missing the whole thing here.
It’s a spectacle of reality. Stalls with huge pieces of meat, like half a cow, hanging outside a shop, as the owner was sweeping the dust from the stairs in front. Long rows of something looking like fried sausages hanging down in front of so many stalls placed in almost every corner. I am curious and I want to taste but Ehab says I shouldn’t. I must have felt too Egyptian already, I wanted to try all.
He hesitates at giving the answer why I shouldn’t eat that: because it’s dirty, he said in the end.
– For us, for me, I can even drink water from the Nile, it’s ok, but for you, you will get sick. Your body is not used to it.
I was happy I didn’t follow my crazy foodie adventurous itch after I read on the internet that in Egypt infectious diarrhea is a common disease.
We arrived in Tahrir Square and I wanted to hear more about the revolution here. It is said and Ehab confirms that 30M people took the streets of the city in that time. The Arab Spring hit Egypt hard. Thousands were killed, as his brother. A new regime came in power but after a while people were again in the streets, protesting against it. Now the military controls the state but people are again disappointed.
– It will happen again, you think?
– I think so, he have to, it’s the only way to change things and we will keep trying, says Ehab.
One of the craziest things to do in Cairo is crossing the street. The Egyptian way as Ehab calls it. There are only a few crossings or traffic signs even in the centre and tens of people are crossing the streets any moment in each point they please, among the cars.
The first times we did it I felt I had to close my eyes, at least I won’t see as I get hit by a car.
There’s even a technique: you don’t run, cause then you will panic the drivers, you’re crossing calm, looking into their eyes to make sure they see you and let you cross. They always do but doing this feels extreme.
Right there, in Tahrir Square, in a gorgeous building that was once a palace, it’s now the Egyptian Museum. I don’t do museums but this one is not a museum, is rather a fairytale of pharaohs, queens and gods, with spicy stories of love and death and treason, mummies, tombs, hieroglyphs, golden sarcophagus, secrets and myths. From old papyrus scripts to sandals of the pharaohs, to jewelry and fans made of ostrich feathers and sculpted ivory, to pieces of furniture that blow your mind. All the treasures discovered in the pharaohs and queens tombs from the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens are there, including old photos showing the tombs as they were discovered, how everything there was put in place. I found out that so many tombs are still buried in the ground together with the mysteries of this unbelievable civilization.
The mummies rooms were for an extra charge but totally worth it and Tutankhamun golden death mask, one of the star pieces of the museum, is beyond any words.
I ended this fabulous first day in Cairo with a cruise on the Nile with dinner, with belly dances and Sufi dances performances and the most amazing Egyptian music. I never saw Sufi dances before and since I was the only tourist there, the others were all Egyptian, I was for sure the most excited about. It’s basically whirling around for more then 30 minutes in a form of physically active meditation while performing moves symbolising praying or expressing different types of feelings. The costumes are some sort of heavy fabric dresses that start lifting as the performer swirls, reaching up to three different layers. In this moment it becomes unbelievable there’s a person there. Really incredible!
I went to sleep that night feeling exhausted, hoping I will rest like a baby. But nop, the mosquitos had big plans.
The next morning we left for Gyza, where the pyramids are. We drove for about 30 minutes through parts outside Cairo, with small dusty villages. It was one of those times that made me remember again that there’s more out there, not just a comfortable but ordinary way of living in a big city where people wait for the green light to cross the street. This same people say Egypt is not safe, is dirty and poor. I would now say it’s different and for that amazing, it’s friendly and for that so warm, it’s generous and therefore so impressive and most of all is richer in experiences and knowledge than most of the places I’ve been so for. And for that is unforgettable.
As we were approaching Gyza, at one point, 3 or 4 men jumped in front of the car forcing us to slow down. They were saying something in Arabic, looking agitated. They started hit the car with their hands. Ehab made them a sign, told them something in Arabic without opening the windows and we continued. I was perfectly relaxed but couldn’t help myself thinking how this could have been more serious without having those guys with me, Husain, the driver and Ehab.
Unforgettable is for sure the first sight of Cheops Pyramid, the great one. I know it since I was a child. I wouldn’t even dare then to wish seeing it in real life one day.
We went to the camel stable where we met Ibrahim, the owner. I knew I wasn’t going to get up on a camel again because I hate this from all my heart.
He started telling me a long story about how I really needed a camel for two main reasons: to avoid the people inside the plateau that are trying to sell stuff to tourists and sometimes become very disturbing and hard to get rid off and second to better walk there, since is’t desert, so lot of sand. For the long tour he wanted 100 euro.
At this point, I exclaimed: Yalla, habibi (Cmon, my darling)
He started laughing, we all laugh and start talking about my trip to Egypt, about my family back home, about my country, about how I am not from one of those rich countries and finally I got 35 euro the price. Probably I could get it lower, dunno.
