July 29, 2009

Plinky and the Brian: Pleasant Surpise

Today's Plinky prompt:

What city were you surprised to like?

The truth is that while there are a lot of places I haven't been, I have been to some interesting places. My answer to this question has a lot less to do with the city than it does with the circumstances surrounding my visit.

The short answer: Cairo. The longer answer is, well, the rest of this post, isn't it?

I started the job prior to the one I have now on August 29, 2001. About my third day or so there, one of my coworkers came up to me and said, "Listen: don't tell anyone because it's not official yet, but it looks like we might be going to Egypt in early October."

At the time he told me, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. But you can imagine that about a week and a half later, my thinking was a little bit different. It was more along the lines of, "You want me to go where, now?" and "Oh, hell no." Or something to that effect.

Now, for reasons not directly related to 9/11, the trip got postponed for a couple of months, resulting in one of the busiest Thanksgiving weekends of my life: I had Thanksgiving dinner, moved from one house to another, more or less dropped all my stuff in a pile, packed and left for two weeks overseas. All in the span of about three days. It was a little hectic, to say the least.

But even a couple of months later, there was quite a bit of trepidation about the trip. Remember: at that point, people weren't even flying between states in this country, let alone over there. And while I have a different perspective on it now, at the time I lumped Egypt into the category of the Middle East, which was not a place Americans were generally all that thrilled about heading. The people I traveled with joked about getting Canadian flags to sew onto our bags. We joked. Kind of.

But off we went, and everything was fine. Better than fine, actually. Cairo is pretty amazing, and we had a great visit. The pictures alone are worth having been there. I have a bunch of stories, many of which deserve (and may get) their own posts, but here are some highlights:

- The next time you get frustrated in DC traffic, just be glad you're not in Cairo. There are something on the order of 20 million people there (at least, that's what I was told; I've never bothered to fact-check), and it seems like they're all driving around at the same time. We landed at Cairo airport just after midnight, and as far as the traffic was concerned, it might as well have been rush hour. It was shocking. And there are no rules that I can determine, instead bumper advantage rules the day. Oh, and you might have to share the road with a donkey cart or two. With all of that, though, I never saw a single accident happen, and only one or two fender-benders after the fact. And despite the volume, things move fairly swiftly (or more swiftly than you'd expect, which is to say at all). But more than once we had to fold the mirrors in on the van to get through a very tight spot.

- We arrived during Ramadan, which was fascinating. All kinds of decorations covered the city, and we were fortunate enough to be invited to the iftar (fast-breaking dinner) at the office where our project took place. Really, really interesting on a host of levels. Plus, awesome food, which always helps. Bizarre lasting image from the evening: large, round Arabic men wearing fezzes, dancing around each other like it was a club. As strange as that may sound, there's no way what you're picturing is as weirdly comical as what actually happened. Trust me, I was there (with neither fez nor dancing, just so we're clear).

- Our hotel was on the Nile River, and you could see the Pyramids from my balcony. You can see the Pyramids from just about everywhere in Cairo, seeing has how Giza is a little closer to Cairo than Baltimore is to DC.

- We got rained on while we were there. This is not something that happens often. We asked one of our clients how often it rained, and he said, "I think it rained three times last year." So we witnessed (and felt) what could have been roughly 30% of Cairo's annual rainfall during our trip.

- I may or may not have eaten camel. I say that not to be cryptic, but because I'm not completely sure. But I think so. And it wasn't very good. Suffice it to say that during Ramadan in an Islamic country, the options for lunch are not what I would describe as plentiful and/or varied.

- Speaking of lunch, we did make an obligatory visit to McDonalds (which is not where the might-or-might-not-have-been-camel experience took place, just for the record). As much as they say that McDonalds is the same all over ther world, it's not the same in Egypt. But you can get McFalafel there, which I find amusing and kind of soul-hurting all at the same time. But what was amazing was the block that the McD's was on; it was a city block of nothing but American franchises. You had McD's, Hardee's, Radio Shack, and.... wait for it....

Little Ceasar's pizza. Because apparently, nobody in Egypt teaches history, either. I mean, seriously: if you're going to import Western junk food, fine. Just have some national pride, and I don't know, pick a company not named for someone who conquered your country. Papa John never ruled an empire; that's all I'm saying. One of my biggest regrets is not getting a picture of the place*. I got the Radio Shack but not Little Ceasar's. Next time I'm there, though...

- We got at least one apology about 9/11, from a cab driver, while we were over there.

- It was really sobering to see just how hard a country like Egypt was hit by the aftermath of the 9/11. Egypt has no oil, and its economy is very dependent on tourism. Well, while we were there, we saw virtually no tourists. The point was made very clear one night when we went to a local restaurant for dinner. It was a nice place, definitely at the higher end of the spectrum; one of the places on the list of Places To Eat you find one travel websites, etc. Had a great dinner, then went over to the bar and got into a conversation with the manager there. At some point we ended up talking about 9/11 (because how could you not?), and he pulled out his reservation book and opened it up, to give us an idea of the impact 9/11 had on a place like Cairo. He opened the book up to July/August, and every page, no kidding, was completely full. Huge parties, 60 or so people, several to a page, crowded the reservations. He then flipped ahead to November, and again all the pages were completely full of huge parties. The difference: virtually every one had been crossed out, canceled.

- Everyone should go to Cairo just to see the Khan al-Khalili, which I believe is the oldest marketplace in the world. It's beautiful, once you get past the overly-aggressive shopkeepers. But I will tell you another time about Magdi, who is reason enough to go there all by himself. But we went, and we haggled. Because that's what you do.

- We spent about 3 hours on horseback, riding around the Pyramids. And yes, it was exaclty as cool as it sounds. We had found a cab driver that we liked, so we held onto his number and called him whenever we needed something. Turned out he knew some guys who ran a stable in Giza, so he took us over there and got us fixed up with horses and a guide. It was truly amazing, and humbling, to be among that kind of history (and scale; the things are every bit as big as they look and then some), and the horse thing was just a great way to go about it. Much better than camel, I think, for long periods. Less spitting, and the jerking forward and back. Mostly, though, the spitting.

As I said, I have more stories, but I'll save them for another time. In the end, I'm glad I went, and was fortunate enough to make a second trip about six months later. I'd go back in a heartbeat, and I recommend it to anyone who's thinking about going.

And I have the number for a great cab driver, if you need it.

* Longtime readers of Arjewtino might find that story familiar, as it was the subject of a comment and photo-post on his blog a while back.


Jo said...

McFalafel! Brilliance, right there.

I didn't know you could climb on the pyramids?

Brian said...

Jo: Apparently, McD's puts at least one local-cuisine-type of item on their menus wherever they go. I remember seeing a sign for something in Peru that you wouldn't get around here, either.

And technically, you can't climb on the pyramids. But when nobody's looking...

I actually have a pic of the sign that says, "No Climing," too. The reality is that in places like that, for better or worse, the difference between what you can and can't do is a matter of about five dollars to the nearest security guard.

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