The Madness of Cairo
Cairo was striking me with a good, crazy sort of feel as I boarded the subway to go into the city center. Chaya and I had just arrived in the big city from the Sinai border outpost of Taba, and our wobbly bus legs were getting the feel of solid earth again.
As Cairo exploded all around us.
Walking down street and having zillions of actions, stories, dramas unfolding all around you is one of the prime joys of traveling.
“Look at that! Look over there! Check out that good action.”
I think of the time when I walked on foot into Varanasi with Stubbs in ’05. Pure, untethered madness.
Perhaps this is what I travel for: The Madness.
I had the name and address of a hotel written down in my back pocket notebook. It was called the African House. I choose it from all of the choices on the internet only because I liked the name. I also had the nearest subway stop to it written down in the notebook. You can find nearly anything in a subway city by using the stops as provenience points. Perhaps this is a tactic that I refined while wandering around New York City last autumn.
The African House hotel was good, not too expensive, the rooms were huge and – I feel like a schmuck for saying this – almost beautiful. The staff also had brains. It is a rare stroke of luck to find yourself in a hotel that is run by people with brains when you need to do things quickly. Chaya and I now had under 10 hours to print out copies of our flight itinerary, eat, sleep, and get to the airport. We booked airport taxi transport through the hotel and paid a good amount of money to do so — but, at this point, the Egyptian pounds that were wadded up in a ball in my pocket did not mean too much to me. In a few hours I would be in the Maine searching for work.
Chaya and I were done fighting with taxi drivers. Since leaving Aleppo in Syria, we had trying confrontations with more taxi drivers than I ever had in my first 9 years travel combined. For once, I was willing to pay to have a sense of peace as I rode out of a continent after a long journey.
I asked the hotel man where I could find a computer with internet access from which we could print out our flight itineraries. This was important, as I had a run through Cairo International Airport before, and I knew that there would be problems if we did not have paper-proof of our flight. Chaya was skeptical, tired, and pregnant — the last thing that she wanted to do was run around Cairo in the middle of the night searching for a printer. She did not think that we would really need those paper printouts but she followed me anyway.
I was unwavering in my resolve to get the print outs — I knew that I would need them. Different cultures have different cultural approaches. I knew that a security guard at the gate of the Cairo airport with the sole order to check passenger’s tickets would not have the brains to make the connection that electronic flight bookings do not issue paper tickets . . . but even worse, I had a suspicion that these human robots would love nothing more than to exert their petty authority over a ragged foreign travel in the only situation that was under their control.
“No ticket, no airport,” I imagined them saying as we tried to pantomime what an electronic ticket was.
I did not want to miss our flight arguing with a half-ass security guard at the gate to the airport.
We needed those printouts.
We went in search of a printer through the insanely busy Cairo streets. The cars drove by us with their bumpers virtually kissing that of all the other cars around them. Chaya and I tried to cross the 4 to 6 lane cross urban highways. I grabbed Chaya’s hand and we just tried to follow local people in this real life game of Frogger.
Cairo Traffic at night from Cairo’s Congested Ramses Square
The game works like this: you find a local person crossing the street in the direction that you are going and you keep him/ her in between you and the oncoming traffic. Then there will at least be a human buffer between you and any waywardly speeding vehicles.
We asked directions to the nearest internet cafe, and found many helpful people who sent us circular chases through the Cairo streets. The people of Cairo seemed real nice, real hospitable, and overtly friendly — everyone we asked for directions smiled at us and tried hard to help. But their directions continually lead us to nowhere.
In desperation, we entered into a photocopying place in hopes that someone inside would know were we could find a computer with a printer. I asked a guy who was smoking a cigarette. He smiled and told us to go upstairs.
It seemed like a bleak chance that an unmarked internet cafe would be on the second floor of a building that we chose by pure happenstance, but we followed the lead anyway. Upstairs, we found a smiling man sitting behind a computer in what seemed to be an empty office. There was a printer by his side. He seemed friendly and invited us inside. Another smiling man soon joined us. Both men were decently dressed and seemed to be some sort of urban professional. They said that we could use their computer and printer.
It seemed at first to be a friendly offering, but I asked the price anyway. In another country I may not have bothered asking, and took the hospitality at face value. But the men wanted money, no problem.
We settled on a price: 5 EGP (1 USD) per hour on the computer and 1 EGP per page of printing.
This was a globally standard price.
The second smiling Urban Professional then left the room.
Chaya and I both got on the computer and printed our itineraries. The connection was terribly slow, and it took around 20 minutes to do this — but it worked.
We then went to pay for the service. The first smiling Urban Professional smiled at us as I passed him the money.
“What is this?” he asked.
“Eight pounds,” I explained, “five for one hour of internet and three for the paper.”
He would not take the money — he wanted more.
“The paper is five pounds (1 USD) each!”
. . . And he wanted a ton of money for the 20 minutes of internet. We were being scammed.
We took a gamble and tried to walk across the thin ice of Egyptian honesty, and found ourselves flaying about in frigged waters beneath . The strength of the smooth seeming icy could not hold the weight of two Americans who were obviously thought to have heavy pockets.
The smiles were now gone as we tried to smooth over the situation through diplomacy:
“But you said . . . but you said . . . that is too much money . . . but you said . . .” and on and on.
The man then picked up the telephone with a sense of urgency and pounded in a number.
We knew that if we did not act fast that the room would soon be full of Egyptian goons.
Travel Tip: One goon is easier to give the slip than a room full.
I swiped our printed out itineraries off the desk and turned for the door.
“Chaya, run!” I yell as I bounded towards the exit.
Chaya, pregnant belly and all, followed my lead as we made a run for it.
As I hit the stairwell, I turned for a final look back into the office — I saw the Urban Professional with a telephone receiver dangling from his ear and a surprised look on his face. He was not giving chase.
We gave him the slip, and made straight for the African House Hotel.
Chaya collapsed upon the bed in our room.
“I hate this country,” she muttered as she fell asleep on the last night of a glorious jaunt of travel.
Video of traffic in Cairo at night.
The Madness of Cairo