After concluding a walk-through of the Egyptian Museum and taking a quick stroll up the bank of the Nile, Mike and I returned to our Cairo hostel to wait for Mahmoud. Mahmoud is another traveling, working-out, partying programmer who Peder and I spent some time with towards the end of our stay in Kyoto. He lived there for six months on a short-term work contract, and just happened to move back to his home in Cairo four days before my arrival. Talk about perfect timing.
I always love experiencing a foreign country with a true local. It offers so much more insight and depth than you can get any other way – even tourguides, who are paid to give you the “inside look,” never do as good a job in my experience as a local friend. And Mahmoud was just about the best host one could imagine.
We started by hopping in his car and driving across town to Khan al-Khalili, a street bazaar in medieval Islamic Cairo.
If the evening had ended after the drive alone it would’ve been one of the most memorable evenings of the trip. Remember how I mentioned that driving in Cairo is insane?
DRIVING IN CAIRO IS INSANE!
I just don’t know how else to describe it. I seriously thought we were going to be crushed in an accident a hundred times over the course of the ten minute drive. If you lose attention for just one instant you’ll almost certainly smash into someone who just swerved into your path, or get hit by someone who decided to randomly start reversing in the middle of the street. And to make matters worse, more than half the cars don’t even turn on their headlights at night. From inside the vehicle, it almost doesn’t seem real – like I could only be watching a video game or something.
I asked Mahmoud how the city could possibly function this way – how it wouldn’t be one constant stream of accidents. The following wasn’t our exact conversation, but it pretty well covers the more interesting information we discussed on the drive to the bazaar:
Justin: “Aren’t there accidents with everyone driving like this?”
Mahmoud: “Oh, of course – most of the time.”
J: “So what about all the expensive cars – Mercedes and whatnot.”
M: “That’s why you have insurance.”
J: “And what about the pedestrians – don’t people die?”
M: “Sure. I’ve only been back 4 days and I’ve already seen one body on the road.”
M: “It’s usually the driver’s fault, but there’s a trial and they try to figure out what happened by talking to the people who witnessed it. Hey, could you hand me one of the beers down by your feet there?”
J: “Are you serious? You can drink while driving?”
M: “Sure man. I mean, I think it’s technically illegal, but there are no rules in Cairo. Nobody follows them anyway.”
J: “So is it legal to drink on the streets?”
M: “Do you have an American passport?”
J: “Uh, yeah.”
M: “You can do whatever you want – an American passport is like a get-out-of-jail-free card in Egypt. Just flash it and nobody will touch you.”
J: “What about you? Can you drink in public?”
M: “As long as it’s not right in front of the police. But if they catch do catch me I can always just give them a few bucks to leave me alone.”
J: “Hey, how come this drive is taking so long anyway – I thought Khan al-Khalili was much closer to downtown.”
M: “Yeah…they just changed all the roads to one-way so now you have to do a full loop of the city to get there. Getting home takes like 5 minutes but getting there takes 20.”
J: “Why’d they do that?”
M: “So they wouldn’t have to put so many cops in the center to prevent people from driving on the wrong side.”
Once we reached Khan al-Khalili we sat down for a quick meal of stuffed pigeon before proceeding into the market to buy my prized souvenir sheesha. I wanted something small and durable enough to carry while traveling – I’ve found that anywhere in the world, sheesha is an amazing way to be social and make friends. Bust one of those babies out in the common room of a hostel and before you know it every single person is in the lounge smoking and chatting. It’s just about the best “travel bling” I could imagine.
Mahmoud put so much effort into finding me the best possible sheesha it simply blew my mind. This guy was a pro if I ever saw one – analyzing material, airflow, craftsmanship – we probably went to 20 shops before he selected his favorite. Even the salesmen commented (in Arabic) – “Is this guy your brother or something? Why are you putting SO much effort – it’s just a sheesha!”
Although he’s walked the streets of Cairo with foreign friends before, he was still amused at how different it is to be with a tourist than on your own – how everyone jumps out of their shop and tries to sell you their goods (at a price over quadruple what a local would pay). I guess the ripoffs here in Egypt are even more than I thought; I sure am grateful that I had him there to help me out. Now I have a much better idea of what things should cost.
(Example: Yesterday we had about fifty taxi drivers offer to take us to the pyramids. The average price they quoted was in the 50-100 pound range. Mahmoud said it should never cost more than 20).
Here’s a tip for travelers in Egypt: never make any money visible until the price is completely agreed upon. When Mahmoud parked his car at Khan al-Khalili, I wanted to pay. He said no. So as we do in America, I whipped out my cash before he had the chance. “No!!”
Too late. I’d just inadvertently agreed upon price. If I’d given the attendant 2 pounds (30 cents or so), it would’ve been enough. But when I handed her a 20 expecting to get change, all she gave me back was a 10 – and said the price was 10. Mahmoud argued, but it was too late – she already had the cash.
Apparently there are beggars that will actually cut off their own arms so they can get money by playing the cripple-card.
After finishing up at the bazaar, he drove us a bit out of town for our last stop of the evening: a hilltop cafe with a stunning view over all of Cairo. We sat on the cliff with the locals and ordered one gigantic sheesha each, along with some fresh fruit juice – just as good as in Brazil, but at 1/5th the cost.
Even with all the corruption and ripoff, I’m liking Egypt. I can’t see why everyone has so much against Cairo. I think it’s a pretty cool place.
Except maybe for all the flies 😆