I just had a really good day. It was a surprise - because I haven't been liking Cairo until now.
Technically, I fucking hated this City. I hated that every transaction had to be a fight, that you could not let your guard down once, that 90% of any random merhaba was followed by a demand for a bribe, baksheesh, or the beginnings of a scam. I hated the air, thick with exhaust fumes. I hated that I couldn't catch a taxi without bargaining hard, and that it would take three to four tries before I would get a taxi offering close to a reasonable price.
I had great plans to explore the city's nightlife. Those are all out the window. It's too much a pain in the ass to wander far.
I hated the hotel. I want a hotel to be a refuge from the world, especially one as chaotic as Cairo. This one is basic - I knew that - but even here I was charged obscenely to hire a driver for a day. The bite was, I knew I could have gotten a private tour with a professional Egyptologist for the same price, but I was stuck with this one as I don't have a phone to arrange other plans. I tried to tell myself that 50 US wasn't bad for a private driver, that I could afford that - but the exploitation from this hotel still stuck in my craw.
And I hated the horns. The non-stop blaring horns. I know there's a secret language in them, and that there's different honks for hello, and do you need a taxi?; a short quick honk for it's safe to cross, and a dreaded long honk for you just fucked up homeboy and are about to be roadkill.
It was probably the horns more than anything that were jangling my nerves. There was no rest, and no peace except for under the covers of my cell-like room. I was like some delicate English lady sent out to the colonies to live with her Officer, totally unprepared for the madness of life outside London.
So I woke up in a dark mood yesterday, all gunked up inside from breathing this air - and the the blackness of my lungs was only matched by the blackness in my soul. I wanted to fly out that night, but I had paid for five days & had a flight on Friday evening to Aswan.
I couldn't believe how badly I misjudged this. But how could I have known? I've liked even the most unlovable of cities, and wasn't Cairo once the Mother of the World?
So, yesterday, I met a Peace Corps volunteer from Armenia, and invited her to share the ride (for which the price went up, dammit). The driver was pleasant, and we started off visiting the pyramids and necropolis at Saqqara.
My spirits went up a little when we say the pyramids of Giza framed on the horizon. I tried to maintain that brief moment of joy while at Saqqara, but ... it was a challenge.
Our first stop: the Mastaba of Mereuke, a tomb for the vizier with 32 underground rooms. It was interesting, but we got trapped in the tomb between a very loud and very large Spanish tour group and a slightly less loud Russian one. We couldn't pass through, and were stuck waiting for them to move before we could.
Next stop: The Mastaba of Ti. This was off the main route, and we had to walk a brief way across the desert to the entrance. Our spirits shot up when we realized we were the only ones there. We descended stone stairs into an underground channel - and the Bedouin pounced from behind one of the pillar. He was like some angry spirit of the tomb, hungry for baksheesh and forcing himself on us as a guide. I tried to ignore him, but he wouldn't allow that. Sir! Sir! He'd snap in my face, and then hiss if I ignored that. Sir! LOOK HERE! ELEPHANT? SEE? ELEPHANT? NOW LOOK HERE. CROCODILE. He was almost as loud as all the Spaniards combined.
Penny (my traveling companion) was a dear old gray haired lady, and unfortunately much more polite than I was. We were stuck with him. He of course, demanded baksheesh at the end, and I gave him a pound (I would've paid ten times that to make him go away), and he got angry. He tried to follow us out of the tomb, but the Tourist Police stopped him.
The Police then asked for baksheesh. Which: no. I draw the line at paying bribes to cops. We walked on with a smile and a masalama.
Then we drove to Zoser's Step Pyramid, the first of the pyramids, built by Imhotep. It was impressive. I wanted to explore some of the other sites (the Serapeum, the Persian tombs, the inside of the collapsed Umas pyramid), but all were closed. Random Bedouin carried keys and offered to open up secret tombs for us, but we declined.
So Saqqara was mixed. It was cool, but it could have and should have been world-class. It has the raw resources, but too much was locked up and only open to those who paid bribes, and it was impossible to know what locked doors led to interesting things and what to empty rooms.
Then we did lunch, at the Pharaoh's Carpet School and Garden. It was our driver's choice. I was ready for more tourist hell, but it turned out to be the perfect pit stop. We ate in a garden of Date palms, and the food was excellent. There was a bit of kitsch - dancing Arabs in tambourines played and danced around us when we entered, left, or went for a piss. But it was also an oasis of peace.
Refreshed, we went south to the pyramids at Dahshur. They were built just prior to the huge ones at Giza, and are almost as impressive. Best of all, you could enter the Red Pyramid. Penny and I lucked out, we were the only ones inside. I was a bit claustrophobic, but made it all the way down the long ramp into the inner sanctum. It was a great end to the day. The cops tried to demand bribes again, but this time I just laughed. Seriously, no fucking way am I going to pay off a cop for doing his job.
But I still could've left Cairo after that.
Today I meant to head to the museum, but changed my plans en route and hopped the metro to Masr Quadima, the original Coptic and Roman town (Memphis, the pharonic city, has long since sunk under the mud of the Nile).
I went without a map, and had to cross multiple highways to get there. That alone was an adventure. I'd join a group of men, and move with them through the traffic. It almost felt like we were a school of fish, all turning left then right in unison until we made it across. The subway was less challenging, but you only had a few seconds to jump on or off the train before it took off. It had it's own dangers.
And Masr Qadima was fabulous. I wandered into convents with signs telling us "No Photos ... Blessed are the Obedient." There were ancient Greek churches, the last Jewish synagogue in Cairo, secret alleys, and mysteries behind every door. In the old cemetery I was shocked to smell. Herbs and flowers, vaguely Mediterranean, but also unique to this place. This, I thought, is what Cairo must have smelled like before 21 million people and 3 million cars.
I spent the day exploring. It was the experience I was hoping for in Islamic Cairo, but that quarter's monuments are stripped and barren. This was the real thing.
And since I didn't have map or agenda, I ended up a bit far from the tourist paths. And this is how I stumbled onto the City of the Dead.
I was walking down a dirt road bounded by two walls, trying to find my way back to the main thoroughfare. On the left was the Greek cemetery with it's smells. Behind the wall on the right I could see what looked like the roofs of a village. I came to an open gate, asked a young man lounging under a tree if was ok to go in, and he motioned me to go ahead.
I entered, once again, into another world. It looked like a village of small stone or brick houses, all packed close together and with neat dirt alleys and paths running between them, and many complete with doors and stairs and porches. Each house, however, was a tomb. It was a tidy Our Town for the dead. I explored for a good thirty minutes, with no company but the stone angels perched on the roofs of the tombs.
I left in a bit of a daze. It was the singularly most haunting place I have ever seen. I recouped for a bit in a coffee shop, then hopped the metro back to town.
So. Cairo. The walk back was ok. The horns still irk, and I still can't breathe, but ... it might not have been such a bad choice after all.
Tomorrow I take the train for a day trip to Alexandria. Inshallah.