We went out to take the camels and then I saw one of them had a very bad wound on her face from that stupid piece of metal attached to the rope she had around her head, the one used by the owners to hold them or, as I saw after, to force them knee down so that the tourist on top can get up or down as he pleases, as many times as he pleases. In this case I was that stupid tourist and I still feel terrible for supporting this. Those camels weren’t well treated. The Pyramids can be seen perfectly and in perfect safety even without riding a camel, the distance is not big at all and the sand is perfectly walkable. Now I know it and I also know the camels hate to knee down. They are tall and massive animals so this must be painful to them since they have to be forced to do it.
With this thought troubling my mind, we left to the plateau together with a group of 5 people from Ecuador and accompanied by one of the employes from the stable, Mustafa, my Bedouin friend with smart philosophies. Since I took the first camel, the one that looked in very good health and without any injuries, I was behind him all the way so we got the chance to talk a lot.
He called me queen and each time he was saying it I was protesting I am not one so shouldn’t be called so.
Mustafa has 3 big wishes: to finish school, which he also added is impossible.
– I’m old and I’m a Bedouin, I never went to school.
The other 2 are to go to Mecca once in his life and the last one, to finish the house for his family.
– Then I will be happy, Queen, he said.
On our way, he was constantly tipping some people we met. I presume he didn’t had so many debts to give back that very day and the reason was another, to let us pass through.
The view from the top of the plateau is absolutely fabulous. The group of pyramids all together, camels, horses, carriages wandering around and in the right there’s Cairo, like a sea of limestone buildings. Ancient and present, silenced and noisy, all together.
And to really feel the true Egypt, nature added a crazy wind blowing the sand and forming a mist of sand as if we were in the middle of a sand storm. It came from nowhere, out of the blue sky. I must have had sand in the depths of my soul too.
I must have been too excited about the pyramids to notice a detail like this but at one point I felt my feet a little heavier. Of course, I had camel poop on my shoes, allover. Somehow, with some sort of high precision skill, I managed to step in with both my feet. Probably it happened while Mustafa kept insisting I should take a photo kissing a camel, on the lips… those huge lips, and I kept refusing since that camel male was acting rather like biting me instead of kissing. And I saw in Israel how camels bite look.
Before leaving Ehab took me to a friend of his, a lady that first showed me a rock where to stay and in less than one minute took 10 photos with all sorts of positions of me and the Sphinx. I’m not a fan of this type of pics but was fun and she is the best for that.
On our way to Memphis it started to rain. In Egypt is rains 3cm a year. I probably got 1 out of those 3 and Ehab has joking saying I got to see all seasons in Egypt in one day. I checked my phone for the weather forecast. The forecast was one I never heard before: Dust.
After one more short stop in Saqqara, where other group of pyramids is and where I saw the best hieroglyphs, but where the wind was unbearable and the sand was hitting my face as thousands of needles, we went back to Cairo. Was almost sunset. Time flies in this city. I said goodbye to Ehab who assured me that now not only I have a brother in Cairo, him, as we used to joke about, but an entire family, his family. Yes, this is true Egypt.
I was so protected during those two days and never left alone which was a huge spoil. But it was about time to have a stroll all alone in this city. It was getting dark now but the streets were full of people. Again, as in Hurghada, mostly men. At one point I had to cross the street, a large street full of cars. The Egyptian way of crossing. And I did it. It felt like a success getting on the other side. Did I felt safe all alone in Cairo, in the evening, crossing the street through that crazy traffic. Yes, absolutely. My only regret was I didn’t have more days here but my big wish became to come back for more.
I ended my unforgettable trip to Egypt with an evening greatly spent in El Fishawi, the oldest cafe in Cairo, right inside Khan el-Khalili famous bazar. To draw an idea of the place, this was the most crowded place in the most dense city. This place is profoundly crazy. It’s small and crowded beyond imagination, you almost step over people and tables with shisha pipes and fried and salted sunflower seeds to pass the entrance and finding a place there is a mission impossible. It’s grim with lots of sumptuous pieces of old black furniture. Books, lamps, old photos of famous people who have been there in the past, huge mirrors with their ruined glass and a fat cat sleeping on a very tall piece of furniture looking like a throne. It’s a 200 years old cafe, it has not just seen history, it has lived it, having famous guests as King Farouk of Egypt in the 1930’s. After I hate it, I started to love it. It’s a must see.
This is Egypt, the country where I arrived feeling scared and I left thrilled and more rich. I know more now about history, civilisation, about Muslim culture and traditions, about life’s most valuable aspects and I definitely know more words in Arabic.
I knew from that very first evening when I was walking alone in the night bazar in Hurghada that Egypt was really getting to me and I will miss it every day now, until the day I will get back.
And the answer to the most famous question about Egypt I was repeatedly asked: Is it safe? It’s not just safe, it’s perspectives changing.
Next: Lapland, Finland