Between traveling, working and living, I have spent little over 8 years of my life in Asia. Exploring and discovering this continent had always been my life's dream for as long as I can remember. After several years of living there and feeling it already like “my place” in the world, I can't still help but feeling a strong curiosity as to how I ended up being born in the exact opposite corner of the planet in such a different culture when at the same time I feel so strangely connected to another one. I guess they are the existential games of karma playing on us. The fact is that when you feel like fish swimming in the water, it ain't so easy to just jump to another pond. However, my thirst for adventure is insatiable and it is already telling me that it is time to give Africa the long journey it deserves, for it is the only continent where I have never ever been before. It is for this very reason that I finally decided to cut the umbilical cord and once and for all take the leap out of Asia. For months in advance I have been evaluating different alternatives to reach the continent exclusively by bicycle but the social situation in three key countries, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen has deteriorated so much that it is virtually impossible to reach the north of the continent without flying. Therefore, we had no other choice than flying and from Delhi we went straight to Cairo.
Welcome to Egypt
I am going to be honest here. Despite its past grandeur, the one that I have thoroughly studied back in university, Egypt had never been at the top of my list. The fact that it has always been such a famous touristy place pretty much made me always lose any potential enthusiasm that might arise. Perhaps it was because of having seen so many times the destructive effects that mass tourism has on local cultures, I don't know. However it only took just a few hours in Cairo to find myself happily surprised. We landed there at a very difficult time in the history of the country, when after three consecutive years of revolts and failed Revolutions have led the country to bankruptcy and a state of desperation. As a result of this, the Media of propagation of evil has took clear advantage of this situation to place Egypt, unfairly as usual, among the dangerous countries that should be avoided. United States, England and many others alert their citizens from the official websites of their organizations to terrorize the world: DON'T TRAVEL TO EGYPT! TERRORISM, KIDNAPPINGS, BOMBS, MUSLIMSSSSSS!!!!!! The one very positive thing about all this though, is that the first tourists that feel intimidated by such a load of lies and bullshit are the worst ones, so this keeps them at home and preserves the world from their irresponsible behavior abroad. On the other hand, the negative side of this is that unfortunately, tourism is the engine of Egypt's economy and the situation after three years of tourism drought and without any visible hint of improving in the short or medium term, is desperate to say the least for a huge part of the Egyptian society that fully depends on it. Entires families have gone bankrupt, thousands of shops have closed, a middle class of business men that have turned to either servitude or full unemployment. The Nile has become a cemetery of stranded tourist boats that sit there rusting in the water, and the glorious Pyramids of Giza that have transcended everything along the centuries, are once again sitting in almost complete solitude.
In the meanwhile, life goes on. Apparently, there are still some outbreaks of sporadic protests here and there, and there is a strong military presence on the streets, but you only have to stay away from these to not be able to notice even the slightest of the irregularities. A climate of absolute normality reigns the streets of Cairo, the normality of the chaos that is Cairo of course, with its 30+ million inhabitants that like ants plague every corner of the city. Outside its main arteries, Cairo isn't more than this massive maze of narrow alleys following no logic of any kind, flanked by brick buildings built half-way that are subsequently disguised by clads of clothes hanging out to dry, while people snoop around looking out their windows, looking at the happenings of their neighborhood.
Its wide avenues and boulevards, its opulent buildings, its delightful promenade along the Nile, talk of a glorious past of grandeur, although the recurrent crisis, the corruption, the dry winds of the Sahara desert corroded their facades and side walks giving an image of almost permanent decadence.
But the true blood of Cairo clearly runs along the intricate maze that gives shape to its neighborhoods where commerce vibrates day and night, the noise is deafening, traffic loses its inherent dynamic nature and vehicles get stuck in traffic jams for hours without any possible exit. People walk along both side-walks and streets alike, women wear their pitch black attires covering them from head to toe, they carry massive bags of merchandise on top of their heads. The men, on the other hand, run around town pulling heavy carts full of goods, yelling out their offerings and selling as much as they can.
Although society seems quite homogeneous, contrasts are still harsh. The Egyptian Islam shines for its hospitality at the same time it pales with its sexism. Men dress in pretty much every way they want while women seem to go around playing ghosts. The graffiti of the Revolution show them unveiled and fighting whereas the every day streets don't “show” them at all.
Some shops seem to sell clothing that one cannot even imagine in any possible scenario around here.
In Islamic Cairo's markets the penetrating aroma of thousands of spices stimulate the senses. Tall and strong men dressed in their galabiyas and white turbans examine them thoroughly, almost scientifically, before buying them.
