How do you feel about big cities? I mean, cities that are in some way or form pretty much monolithic? As travellers, we inevitably end up visiting big cities despite how we might or might not feel about the experience. Even if the ultimate goal is not to go to the ‘big city’ of a country, state or local, often at lest flying through such a place and staying a night or two is unavoidable. But big cities, in many ways, make the world go ‘round. The are the centre of commerce and government. And whilst a country’s breadbelt, the farmlands and so on maybe the essential part of the country, the big cities are still (and this is not necessarily a good thing) where the decisions are made.
Big cities for the visitor can delight and amaze, not to mention entertain, but they can also be daunting places, where you feel lost the second you step out of the airport. Today I am remembering my visit, over twenty years ago now, to one of the world’s busiest cities – Cairo.
The Egyptian capital boasts a population of over twenty million depending on how much of the urban area you include. Like many huge cities, it is centred on a mighty river – and in Africa they don’t come much mightier than the Nile.
For me, this is a city which left an indelible impression on this traveller, and mostly it was for its size. I was there with my good friend, Greg, we were travelling Egypt together, and there’s no denying the reasons for visiting Cairo – the pyramids of Giza and the Egyptian Museum. But Cairo is more than its mindblowing tourist attractions. It’s seriously nuts! It’s as busy as you can imagine, and as varied as you can imagine.
One thing I remember clearly is the smog that sat on the sit without fail. Perhaps it was smog mixed with dust? It’s a common theme with big cities, haze, and what it does is just make the buildings and features look just that little but dull. So to me, my memory of Cairo is initially that it was a very grey city. Egypt and Cairo receive very little rainfall that it’s inevitable that dust or sand is going to get blown around the place very easily, but it still is quite disappointing to see the haze in my old photos, especially the ones of the Nile.
The traffic and the people, and I am only talking in terms of numbers here, were pretty overwhelming at times. This was 20 years ago and it was my first solo trip (Greg joined me for this part though). To be honest, it didn’t knock me over like Delhi did, and it wasn’t as hot at the time (April) as Delhi was at the end of March, but it still was over 30 degrees every day and that still impacted the experience.
Having said that we walked around heaps, we walked to the Mohammed Ali Mosque, which wasn’t really out of town but it felt like it, having to walk around suburbs and then across hills of sand. We stayed in a cheap and really quite dirty place, but it had a good vibe I guess and we were able to talk with other backpackers and locals alike. It cost less than $10AUD each so I guess it still represented value for money.
Crossing the road was a hazard in itself – I distinctly remember the Lonely Planet Guide Book said something along the lines of ‘motorists in Cairo regard traffic lights as more of a suggestion’ which seemed about right.
We found a nice place or two to eat, but somewhat sadly, worried about our guts, ended up in McDonald’s and KFC a couple of times – KFC was in Giza opposite the entrance to the Pyramids. We found a very nice shopping mall and to escape the heat and the crazy, we went to two films whilst we were there (this is always a good way to just change the pace of your travel experience and get away from places which are hot, overly busy and full of people trying to flog you stuff). I believe one of the films was the Robin Williams film ‘Patch Adams’. That was two films in six days, we didn’t spend the whole time in the cinema!
We navigated the local buses with a bit of help around to the mall, and to the Egyptian Museum which is located at this big intersection involving a giant roundabout. There is (or at least was) a McDonald’s right there! And we walked the leafy, posh suburbs by the Nile where my bottom was pinched by a girl wearing a hijab. It’s strange what you remember!
We also went to a building to get some decent photos of the city and the river. I have NO recollection of what it was like… but I still have the photos to prove it. I also remember eating falafel after falafel from this great little shop near the hostel, and I remember it was a meal for around a buck.
So you see, Cairo left a mark on me and I have some vivid memories of the experience. A month or so later for example, I visited Zurich. I literally have no memory of that except going out for dinner at a pub one night. Or was it lunch? Then again, I didn’t take any photos there either.
Have you been to Cairo? What were your impressions? Did it leave it’s mark on you? Please do comment – and May the Journey Never End!