Video: A 360-degree view from behind the Pyramids, featuring our tour guide Amina
A lot of help the television documentaries are, right? All they ever show you are the “mysteries of King Tut’s tomb” and the “secrets of the Great Pyramid”. But once we’re all hot and bothered to come see the land of the ancient Egyptians for real, how are we to know that we’ll have to somehow successfully navigate the land of the modern Egyptians?
Don’t kid yourself. This place isn’t for the faint of heart. You don’t plan a trip to Cairo thinking you can just casually behold the pyramids the way you could, say, see the Tour Eiffel in Paris or Big Ben in London.
For starters, we’re not really sure how this is even possible but in our case at least we couldn’t find any flights that didn’t arrive in the middle of the freaking night. Granted, we didn’t fly here directly from the US. We were already in the Middle East. But still…geez.
Wildly, the airport was a total madhouse at 2am. To make matters even more confusing, we had somehow crossed wires with our hotel and they weren’t there to meet us as promised. Raise your hand if you already know that being unexpectedly left dangling without an airport transfer in a developing country is a near certain recipe for a rip off.
Somehow, amidst practically losing my mind in an attempt to keep both Emily and our belongings safe amidst an ocean of strangers who’d like us to get into an unmarked 1974 Peugeot 504 alone with them in the middle of the night, we got a legitimate cab and ultimately rolled into our hotel a couple of hours later.
Traffic had been bumper-to-bumper the entire way—at THAT hour. Horns blaring, bumpers smashing. Two guys and a goat on a scooter. We stopped asking the driver dumb questions and just hung on for the ride.
The hotel was more run-down than we had imagined it would be, which was a cause for concern at first. But hey, we’ve long since learned to at least give positive TripAdvisor ratings a fighting chance to acquit themselves before passing ultimate judgment.
In this case the hotel explained why the transfer had been bungled, and surprise—we were largely to blame. They couldn’t have been nicer, put a complimentary Stella (not THAT “Stella”, but rather the Egyptian brand) beer in our hands, and made us comfortable in our room. The waiter at that hotel would go on to become one of our favorite people from any hotel ever. All was well in the universe.
At this point I should remind you of something, in case it isn’t already apparent. There’s more in Cairo than an empty desert plain with a few pyramids on it. Yet somehow, most of us never get the memo prior to hitting town that this place is one of the most densely populated, chaotic, rambunctious and crazy places on Earth.
According to one of the locals, the way to cross the street is to close your eyes and pray to Allah the whole time.
Yes, it’s an Islamic country. Plenty of Westerners freak out over that also, albeit unnecessarily. Once you’ve traveled in the Arab world a bit you quickly realize that you can’t believe everything you’re led to believe in the media. The Muslims we’ve met are among the kindest, most hospitable people on Earth. Generally speaking, you respect them and act like a human being and they gladly return the favor.
But realistically speaking, the true complication to visiting Cairo is that everything you want to see is incredibly complicated to find and utterly frustrating to get to.
Friends and neighbors, you are going to need a good tour guide when you go to Cairo—even if you’ve sworn you’ll never, ever hire one. Otherwise you’re likely to return to your hotel room after Day One and assume a fetal position at the foot of your bed sucking your thumb.
That’s precisely why the first person we met when we woke up from our all-too brief first night’s sleep was our tour guide, Amina Desouky.
Here it is: If and when you go to Cairo, hire Amina as your tour guide. Don’t even think about anyone else. And do it well in advance, because she’s only one person and she’s in high demand. Find her nowadays at Egypt Queen Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org / www.egyptqueen.com).
Seriously, Amina is such a rock star among her peers that she gets stopped in public by them and adored, basically. I mean, damn.
She and her driver took us to Memphis. They took us to Saqqara. Both places were amazing, but what’s more so is that Amina was both immensely knowledgeable and enduringly patient with two dorky Americans who still had to pinch themselves believing they’d survived the previous night…err, I mean…that they were finally in Egypt.
Amina was all smiles and jokes as her equally impressive driver whisked us through impossibly ridiculous India-like traffic situations and complex routes, only to arrive at yet another hidden gem of a place that we probably never even knew existed. She found lunch for us at a place that was both terrific and inexpensive. She made sure we tried sugar cane juice. She even arranged a flat-out camel run through the city streets.
Finally we screeched to a halt in front of the iconic pyramids, which inexplicably (and perhaps famously, at this point) stand remarkably close to full-on modern urban hustle. And for what it’s worth, it’s not even a particularly upscale neighborhood. Haven’t real estate developers figured out what such a vista would be worth, or what? (Maybe everyone’s afraid it would all be a Pyramid Scheme…ha!)
