I was already pretty well travelled by the time I first arrived in Cairo. I’d spent a month in Morocco, time in Turkey when Sultanahmet still had dirt streets, and nearly a year in Central America. Yet somehow I think Cairo was the first (and maybe only) time I’d really experienced culture shock. I don’t think it helped that many of my travel buddies had not enjoyed their time there, and so I went in with the wrong attitude. And as I learned later on, the wrong attitude is your enemy in Egypt.
I stayed at a backpacker mecca called the Dahab Hostel. It was a rooftop hotel with makeshift rooms and shared bathrooms. As I do when arriving in any new place, I checked in, threw my bag down, and headed straight back out to explore. I was hungry and set off in search of something good to eat. I can pretty much guarantee I was wearing board shorts, which, when added to being a bit over six feet tall and with long red hair, screamed loudly: “This guy’s not from here.”
One thing I can remember for sure is that I was wearing flip-flops. I know this because within five steps of leaving the hostel, I stubbed my toe on a piece of metal sticking out of the footpath and my big toe started squirting blood. I was battling heat, noise, insane traffic, and now a bloody, slippery flip-flop.
As I psyched myself for my first road crossing through the ceaseless traffic, a kind-faced old gentleman sidled up beside me and out came that wondrous phrase, “Welcome to Egypt.”
But I’d heard about the legendary street hustlers of Talaat Harb and was focused on not falling into one of their charming traps.
“The roads here are very difficult to cross, let me help you,” the old man continued. My paranoid scam-o-meter went off. I ignored the guy with not so much as a sideways glance and abandoned the road cross to instead do a cruise around the block.
“Oooh, you are bleeding. Let me help you.” Another man quickly joined my side. I picked up the pace and left him in the crowd. I took a glance back to see him shaking his head with a fantastic look of disbelief and disappointment (in me) on his face. Worst start ever to an exploratory outing.
I wandered down a street full of mechanics shops. There, a few people whistled at me and everyone laughed and I didn’t find a single appetising thing on the whole block. I stumbled back into the Dahab hostel, not a happy traveller.
After showering and a touch of first aid, I made conversation with a few other travellers and got directions to a decent nearby place to eat. It did mean crossing about three streets at the roundabout, but surely I could do that, right? The roundabout was at least manned by police and traffic did momentarily stop (kind of). I decided on a two crossings strategy by going first to the statue in the middle of the roundabout — where the touts promptly met me (they had probably clocked me as soon as I came out of the hostel).
“G’day mate!” they hollered. “Going for a Captain Cook?” Starving at this point, I relented to conversation as they shouldered me down to the sidewalk takeaway. They helped me order some shawarma and falafel. They invited me for tea and then launched into their pitch about taking me out to the pyramids — how tricky it is to get to on the metro, but how they’d be happy to show me and so on. I knew all this came with endless visits to shops selling papyrus, alabaster, and perfume, and didn’t quite believe it was that difficult to get there. They’re the pyramids, after all. The men wouldn’t let me pay for my tea and insisted on a time for us to all meet tomorrow for our big adventure. I got back to the hostel and booked a train ticket to Luxor for the following night. I don’t think I left the hostel all the next day. Cairo, 1. Tony, 0.
I ended up in Egypt for nearly three months on that trip. Two and a half of those months were in Dahab (the town, not the hostel), and as it turned out, the only way for me to see the pyramids was to scramble back on an overnight bus, and quickly get out to the site on Christmas Eve for a quick look-around before getting on flight to the UK. It actually isn’t that straightforward to get to the pyramids on public transport. The touts were right. Either way, it was goodbye and although I’d fallen a little bit for Egypt in general, it was kind of good riddance to Cairo.
I had Christmas in the UK and then jetted to South America for a glorious nine months hanging out in places like Rio, Santiago, and Buenos Aires. I had my breath taken away by the incomparable Iguassu Falls and making my way to Machu Picchu. But the events of my Cairo trip still hung over me and so, in South America, I did everything with the touts. In the end I worked out that it doesn’t matter if they make a profit, so long as they delivered what I was looking for at the price we had agreed upon. And it was here that I learned the difference between cost and value (something we spend a lot of time on at Urban Adventures, where the golden rule is no matter the price, ultimately the customer’s experience must make that price seem like incredible value).
Arriving back in Australia, inspired but broke, the only job option I had was my old one as a guide with Adventure Tours Australia in Alice Springs. It’s my hometown and where I had spent two years saving for my big trip, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go back there. We’d done our time together. But I also noticed an ad for tour guides with Intrepid Travel. They had tours running pretty much all over the world, but it was their South America offerings that most excited me. My Spanish was flowing. The thought of turning around and going straight back to the continent was beyond great. I applied. After a series of interviews and few days of training in Melbourne, it was decision time. I sat down with a couple of the managers and they gave me the news that they’d like to have me on board. I could barely contain my excitement. “So where am I off to? Buenos Aires? Quito? Caracas?”
“You’ve been accepted for Cairo.”
I’m surprised I still got the job. I know for sure my face would have said I would rather boil my head in my own urine than go back to Cairo. But at 31, with no money and no other prospects beyond going home to live with the parents, I accepted.
As it turns out, I spent the best part of the next five years in the city we affectionately dub The Big Mango. It’s the other city that never sleeps. It remains, to this day, the most amazing city I’ve ever been to and, even after all this time, I feel I’ve still barely scratched the surface. The city is one big adventure.
In the Arab world, they call Cairo ‘the Mother of the World.’ It is the city of 1,000 minarets (although I suspect you should probably double that number). If you get yourself in the right spot at the right time, the city will serenade you as the call to prayer fans out like an audible ripple across the city. Cairo has so many buildings that would be the national treasures and focal points that dominate postcards in any other city — but in Cairo they sit in the middle of obscure roundabouts on routes no tourist ever passes. Other cities claim café cultures, but Cairo is the king. The city runs on tea. Any and all business is done there, although usually a few hours later than you’d arranged (Cairo is not set up for punctuality). The food is fresh, tasty, and cheap. The juices and fresh fruits come round with the seasons. You hang out for mango season and are delighted when strawberry season suddenly appears.
I remember one bumper strawberry season where the price per kilo from the back of the donkey cart went as low as $0.25. We had a lot of strawberry smoothies that fortnight. You can mark your time in the city by these events as surely as you mark your own birthday. Even on my last visit to The Big Mango, one of our Urban Adventures guides took me to a street-side restaurant I’d not previously heard of, where it is basically a law in her family that if you are even remotely close, you must load up on bags of their treats to bring home to the family. This is what I now love about this city. The adventure is never over. You meet someone new and they have another chapter of the story to tell you.
The thing I learned in those years is that Cairo (and Egypt in general, for that matter) acts like a mirror. You get reflected back at you what you give out. When I first went to Cairo, I had a bad attitude and suspicious fears. Cairo rightfully chewed me up and spat me out. But if you go with a happy, open mind, the Mother of the World will bring you in for a loving cuddle.
When you see locals purchasing multiple bags of sandwiches, then that is a sandwich you just have to try. Welcome to the glorious world of Papa Abdo.