A city that never sleeps

Day 38
Cairo, Egypt

My “Egypt Adventure” trip with Intrepid started this morning. It’s a small and diverse group of 12 travelers from around the world — ranging from some young U.K. solo travelers to a well-traveled New Zealand couple — with yours truly the only one representing the U.S. of A. We met our guide, Hany, who will be with us for the next 8 days. He provided some background on this city of 18 million — about how the majority of Egyptians live on less than 300 pounds, or $60USD, a month — as well as some tourist etiquette on the Art of Bargaining (even after you’ve got them down 50%, they’re still making a hefty profit) before we jumped in a couple of taxis and saw what this city had to offer.

We made our way to Islamic Cairo and the Al Azar mosque, which built in the first century, is the 4th oldest in Egypt. It has since become one of the largest Koranic teaching schools in the country. As we made our way through the courtyard, the call to prayer sounded through the minaret’s speakers above us and worshipers flooded in.

I’ve seen markets in Morocco and markets in Turkey. Are the markets in Egypt much different? Not really. Enterprising Egyptians will sell anything and everything — from hand-picked cotton to cotton shirts and living rabbits to slaughtered chickens. The Khan al Khalilli is the city’s largest “tourist” market with plenty of pyramid paperweights and pushy shopkeepers grabbing you by the arm to pull you into their stores (which may very well also have been Made in China).

Our last stop of a busy first day was to see a traditional Sufi show. This is like an Egyptian rock concert, completely deafening, with some cheesy lighting and very cool dancing.

The taxi ride back to our hotel was almost a joke. Egyptians don’t use their headlights because they want to “save energy.” It was 11 p.m. and Cairo was completely buzzing, there were hordes of people everywhere. Shops in this city seem to be organized by their merchandise type: on one street, stores were selling only car parts; on another shoes. One of my travel companions says he saw a street earlier today with just door handles — guess you never know when you’ll need a new doorknob, even after midnight.

Streets are completely filthy, garbage dumps are overflowing and the air is choked with gas fumes. Egyptians drive some of the oldest, most beat up cars I’ve seen anywhere. On our way to the Islamic quarter, we saw an ambulance with its lights and siren wailing — only it had been converted to a passenger bus (perhaps it was an express). Crazy!

Being on this Intrepid trip is a lot like being on an adult teen tour. There’s a leader, who is constantly counting heads, showing us meeting points and trying to impart some wisdom on a distracted audience. But traveling like this is worry-free, there’s no thinking about how to get from Point A to Point B or whether you’ve found a safe spot to eat lunch. It’s welcome after having traveled independently for the last 40 days — and it’s amazing how much you can enjoy and experience a place when the basics have been taken care of for you.

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