Not only did our driver get us to the pyramids in one piece, Amina secured the somewhat elusive tickets to go inside the Great Pyramid, of which only 250 are issued per day. She’s a magician, I tell you.
Venturing deep inside the Great Pyramid was easily one of the top 5 most stunning moments we’ve ever had when traveling. That’s not to say it wasn’t both disgusting and annoying. We got to the center of the thing only to find two people chanting as if to conjure the spirits they hoped were present, utterly oblivious to how they were actually affecting the experience of real, live people in the flesh attempting to share the space with them. It was also surrealistically humid in there. We would later find out that was because there was no ventilation system in there. We had been breathing in the breath of other people the whole time.
From there we went to the nearby Sphinx.
We had taken our sweet time all day so Amina sort of cracked the world’s friendliest whip on us and hustled us toward the strange, narrow entry way leading to where you could view the iconic landmark in all its splendor. We got there about ten minutes before it closed. Before long, the security guards began the process of feebly attempting to herd everyone out. Amina laughed as she told us it typically takes an hour after the alleged “closing time” to finally clear the place out.
Sure enough, even as we were leaving another tour guide was yet rushing his group of retired American tourists through the door. Nonplussed by their passively obedient response to the guards’ suggestion that the Sphinx was now closed, the exasperated guide wheeled them back around one by one, finally crying out to all, “What can I say?…GO!”
I had to laugh. I mean, these people, like us, had probably waited their entire lives to see this thing. Who were they going to listen to, some rent-a-cop or their tour guide? Even now, several years later Emily and I still bust out with a, “What can I say?…GO!” whenever the situation fits, complete with the Arabic accent.
Another of the many shocking aspects of visiting Egypt blindsides you from a completely opposite direction. There are so many extant Egyptian artifacts that they literally leave them lying around, seemingly everywhere. Even places like Memphis and the honkin’ Egyptian Museum itself have scores of ostensibly priceless pieces bundled up in the yard outside.
Amina supposed it was all partly to do with the fact that the Egyptian government simply can’t afford to give all the artifacts the attention they deserve. When you think of all the Egyptian stuff that’s already been carted off to museums, retired to private collections or flat-out stolen elsewhere all over the word, this whole phenomenon becomes that much more astounding.
And indeed, Egypt is not exactly a wealthy country. If you’ve never been to a developing country before, you’ll encounter poverty in Cairo that will fry your circuits. Mexico, for example, seems wealthy by comparison.
Assuming you have a tour guide like Amina to help you navigate both the streets and the culture shock, you’ll find that there’s actually more to Cairo then just ancient ruins. Coptic Cairo (Old City) features quite a bit of Christian history that relatively few know about. The Mohammad Ali Mosque atop the Citadel al Sala ad-Din is also an amazing place to visit.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you know that we visited Cairo in early November of 2010, right before the first major political uprising happened there. Nevertheless, recent reports indicate that the tourist experience to be had there these days is little, if any crazier than it was back when we went…if that’s any consolation.
HOW TO GET THERE:
You’ll likely have to stop in the Middle East or Europe if coming from North America. Flights to Cairo are plentiful from elsewhere in the Middle East. Our recommendation is to make a multi-national adventure of your trip to the region, perhaps taking in Dubai, Jordan or Doha as well. If you go to Israel, be sure to go there LAST if visiting Arab countries. For our part we went from Dubai to Bahrain to Egypt to Turkey and then to Israel and the West Bank, making for a truly memorable journey.
WHERE TO STAY:
If friendly service and location is more important than a renovated hallway, then try the Cairo City Hotel and never look back. The restaurant overlooks the Egyptian Museum along with a mesmerizing sea of traffic below.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY:
Hire a tour guide like Amina Desouky, most definitely. Otherwise you’ll pay too much on the fly and get too little in return.
WHAT TO SEE ON A LAYOVER / WHAT TO SEE IN ONE DAY:
Forgettaboutit. Cairo might be the least layover-friendly city on the planet.
TIPS AND TRICKS:
- Make double-sure your hotel transfer is ironclad
- Don’t panic. Cairo is intimidating and crowded, but the people are actually quite helpful…even if they don’t speak a lot of English. More do than you think, however.
- Avoid crossing the street!
- Cairo is well worth the trouble of getting there and being there, but you’ve got to be informed.
- This is not even close to the experience of visiting places in western Europe. India is a better comparison.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK:
- Be sure to go to Memphis
- It’s all complicated. Be ready for that, leave all the crazy stuff to someone like Amina and the rest is gravy.