We are in orange's high season and there are so so so many that its juice seems to have clearly displaced water. Egyptian oranges have left me speechless, they are so sweet that they don't even have to add sugar to it, making it 100% pure. There are juice stalls on the street every 20 meters. In one of them two sellers make the perfect team, entertaining people while making the juice. They have a huge speaker playing Egyptian music very loud and while singing and dancing, one of them squeezes oranges ceaselessly and the other serves the juice and takes the money. For a half-liter (500 ml) glass of purely natural orange juice they charge 2 pounds, equivalent to about 15 cents usd at the time of writing. It almost seems like a dream and we drink until irritating our guts.
Within this chaotic world of merchants and buyers, the mosques become the perfect enclosed space to find some peace while giving people the necessary place to undertake the every day religious practices. Even when not going for religious purposes, they provide shelter from the noise outside and a space to take a power nap in order to get back the energies needed to continue day and night. Their patios are incredibly quiet considering the craze going on just outside its walls.
Even though the country is clearly dominated by a noticeable Muslim majority, there is a quite big Christian community in Egypt and Coptic Cairo not only offers a magnificent collection of immaculate and exquisitely decorated churches, but even synagogue.
Contrary to the business districts, the residential neighbourhoods are surprisingly quiet and peaceful, one could just walk around them for hours and hours just to enjoy watching life go by. Their atmosphere is relaxed and this where the kindness and joy of the Egyptians begin to clearly show, when we pass by and they happily and excitedly exclaim: “Welcome to Egypt!!!” over and over again. Traditionally dressed women sit on the side-walks, they just people-watch and chat. They give the whole place a village-like flair.
Wherever you go you see kids playing on the streets, they play mostly football, a clear national passion, but you can even find an alley full of pool tables, right there sitting on the street. Given that they block any vehicular traffic, it starts to become apparent why traffic in Cairo is the mess it is, but nobody seem to even bother.
Men, on the other hand, spend uncountable hours sitting at the tea houses smoking shisha which seems to be something like a national sport! A clear addiction.
It is the end of March and the furious winds of the Sahara hide Cairo behind a veil of dust and sand. The end of the day brings murky sunsets and dim colors but the day is far from over, if anything, the whole city seems to find its glory at night when the hustle and bustle increase even further. It seems as though the weather patterns of Egypt lead people to live more during the night than during day. Shops open and close late, it is absolutely normal to go shopping for clothes at 12 am and have dinner by 1 am. The whole city is just splendid at night.
The greatest magic of Cairo is perhaps that one can walk endlessly and aimlessly along its narrow alleys and maybe at any random turn find out that the skyline at the very end of the road shows what everybody knows: the Pyramids. Sitting at the western edge of Giza district, where the Sahara desert already starts to bite the urban boundaries of the city, Keops, Kefren and Mycerinos rise above the ground in their most absolute perfection, because that's what they are, perfect! Just like they have been described in so many of the books of history of architecture that I had to study back in university. The total lack of tourism have left them almost completely alone for ourselves, only a red carpet was missing. Even so, you still have to find your way through pushing aside the hordes of aggressive and lying touts that will do the impossible to sell you a souvenir at an exorbitant price, fake tickets for places that require no extra tickets, walk you through a different way that has nothing special and still wanting to charge you for it. The best of all though, was trying to force us to buy a camel ride, this is in a country where long ago the donkey has taken the place of that animal. In 1700 km (1100 miles) of riding across the desert in Egypt we have come across camels only in the Pyramids!!! One can think compassionately and assume it is the desperation of the economic crises that drives these people and it might very well be one of the main reasons these days. However, their abusive behaviour and their cheating tactics are famous worldwide and they seem to remain alive in both crises and times of abundance, only the excuses change.
We spent a full week in Cairo at Nagui's home, an exceptional man of joyful spirit and contagious smile, that face with great stoicism the hardship of being homosexual in such a religiously repressive society, where on the one hand, gays are condemned and on the other, the amputation of the clitoris is practiced in 80-90% (unofficial data) of the female population. His home in Heliopolis serves as a bunker for the meetings of a dozen of friends that are as exceptional as he is. There, they have given us a magnificent insight into the realities of the country.
Cairo has ended up being truly fascinating to me, it is one of those cities where you can spend ages and still see something new every day. It is one of those places that make me become a sponge trying to absorb as much as I can until saturation and still I never get tired of it. It was the perfect beginning for the long journey lying ahead across the almighty Sahara desert. From here, until Khartoum in Sudan, almost 3000 km of harsh desert await. It is the big gate to this huge continent and I'm anxiously looking forward to it.