Wednesday 21 January 2009 – Luxor to Cairo, Egypt
A final breakfast at the Emilio before heading to Luxor airport for some minor chaos (nothing like Cairo International) before an uncharacteristically on-time departure and pleasant flight to the capital. Our first experience of Cairo was more characteristic as we battled through heavy traffic and occasional gridlock to reach the Grand Hotel in the centre of the downtown area. Debussing was prompt as our vehicle was physically blocking a couple of lanes of traffic while it paused outside the hotel.
Cairo assaults the senses. Immediately one notices the smell; the absence of donkey shit is replaced with more human smells of cooked meat. It could be said that Cairo is a city shrouded in mystery – among other things. Chief among these others is the smog, which even on a good day is sufficiently solid to cut with a knife and leave one wanting for breath. There are people, too, 20 million of them, replacing the somewhat sleepy atmosphere of Upper Egypt with the bustle of one of the world’s major metropolises. There is undeniably a wonderful energy to the place.
The Grand Hotel is a treasure, a genuine art deco hangover from sometime in the mid-20th century. Any real glamour has long since become buried under the patina of age and a thick layer of dust, but the staff seem friendly and helpful. The place even has free Wi-Fi throughout. The rooms are large, the reception areas are larger and there are numerous smaller sitting areas around each floor. My section of four rooms shares a substantial sitting room, and my own room is on a corner of the triangular building so has its own corner balcony.
A local woman, head in curlers, sits on her balcony across the room; we’ve waved and nodded to each other and I expect to be good friends by the end of the week here. Amazingly the beds and pillows are soft.
It is Anita’s birthday today, so Patricia popped out to a nearby patisserie and returned with a large and quite delicious chocolate cake which was served in the hotel’s restaurant with cups of tea. Our rousing ‘Happy Birthday” was followed by the staff’s mix tape of same performed in various time signatures, keys, tempi and languages. I suspect it will be a natal anniversary that Anita will remember.
The area around the Grand is busy and noisy, being near the centre of town, reaching a peak of busyness late at night as Cairenes come out to shop and eat. After a short orientation walk around the district we adjourned to the GAD Egyptian-style fast food restaurant for a good and inexpensive meal. Chris and I shared a very generous and fine mixed salad dish containing four dips – just LE10 and almost a meal in itself – before I tackled a special mixed grill of liver (excellent), beef, lamb chop and chicken kebab, plus felafel sausages. A meat-lover’s delight. Food and drink seems much cheaper in Cairo than in the south – partly because of not needing to transport it upstream.
The rest of the group returned to the hotel directly, but I was enjoying the energy and life, which at 8pm was only just starting to fire up. So I toddled off by myself down Talat Harb to Medan Talat Harb, did a circuit of that square and returned, exploring various side lanes and shoe shops as I did. Shoes are clearly important in Cairo, for men and women, and this major thoroughfare is lined almost wall-to-wall with shops displaying every style and colour for both sexes in their windows. I am tempted to acquire a pair of boots myself. Prices are displayed in Arabic only, so a little revision of my Arabic numerals will be necessary before any serious shopping takes place.
Back at the hotel, the group had assembled in an open balcony on my floor for a few drinks (there is amazingly a choice of bottle shops within a few steps of the Grand), to further mark Anita’s birthday. I sat and swapped some travellers’ tales with Geoff, before heading to bed. The noise of excited strollers and shoppers and the honks and horns of the bumper to bumper traffic from far below was apparent in my room, but did not disturb a good night’s rest.